Thursday, December 21, 2006

Four Photos from Congo

It was hard to choose, but I wanted to share these four photos from Congo as my last post. The first is of children of Mai-Mai rebels in a displacement camp in Katanga. The second are a displaced man and woman who received household kits at one of our distributions. The third I took crossing the Congo river just after dawn in Kindu. Finally, my favorite, is of two boys in Elila village.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I have been having a nice/interesting/only occaisionally freaked-out time adjusting to being back in the states: catching up with friends, spending time with family, watching DVDs, and doing a lot of writng ("Breaking Hearts in the HoD - The Novel?" We'll see). Naturally, I have had my down moments, in particular when I see stories about Congo and Africa on the news.

I plan on posting some of my best Congo photos in the near future, so be on the look-out.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Aurevoir Congo

At 11:20am yesterday I left the Congo. My blog title, as it stands, is no longer relevant. I am an ex-expat, an aidworker at large (i.e. among the unemployed). Why did I leave? Well, anyone who has been following along has seen this one coming, and not just because I announced it a couple of months ago. I was getting burnt out. Unlike the viewpoint of many an American rockstar, fading away is definitely preferable to burning out, so I am fading out of the Congo.

How do I feel? Confused, relieved. I am sitting in my friend’s house is Lesotho, drinking tea, curled up in her blankets, unwinding. This is going to take a while.

What I will miss:

The bush
The occasional helicopter ride
Riding motorcycles
Being a part of visible change
Street kids
Seeing the stars at night
Hanging with people from all over the world
My amazing friends
This blog
The beautiful tough craziness that is Congo

What I will not miss:

Wondering if I have malaria every time I get a headache
Boiling and filtering drinking water
Really bad roads
Street kids
Government authorities
Getting asked for money, jobs, clothing, and visas
Hot weather with no AC
Slllllooooooooooooowww internet
Congolese bureaucracy

I spent 16 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo – one year in Kindu and four months in various areas of the Katanga Province. Is has not always been easy, in fact, I would say that it was rarely easy. I was in a plane that ran off a runway in June 2005. In August 2005 I had to be evacuated from Kindu and hospitalized for seven days because I had a severe case of malaria. Being one of only a handful of white women in a rural town meant that I could never ever just be anonymous. But having faced these challenges, I could deal with anything, and I did. I liked that not blending in meant that kids knew my name and waved at me on the street. No running water or electricity? Bring it on. You have to make the best of it, roll with the punches, and remind yourself that everything you do is a choice (though man, that plane thing was bad luck).

In my first project I managed seed activities and household item distributions in a post-conflict area. My second one, in Katanga Province, was more intense. I led evaluations in areas recently affected by conflict and then managed the distribution of household kits for families who had fled because of army fighting and rebel attacks. In Katanga it is said that 200,000 people were displaced in 2005-2006. By the time I left we had assisted about 50,000 of them with other NGOs having helped most of the rest. This second post is paradoxically the best experience that I had in Congo and the one that led to my decision to leave. I pushed the envelope, upped the bar, and managed the delivery of assistance in very complicated circumstances. I also fully understood for a moment the destruction that conflict has caused. The wall I put between myself and the Congo came down.

