Monday, March 27, 2006

Back To Work

I was sent to Gisenyi to strengthen our returnee monitoring program, working alongside the monitoring officer, a Rwandan national.

Well, two weeks ago, she quit. She moved back to Kigali the next day. The monitoring program was put on hold, and I pestered Kigali to allow me to go without her, using Boniface, our magnificent driver, as my translator.

Kigali said that this seemed to be a pretty good plan until a replacement was hired. So Monday and Wednesday this week, I’m doing a trial run in three of the safest sectors of the province. We have to be prudent, because Boniface also serves as security on monitoring missions—always near the car, ready to race the Land Cruiser out of there if the situation becomes dicey. If he’s with me, we minimize that protection. At least he is allowed to leave the car—in Afghanistan, drivers have to be in or standing next to the cars at all times, in case someone tries to plant an IED or something. Luckily, that’s not an issue here.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been busying myself with transit center issues. We were informed that our refugees were probably not going to be moved to a camp this year. We were therefore given the permission to enroll primary school-aged children in local schools. These children had been out of school for over a year. I’ve never seen such happy parents in my life. Yet, after three weeks of schooling, the Congolese refugees were forced to leave, with authorities saying that all the kids needed uniforms, books, and a 100 Frw (20 cent) schooling fee. HCR Kigali granted us the funds, and we found some local dressmakers to make the uniforms. UNICEF is giving us the books.

So, crisis averted. Then we found out that the small nutritional center (which provides food and formula for ill children, pregnant mothers, and people living with HIV/AIDS ) at the transit center, whose three nurses are supported by UNICEF, hadn’t been paid their salaries since September. I was flabbergasted. That’s a pretty major boo-boo on someone’s part.

We looked into it, and no one seemed to have any clue. UNICEF funnels money through the local hospital, which pays the nurses…but there are no contracts and no real recognition that the center is run by UNICEF. It’s all very hazy. Apparently, the number of people benefiting from the clinic is low, and in light of the personnel payment situation, we had to close it down. It was an unbearable thought—these people have nothing, and we were taking away what little they had.

My understanding is that the nurses will get back pay.

I also had a long meeting with the Youth Committee. The activities I’m starting are: a soccer league (boys and girls); Igisoro (a traditional Rwandan game); an AIDS-awareness theatre group; a modern and traditional dance group; a choir; and the Boy and Girl Scouts. (I admit to being more than a little ambitious.)

The soccer league is well underway. We have six teams, two of which are girls. The girls train three times a week. I was amazed. I asked the Committee how many times the boys trained. One guy laughed, “Every morning!” They’re tremendously dedicated and gifted. They played a scrimmage against a team in the neighboring village, and gave them a thorough beating. The only problem is the soccer balls—I bought two with the little funds I have, and they lasted all of 2 weeks. They still use them, but they inserted balloons into their cavities, which they fill with air, and they sew the stitches shut whenever they come out. I was told that the only balls that would hold up were leather ones.

I shopped around for leather soccer balls (by “shopped around” I mean that I went to the only kiosk in the Gisenyi market that sold them) and found one for $30, more expensive than the two I had already purchased combined. My driver and all the people in the shop told me that the Adidas ball was leather, so I figured that it was a costly but worthwhile investment.

….until I was told by the people at the transit center that 1) it wasn’t really leather, and 2) it was a fake. In other words, I bought another ball that would only last 2 weeks, and it was expensive, to boot. They told me that leather balls cost at least 50,000 Frw. This is roughly ONE HUNDRED BLOODY DOLLARS. Unbelievable—you can get one for $20 in the US! I scratched that off my list of future purchases.

The AIDS theatre group is coming along nicely—we have a core of four people, and they’re holding auditions this week. I’ve talked CARE International into coming to the camp to hold a 3-day training session on HIV/AIDS. The training session will be limited to camp leaders, but I’ve already ensured that youth will be included.

I’m also bringing the provincial officer responsible for the Association of Scouts. He has agreed to work with me to set up Scout troops at the camp, which will be great for the smaller kids. Training Scout leaders is going to be the most difficult hurdle, I predict. I’m really excited about this because there are already Scout troops in the Byumba refugee camps where these people will eventually be transferred—so, in effect, there’s a network of support for the kids when they arrive!

Igisoro (pronounced ee-gee-sore-oh) is a board game mostly played by old men. They made a special request that I buy one for them. Since I didn’t have the funds, I asked my friend Daniel, the Catholic carpenter who made my furniture, if his workshop would be willing to make the Igisoro base as a charitable donation. They made the base, which I gave to the happy elders of the camp. They will finish making the rest of it. I tell the refugees every time I’m there that I will go halfway if they will go the other half—that I’m not there to give, but rather, to support.

No real news on my other activities (dance, music). It appears that there are some talented traditional dancers at the camp, so I’m hoping to learn a thing or two from then once these groups get started.

Phew! Lots going on. I’m hoping a lot of these become active before June—that’s when the Congo is having presidential elections and is voting on a constitution—and many refugees may feel that it’s safe to go home. Of course, we may also end up getting a major influx of new refugees instead; elections tend to be unstable times around here, and some people prefer to leave the area until the results have been announced and order has been restored. (That’s what happened in Burundi last year.)

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