Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Veronica Made Me Do It

I was going to create a little list of “reasons when you know you’re working too much” but I then I let it go. Let’s just say I’ve reached that point. I checked into a hotel over the weekend in order to escape work a bit. I watched the entire season of “Veronica Mars” on DVD. I think that’s about 18 hours of T.V. It was heavenly – pure escapism. And an awesome show that I am now a bit obsessed with. Thoughts about how to get 5,000 mosquito nets here are mixed with ones about whether Veronica will get back together with her old boyfriend or his unstable tortured soul best friend. Mosquito nets be damned.

Today I announced my resignation from the organizatoin that I work for. While getting my hands on Season 2 of Lost and Veronica Mars is important, I made the decision that it’s just overall time to reconnect with friends, family and the good ol’ USA. Should I happen to throw in an excursion to India or Bali in the fall (perk of this work – frequent flyer miles!), I will chalk that up to reconnecting with my less stressed self.

I will stick around work in Congo for the next two months in order to handover to someone else. I am actually planning on heading back to Kindu to visit my friends there before leaving.

I will not be posting for the next two weeks as I will be in the field implementing non-food item distributions. I am excited but darn tired when I think about it – this is what we’ve been putting in long hours to achieve. Will be heading to Zanzibar when I get back to de-stress. I will miss this work.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Of tuna, bad men and burnout

I noticed that I have been posting photos lately, so I decided to check out what photos I could find of Lubumbashi on the web. I still have not figured out the nature of the website where I downloaded these, but if its purpose is to convince people to come to Lubumbashi, I dare say they might have to step up the effort. These two photos are of two popular spots. the Brioche is a diner that has the best tuna sandwich in all of congo. It also has icecream. The photo with the pool is...well...the only public pool in town. It's at a bit of a rundown hotel that was probably once a nice hotel. It's a pretty popular weekend spot, but the water is green and the bottom is a bit fuzzy.

One chapter in the soap opera that is Katanga is coming to a close. Gedeon, the supreme bad guy who's been terrorizing the area with a small army of underfed (and many underage) congolese has now turned himself in. This is very good news and would be making headlines in many areas of the world if people were not so used to hearing about the mess that is africa. Other soap opera elements continue. this town has everything a true soap needs - a really rich man who has made millions upon millions (while he doesnt wear an eye patch, in the t.v. version i would give him one), ridiculously rich people who don't know what to spend their money on (begging the question of where a Hummer is more appropriate - suburban America or a third world country), and secret flights into the jungle (something tells me this is not a fishing expedition, as one pilot told us). Basically, an Africa mining town could be the next Days of Our Lives.

A few posts ago I talked about sticking around until December, but the tide is turning. I am planning a relief operation for 25,000 people, without a real office and pretty much living out of a dorm-styled room. I have had 4 days off in the last five weeks. This is no one's fault - opening an office is not easy and we're trying. Even so, tackling a new emergency program after one year in rural Congo (and eight months in Niger before that...) it just might be time for a break. I am displaying classic systems of burnout, except that i have not increased by alcohol consumption, which I resolve to change ASAP. Lcukily, they've got beer at the Brioche.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

There has been some news coming out of Congo in the last week or so. One is regarding an aircrash of a World Food Programme flight that was heading from Goma to Bunia. Three people, the pilot, his wife and the co-pilot, died. There was also a surrender of Mai-Mai (rebel movement) southeast of where we just did our evaluation. There was also a piece of how acrtivies by aid agencies are increasing in Katanga.

Quotes of the week:

"Can I bring the co-pilot and crew?"
-Pilot friend from Airserv, who got stranded in Lubumbashi, regarding dinner plans

"This is my right. If someone messes with me, I will crush them. Have you ever heard of a country with an army without guns? No."
-Best friend in Lubumbashi, on why he has armed guards at his house

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Accidental Censorist

So that's what "moderate comments" means. I thought I could erase the comment that I accidentally double posted, but as my mom and her hairdresser have now informed me, it means i am actually supposed to approve comments before they are posted.

Sorry to censor my comment-posting public (all ten of ya). I've switched off the moderate comments functionm, but failed to retrieve any comments that might have been submitted (including the irony-tinged one from my mom and her hairdresser letting me know that they could not comment).

Friday, May 05, 2006

So how does one end up in the Congo, anyways?