And what did I see? How unnecessary the suffering is. It sounds like a given, but really, I had been protecting myself from it. Did I understand the war (or “wars” for that matter)? No. I will never understand them. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the evolution of ethnic conflict in Eastern Congo, never expecting I would one day end up there. I have read most articles and several books on the Congo. But the more I know the less I understand, now that I have lived there. I hear of fearsome Mai-Mai rebels who have consumed human flesh and use magic to turn bullets to water – I did not anticipate that most of the Mai-Mai coming out of the bush would be malnourished women and children, families (and in some cases captives) of the fighters. Villages tell us that rebuilding their roads is a priority, and then someone steals three dollars worth of bags of sand temporarily holding up a bridge, causing it to collapse. I know that the fight for control of mineral wealth is a crucial fuel to conflict – I did not expect that the mining also provides crucial livelihood and economic diversity for small-scale exploitation in certain areas, that the mining companies are also providing hundreds of thousands of dollars for infrastructure and community projects. I know Mobutu gained one of the largest fortunes in the world while the country fell apart, and yet a nun colleague of mine tears up when she watches documentaries about him, explaining to me that he will always be the Congo’s father. We all want one supreme bad guy, the simple solution, the problem that can be solved. But that is not Congo. Congo is the product of decades of cruel plundering and colonialism by Belgium, being run into the ground by Mobutu, interventions and assassination by the CIA and Belgian armies, rivalries between groups amassing power and resources on ethnic lines, the fight for mineral riches, mercenaries, arbitrary boundaries, foreign rebel groups trying to take down the governments of neighboring countries, foreign and Congolese rebel groups trying to take down the Congolese government, secession attempts, and above all, the Rwandan genocide (which in turn is the product of hardening socio-economic and ethnic divisions through Belgian rule, land disputes, the political favoring of one ethnic group then another by Belgium, political exclusion…). It goes on. I don’t think that a government in the Congo has ever fully controlled its territory, which is one of the criteria by which a chunk of land is considered a nation-state. Yet this area the size of Western Europe manages to still be Congo.

The election is being hailed as the greatest chance for peace and warned as a catalyst for the imminent possibility of the increased conflict because certain people (namely former rebel-leaders and current Vice Presidents) are likely to lose power. These notions, while diametrically opposed, are both about change. The fact that either scenario can be expected sums up the fragility of peace and the dangers of democracy in a country that is still experiencing several different conflicts in Katanga, Kivus and Equator provinces (in the East), while the government is being run out of Kinshasa (in the West), by a current and probably future president (Kabila), whose power base in the western part of the country is fragile because he is viewed as an outsider (does not speak Lingala and grew up in Tanzania). It took most of the “developed” democratic countries decades of learning lessons the hard way, and our democratic governments have promoted slavery, segregation, apartheid, the oppression of women, have and continue to wage wars (hot and cold), violate internally accepted human rights standards, and a host of other problems that still need to be worked out. Democracy will also allow for local power struggles to play themselves out in parliamentary elections in Congo. Am I against democracy? Heck no. Let’s just keep in mind – there are no easy solutions.

I am not sure whether I will be continuing with this blog, creating another, or taking a break from the online diary world. Thanks to all who have posted comments and followed along with the adventures to date.

Best of luck to those expats who are sticking it out here in Congo – be you pilots, MONUC or your run-of-the-mill crazy humanitarians like myself.

For people who might be coming, here is some random advice for you.

The top ten most useful items for anyone coming to Congo:

Ipod or other music player
Electrical converter/universal power adapter
Anti-bacterial hand gel
Anti-malaria medication (this is not optional. Take it!)
Handwipes/moist toilettes (baby wipes work too)
Your favorite hairgel/conditioner/bath products
Flashlight (I like the headlamp kind)
Digital camera
Sense of humor

Basic questions for anyone coming to Congo:

Do I need a visa?
Yes, and you must get it in advance if you are arriving in Kinshasa or Lubumbashi. I am not sure about crossing into DRC by road at Goma or Bukavu – you might be able to get buy a weeklong visa at the border. If you are visiting an organization working in the Congo you can get in with an invitation letter and acquire the visa upon arrival, but make sure that the organization knows how to get this done!

Do you need to pay entry taxes, customs taxes, airport taxes, fines to policemen, etc?
Nope. I never once did, but it’s not always easy. There are no entry taxes. Talk to your contact before coming to Congo to make sure that they have a protocol person to meet you at the airport if you are arriving in Kinshasa. If you send baggage unaccompanied you can expect customs to charge you a random overpriced amount and you’ll have to pay it. Always be friendly to soldiers, officials, police, etc. who ask you for money. Just explain that you cannot give them anything but maybe next time. If a soldier, policeman, or GSSP (special presidential guard) signals you to pull over or come to where they are, act like you don’t see them and keep moving, especially if it is a soldier or GSSP. If this is not possible, be friendly, try to avoid handing them any documents, and do not go anywhere with them. Try to avoid having your bags inspected. If an airport security or customs official insists on opening them, watch them closely to make sure they do not put anything in or take anything out.

