Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Update on Roda and the other children at Mamma Noella's orphanage...

After a week of rest and recovery from the dreaded typhoid that left me feeling so ill when I returned from the Congo, I'm finally better and picking up where I left off with Mission Congo.

First off was to check on the situation with Roda at the clinic in Butembo. The update from the nurse there is great. Roda is doing well and is gaining weight and strength from the special high-calorie porridge that she is fed every morning. They have begun treatments on her legs, which is essentially physiotherapy to stimulate the muscles and get them working and strong enough for her to be able to stand and hopefully one day to walk. We should have some photos to post soon.

As for the remaining children at Mamma Noella's orphanage, they are all doing well thanks to another food delivery of rice, beans, cassava, oil, bananas, vegetables and firewood. Thanks again to those generous people that made a donation to Mission Congo to enable us to support these children while Mamma Noella is at the clinic in Butembo with Roda.

Here is a photo of the children receiving the food delivery last week...

They currently have a problem at the orphanage in that the place where they usually cook has been damaged so they have nowhere to prepare food so we are spending $30 of the project budget to build them a new small cooking hut.

I'm still waiting for updates on the orphans in the other towns & villages and as soon as I have more information I will share it with you all.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Surprise... I'm home! :-)

Yesterday I gave my family the best surprise ever by arriving home 3 days earlier than expected! In doing so I completely ruined their plans to surprise me at the airport on Monday but it was totally worth it to see the expressions on their faces :-)

I started off by paying a little visit to my sister at work who burst in to tears as soon as she saw me, then I went to visit my nan who hugged me for a full 10 minutes without letting go and then I went to see my mum, who I think was the most shocked to see me, and my little niece Eva who went all shy! Later on I went to pick my older niece Olivia up from school who saw me, looked confused and then realised who it was and ran to me with a big grin on her face and then we all went home for a big family dinner.... it is so good to be home!

So to back track a little I should probably explain...

After I arrived in Goma a couple of days ago we were discussing my epic 3 day trip to Entebbe when Kakule pointed out that it was possible to fly from Kigali to Entebbe in 45 minutes instead of taking the bus for 10 hours and that if we left Goma in the morning, we could reach Kigali in the afternoon and I could fly to Entebbe that evening. I did a quick calculation of times in my head and realised that as my BA flight to London left at 1am in the morning, if I also changed that I could leave Goma in the morning and be back in the UK almost 24 hours later which is what I did.

So after a LONG day of travelling from the Congo through Rwanda to Uganda and on to the UK I arrived back in London yesterday. I am completely exhausted, still recovering from typhoid and don't want to ever leave home again (although I know that will change in a few weeks once I have recovered!). I am thoroughly enjoying having the luxuries of electricity and running water and last night I had the one thing that I had missed more than anything else in the 5 weeks I was away... a hot bath! :-)

It was a very successful trip, one that I am very glad that I did and one that I am very thankful I have returned from safely. I was very lucky to meet some wonderful people and some amazing children while I was there. I owe a huge debt of thanks to a lot of people in DRC including Kakule, Joesph, Roger, Elvis, Jeff, Alexis, Steve, Bernard and so many other people who helped me on my trip and also to my new friend Kathryn in the states, without the help of whom I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to go and do this trip and I'm sure it certainly wouldn't have been such a successful one.

Finally, a huge THANK YOU to all my family and friends who have supported me from that first day when I finally uttered the words "I'm going to go and help orphans in the Congo" and for all the donations that made it possible for me to help as many orphans as I did while I was there. I have only just scratched the surface though and there is still lots more that needs to be done so this is definitely not the end of my time in the Congo. I'm sure there will be many more missions in the future...

Bye for now...

Hannah x

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Time to begin the long journey home and I'm ill with Typhoid fever…

With only a few days left in the Congo before I fly back to the UK it's time to start my long journey home. Because there are no international flights to and from eastern Congo I need to make my way back to Uganda, via Rwanda, so I can fly back to London.

Today we took the boat from Bukavu to Goma which was not as much fun on the return journey. Because we had to travel back in the afternoon when strong winds blow across the lake causing big waves, the small boat rocked from side to side the entire 3 hour journey. At one point we pitched so far to the side that the captain insisted that everyone put their lifejackets on as a similar boat had capsized yesterday and a few people drowned. Normally quite a confident traveller with the attitude that whilst the worst can always happen, in all likelihood it probably won't, I did start to feel a mild panic creep over my body at which point I put all my money and passport in my special travel wallet which I strapped to my chest and began calculating which of the 2 shores of the lake were closest if I needed to attempt a long distance swim in an emergency! Luckily an hour or so later we arrived safely in Goma although my legs still feel like they are on a very wobbly boat in the middle of Lake Kivu!

