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.


Blogger juliana said...

I liked this post. Mainly because I hope to follow a similar path. I e-mailed you a while back too.

I'm joining the Peace Corps and should be going to West Africa. Where exactly, I don't know. I should find out any day now. I already live in DC so I know this is a great place for International Development, so I guess I'll just make this my homebase when I'll older and hopefully travel the world as well.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

I really loved reading about how you got to the Congo. I wish more people in the world were like you. I plan on doing a mission someday in West Africa.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I liked this post, too. Kind of different to how I got stuck here, but similar in a way- so unintentional.

Juliana- I also did Peace Corps. Watch out! Opens up a whole lot of opportunities and makes for a bizarre addiction.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to be anonymous, I totally forget my password.. shows you how I need to refocus.. hi.

I love this blog, I love this entry.. I live vicariously through you and the other relief worker blogs I come across. Someday I hope to join the Peace Corps myself.. I don't think I am mentally ready yet.. nor am I scholastically(?) ready.. I'm an artist.. I went to school for art, I work in design. What do I know about relief work? Nothing except what I read on these blogs.. I hope to keep pursuing it though b/c I know it's in me. I feel like a moth to a flame.. I feel some kind of pull toward Africa.. it's I hear my name being called sweetly in the wind.. I just have to figure out the bridge to get me there. Thanks for expressing your experience and much love and well wishes to you - Heather

4:48 AM  

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