Meeting Jacques Ngoun

2187 words/15 minutes

Jacques in white shirt, his wife on right, and three kids in front right

I first met Jacques Ngoun, a Bagyeli Pygmy from south Cameroon, at a IUCN run forest conservation conference, on the first few days of my first visit to Cameroon in February 1999. The conference, took place at the Yaounde Hilton, a vast, vastly expensive, and entirely inappropriate location for a discussion on forest policy, poverty alleviation and social justice.

I stood talking to Simon Counsel of the Rainforest Foundation-UK and Margaret of Forest People’s Programme (FPP) outside the conference room, waiting for the Cameroon Minister of Forests to open the conference, which was scheduled for 9am. After two hours, a bevy of military, holding semi-automatics, ushered the minister into the conference room. The minister gave a short, empty and trite speech, with armed soldiers standing menacingly behind him and others guarding the door. Having held a hundred or more people up for two hours, he swept out with his armed guard. The other speakers were no better: a foreign expert on how villagers must be educated to protect the forest, a technical expert on some arcane aspect of forestry law, a World Bank official on conditionalities and development loans.

Tragically, tropical rainforest logging, legal as well as illegal, is the root cause of rainforest destruction in Africa. Villagers are not consulted about whether logging takes place, and do not benefit from it, (though the local chief may soon be driving a brand new 4×4 courtesy of the logging company). Their forest is mutilated, and the game hunted out to feed the loggers, who have cash. The logging operation quickly moves on, leaving the consequences, but few if any economic benefits. This is far worse for Pygmy peoples, who do not farm in second growth forest, but live, hunt and gather in old growth. A conference that ignores this, describes technical issues, and blames the villagers for the problem is clearly worse than useless. Most logging is simply monetising a local resource that provides benefits (food, medicines and other non-timber forest products) to the local population in perpetuity into a quick gain for a international logging company and corrupt officials, local and national.

The fact that logging was corruptly controlled by government ministers and senior generals, who used it for personal enrichment and ignored all legal and ecological regulation, and that the presidents nephew was the biggest concession holder in the country, was not mentioned. We were told the problem was caused by ignorant villagers. Jacques, who talked about the relationship of Pygmy peoples to the forest, “without the forest, we will die as a people,” was the only person who spoke at the conference who was not compromised by being paid off or employed in the corrupt processes involved in logging Cameroon’s rainforests.

I was introduced to Jacques by Margaret of the FPP. We got on instantly, and he invited me to visit him near Bipindi 230 kilometres south of Yaounde. Margaret then asked me if, while I was there, I’d evaluate a FPP proposal to purchase a satellite phone for Jacques. I was happy to help a local activist get access to resources, and later I got a briefing on the proposal and its budget of £6,000.

Next day, after Jacques returned home to Bipindi, I met with Didier Amagou of local NGO Planet Survey, who had an office in Lolodorf, en route for Bipindi. A few days later, I made my way through the very early morning darkness to meet Planet Survey, but through one delay or another we left Yaounde at almost 6 am and the roads were already crowded with people walking into Yaounde in the dark. Terrible driving is one of the perennial dangers of working in Africa, but I was far more concerned for the men, women and children walking along the edge of the narrow roadway in the dark to get to their fields, jobs or schools, as we hurtled past lurching across the road to avoid the potholes.

This was the first time I’d been out of Yaounde, the first time I’d been on a “field visit” in Africa, and I was excited at getting out of the hotel conference, international expert bubble. We drove for an hour along the Douala road, and turned off at a busy crossroads filled with small food stalls. Street traders and fruit sellers crowded around overcrowded buses stopping for a break on their journey. In another hour or so, we were at Lolodorf, a small German colonial town astride the Lokoundje River. I was given a tour of the Planet Survey office, and got to meet about a dozen local staff.

After lunch we set off again, on a field visit to a Pygmy encampment. This was a first contact visit, with Planet Survey introducing themselves and identifying what services the camp might need. It seemed a rushed affair, with Planet Survey doing a brief introduction on their work and leaving little time for discussion before hurriedly returning to Lolodorf. That evening I went out dancing with many of the Planet Survey staff in a bar with a stereo, some red spotlights, and plenty of choices in beer. It was a great night out. We created a real party atmosphere with just fifteen people; and the director of Planet Survey had some mean dance moves.

The Planet survey staff in Lolodorf, Didier Amagou on left

The next day Planet Survey offered to combine taking me to Jacque’s house with a field trip to the Bipindi area, so I contributed a tank of gas for the jarring 45 km drive down the rocky road which followed the steep Lokoundje river gorge to the small town of Bipindi. There we visited the Foire, a Catholic school for apprentices, where Jacques had once worked. An hour later I was dropped off at Jacques house, four miles outside Bipindi. I got a great, enthusiastic greeting, and met Jacques wife and numerous children.

Jacques with some of his family outside his house

I stayed for three nights with Jacques at his house, eating wonderful meals of game meat, manioc and delicious sauces made with fresh ground herbs and spices. We made trips into the surrounding fields to drink palm wine straight from the palm tree. The owner of the wine palm was a local farmer called Simon too, who was introduced to me as my homonym Simon.

Jacques and my hominym Simon and the wine palm

Jacques told me about his history- he is a Bagyeli but was brought up by a Bantu family. He wanted to show that the Bagyeli were responsible people who could live in a ‘proper’ house and live like a Bantu. This acculturation seemed sad to me, but I was new and held my counsel. Each day we swam and bathed in the river, met Jacques neighbours, talked about life in the village and about CODEBABIK, the Bagyeli organisation which Jacques represented as director of programmes.

Jacque’s son was about twenty. He’d recently qualified as a carpenter, in a college in Kribi on the coast, but was unable to work as he hadn’t the money to buy the tools he needed to set up a workshop. (I had questions about his future as the Bagyeli used the most basic furniture, and lived from hand to mouth, and about who among the people in Bipindi could afford to buy hand-made furniture.)

Jacques wife and daughter in theri kitchen behind the house

Jacques himself was neatly turned out, but his children were dressed in filthy, torn rags. There was a small piece of soap in the house, used to wash hands occasionally. But there was not the money to buy soap for all to wash themselves and their clothes. I struggled to understand the economics and cultural background that made all this happen.

Walking along an old logging road to the forest village

On the fourth day, I joined Jacques and his wife and the baby on a walk along the dirt road out of the village, and through the second growth forest for several hours. We turned off along a track into the forest to a Bagyeli village, where a dozen Bagyeli greeted us. Two of Jacques children were already there. Jacques held a meeting with the men and his wife with the women while I wandered around the huts and into the surrounding forest and took pictures. That night there was music and song by the fireside. I slept in a palm hut under my mosquito net.

At the Bagyeli village with Jacques
Enjoying a night in the village

Most of the villagers were further into the forest at a hunting camp. I hoped to join them, but it was not possible as Jacques had to return to Bipindi for a meeting with CODEBABIK. Next day we returned to Bipindi and my first field-trip finished with a walk through the fields and forest to a dugout ferry across the Lokoundje to Bipindi and the bus to Kribi on the coast.

Before I left to return to the UK, I heard that the Rainforest Action Network-RAN was attending a planning meeting near Munich, and had invited Didier Amagou of Planet Survey. I persuaded their Africa project coordinator, for whom I had done research in Cameroon, that both Jacques and I should attend too. The evening I got to the meeting, near a lake south of Munich, I discovered that the itching in my big toe that had been troubling me, was caused by a maggot growing in my foot. I asked my Cameroonian colleagues what to do, and was told to get hold of a single-bladed razor. I asked the volunteer going into Munich the next day to get me one. It was very difficult getting through the night, and all of the next day, now that I knew that the itch was caused by a live maggot in my toe. That afternoon, the volunteer returned and gave me a packet of razor blades, which I took to Didier and Jacques. They led me outside, looking for a small stick. The razor blade was to sharpen the stick! Unable to find a suitable stick in the immediate vicinity, we went back in, and Jacques cut a small nick in the middle of my big toe and prised out the maggot. I still have the occasional shooting pain from this cut, twenty years later.

Though I was invited into all the sessions of the meeting, many were of no direct interest to my work, and so I spent some time helping the volunteers who were setting up a small bar serving the local Weiss bier for the evening. They showed me how to pour Weiss bier, gently down the side of the glass, then swirl the last few ounces around to collect the yeast and pour it quickly into the glass. I was so impressed by this, that I felt I had to invite all my Cameroonian colleagues to the bar after the evening session finished and show them the technique. They too were impressed, and we ordered fresh bottles so that each could try. We spent a very entertaining evening perfecting our technique.

After the conference, I invited the three Cameroonians into Munich for a bit of a tourist adventure before they caught their planes back to Cameroon. We went into a high ceilinged beer hall and I ordered a large stein of beer for each of us. As Didier drank, he discovered that there was the bottom of another broken glass inside his beer! I called the waiter over. He was unimpressed. He offered to replace that one beer but none of us felt like finishing our beers at this point. Without any German, and in what was now clearly a hostile environment, I was forced to pay up for three of the beers and leave. Sadly, I think this was no accident, but a disgusting racist act. It really spoiled our trip around Munich, and soon afterwards I put my friends on the bus to the airport.

When I got back to the UK, I wrote up my proposal for Jacques Ngoun and the £6,000. It seemed to me that after what I’d seen in Bipindi, Jacques would not get much value out of a satellite phone. He had nowhere to charge the battery in his village, the equipment was delicate and sensitive and would probably quickly deteriorate in the humid environment. As the problem was being able to communicate with Jacques, and vice versa, I thought there was a better solution. Instead, I proposed that Jacques get a small motorcycle which he could use for his work, and also to drive to Lolodorf each week. There I proposed he pay for a desk at Planet Survey, as well as a computer, office supplies, and one day a week’s secretarial help. This would make CODEBABIK a partner, as Jacques would be paying into Planet Surveys office costs, and have his own small budget for gasoline, telephone, secretarial help, office supplies, and the occasional trip to Yaounde, over two years, all for £6,000. This I thought would be a better use of the money. Sadly, the £6,000 was speculative and never funded, so I did not get to see how this, my first local project proposal, would have worked out.

Club Ideal Daze

Cameroon’s premiere spot for the savvy traveller

The alluring hills of Yaounde

2760 words/15 minutes

I went to Cameroon in January 1999 to attend a conference in the capital Yaounde. Or more accurately, I went to a conference in Yaounde to get into Cameroon. Cameroon doesn’t encourage visitors, and so getting a visa to Cameroon requires an invitation from a local person or organisation. In 1999, due to the horrendous civil war in the DRC, almost all of the international institutions that had a Central African operation had moved from Kinshasa to Yaounde. This included the World Bank, and various UN organisations such as IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature). A major IUCN conference on conserving the Congo basin rainforests, which would have otherwise been held in Kinshasa was going to be held in Yaounde in February 1999. I had secured an invitation to this conference on logging and poverty reduction, which was incongruously being held in the Hilton hotel, and the more important invitation letter necessary for obtaining a visa. My contact at the IUCN had also offered to book me a reasonably priced local hotel and send a driver to pick me up at the airport.

Cameroon’s national airline, Camair, had recently gone bust, and so there was no direct flight from London. Instead, I needed to fly to Paris, Brussels or Zurich and change planes. To connect to any of these flights involved a ridiculously early start from Heathrow, and a minicab at 4.30 am.

Most of the funding for this first trip came from the remains of my salary for work I had been doing to stop rainforest destruction in Canada. I had previously set up a semi-formal organisation called TREES (the Temperate Rainforest Environmental Education Society) and so I merely changed a word, and I had another organisation fit for purpose. The new TREES (now the Tropical Rainforest Environmental Education Society) had $2,000 Canadian left in the budget (which was left from not taking all my salary the previous year) and I had $2,000 more in savings. I also got a couple of small donations from people who had supported my work in Canada, and wanted to help me get started in Africa. I spent four months in the UK doing background research about the Congo basin rainforest, meeting up with rainforest campaigners and researching at SOAS and the British library. I lived for very little as I stayed rent free with my family or with my good friend Bob in London. Soon I found two small contracts for undercover work in Cameroon and was ready to go.

When I arrived in Yaounde airport after dark, it was a melee of shouting and gesticulating people, and I was happy when the IUCN driver found me and escorted me through the customs confusion. The driver took me straight to the hotel, but they had no record of a booking, and worse they were full. We drove around to several other hotels, but they were all full too. Finally the driver, Edouard, said that he knew a small hotel that was cheap, but not up to standard. Perhaps I could stay there the night and sort out something better in the morning? When we got to the hotel Ideal, they were cleaning the rooms, though it was now 10pm. This didn’t ring any alarm bells, so I reserved a room and went for dinner with the Edouard, who took me to Club Parallel, (which became my place of choice for a special night out) where we ate well and drank a couple of beers. We got back to the Ideal at nearly midnight, and I was absolutely exhausted as I’d been up since 4 am. We drove down a ramp to park in front of the lower level rooms. Edouard promised to come back at 10 am and take me to the IUCN offices, which were hidden away in the back streets. I was given a room on the lower floor which was dank and slightly mouldy, as the back wall was a bathroom and toilet, and had no window and the front window was shuttered. There was a fair bit of coming and going, and an incident in the night- a woman shouting insistently, a door slamming, a man shouting back and a car driving off. I was occasionally woken by the coming and goings in the other rooms, but I quickly fell back asleep. There was a knocking on my door really early, but I was exhausted and ignored it. I got up at 9am, and waited until noon for the driver, but realised that the dawn call must have been him.

