Thursday, November 04, 2004

Free photo iPod.

I hope to hell this isn't some kind of rip off, but they say that all you have to do is go to this site, complete and online offer, and refer ten people.

Try it, it was on CNN supposedly.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

June 11, 2004

From the start, it was clear that I wasn’t in Africa this time around. While the other passengers on the plane, almost all Haitian (well, who else is crazy enough to go there now?), were loaded up with all kinds of insane carry on items (shopping bags, radios, armfuls of whoknowswhat, food in coolers and bags, etc.), which made it look very much like a trip to Africa, the typical body odor of an African flight was absent, replaced with cloyingly sweet perfume. Upon landing, we were herded into the customs area. My experience of such places has been of major pushing and shoving, requests for bribes, unbearable heat, filth, and so on. Not in Haiti. The air conditioning seemed to be working quite well, everyone stood in neat lines without pushing to get their papers checked, and not one single person gave anyone else a hard time about anything. It was amazing. Now, that’s not to say that this airport is somehow a miracle of technology – it looks like there is some sort of rehabilitation going on in the baggage claim area, where the walls are patched and the ceiling is open, and it would be as easy as pie to import all kinds of illegal things, due to the completely lack of a customs search or bag check. But, all in all, it was so easy I kept expecting someone to come running after me with some story about why he needed $5 or for someone to try to mug me. Instead, I was picked up by a cheerful driver and taken to the air conditioned office to meet with the friendly staff. 

From all reports, this place is in complete anarchy, chaos reigning over political and natural disaster. As yet, I haven’t seen any sign of either. It is very poor, much poorer than almost any place I’ve ever been, probably on par with Kinshasa (Congo). Port-au-Prince and the neighboring city of Petionville are stacks of dubious concrete-block buildings; they are bright blue, yellow, pink, and green boxes settled among sandy streets and walls, shaded with fantastically green trees. The hotel I’m staying at is lovely, especially the patio and pool areas. It has a panoramic view of Port-au-Prince and Petionville. In spite of all this seeming calm, however, thousands of people have died here over the past 3-4 months, due to political instability and disastrous floods. The latest situation report on the flooding, which hit the hardest in the southern portion of the country, states that at least 1,800 people are dead, and some 25,000 displaced. Haiti is a small country – these are astronomical figures here. 

Yesterday, when I arrived, my friend from grad school, Karl, who is working with CRS, took me to lunch at a restaurant/hotel owned by a friend of his father-in-law. We ate good food with the owner, Karl’s father-in-law, and their friend in the upstairs dining room of “El Cubano”, a hybrid Haitian-Cuban place with the most comfortable atmosphere. The three older men reminded me of characters in a Cuban film. They sat talking politics over whisky and cigarettes, grinning and joking with one another, their tight friendship obvious in their communicative glances and gestures. I can imagine them doing the same twenty years ago or twenty years from now, with little change but the color of their hair. They are old-style socialists, they are café revolutionaries. 

One other thing that sets Haiti apart from the Congo is that during this crisis, Haitians have been helping out other Haitians. Such would be nearly unheard of in the Congo, where people regularly steal from one another and step on one another to get ahead. Haitian banks have donated money to the flood victims. Where else in the world would banks donate money? Haitian doctors have volunteered their time to work with the injured and sick in affected areas. The Haitian Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce have raised and donated money for rehabilitation and food relief. There is no way that these things would ever happen in the Congo. Anyone there with money keeps it to himself. The Haitians abroad are giving, too. Money is coming in. It isn’t much, but eventually it will be enough to get things back to normal (not that normal is good, but it certainly is better). If people in the Congo took a lesson from the Haitians, things there would turn around in a day. 

Sunday, June 13, 2004

So, on Friday afternoon, I went to the south coast to see a distribution of non-food item kits (similar to the ones we did in the Congo, but in this case made up by CRS, not UNICEF), as well as some Title II food aid, consisting of beans, rice, and wheat-soy blend (like flour, but protein-enriched), and also cooking oil and purified water. 

I was with the Logistics and Finance Manager (Dutch) and the Garage Manager (Haitian-American). They are both nice enough guys, and both speak fluent Creole, which helps. We ate dinner at a hotel in down-town Jacmel, an adorable beach city with French colonial architecture, rife with double balconies and gingerbreading and pastel paint. Then, we went to the wonderful above-mentioned Cyvadier. Saturday, we hit the road at about 7:30 for an adventurous and extremely bumpy ride to the distribution site. The distribution was held in the village closest to the place where the people hit by the flood in that area had fled. The site itself was really isolated, so I can only imagine what the place hit by the flood was like. We had four big tractor-trailers and about 30 staff. Compared to the Congo, it was slightly disorganized and it seemed like there were too many staff members around. They had few control systems, and I’m still not convinced as they are that there isn’t any fraud. 

