Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Basankusu: Another Busy Day

We had yet another busy day, today, here in Basankusu. After my morning wash in a bucket of rainwater, I set off on foot. First I called in at the new centre to follow-up hospital treatment for Mama Julie - she's from Baringa, 120 miles away, where I worked in the 1990s.

Francis with Mama Julie

Next, we welcomed Sr Felicity and SrPetronella, to our original centre for malnutrition, on the other side of Basankusu. The sisters are local nuns, both with experience in health and community development.They werevery impressed by our work in feeding malnourished children and teaching their parents. We’ll share our experiences another day with a view to developing a common project.

Srs Petronella and Felicity

On the way back, we called in at the wake of one of Judith's grandmothers. The all-female meeting had women chanting and dancing mischievously in a traditional ceremony that distracts people from their grief.

This afternoon, back at our new centre, we made a further follow-up of the woman from Baringa. In her seventies, she has an enlarged spleen because of suffering from malaria so many times. We’re trying to convince her son, that she should stop working in her vegetable garden. Typical work in a garden includes chopping firewood with a machete, digging, and carrying huge baskets of wood and vegetables on your back. It’s not very good if you have a medical condition like hers!

Then, a woman arrived with four small children and a pair of new-born twins ... she needed help to get back home, 140 miles, after her husband died.
The mothers with their poorly children

At the same time, a woman appeared with a 6 year old child, who looked like he was two years old, who'd had severe diarrhoea for two weeks and decided to come to us in the evening. We took her next door to our hospital and they decided he needed a blood transfusion. We had to go and get the nurse from his house and watch the transfusion by torchlight. Then we went to find medication for three of the malnourished children at a nearby pharmacy kiosk.

Just as we were getting served, a motorbike pulled up beside me on the dirt track; it was Fr Franklin, one of our local priests, who asked if I would be opening our internet this evening ... I climbed on the back of the bike and soon found myself back at Mill Hill opening up the internet room for local priests and NGO staff.
Our Chinese shopkeeper arrived and asked to charge all his gadgets, one in each room, while our generator was running, and then talk a little business.

Finally I've been able to grab a sandwich and write this ...

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

My first stint with Mill Hill Missionaries was three years beginning in 1991. I taught would-be Mill Hill candidates English and about the wider world outside the forest, in preparation for their entry to the seminary in Uganda.

Mill Hill have been present in Basankusu Diocese since 1905. Hundreds of our missionaries have been here to build Christian communities over the years. Even in the 1990s, there were about twenty five of us. I found only two members left in Basankusu in 2014 ... with me added, that made three of us in the whole country.
The isolation of Basankusu has made it more and more difficult for Fr. Stan and myself to select and teach students to the priesthood. We had a visit from, Andrew Mukulu, from our General Council, two years ago. He suggested that we move the teaching programme to Kinshasa, the capital city.

“The candidates would learn a lot in the city – there are more possibilities there,” he said. “Not only that, but we can extend the programme to include a degree in philosophy, the first cycle of studying to become a priest.” He continued with obvious enthusiasm, “We wouldn’t have to restrict ourselves to Basankusu Diocese for our candidates ... we have the whole country to recruit from.”

We stopped teaching in Basankusu two years ago with the idea of moving it to Kinshasa. That has freed me up to spend more time on my projects for malnutrition and wheelchairs, of course, but we’ve been waiting to see whether we would be teaching our candidates again.

This month we saw a development. Fr Otto Bambokela, who is Congolese himself, like Fr. Stan, arrived in Kinshasa to start looking for suitable accommodation for our students to live and to study. We’re all very excited about it.

However, our first glitch has been that Fr. John Kirwan, suddenly got a problem with his back, ended up walking with a stick and has swiftly sought medical assistance in England.

Fr. Stan and I were planning to travel up to Basankusu this week, but Stan’s doctor has asked him to stay another ten days in Kinshasa to have some tests for a minor problem. So, I’ll be travelling alone to my malnutrition centres.

Well, so far, so good – we now total four Mill Hillers in the Congo and with a brand new project to give us national presence. We just have to pray for the speedy return to good health of Fr. John and Fr. Stan.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Francis Hannaway: Malaria strikes!

I started to shiver a bit. “Oh, it’s nothing,” I thought, and carried on as normal.

I’d been in Kinshasa, when I was called home to a funeral. I stayed for a week in Maidenhead, at Mill Hill Missionaries headquarters, before staying with my sister, Rose, in Middlesbrough.

