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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Monday, 30 April 2018

Basankusu: Francis Hannaway's centre for severe malnutrition

I walked around the garden amongst the many fruit trees: mangoes, avocados, bananas, a savoury fruit called safou, lemons, and others I don’t know the names of. This was in the grounds of the new house that we had just bought to cater for the most severely malnourished children at our centre.

The house was made from fired bricks and had a palm thatched roof. As well as the main house there was also another small building which served as a kitchen and a couple of extra rooms.

Judith, who runs the project, gave it a critical look. “It’s too small, Francis, so we’ll need to extend it ... and we’ll need a proper metal roof,” she said. “The roof is too low, it’ll trap in the heat, so that needs to be raised and the walls built up.”

The house when we bought it.

Laying the concrete floor.

Raising the roof and extending the walls.

The new roof is on and the extension almost complete.

Centre volunteers trying out the new house.

The house that we’d bought for £2,000 was starting to go up in price before my very eyes. “We’ll extend the building to make a good sitting room, and you know the floor ...?” she continued, “It’s lined with bricks, but impossible to clean. Hygiene is very important with these delicate children; we’ll need to lay a concrete floor – the same with the bare brick walls, they’ll need plastering.”

Little by little, we came up with a plan for making the building suitable for feeding severely malnourished children. New windows and doors would complete the plan - and a sturdy fence, made from strong sticks from the forest, held together with ever-versatile mosquito nets.

Once the new roof and extension were complete, we welcomed a little girl called Gracia. She was being treated at the nearby St Joseph’s Hospital. Her malnutrition was so severe that we really thought that she would die. Mama José, our nurse, visited her in the hospital. “She needs cheering up, as well as feeding up,” she said. “Even though the new house isn’t finished, we can buy some raffia mats for her to sit on. It’ll be better than the dreary hospital.”

Poor little Gracia with her swollen body and peeling skin.

So, every day, for more than two months, Gracia came to eat at the new house. As well as our nutritious corn, peanut and soya-milk porridge, our volunteers talked and sang to her to try to cheer her up.
Gracia made a full recovery, partly, we believe, because of her own determination. After several weeks of listlessness, she picked up the cooking pot herself to help with the cooking. I’d like to think that the dedication of our volunteers also helped her recovery. Let’s hope, too, that the new house will provide a calm sanctuary for these vulnerable children, and a safe place for the volunteers to help these little ones to get back on the road to health.
Gracia - at the new centre ... and almost better.
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Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Basankusu: Pineapples, fish and a broken tooth

During the past month, the “Rural Women Determined Against Malnutrition”, the registered name of our association, were pleased to see our numbers drop to only five. They didn’t waste time, and were soon planting pineapples and soya beans in our garden. These crops will provide food for the children and an income to support our work. Pineapples grow on the ground and send runners through the soil to make new plants, like strawberries do.

“The pineapples will take more than six months before we can pick them,” explained our nurse, Mama José, “but the soya will be ripe in about two months. We’ve got to be ready for the next wave of malnourished children coming to us.

Francis with pineapple plant

At the moment, there is some fish for families to catch in the small streams. That’s quite easy, lots of children go with their mothers to catch catfish, which slither along in the small streams.”

Rural Women Determined Against Malnutrition ... working hard.
She explained further, “The women dig a hole and scoop out the water; they put a basket into the hole and the fish come down the stream and fall into the basket. That’s an easy way to feed your children for free,” she said. “Towards the end of April, heavy rains flood the streams and the fish swim off to deeper water. So no more free food! That’s when we always see lots of malnourished children at our centre. The hungry months continue right up until the end of August when the next free food arrives: that’s the edible caterpillars! Just like the free fish, they are very rich in protein, which helps the children to grow.”

As I walked home from our vegetable garden, I walked underneath the branches of an avocado tree which leant over the path from someone’s garden. I counted twenty ripe avocados hanging on the tree. It just shows what people can have to eat if they just think ahead – sadly, some people fall on difficult times, or times of illness, and end up not being able to feed their children.

The very same day, at our Mill Hill Missionaries house, I enjoyed some tasty catfish like the ones I mentioned.

I tried to be like the locals and crunched hard on the small bones. It wasn’t very wise; I broke part of a tooth! In Basankusu you might be able to have a tooth taken out, but I didn’t want that and to find a proper dentist I needed to travel to Kinshasa.

The routine has now become familiar. I was able to get a canoe ride with the visiting Provincial of the Daughters of Jesus sisters. Two days on the river was followed by two days waiting for a plane which failed to turn up the first day ... and I arrived in Kinshasa.