Overall, the distribution went without incident. I interviewed 5 people about what they experienced for a report that I have to write. Standard story, you could probably make it up yourself, but sad nonetheless. They were farmers, they lost animals and all their crops mid-season, so they won’t have anything to eat (they grow what they eat) until the end of the next growing season, which doesn’t start for quite some time. Most lost their houses, too, and the village is completely submerged. While I think that the disaster has been exaggerated, there’s no doubt that these people needed the distribution and that what they lived through was horrible. They next step would be to get them cash to restart petty commerce and to provide for any other immediate needs with microfinance.

The road was really bad, but the ride was fun. Haiti is very mountainous, with insanely steep hillsides. The road winds up and down them, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, all rocky and narrow and rutted. There are no guard rails. The views are stupendous. Haiti really is a beautiful country. Tourists are missing out on these beaches and views and (except for at the Hotel Montana) legendary hospitality. Haitians are nice and friendly and down-to-earth. 

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Saturday, April 24, 2004

We did the distribution in Lokando yesterday. It went really well, and the team worked like clockwork. We’re all exhausted and proud and relieved. Far from being any hindrance at all yesterday, the military unit in the town provided security for the guys who were bringing the kits from the boats up to the distribution site, and guarded the kits at the distribution site. Now, that was yesterday, and who knows what happened last night when everyone went home with their stuff. At least they didn’t cause problems.

Long before doing each distribution, a team of “animateurs” or field agents visit the target community and do an initial evaluation. This evaluation includes focus groups and individual interviews, with community leaders and with randomly chosen individuals. The field agents also make a map of the village and surrounding smaller villages, including sites of their fields and other community assets or challenges.

After doing the initial evaluation, and determining that we need to work in that community, we plan the survey. The survey lasts for about five days. During this time, the field agents go from door to door interviewing people in the area based on a standard interview format. Nearly everyone in the target communities will be interviewed, and the field agents have even been known to go look for people at their fields. Based on the interview results, we target the neediest people in a community for immediate assistance. Since nearly everyone in these places is destitute, it isn’t easy, so we are planning a second round of assistance for people who weren’t included in the targeting the first time.

After the survey and targeting, the field agents return to the village where the distribution will take place. The first thing they do is finish up any surveys they might not have been able to be to. Then, they distribute vouchers to all those who meet the targeting criteria. Each voucher has the person’s name and a unique number. The people need to bring this voucher with them to the distribution. This helps us to make sure that we are getting the right people. We keep the surveys and they keep the vouchers, and then the two have to match the day of the distribution or they don’t get anything. There have been a few cases of people selling vouchers, stealing vouchers, or claiming that they were targeted but lost their voucher, but not too many. The kits that we are giving out include items such as cooking pots, cooking utensils, a tarp for shelter, blankets, soap, a jerry can for water, rope, a hatchet and a machete.

Under normal circumstances, no development agency in its right mind would just give things out like this. I’m sure that you can imagine the problems that would be (and were when that was the approach in the past) associated with this kind of an approach: breakdown of local markets, removal of the motivation to produce, humiliation for being beholden to charity, etc. In the case of an emergency, however, people literally have nothing, and in order for them to even have a chance to get back on their feet, they need at least some basic items. Ideally, this will be the last time anyone gives them these basics.

Eventually, each village where we’ve done a distribution will host a seed fair sponsored by my agency and our local partner.

At one point, when I was reading some book about some crazy white guy adventuring for no good reason in the forest of the Congo basin, I wondered how people were able to live in the jungle before, but now they can’t. Ok, I don’t normally wonder that, because when you’re out here, it just doesn’t matter, but since it occurred to me, and might occur to someone else, I gave myself an answer. It has been generations since these people have lived full-time in the forest. They probably still have some local knowledge about what is edible, how to hunt, how to protect themselves from animals and the elements, but basically for at least two generations, they have been living in villages, wearing clothes, cooking in metal pots over a fire, etc. Living full-time in the forest is no more natural or normal for them than it would be for most of us. Furthermore, it is a humiliation, culturally, since it is believed that people who do live in the forest are more like animals.

The Kindu Menu

-Bread, staled to perfection, covered with cheese of the most mediocre quality, or margarine and overly-sweet preserves;
-A half-coffee, and half-chickory mix, with your choice of powdered milk or sugar
-Boiled eggs
-Cold boiled sardines

-Something very like spinach but not quite
-Bananas or plantains fried to perfection
-Bean dish of the day
-Your choice of fish (capitane), goat, or chicken

-Goat kabob, roasted chicken, or fish
-Side of fries, fried plantains, or fried manioc, depending on what we felt like buying for you at the market today
-Local beer, coke, or imported beer, if you are lucky

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

This is my first post to this blog. Basically, I'm just throwing up some things that I've written about the places I've seen, in a rather raw form. I'm looking forward to questions and discussions about anything here, but take it all with a grain of salt. I'm not editing as I go, so a lot of things may have been written "in the heat of the moment" so to speak!