The day after the funeral, which took place on a Monday, Rose said that I seemed a bit under the weather. “I know what it is,” she confided. “I suffer with hay fever, every year, myself.” So, she gave me an antihistamine. I took it – but I wasn’t convinced.

Tuesday, I started shivering and took a nap to overcome a fatigue which had gripped me. I lay in bed, still in denial about what this illness was. I pondered the days leading up to the shivers.

I take pills every week while I’m in the Congo, to stop me from getting malaria which I had 25 years ago.
Malaria is a parasite that lives in your blood and is Africa’s biggest killer. The day before I returned to England, I ran out of tablets - but having been free of malaria during my recent four years, I wasn’t unduly worried. “I’ll sort it out when I arrive in England,” I’d thought. But I didn’t.

Wednesday, I was as right as rain, and more than happy to join my brother and his children for a walk in the nearby hills. Thursday, I called in at my doctor’s to arrange more malaria pills for my return to the Congo. The same afternoon I started shivering again at my brother’s house, shivering so much that I ached. I walked back to my sister, Rose’s, and warmed up in the sunshine. I went straight to bed.
Eight o’clock, that evening, I texted Rose from my bed, “I think it’s getting serious!” Fifteen minutes later we were in the hospital’s Accident and Emergency Department.

Francis Hannaway with
his sister, Rose Lawson.

I was very ill – low blood pressure, low temperature, alternating with a high temperature, headache, nausea...

After spending the night on a drip and having countless checks throughout the night I was allowed to go home on Friday evening.

One week before,
in Saltburn.

Treatment continued for another week, followed by another two weeks of building up my strength.

The treatment was for Plasmodium falciparum  malaria, comprising quinine, which is harsh on the body, tiring, and makes your hearing become dull. Really, it was three weeks of sleeping, but at least I wasn’t dead.

Anophelese mosquito
- pesky little critters ...

I’ve now arrived back in Kinshasa, to yet more political upheaval and yet another Ebola outbreak, this time in the east of the country. The number of children in my centres for malnourished children is starting to go down from 72, as edible caterpillars become available locally.

The biggest wish I have for my return, though, is never to have malaria again!

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Basankusu: Rainforest Cathedral by Francis Hannaway

They demolished our cathedral, in Basankusu, in 2012.

It was never intended to last so long. Built during the Second World War, cracks had appeared as long ago as the 1980s. I visited in 2013 and the building was progressing well. A new cathedral was slowly rising from the middle of the rainforest – but this time, instead of fired clay bricks, it was being built of reinforced concrete and cement bricks. The foundations would also be much more substantial to ensure that it would last much longer.

Francis Hannaway outside
Basankusu Cathedral in 2007

Now in 2018, after many stops and starts, it is almost complete. The inauguration will take place in October.

There are other churches and chapels in Basankusu, and mass is always well attended. But there’s always a need for a central place for everyone to come together. So, the construction engineers made a concrete hardstand nearby, with a corrugated metal roof over it, which became known as ‘the Hangar’. For the last six years a familiar sight on Sunday mornings has been people walking to the Hangar with plastic chairs on their heads for Sunday mass, so they’d have a seat when they got there.

The all new Basankusu Cathedral
October 2017

I started my work with malnourished children three and a half years ago. I’ve walked past the cathedral building site every day that I’ve been to my centre. I’m pleased to say that in that time, as the cathedral slowly rose, we’ve treated 1,800 children with malnutrition and got them back on the road to good health. It hasn’t been easy – and there have been many times when I’ve thought that the money would run out. Until now, we’ve managed to keep afloat – and the vast majority of donations I receive come from people in Middlesbrough Diocese. So, it’s your success as well! We can’t be complacent, of course, I’m always about two months away from running out of funds ... but someone has always saved me at the last minute!

More good news from Basankusu is that our own Mill Hill Missionaries house, which burnt down two years ago, is almost rebuilt. And ... to top it all, we have just seen the ordination hįof the first Congolese Mill Hill priest since 1998 – with quite a few more coming up in the next few years. Fr. Placide Elia MHM just missed being ordained in the new cathedral, but the inauguration was delayed because of the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Mbandaka Diocese (which, I’m pleased to say, seems to be over).

Congratulations to him!

