December 30, 2006

I was going to wish you a Happy New Year's...

...but instead, I am going to wish you a Happy Tabaski.

The last time I thought about this Muslim ceremony was in Senegal in January 2005 (see “Disconnect Thoughts” post). And this year, it happens to fall on December 30th 2006 which almost perfectly coincides with New Year’s Eve.

[Children Washing their Sheep in the Ocean in Dakar, Senegal]

I still receive security messages from my Warden in Senegal. He warns all American citizens to be very careful of Tabaski festivities as Anti-American sentiments are high this holiday season. Why? Because Saddam Hussein just died by hanging.

I had no idea Senegalese people felt so strongly about Mr. Hussein. And oddly enough, I feel sorry for this crazy man who, even at the moment of his death, is seems completely unaware of what was going on (CNN reports “The judge said Hussein appeared "totally oblivious to what was going on around him. I was very surprised. He was not afraid of death.")

It makes me sad to see the pictures (I couldn’t bring my self to watch the video), as he was brought into the room in a well cut suit. His nicely combed hair disheveled, his eyes round with anticipation, staring at faceless men in black ski hats.

Is it wrong to feel sorry for such a man? I really can't help myself.

December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas Y'all

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays!

I'd think of something better, but my sister's nagging me, my brother has smelly feet, my dad is clearing his throat and my mom is asking me to help her reach the dust bunnies behind the fridge (eewww!) and I'm relaxing at home.
Sis has some disparaging things to say about the family, but I'm too good to address these thoughts.

But seriously folks, please enjoy this Holiday season with people you love.

Thanks Heather Jamison for posting on my GuestMap. I love your blog format, it's beautiful. You must tell me how you do it!

December 16, 2006

Thoughts on Homelessness

Your comments on my recent post “On Being Homeless” made me think long and hard about homelessness. I remember helping a Congolese colleague get a visa for the States to attend a conference. When I asked him what he thought of North America, he professed being shocked at the number of homeless people there. Indeed, the United States is a well-organized country with wealth and social services and the idea of disenfranchised and abandoned people was appalling to him in that setting.

Some thoughts on homelessness...

How many homeless people are there in the United States?
From Wikipedia -

Total Number
As many as 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year (1% of the entire U.S. population or 10% of its poor), and about 842,000 people on any given day.

Familial composition
40% are families with children—the fastest growing segment.
41% are single males.
14% are single females.
5% are minors unaccompanied by adults.

Why are people homeless in the United States?
Well, there are many reasons. Sometimes it boils down to economic factors (people loose their jobs and cannot pay rent), other times it can be mental illness (people prefer living free and unconstrained instead of being forced to take medication).

How did homelessness become such a big issue here?
There are several events that precipitated homelessness to what it is today in the United States.

In the 1960, President Reagan signs the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act. The main idea behind this act is to take fragmented arrangement of separate, independent, and often noncommunicating, hospitals, clinics and agencies, and organized them into a service network called community mental health centers (CMHCs).

Except, these centers are crushed by the number of newly deinstitutionalized patients (also a Reagan legacy) and people on work-disability: patients that have little or no money to pay for health services. Due to tight budgets, external services are cut, leaving only the more basic services running.

Reagan decides to cut the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by three-quarters, from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion by 1988. In fact, the department’s role to give subsidized housing (housing of very low cost) for the poor.

Reagan also changes of tax codes. This reduces incentives for private developers to create low-income homes. Under Reagan, the number of people living beneath the federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million in 1978 to 32.5 million in 1988.

Faced with community centers operating basic services and no subsidized or affordable housing, a large number of people found themselves on the street.

What do shelters provide?
From Wikipedia -

"Homeless shelters are temporary residences for homeless people. Usually located in urban neighborhoods, they are similar to emergency shelters. The primary difference is that homeless shelters are usually open to anyone, without regard to the reason for need. Some shelters limit their clientele by gender or age.

Most homeless shelters expect clients to stay elsewhere during the day, returning only to sleep, or if the shelter also provides meals, to eat; people in emergency shelters are more likely to stay all day, except for work, school, or errands. Some homeless shelters, however, are open 24 hours a day.

There are daytime-only homeless shelters, where the homeless can go when they cannot stay inside at their night-time sleeping shelter during the day. Such an early model of a daytime homeless shelter providing multi-faceted services is Saint Francis House in Boston, Massachusetts.

Homeless shelters are usually operated by a non-profit agency, or associated with a church. Many get at least part of their funding from local government entities. Shelters can sometimes be referred to as 'human warehouses'.

Homeless shelters sometimes also provide other services, such as a soup kitchen, job seeking skills training, job training, job placement, support groups, and/or substance (i.e., drugs and/or alcohol) abuse treatment. If they do not offer any of these services, they can usually refer their clients to agencies that do."

Why are homeless people not all in shelters
Well, often, shelters are full or refuse you based on your profile (perhaps you are a young white male and the shelter only accept mothers and children). Some people say that there is a large violence problem in shelters and they prefer sleeping in a busy street instead of being raped or robbed of their possessions.

When I lived in Japan, I saw large parks completely usurped by tents and man-made shacks where whole communities of homeless people would reside. They would also open the underground metro when the weather go particularly cold so people wouldn't die outside.

Why don't homeless people apply to job and go to interviews, like I do when I need a job?
From Wikipedia -

"Since most homeless people have no telephone, or fixed phone number or no personal phone number at all, no computer to access E-mail, no permanent address, or any place to get changed and washed, it can be difficult for a homeless person to apply for, find or even maintain a job; and without a job it can be difficult to raise the money or gain the references needed to acquire accommodation if governmental aid is not available or insufficient."


"In some homeless shelters and day centers, the homeless have access to a phone for making local calls, take a shower, and use a post office box at the shelter to receive mail, or sometimes can use a computer to access email. In many shelters and centers, they must signup on a first-come/first-serve list for such services, so it is not always possible to use a phone or have a shower in a timely fashion. The washing and laundering of dirty clothes, which frequently consists simply of the clothes on the person's body, presents an almost insurmountable problem, since many shelters do not provide laundry machines or services and using a public laundromat is not possible with only one set of clothes or lack of money to pay for the use of the laundromat."

What is a homeless person's daily routine? How does it feel to be homeless?
Well, I'm not quite sure. I think that it's important for homeless people to get about their day and fill it with normal activities like having two or three meals a day, going to the library, interacting with friends, going to see a movies etc...You would be surprised to find out that some homeless people are very well educated and have a family somewhere. This is the case for this homeless person who blogs about his daily life: The Homeless Guy

Where can I read more on this issue?
My sources are the following:

Democracy Now -

National Council for Community Behavioral Health Care -

Wikipedia -

Wikipedia -

Wikipedia -

Blog of a Homeless Man -

December 14, 2006

The Bad Luck Fairy

The $10 Christmas

They said it couldn't be done! They said it would be impossible to curb those impulse buys and consumerisms tendencies! They were wrong!!

This year, my family and I have decided to give each other small presents. The rule: all gifts have to be under ten dollars. And believe me, it's really hard to find a gift under $10 nowadays.

Don't tell anyone, but this is what I'm thinking about getting everyone.

Brother has a very serious job in a Consulting firm. He has to have a neat appearance in a sombre suit to compensate for the fact that he doesn't know what he is doing there. For him, I am getting a comb, so he can comb his hair to the side and suck up to the clients.

Sister is rather althetic. She rides horses, swing dances in local competitions and is generally fitter than I am. And has no qualms in reminding me of this fact. For her, I am getting her a time-honored tennis ball. It's rubber and it's electric yellow, which means that her chances of breaking or loosing this are slim to none. Perfect!

Dad is starting to contemplate his retirement with optimism and a tear in his eye. Everyday, I hear, "only 3 years, 2 months, and 232 days until retirement". But I worry that he will be bored when in retirement. I am getting him a ball point pen so he can write that award-winning novel in his golden years.

Let's face it. Even if mom says she "hates" nay "ABHORS" cooking, I think she secretly enjoys it. I mean, she cooked for us everyday of our lives when we were living at home, right? Therefore, I am getting her a special, stainless steel Ladle.

The boyfriend? Well I complain of the dust and the disorder in his apartment often enough that he will enjoy this feather duster for sure!

I can't wait for Christmas day, when I will see that sparkle in their eyes when they open their presents.

December 07, 2006

On Homelessness

Yesterday, I was coming home from work, and I can honestly, HONESTLY not remember when I had been that cold last.

Perhaps living in Sahelian and Tropical countries has made me weak. Perhaps. But I was caught in this intense wind that made me want to cling to a telephone poll for stability. This wind went right through my thin trousers fabric and nestled into my flesh. It burned my face and froze the blood in my cheeks. It attacked my toes and, like a diabetic's numb extremities, made them feel bloated and dead. It attacked every exposed corner of my body relentlessly.

And yet, I see homeless people everywhere. With thin, old army blankets over their shoulders, and short socks that leave their calf exposed. With sweat-soaked gloves and hats that probably have little effect against the numbing cold. They settle in nooks between two buildings, right in the cross-winds created by these large architectural structures. Within the warm confines of my comforter, I wonder: How do they do it? How can you stand spending a whole winter shivering until your back and leg muscle hurt?

