Thursday, 1 May 2014

Helping orphans in Goma, in the shadow of the volcano...

On Tuesday we flew from Beni to Goma on what has to have been both the coolest and scariest flight I have ever been on. It was another humanitarian aid flight with Echo flight but this plane was even smaller than the one to Bunia - only 8 seats in total and no separate cockpit, you just sit behind the pilot and watch everything he is doing. You can even see out of the front of the plane which is really scary! When we tried to board they couldn't take us and all of our luggage along with the other passengers so they told us to wait for 3 hours and they would come back for us, which they did. So it ended up being a private flight for just Kakule and myself along with our pilot and co-pilot. So cool! 

The worst thing about the flight though was that because the plane was so small, every bump felt like we were about to fall out of the sky and because we were flying towards Goma which lies at the bottom of an active volcano there was a lot of cloud and turbulence. At one point we were in complete white out, bumping around all over the place and I honestly thought I was going to die - it was like being on the world's worst roller-coaster. All I could do was close my eyes, cover my ears and bury my head in the seat and hope to God that we made it to Goma in one piece!

An hour later we made it safely to the ground, were met at the airport by Alexis and the rest of the UGADEC team and have spent the last 3 days with them in Goma. Because Goma is so close to a number of national parks including the famous Virunga national park, their organisation is focused on wildlife conservation, in particular chimpanzees and gorillas which are very close to my heart and also community development as the two often go hand in hand. They do a lot of work with schools and orphanages where they educate the children that they shouldn't go into the forests and kill chimpanzees and gorillas for food and that they should conserve the forest rather than destroy it. They have a site in Walekale that I was supposed to visit to take medicines and school supplies but I don't have time now due to the change in flight to get here but the supplies will still be delivered there on behalf of Mission Congo.

Instead, I spent yesterday visiting 2 orphanages in Goma that UGADEC work with. My first impression of both was utter despair. Despite the number of people here in Goma, there is something almost desolate about this place. Because it lies so close to the volcano, which last erupted as recently as 2002 causing rivers of lava to flow through the city, all of the roads, walls and buildings are constructed from this dark grey lava. Even the floors of the houses and schools as well as the gardens are made up of this volcanic rubble. If Butembo was the town of red dust, Goma is the city of grey lava.

It didn't help that the first orphanage we visited was a tatty wooden building that had been painted black and opposite looked somewhat like an abandoned refugee camp with torn sheets of plastic flapping in the wind. It turned out that this was a school that the owner of the orphanage, Mamma Benedicte, had built for the 150 children that live at the orphanage. The teachers volunteer for free and when it rains school has to be cancelled as they don't have a roof. The orphanage has just 4 rooms and only 14 beds. The older children sleep 3 to a bed and the younger children sleep on the floor. 

As soon as I saw the children who have to live and go to school here I immediately wanted to sit down and sob my heart out, but as ever with these amazing children, as soon as I heard them begin to sing and cheer and look so happy with what little they have in life I managed to put my emotions in check, take a deep breath and greet all their grubby little faces with a smile!

The second orphanage was different but no better. It was like a drop in centre for children that was a school for them during the day, a place for them to eat in the evening and a place for them to sleep at night. They have 120 orphans there with little funding and even less food. Like the first place, all of the staff here are working for free doing what they can to help these orphans who would otherwise have nothing and no one.

With little left in the way of clothes and not enough school supplies left for all 270 children I decided the thing they needed most was food so I went to the market and bought more food than I have bought so far this trip ($500). The children we so happy when we arrived with all the supplies but with 270 mouths to feed it's probably only enough to keep them going for another week or two. The entire time I was at the market I kept thinking that there has to be a better way to provide food for these children on a regular basis...

With that in mind, I spent today visiting a number of different pilot projects that UGADEC has put in place in Goma and the surrounding areas including a fish farm project at a nearby lake, a rabbit breeding programme to provide food and money to orphans in Sika and a water filter project, which if we could get off the ground would provide a job for the older children and staff and also an income for the orphanage to pay for food each week. It's been a really exciting day to see how well these projects are doing and how they could help the orphanages here if we could just raise the money for the start up costs.

I finished up by meeting Stany who is an incredible man, although at just 22 he seems more like a boy to me! Having been taken by rebels as a child and managing to escape to safety he now dedicates his life to helping orphans, former child soldiers and other vulnerable children. To help him continue his amazing work I gave him a laptop that was donated to the project (thanks sis!) and an old digital camera (thanks Steph!). He was so happy to receive them and gives thanks to you all for your support for orphans in Congo.

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