Moments

Moments.

There have been many.

And even more than that in this last year here.

I’ve witnessed them, I’ve been a part of them.  But often they leave me grasping.  Grasping at meaning, comprehension, reason.

I reflect and I try to find a way to process the moment.  Find a way to understand how that moment can be.  But many times I can’t.  If it does exist, it is well beyond me.

There are moments, things I see & hear, events, circumstances that have come to pass that are simply ridiculous in their obscenity towards how life should ever be.

But they are.

Mixed in with the horror there are the beautiful moments, the moments where I feel ‘yes, this is what it means to be here.’  Where beauty is found in the midst of despair & strife.

The lines are always blurred.

And one thing I can’t adequately explain to you is how, even though I often can’t genuinely comprehend & can’t dramatically change many of these moments, I’m ok.  I don’t know a lot but I do trust that God brought me here & God gives me the peace in my mind & in my heart to live in these moments without being defeated by them.

I’d like to share a collection of moments with you from the last couple of months.  Some are small examples of moments that repeat time & again, others are more unique.  They each are a mixture of beauty & despair.

1000 Watt Smile

Any day at the day centre I am always greeted so warmly by all of the kids.  But picture a young boy of 10, with a kind & beautiful nature, who greets me with a 1000 watt smile and a high five each time he sees me.  Somewhere along the way however something has gone wrong.  There is a good chance for him, like so many others that his family rejected him, likely accused him of witchcraft.  It’s probable he has lost a parent too and now he lives on the market where he will have suffered further abuse. 

We can’t take him in to one of our houses simply because we are full and his case is not unique, it would not even feature at the top of the waiting list.  Instead there are more vulnerable boys out of the 30 odd that are here at the day centre this morning.  So tonight he’ll go back to the cold, violent, dangerous market and search around for somewhere to lay his head whilst he wears the same filthy rags he wore the day before.

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One of the boys at the day centre

In that moment however, when he is tugging on my arm to play some more silly games, I don’t see any of that & he doesn’t display it.  It’s not who he is.

Afterwards it hits me, I try and reason in my head how this boy could have been rejected and how this could possibly be his life.  But I can’t.

I try and consider what the rest of the day & night will be like for him.  But I can’t stomach it.

I was talking with someone recently & he said “Do you know what it’s really like on that market?”, the tone of his voice led me to a simple response; “Please don’t tell me.” 

Bebba!

“Bebba!”  Calls out another lad at the lunch table at the day centre, holding out some bukari (Congolese staple food) towards me. ‘Bebba’ means ‘take.’  He is genuinely concerned as to whether I have eaten!  I get asked this so many times!  They care that I get something to eat despite their own needs.

Now I’m told that the culture here is very much that children are not meant to eat if the adults haven’t eaten.  If there is only a limited amount of food it is the children who are expected to go without.

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Meal time at the day centre

But I’m not sure how much a street kid is thinking about ‘the correct thing to do’ when they look upon their first substantial meal in a day or more.  No, that boy is offering me his food because he has a beautiful heart.  He sees my needs & his needs as equal.  He isn’t doing it under duress or as a token gesture, trust me.

Yet what I find hard to comprehend again in that moment is that he too has been rejected or at least suffered in a way that made him choose to run to the streets.  He will suffered unbelievably already in life and tonight he will join the others back on that market.

The Isolated Boy

I’m standing outside the day centre at the end of another session as we lock up when I hear wailing & screaming.  I look across to a group of boys.  My colleague explains to me:

“They have stolen his glue off him & he’s trying to get it back.”

Why the wailing?

“Because he’s deaf.”

He looks no more than 10 years old.

Yep.  Those thoughts you’re thinking?  Me too. 

It’s beyond sad or any words you want to use to describe that moment.

Firstly that near enough every kid on the market sniffs glue.  Its glue mixed with petrol.  It’s not that expensive & it makes life bearable for a street kid.  An escape.

During the night it helps them to cope with the cold & get some sleep.

We never let it in the day centre nor anyone under the influence.  So he had bought it afterwards I suspect.  And now like in the playground, a bigger kid had nicked it off this little boy & was taunting him as others joined in.

But he could only respond in wails & cries.

He got it back in the end.  But the realisation that this boy, even this boy, he too has been cast aside and now attempts to makes his way in that market?  How can that even be?

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That smile, see!

Let me tell you two things briefly however.  Firstly he has the most unbelievable smile.  Oh my!
And secondly we are trying to get him into a boarding school for deaf children.  We don’t know about his family situation yet as he has no way of communicating properly with us at this stage.

The Intervention

Recently an 11 year old girl who is very well known to us was sat at the lunch table, a pale shadow of her mischievous self.  Not eating, not talking, not even a smile.  She was shivering uncontrollably & we suspected Malaria.

Hers’ is a tragic on going story for us. Three times she has been accepted into our transit house.  Three times she has run away & torched her bridges, the most recent time through stealing from the house as she ran.  Why do children run?  Well if by the age of 11 you had suffered the multiple & horrific traumas & rejections that this girl has, you too would find it hard to believe in yourself & trust those around you enough to make this new life work & not run away to avoid the fear & pain of further failure & rejection.

But none of that mattered as she sat, her frail body being attacked by this vicious disease.  We could not let her walk out onto the street again we feared desperately for her out there right now.   

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One of the most heart breaking situations for us is trying to help this wonderful child

The moment that the doctor put the drip in her arm & gave her a bed for the night at the hospital was another of those unspeakable moments.  She really was very ill.  The confirmation was both scary but yet reaffirming of what we are doing here.  That’s a life saved.  Right there.  Process that!

She stayed two nights in the hospital, they wanted her to stay another night but she ran away.  As a team we laughed because we all knew she would, and were reassured that well she must have been well enough if she was able to run!

When she reappeared at the day centre one week on from that day, smiling, disobeying, being cheeky, being herself again… it was a beautiful moment.

We said to her “always remember that we took care of you that day because you do matter, you are loved & you are good enough.”

Seeing the Positive

Way back in mid-October one of our girls ran away from the transit house & for a time away from Lubumbashi too.  Talk was that ‘Naomi’ was heading to a village where she would be, at 14, married off.  What made this event even more gut wrenching is that the week before she ran away she had tested positive for HIV.

The carers at house had had their concerns & so took her for the test, but as it could not be confirmed until a follow up test 3 months later they had not told her of her first test result.  She ran away oblivious to the news.

A month later she reappeared and started coming to the day centre sporadically, but we couldn’t consider taking her back to the house after she had hurt the other girls by stealing from them.  She was not in a mental or emotional place where she could settle back with us.  And before long she was off the scene again.

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The girls at our day centre

Just last week however, she was back again & now the 3 months had passed since the first test.  She was tired & sick and welcomed a visit to the hospital for a check-up, not knowing what she was likely to find out.

That’s a dark time, sitting in a taxi & then in a waiting room with a child who is oblivious to what you know – that in all likelihood she has a life changing infection that will never leave her, but will instead attack her, and that before the day is out she will know this too.

It was confirmed to us and it was explained to Naomi.  Does she really comprehend?  We don’t know yet.

But we made her a simple offer.  Come & stay with us again.  We will support you in every way we can.  The clinic will provide counselling & medication, our team will provide emotional & material support.  And we will continue to try and reunite you with your family.  And in return, you have to try & make this life at our house work the best you can.

Yes, she caught it through sexual intercourse on the market.  It could have been prostitution, rape or consensual.  They all take place every day on the market.  Yes she has slept with many others on the market since running away.  And for that it is clear that there are many street kids who are likely to be carrying the infection too.

But in that moment when we brought a scruffy, bedraggled Naomi back to the house, I couldn’t decide whether this was a moment of despair; the diagnosis another tragedy in her young life, or was it a moment of beauty; a prodigal returning, rescued, given a chance & a hope in this darkest of hours. 

But with all of these, mine is not to try & make sense of the moment but to try to make good of it.

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New Life

There are days we remember and know that come what may we will always remember them.  Not marquee days like weddings or parties that we knew were coming, but ordinary days that started off & finished with no great fanfare, yet leave an indelible mark.  I want to tell you about one of those days, and how it changed three lives.

The lowest ebb

It was another ridiculously hot day at the back at the start of September & it was my first day back at the day centre after a short break.  There was a very solemn looking girl washing her clothes along with the other children.  She looked tired, run down, drained… What became apparent is that she also looked pregnant.  On this day I was working with one of our female carers to help them develop their counselling skills.  We took the opportunity to ask this young girl to come and talk with us.

