January 25, 2006

The Mask Seller

Bruce is a mask seller. He used to work for the Art Museum that shut down during civil strifes, roaming the country far and wide to find nice antique pieces for display. All the art pieces have now been locked in storage, occsionally plundered by various people who sell them for money. Bruce now works elsewhere but still keeps a keen eye out for old masks and figurines from visitors coming from the villages. He is extremely knowledgeable about Congolese art and honest (he doesn't give you the usual bullshit "oh this is a very old mask belonging to an ancient prince").

The masks that now hang in my house:
(1) 2nd from left--Katoyo Mask
This is mask that one would wear to increase production. (in farming, fishing, huntint...). In order to increase yields of your product, you would wear it and dance in a special ceremony. This mask is probably around 40 years old. It is from the Tshokwe people from Bandundu
(2) 3rd from left--Poh Mask
There are two kinds of poh masks. The first one represents a young girl (mwana poh)--you will destinguish her by her teeth. The second type is that of an experienced and mature woman (poh). This one has known divorce or lost her husband. She is recognizable by her lack of teeth and by the lost smile on her face (how depressing!) to signal deep concentration and thought-process. In general in poh masks, the more elaborate the head-dress is--pieces of cloth, money, animal fur or leather, medals of saints weaved in the hair--the more appreciated it is. This mask dates from the colonial period, as evidenced by the Belgian coins in the hair. The mask is from the Tshowke people of Kwango in South Bandundu
(3) Small Grey Mask in Front--Rega Mask
This "Rega" mask that is carved to confer protection on the owner. It is said that the owner will comission such a mask if he/she is planning on doing a bad deed and needs the extra protection. The existence of such a mask in your possession is to be hidden as it would surely mark you in the village. Therefore, the smaller the mask is, the easier it is to hide. The smaller the mask, the higher the price. It is from Kindu in Maniema

January 24, 2006


It is getting very humid with the start of the rainy season. In a matter of days, my three wooden Congolese stools started rotting: their legs grew fuzzy green things and a series of flat mushrooms developed on the underside.

I am also quite worried about the old masks I bought a few days ago (will post a cool picture soon) as some of my earlier wooden masks have suffered the very serious threat of wood mites.

1. For wood mites, place mask in freezer for 24 hours until the bugs die. This is problematic if your wooden couch is developing mites and your freezer is not big enough to accomdate it.
2. For humidity, turn on A/C for three hours everyday, on dry setting.

Solution number 2 has not been very successful for me. First of all, my a/c is not very sophisticated and doesn't have a dry setting. Second, I have a system of breakers that doesn't allow me to run the large living room a/c for more than 45 mins. Finally, being a child of the 80s, I feel incredibly guilty about leaving the a/c on for a long time (freons and saving the world get in my way) and I end up sleep-walking at night to turn off the a/c.

In other news, Candide wrote a great rant on Optimism Against All Odds that really made think. Unfortunately it seems the post is jumbled at the end and I couldn't read the conclusion! Also, just a little note to say that I've tried to leave comments there on two separate posts, unsuccessfully. Tragic!

January 23, 2006

Ngay Ngay

I just discovered the best vegetable in the world:

Ngay Ngay (otherwise known as feuilles de groseilles in French, or Red Currant leaves in English). This leafy green, when boiled, tastes quite sour and fresh. It's wonderful with rice and beans or fish. Since I found out about its existance about two weeks ago, I've been having it everyday for lunch.

And I'm still not sick of it.

Retraction: Two people has notified me that Ngay Ngay is actually Oseille leaves not Groseille leaves. English translation? Beats me...

January 18, 2006

The Rest of the Trip

It's funny because, from the other side of the River, my Congo (the DRC) looks a little like New York: misty, polluted air rising along high-rises. From all the way over there, you can't tell that the buildings are badly run-down and that some don't have windows, electricy and water. It's still quite a sigh to see.