Can I drink the water?
No. If you are not staying long buy bottled water. If you are staying for a while purchase a filter and either boil it for 10 minutes before filtering or add 1 drop of bleach per liter post filtering (my preferred method).

Is Congo safe?
Actually, most of Congo is quite safe. Kinshasa is far safer than Johannesburg and Nairobi, for example. The major cities (Kinshasa, Goma, Lubumbashi, Kisangani) have the same dangers as most African (and non-African) cities of their size. In Kinshasa do not walk at night or take public taxis (mini-buses). Keep your car doors locked. The most common danger is being mugged or having your bag snatched – violent crime is rare. Always stay away from any areas where protests are occurring and register with your embassy.

Can I “travel” in Congo?
Yes and no. Do not just go traveling through Congo without carefully mapping out where you are going and running your route by people who know these areas. Drop any notions of a cross-country trip and many notions of “exploring” Eastern Congo. I’ve heard of people taking buses out of Goma and heading north, then bragging about it. Not a good idea. There are a lot of security issues in the Kivu provinces, Katanga and Equator. When I was in Kindu the police arrested some guy who was motorcycling through Congo. That is a really dumb idea. If you want to visit Congo, make contact with people who live there. I would recommend hiking the volcano in Goma. I never did it, but apparently it’s amazing (you also have to hire armed guards and makes sure that the overall security situation is fine).

How does someone get around Congo?

By plane. Unless you are doing short trips out of Kinshasa, the roads system is pretty much non-existent in most of the country. You can take Hewa Bora and Wimbi Dira, but it will cost ya (a one-way ticket from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi can be as much as $300). CAA is a slightly cheaper option. DO NOT take any airlines outside of these three, because while their safety standards are not great, at least they have not crashed yet. If you are working with a non-profit, you can also travel on World Food Program and Airserv flights.

Is Congo cheap?

Not at all! I know, you think "middle of Africa" and you picture it to not be terribly expensive. But as anyone who's been to Central Africa knows, this isn't the case. Hotels and restaurants are quite expensive by many traveling standards. Expect to pay a mimimun of $50 a night in Kinshasa for a decent room. The prices are restaurants are on par with American and European prices, if not more expensive. Local restaurants are cheap if you'd like Congolese food, but if you haven't been in Congo for a while, be aware that your stomach might not agree with the experience.

Can I take photos?

Alright, you probably didn’t even ask yourself this one. Avoid taking photos in Kinshasa and other main towns. I am not sure if it is officially illegal, but the police will definitely give you a hard time and tell you that it is.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Elections in Congo

I wrote this post from on July 30th - elections day.

Today is a historic day for Congo - democratic elections. After five decades of dictatorship then war then a temporary post-war government, a president will be elected rather than imposed. The logistics are astounding. Congo is the size of Western Europe, and the systems of roads can hardly be called a system of anything. The international community is using helicopters, planes and whatever else it takes to get ballots and observers to remote areas. An article I referred to in an earlier post stated that Congo elections would make the ones in Iraq look like a cakewalk

Yesterday two friends stopped by for some apple pie and lemonade (what can I say, I was feeling a bit Martha Steward ala Congo). They could not stay for long because apparently some key elections document had an error in it and they were organizing the printing of 45,000 new documents. I volunteered that we could print some out at our office - with out little boxy photocopier, I'd say we could print out about 500 before it simply overheated. Needless to say, they didn't take me up on the offer.

I would like to head around town and see if it looks like a historic day or just a normal Sunday. Perhaps check out a polling station. But for security reasons it is best to stay put. Should any one group of people be unhappy at the way things are going, there is a tendency to express anger at whoever is around, and foreigners are good targets.

