Category Archives: Essays

Essays

Chaotic Kinshasa: A New Adventure

A telling picture of Kinshasa by photographer Pascal Maitre.
A telling picture of Kinshasa by photographer Pascal Maitre.

“To the outsider the perception is chaos.”

This quote from a source in Robert Draper’s National Geographic piece on Kinshasa would be an apt description of most any sprawling African capital. Often the first thing a visitor notices is the helter-skelter of the roads where, as a driver,  anything you can get away with seems to fly. Thousands of the city’s 10 million inhabitants live day-to-day – polishing shoes, selling hand-me-down pants, or begging for handouts – and it would seem that most of the 500,000 coming in every year will do the same. Even verbal communication blends a dizzying melange of local and colonially imposed languages.

But as Draper points out, a rhythm, an order exists to the people living here. It’s not one we Westerners can easily understand.  Just as Eastern music written with a 5-beat meter can clang discordant in our Western ears so accustomed to 2 or 4 beats per measure, the swirl and chaos (two words Draper uses to great effect) on Kinshasa’s streets are disorienting. But just because we can’t hear the melody doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We had dinner last night with a couple of fellow Peace Corps Niger alums based in Kinshasa with the State Department. They’ve spent two years here and pointed us toward this article, saying what a marvelous encapsulation of Kinshasa it is. After arriving less than a week ago, I can’t help but agree.

Just to sum up for those of you who don’t know, Anne-Claire (my wife) just began a year-long fellowship with an aid organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She’ll be learning the ins and outs of working for an aid/relief organization, and I’m lucky enough to tag along in the hopes of finding a few things to write about. We are going to be based in Lodja, in central DRC, but we’re in Kinshasa for the next three weeks.

Unfortunately, safety is a concern here in the capital, so with few exceptions, we can’t really go beyond the concession walls of our apartment or the CRS office outside of a car. It’s a little frustrating, brought on by the variety of schemes, ranging from petty street crime to impersonating cops (as well as cops themselves looking to bolster nonexistent government paychecks), that folks use to extract a little cash from visitors. But we’re looking forward to Lodja. Though it’s still a large town of about 100,000 people, it’s much safer and calmer and we’ll be free to move around.

A shot from the article showing the sprawl of Kinshasa and Brazzaville.
A shot from the article showing the sprawl of Kinshasa and Brazzaville.

We also should have at least sporadic Internet access, which means I’m hoping to post to this blog once or twice a week. I have a few ideas for posts, but if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me directly. I hope to adhere to the spirit of this blog, which I started a little more than two years ago when Anne-Claire and I were traveling around Europe and West Africa. In a nutshell, my bird’s-eye philosophy on traveling in Africa is that, more so than any place I’ve ever visited, the best experiences come from the people you meet. It’s not a new idea at all and certainly bears application in other places. But it’s here, where existence and survival are stripped to their essence that it’s most apparent, at least to me.

So take a look around at our past trips chronicled here, and stay tuned for what’s to come over the next year here in the DRC. If I’ve gotten something wrong and I haven’t been clear, let me have it in the comments or an email. I’d love nothing more than for this site to become a discussion of development and travel, in Africa and elsewhere.

If you do have a chance to read Draper’s article, let me know your thoughts. It’s a fun ride through a fascinating city.

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Gear for the Camino

I thought it might be interesting and perhaps helpful to anyone thinking of walking the Camino to highlight some of the gear I took along. I’ll preface this post by saying I’m not a health expert of any kind, so any opinions I have about staying healthy on the Camino are just based on my own experience. This is particularly true of my feelings about footwear, which seem to contradict nearly everyone else’s who we met.

This is not an exhaustive list. The goods that pilgrims choose to bring are as diverse and personal as the reasons they have for doing the Camino. Taste, time of year, and personal preference should all weigh heavily in what to throw in a Camino-bound pack. I will say that although walking 500 miles through the microclimates of northern Spain is challenging, the Camino for the most part is not a technical expedition. This isn’t Everest or the Appalachian Trail. We were never more than an 18-km walk from the next town, and the half dozen or so cities along the way have just about every luxury or emergency supply you’d need.

