Adventures in Congo, vol. 3

Hello, dear family and friends!

I hope the first two editions of “Adventures in Congo” have left you craving more.  If not, as always, please feel free to write me back and request an “unsubscribe.”  You will then be moved from this list to my Grandpa’s email list, who never fails to forward a good joke.  (Daily.)

It has been a busy two weeks since I last wrote you!  We spent the past two Sundays — Sébastien’s only day off — trekking to the nearby metropolis of Fungurume, a town of nearly 100,000 people.  I mentioned earlier that we live just outside it, yet getting there is quite an ordeal.  To leave the gates of base camp, we have to notify company security, who both times have made a bit of a fuss.  “You mean la cité — the actual town?”  “Why do you want to go there?”  “What do you plan to do there?”  “Do you have an escort?”  Once we assure them it’ll be ok, they write down our names, take our phone number, and finally let us exit through the metal turnstile.

For our first trip, Seb asked one of his staff members who lives in Fungurume to escort us around.  So glad Jean-Pierre agreed!  We got to see the place up close and personal.  We also got some great exercise — 4.17 miles according to Google Earth.  The patch with all the green trees on the left is our base camp, Fungurume sprawls to the east, and the red dots show the path we walked.  (You can click on the image to make it bigger.)

Looking outside the gates of base camp.

A community toilet and shower.  Not sure how many people it serves.  The toilet is basically a hole in the ground, so water retrieved from nearby wells must be boiled before drinking.  (Hey, this is better than what Holly & I saw along the train tracks in India!)

Most local businesses are about this size, and with similar “uplifting” names.

These water tanks are the result of a company social project, and there are many spread around the community now.  You can see that everyone fills up their yellow jugs and carries them home.  It does not look like an easy job, but it’s better than waiting for hours at the one well that had to serve the entire community prior to this.

Getting a Sunday bath.  Sundays are very important to this majority-Christian population.  The Congolese are 50% Catholic, 20% Protestant, 10% Kimbanguism (a form of Christianity which began in the 1920s, adding a Congolese prophet as a fourth member of the trinity), 10% Muslim, and 10% “other.”  But even the mainstream religions here incorporate some degree of old-fashioned animism, an added twist.

Market street!   Unfortunately we couldn’t linger here, as we had many places still to visit on our list.  It went on in both directions as far as we could see.  From what I could tell in passing, most of these shops sell used clothing and plastic goods.  The used clothing is quite funny.  A group of teenage boys passed us, one wearing a t-shirt that said “Geeks Are Hot.”  I asked if I could take their picture, but they wanted money in exchange, so my two escorts shooed me away.  When I told that story to the expat wives the next day, one of them said she once saw a boy wearing a hot pink T-shirt that said “Girls Rule.”  She also saw a child wearing a little league baseball shirt from her hometown team in Douglas, Arizona!  Unicef really gets around.

Nice Sunday clothes and adorable little bundles of baby.

Later, as we were carrying pounds of tomatoes and beans and onions home, we wished we had headgear like this.  Babies learn how to walk with a tiny empty tin can on their heads.  It might be too late for us.

The food market!  Beautiful tomatoes, garlic, spring onions, potatoes, shallots, and dried beans.  I wanted a little bit of everything.  I already had tomatoes at home but these were gorgeous, so I asked for just a couple.  Several confusing minutes later I finally understood that they sold them by the bucket.  Not having the heart to back out of the sale, I took a whole bucket home (well, poor Seb carried them all day, while Jean-Pierre insisted on carrying a whole bucket of beans for me too), where I soon learned how to make homemade pasta sauce.

Having been warned about taking photos without asking first, but unable to speak the language and my escorts busy in a conversation in French, I snapped this one with my arms folded while looking the other way.  I thought it was clandestine; the kids’ expressions seem to indicate otherwise!

The frowns are not very representative, actually — the kids we encountered all day were very friendly.  Everywhere we went, kids came running to see us.  They would shout and point at us, “mzungu, mzungu!”  (It means “a European person” in Swahili.)  We would smile and wave which would make them giggle to no end.  Seb soon started reciprocating their shouts with “mtoto, mtoto!” which means “little kid.”  We must have said “Jambo!” (hello) a hundred times that day, to which they would always answer “Jambo Sana” (hello very much) very properly and then run away, giggling.

It may look like a jail cell, but it’s actually a bakery!  (I did have his permission to take this photo… it’s just that Congolese men typically don’t smile in photos.)  We have since gone back to buy more — this bread is GREAT.  They add sugar or something to it; it’s sweet and delicious.  A little dusty on the outside, maybe, but tasty nonetheless.

A beautiful lady who also agreed to have her picture taken.  I wish I could go back and find her to give her a print.

