"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

7.31.2007

beautiful bukavu


This should give you an idea of what the place is like.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is, no question, the best story I've ever read in the Statesman:

"Alvarez said that in his 13 1/2 years as a DPS trooper, he had never before investigated a crash involving nude drivers.

'But she's from Austin,' he said, 'and I figure Austin folks are a little different.'"

full circle

It somehow seems appropriate that I would end up spending my last night in Bukavu at the same place I spent my first evening in Bukavu. Just over two years ago, almost to the week, after a six-hour bus ride through the winding mountains from Kigali which caused at least one of my fellow passengers to become carsick, after being detained at the border for a very unpleasant hour, after meeting and being rescued by my “Brother”* and his negotiation that I would only have to pay $30 for the privilege of entering the Congo for eight days at a stretch, after seeing MONUC helicopters rising from the hills and wondering if maybe this wasn’t actually a really bad idea, my “Brother” took me to dinner at Maman Kindjo’s.

We walked from the Swedish Pentecostal mission to this restaurant, my “Brother” peeking around every corner with his headlamp to make sure we wouldn’t be attacked. I was exhausted from the journey and totally overwhelmed, trying to remember the French I hadn’t spoken in five years, wondering why I couldn’t understand Congolese Swahili, and thinking “There’s no possible way I can live in this country and write a dissertation about it.” Truth be told, I was wondering what on earth I’d been thinking.

Our dinner at Maman Kindjo’s was the first chance I had to relax. My “Brother” picked a boma, ordered us some fish and meat and tsombe (greens made from cassava leaves) and bugali and we just sat there and talked as he explained the city, the differences in Congolese and Kenyan Swahili, and gave me some good contacts to start with. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t have been able to handle Bukavu or Congo without the conversation we had at Maman Kindjo’s.

Tonight Uncle Réne and his wife wanted to take me for dinner, and they picked Maman Kindjo’s. We sat in a room and talked for two hours about Bukavu, about the fact that marriages in the states don’t require the paying of a dowry (which no one here can believe, but which Mama Réne has decided she’d like to be the m.o. for her sons’ marriages. “What about the girls?” I asked. “No, no,” she said, “those should be traditional.”) We laughed and laughed, Alain from Goma called to make sure that all had gone well for me and that Réne had taken care of me, and we laughed some more.

As we left to head back home, Mama Réne leaned in. “I’m pregnant,” she whispered. The baby’s due on December 25. You’ll have to name it Mary or Joseph, I said. In a society that’s built around continuation of family lines, there’s no better news. We just smiled and smiled as we drove off into the Bukavu night, away from a place of many memories. If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d never have expected it to be true. But somehow, Congo feels like home.



*The story of how my “Brother” came to be my “Brother” is really funny. We had a mutual friend from Yale, she’d put us in contact when he was looking for a job in African affairs, I put him in contact with a friend who ended up giving him a job. Despite years and years of trying to meet in Washington, our paths never crossed until we both found ourselves in Bukavu. I was detained at the border, the immigration officer called him and ordered him to come retrieve me, and we started furiously text-messaging back-and-forth. “By the way,” I wrote, “I’m a tourist.” “If anyone asks,” he replied, “you’re my sister.” Keep in mind that we’ve never actually seen each other before this point, but when he walked up to the border to save me, we had to hug and act like we were siblings who hadn’t seen each other in months. (“I didn’t know if you were a mzungu or what,” he told me later.) And thus I was introduced as his sister to everyone in town.

7.30.2007

mom's day!

Happy birthday to my mom! I love you so much!

cool

Thanks to Ethics Daily for picking up my post on giving to those who beg from you.

last day

The last day in a Congolese city is so strange.

It's impolite to leave without saying good-bye, so in addition to the two interviews I needed to do this morning (and the one I decided I don't really need), I had to do the rounds with a few friends. It was sweet. Anne-Marie, my wonderful, wonderful friend here, gave me an outfit she'd had made for me. It's in the pattern that the women at her church use when they're in a parade or something like that - so I match them. She had me over to her home to meet her kids, and prayed the sweetest prayer for me (and for all of you). I left almost in tears.

Then I went to say good-bye to my friend Alain, who wants to buy me a carving as a souviner by which to remember his family. I left that meeting sadly, too, then nearly got in trouble with immigration for taking pictures of the Bush administration's anti-HIV/AIDS campaign posters here. Turns out that the technique of just ignoring the authorities works pretty well here. They have no enforcement capacity, and it's not like I'd done anything wrong to begin with. I just jumped in a taxi and left.

Tonight Uncle Rene and his wife come by the house to say good-bye. I leave for Goma in the morning. It will be interesting to see whether the city is as tense as it was in June, or whether things have gotten worse or better. A demain, as we say here. See you tomorrow.

lazy sunday

It was another lazy Sunday in Bukavu, with not much to do, and even fewer places in which to do it. I’d been invited to church by the Baptists, but as I’m still not 100% healthy, I didn’t feel like making the trek all the way across town, especially knowing that it would probably take 30 minutes to find a taxi. I decided to try to rest instead, and hung out at the house most of the day. Did some laundry, got a text message from my parents from Lubbock, read several chapters of my current book, ran outside to get the laundry in before it rained, and watched 3 episodes of SITC.

In the afternoon, it looked like rain (and there was thunder), but it never really broke, so I decided to walk down to the nicest hotel in town, and maybe sit there and have a soda water on the terrace. It’s about thirty minutes from my house to there on foot, and it’s a nice walk with pretty views of the city and the lake. I’ve done it before with The Dog and figured it would be fine.

I wasn’t 100 yards down the road when a young man stopped me to talk. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and started to speak.

“I left a letter at your house this morning at 9am,” he said, switching between Swahili and French in a nervous voice. It’s 3 now, meaning that, if this was the truth, and if I was the only person for whom he left a letter, he’d been standing in the street there for six hours. “I don’t know if you received it...,” he trailed off.

“I can’t help you,” I said. “Leave me alone.” And I took off walking at top speed down the street, past MONUC, past the ngo’s, past all the guards who know me because I walk by every day. I got to the turnoff for the hotel and realized that the guy was following me. I kept going, stopped to let him pass, but then he stopped to plead his case. “I just want to tell you what the letter said. It’s about my education.”

“I can’t help you,” I said tersely. “I asked you to leave me alone. Now please go away.” And I marched off down the street, stopping to tell two guards that this man was bothering me, and asking them what to do. They shrugged and said that there wasn’t much I could do, but since it appeared that he wasn’t following me anymore, I decided that the safest thing to do was to continue on to the hotel. Which I did, but the restaurant was already closed, so I just headed back home. So much for a relaxing Sunday walk.

There’s a different mentality here about privacy. And money. And strangers. I honestly don’t think this guy meant to scare me. He probably genuinely didn’t understand that for your average American woman, a strange man who waits in the street for six hours then follows you on your Sunday walk is not someone you’d want to talk to. Much less agree to sponsor. What he probably thought was, “Here’s an opportunity that I’d better not miss.” Who knows who he knows, who told him I exist, where he saw me, how he figured out which house is mine. Who knows?

I hate things like this.

N tried to explain the reason everyone in Congo asks every rich person they see for money. The mentality, she said, goes something like this: “You are white, therefore you are rich, therefore you must give me money.”

I get how the logic works on the first two points. It’s the last one I don’t understand. I hate being constantly asked for money by people I don’t know from Adam. Why would I agree to pay for the education of a complete stranger? I don’t him, I don’t know his family, I don’t have any basis by which to verify the truth of his story. It would never occur to me to stalk a foreigner in the street in order to ask a favor.

I passed this guy on my way back home, greeted him semi-appropriately, and continued on my way. I didn’t even ask the guard if a letter had been delivered, because, honestly, I don’t want to know. My guards are smart enough not to let anyone who claims to know me in the compound – they know that I’ll tell them if I’m expecting a visitor.

I leave Bukavu tomorrow morning, so even if he’s still there tomorrow, it’s still something I’ll only have to deal with for one day. If it really gets to be a problem, Uncle Réne will come and deal with it. I’m not concerned about my security or about being able to finish my work here. Everything should be fine.

I still hate this. I hate that it makes me fearful and mistrustful of a place and of people I know and like. I hate that it makes me afraid that my guards or my maid will steal my stuff, even though I’ve no reason to believe they would. I hate that it makes me remember how corrupt and messed-up Congo is.

But more than that, I hate that it hardens me to the very real suffering in this place. Two little kids asked me for money on the way home, a woman walked with me and said she was hungry, but I was so angry and frightened that I told them all no without a second thought. I hate that I have so little compassion for someone who can’t afford the education he needs to succeed in life.

And I hate that I don’t even remember his name.

7.28.2007

rain rain

It's the dry season, but it's raining.

The last two days, we've had big thunderstorms. Yesterday's was really spectacular - lightning and everything.

