May 14, 2005

The End of my Trip

The end of my trip consisted of the following travels:

-May 3rd 2005, back to Luambo

-May 4th 2005, still in Luambo

-May 5th 2005, back to Luiza

-May 6th 2005, back to Kananga

-May 7th 2005,still in Kananga

We miss our plane ride because the weather is forboding and frankly, the 7-seater plane is not up to braving the unfriendly skies. We have dinner with the pilots, one of which turns out to be an American History buff and tells us about “exciting” battles in all of our respective states. It’s weird to be in a small city in Congo, reminescing about the States.

-May 8th mai 2005, back to Kinshasa
After a harrowing trip, I now consider Kinshasa my home, sweet home. I get patted on the back from coolegues for my trip back from the “deep Congo”. By the end, I am so exhausted that I go to sleep by 8:30PM for 4 days in a row.

As I write this, I have been working for three weeks straight and am looking forward to taking my much-needed vacation in the states. Yeah!

Some Numbers (and Some Text)

Disclaimer: these numbers have been guesstimated from the author’s observation and have absolutely no scientific backing. The reader should take everything with a grain of salt.

Health personel Salaries

Doctor: $7 to 10 per month
Nurse: $5 per month
Health Assistant: $3 per month

Village Work Division

Percentage of women (ages 12-60) engaged in activities that are heavy lifting, taking care of children, working while pregnant, agriculture, pounding manioc or other hard labour: 100%

Percentage of men (ages 12-60) engaged in activities that are heavy lifting, taking care of children, agriculture, pounding manioc or other hard labour: 5%

Driving Hours

Total number of hours driven while on this trip: 34

Living conditions

Total number of hot showers while in the field: 0%
Number of places with running water while in the field: 0%
Percentage of work places with pit latrines: 85%
Percentage of lodging on the field that was run by Nuns or Priests: 100%


Estimate number of women pregnant in a village: 4%

Average number of children that gather around me every time we stop in a village: 70

Average number of mentally disturbed (but nice) individuals found in each village telling me they are Governor of Washington DC: 1

Bicycle Porters

Bike Porters are young men who go to the city of Kananga, load their bikes with tons of wares, bags of corn flour or plastic pitchers full of fuel. They undertake a long voyage through the meandering path that is called a road to the village market for money. The trip is incredibly arduous and long, requires pushing the overloaded bicycle, explaining why most of them are young and male.

Total weight of goods on bike: 400 Lb*
Revenue if all goods are sold on the Luiza market: $200
Deaths of young men while transporting goods: Common

Distance between Kananga and Luiza: 150 km
Day of road between Kananga and Luiza: 7 days
Average number of trips made in a year by one person: 12

Number of “improvised” road blocks by villagers demanding money from exhausted porters: 10

Substenance while on the road: one meal consisting of rice and dried fish

May 02, 2005

Rest at last

Day Six
Location: Luiza
Date: 05/01/05
Hours of Driving: 0

Today we stay in Luiza to get some work done. To use our laptop, we have to power the office with electricity: we pour gasoline in the little power box to get it going. The electricity comes on for a couple of hours and we rush to finish writing our reports.

It’s raining and it’s cold. I am still taking showers with frozen cold water, which makes washing my hair torture.

The lady’s house where we eat the majority of our meals is swamped with kids excited to see a car and curious to look at me. I sense that they are intrigued and take the time to shake each and every little hand. When I leave, they wave to me energetically.

I have been eating fufuh, manioc leaves and small pieces of unidentifiable meat for five days. Today, we have bananas and mandarins that we picked up from Luambo. It’s really hard to find diversity of foods in the villages so we rush to buy tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples and mandarins whenever we happen to see them on our trips to other villages. The average child here mostly eats fufuh and manioc leaves, with a little bit of meat if there’s any left over.

Congolese soil, when it’s not clay, is very rich: it’s a deep, dense, humid earth where everything can grow. People like to joke that if you spit out a seed, the next minutes it will have spouted a plant. There are mines of diamonds and gold close to the Angola border.

There is so much potential for this country, why isn’t more done to exploit that?

Eye-opening visit 2

(alternative title “Redemption”)

Day Five
Location: Luambo
Date: 04/30/05
Hours of Driving: 6

Today we visit the Hôpital Général of the Région. It is run by a nun who has a firm grasp of her registers, her pharmacy and holds a well organized Management Comity every month. The birthing room has little but every utensil is boiled and sterilized. I learn that it’s quite common for patients to leave an object as a form of payment. As a result, the hospital has a load of old useless bicycles, suitcases etc in their backyard. People will hock their objects for years without reimbursing their debts.

The nun assures us that she was able to sell an old rifle last week though. Ugh, that’s great sister, great work recovering lost costs.

Eye-opening visit

(alternative title “Everything I learned in Public Health was True”)

Day Four
Location: Kalomba
Date: 04/29/05
Hours of Driving: 5

I am woken up 5:30 bells ringing and a 6:30 mass. The choral sounds beautiful but I am frankly exhausted from the traveling and the early rising.

We visit the Hospital of the Region, which looks exactly like was I was told in my Public Health Classes. The waiting room is sparse with one bench to lean on, the patients’ room has metal spring beds with no mattress or sheets, the pharmacy is severly understocked—my mother almost has more medicine in her cabinet than that—, they operate on a $500 medication budget for a population of about 110,000 people, the laboratory where HIV and malaria are detected in the blood consists of a room with a few reagents (I had more solutions for my experiments as an intern at the NIH than the entire hospital has).

