Saturday, 10 June 2017

Basankusu: Leopard steals goat from house

Ferocious wild animals in the Congo are difficult to get to see. Occasionally, someone keeps a monkey as a pet instead of for the pot and you might see a snake now and then, but, apart from that, the jungle keeps its inhabitants very well hidden. Yesterday, though, I came a step closer to brushing with the wild.

The sky began to darken around 6 pm; the trees teamed with bright yellow weaver-birds, chattering and squealing and carrying endless streamers of grass and palm-leaf to build up their nests. Darkness descended swiftly, leaving ragged banana trees and oil-kernel palms silhouetted against the clear royal-blue sky, with vivid twinkling constellations scattered like sequins on a velvet cloth.
People in Basankusu settled down to cook and eat their evening meal, the glow of charcoal burners and the smell of various foods filled the air.

Towards 10 o’clock, Papa Gerard went to wash. He left his little clay-brick house, ducking down a little to step under the palm-thatched roof and walked across his garden. His two goats had already found a corner and were fast asleep. He entered his little area. It’s just a private area screened from view with four flimsy palm-leaf walls and a bucket of water inside. Papa Gerard was tired after a long day in his vegetable garden in the forest, about 4 miles from Basankusu. He’d walked there and back, and now he was ready for bed.

He was just emerging again when he heard a noise. He saw that the ground had been flattened as if something had been dragged across the long grass. He called to his wife but didn’t wait; he followed the trail. He was quite surprised with what was there. A leopard, no less, had dragged one of his goats from the garden and was standing right in front of him, its long yellowish teeth deeply embedded into the side of the goat, and its distinctive orange, white and black pattern clearly visible, despite the darkness.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!” he cried out, not really thinking about what he was saying or doing, waving his arms at the leopard as his wife caught up with him. The leopard stared into his eyes, then, without a sound, released its jaws from the now-dead goat and scurried into the undergrowth.

It happened to our cook’s neighbour, so we all heard the story the next. Some were excited, others afraid ... but a few decided the story wasn’t true at all.

As for me, I believe it was an uncommon intrusion into Basankusu by a rare and secretive animal ... for whatever reason. Perhaps it was sick, or old. Perhaps it was the leopard that soldiers had captured, 10 years ago, caged and fed, which had returned to a place it knew. Who knows? At least I can now say, that the wild of the equatorial rainforest around me has taken a few steps closer.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Basankusu: The Hunger Games

They call them the hungry months. Food is in short supply. In June and July and even into August, I see a steady rise in mothers bringing their malnourished children to my centre. The children become lethargic and often lose interest in everything ... including food. The mothers exhaust themselves trying to feed these little ones, and finally give in to them.

One little boy arrived weighing 11 lb (5 kg) at 2 years old. He was so thin we named him ‘Skeleton’. His eyes were sunken into his face and three little lines appeared each side of his mouth, so it looked like he was wearing a mask. He would only eat meat – and, each day when he arrived, would let out a huge roar until he got it. 

He didn’t like milk and he certainly didn’t like the porridge we gave him, but we insisted until he ate it. The porridge is an essential part of all the children’s diet. It’s made from ground corn (maize), peanuts, soya milk (which we make ourselves), sugar, milk-powder and vegetable oil. The volunteers persevered and after two weeks the mask disappeared and he was suddenly transformed into a normal looking little boy. He’s not out of the woods yet – but he’s made a good start.

Little ‘Skeleton’ is one of 22 children receiving treatment this month. Next month the number could exceed 50 children – some of them so severely malnourished that they will need hospital treatment. We’ve treated 380 children in the past 12 months alone. This year only 2 children have died from complications, after waiting too long before seeking help. The seriousness of the condition of all the children is a constant worry to us.

With the coming of summer, it would be easy to forget these unfortunate children who are struggling to get back onto the road to good health, especially during these ‘hungry months’. I depend on your donations to run my centre. Please send a donation now and perhaps before you go on your summer holiday.

The hungry months end in August when the edible caterpillars appear on Basankusu’s trees. 

Unfortunately, malnutrition never leaves us completely.

Make a donation through

Monday, 20 March 2017

Providing wheelchairs for disabled people in Basankusu

One day, Brother Paul, a Congolese brother, came to see me.
Nellie with her new wheelchair

“I need help with a little project,” he said. “A lot of people are disabled because of Polio. One young disabled man, called Wakaduku, wants to build wheelchair-bikes to allow these people to become mobile.”

I turned to my facebook friends and one immediately set up a just giving page. In no time at all, the first wheelchair was paid for.

I’d posted a video of Nellie on Facebook a couple months before.

“I’ve never had a wheelchair,” she said, “I really struggle in life because I can’t get about.” Nellie lives with her children in a house made from mud and sticks; she has a vegetable plot just in front. To tend to her garden she crawled through the mud. She was extremely pleased with her wheelchair.
A group of five disabled people were waiting for me the next day. “We want wheelchairs as well!” they said. I felt a new role coming on.

The next wheelchair was for a young man called Achilla, who lives opposite Nellie.