This is good for two reasons: 1) it will probably slow down the impending violence, and 2) it cuts down on the dust.

Bukavu is a lovely city (as far as the Congo goes), but the dry season is so dusty. My house is near the end of a long, dry road. MONUC and other vehicles drive down it at 40 miles an hour and kick up some serious dust. By the end of the day, I'm covered in grit.

It's so bad that there are actually a couple of establishments (a hotel, a private home) that send out their gardeners to WATER THE ROAD twice a day. At first I thought they were joking. Now I'm grateful to walk by, because it means I can breathe for a stretch.

I know my Austin friends are sick to death of this summer's deluge. From here, though, I'm grateful for the rain.

determined

This is the best article on Type I I’ve seen in quite awhile. It’s exactly how it is – a constant game of trying to figure out how to balance everything.

Type I is a whole other game from what most of those living with diabetes deal with, but it doesn’t have to be the limiting thing that people make it, especially parents who understandably freak out when their children are diagnosed. I am so glad that my parents didn’t (much), but instead trusted me to be responsible, to learn to manage the disease, and to just live life. My doctors were sometimes wary, but have always been supportive (even if that meant making me spend 8 weeks of a summer tightening up control as a condition of spending that first semester in Kenya). Now they just roll their eyes and ask how many prescriptions I’ll need.

This November I’ll mark 15 years since being diagnosed. For the record, I’ve taken six trips to Africa (four of those for extended periods of time), earned two advanced degrees, and rafted rivers and climbed mountains on multiple continents. I’ve experienced the evolution of care from an exact schedule of medications and food that made me sick all the time to the flexible, tightly controlled system we use now. I’ve watched blood sugar meters shrink in size to something that can practically be carried in a handbag or backpack. And despite a couple of scares, I have no complications. I’m glad to know that there are others living life to the fullest, no matter what they said we couldn’t do.

accuracy in reporting

Okay, so the official word from the UN is that there were 4,500 cases of sexual violence in South Kivu in the first six months of 2007. I could've sworn they said 7,000 at the meeting yesterday, but we always try to be accurate here at Texas in Africa. At any rate, one rape is one too many.

random stuff

Interesting tidbits for the weekend:

7.27.2007

countdown

This looks like fun.

I am so ready for my Victoria Falls vacation. The corner of the world where Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia meet is Africa's adventure travel capitol, and the Zambezi is always referred to as the best whitewater rafting in the world. I am so excited! Two weeks from today I will be on the river!

super day

You know it's going to be a great day when it starts off with MONUC announcing (to a group of assembled humanitarian workers, mind you. Anyone can attend this meeting, so I consider this public information) that the Congolese government is set on attacking Nkunda's forces after they finish dealing with some insurgents here in South Kivu. And that diplomatic efforts are focused on keeping Rwanda out of the conflict (which everyone swears will only happen if the Congolese government troops align with the FDLR/Hutu rebels here, never mind that some of those rebels apparently attacked government forces yesterday - confused yet?). There are Rwandan troop movements near the border, but that's perfectly normal. So they say, until one official pointed out that it's normal for troops to move internally in any country, but that this is the Congo. MONUC is now calling the security situation in North Kivu "very volatile."

In other words, it's just a matter of time.

Somewhere in all this came the news that 7,000 women and girls were raped in the first six months of 2007. In South Kivu alone.

This afternoon I interviewed an administrator at a church-run counseling center for rape victims and others who've been traumatized by the war. Between July 5-25 (20 days!) he referred 40 rape victims to Panzi Hospital and other hospitals for treatment. Those are just the victims who were so severely physically hurt that they need special medical treatment. The youngest victims is 10. The oldest is 70.

I really love the Congo, but sometimes I wonder how it's ever going to get better. We are quite clearly in the middle of escalating violence, and it's about to get much, much worse. People I've interviewed estimate that 80-90% of the population of the Kivus have been traumatized by the last 15 years of war. Here in Bukavu, you know it's true - it's only been 3 years since rebels were running wild in the streets, raping hundreds of women and girls. Almost everyone you meet carries deep scars of tragedies personally experienced, or of atrocities witnessed.

No one can live like this forever. But what choice to the people of the eastern Congo have?

7.26.2007

war watch

Great.

Sigh.

that's enough

Three sure signs that I’ve been here too long:

1. Yesterday at the end of the Craziest Interview Ever, the subject asked if I would mind carrying a letter to his friend in Goma (who’s the one who connected me in the first place). This is how it works here. Every traveler is an independent postal service.

2. People stop by my home to greet me, announced and otherwise. Last night A brought his wife, their four children, and his wife’s sister by to greet me. Tonight, Uncle Rene and his friend came by, just to say hello.

3. It seems perfectly reasonable that I should have to make 2 trips (so far) to pay the security guard bill for the month. To a company, by the way, whose name is Human Dignity in the World.

It’s times like these - when it starts to seem normal to me to have to wait half an hour for a scheduled appointment, or when it seems perfectly reasonable that my taxi ride downtown would involve a detour a military barracks – that I realize it’s time to go home. I’ve done 103 interviews. I’m tired. It’s time to go.

7.25.2007

other stuff

blah

I'm sick.

It's been coming on for a couple of days, but I'm only just now admitting it.

I am not good at being sick.

It's probably just a sinus infection or a cold. My housekeeper was sick last week. She went to the doctor, stayed home for three days, and came back much better on Monday. I started a course of Cipro last night, which will hopefully knock it out.

So I'm sorry, but there won't be any deep thoughts or funny anecdotes on community, or HIV, or the coming war today. I'm just not up to it.

Which is too bad, because I just had a bi-zarre interview with the director of the local Ba'hai school. And a touching visit from a friend and his family last night.

I'm going to bust out a packet of chicken soup, try to figure out what the German directions mean, drink some diet 7-up, and take a nap. Here's hoping your day will be better. :)

reconcile

Thanks to Ethics Daily for picking up my essay on reconciliation.

congo watch

Here's why we're fixin' to have another war in the Kivus.

7.24.2007

lazarus

They mention Lazarus a lot around here. You know, Lazarus, him over whose death Jesus wept. Lazarus who, much to the joy of his sisters and friends, came back from the dead (although, as Barbara Brown Taylor points out in a sermon whose title I've forgotten, we never get to find out what Lazarus himself thought of what was surely a rather unpleasant experience.). Lazarus, that name that’s synonymous with resurrection by grace.

My dissertation is, in part (in 1/3, to be precise), about the health care system in the eastern Congo, and, while it’s complicated to figure out the mind-boggling government bureaucracy that is “supported” (read: financed and run) by a conglomeration of churches, community groups, and international ngo’s, one thing is unavoidable: sooner or later, you have to deal with HIV/AIDS.

Nobody really knows what the HIV prevalence rate is in the eastern Congo. The official estimates for this province hover somewhere around 3-4%. That’s 3 or 4 of every 100 individuals. As far as Africa goes, that’s not a bad prevalence rate. As far as accurate statistical reporting, it’s anyone’s guess. Certainly the prevalence of other factors, like rape, war, and poverty, suggests that HIV-seropositive prevalence is much, much higher in the region.

Things have changed in fighting HIV/AIDS since I first started studying Africa. Nine years ago in Kenya, we’d hear whispered murmurs about a cousin or an aunt who’d died of ukimwi, the “slim” disease that causes people to waste away before your eyes. Now, in most places, more and more people are open about HIV and its effects on social organization, on children, on economic productivity. Now, with the spreading availability of anti-retro viral drug cocktails, “HIV-in-Africa” isn’t necessarily a death sentence, though there aren’t nearly enough doses for everyone, meaning that the sickest patients get the treatment.

Even here in Congo, even in just two years, things have changed dramatically. There’s now a national program to fight HIV/AIDS. It's financed by the World Bank, the Global Fund, USAID, and others, and the staff of the Bukavu office are friendly, active, and dead-set on doing whatever they can to keep this illness from destroying their country even more.

I conducted a couple of interviews at their office last week, and one subject, A, invited me back to pick up precise statistics today. By coincidence, we were in the same shared taxi on Saturday. I told him about another ngo I was interested in visiting, and he promised to organize something.

Organize he did. A wants me to see exactly what they do to help those who are here referred to as “PVV” – personnes vivant avec VIH – people living with HIV. He took me to a residential treatment center and a men’s program today, and tomorrow we will go to visit a women’s organization that supports PVV’s in Bukavu in cooperation with an American religious aid agency. (We’re also going to visit A’s daughter, whose name is also Laura. :)

Lazarus. Talk to anyone who works in HIV/AIDS healthcare here, and they’ll tell you the change in a patient who begins taking ARV’s is remarkable. “It’s like Lazarus coming back from the dead,” they say again and again. (It's even in the July issue of Vanity Fair.) Thin, broken bodies become strong again. Mothers who couldn’t get out of bed are again able to care for their children. It’s resurrection.