Apparently there’s a protest at the headquarters of United Nations peacekeeping mission (known as MONUC). I feel a bit bad for MONUC. Here they are, doing more for Congo in terms of security and democracy than the government has ever been able to do, even if the mission has had a few serious problems along the way. But every bit of negative energy is displaced onto MONUC. If MONUC messes up, I get it. But so much of the time it has nothing to do with them. Example - A student is killed in a rally? Protest against MONUC. The Congolese Independent Electoral Commission postpones elections? Set fire to some MONUC vehicles. A soccer player in Lubumbashi is traded to a European team? March outside of MONUC headquarters to express your anger (this actually happened). The classic psychological defense mechanism of displacement seems to have been perfected, if not invented, on a collective scale in Congo. This is a place where unpaid soldiers have gone and raped women in response to not getting paid. This is a place where criminals will be protected from punishment, because in the end, no one who has managed to get power at this point has done it without blood on their hands, with the possible exception of an opposition leader who did not register for presidential candidacy. So others will be blamed that are not within the ranks. Casting the first stone has no advantages. I hope the war criminals will go the way of the International Criminal Court, because there is not much likelihood for justice within these borders.

But all of this - protests, rape, war, politics, anger, hope, etc - seems quite far away as I sit on the porch of the house where I am staying in Lubumbashi. It is a lovely day where the weather brings to mind southern California. I’m sipping a coffee mixed with vanilla soy milk. Who knew you could find vanilla soy milk in Congo? You can, but it costs $12.

I am working with two friends from work on a project proposal. I have three days left of work, and then I am no longer among the ranks of the employed.

We hear a noise that sounds like a gunshot.

“Was that a gunshot?”
“Hhmmm. Maybe. Or just a truck back-firing.”
“Who knows. Do we have any coffee left?’

We go back to our work.

So my friends are creating a pool where we bet which day elections results are going to be announced. No one to whom I’ve spoken - including people working on the elections - has been able to pin down a date. I say August 22nd. We could also add the following questions to our bets:

Who will be the first candidate to claim fraud? (I say Bemba)
When will the first protest march take place? (as if they hadn’t started already! Peaceful ones for the most part)
What province will experience the first post elections violence? (Ituri, perhaps?)


In the end, elections went fine. Let's watch out for the results though. When candidates have their own armies and only one can win, there's bound to be some trouble. Congo is still worth fighting for, and the fight is hardly confined to politics - the losers have more have more to gain operating outside of the political framework once they fail to hold on to power within it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Misfits, Missionaries and Mercenaries

Apparently the company that ran Bush’s campaign has also been hired by Joseph Kabila, current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who aspires to also be its future president. Billboards dominate the city streets, from DIY posters to smooth glossies that proclaim Kabila to be “Champion of women’s rights.” Whatever that means.

Meanwhile, at a coordination meeting today, it was brought up that a plane from Angola full former combatants from way-back-when landed in Lubumbashi and the government was requested the humanitarian community to lend a hand. At first glance, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, right? Former soldiers, hard on their luck, coming home. What exactly were those guys doing in Angola? Well, like many ex-soldiers from one country, they were being paid to fight a war in another. So basically, they’re mercenaries. Mercenaries who happen to be flown back to Congo by the government a few days before the first democratic elections since 1960. Perhaps I should put that in capital letters for the full effect: MERCENARIES WHO HAPPEN TO BE FLOWN BACK TO CONGO DAYS BEFORE THE FIRST DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS SINCE 1960. And by the way, could we feed them?

The best part is that the government does not see the irony in the request. No matter what humanitarian principles we have (in this case, neutrality and independence), they are pretty much the rules of our private club that nobody else seems to get. I am particularly struck by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres = Doctors Without Borders), who promotes their image as being the most independent NGO around (which, to their credit, they are. Also one of the few NGOs I give money too). That said, most Congolese, citizens and soldiers alike, would not really know the difference between my NGO, MSF, and even the UN peacekeeping mission, which involves soldiers. We can control what we can project, but not what others interpret.

MSF’s relationship with other NGOs parallels that of Canadians with Americans. They are determined to make sure that people do not confuse them for being anything other than MSF. Which makes me wonder, if you pitted a group of Canadian backpackers against a posse of MSF workers, who would win in a rumble? Oh, the maple leaf patches would fly.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Fall of Sahara Sarah

I would like to state that friends and family might find this post to be a bit shocking. Perhaps they’ve guessed that I censor my blog. There are just some topics I don’t talk about, such as dating or things I think might freak them out, like hearing multiple gunshots on my last field mission (I swear mom, it’s actually a hilarious story that I’ll reserve for Thanksgiving dinner). Though there are also times where I say too much. I’m fully convinced that the thought of his daughter phoning from a South African military base in the middle of rural Congo, saying “These guys are great! And I never pay for drinks!” freaks my dad out much more than the whole Congo/war thing.

