Tag Archives: DRC

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 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.