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.