So here it goes. A shocking confession, something that could only happen in the heart of darkness.

I ate crocodile.

That’s right. Sahara Sarah, vegetarian for 12 years, tried crocodile meat. I used to refuse to eat anything that touched meat or was spooned with a utensil that had a brush of fate with a steak. I became more of a “look the other way” vegetarian when I was living in Niger. When you are out in the field and you wait two hours for a dish of canned peas and rice, and it comes with bits of meat in it….well, I pushed the meat to the side and just pretended I didn’t see it. I also began eating fish in Niger to diversity my protein sources. No tofu in them there hills. Still, this is a long step from eating crocodile.

My friends and I were at an amazing restaurant called the Bush Camp that specializes in meat. Ostriches, pigs, cows, and yes, even crocodile. My friend ordered a crocodile meat curry skewer. He raved about it, and I figured there will not be many moments in life when I can try a bit of croc. So I had a bite. It wasn’t bad - a bit of a combo between what I know fish tastes like and what I remember meat tasting like. I only had one bite - it’s one thing to cross the vegetarian bridge, it’s another to jump off it.

What prompted my confession? I’ve met some guys I’m sure my dad would also not likely approve of, who are quite fun. They’ve been in Congo ages - spent most of their youth here, and quite like it, for many reasons. One of them (and I quote) is that you can get away with murder. They added for good measure that they would never kill anyone, but at least your options are open. These guys have invited me to go crocodile hunting with them on Friday night. My first reaction was, “You guys know I’m a vegetarian, right?” When they replied that they did, I followed up with “Are you aware of what ‘vegetarian’ means?” Incidentally, they eat the crocodiles that they kill, which makes it a bit okay in my eyes. I don’t judge your average Joe who grabs a burger at a restaurant, who’d probably freak out at the thought of killing something, skinning it, and slapping it on the grill, so who I am to judge these guys?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Driving to Work

On my way to work I turn off the paved road onto a dirt one that leads to the building where we temporarily have set up office. To my right is a landmark that looks like a mountain, an artificial hill guarded by two factory buildings that were probably imposing in their day. Now they just look outdated, like businessmen who were once successful but have since fallen from grace.

The hill is made from dirt dug from the ground to sift the riches from everything else. It stands watch, a monument of sorts, reminding Lubumbashi that it is a city built on minerals, on Chinese businessman, on the movement of anything valuable far away from where it came. The city sold its soul to the miners a while back, and who can blame it. The government office in charge of road maintenance had traded their trucks to the mining companies for cash. The mining companies ensured electricity in the towns where they worked, which is more than the government was able, or more accurately willing, to provide.

I picture how this hill would be different if it were in a town in America. By “America,” I mean the United States of America (it is more out of habit than vanity that we assume “America” means the USA and not Canada, Mexico, or any country is South America). In this town teenagers would race up it to prove their prowess, and skip class and drink at its summit to prove nothing. First kisses would happen, people would tumble down, and sledding would be attempted on its gravel slopes. But in Lubumbashi it is barren and antisocial.

The hill slides out of view as I continue on the dirt road. I drive over a lopsided cement bridge, which crosses water that does not quite qualify as a stream. A stream would require movement and flow, but this water is stagnant. It is a body of water that wanted to be a stream or a river or simply to be something more than it was, like so many things in the Congo. Now it is a center for people to wash their cars, where drivers carry buckets up from its slippery banks and erase the city grime from their bosses’ vehicles.

Fifty meters away two men wade through the water, each with his trousers rolled over his knees. One is hunched over, hands exploring the water and silt. The other pulls a sack and a mesh tray. The morning light is behind them, making them silhouettes in my vision. They are looking for gold and copper and other shiny particles that might improve their lives. Sometimes, my driver tells me, they find a little something. He adds that the nuns who live in the building next to the not-quite-a-stream often chase them away. I laugh a small laugh, picturing nuns running in their matching outfits, chasing the men fleeing with pockets filled with gold and dirt.

