December 22, 2005

What the hell...Merry Christmas!!

**Belitteling efforts of Politically Correctness and Cultural Sensitivity across the globe, 007 wishes everyone a Merry Christmas!!!**

Hey folks, it's almost the holiday season and so, as I must, I am sending you warm wishes. But seriously, this time of year invariably reminds me of all the people I love and (I hope) love me back.

Unfortunately, distance makes interacting with friends and family very difficult. I miss you all and my only wish is that we can remain close despite my poor attempts in keeping in touch. Got that Santa?

And what the heck, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Kwanza! I'll even throw in a Very Happy Holiday Season for those hippy people who don't believe in organized religion and won't buy their kids a present to discourage marketers.

Mom, I hope you got me a present this year.

December 20, 2005

Waiting for Their Moment in the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

Being a bit of a feminist in a country that has a very strict set of rules for men and women, I wanted to share this great article about the new election of a female president in Liberia and its meaning for Congolese women.



You can't get to Bukavu, Congo , from Monrovia , Liberia . Like just about everywhere else in Africa , the two places are separated by dense rain forests, interminable wars and impassable dirt roads that don't go anywhere.

Yet they might as well be the same place. "Oh, finally, now I'm home," I thought as I crawled out of the tiny single-engine plane and jumped onto the landing strip of what passes for Bukavu's airport. It was about six months ago, and I was on a reporting trip throughout Africa . It was a weird trip for me because I was there to write about poverty and development, yet everywhere I went, from Accra , Ghana , to Mekele, Ethiopia and Kisumu, Kenya, I kept thinking that none of those places, for all of their endemic poverty or corruption, seemed as bad off as my own home country, Liberia.

Until, that is, I got to Bukavu (in the D.R.Congo). After the semidesert of Ethiopia and the savannahs of Kenya, Bukavu was otherworldly lush, with that tropical just-rained smell that often greets me when I go home to Liberia . Leafy, green mountains and valleys surrounded the teeming city, with rich banana trees and tea plantations dotting the countryside: the same luxuriant, verdant landscape we have around Monrovia .

And the same inexplicable sense of abandonment that comes from having a population ravaged by years of pointless civil wars. Thousands upon thousands of young boys troll fetid, trash-strewn streets, with nowhere to go. Downtown buildings, long devoid of any commerce, are marked with holes from rockets, grenades and the various other projectiles common to all of the continent's numerous wars. A few private cars - mufflers dragging, crammed with 10, 15, even 20 people - travel the crater-filled streets, but mostly just the white United Nations S.U.V.'s.

What struck me most, though, in Bukavu were the women. As I drove into the city, I passed women I have known all of my life. There were old women - old in Africa means 35 or so - with huge bundles of bamboo sticks on their back. In most cases, the burdens were larger than the backs carrying them as they trudged up one hill after another. There were market women in their colorful dresses - in Liberia we would call them lapas - huddled together on the side of the road selling oranges, hard-boiled eggs and nuts.

There were young women and girls, sitting in front of village huts bathing their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters in rubber buckets. No electricity or running water was anywhere close, but one 10-year old girl had dragged a bucket of dirty creek water up the hill to her house so she could wash her 4-year-old sister.
These were the women I grew up with in Liberia , the women all across Africa - the worst place there is to be a woman - who somehow manage to carry that entire continent on their backs.

In Liberia, when their sons were kidnapped and drugged to fight for rebel factions, and when their husbands came home from brothels and infected them with H.I.V., and when government soldiers invaded their houses and raped them in front of their teenage sons, these were the women who picked themselves up and kept going. They kept selling fish, cassava and kola nuts so they could feed their families. They gave birth to the children of their rapists in the forests and carried the children on their backs as they balanced jugs of water on their heads.

These are the women who went to the polls in Liberia last week. They ignored the threats of the young men who vowed more war if their chosen presidential candidate, a former soccer player named George Weah, didn't win. "No Weah, no peace," the boys yelled, chanting in the streets and around the polling stations.

The women in Liberia, by and large, ignored those boys and made Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, the first woman elected to lead an African country. I wasn't surprised that Mr. Weah immediately said the vote had been rigged, although international observers said it had not been. In the half-century since the Europeans left Africa , its men have proved remarkably adept at self-delusion.
No one can be sure what kind of president Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated banker who was imprisoned by one of the many men who ran Liberia into the ground over the last few decades, will be. There are plenty of African women who have brought us shame, from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in South Africa to Janet Museveni in Uganda . But after 25 years of war, genocide and anarchy, it's a good bet that she will smoke the men who preceded her in running the country. It's not going to be that hard to do; Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is following Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe, both butchers of the first degree.

Ever since the voting results started coming in a few days ago, showing what the Liberian women had done, I've been unable to get one image from Bukavu out of my mind. It is of an old woman, in her 30's. It was almost twilight when I saw her, walking up the hill out of the city as I drove in. She carried so many logs that her chest almost seemed to touch the ground, so stooped was her back. Still, she trudged on, up the hill toward her home. Her husband was walking just in front of her. He carried nothing. Nothing in his hand, nothing on his shoulder, nothing on his back. He kept looking back at her, telling her to hurry up.

I want to go back to Bukavu to find that woman, and to tell her what just happened in Liberia . I want to tell her this: Your time will come, too.

November 16, 2005
Editorial Observer

Thanks Chelsea who'd love to be in Africa, for posting on my GuestMap!

December 14, 2005


1. I have a mysterious stomach ailment that has me eating rice and apple sauce for the last two days
2. I am going on the field tomorrow (2 days trip, one day field work)
3. I will be going to Mbuji-Mayi where, a few months ago, they retained my passport overnight and could only hand it over to me after I donated $60
4. I will be returning on Saturday because Sunday is the day that people vote for the Referendum (whether to accept or refuse the new constitution--which, incidentally, has been somewhat modified from the one defended in front of the authorities a little while ago). Social "incidents" are expected.
5. I will be returning with on an unsafe plane

A Goat (two)

So my boss called me at home yesterday and said he just couldn't keep the two goats (one for me and the other for the health department) because he couldn't feed them. When could I come get them?

Having no backyard, we ruthlessly decided to transform them into small packages of meat (neccesiting I'm sure, the intervention of a butcher) and distribute them around.

Upon learning this, my colleage exclamed, "please reserve a head for me". The worst part of it was that I stayed up in my bed thinking how the heck one would cook a goat's head. Do they even make pots that big?

December 12, 2005

(11) A not very sturdy Bridge
Bridge that we had to cross a few miles after the river. Needless to say, I promptly got off of the motorcycle and walked across it, arms outstretched.

(12) Pygmee Child and Motorcycle

(13) Sister and Chicken
We rode in the front of a truck on the way back and carried (I am not joking) in the back: a mass of luggage, several containers of petrol, one live goat, 5 live chickens, one live duck, several cocoons of caterpillars, one whole smoked monkey, one sister, one old woman, one mechanic, and a spare tire.

(14) The Thinking Man
Our driver ponders how to get the massively heavy truck from out of a sandbank. Later down the road, we are stopped for an hour because the car won't start. It turns out there was a loose wire on the car battery.

(15) Yum, Grubs
Upon my arrival, we buy a few grubs for dinner. I tried these a few months ago, in the interest of science, and found them pretty gross. Now termites, on the other hand, are scrumptious.

Thanks Meirion from Wales for Posting on my GuestMap!!!

December 09, 2005

(6) Mr. Potato Head
We took advantage of a potato farmer and bought his entire stock of potatoes. Agriculture is not diversified at all (the major crops are by far manioc, rice and corn) so when you see something different, you better take advantage of it.

(7) Pushing Tin
We only had to push the car four times--which is not bad considering the van was woefully inadequate for field driving. And when I say we, I mean the men. I politely stayed out of their way.

(8) Yayoo!
As we got to our destination, every village welcomed us with brightly colored wreath, songs and drugs beats (the typical drum there is flat and elongated). I suspect a good bit of PR work was done prior to our arrival.

(9) School in Vango
We arrived to Vango, which is about 7 kilometers from our destination, just before the river. This school teaches latin (!), french, math, geography etc... It is completely isolated yet the wealthiest villagers send their kids there. The dormatories house about 23 girls and 25 boys. This was an old convent in 1960 when Belgian people lived in the area. There are now no foreigners within 250km and the building is falling in serious disrepair.

