Bonjour from the Eastern DRC!


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Coming into the DRC, I had no idea what to expect. The week before traveling I bounced between a fear-induced paralysis and Zen-like confidence. I saw stories like the ones below from the Voice of America, Reuters, BBC, and so on. I clung to the Zen feeling and breathed deeply, promising myself I would abort mission if necessary. My team of Zione Themba, Emmanuel Kambalame and Erin Morehouse were eager to go. Women for Women International assured me the situation was secure, and we set off for the Kivus.

My nose was pressed to the airplane window in awe of the stunning views from the airplane.

View from the plane

Rwanda, from Kigali to Cyangugu, is spectacular. Lake Kivu is beautiful.  The domestic flight and immediate luggage pickup means we depart Cyangugu immediately for the border. Bukavu (elevation 5000ft.) is on the Southern end of Lake Kivu. As we leave Rwanda, the sidewalk construction and the tarmac ends and the road into town is dirt. We enter the DRC. Later, the tarmac begins again in Bukavu city. Only the main road is paved.

Lake Kivu

It is hilly, green in places and densely developed with houses and shops. Brick buildings fill in all open space up and down the many hills. This is definitely not a planned city but a growing town where, since 1994, Congolese have come, fleeing from rural, unstable conflict zones.

In Bukavu, the traffic is thick and the streets are lined with people. It is very hard to walk down the street because the sidewalks are broken and rocky and we can’t help to look up at the houses, down to the lake, across at the vendors and businesses. We walk though, trying to avoid the pedestrian, motorcycle and vehicular traffic . This is very compelling people watching.

According to the World Bank, per capita GDP is US$199.  The CIA Factbook  ranks DRC 226 out of 226 countries in the world in GDP per capita, behind Sudan, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Liberia. I think Burundi and the DRC are competing for last place though.

Nevertheless, houses or villas near the lake indicate there are some very wealthy folks here. The three story Victorian houses are surprising.Houses I am also surprised by so much new-house construction. The American, oops, I mean the “Congolese dream” is to have a house –a patch of land and a structure where a family can be safe and live together—and so they are building in all open spaces, unrestrained by permits, zoning laws or building standards. It is safe here.

The DRC, rich in minerals and natural resources and home to a long line of corrupt leaders, hosted the “African World War” and a series of conflicts, is rife with perpetual instability and insecurity. And yet, the buildings of Bukavu do not tell the story of Congo’s First and Second wars. In Liberia, where war ended in 2003, at least a third of buildings wear the scars of machine guns and bullet holes. Even in Bosnia, from the airport to Sarajevo and en route to Zeneca, you see the remnants of grenades and mortars and sniper attacks from the war that ended 20 years ago. You also see the endless graves that took over the parks and other open spaces. But here in Bukavu, I do not readily see destruction or the aftermath of protracted war. It is not until you talk to people that you begin to understand the long term impacts of the DRC’s wars and insecurity. There was violent fighting as recently as 2008 and even attacks last week (May 2012 see below (Except for you Mom!) “Blind violence” in the eastern DRC. U.N. military officials report “brutal massacres”). While an estimated 5.3 million people have died since 1998, millions of these deaths were among women and children who died of starvation and disease because they were forced from their villages by rebels and soldiers. They were cut off from food and healthcare or protection from rape, hunger, weather, and natural disasters. Of course there were guns, but machetes, spears and knives were also common weapons of war. These leave horrible scars on humans, but do not mark the architecture and landscape.

We will not conduct our study in all of the nearby sites where Women for Women works because of ongoing insecurity. There are some places you cannot travel through at dawn, dusk, or night because of ambushes. Young thugs (not rebels or soldiers) without jobs but with guns left over from the war opportunistically attack vehicles. Of course this can happen on the streets of Philly late at night or other large American cities too, but we avoid these areas in our own country and move on with our lives.

Stories that freak me out:

Voice of America: Nick Long, May 30, 2012

 UN Condemns Upsurge in ‘Blind Violence’ in Eastern Congo

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – The United Nations has condemned an upsurge of what it calls “blind violence” in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. U.N. military officials say some of the most brutal massacres in recent memory have been committed by Congolese ethnic militias and Rwandan rebels.

The U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Congo, known as MONUSCO, says it has collected reports of 98 civilians killed and six wounded in 11 villages of North Kivu province between May 9 and May 25.