Monday, April 05, 2004

Joe asked me if I thought that I was the only person in BWI airport that was going to the Congo. I answered yes, and we laughed. The problem was that it wasn’t really funny at all – it was terrifying.

Getting there

Overall, the series of flights from Baltimore to Atlanta to Brussels to Yaoundé to Kinshasa went well. The layover in Brussels was so short as to allow no time at all for exploration. After practically running from the arrival gate to the international departures terminal, getting there with little time to spare, I was faced with a traffic jam of historic proportions. True to the stubborn European need to avoid efficiency at all cost, the security line stretched into the main hall of the terminal and moved at an almost imperceptible pace. This, just as the flight to Kinshasa was announced. My only hope was that just as typically, the flight to Africa would depart later than scheduled. I finally made it through security, and upon arriving at the gate, saw that there was still a mad press of humanity desperately trying to get on the plane as if it were the last flight out on the eve of the Apocalypse.

While I understand the cultural genesis of this strange need to push and shove to get on planes/busses/trains etc., it always fascinates me. I mean, there are assigned seats, you’re already at the gate, they announce all the sections to board in an orderly and predictable fashion, and they do their best not to leave anyone behind. You don’t get a better seat if you push your way to the front – you still only get the seat you’re assigned. You aren’t more likely to be left behind if you are at the back of the mob, in fact, you STILL get the seat you were assigned. But, the mad shoving and pushing goes on.

We flew over the insanely blue Mediterranean, and passed the exquisite line where the azure silk of the sea meets the worn leather of North Africa. Hours later, the plan descended again below the clouds over Cameroon. The landscape changed dramatically from ochre desert to spotty bushland to dense forest to commercial agriculture. After taking off again from Yaoundé, we were soon in Kinshasa. That’s when things got a little more interesting.

We got off the plane in lacksidaisical order and filed into the airport. In the entry hall, there were four windows for passport control. Two were for officials, one for nationals, and one for other internationals. Predictably, the longest lines were for nationals and internationals. The officials went through quickly and without problems. Two windows for them, mind you, and there were far fewer officials than anyone else. The Nationals line was, like the scene at the airport, a mad press of humanity trying desperately to get in as if they would somehow be left behind in the airport if they didn’t get through first. The Internationals lines was an orderly but irritated, sweating and grumbling queue. I was last in the line. After all the officials (all ten of them) had their passports stamped, I asked the guy in the airport shirt if some of us in the long line could pass through that window.

“Oh no Madame. That line is only for officials.”

“Yes, but all the officials have gone through, and this line is very long. Things would go faster if some of us went through that line. I’ve seen this done before elsewhere.”

“Oh no Madame. That line is only for officials. He only has the stamp for officials and cannot use the stamp for non-officials.”

“Ah so it is a problem of the stamp.”

“Yes Madame. The problem is the stamp.”

So, after a long humid wait in line, I arrived at the window, handed over my passport, gave the guy some “money for a Coke” and looked for my expediter. Expediters are very important individuals to the traveler in a place like Congo. The bureaucracy, corruption, chaos, and confusion are overwhelming to most people, and if you don’t know your way around, you can be ripped off or worse. Expediters understand the system, speak the language, pay the bribes, and basically grease the cranky wheels of the baggage claim/customs system. They are wonderful. This one did his job in the airport, and then turned me over to a driver who was not the one I was expecting, but rather a friend of the one I was expecting.


Having been assured repeatedly that the building where my friend lived (also the building where USAID, the US’s international development agency, had its offices) was remarkably easy to find and well-known, I was confident that when I told the driver where I was going he would just know and take me there and I would be on my way to a shower soon enough. Not so fast! How could I possibly expect a taxi driver, sent by CRS, previously informed of where I would be going, to actually know where I was going? Silly American girl! Why would he know? Moreover, why would he bother telling you that he didn’t know? So, instead we drove around Kinshasa, perhaps the biggest dump of a city I’ve ever seen, periodically asking directions of other people who also didn’t know where this famous building was. Finally, I get my friend on the phone and she finds someone who explained to the driver to take me somewhere else to meet her. After a very long drive, I was deposited at a club with my friend, who then graciously took me to her apartment where I got my much-needed shower.

I didn’t get to see much of Kinshasa, so my opinion on it is of limited validity. It seemed like a more or less livable city, with at least one very nice neighborhood, some grocery stores, some bars and some restaurants. The apartments I was in were nice, as were the people I met while there, even the Marines! However, at the same time, the city is a pit, full of ridiculously dilapidated infrastructure, crumbling Soviet-style buildings, overgrown brush, and garbage.