Many of you will know the name of this girl but I am going to call her ‘Amelie.’

As the three of us sat in the small office we use for counselling the sense desolation was inescapable. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat with someone at their lowest ebb, the feeling is unspoken and yet tangible.  They don’t scream.  They don’t shout.  They don’t cry.  They are past that stage.  They have all but given in, going through the motions, but hope has long since left. 

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Amelie at our day centre the day we met her

Amelie told us how she had run away from her home over a year ago, it was a brothel behind a nightclub.  She had fallen out with her mum, who ran the brothel, and fled to the streets.  At that time she was known to Kimbilio but the charity did not at that time have the house that we do now to take her in.  After that she, like others, moved to another market town south of Lubumbashi to find work on the market.  There she told us that she met an older man and became pregnant, but that he rejected her soon after and she returned here.

As we talked with her we became aware that although she didn’t know how far pregnant she was, she looked around 5 months (which turned out to be correct).  She was also quite clearly ill with suspected Malaria.  Had she been to a doctor at any stage in her pregnancy we asked? ‘No’ came the almost silent answer, as she continued to look down and struggle to make eye contact.  There is no free healthcare here.

We explored the options with her as we asked about family that could take her in, but it was clear there was no-one & she felt absolutely alone.  As we offered words of empathy & care a solitary tear fell from her bowed head.  It was the first time someone had showed her the slightest care for too, too long.

That moment.  Almost too much.

Soyez positif

It seemed clear that we had to take her into our care, but things are not always that simple.  Kimbilio had not taken in a pregnant girl before & there was much to consider from both practical & cultural points of view.  As I discussed the situation with the team & made phone calls I felt anxious.  What if while we’re deciding, Amelie thinks we have given up on her?  She would just drift away back into the market & likely never feel the confidence to return again.

But no, it was ok, she was coming with us.  The next fear was how would she cope in the house with the other girls, so low on confidence & so obviously feeling like she is different to everyone else?  I remember saying to her in my best French as we waited for the gate to open “soyez positif.”  And at that moment she walked in she was swamped by the other 9 or 10 girls in the house as they came running shouting her name!  Amelie! Amelieeee!!  They had remembered her from shared times on the street.  It was a beautiful moment as she cracked her first smile.

Even so, I struggled to get off to sleep that night.  Much more than the boys, the girls struggle with the change and can run away from their new home.  Would Amelie run away?  Would she really believe that she could do this, make it work, not be rejected again and learn to trust once more?

I remember messaging friends to pray.  I remember knowing this day would stay with me.

The mask fades away

The relief that was followed by a sense of peace over the next few days & weeks as Amelie settled in was immense.  And then over time we saw once again the simple difference that’s made when a child is given a place of security, safety, acceptance & love.  Over a relatively short time the solemn mask faded away and this kooky, nutty, funny, wonderful kid emerged!  At times you genuinely feel like you might burst with joy.

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Just 6 weeks later. She wanted a photo & would only pull silly faces, laughing all the way through!

Within a few weeks we had made contact with Amelie’s mum, but soon found that sadly nothing had changed; she was single & the house was still a brothel, not a home.  At first however the mum demanded her daughter back, but Amelie wisely told us all she would not go.  She did not trust her mum to not put her & her soon to be child in danger.  Thankfully our team were able to show the mum that we were caring properly for her daughter.  She came to appreciate what we were doing and in return we were able to facilitate positive mother & daughter times at our house, starting to rebuild a broken relationship.

Over the next few months Amelie got the medical care she needed, check-ups & medication, her mum visiting from time to time.  Meanwhile we awaited the big day with a sense of excitement but also apprehension.  Medical facilities here are as I’m sure you appreciate, not at the level we are used to in the West, & for a girl of 14 there are always risks.

The longest day

Amelie went into the hospital around 6am on her due date, we’d always planned that she would go in at the first signs to minimize risk.  For Amelie the next 24 hours would be the longest of her life.

It started normally enough as we spent the morning with her.  But by the evening it became clear this was not going to be a quick or simple labour (relatively speaking).  I missed my opportunity to get down to the hospital in the evening thanks to one of those thunder storm induced traffic jams where you end up in a taxi driving round trees on the pavement.. you know the ones.

It became another night where sleep didn’t come easy, just like the night back in August. The culture here is to leave the patient in the care of the doctors & nurses overnight & wait for updates, even when she is 14.  We had offered to pay for Amelie’s mum’s transport earlier in the day, as well as her aunt, but neither had come to see her.

As I discovered later on, I was not the only member of the Kimbilio team to wake up at various points in the night & check my phone, or to dream we were at the hospital.  But when I woke up again just before 7am I read messages from a couple of hours earlier saying that Amelie had gone into theatre for a caesarean as she was simply too small to have a natural birth.  But remembering again that medical facilities are not as advanced here & knowing that many do tragically die in child birth here, this was very worrying news.

So when the phone rang 10mins later.  Well, you can imagine it was a moment when time stood still.

If…

I got to the hospital soon after to greet a very healthy, happy looking young man & a shattered, drained mother.  I’ve never met a few hours old baby before, that’s a powerful moment isn’t it!

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As we all sat taking stock, the Kimbilio team were confirming what had already started to dawn on me.  If she had not been able to go to a quality hospital like this, she & the baby would very likely not have made it through the night.

Yes this hospital was basic, but it is a very well run & resourced, clean & professional hospital.  It was explained to me that there is no free healthcare, but there are cheap clinics & hospitals that she would have gone to.  There it would have been a lottery as to whether the hospital would have had the resources to carry out a caesarean, as if there had already been a couple that day they would likely not have the materials for another.  And then there is the skills needed for the operation.  And all of that is dependent on whether she would have made it that far in the first place, still on the street.
I was left with many emotions, not just around the perfect timing of her coming to the day centre that day, but of the amazing transformative journey she had been on.  At 14 she had fought so hard, not just in that hospital – 24 hours, no sleep, the fear, the pain, the night on her own – but to have got herself through each day, each treacherous night in those violent, vicious markets carrying a baby.  The strength to come to us that day.  The strength to make it work in her new home with us.  Overcoming so much.

The strength to hope, to trust.

All this from that girl we had to scrape off of the floor at the day centre just four & a half months earlier.

A future

One month on, I can tell you that both mum & son are doing well.  After 11 days in hospital, they are back living with us at Kimbilio for the foreseeable future, but Amelie’s mum & aunt have been visiting.  We will continue to look for members of her family who can take her in, whilst putting mum & baby’s care at the forefront.

Oh yes, and in a slightly unreal twist, the baby has been given my name!  I did warn that he would forever be having to explain how to spell & pronounce it to everyone over here, but you can’t argue with strong woman!  And that’s Amelie!  Meanwhile I tried to hold it together…

We can never know what will be in the life of ‘Moishi’ (Congolese) Ian, but he’s got a start, and he’s got a pretty amazing mum.  And for that we are all immeasurably thankful.

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Amelie & baby Ian

Being There

It’s the sort of experience that lasts only a few minutes in real-time but that lingers on for, well I don’t sense its impact will ever part from me. I don’t know what horrors you have ever been confronted with, but the horror of seeing first-hand the places where children are, as I write this, trying to sleep…

I will try & paint you the picture.

Onions

But first I must explain something about onions.

Why? Because at times the work here with the children is like peeling back the layers of an onion, only the tears are real.

You know that what you find when you peel back a layer will be distressing, but layer by layer you have to ask. I need to understand.

So you sit in a meeting to discuss a new child at the transit house & her history is discussed, including her rape on the market. You compose yourself & ask the question “How many of the girls in our care have been raped?” The response is as if you’ve asked a silly, naïve question; “most of them.”

There, you’ve peeled back another layer. You knew it deep down, but you needed to ask.

“How about this boy?” I ask looking at him & his swollen, closed over eye the size of a golf ball with the slow tear trickling down from it. “Says he fell, but he would have been smacked in the face – the violence against children on the market is vicious & brutal.”

Some of 'our' boys at the day centre

Some of ‘our’ boys at the day centre

Another layer peeled back.

“Why is this boy on the street?” “His mother died & the family claimed it was him who made it happen as he is a witch, and so they threw him out. But before that they would have taken him to the church for exorcisms.” “Is that common?” “That’s why most children are on the street.”

And another.

“Why has this girl got so many scars?” “The last girls’ home she was in beat the children, she must have been very stubborn.”

“And this girl?” “They were trying to get her to admit to being a witch.”