The next stage of my long journey home is to drive from Goma in DRC across the border into Rwanda and through the hills for a few hours until I reach the capital Kigali. I will stay here overnight before taking a bus for about 10 hours from Kigali to Kampala in Uganda. Once I finally make it to Kampala I need to take a taxi to Entebbe where I will stay for a day or two depending on when I arrive before I fly back to London. I'm allowing myself plenty of time because it is Africa after all and you never know when something is going to go wrong!

The worst part about this impending 3 day trip is that after feeling pretty ropey for the last week which I thought was jut a stomach bug, this morning I woke up with a fever and was really sick so I went to the SOS clinic in Bukavu where they took some blood and told me I have Typhoid fever. No wonder I'd been feeling so ill! I've been prescribed some strong medication which I'm hoping will knock it on the head in the next day or two before the long bus journey to Kampala and the flight home.

It's a sad end to the trip as I was hoping to re-visit some of the orphanages in Goma before I left but I feel too ill to do that so I'm giving the last few supplies I have to the team here and they can deliver them for me while I get some rest and try to feel better before leaving on Friday.

I just hope the rest of the return journey is less eventful than today's boat journey! :-)

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Wild Gorillas in Congo… best day ever!

Today I took a rare day off and headed west out of Bukavu deep into the forests of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. This huge park is home to the largest gorilla subspecies in the world - the Eastern Lowland gorilla - and unlike the mountain gorillas that are regularly seen by tourists in Virunga and Bwini National Parks across the border in Uganda and Rwanda, these Eastern Lowland gorillas are only found in the Congo and due to the war which has ravaged this part of the country for the last 15 years, very few tourists get to see them.

Thanks to my new friend Kathryn in the states who knows the director of the park, I was given a private VIP tour to see these amazing gorillas up close and was even joined by a French biologist who works for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and has been studying gorillas for 11 years so was able to answer all my questions. The tour should have cost around $400-$500 but thanks to Kathryn and her friend the director my trip was free! (Although I did make a generous donation to the park and gave all my guides hefty tips).

We started off by driving up into the hills on the main tracks through the park and then turned off onto a much smaller, almost non-existent trail for a while before it was time to get out of the vehicle and begin the hike that would take us to the gorillas. Because the rangers try to find them every day, they always have a general idea of the area that they were last in. One of our rangers was a pygmy who knew these forests well and with the help of his machete tried his best to clear a way through the dense forest. After an hour of literally wading through a sea of vegetation, dripping with sweat, a million flies around my face and a million ants trying to crawl up my legs I heard the rustle of leaves in a nearby tree and the low grunts that are so characteristic of gorillas. I was so excited that we had found them I could barely contain myself!

As we continued to slowly make our way towards the sounds I looked up and spotted a young female gorilla up in the trees eating leaves. Then a saw a baby hanging down from the tree and as I inched closer I realised that at the bottom of the tree almost completely obscured by the plants that he was eating was the biggest gorilla I have ever seen - the silverback. The rangers continued to use their machetes to clear the area in front of him so we could get a better view and when I finally saw him I was literally speechless. After dreaming of seeing gorillas in the wild since I was a little girl, here I was standing a mere 5 metres from a huge male silverback gorilla. 

I was amazed at how happy he was to have us so nearby. He showed no signs of feeling threatened and just continued to sit and eat his lunch! Unlike the Western lowland gorillas that lived in the rehabilitation centre in Cameroon who wouldn't make eye contact with you, this gorilla would regularly look over at us and stare before looking away and grabbing another handful of leaves.

As we slowly moved away from the male I realised that there were many more gorillas around him but that they were just really hard to see in the thick forest. I saw at least 3 or 4 females, a few juveniles and even some little babies. The biologist studying them told me that this group has around 25 gorillas although there is only 1 male. The rest are his harem of females and all of his children. 

One tiny baby, the youngest in the group, was sat very close to the large male which is unusual in gorilla society as they don't normally tolerate that. The biologist told me that the baby's mother died last year when he was less than a year old and they thought he might die without his mother's milk. He now spends all of his time close to the silverback who seems to be looking after him and he is doing well on his new diet of plants and fruits. (Unfortunately you can't see the baby very well in this photo as he is so small but he is the patch of black obscured by vegetation on the left of the photo!).

After an hour or so of sitting and watching these amazing animals it was time to leave them and make our way back out of the forest. I was grinning like a cheshire cat the entire way as I still couldn't believe that after years of wanting to see gorillas in the wild my dream had finally come true. Best day ever! :-)

Monday, 5 May 2014

Visiting orphanages in Bukavu… the good, the bad and the absolutely amazing!

