Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Misfits, Missionaries and Mercenaries

Apparently the company that ran Bush’s campaign has also been hired by Joseph Kabila, current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who aspires to also be its future president. Billboards dominate the city streets, from DIY posters to smooth glossies that proclaim Kabila to be “Champion of women’s rights.” Whatever that means.

Meanwhile, at a coordination meeting today, it was brought up that a plane from Angola full former combatants from way-back-when landed in Lubumbashi and the government was requested the humanitarian community to lend a hand. At first glance, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, right? Former soldiers, hard on their luck, coming home. What exactly were those guys doing in Angola? Well, like many ex-soldiers from one country, they were being paid to fight a war in another. So basically, they’re mercenaries. Mercenaries who happen to be flown back to Congo by the government a few days before the first democratic elections since 1960. Perhaps I should put that in capital letters for the full effect: MERCENARIES WHO HAPPEN TO BE FLOWN BACK TO CONGO DAYS BEFORE THE FIRST DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS SINCE 1960. And by the way, could we feed them?

The best part is that the government does not see the irony in the request. No matter what humanitarian principles we have (in this case, neutrality and independence), they are pretty much the rules of our private club that nobody else seems to get. I am particularly struck by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres = Doctors Without Borders), who promotes their image as being the most independent NGO around (which, to their credit, they are. Also one of the few NGOs I give money too). That said, most Congolese, citizens and soldiers alike, would not really know the difference between my NGO, MSF, and even the UN peacekeeping mission, which involves soldiers. We can control what we can project, but not what others interpret.

MSF’s relationship with other NGOs parallels that of Canadians with Americans. They are determined to make sure that people do not confuse them for being anything other than MSF. Which makes me wonder, if you pitted a group of Canadian backpackers against a posse of MSF workers, who would win in a rumble? Oh, the maple leaf patches would fly.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Fall of Sahara Sarah

I would like to state that friends and family might find this post to be a bit shocking. Perhaps they’ve guessed that I censor my blog. There are just some topics I don’t talk about, such as dating or things I think might freak them out, like hearing multiple gunshots on my last field mission (I swear mom, it’s actually a hilarious story that I’ll reserve for Thanksgiving dinner). Though there are also times where I say too much. I’m fully convinced that the thought of his daughter phoning from a South African military base in the middle of rural Congo, saying “These guys are great! And I never pay for drinks!” freaks my dad out much more than the whole Congo/war thing.

So here it goes. A shocking confession, something that could only happen in the heart of darkness.

I ate crocodile.

That’s right. Sahara Sarah, vegetarian for 12 years, tried crocodile meat. I used to refuse to eat anything that touched meat or was spooned with a utensil that had a brush of fate with a steak. I became more of a “look the other way” vegetarian when I was living in Niger. When you are out in the field and you wait two hours for a dish of canned peas and rice, and it comes with bits of meat in it….well, I pushed the meat to the side and just pretended I didn’t see it. I also began eating fish in Niger to diversity my protein sources. No tofu in them there hills. Still, this is a long step from eating crocodile.

My friends and I were at an amazing restaurant called the Bush Camp that specializes in meat. Ostriches, pigs, cows, and yes, even crocodile. My friend ordered a crocodile meat curry skewer. He raved about it, and I figured there will not be many moments in life when I can try a bit of croc. So I had a bite. It wasn’t bad - a bit of a combo between what I know fish tastes like and what I remember meat tasting like. I only had one bite - it’s one thing to cross the vegetarian bridge, it’s another to jump off it.

What prompted my confession? I’ve met some guys I’m sure my dad would also not likely approve of, who are quite fun. They’ve been in Congo ages - spent most of their youth here, and quite like it, for many reasons. One of them (and I quote) is that you can get away with murder. They added for good measure that they would never kill anyone, but at least your options are open. These guys have invited me to go crocodile hunting with them on Friday night. My first reaction was, “You guys know I’m a vegetarian, right?” When they replied that they did, I followed up with “Are you aware of what ‘vegetarian’ means?” Incidentally, they eat the crocodiles that they kill, which makes it a bit okay in my eyes. I don’t judge your average Joe who grabs a burger at a restaurant, who’d probably freak out at the thought of killing something, skinning it, and slapping it on the grill, so who I am to judge these guys?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Driving to Work

On my way to work I turn off the paved road onto a dirt one that leads to the building where we temporarily have set up office. To my right is a landmark that looks like a mountain, an artificial hill guarded by two factory buildings that were probably imposing in their day. Now they just look outdated, like businessmen who were once successful but have since fallen from grace.

The hill is made from dirt dug from the ground to sift the riches from everything else. It stands watch, a monument of sorts, reminding Lubumbashi that it is a city built on minerals, on Chinese businessman, on the movement of anything valuable far away from where it came. The city sold its soul to the miners a while back, and who can blame it. The government office in charge of road maintenance had traded their trucks to the mining companies for cash. The mining companies ensured electricity in the towns where they worked, which is more than the government was able, or more accurately willing, to provide.

I picture how this hill would be different if it were in a town in America. By “America,” I mean the United States of America (it is more out of habit than vanity that we assume “America” means the USA and not Canada, Mexico, or any country is South America). In this town teenagers would race up it to prove their prowess, and skip class and drink at its summit to prove nothing. First kisses would happen, people would tumble down, and sledding would be attempted on its gravel slopes. But in Lubumbashi it is barren and antisocial.