One of 'our' girls, but not from today

One of ‘our’ girls, but not from today

There’s always another layer. I could tell you more but I think you get the idea.

The cruelty faced by children here is at times unimaginable. There are a multitude of layers & the more you uncover, the more it reveals.

I will be honest, some days it can feel too much when you reflect on another layer revealed. But for me it’s ok I can move on. The children suffer.

But before we move on, let’s be clear. This is not all there is in Lubumbashi. This is not all there is in Congo. There are also countless beautiful, wonderful people living lives of love, nurturing their children at home & at school. There are many who have given their lives to the mission of loving their community & making things right through organisations like Kimbilio.

A Hidden World

Back to that picture I want to try & paint.

Wednesdays at the day centre is only for the girls, who are harder to reach & smaller in number. This morning there were no girls. Mirrelle, one of our carers, took the standard step of going over to the market to seek out the girls & agreed to take me with her.

Kenya Market in Lubumbashi is a network of roads that sit just behind our day centre. I’ve walked with Congolese friends through the market before, it’s extremely busy, lively & full of colour, there’s a lot to like about it.

Walking through this time it was hard to follow what was happening as Mirrelle talked to various sellers who walked us to different spots. But then something unexpected happened, Mirrelle took us through a tiny alleyway behind the sellers & we were into a whole new, darker & more unsettling world. The rainy season has just started here & there was mud under our feet & clouds in the sky. It matched the atmosphere. We were now in a seemingly endless network of tiny alleys a small market squares.

Think of the most out of place & conspicuous you have ever felt. And then consider being a Mzungu here.

People were friendly/bemused to see me there and then some of the street boys recognised me, called out my name & then everyone did so that I had no idea if they knew me or were just joining in!

We were then led round the corner to another alley by an imposing lad of maybe 25 who had become out guide. There some chuckling lads pulled back some corrugated iron to reveal the small concrete alcove where one of ‘our’ girls from the day centre was trying to sleep, presumably after having had to work at night. She is maybe 14. The implication was clear from the lads, they know where she sleeps & where to get what they want.

I later found out that our guide is the ‘boss’ of that little area, deciding who can sleep where. Mirrelle pointed out the inevitable. He gives the best spaces to those who give him what he wants. Our girl in the alcove had been granted her space for that reason.

We carried on, a little pied piper like as some more of ‘our’ girls saw us & realised the day centre was open. All the while younger boys were all around, some sniffing glue, others pleading for money & one boy who I’ve not seen before whose open wounds now had gangrene. And all the time you are thinking, children live here. Children as young as 8 or 9 sleep here.

Then I saw a familiar face, it was ‘Ruth’ a girl who had been living with us at the transit house since May but had run away along with another girl 3 weeks ago & stolen all of the clothes from the house. She looked up the alley at us in shock at first. She paused for a moment looking embarrassed & ashamed but also hopeful, torn with whether to come to us or run from us, she stood there.

It felt achingly like a prodigal child moment (Bible parable – Luke 15v11-32, look it up its good). Achingly. I just wanted to throw my arms open & welcome her back, tell her that its ok & she’s forgiven. How can you hold the actions of a child who has suffered trauma at such a young age against her when she is living in abject poverty?

But the reality is it was never possible in the chaos of the market. I gave her a look as if to say what my actions could not.

She disappeared around the corner.

I’ll be forever thankful that when we followed round that same corner she had decided to wait for us.

'The Prodigal Daughter' by Charlie Mackesy

‘The Prodigal Daughter’ by Charlie Mackesy

I don’t think I can fully get across just how unsettling & disturbing seeing the hidden side of the market was. The people were great & so friendly, I never felt at risk, but the thought that this is home for anyone is horrifying. It’s inhumane. And when you hear the stories of what happens at night & the brutality of the police who patrol the market & chase & arrest the children simply for being there..

I was left in admiration for Mirrelle who is only 23 yet confidently strides through the market & commands respect. I can only wonder how it made the girls feel that she had come to find them, that they mattered. Six girls came back with us to the day centre where they learned how to make doughnuts which are sold here by the dozen & is a way to make money on the market.

Some of our girls at the day centre. Not including Ruth or Jolie

Some of our girls at the day centre. Not including Ruth or Jolie

One Day at a Time

One further tale to tell.

One of the girls who came back with us had a 3 month old baby with her. I had not met her before but Mirrelle knew her from when she used to come to the day centre. ‘Jolie’ does not live on the market now, she has a ‘house’ (likely smaller than your hallway) with her boyfriend who is not the father of the baby. But she goes to the market to try & make money, without much success.

As we sat & talked (me in French, Jolie in Swahili & Mirrelle translating) I asked Mirrelle (a mother of 3) how she assessed the health of the baby. She explained that the baby was not healthy & is too small for her age. Understandably Jolie finds it hard to get money to feed the baby but I also doubt she really knows enough of how to care for her.

It was at this point that Mirrelle told me that this is Jolie’s third child. The previous two had died before reaching 18 months. Jolie is 17.

Just shattering.

Along with the other girls today we were able to bring Jolie & her baby daughter out of the hidden depths of the market, give them love, acceptance, food & reassurance. But as I write this they are back there again at night & it becomes harder each time for them to escape the sicking sand of prostitution & drugs & despair.

When we open the day centre again tomorrow I pray that they will be there. That’s all.

Mzungu Life

When I used to walk around my home town of Woodley I’d often bump into people I knew, and after 10 years of youth work in the same small town that happened quite a lot.  Whoever I was walking would turn round, tilt their head & say rather exasperatedly “You know everyone!”

Well here as I walk around a city of almost 2 million people I know almost no-one and yet I get greeted endlessly… everywhere… to the point where I want to turn to myself, tilt my head & say “Everyone knows you?!”

“Hey mzungu!” “Le blanc!” “Jambo mzungu!” “Bonjour le blanc!” 

Everywhere.  Everyday.

I have contemplated how it would go down if when I get back to the UK I randomly shout “Hey Blackie!” at people in the street… Maybe Nigel Farage will buy me a pint, but apart from that it’s unlikely to go down well.

And then if you jump in a taxi the driver will have great delight in shouting out the window telling all the other drivers he’s got a mzungu in the car.

As I have mentioned many times previously, being a white person here is akin to being a celebrity, it really is quite a strange novelty.  And 6 months in, I really have no problem with any of it.  I get it, I’m a novelty here & they are happy/surprised to see me.

It does have occasional downsides, for example getting a good price anywhere from taxis to shops can be a trial as naturally they assume you have plenty of money.  In truth the vast, vast majority of mzungus here are working in or in connection with the mining industry so they do have money.  I point out to drivers that I am a missionaire & that if I did have lots of money would I really be taking a taxi instead of driving my own car?

Another downside is that you can’t fade into the background.  You know when you walk down the street in one direction for a short distance & then realise you’ve gone the wrong way?  Yep, I do that a fair bit.  Well it’s quite embarrassing heading back the other way past all of the various street sellers & others you passed the first time, cos you know they have all noticed the mzungu got lost!

Recently I have discovered another side to being a mzungu here.  It came about because I wanted to see what I could do to reduce our food budget.  I noticed we were buying lots of bread rolls (standard breakfast here is a bread roll & cup of tea (minus milk!)) at retail cost.  So I wondered if one of the big supermarkets here would be up for donating their left over bread rolls at the end of the day.

So I went in & enquired to the shop floor manager of a very large Indian run supermarket.  He told me to go next door to the head office.  So I went next door, through the security gate & was waved in by the gun carrying security guard who asked me no questions.  I then waltzed up the stairs where the receptionist also did not enquire of my intentions.  I asked him where the offices were & he happily waved me through.  I walked through an open door & introduced myself & my request & was pointed to the end office.  Suddenly there I was talking with the boss!

No-one stopped me, no-one quizzed me.  Basically because I’m white & that apparently carries some cache here as well as trust.  Barmy.  But it works, I’ve started now to just head into places & or ring them & try my luck!

It’s worked pretty well so far as the supermarket are now providing all our bread rolls (420 every week) & another company are providing our flour (25x25kg sacks per month) which we use to make the staple food Bukari here!  Those are immense savings here as I’m sure you can imagine.

It’s not something I’m comfortable with, that being white seems to mean you are more trusted (the supermarket asked me no questions to check out I was valid!), but the other side of the coin is that this is a way I can bless Kimbilio while I’m here.