Hotel Ideal, lower ground floor, often used for hourly rentals and balcony rooms on first floor

The extensive facilities at Hotel Ideal

Next day, I moved to the upper floor. Stairs climbed past a small reception to a long corridor with a a blank wall on one side, with the occasional brick lattice patterned opening. This was an excellent sound barrier and I didn’t realise until later that this blocked the heavy traffic noise from the rond point Nlongkak, one of the busiest junctions in Yaounde. On the other side of the corridor was a row of doors. Each small room had a shower, a hand basin and lavatory in a cubicle, an almost double bed with just one sheet and a blanket, an overhead fan, a hanging bulb, and a small bed side table. Double doors led onto a tiny balcony, which had a table and a small stool. Many of these items were in poor condition or broken.

Many of the toilets had no seat, and the shower was right beside it. It was advisable to have a pair of flip flops to avoid walking barefoot on the bathroom, or really any other part of the floor. Some of the washbasins were cracked or detaching from the wall. The bed sheet was white and crisp, but it did not completely cover the mattress, and there was only one sheet, meaning you would also touch the dubious blanket if you used it. On rainy nights I needed the blanket, so it was fortunate I had brought my own sheet too.

I was lucky that the first night was in the dive of the lower ground floor, so I felt that things had improved dramatically when I moved upstairs. The Ideal cost 5,000 fcfa, (Central African francs) which was a fiver. The mid priced hotels that would be used by Cameroonian professionals, and even by economical ex-pats, cost 15-18,000 fcfa. The cheapest room at the Hilton cost over 200,000 fcfa!

The price of s night at the hotel Ideal

Using my room as an office

The balcony was the rooms saving grace, as if I was writing or reading I spent much of my day sitting out on the balcony, overlooking the dusty gravel parking, with its large mango tree in fruit. Beyond were the tin roofs of houses, a busy street with little yellow taxis distantly beeping their horns, and the forested hills to the north of town. When it was too sunny, or raining, I could work lying propped on the bed with the balcony door open, and not feel hemmed in. Each of the balconies had its own small table and stool, but most were broken in some way. But, with some sly reorganising of the furniture, by hopping over the low wall between balconies, I could get a four legged table and an unbroken chair, and if I was around for more than a few days between field trips, I gravitated towards the corner room, which had the biggest balcony, and was the farthest from the road. With my own sheet and mosquito net, my laptop, a baguette, an avocado or tin of sardines, some fruit and a bottle of water, I was set for a days work writing up whatever research I was working on.

The Ideal was also well placed for eating out. If I’d been able to afford a swanky hotel, I would have also been limited to either the hotel restaurant, or the few expensive restaurant opportunities in the neighbourhood. The Ideal was surrounded by food choices. Half a dozen reasonably priced restaurants were within a few minutes walk. When I felt flush, I could afford to go out and eat in a local restaurant and have a couple of beers for about £3. And there were also numerous street stalls making breakfast omelettes and baguette or a delicious thin maize porage. In the evenings, they served braised chicken or mackerel with baton de manioc, a hand-made cassava stick, for 50p. Good beer in the local bars came in 65cl/24 ounce bottles and cost less than 50p, so I was able to afford a couple each night.

I wasn’t tempted to find anywhere cheaper than the Ideal, as I liked having a room with a balcony, found basic amenities just outside the door, and was on a number of taxi lines. But later, when I visited someone in another hotel which was slightly cheaper (4,000 fcfa instead of 5,000) they had a dingy room, with a small window high on the wall overlooking a narrow alley way, and so a real sense of confinement, and no outdoor space at all.

I became fond of the hotel staff, and especially of Emo Achille, who was a big part of the pleasure of living at club Ideal. Emo was wrestling with his sense of purpose and the meaning of life. I enjoyed the fact that he would ask fundamental and profound questions as conversation starters. It was refreshing, coming down from a day working in my room, or in from a day of meetings, or a few beers to get straight down to discussing god, the meaning of life, the differing beliefs of our two nations, responsibility, duty and other deep topics with Emo. I was improving my French at the same time as getting an insight into a Cameroonians belief system. And while it is harder to communicate your beliefs in a second language, it forces you to express them carefully, and encourages a more thoughtful response.

Emo on left

Emo had plenty of time to think on the job. Staff at the hotel worked 12 hour shifts seven days a week. In order to get a day off, they would do a weekly double shift, and get the next day off. So, they were working an 86 hour week!

The Ideal was a full service establishment. There was a phone box in the reception area. You gave the receptionist a number, and they put you through. They also allowed me to use the internet to send emails, by disconnecting the hotel phone and letting me plug in my modem at the reception desk. This was complicated a bit by being in the way of any other reception activity, though by mid evening there was just an occasional hourly room rental.

The hotel also had a laundry service, but it was rather curiously priced. Anything, from a shirt, to a pair of socks cost the same, a thousand fcfa, and so a weeks wash cost me as much as four nights at the hotel. I soon bought soap to wash my clothes in the sink and hung them on the back of the chair or the railing on the balcony.

I met fellow guests from Niger, the Central African Republic, and all over Cameroon, in town on business, or for a training course. On many evenings three or four of us gathered in the tiny reception area, or out on the steps. I began to call these gatherings “Club Ideal.”

It seemed that with our new name, we might perhaps need some further services for the guests. There was already a social space – the gravel floored courtyard in front of the reception, with a television set up at night for guests to watch the current soap opera at 6. But our ambition was larger, and soon we were inventing further facilities for the club. I thought that we needed more excitement and entertainment, and so we created the attractions of Club Ideal. My fellow guests, and the staff enjoyed the conceit, and together we developed the plan. I proposed a pool (a basin of water in the small courtyard in front of the reception), and a potted palm tree or two; cocktails would be served to tables under broad umbrellas.

The other staff members included Freddie the manager and owners nephew (and I later discovered, PhD student). Freddie was a budding businessman and was able to provide services like changing money at a better than official rate, and organised the extension to my visa for me.

Freddie the owners nephew, manager and Ph D student

Outside the Ideal, Auguste sold cigarettes and chewing gum from a small portable stall that stood on the wall of the hotel. Most of his business was in selling single cigarettes, or a single stick of chewing gum. Auguste was a pleasant and helpful guy, and I’d stop off and chat for a while whenever I saw him. He was often helpful in finding local services, and sometimes he would do small jobs for me.

Auguste with me and my fiancee Judith

There was an internet cafe on the rond point, and there was also a small office services place, which would do photocopying. If I was not going to be back in time, Auguste would pick stuff up before the place closed. He consistently did what he said he would, and I came to rely on his help. Sadly, he didn’t drink, so whilst he had a few soft drinks with me, he was not up for an evenings drinking. So, many nights, I drank my two beers alone, and spent the time writing letters, or reading the local papers or reports on rainforest conservation to improve my French.

Ideal was also easy to get to and from, which was important as I was exploring the local NGOs, going to the main post office to pick up and send mail, and going to roadside bus parks to set off on field trips. I could comfortably get a shared taxi back late at night, as the rond point was on a number of taxi routes, and I could safely walk the last few yards on a busy well lit street. In fact from early to late, taxis were swirling around the rond point in a melee. There was a bar/restaurant on the hill above the rond point, up 40 steps to a veranda with a great view of the the Ideal and the forested hills to the north of town. Sitting on the veranda, I saw seven taxis careering side by side around the roundabout. At night, starting at around ten, vast overloaded logging trucks tore around the rond point, bellowing their horns to clear their way. I managed to get some good footage of this for Greenpeace, and counted the trucks several nights until late, to get an idea of the scale of logging in the east of the country, all of which came through Yaounde, and passed the Ideal.

Hotel Ideal – the long white building in foreground, and rond point Nlongkak from the veranda

I made a number of field trips; to visit Jacques Ngoun a Bagyeli Pygmy activist; to the forests of the east province, where I met Etienne a Baka Pygmy and spent five days in the rainforest; to an oil rig for my report; and to see Mount Cameroon which was erupting. Each time I left town on a trip I would leave my stuff in the small space behind reception. There was always a room for me on my return, as at a certain hour, at least one of the rooms on hourly rental could be kept for me. But, usually I was lucky, and got a room on the first floor, though the next day I might have to move to a room with less broken furnishings, and again begin scavenging a usable table and stool for my balcony.

As you can see, the hotel Ideal lived up to its name. Or at least, where not yet ideal it could easily be idealised. After about ten weeks, I returned to the UK, but I had found a niche in undercover research and had a plan to return as soon as I could pull together a few new contracts and funding for a small project I’d developed. On my next visit, I spent five months at Club Ideal. Why are some people so lucky?

Note: all the events in Cameroon took place in French. I hope the reader will make allowances for the translation.

Woodstock Memories

The Internation Times’ Man On The Ground at Woodstock.

Excerpted from California Daze: from Haight to Woodstock

There was also the free acid too…

1466 words /15 minutes

We woke up on the Friday morning surrounded by naked people. I ate granola outside our tent revelling at the sight of a naked man having a conversation with a lone and rather lost looking uniformed policeman. We’d arrived in the dark, and by chance pitched our tents on the festival’s lakeside nude beach. After breakfast, Andy and I set off for ‘an hour or so’ to look for a story as I was on ‘assignment’ for IT, London’s underground paper the International Times. Andy didn’t have a camera, but I had a pencil somewhere and was enthusiastic about writing up the experience. The music hadn’t started, and people were still arriving in their thousands. As we walked up the grass verged country lane towards the stage, there were cries of ‘weed’ and a man with a cardboard tray hanging on a string around his neck, filled with tabs of acid. Already Woodstock looked like being a memorable event.

In the spring of 1969, I was living in an apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco with my old lady June Ball, her friend Susan ‘Hoot Owl,’ Susan’s old man Michael Bear and sometimes four sometimes five kids. A friend who wrote for the Berkeley Barb told us he was off in July to Woodstock, a festival in up state New York. I needed a break from poverty in the big city; ‘if he is going,’ I thought, ‘why not me?’ So I got the phone number of the Woodstock media team and told them I was from the International Times, thinking that it would be impressive whether they had heard of England’s leading underground newspaper or they thought it a big international journal. Over a few calls I increased my request to tickets for a photographer and for both our ‘old ladies’ June and Susan. Michael had to stay home and look after the kids, so my ‘photographer’ was Andy, a Scots traveller I’d met recently. I didn’t have much money, but it seemed I was the only one to have any at all, and I had to pay the $25 for the four of us to join a car share to Chicago.

From Chicago we split into pairs and hitched to New York and met up in the apartment of a friend. The next day we hitched up to the festival, getting a last ride from a NY radio station’s media bus, which dropped us off in the dark a mile from the site when it got completely stuck in traffic. By now we knew that the concert security had collapsed, and you didn’t need a ticket to get in, but I thought ‘what the hell’ and went to collect the press passes anyway. Everything was hectic in the media area, as the generators weren’t running and the media team were trying to deal with the world’s press under the hiss of gas lanterns. Happily I was on the list and got four passes. We continued on in the dark through a large crowd, looking for a quiet place to camp. Soon June and Susan were complaining about the long walk and we turned off between the parked cars and nearly walked into a lake!

As Andy and I walked in towards the stage on the Friday morning, we came across two teenagers from New Jersey, sitting by the small road who offered us a can each from their 24 of beer. As we drank the proffered beer, sitting on the sunny grass verge, and watching the unhurried movement of the thousands walking past, one of the teenagers claimed the Brits couldn’t hold their liquor. Andy took exception to this and draining his can took another, and the competition began. After an hour the two young dudes fell asleep and, cracking a fresh can each,we left them passed out by the side of the road. Several people were offering free acid to the passing throng, but we declined. We heard Richie Havens start the music in the distance, but by now we were wandering around looking for a joint. It started to rain, and we managed to get under the stage for shelter, and listened to Ravi Shankar playing a raga as the rain beat down. When the rain stopped, Andy and I climbed the supports and got onto the stage, then using our press passes (which didn’t allow us onto the stage, but were good enough to get us off it) we strolled over the backstage bridge to the performers area and warmed ourselves by one of the fires. I chatted to several of the security to find out how things were going for them, and from then on they saluted me as I passed.

