October 31, 2005

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.


Ammo said...

You should tell coke to use their distribution network for such a cause! It might actually work!

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