Thursday, December 31, 2009

King Leopold’s Ghost and Apocalypse Now.

I just read Adam Hochchild’s King Leopolds Ghost. It deals with the exploitation of the DRC (then the Congo Free State) by King Leopold II of Belgium at the end of the 19th century. Not only gives the book an impassionate account of the attrocities commited by the Europeans in order to obtain ivory and rubber, but also of people like George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and especially Edmund Dene Morel who make the world aware of these attrocities.

King Leopold’s Ghost

There were several things that caught my attention; one of them was how similar the situation is now compared to then. Two examples:

First, the Belgians made use of forced labor to obtain ivory and, especially, rubber. The book discusses in much detail how women were kidnapped so that the men had to collect rubber, and the harse punishments if not enough rubber was collected (villages were burned, right hands chopped off, women raped, etc). It shocked me how similar this is to messages we receive today from Voix des Kivus where we consistenty receive messages indicating how villagers are forced to carry loads for FARDC or FDLR troops into the forests. Other reports confirm this as well. In a recent report from Global Witness regarding mining in the DRC they note how “Local human rights organisations have reported cases where civilians have been arrested and tortured for not complying with soldiers’ orders to work for them, for not satisfying their military “bosses”, or for denouncing extortion, theft of minerals and other abuses by themilitary.’ (p. 39)”

Second, Edmund Morel – who a.o. led the campaign against slavery in the Congo Free State – found out about the attrocities while working for Elder Dempster (a Liverpool shipping firm) in Antwerpen. He noticed that ships leaving Belgium for the Congo carried only guns, chains, ordnance and explosives, but no commercial goods, while ships arriving from the colony came back full of valuable products (ivory and rubber). I hope you all saw the movie “Darwin’s Nightmare”...

Apocalypse Now

The book mentioned that the movie Apocalypse Now - a movie about the Vietnam War – is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So, yesterday evening I watched the movie; it could not have been more obvious:

Apocalypse is set in a beautiful country, but where conflict is rife (like in the DRC). The US soldier takes a boat up the Nung river [the Congo] to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz of Special Forces [yes, they even kept the same name] who went insane [Conrad’s Kurtz also went insane and is also lording over a small tribe as a god]. At minutes 1:15 and 2:20 we see stakes with severed heads on it [the same is what Marlow sees when looking at Conrad’s Kurtz's house via his binoculars]. To make things even more obvious, when Colonel Kurtz dies he screams “The horror! The horror!” and shortly after that we see that he wrote in his book "Drop the bomb. Exterminate them All". In Heart of Darkness Kurtz screams the same thing when dying and had written down "Exterminate the brutes!".

The question now is why? Is Francis Ford Coppola indicating that the US regime was like the one of Leopold II? Does he want to show us the darkness of the human psyche: "the heart of an immense darkness"? Or did simply think (correctly) that using Heart of Darkness would bring in lots of money? It is a great movie.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Passports don't like washing-machines.

First, I'm flying on January 5th to the DRC via Kigali where I'm staying over 1 night. I therefore need a visa. Today I was contemplating whether to go through the hassle of going to the Rwandan Embassy in the Hague, do the paperwork, etc. or just to go to Kigali airport and buy a visa at arrival, of course, with the possibility that the latter is not possible. About an hour ago I decided to go for the latter. Second, when we travelled together, my ex-girlfriend would often tell me how badly I took care of my passport. I don't have a protection cover, I just keep it in my trousers, from the outside one can't see it is an EU Dutch passport anymore, etc.

There we go:

I just took my passport out of the washing-machine and spend about 30 minutes with my mom's hairdryer trying to save my visas and stamps. Yep, I had forgotten to take my passport out of my trousers. Luckily, I can still see that it is me on my US visa and the words on it are quite readable. Fortunately, the Dutch part is made of a washing-machine resistant material. And, magically, the DRC visa - which is nothing more than a stamp - also survived soap and bubbles. I do miss 20+ stamps. Especially the stamps one gets at US customs (the ones where they write an "F1" inside the stamp) are noticably absent. At the moment, I have a lot of lonely "F1"s in my passport. :)


First, I think I will be going to the Rwandan Embassy tomorrow. Second, as always, my ex-girlfriend was very right.

Google and the FDLR.

