South Africa and Zuma’s long night

A politician resigning, even a president or prime minister, does not typically generate the sense that their departure is decisive for the future well being or survival of their country and its citizens. That was not so when South Africa’s Jacob Zuma resigned this week after nine disastrous years as president. His remaining in office, or securing it for a chosen successor, would have kept South Africa on the destructive path that defined his presidency.


The daily narrative of South Africa in recent years has been corruption and economic mismanagement of a Titanic scale, together with confrontational politics and racial antagonism abetted by the ruling party under Zuma’s direction. The economy has been stagnant for years and investors have fled—people are now poorer on average as a result.

His resignation, after an epic struggle in which he refused demands even from his own party for him to go, has suddenly opened a new era, almost a rebirth of the type last seen in this country at the democratic transition in 1994. All the same problems remain, including the epic mess left behind by the Zuma years, but it is at least possible to feel there is some hope for the future.

Zuma’s tenure as president from start to finish was a story of corrupting institutions to evade justice for his own crimes. A crafty manipulator with undeniable political charm, the party was slowly brought under his control and came to reflect his own malign influence; figures elevated in government and state appointments were the corrupt and incompetent, but loyal to him.

The running of state corporations and government purchasing became one massive fraud engineered to enrich insiders: corrupt tenders, kickbacks and crooked dealings. Control of the national airline was given to his ex-mistress, a former rural primary school teacher, who drove out qualified staff and had ministers fired who tried to hold her to account.

The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, changed: arrogant, venal, divisive and unaccountable. In the final years the party’s luminaries, including the colleagues of Mandela, openly called for Zuma to go. Public support for him all but disappeared and tainted the party as well. He survived all this, laughing off public outrage as one scandal after another came out. He had control of the party’s senior structures, which he understood was all that mattered.

He evaded jail by the same method. The police, criminal prosecution, the tax services and the intelligence agencies came under his control. Honest people were hounded out of these institutions, and replaced with lackeys dedicated to protecting Zuma.

In the final years the modus operandi was obvious to anyone watching. Competent civil servants acting independently suddenly faced disciplinary inquiries for spurious reasons and were forced to resign. The intelligence services who had become Zuma’s private security force, spread reports to side-line those who stood in the way. Opponents in the party and even honest cabinet ministers were targeted the same way.

Corruption and illegality was unearthed by independent media and civil society but almost no one was ever charged. His party was forced to defend him publicly, falling back on old habits of solidarity suitable to a liberation movement rather than a modern democratic party in government.

Constitutionally unable to stand again for president all that remained was to secure a successor, his ex-wife, who would keep him out of jail and maintain the vast corrupt networks that had developed around him and had taken over the state. It nearly worked. By the skin of its teeth the party instead chose the reform candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, in a dirty leadership campaign in December that should never have been close.

Zuma was still president until 2019 and intended to hang on, pushing through more corrupt deals and entrenching a radical political and economic narrative that blamed whites and big business for the country’s problems: the perfect smoke screen to create chaos and divert attention from the looting project that was creating a whole new class of corrupt, wealthy business people aligned to the ruling party and with their own newspapers and television stations to spread the word.

Last week something finally changed. Ramaphosa’s people narrowly got the upper hand in the party committees—Zuma would have to go.

He refused. Even after being recalled (fired) by the party he fought to the end, making a rambling national address on SABC, the state broadcaster that he had made a mouthpiece for his own interests. It was classic Zuma: contradictory, self-pitying, telling out right lies and making veiled threats that the army or party militias in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal might still come to his aid.

And then late the same night, facing a parliamentary vote of no-confidence the next morning he was set to lose, he resigned.

The new man, Ramaphosa, is a vast change in style and substance. He is seen jogging in the early morning on the Cape Town seafront, interacting with the public in a low key gentlemanly way. His first speech to parliament, the state of the nation address that Zuma was supposed to give, was a checklist of generally wise or obvious actions for the problems the country faces, including judicial independence and prosecution of the corrupt.

Most notable was the change in tone: dignified and presidential, gone the arrogance and divisiveness in place of a more unifying approach. He even paused to say a few words in Afrikaans, generally the language of conservative whites, asking: “Please, give us a chance”. It seemed an implicit admission of shame for the Zuma years.

The problems of South Africa are all still there, the inherited ones of massive inequality and all the self-made ones of the Zuma era. Ramaphosa has narrow support in the party. Some of the people backing him are hoodlums. But suddenly, for the first time in years, it seems possible these problems will be tackled responsibly.

This country which can be on a destructive path and feel as though it is 5 minutes to midnight for a lengthy time, can also surprise and bounce back through inspiring events.

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

South Africa and the road to Mangaung: No longer at ease


Public forums are a particular kind of political debate—both a contest among professional politicians or commentators and a vox populi airing of public opinion. This evening’s discussion sponsored by a local newspaper and a German think tank and taking place in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, comes at an opportune time when this country, always a fractious proposition, is in a particularly high state of anxiety over the future. In the same month that over 50 people have been killed in violent labour disputes, 100,000 miners are on strike and international confidence in the country is falling—underlined by a credit downgrade—the perception of drift and decline is undeniable. South Africa is at a cross roads and the trend lines are negative. Much of the sense of malaise draws from the rot inside the ruling ANC party—riven by factional conflicts as well as, more seriously, arrogance and incompetence. A party that regards itself to have a revolutionary mission to govern is impervious to criticism and incapable of standing aside from areas where it cannot manage and should best leave alone.

In other words the ANC is now part of the problem. Corruption has overtaken many of its endeavours including its—badly needed, but badly executed—black economic empowerment programmes which have been captured by corrupt behaviour, producing a class of tenderpreneurs rather than legitimate businesses. The volume of scandal and malpractice brought to light—only a fraction of which is prosecuted—points to deep seated malaise. Held to account by a noisy civil society and independent judicial system the government has come to regard such constraints as “counter-revolutionary”. Although the ANC includes a “constitutionalist” faction that wishes to submit to the rule of law as a necessity for modern governance that will help keep it clean and effective, powerful groups have begun to describe media and other criticism in terms of conspiracy and wish to up the ante and impose a more radical agenda, in other words to “double down” on policies that are already failing.  Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The old trunk

Chiefs Island Lake Joseph Canada August 29th 2012

In June 1939 my Father turned 17, finished the academic year at a Canadian high school and spent the summer at his family’s cottage on Chiefs Island Lake Joseph in the lakeland north of Toronto. It was a hot summer and then, as now, the lake was a comfortable and care-free place to spend it: swimming, sailing, canoeing, fishing, hiking and entertaining guests at the cottage that combined comforts with a wilderness setting.

In the evenings the family hosted cocktail and dinner parties where discussion reflected the attitudes of the time: loyalty and reverence for all things British.

It is difficult to imagine Canada as such a country now and nor were many of its qualities even admirable. It was also a world very near to its end. In 20 years the British Empire would be nearly gone and with it the late imperial grandeur of the 1930s.

The British connection in Canada now holds nostalgia peculiarly indistinct. Uniquely among the older Commonwealth countries, there are few real ties and lasting points of contact in sport, culture or even the familiarity of accent, which means that the relationship is drained of real rivalry. Australians are robustly competitive with the UK – the basis of national identity and assertiveness. Canadians are not. For a country founded in opposition to the American republic the magnetic pull of rivalry and cultural reference is to the south, with the British link a sentimental memory.


But in the late 1930s the link with Britain was very much alive. My fathers’ was an Anglo-Imperial family. His own father was a Colonel, decorated in the First World War, who flew nothing other than the Union Jack from the flagpole in front of the summer cottage. The family was already third generation Canadian by then, descended from millers who left Devonshire for Canada in the 1840s.

At the cottage on Chiefs Island in the summer of 1939 conversation concerned looming war in Europe. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to avoid war at any cost still had followers as did those, led by Winston Churchill, who foresaw epic struggle against totalitarian evil by allied democracies and even the survival of Britain itself.

I don’t know what my father thought of this. The pictures of him that summer show a tanned, handsome young man posing on the boathouse dock at Chiefs Island in a bathing suit and with his trade-mark brush cut, the haircut he kept for the rest of his life.

By the summer of 1939 Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was in tatters and Britain was reluctantly preparing for war but on much weaker terms than a year before when Czechoslovakia had been discarded at the Munich Conference and later invaded and conquered by Germany.

As the Canadian summer wore on the news from Europe would have been darker. By August the Soviet Union and Germany were negotiating a non-aggression treaty—the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact—including secret protocols for the invasion of Poland, making the British and allied commitment to come to its aid even more hopeless.

August would have been glorious in the way that a Canadian summer is. For a country with such bitter winter, summer is remarkably hot and made more sweet for being so fleeting. At this point my Grandfather took my father and uncle and left Chiefs Island for a wilderness canoe trip in northern Ontario, then, as now, a vast continuous forest navigated by a network of lakes and rivers.