One evening, we hung out with a pretty cool 40 year old who was half Portugese-Congolese. He had a pretty convoluted history but I scribbled down the following. His grandfather was a portuguese colonialist who settled in what was then spanish-speaking Angola. Angola was then partitionned and he suddenly found himself living in the Republic of Congo without having to move an inch. As you can imagine, this man was somewhat of a survivalist, making his own soaps and candles.

The grandfather wed a Congolese lady who was herself half portuguese and half-Congolese. She gave birth to 9 children, that the narrator defines as, as Quaterains--or "Quartereds". This means that the children are one Quarter African and three Quarters Portuguese. From what I understand, this is not a derogatory term so apologies if it is misused :)

This narrator's father was thus 3/4 Portuguese and married a lady of the same ethnic origin--making him 1/8 African and 7/8 Portuguese. This guy was hunting for photographs of his grandfather amongst his lost aunts and uncles. He finished the story by saying that he spent a few years in the Portuguese army, got his citizenship but liked Congo better anyways. I'm not sure what the story's point was but I found it fascinating that he was searching for his identity both in terms of genetics and in terms of national identity.

Our flight back from Pointe Noire to the capital was a bit of a nightmare with the pushing and prodding at the airport. The airport was, in essence, a corrugated iron hangar placed right next to a splendid new airport yet to be opened to the general public.

After looking at the runway, I spotted what I dubbed "the Tiger Plane": a plane completely spray painted with pastel-colored white tigers, starry skies melting into sunsets. I am told that even the ceilings repeat this gaudy motif and the seats are made from plush fake-tiger fur. Lovely.

I boarded my regrettably normal-looking plane with a mixture of relief and regret at having to leave DR.Congo's less troubled brother.

Post publication post: Wow, I studied Genetics in Undergrad and am somehow thinking that this statement "This narrator's father was thus 3/4 Portuguese and married a lady of the same ethnic origin--making him 1/8 African and 7/8 Portuguese" is completely wrong. Can someone please help me?

Getting around in"the Other Congo"

Getting around in the other Congo proves to be a lot less problematic than imagined. These are three strategiesthat we used there:

1. Get in a taxi and annonce said location. Wait for taxi to fumble around, pretend he knows where he is going and sneak into a gas station to ask his buddies where the hell "Malonda lodge is". After 5 more minutes in the taxi, ask the driver how far this is. Wait for answer. If answer is "oh, about 5 or 6 hours, provided I don't stop to sleep before night fall", argue with cab driver, open door mid-ride to force him to stop, get out of cab and proceed to look both angry and confused. At this point, a nice Congolese and his wife should stop their car and offer to give you a ride. If you are very lucky (like we were), one of the passenger will be Senegalese and at this point you can both loudly reminesce about how cool Dakar is.

2. On the way back from Malonda lodge, walk the few miles in dirt road back to the main paved road. Squeeze yourself on the side of the reeds when a large SUV bouncs along the trail. Again, look lost and friendly. Proceed to be picked up by an incredibly skinny and tall Senegalese woman, her Welsh and Aussie offshore oil buddies, and a blonde Congolese lady. Get dragged in, salty, sunburned, dusty to a wedding-after party (of a gorgeous Congolese young lady and her new 55 year-old, overweight, Italian husband). Take a taxi home when initial driver becomes sufficiently drunk.

3. Wait for friends to come to your hotel in taxi and get picked up instead by friends with their new friend in a pick-up. Ride the back of the pick-up full of sun-burned white people while locals make cat-calls at you. Demount the moving engin and put hair back in order.

All and all, some fun ways to get around, but kids don't try this at home (or abroad).

Congo's less troubled brother

Monday was Kabila father's birthday and Tuesday was Lumumba's. Appropriately, since these are this nation's great hero, Monday and Tuesday were both off. Woohoo!

In an characteristic show of solidarity, I celebrated these two national heros' lives by...travelling to another country!

Needing to clear my head after just a week back from South Africa by going somewhere super exotic, I hopped on a boat near the Kinshasa beach, rode on the Congo River for about 7 mins, and promptly disembarked in...Congo! The other Congo that is. Also called Congo-Brazzaville, the safer Congo, the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo), the little slice of heaven.