Believe it or not, it takes a lot of work to make it to the Congo. Underdeveloped conflict-torn countries are not exactly places you can stumble into. Unless your Oprah, you can't wake up one day and just decided, "heck, why don't I check out the Congo?" (and who would wake up with this thought, anyways, except for Oprah who, was supposed to come but switched at the last minute to hit Darfur since George Clooney just went. Damn you, George! What do I have to do to get a celebretity in my neck of the woods? In particular you or Bono?).

When I went to college, I chose a nice school in Los Angeles where you could major in Diplomacy and World Affairs. I had no idea what that meant (indeed, I still dont) but it sounded great at the time. International stuff. L.A. ended up being an interesting culture experience of its own, and many of my friends were hispanic. The hispanic community was a new world to me. I went to France to study (this is a key point, language becomes a deciding factor later) and moved there after college. I don't really know why...I needed a job, found one as a teacher, and leaving the country seemed like as good an idea as any in that post-college quest for a real job thats not too real. I was never truly happy in France, though living in Lille in the North was way better than Paris, which I still consider one of my most challenging living experiences (including Congo!). I worked as a chaperone and tour guide in summers in Paris, and decided it was time to get back on the track of Diplomacy and World Affairs stuff. I interned at the Carter Center in Atlanta, during which time I also sent in my application to various international affairs grad schools, since it was apparent that all cool jobs required masters degrees. I able to get a paid position with the Carters, so I packed up my backpack and went to Thailand. Five months and five countries later, I went back to Paris for one last fling of tour-guiding spoiled american teens, and then I found out I got into the grad school of my choice. During my studies in Boston I realized my interests were in development work and refugee/displacement issues. I also realized that my fellow students in general had had real jobs and that I needed to catch up in experience. In the development world, you need overseas experience to be street credible. Otherwise, how would you know what you were talking about? It seemed like everyone talked about going to "the field," but when grad school was over, there was a massive migration of my fellow grads to D.C, where they got apartments and would definitly be making use of the suits that we had all bought especially for interviews (my two Banana Republic suits, bought on sale and adored by me, are hanging in a closet at my parents house). I had accepted a fellowship in Francophone africa with an NGO, that meant a year engagement with the likelihood that I would be offered a job after. It was for Morocco. I was ecstatic, as I love Morocco, which I went to when I was 22. Six weeks later I found out that I would be in Niger instead. I won't lie, I cried. My fantasy of having friends visit, buying beautiful furntiture, and reading Camus went up in smoke. I had been clutching to that fantasy since I was about to leave an amazing grad school experience and needed to think it was the right move. I knew nothing of Niger, and the more I learned, the more desolate and poor and unfun it seemed. I had that terrible feeling that I had just made a big mistake. I took solace with a friend of mine who had made the same choice, only for india, we gave eachother pep talks. Niger was not easy, but it was interesting. I was determined that my next post, if I stayed overseas, would be in a nice place my folks could visit, ideally near the ocean. I was offered the Congo and I did not need to take it. I could have easily held out. But there was something about upping the ante, about facing a challenge, and about moving into emergency just seemed right. After a few months here I had decided that the Congo would be my last overseas post for a while, that I need to ground myself a bit and spend time in the states. This was not a hard choice - Kindu would be closing down, Kinshasa is a nightmare. But then Lubumbashi came up, and while I have only signed on for three months, I plan on staying until the end of the year.

I sometimes wonder when it became normal to be in the Congo. I am becoming a bit of an expatriate, not for lack of fighting it, in that my identity is shifting further away from my own country. I wonder if it will always be a battle between Africa and starbucks, that I will long for whichever one I can't have. My friends parents are now much older, but they lived in Kenya 30 years ago and never quite got over it, like an old flame that haunts you. They moved to France because England was too stifling, and I wonder if I will end up like them, only minus their eight yappy dogs.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Points on a crisis

I returned from the field yesterday (an aside- most people would consider any place in Congo “the field,” but those of us here tend to use it to mean places outside of where we live, usually involving Landcruisers, motorcycles, trees fallen and blocking roads, and broken bridges. This recent trip was no exception).

I wish I could lay it all out, this mess that is Katanga. I don’t think the space here allows for that, and the slow internet at the Catholic mission where I am shacked up in Lubumbashi makes posting links a particularly lengthy endeavor. My last post touched on it, that the plots and characters of this crisis is intrinsically linked to the two wars that rocked Congo between 1998-2003, but also to other political problems, and a troubled history for this mineral rich province that dates back decades. So the information that I give will always be incomplete.