Recently I’ve realised the real potential for getting Kimbilio known more in the ex-pat communities, it’s a way we can make really influential friends who can bless us & the kids in many ways.  This is something Ian Harvey did extremely well here in setting up & growing Kimbilio.  I often find that when I meet someone they already know about Kimbilio.  For example the girl’s transit house was built & continues to be supported by a local company here.  But with Ian now back in the UK there is a gap which I am trying to fill.

To that end we’ve had a couple of recent successes.  The Tesol school here invited us to come & do an assembly about Kimbilio.  In return we invited the older kids to come down & volunteer at the transit houses.  That was awesome & the start of lots of potential new relationships.

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Gifts for the kids from the dentist!

And then just the Saturday before last we had a mobile dentistry come down to our transit houses.  That came about through just meeting the right people & making friends.  A local clinic in the more developed district of Lubumbashi have recently invested in a mobile dentist surgery so that they can serve the community & offered to give our kids free check-ups.  It was great to see the kids experience their first ever time in a dentist chair & I’m pleased to report that only two of the 15 kids at our transits need extra treatment, not too shabby!

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First time in a dentist's chair!

Days like that are incredibly fulfilling, just being able to make the kids feel special.  And they just so love visitors, the buzz is infectious!

Here’s to many more days like that!

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From Despair to Here

When I was 9 I went William Gray Junior School, I watched cartoons on the TV, played Nintendo (oh yes), played football in the park with my friends & probably picked my nose too often. I think that’s how it’s meant to be on the whole?

How was your life at 9?

What if as a girl by the age of 9 your mum had died, your dad died and your step mum dumped you in the middle of the city to fend for yourself after accusing you of being a witch so that you knew you could never go home again? What if when trying to survive on the street you had been attacked by a group of men in the worst way possible? What then?

How about at 15?

What if you were living on the streets, 7 months pregnant eating only when circumstances are fortunate were fortunate to you.  Maybe you were very ill as well, potential Malaria? And of course you haven’t been able to see a doctor because there is no free healthcare. Maybe the reason you left home 18 months ago was because your single mum was a prostitute running a brothel out of your small home.

There are times when what you hear is almost too much. There are times you can be overwhelmed by the catalogue of catastrophes that have befallen a young persons’ life. You can be so incredulous at the inhumanity or despondent in the darkness that rational thought is beyond you.

But there are times you can say thank you Lord that someone is here for this child. Both of these children are now living & being loved in our short term girl’s home along with 8 other girls.  A place they can stay for as long as they need.

J

The stories above are all too common. There was a numbing inevitability the first time I was told one of these stories, because I knew it was coming. It happens all over the world & I knew it happened here. But still. But still.

There is little value in debating the whys. How can you find a coherent argument that will help?

And no, with respect, this is not an invitation to send me your thoughts on why it happens, I do have an understanding & I am sure that God will show me what I need to see to understand more. Thank you.

My friends who work with children in another developing world city with immense poverty once said that they had come to understand that if they stopped to consider what was happening to people living in the vast slums of the city, really consider it, the horrors… they would struggle to make it through each day.

When I spend time with these girls if I consider what has happened to them, really consider it… I would probably crumble into a heap of tears on the floor or just want to hug them until everything was better. Therefore without forgetting or neglecting what has gone before I purely choose to see them as they are now, on face value.

That is the tragedy of all of this, that I have introduced two smart, funny, nutty, crazy, amazing kids by all that is bad in their past. I did it so easily & genuinely have only realised that now.

F

I really didn’t know what I was going to say when I started writing this blog, I just knew that I needed to write it. I guess I wanted you to know a little more about the mission of Kimbilio & for you to be praying for (or just thinking of) these girls. But now it is evident. We must see these girls for the wonderful people they are & will grow into & they must know that is who they are. But that is easy for us to say.

I learnt over the years that there is immense power in telling someone something that is obvious to everyone who really knows them, but so difficult to hear – ‘You are a good person.’

But it’s hard.

It’s hard to see yourself as a good person if you have suffered the vicious actions of others who tell you it’s happening to you as your deserved punishment.

It’s hard to see yourself as a good person as you lie under whatever shelter you can find to make your bed for the night wondering why this has happened to you.

It’s hard to see yourself as a good person when you find yourself once more searching for an escape, some respite at the bottom of the bottle of glue you are inhaling.

It’s hard to see yourself as a good person when you have to do bad things just to survive on the street. When you have to sell your body just to survive.

And then you bring yourself, in rotten, filthy clothes, tired & almost defeated from another night on the street to come to a day centre in hope more than expectation of something, something that will make a change.

This is the story for the girls before they come to the short term ‘transit’ house.

(This is also the story for the girls who we simply cannot place in the house. Theirs is a story I will tell you another time.)

C

 

There is much I would like us to be able to do with them, but we are a small charity & resources are not as easily accessible here as in the West even if money were no object. I am trying to share what I know, link with those who understand more & bring in what we can.

But for now we simply love these girls. We give them a place of security & safety in a genuinely lovely home with full time carers where they are fed & clothed & given a safe, warm bed each evening. We show them acceptance for who they are now not who we want them to be. And we show them they are significant, that they matter by teaching them French & Maths as well as teaching them to sew (a very valuable business skill here) and by giving them one-to-one care & attention.

All the time our reintegration team are working with the family of the child to bring restoration.

Our girls transit house

Our girls transit house

But let me end with this.

Each time I go to the girls’ transit house I get swamped as the children come running at me shouting “Monsieur Ian! Monsieur Ian!” (although it kinda sounds more like ‘Missy Ian! Missy Ian!’). We then joke around with my limited Swahili & their limited English! And why all the excitement? Cause they know we are going to play games! They each act out the actions of their favourite games as we get over the language barrier!

And then we just hang out & play games, pull silly faces & laugh, a lot!

G

Right there, right then, that’s who they are.

So it still hasn’t rained here..

Good day fair reader, it’s good to chat again!

I think it’s been a little while, so I’ll catch you up with my news & hope that you find it enlightening..

How’s the Knee?

Be honest, that’s what you want to know, everyone does. Which is nice by the way & appreciated! But I have been considering giving the knee its own blog & twitter account as it does appear to have a significant number of followers. Anyway, the knee is unavailable for comment but I can confirm that we are getting on much better now as he has become more flexible & he doesn’t mind when I stand him up.

But, have you ever tried doing physio in 30 degree heat? If not, why not? It’s grrrrrrrreat, as Tony the Tiger would say if he weren’t a fictional character. I’m doing physio three times a week out the front of my place with my neighbour Lori (a qualified physio) calling the shots. It’s all about building up the muscles etc. and oh boy it’s hard work!

Not sure how long I need to carry on for but the specialist I saw last month for a check-up says the overall recovery period is 6 months. But for now I can do most things as long as I don’t over do it. Basically I’m fine really.

How’s the French coming on?

Be honest, that was your second question, oui?

In short it’s slow but steady progress, all the locals tell me ‘vous parlez bien!’ but this causes a problem – they talk to me as if I am as good at listening as talking! I’m not (insert your own jokes here). This means I can quickly get lost, which to be fair might be what they’re try to tell me.

I have this week finally found another French teacher so that should progress things, j’espere…

Mzungus on Tour!

The biggest event recently was the visit of my parents! This was pretty awesome, not least because everyone always asks me ‘what’s it like there?’ which is always hard to explain, but finally I got to show people instead! It was very special to see ma & pa again after 4 months out here & it was just a wonderful experience to be able to show them Africa!

Mum & Dad meeting the kids at the boys transit house

Mum & Dad meeting the kids at the boys transit house

We spent 6 days here in L’shi which gave us time to visit all 4 Kimbilio sites, meet all the team & lots of the kids. You’d have to ask them what they made of it (if you know them that is, if not it’d be a slightly weird thing to do out of the blue), but I think they loved it! They saw so much of real life out here, the sort of stuff I always feel privileged to be in the midst of. And I hope they were also able to get an understanding of what I love so much about being here.

We then headed up to Nairobi together to visit my friends at Kings Kids Village (KKV) orphanage. Volunteering at KKV was my first ever experience of Africa & I try & go back as often as I can because it is a beautiful place, full of beautiful people doing a beautiful thing with God. So to finally be able to take mum & dad there was again a very special experience.

Making faces at KKV cos I'm cool

Making faces at KKV cos I’m cool

I did realise at one stage though that I may have reached the number. That is, the number of new people you can introduce someone to in a short space of time before you break them. In L’shi & in Nairobi I may have sort of introduced my parents to over 100 new people! You just sort of forget all that when you’re the one doing the introducing. Whoops!

