Saturday, June 24, 2006

Welcome Aboard the Congo Enterprise

It takes several days in Zanzibar to destress, since the first few nights I dream about trucks, kits and chiefs. Except that Brad Pitt was also there, as well as my high school English teacher. I leave Zanzibar with a bit of regret - I have a taste for life on the outside.

Coming back from vacation is actually a vulnerable moment for expats living in Congo or any third world country. There is a lot of stress about living in Congo that you do not notice until you leave. Not the obvious things, like working in bush, but just a subtle shift where the world takes more energy to deal with. Yet I always forget this and come back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which lasts for exactly three minutes - the time to exit the plane and enter Congolese immigration.

As I head to baggage claim, it's like I am the Starship Enterprise and my forcefield is down, just as a big group of Klignons try to board. Only I can by them off for a dollar AND they'll carry my bags, and I think the real Klingons would have probably asked for more money and blwown up the bag. And they don't have wrinkly faces. People, it's a metaphor.

By the time I exit the airport two hours later (without baggage, which is somewhere between Nairobi and Zimbabwe), I pray that Congo will stay in Klingon mode and not head to Deathstar phase. I slowly turn the forcefield back on. Congo and I generally have a truce going on, which is that we know enough about each other to not expect any major changes or surprises. For example, if I see a roach so big it looks like it could carry off my couch, I do not have the right to get angry. Congo told me about them roaches a while back. But if this roach manages to get inside my coffee cup and stare at me as I try to add Nescafe, that's stepping over the line. If people try to commit fraud to be included in our distributions, I also do not judge, because they are being resourceful and this is Congo. If its people I know, then I get upset. The irony of the whole thing is that, as much as I know that I cannot keep this up, the thought of leaving freaks me out more than the thought of staying.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Congo v. Zanzibar

Congo. Zanzibar. If you've never been to Congo or Zanzibar, the difference between these two places might not be apparent. Much like someone from Congo would not know the difference between Palm Springs and Detroit. However, Congo gets a pretty bad reputation from "Heart of Darkness" and that big ol' war, so perhaps I am underestimating the name recognition factor.

So right now I am in the Palm Springs of Africa - Zanzibar. Just saying the name gives me chills. One "z" is nice, but two? That's gotta be a great place. And it certainly is. I started at the Shooting Star Lodge on a beach on the eastern side. They had fresh flower petals on my bed. That nearly brought tears to my eyes. I met up with my friend Kate, who works in Darfur, and her friend who works in Ethiopia. We headed North to Nungwi, proceded to get drenched by some off-season rains, then went to Stonetown. Nothing a nice a hotel can't cure. I then met up with up with a Swedish cameraman and reporter filming special about spices. It seems like a good cover story for two guys trying to meet some ladies, but after we filmed a bit on pepper steak, I can say with 100% certainty that they are legit. And a heck of a lot of fun. We went back to Nungwi and met a nice Swedish family and ate lots of fish. I've learned that Swedish massages are not at all Swedish, that Swedes don't even know what Swedish Fish are, and that their porn star names (Name of your first pet + name of street where you grew up) are much funnier than typical american ones (the reporter's pornstar name is "Lucas Klevakilaven," though I am sure I spelled that last part wrong).

In other news, Congo is making some headlines, with a cover story on Time Magazine (click here to link to it). I suppose that's the funny thing about a world with so many problems - they can be constantly rediscovered by the media. I get a little protective when I read articles on places that I know and am quick to critique. Maybe I am envious of journalists who can pop in and out and discover the problem like Columbus did America, planting their metaphorical flags. Perhaps I am still waiting for Anderson Cooper to show up at my office in Congo and ask me for my take on things (and then ask me for a drink, of course). So it goes.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Leaving it behind, nets and all

The truck with the mosquito nets does not show up. I go to the local radio opertor to use the "phonie." The guy who runs it had just walked over to let me know that our logistician was trying to get ahold of me. The phonie reminds me of when my grandfather would let me use the CB in his truck to make radio contact with truckers. I thought it was really, really cool. While cellphone networks are popping up over Congo, the phonie system is still king in the rural areas. They can radio other operators over certain channels to let them know that someone is on the line. This other operator can either track down the person being called, or ideally, that person is there waiting for the call. Because the line is quite static, yelling is a good way to make sure that you are heard. My friend lived next to a phonie operator in Kindu. Swahili was yelled left right and center next to the his kitchen wall.

I take the mouthpiece, hold down the button to the right side, and yell to my logistician. Outside, ten people look at me with what I could not tell was boredom, interest, or the accident of me being in their line of sight.

him:"Trucks - unintelligible - garble"
him:"You got the trucks and nets?"

So it continues. I manage to figure out the the trucks had left the day before, which was good news that he was doing his job and bad news that something had happened along the way. I ponder calling my colleagues in Lubumbashi with my satellite phone to see if they know anything. But they would not, and doing so would just be doing something to make it feel like I was working towards a solution. In the end, my collegue Rebecca would have to deal with it. After eight days of working together and two weeks in the field, it was time for me to head out and take a break. I felt a bit guilty, leaving her with all the problems. But we had already dealt with broken motorcycles, stranded field agents, government authorities, fraud, a broken truck, a cranky bishop, and whiskey with no mixer. She'll be fine.

I driver through the small village in the landcruiser, waving at the kids who never get tired of waving at me. As I pull up the strip, the Cessna Grand Caravan is just shutting down. Olivier the pilot steps out, and I am happy to see him. And I am even happier when I get to sit co-pilot, watching the village turn into a landscape as we fly away from it.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Field

One of my days in the field. Similar to many:

5:45am – Wake up to Cathedral bells. Roll over. Wonder if they have a snooze button.
6:00am – Church bells go off again. Apparently they do have snooze button.
6:30am – Remove seven-foot piece of wood leaning against door as make-shift lock/alarm. Go outside to latrine.
6:45am- Brush teeth and wash face using a bucket of water outside. Children sit ten feet away and stare.
7:00am – Team returns that went to refugee camp at 4am to figure out how many people really live at camp. They recount that local chief was pretty pissed, that the camp was only 1/3 inhabited, and that people from the local village came running into the camp once word got out the check was happening.
7:30am – Eat breakfast: Small doughnut-like thing, cup of tea. Children sit at the window and stare.
7:45am – Told that the cook for my field agents stole our buckets when they refused to pay her more than they had agreed on. Ask them to figure out a solution.
8:00am – Start to sort out coupons, beneficiary lists, motorcycle problems, and radioing to figure out where truck is.
3:00pm – Meet with local chiefs regarding fraud for beneficiary registration. Use such fun phrases as “we know that massive fraud occurred in the registration process” and “we are helping you help your people, so no, are not going to pay you.”
5:30 – Get back to town where we are staying.
6:00 – Start generator without assistance of male colleagues. Point, Sarah.
6:02 – Generator starts sputtering and smoking. Point, Afica.
10:45 – During sat phone call to supervisor, generator runs out of gas.
11:30 – Crawl under mosquito net for a good nights sleep.

To be continued…..