Keeping the forest at bay

I’m constantly impressed at the tenacity of the forest here in Lodja. Despite our best efforts to carve out a comfortable home here in the Congo bush, I find we’re constantly beating back a seething mass of life conspiring to return our little house and all of its surroundings back into jungle.

The joke here is that you can let a few seeds fall out of your pocket just about anywhere, and they’ll grow. I can personally attest to the ostensible fertility, as I cut down new palm saplings every morning that have sprung up overnight in my garden, trying to give my foreign vegetables and herbs a chance to grow.

I suppose it all starts with the rain. A couple of weeks ago, I experienced the biggest storm (that wasn’t part of a hurricane or a tornado) of my life, pounding Lodja for more than 2 hours one afternoon. I’m kicking myself for not bringing a rain gauge, as I’m really curious about how much rain fell. Click on the picture below for a quick video.

Click for a quick video of the storm.
Click for a quick video of the storm.

It’s also funny how quickly it can just disappear. We had a party at our house a while back, which emptied our rainwater tank. And just like that, the rain stopped – nothing more than a drizzle for almost two weeks. Fortunately, we had a big soaking yesterday, so we don’t have to buy water every couple of days. Speaking of, water is not cheap here, even here in the middle of the rainforest, though that’s mostly due to the physical labor it takes to actually transport it. While our monthly water bill in California typically ran between $15-25, we’ve been paying about $3.30 for two days worth of water.

Scorpion
This tiny little guy was waiting right by my toothbrush the other night.
Toothbrush holder
For some perspective, here’s the size of my toothbrush holder next to a dollar bill.

That rain and the myriad rivers it carves this country with lead to a proliferation of life like I’ve never seen, and they’re all eager to move in with us it seems. Spiders and scorpions make nightly appearances, as do cockroaches – though our little cat usually takes care of them quickly. There have been some beautiful grasshoppers, but unfortunately their erratic motion is just too much to resist. The cat adds them to her diet as well, leaving our front porch looking like a prosthetic clinic with all the legs left behind.

The frogs this morning at “Lac Lodja” (really just a big puddle that I’m convinced has something to do with the town’s malaria epidemic) were garrulous, perhaps exploiting the flooded reeds at the puddle’s edge for some fraternization. Toads, too, come for the bounty that our little solar-powered front porch light affords. Congo is truly Lepidopteran heaven, whether you like to eat butterflies and moths, or just see them.

Though I wasn't brave enough to stick it in the picture, she was about as big as my hand.
Though I wasn’t brave enough to stick my hand in the picture, that’s about how big she was.

But, with a nod to E.O. Wilson, I’m most impressed with the ants. Whether it’s the tiny buggers – almost microscopic – that nonetheless can pack a “pinch” as it were, or the seamlessly organized bands that get into our food – I’m annoyed, but  I’ve got to hand it to them. When we first got here, a rat got into my open backpack (my fault) and chewed through the lid of one of our two jars of peanut butter.

The tell-tale rodent’s teeth marks, the left behind shards of plastic, and the damn thing didn’t even eat very much of the peanut butter. To an ant that sort of messy pilfering bush league, amateur hour. (We still had to throw out the peanut butter – from 2000-2009, DRC had more instances of plague – yes, bubonic plague – than anywhere else in the world by far.)

La Vache qui rit
La Vache qui rit

In a recent cleaning frenzy, I went through each of our cabinets one by one searching for the source of ants that scattered and disappeared when they sensed my presence and yet I knew were there. I picked up an open package of Laughing Cow cheese, like the one pictured above. Known the world over with almost Twinkie-like notoriety for its stability in all sorts of climates, and it’s pretty tasty too when it’s all you’ve got, “La Vache qui rit” is a staple in just about every ex-pat household on the continent.

But this package lacked its usually oily heft. Still, no signs of foul play. The disc, though it had been opened as I said, still had the top sitting neatly on its base. But when I opened it, the two pie piece-shaped segments tumbled into the air, light as feathers. I picked one up to inspect it: Two neat puncture holes in each, nothing more, and each piece was entirely devoid of cheese. They didn’t even smell like Laughing Cow any more, licked clean in a way that would make any grandmother proud.

Like I said, can’t help but be impressed…

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This Week’s Reading

A glimpse of a recent thunderstorm. That’s our drinking and wash water collecting in the can. 

With words in Otetela, Lingala, French and Swahili competing for my brain’s limited bandwidth, I’ve become even more of a news junkie than I was in the States, if only to seek some refuge in the English language. So I thought I’d share a few of the noteworthy articles I’ve been reading. Most are from this past week, though some I only just read this week. (I blame that entirely on slow Internet access and not my own laziness.)

The news came last week that the conflict between Congolese troops and the M23 rebel group (purportedly backed by Rwanda) was coming to an end. The Global Post reports that the Uganda army now has M23’s leader in custody.

Here’s a comprehensive guide from IRIN covering the various rebel groups. It’s important that the M23 leader has been captured, less he foment another uprising another perch as so many have before him.

It’s also noteworthy that Uganda chose to arrest Makenga, given their quasi-alliance with Rwanda. Again, Jason Stearns offered his analysis as the fighting was winding down and the balance was tipping in the favor of the government troops.

Jason Stearns posted a piece on recent political and economic reforms and the tenuous hold a reformist prime minister has on his job in faraway Kinshasa.