There were plenty of joints and pipes passing around among the performers and hangers on, and we soon got ludicrously stoned. From here on, I have a series of images, but no memory of the sequence of events. I have no idea which day what happened, or in what order. It was a drug and booze fuelled rampage, with a soundtrack. Andy and I were back on the stage to watch Ten Years After. A film crew rudely ordered us out of the way. It was their rudeness that did it, so we refused, and they couldn’t get the angles they wanted to film. Backstage again, I joined a small group around Johnny Winter, and was passed the joint when it came around. Andy was standing behind me, so I passed it back to him. Johnny was pissed that his joint had been Bogarted, and muttered ineffectually to his manager and hangers on. We enjoyed a good hour or so helping a couple of guys polish off a bottle of Tequila. With my vast afro, and Andy’s Union Jack shirt, we made a striking pair. There was an announcement from the stage that the brown acid was bad. Who would make brown acid? At some point I discovered that the purple acid was really good. I made a visit to the area just in front of the stage, but I can’t remember who was playing. I thought Janis Joplin needed cheering up, and I decided I was the one to do it. But before she showed up backstage for her gig, I got so wasted that I had to crawl along the road to get back to the tent.

On the Sunday morning, I was standing with my feet in the lake, dealing with a thick head and June flew at me and wrestled me into the water. I realised what a prick I was being spending two days getting wasted with Andy and ignoring June and Susan. I changed into my last set of dry clothes and the three of us spent a great day on the beach, dropping the orange acid (which was also good) and swimming around the lake. Coming from San Francisco, and having spent many weekends at the free concerts in Golden Gate Park, Woodstock wasn’t a great surprise. I was used to large groups of people getting on with each other, sharing what they had, and enjoying music together in the open air. I also shared the prevailing opinion that the police weren’t necessary for crowd control. Trouble wasn’t stopped, it was caused, by the violence of the Pigs. But the massive scale of the event, spending four days without the need for money or the presence of invasive authority, in peace and comradeship with so vast a crowd was still a very special time. I’d like to say it was memorable, but frankly I was so fucked up most of the time that this is about all I can remember. I regret that I didn’t write up my experiences for IT, repay my debt for the tickets and maybe even kick start a career in the media. But finally here is my report from Woodstock and a quiet thank you to the International Times after all these years.


I met a beautiful and vivacious woman four years later in London, but she showed no great interest, in me. Talking to her I found out that she had recently been working at a school in Ibiza. “My brother is going to a school in Ibiza.”

“What’s his name?”

It turned out that they were good pals, and I was in with a chance.

After we got together, we discovered that we had both been at Woodstock. In fact, she had her fortune told there. “Your future husband is an Englishman called Simon, who is here at Woodstock!”

We never married so, so much for fortune tellers.

Pygmy Health Project part 3

Cyangugu, the congopygmyblog and fears for Jean-Claude

2132 words/15 minutes

Pygmy, Congo, healthcare, Africa, Rebels, Bukavu, Cyangugu, Rape, Soldiers, Looting

I was a refugee from the fighting in Goma, and the threatened attack on Bukavu, temporarily settled in a friendly Rwandan NGO just across the border in Cyangugu. I had use of a room of my own, and they kindly let me set up my laptop in their office and connect to the internet. Best of all, I could make tea when ever I wanted. But the project was in ruins. We had been driven out of Minova by the M23 rebel assault on Goma, and my colleague and friend Jean Claude had had to travel into rebel held Goma to pick up his two year old daughter. I was at a loss, as I was thousands of miles from home, and yet still a half dozen of miles away from my colleagues in the UEFA office, where we needed to work together to finalise our research on Pygmies access to healthcare.

I spent stressful hours trying to get hold of Jean Claude in Goma and finally got to talk to him, though the line was not good. I discovered to my relief that he had managed to get back to his sisters house and was safe with his daughter. But he was trapped in Goma, as the ferries to Bukavu had stopped and the border to Rwanda was shut. I was very worried for him and his daughter, and knew that he was only there because he was working on my project, and so I was responsible for his dangerous situation and for anything that might happen to him. But there was nothing that I could do to help him.

I called Bems in Minova, many times, but I heard the news first from the UN news agency. Minova had been ransacked by the government troops sent to protect it against the rebels. It was rumoured that people had been raped and killed.

I did get hold of Godelive who had been the most experienced field worker on the other research trip. She told me they had managed to successfully carry out research in three villages, as well as take a number of people to the local clinic or hospital. She had also got numerous photographs. This was good news, as we now had nine villages total, (with the two villages where we’d tested the questionnaire, the three villages I’d been to and the village that JC and Bems had completed the day before I arrived in Minova.) This was a bare minimum, but enough to prove a widespread and deeply serious problem.

I looked carefully at the questionnaires from Minova, and deciphered them as best I could. There was a lot of valuable information, but they needed transcribing by Jean Claude, as the writing wasn’t always legible. So, after my other tasks were done, I decided that the best thing I could do was to start a blog, and try and get the latest news of the project and what was happening in eastern DRC out to my contacts in the UK, and beyond. Setting up a blog, learning how to do simple blog tasks, dealing with a slow and intermittent internet, and posting daily, kept me busy for hours a day.

I also kept in daily contact with Jean Claude, still stuck in Goma, though soon things got worse for him as he and his daughter caught malaria. Getting medication was not going to be easy for them.

I finally got hold of Bems. This took a while, as he had difficulty keeping his phone charged with frequent electricity outages and the collapse of civil order in Minova. I had confirmation from him that things really went off in Minova, little more than 24 hours after I left, when DRC soldiers, sent to protect the population, went on a rampage of looting and rape. Fortunately, neither he nor his family were attacked by the rampaging soldiers. Bems was also in contact with the UEFA staff person in Kungulu and over time I pieced together the terrible story of the rampage of the Congolese army- sent to protect, but in fact raping and looting through the area.

This added to my fear for Jean Claude and his daughter. But in fact there seemed less havoc perpetrated by the rebel soldiers, though there too there were acts of violence. This is a tragic situation, where your own government is as much, or more, to be feared than foreign-backed rebels. And an example of what it is like to live in a failed state.

I was also concerned with the health of my friend Roger Anderson. He had been a life saver in facilitating our research planning workshop, and we had done a lot of the work in putting together the questionnaires and he had done the translation into acceptable French. We had eaten dinner together much of the time I was in Bukavu, which was a chance to relax with a friend, but also an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of local NGO, and government politics. I knew Roger had medical and financial problems which would be exacerbated by the crisis. He didn’t have a working phone, so that I was unable to contact him.

I heard from Jean Claude that he was going to try and leave Goma, then I didn’t hear for 48 very worrying hours. Finally, I got a call from him in Cyangugu and we met up at the hotel I’d stayed in, as it was easier to find than my back street NGO. Both he and his daughter had recovered from malaria, but they had had a very stressful voyage through Rwanda, and were beat. I bought them a slap up dinner, with ice-cream for his daughter, and put them up in the hotel for the night. The next day I gave him much of the rest of my dosh – as he had certainly earned it, and insisted he took a couple of days off with his family.

November 27th blog post Pygmy health project keeps going in war torn DRCongo

My colleague, Jean-Claude and his lovely two year old daughter are safe and back to their family in Bukavu DRC. Conditions in the DRC have been appalling for the many years of civil war, and invasion. However, conditions for Pygmy populations are considerably worse, and we documented people unable to receive even basic health care due to not having even the $3-$5 necessary.

Nov. 28th blog post Numerous rape victims recorded in Minova, and two civilian deaths recorded

A Pygmy Health Project investigation into the situation in Minova, the town held by the DRC army, reveals the tragic fact that rape is again a part of the behaviour of the armies/militia involved in Congo’s long and devastating war. By Monday morning, 26 November there were 16 rape victims treated by the Centre de Sante and 22 by the Hopital generale, in Minova, totalling 38 victims of rape in this small town. We cannot be sure at this stage, whether all the victims are from the town itself, or some from the no-mans land between the opposing armies. However, women in Minova are reported to be unable to leave their homes, due to a fear of rape.

Drunken government soldiers fill the streets, begging and selling cigarettes, according to news reports. Looting of homes by government soldiers is commonplace, and a young boy was shot to death by Congo government forces looting a home in Minova. A Pygmy woman in Kangulu, 7 miles behind the lines from Minova, died on the weekend from a heart attack having been caught in the middle of soldiers shooting their arms into the air.

Nov 29th M23 pull out of Goma

The Rwandan led M23 rebels appear to be pulling out of Goma. This is good news because it suggests that the rebels/Rwandans have been stopped from over running more areas of the DRC and escalating the war. Still tens of thousands of internal refugees need assurance before they can return home and rebuild their lives. Many have been separated from their children, and can only hope that they can find them safe and well. In further testimony to the depth of the tragedy faced by the people of eastern DRC is that many, rightly, fear the return of the unpaid, undisciplined, raping and looting Congolese army. However dangerous this is still for the residents of Goma, and surroundings, for Bukavu this is a relief. The threat of invasion and its attendant misery has receded. This also means that international NGOs are now returning to Bukavu, and that valuable aid work can resume.

In the midst of this positive news, I’ve had a very useful meeting with colleagues from RAPY, the Pygmy support network, who kindly came over to meet me. Otherwise, I am struggling to correlate the myriad research documents into a useable form for the report.

Blog post December 2nd

The Pygmy Health Project has returned to Bukavu to organise its research results and prepare the draft report on Pygmy peoples access to health care in S. Kivu. Due to problems of electricity in Bukavu, (an electric pole collapsed, and the office has no electricity) staff working from the office of our partner UEFA, have been unable to complete their work.

The solution was to move the office to CAP Nguba, the protestant guest house where I stay, which has a generator that usually comes on soon after a power cut. The new office, was expecting to use the salon of CAP, but this was occupied by another NGO holding meetings. I was instead forced to set up in my bedroom. The strict CAP rule, that prohibits access to the rooms of members of the opposite sex, has been fortunately ignored, and both Jean-Claude and Godelive worked all day yesterday (and Jean-Claude into the night) in the tedious work of transcribing the questionnaires into electronic form.

Jean-Claude has taken a room, so we can work late, as returning to his house in the night would not be safe. Godelive has declined our invitation to return for breakfast today (Sunday) and will not be coming in until after church. Unfortunately, given that the office was predicated on a continual supply of power, the generator has broken, and yesterday we were a jitter, charging batteries when possible, and doing as much work as we could on the physical questionnaire. Jean-Claude and I were working until late last night on battery power and by headlight!

Sunday am: The generator seems to be working, and the office is back in business. END Blog post

It was a scramble until the end. I had a flight booked out of Kigali on the 6th, and so had to leave on the 4th to be sure I’d make it. We continued working ridiculous hours, transcribing questionnaires, transferring photographs to my computer, backing everything up and holding final meetings with all the researchers, the UEFA management and RAPY. I was also able to track down Roger, have a few beers with him and help him out with his medical costs.

This mad scramble was worth it. I got back to the UK with all I needed to put together a report that demonstrates conclusively that Pygmy villagers in nine settlements in South Kivu are systematically deprived of their rights to medical care, and that many, including babies and toddlers, are dying because of their being refused medical treatment.

Before publication, I presented these findings to the international NGOs working in Bukavu and beyond, and got assurances that things would change. I pushed on getting specific commitments and got a couple of offers to pay me to train their field staff. But, to make these few small contracts work, I would need to be in Bukavu for some months. Unfortunately, I was unable to raise funding to return to Bukavu.

Here is a link to the Executive summary of my report.


Back in the UK, I met a woman who was trustee for a small charity which made an annual grant of £5,000 for girl’s education. I was able to help RAPY, the Pygmy network I had help set up in 2003/4, get £5,000 funding for educating Pygmy girls. Somehow, they managed to get refunded for £10,000 and two more years. These are small amounts, but non-the-less were a big part of their annual budget. They also helped almost a hundred Pygmy girls attend school for several years.


Due to illness, I am unable to track down the photographs that were supposed to accompany this post. I will try and add more appropriate photographs at a later date.

Bambela, Etogo, Zali

Naming our daughter among the Ewondo

1700 words/12 minutes

Felix with Judith and la belle mere

A few weeks after my daughter was born, in the Central hospital in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, Judith and I prepared to register her birth at the town hall. Having a baby in Cameroon is not as simple as it might be and, in spite of a number of medical cock-ups, Judith and the baby were fine and ready to leave hospital on the Friday. Then after numerous minor delays, we discovered that the accounts department had left for the weekend, so Judith was trapped in hospital until Monday morning, as we were not allowed to leave until we’d paid the bill.

The process of choosing a name for our baby had begun soon after the pregnancy was confirmed. I had asked Judith, that whether we had a girl or a boy, we name our first child after my sister Felix. Judith agreed; and then began the search for her second forename.

[I find it a curiosity that we accept Robin, Chris, Jan, Leslie, … as names for either sex, but most people find it difficult to accept Felix can be a girls name. Having a sister called Felix, I was used to the assertion by the narrow minded: “But Felix is a boys name!” and I had adopted the response: “It can’t be a boys name, she’s a girl!” And so a positive consequence of naming our child Felix, would be that whilst Felix would still be an unusual name for a girl, it would be twice as less so.]

I subscribe to the premise in Tristram Shandy, that a name is of great significance in determining character and life chances. Finding a second name took ages – I not liking any of the soft, feminine names that Judith favoured, now that we knew we were to have a daughter. One day, while speaking with my sister Felix on the telephone, she told me that each time she had been pregnant, she had planned to call her child Kate if it was a daughter. But, she’d not had the chance, as she’d had three boys. I really liked the name Kate, and returned home from the office eager to suggest this. I was met by Judith who was equally excited. She too had come up with a name she really liked: Kate!