(10) Crossing the River
Try as we might, there would be no way to get the car from Vango to Lomela--because a river runs between them. We left the car in someone's yard, loaded the pirogues and got to the other side where a whole congration of people we waiting for us. Surprisingly enough, the pirogues were sturdy enough to carry all the motorcycles across too.

(1) A Safe Plane
The beginning of our trip was a plane ride from busy Kinshasa to sleepy Lodja. We got to board the safe plane, which made 92.7% of my anxiety concerning the trip disappear. Unfortunately, the CEI (Comité Eléctorale Indépendante) had rented the cargo space for its computers and printers to register people for voting, so we had to leave behind some auto-claves, markers and flipcharts for the evaluation and a few drugs behind.

(2) Antonia Again
I staid at the brother's place in Lodja and was happy to hang out with Antonia again. She seemed in good spirits but her energy was considerably lower than usual, perhaps owing to the recent bout of stomach troubles (seems like children gave her rotten fruit again).

(3) How to Fix a Car Tire the Real' Old Fashion Way
We spend the next morning fixing care tires the old fashion way. I remember having to do the same thing to my bike tire but, trust me, this is considerably more work. We set off two hours late, which isn't bad considering African time.

(4) A Motorcycle
We were lucky enough to find space in the vehicle but some of our collegues had to use motorcycles--which doesn't leave much room for your personal belonging when you have to bring as many containers of fuel as you can carry.

(5) A Possum and a Posse
Apparently this is not a possum but rather a forest rat. These boys were selling the rat to interested travellers. After finding out that the meat was two days old, a sister decided against purchasing the meat to prepare for dinner.

December 08, 2005

A Goat

So, my trip to the field was great, and I still haven't forgotten the assignment I set up for myself.

I just learned a few hours ago that our partner on the field, sent us a freight of two live goats with three packages of bush meat as a thank you gesture.

So my day is now consisting of --in between the running around to get reports finished, organizing yet another trip to the field, tracking down all paperwork for this and that--trying to get the poor goats from their lieu of arrival into a nice, clean garden wedged in a popular neighborhood of Kinshasa.

The two goats are now waiting the arrival of their new owner: my boss. Hehe, surprise Mr. Boss.

I can't wait to meet the goat...on a BBQ with sweet and tangy sauce!

Thanks Elizabeth for posting on my GuestMap...Afghanistan is a pretty crazy place to be I imagine!

December 05, 2005

Blog Assignement

So, here I am, back from a 10-day trip to the field. I am catching up on all the other blogs out there and noting on interesting entry on Acceptable Forms of Humiliation vs. Non-Acceptable Forms of Humiliation that Civil Servants subject Humanitarian workers to from Candide's blog.

Which makes me reflect on my just newly-minted trip, where (I shit you not), I was locked in the airport gates --I could leave through the back way but still-- and had to physically remove my passport from the immigration office where it was wedged in between a folder and a wall. It's a long story, but let's just say that I managed to piss off an immigration officer by not paying the bribe and making him feel like his job was redundant.

I swear (I say this often), if I didn't have a sense of humor, I'd be on the first plane outta here.

Annnnnyways, I have given myself the following blog assignment:
1. Describe the logistics of getting from Kinshasa to Lomela (an enclaved region in Sankuru) in 10 pictures or less.


On a positive note, I dreamt of Joachim Phoenix two days ago, which is a notable improvement on Zombies.

November 23, 2005


I finally get my travel advance and my departure schedule. Though I will be the last one to be picked up in the morning, I still need to be there by 6AM. Oy!

I scribble a card to put on packages and get my act together to drive to a hotel where an acquaintance of a friend from Canada is waiting for package drop off (the package will be carried in his luggage from Kinshasa to Montreal). It's 6:09PM and I still haven't packed for tomorrow.

Stressed? Who me?


I get the money for partners, and the packages containing flipcharts, pens, pencils, sharpers, erasers are packed up. Due to weight restriction, we choose to pack an important computer and leave behind boxes of candles, matches, soaps and toilet paper. I manage to take 4 rolls of toilet paper for participants, three soaps for hand-washing for participants before meals, 6 personal candles and a few books of matches.

I receive the loan of an LCD screen for Powerpoint projections.

I also plan to pack candies (both hard and soft) for the last day. Surely, even grown Congolese doctors on the field like candies.

4:15 PM

I have received confirmation that I have a spot on the nice airplane.

One down, 4 to go.

It's 4 O'Clock

in the afternoon and I should be leaving for an evaluation on the field tomorrow.

(1) I still don't have a plane ticket:
-I have been told I could either take a nice flight,
-A flight that has been banned by our organization, or
-I might be asked to stay in the office to work on a new proposal
-As a matter of fact, I have been told that I may be contacted by email while on the field, return early, travel all day by motorcycle, take an unsafe plane boack and leave the next day to Kenya. In that case, I will be packing a small backpack. Suckers don't know that I have no email access while on the field

(2) I don't have money for my trip and am still waiting to hear from finance before they leave at 5PM (on the dot)

(3) I don't have the thousands of dollars I am supposed to bring to the field--still waiting for finance

(4) I don't have the flipcharts, markers, pens, pencils, pencils sharpeners, toilet paper, soap I ordered three weeks ago for this evaluation

(5) I haven't gathered all my reports and read all necessary materials. Am doing that now while writing this post.

God, please help.

November 21, 2005

Holy Cow!

I'm not much of a hippy though I don't like to shave so I suppose I may have been one in my previous life.

I have never met anyone making their own yogurts--the weird thing is that I've had three separate conversations on yogurt-making in my 8 months of being in Congo. These relatively normal people seriously took me through the art of making a home-made yogurt.

Why, you may ask, do normal, down-to-earth, positively unJoplinesque people make their own yogurts? The reason is that a single, small, unflavored pot of yogurt costs...brace yourselves....$1.50!!! I can tell you're not shocked, but consider if you will, a weekly normal yogurt intake. That's about, what, 4 to 6 yogurts right? You are are paying 6-9 dollars for a bland, boring set of yogurts.

The first time I saw yogurts here, I was so excited (Senegal was definitely yogurt-poor), ran to the display fridge and proudly set my yogurts on the non-functioning cashier belt. Boy was I shocked when the cashier ran the price of the items...But I kept my composure, smiled idiotically while blanching and ran back home to hit myself in the forhead.

It's almost like cows are holy here. As a matter of fact, I'm never seen a single cow in the Congo, even during my visits to the field.

The next time, I bought one yogurt, manufactured my own (using an internet recipe) and let it sit for 24 hours. Excited, I tried it with a little bit of sugar, and was disappointed to find out that it tasted like baby puke. Ok so I've never officially tasted baby puke but I've baby-sat enough to know what it smells like.

A bunch of friends are considering having a BBQ in a few weeks with a live demonstration on how to make yogurts. A sort of Tupperware party for 20 somethings.

The hippies of Kinshasa are at it again.

Writer's Blog

I must admit that I'm a little wiped out by the whole Congo experience right now. There are so many little things happening around me that don't phase me anymore.

I think I'm scarred forever: I'm afraid I'll still be driving like a maniac when I get back to the States. I'll be counting and examining each and every bill for sign of wear and tear. I'll be locking my car doors and checking they are still locked 2 times before I walk away from the car. I'll be making sure to have little bills around to pay the various people helping with my errands. I'll be avoiding tap water like the plague. I'll refuse to do errands unless I feel like I'm ready to tackle the crowds.

I was having a long conversation about blogging and my sudden lack of interest in writing down my experiences with Diego and Lulu .

Lulu said: "So you're having Writer's Blog?"

What can I say? Yesterday, I found out that if I'm paying someone, the rate of change is CFA500 to the dollar, and if someone is paying me the rate of change suddenly drops to CFA450 to the dollar. My cleaning lady took my $10 for three tomatoes, 2 avocadoes, 2 carrots and some greens. I was quoted the price of $20 to decode my cell phone. My phone bill is astronomical.

We had a whole conversation on Air Miles and I'm proud to say that Air Miles are more complicated than a Johnny Cockran contract. Did you know for example that you get more Air Miles if you apply for a card from the United States than from France? That there is a secret form on the internet that allows you to add miles you may have forgotten without dealing with Air France Flight Attendants? That you can be up-graded without hassle for having a Silver status? That the attendants give you champagne before you board the flight if you are frequent customer?

Somehow, traveling seems so much less glamorous.

