I arrived safely in Bunia yesterday after the most exciting flight ever - tiny plane on a dirt runway surrounded by UN helicopters, Congolese Army (weapons and all) and jungle! Sat next to the only white guy on the plane - a French guy who works for MSF. Kakule on the other hand did not enjoy the flight quite so much. Turns out that Congolese people do not like flying and if you see the state of their local planes you'll understand why. Luckily we were flying with Echo flight - a humanitarian aid flight that transports people and supplies from NGOs across eastern Africa. It was still a tiny plane though - less than 30 seats in total - and with the turbulence it was a pretty bumpy ride. I think it's the first time I've ever seen a black man turn white!
After just 20 minutes or so we arrived at Bunia airport and were met by some of Kakule's colleagues from Reach Italia, the Pastor of the church who supports the local orphanage here as well as Sister Catherine from the orphanage and 2 of the children. Unfortunately some bored customs officers saw that my boxes still had Entebbe stickers on them from when I arrived in Uganda and started demanding all sorts of paperwork and permissions to bring the items to Bunia, which of course I didn't have as I had already got permission from and paid money to the DGM when I crossed the border into DRC which we explained to them but they didn't seem to care. Typical Africa! After 2 hours of negotiations we finally managed to get my boxes through customs by paying a small fee (bribe!) and drove into the main town. After a quick lunch at the UN headquarters we spent the afternoon at the orphanage which has 69 children (most of which are babies and under 3's) and the 15 staff. As it's the school holidays a lot of the older children were not there when I arrived and all of the babies were asleep in their cots.
So many cots in one room - it's incredible! At the moment they have 11 babies under 3 months including a 2 week old and a 4 day old. So tiny and cute!
I distributed toys to all the older children including the football and netball which went down really well! I also gave them the donated clothes and toys for the little ones and some new mosquito nets. We also visited the school where I gave them some of the donated school supplies and then visited the clinic where I gave them their medical supplies. They were so happy and grateful for everything I had brought.
They were busy thanking me when a man and woman suddenly arrived with a little bundle. It turned out to be a 2 day old baby whose mother died today from complications following childbirth. The man was the woman's husband and the woman was her aunt. They brought the baby to the orphanage as there was no way they could raise it now that the mother had died which is very common here and so incredibly sad. The baby is a girl and her name is Rachel. She will spend the next 3 years at the orphanage until she can either be returned to her birth family or placed with a foster family. She will then come to the school for her education and to the clinic when she is ill and needs medications, the costs of which are covered by the orphanage and local people who can afford to pay a little. It's a really good system and one that could definitely be adopted throughout the country if there were enough funding. So a new baby makes 70 at the orphanage. In this photo Rachel is the baby in the middle.
The sudden arrival of the new baby and the distraught family left a sombre atmosphere hanging over the orphanage for the rest of the afternoon, although the older girls tried to lift everyone's spirits by doing some traditional African dancing. There are some older children here that cannot be placed with families so they live at the orphanage. While we watched I managed to get a few of the younger children to let me sit next to them and hold hands and tickle them which was nice as mostly they are scared of me!
Last night Kakule and I stayed at the home of his colleague which is where we'll sleep until we leave on Friday so I'm very happy and safe here. There is no electricity though and I've only managed to get online with the help of a generator in the garden and a portable modem that Kakule has borrowed from a friend! There is also no running water so bathing is over a bucket full of cold water which is oddly refreshing! Welcome to Africa!
Today I spent the entire day at the orphanage which was just what a needed after a busy 10 days or so. Plenty of time to play with the children and take lots of photos and videos. I started by giving out all the soft toys to the babies and little ones and then gave out all the pre-school toys to the 2 and 3 year olds which they absolutely loved.
They didn't seem to have any toys when I arrived and to see them all playing with brightly coloured toys was just incredible. Maybe it was just my imagination but they all seemed happier to have something to play with. I also spent some time with the older children (4 - 7 year olds) playing football, with the bouncy balls and blowing bubbles for them to chase around the garden. It was so much fun and so lovely to see them laughing and so happy.
The oldest children were down at the farm helping to cultivate the maize, beans and cassava that they grow there for the orphanage. It's their easter holiday so they spent this time helping and also learning as one day they will need to do this for themselves. It's a really good system. We travelled down there and watched them working before they came back for lunch and then I spent some time playing with them too and teaching them English words for colours and pictures of things in the colouring in books.
Lunch at the orphanage is mayhem. Getting 40 or so 1 and 2 year olds to sit down and eat is no easy task, especially as they only have benches for them to sit on instead of high chairs. Lunch is the same as dinner - every day they have rice and beans. It's really sad to see them have to eat the same thing every day and not have meat or vegetables but this is the reality for most people in the Congo. They simply cannot afford to buy extra food for the children. That being said, this orphanage is better than any other I have seen and appears better funded by the simple fact that they actually have food to give to the children. My plan was to buy food and a water filter for this orphanage but it turns out that they have a fountain for water and had just received a large donation from the famous photographer Marcus Bleasdale so could afford to buy food which some of the other orphanages couldn't so I've held on to my money for now.
I took some time while the others were eating to sit and give the youngest babies a bottle of milk each. This was truly an amazing experience. These little ones that are often left on roadsides and ditches are doing so well thanks to the incredible work of the women who work here and the donations to buy milk for them.
Saying goodbye this evening was incredibly hard. I know you shouldn't admit to having favourites but there were a couple of boys and girls who I really took to during my time at the orphanage. One little girl in particular was just lovely - around 4 or 5 years old, she was very shy and quiet and she would often use sign language instead of talking which I kept encouraging her to do. The problem is that most of them speak Swahilli as their first language and learn french at school so it's often hard to understand them even though I'm picking up Swahilli pretty fast! When it was time to go the little girl squeezed my hand and asked if I could take her with me.
Telling her that I couldn't was the hardest thing I've had to do so far this trip… :-(