The center we visited today is an amazing place. A insisted that I take pictures, then that he take pictures of me with some of the PVV’s living there. So that was awkward, but getting to speak with the patients who have come from the countryside to start their ARV treatment was anything but. It is quite a place. Because the rural areas are so insecure, it’s impossible for doctors to do the close monitoring that’s necessary to start ARV treatment. So, these people get to come to Bukavu, where they spent 1 month getting their medicines regulated, and another 2-3 months recovering and getting used to it. If the drugs work, they go home to continue treatment there. If not, they stay.

The amazing thing about ARV therapy is that you can see it working. I saw people who look perfectly healthy – you’d never know that they’d been on the brink of death. I met others who are clearly quite ill, who are living in a strange place far away from home, who might not have places to go back to when they leave. Families often reject HIV-positive persons, seeing them as a danger and a drain on resources.

Later, at the mens’ center, I met the association’s officers, both of whom are HIV positive. All 200-something members of the group are on ARV’s, and all are working to raise awareness about the disease and how to prevent transmission. “It tends to be seen as a woman’s disease,” they told me. “There are many men living with HIV in secret.”

Today I also went to visit the Baptists. They told me that they were the first Protestant church in the region to recognize the need to fight HIV/AIDS – to not shy away from it, but instead to do something. They run a voluntary counseling and testing center in a rural health zone. (They also run an incredibly cool skills program – I wish I had a picture of the guitar workshop, because it was, in a word, awesome.) And the pastors there talk about HIV/AIDS with knowledge and depth.

In February at the Current retreat, I attended a session led by Baylor social work professor Jon Singletary. It was about the church’s response to HIV/AIDS. It’s where I first saw this painting, of Christ with AIDS. It was a tough, convicting conversation, especially knowing that Baptists in the states (even the moderate Baptists) wouldn’t necessarily be the first to react if such a crisis were staring down our church doors. I’m not sure my church does anything to help HIV-positive persons in our own city, much less on the other side of the world. I’m not sure most of us even know what “sero-positive” means, much less how we might find ways to support our Congolese Baptist brothers and sisters who are fighting this disease with everything they have.

There's another Lazarus, you know. He's the guy in one of Jesus' parables who was ignored by the rich man, even though Lazarus was always in plain sight, begging at the rich guy's gate. The rich man spent his money and time doing things for himself, wearing fancy clothes and having big banquets for his supporters. The rich guy gets his reward on earth, and spends eternity in torment. Lazarus gets his own sort of resurrection, if only in the sweet hereafter.

I'm pretty sure I met Lazarus in both his disguises today. I saw him in a dozen surprised, broken, revived, exhausted, grateful, hopeful faces. I saw him begging at the gate, and all I had to offer was a handshake and a smile. I saw him coming back to life, little by little, day by day.

You generally have to be near the brink of death here to get access to ARV’s (there are fewer than 4,000 courses of treatment available in South Kivu at the moment), so the men and women I met today almost certainly know what it is to be at death’s door. They know despair, and they know the tough journey back to life. However painful it might be, it’s clear as day that the men and women and teenagers living with HIV/AIDS are grateful for their resurrection. Amen.

the least of these

An excellent reminder from Jim Evans.

gag

Well, I'm not cool with this.

7.23.2007

counting calories

When’s the last time you saw a food product advertised as “high calorie”?

Our respective attitudes towards food more or less sums up the difference between the Congo and the United States. Back home, we’re obsessed with counting every calorie, making sure we don’t consume too many trans-fats, and getting an hour of exercise six days a week.

Here, as elsewhere in Africa, things are a little different.

Last week at La Beauté, which is as close as Bukavu gets to a supermarket (the name means “The Beauty,” but Congolese French being what it is, the pronunciation comes out more like, “Le Bootie.” I giggle every single time.), I saw a stack of products that I knew I had to have: TAMU cookies. I was going to take a picture of them and say something about how you know it has to be disgusting if the Aggies are involved. I picked up a packet (they only cost about 60 cents), brought it home, stuck it in the pantry, and didn’t think about it much more.

This weekend, I decided to see just how good TAMU cookies are, and noticed a familiar name and logo on the box. I took a closer look and realized that I was missing something important. It turns out that these cookies are produced by Centre Olamé. Mathilde had told me about them without mentioning the name. The idea behind these cookies is to provide families with a high-protein, high calorie, inexpensive nutritional supplement. The production of the cookies also provides several people with jobs.

Malnutrition is one of the most pervasive, chronic, and difficult-to-solve problems in the eastern Congo. Many families here eat only one meal per day, and that often happens in shifts: the adults eat one day, the children eat the next. That’s what happens when poverty is so abject. “Njala, njala,” the children say to you as they beg in the street. “I’m hungry.” And you know they mean it. Hunger - real hunger, the kind that means you are starving to death - hurts. Malnutrition is physically painful. It makes sense when you think about it: once your body has broken down all its stores of fat, it moves on to muscle and whatever else it can find in a desperate search for nutrition. That can’t feel good.

It shouldn’t be this way. The Kivus were once the breadbasket of Congo. The volcanic soil, especially in the north, is incredibly fertile, producing three harvests a year in some places. There are two regular, predictable, annual rainy seasons, and the high elevation and cool temperatures mean that there aren’t as many bugs as there are in so much of the rest of Africa.

But you can’t grow crops when rebels drive you from your home every few months. You can’t sell your harvest in markets when you’re trying to recover from rape by soldiers. You can’t plant if you’re stuck in a camp for internally-displaced persons, or if you’re a refugee in Tanzania or Rwanda or Burundi. You can’t feed your family off the land if you’ve had to flee to Bukavu, if you’re living ten-to-a-room in the slums of the Kadutu neighborhood. You can’t feed your children a balanced diet if you can’t find a job in a place with 90% unemployment in the formal sector.

Thus the Catholics of Bukavu make TAMU biscuits, which are marked as “rich in proteins and in calories.” One little 200 gram box has almost 5,000 calories. Because if you live here, that's what you need.

congo watch

Nine people were killed last week in Minembwe, a town well to the south of here. There are real fears that this could be the trigger to widespread violence in the Kivus.

A doctor was killed Saturday outside of Sake.

And assassinations continue in Bukavu.

All of these things alone would be business-as-usual (I'm sorry to say). Together, they suggest that we may be headed for much worse.

And the peacekeepers are a little bit distracted at the moment.

roots

I was really trying to behave myself with regard to the news that Tammy Faye Bakker Messner passed away. I was only going to mention the amazing MP3 of her singing, "Jesus Keeps Taking Me Higher' that's on my iPod (for reasons that are somewhat unclear) with the catchy lyrics "higher and higher, higher and higher."

But then I saw this, and I started giggling, and now I've lost all sense of decorum and propriety. Oh, well. Please accept my apologies.

congo watch

"Congolese people live on hope."

7.21.2007

decisions, decisions

This is for my baby sister, whom I dearly love.

can't see texas from here

So. Here we are.

I go back and forth on whether to be worried about the situation in North Kivu. It's bad there, and there's no question that things are getting worse. Yesterday at an official security briefing, we were given troop strength estimates and other alarming information of a similar nature. I was so concerned by the information we were given that I called C and E. They've heard rumors that something will happen on the 26th. Which almost certainly means that nothing will happen on the 26th. Probably.

What is clear is that something is up. Diplomats from the UN, the European Union, the African Union, and a regional bloc, as well as the Belgian foreign minister, are all trying to talk the two sides down from confrontation. Which is a sure sign that something's going to happen.

I've heard that the powers that be were/are waiting for two things: the dry season and the end of the school year. The school year ended in early July; national exam results might be out in a week or two. There were some schools in remote parts of North Kivu who had to extend the school year to July 15, due to insecurity. The dry season is clearly here. We had a little rain last night, but it was the first rain in over two weeks. No one wants to go to battle in the forest when it's wet, and no one wants to be the guy accused of preventing children from getting an education.

Some members of the Congolese diaspora living in Europe sent a document to the UN yesterday. It calls for the establishment of an independent Kivu Republic, and says something to the effect that this should be a war to establish that republic. This is an old idea from the last war when a Rwanda-backed force controlled most of the eastern Congo. There was a separate government, a separate administration, separate taxes, separate almost everything (except for the national health system and the education system, interestingly enough).

At the meeting at which I heard this announced, there was a big gasp in the room from most of the Congolese present. I don't know anyone who thinks that such a republic could actually be established (the rebels have troops, but not that many troops, and they would only be able to take over if the Rwandans invaded, but Rwanda has way too much to lose from another invasion, and MONUC can't let anyone take Goma or Bukavu). Then again, if the Rwandans perceive an attack on Nkunda by the government as a precipitant of genocide against the Tutsis, all bets are off.

