Research in Kinshasa & an odyssey to Goma. Or Bukavu!?

Intermediate stop: Bukavu. Not that I had planned to be there today, on 18th of October, but things happen sometimes in a surprising way here in DRC. To start correctly, on Saturday, 15th of October I was supposed to confirm my flight from Kinshasa to Goma, via Kisangani. After a couple of calls to the UN MovCon Flight Centre I got a confirmation for my flight today. People told be to be at the MONUSCO terminal of Ndjili Airport at 6.30am. Given the transport situation in Kinshasa and the fact that I do not have a car here, that is already a slight problem. At that hour it is almost impossible to find regular transportation (taxi or taxibus) that goes to the airport. But ok, I tried to find somebody with a car in our neighbourhood in Yolo in order to negotiate a deal to get to the airport. Unfortunately that guy did not confirm the evening before and I had to call a friend of mine, from whom I knew it would be not very easy since he has to work from 7am, but in critical situations you have to rely on friends. In that moment my Congolese father, who had a second flight to Goma half an hour later (via Kalemie with the WFP UNHAS flight service told me I should try to go with them, since it would not be a problem to be late half an hour. Alright, done, I did not have to disturb my friend.
Then this morning everything seemed to be fine. We arrived at the airport on time and I wanted to check in. That was where the story began. People told me, I was on a waiting list, since a lot of blue helmets had to be brought to Goma prioritarily due to an emergency there. That is how the UN flight system works in DRC. So I stood among other people waiting if there would be some place for us. After other 30 minutes we were given signals to enter the check-in hall and I already thought things will work out. Then another UN officer came to me and said that all the seats for the flight to Goma via Kisangani were occupied and he put me on the passenger list to go to Entebbe (Uganda) where MONUSCO has some sort of logistical relais station (mainly for supplies, but also for personnel carriers). From Entebbe then I could take another plane to Goma and arrive there at 3pm instead of 2pm. I was fine with that and a small stay in Uganda would not be that bad I thought. I went to check-in and left my luggage there before entering the boarding hall. There everything was overcrowded, compared to last year when I went to Kisangani during my internship. I met my Congolese father who had already been worried but I could tell him that I solved the issue by then. We had some coffee and he was happy that his white son did not encounter further problems. 10 minutes before boarding another local staff from MONUSCO came to us and told me that my place to Goma via Entebbe was also taken sponteanously by senior UN staff. Shit. She offered me three options: Either I would stay in Kinshasa and bet for a flight the next day (an improbabilistic option, since all seats were certainly reservated and I would be on a waiting list again), or I would go only to Kisangani and see the next day whether there would an option, or I would go to Bukavu and see there, how to get until Goma (by the way, there are different boats crossing Lake Kivun between the two provincial capitals of the Kivu provinces). I was lucky to have a contact in Bukavu, so I tried to call. He was ok with me coming to stay one night and so I decided within the couple of minutes I had to board for Bukavu via Kisangani. The first part of the flight reminded me of last year: The airplane was quite ok, an Embraer 40 passenger jet and we had a pleasant flight to Kisangani. There again, I was told that my flight to Bukavu had a problem, but I could take another one that would start immediately. Since I did not see a difference and I even thought it might be more convenient to restart directly instead of waiting two hours I agreed at once. Then I saw the bird. It was a good old Antonov turboprop plane for some 25 passengers. Not that I am uncomfortable with flying but this did really scare me a bit. But the decision was taken and I had to enter the plane together with a couple of blue helmets and UN civil staff. The interior was classical Russian 1970s style, ugly carpets at the walls of the plane and luggage was to be stored under the seats. Ok, this is even better if you like to screw a book out of your bagpack but in this case the very reason was that the luggage bins had been rebapticised to store the oxygen masks. It was the first time in my life I checked there was one on my place – although yet in the past 15 months I had boarded an airplane more than 20 times…
But as you may see, also this flight was rather ok, thought we were shaken sometimes nothing worse happened. Landed in Bukavu the guy that was supposed to catch me up did not show up. Well, after all that had happened before I was not even really surprised anymore and preferred to be happy for having reached Bukavu. We got the information later that all cars had been stopped in Bukavu, since there had been security concerns on the 30km roadway between the city and the airport, so all passengers were put in UN buses and driven to town with an escort. And there finally this odyssey came to a preliminary end.
Now, tomorrow, Tuesday 19th I take one of the boats to Goma and I am really looking forward to reach my destination in the afternoon and meet with the other guys from Cologne University (Philipp is already there and Nico is supposed to cross the Congolese-Rwandan frontier around noon.