We visit the maternity where a young mother has just given birth. The nurse wants to be helpful and explain her register to us but the doctor in our health team begs her to take care of the newborn first (the baby still had afterbirth in his throat and mouth, he’s struggling to breath).

We also visit a Centre de Santé in a village, preceded by a short visit to the Village Chief. He is flattered by our visit and implores me to take a good look at the centre and to provide more financing to the village (we are a team of about 12, but he assumes I am in charge of it). The center is shocking: out of date medicines are kept for months, solutions are diluted with unsterile syringes, the traditional birth attendant doesn’t clean the gloves she uses to help the birthing method, she doesn’t even speak French. The doctor in our team tells us that the pharmacist prescribes tension lowering drugs when a patient’s tension is already alarmingly low, and he sprinkles a white powder in “tropical wounds” when he should be diluting the solution with clean water and injecting it with a syringe.

A pregnant woman calling me “Maman” asks the only camera man in the village to take two pictures of us looking like chums. There is a photo of me floating around in a small village deep in the Congo shaking the hand of a grinning very pregnant woman.

That night, I have nightmares of Public Health Projects gone horribly wrong.

Deeper in the woods we go

Day Three
Location: Kalomba
Date: 04/28/05
Hours of Driving: 5

We drive to the region of Kaloma to see the Hôpital Général de Référence (large hospital of the region), the Bureau Central (the central bureau from which all health centers are monitored) and a Centre de Santé (a little health center that is present in every village).

The road from Luiza to Kalomba is slightly more passable. This gives me the opportunity observe the road at length. I find I am enchanted by the sights of villages with adobe bricks and straw roofs, young women pounding manioc into fine white powder, mommies carrying their children on their back secured with a piece of bright cloth while supporting a load bigger than my suitcase on their heads, children playing in the clay clearing in front of their houses and goats springing to get out of our way. The children are fascinated by me; I may well be the first time they see a white woman before.

I am pinned underneath two sweaty armpits –on my left the driver’s, on my right the doctor’s— and practically sitting in the gear box, but smiling beatically at the sunset against the huts, palm trees and the vast expanse of Congo’s brousse.

Note: cliché ahead

But the poverty is staggering. Not a single child has decent set of clothes; the shirts are full of holes, brown with stains and ragged. The smaller children have swollen stomachs from malnourishment, dirty mouths, dirty hands. I see 6 years girls taking care of their newborn sibling while the mommy is out in the forest harvesting manioc. I myself, have been eating fufu (a doughy mix of manioc and corn flour), manioc leaves and little pieces of meat everyday. I have a more diverse diet than most villagers

That night, we are housed in nuns’ quarters again.

Welcome to the Jungle

Day Two
Location: Luiza
Date: 04/27/05
Hours of Driving: 8

We visit the General Hospital of the Region which is not like I imagine it at all: it has clean walls, large windows, equipment and the offices of the head doctor has several computers and printers. Only, there’s no electricity at the moment. The doctor praises our upcoming visit to the deeper areas of the region and wishes us a “nice bad road”. I wonder what that means.

We stop to refuel: a young boy rolls a barrel of gasoline to the car, sets it upright and starts creating suction with his mouth around a connecting tube, taking care to spit to resulting upflow. It takes about 30 mins to fill up the tank that way.

We pack the small vans with loads of suitcases, two large bags containing money teacher salaries in Luiza (each about the size of two X-large mountain backpacks)…and still manage to pack 5 people in the back and three people in the front.

The road from Kananga to Luiza is a beaten path of clay earth, which can be as hard as cement in some places and as soft as fine sand in others. I am told it’s lucky that it’s not raining because clay turns to engulfing mud. The road to Luiza is so stressful that I barely recall the details of it. I can only tell you for sure that my muscles were clenched the ENTIRE 8 hours of the way there. I count 4 times when the van was driving at a 45 degree angle. I am convinced that we are about to topple over and that we kill at least 5 chickens and two goats. I clench my lower lip for much of the road hoping to quell the shouts of alarm.

I can’t believe I have to do the same road in reverse in two weeks. I’d rather set up my permanent residence in Luiza than have to drive through that road again, which makes the health team laugh at length. I am being serious though.

I crash early and sleep a deep sleep.

Mission in the Field

Day One
Location: Kananga
Date: 04/26/05
Hours of Driving: 1

I get up at 5:00AM to get to the airport for 6:30AM. The airport is a genuine zoo: there are hundreds of people crowded into a large room with kiosks, people lurking around that shouldn’t be there, porters grab your bags quickly and bring them to places where you don’t want them to go, there are fights erupting to determine who get in which line first, and officials have huge smiles when they ask you for a “sucré” (a sweet, otherwise referred to as a bribe in English).

I count that we pay four bribes for a two hours trip: one for the lady to let us enter the airport, another for the airport authorities pouring over my four papers and proofs of citizenship (in keeping with the legal regulations), one for the group of soldiers opening the gates from the airport to the city, another one in Kananga for the immigration guy. I am so glad that we have a protocol guy who fights through the crowds for us.

After a two hour flight, we get to our lodging which is a beautiful large brick church, with nuns quarters. My room is sparse with a single bed, a desk and chair, a sink over which sits a broken sliver of a mirror. The hallway is pitch black, illuminated only by a semi-circular windows made from bright orange and green tinted windows. The setting is beautiful, an almost Italian-like grandeur to the architecture, with palm trees, long grass and Jasmine plants. The electricity comes on only between 7:30PM and 10:00PM so I rush back to the room to recharge both my computer and my phone battery.