Then one morning, Pauline, a young woman, arrived by taxi-bike. She was very polite and was trying to complete her education. I told her that I’d put her on my list but that Wakaduku was away and she’d have to wait a while.

The next day, I mentioned her to Judith. “Oh yes,” she said, “Pauline lives near me.” A few weeks later, Wakaduku returned. We were starting to become frustrated with how long he was taking to make each wheelchair.
Judith's Pauline

Another day, Judith decided that we should visit Pauline to tell her that the wheelchair was almost ready. As we approached the house I saw a woman. “That’s not her,” I whispered. “Yes, that’s Pauline,” replied Judith. I then realised that there were two Paulines – ‘my Pauline’ and ‘Judith’s Pauline’. What could I do? ‘Judith’s Pauline’ had been told she was getting the next chair, so ‘my Pauline’ would have to wait.

‘My Pauline’ came to see me, a few days later. I started to film her with flip-flops on her hands crawling across the ground at our house. Once again I posted it on Facebook and people from Middlesbrough Diocese immediately started sending £10 here, and £20 there. We got somebody else to build the chair from scratch. Pauline got her wheelchair within a week.

Next came Soliel. We bought a nearly new wheelchair and changed the wheels to cope with our rough terrain. ... and, now, we are already preparing for the next. Keep it up Middlesbrough Diocese!

Friday, 11 November 2016

Kinshasa: Harassed by undercover police in Victoire

I usually stick to the well beaten track in Kinshasa. There are places foreigners shouldn’t venture alone. At least it’s wise to have someone who knows the ropes before going into the more dangerous areas.
I needed to collect some money from Sr Rachel in Limete. I’d taken a mini-bus from quiet Kinsuka, where I’m staying, all the way to Victoire, where I met up with my chaperone for the day, Judith Bondjembo. Judith runs the nutrition project for me in Basankusu and is in Kinshasa, like me, on holiday, but also to accompany someone for medical treatment.

Selling bread in Kinshasa's Victoire neighbourhood (Nat. Geo.)
We’d left Sr Rachel and were looking for a shared taxi in Victoire. The taxi area near the large petrol station, opposite the monument, was crowded and milling with hundreds of people, as usual. Shops, market stalls, bars, beggars and all the world were there. A man standing near one of the taxis said he wanted to talk to me. This is quite usual – people either want to sell something or to beg money. I pushed past him but he insisted. He jumped in front of me and was joined by two other men. They each were holding walkie-talkies. He demanded to see my passport. I pushed him in the chest and he pushed me back. Eventually, I was surrounded by seven men who claimed to be police. I shouted “Au secours!” (Help!) as loud as I could in the hope that they would be embarrassed and leave me alone. Eventually a uniformed policeman came across – but he did nothing. The men then showed their ID and a document to show that they were, indeed, police. They demanded my passport and visa – or a photocopy.

The busy Victoire neighbourhood in Kinshasa (internet)

I would have remained standing where we were because it was quite a public place and a crowd had formed around us. Judith agreed that we should follow the men to a quieter spot. Although I tried to remain calm, my legs were already trembling. Personally, I would have liked to have stayed where I was.

Out of the view of the crowd, they tried to reassure us that there was nothing to worry about. Because I didn’t have my passport with me they demanded “a little something”. Judith offered them 10,000 FC but they then did the usual frightener and said that they would have to take us to their colonel. I imagined this was bluff, but Judith had already decided to give them all the money she had, which was 35,000 FC, about $35 US.

They then decided to push the situation further and said if we had a “little $100” it would be better.
I was extremely upset – mainly because there was no way out. I didn’t feel very well from the stress of it all and decided to act a little more sick than I felt. They seemed to take that seriously and let us go. As Judith helped me into a taxi, one of them leaned in and said, “If he dies, it wasn’t anything we did.”

I’m sure that you are unable to do anything about such incidents, but it’s good for you to know about it all the same. It’s strange to think that people here think that tourism could be developed in Congo – it might be a good idea for them to be a bit more welcoming to foreigners to begin with.

I've talked to people about these so-called police officers. It seems they were genuine - but it also seems likely that they were part of an elite group of supporters of the incumbent president. They are trained to harass foreigners and that could explain why the uniformed policeman didn't help me. The president of DR Congo wants to extend his mandate - because obviously nobody else could do the job as well as he has(n't). The government attitude at the moment is very "anti-foreigner" and this is one of three incidents where I've been targeted because of the colour of my skin. Here's a newspaper report about the present situation.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Basankusu: Race against time on the Congo River

Drifting along on the Lolanga River, the occasional glugging of water against our dugout canoe, a solitary hoot from the unspoilt forest at the riverbank ... apart from that, silence, peace, tranquillity.

The reason for the silence was simple ... we’d broken down.

We were assured that the bandits who had attacked some travellers with guns and robbed them on the river, had already been caught. But with this in mind, we had originally wanted to do the journey in two halves, sleeping in Mampoko for one night and continuing to Mbandaka the following day, during daylight. Our flight for Kinshasa from Mbandaka had already been paid for and we knew that check-in would close at 12 midday, Saturday. The only option in the end was to start the journey very early Friday morning and arrive in Mbandaka the same day, before it became dark again.