Shoes

I chose to stick with my Asics trail runners. I bought a new pair of GT-2160 about a month and a half before our trip. Though a beefier sole might have been nice for the constant rocks and the significant portions of roadwalking required by the Camino, I was happy to go with a shoe I knew. I avoided the serious blisters that seemed to accompany every pair of high-top boots we saw along the way. Yes, my feet were sore in a way I’ve not experienced while backpacking on the AT and PCT in the States, but again, I think that’s more a function of the trail substrate than my shoes. I’ll say that I do not have ankle problems. If you do, a high-top boot might be the way to go, as there are sections with some loose rock and the terrain can definitely be uneven.

I will say that 500 miles pretty much destroyed the body of my shoes, though this might be due to my freakishly wide feet (at one specific point). The soles are worn but are still in good shape. We only had two significant rain storms our entire 28 days, and even those were fairly short. My feet got wet as these shoes aren’t Gore-Tex, but this is something I’m used to as I backpack in the States with trail runners as well. In my experience, the occasional value of Gore-Tex is trumped by the extra weight and the increased perspiration it causes, which seems to cause blisters and other foot problems. As we were staying in albergues every night, I was confident I could get even soaking shoes dry by the next morning. Plus, I had decent socks.

Socks

I bought a 3-pack of Stoic wool-blend hiking socks from Steepandcheap.com for about $15. Someone had cautioned that these socks aren’t SmartWools, and while I definitely found that they wore out quickly (all three pairs were pretty much useless after we finished and ended up in the trash in Santiago), the kept my feet comfortable throughout the day. The outer layer pilled quite a bit from the get-go, but that didn’t seem to affect their performance too much. And they dried fairly quickly when washed by hand, though again, the fibers seemed to slough off in my hands as I scrubbed them.

These socks are designated right and left, which after this trip I’m convinced is a racket by sock manufacturers. Let’s be honest – you’re not wearing burlap sacks on your feet. Every athletic sock worth it’s sweat-absorbing weight has a bit of elastic in it, so it should conform to the contours of your foot – either foot. All having right- and left-designated socks seemed to do was make each sock wear more quickly in specific spots, instead of more evenly with sock that end up on one foot or the other at random each time I put them on. If anyone has any information about how fitted socks might be beneficial, let me know and I’ll correct this post. Right now though, I can say that I would have gotten more mileage out of these socks had I ignored the “R” and “L” designations.

Clothing

Pilgrims are easy to spot along the Camino even without their packs. They’re the ones wandering into mass with vented polyester shirts and doffing wide-brimmed nylon hats with chin ties in nice restaurants. If that works for you, great. I enjoy gear shopping as much as the next person. But after our travels last summer shredded a Northface polyester shirt that was a bit scratchy anyway, I decided to go with something a little more comfortable and durable. I bought a cotton-blend Kuhl button down before we left and wore it every day we hiked. I washed it by hand each night, and though it’s definitely showing some wear, I was very pleased with how it worked. Button downs allow more flexibility in regulating heat (i.e., unbutton a button if it’s hot, button up if it’s cold), they dry more quickly on a cloths line, and in a pinch, you look a bit sharper than if you’d just worn a t-shirt.

My shorts are pretty simple, basically a light pair of swim trunks. A hat’s an absolute must for the Camino, as the sun can be fierce and you’re sometimes spending 12 hours a day in it. Forget about trying to hike only in the evening to avoid burning rays – you’ll get quite a bit darker, even up until the 9 p.m. sun in Spain.

I brought along a light scarf, which was perfect for warding of the chill in the morning and for covering my neck from about 10 a.m. on. Sunglasses too were important, as the reflection off gravel paths and wheat fields can feel unrelenting at 3 in the afternoon.

My favorite piece of gear is my Icebreaker sweater. Again a steepandcheap.com purchase, it felt a little overpriced even then at $55, but I wore it every day to stay warm while we were hiking, and then again in the evening. It’s held up very well, especially in the shoulders where I wear my pack. Best of all, it takes a lot to make this thing smell bad. I washed it twice during the entire month, and while I wouldn’t go around hugging strangers, I didn’t earn the nickname “Pigpen” either.