November 30, 2006


The whole Looking-for-a-Job thing is so demeaning.

Adjective: demeaning
Causing awareness of your shortcomings
- humbling, humiliating, mortifying

Verb: demean
Reduce in worth or character, usually verbally
- take down, degrade, disgrace, put down
See also: demeaningly, undignified

Type of: abase, chagrin, humble, humiliate, mortify

Either you're spending hours tailoring your résumé and cover letters or you're calling people back to see if they can give you a definite yes or no answer.

It's incredibly demoralizing when you realise that:

1. Most jobs to which you have applied already have a chosen candidate. Organizations will post their jobs internally, allowing internal candidates to apply first. By the time they post on their external websites (for legal reasons job postings have to be shared), it's too late for you.

2. Large organizations have automated answering machines-you leave a message enquiring about your application and never hear from them again.

3. When you can talk to a human-being, he or she is not allowed to disclose anything about what is happening with the job selection.

4. The majority of jobs in DC are acquired through networking. When you're an introvert like me, the thought of bothering someone who's busy with their own work and asking them to evaluate your chances or contact someone they barely know, makes you cringe inside.

5. A friend told me that he's tracking if people are reading his emails. He tells me that, in some cases, people don't even bother to read the emails and just erase them immediately.

What's a girl like me to do?

November 22, 2006

Congo court catches fire as fighting erupts

POSTED: 12:07 p.m. EST, November 21, 2006 , on

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (AP) -- Gunfire and street fights erupted outside Congo's supreme court and a blaze swept through the building Tuesday as hearings began over fraud allegations in a presidential election meant to bring lasting peace to the Central African giant.

Ex-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba has launched a legal challenge of the results that showed him losing to President Joseph Kabila in a runoff that was designed to end the wars, coups d'etat and autocratic rule that has hobbled mineral-rich Congo since independence in 1960. Some 17,500 U.N. peacekeepers are overseeing the transition.
The latest election-related civil unrest in the capital, Kinshasa, came as dozens of Bemba supporters massed outside the court building as proceedings on his motion got under way. Fights broke out in the angry crowd.

Sporadic gunfire was heard for about 45 minutes as U.N. peacekeepers sped to the scene in armored vehicles, then fired in the air to disperse the crowd. Cars were set ablaze, and police sirens wailed.

Officials said gunmen in the crowd had fired on security forces, but no injuries were immediately reported.

"Armed men were mixed in with the civilians and shot at the police," Interior Minister Denis Kalume said.

Several offices in the two-story court building were on fire, along with furniture and documents. U.N. soldiers evacuated the building and firefighters worked to contain the flames.

A spokesman for Bemba's party said it had no role in the violence. [...]

November 21, 2006

Sweet Lord!

I was just "casually" checking my blog's net worth and found that it's now worth US$67, 744. 80.

Sweet Lord! I'm giddy with excitement!

November 17, 2006

Claiming the "Embarrassment Right"

I am 28 and my parents still embarrass me. I suspect they signed a special "Embarrassement Right" contract when I was born: "Thou shall be allowed to embarrass thy Daughter as often as thou wishes."

Case in Point:
My parents were in town the other day (from Madagascar), so I celebrated by taking them to dinner (well that's technically untrue. I showed them where the dinner place was, but as all good parents will I suppose, they paid for dinner).

We went to this wonderful place called Mimi's American Bistro.

It's described as a "Cabaret restaurant with singing servers and a variety of live music". Which means that every waiter and waitress is involved in plays and live theater, but works at Mimi's part-time for extra income. It's such a fun place to go, when your waiter could be up on the stage belting out a rendition of Les Miserables one minute and asking you if you want white or red with your salmon the next.

I hesitated a little bit before making that decision-my parents are cool and all that, but it takes a special kind of person to appreciate the place. Namely, a young, gay or very open person. My parents were born on this earth around the 1950s and well, the world was a different place back then.

Well we sat down to dinner and my dad was slumped-over with fatigue. I started explaining the spirit of the restaurant, when he sat up, looked over at the stage...and mouthed every word that was being sung! Oh my god it was embarrassing. Furthermore, he fully recognized a Liza Minelli song and enjoyed a young waiter's imitation of Renee's performance of a Chicago song, slinky moves and all.

When our waitress came around, he kindly asked her to sing from the Evita soundtrack-which (I couldn't believe) she graciously obliged. When she started singing, he gesticulated wildly and I cringed with embarrassment at his enthusiasm. I felt like I was in a sailor's bar with my dad singing along with the old drinking songs and waving his arm for emphasis. Except this was Mimi's and these were show tunes.

Thankfully, I looked around to assess the damage of his enthusiasm...and saw that everyone else was doing the same thing. Pfeww!

November 14, 2006

I'm not knocking temping but... I was filling in for the receptionist for a couple of hours and some colleagues stuck up a conversation in front of my desk. They eventually patted my hand and said: "I'm sure you'll find a good job soon, a lot of our receptionists find good employments".

To which I replied with politeness: "Well I certainly hope so, you see, I used to be a Project Manager in Congo; but that's very kind of you".

November 08, 2006

A car and a woman curled up

My roomate and I had a crash last night, and the unfortunate victim of the accident was a young lady coming home from work.

We are looking for a place to park, in the busy "up and coming" U street area, recently converted from decaying townhouses and louche neighborhood into a busy and popular evening hangout. Wanting to find a place close to the restaurant and in a rush to get there precisely at 7:30 to watch the election results, my roomate waits for a lull in traffic to swing his car around, in his usual confident, I'm-cool fashion.

I see her, a young black lady with her plastic shopping bags, all dressed in black, in the dark of the evening. My roomate is looking the other way, making sure he aligns with the lign of traffic and makes it around quickly enough to avoid other cars. I see her as she walks two feet away from our car, also taking advantage of the gap in traffic to walk across to her car, from an evening of working in a cheap clothing store.

I am close enough to see the shock on her face as she realizes she's going to be hit by our slow but sharply swinging vehicle. I extend a hand in her direction, as if pushing her back from harm, and yell "careful!" to my driver. Her body curls against the front of the bumper and she falls to the ground. The sound of the impact is terrible -I'm not sure if it's the contact of the car to her body or the sound of the breaks- and for a stomach-churning minute, I believe she is lying, pinned under the floor of the car.

I swing the door open to get to her, as my roomate slowly creeps the car out of traffic's way. My door swings more open and I am almost scared to get out.

She gets up, intact...thank you God. She is shaken and, intuitively checks that her hair is not out of place. Funny how these unimportant instincts surface. I ask (many times) if she's OK and she says yes but that she's just shaken. I hear an accent in her voice and can't stop thinking how bad this must be for her-a recent immigrant, working in a cheap clothing store, jay-walking to her car at the end of a long day, to get hit by a car. For some reason, this is worse for her than for anybody else.

The cops are instantly on the scene. They are nice, helpful, ask what's been going on and appropriately fine my roomate quite substantially. But they keep their cool, they are polite and they do the right thing. Thank God for them now. I only wish they would ask her to sit in their car. I ask her again and again if she wants to sit but she doesn't, she just stays at the scene slightly shaken and shell-shocked. She lifts her black pants to check her leg which is aching but can't see anything underneath her knee-high stockings. I wear the same things to work-funny how that is. She reaches to her back often and realizes that it hurts from falling on her bottom. That's the word she uses. It's so quaint, so delicate and polite. How funny.

I drive home, our evening understandably cut short by the incident. My roomate tells me the young lady lives on our street. In fact, she lives on our block. How funny. How ironic. We three roomates, who live in a neighborhood where we are already not welcomed, where the up-and-coming-ness of the street makes it so that we can afford a nice townhouse and our neighbors live in low-income housing. How unfortunate.

And here I am, at 2am morphing into 4am, rethinking the events and the sequence of the crash, thinking, how funny, how unfortunate. My lips, ears and scalp are throbbing, as they often are when I am stressed and they itch and they burn.

November 06, 2006

Elucidated-The Mystery of the Wax Ball

The Best Response so far was from a Chinese Girl who says:

"Aha, how funny!

It's Chinese for sure. And it's a herbal medicine ball! First of all, the
yellow ball is made of wax and keeps the moisture of the herbal content. I
can read from the package the black ball is for strengthening kidney. If you
are really curious, they usually cut the black ball into small pieces and
then swallow them with warm water.

I guess it belongs to a male...but it could be a joke. "

But thanks to Laura who asked a total stranger in a Asian grocery store about it-that takes balls :)

November 03, 2006

Come On!

Come on! Doesn't anybody, of Asian persuasion or even remotely connected to Asian customs and lifestyle, know what this ball of wax is? It's killing me!

Surely one, ONE person can read the characters on the box, no?

Arrrgh...If I don't hear from anybody in, say, one week, I will brew the licorice-like ball and make my morning tea with it. That'll teach you!

UPDATE: Sunday, 5:20PM.

