Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ugali in Kigali

I feel like the Cookie Monster when I’m in this part of Africa – can’t get enough ugali. Doesn’t help that I’m a vacuum cleaner by nature, generally eating anything within reach of my arms or legs. My big orifice welcomes anything remotely edible, except manioc ugali (foufou); I like the maize version.

Took the bus back from Bukavu via Cyangugu to Kigali yesterday. Stunning countryside, and we passed many towns where I worked in 1994: Gikongoro, Kibeho, Butare, and lots of small villages. Back then Butare was a ghost town, littered with bodies, no civilians in sight, and occupied only by the RPF. Between Gikongoro and Butare was ‘the line’—basically an international border where RPF control stopped and that of the French military began.

On the French side, all the way to Cyangugu and the Ruzizi River where Congo starts, were Hutu IDPs: some certainly guilty of genocide, some not. But all of them were running for their lives. Anyway, there was no way to tell who was guilty, and culpability was not a priority issue then. The main thing on everyone’s mind was to prevent a second (revenge) genocide.

It took a while to figure it out, but my cramped minivan yesterday was filled with Banyamulenge (Tutsis of Rwandan extraction born or raised in Congo). Politics was the primary discussion point, and lots of laughter about life in general. In today’s ethnically charged climate, Banyamulenge are no longer welcome in Congo. Many felt forced to immigrate to Rwanda, a country they don’t consider home, and that does not accept them. Many never learned to speak Kinyarwandan, as pressure to assimilate in Congo meant speaking Swahili and French. Unwelcome in Congo, in Rwanda they must assimilate again, this time to a society conrolled by Tutsis from Uganda—English and Kinyarwandan speakers.

JG, a friend here, was born and raised in Bukavu to a Tutsi refugee father and a Congolese (Shi) mother. In his final years of study towards priesthood at Bukavu’s prestigious seminary, his mentors and colleagues turned on him. Because he was half-Tutsi, he had to leave. With no English or Kinyarwandan, he came to Kigali and found the professional ranks occupied entirely by Tutsis who’d followed the RPF from Uganda. Along with the Hutu majority here, JG is essentially excluded from participating in the bright and prosperous Kigali of today.

Over ugali and beer yesterday, JG and I recalled the French expulsion from Rwanda in late 2006. For a government that brooks no dissent, no opposition politics and barely a peep from civil society, it was logical that they eject a threatening foreign presence: recall the Kagame indictments issued by a French court (and more recently by a Spanish court). However consistent the logic of this regime—brook no dissent—it is a recipe for open hostility, sooner or later.

JG wants a country where ‘all Rwandans are one’; his NGO works with former prisoners (ex-genocidaires Hutu) to reintegrate into society. Very brave, but essential if the timebomb is to be diffused. JG's work is a drop in the ocean, unfortunately. And as long as the government treats everyone except the Ugandan Tutsi community as potential traitors, the supposed center will not hold.

Congo Planet

The Earth trembles on this Bukavu morning. Nothing shattering; these are mild but sustained tremblings. Gerry’s white brick bungalow is marked with diagonal cracks and fissures left by previous earthquakes. It’s an old colonial structure, humble and solid, from the 1930s or 40s. But the last serious earthquake knocked his chimney off, and now his high-pitched roof leaks. When such heavy quakes hit Bukavu, newer constructions crumble, landslides destroy roads and whole areas find themselves completely cut off from the outside world until road repairs are completed.

In Congo, that wait can last for years, as the state does nothing. It undertakes no repairs, provides no services—emergency or otherwise—to people affected by conflict or natural disaster. How a country’s government can get away for so long with such criminal negligence is befuddling to outside observers; even insiders get lost in the maze of causality behind dysfunction and crisis on so colossal a scale.

