All posts by John

John is a freelance journalist and has written for magazines including New Scientist, Science (online), Bicycle Times, and Slate. His work has appeared in daily newspapers and online news sites, and he has also reported on health and the environment for public radio stations. Despite his last name, John's not generally a violent person.

Goats and trash

One of my favorite Peace Corps trainers in Niger once made the comment that you really have to watch sheep and cattle so they don’t eat trash. “But goats, you don’t have to worry about,” she said. “They can eat anything and they seem to do just fine.”

Goat eats plasticCongolese goats seem to be no different than their Nigerien counterparts. Click on the picture above for a short video. Perhaps the larger problem is the utter lack of trash disposal. The plastic bag bans in neighboring countries won’t solve everything, but boy it goes a long way in keeping the streets clean.

The roadside in Rwanda is almost entirely devoid of garbage, a striking difference with most of the other African countries I've visited.
The roadside in Rwanda is almost entirely devoid of garbage, a striking difference with most of the other African countries I’ve visited.

What perhaps on the surface is merely an aesthetic concern – and one I fill a little silly arguing for because as an outsider I like that Rwanda is “pretty” without all the trash – I also believe can inspire a Jacob’s ladder of change. Start with the trash, and maybe people will take a greater interest in maintaining their communities. Maintain the communities, and the people who live in them have something of value in their lives – a place where their kids can grow up healthy, where they can start a business, where they can build homes. Suddenly, they have a reason not to get embroiled in the politics and factionalization that seems to crop up so quickly on this continent. Maybe that’s too much to hope for from getting rid of a few plastic bags, but it’s a start.

Correction: I mistakenly wrote that banning plastic bags wouldn’t solve “anything.” I’ve changed the word to “everything” because I do think banning them could do (and is doing) some good.

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Audio postcards from Lodja

Here are a couple recordings I made in the last week.

Our commute (à pied) on a cloudy afternoon.
Our commute (à pied) on a cloudy afternoon.

On Saturday we were walking past a church as a singing group practiced outside. As much as I’d like to believe that several years of living in Africa makes me immune to sentimentality and allows me to see things as they are, their singing had me transfixed and even choked up as we passed by. The words are in Tetela, so I can’t tell you what they’re saying. I only just learned how to say, “My name is John.”

A pickup soccer game just down the street from our house.
A pickup soccer game just down the street from our house.

The second recording was one of the impromptu parades that seem to spring up almost nightly. For a town without grid electricity, Lodja can be as loud as any American city I’ve ever spent the night in. While our neighbors seem to need little impetus to celebrate beyond a worship service or the fact that, hey, it’s Tuesday again, I’m pretty sure this was a celebration of DRC’s victory over Burundi in the African Nations Championship. Unfortunately, Ghana kept DRC out of the tournament semifinals. The Black Stars beat the Leopards a few days later.

Reacting to “the Mess” – Part 2

The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.
The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say in this second part of my reaction to Paul Theroux’s recent article in Barron’s about aid in Africa, a sort of resolution that ties together my thoughts on development. But the truth is, I wrestle with ambivalence on the subject, and struggling to come up with a firm conclusions (or even multiple conclusions) leads me to the same answer I often give when I’m asked what life is like in Africa: It’s complicated.

Even a hardship post isn't all hardship - thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the roundtrip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.
Even a hardship post isn’t all hardship – thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the round trip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.

On the one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to see a few African countries from the ground floor, so to speak, living in small towns and villages and seeing beyond what I’d see if I were just visiting for a short time. Short of up and moving to another country with little or no outside support – following in the footsteps of Livingstone and Stanley and Mungo – working for (or having a spouse who works for) an aid organization provides one of the few opportunities to at least catch a glimpse into the daily lives of fellow human beings. And yet, that seems like a selfish reason to be involved in this sort of work, especially if you’re not sure that you’re helping more than you’re hurting.

Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo's eruption in 2002.
Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo’s eruption in 2002.