November 19, 2005

Smuggling Goods in Congo

You probably thought this post would be about the secret Congolese police and special smuggling techniques that my colleagues and I have used to transport diamonds across the border. Not so.

This is just a big thank you to:

-FloraJ and Em for sending some Halloween candies to our apartment in France (it was a federal offense for my mom to pick up the package on my behalf but she pulled the "my daugther lives in Congo" card and the mailperson took pity on her),
-Justine for sending me a book called "Wild Women!" that was just the right size to make its way undetected into the monthly DHL pouch
-Steve in Wisconsin for sending me a copy of the great movie of the story of Lumumba, wedged and hidden between pamphlets
-Stephanie and Vicky for sending some presents (still haven't picked them up) through an acquaintance that is coming to Congo for work

It almost feels like there's a postal system here!

November 18, 2005


16 Nov 2005
It’s 5 AM and I’ve just had the most terrifying Zombie dream: think Betty White of the Golden Girls dragging her stiff, white body in your direction.

Except these zombies were superzombie. You had to get in a boat and row like mad because they were fast and they were mean. You could try to swim away if you wanted but the fuckers were excellent swimmers too. Everywhere you looked there was moaning zombies and you had to keep the presence of mind not to freak out at every turn.

The antidote was to carry around a navy blue floatation device or have a dry Kleenex in your hand. How weird is that?

It was very similar to the movie 13 Days Later which is, by far, the scariest movie I’ve every had the (dis)pleasure to see.

Work’s really been troubling me lately I think.

November 11, 2005

Health Activities

There's a cool article in the latest Time Magazine about Global Health and 18 Heroes working in the field of development: page 95 details Léon Kintaudi work in the Congo. Though he can rub people the wrong way (a good self-marketer and interested in image), the article is very interesting as it is almost exactly what our partners on the field do.

Though be proxy, it's nice to be recognized for the work we do.

Time Magazine, november 7th 2005

(note: the picture is very poorly scanned but I encourage you to pick up a copy of the magazine if you are interested in the field of health and development

November 08, 2005


To quote my brother: “so. much. work

(his three-word answer to my long-assed email of two months ago-slacker)

I am overwhelmed with work. I am planning to get up at 5:30AM to work on a report, database and update my blog tomorrow morning. I swear, I'll do it. Uhem. But I must add that it’s sad when your comments become a lot more interesting than your actual posts (see comments on November 2nd post).

I would like to share with you an recent security email that I just received. I signed up for this security service while in Senegal to alert me on unsafe African areas one should avoid while travelling. This one came in a few days ago about France. Freaky.


1. This Public Announcement is issued to alert Americans
to ongoing security concerns in France. Significant unrest
that began in the northern suburbs of Paris October 27 has
now spread to several locations within the city limits of
Paris, and to many other cities throughout France. Angry
youth have set fire to many buildings and thousands of
vehicles. While damage to property has been extensive,
there seems to be no pattern of arsonists directing their
anger at ordinary citizens or tourists. This Public
Announcement will expire on December 7, 2005.

2. Travelers should be alert to news media reports for the
most up-to-date information, avoid areas where riots have
occurred, move quickly away from any demonstrations they
may encounter, and exercise particular caution during
evening and nighttime hours.

3. Travelers using the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris
should be aware that train service between the airport and
Paris runs through an affected area and has occasionally
been disrupted. Travelers should rely instead on airport
buses or taxis to downtown Paris.


6. Minimize considered.

I don't know what point number 6 means, but it sounds a little scary. "Minimize considered" **say in robotic futuristic voice**

November 02, 2005

Riots in Paris

There have been riots in Paris and though I don't follow French news very often (despite it being the land of my ancestors), riots are not hugely common in the country.

Although very sad, this does not surprise me (or anyone else I imagine) as societal unease has been building up into unresolved tensions between french citizens and immigrants. As I read this, I instantly think of my incident in the plane on the way from Paris into Kinshasa--which I have still to finish writing about.

Will update Welcome Back to Congo soon.

October 31, 2005

Day Three

Oct 29th 2005

On our way back to Kinshasa (“we’ll be on our way by 9AM, I promise” says my colleague) we manage to stop three times for food sold by the side of the road. By the amount of food that is rushed into our faces, I realize that, if Congolese people are starving somewhere out there, it’s not for lack of food—which makes me very sad that basic lack of infrastructure seems to be the main reason for people dying here.

At the first stop, we get Palm Oil for cooking which is cheaper and purer in this part of the country. I buy an snack called Mbika to hold me over until lunch. Highly work-intensive, Mbika involves pounding squash pits into powder and adding shrimp and water to make it paste-like and wrapping it into a large leaf. It has the consistency of firm cottage cheese, quite salty with a seafood bite and tangy. The kids look at me with interest through the window of the car, amused to see a white girl daintily removing the item for the leaf. I give them a thumbs-up after the first bite and they all burst out laughing.

At the third stop, I borrow money to get five avocadoes for 40 cents, 3 tomatoes for 20 cents, 5 large mushrooms (it’s mushroom season! I love it but get bitten by the pincer ants that guard the stems like precious bounty) for 60 cents and 4 small, white onions for 20 cents. Our bus quickly resembles a Congolese loading truck with Pondu leaves bursting from the seams.

We drive back in drizzle which turns into a thick white fog that obscures anything beyond 2 meters ahead, making it perilous to overtake trucks on the narrow road. We watch with horror the aftermath of one truck after the other, spilling people and their loads after violent accidents. Thank God we have a cautious driver! The drizzle turns into cold rain, dragging dust and trash from the corners of the stores and settling them in muddy puddles in the street and sidewalks: I know I am back in Kinshasa.

Day Two

Oct 28th 2005

The day beginnings with a recap of the previous day’s activities, by a participant who starts: “On this day of the 27th of October, the participants proceed to blah blah blah. After a cursory introduction and word from blah blah blah”. I’m a little surprise by how formal the recap is but need to remind myself that this job is taken very seriously by the man who came to the meeting to represent his community—besides his counterparts, the others are all highly trained doctors with public health degrees.
By mid-morning, we settle in a routine of two “Pause Sucree”, lunch, lots of talking, some snoring and generally just trying to evaluate the project’s progress of the last year.

One of the topics discussed is how to make projects and health structures conform to minimum government standards. I then learn that, while religious sisters are an amazing asset to the country (a lot of the functioning hospitals can give credit to their impassioned and relentless work), they are also a double-edged sword: most Congolese doctors like to work in the well functioning hospitals of the sisters, but put themselves at odd with the Ministry of Health as sisters often completely disregard governmental standards. And in part, this is why they are so successful.

The waitress at lunch is very worried for my welfare (“what is the white girl going to eat?”) and I assure her that I’ll eat whatever anyone else is eating.

In the evening, we have a little party for a colleague who is leaving, involving even more soda. Feeling bloated and increasingly guilty that I’m replacing my aerobic classes with sweet drinks, I go for a beer instead. I spot a lady with a very becoming pagne: it consists of a shirt with very puffy sleeves (think Victorian Era sleeves here) in a rich blue color and the perennial long skirt. I lean over to my neighbor, asking him “whoever is that man whose face is plastered all over that pagne over there?”. He explains that that is Kasavubu, the first president, and people wearing his image belong to a sort of peace movement. Its supporters admire his honesty and try to emulate his calm manner. I shake my head in agreement, effectively realizing that I know practically nothing about this first president whose mandate lasted 4 years and feel ill at ease seeing him in an army uniform, staring at me from the lady’s arms, thighs and bosom.

That evening, we eat what I assume is Kedgeree (a South Africa dish made from curried hard-boiled eggs, fish and rice) but in essence is rather tasteless. After yesterday’s pasta and cabbage extravaganza topped with egg to resemble an upside-down bowl, I am inclined to think that the old Belgian sisters are adorable, but just plain terrible cooks.

Day One

Oct 27th, 2005
Bas Congo

Being on the field is always so cathartic for me. Here I was in Kinshasa, working in a hot office with very sporadic electricity, sending in one report full of mistakes after the other, generally bemoaning my fate as office Dilbert, when we set off for Bas-Congo. Then I suddenly remember why I’m in this country in the first place.

Our trip begins with a colleague picking up fried dough balls for his breakfast, that he dips into hand-made peanut butter (they call it “Pate d’Arachides” or Peanut Paste). We also take time to change our American dollars to Congolese Francs on the street, taking 10 mins to count the wads and wads of cash to make sure no bills are missing. Bas-Congo it seems, deals in Congolese Francs instead of dollars.

