Tag Archives: congo

Evacuation

Butterfly at office
I took a picture of this beauty just before the first squad of savanna folks passed by the office. Not much to do with this post, but Order Lepidoptera is well represented in central Congo, to my constant joy.

I’m working on four short blog posts that I’ll roll out over the next few weeks to sort of explain what Anne-Claire and I have been up to, and what has happened to us over the past month. Though there have been some potentially scary moments, we’ve managed to see a few new things and we certainly can’t complain about what we’ve been able to see. The raft of changes was ushered in by our evacuation from Lodja to Goma. For anyone who’s at all familiar with African politics, the fact that we were flown to Goma, the veritable seat of instability on DRC’s eastern border, should strike you as ironic, especially given the relative security and sense of safety that we’ve experienced and I’ve written about since arriving in Lodja. In fact, though, it made sense due to its proximity to Lodja by UN flights, and also because with years of instability, NGOs there have a plan when things go awry.

Flying Goma to Kindu
I’m quickly coming to regard the flights between Lodja and Goma as some of the most stunning I’ve ever been on. We often fly low enough that this is the view for much of both flights, until we hit the Albertine Rift and Lake Kivu in the east.

And that’s just what happened in Lodja last month. It’s a bit of a long story, but basically long-festering tensions between loosely affiliated (for the vast majority of the population) groups, one whose members identify themselves as being from the savanna and another whose members identify themselves as forest people. As so often happens in venial societies that engender self interest, the leadership of each group is highly centralized and manipulative of the supposed conflict for their own ends. The morning of March 25, the strongman of the savanna group, a 20-something enforcer, was shot and killed outside of his house, which happened to be right across the street from where Anne-Claire and I live, and not far from the office – where we were at the time. We had little idea that anything was wrong, until later that afternoon, when groups of young men ran past the office yelling and singing and carrying machetes. Groups of savanna affiliates set fire to houses of forest people, and we saw one man staggering down the road who had been struck three times in the head. He was bleeding a lot, but one of our colleagues saw him being stitched up at the health center a few hours later. The machetes, it seemed, were mostly employed to hack apart bamboo fences and pull them apart for those who didn’t have weapons.

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Another non-sequitor: I found these mandibles while walking around the UN airport in Kindu. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find the corresponding body.

It was unsettling to say the least, but at no time did we feel targeted, or for that matter even acknowledged by the two sides. Still, the leaders of Anne-Claire’s organization prudently organized our evacuation. So after two nights spent on the outskirts of town in a guesthouse run by the Passionists, a UN plane came to the airport and took us first to Kindu and then on to Goma the next day. In all, 86 homes were burned and from what I’ve heard, one other person was killed. We heard maybe a dozen shots throughout the day, coming from single-shot, colonial-era guns or homemade contraptions used for hunting. Our colleagues who have spent time in South Sudan assured us that we were lucky there are so few guns in Lodja. Machetes, they said, are much less efficient weapons. Little consolation, perhaps, to those who were in fact injured, but given the overwhelming emphasis on the community and not the individual, it’s not surprising, nor if you consider the West’s preternatural obsession with statistics, and not individual stories, to paint a picture of, and direct policies regarding, the developing world.

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Nyiragongo fumes in the background, 40 km from Goma. The helmets worn by the taxi man and his passenger are a new safety initiative in Goma – a promising step in the right direction, I think.

I didn’t take any pictures during the one eventful day, and instead just stood in dumbfounded incredulity on the porch of the office, watching with a mix of fear and curiosity. I did make some audio recordings, but I won’t post them here. After the fact the coordinated cheers sound something like I hope to write more when we return to Lodja. Most of the team has since returned, where they’re back at work. Anne-Claire and I are in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, helping out with some of the emergency programming going on here. More on that will come soon as well…

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Palm wine adventures

Just about every week, we have a spry older guy from the forest who comes and sells us palm wine. Usually, we can’t drink the five liters he sells us – not because of the alcohol content, which I figure sits somewhere between Odoul’s and Michelob Ultra. But we share it with people, and it’s so cheap at 300 francs (0.33 USD) a liter.