Our journey was supposed to begin at 3 in the morning, Fr Stan and myself got up at 2 am. The canoe arrived late, of course, and we didn’t leave Basankusu until a quarter past 5. Stan and I were joined by Sr Vicky’s brother; Sr LaJoie came along too, but was only going to Bonkita, 18km distance from Basankusu.

We chugged along at a moderate pace. The engine was only 15 horsepower, but we were going downstream. Sister LaJoie left us at Bonkita, as planned, and, as she left, chastised the two young men driving the boat for going so slowly. “They’ve got to arrive in Mbandaka by 6 pm,” she said. “You need to go faster than that!”

At 9:30 we’d travelled 65km and the motor spluttered to a halt. That’s how we found ourselves drifting on the river in the middle of the rainforest. After several attempts to restart it, a short surge of life took us to the shore. We were at Luonga, a tiny village, 15 km from Bokakata. The people of the village drifted down the riverbank to see what our problem was. After some discussion, one of them declared that he was a mechanic and climbed down to examine the outboard engine. He told us that it needed a spare part and they didn’t have anything like that there. They had a radio transmitter in the village (no phones here) and they could send a message to have a replacement outboard sent.
On the riverbank waiting for the first replacement outboard

After some hours, a replacement arrived. It was only 8 horsepower. I suggested to Stan that at this rate we would never reach Mbandaka and that we should send word to cancel our tickets and return to Basankusu.

As it happened, the new engine was also a dud, - it didn’t work at all.

Our drivers told us that they had only been told of the trip at 4 am and had come straightaway with the outboard engine they’d been given. Stan wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but at the same time had a lot of sympathy for workers who are bossed about and given very little pay.

We would normally have travelled with a driver called Paul Mobuta, but he hadn’t been available. His son arrived with the new engine and he suggested going to the Daughters of Jesus sisters, 15 km away in Bokakata and asking them for their 25 hp engine. There was one motorbike in Luonga, the village where we were, so he and one of our drivers went off on that.

The riverbank was hard clay and it was quite difficult to climb up bank to firm ground. I stretched my legs for 10 minutes and chatted to a few people in the village before returning to the riverbank. They carried my chair up from the canoe and as I sat down Stan said he would also like to stretch his legs, and could I stay to watch our bags.

Stan went for a walk around the village. Eventually, he returned. 
“They’re bringing the sisters’ outboard, but on the condition that Paul Mobuta’s son, Adebruyaka, acts as our driver, and not the drivers we started with,” he said.

It was now dark and the motorbike they were using to carry the motor along the forest track didn’t have a working headlight. They had an accident, with the engine hitting Adebruyaka’s head – when he got back he had quite a lump on his head. The other driver who was helping him had a big puncture wound on his leg just under his knee.

The people of the village were very supportive and took us to sit in a house, with bags and all, before we eventually set off at just after 10 pm. We would need to travel all night to arrive before check-in at Mbandaka’s little airport closed at noon the following day.

After half an hour, Adebruyaka discovered that one of the big, yellow gerrycans for our journey, was filled with water instead of petrol – we wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach Mbandaka.

Stan was furious. “First they fail to carry out any basic maintenance and we break down and now they try to cheat us by selling us water instead of fuel! What else could possibly happen?”

The river can be very cold at night; the movement of the canoe generates a constant breeze. I was at the front and although I was well dressed in waterproofs I eventually became so cold that I worried I would become ill with hypothermia. I started to lift my cabin-bag up and down to generate some heat in my body.
As the night wore on, we came to a place where we could buy some petrol. At 5 am it was light again and by 7 am we arrived at the last parish of the diocese, the Catholic Mission at Lolanga. It’s at the confluence of the river with the River Congo. They had a phone connection as well and I was able to phone ahead to Mlle Jeanne Marie Abanda who would drive us to the airport once we arrived in Mbandaka. We bought more fuel here and met people that we know from the diocese.

We were very fortunate that the weather was so fine – no rain at all.

We came to where the River Ikelemba joins the Congo. We came into the transmission area for Mbandaka mobile phone networks. I phoned Jeanne Marie to tell her we’d be there in 15 minutes. I’d just finished talking to her, when the outboard spluttered to a halt again. Our fuel was finished. We drifted again.

On the approach to Mbandaka we passed lots of people in canoes – but none had a motor ... they were all propelled by a paddle. The paddle is long like an oar, and as much as half of it can be flattened to form the paddle part. Usually one, but sometimes two people stand up in the canoe and paddle with long strokes to move through the water. Often two or three children will set out on their way to school by themselves – but they would paddle sitting down.

I phoned Jeanne Marie who said she would send someone with fuel.
Eventually, not only did we see a group of people in a canoe with an outboard, but Stan knew the person being carried. They sold us 2 litres of petrol – plenty to finish the journey. It was 10 am. We set off again with a renewed optimism. We would be there in time for the flight after all. I happily phone Jeanne Marie again to cancel our request for fuel.