What everyone recognizes is that there are people who are trying to resurrect old conflicts (that were never really solved to begin with, which is the problem at the heart of the peace process in DR Congo), and that this could easily set off a course of events that could lead to really serious violence. Soon.

The strange thing about this is how utterly calm Bukavu feels. It's so much less tense than Goma. Life goes on. And it makes me wonder how people live like this for years on end, always knowing that something could blow up at any minute, always wondering if this will finally be the end of the war, or if it will go on and on and on.

I have two more weeks in Congo. Two more weeks to wonder, two more weeks to hope for peace. Two more weeks...

journalistic integrity

Melissa Rogers asks an excellent question about our national media's coverage of the religious right.

7.20.2007

no, no, no

Yet another horribly uninformed writer tries to argue that she has found the world's worst air travel experience, or in this case, the world's worst airline. (The whole thing is tacky in that it's framed around this week's crash of a flight in Brazil.) Here's my question for her and her travel-writer boyfriend: did their flights involve any of the following:
  • live crocodiles in the cargo hold between the passengers and the pilots?
  • seats that moved (as in, they weren't bolted to the floor) and could therefore be adjusted by any passenger to suit his or her legroom requirements, regardless of the consequences for landing and takeoff?
  • aerial sightings of anti-aircraft weaponry at the airport?
  • anyone pulling out a Hibachi grill to cook rice while airborn?
  • sitting with a child squeezed in between herself and another adult, meaning there were four people sitting side-by-side in three seats?
  • drunken Russian pilots?
  • being greeted upon landing by several teenage soldiers holding RPG's?
  • any other of the real-life nightmarish flight experiences I, my friends, and others flying in Congo and elsewhere in Africa and the world have endured?

No? Then it's not the world's worst airline. For goodness sakes, they gave you a hotel voucher for your trouble. Thank your lucky stars you made it out alive and stop complaining.

take me out

Hahahaha!

donne-moi

“Donne-moi.” Give me.

“Kusaidia.” Help.

I hear these two phrases a dozen or more times a day. “Mzungu, donne-moi cinq cent francs.” Give me a dollar. “Kusaidia, Mama.” Help me, lady.

Kusaidia is the infinitive and imperative form of the Swahili verb “to help.” When someone says, “Kusaidia,” they mean, help me, you’ve got to help me, you must help me. Help. Please.

“Donne-moi” is also the imperative. It’s the more intimate of the two conjugations of the French verb “donner,” to give. “Donne” is the “tu” form, the familiar. It’s the form you use with your closest friends, with family, or with those who are your social inferiors. So when someone says, “donne-moi...,” they’re saying, look, I know you, you are familiar, you need to give me something I need.

Talk about Jesus in his most distressing disguise.

I met an American pastor’s wife here once who said something about all these requests I’ve never forgotten. “You have to explain that if you gave them money, you’d have to give it to everyone,” she said, or something to that effect.

I remember this because at the time, I thought, “So what?”

The needs here are so overwhelming, the poverty is so great that the billions of dollars in aid often seems like a drop in a bucket. It’s nowhere near enough to quench the flames. There are plenty of ngo’s here, but foreign aid can only do so much in the face of so much suffering in almost every sector of society. What will happen in the long term is anyone’s guess. Some ngo’s try to create sustainable programs that will endure after they leave, but everything is dependent on donor financing. The child sponsorship programs won’t touch this corner of Congo – it’s too unstable to ensure that donor funds won’t be wasted.

And that pastor’s wife was right: you can’t possibly just give money to everyone who asks. It’s never going to be enough, it’s never going to help everyone, and it’s not a sustainable solution. It adds to the dependency problem that’s so rampant here, and it encourages people to assume that all white people, all westerners, are rich and can hand out money at will.

(Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that my 2 ounce bottle of moisturizer costs the equivalent of about 44 days’ worth of income for the average household in the eastern Congo. The total value of the electronics in my carry-on? Approximately 17 years’ worth of daily household income. If you don’t count the value of the music on my iPod.)

I had an interview this afternoon at a non-governmental organization with which I’m impressed. They seem to have a good approach to solving problems in a community-oriented, sustainable manner. The staff are almost all locals, meaning they understand what’s going on here. And that they’re here for the long run. Their projects are well thought-out and solve real problems, like the fact that many children go to school hungry. There aren’t free or reduced lunch programs in most Congolese schools, but this program runs school canteens to make sure that students can eat, and that they can therefore learn.

My interview subject was late, so I waited on a bench in the breezeway across from a father and his young daughter. She was really cute, about 8 years old, and wearing sunglasses that sat slightly askew on her face. When she raised them, I realized that she wore them because her right eye is swollen shut. Completely.

Her father noticed me noticing this and told me their story. His daughter has cancer. They’d spent the last nine months at a hospital in Kampala, leaving his wife and their other seven children behind to stay in a place where they don’t speak French, and where Swahili isn’t the main lingua franca as it is here. He’s lucky, he works for this particular organization and so has a decent job, but the hospital bills pile up, and the treatments his daughter needs are expensive. Seventy-five dollars each, and she had to have a series of eight. That’s not including the cost of housing, of food, of being away from a job for a whole school year. His wife doesn’t work at a formal job because she is so busy caring for their other children. “She sells small things to get $5, $10 so that she can go and buy food for the children,” he told me.

Everyone at this organization clearly loves this little girl, because every employee who passed by stopped to say hello, to ask her father how it had gone in Kampala, and to give her a hug.

Her father was waiting this afternoon to see the same person I was waiting to see, in hopes that the chef (as a bureau manager is called here) would be able to give him some money so he could afford the ticket to take his daughter back to Kampala for more treatment. I asked if the treatment before had been successful. “It’s a little better,” he said, “but...,” and his voice trailed off.

My heart broke into a thousand pieces.

He didn’t ask me for anything, but said that he and his wife were depending on God to bless them by providing for their daughter.

Here is a parent who so clearly loves his child, who, just like any of us, would do anything to assure her survival, including leaving behind his family for months on end and spending all their savings on her treatments. He sat across from me, next to his beautiful daughter, both of us almost in tears.

Things happened quickly after that: the chef showed up, and told me to wait five more minutes. He told the man and his daughter that it was time for them to go, then disappeared into his office with someone else. I don’t know if he could help them or not.

The man and his daughter stood up to go. I told him I would pray for them, and then I did something I usually wouldn’t do: I gave him some money. It’s not enough, it’s never enough, but it was all I could do to help alleviate her suffering, to help ease her father’s mind, to do something in the face of all this misery and poverty and despair.

They left, and I cried and cried until I remembered that I needed to pull it together for the interview. After, I left wondering whether I’d done the right thing, whether to even tell this story at all. Because I just don’t know what to do.

You can’t help everyone. You can’t give to everyone. But what do you do when, day after day, hour after hour, Jesus appears as the least of these our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and as a sick, sick child who won’t ever get to see the inside of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital? What do you do when he addresses you in the imperative? What do you do when the son of God speaks to you as someone who is familiar, as one who is known, as one who must help, whatever the cost? What do you do?


“Give to everyone who begs from you. …Do to others as you would have them do to you. …Be merciful.” - Luke 6:30-31, 36.

if you can't take the heat, stay out of the current

This is lame, lame, lame, lame, lame. If you can't handle the real deal, why bother?

Three weeks from today, I'll be on the Zambezi!

7.19.2007

be ye reconciled

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Congo, it’s that most aspects of human nature are universal. Sometimes this place seems like another world altogether, but again and again I’m reminded that we’re really not all that different when it comes down to the essentials. Politicians are greedy, corrupt, and will almost always say what they think you want to hear. Mothers will do anything to save their children’s lives. Unsupervised teenage boys with weapons will make stupid decisions and someone will be killed. People will often do the selfish thing, but sometimes choose to sacrifice their own well-being to serve another. At some basic level, we’re all the same.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the Baptists here don’t get along with one another either. Naturally. I’m not sure I completely understand what their split was about; it has something to do with ethnicity and long-ago grudges. So instead of there being one, unified Baptist group here in the eastern Congo, there are two separate associations, with separate bureaucracies, separate hospitals, separate schools.

Sound familiar?

Last month I wrote about my hopes for reconciliation in Baptist life, and how excited I am about the opportunity the New Baptist Covenant gives us to practice working together and living as God has called us to do. But after six weeks in the Congo, I’m remembering just how difficult a task reconciliation is.

There’s lots of talk about reconciliation in this corner of the world. Just yesterday I visited an NGO whose stated purpose is helping people to find a common basis for identity, work, and peace. There are many projects here designed to help women, children, former soldiers, and almost any imaginable group of people from different backgrounds work together to improve their lives.

Goodness knows central Africa needs reconciliation. After nearly fifteen years of instability and war, and after 4 million deaths at the hands of countless armies, militias, and armed gangs (and the poverty and sickness they leave in their wakes), it’s easy to see why one person might not trust another, especially if that “other” speaks a different language or comes from a different village. Even if that person is also Baptist.

