Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mittens in Ethiopia?

Going to Ethiopia. Woohoo! As it finally dawned on me (sometime yesterday) that this trip was really happening, it occured to me to check the weather there. Turns out it's little chilly. Delight! Considering that I have been locked into an eternal summer for nearly a year, it's about friggin time I get a taste of fall or spring. Heck, I'd even take winter.

Luckily, as my friend Dorothee (007 in Africa) and I had recently compared the most useless items we had brought to Africa (mine was panty hose), I was aware that she possesses a warm winter hat. It's now tucked away in my backpack. She also brought mittens, which I find even far sillier, even too silly for Ethiopia.

I'm supposed to be at the airport already. However, in a move of shocking efficiency, both the airline and the travel agent contacted our admin department to let us know the plane was delayed for several hours. So I am packed and ready to go, wishing I were going already.

This means that I will be gone for the potentially tumultuous "June 30" period. I'd imagine it's going to be more annoying than dangerous. People will have to bunk up together and watch T.V. and stay inside for a couple days. There will probably be a few isolated incidents, but my money's definitely not on large-scale civil unrest.

Anyhoo, I will be watching it on CNN from a distance, should they follow the issue.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Kids outside of Tunda. They were really impressed I could ride a bike and loved the camera. Posted by Hello

Thoughts from Kinshasa

One thing that I noticed right away about Kinshasa is that there is a middle class. Granted, if you had just come from the states, you would probably judge this statement to be inaccurate or mis-repretentative at best. However, good ol' Niger instilled on me a different way of looking at a lot of things. So today as I sat at pool, I saw that it wasnt just expats. Same goes for restaurants. This was a very rare sighting in Niger.

I don't feel very guilty from wanting to escape the grit of Kinshasa by the poolside or the daily grind of Kindu in my little apartment, but I wish it was not that way. I remember being in places where a trip to the market was a fun expedition, rather than something I eventually decided to have someone else do for me.

Why do I feel this? I think its that the sense of struggle that is very apparent in this society. People fight to make it, as they've had to under decades of poor leadership. So this means cripples will come barreling towards me when I get out of my car in Kinshasa, and kids will follow me in Kindu, asking for money or food. My neighbors ask me for bread and even from my balcony it's not uncommon for someone to hold there hand out in my direction, as though I would throw something down or jump with money in my pocket. It's hard to maintain the compassion that drives me to do this work because the essence of compassion is understanding the pain of others, and at the extreme, a willingness to take some of that on. Woah. There is so much injustice and struggle around here that to comprehend that just one of the street kids who bugs you for money is as deep a human as yourself, that this child has the same right to happiness, and has been dealt a tough hand of's a lot to take in. Multiplied by thousands it's almost too much. Combined with guns and it's just scary. So I try to balance compassion with the distance that is necessary for me to stay sane.

I guess when I left Niger I knew that I was upping the bar. My trip to Tunda and surrounding small villages cut-off from markets, lacking basic goods from looting during the war, and not receiving assistance...the mission confirmed that while this choice isn't the easiest, it's the right one for now. Just check out the photo of the kids! It says it all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Rafting the Nile and Other African Adventures

Finally, a planned adventure! I mean, it's lovely to get to spend time with local villagers and random pilots because fate tossed your plane into the bushes, but it was time for something that I had control over.

It almost didnt happen. Thursday afternoon I got word that my ticket request was approved (yea!) but then my travelling partner, broke it to me that his boss really really didnt want him to head that weekend and was begging him to stay. I left the choice to him, and he came through! So off to Uganda we went.

Sort of.

Our plane was late getting in. United Nations is no Delta. You miss the connection and it goes. So we stared at the clock taking turns being the pessimist and optimist. Finally, the plane arrived. We figured so long as we could get in the air the other plane would wait. So we boarded the Antonov (complete with Russian pilots) and felt a little better. That was, until the other plane on the tarmac was doing everything but taking off. These guys were measuring, talking, walking in and out, and then the propellers were on for at least ten minutes. Finally, we took off, knowing that if the other plane left without us we would be stranded in a mediocre Congolese city for three days rather than exploring Uganda. God bless it, the plane was there when we landed. They rushed our small group of Uganda-bound Kindu-escapees onto the plane.