I see the value of small aid projects – ones that build the small savings and lending groups, for example, that Anne-Claire and her colleagues are involved in. On the individual level, it’s not hard to find the results, like the man who stood up at a recent meeting and talked about how the group taught him the value of putting money aside for a rainy day – not a trivial realization when floods or droughts or volcanoes or rebel groups or even your own government’s army can take away everything you have in an instant. But these types of projects aren’t likely to change poverty on a broader scale. What’s more, they don’t generate the kinds of numbers necessary to build a data-driven case for investment – not that data-based development is a bad thing, but more on that in a later post.

But the piles of rubble can be put to use...
But the piles of rubble can be put to use…

I guess the only real conclusion I’ve come to is that communication across culture barriers is rarely a bad thing, and the presence of aid/development organizations facilitates that crosstalk in many ways. The challenge now is to leverage what comes out of those conversations to make for better aid projects. It’s only when the people involved – the “beneficiaries” in aid-speak – are intimately involved in coming up with solutions to poverty.

Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over town before the eruption even ended.
Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over Goma before the eruption had even ended.

Switching gears a little bit but extending that idea, I came across a new book called Aid on the Edge of Chaos. The thesis is that the best answers might come from not spending so much time designing projects for an intended outcome. Instead, the author argues for giving people a tool and standing back while they figure out the best way to use it. One example given (I haven’t read the book yet) is the installation of community computer terminals connected to the Internet in Indian slums. After dropping these hard-to-come-by objects into certain areas, the project designers were surprised to see children using the Web to teach themselves English. I’m anxious to read the book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you already have.

Lodja's "premier" school - not an easy place to learn.
Lodja’s “premier” school – not an easy place to learn.

Reacting to the “Mess” – Part 1

IMG_9459Paul Theroux managed to crystallize the hypocrital “aid mess” in Africa for Barron’s last month in a way I certainly can’t. In an elegant thrashing in turns of celebrity do-gooders, meddling politicians, and even Peace Corps Volunteers – a tribe of which he’s one of the most celebrated and controversial members.

His whole essay might come off as a polemic, delicately disguised in snap-smart prose by one of contemporary literature’s deftest hands – if he weren’t also right. The continent – what I’ve seen of it anyway – is a smear of development projects. A few work; most don’t. The ruins of concrete grain banks, broken pumps, and empty health centers don’t take much effort to find.

IMG_9470So why do it? Why bother? Anne-Claire and I have this discussion a lot, really trying to give some thought to what might happen if we all just left Africa to sort out her own problems. In my simplistic view, things might get better – imagine building countries in which the best and brightest worked in hospitals, government, industry, the next Google, instead of in the aid sector – but only after they got worse.

If we just pulled the supports out from under aid and development, hard-gotten gains – the near-eradication of diseases like Guinea worm and polio, and significant drops in infant mortality, for example – would be erased in a matter of years. So effectively, removing all aid would be unconscionable, condemning a generation or more to the worst poverty the world has ever seen.

IMG_9441What’s more, it’s impossible. We live in such an interconnected world, we can’t expect Africans to just accept the West leaving them alone, no matter how much of ‘that’s-our-lot’ fatalism tinges every aspect of life here. Nearly a billion talented, scrappy, eager, resourceful Africans want the healthy children and education and wealth, as well as automobiles and televisions, that they see the rest of the world enjoying.

If there’s one commonality among people in general – one that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom – it’s that we humans are never satisfied with where we are. That sort of ambition – innovation, if you will – is what drives progress and invention, and it’s reassuring to think that there has yet to be a problem here on earth that we as a species couldn’t sort out. Not yet at least…

The darker side of that ambition is the urge to accumulate material things, whether it’s a new shirt, a pair of shoes, that car that’s just outside your price range, or a big house with a pool. We all struggle to live within our means – in Africa, the U.S. or anywhere else. In many ways the poverty in Africa can be boiled down to a credit crisis – that is, not having the funds to pay for something right now because you already spent it – which we certainly know a bit about in the West.

I’ll have more in Part 2 of my thoughts on Paul Theroux’s piece in the next couple weeks.

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…