Steve in WI says:

"I've got the answer!

According to Jeff Pan at the English-language China Daily newspaper in Beijing:

[Quote:] "To my knowledge, this is probably a kind of traditional Chinese medicine, with the 'wax ball' being the wrap for the medicine in it."

The mystery is solved.
Now if we only knew what the medicine was for."

Thanks Steve! I sort of figured it was medicine-so now that's confirmed, but am still puzzled about what sort of medicine this is.

November 02, 2006

Two Degrees of Separation

If you work in the Humanitarian sector, beware. You can't afford to piss somebody off because that person will come back to hunt you.

Yesterday I was chatting with a nice gentleman who had just finished Peace Corps in Niger. I talked a little bit about my time in the Congo and he says:

Him- "I know someone in Congo"

Me- "Oh really? Well there are a lot of expats there but I may know them"

Him- "Her name is KW"

Me-"No way! That was my favorite person in the Congo. She even lived in my building! I just talked to her by Skype last week!"

Him-"My, that's weird. Well my wife was considering applying to a job in the Congo with X organization"

Me-"NOOO! So funny, that's where I worked!"

At that point the conversation got louder.

Me-"Wait, wait, is your wife a health person"


Me-"Oh my GOD! That was for my position! I wrote the job description! I remember emailing her about it too!"

And this is during my lunch break at the temping job. I'm so glad I didn't do anything mean to her :)

Other Side of the Street Theorem

My friend brought to my attention a very interesting phenomenon, right here in our nation's capital. I call it the Bus Clumping Phenomenon. It goes like this.

a. Have you ever noticed that there are sometimes 2, 3, or sometimes 4 commuter buses in a row in the morning? I always thought that there was someone at the bus headquarters who screwed up the dispatch schedule.

b. But it turns out that the reason for this bus clumping is that the first bus has a lot of people to pick up in the morning. And thus, with all the little old ladies trembling their way up the stairs, the bus is slowed down and takes a long time to finish its usual route.

c. The second bus has fewer passengers to pick up along the way (since the first bus picked them up). Consequently, this second bus is much faster on its route.

d. It soon catches up to the overloaded first bus and, voila! A bus clump has formed.

Inspired by this rather astute observation, I present you my very own equation. I have noticed that -when I am waiting for a bus in the morning freezing my buns off- the buses on the other side of the street come much more frequently than the buses on MY side of the street. I swear this is true. I call it the Other Side of the Street Theorem. I haven't quite figured out how it happens yet, but I'll certainly think about it when I'm waiting at the bus stop tomorrow morning.


Wow, for some reason, on my way to work in the bus today, I thought about lots of new things that I would like to blog about. And since I have a notoriously bad memory ("Congo, where?"), I must write them down right here and now:

-My thoughts on the Campaign to End Poverty-is it realistic?
-The Bus Clumping Phenomenon and the Other Side of the Street Theorem
-Nigerian Scam Emails, and
-Two Degrees of Separation-the Humanitarian Game

I have plenty of free time on the weekend, so hopefully I can update soon. I know you are quivering with curiosity and anticipation!

Who Stole my America?

I wanted to share these Words of Encouragement bestowed upon me by Strudel (a German reader):

"dedicris said...
My flipping rocks, you becoming a sick European-minded lazy worker. Rush out American Girl, enter the next bank and tell the fucking banker you want $1 billion to invest in the yellow-ball toy before Xmas. He would be shy and not dare to ask you -What's this thing? -. STRUDEL
11:11 AM"


"dedicris said...
Who stole my America? Redskins. Ford T . Stan & Oliver. Now you answer ads, get interviews, are told -WeLetYouKnow- . Just like us.

Many (sigh) many years ago, hijacking in Germany I met a parà of the most famous Folgore Brigade in Africa in ww2,he was working as a driver for Herz comapny. Many (sigh) many years later, as a management consultant I met a second Folgore parà, he was working as an accountant in a factory. Work sucks for the bravest too. STRUDEL
11:24 AM"

What translation engine have you been using Strudel? When you say hijacking, I think you mean hitchiking, no? Anyways, thanks for the good words(I think)! A little laughter at 7:00am goes a long way.

November 01, 2006

Make Poverty History

This is a new video from the ONE Campaign.

More thoughts to come on that.

Chinese Wax Ball

So, I go up at 6:00AM twice in a row to apply to a job before my temping job starts and instead, I bring you "Chinese Wax Ball!".

I was going through my drawers in the office, looking for a marker in my new cubicle, when i came upon this white, red and orange stamped box. Like Alice through the Looking Glass, I couldn't help but open it, thinking there would be a miniature inking pad and stamp in there. No dice. It revealed this perfectly spherical, yellow wax ball. I jiggled it and noticed that there was something large moving in there. Try as I might, no amount of throwing, biting or stabbing would get it to open. Then I gently pushed it on its seams and TA-DA, it opened! Revealing, revealing....

A licorice-smelling waxy ball.

Does anybody know what the heck it is? The mystery deepens.

(Note: this does not mean I get nothing done at work. I am actually very productive during the day. Please hire me, and I promise I won't go through your drawers...much)

October 26, 2006

Optimism Crushed

So I've been back since July 2006, which means I've been in the States...oh...3 months now.

My situation is thus:
1. I have a great room in a not so great neighborhood. I am paying through the teeth for it each month,
2. I have no source of income and seem to be spending lavish amounts of money like Britney Spears,
3. I've been looking for a job for the last months...unsuccessfully. I was offered a job with unsatisfactory pay and decided not to bargain for a better salary because the position was not exactly what I was looking for.

So once again, ladies and gentlemen, I am temping. What is temping you ask? It is a mechanism whereby strapped-for-cash individuals get short-term, banal, unchallenging assignments for meager paid-per-hour salaries.

I am the queen of temping. I've done it long and I've done it hard. But I'm proud to say that I was able to quit temping cold turkey in favor of the various virtues of having a real job with a real salary.

Why are you temping now, What happened, you ask? Well, it seems that, with my French/English bilingualism, my masters in International Health from a reputable school, my 2-year work experience abroad, my enthusiasm and good recommendations from previous employers; I was getting a little too cocky. I though: "it's going to take me 1 month, or 2 tops, until I find a job". Wrong!

And thus I am temping...again.

October 19, 2006

Mountains O' Things

The life Ive always wanted
I guess Ill never have
Ill be working for somebody else
Until Im in my grave
Ill be dreaming of a live of ease
And mountains
Oh mountains o things

To have a big expensive car
Drag my furs on the ground
And have a maid that I can tell
To bring me anything
Everyone will look at me with envy and with greed
Ill revel in their attention
And mountains
Oh mountains o things

Sweet lazy life
Champagne and caviar
I hope youll come and find me
Cause you know who we are
Those who deserve the best in life
And know what moneys worth
And those whose sole misfortune
Was having mountains o nothing at birth

Oh they tell me
Theres still time to save my soul
They tell me
Renounce all
Renounce all those material things you gained by
Exploiting other human beings

Consume more than you need
This is the dream
Make you pauper
Or make you queen
I wont die lonely
Ill have it all prearranged
A grave thats deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o things

Mostly I feel lonely
Good good people are
Good people are only
My stepping stones
Its gonna take all my mountains o things
To surround me
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay

Ill be dreaming, dreaming...

--Tracy Chapman

I hope you'll excuse me for posting these (rather long) song lyrics from Tracy Chapman's song. Inexplicably, it has been popping in my mind for some time now. Here I am, back in the States for three (THREE!) months now, jobless still, and I have these unhealthy compulsions to buy, buy, buy. Yesterday, I was in a store, and seeing that winter is coming, coupled with my lack of good warm clothing, I decided to buy...two dresses. Wha???

I want to say that the advertisements, red flashy store letters, posters of impossibly polished models, and soft cardigans rows in the store fronts are all to blame for my lack of shopping self-control.

I mean, just take a look at the Container Store for crying out loud. Does any other country have a Container Store? No! Why? Because, other than Americans, needs to CONTAIN all the stuff they own. Case in point, the store sells the following items:
-Accessory storage hangers
-Clear plastic hat boxes--the website even says "our boxes are one of our most frequently requested items"
-Customized Gift wrap center boxes that slip under you bed--for the professional wrapper in you

And yet...and yet...What I wouldn't do to own all three items! I really need to get a job so I can get income, so I can spend it on Mountains and Mountains O' Crap.

And inside, I am afraid that it's not really the advertisements that lure me to the stores. It's a little mutation in a gene on the 19th chromosome that has transformed me into a shopping addict.

Please, oh no, doctor, tell me it isn't true, tell me it isn't true! How much longer do I have to live? 60 years? Oh god, nooooooo.

October 02, 2006

Back in the US of A

Dear All,

I am writing from my new room in Washington DC, where the weather is oh-so perfect and my windows are open. I can hear the clanging of a construction crew working on a recreation center, some heavy gangsta/hip-hop music, a car alarms ringing and ringing without let-up and kids playing basketball on the court next to my house.

