Adventures in Congo, vol. 4

Hello everyone and happy Monday!

Yesterday we took another walking trip into Fungurume to get fresh bread and vegetables at the local market.  It’s becoming kind of our “regular” Sunday morning activity — a little exercise, sun, and cultural adventure.  We went with our friend from the Canary Islands, Sergio, who has a gift for picking up languages.  He’s fluent in Spanish, English, French, German, and is quite good in Swahili and even Sanga, the local local language.  He was able to converse with people along the way (more than our usual “Jambo!”) which made it a little more interesting.  This time we ventured into the non-food section where we bought clothespins, a funnel, and a t-shirt.  Here’s Seb modeling our local fashion find!

Fashions here tend to be loud, and political figures are common.  Here are some examples from a going-away party we attended our first week here.  This is a photo of Joseph Kabila, Congo’s current president, with a statement basically saying “the party’s over.”  I interpret that to mean getting serious about economic and political stabilization… something all Congolese leaders going back to Lumumba have stated but not been able to achieve.

Congo’s flag and map represented here.  RDC is French for République Démocratique du Congo (in English it’s DRC for Democratic Republic of Congo).  “Les Cinq Chantiers” means “the five work sites” and refers to an election promise made by Kabila to work on the five pillars of the economy: roads, education, electricity, housing, and jobs.

Not a “normal” fashion statement here — this is the chief of a local tribe.  He’s a laborer in the mine, but also had something to do with a business deal for the outgoing expat.  So he came to the going-away party not as employee but as chief.  When he arrived in a fancy pickup truck, a bunch of guys raced around the party asking everyone to stand and remain silent as he and his wife, both dressed in white from head to toe, slowly walked from the truck to the head table.

The chief gave a speech, presented the outgoing expat (Rene) with a homemade axe, and then a lot of dancing ensued.  The music was great, and these guys can dance!  Holy cow.  I don’t know exactly where “dirty dancing” originated, but there’s not a lot of difference between the moves here and in a club back home, except for one big one.  Here, men dance with each other, as you can see to the left of Rene in this shot.

Speaking of going-away parties, we’ve attended several since we arrived five and a half weeks ago, and have a lot more coming up.  This past week was kind of sad for us.  The head of international human resources was in town, and every day we found out about another expat who is leaving for good.  The wives’ club is dwindling to about 5 of us.  I’m losing one of my tennis partners, two of my bridge partners, and one of our favorite couples to hang out with.  We’re bummed.

The wives’ club used to be a much healthier size, but earlier this year the company shut down their makeshift school here and stopped allowing kids at base camp, so quite a few families left.  Husbands either transferred to another location or moved to a traveling schedule (8 weeks on, 2 weeks off) and “single” accommodations.  Children under 6 were never allowed here due to having to take malaria pills, but now even older kids cannot be here — we guess for financial as well as safety reasons.  The unofficial word on the street is the company would prefer only single workers, but luckily the mine president’s wife moved here a week after I did, so I think my position is safe here for a little while.

The latest exodus of expats is both good and bad news.  On the positive side, the company is ramping up operations in other parts of the world, and thus need to spread people around.  Another version of the story is that many of these expats have been here for 3 years now, which is when taxes go up and/or people start becoming restless for a change.  It’s a good time to “clean house.”  A more pessimistic viewpoint is that expats are expensive, and the company would prefer to cut them or chase them off whenever they can.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  Negotiations with the Congolese government are STILL in process (every week a resolution is “just a week away”), nobody knows whether to ramp up or clamp down, and the number of expats IS limited by the government.  The aim is to replace expats with locals whenever possible, but enough need to remain to keep the local work culture in line with corporate objectives.

It’s true that over time a lot of expat benefits have been reduced.  We like to joke that one of these days the company is going to shut down the cafeteria and hand out vegetable seeds instead.  “Grow your own food!”  Hey, it’s not too much of a stretch.  They recently cut hot lunches and now serve brown-bag sandwiches that supposedly aren’t very good.  Seb is lucky that he works within walking distance and can come home for lunch.  (Where I make him… a sandwich.)

On the other hand, going-away parties and BBQs every other Saturday night are lavishly catered affairs.  Here’s our Egyptian chef, Hossam, with his assistant posing in front of the American-style BBQ this past Saturday night.  Four weeks ago it was an Indonesian theme, two weeks ago a Mongolian BBQ, and two weeks from now will be Middle Eastern.  Yum!

These meals have all been seriously delicious.  Here’s the amazing dessert spread.

And our home away from home: the bar at the social club.

We were surprised to find out about some of the benefits that the original “project” expats of 3 years ago received.  Reports vary between $30,000 and $50,000, but somewhere in there was the hefty shopping budget each couple received to go outfit their house.  They were sent all-expenses paid to Johannesburg where they went on a shopping spree for appliances, furniture, art, and kitchenware.  The original homes were in Lubumbashi, having since moved here to Fungurume, so we are the lucky recipients of mismatched and damaged furniture a few years later.  Every time a couple leaves, the house left behind is raided for neat trades.  Or sometimes no trade at all; our house was completely void of art, including some nice wall hangings that the previous couple promised would stay here.  Oh well.  We really have very little to complain about; our place is nice and well furnished.  I’m looking forward to my first “real” shopping trip to Lubumbashi next week, where I’ll stock up on décor and art and groceries that we can’t find here.  (On our own dime, of course.)