Trekking poles

I was glad I threw in my trekking poles at the end. While I do feel a bit ridiculous with them, like someone who took a wrong turn on the way to the Alps, they’re a great help in climbing hills, help you lock into a rhythm on flat stretches, and are knee-savers on the few brutally steep sections that can last for 10 km sometimes. Nearly every pilgrim has at least one walking stick, some choosing to go the more traditional route and buying one of the ubiquitous wooden sticks that are for sale everywhere along the way.

Sleeping gear

I took just a light silk sleep sack. It weighs almost nothing and kept me pretty warm while keeping the bed bugs at bay. Lots of other pilgrims bring more robust sleeping bags, and one or two nights I would have appreciated a bit of extra warmth. But I’m a pretty warm sleeper and most albergues have blankets (which smell like moth balls) that you can use. For me the space I saved was more than worth being without my sleeping bag.

Pack

This was the most disappointing piece of equipment I brought. After years with a Kelty internal frame pack that was bent all to hell from too many bush taxi rides and tosses by baggage handlers, I got an Osprey Stratos. I’m working on a dedicated post for my experiences with this bag, but I’ll just say broken straps a week into a month-long hike don’t inspire confidence.

The size I chose was just about right. It’s a 38-liter bag, what Osprey calls a daypack/light overnighter, but with a little thrift, this capacity was perfect for the Camino. It would, I believe, suffice for the traveling we did last summer as well. I’ll post my complete review of the Osprey bag soon.

Patient Hospitaleros

A quick update on where we’re at – we are just finishing our stretch in Castille and Leon and are at a hostel tonight in Villafranca del Bierzo before the climb tomorrow to O’Cebreiro and Galicia.

I love beakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day.

I have been impressed with the seemingly limitless patience of the folks who run the hostels – called “albergues” – along the Camino. The “hospitaleros” (and hospitaleras) face an unending stream of smelly pilgrims coming through day after day with dirty boots, oozing blisters and, for the most part, lousy Spanish. And all of us seem to expect the unique Camino experience every night – enough tasty food, clean bathrooms and showers, and comfortable beds.

In the little town of Zarinaquiguie, maybe 10 km from Pamplona, I found myself in the position of speaking the best Spanish in the hostel for most of the evening. A sort-of language savant showed up later who spoke French, Spanish, German, English and even a little Basque, though she was proof that just because you can speak a dozen languages doesn’t mean you should. She commandeered the evening’s dinner conversation with little interest in anyone else, and though she spoke perfect French, she failed to accurately interpret our Quebecois and French companions’ eye rolls – something I’ve always thought transcended spoken languages the world over.

What’s not to love about loin and white coffee for beakfast?

Anyway, back to my story – before she arrived, a German pilgrim asked me if I knew what was for dinner, and if it was fish, could I tell the chef he wanted something else? I grabbed the Basque chef as he buzzed around the dining room getting the table ready for dinner and told him that one of his guests doesn’t eat “fishermen.” Without batting an eye, he knew what I meant, and Frederick got a heaping plate of spaghetti, while the rest of us had salty bowls of baccalau. The chef genuinely seemed to enjoy serving us, so when we were finished, I made sure to tell him that the salad, the lentils, the soup and the fish were all “very, very beautiful.” He graciously smiled at me and bowed slightly before zipping back into the kitchen.

A few nights ago, in Mansilla de las Mulas, just before Leon, our servers weren’t quite as understanding. We’d amassed a large group for dinner, and a continuous stream of quid pro quo drink buying throughout the afternoon made us louder than normal. We’ve met and been walking at roughly the same rate as a very cool Quebecois couple who started their camino deep in the French countryside a month and some 800 km before us in Le Puy. The husband, Daniel, is quiet even in his native Quebecois-French. But at dinner time, he enjoys rousting entire restaurants to toast the Camino, toast the servers, toast our fellow pilgrims at the dinner table in their native tongues. It seems to be his way to show appreciation. That, and he freely doles out sublime foot massages. “I mass your feet?” he offers. “I’m a very good masser.”

