Stars of God

IZ9C4719-3BLOG – The author wrote the following article during a field mission in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in early 2016. For him, remembering that UNICEF’s mission is all about children is an ever-important, motivating necessity.

The road has been long. Heavy rains have worsened the unpaved path between Lubumbashi and Pweto. Driving northeast, our Land Cruisers were roughly shaken, slipped, passed over broken bridges and through rivers, faced dust and stones. During the many hours of manoeuvring, the distant calm and blue Lake Mweru has come closer, now finally granting a view of its shore from up close. Here, the water naturally separates south-eastern Congo from Zambia, lying just across. Instead of reaching our first destination yesterday, we had to rest overnight in the small village of Kilwa, to the delight of the local mosquitoes, and continue our long trail in the early morning light.

We cross a swiftly flowing stream carrying water towards the Congo River, with the help of a rusty ferry long awaiting its retirement. Under the eyes of heavily armed soldiers, we enter Pweto. Turning into town we pass a wall with the words “Stars of God” painted across it. The colourful image quickly disappears, yet I can’t help but wonder whether I might be offered a glimpse of them. The stars must be special, pure, mysterious, sacred. Maybe they can be found here, in the province of Katanga.

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I see a wall with the “Stars of God” painted on it. The stars must be special, pure, mysterious, sacred. Maybe they can be found here.

For now, though, I need to leave my thoughts aside. A packed programme directs our UNICEF vehicle into all corners of the town. Our driver, Jean-Claude, doubles as our DJ, skilfully mixing a line of reggae tracks with the chants of Catholic Church choirs on a small portable radio. With his gentle smile, Jean-Claude is full of surprises, navigating us towards every possible – and impossible – destination, even those hidden behind palm trees and down dusty tracks.

Together with my Congolese colleagues, Willy and Linda, I’m visiting UNICEF’s local state and other partners to monitor some of the child protection programmes we support in the area. While Willy works in the UNICEF office covering the Congo’s vast southern region, Linda has joined from her office in Kalemie, in the south-east, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Coming from the head office in Kinshasa, I am trying to add my perspective of someone overseeing a number of programmes that aim to protect children from harm across the country. Mostly, though, I have come to listen and learn, and be surprised and corrected in my assumptions and expectations. And now I am on a search for those divine stars, though I’m not too sure where to find them.

In the following hours, visiting a civil registration office, we discuss the challenges keeping children from receiving a birth certificate. A meeting with the judge of the local tribunal is cancelled, as he apparently abandoned his post three months ago. We speak with NGO partners to see whether the different programmes they are implementing with us are running as planned. We take notes, discuss and recommend. This is not the time to preach about the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but rather to find practical solutions.

Packed schools help replace difficult memories

Perhaps most importantly, we visit a number of sites running projects supported by UNICEF, where we can see the difference they make in the lives of children. We pass by several primary and secondary schools, offering basic education to vulnerable children, as part of a project jointly run with our education colleagues. Each of them is packed with excited boys and girls proudly showing off their little blue UNICEF school bags and eager to practise their French with me. The programme includes several children who were formerly part of armed groups, enabling them to continue on their educational path and replace some of their difficult memories with fresh knowledge, friendship and play.

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We continue to several sites that offer vocational training to older youths. Learning professional and business-related skills will enable them to reintegrate into the local economy, as well as their families and communities. Here we see the future generation of mechanics, barbers, carpenters, tailors and bakers. In the mechanic’s group, I am instantly captivated by a youth called Papi. Though 15, he is by far the smallest in the group, his head hardly reaching the table. His concentration is focused on assembling the inner workings of a motorcycle, his resolute eyes seeming to shine brighter than all the others around.

As the sun is turning from orange to red and about to rest for the night on the other side of the lake, we are on our way to the hotel, longing for a shower and a meal in good company. In the distance, fishermen are taking their wooden boats to the lake, braving the waters armed with nets and oil lamps, making for a picturesque luminous line of yellow dots on the horizon. Lightning and threatening clouds imposed against the dark Congolese landscape don’t seem to frighten the men. Experience must tell them where the storm is going – and where the best fish are to be found under the light of the moon and stars.