Reconcile. What does it mean to be reconciled to one another and to God? Does it mean we agree to tolerate one another’s differences, while privately holding the conviction that the other person is wrong? Does it mean we must all be alike in thought and word and deed? Does it mean that we must have identical theologies, worship styles, and sermons?

I don’t believe it does. I’m not the sort of Christian who believes that the only true Christians are those who believe and worship exactly as I do. I’m just not convinced that God works that way. God’s grace is too wide, God’s mercy is too deep, God’s creation of a diverse world suggests so clearly that we’re not all meant to be the same. I think that applies to thought and theology as well as to physical appearance and temperament. If we’re all created in the image of God, then we all have something to learn about God’s nature from one another.

When I was 21, I met Desmond Tutu, who, of course, led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. About a year later, I met Xanana Gusmao, who would later become the first president of independent East Timor. Both of these men had an incredible presence, a charisma that drew you in and wouldn’t let you go. I don’t know how to describe it any better than that. I thought about it for a long time, and finally realized that what both men had in common was, that after a horrible experience of suffering, each made the choice to forgive. Neither sought revenge against his political enemies, though both would certainly have been justified in doing so. They could have punished their oppressors financially or otherwise, they could have allowed bitterness and anger to rule their hearts and their countries. Instead, they chose to forgive. They chose to call others to forgiveness. They chose to reconcile.

What they didn’t do, however, is let go of their principle convictions – about the nature of God, about the dignity of all people, about the right thing to do. Reconciliation is not synonymous with selling out.

I don’t understand reconciliation. It has something to do with forgiveness, and it has to do with choosing to believe that our commonalities are more important than our differences. It must mean realizing that in a world in which we are so much more the same than we are different, the cost of not reconciling is too high.

The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant will be an exciting opportunity to see what reconciliation looks like firsthand. It’s a chance for us to find out whether we’re capable of forgiving, capable of working together for a common cause. It’s a chance to say that we are not going to allow our fears of change and difference, and our longstanding disagreements to stand between us and the mission of serving others. After all, we’re mostly the same.

congo watch

Oh good land.

And I have nothing to say about this.

the big time

Oh, we're in it, baby.

Labels:

7.18.2007

stuff

Some blogs I've been enjoying:
  • Baptist Like Me is fantastic. Check out this post on moderate Baptists, an orthodox view of scripture, and what a more seriously Biblical political engagement might look like.
  • HIV/AIDS: My Journey posted a comment on my blog yesterday. Check out her haunting site, where she shares her journey of learning to live with HIV/AIDS in Nairobi. All the awareness-raising in the world is nothing compared to learning someone's actual story. Will you walk with her?
  • Letters from Kamp Krusty is just incredibly entertaining.

Other stuff:

life!

I had an interview yesterday that I expect I’ll remember forever.

It wasn’t easy to find. The office, which is a branch of the Archdiocese of Bukavu, is way up on the hill (the Catholics so claimed the best view in town when they picked the spot for the Procure, their University, and various and assorted other bureaux), past the university, and through a rural development institute at the end of the road. It’s not a place you would find by accident.

But I made it, finally, 15 minutes late by taxi, to my meeting at the center, and there I got to listen to Mathilde speak about her life, about Bukavu, and about how things have changed here over the years.

It was such a great interview. Most of the interviews I do are with men, and they all tell more or less the same story about the history of Bukavu’s civil society, about Mobutu’s era, about what happened when the war came. There’s clearly a common narrative here about what happened and why, and it’s the reason so many of my interviews have been somewhat less than exciting these last few days.

Mathilde’s story is different. She told me about two wars in three years, but she wasn’t talking about the most recent wars; these were the early rebellions that set Congo-Zaire on a disastrous course towards dictatorship. She told me about how things in the Congo and in Bukavu used to be so much better, even with Mobutu’s dictatorship. She told me about the center where she’s been working since the 70’s, about all the things they try to do to help mothers and children to be healthier, to have a chance. She talked about the problems of disorder, how people have little respect for even the most basic authority.

For ninety minutes, she told story after story and I wish to all heaven that the IRB didn’t make it so difficult to tape record interviews, because I’d love to have a recording of her story. She finished the main part of her speech and stared into the distance, wondering what on earth can be done to fix this mess.

After we finished the formal interview, Mathilde talked about her life and how it was that she came to work at the center. She told me about her shock as a girl of 15 in learning that 50% of Congolese children were dying before their fifth birthdays (this was in an era when there were no vaccination campaigns, when a polio epidemic struck, when the war in the east caused a famine – “I am one of eleven children,” she said, “but we in the city had no idea that children died.”), about how her family fled the insecurity in Bukavu for the countryside, about a teacher from her old school here who suggested that she work in this area by helping mothers and children. She took that advice, and here she is. “You’ve helped thousands and thousands of mothers and children,” I said. “Yes,” she replied.

Before I left, Mathilde took me on a brief tour of the facilities. I commented on how beautiful her view is, and she said, “I’ve been watching the city for over twenty years, how it was nice, then okay, and then bad.” Bukavu has fallen apart before her eyes, in plain view from a peaceful hilltop.

How sad it must be to watch the decline of a place you know and love. Of your home. But my goodness, what a difference Mathilde has made in this world, in her hometown. I can’t list all the things her program does: they have 7,000 young women and girls in vocational education programs since their families can’t afford their school fees, they run a line of microcredit, they do vaccination campaigns, and on and on and on.

At the end of the interview, I asked Mathilde what Olamé, the name of the center, means. “Vivez!” she replied loudly. “Live!”

“Olamé” is a word in a local language, Mashi, and, according to Mathilde, it connotes the idea of living life to the fullest. “I don’t know if you’re a Christian,” she said, “but Jesus said, ‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.’” It’s that kind of life, an overflowing, full, dynamic life. It’s the kind of life I hope to live. It’s a life that watches the world change from a mountaintop, but that refuses to avoid the pain and suffering in the valley below. It’s the kind of life that Mathilde has given in service, in love, and in hope for the women and children who suffer here so. Olamé!

7.17.2007

zip it

Well, somebody knows what happens to Harry Potter.

I might as well take this opportunity to issue a threat: if anybody (and I mean ANYBODY) tells me what happens before I get my hands on a copy (which won't be before I go to Nairobi August 5, and could possibly be as late as my arrival in London on August 14), we're not friends anymore. Got it? Good.

yup

You know it's bad if it makes the Post.

This, however, is slightly encouraging.

counting

I am so exhausted. Sunday night was a late night, out with Uncle Rene and his wife. We went to visit her older brother who is the Congo representative of Deloitte. Naturally. At this auspicious occasion, I was introduced to a five-foot tall Congolese professor who was both 1) drunk and 2) wearing man-capris. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but suffice it to say that I learned all of his opinions on the president of Congo’s relationship to the Interhamwe, Rwanda’s benevolent dictatorship (his words, not mine), and all matter of other subjects I’ve managed to forget. I’m hoping that he was too drunk to remember inviting me to come speak to his classes before I leave, but you never know.

Anyway, it was very sweet for Uncle Rene to invite me out. He and his wife are worried about my lack of a social life in Bukavu. It’s unthinkable to Congolese that spending a Sunday at home alone is okay. His wife is worried that I don’t have a television. The only thing that made her feel better were my assurances that I do have a laptop. But anyway, they’ll keep taking me out. And actually, Rene has invited me to go with him on a trip to the interior if I have time, which would be super-cool.

That’s all to say that I’m really, really tired. And despite the fact that I talked to seven very interesting people today, I’m feeling like the day wasn’t as productive as it could have been because I only got 3 real interviews.

This summer I need to average 4 interviews a day every workday for the three weeks that I’m in Bukavu. This won’t happen, there’s no way I’ll come out of here with 68 interviews, but 50 is what I need. I’m almost halfway there.

S was in Goma last weekend before I left, so we had dinner that Saturday night. It was so much fun. We’re two of the only women stateside who work on political science in the Congo, so it was really nice just to be able to talk about our experiences and not have to filter everything through the lens of politeness/saying things that won’t get you arrested.

We talked a lot about how exhausting fieldwork is, about how some interviews are so disappointing, and about how you know when it’s time to leave the field (when you know what your subjects are going to say before you ask the question. By that measure, I should have left three weeks ago.). We talked about the very real stresses of doing fieldwork here as opposed to the south of France, or even Latin America or Asia. (Quite frankly, we put up with a whole lot more than do most of our colleagues.) I was glad to hear that this had been a positive for S in her experiences on the job market.

We talked about how discouraging the whole process can be, how it all wears you down over time, how you have to leave the field before it makes you crazy. “Whenever I’m feeling bad,” she said, “I count my interviews.”