It reminded me that when I first came here I managed to create a new person. His name was Cedric, he worked for Kimbilio & I had his number in my phone, only no-one else had heard of him.. This was mainly because I had meet the same man, called Gilbert, twice but on one occasion thought he was called Cedric & saved him in my phone as such. I was slow to catch on, as on one occasion ‘Cedric’ rang me. I said ‘Bonjour Cedric!’ he said ‘Non c’est Gilbert!’ I just figured he had borrowed Cedric’s phone. I’m special like that.

Anyway, I digress..

After a wonderful few days in Nairobi we finished up with a safari in the Massai Mara. I have been on 3 previous safaris but never one this nice! We saw all of the ‘Big 5’ & marvelled at the landscape, it really is something else. We stayed in a lodge hotel & had the most attentive waitress ever. On one occasion I sneezed & she caught it in her handkerchief! Well, not quite but she was incredibly eager! She was also very kind & helpful & just reminded me that Kenyans do hospitality like no-one else.

It all topped off a fantastic time with my parents, and now I’m home in L’shi once more to get back to our mission here!

The beautiful Masai Mara

The beautiful Masai Mara

Pole, Pole

I remember saying to everyone before I left that ‘oh, you know, I think the first 3 months will just be about observing & learning..’ Well, I can now see I had some wisdom (I know, unlikely, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day..), as it’s only been recently that I have really started to understand how to achieve the things I want to achieve here. It’s one thing to spot an area for improvement, but the challenges involved in implementing it are at times hard to comprehend, let alone overcome!

Language & culture are the biggies. Now, yes I did anticipate that before coming out & no I didn’t think I would overcome them easily. But even so, when you do come up against them..

I am learning how impatient I can be & how I act out of frustration at time. And guess what? That never goes well!

I won’t try & explain these things in detail on here, it’s not really very easy to do! But what I am trying to say is that I do now feel I am achieving more but it has been a real case of ‘pole, pole’ (slowly, slowly).

So what are some of the things I’ve been working on? Well in some ways I feel my role is to be a catalyst, to be the person who makes things happen, like getting people together to plan new timetables for the transit houses or challenging people to find new solutions to old problems.

I have been working on improving systems, creating new forms & procedures. I’m training the team both formally & informally on how to run small group sessions on topics such as trust as well as developing new one-to-one resources for children in our care.

'Trust Falls' at the girls transit house!

‘Trust Falls’ at the girls transit house!

But most enjoyably I am making sure I am making time to just be with the kids, to show them that they are valued & that they matter. It’s amazing the relationships you can build when you can only speak a few words. I play games with them because essentially I am more immature than them, yesterday a smashed a strip light with a tennis ball..

Above it all I make sure they know that each of them is a good person, in spite of what has been done to them or by them.

 

 

 

Kneed to know: Part Three

Well, here we are again dearest reader, I hope the last seven days have treated you well. I set out two weeks ago to tell you the exciting (debatable) story of “I fell down a hole & hurt my knee but didn’t think it was anything too bad only to find out it might be..” The intention was that it would be a single blog entry but here we are about to commence on part three, which let’s be honest, we’re all hoping is the final instalment.

We last left off we the genuinely exciting news that I’d been given the all clear from the Doctor in Johannesburg to head home to Lubumbashi..

Chapter Five: “Did you hurt your knee?” “Errrrrrm….. yes?”

The news was a big relief & my mind now turned to going home. The local providers who had given me the good news said they would immediately let my insurers know, so I eagerly awaited their call. You’d think that after all of my previous experiences with these guys I would have known better, but I like to see the best in people & waited all the same. The question in my mind was ‘will they be happy to send me back before they see the full report on Monday?

Well, after of an hour or so I realised they weren’t going to ring me unless I hassled them as normal. It’s almost as if they have a specific form of amnesia. “Hello it’s Mr Mullens on here… again.” But the great news was they were happy to send me home today (Saturday). “We’ll look into flights & get right back to you sir.” This, as we all knew, meant “We’ll faff around a little, forget about you & then apologise profusely when you call again later.”

Safe in this knowledge I went out to the terrace of my beautifully situated hotel (see last week’s blog) to relax with a book & enjoy the view. I repositioned a nice big wicker basket style chair & took a nice big breath, everything was going to be ok! After a while sat out I realised it was time once again to chase up my ‘friends’ at the insurance company if I’d any hope of getting a flight out today.

As I got up to walk back into the hotel I remembered that I’d moved that big chair. Now, I am a man of manners, so I started to drag it the few feet back to its original position. I really can’t tell you why I thought that walking backwards with it was a good idea & the next bit happened in slow motion. I stumbled on something.. reached out a hand behind me.. grasped at thin air.. the chair, me & whatever was behind me tumbled earthwards.. and there I was on the ground.. on my bum. Graceful.

I looked around to find out what on earth had happened. What fiendish trap had I been snared by? I was annoyed, I was embarrassed, it was out of order, it was painful it was.. a three foot high ornamental ceramic elephant! Oh no! Oh no, oh no, oh no! This was a posh place, the insurers were paying, but they wouldn’t pay for my maiming of Nelly’s porcelain pal? Oh man what’s gonna happen, his head’s come off & I’ve shattered his left ear!

Hang on. Did anyone actually see? There’s no one here! I could just re-capitate him (put his head back on) (I don’t know if it was a he by the way, didn’t take the time to check his credentials) & sweep his left ear under the big wicker couch. By the time anyone realised I’d be outta here! A cunning plan with only one fatal flaw… I was at the time the only guest at the hotel, they were going to figure out it was me, then phone the insurers & well..

So I stopped kicking the many bits of elephant ear lobe under the couch & went back inside to confess. Fortunately the owner, a self-made millionaire (guessing by the hotel) who was a little intimidating, wasn’t there. Instead it was the two very kind ladies who had been helping me out all week who were there. I did the only thing an Englishman abroad in this situation should do. I adopted the Hugh Grant in a Rom Com technique.

South African trip hazard

Traditional South African trip hazard

Full of foppish looks & lots of ‘oh I’m such a wally’, ‘What must you think of me’, ‘I’m ever so terribly sorry’.. my apologies seemed to be falling on kind ears. And then they asked “When you fell, did you hurt your knee?” I hadn’t actually hurt my knee, but this was my chance to turn potential trouble into sympathy! Can you really blame me for saying “Errrrrrm….. yes? Yes I did.” (Sad face).

Phew! Disaster escaped – well for me rather than the elephant. They were sympathetic & told me not to worry. Now, back to that insurance company..

Chapter Six: “Why didn’t they just book you in club class?”

Of course getting flights wasn’t easy. After various phone calls the situation was thus:

South African Airways (SA) who flew me to Joburg had a flight back on Sunday morning but I couldn’t get on that one as the insurer’s medical team insisted that I have an extra seat to elevate my leg on & SA wouldn’t grant them the extra seat without clearance from their medical team who of course don’t work weekends.

Korongo who are a reputable airline flying the same direct route to L’shi normally fly every morning but don’t fly Sundays.

This meant waiting til Monday to speak to SA & flying on Tuesday, or flying Monday with Korongo. So when the lady on the phone suggested another option that would have me home by 2.30pm tomorrow it seemed the best option. The plan was to get a flight at 1.50am that night with Kenyan Airways up to Nairobi, spend 5hrs in Nairobi airport & then take the 2.5hr flight back down to L’shi. Now I know on a map this looks crazy, & probably sounds a pretty exhausting schedule. But you need to understand that after all that had happened over the last month I just wanted to go home! I didn’t want to wait any longer. Also I’m impatient.

Oh & I felt really awkward there now after the whole ceramic ornamental Elephant situation.

So it was settled & around 10pm my taxi came & I headed to the airport. I was on my way! I cheerily greeted Kat, the check-in lady and we chatted away as I explained that no, I didn’t have a huge backside, I had 3 seats booked so that I could put my leg up. (three was always the insurers’ preference, they just booked two on SA as it was a small plane). She then asked me a pretty good question. Considering its just leg room I needed rather than elevation, “Why didn’t they just book you in club class?” I mean surely one seat in Club with the leg room would’ve been cheaper & made more sense? I did use that as an angle for my first ever upgrade, full Hugh Grant mode engaged. But alas it was fully booked. Or at least that’s what they said.

As I handed my boarding pass over at the gate a few hours later I joked with Kat that now she could go out on the town as this was the final flight of the night. And then everything stopped. We stood there on the ramp ready to leave the terminal, but there was a hold up. No explanation. Then the 30-40 people who had already boarded starting coming back off the plane.

