March 29, 2006

The European Union's List of Banned Airlines

Two days ago, I receive this email in my inbox:

EU black list of unsafe airlines
The European Union banned on Wednesday 92 mostly African airlines from its skies after a wave of fatal air crashes last year. It put restrictions on a further three companies.
The ban, the EU's first-ever such blacklist, is due to come into effect on Saturday and works on the principle that an airline banned in one of the bloc's 25 member states will be outlawed in all of them.

The following is the so-called list:

Air carriers completely banned:
Afghanistan: Ariana Afghan Airlines
Comores: Air Service Comores
Democratic Republic of Congo: Africa One, African Company Airlines, Aigle Aviation, Air Boyoma, Air Kasai, Air Navette, Air Tropiques, Air Transport Office, Blue Airlines, Business Aviation, Butembo Airlines, Compagnie Africaine d'Aviation, Cargo Bull Aviation, Central Air Express, Cetraca Aviation Service, CHC Stelavia, Comair, Compagnie Africaine d'Aviation, C0-ZA Airways, Das Airlines, Doren Aircargo, Enterprise World Airways, Filair, Free Airlines, Galaxy Corporation, GR Aviation, Global Airways, Goma Express, Great Lake Business Company, International Trans Air Business, Jet Aero Services, Kinshasa Airways, Kivu Air, Lignes Aériennes Congolaises, Malu Aviation, Malila Airlift, Mango Mat, Rwabika Bushi Express, Safari Logistics, Services Air, Tembo Air Services, Thom's Airways, TMK Air Commuter, Tracep, Trans Air Cargo Services, TRACO, Uhuru Airlines, Virunga Air Charter, Waltair Aviation, Wimbi Diri Airways
Equatorial Guinea: Air Consul, Avirex Guinee Equatoriale, Compagnie Aeree de Guinee Equatoriale, Ecuato Guineana de Aviacion, Ecuatorial Cargo, Guinea Ecuatorial Airlines, Getra, Jetline Inc, KNG Transavia Cargo, Prompt Air GE SA, Union de Transport Aereo de Guinea Ecuatorial
North Korea: Air Koryo
Kazakhstan: BGB Air, GST Aero Air Company
Kyrgyzstan: Phoenix Aviation, Reem Air
Liberia: International Air Services, Satgur Air Transport, Weasua Air Transport
Rwanda: Silverback Cargo Freighters
Sierra Leone: Aerolift, Afrik Air Links, Air Leone, Air Rum, Air Salone, Air Universal, Destiny Air Services, First Line Air, Heavylift Cargo, Paramount Airlines, Star Air, Teebah Airways, West Coast Airways
Swaziland: African International Airways, Airlink Swaziland, Jet Africa, Northeast Airlines, Scan Air Charter, Swazi Express Airways
Thailand: Phuket Airlines

Air carriers banned from flying certain types of aircraft:
Bangladesh: Air Bangladesh
Democratic Republic of Congo: HBA
Libya: Buraq Air

First of all, please note that 50 of the 93 airlines are from Congo. Secondly, it seems I have used 4 of these airlines. I am going to Rwanda in a few weeks for a meeting. I look forward to adding another banned aircraft to my list.

March 28, 2006


(or "take that Iraq! We're more screwed up then you are!")

Please below, a little snippet of a NY Times article originally posted on The Salon.

Congo, With Iraq in Mind, Faces Voting and Threats
Published: March 26, 2006

"Compared to the Congo, Iraq's elections were a walk in the park," said Ross Mountain, the United Nations official who helped run Iraq's elections and is now organizing a similar operation in Congo, a country more than five times as large, more than twice as populous — with scores more tribes and languages — and relatively few usable roads.
Mr. Mountain rattles off the many nightmarish difficulties he faces: getting ballots to remote villages, protecting voters from armed men who still prey on them and encouraging onetime warring parties to compete and, if the results do not go their way, to accept defeat.
The day of reckoning is June 18 — unless, that is, the date to elect a president and members of Parliament is postponed a third time.

Two Strange Fruits

Congo has a season for everything: mangos, plantains, avocadoes, potatoes, termites, corruption and manioc. Oops actually those last two are always in season. I would like to introduce you to some great fruits I've just discovered.

(1) Mangosteen
This is a bright purple fruit with a thick outer shell and dainty little rounded leaf. To open it, you would apply pressure to the shell until it cracks open. Inside are oddly bright white, pulpy slices of very sweet flesh. The slices are perfectly separated--a little like orange slices. I believe this fruit originally comes from Asia.