Barely 20 minutes out of the city center, we see mud huts with straw roofs. The women are braiding each other’s hair outside, pounding manioc leaves and hanging their clothes out to dry on the thatched roofs. I can’t believe people live like that in Kinshasa. It’s like having a village in the middle of a city. No pipes, no wires, not even corrugated iron roofs.

The drive there is only 2 hours but Bas-Congo is a pleasant change from the polluted, overpopulated, irritating capital. It has a pretty impressive Cathedral (the first one built in the country) and interesting buildings left behind by the Belgians.

The landscape is rolling, green hills. The word “rolling” is such a cliché, but I swear sometimes it looks like one wave of hills rises and crashes to reveal others in the background, each with a different luscious, fresh color. The hills are interspersed with tall, emaciated Palm trees with splayed leaves—sometimes I have to blink to remind myself that this is not the Jurassic Era, stop looking for dinosaurs.

Being relatively close to the capital, Bas-Congo has reliable electricity and running water! There are some decent roads and bamboo fences. I see working computers in offices and even spot a Cyber Café. I see improvised hair salons outside with stylists that dry their client’s hair with hair-dryers. A colleague jokingly calls this place Little Belgium. Funny thing is that not one Belgian is left living there except for about 6 religious sisters that speak Flemish and have been there for ages. Many of these sisters will be buried on Congolese land, having lived there more than half their life with no family left in old Europe.

We work all day, stopping to eat lunch at an old Printing press which still has operational machines and little old men with glasses on the end of their noses working the heavy and intricate machinery. I notice with glee, that Chikwangue is plentiful as is cold bottled water. Even the Pili Pili has an especially tangy taste to it.

During our workshop, in trying to identify the factors of some poor performances in the regions, one presenter states hemorrhagic fever as one of the factors, reminding us how close we are to the Angolan border. I gulp and try to focus on the task at hand. The “Coffee Break” turns out instead to be a “Pause Sucrée” (Sugar Break) with Coca Colas, Fantas, Sprites, freshly grilled warm peanuts and nice biscuits that have the off-putting name of Glucose.

I might have mentioned this already, but I have never drunk so much Coke as in Africa. For some reason, I always feel severely dehydrated when I travel in-country, feeling the salt, sugar and ions literally drain out of me…I swear this is true. And there’s nothing like a sickeningly sweet drink to cure it. It’s strange how you can find Coke pretty much everywhere, even in the most enclaved regions. If we could capitalize on Coke’s distribution strategy, I’m pretty confident we could give anti-malarial to every single pregnant woman in Congo.

In the evening, I spend one hour moping the floor with the night-table tablecloth, after I unintentionally flood the little room with shower water. I am very embarrassed, thinking that perhaps the shower is just there for decorative purpose or else worked in the 60’s but was no longer functional. Running water seemed too good too be true I suppose.

I am now writing this (with no need to rush as there is electricity. Yeah!) in my small but very decent room, listening in on the sisters’ mass and unintentionally mumbling the prayers along with them. Despite the differences of regions, there’s comfort in recognizing customs. I guess that’s why American like Mcdonalds.

How to eat

How to eat chikwangue
Step 1: Buy chikwangue wrapped in leaf. Step 2: Unwrap leaf. Step 3: Cut and enjoy with Pili Pili

How to eat mbika
Step 1: Buy mbika wrapped in leaf. Step 2: Enjoy

The view from inside our dark workshop room. Needless to say, it was hard to concentrate on the topics discussed.

Beautiful, intricate church in the middle of the Bas-Congo

By the end of our trip, our little bus was transformed into Pondu (Manioc leaves) heaven...

But our load was not as impressive as this guy's whose bags were packed higher than the size of the entire car

October 24, 2005

Bumbo Lumene

The steep climb to the bridge

Rickety bridge itself

View of our Camp Ground

A cluster of butterfly on the shallow end of the river

Enchanted forest maybe?

Heaven and Hell are just 150 km apart

After driving for hours in the heat of Congo, in a large Jeep with no A/C, slaloming between dozens of broken down trucks gesturing for us to stop, paying a couple of bribes or two or three, we get to Bumbo Lumene. Paradise.

The camping is exquisitely well tended to by the Government (admittedly, one just has to brush the camp grounds and add a few twigs to the bridge--but still, I'm impressed).

I am not joking this is what we did:
-sat on rocks jutting from the river surrounded by fluttering butterflies
-cooked a pretty damn good BBQ with minimal effort (two workers started the fire for us)
-jumped at the top of the tributary, let ourselves be guided by the strong current, only to be gently deposited on a small beach... 10 times a day for two days
-crossed the rickety bridge squealing in fear every time and acting like Indiana Jones
-read the New Yorker on a pania while listening to the bubbling of the river nearby
-got woken up in the middle of the night by a loud AAAAAHHHHHH and wondered for two hours what the f*&# that was and thinking "What the f*$# am I doing camping in Congo, I could be killed by a madman with a machete" (somehow that was a lot scarier than being killed by a madman in the states with a gun--the shout turned out to be a fellow camper having a bad dream)
-washed dishes with the remainder of the ashes from the fire
-walked in a spooky forest of gnarled trees
-climbed a steep plain to see what was on the other side, only to give up after a little too much sweating

Ah, heaven!

The drive back was utter hell again--though we did see the bridge that was blown up by Mobutu to prevent Kabila from reaching the capital. How can Heaven and Hell be separated by only 150 km?

For another account by a fellow camper, check out Because We're Here


Thanks Hasnain for posting on my GuestMap! How goes it in India?

October 21, 2005

The Other Congo

Congo-Brazzaville is a bit of a myth for us living in Congo-Kinshasa. It's a little like the lost Garden of Eden. My colleague who have been there tell me that there are real taxis; life is calm, cool and relaxed; there are roads, landlines and great restaurants. It's a bit of aberration because the two capitals are so close to each other yet so different in term of development. The people are meant to be well behaved and a lot less intense then here. And of course, Brazzaville is a much smaller city than Kinshasa, so there are less people crowding the place.

We often speak of the day when we will organize a weekend trip to famed Brazzaville. One day...

So, in the other Congo, things are happening. The ex-president of the Republic of Congo, Kolelas, is currently living in exile in Bamako, Mali.

"In 2000, a Brazzaville court sentenced Kolelas to death in absentia for a range of crimes committed by his militia including torture and the rape of prisoners during the nation's bloody 5-month-long civil war in 1997.", October 14th, 2005

Recently though , Kolelas' wife, Jacqueline, died from a brain hemorrhage. The current president Denis Sassou-Nguesso (who got elected in a fair process in 2002) allowed Kolelas to come back from an 8-year exile to bury Jacqueline in Congo-Brazzaville.

But of course, it's a lot more complicated than that because:

Kolelas' return comes amid a sharp escalation of tensions in Brazzaville, where so-called Ninja rebels once loyal to him battled security forces a day earlier in a brief clash that killed six people.
It was not known what sparked the clash or if it was related to Kolelas' impending return., Friday October 14th 2005

We were discussing this situation over dinner yesterday and a friend relays that her colleagues exclaimed "We're not surprised this happened, the Congolese over there, they're really crazy"!

October 20, 2005

Car Wash

This morning, a little old man had cleaned my car assiduously. He rushed over when I came down, bending my wipers back in place to indicate that he'd been working on the windshield last.

I shook my head in apology, explaining that I couldn't pay him and thanks but I didn't ask him to wash my car and that we had someone at work who did that for us and...I fumbled, feeling sorry for him but at the same time didn't feel right giving someone money for a service that he forced upon me.

He had cleaned my car earlier in the week without my prior approval and I gave him money but said that he should never clean it again because I wouldn't pay him next time.

Makes sense doesn't it? Then why do I still feel bad about the whole encounter?

October 18, 2005

A very interesting Twist

…in the political story of the Congo

I initially thought that Mobutu arrested and killed Prime Minister Lumumba in 1960 solely to fulfill his own ambitions (as the documentary “Mobutu, Roi du Zaire” portraits). Lumumba is a hero of sorts here with a large statue of him that can be seen one the road from the airport to the city centers. As it turns out, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that:

In a surreal sequence the prime minister [Lumumba] and president [Kasavubu, Congo’s lethargic president] announced over the radio that they had sacked each other. Mobutu was put in an impossible position, with both men ordering him to take their rival into custody.
------In the Footstep of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wong

And then the plot really thickens.