Update on the plane crash in Goma: Congo’s Transport Minister is blaming the tragedy on the volcanic eruption in 2002, whose lava consumed part of the runway, shortening its length. No repairs were ever undertaken to return the strip to its former length; landings and take-offs simply became that much more treacherous. The minister did not stop with the volcano. He also blamed the crash on the war, which effectively ended in 2004, although conflict continues in the eastern provinces. Neither he nor any other Congolese politician ever mentions the absence of an official regulatory body as a probable cause. Yes, aviation is a regulated industry, in the interest of public safety. Does anyone in this government know what such a regulatory body would look like, or how to run one?

Congo continues to sink at free-fall velocity. No vital signs are apparent since elections in late 2006. Popular hopes and expectations were perhaps too high, now people are waking up to their worst fears: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Some Lega masks from South Kivu, about 60 years old. Exquisite up close.

Monday, April 21, 2008

South Kivu Rising

Overnight shelling in downtown Bujumbura last week by FNL; attacks on the Rwandan genocide memorial and commemorative activities in Kigali the week before. Is there a link? Re-read the Hutu Ten Commandments, in case they’ve slipped your mind.

Hutu Power is once again raising its fist across the region. For the uninitiated, Pouvoir Hutu is the local species of genocidal ideology that unleashed the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It is also largely responsible for both Eastern Congo’s ongoing mess and Burundi’s failure to consolidate peace, some two years after a formal peace agreement and national presidential elections. Besides ongoing battles between the FDLR/Interhamwe, Laurent Nkunda’s troops and the Congolese national army, the last major assault on Tutsi civilians was the Gatumba massacre in August 2005.

The ideology covers the region; its supply lines and popular support base criss-cross Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Tanzania. Eastern Congo’s unruly wilderness provides excellent camouflage for extremist Hutu groups of Rwandan or Burundian extraction. Their rear bases are reportedly concentrated in the deep south of South Kivu. If Kagame and Kabila are able to find common cause on confronting this problem, it will likely see renewed conflict in South Kivu. Kagame has already stated that if Kabila gets no results, the Rwandan army will invade to deal with the problem. If that happens, we can expect the resurgence of a regional war.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Under the volcano

Arrived in Goma by road from Kigali yesterday; a surprisingly painless trip. Goma was flattened by volcanic lava in 2002. The area continues to experience minor eruptions and tremors, including massive methane releases toxic to humans and livestock. But it is a beautiful sight, the Nyiragongo volcano, particularly on a clear night when its lava dome lights up the sky. I have yet to climb it and peer inside; those that have claim it is a risky (not falling in but inhaling toxic fumes) yet amazing experience.

The volcano was the last thing on my mind as I approached the border, fearing I would have to negotiate my entry with drunken policemen and soldiers. Instead I found an efficient customs service manned by rational, non-threatening civil servants, as professional as on the Rwandan side of the border. Small signs of progress make big impressions, given the state to which the DRC has sunk over the years.

An hour later, I learned that a DC-9 from the primary national airline, Hewa Bora, crashed on take-off from the city airport. The fuselage spun into a residential/commercial area and exploded, claiming around 80 lives. DRC is well known as having the worst air safety record in the world. Locals have abandoned the former reference for commercial aviation, ‘air peut-etre’, in favor of the darker language of ‘cerceuils volants’, or flying coffins. See the BBC story here.

Still, I've managed to meet many local NGOs to discuss their work in hopes of connecting them to donors elsewhere. The primary constraint is capacity: very few are large enough to absorb much money, and all reauire direct supervision, regular training and institutional development. Despite a peace accord in 2004 and presidential elections in 2006, Eastern DRC is very much an emergency context, although limited development and recovery activities are underway. The national government is weak; the army provides no security and there are no public services or any basic infrastructure to speak of.

If I could change one thing about international assistance to Africa, it would be to drop the democracy and elections obsession. Security and infrastructure are the most basic conditions for progress. Democracy bakes no bread and stops no bullets in this part of the world.

For the next leg to Bukavu, I'm taking the boat!

