Yesterday we arrived in Butembo which is a 2 hour drive south of Beni. Once again we passed through some of the most beautiful landscapes to get here - rolling green hills, thick forest and jungle - absolutely stunning.
The same cannot be said for Butembo. This town looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic war film. The main road through the town as well as all the other smaller roads that criss-cross Butembo are dirt roads that are deep red that is typical of African soil. But here the roads are covered in thick layers of red dust like Mars! The winds that whip through the town create massive dust storms which paint everything their path red - the buildings, the cars, even the people. Keeping your eyes open and even breathing is a dangerous task here! Rubbish is strewn about everywhere and it's impossible to work out whether the buildings are only half built or are half falling down. This is a town that you can't wait to leave the moment you arrive.
That being said, as soon as you drive out of the main town and up into the hills you are instantly surrounded by vast sweeping hills of jungle as well as banana and tea plantations which are just stunning and I have never met such friendly people, so kind and generous and so willing to give something when they have so little as I have met here in Butembo.
We started our day yesterday at the funeral of Geoff's aunt which was weird to say the least seeing as I'd never met this woman. To be fair it was just the wake, not the actual funeral. Apparently tradition here is for the family and friends to gather at the house of the deceased for a week or so and just have a sit-in where all they do is eat and sleep and remember the person who died. So there we sat, and ate and sat and ate but as we only have 2 days in Butembo and a very busy schedule I began to get twitchy so after an hour of sitting and a lot of food I made our excuses and begged to leave.
From there we went to visit a group of women who help support orphans in their area of the town. We arrived at a school which the orphans attend and got a welcome like I had never experienced before in my life - singing, dancing, flowers thrown and my feet as well as gifts of flowers, traditional Congolese artwork, a woven mat and randomly a live chicken! Apparently it is tradition in Congo to give a live chicken to an important visitor. I certainly wasn't expecting that!
What I also wasn't expecting was that throughout the day as we drove through the town we would make quick stops at various other women's groups to the same welcome - lots of singing and dancing - and more gifts. At one I received a wooden carved statue, at another I received fabric to make a dress and at the others I received more paintings, flowers and gifts of food - potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, bananas, tomatoes, passion fruits and always, ALWAYS a live chicken! By the end of the day we had 4 live chickens and one place had even given me 2 small birds that they say are pigeons but look like doves. I wanted to free them but they said it would be rude as they are a gift so we've kept them for now. By the end of the day we drove back to the hotel with the back of the car stuffed full of food and I had chickens by my feet, a chicken on my lap and a bird in each hand!
During the day we also visited 3 orphanages here, one of which has just 18 children while the other 2 have 48 and 50 but each with only 4 bedrooms for all the children to sleep in. Seeing the conditions in which these children are living was heart-breaking. At one of the orphanages they were using a garage as a bedroom and had 2 sets of bunk-beds pushed up against the wall. Most of the beds didn't even have a mattress for the children to sleep on, just a thin blanket or a piece of cardboard, and I was told that 5 or even 6 children sleep in each of the single beds because they have so many children and so few beds. It's so difficult to know what to do as I obviously want to buy them more mattresses but I know that they, and many other orphans in DRC, need food in their bellies more than a bed to sleep on and I don't have limitless funds.
So today we went off to the market to buy them food, but not before we had visited 4 other women's groups who support orphans in their areas. The visits were much the same as yesterday - lots of singing and dancing and then talking and asking questions followed by gift giving. We received 3 more chickens today along with vast amounts of fruits and vegetables and I was also given another painting, another wooden carving, a beautiful woven basket and tea! I still can't get over just how generous these women are when they work so hard every day and still have so little but are happy to give it to me.
I in turn have chosen to donate all the food to the orphanages so at the market we bought the items that had not been donated including; rice, beans, maize, cassava, oil, sugar, salt and soap and took these along with all the donated fruit and veg and 2 of the chickens to the 2 orphanages that we had visited yesterday morning and who we had promised food to. This is definitely the best part of being here. I love bartering in the markets in french and basic swahili and I REALLY love arriving an an orphanage with a truck load of food and seeing the faces on the children and staff. They were so happy today it was great.
I also spent some of my own money on milk formula for a set of twins (1 girl, 1 boy) at Mamma Dorcas orphanage as they need proper baby milk and it is really expensive here.
Such a great day! :-)