From my friend’s apartment window, you could see the olive-green expanse of the Congo river just below the Stanley Pool. Looking out the kitchen window, I felt a strange sensation of being at the edge of reality. The Congo had settled into my mind’s eye as a near-mythical place characterized by terrifying history, fascinating culture, stunning art, and burning fever. Like a child filling in the rough forms of a coloring-book, I was filling in the blanks of my understanding of this place, and by proxy, of one of the most fascinating and intense parts of Africa. Walking along the bank of the Congo the next day with three friends, I had the feeling again when I heard through the silence the subtle roar of the rapids downriver. This river has caused and witnessed so much death in its history – the sound of the boiling rapids was its perfect anthem.

“It can’t be done”

Everywhere I’ve traveled in the developing world I’ve experienced the “It can’t be done” phenomenon in various cultural manifestations. However, nowhere is it so amusingly and frustratingly prominent as here. I’ll give two more examples of “it can’t be done”, Kinshasa style.

1. On Saturday night, my friend ordered pizza. I asked that whatever she got for me not have mushrooms on it. So, she ordered, they told her it would be there in ten minutes. One hour and two phone calls later, the pizza came. With mushrooms. Another phone call – why didn’t you make the pizza without mushrooms? Because it can’t be done. Ah. I see. Upon pain of death, mushrooms apparently must appear on all pizzas. How silly of us to think otherwise!

2. On Sunday, this same friend and I went to the recreation club to which she belongs to get lunch. Non-members have to pay for use of the rec facilities, but should be able to eat in the restaurant without paying extra. After she signed in, we went to the restaurant, and all the tables on the veranda were full. So, we found a table next to the pool, and asked for an umbrella. The guy was more than happy to oblige with the umbrella, but he asked if we were both members. My friend said that she was and I was her guest. So, he asked me to pay to use the pool. We explained that we were just eating from the restaurant. He told us that it was not possible for me to eat from the restaurant without paying for use of the facilities. My friend pointed out that she has had guests there before, and knows that they can eat without paying for the facilities. He insisted that it was not possible. He said maybe if we were sitting on the veranda instead of on the grass it would be different. My friend asked if there were different menus for the veranda and for the grass. No, of course not. Well, being as there are no tables on the veranda, why can’t we just sit and eat at this table on the grass? It is not possible. So, we asked the manager. He said there was no problem. Then the original guy comes down to the office and says that My friend the member wasn’t the problem, but I was because I wasn’t a member (yes, me being a problem as usual). The manager said again that there was no problem. We were so tired of the other guy by then though that we just left. So, for any of you who may want to eat there, remember that if you aren’t a member, you can only eat on the veranda, not on the grass.


Things with my organization have also been a bit chaotic since I arrived. Kinshasa is very expensive. I was told that it is recommended that you bring $500 with you in cash to tide you over until you can get per diem. However, it was too late for me to get an advance from HQ, so I could only bring $100 of my own money. Even though the Congo office knew this was the case, I didn’t get any advance from them or per diem to cover my weekend. Not too much of a big deal, but $100 is just about enough to cover one day’s expenses in Kinshasa. I was also given information telling me not to bother bringing sheets or towels, as they were to be provided to me. However, the supervisor told me that I should have brought towels, since those at the place we would be staying were not good. Thanks. So, we had to find a supermarket that was both open on Sunday and sold towels. We did, and two crappy bath towels cost me $26. Some food that I thought it might be nice to take with me set me back another $30 (two packs of instant soup, a can of Coke, macaroni, and some granola bars).

To Kindu
This morning, I was supposed to be waiting in front of my friend’s building at 5:30 am. Now, those of you who know me know that I hate being awake before 10am, let alone 5:30 am in a household with no coffee. So I waited. And waited. Forty-five minutes later, the guy comes up in the minivan to take me to the UN airport. I was about to give up on him. He just got confused and thought that I was someone else, and instead of listening to his instructions, he just did what he felt like doing. I’m sure that he woke up some poor other woman who was just trying to get some sleep. If she ever reads this, I’m very sorry!