Katanga is in the southeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It shares its borders with three countries: Tanzania, Zambia and Angola. When Rwanda invaded Congo five years ago (ironically to try to take down a leader that they themselves had installed), local resistance movements known as “Mai-Mai” formed to fight the foreign invaders. It is difficult to describe the Mai-Mai as they were not a cohesive movement – Mai-Mai in one province had pretty much nothing to do with Mai-Mai in another one. In fact, the war in Congo often involved the splintering of armed movements on both sides into smaller and smaller factions, but the Mai-Mai were not really that together to begin with. The government in Kinshasa supported the Mai-Mai in Katanga with weapons, since they were fighting the Rwandans. After the peace agreement was signed, the Mai-Mai here were still around, and they did not just give up the power that had come with their guns. Katanga has gold and mineral wealth worth fighting for, even if this means just taking control of a few mines, rather than going for the whole thing. An understood truce between the Congolese army and the Mai-Mai fell apart in March of last year, supposedly after the army did not bring drinks to a meeting between the two groups. Once they turned on each other, the Mai-Mai began escalating raids and attacks onto civilians. The areas that I visited had 40,000 displaced people living there (they are not technically “refugees” as they have not crossed the border into another country, so they are called “internally displaced persons”). Imagine driving 150 miles of dirt roads dotted with small villages, with 8,000 families setting up huts among the houses of the locals, who do not have much themselves. These families brought nothing with them and are living primarily off cassava – a starchy root vegetable like a potato, with leaves that can be cooked like spinach. They are sharing locally forged pots between several families, who use the same ones for gather water and for cooking. Malnutrition rates are very high, which are contributing to high mortality rates. This particularly hits children under five.

They have received no humanitarian assistance.

This is a school house that was burnt by the Mai-Mai in February. The village fled, and some are starting to come back to rebuild their lives. The rest of the village looks no better than this building.

To make things worse, the Congolese army is patrolling the area. In a way this is good – it has provided security for the population by preventing the Mai-Mai from attacking villages. But the army is also forcing people to act as porters and sexually exploiting women and girls. They force the local population to give them food, since they rarely receive their salaries. I also heard cases of false arrests, rape, kidnapping and murder.

I saw the infamous Mai-Mai. A group of 400 people had come out of the jungle to turn themselves in a few days before we got there. Trapped in the jungle, cut off from their raiding, they were starving. They were not just men, but entire families of women and children (many of the women had been forced to come with them over the years after raids on their villages). Most had come out of the jungle completely naked. Locals had given some clothing along the way (to this group, that had been their enemy? This group that has raped, burned, killed and supposedly cannibalized? I will never understand Congo). They seemed powerless and ragged.

Mai-Mai children, cheerful but very malnourished. Their joints are swollen from having walked miles every day - the group was always on the move. In the last few months they have been living off raw mushrooms and whatever they can find in the jungle. Now the women and children are living in a camp under military "protection," while the men are being taken to another location. The huts in the background are typical shelters in their camp.

When I got back to the town of Malemba Nkulu after six days of driving through the jungle and savannah terrain, I was exhausted and wired. To here these stories, to see bullet casings on the ground, burnt out homes and destroyed schools…cracks appeared the wall that I place between myself and the troubles here. I was excited about being a catalyst to get assistance in, but so angry too, at the needless suffering, at the fact that assistance is so late…at many things.

With the Mai-Mai attacking from the East and North and the army moving in, more than 5,000 families fled to floating islands on Lake Upemba. They built shelters on reeds, and if you stood on that shore, you would sink up to your shins. They drink from the lake and also use it as their toilette, so the sanitation needs are high. this photo was taken by a colleague from another organization, the area was just south of where we did our mission. The majority of households have received non-food item assistance (plastic sheeting, pots and pans, blankets) from Medicins Sans Frontieres, who really have their act together.

The Mai-Mai are withered in strength, the army does not harass humanitarians, and it’s not like you see people firing weapons at each other. The kids, even with bloated bellies from malnutrition, smile at me, make silly poses for the camera, and follow me around. When I talk with families who have been displaced five times in the last four years, there is a strange acceptance of their fate. Yet this is a humanitarian crises, even if the body count is hidden (people are dying from malnutrition, malaria and respitory infections). Like I said, I will never understand Congo.