Though I’m sure they appreciate it in some measure, the hospitaleros always seems to feel a little uneasy in the spotlight. Perhaps they were a little on edge when we asked them (in Spanish), “What…is…the soup?” Our server spit back something that sounded like “hegetales,” which should have been easy enough to translate into “vegetables,” but our minds were elsewhere and we didn’t make the connection.

“What…is…vegetables?” I asked in Spanish.

“Vegetables are vegetables, you idiot. Carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes…Vegetables.” I have no idea if this is actually what she said to me, but I let my imagination run a bit as it slowly sunk in that it was vegetable soup she was talking about. I’m just trying to imagine how an American in a town of a few thousand people in the United States might respond to a bunch of foreigners yelling demands at her in four languages, interspersed with shouts of “Sante!” and “Salud” and “Proust!” and “K Pis!” (Apologies to our Dutch and Finnish friends – I should have asked them to write down their respective toasts.) My estimation is that an American waitress, even one who depends on tips, would quickly lose patience with us.

In the end, the vegetable soup was delicious, just the salty broth of vegetables I needed. Things ended on a bit of a sour note, when one of our fellow Americans went on tirade against a Dutch guy who, as I understood it, asked her simply (in perfect English, as all the Dutch seem to speak) whether she didn’t mind the weight of carrying her iPad. After leveling an inappropriate response about how pilgrims’ supplies have evolved over the centuries, she stormed off. The Dutch didn’t speak French, and most of our other companions speak very little English, so in an effort to ease the tension, Daniel toasted the Dutch guy a few times and said, “I am love you,” and “You my friend. You my best friend.”

Thankfully, it seems the Dutch were forgiving, as they seemed to harbor no ill will this morning, probably thanks to Daniel’s efforts. I suppose even an attempt in a common language has the potential to heal wounds.

Stop All the Clocks

Issaka, Anne-Claire, Ramatou and a sleeping Khadidja at the Niamey Airport, August 3, 2011

Insha’Allah. The phrase is often the last you’ll hear from as you say goodbye in a Muslim country. As we passed through the barriers at the Niamey airport to board our flight back to Morocco, we told Issaka and his wife Ramatou that we’d see them when we returned, some day.

“Insha’Allah,” they said. “If God wills it.” It didn’t occur to us that God wouldn’t will the reunion we all looked forward to in that moment.

I’m still working on my last post from our summer travels. But we got some sad news today that makes it difficult to share more of the joy we experienced this summer, especially when someone who played such a big role in bringing us that joy is no longer with us.

This past Monday night in Niamey, Ramatou—Issaka’s wife, not Anne-Claire’s best friend from her service—died after getting sick that day. I haven’t spoken with Issaka directly, but he mentioned in an e-mail that she’d had some heart trouble in the past. Nothing about her 30-something appearance suggested that she’d fall ill so quickly. Not the way she buzzed around the house making sure Anne-Claire and I had everything we needed to feel at home. Not the way she looked after the children, whether hers by birth (Khadidja) or by marriage. Not the way she prepared more than a dozen meals for us while we visited.

Like so many Nigeriens, her first instincts in any situation were to smile and to laugh. That never-met-a-stranger smile put us at ease right away.

Not just statistics: Khadidja and Mohammed each face a childhood with only one parent

I won’t make much hay here trying to reconcile why these things happen. I’ve certainly tried to rationalize the unfairness that seems to pervade places like Niger, to no avail. The conclusion I come to is that so much in this life, and the way in which it often ends, is dependent on where you’re born. Ramatou’s death is a jolting reminder that a life expectancy of around 52 years (compared to ours, nearly 80 in the States) and other statistics are grounded in the real devastation for many families. Unlike other countries, Niger is not beset with the scourge of high AIDS rates (at least that we know of) that drags down the age to which people can expect to live in otherwise up-and-coming African countries like Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.

Putting a face on these numbers is not a new topic for this blog, but it’s perhaps the most sobering lesson from our trip this summer. I’m left with few answers and only sadness for Issaka and for Khadidja, yet another toddler who found her way into our hearts and now will grow up with only the memory of one of her parents.