The mission says the killings were carried out by two Congolese militias – the so-called Mai Mai Rahiya Mutomboki, working with members of the Congolese Defense Force – and by the Rwandan rebel group FDLR.

It says most of the victims, including women and children, were killed with machetes, spears and knives.

 Red Cross reports deteriorating humanitarian situation in eastern DRC

GENEVA, May 25 (Xinhua) — The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Friday reported a rising number of civilian victims, as violence continues in the Kivu region in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Red Cross has observed continuing clashes near the border in the eastern part of North Kivu, as well as escalating fighting in the Walungu, Shabunda and Kalehe territories of South Kivu, and more recently in the Walikale and Masisi territories of North Kivu, which have caused many casualties and displacement.

For more on the conflict in the Eastern DRC:

Why does a mom of two awesome children work all over the world?

Why do I travel? What makes me go from Eastern Europe to South East Asia to Africa? Why am I en route to Rwanda to cross the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Why is that while I travel for this trip, I must plan for my return to Liberia to present results to the government and then to launch the field work for the evaluation of the national US Govt funded OVC response in Ethiopia?

Liberians hoping to be selected to receive the $10 cash transfer

After the DRC, the Ethiopian project is is my next big field work, a mixed-methods partnership with with the Addis Ababa University School of Social Work and a team of 60 data collectors.  We’ll get support from Pact Ethiopia and the National Statistics Agency. The summer months are before me, my garden is growing, but data needs collecting, we must overcome the logistical barriers and launch the study.

I pass the time on the flight making revisions to our Mozambique report, reading qualitative transcripts from women in Bosnia and children in India.

Nap time in Mozambique

I am somewhere over Africa as I write this, Libya I think. Not always, but more often than not, if I am idle, it hurts too much. I have physical pain from missing my children. Last night’s over night flight to Amsterdam wasn’t great for sleeping so I am tired. Not the fatigued-to-the-bone exhausted that comes later in the trip. Just tired, emotional, unsure. I watched some of a rather silly movie about a mom who travels for work. Stupid movie. The woman had an adorable daughter and a 2 year old son. Hits too close to home and makes me cry. I wonder how often stewards and stewardesses see people cry. So again, why do I do it?

Malawian children

These projects I take on and fall in love with, that drive me stark-raving mad and make me angry as a wasp, and that become part of me–these projects that take me all over the world–I do not do them because of ambition or success. My ambition bled out following a few failed grant proposals, poor treatment by some leaders in this field, when my organization let me down, and then some close collaborators, well, betrayed me. I was ambitious at one time, but no more. These major disappointments knocked the wind out of me and forced me to look inward.

Botswanan child

Career “success” is too fleeting. It is too dependent on others approval. I am too old and too young to be jerked around or need others’ affirmations to feel satisfied. Either I am satisfied or I am not, and it is based on my relationship with my work.

Children in Mozambique

Interview in Bosnia

Thus, the drive or the motivation that I muster to engage in global projects is not linked to ambition or career success or some early-career or female ‘need to please’. Neither do I think I will single-handedly “change the world.”  I do not board the plane thinking I’ll write the report of the journal article that will save lives.

I want to very much of course, but life, development, change, improvements, progress, these are all complicated.

Children murdered in the Bosnian war

Children in Karnataka India

When I fly across the globe to some of the less glamorous regions where war, disease and poverty live, it is about my duty as a human being. My life is bigger than me. Bigger than my words, bigger than my needs and desires. It is about connections and linkages. I am linked to boys and girls in Liberia and Botswana, children and elderly persons in Malawian, Bosnian woman and children, Indian families affected by HIV, Zambians riding bicycles, Zimbabweans struggling for employment, South Africans trying to adhere to their ARVs, Ethiopian families and organizations, Congolese families trying to survive war.   I don’t know what it all means yet.

Boys in Botswana

Maybe my linkages are important steps in a bigger picture. Maybe I’ll say just the right thing to someone on an airplane, or a student, or policymaker. I’ll influence the right person at the right time….maybe during a presentation, in the classroom, or in a meeting, or maybe at the park or a birthday party. And that person will make the decision that changes the world for the better. Maybe I’ll teach the person who influences another.

My girls

Maybe I’ll finally piece together some small part of a larger puzzle and I’ll share these results with someone who knows someone who can change something. I don’t know what how it all plays out. I am not certain my academic contributions are the thing that matter, just that this is the way I am supposed to learn and teach and contribute to the world. I have no illusions of grandiosity.  Yes, still, somehow it all matters. I don’t how, but it matters and my contributions are part of the solution.