Monday, April 14, 2008

A book through my fingers

Once in a while you stumble on a book that's been out for a while and ask, 'How could I have missed this?' Chris and Katy, my PRISM partners, have an excellent Africa library in Nairobi. I picked up a travelogue/investigation by Sven Lindqvist called 'Exterminate All the Brutes'--the reference being Conrad's Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness.

Out in Swedish since 1992 and in English since 1996, how did it slip by me? Old and lazy, I surmise. To make up for my failings, I've been trudging around with it for the last couple weeks, letting its thesis seep into my veins, like a slow-drip IV.

Lindqvist writes with a delectable dryness, like Kapuscinski (Guardian obit here), one of the few western writers on Africa I respect. Lindqvist also travels 'embedded', and his content is driven by his encounters and their always unpredictable unfoldings. A man infatuated with Fortuna is a kindred soul.

Unlike Kapuscinski, always meek before taxing geopolitical questions, Lindqvist is a gleeful slaughterer of sacred cows, an iconoclast and anti-ideologue par excellence. The thesis of this book is that the Nazi quest for Aryan supremacy and Lebensraum was at its core an application of the expansionist and racist principles of imperialism and colonialism that Europeans had long been applying to the Third World.

In this light, there is little exceptional about the Holocaust itself, given that its precursors were myriad. No one notices this historical continuity because the victims of European expansionism and subjugation were not Europeans, until Nazism--itself a culmination of certain trends in European thought and action over centuries. Is this so shocking a thesis? I think not.

Among the African countries I know well where large scale human massacres have occurred, I'm finding that debate in Rwanda over justice, reconciliation and root causes is relatively free of the usual blame game and denial of responsibility that goes on elsewhere. All are aware that colonialism did much to poison Hutu-Tutsi relations here, and post-independence relations with France have been dubious to say the least. France was forced to pull its diplomatic presence here in 2006.

But Rwandans are not blind to the fact that a homegrown logic was unleashed here: it was not imported or forced down anyone's throat by outsiders. What I've found so uncanny is that many here read the metamorphosis of mind that led to Hutu Power and the 'Intent to Destroy' (the name of Lindqvist's new book on the methods of genocide) that were unleashed in April 1994 in almost identical terms as Arendt's elucidation of the origins of totalitarianism.

A group I met today, Never Again Rwanda, made this case quite clearly, despite no one knowing Arendt or her work. Their efforts revolve around creating a 'culture of reason' in a country where a 'culture of silence' predominates, and automatic obedience before authority is expected and assumed. Critical thinking is rare, and not rewarded. NAR are trying to inculcate these values in schools and among local authorities.

Genocidal ideology is resurging, and eyewitnesses to the genocide who survived and can now testify are being targeted and killed. 'Survivor' and 'perpetrator' are the new categories for Tutsi and Hutu. Although everyone knows that ethnic hatred is an organizing principle to the violence and not its root cause (which is unequal wealth and power sharing), many remain susceptible to ethnic rhetoric. NAR is doing good work; we hope to find them more funding to expand their efforts on a national scale.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

14 ans depuis...

This week is the national commemoration of the 1994 genocide here in Rwanda. Two Rwandan friends took me to the Kigali Memorial Center today, amongst thick crowds. A grenade had been tossed into the place the day before--perpetrators and survivors do not cohabit well, and anti-Tutsi 'genocide ideology' is still very much alive and well in the region.

The experience was heavy and I choked up, but emerged strangely grateful that I had been in the country for the immediate aftermath of the primary wave of killing. Today's visit also brought back a lot of memories from that period of my life that had faded or simply been repressed. I've always contextualized my time in Rwanda in 1994 as just another relief mission to a war-torn country, but I now realize that it was something else entirely.

It's easy to say, but genocide is the most extreme human transgression. That thought needs a visceral connection somehow, otherwise it remains purely intellectual--subjective and forgettable. Today I grasped in my bones that there is nothing else at the bottom of the human psyche after all other trap doors have given way. Beyond madness, beyond reason, beyond fantasy, beyond brute physicality, genocide is the final cul-de-sac at the bottom of human consciousness.