The original expats also got an intensive 2-week course in safety and security.  They were sent to either London or Johannesburg where professional security teams trained them in self-defense, including kidnapping and mugging scenarios.  They also got a 1-week immersion course in French.  The shopping spree is one thing, but this stuff I’m envious of.  I don’t expect to be sent to London for 2 weeks or anything, but shouldn’t we have received training of some kind before leaving home?  The mine president’s wife who arrived a week after me is in the same boat, so it’s not a status thing.  It’s unfortunately what happens when a new project grows older, it loses steam, and HR loses interest in who they’re sending overseas and how well they’re equipped.

And it’s not like things have become stable around here and security training is no longer needed.  Just before my arrival — in fact our flight was delayed for this reason — the wives had been evacuated to Lubumbashi for the second time in a month.  Artisanal miners (around here they call them “illegals” or “diggers”) were rioting in response to the company’s recent crackdown on their access to the land.  Copper-loaded trucks were set on fire, drivers were badly beaten, and one 14-year old local bystander was killed in random gunfire.  Someone on the scene (not us) took this photo:

While Seb & I were packing up our house in Tucson, wives weren’t allowed back on site for 10 days.  For a while we heard they were considering repatriating all spouses for good and only allowing “mission-critical” employees on site.  Happily — for me, anyway — they let everyone back in and things are back to normal now.  The artisanal miners have all been removed, supposedly.  A month or so later, we found the truck carcasses along our walk into Fungurume.

After mentioning our lack of security training to someone during a tennis game, us new arrivals were invited to an impromptu meeting with a trainer who filled us in on what kinds of hard hats and safety boots and lock-out-tag-out procedures were required while working.  Hmm.  Somehow I don’t think that’s what they talked about in London.  He then asked if we wanted some cultural tips, and proceeded to give us such useful tidbits as:

  • Never be the first to offer a handshake to elders.
  • Always retort when a chief strikes you.
  • Never shit in the river.

The first — why?  The second — what??  The third — well, duh.

Actually, the shit-in-the-river thing (his words, not mine) is real.  According to the on-site doctor, there was a cholera outbreak here during the rainy season of 2008-09, which killed dozens of locals.  The river just outside our base camp was used as a toilet as well as a washing machine, kitchen sink, and I’m sure in many cases drinking water.  Cholera results in nonstop diarrhea, so profuse and watery that patients lie in “cholera beds” which are basically flat beds with a hole and bucket underneath.  The company set up “cholera tents” for those afflicted, and I cannot imagine what that must have been and smelled like.  Without intravenous replacement of food and fluids, people eventually die of dehydration.  During the next dry season, the company got busy digging sewer holes and building outhouses throughout Fungurume, and training people what to do and not to do in the river.  As a result, there was NO cholera outbreak during the rainy season of 2009-10.  The next one is about to start; hopefully the streak of good luck will hold.

Another cultural tip: If you accidentally run over someone or are involved in an automobile accident, don’t stop.  Leave the scene and get as far away as possible.  Local “law enforcement” can be a very scary thing, and foreigners especially are often judged guilty before proven innocent.  Someone at the social club told us this our first week here, and I brushed it off as buzzed exaggeration.  But this little tip was repeated during our “official” training, so I guess it might be true.  This is partly the reason we chose to walk 4 miles throughout Fungurume rather than driving in my last novella.  Another tip we got, from our tour guide himself, is that locals often see company markings on vehicles and purposely try to cause an accident in order to claim damages from the company.  As he offered to drive, however, he also gave us the impression that this kind of practice was on the decline.  The company has a very good track record of not rewarding shenanigans of this kind; it probably only took a few attempts before people figured out they shouldn’t bother.

The good news here is that our air shipment finally arrived last Wednesday!  It took exactly 5 weeks; not too bad.  The only disturbing part was that nearly everything had been opened, and apparently left opened while in transit from Lubumbashi to us on a flatbed truck.  Everything was covered in dirt and dust.


Things could have been much worse, though… we haven’t discovered anything missing!  We’ve heard stories about customs agents and others helping themselves.  Looking at the country’s history, it’s easy to see why.  Mobutu, Congo’s second president and “monarch” for 32 years from 1965 to 1997, is known for inventing a new form of government called “kleptocracy.”  He encouraged everyone to fend for themselves, saying it’s ok to steal as long as it’s only a little.  And he certainly led by example.  Suffice it to say that Congo is now the poorest country on earth, and ranked 171 out of 175 on Transparency International’s corruption ranking.  (Wikipedia says Congo is second poorest while Zimbabwe is first, but Aljazeera last week reported that Congo takes first place now.  Either way it’s not good.)

Ending on a more positive note… a friend asked me to describe daily life and how I’m keeping busy.  It’s surprisingly easy to stay busy!  I play tennis on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, bridge on Friday afternoons, and the ladies have tea every Tuesday and a grocery-shopping trip (30 minutes away, requiring a small bus & driver) every Thursday.  The tea and bridge make me sound older than my 37 years, I’m sure, but they’re a lot of fun!  Bridge is not an easy game to master; apparently Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are big fans.  Every afternoon the maid and now a gardener are here, so I try to stick around the house.  My chores are dishes, laundry, and more cooking than I’ve ever done before (when there isn’t a party or BBQ, that is!).  I read a lot, have developed an unhealthy addiction to Sudoku, and study French on Rosetta Stone.  Right now life feels a little bit like being on a cruise ship.  We’re confined to a small area, and just wander from one social event or buffet to another.

Our cruise ship, however, comes with a monkey!  Coco and Seb have made a special connection… checking each other for lice.

There’s always more to say, but that’s probably more than enough for one email!!  Until next time…

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