What a change a few months make! I am loving the fact that I am back and slowly becoming acclimated to Mountains O' Things (as Tracy Chapman said so well): the 13 types of bread at Giant, spending a Congolese yearly salary on a room rental for a month, props and more props for the scary Halloween season ahead, rich succulent food heaped in mounds on my restaurant plate, containers I didn't know I need from the Container store. It's a little overwhelming at time and I find myself having to leave a store to take a breather outside in the beautiful weather.

I am still looking for a job, though I have decided to work part-time until I can find something decent because my money is dwindling fast. By the way, if you know of anyone working for a Health Campaign firm (one that works on Behavior Change), please let me know!

I was offered a job a few weeks back but the pay was not very substantial and it was located waaaaay in the middle of nowhere, Maryland. God dammit, I have a family to feed! Uh, actually that's a lie but it's a little linguistic tic I picked up in the Congo.

Other than that, life is peachy, thank you very much.

Best Regards,
007 in Africa

PS: Thanks all for your nice comments (especially that 70 year old man who can still speak Swahili-how cool is that?)

July 06, 2006

Taking a break from Blogging

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Friends, family and readers...I am taking a little break from blogging. I wish you adventures, luck and frienships along the way!

June 22nd 2006

The trip back is long and hard as usual. Along the way, we manage to pick up two small antelopes and one large one with a freshly bloodied trachea. The driver puts them directly on top of our suitcases.

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Along the way, we stop to give way to an old Russian truck and meet a cute little baby called Angel. I coo and awww and tickle her, when the dad asks me what I can do about her "condition". She has a frothy, black paste on her toes which turns out to be "la gale". One of the doctors explains how to treat this with local plants and general hygiene, and donates one of her medicated soaps. She also adds that these pimples are highly contagious. I wipe my hands on my jeans, praying that I haven't caught the disease.

We run into the woman who sheltered us on our last trip, and I hand her two dishes, which I bought in Kinshasa for the occasion. She hands me a little chicken, bound by its toes that I delicately accept and hand to the driver to store. He unceremoniously jams it under his seat.

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We cross the river on the barge again, and I--covered in Antelope blood, chicken feathers, gale disease, and sweat--have left Kole forever.

June 21st 2006

The whole participant group is loaded in an open-backed truck. We settle on the metal floor or suspended between the metal bars that form the skeleton of the roof. We negotiate the sandy grounds to get to the hospital for the practical part of the training. Suddenly, the men in front of me duck. Not realizing what is happening, I duck a second too slow and realize that low branches from a nearby tree along the road threatened to decapitate me…much to the amusement of passengers behind me.

We visit and inspect the maternity, the prenatal and postnatal consultation rooms. The prenatal nurse recognizes me and, by way of greeting, tells me I have gained weight. It’s shocking to admit this but I am a good 20 pounds heavier than most of the women in the room who are 8 months pregnant-and I weight about 120 pounds.

In the maternity, a mother is sitting on a cloth on the ground, crying her eyes out. I must look frightened because the women nudge me, saying that labor pains (or labor work as they say in French) are about 100 times more painful than period pains. This woman has a small stature. As a result, for cautionary purposes, she will have to have a caesarian. She is crying warm tears because, once again, she will not be able to give birth naturally. Not one is there to comfort her, not one is there to explain the surgery, no one has prepared her for this eventuality, even though she is a small woman and will have to give birth by caesarian each and every time.

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The school kid that I have been waiting on since the 18th finally makes his arrival after a motorcycle ride to Tshudi Loto and then a three-day bicycle ride to Kole. I pay the bicyclist who brought him over $30 and thank him profusely. The child is happy to be in Kole and the sisters in the convent (who travel often) all recognize him, give him high fives and shake him with delight. He sits down, takes off his shoes, and massage his feet thoroughly. For someone who has never worn closed shoes, the three day ride with these tennis shoes were excruciating. He asks for someone to buy him flip-flops as he has not brought them over in his plastic bags of cloths.

The rest of the day, he eat meat and Chikwangue and hangs out with me. We cannot communicate but he demonstrates is halting new grasp of letters “ffff-fffo-kasu” (focus), “pppee-aa-gesus” (page) etc. I realize that he has not been learning French in his school and the lack of read material has impeded his reading abilities. But it’s obvious he wants to learn and grabs a few magazine eagerly to practice. I promise myself I will buy the school a few easy reading books in French when in France and send them over. I mull over the difficulty of getting them first to Kinshasa (plane), then in my office, and then to Lodja (cargo plane), finishing with Vango which is situated 15 km from isolated Lomela (probably by bike). Before I leave Kole, I make sure to leave enough money to hire a motorcyclist to drive him back the whole way and school fees so he can be in school another year.

My last evening with our partners finishes lavishly as they have invited me to a ceremony at the nearby convent. They have prepared a table full of food, the novices sing and dance my praises (by songs in which they have cleverly substituted my name). I am giving a simple wooden shield, a war ax, and a bright orange table cloth with the words “l’Union fait la Force” (Togetherness is our Strength—a very Mobutu thing to say) embroidered in blue.

I am asked to give an ad-hoc speech, which I do with hesitation, and end my discourse with tears and a clenched throat. I know full-well that, no matter how much I want to come back, the chance being back in this little town as slim to none.

June 20th 2006

After a long day of work, I am invited to dinner by the Spanish, Belgian and Philipino sisters. We have delicious wild boar (Sanglier) with home-grown tomatoes, onions and garlic.

We talk about the difficulties of the field (a perennial favorite) and a sister remembers the Rwandese soldiers pillaging the village. She and the Bishop had to flee to the forest for a month, fed surreptitiously by villagers. She decided to stay behind to continue working in the hospital and ended treating as many villagers and wounded Rwandese soldiers. She’s been in the Congo for the better part of 30 years.

We also discuss politics (another perennial favorite) and evaluate Presidential candidates which include the daughter of Kasa Vubu (first president in the early 1960s), the son of Mobutu (the nerve!) and of course Kabila the Father’s son.

I heartily admire a little carved, sitting stool they own. The Belgian sister grabs it from the wall where it is hanging, dusts it off, and thrusts it towards me as a farewell gift. I’m embarrassed by this generous gesture but can’t resist accepting nonetheless.

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(A family of dogs lying in the grass in front of an office, the view of Kole when coming in from the road in the forest, the Belgian sister dusting off her old carved stool)

On the way back from the sisters place by motorcycle, I crane my neck for 15 mins just taking into the sky. Though the depth perception is amazing at night with no lights around, the heavens feel low and all encompassing. I catch glimmers of palm trees and rarely lit mud houses when the motorcycle beams hit the sandy road ahead of us.

July 04, 2006

June 19th

The trainers have organized a refresher training on Low Risk Maternity on topics ranging from generalities on the health system in the R.D.Congo, to Behavior Change Communication techniques, to prevention of and care of people living with HIV and AIDS.

The topic that commands to most attention from slumbering participants is the one on family planning. Proper male and female condoms techniques are illustrated, IUD are activated, and a cycle bead necklace is passed around.

She is a true feminist, extolling the virtues of contraception not just for reducing numbers of children but for allowing a woman to reach her full potential at work. She beseeches men to take an active role in their wives’ family planning and suggests—rather scandalously!—that the men acquaint themselves with their partners’ fertility cycle as well. The talks elicit “uh huh” and “that’s right!” from the midwives, and female nurses and gentle chuckling from the male doctors and nurses.

(The trainer is showing how to work an IUD, how to follow one's menstrual cycle using Cycle Beads and how to insert a female condom)

The trainers bring news of Kinshasa to the participants that are so isolated from the capital—the little news that some of them get is from the static-filled radio stations. The trainers talk of system-wide “greve” in Kinshasa to force the government to reconsider their salary. Presently, their salaries are a meager $10 a month…that’s if they get them every month (consider this: a very small apartment with one bedroom cost $35 a month).

As the training continues, there is a lot of discussion and laughter causes by the norms set by the Ministry of Health/WHO and the realities of the field:
1. The benefits of breastfeeding are apparent but policies are different if a mother is HIV positive. But let’s be honest, the majority of the hospitals don’t have counseling and testing centers. So, mothers are released and are rarely given proper recommendations on breastfeeding
2. According to WHO, there is an increased incidence of maternal deaths when assisted by a mid-wife. As a result, WHO has officially asked that mid-wives not be part of a health team. In a lot of instances however, a mother can give birth far from the health center or the nurse may be overwhelmed by work. By banning mid-wives, you’re taking away a person who has seen and assisted a lot of births. And you’re asking mothers to give birth alone or unassisted in a health center.

In the evening, I eat quickly, regal in a dessert (desserts are not often served in these parts) which is made from mashed Coeur de Boeuf (Bread fruit) and Maracuja.

June 18, 2006

A little bell rings energetically at 6:00, to get the sisters up so they can start praying at 6:30. Thankfully, I am allowed to sleep in until 7:00 in time for a breakfast made from soggy rice and tea. I feel like I’ve only slept for 1 hour.
In the morning, I notice a strong smell of petrol emanating from my body and realize that all my clothes sport large spot of gasoline. My thin travel backpack has absorbed a flow of fuel from the ill-closed fuel canister. I quickly clean my jeans and shirt as best I can, in a bucket of cold water, with market-made greasy clothing soap and hang them out to dry along with the sisters’ white underwears on the line.