Among the Ewondo, the First Nation that inhabits the area around Yaounde, a child’s last name is usually not the same as their fathers. Few of Judith’s brothers and sisters (she has seventeen) were called Etogo after her father; most were named to honour a relative or potential patron. Judith was named Bambela, after her maternal grandfather, a well known sorciere (sorcerer) and a very powerful man. When Bambela was dying he had called for Judith, still a baby, to be brought to him to transfer his powers to her. Her father Joseph Etogo had refused to let Judith be taken to the village, and the old man died without passing on his secrets. Though, I am not convinced he gave up quite so easily….

Judith Bambela, on her trips to the family village, was honoured by her grandmother as if she were her dead grandfather. Even as a child, her grandmother bowed to her and Judith was fed first and given the choice parts of the chicken that had been prepared in her honour. Like Tristram, the Ewondo recognise that a name has great significance.

I had had much input into the choice of our daughter’s first two names, and was of course happy to concur with Judith’s desire to name Felix after her aunt Zali, a childless family cousin, who had brought Judith up as an adolescent in Douala, the biggest and wealthiest city in Cameroon. Douala is two hundred miles from the capital, Yaounde, where Judith’s mother and extended family lived. And, after three or four years of living with aunt Zali, Judith had suddenly returned to her family in Yaounde.

I enjoyed learning about Ewondo culture from the inside, and readily agreed to Judith’s choice of this third name for our daughter. What I didn’t know was that Mr Etogo had not forgiven auntie Zali for letting Judith go. Finding this out put me in a real bind. Judith had made it clear over the previous few days that she was adamant. She knew that her father objected, but Felix would be called Zali. But it was also very important for me to show due respect to my new daughter’s grandfather, my father in law, as was the custom in Cameroon. A few weeks later, my future brother-in-law, Tarzan, (as he was known to everyone in the family) brought me a note from my future father-in-law. The envelope was addressed: Etogo

The letter was in French. Here is a translation:

Dear Mr Simon

This is primarily to inform you, [medical update] this morning at a clinic in Yaoundé.

Also that I would like to meet you tonight or tomorrow in Etoa-Meki [the quartier of the family home in Yaounde] for a short interview.

Thank you and goodnight.

I set-off that evening to visit my future father-in-law. Joseph Etogo was eighty, and had been unwell for some time. He was a retired meteorological officer and lived in the first house in Etoa-Meki to have a corrugated iron roof, he had also had the first car in his village. M. Etogo was an old fashioned patriarch who had had five wives and eighteen children. He had retired to his village, 100 km north of Yaounde, where he lived with two remaining wives. Tarzan, one of his eldest sons, was accompanying him during his stay in Yaounde for medical treatment. Our conversation was in French, with Tarzan occasionally restating what I said; in effect translating my words into better French for Joseph. Now and then Tarzan remade the point in Ewondo.

After a discussion about his health, allowing me to offer to do anything I could to help, he moved on to the reason he’d invited me to visit him. Joseph firmly stated his opposition to Judith’s choice of the surname Zali for our new-born daughter. And here was the rub: Mme Zali was childless and Judith had been sent to her as a ward. For Joseph it was unconscionable for Zali to abandon the responsibility she had accepted by taking Judith into her home, and returning her to the charge of her family. Joseph insisted that he could not accept his daughter disobeying him and honouring this woman, who he had not forgiven. He was absolutely not going to accept that his daughter name our child Zali.

Beau pere (Father-in-law), I will of course accept your decision,” I said, “ but I don’t know how I can explain it to Judith. I have to live with Judith and she has set her mind on Zali. You know how stubborn she can be. This will make life very difficult for me.” This was a considerable under-statement, as Judith is stubborn to a rare degree and had absolutely set her mind on this. [Later, this force and determination enabled her, as a new resident of the U.K., to gain an arts degree at Chelsea.] Tarzan repeated my words to Joseph, and then took my side on this important matter:

“Father, think how hard it will be for Mr Simon to tell Judith.”

Joseph was torn and I could see his deep reluctance to accept Judith’s refusal to acknowledge his paternal authority. But, after some thought and a conversation between him and Tarzan in Ewondo, Joseph reluctantly gave his permission. It felt good to have both supported Judith, by getting her controversial choice of a name for our daughter accepted by an unwilling father, and also to have shown appropriate respect to my future father-in-law. I have never forgotten Tarzan’s support in this important family negotiation, and have always retained a soft spot for him.

But the process of name choosing was not over. I felt it essential that Felix had my surname too.

I knew we would be for ever explaining why Felix was named Zali, if it was her family name. It would not agree with her mothers, or her fathers name, and would make the simplest event a misery when we returned to the UK. Putting Felix on my passport, registering her for a school in the UK, even picking her up from school, all would be fraught with complications. Felix needed to be Waters too. So, we ended up with Felix Kate Zali Waters, and Felix was registered in Yaounde.

Though this still wasn’t the end of our naming problems. When I took Felix’s Cameroonian birth certificate to the British High Commission to register her, her British birth certificate was written as Kate Zali Felix Waters, not Felix Kate Zali Waters.

[Note: in Cameroon Felix has two forenames and two family names (though she’d normally have only one). In England, Felix has one forename, two middle names and her father’s surname. This was the part of the confusion that led the British High Commission to misname Felix. But, also, the British official made a simple transcription error]

I only noticed this error when applying for Felix’s first passport. So Felix has two identities: as Felix Waters in all her school records, exam results, athletic achievements and daily life; and as Kate Waters on her passport, bank account, and other official documents. This has led to my booking her a plane ticket as Felix Waters and then realising she’ll be showing her passport, and scrambling to make the change as she might not be let onto the flight.

A few of Felix’s medals and trophies

If naming her Felix was to make her a strong character, it seems to have worked.

Soon she will go out into the wider world, with two identities. Felix Kate Zali Waters or, (if she is being formal), Kate Zali Felix Waters.

Lions Gate Bridge Caper Part 2

A night in a hammock, media interviews, and jailed by a bad tempered judge

15 minutes/2661 words

Greenpeace, Nuclear Free Seas, Vancouver, Jail, Banner hang, nuclear armed warships, climbing, mobile phone, Pamela Martin, B.C., trial

A commemerative plate given to me when I left Greenpeace.

I was attached to a cable 100 feet above the roadbed and 300 feet above the water on the Lions Gate bridge in Vancouver. Bill Gardiner and I were planning on spending the night to manage our 30 x 40 foot banner which read “Nuclear Free Seas- Greenpeace.” It was July 1987, and the US navy were expected to sail under the bridge the next day with a group of nuclear armed warships.[See part 1: Lions Gate Bridge Caper]

Once I’d set up my hammock and climbed in I checked my safety system again. I was wearing a climbing harness, and had attached myself to the bridge cables with four safety lines. I wasn’t yet comfortable hanging 300 feet above the water, though of course if I fell I might not get as far as the water, but smash into the bridge deck a hundred feet below. Two safety lines would be usual, but as an indication of my discomfort, I added a fifth. Then I opened my backpack and started sorting my gear. Everything inside was attached to a piece of string with a carabiner on the end to attach it to the bridge or hammock- we couldn’t afford to drop anything onto a passing car. I had a quick drink of water and ate a snack bar, then carefully put the snack wrapper into a stuff sack I’d brought along for my rubbish. The view from 300 feet above the bay was still stomach tightening rather than exhilarating. I called over to Bill thirty feet away on the next cable, and he said he was doing fine. We were both wearing balaclavas and with the wind, conversation was difficult. But, I had to get down to business- we were here to work.

I got out my slick new mobile phone, with its kilo sized battery pack. I’d only briefly practised once before, so I mugged up on the instructions.

This one seemed a little heavy to carry up the cables, so we got the latest hi-tech device on the market.

!987, the latest lightweight mobile phone- barely a kilo.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of me on the phone. There was a long shot on BCTV with a picture of the bridge from a great distance, and then zooming in on me, but I was just a blob in a hammock.

I called the Greenpeace office to let them know that I was up and running and our media person Beverley gave me a list of priority media numbers to call, and when. I spent the afternoon and evening talking to print, radio and TV journalists. I tried to give both a bit of excitement about where we were but importantly remind the journalist why we were there- to protest nuclear armed warships being invited into down-town Vancouver and the substantial risks involved. Vancouver has voted to be a nuclear free city and yet the express wishes of the public were being flouted by federal policy. By now, I’d gotten used to the height, and was enjoying the magnificent views in all four directions: of Stanley park on one side, across the bay to the mountains, into Vancouver harbour and out to sea.

A key call was from BCTV’s Pamela Martin, BC’s highest rated news show. When she called, we chatted amiably for two or three minutes, as she set the scene for the interview and tested the mikes. She appeared to agree that nuclear weapons coming into the centre of a big city was a dangerous idea. However, when we went on air she stunned me by asking:

“Don’t you think it’s inappropriate doing a political action at SeaFest, a family event”

I had a moment of shock and felt betrayed by her pretended sympathy. “That is a good question,” I responded to gain time, “I think the real question is whether it is appropriate to be inviting nuclear weapons to a family event!”

I hadn’t really planned my responses to the media, and realised I’d been lucky to come up with something out of the blue.

[Post TV coverage of this interview when found]

As I lay in my hammock, three hundred feet above the ocean and a hundred feet above the road, fending media questions, I realised I had to pee. I had two water bottles and the plan was to drink the water and then use the empty bottle to pee in. But, I desperately needed a pee before I’d finished my first water bottle. So, even though I’d only drunk half the bottle, I used it to pee in. I now had a quandary, as I only had one water bottle left, and nowhere left to pee. Later that night, I tried pouring a tiny bit of the pee bottle over the edge of my hammock, but I saw that the the pee sprayed onto a passing car’s wind shield, so I had to stop. It would not be a good message if we were caught pissing on the people of Vancouver.

Soon after ten, I wrapped up for the evening and settled in for the night. We had good sleeping bags, and climbed in wearing all our clothes, and of course our climbing harnesses so that we were tied to the cable even if we fell out of our hammocks. After a chill night buffeted by the changing winds, the morning was another round of media calls. By now, I was on the second battery, and had to be even more careful about using the phone.

In the morning, we watched as a half dozen frigates passed under the bridge.

At about 11am, I got a request from the campaigner to stay up another day to get more publicity. I decided against this, as I had no water left, or place for further pee, and lightning was forecast for that afternoon. Also, we’d been lucky up to then and I thought it better to get down before anything went wrong. We came down to numerous video cameras, and I had a most urbane and gentlemanly arrest on screen.

[Post TV coverage of arrests when available]

I managed to get a good sound bite for the nights news, but made a mistake keeping my orange balaclava hat on. We were taken down to the central police station, booked and quickly let out.

There had been enormous publicity, somehow another banner hang had titillated the media, and we’d got international coverage that nuclear weapons were coming into down-town Vancouver. The action had been a great success.

The Lion’s Gate bridge has three lanes and switches around so that it has two lanes in the busy direction- and it still backs up in the morning and evening rush hour. However, the police had kept the middle lane closed for the entire time we were up on the bridge. With only one lane in the rush hour, and people passing slowly to rubber neck us, this had been the cause of a massive back up for much of the 24 hours we were on the bridge. I expect that closing the middle lane was standard policy, but there had been real local anger at the consequences. Many people who were buggered up by the bridge being reduced to one slow lane in each direction never forgave us. Making enemies that don’t forgive you is costly. Months later, I was at a party and a woman who found out that I was one of the climbers on the bridge came close to spitting at me. I realised that we had made people late for work, and miss important meetings and appointments, picking up their kids etc. People don’t forget this, and I vowed to be more careful and make sure not to inconvenience the general public, or make unnecessary enemies, from then on.

Usually, lawyers manage to work out a satisfactory plea bargain, but perhaps because of this anger, the crown would not settle, and we were booked for a trial.

Fred Easton, a seminal Greenpeace activist who had taken the famous footage of the Russian whaler’s harpoon shooting over the Greenpeacer’s head into a whale, was now a lawyer in Victoria and represented us in court.

The judge was ill-humoured and petulant and not an easy man to deal with. After we had been convicted, and when speaking to sentencing, he asked me why we had gone up the bridge, and caused a spectacle that slowed the traffic, when we could have gone over the bridge side and down out of view.

I told him that it would be dangerous to hang off the bridge. The banner would still have to be large to be visible hanging off the roadbed two hundred feet off the water. It would be very difficult to stop our ropes chaffing on the bridge edge, which risked them breaking. Climbing rope is very strong, but it is not designed to go over an edge when weighted. Hanging off a rope rubbing back and forth over an edge is dangerous, as if the edge is rough, or worse has a sharp edge, the rope can wear through in a short period and break. Climbing safety manuals say that a combination of weight and a sawing action can ‘cut a rope like butter’ Hanging on the same rope as a banner would put massively more strain on the rope, (it is not the weight of a banner that counts, it is the force exerted on the banner by the wind) and I was worried it wouldn’t last- instead it would quickly wear through and dump us in the water 200 ft feet below.

