Tag Archives: Kindu

Volleyball in Kindu

Outside of work hours, my favourite activity when I’m in Kindu is to go out to the UN base at the airport in the evening to play volleyball with UN soldiers, staff, and other NGO workers. They play seven days a week, so if I’m able to leave the office on time (which was easily possible the first two months of my stay) I can play every single day! Before or after volleyball, I sometimes use their gym for a quick workout as well.

This is the laterite road from town toward the airport:

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These are Bolivian soldiers playing football while I was working out in the gym before volleyball. Some of them would come straight from a long football match to play volleyball with us.

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Carlos (a Bolivian lieutenant) in action while Nito (a Uruguayan corporal), Patricia (an Italian NGO worker), and Solène (a French Merlin employee) look on:

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Diego (Uruguayan civilian UN water treatment specialist) in action:

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The sand volleyball court is lit up once night falls so we can continue playing. That’s me in the red Vietnam shirt in the background:

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Since the games start around 6pm and last about an hour and a half, we see quite a few sunsets while playing, and sometimes the sky does crazy things like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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The volleyball games are great because everyone is extremely friendly and welcoming and supportive, regardless of the skill level of the different people who come to play. I’ve been learning a bit of Spanish because so many of the regulars are South Americans who speak very little English. I now automatically keep score in Spanish rather than English, and I never yell “out!” anymore but “fuera!” instead!

His fist to my face in the DR Congo

Earlier today I ended up on the ground, covered in sand, the salty taste of blood in my mouth, having been punched in the face by a MONUC soldier in Kindu. Check out the cut on the inside of my upper lip, which is now swollen:

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I should probably clarify that we were both on the same team in a friendly volleyball game. The generator that powered the lights broke down, so we were left in the dark on the outdoor volleyball court. Although it was pitch black and we couldn’t see anything, we still encouraged the other team to serve one last time before we all left for the night, and it turns out that two of us both had the natural instinct to find the ball in the darkness.

We slammed into each other at running speed and his fist accidentally smashed into the side of my face, which was followed by lots of laughter from both of us.

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 3: Energy

The last post I put up was about the different communications technologies used by humanitarian aid workers, which form part of the responsibilities of a humanitarian logistician. Of course, each one of those bits of equipment requires energy – most have batteries that need to be charged and others need to be connected to a mains power source (e.g. a wall outlet) or equivalent (e.g. an inverter that converts DC electricity stored in large batteries into AC electricity like the stuff that comes out of a wall outlet) to be operational.

In the countries in which humanitarian and development organisations work, however, a source of electricity is often hard to come by or non-existent. In the initial days of an emergency response, such as the surgical teams that Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International) sent to Haïti after the earthquake in January, there’s usually no source of power at all.

So, how do these people power all their comms equipment, plus the lights and fridges and power tools and fans and water pumps and powered surgical instruments and cooking equipment and everything else that needs some sort of energy source to run? There are a number of different solutions to these problems:

Solar power is useful in many countries, because of the amount of sunlight they receive. However, solar panels are still very expensive and they don’t produce a large amount of electricity. Still, they have certain useful applications, such as the panel below which is mounted in Mukwanyama village in Maniema Province of DRC. It’s hooked up to the CODAN HF radio kit on loan from MSF Belgium, which the village clinic uses to make emergency calls for the MSF hospital ambulance from Lubutu (there’s a photo of the radio in the last post). This panel charges a couple of 12V batteries, just enough energy to use the radio for short amounts of time when needed.

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This large bank of solar panels at the Kindu airport can provide a fair bit of energy, though to be honest I don’t know how much, and I do know that the total cost of these panels was sky-high:

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A more commonly used means of producing electricity is the generator. A generator is basically a motor that’s used in the opposite way. For example, take the little motor out of a toy car and connect it to a little battery with a couple of wires and the motor turns because electricity is going into the motor. Now, replace the battery with a tiny lightbulb and spin the motor with your hand – the lightbulb will light up. A generator is a larger, more complex example of the same thing (hydroelectricity water turbines are, too). Fuel (usually diesel) makes the motor turn, which produces electricity.

This is a wee little 3 or 4 kVA portable generator that we sent to Haïti. I think it lasted a couple days before burning out because they plugged in too much stuff for such a small generator and ran it for long periods without cooling – big no-no’s in correct generator use.

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This is a much more powerful 22 kVA Perkins generator used to power the Merlin Kindu base – several dozen computers, fans, lights, radios, etc. The disadvantage of a good generator like this one is that it’s not portable – this thing is bloody heavy! Also, it consumes much more fuel which costs more money, so there’s no point in using a 22 kVA genset if you only need 5 kVA (there are other reasons for this, but it starts getting a bit technical).

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This is the 13 kVA generator currently used to power the Lubutu base, which has far smaller energy needs than the bigger Kindu base. It’s protected from the weather by a newly redone straw/leaf hut. The roof has to be redone twice a year to remain waterproof against the torrential downpours that can hit this area with little warning:

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For various reasons, generators can produce uneven current which can damage the stuff that’s plugged in, especially sensitive electronics such as computers and radio equipment. In order to protect these machines, surge protectors and voltage regulators are used. In this case, the Lubutu base has a massive voltage stabiliser connected directly to the generator so that all power going to the wall outlets has already been stabilised. I still keep a surge protector connected to my laptop because it never hurts to have extra protection.

