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 Now they just look outdated, like businessmen who were once successful but have since fallen from grace.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.


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A very evocative and poignant will you ever survive Atlanta?

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Blogger ishmaelabroad said...

Thanks for sharing the image Sara! We´ll miss these reports when you´re gone.

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