Most rebel groups have a website. Of course, also they have to spread their 'noble' objectives to the wider world. Also, the FDLR (the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda) has a website. In their own words, the FDLR are [things within square brackets are mine, the rest is from the FDLR website]:

"[mainly Hutu-based] Rwandans [living in Eastern Congo] determined to defend their motherland [Rwanda] kept under constant threats of extermination by a tyrannic and barbaric [Tutsi-based] regime [in Kigali, Rwanda]. The FDLR are a response to contempt, arrogance, ruthless and bloodthirsty repression, and fascism of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) [the current Tutsi-based ruling party in Rwanda and led by the country's president Paul Kagame] and to the opposition by the RPF to diverse initiatives taken in favour of a political dialogue, open democratic activities, and respect of fundamental human rights in Rwanda."

Especially the last sentence is informative. I must have been wrong then for all that time; I always thought that the FDLR was accused by many (human rights workers, the UN, and countless Congolese civilians) of mass rape, murder, forced recruitments, child soldiers, using slaves to illegally exploit minerals, etc.

When I typed in "FDLR" into Google this evening I got the following message:

FDLR - [ Vertaal deze pagina ]
Deze site kan schade toebrengen aan uw computer.
FDLR, easy homepage, Homepages erstellen ohne Programmierkenntnisse, site dynamique sans programmation.
- Vergelijkbaar -

The second sentence means "This site can damage your computer" in that beautiful language Dutch. Is Google indirectly telling us something here?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Back in the Netherlands: finally internet again.

After three weeks without decent internet, I am sitting on the couch with a cold Dutch beer and final read - instead of quickly scan - my favorite news sources:

  • Africa is a country; a great source on about everything with regards to Africa; especially the more cultural things.
  • Congosiasa; a great blog with information on Congo.
  • Chris Blattman is professor at Yale, does very interesting work, and he keeps a great blog. How every academic should be.
  • IRIN news; humanitarian news by OCHA.
  • Project Syndicate; lots of commentary by often really good academics.
  • Reliefweb; a UN website that provides information to humanitarian relief organizations.
  • Texas in Africa; blog by Laura Seay; great commentary on Africa.
  • Wronging Rights; brilliant commentary on serious issues.

From these sources (I know, I just recycle), hereby five interesting things:

  • For my dissertation I am, among others, interested in natural resources and it's relation to conflict. I read the solution to Congo's mineral problems... drones! Of course, I should have thought of that.
  • On a much more serious note, last summer Simon and I befriended a very bright Congolese student; he is studying to become a priest. Already some days ago he sent us an email on recent attacks on Catholic priests and nuns in Eastern DRC. The above sources wrote about it as well, one linked to this. Please also read the post by Texas in Africa who discusses the importance of the Catholic Church in Eastern Congo.
  • Some nice pictures and postcards from Africa.

  • In my previous post I had a link to a documentary regarding DRC's gold on CBS' 60 minutes. Please also check this out for three problems with the documentary.
  • Finally, Chinese in Africa. Indeed, last summer when I was in the DRC, each public goods project - although few in number - had at least one Chinese walking around there as well.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Four things I like (a belated post).

  • A short movie on the DRC's gold on CBS.
  • A recent International Peace Institute event with SRSG Mr. Alan Doss as guest.
  • The UN ends Kimia II. Finally!
  • A recent report by Human Rights Watch on Eastern Congo.


I’m in rural Austria with limited internet connection. It was quite a trip to get here from Montpellier (>24 hours in public transport): 1 tram in Montpellier, 3 busses to get to Munich, and 2 trains to get to Fuegen. As always, the bus part was interesting.

It had snowed for the first time in France the evening before, and the bus’ window-heater didn’t work (the bus came from Spain). Also, we were stopped by German police for passport control. Both made me miss my train in Munich. We drove at night, which doesn’t mean one can sleep because the bus driver has to stop every 2 hours or so for a break; i.e. lights on. On top of this, I had to change bus twice; i.e. waiting in the freezing cold on an empty parking lot praying that the next bus will arrive soon (of course those busses also had delays).

But this is usual for travelling by Eurolines bus; that’s why it’s cheap. And, despite all this, it was not a hellish ride, because there is something else usual about these rides.

I sat next to an interesting German girl my age and we had a long chat; not in English or German, but in French. Right in front of us sat a boy and a girl; she from Germany studying Spanish and he from France studying German. A bit later during the trip I overheard their conversation: she was teaching him "naamvallen".

