Monthly Archives: February 2013

Jon the Magician

One of my favorite things is watching Jon entertain both children and adults with his magic tricks. When he lands at one of his regular airstrips, the children or men flock around him begging for a trick. It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve seen him do the same thing, it always ends in screams of laughter and surprise.

At Nebobongo, a crowd of about 30 kids followed his every move as he closed up the plane, and finally one brave kid tapped Jon on his elbow and held out a small stone while the other children waited expectantly for the magic to begin. Jon also loves to chase the children while they scream and laugh. It’s brilliant.

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More Good Hair

On my recent flight to some outlying jungle stations with brother Jon, I found a few more females with “Good Hair” (to quote the documentary of the same name). If you haven’t seen my album of Good Hair, click HERE.

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First Flight

Nebobongo Boy

Nebobongo Boy

 

I’m back in Congo for about a month to do a story on Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) here in Bunia. Lucky for me, my brother and sister-in-law (Jon and Cher) live here, so I feel very fortunate right now. (Click on thumbnails to see larger)

 

Mulita – evacuating a missionary

Yesterday I took my first MAF flight with my brother as the pilot. The main purpose was to evacuate a 70+ year-old woman named Maud Kells from her mission station of Mulita in the middle of the jungle. Rebels had taken the nearest town over the weekend, and although she was safe, her mission group wanted her to get out. It all went smoothly (no ducking and running with bullets flying, although they had about 5 newly-arrived patients with bullet wounds at the hospital), and we flew her to Nebobongo (Nebo, for short), another remote mission hospital about an hour and a half away in the Ituri Forest.

Mulita Airstrip in the middle of the jungle

Nebobongo – remote mission hospital station

We stayed overnight in Nebo with a lovely German nurse (Sabine) and two French nurses who were incredibly hospitable and so happy to have guests. Sabine gave us a tour of the hospital grounds and village. It was bigger and nicer than I imagined, but still far from western standards. This beautiful little place, established in the 1950s, has probably saved thousands of lives.

Buta – the ghost airport

The next morning we flew for two hours to another airstrip in the middle of the jungle called Buta. It was a bit surreal, like a ghost airport – a long paved airstrip, terminal, and tower, but no planes and few people, all surrounded by forest. Our two passengers and a few airport staff came out to greet us.  The place looked moldy and a bit run-down with large spotlights on a tall pole that didn’t work as there had been no electricity since the war. The town of Buta has a population of only 50,000 (as compared to Isiro with 183,000, or Bunia with 366,000 – both with similar paved airstrips). The lone man in the tower sat in his large empty room with a mobile phone playing the Carpenters and Michael Jackson music on full volume from the open window.  A weathered, crumbling place with past dreams of grandeur. This is what much of Congo feels like. Good things seem to eventually end in ruin, devoured by the greedy jungle or destroyed by war.

 

 

Ending Two Years at Virunga


This is my new website, and past time for my once-a-year update although I’m hoping (as usual) to write more consistently. If you subscribed to my previous blog, you’ll need to do it again here as I will be closing that one soon.

The big news is that after two years working at Virunga National Park in DR Congo, my job has ended and I will be looking for other work. If anyone has ideas, please let me know. My brother Steve told me once that I like to “reinvent” myself every couple of years. There is much truth in this. I’m not sure why, but I do enjoy change and trying new things. Not only do I often change countries I’m working in, I change careers as well…

…film location managing, humanitarian work, teaching, photojournalism, communications…

…California, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Congo…

I’m looking forward to what is next but not in a rush.

 

I’ve been enjoying some leisure time in Kenya staying with my nephew and his family outside Nairobi and enjoying every minute of no-stress. Christmas here was spent with family which for me there is nothing better. I’ll be returning to Congo next week for a freelance photography/writing job, covering a story on Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Bunia. I will have the added pleasure of staying with my brother and his wife, Jon and Cher. After that I may go back to the US for a time.

 

The strongest memories from this past year are not necessarily the most pleasant. A new rebel movement called M23 took over the area of North Kivu province where I lived, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes to IDP camps. Even our ranger families were sent packing to a make-shift camp of plastic sheeting tents outside Goma just prior to a violent battle near our headquarters. Although this rebel group isn’t the worst (I liked to jokingly say that we had the good rebels as compared to the truly evil ones hell-bent on killing our rangers), it disrupted the lives of so many people in an area of the country that cannot seem to find lasting peace. Just four years ago this population was uprooted by a rebel war and before that even harsher wars triggered by the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
 
I was evacuated from the park headquarters at least six times during the year, beginning on April 1st, each time sent to Goma on Lake Kivu, the city an hour and a half south of us. I missed Rumangabo, my tent, my community, and stability more than you can possibly imagine. We would work from Goma until it appeared to be safe enough to return. After a while it became clear that it was best to have a bag packed at all times, and soon it seemed that everything I owned should be taken to Goma in case the headquarters was over-run. Back and forth, back and forth. In November, during one of the evacuations, the rebels took over Goma and we fled across the border to Rwanda.

Although tourism ended when the rebel war began, it was not all bad news. Just weeks before the problems started, a filmmaker agreed to make a documentary for the park. Although this may sound twisted, the timing could not have been better. This filmmaker seemed to always be at the park during the worst times to document what was happening on video, so much so that we accused him of orchestrating the trouble. The full-length documentary will be released this year, something you shouldn’t miss. Many projects were able to continue in spite of the war, and considering the circumstances, it could have been much worse:

  • Although our rangers came under fire numerous times, we only lost three (11 were killed in 2011).
  • Although the mountain gorilla sector came under the control of the rebels, no gorillas were killed that we know of, and 7 new babies were born among the 6 habituated groups.
  • Although tourism income disappeared entirely, individuals and organizations came to the rescue to keep the park going.

The last two years have been an amazing adventure, one I’m incredibly grateful for.

Now on to a new one. I’m open to ideas.

(Thanks to Orlando for the use of his photos of the Goma war.)