All flights for humanitarian agencies, the UN, and diplomats are managed through the Mission Observatoire des Nations Unies au Congo (MONUC), the UN mission here. They have an airport that is nicer than the national airport, even though it is “temporary”, and the flight to Kisangani was in a normal-sized passenger plane. They don’t cater on the flight, but in the waiting area, they have decent espresso and some light food. I met a very nice Italian guy who works for another organization, and is familiar with my organization. We chatted, smoked a cigarette, and had some espresso. The flight was uneventful, and left us off at the Kisangani airport. I gather from the architecture that this was originally a regular national airport at some time. Whenever things were closer to normal here. Now, although the area used by the UN are clean and well-organized, the walls of the building are covered in mold, the lights don’t work, and the waiting area is made up of four rows of plastic chairs. Flight information is written on a dry-erase board next to the only gate for check-in. The baggage claim area is just a space on the floor by the door. The flight to Kindu will check in at 3 pm, and leave at 4 will check in at 3 pm, and leave at 4 or 4:30. It is now 12:02 pm. I could be flying on a puddle-jumper plane (which could really mean anything smaller than a commuter jet) or on a helicopter. My fingers are crossed for the helicopter!

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

It wasn’t a helicopter, but I was the only one on the plane! I flew on a plane called an Antonov. They are made in Russia or the Ukraine, and are mostly used to carry commodities and a few passengers. The inside is big enough to carry two cars. You would probably recognize them as the type of plane that has a ramp in the back that you can drive up on. There aren’t regular seats inside some of them, just benches with seatbelts, and needless to say there aren’t any flight attendants. The flight was smooth, though, and I got to wear ear protectors which made me feel very technical. I sat on one of the benches, and the rest of the plane was packed with food commodities, like potatoes, onions, wheat, and corn.

The Congo and the Forest

There is no way to explain the beauty of the view from the plane window. For as far as the eye could see, there was unbroken forest: deep green and shadowy, a clear inspiration for belief in magic and for fear. Through this beautiful and mysterious canopy winds the great Congo River, like a gleaming bronze ribbon. The section of river over which we flew was mostly calm and appeared navigable, but there were no boats on it that I could see. It is fed by smaller rivers that quilt the forest, noticeable only because of the slight indentation that they make in the green canopy. I was almost disappointed when we touched down into the reality of Kindu.


I was met by the regional emergency coordinator, the base manager and the head of Caritas Kindu at the airport, and they took me to the office to introduce me to everyone. The office is in a decent building on the second floor. We share it with Caritas Kindu. Everyone seemed nice, I found my desk and mailbox, and then we left for dinner at the Procure. The food was typically African, and not bad at all. We ate and relaxed with the Bishop, the Vicar, and a couple of others.

After dinner, three colleagues and myself went to the MONUC headquarters for a beer, since I had just arrived and the regional emergency coordinator was going to leave the next day. Any of you who have been to Loki or another UN humanitarian camp know what these places are like. We sat at a long table full of other development and humanitarian workers, apparently from all over the world. The lingua franca was French, but some of us spoke English, too. The beer felt great, and everyone seemed nice enough. I’ll get into this scene more as I get to know it better.

Last night, I slept at the Procure of the diocese. The Procure is like a hostel for traveling priests, other religious, and people, like me, who work with the Church. It was clean and the food was edible at dinner. The room was fine, except perhaps the most important part, the bed. It was a military cot more or less. I barely slept all night, and today I’m a bit hazy.

One project we are going to do is to rebuild two bridges between Kindu, where I am, and Kailo, a town north of here. The people in Kailo have been almost entirely isolated due to the destruction of these bridges. The only way into the town now is by plane or helicopter. It is estimated by the local organization that we are thinking of partnering with on this that due to a lack of hygiene the death rate is 5 people a day. There are only 11,000 inhabitants of Kailo. While this is horrible, I don’t really understand the statistic. The proposal that cites it does not cite how the author arrived at it or where they found it. It doesn’t really say anything tangible about how these people are dying. Furthermore, I’m wondering why they are dying so fast when most Congolese live without hygiene systems and aren’t dying at the rate of 5 a day.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The “You don’t speak French (or whatever language) well, so you must be stupid” Phenomenon

This particular quirk is not specific to the Congo, it is found worldwide. However, it has been years since I’ve experienced it myself, since it’s been a while since I’ve lived somewhere where I didn’t speak the common language well.

It goes like this. You ask a simple question, most likely correctly or close enough to be understood, and the person you ask treats you like a complete idiot. Some examples:

When I was studying in Argentina, I was just starting to speak Spanish. I asked my host mother where the iron was to iron a shirt or pants or whatever. Instead of just showing me where the iron was, she also commenced to instruct me in the fine art of ironing, pantomiming exactly how one goes about ironing whatever it was I had in exquisite dramatic detail, as though I had never seen an iron before in my life, let alone actually used one. The same thing happened with my roommate in the apartment to which I later moved when I asked where the washing machine was, but she went one step further and proceeded to explain how the light switch worked as well. You would have thought that I had just woken up from a 500 year sleep and couldn’t fathom modern technology.

