I’ve made the comment a few times to people recently that I wonder whether I’m a photographer anymore or if I haven’t just turned into a logistician. Getting to the point where I am actually out in the field shooting takes up at least ninety per cent of my time. The number of emails I have to send out, organisations I try to build relationships with, days I have to wait around for, for replies is never fully represented in the work that I finally produce. For what may be a series of 10 to 20 captioned images and an intro text, there’s a huge amount of slog and preparation that makes it a reality. And sometimes an impossibility.
After returning from my assignment with Norwegian Refugee Council, the first mission I’d assigned myself was to document a growing crisis in the province of Ituri, in the east of DRC. Historic rivalry between two tribes, the Hema and the Lendu had mysteriously flared up again in the region and had caused tens of thousands to flee from their homes into other parts of the province and even across Lake Albert to Uganda on the opposite side.
Getting to the province on my budget - by which I mean, for free - took some schmoozing with the communications department at MONUSCO (the UN organisation in charge of peacekeeping within the country) who eventually granted me accreditation to fly on their flights.
Then there was refugee camps in the capital, Bunia, that I wanted to visit. My plan was to get access through any of the NGO’s that had operations in the city. I reached out to a bunch of them including MSF and WFP. These guys might also have been able to provide me with access to the lake itself where I would be able to document the refugees fleeing out of the country.
Then there was going back to MONUSCO again for access to their peacekeeping missions within the more hairy parts of province. Peacekeeping is sort of a euphemism for the military role the UN plays in the country, and so this would involve an embed with their troops on the ground to document what role they were playing in trying to maintain order.
It took a couple of weeks to get some pretty tenuous plans together for this trip, by which time the only thing that was confirmed was my flight out. Upon embarking, the best I had come up with so far was a few vaguely promising email exchanges with a couple of publications who might be interested in some pictures from the crisis - obviously with no upfront offers of financial backing - and a couple of similarly vague offers from NGO’s to let me tag along on their operations so I could see the affects of the conflict.
Then there was the hotel. An ex-MONUSCO employee who’d been introduced to me by a friend had taken it upon himself to organise a room for me in Bunia. The hotel didn’t have a name but he assured me it was good value though I was never given a price - just a phone number and the name of its proprietor. Far from ideal.
By some incredible fortune, however, this particular problem was soon solved at arrivals in Bunia. I was asking around for where I might be able to take a bike into town when one of the women working at the airport piped up in alarm saying that I couldn’t possibly get a lift with such reckless drivers. If I could wait half an hour or so she said I could get a ride back into town with the airport staff. This lead to the question of where my hotel was, to which I simply gave her the phone number I’d been told to ring. I needed to get there... More alarm and she insisted that I try one of the more reputable hotels in town. There were a few that they could drive me to. Her kindness, and I suppose, worry, grew further still by the time be got into town. I was about to check into the hotel they’d recommended to me when she turned to me from inside the car and suggested that I just take the spare room in her house. How could I have refused?
Arafa, my Ugandan host, flicked on a light; and then another; then more.
She switched on the TV too. It was showing Nigerian Big Brother. After walking out of the room she continued on as if I were a housemate who’d been living with her for years already. I’m no stranger to being a stranger in someone’s home - I’ve spent a lot of time couchsurfing and hitch hiking over the years - but her complete lack of regard for the standard getting-to-know-you questions made the otherwise mundane experience of sitting in silence in front of the TV quite bizarre.
She delved into her phone while I watched the housemates roll dice and remove their clothes out of boredom. The Facebook comment feed at the bottom of the screen mentioned one housemate, Alex, a lot. They loved her skin.
Arafa continued on her phone. Its cover had a lion poking out of the top of it, which reminded me of the camera extension you used to be able to buy for an old Gameboy colour. Its mane matched hers perfectly. I thought to myself that that must have been the reason why she bought it but I never asked.
‘My life is on my phone’ she explained without looking up.
In a sort of way Donald Trump might, she would often make a statement and then follow it with the same exact statement, sometimes interjected by a ‘because’ as if to elaborate or explain. She would do the same thing with a couple of sentences, juggling them between each other as if it were forming some kind of rich monologue. Her eyes would be distant while doing this and so it felt like her mind would come up with an initial thought and then get stuck on it, repeating it two or three times in a repetitive loop that she never seemed to notice she was stuck in.
