"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

4.21.2006

words aren't enough to express how sad this is

My attorney occasionally asks if I've seen any pygmies here in Congo. I'm not sure why the idea of pygmies is amusing to him, but, well, that's how it is. Well, Attorney, yesterday I saw some pygmies. But before we get to that, an explanation.

Mr. Florida's dissertation is about the real problem in the eastern Congo, which is the dispute over who gets to be considered a citizen and who can rightfully claim ownership of the good land here. It's a mess to figure out, but what you need to know is that, especially during the war, people had their land seized from them with no warning, others had to leave as refugees, and both groups are currently going back to homes to find that their land has been confiscated. It costs $30,000 to have a land case heard at the provincial tribunal in Goma, so most of these people have no recourse whatsoever.

This is what happens when you live in a country in a part of the world where, until very, very recently, land ownership was communal. It wasn't a matter of holding title to the plot of land your house sits on – communities owned their land as a group, with the local chief and elders deciding who got to farm what land. The land, though, is hugely significant to the community's identity. It's where they're from, what they live off of, and where their ancestors are buried. Losing it is tantamount to losing part of your identity.

It turns out that pygmies are getting kicked off their land in the Masisi, just like many other people. Masisi is the idyllic, super-fertile territory at the top of the mountains. By all accounts, it looks like Switzerland. Most of the good cheese we get here in Goma comes from the Masisi.

At DOCS/Heal Africa, they'd heard about a group of displaced pygmies who were in terrible shape, so Lyn asked Mr. Florida and I to go check it out with Ciza (say "cheese-uh"), who works at DOCS. Apparently the World Food Programme had heard about their situation and taken a load of food out there, but otherwise they don't appear to have had too much else. So we went off to Sake, 27 kilometers to the northwest of Goma, on Thursday morning.

Sake is a town of about 38,000. It's absolutely gorgeous there - the town sits on the edge of a bay that forms the northwestern corner of Lake Kivu. It's the first big town at the base of the mountains and so is a trade center and a place that lots of people pass through. It's also a place where lots of internally displaced people fled when trouble happened in the Masisi, when war broke out in Goma, and when the volcano erupted. They're used to having refugees around, although they lack the capacity to deal with them.

Our visit took most of the day. We went to talk with the "Chef du Territoire," who's kindof like the county commissioner, and his staff, then visited a church to talk to a pastor about what they could do to help the deplaced people. The pictures of children above are from the neighborhood around the church. They'd all come in close for a picture, then scream and run away when it flashed. (Actually, some of them screamed and ran away when the camera appeared.)

After that, we stopped by DOCS Sake Transit Center, where women from the Masisi and surrounding areas who have been raped come for counseling and to get referrals to the DOCS hospital in Goma. These women have seen the worst side of humanity, but they were still welcoming and enjoyed seeing their own pictures on our digital cameras. This woman named her baby Baraka, which means blessing. Think about that for a minute. She has more courage than I ever will.

After that, we visited the Health Center for the Sake health zone, which is basically a medical clinic, hospital, and feeding center in one. Here's a picture of the delivery room in the maternity ward (I was informed by the men that this was my place to visit.). I don't want to hear any complaints from anyone ever again about the varying quality of delivery rooms in the U.S. – at least it's not a rusty metal bed. And no one is sterilizing and re-using plastic gloves (look closely at the upper right-hand corner of this picture). We're not even going to talk about the floor. Let's just say I was glad that I chose not to wear sandals yesterday. We learned some disturbing statistics about Sake from a young doctor there. 50% of women in Sake choose to have their babies at the hospital. In a town of 38,000, there were about 800 births in 2005. The number of babies who died in childbirth when the delivery happens at the hospital last year was 8. For babies born in homes, it was 15. So why do mothers not have their babies at the hospital, where the chances that their baby will survive are much higher? Because it costs $8 to have your baby delivered at Sake Health Center. And $8 is more than 16 days' wages for most people here, maybe more than that. No one keeps statistics on the average daily income of the residents of a small market town in the eastern Congo.

$56 could have saved 7 babies' lives.

The Health Center was scary and sad, but the doctors there are proud of the center they have – it's much more modern that what you'd normally find in a third-world hospital, and they work hard and keep detailed records. They are feeding a huge number of people in Sake. Here's a picture of some women preparing Unimix, the UN's standard malnutrition cure. It's a high calorie, high-protein flour with vitamin supplements. You find it in the world's worst places. Sake qualifies.

Finally, at 3pm, we set out to visit the thing we'd come to see. I've seen some pretty awful things in my life, but this is one of the worst. We visited two encampments of pygmies. They've had to find places to stay in a city where the chef du territoire told us there's no land. The first group have built these little shelters. They told us their very sad story about how their group came to be in Sake.

There's no telling how hungry they were. The candy and cookies we brought for the children disappeared within five minutes of distribution. They were just gone, all of a sudden. They can't afford transportation into town to get health care, so they just suffer with whatever they catch. I talked briefly with a mother whose baby was clearly sick – he had a white and green growth coming out of his ear. It looked like mold on the food you forgot at the back of the refrigerator. What's that mama going to do?

Then we went over to the other group, which is living in a church. 432 of them, to be precise. Four hundred and thirty-two people trying to survive in this tiny little church, which looks like it could fall over any second. (And, yes, the church has a drum set.) They have to vacate the sanctuary during the day, but the women cook what food they have in the church's small meeting room. They sleep on straw, like the little boy in the picture below right showed me before running away when he saw the flash from my camera.

What will they do? How will they survive? If someone doesn’t help these groups, the simple answer is: they won't. We got back to DOCS and talked with Lyn, who wants to try to raise funds to buy the groups plots of land so they can start farming, and thus feeding themselves. Lyn looked at me and said, "You look stunned." Yep. She also said, "Now you know why God brought you to this place." I don't know. I don't know what will be done, but something has to be done, because these precious children will not live if they have to live like this much longer. I can tell you this: writing a dissertation seems pretty meaningless right now.

Mr. Florida and I walked out of the DOCS compound and saw the pastor from church, who took one look at me and said I looked emotional. He and Lyn both have hope. They've seen the worst here and know that the only way to deal with it is to come up with a plan, get the money from somewhere, and help people to move on with their lives. Oh, and pygmies? They're pretty much like the rest of us. They want their children to be healthy and to have safe water to drink and enough food to eat and to go to school and to have a chance.







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