A new day

The sun rises into a new day. We are galloping towards our next stop, Moba, hoping to be there in 12 hours. On the side of the bumpy path, women carry impossible loads of wood on their heads, often with babies on their backs. Men are watching from afar, sitting in the shadow of a tree or a house – the country’s gender imbalance in a nutshell. Smoke rises from little huts, gathered as if for a chat.

Through the open window, the wind blowing in my face, I can taste the fires, the red dust, the mist. Happy Congolese music is pitching high inside the car, making up somewhat for the growing back pain. Chicken and goats run crisscross, as if dancing to the beat. Children play with a makeshift football, offering a second life to a few plastic bags wrapped in artful spins. Curious raindrops on the windows have decided to travel a little distance with us.

As the grass is growing higher than the roof of our car, I am wondering whether what I attempt to do in my far-away office in Kinshasa is really making a difference around here. We get stuck in deep mud, sand and tree trunks forming makeshift bridges. Repeatedly, we need to be pulled out by our convoy car, armed with a thick steel rope and the power of a large herd of horses. Whether we’ll reach today’s destination, I leave it all to chance – and the stars of God that may guide us from above.

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The beautiful scenery is sadly somewhat deceptive. Too many of the huts and mud houses we pass have been abandoned and their roofs and walls have started to crumble. The families who lived in them have run for shelter as far as their feet could carry them. The region continues to be volatile. Some of the notorious mining sites are not too far off, carrying diamonds, cobalt and other precious materials. We see bicycles transporting locally brewed alcohol to these places, adding an unfortunate and toxic ingredient to the region’s on-going strife.

For too long, fueled by the struggle for power and access to the treasures of the land, armed conflict has torn families and communities apart, grossly wasting inestimable human potential, and violating human rights and dignity in sad routine. Too many children have been kidnapped and stolen, forced to dig, rape and kill. This region has proven that it deserves its notorious nickname, “triangle of death,” with a number of rebel groups committing unspeakable crimes.

We drive on and advance into an increasingly dense forest, crossing an area inhabited by the indigenous Batwa tribe. Strong men with machetes and hoes go about their agricultural duties. As the trees grow more impenetrable, I can hardly see the sky. It feels like we’ve reached the middle of the middle of nowhere. No heavenly stars to be seen here.

During these last days, I frequently find myself admiring my colleagues, Willy and Linda, who have been working in their country for many years to protect children, at times against seemingly impossible odds. They find the right words with the local authorities, parents and children. They push and pull, negotiate and shake hands with those who mean well, and those who don’t. When UNICEF speaks about its strong presence on the ground, these are the people we mean. They are standing in the front line, the ones mostly going where it’s hot and dirty, painful and dangerous. These are the kind of colleagues who give me great pride in serving this organization, always making me strive to do better.

Many hours of heavy steering later, the shadows have gained in length, the heat quieted down. Miraculously, having reached Moba town, I decide to stroll the last bit to our home for the night. I don’t make it far. Once again, kids wonder where I am from, what I am doing, how long I am staying, and whether I might have an extra pen. A whole group of them buzzes around me. A smile is back on my face. Soon it’s time to say farewell as nightfall approaches, and another long working day passes. In the morning we’ll travel over the dreadful roads to Kalemie to see still more.

As I walk on in silence, I again remember the painted words on the wall that have stayed in the back of my mind. I look up to the darkening sky, where the fine distant points of light have taken their rightful place. And then I finally get it. How could it have taken me so long?

All these days, meeting so many children, walking on the little foot paths, shaking the hands of so many…we have already seen shining examples of stars. A thousand stars with the future blinking in their eyes. Smiles that carry a different destiny. Hands assembling this country with the peaceful future its people deserve, repairing the wounds of the past.

The colourful words were right all along. All this time, we have seen nothing else and nothing less than divine stars. The stars of God.

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Gabriel Vockel

Gabriel Vockel is the Child Protection Manager, Social and Legal Protection for UNICEF Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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