The image of these men wading and sifting joins the list of beautiful things that have broken my heart in Congo.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Three photos from Zanzibar and Congo

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Letter to Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Apple Corporation

RE: Customer complaint

Dear Steve,

I am writing concerning my Ipod mini, which of late has been performing in a manner that does not reflect the level of performance upon which I have come to depend, as my Ipod is on a brief list of material items that contribute to my mental well being. In the past few months I have noticed that it loses its battery charge very quickly, even when I have charged it to full.

I work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, managing an emergency project where we conduct evaluations in zones where people have been displaced do to conflict and distribute basic household items as necessary. This work involves a bit of time on the road, packed into a Landcruiser with my Congolese field staff. By “road” I mean bumping dirt paths that more closely resemble moderate-to-difficult mountain bike trails than flat stretches of pavement. My job also involves seeing the best and worst of humanity, and though this point is not quite as relevant to my current complaint regarding my Ipod, perhaps the presence of a noble cause will add a certain gravity that the obvious observation “there no Apple stores in Congo” lacks.

In Congo, people like to discuss. Anything. Simple questions like, “Is there cell phone reception in village X?” can lead to an hour-long debate on the number you dial to find out which villages have cell reception, how much a sack of coltan weighs, and the validity of using geological maps from the 1950s to determine whether certain areas have minerals. While I am constantly amazed that Congolese can turn the simplest of topics into philosophical conversations, I sometimes prefer to tune out these conversations in order to provide a mental escape, particularly when I am on the road. And therein lies the importance of my Ipod.

As we left Lubumbashi behind us last week and rumbled towards central Katanga, I reached for my faded messenger-styled bag, which is conveniently dust-colored. I sat between the driver and my colleague Laura, with my body twisted slightly so the driver could still shift gears without elbowing me in the chest. After adjusting the earphones, I scrolled through my albums and decided on Bloc Party. Peppy music makes the drive into the bush seem more like a choice than a job, and if I try hard, I can momentarily convince myself I am in a long Landcruiser commericial. I wave at the soldiers at a toll during the fourth track, and even if I can’t hear them, I know that the children yelling at the vehicle during the eight track are screaming, “muzungu!” Next I chose Franz Ferdinand. I made it to the second track when my Ipod informed me that it was low battery, seconds before the music cuts off. I stared at it, trying to coax it back to life. However, the Ipod would have none of it.

So Congo comes back, in the form of non-stop conversations in the back seat, which I can no longer drown out with my music of choice. Instead, I listen to my three field agents debate the following topics, among others, for the next five hours:

Are crazy people crazy all the time? (Sub-topic: Influence of the moon)
Does God give you money? (Example: If I buy a Coca Cola, is God responsible?)
Rarity of gynecologists in Congo (in particular Bukavu)
Curative properties of water
How many Congolese politicians have resigned in the history of Congo (one, apparently)
Whether women prefer male politicians

Nothing lasts forever, as evidenced by the decline I see around me in Congo. Some villages have been burnt to the ground as recently as a few weeks ago, others are dilapidated monuments to former mining towns, with an odd touch of 1960s art deco influence, like Manono town from where I am sending this email. I am not too sure where my ipod’s descent fits into landscape. Nobody could warn the Congolese that their cities would fall to pieces because of neglect, looting and war, whereas Apple might have given me a head’s up that my battery was not going to make it until the Congolese elections slated for the end of July.

Most sincerely,


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Give me my weekend

I have this fun game I like to call "give me." When a child asks me to give them money, I ask them to give me something. It goes like this:

Child: Give me money.
Me: Give me your t-shirt.
Child: Give me money.
Me: Give me your necklace.
Child: Give me money.
Me: Give me your little sister.

And so on.

My goal is to not repeat what I ask for, and to ask for something that in theory the kid could give me. Once I almost did get a baby that a girl was holding when I asked for it. Guess I should be careful.

It was supposed to be a four-day weekend, and somehow it has become a two-day weekend where I am working both days. Sigh. I will be heading to the field tomorrow and out of contact for ten days. For fun, try to find where I am going on a map. It's called Sampwe (hint: Southeast of Mitwaba Territory, Katanga Province). Incidentally, the recent Time article on the DRC mentioned Malemba-Nkulu several times - the area where we just finished our distributions of non-food items to 5,500 households. Makes ya proud.