(2) Safu
This fruit has a purplish/blue skin. It is boiled and left to soak in water for hours. You should eat its skin and soft flesh slowly, taking care not to bite into the large pit in the middle. The first time I ate it was a religious sister's birthday party. It was impossibly bitter and I couldn't hide my pursed lips and tearing eyes (much to the amusement of everyone there). The second time I had it with pili pili and salt and the fruit had been carefully chosen and prepared. It was quite yummy, tasting somewhat like artichoke hearts with a slightly bitter aftertaste. They say pregnant women are particularly fond of this fruit so I will do my best to stay away from it :)

March 23, 2006


For some reason, the comment sections of everyone's blogs is blocked. So in regards to the comments posted on the entry below, I would like to respond:

Thanks Congo Girl!

The Malau, that is so interesting. Your mom must have awesome stories at the time. I am half-considering just gathering more and more anecdotes of the era. I have tons of stories but I need to start writing them down.

Kingston Girl, sometimes when I hear the Congolese lament over the dubious election process, I have to remind them that the US is not a picture of its perfect functioning either.

Welcome back Red Handed Jill!

Thanks Beavster. How is the job going? Are you still running around like crazy? Happy Birthday!!

And I would like to give a very special shout out to Beaver, my friend from Senegal now running around the world to catch up with NGOs, who's birthday it was yesterday. Happy Birthday girl!

March 22, 2006

Voting by Acclamation

I got to talking about the elections over lunch with a colleague of mine again today. As he knows that I am found of stories, he relays the following anecdote:

Back in the days of Mobutu, we used to having voting too. Mobutu was the only candidate. They would round us up at the university and gather the crowd around a podium. On the podium, a man with a speaker asked us to clamour for the candidate if we would like to see him elected. Of course, we all had to be very enthusiastic, clap our hands with vigor and cheer for him. The next day, the paper published that Mobutu was elected with a 99% majority. We called it Voting by Acclamation.

My colleague just laughs at the recollection, demonstrating the clapping of hands like a seal in a circus.

Lights! Action!

Yesterday, there were 4 working traffic lights in downtown Gombe! I've only seen them work for the first month during my whole year of being here.

It was wild, drivers were completely confused about what to do. Should they follow their instincts and wedge themselves in traffic cues (as per usual) or actually obey the traffic lights? Should they give priority to those cars waiting by the green light or force people to stop by rushing in between two cars?

I didn't know how to proceed either but there was lots of honking, which helped me snap out of my state of bewilderment. I decided to do as I always did, bypass the person in front of me, effectively cutting him off and nearly missing cars driving in the opposite way.

The lights wouldn't have anything to do with the arrival of Kofi Annan in Kinshasa would they?

Annan admits UN DR Congo abuses
Source:BBC News

Kofi Annan said he had received a detailed briefing
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said there is clear evidence that UN staff sexually abused refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Allegations of abuse at UN camps surfaced last year, prompting the UN's internal watchdog to launch an inquiry.

After being briefed on its progress, Mr Annan said a small number of civilian and military personnel had committed "shameful" acts of gross misconduct.

He added that those involved must be held accountable.

Two years ago, a UN investigation rejected similar allegations of sexual exploitation of refugees by UN staff in West Africa.

Kofi Annan pleads for a transparent, equitable and secured election
21 mar. 06 - 21.12h

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Kinshasa, on 21 March, accompanied by his wife, Nane. He was welcomed by Congolese Foreign Affairs Minister Raymond Ramazani Baya. Later, Mr. Annan traveled to the headquarters of the UN mission in the DR Congo, where he paid tribute to the work of the military and civilian peacekeepers.

March 20, 2006

One year in the Congo or Temporary Insanity

Give or take a few days, I've now been in the Congo for one year. That's insane.

This morning, I had to take this:

Check out some of my first posts about the country

March 13, 2006

Of Fresh Fruits and Disappointments

February 16th and 17th, 2006

We fly from Kananga to Dekese in an Antanov plane from the 1950s. The dials are in Russians (with translations in sticky tape below), duct tape on the dashboard, and a small modern GPS. The old clock says 8:30 when it’s really 10:30 which makes me wonder whether the rest of the equipment is quite accurate. But in the air, the plane feels quite sturdy though a bit slow.

Russian Dials?!

There are an impressive number of Russian pilots in Congo who have found a cosy niche market: poor air regulations allow the import of old Antanovs, and the complete isolation of most villages with short stretches of earth once being tiny airstrips make them particularly useful to independent airlines. We are a crew of 9 passengers with assorted bags and three large plastic bags full of Congolese francs for teacher salaries. We fly 2500 feet over the Congo, passing a thin undulating river called the Sankuru, than the larger Lukenie river. We fly for an hour-and-a-half over dense dark forest and fresh green planes with clouds casting their timid shadows over them. The other passengers are slumped over asleep in the back, in the claustrophobic, oppressive heat of the plane. It's at times like these when I am transported by an inexplicable feeling of joy and love for what I am doing.