For my father that canoe trip was a bridge between his youth and all that followed; between the calm and isolation of the wilderness he passed through in the certainty of my grandfather’s company, who had taken him on many such trips since his early boyhood, and the knowledge that all this was ending. World War II was days away and the peacefulness of that Canadian summer and the certainties of Anglo-Imperial Canada in the 1930s would soon belong to the past.

North America is generally not the source or site of the world’s problems and anyone living there or returning to it from far away finds unmistakeable its sense of safety and seclusion together with the freedoms and security that have made it a refuge for people from distant and troubled lands who do not take those freedoms lightly. Periodically, when world events intrude, young men have gone off to war to uphold those values.

One day the river they were following in their canoe passed under a railway bridge with a work gang and they called up to the navvies for news from Europe on the radio. The workmen called back: The Germans?—they won’t fight!  

It was nearly the end of August. They loaded the canoe on a freight train that brought them back to Lake Joe and Chiefs Island and the comforts of the old cottage. My father and other young men typically slept in the upstairs of an old boathouse that projects over the wateranyone there drifts to sleep to the sound of the waves.

The next day was September 1st—a date that for Canadians then as now is the symbolic end to summer and summer holidays. When he awoke a newscaster on the radio was announcing that the German army had invaded Poland and Britain would declare war. My father said he knew then that his youth was over. In an Anglo-Imperial family there was no doubt what was expected of him. He returned to school that fall and completed his last year of high school, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force on his 18th birthday, got his wings as a pilot, was sent to Burma and participated in the Second World War.

The old boathouse is still there on Chiefs Island and when I return to Canada I sleep there and think of it as one of the most peaceful places I know. There is an old leather trunk upstairs with my Grandfather’s initials and rank on it from the First World War, but which are crossed out, and over them written my father’s name and rank from the Second. At times when I am in the Congo I wish that I had the old trunk with me.

Douglas Mason is a Canadian writer and consultant who works throughout Africa and runs a boxing club for former child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The Masons’ Matheson skiff

In 1884 John Matheson, the son of a shipbuilder from Caithness Scotland, sailed for Canada, eventually settling in the village of Port Carling, then a frontier wilderness settlement on the Muskoka Lakes in northern Ontario. Muskoka was then beginning the transition from logging and hard scrabble pioneer farming to a summer destination for the Toronto gentry then, as now, the Hamptons or Lake District of central Canada.

Matheson ultimately made a name for himself there as a master boat builder who built rowing skiffs, giving way in the teens and 1920s to the beautiful gasoline launches that are now a part of the antique boat sub-culture of Muskoka. Matheson died in Port Carling in 1942 and is still recalled as an expert craftsmen who to the end of his career used only hand tools. Many of his boats are still in use today. I have one of them, the Cygnet—young swan—a beautiful 12 foot cedar rowing skiff. It is a modest craft compared with the power launches of the 20s and 30s built with mahogany wood and brass fittings for the Canadian business and political elite of the era that are minor works of art and now come with eye popping prices to match. But it is every bit as remarkable in graceful simplicity, perhaps made more special for likely being the first boat Matheson ever built in Muskoka.

Matheson arrived in Port Carling in 1890 and, out of work as a boat builder, was hired by my great grandfather, James Herbert Mason, to do the interior wood work and cabinetry on the summer cottage he was then building on Chiefs Island, Lake Joseph. The cottage—a nine bedroom summer home which burnt down in 1951—was built to supplement the original structure, a simple barn beam building sawn from local timber that was the first summer home on the lake, built in 1874; it is still in use by my family today. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The light of the world

The Beyond Sport Summit, London July 2012


I’ve been skateboarding since I was six, growing up in Australia. Now we’ve brought it to Afghanistan with, “Skatestan”. We teach kids to board, to do something fun and make something of their lives.

I am at the Beyond Sport Summit in London, an annual jamboree of energy and creativity that showcases organisations the world over that are using sport in some capacity, most often unusual and unanticipated, to promote positive pursuits for people from Thailand to Timbuktu.

In the first day I’ve met someone using surfing to promote HIV prevention in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest—and allegedly most violent—informal settlement; a member of the Georgian national rugby team who is running an outreach programme for youth offenders in his country’s prison system, and a woman from California managing Girls Kickin’ It, a football programme for the victims of sexual violence in the territory of Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army in northern Uganda. There are organisations here that run sports programmes in deprived inner city areas of the UK, outreach programmes from famous sport teams including the New Orleans Saints and Real Madrid, a black former NFL player who is vice principle and director of athletics at a school in Arizona; and a Venezuelan industrialist who, after his factories were targeted and robbed by criminal gangs, made contact with the same people and brought them into a partnership that employs them at his business but makes them go to school and participate in a local rugby league, saying that the physical discipline of the sport was the only thing he could find to get gang members to cooperate with each other. One of the more colourful figures here—literally—is “KK”, a heavily tattooed ex LA gang member who was deported from the US to Cambodia, the country of his birth which he had left in diapers and knew nothing about, but set to something he did know about—break dancing, a pursuit he’s since introduced to the streets of Phnom Penh. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

South Africa: Spear of the Nation

July 21st 2012

It is hardly unusual for an elected politician to be portrayed irreverently in pop art and counter-culture and when they are, their best response is to observe the Streisand Principle and say as little as possible at risk of bringing greater public attention to it. In other words, once a politician starts complaining about their public treatment they’ve already lost the argument.

When earlier this year South African president Jacob Zuma was the subject of an avant-garde painting, modeled on a socialist realism portrait of Vladimir Lenin—but with his genitals exposed—the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party responded with fury, branding the painting an affront to the president’s dignity, went to court to have it banned, launched street demonstrations of its supporters in front of the gallery concerned, threatened a state boycott of an independent newspaper that published the picture and raised the heat on political and racial discourse. The painting was eventually defaced by a government supporter and later withdrawn by the gallery in a settlement with the ANC that prevented the case from going to court.

Among many other things the case pushed on hot button issues of race and sexuality, the appropriate place for art in social commentary and highlighted the question of whether South Africa is a western or African country. Institutionally, and on paper at least, South Africa is in line with western and international norms, with an effective parliament, liberal constitution and a vibrant, open, civil society. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

South Africa: A hitch-hiker’s guide to the Free State

July 1st 2012

Anyone who has ever hitch-hiked will know it is an activity designed to produce resentment. Watching cars zip past, their passengers traveling in comfort, a hitch hiker wishes only for one of them to stop and pull him into their world and out of his—out of the sun, the heat or the cold. It is a powerless pursuit, dependent on the good will of others. As a younger man I hitch hiked across North America once, from a summer job in western Canada. It was a romantic venture, I suppose. But I also recall long periods waiting, being passed by cars that did not stop and as the hours went by the feeling of frustration turning to resentment was undeniable—I  came to hate those people.

Transport in rural South Africa is dependent upon hitch hiking—it is how everyone gets around. In the Eastern Free State, an area where the plains meet the mountains with landscape reminiscent of southern Alberta or Arizona, there are frequently no scheduled routes: anyone with a car driving these lonely roads and empty countryside is a one man bus company. The hitch hikers are not white; like many things in this country it is a constant visual reminder of inequality and many other sad legacies. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Hidden Warsaw

Warsaw, Poland

April 3rd 2012

You hear this song? It is about a worker who is happy to be getting up at 4AM to work in a steel mill in the socialist paradise of post war Poland.

At this the guide turns up the volume on the car stereo;  the track is part 1940s American big band and part Polish Mazurka. I am the passenger in a vintage Soviet car driving through the streets of Warsaw on an excursion—Warsaw Behind the Scenes—that is a mix of conventional city tour and pub crawl. The next track gets more interesting—an officially sanctioned pop song of the mid-60s that sounds somewhere between The Beatles and The Carpenters—the chorus for which, my guide says, is Somebody loves me; the next is weirder still—1970s Funk with an east European flair.

At that point the authorities wanted to promote the idea that everything was ok, just normal, that there wasn’t a need for propaganda, and so we had Soviet sanctioned pop music though you will notice that it is really just local variations of western music, which is what people were trying to listen to anyway.