The judge cut me off with a rude dismissal before I could finish my explanation -more or less calling me a liar, Sadly judges too often get away with ill-mannered stupidity. Summing up, the judge said:

“I’ve been given no reason to believe that a banner, the same banner, draped underneath the bridge would be any less visible to marine vessels… In fact, common sense would tell me it’d be closer to them and, therefore, at least as clearly visible. When I’m told that that was considered but rejected because of the danger of a rope fraying, I find that incapable of belief… I can put no credit in a man who tells me so.”

We were sentenced to two weeks in jail and whisked away to the holding cell. I was given the opportunity of avoiding the big federal prison in the Fraser valley, and going to an open prison. So, I missed the full jail-house experience, and instead almost choked on persistent cigarette smoke.

Crestfallen at being sent to jail

When the guard took my prisoners mug shot, I liked it so much that he took another for me. I should have swapped this one for the first, where I was bursting with joy. On this shot, as you can see, I am very upset by being jailed, and won’t be naughty again.

The prison was a large building in south Vancouver, painted institutional-grey and sitting almost under the on ramp to the Fraser river bridge to the airport. It was an open prison, with a waist high chain link fence, and no gates. So, there was nothing stopping us walking away, except the fact that we were all on short sentences, or at the end of sentences, so that escaping would have been pretty stupid. I arrived on a Friday evening, which was film night. Many of my co-detainees were approved for day release, and going out each day to work. One was allowed out to the local video store and came back with the three film weekend deal. There was an element of absurdity in watching gangster films in prison, surrounded by my fellow criminals. But anyway after a short while I was driven out of the TV room by the continual smoking. There was always a pot of coffee on in the kitchen, and as it was the weekend, my fellow prisoners spent their time drinking coffee and smoking. The coffee was that thin sour stuff most North Americans seem to like, and the cigarette smoke thick, so I spent a lot of time laying on my bed, until driven out by my room mate, an unsocial fellow who preferred to smoke in our room. Avoiding his smoke, I spent hours walking around and around the building, much of the time in a thin drizzle.

On Sunday, a prison officer came into my room. “Simon Waters here?”

“That’s me.”

“Congratulations! That Lions Gate bridge climb was really something!”

After a friendly chat, he said: “You must be bored in here, come into the office I’ve got a book on China you may like to borrow.”

When I followed him into the guards office, he had a large coffee table book open on the table. Even upside down, I recognised Yunnan’s Stone Forest, which I had visited three or four years earlier.

“Ah, the Stone Forest,” I said, and he was exceedingly impressed. Amusingly, he was a part time prison officer, and ran a B&B on Vancouver Island. He gave me, and other prisoners, a card promoting his B&B. “It’s a great place for a break” he assured me. As you can see, I wasn’t given a hard time in prison- though for a non-smoker, living with clouds of near continuous cigarette smoke was really unpleasant.

On the fifth day, I was bailed out on appeal by Greenpeace. Apparently, Greenpeace activists in two other countries were jailed at about this time, and the GP international management decided they had to stop jail sentences being used to block our efforts. I was given a budget of $1000 and told to find the best lawyer I could. I looked up the top lawyers in Vancouver and made an appointment with the lead partner of one of the biggest law firms, a Mr Braidwood of Braidwood, MacKenzie, Brewer and Greyell. He met me in his 16th floor corner office in a modern down-town office block. Ironically, given the posh address, there was a bucket in the corner catching the leaks. He was a most charming man, and over coffee and biscuits I got him to agree to take on the case personally, and he let me know that the $1000 was just a token for his normal fee. He was amused and impressed by our climb, and thought he could beat the prison sentence.

However, on the day of the appeal he wasn’t able to show up, but sent Mr Brewer, another senior partner. It was astonishing to see the deference of the judge to our lawyer. Mr Brewer had just picked up the brief that morning, as Mr Braidwood had had a case over run. He went through his arguments that a jail sentence was inappropriate, and moved on to describing me and Bill as upstanding citizens. However, he cocked up by using Bill’s description for me, giving me Bill’s MA . When he moved on to describing Bill, he realised mid-sentence his mistake, and with barely a pause ad-libbed a suitable biography for Bill. It was a delight to see a top lawyer in action, and it makes you realise how much a satisfactory outcome in law depends on your financial resources. The upshot was that we got the sentenced reduced to $1, though this was spoiled by an aside from the judge that he was taking into account time served.

Soon after getting out of jail, I was delighted to see we were the full-page photo in a five page article in the Greenpeace US magazine on the Nuclear Free Seas campaign.

Dedicated to the amazing Greenpeace volunteers, then and now.

Fleeing the M23 rebels, a Refugee in Rwanda

Researching Pygmy Healthcare during Congo’s Civil War, part 2

20 minutes

[Continued from last week:Volcanoes, Pygmies, and M23; Researching Pygmy Healthcare during Congo’s Civil War]

We could hear loud noises that sounded like artillery fire coming across the lake. According to the UN news feed, the M23 Rwandan backed rebels attacking Goma were not meeting resistance from the Congolese army. And Goma was on our route back to Bukavu. My colleague, and by now good friend, Jean Claude had left his 3 year old daughter with his sister in Goma, and needed to pick her up. But we had just started our field work, and what we were finding was vital for getting thousands of Pygmies access to life-saving healthcare, so I was profoundly reluctant to stop in the middle of such productive work…

Sunday 18th November, 2012, Minova, South Kivu, DRC

I was up early again on Sunday morning. There was a cold fog off the lake, which made the morning wash in a bucket of cold water unpleasant. I walked the 1km through town to the restaurant where we met. Though it was one of the few places to eat in town, we were often the only customers. The restaurant had a couple of secluded booths inside and half a dozen tables out back under a palm leaf awning, overlooking a yard with chickens scrabbling between the banana plants.

We were all three worried by the dangerous situation. The others had been through this before, as the civil war, and war lord rampages, had been going on for fifteen years, their entire adult lives. They had lived through the dangers directly, though they rarely spoke of it. I only knew the risks from hearing and reading about it second hand.

Minova was the first town on the only road that connected Goma to Bukavu, and the M23 were expected to attack here next. Some years ago, their previous incarnation had stormed through Minova on their way to capture Bukavu at the other end of the lake. We all had our different concerns. Bems lived in Minova, with his wife and young child, and was of course very worried that his town would become a battleground. He worked for UEFA, but was not paid when they were between contracts, so that the small amount he earned working on my project was important to him, and he also understood the value of the project. Jean Claude was the lead researcher for UEFA, and had played a key part in developing the research methodology, so he too was invested in the project. It would have been hard, but not impossible, to carry on without him. He needed to get to Goma and pick up his 3 year daughter. I had had the idea for the project nine years earlier, and had failed to get funding. Now, I had my one chance to show that Pygmies were denied healthcare. At each village we were finding, and beginning to help, half a dozen people with serious problems. But the real value would be if we could Pygmies (and it was clear many other indigent men, women, and children) their right to health care consistently respected. This would save thousands of lives and stop enormous, unnecessary, pain and injustice. We had a lot to play for, and just this one opportunity.

It seemed that the route back through Goma was already too dangerous, and so while we tried to get more information, we agreed to do another field visit. Bems, Jean Claude and I walked the 2 km to the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, just outside Minova.

Minova IDP camp

The camp was about a hundred makeshift shelters, using some reclaimed tarpaulins from the UN, even though it was not an official camp. It was occupied by people who had been displaced by the incessant fighting and pillaging further north. We went to the Pygmy section of the camp.

Meeting in Mubimbi IDP camp; 18 men, 7 women

The Pygmy IDPs have been in the camp since July 2011, having walked a hundred or more kms from Masisi, when their villages were looted by rebels. They had almost no access to healthcare, but for three months at the height of the cholera outbreak, they had got free medicines for cholera, malaria and diarrhoea from Doctors Without Borders. Though there is a water tap in the camp, it often does not have water, and they have to go 5km to fetch it. Otherwise, they use the river, which has passed through at least five villages and is polluted with human waste. There are multiple cases of water-borne diseases. They are often hungry as they have no regular source of food. The landowner wants his land back, and they will be forced to move again soon.

Minova IDP camp meeting

It was hard to focus on the research as we could hear the sound of artillery fire coming across the lake. This was particularly distressing for Jean-Claude with his daughter in Goma. As the morning progressed, the explosions were more frequent, and harder to ignore. We were also not sure if the M23 had either bypassed Goma, or at least made a move along the lake towards Minova. The artillery fire sounded closer, and I worried the M23 was already on their way….

Jean-Claude, exhausted and worried. He’s listening to the bombardment of Goma where his sister and daughter are.

I was taking pictures and worrying too- both about the increasing danger, and about the consequences of leaving before we had finished our research. I had a light-hearted moment when a musician sang a song for me.

I was reluctant to leave before we absolutely had to. I had reason to be concerned with the quality of the work we might get from the other team. Matata, who was leading that team, was officially the UEFA coordinator for the whole project, but didn’t seem at all interested in his role. Godlive, who was a young recent graduate in rural development was a quick learner, but she’d come into the project a little late. And she didn’t have the experience or authority to make sure the research was carried out as well as possible. If we had three more days in Minova, we could visit 2 or 3 more villages; visit Minova hospital and see what services we could get for our already identified patients and learn what we could expect if we sent some on to Goma. Several people’s long term health and well-being depended on our being able to help them, and I felt it had to be done immediately when I was in a position to make on the spot decisions and talk directly to the medical staff.

When planning this field trip, I had met with many field workers working for international charities in Bukavu. A doctor from one of the leading health NGOs had told me she was going to Minova to run workshops for village health workers. I asked her whether she had invited any Pygmies to her outreach programme, and she had replied, “There are no Pygmies near Minova.” This was where we had just researched in three Pygmy villages. I wanted to meet up with the international health teams who had dealt with the cholera epidemic. I needed to find out if this denial of even the existence of Pygmies was common.

My mind was going in circles. I had an obligation to follow up on our patients to make sure that those we’d identified got at least the primary care they needed and to explore the costs and possibilities of taking a few patients to Goma for critical treatments. But damn, Goma was off for the moment, and I knew our time was running out.

Finally Jean-Claude said “ Monsieur Simon, You have to leave.” I realised that Jean-Claude couldn’t leave without making sure I was safe for all kinds of reasons- he was my host, and he could quite possibly be held responsible if anything happened to me. I had already suggested he leave, but I finally realised that I had to go first, so that he would feel able to go and get his daughter. We wrapped up the research hurriedly, without doing any individual interviews, and walked quickly back to Minova along the empty highway. As we got back to town, we passed a group of soldiers, milling in an undisciplined group by the road. There was real tension in the air, and the atmosphere of buzzing electricity was frightening. [The only time I’d felt a stronger buzzing electric charge was once, climbing in the Canadian Rockies, where I felt a similar crackle in the atmosphere in the last minute before I was struck by lightening]

The soldiers were scared, and about to explode. It was dangerously close to going off. Suddenly I wasn’t sure that I could get out of town without real trouble. I walked back to my hotel and in 30 minutes I was back at the restaurant with my kit. Paying my hotel bill, I used a hundred dollar note, and they had no change. I needed the change to fund our next move, but also didn’t want to hang around waiting as the situation was deteriorating fast. I asked that they brought the change to me at the restaurant. And, with great courage and honesty they did.

Back at the restaurant I stayed in the back to avoid attention. I counted my stash. I did not have much money, but there was enough to take $20 to get back to Bukavu, and $50 for emergencies. I gave just $20 or so to Bems, as he lived in town, and didn’t have emergency travel costs, promising I’d send more from Bukavu. I gave the rest to Jean-Claude (about $100 plus his travel costs) as he had the hardest journey back, and might get stuck in Goma for a while. Jean-Claude had also come with a budget, and ought to have had some of it left, as I had paid for all our expenses since arriving….

Then Bems went and got François, a moto driver he knew, and negotiated the price to get me to the next town along the lake. Most moto drivers are in their late teens or barely 20, but this was an older man of 40. I offered to double the agreed payment if he drove slowly. I didn’t want to be in an accident on top of everything else. I felt bad leaving my colleagues, but also felt the fear that seemed to fill the street. I got on the moto and set off up the slope to where the soldiers were milling, but I did not look in their direction. After we had swept, rather too slowly, out of town and around the first corner, I felt a great sense of relief. We had been under strain for days, and I had been working twelve and fourteen hours every day for almost a month. I had a wonderful journey up and over hills and back to the shores of the beautiful lake Kivu. It was a real relief to be on the open road, and I felt my stomach unknot. I got the driver to stop for a few pictures, as it was the first time since I arrived that I had not been in a rush to get somewhere.

Francois stopping so I could grab a few shots

Occasionally we’d come around a corner and see a lone soldier standing by the road. I realised it wasn’t a good idea to give them the time to think, and by the time they noticed a white guy on the moto, and said stop I wanted to be as far past them as possible. So, my desire to go slow to avoid risk of accident, became dwarfed by my desire to zoom past any military before they realised what was happening. But, François would not listen to my plea to speed up passing soldiers. He’d been persuaded by my offer of double pay if he kept slow, and I was unable to explain my new reasoning as we sped along in the wind. But probably he was right, perhaps zooming past would have raised suspicions and even a shot, if we hadn’t stopped. We continued along, climbing up into the hills or careering down steep slopes to the lakeside, through small villages and past plantations of quinine, and fields of banana, plantain, and corn. It was a lovely day, and I was relieved to be out of Minova and enjoying the journey.

