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Bukaru, Democratic Republic of Congo, 05/21-06/06/09

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Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo – 06/06/09

            I never thought I’d say it, but I think I’m actually starting to get the hang of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  True, the cultural and political dynamics of the place are as vexing and inaccessible as ever, but I’ve finally begun to feel confident in my work and in my daily affairs.  My passive understanding of French is now nearly fluent, I’m able to discuss complex issues related to child protection with relative ease, and I’ve made enough Congolese and expatriate friends to safely escape the confines of my heavily-guarded compound once or twice a week.  All in all, things are looking up!

            When I last wrote, I was in the midst of preparing for my final three interviews with various child protection experts here in Bukavu, including Mr. Adolphe Musafiri (the Director of 5th CELPA, the federation of Pentecostal churches in South Kivu province), Mr. Deo Mihigo (a Child Protection Officer at MONUC) and Mr. Séverin Birindwa (a Child Rights Lobbyist at War Child Holland).  It was a joy to speak with each of them, as by now, I have a thorough enough understanding of the various communications strategies being employed in eastern DRC to prevent the recruitment of children into armed conflict that I can launch immediately into a substantive conversation about how those strategies might be improved.

            An example: the research that I have conducted thus far has indicated that the two most ignored and difficult to reach demographics relevant to the issue of child protection are former child soldiers who have already undergone rehabilitation (and who are often thoroughly unhappy about how their rehabilitation was effected) and lower-ranking officers in the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (   FARDC, the national Congolese military).  The reason the former demographic is so poorly accessed is because thus far, the focus of donors has been the immediate recuperation of child soldiers rather than their long-term resettlement.  As for the latter, most child protection information is conveyed to the military via radio and MONUC-sponsored field workshops; but unfortunately, when radios happen to be available and work in the bush (which is altogether quite rare), lower-ranking officers prefer to listen to pop music rather than formal news programming; and when a workshop takes place, it is usually only for a few hours, often in a language that is not understood by many members of the FARDC’s multiethnic battalions, and without any effective evaluation of the content’s impact.  In light of all this, the otherwise excellent content of child protection planning is almost completely bypassing these two crucial communities.

            One intriguing improvement that was suggested by one of my interview subjects – the Director of UNICEF-South Kivu’s Child Protection Office, Mr. Flory Mubandilwa – was that Congolese pop musicians should be invited to play a more active role in disseminating information on children’s rights.  UNICEF’s department of sexual violence recently embarked upon such an initiative, hiring several top Kinshasa-based musicians to write a few catchy songs about the importance of treating women with respect.  Though it’s still too soon to see whether the project will lead to a decrease in sexual violence, information would suggest that it – unlike comparably “drier” radio programming – should have an enormous impact on music hungry FARDC privates.  Why should something similar not be done for the subject of child protection?

            After having completed these three final interviews, I was asked by my supervisor here at Search for Common Ground to draft a mid-term report on my findings.  As has been the case with so many other pieces of writing that I have submitted to SFCG, drafting my mid-term report was a learning experience unto itself.  Until very recently, I had never been asked to draft a work plan, nor had I ever been asked to design a full-fledged research methodology.  Even more embarrassingly, it’s taken me a few weeks to truly grasp what is meant by a placement’s “Terms of Reference” (I was never given any in Somaliland!).  Nevertheless, I wrote up my report in a format that I thought would be appropriate and it was generally quite well-received.  Lena (my supervisor) commented that it was clear that I had come to construct a foundational understanding of the major questions at stake in designing child protection communication strategies, and she was pleased to see that I had been able to speak with so many interesting, high-level child protection specialists here in Bukavu.  On the other hand, she did say that in my final three weeks here in the DRC, she hopes I will be more active in seeking out novel research opportunities (a valid criticism: like I said at the very beginning of this entry, I have only just started to feel comfortable in my new digs).  I fully intend to abide by this recommendation.

            Now, with only twenty days left in Bukavu (and in the Fellowship program in general!), I’ve decided to shift my attention from interviews to focus groups.  After having spoken a little bit with SFCG’s monitoring and evaluation team, as well as with the Child Soldiers Initiative (which has received semi-regular updates on the research I’ve been doing; it’s a strange thing having two “placement masters”), I’ve come to develop a relatively concrete idea of what these focus groups will look like.  Ideally, I will co-facilitate one or two discussions with a group of rehabilitated child soldiers at a local rehabilitation centre called ASO, and another one or two discussions with the FARDC’s protection battalion here in South Kivu.  Though I’m still a bit uncertain as to how the debates will be structured – especially with respect to language, as most of what is said will have to be translated into Swahili – I’m sure I’ll still manage to learn an extraordinary amount.