It is said that Brazzaville and Kinshasa are the closest country capitals in the world--and at 7 mins boat ride between it, you could believe it. Theoretically. In reality, one has to navigate through a series of ticketing agents, passport checks, waiting periods and staring contests that take about a couple of hours before reaching Brazzaville.

When I had sufficiently recovered from the confusing arrival proceedures, these are the things I noticed instantly:
-a DHL office
-clothing stores
-a paper store that sells good quality notebooks and brand-name pens
-taxis, taxis everywhere
-outside coffee shops
-noticeably better infrastructure
-a Score supermarket, City Sports sports store, and a currency called the CFA, all artifacts of Western African Francophone countries

After having a bite to eat, we went to the small airport in Brazzaville to board a one-hour flight to Pointe Noire, a city by the ocean. Though the insides are every bit as animated as a DRC airport, there seems to be a method to the madness. For example, I placed my ticket on a pile of other tickets…and the guy at the counter actually calls my name when it's my turn!

Around me people dragged their “refugee bags” to the scales (those plastic mulitcolored bags that, more often that not, have loads of vegetables to be carried to various acquaintances) and proceeded to cover them almost completely with masking tape.

People here are dressed very french-like with less mamans donning the pretty patterned pagnes.

January 11, 2006

Reflections on relative poverty in North America and Africa

I'm so sorry about all these links and articles. Somehow it seems like a cop-out to writing a blog about your experiences, but there is a spat of great articles on the DRC right now.

The article Reflections on relative poverty in North America and Africa from the Economist on Adamash.blogspot.com, compares a North American unemployed man and a Congolese Doctor in Kinshasa. It seems like happiness is a difficult concept to define after all. Who would have thunk it?

Keep an eye out for the classic conclusion:
First, if poor Americans were to compare their standard of living with what is normal elsewhere in the world, let alone in Congo, they would see they have little cause for discontent. Then again, were Americans not so incurably discontented with their lot, their great country would not be half as dynamic as it is.

I can't figure out whether to find it clich├ęd, insightful, funny, or sober.

More airport troubles?!

Man of man. It seems the Congolese Airlines want about $450,000 each from Air France, SN Brussels and Ethiopian Airlines. They have confiscated their boarding stairs, trucks and luggage belts.

And I didn’t think the travel experience in Kinshasa could get any worst.

DRC court orders seizure of airline equipment at Kinshasa airport
09 jan. 06 - 10.20h

KINSHASA, Jan 7 (AFP) - A Congolese court has ordered the seizure of equipment used by Air France, SN Brussels and Ethiopian Airlines for their alleged failure to pay for ground services, a judicial source said Saturday.

The source said the seizure, ordered late Friday at the request of Congolese Airlines (LAC), covered such items as boarding stairs, trucks and luggage belts at Kinshasa airport.

LAC claims that the three companies had not paid it for ground services since 2002, and is demanding 300,000 dollars in arrears plus another 150,000 in damages from each.

The three airlines targetted [sic] began a counter-suit Saturday, disputing LAC's claim to have a monopoly on services at the airport.

"We are going to pay nothing because we owe nothing," Air France representative Dominique Legrand said.

"There is an agreement between the Congolese state and the French state concerning our operations and we have nothing to do with LAC."

He added, "LAC has been incapable of supplying services for years. The only effect of this will be to frighten off potential investors by showing them that there is no legal protection for companies in the DRC."

A local civil aviation operator, who asked not to be identified, said LAC's move was "a last gasp" by the state-owned company.

"LAC has been bankrupt since 2003," he said. "It owes millions of dollars, has no serviceable aircraft and should have been wound up long ago. Its legal action is a last attempt at blackmail."

A DRC legal source said the three companies should soon have their equipment restored, though the case could drag on.

Source: MONUC

Thanks JKE and Chelsea (any relation to Bill Clinton? hahaha, I crack myself up) for posting on my GuestMap!

January 09, 2006

Do you live in the DRC lady??

Last month, I received an email from a donor saying approximately the following:

"In order for us to deliver these drugs, we must obtain the address of the depot, names of two people responsible for the depot, their picture, and their signature".