History hangs heavily over Poland and you really cannot escape it—the events are not abstract memory, they are a part of national consciousness that everyone knows and references as though they had just happened. In Warsaw those events are more awful, more complete than almost anywhere else; the capital city, a proud metropolis and centre of historical experience and architectural expression was levelled by the German army in 1944 following the Warsaw Uprising, the destruction of buildings proceeding according to their importance to Polish history and culture and continuing street by street and neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Pictures of the city afterword reveal a wasteland—piles of bricks and a few gutted, half standing buildings. No modern city has experienced a destruction more complete. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Warsaw at table

Warsaw Poland

April 1st 2012

You like vodka? We have the best in Poland, here try this one, Potóćkí. You know the price? You don’t need to know, you are my guest, you are at my table. Here, you have to down it at once, with me. You are from Canada? Yes, I have been there—I go hunting there often, elk and grizzly bear, northern British Columbia, but they are not as big as in Siberia, on the Kamchatka, I am going there next month. I also hunt in Africa. You can hunt here also, wild boar, deer, even buffalo, but it is not the same. Russia and the Ukraine—they have good hunting, maybe it is the only good thing they have, sadly. Have you been there? If you had you would know what I am talking about. It is the Wild West, and I don’t mean that it is interesting and exciting, it is unpredictable and dangerous. I own 40,000 hectares of land in the Ukraine. It belonged to my family before the war, when it was part of Poland. I am pursuing a restitution case in the courts there. These things take time, it is irregular in that country. You can’t count on the courts only, you have to have protection. That is the way it works. I am a lawyer. I know these things. I work in business, business from Russia, business from America. The country here is good now, the chances are ok, we have waited a long time for that. Here, try this vodka, it is even better, but you have to follow it with plum brandy, I know that it is a peasant’s drink, but every country has its rural traditions, it is what keeps the place true to itself. Here, ask these girls, they know, they will tell you the same thing.

When you arrive at the restaurant U Kucharzy—one Michelin star—in Warsaw on a Friday evening without a reservation you sit at the common table and dine with whomever is there.

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Three continents

North Woolwich East London, March 2012

The east London Docklands, a former industrial area that once serviced the British mercantile empire helping bring into being the modern trading world, seems to stretch endlessly on this grey day in March, a vast flatland now slowly being remade into condominium towers and office space. That transformation has gone far but is not complete—this is still one of the poorest areas of London if not Britain. Alighting at King George V station I am in the middle of a mid-60s public housing estate in North Woolwich, an area claimed to have some of the highest levels of violent crime in London.

At the end of a street of council flats across from a boarded-up pub is the London headquarters of the British charity Fight for Peace, an organisation that connects with the area’s troubled youth through boxing and martial arts, an approach it successfully applies at is satellite project in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. I am here to represent a Congolese boxing club for street boys and ex-child soldiers, applying a youth development tool that appeals to some of the toughest youngsters in this or any other country or continent. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

Out of context: country music UK!

Hastings Sussex

March 4th 2012

There are some things better understood outside their original context, the incongruous surroundings defining them more sharply, and the English country music scene may be one of them. It is Saturday night in Hastings, Sussex and the guys and gals are whooping it up at a Country & Western dance, headlined by a Dolly Parton tribute act. The local Dolly Parton, aka Sarah Jayne of Kent, is billed as “The UK and Europe’s leading and number one Dolly Parton tribute performer” and a winner at the British Country Music Awards. But when Dolly is no where to be seen this evening organisers are forced to explain that Ms Jayne has been indisposed by a “broken jaw”. This rather poetic explanation seems about as true to country music’s rough and tumble roots as you can get. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment


Hastings East Sussex
February 2012

Ok, I will admit it now; when I was 14 I let the air out of the tyre of a parked car, dumped garbage into a mail box and threw snow balls at passing cars. I also, once, threw eggs from the balcony of a friend’s apartment building. But I never committed a robbery or stole a car let alone set one on fire.

There is a burning car directly in front of my house right now at 3AM in an otherwise peaceful English neighbourhood. I’ve only awoke after the fuel tank exploded, although my next door neighbour is well awake, almost hysterical—her Elizabethan house, made of wood, and leaning out over the road, is in danger of catching fire. It would have except that as the fire really got going and the car’s break pads were turned to toast, it began rolling down the hill in flames before the fire department arrived and threw something under the wheels to make it stop. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The Hoarder

Hastings Old Town East Sussex, February 2012


Dear Noel

In the immortal words of Simon Van Winkle, ‘All good things must come to an end’ and so I must tell you that your stay with us will be winding to a close.

With these words Noel James Caterwood, then 83, was asked to leave his lodgings on 63 High Street in the Hastings Old Town, East Sussex in 2007. He was a hoarder of some renown already then and evidently his stay had become intolerable. It is from there that Noel came into my life—he moved into my own house further up the hill in the Hastings old town at 43 Croft Road.

I never met Noel. My house was managed by a letting agency who took him on as my tenant. I heard little of him for the next 3 years and he became progressively harder to reach as letters went unanswered and the telephone never picked up. It is a familiar picture of the journey of age, of fading memory, confusion and declining ability. But independence is a prized possession for the old and, ultimately, among the last worth having. Noel still took care of himself. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

The club is my home

Club des Amitiés boxing club, Goma, Nord-Kivu November 2011


I am an orphan and am alone in the world. I work with the mechanics here in the Kibabie market in Goma, which is what feeds me, but it is difficult. Before that I was a street boy. The Club des Amitiés is my home.

I was forcibly recruited to the Mai Mai milita in 2006, when I was 12, and I left them in 2009, fleeing. My Father is dead and my Mother lives outside of Goma in the countryside. During my military life I went through much suffering. I now live in a friend’s home and carry things for people as a job, so as to get money for food. In order to eat I must work very hard.

I was orphaned, losing my father age one. My Mother who had been my support has been weakened by sickness. The Club des Amitiés has become my family. I was not in the army or militas, but after the rebel commander Laurent Nkunda took the city of Bukavu I witnessed my sisters being raped by soldiers. One became infected with AIDS and later took poison to kill herself.

After my Mother died things became hard, particularly as their were 12 of us. I was later abducted into Thomas Lubanga’s army, in Bunia, Ituri province. I fought there for four years. I finally left them with the help of Human Rights Watch. Since then I have been working as a mechanic’s assistant here in Kibabie, and boxing at the Club des Amitiés. I am the Bantam weight champion for eastern Congo. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

It has been this way for a long time

Goma, Nord-Kivu November 2011

Yes, the violence is now quite serious. They will come to your house at night, they will demand money and they will kill you.

Sometimes it is by people who are carrying out an execution, where there has been some kind of business deal and the sharing has not been done to someone’s satisfaction. In that case they just kill you, or punish you.  Those are common—there were 5 of them here last month, just the ones that I know about.  Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

I am angry with my Father!

Goma, Nord Kivu Province Democratic Republic of Congo, October 30th 2011


The movie Ezra, a full length drama about a child soldier in a fictional African country who is abducted by rebels, comes back to his own village and kills his parents, tells a tale that has some resonance in the Congo, including here in the war torn Kivus and tonight, where it is being shown at the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival. The movie is not exactly high art, but it tells a story and has some tense drama, including battle scenes and killings by child soldiers that are frightening enough in their realism. The audience watches with rapt attention—this is context with local echo. When the lights go up and the Q and A starts most of the commentary refers to personal experience and to having been moved by this film. One young man stops his intervention and says he cannot continue.

With the movie over, it is time to get home which means finding a ride. When you move around at night in Goma you must be strategic about it. The outlying residential quarters are prone to night time armed robberies and attacks in the street by “bandits”, armed men in uniform which is short hand for the government army and police. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finding peace in a war zone—the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival

Goma, Nord Kivu Province Democratic Republic of Congo, October 27th 2011


Art will happen anywhere it is imagined and the venue for the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival (SKIFF) in Goma, eastern Congo, is packed out this afternoon—most of the crowd being kids there for a dance contest, after which there is a ballot with long lines for the voting: a vibrant, messy, democracy.

The largest such festival in Congo, SKIFF is a major event, as much an arts festival as a film festival, with concerts, dance performances, discussion groups, workshops, films from around the world and local ones also. It is an improbable but beautiful event, here in the conflict zone of Nord Kivu province, far from Congo’s biggest cities.

What is called the festival at the foot of a volcano—the active Nyiragongo volcano is less than 5km away—is the brain child of the Congolese film makers Petna Katondolo and his wife Chérie and is in its 5th year. It’s—now legendary—opening season was marked by a major military offensive by a local warlord which came to the gates of the city and threatened to topple it as well. The festival, bravely, decided to continue. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bullshit! Navigating the BS factor in the DRC

Goma, Nord Kivu Province Democratic Republic of Congo October 26th 2011


You are not intelligent! Do you think you can come here and ask me questions? I do not know you! Can you do that in your country? No. If you were intelligent you would understand that.

Our question seems quite straight forward—we are in the office of the Ministry of Youth and Sport in Nord Kivu province in eastern Congo and want to register a boxing club for street youths and get information from the relevant authorities on how to do it. We’ve come half way across the world, from a seminar in Brazil, are keen to apply lessons learned and get moving on everything we have to do to make an impact in the lives of some very poor people; street boys, demobilised soldiers and others at risk or in trouble. But nothing in the Democratic Republic of Congo is ever so easy.