Well, now a small addendum concerning the last week in Kinshasa:
We are on 17th of October now and already more than ten days in DRC have passed. Tomorrow I will be flying to Goma, via Kisangani, where I spent 10 days in 2009. Admittedly, I am quite excited about that trip, since it will lead me to the gravity centre of my research and the main spot of my scientifical interest for now more than three years. But another reason for excitement is due to the security situation in the Kivu provinces of DRC. In the last couple of month things have deteriorated again and the civil war topography has become fuzzier than they were some period before. Then, since September 11th a presidential decree has forbidden all mining activities in both North and South Kivu. Of course, everybody knows that mining resources are a key contributor to that region’s war economy but it should not be forgotten that mining is often the only real economic prospect for civilians that need to feed their families. Moreover the president’s mining ban is likely to not merely disemploy masses of so-called “creuseurs” but also empower several army brigades or other armed groups to take over those mines for the sake of own profit – a profit that naturally will contribute to future war manoeuvres. As far as I am informed the mining decree has also paralysed other parts of the fragile “peace economy” that was to emerge newly in the last rather quiet year. Reports and diplomatic sources state that the economic power of the civilian is about the decrease sharply whereas that of other actors may increase probably.

It will also be a defy for humanitarian action, since diminishing incomes can be equated to minor access to water, food, sanitation, medication and education, other areas not to be mentioned. There is already a huge discrepancy between the needs of the populations and the factual possibilities that humanitarians have on the ground – and this is not even purely due to funding constraints, but at some points much more due to access. Year by year, budgets are partially impossible to spend due to technical and coordinative problems, just to raise one of the underlying issues that humanitarian aid is confronted with in the particular setting of DR Congo.

As to my research things generally went well a bit last week. I was quite happy having managed to do 6 interviews with senior officials of different organisation, agencies or institutions. Indeed it is a highly challenging task to do something like field research and to obey all important rules that are inherent to good practise in that regard. Maybe I underestimated this to some extent and maybe I underestimated some of the constraints that my case country poses to research, similarly as to the object I am dealing with. Lucky to have one of Congolese brothers helping me a lot in moving from A to B to C and back, I still managed to meet my appointments, which is not that easy in Kinshasa. You may find yourself in a situation, where the next meeting is at 30-40 minutes by taxibus and you have to get there in half an hour. In such a situation you cannot walk around a couple of minutes as you would do normally, in order to find the right transport. As a student with a severely limited budget you cannot either change and take more expensive express taxis all the time. And, finally, being a student you heavily rely on those people that are willing to talk to you. Especially if your project depends on information of high-level expatriates you would normally not dare to miss too much meeting propositions. So far to dependency, but taking it as a challenge you feel less bad and still those people tend to be a bit impressed seeing that even that young and unexperienced guys as I am try to do such a work. The last mentioned is definitely a positive point, for two reasons: First, people might excuse some minor faults you will always do in field studies and in second, they might even share more information with you if you are not a high profile professor or journalist. But that was just a subjective impression I had last week, so maybe I am going to state the opposite after the next week.

Anyway I am looking forward to see Goma and perhaps even Bukavu, which is at some three hours by ship, crossing Lake Kivu. Unfortunately I will not be able to step in the surrounding areas of those cities, for the security risks being simply not controllable (just remind the newer incidents around Walikale and also in the Uvira region) and I certainly do not want to expose myself to risks I need not to. I am also happy to meet Nico and Philipp in Goma and besides all warnings I hope we can spent an interesting week there that may help us better to understand the complex social, political and economic dynamics in the Great Lakes area.

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