So my question to you: What are you doing for humanity? Maybe there’s no proof it will matter, but what are you doing? What do you want to do? What would you do if you were not afraid?

Oh yeah!

Federal Express

I am working from home, trying to collect my courage and prepare for my trip to the DRC next week. If the Fed Ex truck delivers my passport with my Visa to the DRC, there is nothing in the way of travel. If they don’t come, maybe I can’t go. I am relieved when I see the truck because this is my work and I worked hard to schedule the trip. I am relieved when the truck doesn’t stop because I am frankly frightened of the DRC. Check wikipedia to learn more about the Eastern DRC. I won’t list its problems here. Suffice to say this is not a usual tourist destination and fighting is ongoing. I am conducting an evaluation of Women for Women International’s direct cash transfers to women survivors of war. 

Of course, people come in and of the DRC every day. Ben Affleck founded the Eastern Congo Initiative. Journalists, WfWI staff, the occasional backpacker, development workers and I am sure many shady characters too. But I don’t have their budgets, crews, or connections (or lack of connections).

I’ve told colleagues, I am not afraid to ‘meet my maker’. I think we could have a great chat when the time is right. I’ve worked hard to be who I am. My maker knows that. I make tough choices and frequently take the more challenging path because it is the right one. My maker knows this. My husband knows this. My parents and my children know this. My best friends know this. Still, despite a pretty clear conscience, I am by no means ready to meet this maker. Call me melodramatic. Go ahead. But, one has to think of these things before flying into war zones, even if it is melodramatic. Let’s face it, I come from an extended family that lives 60 miles South of Boston and many of my relatives think Boston is too far to travel too. So my trepidation about the DRC is driven by genetics and wikipedia, oh and the BBC, Washington Post, Aljazeera News, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, Irin news … oh and the big thing, the fact that I love, absolutely love, adore being a mother to Alexandra and Theodore. I am simply not ready for my drive for social justice and rigorous evidence to end my days of parenting. So stay or go? Go or stay? The FedEx truck is playing with me.

Check out this invigorating 3 minute video from Ben (Affleck) on Mom’s in the DRC. Skip to 52 seconds if you don’t Ben and watch the 2 minutes.

Women in Sarajevo

We conducted a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with our research assistants. Our team consists of eight young female college graduates who have studied literature, law, pharmacy, languages. They are quick learners,  articulate, funny, talkative and have an excellent work ethic. They readily admit they prefer sitting and talking with friends over coffee to all other activities. In a discussion to demonstrate how to conduct FGDs, Jacquie Stone (an MPH graduate from BUSPH, former TA and student of mine) asked them: “What should I tell my friends about Bosnian women?”

They replied:

“We are educated. We are strong. We are not savages. We are traditional and modern.”

“Our women are gentle, motherly, beautiful. Angelina Jolie loves Bosnia! Finally, people like to laugh. We cook very well. Okay our older women cook very well. We cannot keep them out of the kitchen!”

These women were young children when war broke out in Bosnia. Some stayed and others were fled with their families. However as Bosnians, they all witness the strength of the women war survivors:

“For those women who were raped during the war, I go down on my knees for them. Our women went through war and they moved on. Those women were usually impregnated and you must be strong to love that child.”

The team also reflected on their mothers’ advice to them. Regardless of the war, their mothers tell them ‘don’t be like me — fight for a better life’. This means professional jobs, finding and making fun, and only agreeing to marriages with equality.

Despite the degrees and intellect of our team of twenty-something year olds, the struggles of young Bosnia women can not be minimized, particularly given the economic situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where unemployment is nearly 50% (See World Bank for snapshot of Bosnian economy). In this context, our female team talked about egregious sexual harassment in universities and the work place. From less pay to simply not getting the job if a man applies, women are discriminated against both at home and in the work place. It is the “rare, modern man” that allows a woman to participate in decision making. Women are expected to marry, have children, get a job, and do *all* of the work at home.

I can’t help but think of these young women as my younger sisters, students, or mentees. I want to see them find fulfilling jobs, advocate for women, and fight gender discrimination. But how? How can they push for equality at home and at work? What are the concrete steps they can take? Keep in mind, BiH is changing. The economy is growing. The political situation is complex. Multi-national businesses are emerging. How do women get a seat at the table?

