Saturday, February 13, 2010

Kibondo and the heart of darkness

In January I headed to Kibondo, in western Tanzania. Although the area is nice- lovely rolling green hills, a cute small town, and wonderful fruits and vegetables, this location is acknowledged to be one of the harder places that JVA works. This is mainly due to the nature of the refugee population we work with there, Congolese people, and also some Burundians and Rwandese.

The history of political and ethnic conflicts in the region is long and complicated, and numerous refugees had fled for their lives on more than one occasion, making for my most challenging interviews and longest case histories to date. The acts of violence perpetrated against them were also quite gruesome, often motivated not only by political or ethnic issues, but also traditional beliefs and witchcraft. Many of the women had been gang raped on more than one occasion, some children had been forced to watch their parents slaughtered and mutilated, and members of certain tribes were targeted because their body parts were believed to have special properties to enhance effectiveness in battle.

These acts were most often motivated by ethnicity, and unbelievably often committed even by the refugee’s own family members who had turned against them. I had truly never conceived some of the evils that people could commit against each other. The even more tragic aspect of life for many of the refugees was that even after fleeing to the safety of another country, such as Burundi or Tanzania, they often still weren’t safe. I interviewed some survivors of a well known massacre that took place at a camp in Burundi. The attackers had crossed the border from DR Congo. Even within the camps in Tanzania, there were many reports of persecution or insecurity due to gender or ethnicity. One family had lost a child- he had been beaten to death by his classmates for being ‘too clever’ for someone of his tribe.

I have to say, I think the fact that I was so pressed for time during the days was really helpful to me, because I didn’t have a lot of time to internalize what I was hearing. All I could do try to ask the right questions to draw out the story, and then type my fingers off as it came flowing out. I really hope that each one of the families I worked with is received favorably when their cases are adjudicated, not only because they have suffered so much already, but also because the fact is that they would still be in danger if they were forced to go back. Unfortunately, the camps in western Tanzania are set to close by the end of this year, and many of those who did not get a resettlement case may be forced to do just that…

Below are a few links for more info on this very interesting region, and the challenges it has faced.

Wikipedia info on Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo

BBC timelines on events in Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo

Info on camps/refugee issues

Kibondo and the heart of darkness - Pics

Pic - the view of our plane coming in to the landing strip. It was about a two hour flight from Nairobi, my first charter flight ever!

Pic - Fresh off the plane. You like my new ultra cool Kenyan specs?

Pic - Kurt, our team leader in the main 'office' at the transit center. It was all made of wood, including the ultra-hard chairs! The tin roof made it tough to hear during the frequent rainstorms!

Pic - Sunrise on the way to the worksite. It was about 25 minutes over a hilly road of that distinctive orangy dirt. One afternoon on the way back, we surprised some boys using a puddle near the road to skinny dip!

Pic - IOM compound. It was a nice, peaceful setting, with daily volleyball and badminton matches between IOM staff. Props to the staff who prepared the cafeteria style dinner each night, and to the 'cleaning fairies' who washed any article of clothing left out!

Pic - View of Kibondo town from hilltop. A nice little town, reminded me a little of Uganda. Our Kenyan colleagues told us that the Swahili spoken in this part of Tanzania is really 'proper' and refined compared to Kenyan Swahili!

Pic - Refugees looking on as the plane approaches. There was a group of approved folks headed out on there way to be resettled. It was so joyful to see folks on that end of the process, since I work with them when the future is still a big question mark. The first plane sighting definitely trumped first muzungu sighting for the refugee kids!

Pic - Mark and I at the 'airport.' Check out Mark's party shorts!

Christmas in Nairobi

I hope that you all had a lovely holiday season, and that 2010 is off to a great start. I'm very thankful for the great ways that God blessed me in 2009, and look forward to seeing what He has in store in the year ahead. Most of all, I'm thankful for all of you, and pray that 2010 brings many blessings.

For me, the holidays were pretty low key. After so much traveling this past fall, all I wanted for Christmas was to stay in one place! I got my wish, and spent a lovely couple weeks enjoying Nairobi. I got to relax, read some good books, and visit some of those little spots around my neighborhood that I had not gotten around to seeing yet, like the lovely arboretum that's about a 15 minute walk away.

It's always hard to be away from home during Christmas, but it was great for our Vanilla Park crew to be able to host some of the other 'Christmas orphans' from work for a nice Christmas eve sleepover and Christmas morning brunch. It was also great to discover how cheap it is to use Skype to call the cell phones of friends and family in the US ($0.02/minute!) Enjoy a few pics below:

Pic - Lindsay and I don Christmas colors

Pic - Our little Christmas tree (courtesy of Lindsay's parents) surrounded by Secret Santa gifts and covered with 'spray snow.' I was the lucky recipient of that hoola hoop, by the way! The Christmas eve gift exchange was followed by a viewing of 'Elf.'

Pic - Our 'spread', which included quiche, cinnamon buns, pancakes, fruit salad, sausage, and mimosas! It was followed by a Christmas nap and a viewing of 'Love Actually.'

Pic - Yummy mimosa with real strawberries! Now that's brunch

Pic - Christmas 'orphans' enjoy brunch together around our new dining room table