It is I who will ask the questions. Not you. You are in a government office. You think I am being difficult? Yes, you can leave, you can go and speak with someone else. But you will not find them easier and you will have to come back to me, or wish you had. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Neither heaven nor hell—life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro

Maré favela, Rio de Janeiro October 2011

The slums—or favelas—of Brazil’s cities as seen through movies and pop culture are generally places of unspeakable brutality. From City of God—the 2002 film that tells the—mostly—true story of the short brutish lives of a group of young gang members to the 2007 Tropa de Elite about the urban combat of a favela bound police unit, these stories depict an urban horror of violence and crime. These are not places you are supposed to visit and would lead to certain robbery or worse at the hands of heartless criminals and indifferent residents if you do, according to popular imagination.

With this in mind it is reassuring to know after two weeks in one large and notorious favela in Rio de Janeirio that these are mostly peaceful and even pleasant places with normal, kind and resourceful people going about their daily lives. There is far more joy than suffering apparent here. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Fighting for peace—boxing and building better lives in gangland Brazil

Maré favela, Rio de Janeiro October 2011

You are crossing an invisible line, it is another drug gang’s territory from this point forward; the bullet holes you see are from the battles to enforce that, there are people in this community who haven’t crossed these lines for years, are stuck in the same neighbourhood that they cannot leave. Do not take any photographs and do not walk around alone.

It is with this that the Maré favela is introduced, a slum of 150,000 people in southern Rio de Janeiro, the place that will be home for the next week to myself and my child soldiers NGO from Congo as well as other groups who are using boxing and martial arts clubs to reach troubled youth everywhere from the slums of Nairobi Kenya to Scranton Pennsylvania. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

From Congo to Brazil—a journey

October 2011

If things happen for a purpose then the obstacles encountered getting the staff of my child soldiers NGO from war torn eastern Congo to Brazil were a test—obstacles in our path every step of the way, from one of our number being thrown in jail by the Congolese army—due to no fault of their own—to the official needed to sign and issue their passports being absent for weeks, all the while with the clock ticking down to departure when trying to get Brazilian visas issued in South Africa. But after much scrambling and making each deadline by the skin of our teeth, seeing my guys in the transit lounge of Johannesburg airport is like greeting old friends having come through the wars. The next week will be spent in the slums of Rio de Janeiro at the invitation of a local NGO learning how to use boxing to make a difference in the lives of troubled youth. As an organisation we have much to learn.
Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The wrong side of history—an evening among apartheid’s last soldiers

September 14th 2011

Die Bos—“The Bush” in Afrikaans—outdoor pub is situated in a hollow under a forest of thorn trees and, with a copper moon rising above the tree line on a summer evening, is a suitable setting for gathering the veterans of the bush wars of South Africa’s late apartheid period. What is called “The Border War” was the last, but nasty, gasp of the apartheid era, a pitiless 13 year conflict fought inside Angola and near the border with Namibia, the latter at the time a quasi colony ruled by South Africa in defiance of international law.

Viewed, variously, as a proxy of the Cold War with white ruled South Africa facing off against Soviet and Cuban forces; as a battle for black majority rule in South Africa itself; or, essentially, as a civil war inside Angola among the groups claiming the right to rule, The Border War was an epochal conflict in late 20th century Southern Africa. It ended in a tactical stalemate but a strategic defeat. Apartheid South Africa could not subdue Angola or the other front line states or determine who they would be ruled by. But, as the Soviet Union and eastern block collapsed, an opening was created for a peaceful settlement. Namibia achieved independence and black majority rule in 1990 followed, four years later, by the, still, marvelous social and political miracle that delivered the end to minority rule in South Africa itself. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 3 Comments

A tyranny of beauty

Free State, South Africa 2011

Uncommonly beautiful people wield power—their attractiveness being some kind of innate social capital. That beauty can command indulgences and empower much whether for good or ill. For the latter just ask anyone on the receiving end of the super model tantrums of Naomi Campbell. Given all this, it is a pleasure to experience anyone unchanged by the great wealth of their great beauty. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Valley of Roses

Rosendal Free State South Africa, August 6th 2011

Rosendal—Rose Valley—in the eastern Free State is reached by a dirt road from over a mountain pass and when you descend down into the valley and arrive at this small but very pleasant farming town cum arts colony with its simple early 20th century cottages and well laid out streets, surrounded by hills, you know that you have arrived at a special spot.

Obscure towns that are made popular by creative types are a phenomenon world wide. The basic story is that an attractive if over looked place is discovered by outside talent or starving artists who bring with them some big city vibe or inventiveness. A few antique shops or galleries, a decent restaurant and a boutique hotel are the basic ingredients. Some grow into international destinations in their own right; San Miguel de Allende, an historic Spanish colonial town in the highlands of central Mexico is one such place, having been a destination for American artists and every restless or hedonistic soul from Ernest Hemingway to Jim Morrison for decades. Now, of course, it is a major cosmopolitan centre with links to money and celebrity from Paris to Los Angeles and with eye popping real estate prices to match. Williamsburg Virginia, Carcassonne Provence, Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario, Santa Fé New Mexico, have all been down this route, starting from relatively humble origins as sleepy out of the way provincial towns before becoming lifestyle destinations. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

Van Dam’s Pirates

Ficksrus Free State South Africa July 10th 2011

Hollywood movies about little league sports teams are a formula—the story line requires that a struggling team of under dogs and misfits experience early failure and disappointment before being inspired to believe in themselves and go on to achieve improbable but great things. I’m thinking of that today as the football team I’m helping, drawn from the workers living on a big farm in South Africa’s Free State province, are struggling to mount a defense against a talented and well trained side from the neighbouring town.

Youth sports teams are social bodies that reflect the character and standing of their communities and any game is a constellation of these rivalries. The visitors are better educated town boys and my guys, manual labourers who work with livestock all day, are not a pretty bunch. This is not beautiful football—there is some wild play and, also, some blood. At half time players from the other side have come to complain to me. I should not be surprised—when the farm’s owner heard of my plan to help out he gave me a wary look and said: “they are a pretty rough bunch”. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Farm team

Ficksrus, Free State June 19th 2011

The 1988 sports comedy film Bull Durham starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins put a spotlight on life in the farm teams of American minor league baseball and ultimately became a cult classic. I’m thinking of this while watching some talent labouring in the obscurity of what is a real farm team. It’s Sunday afternoon on a farm in the plattelands of South Africa’s Free State and the workers are facing off against a soccer team from a neighboring property. The pitch is a grassy uneven field and the sidelines are a tractor-ploughed trench and with some rickety old goal posts at either end of the field. Neither team has uniforms and some of the players are in bare feet and ragged clothes. I am among poor people—landless farm workers who live on the property. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Soweto Day 2011—Liberation 35 years on

Ficksrus, Free State South Africa June 16th 2011

It is clear and cold with a bright winter sun on Soweto Day, a public holiday in South Africa that celebrates the 1976 Soweto riots, and I am marking it by watching a little league soccer game in the township of Matlwangtlwang in the flat plains of the Free State. Two youth teams are playing—New Castle vs Marabelle, both local sides, the latter coached by my contractor and friend, Letatsi. It is a fairly ordinary scene really. Both sides have bright team jerseys and are playing on a dusty uneven field without markings or any bleachers, surounded on one side by small but neat brick homes and, on the other, by the informal section of the settlement—tin shacks of varying degrees of squalor. In the near distance and physcially removed from the township under the old apartheid geography is Matlwangtlwang’s twin city of Ficksrus—the latter still, largely, the white town, with its tall sandstone Church steeple and now faded main street.

I’m the only white guy here today but my presence is unremarkable and largely unnoticed or ignored, for which I am grateful. In fact the whole scene is fairly unremarkable—a league match on a public holiday attended by a small crowd. This normality is a bigger achievement than it sounds. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

South Africa’s local government elections: in the toilet

Free State, May 18th 2011

When the African National Congress (ANC) mayor in the small town of Viljoenskroon in South Africa’s Free State province let an untendered sanitation contract for the local black township to a company owned by her and her husband black she may never have anticipated the political storm that would follow. The toilets were constructed but no outhouses were built around them for their users—an indignity that has now received nation wide public acknowledgement. But the “loo with a view” controversey, a minor scandal, has become an unlikely political symbol in South Africa’s local elections and the tip of the iceberg for the type of problems that plague local service delivery amid fraud, cronyism and incompetence.

Seventeen years after the end of Apartheid the ruling from the ruling ANC party remains politically dominant and runs the vast majority of local councils in the country. As the party of liberation it is unassailable although the quality of its local management and service delivery is now acknowleged to be appalling. A steady drip of scandal and malfeasance over the years has chipped away at its once invincible moral authority and, in the months leading to the elections, massive failure in service delivery has become the dominant electoral issue. Evidence of waste, mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption have all come to the fore: bridges and school buildings built by companies owned by ANC politicians that fail or are unsafe, municipal governments unable to account for their budgets or manage their responsibilities with the result that major roads have become impassable due to lack of maintenance while household water in cities is unsafe or unavailable. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Huricane

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo July 2011

The lives of professional boxers are inextricably linked with suffering—success tending to be fleeting and short lived, brought short by defeat, self-destructive behaviour or injustice. Hurricane Carter endured years of wrongful imprisonment, Mike Tyson also did time and was dogged by continuous controversy and misconduct. It is rare to find a boxer making a successful post career transition and no one turns to boxing when and if they have better alternatives if their lives.