The west shore of Lake Kivu

After 50 km, we arrived at the first town of any size, and where I’d paid to be taken. I thanked François, who had brought me safely out of immediate danger, and paid him his well deserved bonus, and went to get a beer in a restaurant in the market. Two people pulled up in a big, brand new 4×4 SUV, and after they had ordered a beer and settled in, I negotiated a ride to Bukavu for $20.

They put me in the back seat and ignored me. They were clearly important and even the young driver was well off, wearing $100 jeans and an expensive watch. I was joining members of the Goma elite making a last minute dash out of danger. The older man had a lot of authority. When we got to a road block he got out, and sauntered up to the officers and chatted amicably. Sometimes he just said a few words at a roadblock, was saluted and we were let straight through. The soldiers were still nervous, but the tension level was far lower.

In two or three hours, I was dropped in Bukavu, and took a taxi back to my lodgings at the CAP mission lodgings. I logged on to the internet to get the latest news, and looked up the Foreign Office advice -which was to get out of Bukavu NOW. I called the emergency mobile number and talked to an embassy staff-person at the border, and she said she would leave the next morning. This might be my last chance to get out, but I did not want to leave. My project depended on researching in enough villages to prove that the refusal of medical services was not just a local phenomenon, but universal. I hadn’t got enough yet, and the next week would be crucial. We had decided to focus on access to medical care, access to vaccinations and access to clean water. If we went to a Uvira, we could meet with Oxfam who had an ongoing well-building project. I had heard from Oxfam that when they built wells in communities, the villagers paid a small monthly fee that covered the costs of maintenance. This wouldn’t work with Pygmies and other indigent people. I wanted to interview field staff to see whether Oxfam was enforcing this policy, to the detriment of the most needy, or whether had they found a solution that might also be helpful in getting medical coverage for the indigent. Given the importance of Oxfam in delivering development aid, and their name recognition, I really wanted to be able to include their work in the report (whether good or bad). I needed to know whether they were getting services to Pygmies and the most destitute. And, I have to admit, I really wanted to visit Uvira where they were working, and see the great Lake Tanganika.

I talked to the CAP staff, and from my friend the accountant I heard some horror stories about the last time rebels from Goma had rampaged through Bukavu. Tragically, there was no reason to believe that the Congolese army, would be able to stop them. And there was the substantial risk that the Rwandans would close the border, to stop a deluge of refugees, and I’d be stuck in Bukavu under rebel occupation. This risked being looted, beaten, and possibly accidentally killed. I thought of my obligations to my daughter Felix, who wasn’t yet 11. She couldn’t afford to lose her dad and I realised my responsibilities were first to her. I called the embassy emergency number again, and the embassy person agreed to wait for me until noon the next day: “But no longer.”

And so, the next morning at 11 am I bailed, crossing the border into Cyangugu, Rwanda, as a refugee. I had a packet of good biscuits, and offered them to the charming young embassy staffer in thanks for waiting for me. I took a taxi up the hill to town to the hotel she recommended, and she stopped by to talk when she left the border an hour later. She also introduced me to a VSO volunteer, an English woman in her 50s, who suggested I move to the guest-house of the organisation where she worked. The last words of advice I got from the British embassy were: “Give the biscuits to the VSO volunteer, she’ll appreciate them.” I felt I was getting value for money from my taxes.

I’d already paid for a night at the hotel, so I indulged in one night of luxury, with clean sheets, a balcony door left open for fresh air, a hot shower, a good meal and a couple of beers in the restaurant. This was living way above my pay-scale, and so the next day after breakfast, I happily went to stay at the same place as the VSO volunteer. It was enjoyable chatting in English for a change, though in a couple of days, the volunteer left for the capital. But the NGO staff were hospitable, and I had a room, access to internet and, luxury of luxuries, I could make a cup of tea anytime I felt like!

Next: Cyangugu, the congopygmyblog and fears for Jean-Claude.

For the few: there are some 2012 postings (now); the prelude to this field trip and my Pygmy Health Project report (soon) on

Volcanoes, Pygmies, and M23

Researching Pygmy Healthcare during Congo’s Civil War

15 minutes

Making friends with the kids

I was worried I might need to cancel my field trip in the eastern Congo, and the Foreign office travel advisory was less than reassuring:

We advise against all travel to eastern and north eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The only exception to this is within the towns of Bukavu and Goma, where we advise against all but essential travel. In Bukavu and Goma we advise against travel at night and to avoid travelling alone at all times.

My journey seemed to ignore a few of these recommendations. I planned to travel alone from Bukavu to Goma, and then on to the small community of Minova, to spend a week visiting Pygmy villages with Congolese colleagues, only one of whom I knew. It was 2012, and I was in the DRC, setting up a small-scale research project to document whether Pygmy people were being denied access to healthcare. After running a training workshop in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, we prepared research teams to visit villages in two areas where my partner organisation, UEFA, a Pygmy run woman’s organisation, had field offices. Rebels still controlled large areas, and hijackings, armed robbery and pillaging in rural areas were common.I felt at home in Bukavu, and knew my way around, but I didn’t know Goma at all (I’d just passed through once in 2002). The Foreign Office website had further cautions about armed robberies in Goma, including robberies of vehicles. I then needed to leave Goma, on public transport, again alone, and during a cholera outbreak. (In fact I’d chosen our research area as I wanted to see whether Pygmies had access to the free treatment offered during the cholera outbreak). In spite of the risks, I really needed to get into the field, to make sure that the research was effective, and to get direct experience of the situation faced by Pygmies in South Kivu. There was one further danger. The M23 rebels were reportedly moving in force towards Goma, beating back the Congolese army.

I was lucky, as the accountant at the CAP Protestant mission guest-house, where I stayed in Bukavu, offered to phone his colleague in Goma and reserve me a room. He also negotiated a reduced price as I was on a tight budget. Better than that, he arranged for the director of the CAP Goma to pick me up from the boat and drop me off the next morning at the bus park for Minova.

Thursday Nov 15 2012

An enjoyable five hour boat ride up Lac Kivu to Goma, passing numerous islands, and the occasional dugout canoe. I had a good conversation with two fellow travellers about the disastrous situation in North Kivu, with the Rwandan backed M23 rebels on the rampage again, and the reasons the international community have supported Rwanda, in spite of its aggressive behaviour towards the DRC. I bought pineapples and green oranges from the jetty, as a gift to my new host, when we made a stop at the island of Idjwi, and also saw a couple of poverty struck Pygmy camps near the ferry stops.

Pic of Pygmy camp on Idjwi

Pygmy camp on Idjwi from ferry to Goma

The ferry arrived in Goma at 5.30pm. Goma, a city of half a million, had been inundated by lava just ten years earlier. The 2002 eruption of Nyiragongo volcano was the world’s most dramatic example of a lava flow through a major town. Three huge lava flows swept into the city, and destroyed perhaps 40% of Goma, including the business district and part of the international airport. Lava flows created fires in the commercial centre, as cars and petrol stations exploded. Two of the city’s four hospitals and 80 out of Goma’s 150 pharmacies were buried under two meters of lava. Tens of thousands of people were made homeless, businesses destroyed and 400,000 people evacuated.

Pics of 2002 eruption to be uploaded

The director of the CAP picked me up from the ferry and drove me through town and into a new quarter of luxury modern mansions. It was strange to see what would be million pound houses in the UK built on top of the 2002 lava flow. It was an eerie feeling knowing I was sleeping under so dangerous a volcano. That night I had a frisson of fear before I fell asleep.

Goma 2012. New homes on the 2002 lavaflow. View from CAP window

Friday Nov 16

I got up at 6 and the director kindly dropped me at the mini-bus for Minova at 7. As I was one of the first in the bus, we spent 90 minutes cruising to pick up other passengers before leaving town at 8.30. The 45 mile journey was initially through a bleak landscape of shrubs growing on recent lava flows into Lake Kivu. We arrived a Minova, a small district centre with a hospital and two hotels, at 10.15. There were several other NGO teams in town, each with its 4x4s buzzing up and down the one street. Arriving on a crowded local bus, I was in a different league. Jean Claude Kateo, my colleague from Bukavu, had come to the market to meet the bus, and we immediately set off, sharing a moto (motorbike taxi) to Kalunga, 7km away. Bems the Minova coordinator and the Kalunga field worker met us in the UEFA office, a simple and almost empty wooden shack, then we walked up a steep mud track, between square, tin roofed mud houses, to the Pygmy quarter (section), of about twenty thatched mud houses, at the end of the village.

Kalunga village meeting: 16 men and 14 women.

Meeting in Kalunga. Watched by Bantu villagers on the bank

We were greeted warmly, as UEFA has worked in this village for a while. Jean Claude led the meeting, going through our village questionnaire. Then Bems took a small group of men, and Jean-Claude a group of women for smaller focus groups. Afterwards several villagers were interviewed individually. After watching and listening for a while (the meeting was in Swahili, which I don’t speak) I began to take photographs for the report. The Pygmy quarter is crowded into small space at the edge of the larger Bantu village. The Pygmies own no land, and most work on the farms of neighbouring Bantu for a small amount of food or money. They live hand to mouth, and often do not have any food that they have not earned that day. Many of the Pygmies were off working in fields to get that nights meal for their families. The researchers discovered that, in spite of the ongoing cholera epidemic, there had been no cholera prevention outreach in the Pygmy quarter. However, they had earlier benefited from the campaign of free mosquito nets. One person had used his net for fishing, and one man said he’d sold his for 200fc, (about 15p/25 cents).

In this small village, with a district hospital in the adjoining town, there were a number of untreated sick people.

A girl of 3-4 years old with a severe (treatable) eye infection, and almost blind

Young girl with untreated eye infection which leads to blindness

Adolescent girl of 12- 15 with a severe (treatable) eye infection, and almost blind

A man of perhaps 35-40 with a large growth on his forehead

A man of 35-40 with a very large protruding hernia

A woman of 20-25 who had recently suffered a miscarriage and was in pain

A child of 3-4 with a weeping ear infection.

The policy with health care in poor countries, promoted by the World bank and others, is that people pay towards their care. This helps fund the system and also supposedly discourages unnecessary usage. The indigent- those without any money, are supposed to be treated without cost. As all Pygmies meet this criteria, they ought all to receive this free treatment. The meetings discovered that free treatment was consistently refused at the local hospital, and so medical care was unavailable to the villagers.

At the end of the meetings and interviews, Jean Claude asked me if there was anything else I would like to ask. I thought it important to discover more about whether the mosquito net campaign had been effective. From the information already gathered, it would appear that the campaign had been a failure. One net had been used to fish (though as the village suffered from malnutrition, that was a substantial unintended benefit), and one had been sold for a miserable sum. I wished to get more details on this so we asked how many people had still got their mosquito nets. Several said they had kept them, though one woman said that she had hers hidden away, as she thought the insecticide coating was poisonous. She would use her net when the smell went away.

I offered 500fc (about 35p, but as much as a Pygmy might earn for a day’s work) to anyone who could show me their mosquito net in place. This was an adventure, as we got to explore the village and go into many houses and saw nets placed above eight beds. I noted that several of the nets were hung too high, and that mosquitoes could get under the edge. As the cord with which they were attached was already at its max, we arranged that the local staff-person would bring string on his next visit to help hang those nets more effectively.

We promised to return the next day to take the sick with long term conditions to the local hospital. We took the girl with the weeping ear infection to the hospital immediately. She was seen by a nurse, her ear cleaned out, and antibiotics were provided at a cost of $4.33. This was easy for the project to pay for, but beyond any of the village’s Pygmies. All the hospital doctors were in a meeting, so we interviewed the nurse after she’d treated the little girl. Later, the head of nursing arrived from the doctor’s meeting. She told us that as the Congolese government had not paid the doctors and nurses their salaries for many months, the hospital survived on the payments made by patients seeking treatment. Since the international NGOs (Doctors without Borders/Doctors of Africa) had begun to give free health care due to the cholera outbreak, the hospital had had almost no patients. This meant that now the hospital didn’t have the money to pay staff at the end of the month, and the head nurse feared that the doctors would all leave. This was a complication of some organisations supplying free treatment I hadn’t known about. Also the head nurse had not seen the official Ministry of Health Criteria of Indigence, which is supposed to be used by all health professionals to determine who gets free health care. She said, “According to this list, almost everybody is indigent!” As the government wasn’t paying wages and bills, and the hospital relied on fees, that would have serious consequences for the finances of the hospital unless they were properly compensated.

It was already past five. We needed to get back to Minova, eat our first meal since 6 am, and plan the next day’s activities before the curfew at 7pm. We made a rendezvous for 7am with the local animator and left.