She’s right. I discovered this week that counting interviews is a fantastic boost to an academic’s fragile self-esteem. And there are different ways to count your interviews: number of people interviewed (sometimes you talk to two or three people at once) and number of interviews period (sometimes you interview people more than once) are two of my preferred methods. You can also count by city, country, year, nationality, or any other easily quantified or qualified measure.

I’m tired, but there are 115 good reasons for my exhaustion. And counting.

7.16.2007

what would jesus do?

This would really stink.

night cometh

Oh, it's coming.

And it's going to be nasty.

Sigh.

I should totally be in the other Congo this week.

apocalypso

Some days here are impossibly sad. Some days, like the days when I’ve seen too many rape victims, too many little girls who now have little girls themselves, too many starving children in the streets, the Congo just makes me cry. One of the hardest aspects of working in this corner of the world is learning how to process all the tragedies, how not to be paralyzed by the overwhelming need of it all.

But then there are the days that just make me laugh and laugh and laugh. Saturday was one of those days. In the midst of daily life and mundane tasks, and even among all the sorrow and suffering, there are so many things that are just hilarious here. I went into town to get internet access, did some grocery shopping and bought water and phone minutes, two of the biggest expenses here. (A case of water, 12 1.5 liter bottles, is $12. How much water do you drink every day?) I actually ended up making two trips downtown, because I failed to get everything on the first trip. Sigh.

One of the things I cannot find in Bukavu is a washcloth. I usually pack one, but I forgot, and C and E of course had them at their house in Goma. But here, nothing. I’ve looked all over the place in the stores that cater to expats, in stores that import stuff from Europe, and so far all I’ve found is a $30 bag of dishtowels. In La Beaute, which is as close as Bukavu gets to a supermarket and which uses a bizarre system of sale in which you must go to four (FOUR) different counters to make your purchase, I couldn’t find a washcloth, but I could have purchased, among many other items, Chana Masala, 7up Free, and a professional-quality sound board, which could have been mine for the low, low price of about 176,000 Congolese francs (that’s $352 for those of you who are comparison shopping).

To review, shopping in Bukavu: soundboard? Yes, no problem. Washcloths? No.

Anyway, in the midst of all this roaming about, I saw a store selling some particularly awesome t-shirts that say “Je suis fiere” (“I am proud”) and feature the Congolese flag. I Had to Have One of These and very politely asked the mama how much one t-shirt would be. “$10 for twelve,” she replied. I tried to explain that I really don’t have room in my baggage and that I only need one t-shirt, and asked if I could just buy one, but she said no, it’s $10 for twelve.

Keeping in mind that I would have paid $10 for one of these with no questions, I asked if I could buy one shirt for $5. She thought about it for a long time, then said, “Okay, I’ll give the other five to the poor.” We agreed that that was fair, and that she’d make sure that street children got the extra shirts. And then I realized that these would make fantastic gifts for some of you, and decided to keep two others, so that the street kids are only getting three. (Or they were, that is, until I realized that these shirts are nylon soccer jerseys, made in China, in children’s sizes. Ha!)

The thing that’s so funny is that I genuinely believe she’ll do it. She couldn’t believe I’d pay more than market value for a shirt, and I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t sell the shirts separately.

Then there’s the matter of hair. On the way back to the house for the first time, I noticed, for the first time, a beauty salon named Nixon Coiffure. Even funnier was the Intergalactic Coiffure hair salon, which I saw later in the afternoon. Its sign cites a verse from Revelation 20 as inspiration, which is even funnier because in French, “Revelation” is “Apocalypse.” Setting aside the question of exactly what either Richard Milhous Nixon or apocalyptic literature has to do with desirable hairstyles, I’d like to paraphrase Lyn here, who, in reference to John Hagee (who’s regularly on television here thanks to TBN Africa) said something to the effect that if you have to rely on Revelation to support your argument, it’s probably not a very good one.

Walking back to the house, I ran into my day guard, who was carrying the large, empty dog food bag that The Dog finished Friday night. He’d cut a handle into the plastic, and seemed glad to have it to use as a satchel. We greeted each other and said good evening, and I went back home, sad and amused all at once. He’d found a creative use for a strong piece of plastic. But he has a good job, he’s the guy who keeps my stuff and me secure. I’m paying his company $450 for him and the other two guards who are here round-the-clock, seven days a week. I hope that he’s getting at least enough salary from the security company that he can afford basic necessities, that he doesn’t have to use a discarded dog food bag to carry his clothes.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, they say. One person’s logic in naming a hair salon or deciding what products to sell isn’t always the same as the logic I would choose. One city is home to obscenely rich businessmen and to children who live alone on the streets, wearing rags, unless they’re lucky enough to run into a shopkeeper who wants to do the right thing.

After two years of coming to Congo, I’m still not comfortable with all the contradictions, that one city can be home to hundreds of thousands of people who hurt and who still dance, who starve most days and who feast on others, who beg God for deliverance and continue to worship when help never arrives. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this place, it’s that laughter and suffering live side by side, that people are resilient and creative, that the belief that joy will come in the morning can sustain us through almost anything. What can we do but cry? What can we do but laugh?

7.14.2007

"(except for the militia part)"

Hahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!

oh, yeah

So I'm going to be on both the national Congolese television station and the Catholic television station. Which makes the second time I will be appearing on a national broadcast in a central African country (the other time was in Cameroon. It's a Long Story.).

The other day, I was interviewing the chief medical officer of a big hospital just outside of town when a television reporter burst in and asked the doctor if he could film him talking about the hospital and its mission. I said I could leave, but the reporter insisted that we (by this point, there was an entourage of other hospital and health zone administrators) stay. We were all introduced on camera and filmed while looking interested in what the doctor was saying.

So there it is, my Congolese television debut. I'm guessing it will air today, because today is some international day having to do with doctors or medicine or something. Unfortunately, the peacekeeper's television isn't hooked up, so I'l miss it. Maybe next time. :)

at last!

I finally found a better internet cafe! I still can't post pictures, but I can upload them to the Internets, so if you'd like to see some pictures of the beautiful city of Bukavu, you can look at those here.

It's the weekend, so things are pretty low-key in Bukavu. Yesterday I had good interviews in the morning, then struck out at 4 different ngo's in the afternoon. It was a little depressing, but I should be able to get interviews at each place eventually.

Otherwise, things here are fine. I wish I had more to write about, but for the moment, it's pretty low-key. I am housesitting for a civilian peacekeeper who's on holiday. The house is not super-nice, but it's perfectly adequate and comfortable, and she has tons of DVD's, so when the electricity is on, I have entertainment.

Her dog, however, is another story. Perhaps I should give some background. In 2000, I was an intern in Yaounde, Cameroon. I had a great house there provided by my internship, but part of the deal was that I had to put up with the animals of the former occupant, who was moving to another post (and who had removed all of her stuff, except her animals, from the country). So I got to spend the summer with an ill-tempered dog and a trilingual parrot.

Now. I don't have anything against dogs or pets in general, but I think it's pretty cruel to drag your dog to Africa, where he or she will be exposed to all kinds of nasty diseases, bugs, and water. Not to mention the heat. And it may have just been me, but it seemed pretty clear that the Yaounde dog didn't seem to like Africa one little bit. He hated being outside and spent most of his time trying to get wet and shaking water all over the living room.

I swore I would never watch anyone else's pets in Africa again.

Enter Bukavu. See, the plan was that I would stay at the Procure. S was in Goma last Saturday night, so we had dinner and talked about Bukavu, which she knows much better than I. Sunday when she got to B, she called some friends, determined that, while the Procure itself is perfectly safe, its neighborhood is inaccessible and sketchy after dark, and she found me a house to housesit. I met the peacekeeper on her way out of town Tuesday morning, agreed to watch her dog in exchange for cheap rent, and moved into a little house near the MONUC compound and the French consulate (the fact that there's a French consulate tells you just how different Bukavu is from Goma).

And then I met The Dog. Who is, to be fair, a perfectly nice dog. He actually seems to be a little depressed that he's been left behind. When I try to play with him, he often just stares and then goes back to sleep. The peacekeeper warned me that The Dog would be sad without her around, so I'm not terribly concerned. He's still breathing and eating normally. But. But.

The first night I was there, The Dog started barking at 3:30am. Were there robbers? A storm? Did he need to go out? No, no, and no. He wanted to play. At 3:30 in the morning.

I don't have time for this. And I don't have much of an appreciation for a dog who refuses to go out and do his business after 7pm, but who then wakes me up howling at 6:30 or 7 if I haven't already let him out. I need to sleep. That's all I'm saying.