So, today I was working on an Excel spreadsheet that will capture the monitoring and evaluation data for one of the projects we are doing. I made some of the cells automatic, and wanted to make sure that everything worked, so I asked the project officer for some of the already filled-in questionnaires. He didn’t get me, since I really was just making up the words as I went along, so I asked for help from a visiting engineer who supposedly speaks English. Instead of just telling me the words, he explained how questionnaires work, that there are some already filled-in (which I clearly already knew), that you could put the data from them into Excel (no shit – I guess that’s why I was using Excel and already had the spreadsheet for tracking the questionnaires made up), and that the word for questionnaire was questionnaire, which I already knew and had already used in our conversation several times. “Ok, madame?” Yes, fine, but are there some filled-in questionnaires that I could have please? Again with the same explanations as above as if I was some kind of nitwit. I never got the questionnaires. Something similar is happening with my supervisor here and the cell phone, but not as bad. I’m just convinced that he thinks that cell phones in the US are completely different than here.

Anyway, we bagged work early today because Abbot François gave us Holy Thursday afternoon and Good Friday off. I’m sitting in the monastery where we are living right now, since we don’t yet have an apartment. It is hot. Today makes me think of the part of the Heart of Darkness by Conrad where Marlow talks about “stony hills ablaze with heat” and later, “The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine.” That is exactly what it feels like to day. My skin can’t sweat fast enough to keep me even a little bit cool. But to make it all Africa, to make it perfect and livable and gorgeous, to make it tangible, the choir is practicing for Easter in the cathedral next door. Their fantastic harmonies blow like a breeze through the air. It feels like time only moves at the encouragement of their song’s rhythm. Their singing is like a view of the African landscape: broad, colorful, and full of texture. Of course my concert is cut short by a chainsaw: the brothers have a project. Hmmm.

Friday, April 09, 2004

The annoying African day

1. I did my laundry yesterday, and hung it outside to dry, so that I would have some clean clothes to take with me to Goma. Today I went to look for them, and they were in a bucket, in a ball, soaked. Apparently the caretaker of the monastery decided to take them off the line after they were only there for two hours. Great. So, I picked out two things that were almost dry, and put the rest on the line.
2. The bread for breakfast was stale. It’s terrible bread anyway, and even worse when stale. I can deal with stale bread if I can make it into French toast or toast of any kind, or bread pudding, but since I’m not in charge of the monastery kitchen, I just tried to chew my way through a couple of pieces.
3. The Engineer, who said that he would be ready to be picked up any time after 6am was not ready when we went to get him. Then…
4. He brought a box of bushmeat with him that filled the vehicle with an odor of decay. I thought that something had died in the car before we pinpointed the source. We drove all the way to the airport with the stink, wondering whether the rather proper Swiss UN guys would even let the dead animal on the plane. They did, and thankfully it was a normal plane where the baggage and the seating area were separated.
5. We arrived in Kisangani, thinking that we were 1/3 of the way finished our trip, but NO! There were other problems. We tried to check in for our onward flight to Goma via Bukavu and Kigali (yes, the capital of Rwanda), and were turned away by one of the rudest people I’ve ever come across. He told us that the flight was full without even looking at our tickets, and then said that there were no more flights that would get us near Goma so we should just go home, but we probably wouldn’t even be able to do that because probably the flight to Kindu wouldn’t come in time. We were flying on the UN system, because it is free for NGOs, and this guy worked for them. Unbelievable. He was really rude, especially to our Senegalese boss. So, we cooled down a bit, and then tried to arrange something, and finally got a private flight ($126 per person each way for a 1 hour flight) directly to Goma. We ended up getting in earlier than we would have with the UN, but it was irritating because we had to pay. And it was raining in Kisangani, so we were wet. And there was no food so we were hungry.

While this is a particularly bad example of the Irritating African Day, there are many other examples, and also examples of the Irritating Latin American or Asian day that aren’t too different. In addition to the larger infuriating moments, there are the ever-present smaller irritations that make it nearly unbearable, like the fact that you have to go through immigration in each city you land in on private airlines, or that the local police try to get bribes from you by grabbing your ticket from your hand and making you wait to get it back until your flight is gone or you pay them, etc. I’m not sure why this happens, but it can really turn you into a jerk if you let it get to you. In small part, it has to do with everyone trying to make themselves as important as possible in their small little job, and with knowing that they can get bribes, and with bureaucracy, but there seems to be some kind of lack of dignity associated with it as well. Add to all this the heat and dust and rain and hunger and you get a recipe for a serious temper tantrum that will only make things worse.


We arrived at Goma to the welcome face of the Caritas Goma expediter. As I mentioned before, expediters are wonderful amazing people on whom your ability to do most things depends. Eddy is also the head of logistics for Caritas Goma, and is great. He whisked us (as much as one can whisk anything in the Goma airport) through immigration, health, and customs, onto the car, and worked out our return flights, hotel, car needs, and everything for our whole weekend here.

