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.