And at that point I realised it. This was my Jonah moment.

Delays & set-backs had been following me around through this whole saga, why on earth would there not be one now?

Like Jonah on the boat I looked on in pity at everyone as the delay progressed & thought “Just throw me overboard, I’m the reason you’re being delayed!”

“And I’m ever so frightfully sorry about it.”

Well, I didn’t. Cos well, you know, that’s the type of thing that gets you appointments in special hospitals. So instead we waited & waited with very little information other than at one point the man from Kenyan Airways telling us very reassuringly that “At the moment, the plane isn’t safe to fly. We don’t know what the problem is but it’s in the engine & they’re working on it.”

So, he made everyone feel much better about things.

Eventually at around 3.30am the inevitable happened & the flight was cancelled. What then ensued was a great game of ‘Where’s the luggage.’ Our friend from the earlier reassuring announcement about the engine was the man in charge as he had the fluorescent bib. Sadly the fluorescent bib was possibly all he had control of as we waited around 90mins for the luggage to finally appear & he cut an increasingly harassed figure.

Of course my thoughts had already turned to my escape route. Surely now the insurance company would put my on the SA flight in the morning, after all my leg is fine. I couldn’t call them though, despite their 24hr line, as my Congolese sim didn’t work in South Africa. I finally managed to get the loan of one of the staffs phones & made me plea to the insurers. They pointed out what I probably would have realised were it not five in the morning – it’s up to Kenyan Airways to find me an alternate flight. Oh yeah.

Joburg departures, where better to spend the night?

Joburg departures, where better to spend the night?

So I asked the staff & they said yep, we can go to the check in desks & have a look. Good, good. I may actually be onto a winner here as the SA flight is only 2.5hrs and leave as 9.20am! As the majority of the passengers headed off to the airport hotel for some sleep a handful of us walked through the empty airport to the check-in desks.

Yes! There is space on the flight!

But wait. There’s a problem.

“We can’t put you on the flight.”

“Why?”

Now, this is the moment at which I genuinely didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Why can’t you put me on the flight?”

“Because our computer systems are down.”

Are you actually serious? There comes a moment when you just think someone is having a laugh, but at 5.30am in Johannesburg Airport, it wasn’t me.

The staff were universally unhelpful & didn’t offer any sympathy or solutions. As we waited & waited for the system to come back to life I couldn’t quite believe the situation. And then I had a thought. What if I bought the SA ticket when the flight opens & Kenyan Airways refunded me afterwards? Yes, apparently we could do that!

But wait, “Did you buy the tickets sir?” “No.” Then that meant I couldn’t buy the new ones.

Next came the news that at Johannesburg international Airport the repair man wouldn’t be coming in until 7am. No chance of a fix in time to get me on that flight.

The only hope left. The last straw to grasp at, was falling on the mercy of our old friends the insurance company. If they bought the SA ticket for Kenyan Airways to refund then I could go home.

At 6.30am I banged my head on the table as after several conversations they said no, not without a second seat. And so disconsolately I headed to the airport hotel, courtesy of the airline & decided that today’s lesson was ‘patience.’

Chapter Seven: “You’re still here?!”

After a spot of breakfast & a shower I headed back to the airport (just a 5min shuttle bus ride) for 10am as I’d been instructed to see what flight they would put me on. No one was there from the airline to meet myself or the other poor guy who was doing the same. I found a Kenyan Airways rep & explained. She said she couldn’t put me on either of the direct flights for tomorrow so I’d just have to take the same route again tonight at 1.50am. Except this time with an extra stop off in Ndola on the way back (see Google maps).

Remember what I said about patience, well this is where it bit me in the bum. If on Saturday I’d waited to take a direct flight with Korongo on Monday I would have got home an hour and a half earlier than I was now going to get in, with the bonus of not losing two nights sleep & a comparative journey time of 2.5hrs compared to 14hrs!! Ouch.

Joburg to L'shi, via Nairobi - This is the route everyone takes, right?

Joburg to L’shi, via Nairobi – This is the route everyone takes, right?

It was a little like the twilight zone when I returned back to the identical check in desk to go through the identical routines of 24hrs previous. As I approached the ever friendly Kat again at the check in desk she was somewhat surprised to see me again. “You’re still here?!” “It’s my favourite place!”

As I went through the gate I decided this time not to say to Kat that she could head out on the town now, as the last time I said that she was stuck at the airport for the next 6 hours.

Anyway, happily I experienced no further delays & even managed to get a little sleep on the plane. Never have I been so happy to see Lubumbashi Airport!

At this point it’s difficult to know how to finish this tale. Should I end it with a Jerry Springer style monologue about what we’ve all learned from this experience? Well I did learn a lot & am truly thankful that I am still able to carry on this amazing opportunity here in L’shi & I appreciate even more now!

But writing this story has at times taken me back to creative story writing from when you were little and therefore..

When I got home I slept for 13hrs, and then when I woke up I realised it was all a dream.

Or was it..

Kneed to know: Part Two

So, where did we leave off dear reader?

Oh yes, I was about to jet off to Johannesburg to get that pesky knee checked out..

Chapter Three: “It’s for your face, sir.”

How do you pack a bag when you don’t know how long you will be away for? I knew I’d be having an MRI the next day (Thursday), but after that? Not the foggiest. They told me I’d get my results that day so the all clear would mean I could be back in time for church, but if there is a problem & I need further treatment..

Anyway, us men are pretty ace at packing, so I just chucked a load of stuff in the suitcase an hour before leaving.

Have you ever been to a small African airport before? No? Ok, I bet you’re imagining a chaotic scene, lack of organisation, no computerised check-ins or conveyer belts & a palpable sense of ‘oh boy..’

Well, how DARE you! You and your clichés & stereotypes, you ought to be ashamed!

Only you shouldn’t actually, cos, well.. that’s exactly how it was..

To add to the fun, for reasons best none to someone it’s beneficial I never meet, the scheduling at Lubumbashi Airport always puts three of the small handful of daily major out bounds on within the same time period. This meant it kinda was packed in the small check-in hall too.

What better place to spend your afternoon

L’shi Airport – What better place to spend your afternoon

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that much of part one of this story was about waiting & delays. So it won’t shock you to know that the flight was delayed. And how did I know it was delayed? Well, the plane wasn’t there. Remember, small airport. Word was that it was going to land at 2pm here, 90mins after the scheduled departure time.

Oh well, as long as I get there.

2pm passed by. Nothing. No word on what was happening & of course no TV screens or announcers to give us an update. We just kept looking out the window to see if the people outside were looking up to the sky & pointing.

That magic moment came at 3.15pm and I was soon aboard the ironically titled South African Express flight!

“We’ll make up time, he likes to fly fast this pilot,” blurted out the bubbly stewardess. “He flew so fast on the way out the windscreen cracked & we had to go back & change plane!”

“Oh, actually, I don’t think I was meant to tell you that..”

She was very kind though, as when we got to Joburg I had to wait for my wheelchair assistance (I know, but the insurance company insisted on it), as we waited & waited (get the theme here) I told her my story. “Do you like wine?” She asked. “Yeah” I replied. “Red or white?” “White!” And with that she grabbed four mini bottles from the fridge, stuffed them in my bag & sent me on my way!

I had been told Johannesburg was nice & I must agree, an absolute world away from Lubumbashi, they even had street lights. Much as I genuinely love L’shi, it was nice to be somewhere that could have been anywhere in ‘the west’.

Although none of that prepared me for my hotel though. I knew it was gonna be nice as it needed to be near the hospital which is in a nice bit of the city. Even so. We pulled up a private drive to this place www.themunrohotel.com

My Room - It'll do

My Room – It’ll do

As I walked in the door there was no check in desk, instead a lady handed me a hot, fragrant flannel (a posh version of those ones you get on planes) & said “It’s for your face, sir.” I think I must have looked so startled that I gave the impression I might end up using it in conjunction with the bidet.

So this place is a house with a small conservatory in the middle, it has only 5 bedrooms & overlooks the most ridiculously jaw dropping view over the north of Joburg. It is the pride & joy of one man with a lot of money who likes chandeliers!

Bemused & a little awkward, I settled down to sleep in the poshest place I’ve ever snored.

The view from the terrace! - Not from my room by the way!

The view from the terrace! – Not from my room by the way!

