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...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."--CNN.com, 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.

--CNN.com, 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!