Adventures in Congo, vol. 2

Happy Saturday everyone!

Well, we’ve made it through an entire week, and then some.  I’m sure there will be days ahead where I feel homesick, bored, or claustrophobic, but so far am happy to report that we’re having fun and enjoying being here in Congo.

I mention “claustrophobic” because our independent movement is limited to the concession that the company “rents” from the government, a large area but with navigable roads only stretching about 30 miles or so.  Seb has a company truck (which I’m not allowed to drive), but if we want to leave the concession, we have to hire a driver through the company.  Or we can fly on the charter plane on Mondays or Fridays, if there’s room.  Either way, the only place we can really go is Lubumbashi.  From there we can fly somewhere else, but it generally requires going to Johannesburg first.  So, let’s just say that “vacations” away from the concession are going to require more than a weekend, and a lot of planning ahead!

Last Sunday we drove around the concession, where I was happy to discover some villages right outside our camp.  Here’s a tiny one of just a few grass huts.

At the top of the hill that led down to this particular village, we found charcoal and bananas for sale, both of which we happened to need.  (There’s a BBQ grill at home we’re eager to use.)  Here’s the homemade charcoal, with a view of the village behind an apprehensive Seb.

Soon, people emerged from the huts in the village below to see what all the commotion was about.  We waved to them, heard them shouting to each other (I wonder how often “mzungu,” Swahili for white people, stop to buy something here), and were soon greeted by the first person to make it to the top of the hill — the young lady second from left in the photo below.  We told her we wanted to buy the charcoal and a few bananas, and she etched a price in the dusty ground.  Each family member emerged one by one, and each one had a different price.  We negotiated for probably ½ hour; it took awhile to communicate that we didn’t want the entire bunch of bananas, only 8 or so.  Only the young lady spoke a little French, the rest, we think, was Swahili.  (To clarify, Swahili is the most common local language, though it is still a second language for many after their tribal language; French is taught in schools, for those lucky enough to go; and English is only spoken among those with advanced education, usually a university abroad.  Though lots of our cooks and drivers etc. are picking up on English quite quickly, since many of us expats are slow to learn French!)

The family was quite friendly.  Grandma was resolute and all business, but the girls smiled and laughed at our antics.  “Jambo Sante,” I said, mixing up hello and something similar to thank you in Swahili.  “No, Jambo Sana,” they corrected me, laughing.  Seb and Mama tried to negotiate in French, but weren’t getting very far.  Papa emerged last and settled the deal, after Mama shouted at him from the top of the hill.  Pretty sure she said something about thickheaded foreigners in the middle of Congo who couldn’t speak Swahili, causing the girls to erupt in laughter.

The final agreed-upon price was $10.  It’s very silly in retrospect that we thought they meant actual dollars — which is a valid currency to trade elsewhere on the concession, in our defense — but they really wanted francs.  We had only 200 francs (worth 20 cents) with us, which was good enough for the 8 bananas.  Ahhh.  After all that work.  They were happy to line up for this picture, though, and wanted to see it on my digital camera.  We intend to print it for them, and deliver it with enough francs to actually buy the charcoal next time.

These bananas, incidentally, are wonderful.  They’re nothing like the stiff, starchy version back home.  These are ripened on the tree, not on a cargo ship, and are still tasty long after they start getting brown spots.  We have some every day.  (Coco the monkey likes them too.)

A typical savannah view, with those cool flat-top trees.

The rainy season starts soon, when supposedly everything turns green and beautiful.  Can’t wait to see it.

As we were driving around the concession, we came across a guy actually making charcoal.  A lot of trees are being cut down to feed this half-buried smoker.

The geologist on his hill full of copper.  The rocks are green with malachite (a copper oxide mineral), about 3% pure.  The grade of copper back home in Morenci is 0.3%, 10 times lower — yet still profitable.  That’s why we’re here, folks!