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When you use a generator to power stuff, you need to start up the genset first and let it run a tiny bit before the electricity starts running into your equipment; otherwise the initial startup (like when starting your car) produces a spike in current which could damage your stuff. So generators have switches on them to start allowing the power through the connected wires, and often there’s a big switch to choose between different power sources such as city power and generator power, or between two different generators. This one in Kindu could use some tough love, as the wiring is a little sketchy, but it works. The middle position is off. I labelled the top as “générateur” and the bottom “SNEL” (Société Nationale de l’Electricité – local city power) because the guards who use it sometimes got confused which side was which.

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In Kindu, where I’ve spent 2/3 of my time so far in the DR Congo, the SNEL city power comes on most days for a bit. However, the current is unstable, which results in a lot of burnt lightbulbs and other problems with the electricals in the houses. Because of this, we stopped using SNEL power in two of our houses and use only a generator a few hours each day, which also charges some batteries using a little inverter to give us a few more hours of power once the generator is turned off. Batteries on the left, inverter on the right, power bar with surge protection is plugged into the inverter and computers etc are plugged into the power bar:

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Maintaining the generators, battery banks with their inverters, and the occasional solar panel, can take up a fair bit of a logistician’s time if he/she doesn’t have someone specifically assigned to those tasks. Often the head mechanic is in charge of generator maintenance because the main component of a generator is the motor. Generators also have filters that need to be changed, fuel and coolant reservoirs that need to be filled, and other things in common with vehicles.

Once a humanitarian worker has access to a power source, he/she can hook up the fridge and put some water bottles in the freezer for those days when the sun is blazing and a bottle of cold water is manna from heaven. But where to find that water?

Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell – Part 1: Transport

When an aid agency is running a program in a community, the program invariably requires the transport of people and goods from place to place to meet the needs of the community in question. This can range from small projects needing only a very small amount of supplies delivered to them from the nearest big city by road, right up to massive famine relief operations transporting hundreds of tonnes of food by cargo plane each day from warehouses far away.

This Ilyushin 76 strategic airlifter plane is being used to transport large quantities of supplies to various MONUC bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These planes have a capacity of around 45 tonnes! Incidentally, passengers in an Il-76 run by a different company a few years ago in DRC experienced a rather strange event.

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When Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin) responded to the 2010 Haïti earthquake by setting up an emergency reconstructive surgery centre on a tennis court in Port-au-Prince, we had to send many tonnes of supplies from Europe to make it all possible. Thomas Cook Airlines donated free cargo space aboard some of their flights to the Dominican Republic, right next door to Haïti, so we loaded huge air pallets at Gatwick and Manchester airports with tonnes and tonnes of medical equipment. Air transport is very expensive, so the free cargo space was a lifesaver in the literal sense of the word.

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In more remote locations, when air transport is needed, only very small planes or helicopters can be used. A small Let L-410A airplane can carry around 2 tonnes of cargo if there are no passengers on board, and land on dirt airstrips or straight sections of road.

Medical supplies being transported by a Busy Bee Congo Let L-410A aircraft in Maniema Province:

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Offloading medical supplies at the Punia-Basenge dirt airstrip to a waiting Merlin LandCruiser:

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This is the Let L-410A landing at Tingi-Tingi Airport in Lubutu, which is actually just a straight section of the road that links Lubutu and Walikale. Before each landing, Merlin staff check the road and block it at both ends. The pilot does a loop over the road to see for himself that it’s safe to land, then comes down out of the sky and taxis over to our waiting vehicles to offload equipment and drugs and have a friendly chat.

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Land transport is really important for aid agencies as well. In a place like Canada, land transport consists of huge trucks, big trucks, medium trucks, small trucks, cars, and sometimes trains. In the places where aid agencies work, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the options are occasionally big trucks, sometimes medium trucks, often pickup trucks and 4×4 vehicles such as Toyota LandCruisers, motorcycles, bicycles, and occasionally other contraptions like oxcarts.

This is an AWD (all wheel drive) medium-sized truck used to transport medical supplies to our projects in North Kivu province:

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One of our 4×4 LandCruiser pickups used in Lubutu to transport people and supplies all over the place:

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To transport several dozen mattresses from our Kindu office to clinics supported by our Pangi office we hired tolékistes, cyclists who transport things on roads that are not passable, or close to impassable, for vehicles. Often they walk the entire way, pushing the loaded bicycle along narrow forest paths and through mud that can be knee high in places. These men below pedaled and pushed about 140km over several days and all the mattresses arrived at their destination intact.

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When goods need to be shipped long distances without a rush, an alternative to expensive airfreight is seafreight. For instance, when setting up a program in Haïti, it soon became apparent that Merlin would need to purchase a few LandCruisers to get around the country. Logistics staff at head office in London arranged the purchase with a company based in Gibraltar, which arranged to ship them by sea from Gibraltar to Haïti for us to pick them up.

In some countries, aid agencies use boats on a smaller scaled, such as when moving around the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma, or transporting goods from place to place within DRC, where there are rivers everywhere. For instance, we transported about 30 bags of cement, each weighing 50kg, in a motorised pirogue from Kindu to Lubao along the Congo River (known along this stretch as the Lualaba River). A pirogue is a traditional canoe commonly used in the Congo, made by hollowing out a tree. On the right of this photo there’s something that looks like a spear, but it’s actually the paddle used for one of the smaller pirogues.

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There are other ways of transporting things in the places where aid agencies work, some of which really show the ingenuity of the people involved, and I’m sure in the years to come I’ll be able to post some photos of creative transport solutions in tough situations.