Adebruyaka fed the fuel into the fuel-tank little by little. He noticed that the engine was drinking it up at a rate of knots. We were in site of the first little riverside port of Mbandaka. Our fuel finished yet again. So close, but drifting helplessly again. I was about to ask Jeanne Marie for help again when we passed a young man with a one year-old child in his canoe. “How much will you sell us you paddle for?” Adebruyaka enquired as they came alongside. “2,000 Francs,” he replied. That’s the same as $2 US.

So with a paddle in hand, Adebruyaka guided us towards the shore. As we bumped up against the sand, I could see the insignia of Caritas on the side of Mlle Jeanne Marie’s white pick-up. The owner of our canoe was also there on the beach, working on one of his boats. He was obviously embarrassed. The immigration police took our passports for their important work of writing down the details of all foreigners in a book that nobody will ever look at once the page has been turned, Stan and the boat owner exchanged a few words about the dire journey we’d endured and we were whisked away towards the Caritas office to change our clothes. We arrived there at 11 o’clock.

Sr Vicky’s sister had brought along our tickets and, after Jeanne Marie dropped us off at the airport, she helped us through the check-in procedure and (yet again) the immigration police.

The plane – as fate would have it – was late. But that didn’t matter. We drank beer and Stan ordered a few plates of omelette for us to share. The plane took off at 3 o’clock and by 4 we were in Kinshasa.

Exhausted but finally on the plane!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Basankusu: The story of little Matthew

~ Part 1 ~ Basankusu: The story of little Matthew

Not long after my return from England, just after New Year, I went to Judith’s house to see the severely malnourished children she’d started feeding at her house on a daily basis. She’d already found a new house to serve as our new centre, but until arrangements were finalised she was quietly helping the mothers of these children to keep them alive. My students hadn’t returned from their break yet, and so I was free to visit most days.

One mother brought her painfully thin 7 year-old son bound to her back like a baby. They went to their little church first for a “praying cure” and always arrived late at Judith’s house.

“There aren’t enough hours in the day left to feed him, if he arrives so late,” I implored Judith. “Tell her to skip church and bring him straight here.” A child’s stomach can only accept so much food at a time, but they need to get as many calories as they can each day – so missing a meal each day would make it impossible for him to regain weight.

We compromised by sending her off each day with some breakfast for him, which he could eat before church, and then catch up with his eating later. I saw them there several days but eventually they stopped coming.

“The mother has taken him to her village, 30 km from here. She says she’ll feed him herself.”
I know that, in England, Social Services would take such a child into care – no such luxury here. We haven’t seen nor heard from them since.

Another little boy was handed to me. I sat him on my lap; immediately I felt how bony his body was and how tight the skin was on his face. His name was Matthew. I guessed he was about 2 years old, but he turned out to be 4 years and 8 months … not only very thin and listless, but also nowhere near as tall as other children his age.

His mother, Chantelle, came into the room and sat on the bamboo bed. A hen and its brood of chicks huddled in the corner behind us as we spoke. Chantelle was partially paralysed on one side of her face and she couldn’t use her right arm very well.

“Chantelle, Matthew has lost weight again,” Judith began, firmly, “How have you let this happen?”
Chantelle’s answer was quite dismissive. “I’ve been ill myself, haven’t I? What am I supposed to do?”

“It’s just negligence, Chantelle …” Judith was getting distressed, “You have to make sure he eats plenty, every day.”

Morning milk had been given and maize porridge was on its way – everything enriched with a little vegetable oil and sugar. A fresh pineapple lay on the table to add a few vitamins to the day’s fare … and later there would be more solid food.

I said my good-byes and made my way back home.

A few days later, Judith came to visit me at my home – Maison St Joseph – on the other side of Basankusu. She told me that the new centre was now in use – a newly built brick house just round the corner from where she lived. She wanted me to visit the next day.

“But, I have some sad news as well,” she said, “Little Matthew has died.”

I didn’t know how to react. Over the previous year, our work had doubtless saved the lives of at least 70 children; I had to get used to the fact that sometimes there would be deaths. Some parents bring their child along too late to be helped.

There then ensued a conversation with everyone and anyone – including our cook – which focused on the idea that I would pay for the burial costs. They would need a bed-sheet, and planks of wood, and nails … and then people would need food and transport, and so on.

I felt we had made little progress in trying to get people to help themselves.

“The money that people send me is to feed children,” I explained, “Burying someone is the family’s responsibility. People have been dying here for a long time before I came to live here … and they managed to bury people very well.”

The conversation ended quickly – I would not pay for the burial, no matter how heartless they thought I was. Those who were so insistent, I suggested, could take up a collection themselves. But they didn’t.

The next day I went to the new feeding centre and took some photos. Judith told me to come along to a health centre which was nearby.

“One of our children has been admitted,” she said, “Come and see.”