The training for Reduced Risk Maternity (literally translation for Maternité à Moindre Risque) continues in the school room where doctors, nurses and sage-femme alike sit on kid stools and wait for the presenter to write on the blackboard.

June 17th 2006

This morning, I find that two bites on my back and bum from yesterday have swelled up alarmingly and one has even developed the tale-tell sign of fly larvae: a large red welt with a black spot in the middle. I show it to all who care to see and everyone seems to agree that there is indeed something growing beneath my skin.
The brother proposes to squeeze them out. I respectfully decline and ask a female doctor (one of the trainers) to do it instead. She applies gentle but constant pressure to the boils. It hurts terribly and all I can mutter is “Jesus, oh God, sweet Mary”. She finishes the deed and swabs the entire area with my antiseptic hand wash (it contains alcohol). I take a look at the cotton swab and see two tiny white grubs squirming lazily. I pull up my underwear, button my jeans and join the rest of the crew for breakfast.

We finally make our exit around 13:00 which, judging from the road conditions in this country, should make us arrive at 21:00 for a 220 kilometers trip. The 8-hour trip is its usually challenge, with two uneven footpaths making up what they call a “road”. I anxiously look at the mechanical dial and note that we tip the 30 degree angle (where the left wheel is higher up than the right) three times. Luckily, we do not need to hoe the road as the conditions are passable.

The the driver spots a small mammal (ciboulette in French) which he almost hits. He shouts in frustration and I learn with that he actually wanted to run it over to bring home to cook. We also stop briefly at his house so he can visit his family. I ask him which of the 15 kids are his. He exclaims “but they are all mine”. I first imagine that he is being all inclusive of his kids and his neighbors but later find out that they are truly all his kids belonging to 3 wives which all live on the same compound.

We finally arrive to the convent in Kole. Our dusty bags (the back door of the car didn’t close properly) are dropped off. Exhausted, I fall asleep in a foam bed, in a room where there’s just enough space to place a single bed, a table and a small dresser. The rooms are subdivided by small walls that do not reach the ceiling and I’m painfully aware that each gurgling sounds from my stomach can be heard by all the sisters and I fall deeper in a fitful sleep.

June 16th 2006

I am still waiting in Lodja for the trainers for Safe Motherhood. I hope they arrive today as planned because, without a car and in a small town, I don’t have much to do. I’m almost at the end of my New Yorker magazine. Damn! I should have brought more reading materials. I also vastly under-packed in order to leave space for the various presents I plan to give our partners.

This morning it is cold and misty, I can see my breath. I have not brought a sweater and wrap myself in a bright pink Kenyan cloth instead. I look strange and mismatched but hey, it’s fashionable in the village to be wearing a patterned green skirt, with a polka-dotted torn red shirt, blue flip-flop and a yellow hair wrap.

In the late afternoon, the sister leads my through a large, dusty, busy market to buy items. This is for a kid for the distant village of Vango which I am putting through school. We buy a cheap pleather (plastic leather) suitcase, three second-hand pants, a fabric belt, four second-hand shirts, a towel, a year’s supply of soap, a year’s supply of clothing soap and a toothbrush + toothpaste. I am horrified by the expensive prices, even as the sister bargains them down. 50% of the used clothes are brand names I recognize from the United States, and 30% of those come from Old Navy. The sellers get huge balls of clothing for $100 and sell them in large markets such as these.

For lunch, I get the daily meal of fufu, rice and fish, improved by two roasted pigeons. For a French girl, it’s awkward to admit that this is the first time I try this poultry. It’s nicely grilled with Maggi bouillon cubes, and the meager pieces of meat taste delicious.

The afternoon is spent at the pitiful airport, waiting for two Congolese trainers from Kinshasa. Immigration officials pester me non-stop and ask me for $4 just to reach the tarmac. Besides me, people come and go freely without concern. After a futile attempt at getting angry and scowling at them, I walk away dejected, absolutely powerless to do anything about it.

During the day, I also go visit a depot we share with sisters (filled with boxes upon boxes of condoms. The afternoon gives way to numerous political debates and thoughts between residents of the hotel. They also discuss how campaigners have sent three city buses to Lodja, a city that has very poor roads and sand banks (during the rainy seasons, deep pools of mud water stagnate in the middle of the road)—and where they most likely will not run. This just reinforces their notion that politicians are completely disconnected from the realities of the field.

June 14th 2006

This is my last trip to the field and I am already getting nostalgic about the place. As usual, we are flown into Lodja on a nice plane by some polite American pilots. The plane is empty but for two of us, the pilot and copilot, so we are able to pack it up with flipcharts for community village activists, registers, tools for tracking Insecticide-Treated Net sales in the small health zones. This one trip alone saves us a lot of cash by reducing distribution of project materials from months to days.

A sister welcomes me at the airport. Just 10 minutes of standing around in the sun gives me a splitting headache. I just have the energy to make sure the porters don’t run away with our project materials and to hand the immigration man (my very best friend in the whole world) my Ordre de Mission and my passport. I don’t protest when the sister pays a bribe or when she reaches into her bag to pay the steep parking fee of $4 on the defunct airstrip. When I tell her she shouldn’t have paid this, she protests, explaining that these guys don’t get salaries and this is their only way to live. It’s hard to deal with bribing. On the one hand, you don’t want to encourage this ad-hoc, informal system of money flow. On the other hand, this is almost an official way to make your salary.

I arrive in the compounds of a Catholic-run “hotel”, visit my old friend Antonia the Bonobo—this always attracts fearful stares from Congolese men (which she often mistreats). I sit down with the brothers to eat. The meal is highly satisfying: fufu ball, amarentes leaves, and baked fish swimming in red/orange palm oil. I am well satiated and crash promptly to bed. I am awoken 6 times by phone calls from the office and never get to sleep my migraine off.

Since I always travel with copious amounts of Advil, pop two in and feel it very slowly diminishing. In the evening, we sit around the television powered by solar panels to watch the Soccer game. The brother explains that the battery will soon run out as this is the second time the TV is turned on to watch a match today. The World Cup organizers have no idea how much electricity is being used up in Africa just to watch their event. Little by little, villagers approach the hotel, hoping to catch the game. The brother grumbles at the disturbances but lets them watch nonetheless.

June 26, 2006

The 9-Point Check

Alternative title: Shite Car
Alternative alternative title: I hope I don’t get in trouble at work over this

I’ve been complaining about the car I’ve been driving for a while now. In theory, we’re meant to switch cars every week so that people don’t get stuck with the good cars all the time, but I have been driving the Suzuki Samurai (no joke, that’s its name) for the better part of two months.

This is, by far, the shittiest car in the office. I must have pissed off the guy who works on the car rotation and, despite my brown-nosing, he doesn’t seem too sympathetic to my whining. He wants my death. As I do his.

To prove my case, I have decided to perform what highly trained car mechanics call “the 9-point check”. Lovely L. has been my invaluable assistant in this technical quest.

(From left to right)

Top row
Point 1-the lights
As you can see, the lights on the car are well protected from street thugs and petty thieves. Which is somewhat laughable as no one ever EVER tries to rob this appealing car. The lights also fail to shine properly at night causing me to drive with a flash light in hand to light the road.

Point 2- the mirror
A car mirror is always a good thing to have for a girl. She can comb her hair, check her make-up or make alluring smiles at herself. In Congo, she can also check how much she has sweat in the a/c-less vehicle. Please note the band of semi-clean plastic around the mirror, flanked by grimy, dusty plastic.

Point 3-the trunk
Lovely L. is demonstrating how difficult it is to open the backdoor. The best way of placing items in the trunk is the sit in the front seat and fling your items backwards. Steer clear of possible passengers in the backseat…if they dare ride with you.

Middle Row
Point 4-bunch of wires
I believe there once was a radio between the two front seats. This is just a rumor though and all that is left are a few naked wires dangling in the leg area. These are great for hot wiring the car.

Point 5-the window handle
The window handle on the driver’s side has broken. This has been fixed by soldering a stiff piece of metal and careful wrapping it with duct tape. The tape has unraveled, leaving one’s hands sore and sticky. It’s part of its charm.

Point 6-the glove box
This is were one should keep the numerous papers needed for the not-infrequent arrests by traffic cops. It does not close. The current location of important papers is still under intense debate.

Bottom Row
Point 7-The foot rest
If it were rusted, my passenger would have to hug her legs to her chest in order not to fall through. Fortunately, the hole is still small. I give it two weeks.

Point 8-the handle bar
As this is a sturdy car made for rough road trips, it has a handle bar which enables the passenger to hold tight. Unfortunately, as I am demonstrating here, the handle bar has completely broken off.

Point 9-the exclamation point light
I have no idea what the exclamation point means but obviously, it can’t be a good thing. It’s on ALL the time. Is it trying to tell me something?