Chapter Four: “Oh dear sir, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”

 Picked up by my driver (I could get used to this) I headed to the Mill park Hospital. My insurance company had told me I would see a specialist & have an MRI at last! All was going well until I went in to see the Doctor. Other than my name he knew nothing about me. He didn’t know why I was seeing him or anything about my case history. Thankfully I’d brought my CT result with me as he of course didn’t know I’d even had one. He prodded my knee & sent me for.. an X-Ray? Ok, fine, you’re the specialist.

His receptionist gave me the letter she had for me that guaranteed payment for me from a different insurance company who were presumably the local provider my insurance had outsourced me to. Reassuringly the letter had me down as ‘Mr Mulan.’ As in the Disney character with the ropey knee I presumed?

Anyway, an hour later I was done & went back to the Doctor “I’ve looked at the X-Ray & you’ve not broken any bones” he said, pointing out the blindingly obvious. “You’ll need to go for an MRI.” Oh will I? Well blow me down.

So I went back down to Radiology for a fraught conversation with a rather scary lady who definitely looked like she had just come off of the set of Prisoner Cell Block H. (Look it up kids. Or don’t actually maybe..) She pointed out that my letter (you know, the one where I was a Disney hero) didn’t cover me for an MRI. I explained my situation and she rang them up to get a guarantee, which she managed after a long time on the phone.

At least now I’d get my MRI.. tomorrow. “There were no appointments today, so come back tomorrow at 2pm.” She said, being careful not to smile or look at all friendly. I went back to the doctor to tell his receptionist I’d need to see the Doctor afterwards. She sympathetically told me that wouldn’t happen as the Doctor is in theatre on Fridays. “Maybe Monday” she suggested.

It’s hard to express how crushing it felt to have waited so long for this day when I’d finally be able to end the anxiety & not knowing, only to realise it was going to be four days of waiting. As I spoke to the lady at my insurance company, it was hard to keep it together as I heard myself saying “they even spelt my name wrong!”

Mulan - Not actually me as it turns out

Mulan – Not actually me as it turns out

She was very sympathetic as she rather unreassuringly confessed “Oh dear sir, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.” She promised to try & resolve it & did come back later with an improvement. The Doctor was going to give me my results over the phone after he came out of theatre tomorrow. Even so, it all still felt pretty rubbish on my own in this hotel, however nice it was.

I’d been told to be at the hospital for 1.30pm by the scary lady to do the paperwork before the scan. So when 1.30pm passed & my driver was still nowhere to be seen I think I nearly lost it.

Fortunately arriving 20mins late didn’t result in me missing my appointment, but it did result in me nearly greeting the driver with a post watershed ensemble of words & phrases seldom used on Blue Peter. Amusingly on the 15min drive, this new driver informed me that it was very strange I was in the Munro Boutique Hotel when there is a perfectly nice one right next to the hospital. Nothing surprises me anymore with these guys.

A cheery guy put me in the MRI. I’d heard lots about how unpleasant these can be. The good news was I was only in the tube up to my hip, the bad news is that to combat what I can now tell you is Grade A quality headache inducing noises I was given the world’s lamest foam ear plugs.

“How long will it take?” “Depends on how well the technology works, average 35mins, 20mins if you’re lucky, 45mins if you’re not!”

It’s always good to be left in a room, strapped into a contraption, surrounded by noises similar to those you used to get when loading up computer games on tape players in the 80’s, told not to move & given a panic button.

Anyhow, after a while my friendly nurse came to let me out. “I’m so sorry” he said. “Why?” “You were in there almost an hour!”

Still, there was positive news, the Radiologist who was supervising had my scans up & told me she could only see a bruise, swelling & a ligament strain. She wasn’t the specialist so this was not the final answer. But oh my, this was incredibly hopeful! I just had to hold myself together, not get my hopes up & wait for the Doctor to ring..

I was back at the hotel only a short time when I got a phone call.

Can you guess what happened next?

That’s right, it wasn’t the doctor.

It was the local providers telling me they had booked me a telephone consultation with the doctor for Monday & an appointment with him in person on Tuesday. I rang my insurers in despair once more. They huffed & puffed & said they’d try to get me a call from the doctor before close of play but if not I’d get a call in the morning at 10am from a manager at the local providers to get me an answer from the doctor. No call came that night & the wait went on..

Of course the 10am call never came the next day, why would it? So I chased it up & finally. FINALLY. The manager from the local providers rang to say he’d spoken to the doctor & he had an answer. I didn’t need an op, just physio, full diagnosis to follow on Monday but.. I could go home.

It was all going to be ok from here on in…

To be continued..

Kneed to Know: Part One

Hello dearest reader, it has indeed been many a long day & night since last hence we convened.  I therefore have a many a tale to tell of the trials & tribulations of this last lunar cycle.  I hope to regale you with tales from Johannesburg of smashed ornamental ceramic elephants, scary hospital staff lifted from the set of Prisoner Cell Block H, smuggled bottles of wine & the dullest sleepover ever..

But first before we get there, I must tell you how I ended up in South Africa in the first place..

Chapter One: “You may need a glass of Sangria”

We last left off with my telling you of the unfortunate tumble I took in central Lubumbashi – possibly now renamed to Le Knee Bashi?  If I had only bashed my bum, I’m pretty sure things would’ve turned out much better… anyway, I digress.  So, I had twisted my knee falling down a well-placed (sense the irony) ditch.  We figured it was simply twisted & would heal up fine, in fact I’d been pretty active on it after the first few days.

Alas, after a week it was still pretty sore, so I sought out a second opinion.  This came in the form of my good friend & neighbour here Lori.  Lori is a professionally qualified medical trainer.  After pushing & pulling my knee around a little she informed me I had an MCL sprain (that’s an interior ligament by the way, although obviously you already knew that).

And then she paused & screwed her face up a little, that way people do when they are going to say something that they know you won’t like.  “You may have torn your meniscus..”  This was a double whammy, as I didn’t even knew I had one of those, but no sooner had we been acquainted, then it turned out I may have busted it, not the greatest start.  “If you have torn it you may need an operation..”  And as my head started to spin, she pointed out the obvious, “You definitely wouldn’t want to have a knee op in the DRC, you may need to go home..”

At this point Jeremy, her husband, handed me a drink “You may need a glass of Sangria” he said with a rueful look. (Yes, Sangria.  I know, this is not the Costa Del Sol, but the shop down the road does a real nice bottle for about £2.50, so, you know)  It all started to sink in, the news that is..  They gave me the contact details for an Argentinian Dr. who would be able to get me a scan & I headed back to my apartment somewhat shell shocked.

The next day I went down to the clinic, having first been fleeced by a friendly taxi driver.  I waited for around 90mins, during which time I had the usual fun of being the only mzungu in the room.  As one man, who was holding court in the packed waiting room, turned to have a bit of fun at my expense I did wish for a moment I knew the Swahili for “sod off or I’ll kick you in the meniscus” ..or something like that.  But God is gracious & did not grant me the gift of tongues at that moment, so I just smiled politely & fained a little chuckle.  It was a stressful time.

The Dr. said (please for this, put on your best Argentinian accent) “Yes I think you may have torn your meniscus, but let’s put you in for a scan.”  So I went for a CT Scan & was told to phone back on Monday for the results as the scans would be sent to a specialist in Belgium over the weekend.

A whole weekend of waiting & not knowing felt a torturous prospect.  Good then that something else happened that afternoon to add a little variety to things.  My knee ballooned.  I hadn’t been warned that this would happen, but apparently it’s a result of the dye they put in for the scan sitting on the knee.  By the early evening I could no longer walk.  This was going to be an awesome weekend.

Having survived the weekend, I phoned up the clinic to be told “There’s no meniscus tear.”  Happy days!  But I needed a second opinion..

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My trusty ice pack, we spent many a day together, even though it did go cold on me

Chapter Two:  “And how are you going to get me to Kinshasa?”

At this point in the story enters the medical insurance company.  If this were a panto they would be booed & custard pied.  I emailed my insurers to let them know what was happen & send them the scan results for a second opinion.  They referred me to their medical insurance partners who said they would get a member of their medical team to give me a call.  Now, because I am not mean, I won’t name this company, so we shall instead call them Bodgit & Bungle (B&B).

They began by taking a day & a half to call me (& only after I chased them up), but surprised me when they did.  They said “we’d like to fly you to Johannesburg to get checked out by a specialist!”  ‘Oh, that’s pretty smart’ I thought, as I just figured they’d say ‘wait & see how it heals.’  “We have an office there & could fly you out as soon as Sunday” (it was currently Weds).  “Excellent” I replied, until it hit me.. my passport was in Kinshasa!  I had sent it there several weeks earlier to get my visa extension. Oh man.

