Monday, May 23, 2005

Top Ten Reasons to Live in the Congo

(don’t worry, next week I will present the top ten reasons why NOT to live here)

1. Tin-Tin paraphernalia (apparently there is a book where he went to the Congo. You can’t shake a stick in Kinshasa without hitting some cutesy wooden carving for sale)
2. The fantasy of buying a monkey and training it to mix cocktails in one step closer to achievement
3. You tell future stories that begin with, “When I was in the Congo…”
4. Impress your former classmates at high school reunion
5. You can tell current stories that begin with “Whenever I get the #@$! out of the Congo…”
6. Help people recovering from war
7. Overuse allusions to Heart of Darkness (Oh, the horror!)
8. Really cheap beer
9. Give parents/grandparents more material for proving how much more interesting their daughters are than other peoples’
10. Drive a landcruiser through muddy roads like in jeep commercials

Friday, May 20, 2005

Big City Girl

Made it to Kinshasa from Kindu relatively hassle-free. Have already eaten at several of the best restaurants, enjoying chilled white wine and lovely fish. Several of my Kindu friends also came, so the free meals and drinks have yet to stop. The $30/day per diem so far has gone for my lunches at local restaurants (usually costing about $1.50). I plan on blowing a lot of it on nice cheese from the grocery store.

Kinshasa is quite a headache. So much traffic! It's basically a ghetto with occaisonal nice places for rich people behind high walls or in the two nice hotels.

The project that I work on, which involves distributing household items and making seeds available to families that were displaced up until recently, is going to have a lot more money than we thought originally. The budget is essentially doubling to one million dollars. With other donations, it will probably be around 1.5 million. That's a lot of money to spend in a year! I am excited because there are villages tha t have been cut off from assistance because no roads go to them. I am hoping with this kind of money we can get there with planes, boats and other alternative means.

Hope the guys in Kindu are getting along okay without me!
Note that the kid in the center is wearing 3-D glasses. These children were in a village wher we distributed household items and tools. Posted by Hello
The mighty Congo river, ala Conrad. I took this photo from a 40-ft pirogue. They are long and skinny boats (you sit single file). Posted by Hello

Monday, May 16, 2005

Hotel Rwanda and Eastern Congo

Last night was film night at the MONUC (this is the name of the UN mission here) headquarters. After some debate, the people who choose the movie decided on Hotel Rwanda. This movie concerns a hotel manager in Rwanda who saves the lives of more than a 1,000 people during the 1994 genocide. It was very intense.

I was very happy to see a big screen adaption regarding the Rwandan genocide. For better or worse, it provides a more accessible medium for people to comprehend what happened in this part of the world (Rwanda is on the Congolese border). From the documentaries that I have seen and books I have read, I can attest that there are no exagerations in the film regarding the genocide itself (though the portrayal of the rebels as heroes is a bit of an exageration: they are responsible for many reprisal killings later).

What makes the film particularly interesting is that I was watching it in the eastern part of the Congo. At the end of the movie, you see thousands upon thousands of people walking. A total of one million people (belonging to the ethnic group leading the genocide) fled Rwanda because they either took part in the genocide or were afraid of revenge. These people went into the eastern Congo. The armed movements leading the genocide began regrouping and starting more attacks into Rwanda from the Congo, while mixed in with legitimage refugees. When no organization or government separated the militants from the refugees, Rwanda invaded and did it themselves. With support from their neighboring countries they took down the government of the Congo. If you look at a map, the Congo looks to be at least 50 times the size of Rwanda. Pretty incredible. But the Congolese leader had not been paying the army in years so they had no reason to fight for him. The leader Rwanda installed turned his back on them and allied with the groups behind the genocide, who were still milling around the Congo. So Rwanda invaded again. The town I am in was taken over by the Rwandans but then they were beaten back my local militia. The Congo became a battle ground for any country or group that had a conflict to sort out, or just people taking advantage of the chaos. And it all stems from the Rwandan genocide.

The leader installed during the war was assassinated by one of his body guards, and his son took over. Following peace agreements, a transitional government was established with one president (the son) and four vice presidents from the various rebel factions and political groups. As I've said, elections are supposed to happen at the end of June but that's not likely.

Anyone interested in reading about the genocide (fun, I know) should check out "We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed Along with Our Families" (its in the former pink room, if anyone in my fam wants to grab it). "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz" is by far the best read on conflict in the Congo. It is estimated that 3 million people have died in the Congo as a result of the war here (most not from direct conflict, this includes disease outbreaks in camps and other factors). That's more than three times the number who perished in the Rwanda genocide.

I promise a more cheery post next time!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Rainy Congo Day

One thing I noticed today, one of the thousands of differences that exists about living in a small town in Congo as opposed to most anywhere in America, is what happens when it rains. Life shuts down, people just retreat indoors and underneath balconies and wait it out. People have umbrellas to keep the sun off them, but they rarely use them to walk around in the rain. The smell is also different. In my home in Georgia you can always smell the scent of the rain on the concrete in the summer. Here there is no concrete, just dirt roads, and it makes a different scent. When I was in Niger, it did not rain from early September until March. My friends and I used to dream about the rain.

Here, the rainy season is over (though you would not know it looking out the window right now). They do not have “spring, summer, fall, winter” in the Congo. Like many developing countries, it is divided into two basics seasons “wet, dry.” Perhaps a step up from Niger where they have “wet, dry, cold, hunger.” You know things are bad when hunger has a season. Perhaps the Congo is considering adding “peace” and “war” seasons?