In light of this the news that Kibomango, my Congolese boxing instructor and co-worker at the Kivu Reintegration Centre, an NGO which works with street youth and demobilised soldiers, is now in jail comes as no surprise, even adds to his legend. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Convoy

April 17th 2011 Rushuru, Nord Kivu Democratic Republic of Congo

Are things getting better? No, no they’re not. Something can happen at any time and you never know when. We had 20 incident reports last month—something violent enough for us to become involved. Sometimes we think things are getting better for a while and then they fall apart again. Who is it? We never really know—bandits, rebels, the militias, the government army? All anyone can say is that it is men in uniform with guns and they all wear the same uniform. Most of the incidents are looting, rape and other violence. Out on the roads it is the looting of vehicles. Traveling at night is risky—those that do it know that.

I am in the lead vehicle of a UN supply convoy when this bleak statement is delivered by a young Indian Army officer, Major Gupta, about our destination, Rushuru district in Nord-Kivu province. It is dark now and on mention of night time attacks he illuminates a red light on the dashboard.
Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC on the downswing

DRC on the downswing

Goma, Nord Kivu January 18th 2011 th

No matter how poor and conflict ridden an African country may be the single issue that makes them more bearable is knowing whether they are on the trajectory to something better through the good policies and actions that will improve whatever its miserable situation may be.

Even in the aftermath of Congo’s civil war and its messy path toward peace and reconstruction in the mid 2000s it used to be possible to take comfort in the knowledge that the country was slowly climbing toward stabilisation and recovery.
Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The boxer

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo April 11th

A late night phone call from an aggrieved professional boxer asking to see you may not be the kind of request anyone would wish to receive. But I’ve been kind of hoping for this call and am glad for it. There was a near riot the day before between this boxer’s supporters and those of Kibomango, the ex-child soldier, after the match between them was cancelled without explanation. Violence is not unfamiliar in this war zone and tensions were running high—things happened. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Life’s a riot

Goma April 10th 2011

Truth is a slippery commodity—we can know it only to the extent revealed and on this day when there is a near riot in the town of Goma, eastern Congo, based on half truth and rumour the full extent of one’s research abilities will be needed to uncover what is actually going on.

It is late morning on the day of the much anticipated prize fight between Congo’s two top boxers when it is suddenly announced to be cancelled. For boxing fans who have been waiting for this day for months—and which has been built up with as much show biz razzmatazz as this ragged town can muster—the effect is electric. People who have been brought to the point of anticipation and excitement over any sporting event will react with anger and frustration when it is snatched from them without explanation. This is typically how public disturbances begin.

In the absence of clear information rumours circulate to destructive effect. One is that the local champion Kibomango has been disqualified by the national boxing federation, something which produces outrage among his supporters. Another is that the challenger, Manda, has fearfully backed out. On hearing this Manda takes to the streets in full boxing gear, shouting that he is ready to fight regardless—a disturbance ensues in which he is set upon by a hostile crowd before being rescued by Kibomango’s manager and taken to a safe house. From this incident the story circulates that he has been abducted. Both camps of supporters remain in a high state of agitation all day. The city is on the verge of a riot. Although truth cannot always be known the misapprehensions that spring from its absence will create their own reality. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

Fight parade

Goma DRC April 9th 2011

The easiest route to the public’s attention in a country without a lot of modern media is to do it the traditional way—you take your message directly to the streets. That is what is happening today in Goma where, like circus barkers, motorcades are running through the streets of town to advertise tomorrow’s boxing match between local hometown boy, the great Kibomango, and the—admittedly impressive—challenger from Lubumbashi, Manda Yannick. Someone with a loud speaker is blaring out the message about the fight and on the roof of the vehicle Kibomango is riding, kitted out in full boxing gear. Ahead two motorcycle riders, wearing the black team T-shirt uniform, are clearing the path as in a presidential cavalcade. This definitely gets the public’s attention and there is a huge crowd of kids following alongside shouting and singing chants. One of them is for Manda to watch out—that Kibomango can kill again. This is probably not exactly what Kibomango would like to hear said in his favour—he’s done everything possible to atone for the death of Saidi, who died in combat against him in his last professional bout. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

Don King Congo

On boxing promoters in the Congo, Goma April 8th 2011

Fight promoter may not be the top of any list of the most reputable vocations. There is a sleazy underside to the world of boxing in whatever country it takes place and the businessmen who get down into the gutter to make the sport happen, to underwrite the fights, line up the boxers, and command the crowds and anticipation to make them worthy of watching are not the same people of which you would expect purity. And if you found out they had nasty back grounds or did disreputable things behind closed doors you could not say you were surprised.

Few probably ever expect or wish to be behind those closed doors and that is exactly the thought crossing my mind as I am led into a private meeting room at the Goma casino in eastern Congo—a war zone where business has sharp edges. I have been summoned to meet the fight promoter backing the upcoming combat of the ex-child soldier boxer, Kibomango—another unlikely acquaintance—and the challenger, Manda Yannick. While asked to wait I notice that the furniture and décor—bad taste on a grand scale; huge, scuffed leather chesterfields and smoked glass chandeliers—is exactly the heavy dark décor I’d expect to see from the New Jersey mafia. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

Zombie wrestlers and fearful boxers—very mixed martial arts in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Stade des Volcans, Goma DRC April 5th

There is a universal appeal to professional wrestling—you will find it in any corner of the world, the combination of faux combat, gymnastic ability and pure acting and theatre finding resonance for audiences in the recognisable villains and heroes.

The format is generally adapted to local taste and context but the strangest this writer has seen—or at least imagined—are the zombie wrestlers of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is definitely unique local context: a wrestler in a tight spot in the Congo can call upon powers that Hulk Hogan and The Rock could only imagine—full on magic and witchcraft. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 5 Comments

Rwanda: the fatal flaw

Kigali, Rwanda March 31st 2011

Soldiers with guns are something a traveller will become used to in Africa. They are not exactly comforting but are easy to ignore. In Rwanda, which prides itself—with some justification—on being non-corrupt, soldiers in the streets of the capital, Kigali, have tended to add to the sense of security in this orderly country.

But there is something different this time—the soldiers stationed every 100 yards downtown and at just about every intersection in the city, standing, mute, with their machine guns. This is new, something that has happened in the last year which saw grenade attacks in the capital and a disputed election in which the president, Paul Kagame, won 93% of the vote—a margin of victory that puts any leader in dictator territory. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

The Catechist

Aga Khan Hospital Nairobi, Kenya March 25th 2011

If someone tells you they are going to pray for you the reaction of most non-faith people—including this one—might typically be bemusement. But if faith is not much part of your life meeting those for whom it is requires at least a respectful hearing or some pause for thought.

After 4 days alone in an African hospital with a potentially fatal illness—the 3rd in the last month—the offer to see someone of the cloth is intriguing as much as anything else. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

Nairobi law!

The Aga Khan Hospital, Nairobi Kenya March 21st 2011

When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation put out the TV show Street Legal in 1987 as its own domestic knock-off copy of the popular American programme LA Law, it was following what defenders of public broadcasting assume to be its mandate: producing programming by and about people from the same country. They do not say it has to be good, as every unwatchable PC programme produced by the Mother Corp can attest.

I’m thinking of this while in the waiting room of the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, waiting for the blood work to come back, and while the entire room is watching the latest episode of…. Nairobi Law. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments


The Peponi Hotel, Lamu Island Kenya, March 20th 2011

There is something cruel about upper crust English accents—it is as though the beauty of the speech is directly related to its lack of sincerity or inherent kindness. What someone says is not, strictly, what is meant. Such language does not establish a bond with the listener so much as erect a barrier and protect whatever it is that this race feels the need for separation from.

The bar of the—€300/night—Peponi Hotel in Shela, formerly a fishing village, now the upmarket north end of Lamu island, is a raucous place this evening—there are screeches of laughter and glasses slammed to the bar. Brits on the piss. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

The refugee

Lamu Island, Kenya March 20th 2011

A man can come to escape from many things on Lamu Island—the sea breezes and relaxed Swahili culture of this timeless town and its endless sand beaches are a feast for the eye and balm to the soul for all and anything that ails you. After malaria and malarial reoccurrence—make the previous night of sweats and chills the last, please—and, perhaps, enough excitement from the wearing and wondersome DRC, Lamu is just what the doctor ordered. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Kenya—jet set destination or sinking ship?

Nairobi March 13th 2011

To reach Nairobi Kenya direct from the DRC is to have arrived in a Metropole, the only one, by default, in East and Central Africa or anywhere else from Cairo to The Cape. Here is a city of sophisticated services, designer furniture show rooms, Jaguar dealerships, up-market restaurants, boutique hotels and leafy green neighbourhoods of palatial mansions, country clubs and all the other signposts of local and international money.