Life and Death Statistics, Part 2

Just like our Peace Corps service, being in Niger was once again filled with higher highs and lower lows than we’re used to at home. Though we enjoyed seeing Seyni’s family – and for me in particular, Safia’s father Mati, a gardener I remembered from the Peace Corps training site whose whisker-like scarification deepens the kindness already present on his face – saying goodbye to them emotionally exhausted us. But again, like Peace Corps, the low didn’t last long, and soon we were back in the village.

Penning a history of the Fulani

The library that Anne-Claire helped build is still in great shape. A man sitting at one of the tables was working on a history of the Fulans (or Peul as they’re known elsewhere) in the Birni area. In a region full of scrappy people, the Fulans are among the scrappiest, spending weeks or months in the bush as the seek pastureland for their livestock. As more and more of the arable land is snatched up for farming, their nomadic way of life has become increasingly untenable, and that’s led to conflict between farmers and herders. It’s encouraging to see someone making the effort to leave a legacy that could increase our understanding of the struggle, especially in this near-universally verbal society.

In preparation for our arrival, Djibo, Anne-Claire’s former counterpart, who is now in a political position at the sous prefecture in Birni, had found us a room on the edge of the town, complete with air conditioning and a Western-style toilet. We thanked him for his thoughtfulness but decided that it would be better to be at his house where we could spend more time visiting with his family. Unfortunately, in this your-guest-is-your-god culture, that meant that Djibo dismantled his own king-sized bed and put it outside for us to sleep on, while he and his wife took a smaller bed in one of the back rooms of their house.

The next day, we visited a family on the outskirts of the town. Much of Birni has electricity, but Jamila’s family lives as if they were in the bush. Her husband spends a fair bit of his income on beer and tobacco, and he has another wife in addition to Jamila to support.

Jamila, still smiling

Four months ago, Jamila’s teenage son Soumaila died suddenly. As with Seyni and Mohammed (Ramatou’s husband), they didn’t know why exactly. In this fatalistic culture, the search for answers doesn’t often go beyond the acceptance that such things are just God’s will.

Since then, Jamila had been hit by a car. She had an operation to put a steel rod in her thigh to stabilize the bone, but only local anesthetic was available for the surgery. “Have patience,” she says, shrugging, the smile returning to her face as she focused on the present and the return of her friend (Anne-Claire) after five years.

Fortunately, most of the families we visited had happier stories to tell. One particularly large family had a boy who wasn’t able to walk when Anne-Claire lived in Birni. The family and everyone else just sort of expected him to die.

But when we visited his family, they pointed to him with pride – a modern-day Lazarus bouncing around as healthy as any other kid. The trademark passive acceptance of fatalism may run deep here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a blessing or even a miracle when they see one.

Three people, cutting across economic and professional lines, have died since we’ve been gone. That may not seem like a lot, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. What’s more unsettling for me is the randomness with which tragedy can strike here. To hammer home that point, a Fulan was hit and killed by a bush taxi as he was walking along the road to market the morning we left Birni. He’d been hit once before and had to have part of his foot amputated.

Malaria, undiagnosed cancer, a nasty bout of what we’d call food poisoning, heart disease – all could have played a role in the deaths of the three people we knew, but the real causes aren’t known. And none of them came from the poorest of the poor families. I struggle to draw any conclusions – only that, in the States, any of these deaths would be met with “He was too young to die,” or “That shouldn’t have happened.”

Here in Niger – well, I’m left feeling the same way. All three were well beyond the dangerous first five years of life, which only 2 out of 3 children survive. None should have died. Their deaths should be unacceptable.

That to me may be the biggest hurdle to development in a place like Niger. It’s only when folks get fed up with the way things are that real change can begin to happen. Until that time, we can build clinics and libraries and wells, but real change will stay outside our grasp. In fact, you might even say those elements impede progress by “acting as a pressure valve” as Anne-Claire puts it, keeping life just bearable enough that the risks associated with fundamental change seem too great.

Of course, the behaviors that need to change to alter this course are ours – that is, those of the aid-giving West – rather than those of the masses in the developing world. Until we find a better way to help, aside from lobbing money at countries and carpet bombing the countryside with development projects that we *hope* (a bit fatalistically ourselves, if you think about it) will do good, things aren’t going to get better, and they may even get worse. Will that happen anytime soon?

Shrug. Have patience.