Politically, it is an interesting time here. Elections are supposed to happen on June 30, but the transitional government (created following a peace settlement in 2003) has not put forth the necessary reforms for these elections to happen, including voter registration or election laws. They blame the parliamentarians who blame the independent electoral commission who blames the government. The people just want elections, since postponing them is the way that legitimate governments become dictators in Africa (well, one of many ways, right?). But the peace agreement says they can postpone, most intelligent observers know its better to have fair elections than a thrown together sham, and for now everyone’s just pretending like they will happen. While there will probably be some protests around the issue, no major trouble is expected. That said, us Kindu folk are not taking any chances. I have a mobile radio and will have access to the UN channels. More so than that, I have a posse of very protective male friends in the ranks of the UN mission.

Because I need to get a new visa, attend a training session, and take a general break from Kindu, I will be heading to the capital (Kinshasa) for a few weeks as of May 16.

Friday, May 06, 2005

An Average Day in Kindu, Congo

Does it get more exciting, I think not!

6:00 – Sun shines in. Wake up to rooster crowing and baby crying just outside bedroom window. Put earplugs back in and go back to sleep
7:25 – Alarm clock on cellphone goes off.
7:30 – Splash face crouched over cement shower basin (no sink), brush teeth with treated water, moisturize
7:45 – Out of limited wardrobe, pick out a work outfit. Usually involves pants, white tank top, and light buttoned shirt
7:55 – Make list of food for lunch (beans, rice, manioc leaves) and leave money for Aminata. Normally 500 francs (one dollar).
8:00 – Set 20 liter plastic water jugs outside apartment door. Walk 100 feet to office. Radio the guards to start the generator
8:15 – Guards report they can’t start the generator and are waiting for the mechanic. Start computer and look at “to do” list.
8:30 – The whirring and clanking of the generator begins. Ponder whether to write “Scientific America” and share the breakthrough that noise travels better in Kindu than any place else on earth.
8:30 – 12:30 Work. Currently, analyzing monitoring and evaluation data, creating action and project implementation plans for the next few months, and writing a project report for the donor. Somewhere in this period I will usually get at least one text message from a guy friend just wishing me a good day (today it was Edmuendo, Peruvian military observer)
12:30 – Arrive back home for lunch. Sigh as it is not ready, and Aminata looks surprised to see me, even though I arrive generally the same time every day and ask that lunch be ready.
12:45 – Eat beans, rice, and manioc leaves. Daydream about cheese and anything that isn’t beans, rice and manioc leaves. Take a short nap with earplugs to drown out the noise of the neighbor’s generator.
1:30 – 5:30 Return to work. If cell rings while at desk, rush to a specific corner in a corridor where I get a full two bars of reception. Check out Antropoolgie website to see all the cute clothes I can’t buy right now.
5:30 – Walk 100 feet home. Do pilates (with laptop DVD player), read, head out for tennis or just chill on the porch. If I am going to live in the middle of the Congo, might was well be well-read with good abs.
7:00 – Radio the guards to turn on the electricity for the apartment. Eat the leftover beans, rice and manioc leaves. If ambitious, heat up. Lift 25 lb jugs and pour them into shower bucket and toilet flush bucket. Notice that right bicep appears to be looking pretty good as a result.
8:00 – Give guard leftover food. Head to MONUC (United Nations headquarters), a friend’s house, or just stay home and chill. If a clear night, check out the stars, which are incredible because of the lack of lights in the town.
9:30 – Heat up water on kerosene camping stove for a nice warm bucket bath.
10:00 – Kill a few cockroaches and throw them off the porch. Make sure they are really dead because sometimes they jump back to life when you sweep them into the dustpan. 10:15 – Bath, read and then off to bed.
10:45-11:30 Put earplugs in. Goodnight, Kindu.
Sounds pretty boring, right? It’s definitely not the most dramatic lifestyles. But there are the moments that people probably think about when they picture this work: riding a motorcycle through the jungle, sitting in a pirogue heading up the famous Congo River, or handing some old African mamma a bag of household items at a distribution. Those moements, however, and only 10% of my job. The planning, evaluating and reporting are the 90%.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Seven days later

I didnt sleep very much last week, because of a funeral going on behind my apartment. It lasted for seven days. in a wierd twist of fate (twist in that I certainly didnt see this coming, wierd because it just was) they played really loud music through really bad speakers aimed at my window. This house is actually located equidistant from my apartment and work, so guess where i would also get bombarded with the music? on the phone with a colleague in Kinshasa I crouched into a corner trying to escape the noice but maintain cell reception. not a pretty sight.

i other news, still forging ahead with my internaional friendships. not that hard, since actually, i dont recall there being any other americans currently in kindu. the indians had me over for yet again for the best food in town, my Sierra Leoneon friend brought be chocolates from Germany, and i am heading out tonight with one of the Russians.

i am also doing battle with the no-frills lifestyle. last night i killed three large cockroaches by candlelight and decided to ditch the bucket-bath because i had forgotten to heat up the water. my neighbors kitten once again broke into my apartment to forage for food. but inspite of all this, we are watching the european soccer championships on a big screen. the moral of the story is that even african towns short on food will always have satellite TV around if you know where to look (i swear, even refugee camps manage to prove this).

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Me, apparently with one leg, scoping out a project site in the jungle. Posted by Hello