Goma was hit a couple of years ago with a volcanic eruption. Being the Congo, you can still see the black scar left by the lava within and around the city, pouring silently and ashen down the side of the stunning volcano by the city; very little has been done to rebuild since the disaster. It may be for the black volcanic gravel that paves the entire city, or maybe because it is the rainy season here above the equator (it is the dry season in Kindu, south of the equator), but Goma appears darker, although busier and more organized than Kindu. There is something a bit shadowy and sinister in this dimness that doesn’t necessarily make one feel too comfortable. Our hotel is quite nice, though, and even has TV and hot water. The food at the restaurant was good, and served in a timely fashion, and was affordable! I’m looking forward to a dinner out, pizza maybe, and some dancing!

Saturday, April 10, 2004

The Coco Jambo and the Ladies of the Night

So, last night, my two colleagues and I went to a local bar around the corner from our restaurant after dinner for some drinks and maybe dancing. It is actually a nice and comfortable bar with fun music and regularly-served drinks. We did quite a bit of people-watching at first; the place is frequented by better-off Congolese, MONUC people, and people like ourselves from international humanitarian organizations. It is also frequented by prostitutes, who make the whole scene a little more interesting, and a little more surreal.

Our Base Manager is a married older man from Senegal. His wife is still there, but he’s very faithful to her. So, when he attracted a rather persistent prostitute, he was mortified. She kept asking him to dance, and when he repeated that he didn’t want to because he was tired, she said that instead she’d give him a massage to liven him up. The poor man was mortified. She was very determined, and kept coming back throughout the night.

In addition to hitting on men, the prostitutes dance. They dance in predictably “sexy” ways, aiming, one would suppose, to attract customers (usually MONUC guys and international businessmen). The strange thing about this isn’t that it happens, but rather, how the performance is carried out. Most of the girls stand in front of the mirror on the wall at the back of the dance floor and watch themselves dance. So, instead of looking out at the crowd or dancing with each other, they line up like students in a dance class in front of a mirror and watch themselves intently. Very strange.

Just like anywhere else, prostitutes here get a bad name in their communities, are looked down upon by most people, and are more likely to be HIV positive. However, you have to give these girls a bit of credit – they are most likely the most ambitious and financially successful members of their villages, and they had the initiative to find a profitable business. While I’m not sure that the inevitable self-destruction that comes with such a profession is really all that better than the poverty they came from, one can clearly see the draw. They wear nice clothes, make a lot of money, get gifts from rich foreigners, get to eat out at nice places, etc. Most are desperately trying to support their families.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

There is a military contingent in our hotel, meeting about some kind of inclusion of the former rebels into the national military. I have to admit that they freak me out. They’re young guys, slouching about, probably have a hair-trigger…

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Meeting with the Donor

In this business, field office and headquarters offices alike complain that there is a disconnect between the realities of the field and the requirements of managing a worldwide program from a city in the US. This is true not only of NGOs like the one I work for, but also of the donors who finance our programs.

As you can imagine, it isn’t easy determining who has disarmed and decided to return for good to civilian life and who is only claiming to do so, or planning to do so for a little bit. Huge logistical, cultural, and practical obstacles prevent us from being able to guarantee that a soldier who gives up a gun to the UN and states that he wants to go back to his village is actually going to go back and stay back. However, we still need to ensure that these people get the humanitarian assistance they deserve, such as non-food household items, in order to decrease the likelihood that they will take up arms against us for not fulfilling promises, or against the government because they disarmed and then couldn’t make a living.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Lokando and other things

Yesterday, we went up to Lokando, a town down river (north of here) on the Congo. We went up to arrange the set-up for the distribution we’re going to do there on Friday, and also to make sure that things were calm. Normally, most of the towns we work in are pretty calm, but a couple of days ago, a battalion of MPs had been assigned to the town, along with an appointed “governor” from the west of the country. To you, this may seem like no problem, but to the people of Lokando, this is a potential spark for conflict.

Lokando was a center of activity for the Mayi Mayi, the home grown militias that fought against the Rwanda-backed RCD (Rassemblement Congolaise pour le Developpement – Congolese Assembly for Development, which it most certainly was not), considered an invading force. During the last war, the Congolese military was mandated to protect the population and fight the invasion of Rwandan troops and their supporters, but instead, they just fled, raping and pillaging as they went. The rebels or the Mayi Mayi (whoever the opponent of the day was) moved into the towns virtually without a fight, but they found nothing but devastation. It seems to me that more harm was done to this country by their own military than by any rebels or foreign militias, although all three groups played a significant part in the destruction of the Congo.