Dinner in Minova

When I had eaten and was set up in my dingy hotel room, I sat writing up the day’s events under the dim, flickering light bulb. This was my first field visit as part of this project. The process: whole village meeting, focus groups, individual interviews, interview local health professionals, appeared to produce excellent results. The lesson for me was you can only do useful research if you dig a little deeper. Had we not asked to see the mosquito nets in place, we would have left the village to report the complete failure of the free net campaign, as nets were reported to be used to fish, kept stored away and sold for a paltry sum. This inaccurate narrative reinforced negative stereotypes of untrustworthy Pygmies who resisted health care interventions and would justify the feeling that outreach to Pygmy villages was pointless.

A mosquito net in use.

Already, this one visit had demonstrated that there were a large number of chronic and urgent medical problems going untreated due to the lack of freely available health care. The cost of treatment could be very small- less than $5 for a weeping ear infection. Other treatments (eye infections/conditions) would cost more and some conditions, (such as an operation for a hernia), were not treated at this level- the patients would have to go to Goma. It was already clear that the free medical treatment promised to the indigent did not apply to the Pygmies in Kalunga.

Saturday 17th November. Before leaving the hotel, I lowered the hotel mosquito net, which had been hung too high so that mosquitoes could get under the edge- in fact at more or less the same height several Pygmies had hung theirs. I found it ironic that more than half the Pygmies had placed their nets more effectively that my hotelier.

At 6.30 am, we set off, with Jean Claude and Bems on one moto and me on the other. We stopped in Kalungu to agree when we would return to take the persons identified yesterday to the hospital. This turned out to be a mistake, as we were unable to return at the time specified, and kept a lot of people waiting unnecessarily. We continued on to a village a further 30 km along the road. Here we found that the Pygmy village had moved to Munganzo Teme 4 km further on. We went to pay a courtesy visit to the chief, but he was out. On the way to the Pygmy village we met the chief who was returning with several dozen villagers from a work-party clearing the route for a road up to a planned local health centre. The chief disdainfully checked out our authorisation from the Ministry of Health, made some rude comment about working with Pygmies, and carried on back to the village.

We continued up to the Pygmy village, which was about a km above the village proper, and set on both sides of a path. The space they have been allowed to use is tiny, and hemmed in by the fields of the Bantu, with just enough room for the houses and just one small field for growing food. These villagers had been chased from their own village by their neighbouring Bantu. They had brought a legal case, and won $6,000 for having their houses destroyed and $7,000 for the digging up of their burial sites. Following this judgement, they told us that the Bantu had appealed and then corrupted the court (both the judge and their own lawyer!) to win the case against them. They were now landless and forced to move from place to place.

We began the village meeting outdoors but it soon started to rain. Five men and 6 women moved into a hut to continue the meeting. Pygmies don’t have chiefs. But they nominate someone as such, otherwise they have no spokesperson with the authorities. Their “chief” had a positive attitude to medicine and mosquito nets. We also interviewed a father who had recently taken his two year old daughter with cholera to the local hospital but was refused care as he had no money. His daughter died two days later. It is shocking that this is still happening.

The list of sick people: Chief; problems with eyes; a woman with a massive goitre; a child with a serious skin condition; two women with pain in gut.

Going to hospital with sick people

After our meeting, we set off to walk the five kilometres to the hospital with the sick patients. On the way we passed a drunken soldier who had commandeered a villager to carry his load and now ordered one of the sick Pygmies to carry the rest. Bems, the Minova staff person stood up to the soldier, and for a minute I thought it would end very badly. But the soldier backed down, and muttering venomously carried on his way. It was a Saturday, so that the hospital was only partly staffed. But the five patients got various blood tests and some got medicines right away, and the others were asked to return on Monday. We prepaid the fees for Mondays consultations, and arranged for Bems to return during the week to follow up on the care given. Again we interviewed the head of nursing and while we finished up, Bems returned to Kalungu with $50, to take the patients from the day before to the hospital where we would join them.

We returned on two motos, but it was a frightening journey as my driver was speeding and lost control badly on a gravel corner, and even after that maintained a dangerous speed. It is a mad irony that in spite of all the tropical diseases, and rebels, the greatest risk is a serious motor vehicle accident. And I had seen the quality of the medical services available, and I didn’t look forward to using them with a serious injury. Bems had also had moto problems, as his moto had broken down, and he had not made it to Kalungu in time for the hospital clinic. We went to the hospital to look for local UEFA staffer and asked him to apologise and gave him the funds to take the sick people to hospital on Monday.

We returned to Minova for the first meal of the day at 6pm, and quickly to the hotel before the curfew. There were now a lot more Congolese army soldiers in town. Many had fled the M23 forces outside Goma. Minova would be the next point on the M23 drive towards Bukavu. The soldiers seemed extremely nervous, and there was a visceral tension on the street. There were rumours that the M23 rebels had by-passed the UN peacekeepers and were already in the outskirts of Goma. We could hear loud noises that sounded like artillery fire coming across the lake. This was terrible for the people in Goma, but also bad for us. It was my safe route back to Bukavu; otherwise I would have to travel by road down the insecure west bank of the lake. It was far worse for Jean Claude as he had left his 3 year old daughter with his sister in Goma, and needed to pick her up. We had just started our research and I was reluctant to stop so soon…

Next: Visiting an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, listening to the M23 bombardment of Goma and becoming a refugee.

Pygmy kids

Stephen’s Farm

Cops, Communards, and the Night Manager

15 minutes

February 1975

Driving through a sliver of New York state at night, en-route for Tennessee, we were pulled over by the NY state police. Tim’s VW had California plates, and when the cop came to the car for ID, he saw that Tim had blond hair to his shoulders. He went back to his car to run a check. Put these two together, and if Tim had a record, we were going to get searched. When the cop had left, my girlfriend Lake said she had two joints in her purse. NY had a no tolerance policy, and it was a felony to bring drugs across the state line. As we sat, silhouetted by the police car searchlight shining through our back window, I felt a cold shiver of fear, and the heightened awareness of surging adrenaline. Lake dug out her hair brush and got out the joints. I took a joint and we agreed to each eat one if necessary. Lake slowly brushed her hair, as we tried to look relaxed. After an agonising wait, the cop returned and sent us on our way.

I had met up with Lake in Boston in December, with a plan to set out together to travel to South America. But things hadn’t worked out, as when I arrived in Boston we were both broke. I got a job as dishwasher in the Boston University canteen, using the social security number of Lake’s brother, coincidently also called Simon.

A note from our sponsor: A memorable event in Boston, or more precisely on the other side of the river at Harvard in Cambridge, was visiting the Glass Flower Museum. This museum is a stunning collection of botanical exhibits blown in glass. Full sized specimens of all kinds of plants, and plant parts at x50 or x100 magnification, show the beauty of flowers and ferns in true colour and exquisite detail. Harvard worked with a family of German glass blowers over three generations to produce these stunning pieces, and the museum lived up to Lake’s enthusiastic description. Sadly, several cases had pieces broken by clumsy visitors. In spite of this, I saw visitors ignoring the signs and leaning on the display cases. The Glass Flower museum has recently been renewed and renovated, and is a must see for anyone visiting Boston.

The Glass Flower Museum

In February, in spite of our meagre savings, we looked for a ride to California. Lake’s friend Deirdre [names changed to protect the innocent] was pregnant and Tim didn’t want the baby, but she was catholic and did. Deirdre heard about the Farm, a hippy commune in Tennessee who advertised their services in the national underground press. They had a mid-wife service and offered to look after any pregnant woman, deliver the baby for free, and keep it if she did not want it after the birth. Deirdre persuaded Tim to take her to the Farm, and we got a ride with them in Tim’s old VW. After the police stop, we continued into the night.

Tim was doing all the driving, and as the night progressed, he was getting dangerously tired. We were travelling by freeway, passing communities visible only as the giant signs of Texaco and Mobil gas stations and Denny’s and IHOP restaurants. There was barely an indication that we were travelling through different states- all freeways look the same at night. I offered to drive, but Tim refused. For some reason, he believed I would drive off the freeway and explore if I got the wheel. I felt it was imperative he get some rest, or we’d have an accident, and so I promised that I would not leave the freeway if he let me drive. Finally, utterly beat, he pulled over, and I took over. Tim fell asleep at once, and I took the next exit. Within a half mile, I drove down a narrow rural road past a row of wooden shacks propped up off the ground. It was one or two in the morning, and there was no sign of life, not even a porch light. The shacks were clearly without even electricity or running water. I took the first left and left again, and in twenty minutes we were back on the freeway. The hidden poverty, so close to the freeway in the ‘Greatest Country in the World,’ was astonishing.

An American back road home

When we arrived at the Farm, or Stephen’s Farm, we registered at the gate. Tim and Deirdre explained their situation and went off for a meeting with the midwives. Lake really wanted to visit, so we signed in too.

“There’s another guy here from England, maybe you know him,” said the guy at the gate. I thought this very unlikely, but it turned out I did. I’d known Nick for years. In fact he was the first person I had squatted with, when he offered me a room in a small house he’d opened. He was in the US to do a series of pieces on American communes for a small UK cooperative magazine. Tim and Deirdre left, together, soon after their conversation. As we were now ‘with Nick’ we were allowed to stay past the two night limit

Visitors were made to work, and I got a job the next day sorting potatoes in a large storage cellar. Many of the potatoes were soft, and a lot were rotten. I worked with a crew of a half dozen others, and my strongest memory was of the mind bogglingly power of the silent farts. The bean based vegetarian diet didn’t agree with everybody’s digestions. Lake got a better deal, working in the kitchens helping prepare the delicious lunches. There were still many of the original converted yellow school buses, and some well-built log and wood-frame houses and community spaces, but most of the commune lived in large modified canvas army tents, warmed with a wood stove. We stayed in one too. and in the evenings we visited other tents for dinner. As we walked through the woods in the late afternoon, I delighted in the lovely light as dusk engulfed the leafless trees. The Farm had about 700 people, and an impressive variety of services, including both a wind-up telephone exchange and a horse-back postal delivery service. They also had a laundromat, and an 18 wheeler truck trailer.

A school bus home

I got to spend time with Nick, an absolutely lovely guy and a genuine character. He had been living for some time on a diet of tea and honey, consuming four or five bottles of honey a day. I tried his diet for a day, ordering a couple of bottles of liquid honey from the town run. Curiously, honey is less sweet than you’d expect when drunk straight. I had no difficulty downing my two bottles of honey, but it didn’t stop me wanting something more substantial as well. Nick had lived for some time mainly on Pablum, a first food for toddlers. You just mix it with milk or water and spoon it down. He’d written to the manufacturers asking for a years free supply, saying he was happy for them to use his experience to promote Pablum as a simple and cheap adult diet. They had replied, “Pablum is solely for infants. It is not an adequate diet for an adult. Do not eat!

Nick had another foible, which was to change his name every year. He wrote a wonderful biography, Rehearsal for the Year 2000, Memoirs of a Male Midwife, and signed it Alan Beam-Bramley.

An early version of self publishing, and a great read
Nick was also the co-founder of Freestonia- London’s independent statelet

The Farm had an interesting history. Stephen Gaskin had run a series of Monday night talks at the Avalon ballroom [see Last Night at the Avalon] in the 60s. Then Stephen led a caravan of 60 buses, vans, and trucks from San Francisco on a four-month speaking tour across the US. After returning to California, the decision was made to buy land together, but combining all their resources would purchase only about fifty acres in California. Another month on the road brought the group back to Tennessee, where they bought 1,064 acres in Lawrence County, about seventy miles south of Nashville, for $70 per acre. They began building their community in the woods alongside the network of old logging roads that followed the ridge-lines. When they arrived they befriended a neighbour who they helped fix his barn roof and bring in the harvest. When one day a rabble arrived to kick shit out of the hippies, their neighbour stood with a gun at their gate. “Anyone who wants past, goes through me!” Love thy neighbour can have practical results.

Following Stephen’s philosophy, Farm members did not use artificial birth control, alcohol, tobacco, man-made psychotropics, or animal products. They did of course smoke pot, and grew it on their extensive land. This led to a problem, as when the farm was raided, Stephen was asked if they were growing pot on the farm and he’d not been able to lie. When we arrived, he had just out got of a year in jail for growing pot, and was still on probation. So now pot smoking was banned, as Stephen would have to own up to his probation officer. This caused a problem during our visit, as one of the tent families were caught growing, and were facing internal discipline. Each Sunday Stephen gave a talk. I’d have liked to see what all the fuss was about, but the family from the tent where we were staying was late and when we arrived, the meeting was letting out. The commune was suffering from a spate of stomach bugs. I asked one of the communards what the talk had been about and he gave me a glowing eyed description. “Stephen told us to wash our hands after we went to the bathroom.”

But I did get to meet Stephen, as I joined Nick when he went to interview him for his magazine article. He lived in a large, well-built wooden house, which he shared with his extended family of two couples. The house had been built for him when he was in jail as a welcome home present. Stephen’s philosophy was part-Christian, and shared their belief in the institution of marriage. But he had decided that couples could join together with another couple in a joint marriage. These were popular and there were many pairs and some threesomes and foursomes of couples. Stephen and his wife were married with another couple where the woman of that couple seemed the second most important person in the Farm. She was the leader of the mid-wives and headed their project to accept any pregnant woman, as well as writing a book and providing midwifery to the local population.