So we arranged to visit him and see how it was made. The actual process requires a lot of physical labor, but I spent about two hours watching the exciting part. It’s sort of like harvesting maple syrup, only you have to cut the whole tree down.

I took loads of pictures, which I thought might do a better job (with captions) of explaining the process.

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I met “Papa Jean” at his home in the forest. From there we set off down the trail and at one point he and JP – our guard and motorcycle taxi man – launched into an invisible hole in the brush.
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Papa Jean had already cut down and de-branched the tree, and this plastic container secured with palm bark is collecting the sap.
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Here, he’s removed the container and is collecting the “wine” in another receptacle.
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From a 15- to 20-foot palm tree, he collects about 5 liters twice a day, for up to 2 weeks.
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Papa Jean has rigged up a filtration system with palm bark – one reason his palm wine is free of debris and bugs, and a big reason we buy from him.
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The palm sap drips out of the trunk of a fallen tree.
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Twice a day, he uses a razor-sharp machete to open the tree trunk’s pores and keep the sap flowing.
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The sap drips from the spongy trunk.
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We visited three different trees, the wine from which Papa Jean will take the 13 kilometers into Lodja to sell from his bicycle.
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These palm trees grow quickly and produce a massive amount of foliage. We have a few in our yard, and I usually have enough strength to hack off two or three fronds at a time.
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Before tapping the tree, Papa Jean and his helpers hacked off all of the fronds, leaving them to decompose on the forest floor.
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Sap comes bubbling out almost immediately after trimming the wood.
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The wine has a slight carbonation, and cold, it’s quite refreshing.
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The honey bees like it too. The produce some delicious honey and are among the most docile and least aggressive I’ve seen.
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Papa Jean stands in front of his house after the morning collection.
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Women weave these ergonomic baskets and used them to carry extremely heavy loads of pineapples, firewood and just about anything else on long trips from the forest to Lodja and back.
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The view from the road, snaking down into a small river valley and then back up to the plateau on which Lodja sits.

Just another Thursday night in Lodja…

Anne-Claire made this recording Thursday evening on the way home from work. As I’ve said before, I’m constantly amazed at how loud Lodja is, given that there’s no grid electricity and we’re about a thousand miles from a city that anyone in the Western Hemisphere would recognize. Yet, on any given day at any time of the day or night, you’re likely to hear an impromptu parade, a choir practice or an amped-up pastor forcefully unleashing his fervency into a crackly microphone-amp combo. The latter most often happens between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.

At my most cynical, I blame two things: the lack of employment opportunities here in Lodja, and the preponderance of medications available. First, there’s little formal employment here in Lodja beyond agriculture and fish farming. On days when there’s not much of that sort of work to do, you’ll find a lot of men sitting around throughout the day, drinking, napping and apparently saving up energy for a rollicking night. That’s not to say all men are lazy here. However, you’ll never see a woman doing nothing unless she has just given birth, has been hit in the head with a coconut or is gravely ill.

As for the pan-availability of prescription drugs, anyone with the equivalent of a high school diploma can open up a little shop, from which they sell whatever medications they can get their hands on. They might know a little bit about what the medication is intended for, but they often can’t predict the side effects. Imagine giving someone a handful of Sudafed if they’ve got a cold and turning them loose with little advice on dosage. They’ll be spinning like a top in no time, and that seems to be what we hear at night, aided considerably by a solar panel and a car battery to amplify whatever the hell they feel like shouting about.

On a more pleasant note, impromptu singing and dancing also happens on a regular basis, and that can be quite lovely. These women just told Anne-Claire they were “the Methodists” Thursday. It was late, so the video’s not great, but I think it gives you a good idea of the unpredictability of life here.

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.

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.