Adam Nossiter of the New York Times filed a compelling story from Dakar, Senegal, on deceiving growth statistics used to show gains in Africa. I challenge anyone who doesn’t think economic inequality is a problem we need to worry about in the U.S. to spend a few hours on the streets of Kinshasa, where the vast majority of the population might as well unify themselves under the banner, “We are the 99.999 percent.” For all that we talk about the “developing world,” it seems that we might be developing more toward the Congo model and not vice versa, given recent trends in American inequality.

Into the Field

Anne-Claire heading into a brief patch of forest.

Being a foreigner in a place like the Congo can feel a bit like driving through sand when a more comfortable road might suffice. The stops and starts because you don’t understand the language or the culture or just the way things are done can be very frustrating. For me especially, trying to continue reporting and writing in a place where it takes a day to download a 10-megabyte document gives me reason to question whether dealing with the rats and the millipedes and all the other discomforts is really worth it.

But occassionally there are times when everything does come into focus, and the destinations you can reach because of that more difficult road do validate the struggle in some way.

We had the chance this past weekend to go out and visit a project site. Though only about 12-15 km from Lodja’s center, it took us about 45 minutes to get there. In some places the rain had wiped the road out almost completely, and in others we followed the narrow, bumpy strip of dirt through thick brush. The beating the Land Cruiser took always reminds me of our former Peace Corps director in Niger and his observation that these burly four-wheel-drive vehicles, which back home on smooth ribbons of interstate can seem so wasteful, are absolutely necessary in places like this.

We made our first stop in the town center. The infrequency of cars as well as the strangers that came shuffling out ensured we had a big audience for a short meeting to check on how the village’s small business lending groups were doing. Members of this type of group come up with a business idea to propose to the group. If someone’s idea is chosen at the monthly meeting, then that member gets the pooled funds as a loan to jumpstart their enterprise. As they (hopefully) pay back the loans with interest, that pooled fund grows larger in lockstep with the group’s understanding of what makes a good investment and what does not. Plus, the entrepreneur has the opportunity to put a little cash in her (or his) pocket.

A farmer stands in his field of rice.

From the meeting spot, we traveled another 5 km into the bush. Once the road petered out, we continued on foot through patches of thick forest intersperse throughout high-grass savanna. As fertile as the land seems to be here, it’s amazing that food security is such an issue. Instead of a place where staples have to be coaxed out of the ground, it seems that here the constant battle is keeping the forest from choking food crops out. Everywhere you look plants are growing, often literally on top of each other – palm fronds wither and break off, the cup-like space between where it’s attached to the tree and the trunk seems to form the perfect planter for precocious ferns.

On the fauna front, I counted at least six different types of ants, though I’m no expert. When I got too close in a failed attempt to snap a photo, a few scouts from a particularly furious swarm locked onto my toes in a suicide mission. Unfortunately, hunting has pushed the monkeys and most other mammals deep into the forest to the north.

We stopped at several rice fields along the way to see how a new, faster-maturing variety was faring compared to the traditional variety (well, it seems). Farmers here also cultivate peanuts, cassava and the ever-present pineapple, and at the bottom of a lush valley, we found a community-owned palm oil press.

It was a lovely hike, particularly early on. The previous night’s rain storm left the morning air almost chilly, and it wasn’t until we’d hiked about an hour before the sun started beating down and humidifying the quasi-forest. But even dripping with sweat and slipsliding down hillsides in my flipflops, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the forest rolling off into the distance. Nor was it lost on me that this was a trek most farmers made six days a week to their fields, without the benefit of a 5-km headstart in a Land Cruiser.

Descending into a valley.

So even as I struggle to find my footing in this place so far from what I’ve always known, I’m thankful for the opportunity to see places like this and catch small glimpses into the lives of people here.

From Pluto’s Gate to Paradise

After a month and a half, and 5 cancelled flights due to plane maintenance and a wet, muddy runway, Anne-Claire and I finally arrived in Lodja. The area is stunning, and Lodja itself is really a collection of beautiful, sprawling, idyllic, dusty towns strung out around a town center, collectively home to about 100,000 people.

The area straddles the rainforest to the north and the savannah to the south, and we’re in the midst of rainy season, so it’s very green here. Coconut, banana and mango trees are everywhere you look, and pineapples are so abundant they often rot and cost about $.50 USD. The people seem laid back and friendly, the weather’s hot but not unbearable, and after the security restrictions we were under in Goma and Kinshasa, it’s wonderful to be able to walk around unimpeded.

I’m sending just a few pictures for now. I’ll write an update soon after we settle in a bit more. Just a word about our time in the east – Lake Kivu’s spectacular, but if the half dozen or so rebel/bandit groups hanging out in the hills on the outskirts weren’t enough, you’ve got this behemoth that erupts every 10 years or so (most recently in 2002), burns houses and kills people, and leaves a wall of hardened lava making the already-terrible roads all but impassable. Add to that a lake that belches deadly doses of methane and incubates cholera, and thin mile-high air that makes the bad pollution worse, and you’ve got a real-life Pluto’s Gate.

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Steaming Mount Nyiragongo looms over Goma.
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The view of Lake Kivu’s eastern shore
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Unloading the UN plane that took us from Goma via Kindu.
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A view of the transition zone from forest to savanna.
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Anne-Claire in front of the plane in Lodja. We were the only two passengers on the second leg from Kindu.