Kenya has had a place among the international jet set, hosting rock stars and royalty, going back to at least the 1920s and 30s with its glamorous and degenerate white settlers including the libidinous Happy Valley smart set. This is a country born and based on attracting the leisured and sporting classes for over a century—a giant country club that has hosted everyone from big game hunting tourists, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, to romantic settler writers Karen Blixen and any contemporary aristocrat or wealthy eccentric who wishes to set themselves up as a modern day bwana with their own Farm in Africa. From billionaires to back packers, Kenya accommodates them all. Strong infrastructure, relative political stability and open door policy to anyone wanting to invest, buy a holiday home, open a hotel or start a business supports many livelihoods, has produced a large resident and non-resident expat community. I will see many of my own tribe here. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

A door to another world

On leaving the DRC for Rwanda and Kenya

March 12th 2011

To cross the border from DRC into Rwanda at Gisenyi is to pass through the door to another world. Leaving behind Goma and everything that is shambolic about it the traveler approaches clean orderly well functioning Rwanda. It is a nostalgic, even sad, moment—Goma has been my home and is very familiar to me. I even exchange greetings with the corrupt border official who shook me down for a bribe on entering the country 10 weeks earlier. He is actually my neighbour now as he occupies the same compound where my demobilised soldiers project has established its computer lab. We see each other all the time and here at the border he greets me like an old friend. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The DRC—Death in the afternoon

Goma, DRC March 12th 2011

When the Angolan Army intervened we were quite unprepared. They, and the Zimbabweans, had tanks, heavy weaponry and aircraft. We were lightly armed. I lost many friends that day in Kitona; I saw people killed and injured, people with their legs blown off. I was hit by shrapnel and lost my left eye. We regrouped as best we could and retreated through the jungle. I did not receive medical care until many weeks later.

I am sitting behind a camera in the middle of an interview with my new, and most unlikely, best friend, the Congolese boxer and ex-child soldier Kibomango, who is recounting his part in the Congo wars that is part Blood Diamond and part Heronious Bosch. This is a description of the pivotal battle of Kitona in 1998, which took place at a garrison town west of the capital city, deep inside Congo nearly 2000 km from the Kivus, the home of Kibomango and his RCD rebels. The intervention of Angola, Zimbabwe and four other countries marked the start of the plunge into The Second Congo War, the largest and  most deadly conflict since WW II, and something which is not yet fully over either. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 3 Comments

The Goma International Film Festival—war zone vogue

If someone were to tell you that a city was the worst in the world you could either be horrified or fascinated by it. Some people spend time compiling such lists—generally as part of a corporate HR exercise to determine living costs and hardship posts for executives abroad. I used to pay attention to these lists because it seemed I often ended up traveling to those places. They were never as bad as they sounded and I still think of them as great cities where I met remarkable people, their edginess even a drug in itself. No matter where you are life will go on, there will be creativity and beauty, people will aspire to and enjoy all the same touch points of the human experience, will have most of the same reference points and be linked-in with what is happening in the rest of the world, be it music, politics or movies. The Congolese demonstrate this point, being far more sophisticated and resourceful than the chaos of the country implies. That is apparent here in Goma, the provincial capital of a zone of conflict, the epicentre of a 16 year war without end. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

The Kivu conflicts: Begin the begin

A short history of a long war
Goma Nord-Kivu March 6th 2011

If someone were to ask what the conflict in Congo’s Kivu region was all about it might not be possible to answer without the framework for a PhD dissertation. It is complex, multi-dimensional and constantly changing. One could say that previous political and communal conflicts have been amplified and fused with a series of other conflicts and wars involving countries in the region, the weak Congolese state, at the national level and those armed groups either fighting or claiming to represent it locally, together with access to the region’s mineral and other resources, the fuel that can sustain conflicts in Africa almost indefinitely. That, in a nutshell, is the complex and pain-ridden world of the Kivus for the past 20 years, with all the suffering and tragedy that follows. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Comments Off on The Kivu conflicts: Begin the begin

DRC: High as a kite

A ramble through Goma

March 4th

When Quentin Tarantino released the movie Pulp Fiction in 1994 and its hyped-up sound track of Surf Rock, Funk, Soul, Rock-a-Billy and overlooked pop songs, I felt like my favourite music had been ripped-off. I’m thinking of this while listening to i-tunes on the back of a motor-cycle taxi driving through the streets of Goma at the point where Dick Dale’s Surf Rock classic Misirlou, kicks in. I’ve just been diagnosed with malaria and am coming back through town from the hospital. But no matter, I’m now medicated on good drugs—two doses of coartem twice a day and strong pain killers, welcome after a night of sweats and chills. I’m high as a kite. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

DRC: In the training camp of the champ

Goma, Nord-Kivu March 3rd

With less than a week to go to Kibomango’s Fight Day the training is on in earnest and the early morning sessions now proceed to plan like a military operation. I am inside the training camp of a champion boxer and the atmosphere is serious and precise.

Myself and the other students arrive, do a group work-out and proceed to the boxing drills led by Cédric, the top student who is also competing nationally next week. Kibomango works separately with his own coach who is as tough a taskmaster as ever and we hear their blows and shouts in the next room. After an hour or more of this, we break and join each other for the practice bouts which take place inside one of the dressing rooms of the Stade des Volcans football grounds. These bouts have become rather serious; the point is to provide Kibomango with a simulated fight experience and to be even remotely useful we are meant to throw everything we have at him—he can handle it all. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

Almost real—coach’s corner at the Stade des Volcans

Goma, Nord-Kivu March 1st 2011

Jab-jab, droit! Jab-jab, droit! It is the day after a failed coup in the DRC but no one is paying much attention, and not here this morning either, where our boxing drills have been going on for half an hour. They are led by the top student, Cédric, who is also Congo’s national feather weight champion and though probably 19 or 20, is completely authoritative in leading the class. When our teacher, Kibomango, strides in the atmosphere is brisk and businesslike. His national title fight is a week tomorrow and the training is on in earnest. He takes little notice of us and goes straight to sparring with the punch bag.

Shortly later an older, tough looking, rail thin man arrives wearing a worn suit, shinny in the seat and knees and with scuffed-up leather shoes. This turns out to be the trainer and as he passes by this man’s intensity and self-possession is conspicuous. He has a thin, drawn face and hard eyes—the face of a former boxer who has seen it all. He is a member of the provincial boxing federation and works for the Goma airport police detachment, the latter an incredibly powerful position; every plane cargo, every person, every business deal in the province must pass before this man. He ignores us completely and sets to the training regime with Kibomango. My teacher has a teacher.

Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Line dancing in the DRC—Saturday night in the Star Wars Bar

Goma, Nord-Kivu February 27th

Most clubs and drinking establishments in eastern Congo remind you of the Star Wars Bar, or at least the Wild West: soldiers, diamond traders, Russian pilots, bar girls, aid workers. They are not necessarily threatening and dangerous places for the most part—although when they search you for a gun at the entrance you know they are not just going through the motions. The décor is typically rough and ready, several of them open air.

But whoever opened Club-B in Goma had their sights set on something better—this place draws its inspiration from the upscale clubs of Manhattan and Paris. There is a large open area built over an empty swimming pool with groups of deep leather chairs that would not look out of place in a Nienkamper furniture showroom, and a series of 4 poster lounge beds with draw back curtains. Inside there is a DJ booth in the middle of a raised VIP only area and a long bar with under-lit red glass counter and a bank of TV screens on which Congolese music videos are being played—a large group of choreographed dancers led by a local music idol dressed like an American hip hop star but whose gangsta’ persona has infinitely more authenticity. In between shots of the dancers the video slips to the star flying in a private jet and sipping champagne. You have to hand it to the Congolese—they do have a sense of style. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 4 Comments

DRC: Fight Club

Goma, Nord-Kivu February 20th 2011

Congolese videos have an endearing home made quality to them, all jerky hand held shots and awkward camera angles. But this one is something entirely different—whether inadvertent or not, it feels like film noir. I am watching a fight video given to me by my Congolese boxing instructor, Kibomango, of his recent professional bouts, all of them taking place here in the war zone of eastern Congo. The footage is grainy and unclear and, strangely enough, black and white, adding to its vintage quality. Someone has dubbed a dark spooky sound track to it that is a combination of techno and industrial music, almost like the opening scenes to an urban horror movie with a Cronenbergish quality. It is fitting enough; like the suspended disbelief in any horror or suspense film the viewer knows its going to end badly. And in this case I know how the story concludes—one of the boxers is going to end up dying in the ring, at the hands of Kibomango. I feel like I’m watching a snuff film. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

DRC: A shirt on someone’s back

The Kivu Assistance and Reintegration Centre, Goma, Nord-Kivu February 19th 2011

Students of the Kivu Assistance and Reintegration Centre: many, like this one, are ex-soldiers.

