This spring was my final semester of graduate school at NYU in New York. It has been chaotic, exciting, challenging and exhausting.
Along with writing my thesis – on the Great Lakes peace process – specifically, women’s participation in peacebuilding in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), my time has been consumed with an internship/consultancy at Global Network of Women’s Peacebuilders (GNWP).
It is interesting as an older student who has already had a career to participate in an internship. Some of my friends said that they couldn’t imagine working for free at this stage in their lives. For me, it has just been a necessary element in my transition to a new career –- and an opportunity to adjust expectations and adapt to a fluid situation. It does help to have a supervisor who provides substantive projects and opportunities as opposed to filing and other administrative duties. I look at it as volunteering at an organization that advocates for women rights around the world, specifically the inclusion of women in peace processes. The more women involved in peacebuilding, the higher chance a new government will create an infrastructure based on equality.
My travel to Kinshasa, DRC had two focuses, field research for my thesis and co-facilitating the focus group on the CSO survey for the Global Study UNSCR 1325. The survey feeds into the UN Secretary General’s (SG) Global Study that highlights “good practice examples, gaps and challenges, as well as emerging trends and priorities for action on UNSCR 1325 implementation.” Results from this study will be featured in the SG’s annual report to the Security Council on Women and Peace and Security in 2015.
While in DRC, I met with representatives from civil society, UN Women and government officials. There were several surreal moments, such as briefing DRC National TV after meeting with Vice Minister of the Interior. The days were full of meetings and preparation for the focus group. Luckily there was a grocery store around the corner from my hotel, where I could grab food during the day because by the time the sun went down, I was tucked away in Hotel Belle Vie. Luckily the hotel restaurant had an Indian section of the menu that I ordered from nightly. This might sound odd but it is not safe to walk around at night and questionable during the day. For the most part, I was on my own while in Kinshasa.
DRC is a destination that requires contacts and planning. Kinshasa was an interesting mélange of sights and experiences. Westerners (INGO workers) do not walk around on the street, even during the day and everyone is driven from place to place, whether meetings or restaurants. Locals sure were stunned to see me walking around during the day and they stared a lot. There are a lot of military, police and perhaps others – carrying automatic weapons – everywhere. It’s difficult to tell who is who. The basic idea is stay away from them. Also, do not take pictures of people or buildings in the city.
The scariest experience for me was attempting to cross the street because they do not use stoplights or signs and you just need to walk out into traffic and hope the cars stop. People also hop into random cars because there are no taxis. I used cars a few times when I was with a Congolese colleague but under no circumstance should a westerner just flag one down on their own. Public transportation is in the form of mini vans with open doors and people standing on the ledges and old busses packed to capacity with standing room only.
The buildings are in bad shape. The interiors and exteriors reminded me of photographs of the crumbling, decrepit buildings in Havana, Cuba. Yet, somehow, those in Cuba have a romantic feel, whereas buildings in Kinshasa just appear underdeveloped and in need of maintenance.
There are currently quite a few expats from India living in Kinshasa. The lure is the lack of local businesses and these individuals bring enough resources to fill the gap in the form of grocery stores and restaurants. Unfortunately, most Congolese do not have funds or capacity to start their own business. It is a risky venture though, because it is difficult for foreigners to walk around Kinshasa. Often they are sequestered at their businesses and require private security for their businesses and local employees to do the banking and other errands.
The ride to the airport reminded me of my travels in South Africa and visiting the informal township of Khayelitsha. Once you move away from the city center, the abject poverty is unmistakable. People are selling whatever they can on the street. Vendors and restaurants are housed in crude corrugated tin shacks, or if they are lucky a shipping container.
DRC is one those countries that is resource-rich, yet extremely poor because of limited capacity, corruption and several other reasons. Hopefully, the peace process will facilitate change for the better.