Uganda is beautiful. It's actually a little tricky to get to from Congo if you want to take normal airlines, because Uganda invaded the Congo not so long ago. Well, that's a pretty good reason. We went to Kampala, which is a half hour from Entebbe. The latter town is on Lake Victoria and really cute.

I wasso excited to just have made it. We checked into a nice hotel and had our first (and not last) Ugandan beer. The next day I went white-water rafting at the source of the Nile. Got tossed out of the boat on one rapid and on a class 5 (the highest you can raft) we flipped. It was not unexpected, but quite scary/fun. Needless to say, my friend did not regret his decision to play tennis and squash at the Sheraton and get not one, not even two, but THREE massages.

The next day we were going to head to Entebbe, but when we got there there were millions and millions of small flies in the air. It was like a movie. So we asked the cab driver to turn back to Kampala. In recognizing that heading back to our old hotel might be a vacation failure, we decided that the Sheraton certainly wasnt. Normally I am not a nice hotel addict. In fact, when I travel, I head to small guest houses in third world countries. It's a travelling lifestyle that suits me, I can spend less than 10 bucks a day in Asia, and travel for ages. However, I currently live in a crappy version of one of those guesthouses, so the appeal of the Sheraton was overwelling.

Heading back to Kindu we were about to get stuck in Kisangani. Students had set up some roadblocks (quite common, but a little annoying) so we couldnt leave the airport, and we were supposed to spend the night there. My friend knew someone so we got our tickets changed to Kinshasa and headed there (only a few hundred miles in the opposite direction, but who cares!), where I spent the night and got up at 5am to head to Kindu, where I am now. Uganda seems like a lifetime ago as I am currently doing about a weeks worth of work in 2 days.

In the past month, I have taken the following flights:Kindu-Kinshasa, Kinshasa-Kindu, Kindu-Tunda, Tunda-Kindu (bushes), Kindu-Tunda (rescue helicopter), Kindu-Kinshasa, Kinshasa-Kindu, Kindu-Kisangani, Kisangani-Entebbe, Entebbe-Kisangani, Kisangani-Kinshasa, Kinshasa-Kindu. Will be travelling to Kinshasa Friday, then heading to Ethiopia on Wednesday.

If only the UN gave frequent flyer miles...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A woman washing next to the river. This is one of my favorite photos that I have taken so far in the Congo. Posted by Hello

When asking for electricity is asking too much...

Ever have one of those days where you walk to work (your car died the night before and you had to leave it outside your friend's place, fueling rumors that you are sleeping with him), the generator's broken (meaning zero power to the office or house), your bosses tell you that you have to change to work from a different city for a couple of weeks (meaning that all the work you wanted to do in your regular spot is out the window) and you try to get out for a vacation but your plane ticket request is rejected by the airline?

Thought not. The hardest part about living here is not the lack of creature comforts, but the fact that just counting on the basic minimuns is sometimes too much to ask for. Granted, internet wasnt here a year ago, so I am really lucky.

Take my up-coming weekend trip to Uganda as an example. Following the plane incident in Tunda, getting stranded in the jungle a couple of days, then busting my buns to get to Kinshasa (where I worked 11 hour days), i explained to my superiors that a little time off was needed for me to step back from things and maintain peak performance. There was a very positive reaction! So I arranged everything and applied for the plane ticket via the UN, as there are no other airlines I can take. They rejected it. A very good friend of mine has since launched an intervention on my behalf and it looks like this is going to be changed (this was right after I burst into tears in his office). It's not a question of money. If I had to pay 400 bucks for this ticket I wouldnt have cared. It's the fact that I can't fly there with anyone, as there is no "anyone" going there. It's like if there were only one flight in between Boston and New York and it was free, but if you didn't get on it, you had no other options. In the Congo you can't exactly hop in the car and drive anywhere. The roads are so bad that you pretty much can't make it more than 150 miles away from the province capital in a vehicle. Argh.