The guy who owns the little airline (let’s call him Santos) is of Portuguese origin but born here. He is married to a Congolese woman and has a 2-year old daughter. This is a typical case of another lost expat in Congo who is unable to get the citizenship though he feels that he is more Congolese than anything else. To get the present plane from Lithuania into the country, his partner had to fly it over 18 days, stopping and going in various airports along the way. He claims that the combination of all the airport fees was more expensive than the airplane itself. Since this is a new business, he is eager to have new clients and exclaims that he can take our cargo anywhere. After several minutes of bantering over the price, it seems that he can indeed take us anywhere in Congo. In his enthusiasm, he invites over for breakfast at his house the next day.

Santo's Daughter. Young...but already camera friendly.

We arrive in the little village at 12:00, and since we are accompanied by an important official, there are hours of greetings, ceremonies and meals. We finally start work at 3:00PM until 9:00PM, all of us feeling near exhaustion. I sleep curled up like a little baby.

Despite having to wake up early to work some more, we have a wonderful breakfast of honey from the forest (it's dark and liquid, sweet without the usual thick sticky feel that American honey often has), guayava, marcacuja fruits, papaya and coconut. When I explain to my hosts how expensive all these fruits are in the states, they laugh giddily at the oddness of the other world.

Two of the sisters of Spanish and they’ve been working in Congo for as long as they can remember (30 odd years). The third one is Congolese but she has spent some time in Spain. The cook/gardener shows me around the vegetable garden: the eggplants, green peppers, Ngay-ngay from Cameroon, flowers that grow to keep the insects out of the garden. In the back he shows me the papaya tree, guyavas, an old wet log where edible mushrooms grow at an alarming rate. Without this garden, the sisters would be eating just like the villagers: fish, rice and pondu (manioc leaves) every day for the rest of their lives.

Yum! Dekese mushrooms.

The end of the morning finishes off with a rush of activities: meetings with various officials and village chiefs, fighting against bribes imposed by the immigration authority, paying our various rooming arrangements, loading the plane with bushmeat, freshly caught river fish with whiskers, various letters and packages for family members of the villagers living in Kananga.

Predictably, we are way behind schedule and when we finish with the community, we have to hop on motorcycles and ride like the wind to the small airstrip. A little less predictably, there are not enough motorcycles to take all of us there and, in the shuffle, I get left behind. I have to borrow the sisters' old motorcycle with only a lick of fuel left in it. My driver rushes through mud puddles and shouts at people to get out of the way. I run to the main passenger cabin only to discover that my legs, shoes and pants are full of mud.

For once, I am incredibly relieved though deeply saddened to leave the population behind. Though I have vowed never to talk about work in this blog, I must admit that the work is hard and sometimes…well solutions just can’t be found.

Today is my birthday.

Congolese French

February 15th, 2006

After an incredibly deep sleep, I am woken up by insistent knocking. The hotel staff brings me hot water, tea, butter (the one that doesn’t need to be frozen), powdered milk and sugar. I thank him and ask if my two other colleagues are sleeping. He wobbles his head and looks at me with sorry eyes. I shake sleep from my voice and try again by enunciating clearly. That doesn’t seem to help and I just assume that he understands just Lingala. Later that day, my colleague laughs at this recollection and says that the staff understands French, but I just don’t speak it like a Congolese does.

It turns out that we cannot board the Russian plane that day because there is a fuel shortage in town. I leave $2,000 upfront for them to find fuel and secretly pray that the company is an honest one. I sure would hate to loose that much of the organization’s money.

That afternoon, we walk in the busy streets again under the punishing sun, leaving me to explain why I am hugging the shady spots of the streets (I am almost like an albino after all). The kids pick up bottle caps to play bottle-cap football.

The hotel has three different posters of its owner, the UNDP leader, whose large round face stares menacingly at guest from a faded brown and white picture.

The Antanov Airplane we take to go to Dekese

First Trip to Dekese

This is what I transcribed from my diary entry on the last trip to the field.


February 14th 2006

Yet another trip to the field. This time, I must go to Dekese, a village so isolated that it usually takes a 2-day drive from the small town of Lodja to get there. Luckily, we hear of a decent airstrip in the village and contact a private company that can fly there in a 9-seater. This being a particularly important mission, we decide to accept the high price of $3,225 for 2 hours of flying. At that price, I’d rather travel by helicopter.