I shouldn't complain. It's good to have another inexpensive place to stay. And The Dog will be going to stay with someone else in a week or so. For this, I am grateful. And I hereby swear, once again, with all of you as witnesses, that I will never, EVER again agree to watch someone else's dogs in Africa.

from friday

I was wrong yesterday. I got home last night, counted it up, and realized that I did nine interviews in one day, not eight. Nine is, without a doubt, Too Many for one day. At this rate, I can take off for vacation two weeks early. Which, of course, I won’t. But it’s tempting.

How did this happen, you might ask? Well, it’s kindof a long story. I started the day with one planned interview, stopped by another office and found someone who was eager to talk, and was making my way to my 10am appointment with the rough equivalent of a District Health Commissioner when I saw his car driving down the main road. In the wrong direction. He stopped, picked me up, and pointed out that he still had 6 minutes to get to our appointment. We went on his errands, then made it to the hospital, where the doctor to whom he was going to introduce me was otherwise occupied. “Do you want to go to the health zones?” he asked. “You’d have to pay for the fuel.”

$25 of gas later and we were off to see three hospitals and two health zone officials. Bukavu is bizarre in that most of its big, important hospitals are in almost rural areas. I don’t get it, but, anyway, it was worth $25 because I never would have found these places on my own, and the fact that their boss ordered them to talk to me meant that I had no problems with access.

(There was one funny thing that happened in the midst of all this. While visiting Chiriri Hospital (in the middle of nowhere, yet still technically the main hospital for 1/3 of Bukavu), a television crew burst into the chief doctor’s office asking him to say some words about the hospital. So, long story short, I’m going to be not only on Congolese national television, but also on the Catholic station. (This is not, sadly, my first appearance on African television, but that’s another story.)

Then I had to excuse myself for an appointment to which I was already 20 minutes late (although it turned out that doctor had forgotten we’d made an appointment). This one was at another far-flung hospital, but Panzi Hospital is quite famous. Panzi is in the Ruzizi River valley, which would have been a lovely drive had my taxi driver not blown out a tire on the horrible road leading that way. (The guy should be training for a pit crew; he changed the flat in less than 4 minutes using a tiny hand-cranked jack.)

At Panzi, I had easy access because the chief doctor is Alain’s wife’s uncle (go fig), and did an interview with him in which he told me that describing the Congolese health system would be a thesis in itself. (This made me feel lots better about how confusing it is.)

After that, I talked with someone from the health zone staff before taking a very amusing shared taxi ride back to the city. Seems MONUC was trying to haul water somewhere, but the road is not wide enough for MONUC and all the taxis, thus there was a massive traffic jam. “Wouldn’t it be faster to walk?” I asked the pediatrician who was in the front seat of the cab. “Yes,” he replied, and so we walked 100 meters past the backup, he found a taxi to get us the rest of the way into town, and that was that.

7.13.2007

on and on and on and on

Well, we're back to not being able to post anything:
  • Yesterday's interview total was 9, not 8. Mon Dieu.
  • I should have remembered my 2000-in-Cameroon vow to Never Watch Anyone's Dog in Africa Again. More on that later.
  • I have visited 6 Congolese hospitals in the last 30 hours. I also petted The Dog. Any bets on what diseases I've been exposed to?
  • T has typhoid and E has malaria. I'm innoculated against the former and taking meds against the latter. So my money's on TB.
  • Saving up podcasts for three months was a really good idea, because now I have something to do while sitting in the house alone at night in the dark.

kudzu!

How sad that Doug Marlette died. Here's a great story about his legacy.

7.12.2007

Rest in peace, Lady Bird. And thank-you for the flowers...

yes!

So today the internet connection is okay, but I don't have anything new written, and it's about to get dark here, so I have to go. But there's hope that this blog won't be so boring in the weeks to come! :) Thanks for sticking with me.

a prayer for henri

from tuesday:

I was going to write today about the long and funny boat ride from Goma yesterday, about arriving in Bukavu, about how much nicer everything is in a place that hasn’t had a volcano go down its main street. I want to tell you about how beautiful it is here, how helpful Alain’s Birkenstock-wearing, agronomist uncle Rene is, how I’ve already interviewed five of my most important subjects. I could tell you about the lecture (complete with a map and a chart) I got from a health official, about meeting an amazing woman who’s working with journalists from Rwanda and Burundi to produce a radio series on sexual violence, about how everyone in this town knows my friend J and my “brother” J.

I planned to write about how glad I am to be in a real house now, because when I arrived at the procureate yesterday, I knew that, although the simple room is perfectly adequate, more than one night there would have made me cry. And I have to mention meeting one of the German academics whose work on Congo I really respect, and how cool it was when he said, “It sounds like you really know the literature” (at which I thought, “Could you put that in writing for the Advisor?”). It was a good day.

But. My time is limited, my internet access even more so now, and I had a conversation last night that I will remember for a long time. I was the only female guest at the procurate, so at dinner last night, everyone was very curious as to what I’m doing here. (Hence meeting the academic.) Two wonderful priests who are cousins, Delphin and Henri, sat across from me. Henri and I had a long discussion. He is waiting for his visa to go to the seminary at the Vatican, where he’ll be studying for a doctorate in church sciences for the next eight years. He’s from a village near a rural town in the northern part of South Kivu, near the Masisi mountains. “Oh, it’s beautiful there,” he kept saying. Beautiful mountains, just beside the lake. If the view from the boat is any indication, Henri is from paradise.

Henri has been to Germany, and that experience seemed to make him think a lot about what his life is about to be like. We talked about the difference in African cultures and Western cultures, especially concerning the different attitudes towards individual identity and community that so mark our two societies. In Congo (really, everywhere I’ve been in Africa), identity is not the same as it is in America. You are not so much an individual as you are a part of a community. An individual’s conception of the universe is much more a “we” than an “I.” This makes a difference in how you live your life. Good fortune for one member of a family is good fortune for every member of that family, so if you get rich, everyone gets rich. If bad times come, everyone else tries to help you along.

And we talked about how everything in the west is man-made, while in Africa, “we live a natural life,” he said. He told me about a German friend who had visited, and the trip they took through the Kivus. She had never seen coffee or bananas or any of the things she eats growing, he reported incredulously.

Henri returned again and again to the theme of solitude. I think he may be afraid of being left alone in Rome. He asked me if I knew anyone who’s gone from Africa to the west and ended up alone all the time. I told him about my sister’s adventures in Ghana with people knocking on her door at 6am so she’d have company. He told me how he sat in an airport in Germany waiting for three hours for someone to help him. “That would never happen here,” he said a little sadly, and we talked about how helpful people are here. “But when your skin is this color…,” he said, trailing off.

I’m going to keep Henri in my prayers, and I hope you will, too. Eight years is a long time to leave your beautiful homeland for a big city full of people who are too busy to give a Congolese priest the time of day, let alone help him navigate their madhouse of a train station. And Henri will never be the same after this doctoral work. So I will pray that Henri will find community in Rome, that he won’t be left alone too much, that he will be able to get away from the city to a place that is green and full of growing things that remind him of home. Most of all, I’ll pray that he won’t be afraid, but that his journey into another world will be marked with love and a sense of being exactly where he is called to be. Amen.

as you can see, nothing but fun

Brief notes from the last 24 hours:
  • I did 8 interviews today. I am exhausted.
  • Yesterday on the way home, my moto-taxi driver didn't pull over when the cop told him to. The cops have no weapons or cars, so they can't do much about it, but this cop managed to make it over to take a swing at the driver. He ended up hitting me, hard. No bruise, but I'm adding "police brutality" to the list of things I've had to endure for this dissertation.
  • I just got back from a hospital at which 50-60% of the patients are rape victims. This is because it's the reference hospital for the province for victims of sexual violence. That the province needs this is the real issue.
  • Yesterday someone asked me to explain the electoral college.
  • The same person asked me what I think of Gramsci's theory of hegemony.

7.11.2007

quickly

These have to be short, so here's my life, in brief:
  • Nice house, but with a dog who barks at 3:30am, I don't get to sleep.
  • Good interviews. Subject mentioned Gramsci this morning and I had to laugh.
  • Very frustrated with current internet situation, but getting a lot done.
  • Miss y'all!

7.10.2007

still here

Well, this stinks. The connections here are so bad that I can't publish anything of any length. Which is too bad, because today's post was a good one. :) I'll keep trying.

7.09.2007

safe in bukavu

I had a long post written, but just lost it. It was a long way of saying that I'm here and everything's fine. More tomorrow.

7.07.2007

salle d'attendre

Everything in my perfect living situation stopped working yesterday and today. For some reason - a fuse blew or something - there's no longer electricity in my room. The internet's out, and there was no hot water today (which was better than yesterday, when there was no water, period.). There's also a visiting pastor who showed up last night, which means I have to sit at the dinner table for 4 hours through conversations about people I don't know. I know I have no right to complain about these things - it's enough to have a safe place to stay, plenty of food to eat, bottled water to drink. But I've been here for a month, and I'm used to things working, and, well, my amusement with Congo is somewhat limited this weekend.