But here's the good news. One, my job can never really be called "boring." Two, I'm making a difference. Three, I am going to Ethiopia at the end of the month paid for by my NGO. In fact, this year I plan on ten days in Ethiopia, two weeks in Tanzania, a quick trip to Uganda, and more than a month at home, with all travel and time off covered by the NGO. Ethiopia is critical because if my family meets me in Tanzania I won't be able to use it for x-mas shopping. My identity as a third world jetsetter means that x-mas presents need to be from exotic locales (and Congo falls short of good stuff, unless people really do want some large masks for their walls).

Well, time to get more work done. If I am going to indeed make it Uganda, I want to do it stress free.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Info on the abortive take-off (let's not use that word "crash")

Enfin, here is an account of the plane-meets-shrubbery-rather-than-taking-off incident. I lifted it off of an email that my colleague wrote our heads of office after speaking to me. Some terms to be defined: OCHA = Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN), MONUC = UN Mission in the Congo, Tunda = Middle of Friggin Nowhere Congo

Sarah was taking part in a UN/OCHA coordinated inter-agency assesment mission to Tunda, a small town in southwestern Maniema Province. The mission team arrived there on Wednesday morning, May 25 by MONUC helicopter from Kindu. They were staying at the Methodist mission in Tunda town.

The mission team was scheduled to leave Tunda on Saturday May 28 for Kananga, provincial capital of Kasai Occidentale province. The OCHA mission had chartered the Tunda-Kananga flight with Aviation Sans Frontiere (ASF) - an 11 passenger 208 Cesna Caravan. ASF is a reputable French air service NGO similar to Airserv or MAF; we used them extensively in 1998 when we were doing flood assistance in villages along the Congo River near Kisangani. They have a South African crew based in Mbuji Mayi (provincial capital of Kasai Orientale). Sarah was to spend the evening of May 28 in Kananga and to continue to Kinshasa by commercial flight (Hewa Bora) to Kinshasa yesterday (Sunday, 29 May).

Friday night, May 27 it had rained in Tunda and the compacted dirt airstrip was wet. The ASF aircraft did not have any problem landing on May 28. On May 28, however, after taxing to the end of the runway, the plane skidded and got stuck a bit. The crew stopped the aircraft and got out to further inspect the airstrip. They determined that take-off was possible and reboarded the aircraft.

The airplane accelerated down the airstrip, but because of the wetness and softness of the airstrip, they were not able to get up enough speed to take off. The Stall Warning indicated to the pilots that speed was not enough to take off and they put on the brakes. The brakes had some difficulty catching, so the plane was not able to come to a complete stop before the end of the runway. The aircraft skidded into the shrubbery and trees about 60 meters beyond the end of the runway. No one was hurt. All passengers and crew quickly exited the aircraft.

The ASF aircraft will need some reparations and technical verification, so it was no longer an option to leave Tunda with ASF. The team and ASF crew spent Saturday and Sunday night in Tunda at the mission. Today, Monday May 30, MONUC sent a helicopter from Kindu to pick up the mission team and ASF crew and take them back to Kindu.

As is required for all staff in Maniema travelling outside of Kindu, Sarah had with her the Kindu Thuraya satellite phone. She was making at least a daily call to me in Kinshasa to keep me abreast of the situation. I was relaying all information received from Sarah to our upper management.

This is the first time ASF has had a problem like this. Although the runway is short - 780 meters, the Methodist mission aircraft has been landing and taking off there in the past few months. The problem was due to the previous night's rain. The ASF crew and OCHA team determined that with dry conditions, there is no problem for small aircraft to use the Tunda airstrip. Nevertheless, extending the airstrip would be helpful to allow other types of aircraft to use the strip.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Before Posted by Hello
After (don't worry mom!) Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Plane "incident"

All is well here, but I did get stranded in a remote village following an "abortive take-off maneuver," when the plane i was in failed to get enough speed to lift off and we ran off the end of the runway and into some grass and small trees. We were all fine even though it gave us a bit of a scare (along with material for my "top ten reasons not to live in the Congo" list). Will give details as soon as I get back to Kinshasa (am currently back in Kindu, which is where the helicoptered us back to.).