So, now Lokando, a formerly Mayi Mayi town, hosts a Congolese Army MP Battalion and a governor appointed to them by a leader who lives far away in Kinshasa, and who was a leader in the Mobutu era, which makes him less popular. When we met with the leader of the MPs, he asked us if we could bring tools for the men and their families when we came to do the distribution on Friday. This is where we get to the heart of why the military pillaged their people instead of fighting: lack of national sentiment, lack of pay, and the culture of “Article 15” or “debrouillez-vous” (make your own way however you can).

During the Mobutu years, the country was kept together tenuously by the magnetic personality of Mobutu and his ruthlessness with perceived threats to his power. However, in order to maintain his power, he played regions and ethnic groups off one another, deepening rather than healing feelings of antagonism between sub-national groups. He systematically kept the focus of loyalty on himself rather than on the country, in essence making of the national army a private security force with no special feelings toward their country. Since they lacked nationalism/patriotism, when the country was beset by incursions from neighboring countries, the armed forces felt no responsibility for protecting the people at the possible expense of their own lives. This was compounded by the fact that they were (and still are) paid very little, if anything.

In spite of the fact that Mobutu and his cronies were making billions by gutting formerly profitable enterprises of the Congo, including the mineral companies that were nationalized under the policy of Zairization, none of that money was seen by the populace, including the military. If they were paid at all, the recruits were paid little, and had to purchase their uniforms out of the small salary they were given, as well as support their families. No wonder that when push came to shove, they were willing to use the guns and power they had by the nature of their jobs to steal from anyone they came across. They had no loyalty to the people, so stealing from them became normal. In fact, the military frequently operated as though the population was obligated to turn everything over to them, including houses, food, clothing, tools, everything.

“Debrouillez-vous” means something like “make your own way, manage for yourself”. The trend began in the south of the country during the Mobutu era. Rather than wait for the state to provide or for things to get better, people were encouraged to make their own way. This sounds well and good, but without rule of law, this turned into a horrible degeneration of the work ethic, massive corruption and theft, and a breakdown in society. This culture is also active in the military. Because they are paid so little, they are expected to figure out how to get along on their own, even if this means pillaging. The leadership not only overlooks this behavior, but they also participate in it and encourage it. There are of course more positive examples of this mentality, such as the incredible black market in Kinshasa, but for the most part, it is played out in kleptocracy and petty corruption.

So, given all that, it is not surprising that the military commander asked for tools from us. He will never get them from Kinshasa no matter how many times he asks. He is expected by his higher-ups to find a way to get them himself. He has little if any money, and how many troops and their families to look after while keeping mutiny at bay. He probably feels that he and his men are entitled to whatever they can lay their hands on. This may cause us problems after the distribution. I’m sure that the soldiers won’t cause problems on the day of the distribution, but we have already heard stories of soldiers in other towns going at night with guns to steal items from the kits that we have given to families. What can we do? We can’t just stop giving out the kits because the people need the things, and the military doesn’t get to everyone (or not just yet). But we most certainly cannot give out kits to the military – that is the purview of the government. There is actually plenty of money to pay these guys at the national level, the mystery is where it leaks out on the way down.

Just take a second to imagine what it would be like to live in constant fear that the soldiers in or near your town will come into your village drunk with their guns, rape you and your children, take everything you own, and burn down your house because you didn’t give it all up voluntarily. There are villages where this has happened more than 20 times. There were two big “Pillages”, in 1991 and 1993, but in both cases, many villages were run into the forest several times. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrifying fear that the Congolese must live with each night. The very people who are supposed to be your proud protectors are armed villains sponsored by your government who will never be called to answer for their actions. Each night, you would lay your head down but not to sleep, just to wait for the banging at the door. Every sound becomes a footstep, voices of soldiers, the cry of your daughter. It would be enough to drive you mad. And yet, the people return to their villages and rebuild their houses and get on with their lives. What else is there to do?

When the military and rebels pillaged the towns during the conflicts, they also frequently raped women and girls. In the Congo, there are no rape hotlines, no kind nurses and doctors at hospitals, no access to the drugs that can help you avert HIV or other infections, no “morning-after” pill, no counselors. Here, women are frequently ousted if not from their communities, then from their homes, divorced by their husbands because they have been raped. These women get no treatment, unless it comes at the hand of an NGO. Not only do they have to go through the normal struggle that any women goes through after such an experience, but they have to do it alone, with almost no one to rely on for friendship, love, and support. Here, Cooperatizione Italiana, the Italian organization, is working with these women to try to help them recover and get back on their feet.


There is none here. I’m going crazy. I can’t even have a telephone conversation in private. There is always someone listening. When I heard that my friend’s mother passed away on Sunday night, I didn’t even have a place to cry alone. No where. It is really getting to me. I feel sometimes like I’m peeing in a store window.