We made our way between the various houses, some made from kiln-fired bricks and with corrugated metal roofs, and others made from cold-pressed clay bricks with palm thatched roofs. The meandering path took us through people’s back yards, made from swept earth. Some people were cooking on wood fires, others washing clothes in plastic tubs, while chickens, goats and the family hunting dog wandered freely. We exchanged greetings with the people as we went along and eventually came to a small health centre with a few iron-framed beds inside.

The child Judith had asked me to visit was very small, swathed in a large piece of flower-patterned cloth, his breathing was shallow but steady.

“They gave him a blood transfusion yesterday,” said Judith. “He’s still very weak.”

A woman entered the room. It was Chantelle, the mother of Matthew who I’d been told had died. So who was this child? – I wondered. How is Chantelle connected to this child? I greeted Chantelle, but stopped myself from offering my condolences. I eventually put two and two together and realised that Matthew hadn’t died after all.

We said our good-byes and left the health centre staff to do their work. I walked close to Judith and discretely asked, “So, is that the child who died?”

“Yes,” she replied, “I thought you looked puzzled.”

“… and?” I said.

“They gave him a blood transfusion and he got better,” she smiled.

Perhaps things get lost in translation, but I’m sure we would have a different way of describing the situation, in English. I was disturbed by how the event had been described – but, at the same time, relieved to find that Matthew was still with us.

~ Part 2 ~œ Basankusu: The story of little Matthew

The new centre was soon up and running, welcoming children from a wide area, and for seven days per week for the more severe cases. Chantelle was now being helped by Matthew’s father; he had left her two years previously, but had come back when he heard that Matthew was so ill.

Sister Vicky, a local nun who is also a doctor and in charge of the diocesan health services, came to visit and was very pleased with what we were doing.

“We will treat you as if you are in partnership with our service,” she said. “If you need to admit a child to the Catholic hospital (Basankusu’s Secondary hospital), we will do a deal on the price – the same with medicines … we’ll sell them to you at cost price.”

We were very happy with that news; we’d been recognised for what we were doing and had been included as one of the health centres for the diocese – if only on an informal basis.

Judith, Sister Vicky, Nellie and Francis

The very next day, Matthew’s father brought him along to the centre, as he had started to do each day. It was two weeks since his blood transfusion. His breathing was extremely shallow and there was little response when he was spoken to.

“We need to admit him to hospital, straight away,” explained Jean-Pierre, one of our two nurses. “There’s no time to waste.”

The hospital gave him a bed. The room was bleak – cement floor and white plastered walls. The mattress was thin and split, it had no sheets or pillow. He would, however, receive the medication he needed to bring down the inflammation from his body and having him in one place would mean that we could monitor his feeding each day. We arranged for enriched milk-powder to be taken to him each day and cooked food would be delivered after midday, which could be given as several meals throughout the day. The hospital took charge of his medication and monitoring. Matthew’s parents were responsible for feeding and washing him. The hospital has a generator for operations – but after six, each evening, it sits in the deep, dark, black of night, with only the loud chirping of crickets for company. We bought them a torch.

The days went by and we saw a change in Matthew’s face. His skin regained some colour and his eyes started to sparkle. His body remained emaciated, skeletal … and must have been constantly painful. He developed a bed-sore at the base of his spine.

I visited as frequently as I could, and so did Judith – she was usually the one who brought his food along. We tried to get one of our volunteers from the centre, who lived locally to cook for him at the hospital but she found it too much of a commitment, having her own children at home, too. We continued to send the food daily. I personally called in as often as I could to see little Matthew’s progress.

After one week, I met Sister Anto at the convent; she’s the hospital administrator. She wanted me to come and look at aother child they’d admitted and was suffering from malnutrition.
“They don’t seem to have any money, at all,” she confided. “If you could help them through your centre - that would be great.”

I promised I’d go to see the child Monday morning.

Monday morning came and I met up with Judith at the hospital as she delivered milk to Matthew. She had brought her own little boy, 5 (almost 6) year-old Christenvie, with her. Alain came along, too. We soon found out that the child Sister Anto had asked us to visit had already left the hospital.

“They’ve done a runner,” she said. “They must have left during the night.”

We took the child’s name and address and set out to find where he lived. He was a little 3½ year-old boy called Mikile. He lived in a small village on the outskirts of Basankusu called Libanga, along the river. I’d never been there before, neither had Judith.

We took the Toyota Land Cruiser as far as we could through an area called Sampuka, which extends down to the river. After that the track was only passable on foot. The sun was high, and very hot, as we eventually came to Bolafa, a sleepy little hamlet next to the river. We asked directions and were told it was still quite a distance.

We left Bolafa and were soon in full forest. Christenvie walked ahead of Judith and I and showed no signs of tiring. With a wall of trees on either side and with just the occasional glimpse of the river to our left, I was reminded of the story of Hansel and Gretel. As we walked along I told the story to Christenvie … but replaced the characters with himself as Hansel and Gretel, and Judith as the parents. It seemed to go down well.

The path we were on was well maintained, with sticks standing up on each side as pegs to tie your canoe to. We realised that the river – at the moment very low – would come right up to this level, and only the path would be above water. After half an hour on this path, we came to a creek. Huge trees had been felled to form a sort of bridge, but the trees just lay as they’d fallen, so it was a matter of climbing along and over them to get to the other side without getting wet.