Verdict-Uncomfortable, undriveable, and unsafe.
Do not assign this car to staff. Only assign this car to your worse enemy.

June 24, 2006


I've been back less than 18 hours in Kinshasa (including sleeping hours) and I'm asked to come in to the office and work.

This really sucks. I have so much to do before I leave:
1.Pack my belongings
2.Make up my shipment
3.Plan my trip back
4.Work on Mission Trip report
5.Finish Handover notes
7.Buy last souvernirs
8.Clean up my files at the office
9.Print out all important emails in my Outlook

bummer, bummer, bummer.

June 13, 2006

Mailing System

I am going once again, to the field and sat down to write a letter to a school child living close to Lomela (which is 250 km from Lodja). There is no formal mailing system in the Congo.

This is how the letter will get to him:
-I will fly from Kinshasa to Lodja
-I will contact sisters in Lodja who know the school in which he works
-I will place the duct-taped letter in their hand
-They will hand it off to a bicycle porter who will pack it in his luggage--the letter has duct-tape on the edges to protect it from the long trip to Lomela
-The bike porter will take 7 to 10 days to make the trip from Lodja to Lomela-he will receive 200 francs

Then the child will get some news from me. But it is highly unlikely that he will be able to (a) find an enveloppe to respond, (b) afford the 200F necessary to send me the letter, (c) get the letter to me in time before I leave the Congo.

Actually, when I said "there is no formal mailing system", I lied. A colleague of mine had ordered an English-Swahili dictionnary from Kenya. The sellers sent it to his physical work address in Congo (instead of the pouch address--big mistake). It arrive to work today...2 years after it had been sent. No joke

Amazing. Surely this will make it to the Guiness Book of World Records.

June 09, 2006

Congo is featured in Time Magazine

The new Time magazine is all about Congo and its war(s). Don't miss the June 5th 2006 issue--it's great that the DRC gets coverage.

I wish they'd do an article on the health system here though. It's a lot more interesting than war.

Kinshasa la Belle

Want to know what Kinshasa looked like "à l'époque"? Check out these pictures from an old tourist brochure of the 1970s

Kinshasa La Belle

Les Déplacés du Katanga

It’s during trips to the field that I get to know my colleagues really well. I am in Kisantu, not really the field as this is considered a pretty large and organized town, but it gives us time in the evenings to talk about things other than the office. This guy is the most cheerful Congelese I know, which doesn’t mean much in a population of dead serious old men. But he looks about 20 years younger than his mid-forties, is perpetually making jokes and his eyes are constantly half-mooned and mischievous. Most people don’t know how to react to his joking and his perpetual smiling. Just last night, he was joking with a nun, who reacted to his words, looked at his suspiciously for a few minutes and finally smiled when she understood he wasn’t being serious.

Over dinner, we discussed the time of Mobutu, a perennial favorite as far as conversation topics go. He reiterated what other people have told me before, which is that at the time of Mobutu, there were spies everywhere. According to him, while the road and the telephone systems were deteriorating bit by bit every year, Mobutu left things go to the wayside, convinced that a stronger road system and telephone lines would allow people to rise against him. My colleague exclaims “and now we have cell phone. Are we revolting? No! We just have more and better information. It really makes our everyday lives easier”.

Back in the day (“à l’époque” as they say so often), one would never talk about politics in public. You never knew who was sitting next to you, who was one of Mobutu’s secret spies (who would have radio systems to report suspicious activities). Even when you figured out who was a spy, you pretended you didn’t notice lest you get in trouble.

On April 24th 1990, when Mobutu was pressured into allowing democracy in Zaïre, people felt a huge weight off their shoulders and could speak a little more freely. Today, it is heartening to be able to talk to Congolese freely on any topic, especially politics which gets them talking for hours.

He also told me of being a Displaced person from Katanga.

In simple terms, this is the background:
-Gécamines (a mining company) was set-up by the Belgians in the South of Katanga to harvest copper, followed by Cobalt and other minerals
-The Belgians found that people in Katanga (yellow province in the South East)did not have the right skills to work in the mines and recruited, in the late 1800s people from the two Kasais (the middle provinces in purple and pink) to work in the mines
-Around 1960, to summon support in Katanga, politicians blamed the lack of jobs in Katanga on the Kasaians
-Gécamines owners asked for Katanga to become an independant country to maintain stronghold and their interest when Congo became independant
-Tensions grew and Kasaians left Katanga to return to the Kasai where their ancestors had lived 100 years before. They had no family left there nor did they know the area
-In 1992 again, Mobutu pitted Katangans against Kasaians in Katanga and a slew of Kasaians where again made to leave the area. People who could afford it settled in Mwene Ditu, in Kinshasa and in South Africa (see August 25th 2005 post here)
-All the experts of Gécamines left their positions. Little by little, the company fell to disrepair due to lack of skilled professionals and politicians using Gécamines revenues as their personal cash reserve

Forced to leave Lubumbashi, my colleague decided to work for 2 years in an isolated rural area to practice medicine. He is now working in Kinshasa, one of only cities in Congo which has jobs for well trained professionals. Though he is endlessly in a good mood, he often laments about Lubumbashi (in Katanga) and how ordered and beautiful it is there. He laughs about his situation (his parents are still in Lubumbashi) and calls "Kinshasa la poubelle" ('Kinshasa the trashcan') referring to the piles of trash in and around the city.

Kinshasa was once called "Kinshasa la Belle" in the 1970s.

June 06, 2006

Zongo Falls

Well, we went to one of two tourists’ spots in Congo (I'm exaggerating...slightly) this weekend. Though the logistics of getting around are difficult at best, we got our shit ready in no time flat, woke up at 6:00am to cook pasta salad, and before we knew it, we were nowhere near Zongo Falls (the trip took 4 hours one way).

Kate pretty much sums it up here. I’m going to write an account of it but darn, I sure hate Kate having posted about it FIRST. Grrrr.

June 05, 2006

Driver Philosophy

I find drivers here to be particularly good travel companions. Not only do they drive on the hardest “roads” on earth and can mobilize villages to fill in the ditch they have fallen into, but they often have great stories to tell.

On the way to Kisantu for a meeting, our driver shares with us this particularly good story from the time of Mobutu. He recalls this story through fits of laughing:

[paraphrased] As it was getting increasing increasingly clear that Mobutu’s reign was a despotic one, I was getting angry at his role in the country’s demise. I was living in the interior at the time and Mobutu was to come to our little airport. There were hoards of people waiting for him to disembark at the airport. I had promised myself that I would not cheer for him when he came through-I was proud and resolute.

When Mobutu’s plane arrived, people started lining up and women chanted. Then he slowly walked off, strolling by the lined people. As he got nearer to me, I start clapping and chanting much louder than anybody else. To my great embarrassment, I was so scared of Mobutu, his bodyguards and his spies that I clamored with energy and fake enthusiasm.

Later, he shares many great quotes from Mobutu. My favorite was “L’Afrique c’est une arme, le Zaïre c’est la gachette” (Africa is a gun and Zaire is the trigger), a play on the shape of the shape of the continent.

Another expression that people use often here (rather tongue in cheek) is “Comprenez mon émotion” (Understand my emotion). He said this on April 24th 1990, as tensions were growing between he and the Congolese people. Tshisekedi, working in Mobutu’s government, was pressuring him to introduce multi-party elections and democracy to the country.

The driver tells us he remembers this fateful day, the speech and all. He says: “Since I was a boy, I had always seen Mobutu with glasses. On that day, as his emotions swelled up and his eyes began to water, he spoke those words ‘Comprenez mon émotion’. He then took off his glasses and wipes his eyes with a tissue. I will never forget that day”.

For more thoughts on April 24th 1990, check out Congo Forum

Well Lookee here...

If you'll notice, at the very end of the Links section on the right-hand side, my blog is now valued at $19,758.90.

I feel this is as good a time as any to mention that I would not hesitate to sell my blog to the highest bidder. This would help me repay my loans, feed my 6 children and place my homeless brother in a home (just kidding about those last two).

If you'll buy my blog, I will gladly continue writing of my adventures and never fail to praise your glory. In each and every post. Interested? You can be reached at 1-800-ILB-RICH.

Congo, thy hath corrupted me.

June 02, 2006

What it's Like to be a Farmer in the 3rd World

While reading Candide's blog, I came across a very bleak yet addictive game called 3rd World Farmer.

It's a great little game where you start off with a large capital of $50, then get to plant crops, watch them grow, make money and invest in other things like livestock and tractors. Except....not so fast! There are guerrilas, civil wars, and refugees that make your job oh-so-difficult with every passing year.

If you're lucky, you can also win a bride who comes with a prize of $100, and is unusually fertile. By the end of year 30, you may find yourself with 6 kids, on a land that doesn't produce much, and have to sell your plow to plant those extra three corn seedlings.

Boy does it suck to be a Third World Farmer.

May 30, 2006

Attack of the Killer Mosquitoes

So ya, the dry season is upon us and it's a lot cooler but there is an alarming number of mosquitoes around. It's gotten to a point where I will shoo them off my door before I walk into my apartment.

