Monday, November 2, 2009

Travel within the Congo

A Paper Trail

One of my secondary goals for my trip to Congo was to see more of the country than just Goma. That opportunity arose when I was strongly advised to visit Heritiers de la Justice (Heirs of Justice) in Bukavu, the capital of the province of Kivu Sud. Bukavu is located about 75 miles south of Goma on the opposite end of Lake Kivu. Heritiers operates some legal clinics similar to those we are attempting to establish at the safe houses for rape victims. Maurice Namwira graciously invited me to come to Bukavu to spend a day with him, so I could seek his advice and opinions and learn Heritiers’ programs. Heritiers mission is to end the epidemic of sexual violence in Sud Kivu by sensitizing men and women as to gender justice issues, seek equality of treatment for women, and assist in bringing rapist and other violent offenders to justice.

The road from Goma to Bukavu is not well maintained, and to drive there would take about a week of swerving, braking and bumping about in an effort to avoid tire breaking pot holes. It is much more desirable and quicker to go by boat. The best choice, according to Harper McConnell, one of the women featured in Half the Sky by Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, who was advising me on the alternatives, is the 3 hour boat, which provides comfortable seating and James Bond movies, and a bathroom. I thought I was booking the three hour boat, and looked forward to the opportunity to take photos from the deck, watch an old Bond movie, and drink as much coffee as I wanted without fear of becoming desperately in need of a non-existent bathroom. Heal Africa has a logistics department which makes all travel arrangements for people connected with the hospital. On its bulletin board were posted the schedules for the various companies running trips to Bukavu, and I saw one offered by Marinette Lines which fit my schedule and was a two hour trip. I guess I just assumed that boat was the one Harper had mentioned, with nice seats, movies and a snack.

But you don’t just buy a ticket and climb aboard for travel from one province to another in DRC. You see, even for travel between provinces of DRC, one must have paperwork signed off by a recognized NGO, FBO, etc. documenting and authorizing the travel. A passport is required as well. For my trip to Bukavu I had to obtain a Heal Africa form that set forth my name and the reason for my trip, dates of travel, and signed and sealed by the Heal Africa program manager. Heal Africa’s document is called an “Order of Mission.” It stated that my mission was to “exchange experiences” and it solicited the civilian and military authorities to “facilitate the execution of this mission.”

Mind you, this trip is analogous to traveling from California to Nevada.

For a 7:30 a.m. departure, I was required to be at the port by 6:30, with travel papers and passport in hand. Arriving at the port, the Heal Africa driver escorted me to a small one room structure furnished with two desks, behind which sat women of authority. The woman to whom I was directed examined my travel papers and passport, and then with painstaking care copied the data into a large ledger in which are recorded, for posterity I assume, the names, nationality, dates and reasons for travel of every one making the Goma-Bukavu trip. For foreigners such as me, a passport is required, and the number, date and place of issue are recorded in a large hard bound ledger book, reminiscent of an old-fashioned book-keeper’s ledger of accounts. She located a rubber stamp among the clutter on her desk and stamped and dated the rear of the Mission Order indicating the date of my “sortie” or departure from North Kivu Province.

That was not the end of the paperwork. I was then escorted across the path which led down a slight hillside to another, similar structure, where yet another official examined my paperwork entered data in a ledger and then stamped my travel documents.

Finally I was approved for the trip, after having gone through more bureaucratic business and paperwork than for a trip from San Francisco to Paris. Mind you, I was not put through this painstakingly slow process because I was a foreigner. The Congolese were put through the same process, the only exception being that they did not appear to have to show a passport although some type of photo i.d. was required of them.

I asked where the boat was. A la. Over there. The only vessel at the dock just below the huts of officialdom was a craft about thirty feet long, shaped much like a speedboat, but with an enclosed cabin area. This certainly was not a vessel with comfortable seats, movies, snacks and a toilet aboard. Apparently the difference between the 3 hour boat described by Harper and the two hour boat I had erroneously booked was about 150 feet in length and creature comforts, such as movies, snacks, roomy seats, and a bathroom.

They packed us in like sardines in a can. Seating was two abreast, on a seat that would have barely been adequate for one person my size. There was a narrow aisle up the center, so narrow that when the second in command went to the rear of the boat to get us a snack (water or a soda and a sandwich on a hot dog bun sized roll with one thin slice of bologna) everyone in an aisle seat had to lean away from the aisle into his or her seat passenger. Once the chap in his bright white neatly pressed uniform had passed, the aisle passengers could sit up straight again, their shoulders nearly meeting across the aisle. Fortunately, I had a window seat.

I had similar, indeed worse, experiences on my recent trip from Goma to Kisangani in Equiteur Province and Lubutu in Maniema Province. Painstaking processing of paperwork. But on the Kisangani and Lubutu trip, I faced yet another paperwork demand before the rubber stamp of approval would be placed upon my documents. More paper. Paper money.

The time lost by what appears to me to be an obsessive – compulsive need to painstakingly fill page after page of large books with such data must mount to millions of dollars every month. It does create jobs, but at what cost? The explanation I received for this burdensome and oppressive bureaucratic bottleneck of paperwork required to travel from one “state” within the country to another was based upon the need for security: that due to the past 15 years of war, it is necessary to keep track of who is traveling where.

Hmm. I boarded the airplane without anyone checking my large carryon backpack.

And the demand for money, that at least is self-explanatory. Pay is miniscule and sporadic. One must supplement his or her income.

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