Though I have deposited my passport to immigration authorities (DGM) in Kinshasa nearly three weeks ago, I still do not have a new visa. The man there issues me three temporary papers, reassuring me that they are legitimate and I should have no problem travelling with them. He adds that anyone asking for extra money to process these documents is a briber and I should not pay him. “Easy for you to say”, I think to myself, “your not the one getting bribed even when your papers are in order”. I silently chuckle at the situation, finding it ironic that the head of immigration in Kinshasa knows how corrupt his own employees are.

Finally, I am in the plane towards Kananga, flying over reticulated hills that look like a giant, green cerebrum with alternating patches of light green grasses and dense dark green forests. The few rivers that slither across them take sharp turns reminding me of a fast moving silver snake. From the air, it is obvious that Congo is made up mostly of uninhabited, large expanses, occasionally punctuated by a thin dirt orange roads leading to a few 20-hut villages.

Kananga’s not quite as I remembered it—-being the first city I saw outside of Kinshasa, my first impression was that of a small village. It is in fact a city filled with people buzzing around stores. While the stores are pretty run-down, the buildings have freshly painted signs. It seems like one can buy most anything here and there are certainly more stores around this city centre than around downtown Kinshasa. I am very aware of the people staring at me, but the stares are polite and discreet. I walk down the busy streets tensely, fully cognizant of being the only white person around.

It is said that the Belgians once planned for Kananga to be the largest city in Congo since it sits squarely in the middle of the country. That evening we stay in a very basic but clean hotel. Built in 1937, it now wears a sign that announces “One of the First Great Hotel in Africa”. I look forward to have a nice shower after the trip tiredness and the long walk through the dusty city. I turn on the tap, only to find that there is no running water. I had forgotten how cold bucket baths could be. I promptly crash at 7:00PM sleeping soundly until 7:00AM woken only once by the sound of water rushing through the pipes at around 2:00AM.

The tables and chairs are made from recycled oil and gasoline barrels (note the opening to the spout on the table). It's oh-so-very-Ikea.

March 10, 2006


UNIKIN stands for Université de Kinshasa. To get there from my office, you have to do the following:

1. Take a left after the company sign
2. Drive verrrrry slowly in and out of the ditches and around the stalled cars
3. Get to the little man in yellow and fight your way across the intersection making sure that no one is reaching inside your car to grab your bag
4. Pass the stadium on your right, then the Palais du Peuple, then l'échangeur
5. Finally go straight past the first FINA Gas station, make a sharp left after, make a soft left around the white truck with no wheels, pass a small market with the two Vodacom antenna, around the rickshaw, make a left after the third Fina station, pass the Boulangerie, take a soft left after the fourth Fina station, etc.

I'm all for doing my colleagues favors, but driving to the public health school at the university for two hours is certainly not part of my job description. AND, they said all I had to do was to drive straight. Ha!

The university itself was pretty cool, though in serious need of garden upkeep, building rehabilitation and coats of paint. It was huge, bigger than my old neighborhood in Washington DC.

(post publishing note: I found my way back BY MYSELF, which is a small miracle)

March 07, 2006

Honouring African Women

Today is March 8th 2006-International Women's Day.

During my last trip to the field, I meet this Maman:

I am honouring her here today.

Because you took me in, without knowing my name or my language
that day our vehicule was stuck in your tiny village

Because your were deeply honoured to have me sleep on your best cot
while you were left to sleep in a dilapidated mud hut

Because you are raising 10 grown children
without the help of a husband by your side (he exists but is unseen)

Because you smiled for the full 24 hours
I spent with you and your girls

Because, in you, I can see the way my ancestors lived
and it inspires me to continue working in health and development

I honour you, woman from that little village in Kole.

(posted a day early...just in case)

Early to Bed, Early Riser

I went to bed at 9:00 yesterday owing to a big headache that was building just behind my eyes. This morning, I was fully awake by 5:50. I started throwing things in the wash, looking over my taxes for 2006, dusting sand from my various bags, downloading pictures from my computer for work. It was very hard to keep myself from doing the ironing and the dishes (my maid is coming over today, and she's got to have something to do).

When there was absolutely nothing else to do, I left at 7:30 and arrived at work by 7:40.

Sigh. Surely there's more to life than work?

March 06, 2006

Shameless Promotion

Somebody got me this cool-assed shirt for my birthday:

All's I can say is, thanks so much for the great idea. You're awesome.

Happy Valentine's Day!

I wanted to post this picture for Valentine's Day...

Unfortunately I didn't get to so am doing so now. This is a typical heart-shaped leafed plant I see during my field visits. For this particular picture, I had to lean over my driver's shoulder and shout through his helmet to stop. He thought I was crazy for taking such a boring picture.

March 03, 2006


Dear All,

This is just to say that I am alive though I've been on the field for 20 days (I counted 'em).

Can't wait to update my blog.