In other words, I'm grumpy. That's why I thought today's picture should be of a waiting room. In Congo, we spend lots of time waiting for everything. Waiting to see someone who might or might not be able to arrange an appointment, waiting for the person with whom you'd made a 10am appointment to show up to work for the day, waiting for the bus to leave, waiting, waiting, waiting. "Haraka, haraka haina baraka" goes the proverb. "Hurry, hurry has no blessing." And so we wait, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, but always, we wait.

Since the wireless is out, you're probably going to have to wait for another blog post. The internet cafes are closed on Sunday, and I catch a boat to Bukavu first thing Monday morning. (Mercifully, I am taking the fast boat, the one that costs more and is thus in better condition than the overnight boat that collided with a pirogue and killed several people last night. Twenty-two are still missing, because the problem here is that most people don't know how to swim.) My living situation is maybe set, or maybe not, but at the moment, it appears I'll be staying at the Catholic procurate in Bukavu. (The Swedish Pentecostals are sadly full, and the Norwegian Pentecostals apparently don't take guests.) I'm doubtful that there will be much electricity or water there, but if not, I'll find something else.

Hope you all have a great weekend, wherever in this world you are, and whatever is or is not working in your life. I'll be back hopefully by Monday afternoon.

7-7-7

Happy anniversary to my parents, who were so ahead of the getting-married-on-7/7-trend. They celebrate 34 years of marriage today. I love you, mom and daddy!

oh my gosh

Someone fell in the volcano.

Thursday afternoon, I was walking to get my bus ticket, when a group of British and French students approached me. They needed help finding a grocery store, as they were preparing to climb and descend the Nyiragongo volcano on Friday. The volcano is, in general, the only reason there are ever any tourists in Goma. Some also try to see the gorillas every now and then, but most people come in for a day or two, then hightail it out of town as fast as possible.

This morning, I stopped by that same store, and was asked if I'd heard from them. I said no, and my friend there didn't tell me what he'd probably heard: that a tourist fell in on Friday.

She was, apparently, Chinese, and according to Radio Okapi, it's unclear whether she fell in the lava or if she is caught on the rocks.

My friend here says it's true, and that she died. MONUC is apparently engaged in the search.

How awful.

Several other friends were planning to climb the volcano today. I wonder if they were allowed to go. Yikes.

UPDATE: Holy crap, she survived the initial fall. It's unclear whether she's alive or dead at this point as they had to suspend rescue operations after dark last night.

UPDATE: Goma's Volcanic Observatory confirms that the victim died. Jacques the volcanologist and a team of MONUC peacekeepers are working on recovery efforts.

mama helene and my brothers


I wrote the other day about visiting my friend Mama Helene's home. We have a joke that she is my Congolese mother, and that her four sons are thus my brothers. Here they are standing in front of their new home, the one they had to start over in after the volcano destroyed everything they owned. As you can see, it's a simple house, but it's neat. They have a television and a refrigerator, if not insulation and solid walls. All four boys just finished another year of school.

By local standards, they are doing pretty well, but by the standards we have at home, Mama Helene and her family are poor. They have a television, but they don't have indoor plumbing, and their home has no security. They don't live behind a wall like I do. If armed men came to rob them or worse, they'd be at the bandits' mercy.

What difference does it make in my life to know that one of my friends lives like this? This is not an abstraction, this is not a cute kid on the street, this is not a picture of refugees you see sitting in a camp in some desert somewhere awful. This is reality. This is my friend. These are my brothers. This is their life.

Mama Helene is thankful for God's grace and thankful to have a job. I am thankful to count her as a friend. And I don't know what to do.

and yet

There are apparently 40,000 more single men in Austin than single women. I love Strange Maps. But what this particular map doesn't tell you, at least when it comes to Austin, is that 39,999 of those single guys in Austin are drunken undergraduates, and the other one is genetically incapable of commitment. I'm just sayin'.

7.06.2007

what a name

"Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS" - W. Maxwell Lawton

judge who?

So as some of you may recall, my Sunday School class spent the spring studying the book of Judges, which we all concluded was pretty wacky, and therefore proceeded accordingly by taking turns teaching the lessons with games, songs, and whatnot.

The Father of Two had the brilliant idea to end the series with a round of Judges Jeopardy!, which he kindly posted on the internets for those of us who find ourselves on the other side of the world for the summer. I hope you'll check it out for your own edification and play along. I can't decide which category I like better: "Strong Women, Wimpy Men," or "Dismembered Body Parts/Painful Ways to Die."

Either way, congratulations to the Librarian on her Judges Jeopardy! victory are in order. Way to go!!!

(Please forgive me for linking without permission. I'm laughing too hard not to share this.)

innocence

This child has parents, but they aren't very good parents. He roams the streets during the day, hanging around Heal Africa to beg for food and money. But look at that smile. Sometimes you have to smile, otherwise you'll cry.

7.05.2007

"Our creativity got out in front of our common sense"

Hahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

calm

MONUC says that "the situation in the eastern DRC is calm." This is true. As they point out, they've reinforced their capacity in North Kivu. Never mind that most of those APC's are sitting on the tarmac at the Goma Airport; Goma, for the moment, is calm.


The question is whether or not the situation, especially in North Kivu, will remain calm. I had two meetings with people whose opinion I trust this week. One thinks there's nothing to worry about. The other analyst (who has more experience in Kivus) is quite concerned that something will happen. ("It's not a great time to be conducting research in the Kivus," he said.) A brigade of soldiers is supposed to redploy out of the city tomorrow. They were supposed to leave today, too. Nobody knows what will happen if they refuse to go.


But the thing is, for now, the situation really is calm. There's nothing to worry about. In Goma, for the moment, at least.


Today Mama Helene invited me over to her home for lunch. I didn't really know what to expect; her family lives in the nicer part of town, but their home is more basic than I expected. They live under a tin roof, with wooden walls and a concrete floor. It's adequate and very neat, but surely doesn't keep out all the rain and cold. She explained to me that the volcanic eruption in 2002 completely destroyed her family's home. "By the grace of God," she said, "we survived," because they were at the church (Mama Helene and her family are Baptists.).


They survived, but they lost everything. She was pregnant with her fourth son, they had to go to Rwanda (which means they almost certainly had to go to a refugee camp for a bit), and when they returned, they had to find a new place and start over from scratch. Her brother gave her a job in his store so they could survive (her husband doesn't have a job), so they are okay. The boys are well-dressed and in school, and the family has a refrigerator and a television, if not good electricity. But I'm sad that my friend has to live like this.


After that, I went to my interview with the analyst, and then I walked over to the Ihusi Hotel to buy my ticket for the boat to Bukavu. As I was walking, four (very) white college students approached me. One of them said, "Excuse me, do you speak French or English?" "Both," I replied, and learned that they're here to climb the volcano. They wanted to know where to get supplies for the climb, so I said I would show them where to go.


"Do you like it here?" one of them asked while we were waiting to go to a grocery store. "I love it here," I replied.


It's true. It's chaotic and nothing works right and people suffer and there's a volcano that's going to blow Goma away one day, but I love it here. I love the total freedom. I love that people are so helpful that they'll drop everything to show a stranger where to go. I love that a phone call from a friend's friend's wife's father means that I'll have a place to stay and instant contacts in Bukavu.


I love that cell phone numbers are collected like currency here, because everyone knows that connections are synonymous with power. I love the shocked stares of children who aren't used to seeing someone like me ride around on moto-taxis. I love the looks on the faces of the taxi drivers who argue with Congolese friends that I should have to pay more than normal because I'm white when they realize that I understand Swahili.


I love the dancing in the clubs late an Saturday night, in the churches on Sunday morning, at the politicians' speeches all week long. I love the music that permeates every aspect of life here. I love the madness of the market. I love the guy who won't let me take a picture of his cowboy boot stand without charging me $10, which I refuse to pay (you'll have to use your imagination).


I love I'm part of a small group of outsiders who are dedicated to studying the Congo long-term, that we can meet in Goma and Nairobi and New York to trade information, year after year, laugh about what's changed, see if we can predict what will happen next. I love that the president's wife is building her new lakeside villa on top of the lava flow that ended up in the lake in 2002 - the same lava flow that destoryed Mama Helene's home but not her life. Why not? Nothing will ever grow there, and your home's bound to be structurally unsound eventually, and the scientists are pretty sure that there's a big bubble of methane that will burst out from under the lake one day, but, hey, it's there, it's land for the taking, and it definitely has location, location, location.


That's the thing about Congo. Life here is fragile, and it is short, and it is full of suffering, but it is also lived. You don't know what will happen tomorrow, let alone in a week. It may be calm, it may be anything but. All you can do is keep going. All you can do is climb that volcano, build a new home, bring home your mzungu friend to meet your sons, and dance, dance, dance the nights away. All you can do is live.