‘My life is on my phone’ she continued before trailing off into silence again.
A couple of days later she was gone. She was on leave and had returned to see her parents in Uganda but not without leaving me a key to the house.
She left wearing tight, full-length, ink-blue dungarees which fully pronounced her model figure and perfectly round bust. Her heels click-clicked on the marble tiles as she rushed about showing me where the rice was, and the porridge, and the water. She told me again that the stove had run out of gas so I could use the mini cooker. Did I want the maid to buy me onions? She left some money to pay for them with a note ‘onions - 1000’. Her ‘o’s’ looked the same as her zero’s and the ‘i’s’ the same as her ones which made the note appear to have been written in binary.
As the week progressed her kindness became more and more a godsend. My first full day in Bunia went relatively as planned - I met with a local AFP writer who showed me around one of the nearby refugee camps. The shots were good but I was really after some of the exciting stuff - the thousands of people moving across the lake to Uganda, the MONUSCO soldiers foraging through the bush. I was hungry to keep going but I was being slowed by the muck and thorns of bureaucratic procedure. There was always another comms officer, or major, or colonel, or transport co-ordinator to get a seal of approval from. This took time and the three or four days I’d initially planned to spend in Bunia turned into more than double.
There’s only so much pushing you can do before you become a nuisance. I tried to nap off the boredom. I listened to countless podcasts. There’s a free pool table at the local UN bar which I played far too many games on - both with acquaintances and alone.
All this time would have been money spent doing nothing in a hotel and out in these parts, those rooms don’t come cheap. Some friends are paying up to $75 per night for the basics which would have drained my account in days. I had a lot to thank Arafa for.
After two more days the only movement I’d experienced was from one couch to the next as I tried to keep myself from sticking to the fake leather in the criminally under-ventilated apartment. My neighbour was filling her own apartment as well as mine with gospel and Kenny G while the loudspeakers at the bike station downstairs played Nigerian and Kenyan Afrobeat. Brief roars of silence were mere lies as the kid in the station’s booth skipped a track on his USB MP3 player.
I cast out of my mind the ridiculous comparisons I was starting to draw between my situation and Abu Ghraib but by the third morning it had become more than I could bare. Somewhere around 5:00am I was awoken by two fat mosquitos who in all my rage I hunted under the glare of the naked, white tungsten. Watching my blood pop and spatter out of them relieved nothing in me.
I was sat up in bed with my shoulders slumped over to my cheeks when my phone buzzed.
It was the same journalist that had shown me around the refugee camp a couple of days prior. I’d discussed with him a day or so earlier about the possibility of simply taking a bike out to Lake Albert where Congolese were fleeing to Uganda. I hadn’t been sure about this plan because I’d intended to head there with MSF. But now he was messaging me the names of the villages I’d want to visit and the contact details of someone who could show me around. I asked him if the road was safe but he was already off of his phone. I had a shower. I was out of the house in twenty minutes just as the light was breaking and it was only when I was leaving the front gate when the reply ‘not really, but as you want, let’s hope’ came up on my phone. I paused. I hopped on a bike.
By the time I was out in the countryside I knew I’d made the right decision. After agreeing to pay him fifteen dollars for the 4-hour round trip, I’d asked my 21-year-old driver Rigo to take it easy as we moved. The bike hopped and glided amid the dust and rocks and holes in the meandering road. Soldiers at the checkpoints interfered no more than to smile and wave us through. The east faces of the hills around us were misty and orange as the sun took its time to rise and warm the morning air. Somewhere along that journey, as stupid as it sounds to say it, I took time to savour a very raw sense of freedom.
Sadly this feeling didn’t make it past midday.
As we arrived in Kasenyi on the Sunday morning, refugees had gathered with locals in the Catholic Church overlooking the shores of Lake Albert. They were clutching green branches and though there must have been several hundred of them their singing was so quiet that I could only hear the voices of those directly around me. I asked one of the church wardens for permission to shoot but it turned out we’d have to wait until the end of the service to ask the minister’s permission. That was going to take half an hour or so longer so after a quick wander we took a seat under a tree across the road from the church building.