Eventually we saw small houses made from grey bricks, probably made from the clay along the riverside. We asked directions and came to Milike’s house.

“We’ve come to see the child who was in the hospital,” Judith announced. “We have a centre for feeding malnourished children and we’d like him to come along.”

“We buried him, yesterday,” said one woman sitting in front of one of the houses, a bubbling pot on the fire in front of her.

“But, really,” continued Judith, unperturbed, “we want to help. Bring him out so we can take him to our centre to feed him.”

Another woman appeared. “You are too late. The child is dead and we buried him yesterday. You won’t find him here now.”

They called the boy’s father, a young, quiet man. “We were at the hospital for four weeks,” he said. “They told us there was nothing else they could do and we came home. Then our little boy died.”

They brought out chairs and we sat down to talk. It was a very peaceful place. Only the sounds of nature. The people were gentle … quiet … and the houses well set out, with the area in front of each house clear and well swept. In Basankusu, people would call out to me and demand money – they played loud music and were generally more gregarious. The people here, of the Ngombe tribe, were calm, working hard at their crafts, and didn’t seem to treat me as different to anyone else there.
Judith told them about our centre for malnutrition and that they should tell others so people would know in time if any of their children should lose weight.

Milike’s father realised that we’d walked quite a way and was impressed that we’d made such an effort to help them.

“I’ll take you back by river,” he said. … and at that we made our way down to the river.
Travelling back by canoe I saw the beauty of the river, but siting in such a small canoe – on a little stool – felt precarious as each little wave wobbled the canoe from side to side. Milike’s dad stood tall at the stern of the boat with a one ended paddle, paddling slowly on one side – and then on the other. Other canoes – family members and friends – paddled alongside us. The river is very wide but we stayed fairly close to the riverbanks. My only worry was, that if we fell in, my camera would be damaged.

“Are you worried?” Judith mocked.

“I’m not worried,” I replied, “because I can swim. What about you? Who will save you if you fall in?”

“You will save me,” she replied.

“And who will save your little boy?” I asked.

“Alain will save him,” she said.

Sitting precariously in the canoe
Neither Alain nor Judith can swim. There are no life-jackets – but fortunately we didn’t fall in.
After about three-quarters of an hour we came to Sampuka, where we’d left the car. Judith really impressed me as we walked back – she stopped and asked people if there were any malnourished children; here and there a discrete word would lead her to a house and she would talk to the family about our centre.

“Your baby needs help,” she’d say.

“No, my baby’s fine.”

“I can see that your baby is very thin; come along to our centre and we can give him milk – don’t worry … it’s free.”

“I’ll think about it …” – and then we’d move off to another house.

(Three mothers came along to the centre the next week from Judith’s efforts.)


~ Part 3 ~ Basankusu: The story of little Matthew

After many days of visiting Matthew and his mother, and sometimes his father, at the hospital, our visiting Belgian eye-doctors arrived and installed themselves for two weeks at the same hospital. Matthew had been moved to a ward with ten beds in it, but with only a few other people sharing the room.

I visited them on a Friday and Matthew’s eyes continued to sparkle. By Monday morning, however, he’d gone downhill again.

“Where is Matthew’s dad?” I asked Chantelle. “He’s supposed to be preparing his solid food while we bring along milk powder.”

“He got some paid work,” she said, as if it wasn’t a problem to leave his sick child for a couple of days without food. I gave Chantelle money to buy something locally, so that he would have something more than the enriched milk we were sending.

The next morning, Tuesday, I arrived early to check on their progress. Chantelle said that she, herself, had become sick during the night and she had a fever. Matthew was staring at the ceiling, the cotton cloth he was wrapped in soaked in urine.

I knew then that I had to get Matthew away from his parents – they were not helping the situation in the least. I left the hospital and walked 4 km to our nutrition centre to talk with Judith.

“We’ll have to get them to agree to Matthew sleeping here,” said Judith. “If they sleep here at our centre – where I sleep – I’ll be able to see what they’re feeding Matthew, and make sure they don’t miss anymore mealtimes.”

Alain arrived, and so I sent Judith by taxi-bike, a form of transport made popular several years ago by visiting Ugandan peacekeepers, and Alain and I followed on foot. Half an hour later the three of us arrived back at the hospital. Chantelle lay on the bed next to her emaciated child.

“Come on”, I said, “Let’s go and find a change of scene. The hospital is not doing you any good, Chantelle. We can go to Mama Modeste’s house, which is near here, to wash Matthew’s clothes and have a chat about what we can do next.”

Chantelle agreed. Perhaps by now she was depressed. The people at the hospital said they’d treat her fever and put the costs on our bill. I leant over Matthew and picked him up. We emerged into harsh sunlight; I wrapped the faded, patterned cloth over his head. Because so many people were at the hospital to see the eye-doctors, a few more stalls than was usual had sprung up on the other side of the dirt track outside the simple hospital building. People turned to stare at me carrying this small frail child away from the hospital.