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Kinshasa: Mugged on the Boulevard 30 Juin

I got a phone call from Nene while eating at Kinshasa’s well known Lebanese diner, Al Daar, with Judith, the coordinator of my centre for children with malnutrition in Basankusu.  It’s on the Boulevard 30 June, in central Kinshasa, a busy city road with four lanes of traffic in both directions. It’s only a short walk from Procure Saint Anne where we’d been discussing our work.

Francis Hannaway with two Mill Hill students

“There’s been an incident in the Grande Marché, Kinshasa’s central marketplace,” said Nene on the phone. “The market’s administrator and two policemen have been shot dead. It’s the same group that sprung people from the central prison to release their members. There’s a small prison at the market and they were probably trying to do the same there. Everyone has fled. I’m in Kintambo Magasin and the people fleeing have already arrived here. Do you notice anything happening in the street outside?”
I’d noticed that the Boulevard was very busy; there seemed to be a buzz going on ... but nothing really unusual.

“Go straight back to Procure Saint Anne,” she said. “Everybody is going home – there’s a big panic spreading across Kinshasa because of this!”

Judith in the same restaurant the previous year

I agreed that we would go straight back and wondered about calling our taxi-driver, Petit-Jean, to avoid going out in the street to find a shared taxi.

We had arrived by a little back road, because it’s a bit quieter, and decided to go back to the Procure by the same route. The Boulevard, always teaming with people, is crossed by the Rue Equateur at the next crossroads and we came to this junction in only three or four minutes. The road was busy with traffic and the pavement was crowded with people passing in both directions avoiding cars parked on the pavement and advertising boards placed outside little restaurants and internet cafés. I was carrying a satchel with my laptop, camera, money, tablet, accounts ledger and so on. Judith was carrying a laptop and handbag.
The Boulevard 30 June in downtown Kinshasa

As we got to the crossroads, I became aware of a number of street beggars, known as Sheggy, very close to me. One of them said hello, and the others closed in around me. I walked faster – Judith was a few yards away from me. The kept up with my pace and I realised that I was in trouble. I turned on the one closest to me and shouted at him to leave me alone. My shout attracted some attention from other people passing by, but not enough for them to intervene. Judith said, “Just give them a little bit of money and they’ll go.”  I continued walking but realised it was more serious than just a small offering - they were about to grab my bag.

I would normally think of the Sheggy as small, underfed urchins. But these were physically bigger and stronger than me – I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance. Judith told me later that there were seven of them. I let out one last shout and ran into the traffic across the junction. As I got to a grassed traffic island I saw a group of uniformed security guards sitting on the opposite pavement. They beckoned to me – and I took their offer of sanctuary.

Once I got to them, they reassured me and told me not to worry. “They’ll go past in a minute,” one of the guards said. I looked back to see what had happened to Judith. I’d assumed they’d targeted me because I was white and that they probably hadn’t connected her with me.

The place I’d run across the road from had a row of little businesses separated from the main pavement by a high metal railing. Several men, two of them Lebanese, stood at the entrance to this enclosure and waved for me to go back to them. I saw Judith being led to them as well and the security guards told me they would look after us.

“Don’t worry,” reassure one of the Lebanese men, “they’ve gone now and we have security guards here. The guards gave up their chairs and we sat down.

“Did they go after you,” I asked Judith. “Yes they did – they stole my money. I tried to open my bag to give them a small amount, but they just reached over with a knife and cut the zipped inside pocket open and took the money.” It was the equivalent of $20 US.

She assured me that she was all right and that I shouldn’t worry. “They didn’t take my camera, phone or laptop,” she declared, “and after all, it’s only money.”

One of the men asked if we would accept a motorbike taxi and we said that that would be fine.

The police by this time were busy checking every passing car at road junctions for the marketplace killers. The Boulevard is normally full of police – but the gangs of thieves recognised that the police were busy with a major incident and chose their moment.

Grattan - our good friend from the United Nations who took us home

We soon got back to the Procure. It was 2:30 pm and all the day staff were being told to go home early because of the marketplace incident. When things like that happen, a wave of tension, panic even, spreads through the population. It’s never possible to know if it’s the start of something bigger.

My taxi-man soon arrived and told us that 28 police had been killed. We have no way of verifying that, though, because the TV is State controlled. I let him go, because one of the United Nations people, who we’re friendly with, said he would take us. So we had a little beer in the Procure bar. One of the people who is staying there showed us a video on his phone of one of the policemen who’d been shot. The video showed his body being carried away in a hand-cart.

A video showing the policeman's body being taken away in a handcart

The roads were quiet. People take these things very seriously and had already gone home ... and we will see over the next few days whether there will be more incidents like this.