Thanks Beaver for repinning from Conakry (so Jealous) and Keli from coming across my site serendipitously (love that word, don't you?)

October 17, 2005

Congo and Me

Reflecting on her relationship with the Congo in a cybercafé of the airport, Sahara Sarah writes the following:

it's amazing how the congo is like being in a relationship. not the tom cruise-katie holmes thing. congo and i arent really that luvvy. more like the jude law - sienna miller thing, if jude law were less good looking and had a rocky past. the long and short of it is that it's a bit rocky and won't last forever, but there's definitely a spark.

I couldn't express it better.

Two good documentaries

Amazingly, for somebody who never watches movies, I saw two good documentaries this weekend. Both of them are from Thierry Michel. I saw one of them during a special screening in Kinshasa (who knew that there was a screening room in Congo?) during which Thierry introduced his work. The captain of the ship of one of the documentary was also there at the screening.

I suddenly realized that I had been introduced to Mr. Michel's work before: I saw the shocking "Donka Hospital" during my International Public Health class and sat watching images of a disfunctional hospital in Africa--I didn't know hospitals could be that bad. The ones I see here are far worse.

"Mobutu, Roi du Zaïre"
What happens when Congo fights for its independence, only to have the Belgian government withdraw quickly in 1960, leaving very few skilled and qualified Congolese to lead to country?
A kleptocracy, stupid!
The documentary shows the mind-bogglingly fast rise of Mobutu, from officer in the Belgian army, to journalist invited to the World Fair in Belgium, to General of the Congolese army, to 'President for Life' of the newly renamed Zaïre.
How can someone rise so quickly you ask?
Through cunning and violence. Like the leopard he liked to wear as a hat, Mobutu was sly--associating himself with the highests in command; and carnal--killing without pity those who were in his way. Increasingly megalomaniac, Mobutu built one lavish palace after another, throwing glorious parties in his name. Backed by his unpaid soldiers, the army enforced his rule while serving themselves to the country's riches. Refusing to see the country declining into terror and utter poverty, the 'King of Zaïre' became increasingly frail, paranoid and two-timing.
Seeing him cry on camera though, you almost feel sorry for how deluded this man is. Great interviews by foreign journalists, his Congolese ministers and his son-in-law.

"Congo River"
This second documentary follows a barge and its captain through the easy stretch of the Congo River, carrying almost a small village worth of people and their barnyard animals. Beyond that, waterfalls make the passage inaccessible.
As the barge stops in villages at night and during the day (through endless administrative fees--the only system remaining intact from the Colonial period, ha!), we hear villagers recount the days of colonialism and Mobutu. We see another barge stuck in sandbank for three months and sigh with relief as our barge continues safe and sound. We meet old intellectuals stuck in the middle of the country contemplating the infrastructure abandoned: abandonned train tracks from the Belgian period, electricity towers built 25 years ago with the promise of electricity (the village leader says with a hint of malice "we've been told it's coming soon"), a beautiful botanist university and its lone remaining professor with 55,000 samples of plants and birds decaying and gathering dust, a great crumbling palace belonging to Mobutu ("this reminds me of the arrogance of the man while his people were starving" says a village man) and a poor local hospital performing gynecological surgeries on raped women in the East.
Thierry Michel manages to score a great interview with the Chief Mahi Mahi, whose crazy speeches are laughable and scary at the same time.

October 14, 2005

Happy Birthday Mobutu!

Today is my and your favorite ex-leader's birthday! Let's all give a nice, warm shout-out to Mobutu!

Actual conversation I had with a Congolese colleague:
Colleague 1: "Today is Mobutu's birthday"
Me (in mock horror): "How could we have forgotten?"
Colleague 1: "One forgets quickly"
Laughs all around
Colleague 2: "It used to be a day off though"

Photo and Caption from Wikipedia: Mobutu's portrait appeared on every banknote

A few links for background information:
Mobutu Sese Seko
Mobutu dies in Exile in Morocco
Country Profiles: DRC

October 13, 2005

Marsha Marsha Marsha!

Here you go boy and girls, I have updated my blog links to include some more cool blogs that link to me. How nice of them!----->

Thank you, thank you all
**gestures grandiosely with one arm while pretending to hold a bouquet in the other**

It’s frightening how obsessed I am about looking up my link on the internet. All I can think is, is that it? That’s how many people link to me? How can I make it to the Guiness Book of World records for Most Linked To Blog?

Oh my god, have I become Blogotistical? Have I become blogssed?

Thanks Sébastien D. and Branwyn for posting to my GuestMap! Branwyn, there is a light at the end of the tunnel I swear! Sebas, I will deactivate my option thingy for the comments so that you can comment withOUT having a blog

October 12, 2005

The Beginning of Rainy Season

Uh oh, the Rainy Season is upon us again. There was a little bit of drizzle this morning but already the streets were pooling water at the edges, the open sewers overflowing from the reflux of the trees and soaked earth. Women were wearing shower hats to protect their wigs and the men were walking in galoshes and raincoats, the traffic was as light as a typical Sunday afternoon (despite this being a Wednesdaymorning).

I've been seeing people racking the muck out of the open sewers or burning the trash out of gutters. I had initially thought that was part of the presidential campaign coming up! But in fact, they were unclogging the sewers in anticipation of the rains to come.

When I came to the office, no one was there--I felt very disoriented. Perhaps it was a national holiday I hadn't heard about? Had there been a major political coup, forcing people to stay home? No, the Head of Administration just says it's the Rainy Season: people panic, stay home longer and "back in the day" pupils didn't go to school when it rained.

6 months without school. Heaven!

I redirect you to my first few weeks in Congo when I caught the tail end of the rainy season: Un-be-live-able 2 (skim down the page of the month of April).

October 10, 2005


I was going to write about my new apartment but I just. don’t. have. the courage anymore.

We are in the midst of moving offices and with impending grant deadlines and due reports, I am very frazzled, can’t find any of my paperwork, am lost with dates and generally panicky. And I just got back from break. Oy.

We had to move because the landlord wanted to triple the rent and to accommodate new people. Get this: we are adding 10 more people and the new office is SMALLER than the last one. I guess I was spoiled with the last one (a very large office that I shared with a Congolese colleague and a photocopy machine) but the new one is ridiculous. In the same amount of space I had, there are now 6, SIX office cubicles and 8 in the whole room total. I would say “d’oh”, but “d’ilbert” seems more appropriate.

Number of office moves in the past year:

Number of house moves in the past year:

Number of different countries visited in the past year:

Number of annoyance today:
Ad infinitum +∞

Aw, sucks! Thanks guys! Whatevery Thing Inc in Malaysia, Garcia another blogger in Kinshasa (who knew that Kinshasa was the It place for blogging), Bill W. who's finally pursuing his dream of being on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean (hahaha), Will my bro who has finally condescended to reading my blog, for posting on my GuestMap.

October 05, 2005

Welcome back to the Congo

Alternative Title: How I got stuck on a ConAir flight

I just got back from break to Paris with the romantic walks on the polluted Seine and accidental steps in dog doodoo, Lyon that has the best food on earth (if you eat pig that is), and Chamonix in the mountains where the Mont Blanc is beautiful and stuff but doesn’t warrant a journey by telepheric when it feels like it’s -40ºC outside. At least not to a humanitarian worker who’s been living in perpetual summer for a year.

Anyways, with Congo far from my mind, I was able to relax and indulge is superfluous activities like a regular person such as shopping, stuffing my face and bicycling. La vie était belle.

Until I get on an Air France flight back to the Congo

--more to come on that, sorry am really overwhelmed right now :)--


Q1 "What inspired you to work in the 'developing world', particularly in the field of development?"--Kingston Girl
(incidentally did you know that I lived in Kingston, Ontario for 4 years?)
A1 What inspired me to work in the 'developing world' in development was my strong sense of guilt. I wish it were more heroic than that but it really isn't. I just felt awful watching starving children on TV while I was eating Snickers and Twix on a regular basis. I like the parentheses around the words developing world. I don't like the term 'developing world', I find it a bit condescending--as in we are waaay more developed than you guys are. I like it when people use the term 'rich countries' versus 'poor countries', it's a pretty honest rendition of the situation. I also like the term 'underserved countries' because the DRC has plenty of natural riches within its borders, it just misappropriates them.