“Where are you going with one of ours?” they called out. I ignored them and continued on. With Matthew’s bony frame against me, I talked to him about where we were going, that his mother was coming along, too and that we’d have something nice to eat. Without saying anything in reply, he accepted my words and remained relaxed as I carried him across the empty plot opposite the hospital. After about six or seven minutes, we arrived at Mama Modeste’s house.

Modeste wasn’t there, but I was welcomed by other members of her family, and just after I got there Judith, Chantelle, Matthew’s dad, and Alain arrived, too. We were given a place to sit in their small house.

“You go home, Francis, and come back later,” said Judith, “We can do everything here.” She’d laughed at me earlier when I’d said that I would wash Matthew’s clothes myself because nobody seemed willing to help. She would arrange everything, she would wash his clothes and cook everyone something to eat.

I returned at half-one to find them all sitting together in Modeste’s house, waiting for the food to be served. Matthew’s faded cloths were hanging on a clothesline and already dry. The air was already sweeter and everyone seemed relaxed again.

Matthew’s dad spoke up. “I can see that I need to be at the hospital more and that Chantelle is finding things difficult. If you leave a little money with me each day, I will buy and cook Matthew’s solid food at the hospital. I will do it all – don’t worry.”
Chantelle with Matthew in the hospital

We all went back to the hospital feeling better about the situation.

As Matthew lay again in his hospital bed, I noticed he had a high temperature. The nurse confirmed it and said they would give him something to help.

Things were looking up – Matthew’s parents were starting to take more responsibility and we were all able to go home.

~ Part 4 ~ Basankusu: The story of little Matthew

The nutrition project continued to do well; several more children got to their target weight and were dismissed from the project. We would monitor them at home to make sure their parents continued to feed them properly.

Alain arrived at Mill Hill, early one morning, looking distressed.

“They’ve gone,” he said. “Matthew, Chantelle and Matthew’s dad – vanished.”

“Well they’ve done it before,” I replied, “but last time they said they’d been looking for traditional medicine and later on they returned.”

Alain went to find Chantelle’s family home – which is quite near to our feeding centre. He’d ask there to find out where they’d gone. Then, we’d have to persuade them to either go back to the hospital or install themselves at our centre.

It was the next day when Alain came to say he’d finally tracked them down. Matthew’s father had taken Matthew to his uncle’s house in the west of Basankusu. I jumped into our Toyota Land Cruiser and we set off to persuade them to come back, collecting Judith on the way. Basankusu’s so called roads are horribly eroded mud and sand tracks, with huge crevices and holes in them caused by heavy rain. Some show signs of gravelling and the severe erosion allows patches of brick paving from the Belgian era to be revealed here and there. They are, in essence, dirt tracks. I made my way cautiously along these roads.

The uncle’s house was nicely presented, with kiln-baked bricks and a corrugated metal roof.
“They’ve had money at some time,” I pondered, “I wonder why they find it so hard to care for someone in their own family.”

Neighbours across the dirt track stirred and then wandered over to our car. “You’re too late,” said one woman, “he’s already dead.”

We were stunned. All our work, all our encouragement, all our support ... for nothing. Why didn’t they ... ? Why did they ... ? Questions raced through my head, but the finality of death I knew was irreversible.

I decided to go into the house to give my condolences. There, in a small room, on the floor, was a bamboo bed, which is just a platform of thin bamboo sticks framed with larger bamboo sticks – a small form wrapped neatly in patterned colourful cloth lay at one end. It was Matthew’s lifeless body. The cloth cocooned his body, his face visible from the folded cloth. All the worry and pain, all the discomfort and fear – had gone, his face clear, relaxed, in death.

His father sat next to him – head in hands, grief-stricken. I laid my hand on his shoulder. “Please accept my condolences,” I said. He made a small movement with his head to acknowledge me and then I left.

 The uncle was waiting for me outside. “You have a car,” he said, “and their village is 20 km from here. You can carry them to their village for the burial.”

I’d made it clear on several occasions that I wouldn’t pay for funerals. It’s hard, but my work is for the living and – tragic though it was – I felt that Matthew’s death could have been prevented. On the other hand, he may have been too sick to have been saved from the beginning, and the blood transfusion had only, perhaps, given him a few extra weeks reprise before his ultimate demise. We’ll never know. Certainly, his parents had been overwhelmed by the commitment to keep him alive and felt a failure - as did we ourselves.

“This car isn’t in any condition to travel along that road,” I told him. “It really is not our responsibility to bury Matthew – it’s his family’s. However, I will give you a contribution to help with the costs.”

The uncle went with me back to Maison St Joseph, where I live, and I gave him just over $20, and his fare for a taxi-bike to take him home again.

It was more than a week later when Matthew’s father called by our house. He told me that his uncle had given him only $15 – he had apparently taken $5 for himself! Unfortunately, this type of thing happens frequently...

While he was there, Judith phoned. “We have just received another severely malnourished child who needs hospital treatment,” she said.

“I’m on my way,” I replied...

Monday, 9 May 2016

Basankusu: Mill Hill burns!

