Thursday, August 25, 2005

I felt mildly surprised when I got back to Kindu after 12 days in the just didnt seem terribly like home. In Niger, after field missions, I would have a certain comfort of walking back into my house. I would take a shower, light some candles (if it wasnt, say, 100 degrees inside my house), then invetibly head out to my local drinking hole and announce my return. Here I basically slunked into my house and felt slightly depressed as I heated water on a gas stove for my bucket bath. I wrote some text messages to let friends know I was back in town. Only two of them are here right now.

Right now I am a bit supervisor and I get on fine but sometimes we have misunderstandings, and it turns out that this happened in a talk we had about when I was going to do budget projects. I had assumed that I would wait until I was in Kinshasa, where I could work with colleagues. Also, I've been working late nights just to get out seed fair things done, it's not like I have the hours that should be spent on such a task. Any rate, he thought I knew it needed to be done for today. That's a big miscommunication.

Right now i'm just tired of this stuff. Well, had best go put together this budget....

Monday, August 22, 2005

This is the best vantage point in Kindu, so 007 and I went with some friends for our photo ops when she was here. I have no idea what we were looking at, but all in all a cute photo.  Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Back in Kindu!

Sorry for disappearing from my own diary. I have not started my own rebel movement or been kidnapped by some elses, but rather I had to head to the field for nearly two weeks and didn't even have the time to post a warning that I would be gone.

It's hard to know where to begin how to describe this trip. With the birth of a pair of twins, one of whom was named after me? With nearly having to spend the night in the middle of the jungle when our vehicle got stuck? With my motorcycle getting a flat tire as I was on my way to one of our activities carrying essential material?

I will start with the location. I went about 175 miles south and southeast of Kindu to implement seed fairs, an activity that my team and I have been putting together for the last two months. Basically, people around here need seeds, particularly in isolated villages. Agricultural production is way short of the pre-conflict levels, and a lot of people have not been able to harvest enough to save much seed for the next planting seasons. Instead of buying seeds from major distributors and handing them out in villages, we invite local sellers to come and "sell" their seeds to beneficiaries, who can decide what they want to buy and from whom, like in any normal market setting. To these beneficiaries (who are chosen my their village) we give fake money, which they give to the sellers instead of cash, and at the end of the day the sellers give it to us and we give them real money (everyone still following?). The upside is that cash goes into the local economy (which is almost entirely a barter system), beneficiaries can chose what they like rather than just receiving a set quantity of seeds, and we don't have to move a lot of a seed around, which is quite pricey. We bring out own improved varieties and act as a vendor. This way we can try to help introduce varieties that yield higher quanties.

We chartered a plane to head down to Kasongo, 150 miles to the south. We brought $35,000 cash with us. It might sounds dangerous to travel with these amounts, but we are pretty discreet, and banditry is actually not much of a problem in the province. However, this cash was in Congolese francs. Why does this matter? Well, the largest denomination of a Congolese Franc is $1. In total, our cash, which was placed in three large suitcases, weighed 500 lbs. As we were loading the suitcases onto the plane, the pilot (Steven again from Airserv) offhandedly asked me what was inside. I said we had a couple of bodies.

The first fair was 50 miles from Kasongo, in a village called Kibenga. I spent the night before the fair there, so that I could be up bright and early to make sure things were going smoothly. I stayed in a nice little mud brick home, the occupants had built a new outhouse just for me and another colleague. Children peaked through the window at us as we sorted out papers by the light of a gaslamp. We were a bit stressed - we needed at least 7 tons of seed to come in locally in order for there to be enough for everybody, and when the night before we only had 1.5 tons. We were hoping that people were traveling through the night to bring their seeds to the fair.

At 6am we were at the site of the fair, eyeing the vendors waiting in line to have their seeds weighed. By 10am we were up to 6 tons, but the rest of the team with the cash were no where to be seen (they were coming from Kasongo that morning). They showed up just as we reached 7 tons and were starting the fair - rains the night before had fallen several trees on the road, which they had to hack away with machettes. The fair started.