The police truck must have been going pretty fast when it hit that telephone pole in Goma—it T-boned the front of the vehicle perfectly, slicing through the engine compartment like a giant wedge. There was a riot by university students on this spot yesterday, broken up by police gunfire, and most likely the accident is connected to that. Yes, there is a university in Goma. There is no one around now and the vehicle is abandoned—it is 630 on a Saturday morning and I’m on the back of a motorcycle taxi lugging freight across town, or at least a large duffel bag full of t-shirts. We are holding kind of a town hall meeting this morning with the staff and students of the Kivu Assistance and Reintegration Centre, ostensibly an update on what we are doing and what they can expect—that we are making progress and can probably move to our new computer lab next week, which we are kitting out with computers, a printer and furniture. This will end the current, ridiculous, situation of teaching a computer class to 75 students with a single lap top. We actually have three, but because there is no power anywhere in Goma today this is all we can use. We are also going to hand out t-shirts—with a snappy design and logo for our centre—as kind of a thank you and demonstration of faith in their commitment to the course and, I might add, us. Truth be told, I’d rather be in bed, less than a day out from a typhoid diagnosis, but I’d feel like a rat backing out at this point. And anyway I never did get to stage three symptoms—delirium and picking at imaginary objects. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

An African hospital

The Heal Africa hospital, Goma, Nord-Kivu February 17th

Hospitals are not joyful places, they underline knowledge of our own mortality and an African one can produce a range of emotions for a visitor. The main hospital in Goma, eastern Congo, is a private one run by an American Foundation—Heal Africa—that runs everything from clinics for victims of sexual violence to primary health posts in remote rural areas to complete hospitals. It basically is public health care in this area, or at least carries much of the burden. Their hospital in Goma, located on a dusty side road near the downtown, is a compound with a central building surrounded by a series of annexes and courtyards. The atmosphere is brisk and business-like and rather efficient. There are no crowds and no real line ups either; within minutes I am sitting in front of a young Congolese doctor in his consultation room, which is a steel shipping container in the garden, welded together with a few others. Dr Sosthene speaks passable English and went to medical school in Butembo, northern Nord-Kivu; I had no idea there was a med school there—it is a centre of extreme conflict and besides the constellation of Congolese armed groups it also hosts the whacked-out Ugandan ones, including the psychotic Lords Resistance Army that practices torture and mutilation as a matter of policy. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 8 Comments

DRC: The Terminator won’t be deterred

Goma North-Kivu February 10th

CNDP soldiers on patrol in Rushuru district

For a small city Goma does actually have traffic jams and a morning rush hour. As the traffic slows down the motorcycle taxi drivers—who are my main means for getting around town—are in their element, weaving in and out between vehicles, passing head-on in the centre line against oncoming traffic and essentially stopping for nothing. So when the moto-taxis and other vehicles immediately clear to the side of the road when the whine of sirens begins rising up ahead, something is up. A line of army and police trucks loaded with soldiers are barrelling toward us and as they pass I notice that several are full of police carrying AK-47 rifles, their heads covered by balaclavas. It is the rapid response unit and for them to get involved it has to be something major. For the rest of the day, it seems, there is movement and tension in the city. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Lowest of the low

The Kivu Assistance and Reintegration Centre

Goma, Nord-Kivu February 10th

One thing Bob Geldoff probably learned during his own development aid Odyssey is that no matter how slovenly or selfish someone might be in their normal life, there is nothing like being in front of very poor people, or real suffering, to shake them from sloth and sharpen the senses for moral acuteness.

It is 7AM at the Kivu Assistance and Reintegration Centre’s daily computer class and I am standing in front of 65 young people, half of them demobilised soldiers, and the rest a collection of Goma’s least desirable—mostly homeless youths in trouble with the law and who have been cast out by their families. Nearly a quarter of the class are young women, four of them demobilised soldiers, but mostly single Mothers in distress. Many of this group are known to live by thieving and this is generally how they are regarded in the community—as a nuisance and a danger. This may not be the lowest of the low but it must be pretty close. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Dead letter office

Goma, Nord-Kivu February 4th

Goma’s central post office is a colonial era building built in a faux Norman modernist style from the 1930s with a steep pitched terra cotta tile roof, a large round turret anchoring one side and an entrance way with wide arches. At one point it was a busy place—the centre of the communication technology of the time. That was a long time ago. It is a museum now, almost. There are wooden post boxes, not used in years, worn desks and ancient weigh scales and a wall of shelves full of dusty old letters. At the entrance a few older men with type writers sit at tables, next to a shabby photocopy machine and a small generator. Their customers are, presumably, illiterate people who come and dictate letters.

I have some post cards to mail home: one a picture of Barack Obama—who is still a hero in Africa—and the other of gorillas in the nearby Virunga National Park, being sent to my six year old niece and to whom I explain, to the extent the space allows, that they are the animals closest to people and that if you are nice to them in the wild they will let you get near. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Out of my league

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo February 3rd 2011

In 1961 when US writer George Plimpton stepped into the ring and sparred three rounds with then boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson as part of an assignment for Sports Illustrated, he both made journalistic history and empowered millions to dream of living out their sporting hero fantasies.

It is the second week into my training with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s champion boxer, Kibomango, in the last of the three rounds we have together this morning inside the Volcanoes Football Stadium in Goma, and I am discovering exactly what Plimpton did when he began his own everyman sporting journey: this is no place for amateurs. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 3 Comments

DRC: The Jungle Combatants

Goma, Nord-Kivu January 28th

“Club des amités!”

“Les combatants de Jungle!”

“Club des amités!”

“Les combatants de Jungle!”

It is 6:30 AM with the sun beginning to light the dusty, dirty, urine smelling Stade des Volcans (Volcanos) football ground in a poor area of the city of Goma, Eastern Congo, and with this shouted chant, a declaration and a chorused reply of camaraderie and pugilistic spirit, our daily boxing class begins and ends.

At some point in ones life you will stop and wonder what events have brought you to where you are and on this morning in a war zone in the poorest country in the world, when my middle aged frame is straining, I am dripping with sweat and sparring with a slumlord boxer who killed his last opponent, I am definitely wondering how I have ended up where I am. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 3 Comments

DRC: Going mano a mano with Mr Kibomango

Goma, Nord Kivu January 25th

Rounding a corner in the Cirque Sportif informal settlement in Goma there is a rumble up ahead, with some kind of fight going on. A crowd has formed a circle, just like a schoolyard fight back home, shouting encouragement to the combatants who are pummeling each other with blows I can hear from a distance. When we get closer I see that they are both wearing boxing gloves and there is a referee. This is one of Goma’s outdoor boxing rings, which takes place in a paved clearing between two building and across from a school. They are highly organised: there are weight categories, divisions ranked by age and skill and a cadre of coaches, officials and participants. Congolese like boxing and they are very good at it. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Markets and money when there is no trust

Goma, Nord Kivu January 25th

Many things can pass through your mind as you walk through an informal market in Africa. They are noisy and chaotic with squawking animals, crowds and burning rubbish in the street. One can choose to be horrified although it is far better to be fascinated: they are enormously active and creative places. In the informal markets of Goma simple goods are laid out on the ground for sale or on tables and in basic shops, made from scrap wood. There are whole functional areas: the tableware selling section, electronic goods area, book and stationary district, the mechanics’ section and then the workshops of craftsmen—tinkerers making pots, pans and buckets from metal sheets, baskets and wicker-ware, and carpenters making furniture, wheelbarrows and one truly remarkable Congolese invention, the “chikudo”, a kind of giant wooden bicycle that serves as a rolling wheelbarrow and that you see carrying enormous loads around town, usually with a boy rider guiding them precariously. Such inventions and products are what is called in the development world: “appropriate technology”, goods and services of simple design and manufacture that are accessible to those making or using them. They are low-cost and low-technology and provide an income for those who build them and displace imported goods to boot. In development and economic terms, these are win-win conditions; truly bottom up economic activity that is sustainable, poverty reducing and geared to local needs and capabilities. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Comments Off on DRC: Markets and money when there is no trust

DRC: My gun for a Facebook account

Goma, Nord Kivu January 24th

We haven’t walked far from the hotel before there is a huge crash up ahead followed by a thud. A moto-taxi has just been run over and the driver and passenger are in the intersection, not far from the upturned motorcycle, one of them bleeding from a head wound. The culprit, a jeep, u-turns and accelerates away from the scene of the accident. As they approach my first reaction is to step forward and signal them to stop, but they zoom past and the fear in their faces is easily visible. But justice is swift in Congo and in seconds there is a group of moto-taxi drivers on the scene, who scope the situation and then take off in pursuit of the jeep like a righteous motorcycle gang off to avenge a fallen comrade. I would not like to be the vehicle’s driver.