Sometimes, I will be talking to someone and absolutely cannot concentrate on what he/she is saying because a mozzie or two are buzzing around them and frolicking in their hair or wig.

The very worst thing about mozzies (after the fact that they carry deadly Malaria) is that they make this annoying buzzing sound. For some reason, at night they are particularly interested in the ear area and will come fly around the ear canal buzzing and struttin'. Taunting you with their buzz buzz sound while you flail your arms spastically trying to shoo them away.

Two nights ago, I had two, TWO mosquitoes in my room. They decided to organize a little dance around my head at 11:00PM. Annoyed, I first went to get my can of RAID. Unfortunately, it was empty. Try as I might, the little fizzle of spray did little to discourage them. Fortunately, I had Off Deep Woods insecticide spray. I ran to the medicine cabinet, reached for the spray, pinched my nose shut, closed my eyes and proceeded to spray my face vigorously.


Then I went back to sleep. In two seconds flat, the f*&ckers were at it again. I proceeded to spray myself three more times (at that point, I was choking on the fumes) but it just seemed to attract them more. What good is an insecticide which, when applied liberally three times in a row, does absolutely nothing?

My next trick was to make myself tremble every minute as so, so that the mosquitoes would fly away. First I'd start with my legs, then my arms, and finally my head. I probably looked like I was having a seizure but it was better than having a malaria-infected proboscis penetrate my skin.

Tired of all the effort, I took my pillow under my arm and went to sleep in the guest room. The next day, a friend bought me the largest can of insecticide he could find: Killit.

Cost: Priceless (actually it was more like $2).


Ekondas (latin name Paedirus) are little red and black striped insects which are found more commonly in Central Africa. This seems to be mating season and they come out of the ground in swarms. When they release their juice, the liquid will burn human flesh like a fire would.


I have heard an Ekonda landing on someone's legs two weeks ago and he casually brushed it away toward his...sensitive regions. Last week, he was unable to sit on a chair comfortably and would place one half of his left butt cheek on the chair. Though it made me laugh for a long time, other males winced in compassion.

The best part of Ekondas is that a grown man will shriek like a little girl if they so much as walk in their direction.


May 29, 2006

Everything in life is cyclical

I've been here for a little over a year and my memory is constantly jogged by cyclical events that seemed so strange a year ago but now seem perfectly mundane and sane.

I arrived in mid-March 2005 and, between trying to sort out my living situation in overpriced Kinshasa and settling in at work, the three first months melted together to mid-June 2005--a date when the elections were first set to take place.

At the time, we were listening obsessively to the radio and scoping out rumors and ruminations of troubles that might arise in the country. It created a heavy atmosphere of paranoia and unease... waiting... waiting with anticipation for the date of the 30th of June. The country had never held a proper election since 1960 so the buzz and the energy were palpable.

Kabila had warned the population early: there would be no election this year due to the logisitical challenge of getting the whole country registered in the span of a few months. Instead, the election would take place on the 30th of June 2006.

Today, almost a year later, formidable advances have been made: a large majority of people of voting age now detain a voter's registration card. This has been a particularly amazing feat when you consider that there are no roads in the majority of the country. Both helicopters and computers (with cameras, fingerprint scanners and lamination machines) had to be brought into the numerous large villages (those living in extremely hard-to-reach villages made the 2 or 3 days walk to get registered). And those few literate people were trained in how to use the equipment. A large majority of those villages had not seen helicopters or computers ever. A large majority of that population had never had any contact with the central level government. MONUC and the CEI (Comité Electorale Indépendente) deployed all their efforts to get people registered.

The elections have been pushed back again to July 2006 and, in a climate of distrust of the government and presidents for life, it's no wonder people are anxious to put in their votes.

These are some of my thoughts from last year. Many of them are still relevant today:

Post from June 2005
Posts from July 2005

May 26th 2005-Security Issues
June 8th 2005-Radios
June 8th 2005-The Smell of Money
June 9th 2005-Severe Internet Troubles
June 10th 2005-The Theory of Relativity
June 13th 2005-What's in your Wallet?
June 23rd 2005-Appeasing the Population
June 25th 2005-Odds and Ends
June 27th 2005-Congolese line up for voter registration
June 29th 2005-All's well
June 29th 2005-Girl vs. Generator
July 3rd 2005-Anticlimactic...
July 18th 2005-The Color of Democracy

May 24, 2006

Let the paranoia begin...again

Now that the elections are nearing, we are all getting a bit testy. The security guy at the office sent me a text message at 6:45 in the morning (sheesh!) about possible marches from the UDPS party around my house.

This morning I have received another email message from him in my outlook and two more from a friend about where the marches would progress. This is exactly like it was last year, at the same time when the elections where supposed to take place.

Also, the weirdest thing happened to me when I was driving to the office. I saw....brace yourselves...4, FOUR! traffic signs at the last round-about: a STOP sign, a MERGE sign, and two others which I was too stunned to really observe.

May 22, 2006

Poliovirus is back

Congo was about to receive, in 2006, a certificate announcing to complete eradication of the Polio Virus. However, according to a Ministry of Health Report in May 2006, one case of poliovirus, type 1 was isolated in a laboratory in the Boma-Bungu health zone, in the province of Bas-Congo that shares a large border with Angola.

What's frustrating is that it was so close to disappearing: during two years (2003, 2005), the DRC had organized National Vaccination Days with vaccination coverage reaching 105% and 99%* each.

But it's going to be near impossible to make poliovirus disappear in a context where some communities are so isolated that medical staff cannot reach them with cold vaccines, syringes and sensitization.

*This seemingly too high coverage is due to several factors: (1) the number of children existing in the health zone is underestimated, and (2) other children may come to this health zone from neighboring health zones-->thus more children than planned are actually vaccinated

May 21, 2006

Spring is here! Spring is here!

Just kidding, made you look. There is actually no spring, summer, fall and winter in the Congo. There are only two seasons, the dry season and the rainy season.

We have officially entered the dry season. The dry season has finally descended and the air has cooled down considerably. It feels much like the emerging spring in Washington DC. I am getting this weird mixed feeling of ecstasy--an ingrained feeling in my body is telling me to be happy, happy, happy because it feels like spring and the buds are opening, the birds are chirping and babies bunnies are being born.

What's strange is that the weather's been almost consistently warm and sunny here so I really shouldn't be feeling this way.


I was talking to a neighbor about our rat situation: we have HUGE rats in our courtyard. They are about as large as her 6-months old cat. The f%$#ing things live in our metal drum that holds about 30 apartments' worth of trash. In the evening when we get home and flash our lights to find a parking spot, a rat or two will scurry back to the open pipes or the drum. Our conversation proceeded as follows:

Me: "We need two or three cats in our back parking to get rid of our rats"
Her: "Hey man, we need a Puma! Those rats are huge!"

That actually seemed like a plausible solution. I've been here too long.

May 16, 2006

Burn-outs, burn-outs everywhere

It seems like burn-outs are the new black in this week's new Development world!

Poor Sahara has been working hard to open a new office in Lubumbashi. She is *wisely* considering turning to alcohol to solve her stress problems.

Pitiful Beaver has been globe-trotting as an auditor and has no place to call her own. Thankfully, her boss gave her some time off so she can resume posting on her blog.

You givin' me drivin' lessons?!?

This morning, I was quietly driving to work when a truck full of people swerves from the opposite side and starts driving like a wild man on my lane, on my side of the road. In the opposite direction!

Wait, there's more...Then the driver proceeds to flash me THREE times to tell me to get out of the way. I got angry because:

(1) You're in my lane buddy!
(2) You're driving in the wrong direction!
(3) Where the hell do you want me to go?? There is no sidewalk, there is no space!

Now I know my car is crap (it has only 55,000 kilometers or about 34,175 miles), drives like it's about 100 years old, it rattles and shakes, it threatens to disintegrate when rolling over any kind of pothole or slight bump. But yours does not have any headlights, has holes for windows, doors held tight but large rubber bands and sports eight different colors (mud-brown, original white, blood-splatter red, pollution-black etc). So show me some respect!

I decided to play chicken with this bus, waiting to see who would get out of the way first. I am sorry to report that I freaked out first, swerved alarmingly into the dust and let him pass.

This happens about three times a week. But until now, it's never happened this early in the morning. Thank god I drank tea to steady my nerves.

Suzuki Samurai: one of the many sh**ty cars I drive to work every morning. Source:

Un Point. Un Trait-

Un point, un trait.

French idiom.
Literally translated as One period, one dash.
Meaning That's it, period.

Although I believe this is initially a french expression, I have heard it in Congo twice in the last two weeks. It is usually used by people trying to make the point that the decision is undebatable. That's it, period. The last person using it was getting excited, with saliva shooting out of his mouth while gesticulating energetically in the direction of a car. I'm not sure what he was saying but I sure wouldn't like to be the one arguing with him. Un point, un trait.

May 15, 2006

Sad News

I have decided that it's time for me to leave to Congo for good and return to the United States.