Q2 "Do you have enough to read?"--Jean-Pierre
A2 No! I long for more books to read. Actually I'm a big whiner because I get two magazines a month. But it just sucks to be reading a review about the latest cool new novel in the New Yorker and not be able to buy it on the spot. Materialism be damned!

DCveR thanks for posting on my map!

September 19, 2005


We went for a lovely ride down to Kisantu to the very Western edge of the country. The drive is about 2 hours, on an amazingly paved road all the way. I felt like Dorothy going on the yellow brick road:

Follow the yellow brick road. Follow brick road. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road!!! We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of OOooooz!

Sigh. I've sunk low. I think I have a serious case of Movie Withdrawal.

Anyways, we were traveling with an American who was coming back to his beloved Congo after a long hiatus. He marveled at the state of the road, and pointed out various interesting features of the area: "see where the bamboo has been planted to hold the road in? that's where we had to negotiate with a military blockade to get past it. Oh there's another ancient blockade point. This is where we nearly got arrested. This is where 20 trucks got stuck in the road and it took us 3 hours to navigate through all of them to complete the 2 km stretch of road". Lovely indeed. I'm happy to know that the area has improve a bit.

Then we had a two hour lunch with a Congolese buddy of his. His thirteen-year-old son had killed his own chicken in honor of us. I tried to grin and nod appreciatively while trying to hold the meat inside my mouth.

Unfortunately, we were not able to see the famous botanical gardens as we had to pass a military checkpoint between Kisantu and Kinshasa before 6PM. Sigh, little bitty changes.

Car Skills

I'm not really in the mood to write, but if I don't, all these memories will be lost...This makes me think of a quote from Blade Runner, from that weirdly white and translucent android dying in the rain:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.

Anyways, before I get to wrapped up in how amazing this movie is, I should tell you about my night on Friday. See I got home a little late (2PM) and wanted to park the huge Mega-truck in the parking lot of my new apartment building. Only, no luck, there were no parking lots in the front.

So I wake up the parking attendant, who enlists the help of one of his buddy. They gesture enthusiatically in my direction to let me know that there is a spot in the back. I navigate the slender alleyway to the back, only to find that the parking spot they point to is ludicrously small. I shake my head sadly but, to indulge their enthusiasm ("you'll fit I swear!!"), I give it a go. No luck. I leave for yet another parking spot where they enthusiastically wave and gesture and shout to "help me" park my car. No luck either. But they insist, telling me that there is PLENTY of space. So I force my way in...and get stuck in a sand bank. They actually have to dig two of my wheels from the sand; and the car is so precariously perched in the little hill that is actually angling toward a metal pipe, therefore wedging myself inside the space even more.

I grumble and get the following instructions
They: move forward more!
Me: I can't.
They: Of course you can, move forward more!!
Me (opening the door to show them the pressure that my foot is putting on the accelerator): no, see I really, really can't, the wheels are turning in the sand
They (emphatically): OK then back up
Me: --

I got so frustrated that after the car started smelling like burning and I couldn't start it again, I slammed the car door, stormed off, constrained myself, and semi-politely asked them "Have you ever driven in your life?", to which the answer is "no".


**More to come on the new apartment and Kisantu**

September 16, 2005

Brush with Celebrities

On Wednesday, I met up with two bloggers in Kinshasa Lulu on the Bridge and Timothée. Not only are they fellow bloggers in the DRC, they are also nice, well-adjusted people.

Who would have thought?

September 15, 2005

Photos of Mwene Ditu

Wahsing Machine: the sisters boil their clothes, sheets and hospital linens in a large barrel before pounding them on two large stone bassins and hanging them out to dry

Sorting Pondu: Three teenagers help out at the convent by sorting dried pondu (manioc) leaves.

Small Plane: this is a small 7-seater plane that we were lucky enough to be able to board. We didn't have to go to the large N'djili airport, which made the trip about 90% more pleasant.

Sisters Enroll: sisters in Mwene Ditu just came back from getting enrolled, showing their ink blackened finger with pride

September 14, 2005

Pictures of Mwene Ditu 2

This old Belgian house--completely isolated in the region of Kanda Kanda--now houses a health team that overseas a variety of health centers. Despite having upheld 40 years well (the ceiling is still perfect, made from gorgeous dark wooden slats), a massive rehabilitation work is necessary--starting with windows and doors

Palm oil is made from nuts from a type of palm tree, ground in a large wooden grinder and manually powered by two strong village boys

Same beer, different marketing label in the diamond town

The snaking Congo River cuts a space in the deeply concentrated forest (note: upon reflection and various comments on this blog, I looked at a map and think it's more probably to be the Lukenie River)

Pictures of Kole

A view of the little town of Kole from the 2-seater airplane

A view of Kole behind a shaded veranda.

Moms await their turn to be vaccination for Tetanus under the shade of umbrellas. In some regions, mothers refuse to be vaccinated, fearing the vaccine to contain powerful sterilizing ingredients. This center attracts dozens of women by sensitizing the community.

In the forest, women walk to their cultivated plots to gather the manioc. The “Maman” swiftly peels the thick bark of the tuber with a machete before setting it in her backpack. She shows a large goiter due to iodine deficiency in her diet

Kole 2

Bond and Bonobo (Antonia) bonding...

A nurse shows me where manioc is pounded into flour to feed the malnourished children. Manioc has no nutritional value—but their diet with be supplemented by Pondu and a little bit of meat, bananas.

A corner of the nicest hospital of the region. The sinks don’t work since there is no running water. In the foreground is an old autoclaved machine used to sterilize syringes and other equipment fired with coal.

An old woman sits outside the waiting room, awaiting treatment. She has facial marking that can be seen on a few elders of the region. She is holding her weaved backpack to bring back medicine.

September 12, 2005


Does anybody know anything about videoblogging? I tried to look it up but it seemed terribly complicated, especially if you have a sloooow internet connection.

Thanks for the info computer experts!

PS: I would really like to post some of my friends retarded Congo Adventure videos

Yikes! More Airplane Crashes!

Check this out from Carl the Pilot

007 Don't Read This

September 08, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

I was on the field when I heard about the hurricane. Luckily I was in Lodja by then and we watched at bit of news powered by high-priced gasoline.

From the little I understand, there were a set of circumstances that went wrong: terrible weather, logistical difficulties, poor planning, lack of leadership and just general poor luck. Did I get the gist of it?

It saddens me that the United States, a country with some of the best infrastructures and emergency equipment in the world, couldn't get a handle on the situation, despite knowing AHEAD of time that this disaster would happen.

Perhaps the government should hire Emergency Coordinators from International NGOs in such situations?

I'm confused.

Humbling Luggage Experience

Today I brought my luggage to work because I had a lock that just wouldn't open (cheap piece of sh*** from Senegal). My Admin guy comes with a pair of sharp scissors and says "I don't want to worry you but..." then he jimmies the zipper with the end of the scissors and opens up the seam to reveal the content of the suitcase.

Yikes! Now I understand why people in Africa bind their luggage with layers and layers of duct tape--this discourages a carrier from illegally searching the luggage. I had assumed the suitcases were busted and were held together by tape.

Next, he gave a little bang with the end of the scissors and pushed the loop of the lock, and it springed open, gutted with the small inside-spring hanging on the outside.

What the heck was this guy's job before he came to work for us? He just laughed when I asked him the question.

4 Sept 2005

Day Seven

I decide to go to church in the morning despite my body protesting that I still need sleep. The church is a rather simple building where villagers gather to celebrate mass in Tetela (the local language). Though I understand nothing, I can see that the priest is very charismatic and makes his audience laugh. Then the choral starts singing accompanied by local drums carved out of whole pieces of wood (they don’t have the characteristics skin stretched over them, they are made from hollow rectangular wood). The voices of the young women and men rise up, followed by the droning voices of the elders, the music amplified by the building, sounding louder than a nirvana concert. Looking around at those people who have been pillaged and hurt, wearing their nicest clothes (at best the clothes are distended and slightly discolored, at worst they are not wearing shoes), nursing their babies—the ones that haven’t died of malnutrition and diarrhea, their voices clear and bold, swaying to the rhythm of the drums and the choral and I suddenly feel this burst of emotion and have to step outside before I burst out crying..

I cry and cry and cry some more, probably due in part to fatigue but also due to pent up emotion. I am ashamed of my self-doubts, my wanting to go home because it’s too hard. But mainly, I touched by the sheer strength of the Congolese people: standing so straight and singing with such power. It seems that no pillaging, no lies, no poverty is going to break their spirits. After church, we set off outside and proceed to shake everybody’s hand in a line that curves around the building.