On another note, the overt gender discrimination in Bosnia helps me see the subtle gender discrimination in Boston much more clearly. But that is for another post…

Did I really do that? Mixing drugs and travel

Tuesday morning: Heading to Bosnia via Vienna

On Tuesday May 7th, at 7:15 am, I was busily getting my suitcase and carry-on together for a 7:45 am taxi to the airport. I was headed to Sarajevo to conduct an evaluation of Women for Women International. (For more on the evaluation, click here.)

I have a mild hypothyroid condition.  I take 75 mg of Synthroid every day. I am very good with my daily dose, adherent all over the world. I take my pill and I don’t think anything of it.

When I travel for work to Africa or India, I usually bring Ambien or the generic because of the 4 hour to 10.5 hour time difference. Also, I usually work at a hectic pace for 16+ hours and then struggle to sleep. At home, I sleep like the dead so  have no need for a sleep-aid.

On this particular Tuesday morning, I was rushing. I wanted to spend time with the kids before my taxi departure. Plus I was mostly, but not fully packed. Around 7:15 am, I filled my little pill case with Synthroid, Tylenol, and the sleep-aid. I popped the Synthroid (or so I thought!), swallowed a gulp of tea and kept packing.

I went down to the kitchen. I remember leaning against the stove, overcome with intense dizziness.  And then, I blacked out…

Paul thought I was having a stroke … or maybe just ‘losing it’. I was incoherent. Several times I asked what was going on. Paul wondered if this this was indeed what happens when someone ‘snaps’. I had been very frustrated with work, busy giving talks to different audiences, was finishing up my evaluation course, thinking about my doctoral students and their exams, interviewing and calling references for perspective nannies, planning my daughter’s upcoming birthday party, organizing for spring/summer travel to Liberia, the DRC, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, and Paul’s summer trips to India, San Diego and I don’t know St. Louis?

Anyway, for at least 20 minutes, I was incoherent. Paul contemplated calling an ambulance (which is amazing because I usually lead all medical seeking efforts in our household). First step, he called the family doctor. I have a vague memory of confusion and of my daughter crying (due to my stupor!) For 15-20 minutes, they thought they were losing me to something, perhaps something irreversible.

The taxi arrived and honked his horn.  Paul sent him away, apologizing, telling him something was wrong with me. The taxi driver said no problem, he could still take me. Thankfully Paul shooed him away.

Next thing I know, Paul has me on the phone with my physician. I don’t know what the hell I said to her. But, apparently at that point, we somehow realized what I had done. As it goes, the Synthroid and Ambien are both little lilac pills.  Like a crazy &^$%$%$%, I took the Ambien instead of the Synthroid…about 2 hours before my trip to Eastern Europe. I am a little person. Ambien is designed to put someone my height and weight to sleep for 8 hours!

I vaguely remember mumbling to the physician. Who knows what I said? Something about “Sure, I am getting on the plane”. I don’t really know. Something tells me she may not trust me with Ambien ever, ever again.

Paul and I decide I am okay – I don’t remember this – but I guess we hurry given MassPike traffic around 8 a.m. Paul drives us (kids in the backseat) to the airport. Paul’s test for whether I was fit to travel was if I could check in okay (i.e. I had checked-in online but still had to show my passport and drop luggage). I passed.

In my functional stupor–I drank a cup of coffee and had breakfast in the car–I boarded the plane. I apologized profusely to my family for my stupidity. Paul and Alex were just happy that I hadn’t had a stroke. Theo, who loves a visit to the airport, was  happy to go through the turnpike tunnels and see some airplanes. They returned home, ate breakfast, and went to school late.

I have no memory of Logan. I was stuck in Dulles all day. I remember wandering around feeling calm and happy. Whatever bothered me at 7:15 am didn’t seem so bad anymore. I worked, but not sure on what. (Did I email you? I really should check any work I did…) Paul called me throughout the day to make sure I was okay (i.e. awake). I took an over night flight to Vienna, worked at the airport a few hours, and arrived in Sarajevo at 2:30 pm Wednesday local time.

I talked to Alex the next day. After some prodding, she admitted that she told a few of her friends that she was late to school because her “mother took sleeping pills”. Oi……

PS. Did I ever mention the time I confused the peach pills? My antimalarial and laxatives? Interesting times! (Click here for photos of Sarajevo!)

Global Poverty, Evaluation and Suess

Here’s my talk for the CGHD Forum March 2012

From this talk:

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life AND EVALUATION IS a Great Balancing Act.

And will THE PROGRAM succeed?



But, with Evaluation, KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!

Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way!