There can be no mistaking the line, in the form of the border, that separates the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from the rest of the world. You can feel the abrupt transition on many levels.
The last time I was in eastern DRC was in 2007 and I crossed into South Kivu via the small neighbouring town of Cyangugu, Rwanda. Despite having all my documents in order and the wisdom of our Congolese guide and contact person, it was still tense. Crossing over the border this time around via Burundi (near Bujumbura) was entirely different. What both occasions had in common, however, was the clear cut case that you are crossing into one of the poorest countries in the world. DRC’s economy has been decimated due to war. There is no mistaking the poverty.
What made this passage across the border was the atmosphere. The Congolese border authority asked to search my bags, which I happily agreed since I was not smuggling weapons across the border, and they did so in the most hospitable fashion. There was a sense of pride by the officials, which was very refreshing since the past decade has been witness to some of the most humiliating injustices of the modern time.
In Justin Podur’s killingtrain.com blog, he describes Congo’s current political climate as “a fragile period that threatens to get worse fast, but nor is it without hope”. I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of South Kivu in our drive from the Burundian border, through Uvira to Bukavu, and on that basis I too hope that DRC’s future is a positive one. The dirt road traces a path in the hills along the river Ruzizi, which separates DRC and Rwanda. It is windy and treacherous at times but the views make up for the three hours of motion sickness.
Once in Bukavu there are clear signs of over-crowding and over-population. The Panzi Hospital got its name for the southern district of Bukavu in which it resides. And the Panzi district has seen some of the largest population growth in Bukavu for no other reason except that it is the next most logical place for people to squat and rebuild their lives. To the east is the Rwandan border, to the north is Lake Kivu and to the west are tall and steep hills. Bukavu is relatively safe at the moment when compared to the country-side where military forces have set up their camps.
The issue of urban sprawl is dangerous and worrying on many levels. In one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Bukavu, called Kadutu, there used to be three main roads. But people have been building, in what the Congolese call “constructions anarchiques” in any bit of land that they can get away with. People have built along the road to the point that the roads have been swallowed up by make-shift housing and now there is one single road that passes through this part of town. It is also this part of Bukavu that is most susceptible to the effects of mudslides during the rainy season that last several months from October to January. The last remaining road shows signs of that and houses are known to slide down the hill as a result.
On Friday June 26 I visited the Panzi Hospital. The last time I was there was March 2007. It is hard to describe all the emotions as I walked through the open corridors of the hospital complex on a warm and sunny day. I headed towards the operating theatres and found that the second building is now fully operational. This operating theater is for surgical repair of women who have survived rape. Surgeries are performed by the head fistula surgeon, a gentle and wise doctor named Dr Yunga who I met previously. Beyond this building is a beautiful courtyard where survivors of rape have a place to call their own, where they have workshops, sing, cook and learn skills. There is a pool in the middle of the courtyard that adds a certain level of calmness and tranquility. But the head engineer at Panzi explained to me that this “pool” serves two purposes. One is for recreational purposes but the other clever purpose was to draw water out from under the fistula ward to allow for a septic system to work properly.
The head engineer also described how the hospital is pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to water utilization, with an efficient system of capturing rain water off the roofs, a valve directs the water into the garden or into the two massive underground wells. Water treatment is performed from which drinking water is pumped back into the hospital plumbing system. I have seen evidence of remarkable progress at Panzi Hospital. Layers of progress in fact, which leads me to conclude it is a place of immense potential and optimism in city that has seen too much despair.
Written by BM while in Bukavu.