Though there were some pretty pressing reasons to do this, today they seem pretty inconsequential after all. Despite all my bitching, my complaints, my witty sarcasm, and my doubts during this time in the Congo, the thought of leaving fills me with dread. To use a vastly overused and abused cliché: I have a heavy lump in the bottom of my throat.

I try to smile but I know I have that funny crooked smile that looks more like a frown even if the corners of my lips are going up.

I am pretty scared of what's waiting for me there (or rather, what's not waiting for me). Will my friends still be alive? Will I be able to live on a shit wage? Can I find a job in less than two months? Where am I going to stay? How am I going to grease the wheel to get better service? Is anyone going to love me? Is my shipment going to make it back OK?

Thanks editor10, Your parents, Lyon apartment for Posting on my GuestMap! You guys are AWESOME! Sigh.

May 12, 2006

1001 uses for mosquito-nets

My friend Kate has written a beautiful post The Art of the Mosquito Net on Mosquito-nets. She is quite the expert on them:

A poorly-hung net is really an embarrassment. Perhaps it is the wrong size. It is an awkward and gawky teenager, not quite grown into elongated limbs, slouching to hide what does not seem to fit. The net is stretched at the corners from which it is hung, one end hangs low and tucks under, with the propriety of a nun’s habit; the opposite end stops abruptly, as promiscuous as a mini-skirt on a streetwalker inviting any visitor of the night.

During an evening of drinks, ciggies and sitting on the porch, we discussed and exchanged the many uses of a mosquito-net was have seen in the field:

1. As prevention against mosquito bites
2. For fishing (drag the net in the water and collect your little Ndakala)
3. To make a beautiful veil to complete a wedding dress
4. Use the conical ones on termite mounds, wait for the termites to leave the nest and trap them
5. As a form of birth control (don't ask me how, the logistics of this are mind-boggling)

And the list goes on!

May 08, 2006

Popular demand

Due to popular demand, I am reporting today that I do not have that weird worm-like feeling in my throat. Was it the Vermox? Was it the stress? Who knows, but thank god it's disappeared.

I apologize for anyone who may have taken me up on the challenge (I dare you to type the word "ascaris" in the Google Images search engine) although if you haven't done so and you are the type that likes horror my guest!

Thanks Elizabeth Now is in Tajikistan (what are you doing there?), Manuel Delgado, and Stephanie (you're coming during the heat of elections-good timing :) for posting on my GuestMap!!

May 05, 2006

Sauce Martin and Bitter Cucumber

Martin and Steven have been buddies for the better part of 9 years. They love going to Al Dar, a local Lebanese joint in the middle of the city. The food is pretty damn good, and the waiters are jovial. If you order a burger, they bring little jars of mayo, ketchup and pili-pili to the table. If you order a salad, they bring little jars of mayo, ketchup and pili-pili. Hell, even if you are just there to order plain water, they'll bring you little jars of mayo, ketchup and pili-pili.

Over the years of late nights discussing religion, girls and football, Martin has perfected, what he likes to call "Sauce Martin". This consists of taking even-sized wads of mayo, ketchup and pili-pili, mixing them briskly, and scooping up the resulting mixture with pitas. This is a strange, yet fascinating process, yielding a tasty product. The mayo+ketchup deal is a left-over from the Belgian period, the pili-pili is what makes it interesting.

That same night Steven, feeling particularly healthy, was eating a greek salad. The salad tasted a little off and he decided to taste each vegetable in turn to determine which was the offending food. The mear taste of a cucumber was enough evidence to let Steven know the result of that test.

I honestly haven't laughed this hard in 6-7 months.

Thanks George (formerly Rwanda, now Seattle), Marie (as mom would say I’m hurting you for your own good), and Vernicious Knids (your picture of Willy Wonka and the little munchkin thingies is disconcerting)--let's see, that would be 8 x 3 = 24 hours of happiness.

May 04, 2006

A Rather Disgusting Feeling

For the past two weeks, I've been feeling like something is stuck in my throat. It causes me to swallow compulsively and drink a lot of water to get rid of the unpleasant sensation.

Then, a colleague mentioned that his neighbor threw up a large worm a few days ago. The worm was carefully placed in a jar--to show the doctor. Needless to say, I drove to the pharmacy very fast to get some worm medicine.

Oddly enough, it's almost one year ago that I first tried Wormox:
Wormox-the Best Medecine in the World
(I dare you to type the word "ascaris" in the Google Images search engine)

By the Way, thanks so much Erick, TeaandZen, and Dallas for posting on my GuestMap! If you would like to make your presence known, thanks for clicking the link to your right. It takes about 5.7 seconds to pin yourself on the map and makes my day for 8 hours.

May 02, 2006

Are you Burned-out?

What is burnout?
When your body and mind are relentlessly strained, you can develop emotional and physical fatigue. Burnout is a physical, mental, and emotional response to constant levels of high stress. Burnout produces feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, cynicism, resentment and failure—as well as stagnation and reduced productivity. These stress reactions can result in levels of depression or unhappiness that eventually threaten your job, your relationships and your health.

Burnout is associated with situations in which a person feels:
-confused about expectations and priorities
-concerned about job security
-overcommitted with responsibilities
-resentful about duties that are not commensurate with pay

Burnout can occur when you feel you are unable to meet constant demands, and you become increasingly overwhelmed and depleted of energy. Debilitating sadness, anger or indifference can set in. You begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.


Yep, I'm definitely getting there.

April 27, 2006

Back to Kinshasa, my beloved

I come back to utter chaos in the airport; trying to elbow un-chivalrous men out of my way so I can pick up my and my suitcases (including my colleagues' Refugee bags full of dripping goat blood attracting flies); helping a traveling mom whose 2-year old daughter’s idea of fun involves cutting the air flow to my nose; navigating through mad traffic; and finally coming home to no electricity in the apartment (the bill was only one week late you fuckers). My perfect evening finished with scooping up a dead roach with my last empty toilet roll and going promptly to bed.

Weighing "Refugee Bags" before putting them in the plane's cargo

Gacaca (pronounced Gachacha)

We meet a Rwandese man who tells us about Gacaca. Almost verbatim, his testimony is the following:

“My impressions are the following. This period now (mid-April) is one of mourning. Each year, we feel the weight of contention. We are in a period of wake. It is now that you feel that the population’s traumas are coming out in the open. This year is worse than 1994. As time goes on, the trauma is being released. We, the NGOs and the government, do not have adequate tools to deal with this.

For twelve years, we have preached the message, « we can live together ». That was the first step. Now we are in a phase of Reconciliation and Justice. Should we forget the past and build a future or punish the culprits? This is a dilemma. We should combine the two. But this has its set of challenges. Classic justice [as we know it in the West] cannot solve these conflicts. We would like to recognize the blame but also reinstate populations. We use Gacaca Justice. It’s a participatory process allowing us to talk. We are amongst ourselves, in the community. This is how we can deal.

It has been a genocide by proxy—the neighbor, the friend, the family, the spectator denounce the other—so the level of participation [in the genocide] was significant. Gacaca is a compromise between forgetting and justice. We were not accustomed to law terms of the formal system of laws: Gacaca is a traditional method. You sit under the tree and deal with your problems. We had to add laws, teach formal procedures to the judges. This has not been easy. Now, we have train the judges. We have 80,000 prisoners of the Genocide. We may have 800,000 to 15 million prisoners [by the end of this process]. This is a large portion of the population.

We have made progress since 1995, 1996, 1997. Now fear/distrust have decreased, even if it still exists. The social climate is good. But with Gacaca, we are going to talk about the dead. There is a “resistance movement” that would like to prevent the Justice process. Since Gacaca is based on informal chats, there will be no definitives. But it seems to be a good system.

The question of the survivors is very delicate : how do we repair, deal with the trauma ? We do not have enough systems for that.

Good governance is a topic that worries us. There would be no genocide without the state’s influence. What type of power do we want to prevent a similar genocide? Post-genocidal society is very fragile. We have put in place basic institutions but citizen participation is low, governing is not very strong.

Poverty is caused by many factors. But the fact remains that the population is poor—there are social differences. For we who work in reconciliation, poverty has never been a cause of the genocide. It was not the poor that were the people undertaking the genocide. We must be clear: poverty was not the cause of the genocide.

The church is very important in Rwandan society. A difficult past since there have been clashes with the government..The Catholic church lost its moral clout and credibility—it is said that the church did not have a good role to play in the genocide. The church is in a phase of recovery. We can see an effort at self-examination—a “Christian Gacaca”. The church talks, insists on basic ecclesiastical communities as a vehicle of reconciliation and listening. The bishops support the state Gacaca. Justice and Peace commissions are closely involved in the Gacaca process. The Catholic church has chosen a more discreet profile, it does not involve itself as much in the government. Personally, I think this separation is important so that the church can reflect. There aren’t even any religious writings about the genocide. Today, the Catholic church has accepted to become a part of the society—before that, it was superior. This is a success.

It is better to talk than to ignore. It is painful, but we must talk”

The view from a hotel in Goma

I'm not sure what this fruit is but they call in a Mountain Potato