“Ahh… they are from the moto-taxi driver’s union! It is a strong organisation, they will take care of this!” Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

DRC: You are well informed, said the Colonel

Scaling up the Kivu Reintegration Centre.  Goma, Nord Kivu January 21st

The director of the UN’s demobilisation operations, or Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRRR) in Eastern Congo, arrives late for our meeting which takes place in a porta-cabin office on an Indian Military base. He is a large man with a wheeze in his voice from years of smoking and is wearing a grubby cream suit, a Panama hat and round, steel rimmed, John Lennon type glasses. Perspiring and coughing, he looks so perfectly the role of the expatriate left to rot in the tropics that I imagine him as a character out of the 1973 movie Papillion, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, set in a penal colony in 1920s French Guiana. But he is someone whom I know to have an ex-Belgian security force background and he has been in Congo for a very long time. I expect there is nothing that could shock or surprise him and I am sure he has  secrets and tales to tell. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: Good morning Goma

The Kivu Reintegration Centre, Goma Nord-Kivu January 20th

Once you’ve passed the dreaded accreditation process at the hands of intelligence and got yourself settled, there is actually much to appreciate in Goma. The attractively laid out colonial city, with its wide avenues and villas with big gardens of jacaranda and flame trees, set beside Lake Kivu, which stretches to the horizon like a Great Lake, can easily let you forget the other awfulness of this province. The high elevation climate is pleasant—with warm days and cool nights—and there are nice bars and restaurants and, for the Congolese, who definitely appreciate a good time, this is one release available. The human spirit is an indomitable thing; people get on with their lives, and there is far more joy than suffering apparent here. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC: An ‘interview’ not to be relished

Goma, Nord Kivu January 18th

The situation of North Kivu is definitely better now than my last visit a year and a half ago—if still violent and conflict ridden—but Goma itself has not necessarily changed for the better. The corruption is more brazen, the aggression more apparent. You are more likely these days to be stopped in broad daylight by a soldier or a policeman, demanding to see your papers in a shake-down. The trends at the national level are also on a downswing and direction from the top does not set an example that anything better should be expected below. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

Congo: meeting the best and worst people in the world

Rwanda-DRC Frontier at Goma, January 16th 2011

Walking alone across the frontier into DRC I am met at the guard post by Ferdinand Benge-Luendo, my friend and counterpart. It is an emotional moment: I haven’t seen him in 18 months and I feel he has probably lived a lifetime since then, here in this land of armed conflict. Amid the venality and malgovernance of Congo Ferdinand embodies all that is good in the people and the society itself. In his 50s and bald, with an impressive cannonball head, he carries himself with the authority of being a former school head master and I call him “Mzee Ferdinand”, the Swahili honourific that roughly means respected elder. He is from Walikale district, 200 KM to the west of Goma, an area that has been a centre of armed conflict and unspeakable suffering, even now. Ferdinand is an educator and peace activist with an ambition for a better future for his region and his country, and has established and run NGOs involved in peace and reconciliation in war affected communities of rural North Kivu, as well as working as a translator, interpreter and “fixer”, facilitating the work of international aid organisations and journalists ranging from The Discovery Channel film crews to The NY Times and Italian news channels. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

Rural Rwanda: the capital is not the country

Kigali to Goma Jan 15th 2011

That a capital city is not the country is something to keep in mind, and once you have departed Kigali and entered the hills and mountains of rural Rwanda you are face to face with the reality that this is a very poor and over crowded country—the most densely populated in Africa. Every square foot of land is utlised in some way, the slopes of the hills are terraced and homes and villages are tightly packed tightly up against farm fields. Away from the glitter and ambitious plans of the capital, rural Rwanda has not changed much in recent years. But it has not changed for the worse, either, and the government is mindful that 80% of its people still make a living from agriculture and it is a large and preoccupying government priority. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 1 Comment

Rwanda: escaping history

Getting ahead, looking past the past, Kigali Jan 8th-15th 2011

Those getting on board the plane tell you something about the destination you are going to. The flight from Johannesburg to Kigali on Rwandair, the country’s small but oddly endearing national airline, is nearly half empty and the passengers are a mixture of mildly prosperous Rwandans, mostly families, and a smattering of expatriates, who seem to be business people, aid workers and some young American women who are probably with the Peace Corps. Rwandans are discrete and courteous and there is little noise and no fuss.  My seat mate is a South African business consultant who is working with the Rwandan government’s business development agency, which he says has strong backing from the country’s president, Paul Kagame. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

South Africa: unfinished business

Johannesburg, January 5th 2011

For an English speaking visitor South Africa presents all the familiar touch points of Anglo-Commonwealth culture, language, food, and sport together with obviously western service and product standards, but also the strange and unsettled feeling of being raw and edgy and unstable and African and a bit violent too. It is also for visitors in transit to elsewhere in Africa—in this case Congo—kind of a truck stop where it is possible to make use of things that are easy, inexpensive and accessible.

There is new wealth obvious in Johannesburg and the economic boom of the past 10 years has added a new, and largely colour-blind elite, and the flashy cars and upscale bars and restaurants of Sandton, the district of mansions and high-end shopping, the play ground and meeting point for new and old money of whatever colour, is at least one proxy for the comfortable and affluent side to where this country is going. There are fashionable people and enough urban cosmopolitan vibe here to at least see eye to eye with any other international Metropole. People are relaxed, and confident young white collar staff of whatever race seem comfortable and at peace; they, and the well connected, are doing very well. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

DRC Diary

A ramble through the Congo

It is difficult to describe the feeling you experience when crossing the Congo river from the city of Brazzaville to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ragged megalopolis and capital city. There is a sense of expectation and excitement and, one must admit, trepidation. It is like knowing you are entering an experience where you don’t know what is going to happen and what you will see or do. Continue reading

Posted in Journals | Leave a comment

The other Congo, Brazzaville and beyond

Brazzaville, Republic of Congo
April 28th 2009

Brazzaville was a beautiful, even romantic, city once. At the end of the 1942 Hollywood movie Casablanca Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines announce they are leaving for here to join the Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle. If they’d actually made it this far they would have found a small neat Art Deco and Bauhaus colonial city. They would not have found a downtown of buildings pock-marked by machine gun and RPG fire, bad experimental architecture from the 1960s, Soviet type ministry buildings from the 1970s, and a local attempt at a Pyongyang style 10 lane wide grande allee that proceeds for a short quarter mile in front of the presidency office and then peters out into the dusty pot holed streets of the rest of the city. But there are some shady streets, good cafes and patisseries, reasonable French restaurants and roof top clubs that play loud African music.
Continue reading

Posted in Journals | 2 Comments

A failure to globalise

The National Post February 28th 2004

Globalisation’s ‘failure’ does not cause poverty, as the UN’s Internatonal Labour Organisation purports to find. In fact, just the opposite is true.

The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) contribution to the globalisation debate, released this week, claims to be a positive and feasible view of what can be done to improve globalisation. If only. At a time when clear conclusions and solid policy advise are needed to help more of the world’s poor benefit from global economic integration and rise out of poverty, this UN organisation has given in to wooly thinking to come up with a report that does more to obscure than enlighten. Misdirected anger about the ills of the world may be tolerated from the disparate anti-globalisation movement, but it has no place in a UN body advocating policy change on a global scale. Continue reading

Posted in Published Works | Leave a comment

The Economist The World in 2004

Africa’s extremes

Sub-Saharan Africa will end 2004 as it has for most of the past decade—underperforming economically, and wracked by mal-governance and declining living standards. Home to a disproportionate share of the world’s failed and failing states, the UN will report that many African states have fallen in the global ranking of human development, continuing the trend since 1990 when real incomes per head have fallen 0.4% per year on average. None of this is inevitable, and the consequences of economic and political failure will never have been graver. But a small but growing number of states will grasp the opportunities available to consolidate macro-economic stability, attract investment and aid, increase growth and reduce poverty—proving that good governance can produce results in Africa as easily as elsewhere. Mozambique’s economwy will grow by 8%–close to its average for the previous 11 years. Continue reading

Posted in Published Works | Leave a comment

Obituary: Quentin Keynes, explorer of Africa in the Victorian mould

The Independent, London 7 March 2003

Quentin George Keynes, film-maker and book collector: born London 17 June 1921; died Cambridge 26 February 2003

In 1937 Quentin Keynes climbed to the roof of his family’s house in Hampstead and refused to come down until his parents agreed he needn’t return to boarding school. It was a wilful choice for a 16-year-old, and one he followed for the rest of his life – he would not be told what to do.

The mould of English public school, Oxbridge and the career expected in an over-achieving family were all refused. Instead there was a pursuit of the unusual, the remote, and the obscure, infused with a mixture of boyish enthusiasm, startling naïveté, keen insight and a sharp intelligence. There were real accomplishments, but they defy conventional description: film-maker, explorer, lecturer, African safari leader, book collector, and connoisseur of rare sports cars.
Interests were pursued with curiosity and impulsiveness, unscholarly but astute. Continue reading

Posted in Published Works | 3 Comments