Steve Gaskin, guru at the Farm

Nick’s interview was interesting. He questioned Stephen on the very top down nature of the Farms leadership to which Stephen replied: “Many of these people are recovering junkies and deeply troubled people.” Basically you couldn’t let them do what they wanted, as they were too fucked up and needed external discipline.

The Farm is still going, and now fifty years old.

Lake and I left with a local couple who were moving back to their farmhouse in Possum Hollow twenty miles from the farm. We left Possum Hollow [pardon me, but I just had to use the name again], after a couple of days, and continued on our way. Late one cold February night, hitch-hiking through Arkansas, we went into an all night restaurant to warm up and eat. As we entered the restaurant, a man sitting at a table by the door beckoned me over. He was wearing a powder blue hat and had on a powder blue shirt. Sitting horizontally on his man-boob was a sheriffs star. Next to him was his deputy.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“You can eat, but be quick about it, and the get out quick,” he said menacingly.

Lake hadn’t heard, so I told her what he’d said when we got to our table.

I feared that, especially at night, an American cop could do pretty well anything to a passing hippy, and get away with it. So we ordered quickly and ate up. Then I tried to get the waitresses attention to pay. I really wanted to get out of there without giving the cop an excuse to mess with us. But the waitress kept avoiding us, and so I walked across the restaurant and asked for my bill.

“Your bill has been paid,” she said!

Assuming the sheriff had paid our bill, I realised that either I’d badly misunderstood, or the sheriff had decided to make up for his rudeness.

Lake and I picked up our bags and walked out. I stopped at the sheriff’s table and said:

“When I came in, I thought you were rudely telling me to leave. I am a visitor from England, and I have always found Americans to be most polite and welcoming. I apologise that I misunderstood what you said. I really want to thank you for your kind gesture.”

I rather played this up, turning to the deputy to include him in the bonhomie.

The sheriff somehow looked a little nonplussed.

We went into the small shop to buy a postcard and a stamp.

We saw the sheriff and his deputy get up and leave.

As we came out of the shop a woman came up to us.

“I’m the night manager,” she said, “I saw what the sheriff did. I am not having anyone mess with customers in my restaurant, so I paid for your meal!”

I was astonished and touched. I remembered an incident when I was travelling in Franco’s Spain. Two Garda Civil came into a roadside restaurant, and the room went quiet. They rudely demanded beers and a meal, ate up and left without paying. The fear was palpable, and no one spoke while they were there. Here in Arkansas, the fact a woman running the night shift in a roadside diner could stand up to a nasty cop was a positive example of the power of a strong independent citizenry.


[Please skip this virus link- which wont go back to Tennessee]

The Lions Gate Bridge Caper

Greenpeace Daze part 6

15 minutes

In the spring of 1987, Greenpeace launched an important new international campaign called Nuclear Free Seas. Most of the nuclear weapons in the world are carried by the world’s nuclear navies, especially the US and the USSR, but also by China the UK and France. With the majority of the warships carrying nuclear weapons, and fleets from all these navies in constant movement, there are numerous (usually unreported) accidents and the great risk of an ‘incident’ that could lead to those weapons being used. Greenpeace demanded that the world’s navies remove these dangerous and provocative weapons, and the first stage in the campaign was publicising the widespread visits by nuclear armed ships into the heart of the world’s metropolises. Jim Bohlen, Greenpeace Canada’s nuclear campaigner discovered that nuclear armed US warships would be attending SeaFest, Vancouver’s annual family event celebrating boats and boating, in July.

I had taken three months off from Greenpeace in the summer of 1987. My pal Bob was visiting from the UK, and I intended to spend a relaxing summer enjoying British Columbia’s wild places, as well as Vancouver’s music, fringe theatre and dance festivals. Then Jim asked me if I would hang a banner on the Lion’s Gate bridge, at the entrance to Vancouver’s inner harbour to protest the warships. This was right in the middle of my holiday, but I had to say yes.

We had been buffeted by the wind when we’d suspended ourselves from the Cambie street bridge the year before, even though the bridge was far lower and relatively sheltered. I felt it would be dangerous to hang off the Lions Gate bridge. The banner would have to be large to be visible hanging off the roadbed two hundred feet off the water. It would be very difficult to stop our ropes chaffing on the bridge edge, which I worried risked them breaking, and our plunging to our death. So it was necessary to climb up the bridge instead.

The Lions Gate bridge connects Vancouver to the north shore. It is a smaller version of the famous Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, but in a more dramatic setting, soaring out of Stanley park with its giant Douglas firs, towards the north shore mountains. The main span is 1,552 ft, the towers are 364 ft high, and it has a ship’s clearance of 200 ft.

We would be climbing the first two cables to the left of the tower.

I had looked at the bridge earlier in the year, out of professional curiosity, and had told Jim I thought it possible to climb the vertical cables that connected the bridge to its giant suspension cables. To make sure, now it was more than theoretical, I went back and had another look. The vertical cables were made of braided steel and perhaps two inches in diameter. They were in pairs, and connected like a ladder. But, to stop pranksters or drunks climbing the ladder, there was a twelve foot section at the start where the rungs had been removed. I knew that the prusik knot could be used to climb a one inch nylon rope. But I didn’t know if the knot depended on compressing the rope- as it certainly wouldn’t compress a steel cable. I tested this by prusiking up a thin telephone pole support cable and it seemed to work.

If we were going up, the banner would be fixed to the vertical cables, and wouldn’t give in the wind, and I felt sure it would rip. So, I looked into using a net banner, following the lead of Jim Bohlen and Kevin McKeown’s Cruise Catcher [see Refuse the Cruise]. I went to see a fishing net maker and explained what I needed. He asked what bias I wanted, and I got a brief course in net making. He argued a net wouldn’t hang strait without some bias, but I was worried if it was too curved the slogan would not be legible. We compromised on a 15 percent curvature, and I ordered a 30 x 40 feet net of heavy duty netting. Then, in spite of the curvature, using my usual graph paper calculation to layout the slogan, I ordered five-foot high letters made out of heavy duty black vinyl. One night several canvassers helped lay out the net in the office and attached the slogan ‘Nuclear Free Seas, Greenpeace’, using plastic cable ties.

The plan was to spend the night on the bridge, to greet the warships as they sailed past in the morning, so we would need to carry up a lot of gear. The local climbing store, the marvellous Mountain Equipment Coop, had hammocks used by big wall climbers. Unlike the usual hammock that is tied between two trees, these hammocks are attached to a single point. I bought two, and began practising how to set one up when suspended in mid air.

Practicing with the hammock on the back deck

I found setting up the hammock was not easy when I hanging from a roof beam on my back porch. It was quite a manoeuvre to get in and out, and I spent a long Sunday afternoon getting the hang of it.

We had to carry all the equipment we’d need for spending 24 hours on the bridge. We’d need a large backpack with our hammock, a sleeping bag, food, water, warm clothing, and spare climbing gear. All, our gear would probably be confiscated, so I didn’t want to use my own camping gear, as I was planning on going camping a few days later. I bought sleeping bags, backpacks, water bottles, new climbing gear and other kit. We were also going to use a newfangled device, a mobile phone, to keep in touch with the office and take press calls as we hung in our hammocks. I had never used a mobile phone before. It was massive, and each battery weighed about a kilo, and I had to carry a spare as they didn’t last anything like as long as a phone battery on a smart phone nowadays.

I also needed a safe and trustworthy partner. This was going to be a difficult and potentially dangerous action. We’d be high up and blasted by any wind or rain, and could not afford to make any errors. Bill Gardiner was not a climber, but had already done at least one climbing action with Kevin McKeown, the Vancouver action coordinator. Bill volunteered, in spite of the extra complications, and risks, of the height and wind, and setting up and sleeping in a hammock. We would need to have a number of training sessions, both to refresh Bill’s basic climbing skills and to practice prusiking with a large backpack and setting up and sleeping in a hammock. Bill was right in the middle of his masters degree and hard to get hold of. I was worried when he missed two of our planned training sessions due to deadlines for his M.A. Perhaps because I was still officially on holiday, and had a friend over from the UK, I left dealing with this until rather late. Finally, the morning before the action, I arrived at his house and roused him from an all night study session. After just a couple of hours, Bill had had enough, and left to catch up on his sleep. This put me in a real quandary. Bill had not really had adequate training, and I ought to call the action off- as it was far too late to find a replacement. But Bill was dedicated and determined, and I thought of the first Greenpeacers going off to Alaska to stop nuclear testing. Each of us makes our own decisions about the risks we are prepared to take. Bill had made his. He promised he’d practice using the hammock at home, and so I dropped him back home with his kit and made a silent prayer for our safety to the god of good causes.

I had been avoiding the office as I was still officially on holiday, so the campaigners were not aware of these last minute problems. I was ready, the kit was ready, Greenpeace was all set up to support a major action, and Bill promised to take a break from studying and practice some more that evening. I arranged to pick him up at nine the next morning.

We drove to the Lion’s Gate lookout car park, where Kevin had assembled a team of helpers, went over the final details and waited for the ‘go’. Bill looked exhausted from too many all night study sessions, but said he was fine. He is bigger, younger and tougher than me, so I had to hope he was right. We put on our packs, and then slipped a couple of spare slings over our neck and shoulder, ready to go. There was a delay, and we took the packs off and rested until we got the ‘ok!’ on the radio from our scout on the bridge. It was just a few hundred yards down a flight of steps and along the pavement to the small balcony which protruded from the side of the bridge tower two hundred feet above the water. We were going to go up the first two sets of cables past the first tower. The cables started on a narrow beam ten feet above the roadway. Bill got onto the beam with his helper, and attached himself to the cable he was going to climb, and I did the same. My friend Bob had offered to risk arrest and be my helper for the day.

Bob holds the banner, as we climb up towards the ladder steps

The beam was ten feet above the road, but on the other side the drop off was two hundred feet, a potentially fatal fall into the turbulent waters of the First Narrows. The banner was stretched out between us along the beam, as it was too big and too heavy for one person to carry in a pack with all the other kit we needed. At this point in the action, we were vulnerable to anyone grabbing the banner from the roadway. Though this would be a risky manoeuvre for them, as they would need a leg up in a very exposed and precarious situation. Unless they found a ladder. Fortunately, the Vancouver police behaved sensibly, focussing on closing the middle lane and directing the traffic.

But the action was at a critical point, and we had to move fast.

I attached my prusiks and prusiked up the twelve feet to where the rungs began. There I realised I couldn’t make the step up from a sling at knee height onto the first step of the ladder at chest height carrying a forty pound backpack. I had to make some intermediate steps. I took one of the slings off my shoulder and looped it onto the first rung of the ladder. I was still unable get my foot in this sling with the backpack pulling me backwards. By using the other sling, and my spare prussic I made another step and using these two extra steps, I got my foot onto the first rung of the ladder, my arms exhausted with the effort. After clipping into two higher rungs with safety slings, I looked over at Bill, and I could see that he had the same problem. I shouted to him to make a couple of steps with his spare slings. But when he had put his pack back on, after we were delayed, he had put it over his slings! I watched as he tried several times to haul himself up without extra steps, but with the weight of the pack and pulled by the banner, he slumped back. Bob was near the middle of the beam holding the banner up to stop it dropping further towards the road and the police. I didn’t want to alert the police that we were having difficulties, as they might feel obliged to interfere and stop us. I called Bob over, and told him, as discreetly as possible, that what he had to do was critical, and dropped two slings to him, which fortunately he caught.

He walked insouciantly half way over the beam, to pass the slings to Bill’s helper. Understandably, given the exposure, Bill’s helper was clinging to the beam, and was not able to take the slings. Then, in the most astonishing act of daring, Bob stepped over him, poised above the deadly 200 foot drop, and walked the rest of the way across the beam, and then stood on tip toe and passed the slings up to Bill. This was the critical moment. Without this act of bravery, we’d have been in serious trouble.

Bill, tied a sling onto the first rung of the ladder and stepped into it, another step and with an enormous effort, he pulled up onto the ladder, where he stopped completely beat. I went up as far as the banner between us would allow, and now the banner was out of reach, Whew.

After we had both had a chance to recover, we carried on up the ladders and stopped a hundred or so feet above the road. We slung our backpacks onto the cable, and then much relieved to be free of their weight, attached the top of the banner to the cable and then climbed down the ladder forty some feet to set the bottom corners. As the banner filled in the wind, I could feel the force pull painfully on my harness. It required all my strength to heave the banner line and attach it to the ladder and get the weight off my harness. The banner ballooned out, looking magnificent in the wind. We’d done it. We climbed back up the ladder to arrange our hammocks near the top of the banner, and climb in. The view was exceptional, but it was early afternoon and we had press calls to deal with.

Next: First night in a hammock, media interviews from my aerie, and a bad tempered judge.

Dedicated to two heroes Bill Gardiner, who braved 24 hours, 300 feet above the water, having missed much of the vital training, and Bob Stafford who stepped up at a critical moment and saved the day. Without their bravery, this would not have been possible.

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