February 13, 2006

I am leaving on the field tomorrow morning

Things I am still waiting for:
-my passport with a brand spanking new visa inside
-my plane ticket
-some items I ordered for partners such as a new hard-drive for their computer with a power stabiliser
-receipt booklets for their finance department
-items I was to pick up from some sisters who want to send things to the area

Things that are ready:
-my suitcase

Percentage of control over this situation: 0%
Percentage stress about this situation: 100%

You know elections are getting close when...

(1) the streets are being swept by 10 people on a little stretch of road (effectively blocking traffic)
(2) the curbs are being repainted red and white
(3) the gutters are being emptied
(4) the trash is being gathered like dry leaves during autumn in the States and neatly piled by the side of the road

February 09, 2006

Putting things into perspective

I was sitting in a chair in a loooong meeting with a large donor about how to manage stocks of essential anti-malarial drugs that will be sent to 25 isolated health zones.

To defend himself about lateness in sending these drugs, the presenter showed the following slide:

General Context of the DRC
-post conflict country--considered a fragile state
-large surface area of the territory and poor infrastructure
-absence of system of distribution at the national level
-complex drugs that require good management systems
-limited experience of donors in distributing medical materials in the DRC
-national and international pressure to deliver positive results fast

I call it Gems from Donor to Justify why Shit isn't Getting Done.

Strangely, it made me feel better about my project because I realized that I could claim exactly the same things.

February 06, 2006

The lost flip-flop

This morning, at the ungodly hour of 9:00am on a Saturday, I heard the doorbell ringing. I hastily put down my Amy Tan novel, reaching for my pagne to tie around my waist, shuffling and mumbling down the hallway to the front door. Expecting one of the doormen to ask me to move my car, I raised my eyes to see a Congolese woman at my door step. I let her speak for a minute, assuming she had the wrong apartment and would soon realize it. But wait…she was speaking to me in Lingala!

I took me a few seconds to process that:
(1) she was speaking to me in Lingala and I was letting her voice lull me because I liked the sound of it
(2) I did not in fact understand Lingala
(3) I was flattered that she tried to speak to me in her language. Was it the pagne that made me look oh-so Congolese? Or that I was a young woman in a large apartment thus making me a probable Belgian from an ex-Colonialist family?
(4) She was convinced that she had the right apartment

I asked her to repeat in French, which she did with no trouble:
“I am the cleaning lady upstairs and I lost a flip-flop on your balcony, can I come retrieve it?”

On my balcony, she leaned over to retrieve the flip-flop, only to discover that it had fallen on the ledge of the balcony below mine. I offered the longest broom I had but, even while being perched dangerously over the edge wielding the broom at the end of her grip, the tip fell a few inches short of the flip-flop.

She left dejected.

Fifteen minutes later, she’s at my door again holding the longest broom I’ve ever seen, explaining that the downstairs neighbors are gone on vacation (lucky buggers). She tries reaching the flip-flop again but is unsuccessful.

Being the smart cookie that I am, I offered a sturdy piece of rope that we tied around the head of the broom. She was then able to dangle the broom in the direction of the flip-flop to brush it off the edge and onto the street below. Unfortunately, the head of the broom being on top, the whole contraption was unwieldy and its off-set center of gravity made it hard to control, pushing the flip-flop further towards the inside edge of the ledge.

Being the smart cookie that she is, she asked for my broom again, tied the two brooms together tightly and went at it again. She had to rearrange the device several times until it was long enough to touch the ledge. Then, with a graceful sweep of the broom, she brushed the flip-flop from the ledge unto the street.

She thanked me profusely and ran downstairs to rescue the flip-flop before someone else could get their hands on it.

February 03, 2006

Ever have one of those days...

...when you get up five minutes before your alarm clocks has to go off; throw your black clothes in the washing maching just before jumping into the shower. You lather in 3 seconds flat, rinse efficiently while you are thinking about what to wear. You throw your clothes on (that happen to look great on you that day), do your make-up quicker than you can say I-don't-want-to-go-to-work-today, look like a superstar. Leave some money for the maid while turning off the whistling kettle; write a list of things to do while preparing tea. Get your bag together and manage to finish that fiction piece from the New Yorker.

Sit for 2 minutes to drink your tea before rushing out the door to face the traffic. And Pwouah! Suddenly realize that you added salt instead of sugar to your cup?

Yeah? Me too, all the time.

February 02, 2006

Disconnected thoughts…again

Driving etiquette
As I was driving to work this morning, slaloming through between the buses, slow moving cars and stopped vehicles in the shoulder to make up for a late departure from my house, I came upon the follow radio show:

“Driver etiquette is very important, especially here in Kinshasa. When one gets on a private bus, it is important to pay the standard set price. Even if you are in a bit of a rush, you should not overpass car with anger. It is not appropriate to shout wildly and gesticulate when overtaking a car. It is not appropriate to throw items on the moving car. It is not appropriate to stop suddenly in the middle of the road; one should drive on the shoulder and then stop--this is a message from the Ministry of Transport”

In All Cases, Really!
Even though Congolese people speak French as well as any Frenchperson, there are little idiosyncracies of language such as saying nonante and septante instead of quatre-vingt dix and soixante-dix (from the Belgian counting system). They will speckle their lingala with well-placed nuggets of French words, leaving me with just enough to pick out the subject matter at hand. At times, I will answer and join in their conversation in French, leaving them speechless and wondering if I secretly understand lingala.

But my favorite stylistic expressions are “En tout cas” and “vraiment”. These seemingly normal French phrases take a life of their own when spoken in Congo. “En tout cas” translates roughly to “in all cases” and “vraiment” to “really”.

A: “Life is really hard right now”
B: “Yes, we have a badly run country” [awkward pause] “En tout cas…”

“En tout cas” here signals the end of the subject, as in, “yes, it’s sad and there’s nothing to do about it, let’s reflect on that for a minute”. Usually, the use of the phrase is followed by both people lowering their eyes and looking a little pious.

A: “I don’t know what’s going on but it’s really hard to find good tomatoes nowadays”
B: “Vraiment!”

“Vraiment” is used to acquiesce the statement made by A. In all cases (hehe), it should be pronounced with a rolling R as in “vrrraiment!” and the emphasis should be placed at the end so that you can really feel the exclamation point at the end.

The Fanthom Driver
Every once in a while, you’ll be driving along a bend, staring at the neighboring car, and seeing…no driver! The first few months, it always gave me a start, and I would shudder in my seat thinking the car was somehow driving itself, a fanthom driver staring right through me.

It turns out that about 10 or 20% of the car in Congo are from Dubai, and the steering wheel is placed on the other side of the car; the driver thus being where I would expect the passenger to be.

En tout cas…