We were eventually reunited with our suitcases three days after arriving, but didn’t complain (well, not too much anyway).

I will be back in Basankusu soon – in time for the malnourished children who we know will soon arrive.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers ... and even better, send a small donation to help with this work.

Basankusu: Francis Hannaway thinks about his time in the Congo

Time goes quickly in Basankusu, in the Congo. My three years have spilled into a fourth year committed to missionary life with Mill Hill Missionaries.

The students I started teaching at the beginning of 2015 are studying Philosophy in Uganda. They will eventually become Mill Hill priests.

A little get-together after mass for extending my time in the Congo

My centre for treating malnourished children and advising their parents has passed its third birthday. Some volunteers have moved on but have been replaced with new, even better ones. We have now successfully treated over one thousand children at the centre.

Further to that, we’ve taken on a second house to concentrate on the more severely malnourished children. It’s right next to our Catholic hospital for easy access to medical services (such as they are!).

The rebuilding of our Mill Hill house, since it burnt down, is almost complete. And we’re just saying goodbye to our visiting eye-doctors, from Belgium, who have just spent another two weeks treating Basankusu people, their fifth visit!

More anniversaries come to mind: this year will mark 25 years since I first came to Basankusu as a Mill Hill Missionary, for three years.

I found this photo from 1992 of myself and a young woman from the Ngombe tribe.

She’d given birth to her first child and was following the tribal tradition of “First Birth”. She was accompanied by two younger sisters, or cousins – one carried the baby for her, the other carried a small stool for her to sit on to feed the baby.

For at least one year, – without her husband – she visits her extended family in neighbouring villages, who should feed her up to keep her in good health. She avoids washing in the river, in case she catches a chill – instead she’s covered in palm-oil.

She wears several different charms to keep away evil spirits, including: a leopard’s tooth, a leopard’s skin, a traditional raffia skirt, cow-bells (they’re behind her on a belt) again, to keep away evil spirits, and several marks and bracelets from the traditional healers to protect her.

This all seems very extravagant – and very hard on the poor husband – but it ensured that mother and child survived in possibly harsh conditions.

Mobile phones, solar panel lights, and a shaky internet connection have since arrived in Basankusu. Sadly, the tradition of “First Birth” has all but died out. My work, these days, working with malnourished children, gets me thinking that perhaps it should be reintroduced.

Kinshasa: avoiding trouble!

It was already 9 o'clock, this morning, when I set off from the outskirts of Kinshasa to go to my makeshift office at the 'Procure des Missions' in central Kinshasa. I’m staying in Kinshasa for a few weeks, to sort out accounts and such like for our Mill Hill Missionaries community, here in the Congo. 

There were plenty of people waiting for shared taxis, too many, in fact, so I boarded a crowded mini-bus, with its tattered seats and hanging-off sliding door. Holding tight next to the open sliding door, we set off, with a fair breeze wafting in and cooling us down in the overpowering heat. Depending on the traffic, we should have arrived in Kintambo in about twenty-five minutes. From there I would look for another shared taxi or minibus to the centre of the city.

We'd only gone about half a mile when we came to a halt. 

Perspiration soaked through my shirt as the breeze disappeared. The driver decided to do a three-point turn.
"There's trouble ahead," he said, pointing down the road. "They've killed a teacher at a secondary school - there's mayhem! We'll go a different route."

Every vehicle followed suit. An elderly couple, sitting next to me, decided to get off. I asked where exactly the trouble was. Was it everywhere...? No-one knew. We were very soon in a solid traffic jam - it was like a quiet panic.
I passed the place I'd started. I had three appointments today at the ‘Procure des Missions’ ... perhaps they could wait. Arriving in a place is one thing ... but if things got out of hand (and if it was linked to oppression of opposition supporters it could get out of hand) it was possible there'd be no way back. Being a white foreigner, I could easily attract the wrong type of attention: attention from rioters, corrupt police, and the local thieves who hang around and wait for distractions like this. 

I touched the ticket man's arm ... "I've changed my mind,” I said, “I'll get off here."

Armed police appeared - a soldier with his Kalashnikov appeared. I went back to the house where I'm staying. 

After a while a friend, who’d heard of the trouble, called to see where I was. 

"Don't worry," I said, "I didn't go." "That's good," continued my friend, "because this is a riot caused by the halving of the value of the currency against the dollar ... but school fees are in dollars. The police and soldiers are now shooting at the crowd in Kintambo!" 

Kintambo is where I was heading. It's where I would look for a second shared taxi.

Well, it's a wasted day - but I think I made the right decision, don't you?