After an early morning boat trip from Goma to Bukavu on Friday, the last few days have been a blur of orphanages, schools and clinics in this vast city. When we arrived we were met by the team that work for SOS Children's Villages, an international charity with an office in the UK. They have a guest house here that they invited us to stay in while they showed us their project here and boy, do they have a project here. I've never seen anything like it...

Nestled into the hillside overlooking beautiful Lake Kivu are 15 houses for orphans from babies to 16 year olds, 4 houses for 16 to 20 year olds, a nursery school, a primary school, a health centre, a vocational centre to teach older children trades so they can become plumbers, electricians, carpenters and builders and the office… oh and don't forget the basketball court and the football pitch!

All of these are surrounded by lovely gardens which the children can play in and they have climbing frames, swings and see-saws dotted around. I have not seen such happy and healthy children so far this trip and it just shows what you can do with a bit of money and hard work. Every orphan in DRC should be able to live like this.

Each of the houses are home to 10 children and 1 mamma who is given money each month to buy food for all the children. There is a kitchen and dining room, each mamma has her own bedroom and there are 2 or sometimes 3 bedrooms for all the children to sleep in - each in their own bed with a mattress, pillow, sheets and blankets. In each bedroom is a wardrobe full of clean clothes and all of the children are dressed in clothes that fit them, which aren't full of holes, with skirts, shorts or trousers on their bottom half which is rare for orphans here and even rarer, shoes on their feet. The crazy thing when you think about it is that this is all a given in England. We could never imagine our children wandering around in a big t-shirt full of holes with no underpants, shorts or skirts on their bottom half and no shoes on their feet but it is often the case here as clothes come very low on the list of priorities after food, water, medicine and a roof over their head.

As with the homes and the children, the schools and health centre here are both well built and fully stocked with everything the children need. They have plenty of desks and school supplies in the schools and there is even a play ground for the children to play in. Likewise, the clinic has more medical supplies than I've seen in all the other clinics put together this trip. Should one of the orphans get sick they are taken immediately to the clinic where they are treated for free.

After spending the day looking around all the sites of the project, I finally got some time to spent with the children yesterday as they weren't at school. I spent the day playing football with the boys with the new football I gave them.

After that I played with the younger ones who I was able to talk to as they all speak perfect french. The boys enjoyed playing with my camera, taking photos of me and themselves, and the girls spent hours playing with my hair. The little girls here have no hair so they had never seen anything like my long blonde hair before.

Thanks to the generous donations of the staff at Pearson (where my sister works) and the match donation scheme that the company offers for charity donations, I was able to give the director of SOS in DRC £250 (or $400) which he was very grateful for. I also gave them some school supplies and underwear for the children.

After two wonderful days here it was time to venture out and visit some of the other orphans in this area. First stop was Lwiro outside of Bukavu. Here the orphans all live in host families as they can't afford to build an orphanage. The women's group that provide for these orphans are doing the best they can with what little they have and they have started a breeding program for chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs to sell in the markets to raise money to feed the orphans who live in their homes. Unfortunately this money does't cover the costs for school fees so most of the orphans here are unable to go to school.

Our final visit was a difficult one when we arrived an a centre for orphans and disabled people. Spread across 2 different buildings - one for males and one for females - was a mixture of young orphans (7-11 years old) living in the same homes and being cared for but also helping care for men and women with various disabilities from requiring crutches to walk to being wheelchair bound and one poor man who has to walk on his hands and knees. It was really sad to see both sides of this arrangement, while I felt despair for the adults who clearly needed support, I also felt that this was no place for such vulnerable children to be living. I can't help thinking that they need to be in a home, or an orphanage, with a mamma and where they can interact with other children and go to school which these children can't do as they can't afford the school fees - instead they spend the day working with the adults making clothes and shoes to sell at the market to buy food. (I didn't take photos here as it didn't feel appropriate).

As we left we drove past a stone quarry and a construction site, both of which had children working amongst the adults and I was told that these children were orphans that worked here for less than $1 per day just to get some money to buy food. When I asked where they lived my translator pointed out of the window and said "They are the children of the streets". How there can be orphans living in such a pitiful state when just a few miles away there are orphans that have everything they need makes no sense to me and is even more reason why there needs to be a better system here to help as many orphans as possible with the most basic needs so that none of them need suffer in this way. (I didn't take photos here either as I wasn't able to).

I'm going to leave you with a photo of me sat with two of my little favourites here (I know you're not supposed to have them but sometimes I can't help it!). The little girls on my lap are called Solange and Pascaline. It's so weird but somehow Pascaline reminds me of Bill (a very dear friend who I lost last year). She has his wide nose and cheeky grin but more than that she has his eyes. I know how strange that sounds, especially as she is a little girl and she is black but she looks just like him and every time I look at her and see that big grin I can't help but smile...

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.