A few expressions I learned along the way:

Republique Democratique du Congè
Democratic Republic of Vacation

Comment ca va? Pas plus que vous (no better than you)
Q: How are you doing? A: No better than you

Comment ca va?Au rythme du Pays
Q: How are you doing? A: As well as the country is

3 Sept 2005

Day Six

We are broken and we are tired. I discover the true meaning of the word tired—dog tired, exhausted, beat, worn out, bushed, pooped. My whole body aches and I am morally drained by seeing hospitals with no doors and windows, patients on weaved cots and no sheets and lack of water and electricity in General Hospitals.

We wake at 4:00AM to set of at 5:00AM for our trip back from Kole to Lodja.

The Bishop is kind enough to offer us a ride back to Lodja in his car. It is filled with a Bishop, a nun, a doctor, a mechanic, the driver and me. Being the only one with no valuable function in case of an emergency, I try to make myself useful by snapping loads of pictures. You never know, it might come in handy if National Geographic wants to hire me (hint hint). Again, the trip is quite difficult and we stop 1 hour after our departure to find a huge old truck, stuck in the middle of the road (in essence taking up the whole width of it). It seems its battery ran out. We lend them a little bit a juice but the motor has been so modified, welded and haphazardly fixed that it takes a while until it can be powered again. We set off on our merry way, making the best of the up and down, side to side movement of the car until we find a tree in our way.

The driver gets his ax, the mechanic his machete and they set hacking at it until it can be moved to the side. Back in the car, the sister mumbles “sweet Jesus!” every time the car dips to a 45 degree angle (the two front wheels being at severely different height, it feels like we are going to topple over). I see men carrying dead monkeys and antelopes up to the markets. I see woman with weaved straw backpacks carrying banana leaves, baby, manioc, and pondu (manioc leaves) back to their villages from the forests. I see thousands of butterflies that flitter at the approaching vehicle, bursting their clutter into individual petals of color. I see the Independent Electoral Committee vehicle pass us by and give them two thumbs up for the job of enrollment they are about to do in Kole.

We get out of the car three times to push it up a slope. We even find ourselves filling up a hole to help it get traction on a particularly problematic hill. We get to Lodja just before the rain starts pelting down with fury (imagine the clay road becoming a thick muddy river bank when it rains) and I throw myself on the bed to sleep.

1 Sept 2005

Day Five
Bena Dibele

After having worked in Kole for a few days, we leave the city towards Bena Dibele, It is a tiring 3 hour motorcycle ride on roads that are barely passable. Bena Dibele used to be a rather important port in the area but since the pillaging by Rwandese soldiers in 2001, it is bare. Nothing is left in the city but a religious brothers’ residence and village huts. During the whole trip, I hear stories of how it used to be before the war. Even the Bishop’s place was completely trashed, his religious objects sold for pittance, his motorcycle and fuel used to terrorize the remaining villagers while the rest of the population (along with a Spanish sister who has been here for 25 years and the Bishop) were living and hiding out in the forest for months. We pass two bridges that were built around the time of the colonization, in the 1950s, that are still holding up admirably well.

After the 3 hour ride, we immediately set off to work visiting various health structures. I feel like a zombie and look worst I’m sure. All I want to do is go to bed and sleep, but I know these people haven’t been visited for a long time, and my visit gives them something to look forward to. The structures are adorned with leaves and flowers for our arrival and I just can’t bear to let them down. We go back to the brothers’ place after our long day to eat and sleep. I take a shower and marvel at the running water there (they have a cistern on the roof) and notice light switches everywhere but no electrical wire to connect them to the dangling light bulbs. Even if the electrical system did work, they wouldn’t be able to purchase the fuel necessary to power the house.

The next day we get up early, go visit another health structure, set off for the return trip of three hours and work some more until 11:00PM.

August 31st, 2005

Day Three

The morning, we visit the General Hospital. Having seen 4 or 5 in Congo so far, I have to say that it’s the most impressive. It offers the following services: internal medicine, basic care and treatment, family planning, a maternity with an echogram, radiology, surgery (a woman was even recovering from a mastectomy), a nutritional center for malnourished children, a garden where families of long-term patients could work to make a little bit of money to feed their family members and where the resulting crops where used for the nutritional center, a blood bank (requires electricity for the fridge and willing volunteers) etc…

It is run by a bunch of really energetic missionary sisters who piece together all the money that they can get. Of course, the hospital is not without problems: it needs a serious paint job, it could do with better patient beds and needs mattresses, and there is no running water. Each patient for surgery is required to bring her/her own pail of water.

That lunch, we eat the customary rice, fufu and manioc leaves with antelope meat. I have two helping of the meat that is subtle and brittle. Sooo good. We come to talk about how isolated the health zones of Kole are: two bridges are out requiring a pirogue ride to the other side (imagine motorcycles in swaying pirogues), roads are so shoddy that jeeps cannot pass there. Freight boats are highly unreliable, they take three months to navigate a short stretch of the river due to weak motors and overcharging. Boats even take entire families on them. Since a boat is often way behind schedule (it takes 3 months to get there as opposed to the optimistic “oh it’ll only take 3 weeks”), many family members die on the way from sickness or starvation.

August 30th 2005

Day Two
Tshumbe, Kole

We first attempt a flight back to Tshumbe. It is eventless this time around. The landing strip is in pretty good shape, with tarmac-like material on the ground. I marvel at it and am told that dark termite mounds are crushed and packed on the ground producing a very firm surface.

Next, Jacques, a Congolese pilot trained in the states, takes us in his two seater plane. We fly over miles and miles of thick forest, punctuated by short strips of orange villages. Those villages are truly isolated. The landing strip is less than a kilometer long, paved by sand and its obvious only the small plane could have made that landing

That night, we stay at a religious house with the only guest house in the village. It has running water, a mosquito net and even electricity for 3 hours in the evening.

September 07, 2005

August 29th 2005

Day One
Kinshasa, Tshumbe, Lodja, Kananga

The day starts off early with a departure on a small 9-seater plane. The pilot is cheerfully loading our medicines, chainsaws, microscopes, laptops and luggage in the cargo space.

We are to flight to Tshumbe to leave off three of our colleagues, then my fourth colleague and I are meant to take a 2-seater plane to Kole. The trip is pretty uneventful until we spot the tiny Tshumbe airstrip 3 hours later and wispy clouds indicating strong winds. The pilot attempts to get closer to the strip when the plane is jostled and almost sucked into a storm. We can’t seem to establish radio contact (the only radio in Tshumbe was closed due to the lightning) and we set off for Lodja where we hope the weather is better. By now, the bad weather has spread pretty much everywhere and the jostlings of the airplane are like being on a rollercoaster—that sensation of momentary weightlessness when your heart feels like its going in your throat. Expect roller coasters are designed to do that…and planes aren’t. We can’t establish radio contact with Lodja either and are forced to land in Kananga.

After the customary trouble with immigration –who wants us to pay $20 for each new arriving white person and $30 for each pilot—we go to the only restaurant there and finally eat our lunch at 4:00PM. It looks like we are going to be staying the night there. That evening, the pilot lends me his GPS so I can figure it out: he wants me to map out the Tshumbe and Kole airstrip. At the moment, the two tiny landing strips are not marked on the GPS maps and they do not feel comfortable landing there on a regular basis without some basic information. His handwritten notes sort of look like this:

August 28, 2005

Cool Blogs

I have just added some blogs that link to me on the side bar --->

The blogs are all pretty damned cool so I'm terrible flattered to be linked to them. Although, their content does considerably improve by the mere mention of my site :) :)

("Modesty--thy name is Woman", or as my dad would say "If I were modest, I'd be perfect")

PS: I have not asked for permission to link to some of the site here so please let me know if this is OK by you
PSS: Let me know if I forgot any links!

August 27, 2005

Ying and Yang

Post to come on Immigration Troubles and Redeeming Speech

Thanks for Lulu on the Bridge who is blogging from the Congo too and Black River Eagle (aka Bill) who has a great compilation of various blogs.
Also, thanks for all the comments I have received and not answered (like the interesting comments about the spiky hairstyle, the gecko on the windowsill that happens to be real, the encouragements from various people I don't know and those from people I know :)
I am still at work on Saturday and planning to be here on Sunday to prepare for my next trip on Monday to Kole. Sigh, so much to do, so little time. How do people do it? I just don't know.