Grattan with Judith

The political situation continues to be tense. The president has stayed beyond his mandate after promising elections would take place this year. This week the electoral commission declared that because of unrest in the east, elections couldn’t take place this year. On top of that, the value of the Congolese currency has almost halved in value against the dollar. Wages are paid in Congolese money, but rents and imported good are paid for in dollars. There may be trouble ahead. 

This article was written about events in July 2017 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Mbandaka: Ebola menaces Congo again

They arrived at the Ebola isolation ward in Mbandaka in the evening.

Six taxi-motorbikes carried family members of two Ebola victims. The traditional witchdoctors have slowly been replaced by religious sects, whose pastors and prophets cast out sickness-causing demons – often for a fee. The two sick people, in the most contagious phase of the disease, were taken to one such prayer group of fifty people. After a while, they went back to the hospital because they felt so bad. Within hours of returning, they sadly both died. It was then necessary to trace everyone they’d been in contact with – including the motorbike drivers.

Fr Stan and Francis Hannaway onboard the flight Mbandaka to Kinshasa.

Mbandaka is usually our only route from Basankusu to Kinshasa. Fr. Stan Bondoko was on his way to a meeting in Rome. I thought it would be prudent to travel with him as far as Kinshasa to avoid the outbreak, until it was contained. We arrived in Mbandaka a few days before the two patients escaped.

People seemed quite relaxed about the whole thing. Greeting friends with a clenched fist instead of a handshake became a bit of a joke – people would do it and then shake your hand anyway!

Meeting our East African students in Mbandaka on their way home to Basankusu.
The centre of the outbreak is in a rural area just outside of Mbandaka. A few people, returning from the infected area have succumbed to the disease in Mbandaka. The town lies on the Congo River and is an absolute crossroads – especially for river traffic – for the north-west of the country. Symptoms don’t show for up to twenty-one days, and so it’s quite possible to board a plane to Kinshasa with the illness.

At Mbandaka Airport we were obliged to wash our hands in chlorinated water before boarding our plane, but that was all.

Getting off the plane in Kinshasa every passenger’s temperature was taken. We had to quickly fill in a form declaring that we weren’t suffering from certain symptoms, such as headaches or fever, and that we hadn’t touched any dead bodies lately. Whew! ... and then we were allowed to enter the airport building.

At the time of writing, there were still new cases of Ebola in the rural area where it began. At least fifty cases had been reported from the beginning. Basankusu, where I work, is the next substantial settlement along the river – no cases had been reported there. The World Health Organisation is working hard to end the outbreak.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Basankusu: The Hunger Games Reloaded

It seems like yesterday that I was writing about the ‘Hungry months’.

Children eating at the centre.

Well, they’re here again. This time we hope that it won’t be as bad – but nevertheless, more and more malnourished children are entering my two centres in Basankusu.

The first centre, on the other side of town to where I live, started to fill up at the beginning of last month. There are now thirty children being treated there.

The new centre, next to the Catholic hospital and for children with severe malnutrition, began last month fairly quietly. One day, I was there to see Judith, who runs the whole programme, to talk about improving the new house. While we were talking, she looked out of the window.
Francis Hannaway at the centre.

“Oh no,” she exclaimed. “Look! The garden is full of people!”

It was actually only five children who needed treatment, but they of course came along with their mothers and (a few) fathers, as well as brothers and sisters.

Families arriving at the new centre.

At the other centre, the children are brought along by their parents for each of the three days we feed them. At the new centre, all the children, parents, and brothers and sisters, will sleep at the centre, because they’ll be fed every day and need round-the-clock care.

“We don’t have enough chairs, let alone beds,” said Judith. “What are we going to do?”

We quickly sent people to buy wood and raffia chairs, which are made locally, as well as a large tarpaulin and raffia mats for people to sleep on.

We continue to improve the new centre. A strong fence has been built around the whole plot. We have a well for water and we’ve built it up with concrete to keep it clean. Today we extended the kitchen by building a palm-thatched shelter to keep people dry when it rains and out of the sun when it’s too hot.

So, all together we have thirty-five children – by the end of June, it’s bound to be around sixty.
When everyone was settled, and being fed, Judith looked out again.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “The mothers are often just as hungry as the children.”

Mending the fence at the first centre.

We watched one mother who ate every second spoonful herself.

“Yes,” I said, “the hungry months are very sad indeed.”

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