The hill slides out of view as I continue on the dirt road. I drive over a lopsided cement bridge, which crosses water that does not quite qualify as a stream. A stream would require movement and flow, but this water is stagnant. It is a body of water that wanted to be a stream or a river or simply to be something more than it was, like so many things in the Congo. Now it is a center for people to wash their cars, where drivers carry buckets up from its slippery banks and erase the city grime from their bosses’ vehicles.

Fifty meters away two men wade through the water, each with his trousers rolled over his knees. One is hunched over, hands exploring the water and silt. The other pulls a sack and a mesh tray. The morning light is behind them, making them silhouettes in my vision. They are looking for gold and copper and other shiny particles that might improve their lives. Sometimes, my driver tells me, they find a little something. He adds that the nuns who live in the building next to the not-quite-a-stream often chase them away. I laugh a small laugh, picturing nuns running in their matching outfits, chasing the men fleeing with pockets filled with gold and dirt.

The image of these men wading and sifting joins the list of beautiful things that have broken my heart in Congo.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Three photos from Zanzibar and Congo

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Letter to Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Apple Corporation

RE: Customer complaint

Dear Steve,

I am writing concerning my Ipod mini, which of late has been performing in a manner that does not reflect the level of performance upon which I have come to depend, as my Ipod is on a brief list of material items that contribute to my mental well being. In the past few months I have noticed that it loses its battery charge very quickly, even when I have charged it to full.

I work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, managing an emergency project where we conduct evaluations in zones where people have been displaced do to conflict and distribute basic household items as necessary. This work involves a bit of time on the road, packed into a Landcruiser with my Congolese field staff. By “road” I mean bumping dirt paths that more closely resemble moderate-to-difficult mountain bike trails than flat stretches of pavement. My job also involves seeing the best and worst of humanity, and though this point is not quite as relevant to my current complaint regarding my Ipod, perhaps the presence of a noble cause will add a certain gravity that the obvious observation “there no Apple stores in Congo” lacks.

In Congo, people like to discuss. Anything. Simple questions like, “Is there cell phone reception in village X?” can lead to an hour-long debate on the number you dial to find out which villages have cell reception, how much a sack of coltan weighs, and the validity of using geological maps from the 1950s to determine whether certain areas have minerals. While I am constantly amazed that Congolese can turn the simplest of topics into philosophical conversations, I sometimes prefer to tune out these conversations in order to provide a mental escape, particularly when I am on the road. And therein lies the importance of my Ipod.

As we left Lubumbashi behind us last week and rumbled towards central Katanga, I reached for my faded messenger-styled bag, which is conveniently dust-colored. I sat between the driver and my colleague Laura, with my body twisted slightly so the driver could still shift gears without elbowing me in the chest. After adjusting the earphones, I scrolled through my albums and decided on Bloc Party. Peppy music makes the drive into the bush seem more like a choice than a job, and if I try hard, I can momentarily convince myself I am in a long Landcruiser commericial. I wave at the soldiers at a toll during the fourth track, and even if I can’t hear them, I know that the children yelling at the vehicle during the eight track are screaming, “muzungu!” Next I chose Franz Ferdinand. I made it to the second track when my Ipod informed me that it was low battery, seconds before the music cuts off. I stared at it, trying to coax it back to life. However, the Ipod would have none of it.

So Congo comes back, in the form of non-stop conversations in the back seat, which I can no longer drown out with my music of choice. Instead, I listen to my three field agents debate the following topics, among others, for the next five hours:

Are crazy people crazy all the time? (Sub-topic: Influence of the moon)
Does God give you money? (Example: If I buy a Coca Cola, is God responsible?)
Rarity of gynecologists in Congo (in particular Bukavu)
Curative properties of water
How many Congolese politicians have resigned in the history of Congo (one, apparently)
Whether women prefer male politicians

Nothing lasts forever, as evidenced by the decline I see around me in Congo. Some villages have been burnt to the ground as recently as a few weeks ago, others are dilapidated monuments to former mining towns, with an odd touch of 1960s art deco influence, like Manono town from where I am sending this email. I am not too sure where my ipod’s descent fits into landscape. Nobody could warn the Congolese that their cities would fall to pieces because of neglect, looting and war, whereas Apple might have given me a head’s up that my battery was not going to make it until the Congolese elections slated for the end of July.

Most sincerely,


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Give me my weekend

I have this fun game I like to call "give me." When a child asks me to give them money, I ask them to give me something. It goes like this:

Child: Give me money.
Me: Give me your t-shirt.
Child: Give me money.
Me: Give me your necklace.
Child: Give me money.
Me: Give me your little sister.

And so on.

My goal is to not repeat what I ask for, and to ask for something that in theory the kid could give me. Once I almost did get a baby that a girl was holding when I asked for it. Guess I should be careful.

It was supposed to be a four-day weekend, and somehow it has become a two-day weekend where I am working both days. Sigh. I will be heading to the field tomorrow and out of contact for ten days. For fun, try to find where I am going on a map. It's called Sampwe (hint: Southeast of Mitwaba Territory, Katanga Province). Incidentally, the recent Time article on the DRC mentioned Malemba-Nkulu several times - the area where we just finished our distributions of non-food items to 5,500 households. Makes ya proud.

I have some lovely photos to post of zanzibar (indeed, this blog has been getting a wee bit text heavy) but the public computer I've been using of late has no software, other than Notepad. When I get back I'll guiltily post photos of me chilling at the beach with some photos from the field of the on-going crisis that is Congo. That's pretty much a juxtaposition that sums up my world.