800 beneficiairies poured through our entrance, some started bee-lining to our machette stand, which was soon overrun. We had put up ropes and had our security team keep everyone in line as we exchanged coupons for machettes. The fair went smoothly, vendors made a killing as they were able to set higher prices than normal, and beneficiaires were happy with the tools and seeds they were able to acquire. All in all, a success.

Fair number two was four days later and 40 miles down the road. The road was terrible. Imagine driving on a moderately difficult jungle mountain bike trail and that's basically travelling by car in the congo. These arent roads. The morning of the fair I was up before dawn so that a priest (who works sometimes with our project) and I could take a motorbike to the sight and bring the fake money. On the way we got a flat tire. We walked the bike to the next village and found a guy who was transporting seeds to the fair. We convinced him to the ditch the seeds and bike to the fair site and let our team know where we were. The priest, named Abbe Fulgence, and I then sat down and chatted about life, religion, Congo, and our work. An our later two of our field staff sped down the path towards us. We grabbed out helmuts and were off to the fair, leaving the other motorcycle in the village. Our driver would fix the tire later.

The second fair had more seeds but more problems. There were a few cases of fake beneficiaires that we had to sort out, our delay on the road meant a delay in the fair start time. We had the problem of a tool vendor trying to trying to get more money than he was owed and other complications, but all in all things went fine. The road back was terrible and we were exhausted after the three hours it took us to travel 18 miles back to the village where we were staying.

The final fair had so much seed we eventually had to stop registering vendors. During the fair a beneficiairy went into labor and gave birth to set of twins, who were promptly named "Sarah" and "Abbe Fulgence." Luckily it was a boy and a girl. This incident reminded me an Irish girl I had met named Muireann, who freely admits that her name is almost impossible to pronounce. She takes a bit of pity on the Congolese girl who was named after her in Goma. We finished the fair, packed up the car, and drove back to Kasongo.

It took us 15 hours over two days to drive back to Kindu. This included crossing the Congo river(by barge), chopping up and removing five trees that blocked our path, repairing two bridges, and having the truck get stuck many times in the mud. All while squished into the cab of the truck between our nun finance officer and our driver. The night of the first day I really thought we were going to spend the night in the jungle, but after 30 minutes and much manuevering, we were able to get our truck out of small ditch it had slid into. It would have been uncomfortable but not dangerous to have spent the night out there, but luckily it didnt come to that.

Now I am back in Kindu, and in my absence many of my friends who had been on vacation have returned. Last night I sipped a gin and tonic with a German friend, who is set to spend three years in Kindu. She told me that she's decided that she will only spend a year, regardless of her contract. It's not that Kindu is that bad, but it's a transient place as far as work is concerned, a revolving door of UN troops, UN workers, and us NGO people. It's a lifestyle that's constantly changing, which takes a lot of energy, a bit of resignation, and much creativity.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

This is a photo from Niger of a Djerma girl in Doutchi region. Nigeriens are beautiful proud people, something that might not be obvious from the photos and images currently circulating in the media.  Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Death of a Digital Camera and other fun stories

I killed my camera. Not on purpose of course. The little Nikon was my way of quickly showing images of the congo and my travels. But all the planets came into a line. I had thrown it in my purse to bring it to work to load the Goma photos. Later I added my water bottle. The lid wasnt on perfectly and before I knew it I had a pool in my bag. Luckily the cellphone survived, and my ipod was far from the scene of the crime. I might pin the murder of the camera on my ipod mini, who was no doubt jealous of my affection for the camera. The card appears to be okay, so one day i will download the Goma photos. Like when I go home for christmas.