There were a couple of guys already sat there. Since Rigo was actually a local to Kasenyi, he knew them and we chatted. It wasn’t long before I was asked what I was doing there and not long again before the guy who asked was on his phone. I could understand enough of the French he was speaking and my raising suspicions were confirmed when I asked Rigo who he thought was on the other end of the call. ‘The Chief’. The guy announced we were to head over to see him at once. This was no problem since I’d already suggested doing so to Rigo on our way into the village but he insisted the Chief was a friend and that there was no need. He insisted the same as we drove towards his home but this time there was more of a whine in his voice as if he were on the losing side of an argument over it.
The house demonstrated the wealth of a rich man in a poor village. While the lakeside villa was large and made of concrete slabs with white plaster, the roof was of corrugated iron and the building was shabby and unkempt.
Three young men sat chatting outside the front door became more alert as they saw the unfamiliar white man approaching along the driveway on the back of a bike. We were asked to await the chief in an outside portico. Myself and Rigo sat in silence as he was informed of our arrival.
Emerging from the threshold of his home I was immediately taken into the realm of classic Italian-American gangster movie. His gait was the slow, unsteady limp of an ailing, old man. Around him there followed his entourage - the bodyguards that had sized us up as we arrived, and a satellite of young children playing in a tight radius around him. Waiting behind at the doorway peering curiously across at me from an allowable distance stood one or two young woman who I took to be his wives. Another, apparently more benevolent child who seemed to take pity on her sickly father had taken his hand while he made the sombre approach.
I stood to shake his hand. His speech was slow too, though I was uncertain whether that was because his words were considered or simply because he was tired. His status seemed to have come to him at a cost. Though his life seemed comfortable now, as I spoke to him I wondered about the men he’d had to fight off, bribe, cheat, maybe kill to earn his and his family’s security and his community’s respect. Maybe that wasn’t the case at all but I feel a man doesn’t become so weathered down by life as he was for no reason.
He was a powerful man but only within the realm of his small, lakeside village in the destitution and beauty of Ituri. Nonetheless his power was enough to see me out to Bunia again on that very same morning. Though even my removal from the village wasn’t exactly through any particular will of his own.
At one point I produced to him my papers which he took a quick glance over - but it was merely that. He explained how his eyes were bad and that he had to make frequent visits to Uganda to have them fixed up. He made several quiet phone calls and not too long after there arrived three more men. They passed around my papers, scrutinizing every stamp and document with feigned, self-satisfied importance. One of the men in particular furrowed his brow deeply over every visa in my passport - flicking meticulously through each page, pausing and contemplating. Looking at him you would have thought he were reading scripture but he had to play his part in this stupid little show and I suppose he decided that my passport was the prop he’d chosen to do that with.
A quick march up to the immigration office and a few phone calls back to the higher-ups in Bunia were all it took to send me back to where I’d started that morning. I didn’t have Ituri marked in my accreditation and so was not allowed to photograph anywhere in the province. To their credit, it was a fair enough reason to send me packing considering how strict the country is with regulating the movement of journalists but the fact that my accreditation had passed through so many hands and eyes on that trip before finally being faulted out in Kasenyi made me wonder how this hadn’t been brought up before - by that time I genuinely believed that it just didn’t matter.
The head of police was summoned to the office. He made his first appearance in his Sunday best having arrived straight from church. He was a dazzling spectacle dressed in a sparkling white suit with lapels like a Congolese Elvis. Of course he wanted to make an outfit change for his big mission to Bunia and so arrived again twenty minutes later bloating out of a pair of shiny black boots into a tight navy police uniform and a beret with a tail that flicked back and forth with significance. I was crammed in between him and the head of migration on the ride back to Bunia. The taxi didn’t move so gracefully along the dirt road as we were jolted and flung back into Ituri’s capital.
Rigo, my bike driver, in the meantime still hadn’t been paid and so had to tail the car with our armed escort (a solitary, disinterested policeman with an AK-47) as his passenger. My self-pity was worsened with shame as I watched him ask for a cloth at the office for immigration in Bunia. He was covered head-to-toe in red dust from trailing the car for the past three hours though this by no means had dampened his spirits by the time he took me to an ATM to pay him. “Alex, I am so happy!” he chimed. He was too distracted by his pay day to read my mood so well..