I’ve met a lot of great people here, continue to get to know the wives’ club pretty well, and have also made progress with our domestic assistant, Viviane.  She and I can barely communicate as my French is incredibly lame, but we both work on gestures (polite ones) and other methods.  We have settled on afternoons only, 5 days a week, as full days quickly turned into cleaning already clean things.  The family who lived here before us had 2 kids and much more work to do.  (Since then the camp has been declared a no-kid zone.)  When the previous family asked us whether we wanted to keep Viviane, whom they highly recommended, neither of us wanted to see her lose a job.  They said she had been a school teacher nearby, and worked an entire year without pay before she quit and decided to clean houses.  I’m glad she’s here.  I think she does a wonderful job but just needs a little training.  For example, I found her ironing a blouse flat on the board, and showed her that she could iron it much easier if she wrapped it around the tapered end to do one side at a time.  Another time, I found her cleaning the toilets without using the bowl cleaner (you know, the one that squirts up under the ledge) as she was a little confused by the funny shape of the neck.  She seemed pleased to learn these new tricks.  Some of the expats sigh, shake their head, and say, “people here lack common sense.”  I disagree; it’s not common sense when you don’t have an ironing board or a toilet at home.

As you can probably surmise from the photos, most people live in homes without running water or electricity.  They do their laundry in rivers or streams.  It seems that everyone has a cell phone, though, which is interesting.  They charge them at work or other places; Viviane plugs hers into our wall every afternoon.  It may seem like a luxury, but cell phones can be a lifesaver when there’s an emergency.  Many people live a long way away from help.  (FYI, mine is fairly useless here at $4 per minute, but we should have local phones soon.)

As for us and our house, we have quite the luxe life.  Though I have said that we live in Fungurume, we actually live just outside it, in a little “compound” that was built by the company.  This place is quite an oasis.  Not only do we have electricity & clean water that we can drink straight from the tap, and lightning-fast hot water for our showers, but we also have every known modern kitchen appliance, some even nicer than at home.  The house has 20” ceramic tiles throughout, 2 full bathrooms, 2 bedrooms, 3 sliding glass doors to the covered and tiled patio… Check out the key collection!  Every door inside & outside the house has a different lock.  (“Why” is a very good question.)

Some of you have asked what we do for music, TV, entertainment.  All the company homes here have satellite TV.  I’ve been following the US Open on ESPN (tennis is the ONLY sport I like to watch or play, and I use the term “play” loosely), and the news channels here are phenomenal.  CNN, BBC, and my new favorite Al Jazeera are very comprehensive with worldwide coverage.  The house came with a home theater system (6 surround speakers), but we don’t have any DVDs yet.  Not sure our collection from home, on its way in the air crate, will work here, but we’ll try.  We’re using our iPhones to listen to music and podcasts already downloaded.  We do struggle with getting online.  We have internet here, even wi-fi, but it’s pretty weak and slow, at least compared to what we’re used to.  I can email ok, depending on the device and time of day, but surfing the web is pretty difficult, and downloading stuff is out of the question.  But, within walking distance is a social club/bar, really great gym, tennis court, and there’s even a golf course!  Although, uh… it looks like this:

Last night we joined friends for a dinner of imported (and by that I mean hand-carried in luggage) meats and cheeses: cured ham (iberico) and beef (cecina) from Spain, salami and maple glazed ham from Canada, and other delicious treats.  We were an eclectic group of 8 representing the Canary Islands, Cameroon, Congo, Belgium, Holland, Ontario, Quebec, and of course, the good ol’ USA.  Seb and his neighbor from Ontario speak a version of French that the European and African French speakers have trouble following.  (We even found a TV station that hails from Quebec.  Although it’s in French, the channel has French subtitles so people here can understand it!)  So, lucky for me, the majority of the dinner conversation was in English, that good old default language that everybody seems to know.  I was surprised to discover that the Congolese guy sitting next to me, speaking perfect French from Kinshasa, spoke perfect English as well.  I asked him where he learned it, and he told me he went to high school and college in San Diego, and then worked briefly for Sprint in none other than Overland Park, Kansas.  The guy from the Canary Islands got his PhD from the University of Arizona.  This is a small, crazy world we live in!

There’s PLENTY more to write about, but I will have to save some stories for future editions.  I love hearing from you — thanks for all your emails and please keep them coming!!

À la prochaine,