            Outside of work, things have been just as interesting.  For example: just a few hours after I submitted my last journal entry, I decided to buy a one-month old puppy, which I have since named Lhotse (my younger brother was hiking to Everest Base Camp at the time, and suggested that I name the dog after a nearby Himalayan peak).  I know what you’re thinking: how could I be so impulsive and irresponsible?  The whole idea was actually first cooked up by a good Congolese friend I’ve made named René, who has promised to take care of the pup once I return to Canada.  We’ve already given him all of his vaccinations, his first dose of de-worming pills, a de-lousing bath and all of the hugs he could possibly want.  He’s also being habituated to eating our leftovers, so now that I’ve taken care of all the initial costs, René won’t have to spend a crazy amount on imported dog food long into the future.  Long story short: it’s been wonderful having a little animal running around the house.  My family has kept dogs for all my life, and I’ve since come to realize that there’s really quite nothing like coming home at the end of a long day of work and being able to roll around with an ever-loving canine friend.

            That same weekend, I was also diagnosed as having an intestinal parasite.  For almost the entire time that I’ve been here in the DRC, I’ve suffered from mild stomach pains, but when things took a sharp turn for the worse, my supervisor convinced me to make a trip to the local clinic.  Fortunately, I’ve had plenty of experience with third-world hospitals (most recently, I broke my right wrist in a car accident in rural China), and the visit was an adventure more than anything else.  After spending an hour in the waiting room watching a repeated cycle of bizarre Congolese music videos featuring dancing albinos and amputees, and being petted by a posse of five young children who were fascinated by the hair on my arms, I was ushered into the laboratory where I was administered a few quick tests.  Less than half an hour later, I was given the results: Trichomonas intestinalis.  I was given some medication along with some advice from the resident female doctor (a rarity in the DRC!) and was then sent on my way.  All in all, I was enormously impressed by how efficient and effective my diagnosis and treatment had been; and after having taking my meds for a week, I now feel right as rain.

            The past two weeks have also seen an unprecedented amount of social activity.  I’ve managed to do a little bit of dancing at MONUC’s “Welfare Night” with a new American friend who works at Bukavu’s famous Panzi Hospital (widely recognized as being the best hospital in the region for treating severe instances of rape), have some wonderfully long nighttime conversations with SFCG’s new director for the Moba office (a Danish woman who I will remember as having had some fascinating insights into the expatriate psyche and who had to wait around Bukavu for three days to catch a flight south to her new home), and attend a little bit of raucous Congolese karaoke at Le Sait Laïc with René.  I can’t help but think that this busier social life of mine has been largely responsible for my finally feeling settled here in the DRC.

            Related to this: just last week, a new SFCG intern arrived from the United States!  His name is Emerson Sykes and he’s a law student currently attending NYU.  Having already spent last summer working for Liberia’s Ministry of Justice, he and I have had a great time swapping stories from the field, and collecting more here in Bukavu.  Again, I cannot underestimate how great an impact having another young English-speaking friend around has had on my work ethic and peace of mind; I’m only just starting to realize how unusual it is to have been the only expatriate working for my organizations in Somaliland and the DRC respectively.  It’s a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would be!

            Emerson has also had a unique impact on me in that he’s actually managed to kindle an interest in both Harvard and international law.  Until now – and in spite of all the spectacular experiences I had with both Harvard professors and international lawyers back in Boston – I’ve been very much against law as a possible professional path (largely on account of what I have perceived to be its inherently adversarial nature), just as I have been against applying to Harvard simply out of a desire to have its name on my resume (surely one must have a more compelling reason to apply than just that!).  But in speaking with Emerson – a bright, internationally-focused humanitarian who also happens to be in law – I’ve come to see the field in a very different light, along with the unique contributions that Harvard has been able to make to that field.  So who knows?  Maybe, contrary to everything that I have so long expected of myself, after wrapping up my MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London, I’ll try applying to Harvard law!

            Everything else aside, I’ve spent my in-between hours finishing a novel than is now tied with my favorite book of all time (the latter being “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie and the former being “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyoror Dostoevsky; it may also have contributed to my recent paradigm shift regarding law), editing the hundreds upon hundreds of photos that I’ve taken during the past twelve months (Carrie, Michelle and I celebrated our one-year Fellowship anniversary on June 4th!), and watching old episodes of “Southpark” that I had stored on my external hard drive (I don’t know what I’d do with out it!).

            With only three weeks left, I feel I should probably have something more insightful to say at the end of this particular entry, but nothing really comes to mind.  I suppose that in spite of how homesick I had been at the beginning of my DRC placement, my impending departure hasn’t really sunk in yet.  Instead, I’m simply disappointed that I’ve only just started to feel comfortable here in Bukavu.  Note to self: as educational as the various three-month Fellowship placements have been, they’re little more than preludes to the real thing.  In the future, when you actually start working in the field full-time, you’re going to have to stay in one place for a hell of a lot longer than three months if you actually want to get a handle on a given situation!

Anyway, it’s now 11:28pm and I should probably hit the sack.  As usual, thanks very much for reading (whoever you are!), and I’ll be sure to write at least one more time before I head back to Canada on June 26th.  A la prochaine, mes amis!