I have some lovely photos to post of zanzibar (indeed, this blog has been getting a wee bit text heavy) but the public computer I've been using of late has no software, other than Notepad. When I get back I'll guiltily post photos of me chilling at the beach with some photos from the field of the on-going crisis that is Congo. That's pretty much a juxtaposition that sums up my world.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Welcome Aboard the Congo Enterprise

It takes several days in Zanzibar to destress, since the first few nights I dream about trucks, kits and chiefs. Except that Brad Pitt was also there, as well as my high school English teacher. I leave Zanzibar with a bit of regret - I have a taste for life on the outside.

Coming back from vacation is actually a vulnerable moment for expats living in Congo or any third world country. There is a lot of stress about living in Congo that you do not notice until you leave. Not the obvious things, like working in bush, but just a subtle shift where the world takes more energy to deal with. Yet I always forget this and come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which lasts for exactly three minutes - the time to exit the plane and enter Congolese immigration.

As I head to baggage claim, it's like I am the Starship Enterprise and my forcefield is down, just as a big group of Klignons try to board. Only I can by them off for a dollar AND they'll carry my bags, and I think the real Klingons would have probably asked for more money and blwown up the bag. And they don't have wrinkly faces. People, it's a metaphor.

By the time I exit the airport two hours later (without baggage, which is somewhere between Nairobi and Zimbabwe), I pray that Congo will stay in Klingon mode and not head to Deathstar phase. I slowly turn the forcefield back on. Congo and I generally have a truce going on, which is that we know enough about each other to not expect any major changes or surprises. For example, if I see a roach so big it looks like it could carry off my couch, I do not have the right to get angry. Congo told me about them roaches a while back. But if this roach manages to get inside my coffee cup and stare at me as I try to add Nescafe, that's stepping over the line. If people try to commit fraud to be included in our distributions, I also do not judge, because they are being resourceful and this is Congo. If its people I know, then I get upset. The irony of the whole thing is that, as much as I know that I cannot keep this up, the thought of leaving freaks me out more than the thought of staying.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Congo v. Zanzibar

Congo. Zanzibar. If you've never been to Congo or Zanzibar, the difference between these two places might not be apparent. Much like someone from Congo would not know the difference between Palm Springs and Detroit. However, Congo gets a pretty bad reputation from "Heart of Darkness" and that big ol' war, so perhaps I am underestimating the name recognition factor.

So right now I am in the Palm Springs of Africa - Zanzibar. Just saying the name gives me chills. One "z" is nice, but two? That's gotta be a great place. And it certainly is. I started at the Shooting Star Lodge on a beach on the eastern side. They had fresh flower petals on my bed. That nearly brought tears to my eyes. I met up with my friend Kate, who works in Darfur, and her friend who works in Ethiopia. We headed North to Nungwi, proceded to get drenched by some off-season rains, then went to Stonetown. Nothing a nice a hotel can't cure. I then met up with up with a Swedish cameraman and reporter filming special about spices. It seems like a good cover story for two guys trying to meet some ladies, but after we filmed a bit on pepper steak, I can say with 100% certainty that they are legit. And a heck of a lot of fun. We went back to Nungwi and met a nice Swedish family and ate lots of fish. I've learned that Swedish massages are not at all Swedish, that Swedes don't even know what Swedish Fish are, and that their porn star names (Name of your first pet + name of street where you grew up) are much funnier than typical american ones (the reporter's pornstar name is "Lucas Klevakilaven," though I am sure I spelled that last part wrong).

In other news, Congo is making some headlines, with a cover story on Time Magazine (click here to link to it). I suppose that's the funny thing about a world with so many problems - they can be constantly rediscovered by the media. I get a little protective when I read articles on places that I know and am quick to critique. Maybe I am envious of journalists who can pop in and out and discover the problem like Columbus did America, planting their metaphorical flags. Perhaps I am still waiting for Anderson Cooper to show up at my office in Congo and ask me for my take on things (and then ask me for a drink, of course). So it goes.