There are several genocide memorials around the country; this one is both a museum and an unmarked cemetery with enormous mass graves in submerged cement containers. Name placks are fixed to an adjacent wall, somewhat like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

Survivor stories are playing on video screens positioned throughout the tour, which occurs largely underground. That of Valentine runs: "I lay down again among the dead bodies. It was three days after the killings, so the bodies stank. The Interahamwe would pass by without entering the room, and dogs would come to eat the bodies. I lived there for 43 days . . ." [read rest here]

Rwanda is recovering slowly; there is security and infrastructure, the two main ingredients for human prosperity in a post-conflict country. Latent tensions between Hutu and Tutsi are spreading, however, and many I've talked to are not optimistic about the prospect of peaceful cohabitation.

More on all this later...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Assault on dystopia

I'm spending this month visiting a clutch of countries in East Africa defined, in part, by their history of armed conflict and failed governance. This is a causal relation, not just collective misfortune: conflicts ignite and humanitarian crises ensue because of poor governance. Felonious states, murderous regimes and the eternal recurrence of la politique du ventre.

Somalia being the sole exception, the rest of this neighborhood is entering an 'early recovery' phase now that peace was bought on the cheap. That means no justice for victims; impunity greases all palms. Rebel leaders lay down arms in exchange for posts in the national army, government, or some other enticement. No sticks, just carrots--presto, it's donkey heaven. The international community who funds these charades can only pray the juice is worth the squeeze.

Lower on the rungs of power, paramilitary thugs and drooling militiamen get their reward too: a poorly run DDR program and the chance to return to village life without trial or sanction for all the bloodshed and rape in their wake. La politique du ventre started these wars; in turn it offers an incentive to end them. I recall Goethe saying that however complex man's psyche may seem, the 'circle of his states is soon run through'. Or in this case: 'me want you got', as they say in Sierra Leone.

So besides an Empedoclean dance of love and strife, what drives this dynamic of power and suffering, of 'grievance and greed'? I see a perfectly balanced Pavlovian equation stuck on infinite repeat: Oppression, rebellion, reward. Oppression rebellion, reward. Hunger for power starts wars as easily as it ends them. Keep justice and culpability out of any peace negotiation and the powerful can remain atop the dung heap for generations to come. Laundry detergent dreams for evermore! Even Pavlov's dogs could have smelled the rot of this seamlessly conditioned feedback loop--a mile high stench totally lost on the big brains at the UN Security Council.

But what about the African Union--are they not capable of some form of leverage, an anchor of reason in this ocean of impunity? Alas, the AU still worships the 'brotherhood of African leaders'. In practice this means Mugabe gets a winking tisk-tisk from Mbeki; Obasanjo offers exile to Charles Taylor. The AU says nothing, which is consent. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of ZANU-PF supporters continue believing the absurdity that to vote for Mugabe is their only hope against 'imminent British invasion'. A successful politics of the belly thus appears to confer mass hypnotic powers to the demagogue over the hoi polloi. If the AU ever awakes from its hypnotic state of genuflection, maybe it will stop facilitating the dingdongs at Africa's helm and roundly condemn them.

Taking Tiger Mountain

So who's taking tiger mountain by storm? Here comes a warm jest. Given the colossal scale of human suffering this madness entails, this post-conflict neighborhood is swarming with massive UN operations, hundreds of NGOs doing relief and development, philanthropists, human rights activists and do-gooders of every stripe. It's easy to dismiss the humanitarian circus as futile or naively quixotic; it is a most imperfect enterprise, full of disappointment and disillusion. Nor can it fix any of the political dysfunction and self-serving governance at the heart of Africa's problems. Still, I find hope in the humanitarian movement because it is the only full-fledged assault on dystopia going in this part of the world. Everyone else is either getting crushed under a boot, or donning boots to do some crushing.