Easy task wouldn't not think? Wrong!!

This is problematic in several ways:
1.There are no addresses to speak of in most of these small cities. Your typical address is "Depot of the Saint-Luc Church, behind the General Hospital, next to the school house, Luiza"
2.There is often only one person responsible for the depot. These office are about 5 to 6 people stretch thin so you can't ask for too much.
3. Pictures? Are you kidding? Even if they had digital cameras, getting them to pictures on my outlook at a decent size is near impossible (how do you explain how to reduce a picture to 400x600 pixel by email to someone who is not computer literate? it can be done I'm sure but the idea tires me out)
4. Signatures? Again, you've got to be kidding right? This would imply the existence of a scanner, electricity or a generator large enough to let you use a scanner.

The alternative to this is to send an email asking partners to send everything by plane, wait 3 days for them to react to the email, wait another two for them to find the only picture of themselves (pinned in their room), send it by airplane, go pick up the picture and signature at the airline depot, get told the documents have been lost, go again 2 times until package is found and scan the whole thing to send to donors. That should take...oh, 2 or 3 months.

Which makes me want to shout "do you even live in the DRC lady?" (she does).

January 05, 2006

15 Fun Tid Bits on the Congolese Referendum!

Amuse your kids with these true and wholly untrue tidbits from various news sources!

(1) Most people have not had enough information on the Constitution
Source: Colleagues and friends

(2) The Diamond-rich city of Mbuji-Mayi only has one copy of the Constitution
Source: Colleagues and friends

(3) The Constitution debated and defended in Parliament is not the same as that on which people have to vote
Source: Colleagues and friends

(4) People have been told that things will not improve in the country if they vote “No” to the constitution
Source: Colleagues and friends

(5) “Referendum results showed an overwhelming "Yes" to a new constitution”
Source: Reuters

(6) “The Independent Electoral Commission said the "Yes" vote had so far won 83 percent, while the "No" had nearly 17 percent”
Source: Reuters

(7) “The charter limits the president to two five-year terms”
Source: Reuters

(8) “Many Congolese believed they could vote either day and hundreds of would-be voters lined up around the capital, Kinshasa, in front of polling centers that stayed dark. ‘I heard on national radio that we could vote on Monday, this is unbelievable,’ said Feret Mwanza, 33, an unemployed resident of Kinshasa who had traveled from the other end of the sprawling city to vote Monday morning. ‘I want to vote, but now I can't.’”
Source: newsfromrussia.com

(9) “Congolese have not voted en masse since 1970, when then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko stood as the sole candidate”
Source: newsfromrussia.com

(10) “Some 24 million people are registered to vote”
Source: newsfromrussia.com

(11) “Congo's constitutional referendum, the country's first independent poll in over 40 years, was free and fair, European Union observers said on Wednesday”
Source: BBC news

(12) "I can tell you that the level of participation here will be higher than that in the majority of European countries we came from," he said [Philippe Morillon, head of the EU team]. "This is a great demonstration by the Congolese people of their desire to come out of this crisis."
Source: MONUC

(13) “The Electoral Commission on Monday was not able to specify official turnout figures”
Source: Terraviva Africa

(14) Only 2% of the entire population voted in the Referendum
Source: Colleagues and friends

(15) Some areas of Congo reportedly received copies of the constitution only one day before the vote, and in many isolated villages people were still unaware of the meaning of "constitution" or "referendum", days before the plebiscite
Source: Terraviva Africa

Birth Canal

A colleague came to Kinshasa for a couple of weeks in December and was very excited to have scheduled a trip to the field. She did not know the mess that was waiting for her at N'djili airport.

After all the fighting to get to the counter, the prodding of bags, the checking of luggage, the physical act of pushing the porters away, the bribes paid and the tickets confiscated, she could only blow out a sigh of relief in the airplane and said "I feel like I've just passed through a birth canal"--and our protocol guy was taking care of all those things for us!

I'm curious to know how she would define our return trip home... in a very shoddy airplane.