August 26, 2005


August 23rd

I have to hurry writing these few words as my computer is out of power and lights are going to be turned off any minute now. I had a long day but I managed to sneak out a lunch, go to the main market with a sister, buy some fabric and bring it back to the sister’s seamstress for a Pagne. I hope to get it sometime tomorrow or I might have to leave without it!

I went to visit a hospital, and though I had to pay close attention to what the lab tech was saying and take notes, I couldn’t help sneaking glances at the frightened and despondent parents who brought in their listless child. The mother was attempting to fan her child and rock him but his body was flopping in her hand (imagine a rag doll), his eyes bugged out and letting out tiny hiccups that were attempts at crying.
I also went to visit the Central Bureau in charge of administrative issues for the Health Zones. As yesterday’s, there were no windows or doors, the building was completely dilapidated. It’s really demoralizing when the Doctor Chief of Zone says that he hasn’t been sending his last reports because his typewriter has been out of service for the past three months. We told him a hand-written report would be fine but how do you encourage someone’s who’s job is considerable, to work in such conditions? It’s embarrassing.
Tonight, I have the beginning of a migraine and I hope that the night will bring me hope and enthusiasm for tomorrow and the day after that, and the day after that. My biggest fear is that we are doing absolutely nothing that is helping this country and this is looming larger and larger in my subconscious (I get terrible nightmares while on the field).

Kanda Kanda

August 22, 2005

I have an exhausting day of visiting health structures in the area of Kanda Kanda. Though the area is only 2 hours away from Mwene Ditu on a relatively good road, the trip is exhausting and by the time we get back home after having skipped lunch, we eat like we’ve haven’t eaten in days. I chow down on rice, pondu (manioc leaves) and termites which the hostess has prepared after she hears I am fond of them.
The day was packed and full of discoveries but the hardest one was to witness of young mother who had discarded her child after its birth. She was lying on her cot next to her sweet sleeping child, looking scared and lost. Outside her door was a policeman keeping an eye on her, because she was considered a criminal. I couldn’t help shuddering, thinking about the millions of other more dire needs for a policeman in Congo.

That night, I struggle to stay up past nine but force myself to watch the French news on TV5. What do you make of a famous shoe company laying off workers in France, forest fires in Portugal, floods covering the bottom levels of large buildings in Romania, damaged US planes sold to developing nations, a lady receiving a $253,000,000 settlement for the Vioxx-induced death of her husband, the new google feature that finds detailed images of geographical locations, the best tourism spots in the world and the new Rolling Stones concert; when you’re a nun in a diamond mining town of Congo?

Sisters (2)

August 22nd, 2005

The breakfast is copious and I notice a cream cheese-like item that, I’m told, is a cheese made from powdered milk. A sister promises to write down the recipe after her day at the hospital. She is wearing a knitted vest that has been made by a “Maman” of the village. I take a shower with cold running water and marvel at how much better off these sisters are than those in Luiza. I talk to a sister of Spanish origin who has been here since 1971. She is quite talkative and laments the fact that the country’s situation hasn’t changed since the time of Mobutu. I ask her if any of her family has come to visit, she answers that her living relatives have been talking about it for a while but that there would be nothing for them to do here. The country has been very reticent to accept tourists and back in the day, one had to bring a large amount of cash (about US $1,000) and show a budget of expenditures before returning home. No wonder no one came for a visit!

The Sisters and Television

That night, I stay at the sisters’ house where the dinner is taken communally. Though I have a little room much like any other in a Congo nunnery, this is definitely a high end convent: the place houses 17 sisters with constant guests that come from NGOs, locals who go there for dinner and Congolese visiting sisters. Four of the sisters are European, one of which (originally from the Iles de la Madeleine in Canada) has been in Congo since 1965. Having spent more time in Congo than anywhere else, she has not been able to register for voting since she doesn’t have Congolese nationality.

A group of 20 people sit around the television to watch French news on TV5. Images of the painful Gaza strip withdrawal, the privatization of France’s roads, soap car races in a Paris park, celebration of Australia in a local zoo (drawing hoos and haas at the sight of a baby Kangaroo) and Dom Juan playing at the theater. It’s so odd knowing that I am in the middle of seemingly nowhere and television connects sisters who have never left their village to people from all over the world. French news seems so irrelevant and dramatic here yet it’s comforting to know that the outside world is still spinning. I wish I could switch the polarity of the television so that the newscaster and French families sitting on their couches could see the sisters watching them with avid eyes.

I feel like I’m in college again.

Mbuji Mayi (Boo-Gee-Ma-Ee)

August 21st 2005

We arrive in Mbuji Mayi after a short, uneventful flight. The view from the air reveals shallow clay canons, a sprawling city with corrugated iron roofed dwelled interspersed by palm trees. Once again, I register the wonderful greenness of it.

Navigating through the airport proves to be a little too much for me, with officials coming in and out of the waiting area with my passport (making me very nervous) and a long discussion about why I had to pay the special $50 + Fr 2,000 fee: for all first-time foreigners there’s a special fee, but since I am working in the humanitarian sector, the official would be willing to reduce the price considerably. Would I be able to pick up the passport tomorrow to fill out paperwork? No? Well then I could just pay him right here and now and all would be over with.

When we explained that the fee hadn’t been budgeted in our planning and that we needed to call our boss for confirmation, the affable official says that he can waive the fee this time around but I would have to pass by the customs office located in the middle of town.

I am fuming but trying hard not to show it. It’s so discouraging to be asked for a bribe each and every time I arrive in a new airport; it’s enough for me to want to go home and say “screw it, I’m going to help no one but myself”.

The drive from the city of Mbuji Mayi to Mwene Ditu is very pleasant and I have time to notice striking differences with my trip to Luiza. The road is 130 km and it takes us only 2 hours to get to destination! Compare that with the 150 km of the last trip to took about 8 hours to complete. The road is quite nice, actually paved all the way with a few tricky spots that involve having to drive around the potholes.

There are businesses everywhere and you can really get a sense that the city somewhat prosperous. I learn three things about the region:
-it is renowned for its diamonds and cookies. The diamond trade is prevalent with large drilling machines along the river bed and dozens of diamond cutting shops. Foreigners are not allowed to buy them of course. The city, though better off than its Congolese counterpart, should be a lot wealthier when you consider all the diamonds that are harvested there. The biscuits are produced in a factory close to the diamond club;
-the beer here is not Skol or Primus, it’s called Turbo King. Despite it’s name, it has the reputation of being watered down;
-one a hillside by Mbuji Mayi live the “refoulés de Katanga”. These are displaced peoples from Katanga during the time when Mobutu wanted to divide a state into two warring zones (?). The displaced have adapted quite well to the town as the people who fled were primarily highly skilled and educated who fled to the city where the only skills revolved around diamond harvesting and trading. They now own shops, training centers and technical industries (mechanics, welding, iron gates—useful when you consider how many places need to secure their diamonds).

August 20, 2005


Because I like shopping and I've been in serious shopping withdrawal mode, I buy the only things there are to buy here: furniture, and tons and tons of cloth. Below is a sample of the many loud prints I found appealing. I cant' wait to go to a tailor and make myself some Pagnes (Congolese equivalent to Boubous).

My favorite ladies selling the clothes set up their wooden displays in an alcove by the side of the road, constantly bothers by visiting policemen (who impose bogus "fines" and make money off the business too). They charge a set price of 10 dollars for 6 yards of fabric. There's no bargaining and it's an absolutely wonderful experience... If you don't mind the sun, the dust and the ladies trying to draw your attention to their "unique" cloth (that happen to look exactly the same as the previous stall's).

In order to verify that this is good cloth, one has to watch out for the bottom tag marked "Guaranteed Veritable Wax-Top Final" or any derivative thereof. If you were to make a long skirt, you would make sure that the tag is visible at the bottom center of the dress so people would know you're wearing the real thing! Most dresses look weird to me, as have an unfinished quality to them with their unhemmed bottoms.

The image below contains fabric that I bought from Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Congo (but made in Côte d'Ivoire or European countries). Little known fact: most African cloth is actually fabricated in Scandinavian countries with designs created by African stylists. So the cloth I bought on the market is most probably made in Europe rather than in Africa. European cloth with African appeal.

I'm thinking about having an American grandmother make me a funky African quilt with the remaining fabric. Can anyone sew?


Thanks for posting on my Guest Map Eva Roca and San Marino or Bust!