I'm in Rwanda right now, and havent been here since 1994 just after the genocide. It offers a significant exception to my rant above. An amazing transformation of the country has occurred; it stands in complete opposition to its immediate neighbors, particularly DRC and Burundi. Under Kagame rule, it is not exactly a democratic place, and there is no independent media or much civil society to speak of. But security and the foundations for economic development are clearly here, and Rwanda has prospered as a result.

One thing I agree with Kagame on is his ambition to wean the country off of international charity as quickly as possible. I too want a world where there are only workers, no expatriate labor force or foreign donors at the top of the food chain in developing countries. International financial assistance to private and public sectors will be needed, but the vast machine of intermediary entities--international NGOs, UN agencies, the World Bank country offices--should disappear, the sooner the better. Direct support to indigenous efforts, providing human capital and capacity are sufficient, will get everyone off the ground and into the air. Hence my visit: our little initiative (called 'PRISM Partnerships') aims to connect local NGOs with financial backers elsewhere.

I'm surprised how many positive reactions I've gotten from people across the board: locals, internationals, cynics and dreamers. From the bottom of the well at night, one can only dream--not of utopia but of resistance strategies, of the infinite possibilities for effective assault on dystopia.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Back in Burundi

Listening to Boris, holed up in a sweatbox hotel I haven't set foot in since 1994, when we launched relief operations in SW Rwanda just after the genocide.

That was before Burundi's serious problems started, and it was considered the more stable of the two countries. Even in 1994, before the war commenced here in earnest, I recall our jeep breaking down in the center of Bujumbura in a torrent of flashfloods and rainfall. I got out to look under the hood for five minutes or so, then scrambled back into the dry interior to wait out the downpour. Looking around inside I realized that the lurky loiterers who'd materialized around the jeep had also managed to clean out everything inside it--while it was fully locked!

I got back out of the car and trudged ankle deep into the immobile, drenched crowd to see if any of our goods were visible in anyone's hands, carts or atop their heads. Everyone I passed had clearly witnessed the theft, and now either stared at the ground or averted my gaze when I stood before them. Some smiled and looked away. Clearly some sort of game was going on. No one offered any information, or even acknowledged me as I moved between them, rustling and poking among their belongings in search of my own. Their deliberate passivity and blatant complicity was infuriating in a way I'd never before experienced.

That was my second time in Burundi, and I've since worked here off and on at least 7 or 8 times over the years. And I've since had many more things stolen -- each time the takings dig deeper into my resources! So I'm familiar with the silence, the pretending-it-didn't-exist while still in full stare mode that Burundians indulge in so shamelessly at the expense of other people's troubles.

That jeep incident was the first time I'd been dealt a full dose of the well-known Burundian trait people here call 'solidarite negative': never disclose anything to betray a member of a group, even an accidental group (a crowd at a market), because your disclosure will be remembered and brutally avenged. A warm and fuzzy place indeed.

I got here today at noon and met immediately with an old Burundian friend and colleague to download recent political developments and hear where the country was heading. Little appears to have happened since my last visit in late 2006, except that the ruling political party has split, creating a dysfunctional breach.

More on this as my visit unfolds...

Friday, April 04, 2008

Mea culpa: Can it liberate?

And your silence is all to no avail; today the blinding sun of torture is at its zenith; it lights up the whole country. Under that merciless glare, there is not a laugh that does not ring false, not a face that is not painted to hide fear or anger, not a single action that does not betray our disgust, and our complicity.

-- Sartre, Preface to Fanon's The Wretched Of The Earth

In my recurring fantasy, Americans awake in toxic shock at an administration so far beyond the pale that each of us, asphyxiated and sputtering with rage, simultaneously grasps our complicity, our guilt by association. If nothing else appalls and shames us into action, passivity as complicity just might. In that Rorschach moment where silence and complicity meet, responsibility for national wrongs becomes ours, just as the parents of bullying, violent children know they too are to blame. Once the floodgates of popular rage are open, our leaders will remember to whom they are accountable.

Find the rest of this post on the absence of outrage in American culture over at 3 Quarks Daily.