Some years ago The Economist wrote that (paraphrasing) while the European Commission had done its fair share, it was especially the cheap airlines and buscompanies in Europe –Ryanair, Eurojet, Eurolines, etc. – that benefits European integration. It was that thought that kept me warm while freezing at the parking lot in Lyon and Karlsruhe. ;)

Friday, December 18, 2009


Because I want to be a proper Africanist I have to speak French; not only the language of love, but also the language that is spoken in 31 African countries. I forgot most of my high school French so here I am, taking classes for two weeks in Montpellier, France.

Montpellier is a gorgeous city from the Early Middle Ages first mentioned
in a document of 985. The city - the capital of the "Languedoc-Roussillon" region - is relatively small with around 250,000 inhabitants. Thank you Wikipedia. I've been here now for about two weeks; unfortunately with very limited internet connection. Hereby some pros and cons of Montpellier:

pro: walking
I love to walk around late at night when there is nobody on the street (it clears my head and makes me think). Montpellier is perfect for this with its many small narrow streets, old buildings, etc.

pro: books
I found two really massive bookshops! One of them even has a large amount of second-hand books. This all in addition to many antique bookshops I've seen. Hurrah!

con: pooh
Unfortunately Montpellier kept one bad Medieval habit: there is pooh lying all over the place.

con: closing times
My school here - Accent Francais - closes at 6pm. And the internet cafe - together with most other shops in Montpellier - closes at 8pm. How I miss New York.

Do I have nothing to say about Montpellier's culture, nearby-located villages, etc.? Actually, no. I'm taking the ‘intensive’ package here: class in the morning, (private) class in the afternoon, dinner with hostess in the evening to practice speaking, and homework after that. Of course, work for Columbia continues, so I try to do that at night.

In a few hours I hop on a bus that brings me to Muenchen, Germany (arriving the next morning). From there I take a train to Jenbach in Austria where I plan to meet up with my family (mom, dad, brothers, aunts, uncles, granny, cousins, etc.) to spend a week together in Austria. Can't wait.

Au revoir la France! Hallo Österreich!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Books & All Things Must Fight to Live.

Yesterday morning I arrived at Schiphol airport; first a month in Europe and then finally back to the DR Congo.

In Europe: 1. I'll study French (tomorrow I'll be heading to Montpellier for two weeks), 2. Work on R (I took John Fox's "R and S-Plus Companying to Applied Regression" with me), 3. Work on causal inference (I also took Morgan and Winship's "Counterfactuals and Causal Inference" with me), 4. Prepare for the Congo.

For in the DRC I packed quite a few books (I know I should have bought a Kindle):
  • Adam Hochchild's "King Leopold's Ghost"
  • Ben Okri's "Famished Road"
  • Samual Popkin's "Rational Peasant"
  • Frederick Forsyth's "Dogs of War"
  • Adam Roberts' "The Wonga Coup"
  • Robert Klitgaard's "Tropical Gangsters"
  • Nicholas Shaxson' "Poisoned Wells"
  • Bryan Mealer's "All Things Must Fight to Live"
  • Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid"

I finished Bryan Mealer's book already in the airplane from New York. Bryan Mealer worked and travelled for three years in the Congo and wrote about his experiences. A very impressive piece of work! I do hope the other books are not that good, otherwise I am out of books before I arrive in the DRC. ;)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Flatland (again).

A short addition to my previous post on Flatland, I just read this on Wikipedia:

"Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. Writing pseudonymously as "a square", Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointed observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture."


Visa for DR Congo.

The day after tomorrow I'll leave New York for 2+ months: two weeks in France to study French, one week in Austria to ski, one week in the Netherlands with family, and then for more than a month back to Eastern Congo for work. I can't wait.

Of course one needs a Visa to enter the DRC. Last time I took the official route, which took lots of time and lots and lots of paperwork. For example, the website notes that an invitation from somebody in the DRC is necessary in order to obtain a Visa. The document I obtained in the summer contained 5 stamps (including one of a notary public) and a large number of signatures.

Following the advise of my professor, this time I took a different approach. I went to the DRC Mission at the United Nations myself yesterday. They asked me for a letter of invitation, which I told them I didn't have. They then asked me for information on where I would stay. So, I wrote the following on a document:

[name of a friend]
IRC House #5
Quite close to Lake Kivu
Bukavu, DRC

She took the piece of paper, looked at what I wrote down, thanked me and tomorrow I can pick up my passport with Visa. Awesome!