Luckily my family will be meeting me in Africa in October and can transport a new one. Actually, way way way more lucky, is the fact that I am rich enough to replace my nice toys when they break. It's hard to break the consumerist instincts, and also, i don't necessarily want to. I like ordering a cute top or two from Old Navy and having my parents send them to me. I met a beautiful girl about my age in Goma last week and she was doing the South Beach Diet. In Congo. She was by no means overweight, but oddly enough, I understood where she was coming from. Our Western body images can't be erased by living in places where thin people are thin because they don't have enough money for food. Just as in the states it's a compliment if someone asks you, "have you lost weight?" here it's the reverse. My friend will ask me if I gained weight and he means it as a compliment. He told me that if he married me, and we went back to Sierra Leone (note: mom, this is hypothetical. don't panic), it would be expected for me to gain at least 10 or 15 pounds within a year. Otherwise people would accuse him of not taking care of me.

In other news, my friend and fellow blogger 007 is back in Kinshasa. We were sitting at work in Kindu when our dear friends the Indians called from the airport to let us know that her flight was there and check-in had started. We didnt even have her document saying she could travel. I jumped in the truck and high-tailed it to UN headquarters, where the weasely guards didnt even want to let me in the outside gate. These guys are proof that while absolute power corrupts absolutely, a teeny bit of power is far more annoying. They were not going to let me in the building at all, but I made them call everyone I knew in the office until one of them picked up. Long story short, got in, got the document, sped home, and got 007 to the airport just in the nick of time. On the way back got pulled over by the police right in front of our office for no good reason. I was pretty irritated because our office had really messed up regarding 007's ticket, and I really wasnt in the mood to be pulled over just so they could try to fish out a bribe. Normally I am supernice to cops in any country but they caught me at the wrong time. I told them I wasnt going to hand over my license until they gave me a reason for stopping me, and in the meantime I called our local NGO liaison person to see whether I had to legally show them anything. Eventually I drove into our office parking lot and showed them my license...they didn't even try for a bribe. I think they were happy to get rid of me. They can't pull over the UN people, and there are only a handful of non-UN cars, so we are targets. So that was that.

[Note to mom: speaking of old navy stuff, I just ordered two silk tops from there (perfect for my "post-congo" wardrobe) so those can stay at home. But there are two cotton Delia's tops coming too, so please stuff them in envelopes and send them my way.] It's the little things.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Captain Sahara Sarah

The plane saga continued. I pulled up to the Airserv hangar in Goma, loving that I could just walk up to the plane and didnt even have to go through security. The pilot was the one I had flown with to Goma, who let me sit co-pilot. He was suprised to see me, and I explained how I'd failed to arrive with the WFP flight. We chatted and checked in on Kasongo and Kindu weather. The news wasnt good. We waited an hour until things had cleared up in Kasongo, our first stop, bu the sitch in Kindu was clouds and low weather. I decided I had nothing to lose, if anything else, I would end up back in Goma.

I climbed into the copilot seat and put on the headset and seatbelt. We took off and I said good-bye to Goma, my new favorite bordertown. Steven (pilot) and I had a lovely chat. He teaches aviation science and has started a class on humanitarian interventions. It was cool that he is making the bridge between aviation and humanitarian work...i never would have thought of it. He says he likes flying but also wants to be more involved in the humanitarian side. We breezed through the clouds and discussed his lesson plans. The flight was incredible, being in the front of the plane makes a huge difference. We circled the Kasongo strip, verified it was dry and unobstructed, and landed. The landings still make me nervous but I am almost over it.

We called kindu and found out it was RAINING. It's dry season, how is this possible? Rain?! We decided to give it a half hour but I was not optimistic. Ten minutes later I called my friend in Kindu (Miss 007) and she told me it was drizzling. We were both bummed I probably wouldnt make it back for the weekend. Low and behold, our prayers were answered. One half hour later the sun was out. Steven and I practically ran to the plane and headed to Kindu. The sky was white and cloudy up until we were to Kindu itself. Steven said that it was like the clouds opened for us, the weather could not have been any worse and still do-able. We landed.

I said my good-byes to Steven, who I will hopefully see next week when we charter a plane to Kasongo for our seed fairs. I took off the headset and headed into the airport.

That night, one of my friends who worked at the airport told me that he had received a call that there was an non-uniformed person in the cockpit of a plane that had landed. He looked out, saw me, and told his colleage to "disregard his observations."

Only in Kindu.