Une chèvre on a mound of trash.

Notice the power lines in the picture above.  Jean-Pierre estimates that about 50% of the homes in Fungurume actually have power.  His is one of them; he also has a generator and a well in his yard.  He told us that his neighbors have asked if they can tap into his resources, but as it is he can barely provide enough power for one TV.  Here we are inside his home.  The family was home from church, dressed up, and watching a soccer game.

A local hospital.  We have a very modern facility at base camp, thankfully, which is available to all company employees and their families, and they help with area emergencies too.  Once they get a non-eligible person stabilized, however, they have to refer them to the outside system.  A doctor told me the other day (I was only there to pick up more malaria pills) that it’s a place you DON’T want to end up.

The company is building a very nice high school here.  Fungurume is fortunate to have a high rate of literacy and school attendance.  Someone told me that virtually all children in the area attend primary school, though some have to walk several hours a day to do it, and many attend high school as well.  This is much better than the state of education in the country in general.  From Wikipedia:

“Primary school education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is neither compulsory, free nor universal, and many children are not able to go to school because parents were unable to pay the enrollment fees.  Parents are customarily expected to pay teachers’ salaries.  In 1998, the most recent year for which data are available, the gross primary enrollment rate was 50 percent.”

Another open-air market.  A disabled man greeted us very warmly, and everyone turned to look at us, waving us over to come look at their wares.  Jean-Pierre for some reason led us out as quickly as we arrived, saying there was nothing good that day.  It broke my heart not to buy something while we were there.

Taking a break at a local pub.

This home had a satellite dish attracting crowds during the soccer game.

Jean-Pierre showed us around his new business, a hotel he’s building.  He says most of the businesses around town belong to our employees, who make enough money to do something entrepreneurial.  Construction is surprisingly expensive, though — this 11-room building cost him $50,000 so far.

The power line and generator for the place.

We had such a great time that the following Sunday we went back to Fungurume not once but twice.  In the morning, after the usual rigmarole with security, Seb and I walked straight to the food market and straight back, buying even more this time.  We got a huge bucket of tomatoes for 1000 francs, which is about $1.  There’s a wider variety of better quality vegetables, not to mention cheaper, than at the grocery store where the wives shop every Thursday.  We explored a little bit more of the market this time, heading into the back where they sell smoked and dried fish from the rivers nearby.  Pretty disgusting!  We had to get a good luck at them, though.  When the ladies asked if we wanted to buy some, we said “Non, merci,” to which they laughed and shouted at each other something about crazy mzungu being afraid of their fish.  I didn’t take any pictures on this trip, though.  I felt I might have pushed my luck the week before.  Several people had asked for money in exchange for photos, and a couple of guys had shouted at me NOT to take their photo.  (All of this had to be translated for me, of course.)  Jean-Pierre had assured me that it was ok to take pictures — with permission — as long as it wasn’t an official government spot including the national highway, but some friends later insisted to us that it’s completely illegal to take ANY photos in town.  They know of people who’ve had their cameras confiscated by policemen who saw them taking photos of the wrong person/place/thing.

I did, however, snap one of my dusty feet after our trip.  This is what got underneath long pants, shoes and socks.

Later that afternoon we headed back to town, by car this time, with another expat couple to eat at the Indian restaurant in town.  Indian restaurant in Fungurume!  It’s true.  Although it took them 3 hours to feed us (and we were the only ones there), and there might have been a dirty fingerprint in the roti, it was still the most delicious butter chicken I’ve ever had.

The restaurant recently added on a nice balcony.  I love this thatched roof and wood fencing.

We did sneak a couple of photos of the neighbors from the restaurant’s balcony.  It was a Sunday again — bath day and hair day!

Although it had already been a long day with these two trips into town, we jumped in the truck when we got home and ran out to the small village I mentioned in my last email to buy the charcoal and deliver a print of the family photo.  They seemed to remember us and appreciate the photo.  Someone new beat them to the top of the hill, though, and gave us an even cheaper price on the charcoal.  A Congolese friend that I met in Tucson, of all places, tells me it’s called makala, and that he misses the flavor of meat grilled over it, as well as the awesome bananas from this region.  The makala is very very heavy, it turns out — probably 200 pounds.  We’ve seen guys on bicycles hauling two and three bundles of this stuff.

A friendly visit with Coco rounded out a wonderful day.  She never fails to come see me at dusk when I step outside with some food.  About a week after our arrival, she began letting me pet her, allowing a few seconds of it before grabbing the food from my hand and bouncing off into the bamboo to eat it.  Someone has trained her well.  When you approach and say something to her, she rolls over and lifts an arm.  Cute!

For now, adieu!  Until next time.