The fire started from our paraffin fridge. A paraffin fridge is great when you don’t have constant electricity. It has a flame which drives the coolant around the fridge, this is fed from a reservoir of paraffin in the base of the fridge. Somehow it caught fire and the reservoir exploded sending huge flames up to the ceiling.
I was in another building, where our students live and have lessons. I was with Fr John Kirwan and one of our local sisters who had come to use the internet. We heard a commotion outside – a lot of people were agitated. “Come quickly!” someone shouted. We hurried across to see what it could be and saw a crowd of neighbours in a very excited state outside the little kitchen where the fridge and washing machine were. That’s when I saw the huge flames billowing from the doorway.
We don’t have a fire service; people were throwing buckets of soil and the branches from a banana palm onto the fire, but to no avail – the fire had already got through the ceiling and into the roof cavity.
My students called to me. “Quick, Francis, get all your things out of your room!” they shouted.
“But it can’t possibly come here,” I replied.
“Yes, it will come,” they urged. “You must remove ... everything!”
My bedroom and office occupy the first part of the building, after that we have our dining room, then there is an outside seating area followed by the little kitchen and then Fr John’s two offices and bedroom – all covered by the same roof. I started picking up a few things here and there, to make the gesture of taking things out.
I couldn’t imagine that the fire would arrive in my room. I took my passport while my three students and neighbours started grabbing things from my room. I found myself in a daze, not knowing what to pick up. Eventually, I asked them to carry out my wardrobe with all my clothes inside. Next we carried my desk out, with all my papers still on top of it. They followed with my mattress and bed. What I didn’t see was the envelope in which I hide dollars – underneath my mattress. I assume that in the confusion nobody saw it fall and that it was burnt in the fire. Then they tried to pick up a large book-case – a wine bottle which I used to keep drinking water in fell and smashed on the concrete floor. I realised that panic was taking over everyone. As I picked up my laundry bucket and to follow everyone outside, one of my student’s pointed to the ceiling of my bedroom. “The fire is here, now! We have to go out!”

The next thing was that people – quite a crowd had emerged – urged me to take our car out of the garage to safe place. Our car is quite a hefty 4x4 Toyota land Cruiser. Again, I couldn’t imagine that the fire would cross from the house to the garage ... but I had to accept the experience of people in these conditions.
My office after the fire
Judith working in my office before the fire
The car wouldn’t start. They pushed it out of the garage. They pushed and pushed until it was outside our enclosure. When I returned the crowd had grown yet bigger. The police had arrived. They were keeping watch against looting – with some, but not complete success.
The roof space in the house had been left open inside to accommodate a second storey to the house. The second floor was never built. The effect of this was that air was sucked in through vents and the whole roof cavity – with the noise of a roaring jet engine – became a furnace. The timbers of the roof fell burning into every room, creating such a ferocious fire that the plaster came off the walls and the top layer of concrete on the floor buckled.
In our dining room with guests before the fire.
Our dining room/ TV room after the fire
I saw Fr John walking through the crowd. I assumed he’d given up on his room – as I had given up on mine. We started to move our saved things into safer places. My wardrobe and desk went into one of the student’s bedrooms. Now and then someone gave me something in my hand that looked like it might be worth keeping.
I’d been wearing pair of tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops when the fire had started. I’d quickly slipped on a pair of trainers, and moved my trousers into my laundry basket (actually a large plastic bucket that flour arrived in) before carrying it outside. Of all the things to rescue, I fastened a spare belt around my waste and put on my wide-brimmed hat and wandered around for two hours like that ... with my passport stuffed inside my pocket. Now, as the fire looked like subsiding, I put on a pair of socks and changed into my trousers.
Our outdoor seating area - under the same roof canopy.
Outside seating area with Dally construction engineer for the cathedral
Our laptops were safe – we’d been in a separate building with them at the onset, as was my iPhone. My other phone, the one I used every day, and Judith’s phone, which was charging in my room, vanished.
Little things mattered. The flip-flops that I’d bought in Walmart’s UK store, Asda, three years ago, and that I’d worn every day since arriving – were sadly missed. The bottle of head and Shoulders shampoo that I’d bought at Christmas and had been trying to last out over a year, had vaporised. 
Fr John had lost years’ worth of papers, letters, accounts, documents, books, photographs – not to mention all of his clothes save the ones he was wearing.
Fr Stan arrived towards the end. Visibly shocked he made us welcome in his building which is on the same plot but was untouched by the fire. “Come and sit down for a while,” he said, “There’s little more to be done.
The local priests eventually took us a mile down the road to the diocesan procure. They gave us something to eat and afterwards more of them arrived.
Fr MakabĂ© stood up to speak. “We are all here this evening as if we were at a wake,” he said. “In our culture, when a house is destroyed by fire, it’s the same as if someone has died. And, so, we sit with you to give our consolation – to drink a little, to talk a little ... and to be together.”

They gave Fr John and myself a room each and we slept.

An aerial view of Maison St Joseph -
all the front section was destroyed ...
we were in the building top-right when it statrted.

The burn-out shell of our house