It was at this stage, talking with a couple of different friends who are doctors, I discovered that in actual fact a CT scan is of little use when looking for a meniscal tear.  We were back to square one.. maybe it was torn after all.  From this point on I couldn’t risk doing much on my knee & became confined to the little compound we have here until I could get to Johannesburg, which of course I couldn’t do until I had retrieved my passport from the inner workings of the Congolese immigration office in Kinshasa.  This was not going to be easy!

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I did a lot of sitting and testing my knee. At first this is a nice view..

Surprisingly though, things did start to move quickly in Kinshasa!  Jean Bosco (my manager here), had a contact & within less than a week I had my passport back complete with visa extension!  It was Tuesday, 19 days since my fall & 12 days since I first realised I had a serious problem with my knee, but it was going to be alright now as my insurers would have me in Jo-burg by the weekend!  Right?

Wrong. 

Here is the time frame of getting from there to Jo-burg…

Tuesday evening 7th July – Emailed to say I was ready to travel, having kept them in touch with developments.  I awaited in anticipation..

Wednesday evening – Emailed again to check they’d received my email – “how odd, oh well”

Thursday morning – Got a reply – “we have your email & will have details of your trip for you shortly”

Friday afternoon – Heard nothing so my colleague in the UK, Howard, rang them & they rang me.

Turns out they had no plan in place, despite some attempted bluffing.
“We can fly you from Kinshasa on Sunday sir.”
“I’m in Lubumbashi, how are you going to get me to Kinshasa?”
“Oh. I don’t know sir, let me look into it & get back to you.”
“You know Kinshasa is several hours in the wrong direction, you could just fly me direct from L’shi?”
“Oh.”

Sure enough she called back… three hours later, to confirm I could indeed fly direct but she would need to check there was an appointment available for me.  Quite what she had been doing for the last three hours is your guess.

Anyway, I received an email that evening saying sorry, they couldn’t get me an appointment as all of their local providers had gone home for the weekend.  They’d try again on Monday.  I won’t point out the ridiculousness of all of this for you, just think through how long they had had to make me an appointment.

I sent them an email expressing my displeasure (how British) & assumed this would make them move on it & then waited in anticipation on Monday morning..

That was stupid.

No response came so I emailed them at lunchtime.

No response came so three hours later Howard rang them.  They then emailed to say the only appointment they could get was for 10 days time but they realised that wasn’t good enough. Really?  Who’d have thought.  But she did say she would try & get me an appointment asap!

Good I thought, at last someone’s really making an effort on my behalf.

That was stupid.

Sure enough that evening I received another email saying sorry, couldn’t get you an appointment, will try again tomorrow.

I exploded.

Well, I didn’t, obviously.  Can you imagine the insurance claim on that?

But I was now reaching the end of my tether.  I tell a lie, I was well past it.

I wrote a very strongly worded (but still polite, I am British after all) email in response.

Finally on Tuesday 14th, two weeks after emailing them for the first time, nineteen days after that fateful glass of San Gria & twenty-six days after I actually fell down that hole… I was given an appointment to see a specialist & have an MRI!

Yes!  I’d be flying out tomorrow & seeing the consultant on Thursday and will finally find out what is up with this knee!

So the insurers had been unresponsive & rubbish, all will be forgotten, it’s sorted now, great news, I was feeling positive!

That was stupid.

To be continued..

Good things come to those who wait.. but in the meantime have a read of my blog

Today’s long awaited (depending on your point of view) blog comes to you as I sit with my knee bandaged & iced..

Many of you will know that I am often an accident waiting to happen (see day one & the sprained ankle), and today was my (un)lucky day. The first problem was when the taxi I was in broke down about a 10min walk from my stop. To be honest, I’m amazed this doesn’t happen more often, these vehicles take a pounding on the roads here & aren’t always sounding too healthy. I think the other passenger next to me refused to pay which may be the culture, but I felt sorry for him and payed anyway, he looked pretty miserable.

For fans of Karma (I did something nice, therefore..) , I’m afraid you’re theory didn’t really work out so well after that. I was happily walking along the pavement when all of a sudden I wasn’t.

Because I’d fallen down a hole.

Sort of.

Let me explain. Walking round L’shi, & especially the city centre, is a mission & one that requires full concentration (my forte!). In addition to wearing you backpack on your front (no, not to hide my belly, thank you) for security, being vigilant for pick pockets etc., making sure you don’t stand in the wrong place (people are often selling things laid out on the pavement), trying to look like you know where you are going so you don’t get taken advantage of, being sure to greet all the people who call out to you ‘Mzungu’ and of course attempting to cross the road from time to time when you feel brave enough… you also need to keep your eyes on the pavement.

The pavement is rarely level for more than a step or two and often it’s just uneven ground full stop. And then there’s the open man holes & storm drains. Because of the severe downpours in the rainy season there are 1 to 2 feet wide gutters either side of most roads that can be up 4ft deep.

Well, I didn’t fall in any of those, instead I fell in what my Mum would call a ‘mini ha-ha’ – a smaller gutter running at a right angle to the normal ones. As I looked up & started to think about which road I was on I lost that crucial concentration & before I knew it my right leg was 2&1/2 ft down a the gutter & I had twisted my knee!

So now I’m back at home convalescing & writing to you!

This does mean you get a long overdue new blog entry from me though, so every cloud and all that..

 

We could rule the World (Sing it)

So what can I tell you? Well first off one of the reasons for my lack of blogging has been having house mate, Howard, for the last 2 & a bit weeks.

Howard works back in the UK office for Kimbilio in Manchester & is here for 3 weeks carry out varies tasks, assess the progress of the Girls House at Maison Kimbilio & obviously check up on me! It’s been really great having Howard here, we’d met once back in the UK & talked many times over Skype but we’ve found we get on great here & I’ve even introduced him to Alan Partridge! (Can you believe he’s from Norwich but he’s never been introduced to it? But the happy news is he likes it! Jack-a-nack-a-nory!)

Howard - Not the one from Take That

Howard – Not the one from Take That

 

Anyway Howard’s a great guy & we’ve been chatting away, watching DVDs, heading out (& obviously working really hard) so much so that I’ve not been finding the time to blog recently!

 

St-rike! (Say it in an American accent like at a baseball game)

Interesting times in L’shi a couple of weeks back. The fuel companies, fed up with local government fuel tax rises, decided to call a strike! This made life, erm, interesting! The vast majority of traffic on the roads is Taxi’s & Taxi buses, not many seem to own a car. So once the strike got into day 2 on the Friday there were problems!

The number of vehicles on the road started reducing, making it harder to get around & the prices doubled as the Taxi’s & Taxi Buses saw their opportunity/prepared for losing income once their tank became empty. This started to drive up prices at the markets for staple foods in a city where for most the cost of living in relation to wages is already very high. So you can imagine the tension that was starting to rise by day 3.

Thankfully it was resolved by the end of day 3, I believe the government backed down. But that wasn’t before Howard & I had the unique experience heading home in the taxi Friday evening of what happens when you run out of fuel..

We were on the still busy main road just after dark heading home when the taxi spluttered to a halt. Very casually the driver got out, without saying a word & pushed the car (full of 4 passengers) along about 30ft, across a T-Junction & to a halt by a stall where a man was selling bootlegged fuel in bottles at the side of the road. He bought some, put it in & then we drove on. And no-one said anything about it, like it was the most normal thing in the world.

 

There Goes the Sun

Last little story to tell you about is something different. So much of what is said about DRC & Lubumbashi is about the difficulties (it’s hard not to talk about them at times) for people here & for the Mzungu trying to get a handle on it all. But I’d like to briefly tell you about the beauty here too.

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There is a lake in one part of the city, and thanks to Howard’s knowledge of L’shi from his previous visit here with Ian Harvey, he knew about an out of the way café-bar that sits on the lake edge with a perfect view of the sunset.

Most days here, since my arrival 2 months ago, there is barely a cloud in the sky. That will change when the rains come, but for now it offers amazing sunsets & clear starry nights – there’s not so much light pollution here due to the lack on many streetlights & the prolonged power outages!

As we sat & watched the sunset with a drink & a meal we marvelled at the beauty of it all, quite stunning! But we also marvelled at the untapped nature of it – the bar wasn’t even close to full, yet you & I would pay good money for the seat I had.

The potential in this country is amazing, not least for sharing with the world so much beauty & dramatic landscape across the country. Maybe one day..

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