Congo Bongo

News from Congo (and Tucson)

Before we get started, here’s a quick update on who’s currently where, which will hopefully make my vague references to places like “here” and “there” a little more clear in the post that follows. Hmm, maybe I should preface every post with this little segment… let’s call it “Where in the world are you??”

Where in the world is Seb? He’s in Congo, where he returned a week ago — after a 10-day business trip to Arizona over Thanksgiving, and a week of management classes in Colorado. He was initially told to stay put in the U.S. rather than return to Congo, given the events that shall be discussed below, but he managed to talk the bosses into how “essential” he was. Great job, honey! (The good news is, he’ll be leaving again soon.)

Where in the world is Jen? I’m in Tucson, where I’ve been staying in a corporate apartment for almost six weeks now. Except for a quick trip to Canada, I’ve been in the U.S. since mid-August — mostly at the company’s request, to avoid predicted election violence. (Congo’s election; not, you know, ours. Another chapter in the book of irony, right after the one about hurricanes.*) No word yet on when or if I can return to Congo.

Ok, end of introductory segment. Now on to the real news.

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Dodging Hurricanes

A friend of mine described the election politics happening in Congo right now as “trying to guess the course of a hurricane.” She was speaking metaphorically, of course, having said this several weeks before Hurricane Matthew started churning in the Caribbean. She had no idea those hurricane-force politics — which kept me from returning to Congo as planned, instead keeping me on the ground in Florida with my folks — inadvertently put me directly in the path of an actual hurricane.

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Goodbye, Base Camp

After nearly six years of residence here in base camp, the day we’ve been mentally preparing for has finally arrived. No, I’m not talking about coming home for good, though that possibility always exists — I’m talking about moving thirty minutes down the road to our other residence camp, called Bravo. It’s far less dramatic than leaving Congo, for sure, but for us this shift is still significant.

Seb and I have been hearing the rumors about moving camps for so long now that it was hard to give them much credibility. And once we settled in, it became even harder to envision switching. In fact, we used to say that the day they made us move would be the day we’d say goodbye for good!

Why? Because we fell in love with hilly base camp, with our spacious red-tiled house, with Lucy the monkey just outside, with all the colorful old trees around us and the songs of their winged occupants. We enjoyed the proximity to town for the occasional dinner, or beer, or Sunday morning market run. Seb, especially, enjoyed that he could walk to work and come home for lunch, since his office is also at base camp! Bravo camp seemed comparatively… well, boring. It’s flat, comparatively treeless, and laid out in a grid, populated mostly with long rows of dormitories chock-full of contractors and laborers. It always struck us as a personality-less, army-style “man camp.”

But both camps have been changing. The trees have been growing at Bravo, and the town of Fungurume has been growing at Base.  Continue reading

Ciao!

A quick hello and goodbye here, in the Italian fashion. We’re off tomorrow to ride bikes around Tuscany, putting my recent half-hearted gym training to the test. (Actually, I did all right in the gym… just being hard on myself as usual.)

I’m only halfway through the Congo River posts, but have given you A LOT to read already and can see that more time might be a good thing for both you and me. Besides, I’m almost out of my monthly internet allotment already! Couldn’t finish now even if I tried.

In other news, it was hard to say “ciao” today to my English students. Goodbye, but this time for good. I’ve spent the past five years teaching as a volunteer, and am ready to move on to other things. It’s bittersweet to say goodbye, though. There are a few who aren’t really interested in much besides what gifts they can get from me, but the vast majority are very sweet people who only want to learn. I will miss these guys! They have made my life here in Congo much more complete.

Today we had a little graduation party, as we wrapped up our Michel Thomas series and I passed out certificates for those who managed 60% or better attendance over the past 15 months. (There might have been cookies and a few other little surprises, too, but don’t tell anybody.)

I’d also like to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my mom today! Hope Rudy treats you to a night out on the town; wish I could be there to bake you some cookies. And HAPPY FATHER’S DAY this weekend to Dad, Rudy, Réjean, Ryan, Frédéric, and all you other fabulous dads out there! May you sit around under a tree all day, drinking beer or moonshine or palm wine, while your womenfolk bring you everything you need. (But just that one day, okay? Otherwise that shit will make you lazy.)

Ciao!

Mbandaka: Welcome to the Jungle

After an hour’s flight from Kinshasa that included a breakfast tray of three kinds of stale bread and an equally stale cup of coffee, we landed in Mbandaka, a city that sits on the Equator where the Congo River no longer forms the border between the two Congos but instead sneaks inland a bit into ours. From here, the river continues north for awhile before starting its dramatic arc southwards. (Technically it flows the other way around — beginning in the highlands of DR-Congo and Zambia, semi-circling the country and exiting into the Atlantic Ocean — but I think you know what I mean.) Since it crosses the Equator twice, it’s always in a rainy season somewhere, making it second only to the Amazon in terms of flow rate. It drains into the Atlantic Ocean with so much force that it’s carved out a canyon below the seabed 1,000 meters deep, and fresh water can be found in the ocean 200 kilometers out. (Source: Blood River by Tim Butcher.) Experts say that if the power of this river could be properly harnessed, it could provide electricity for all of sub-Saharan Africa.

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Kinshasa: A City of Surprises

As our trip was about to begin, most of us confessed to harboring a few worries about what could potentially go wrong. Some of us were petrified of snakes, while others (namely, our herpetologist-slash-doctor) were worried about not seeing enough of them. Some of us were afraid of warlords or other madmen; others were afraid of catching a new malady that would come to be named after them. Personally, my number one fear came from my Bradt guidebook: “People new to exotic travel often worry about tropical diseases, but it is accidents that are most likely to carry you off. Road accidents are very common in many parts of the Congos so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours, always wear a seatbelt, and refuse to be driven by anyone who has been drinking.”

We’ve seen our fair share of road accidents already, and we know that drinking and driving is extremely common here. A Congolese mentor once told me that it’s normal for professional bus drivers to be at least a little drunk, and that passengers encourage the driver to drink more because they think the alcohol will make him braver and able to go faster.

So it wasn’t new news to me but still, this passage stuck with me. It turned me into the seatbelt nazi of our trip. But on par with my worries about road transportation, were my worries about air transportation. Continue reading

A Resolution, a Warning, and a Prologue

I’ve been eager to post more photos and stories about our trip down the Congo River ever since I wrote up my general impressions in this first post. But because many of my photos identify the company we traveled with — such as the one conspicuously placed above — I agreed to wait, in order to give them plenty of time to pay back our trip leader for the cash they “borrowed.” (Click the link above if you missed the story.) For awhile we remained on standby, poised to unleash the power of the internet to help trash their business reputation. Then another email would surface, more time would be granted, and we waited.

Here’s what eventually happened. Continue reading

Liberation Day

Nineteen years ago today, Congo experienced its second liberation of the century. The first was in 1960, when it finally obtained independence from Belgium. Democratic elections were held, and Patrice Lumumba declared the winner. But Patrice wasn’t the favorite of Belgium, who still held financial interests in the region, nor the United States, who considered Africa a strategic proxy for the Cold War. So the powers-that-be made sure that Lumumba didn’t stick around long. In his place, they installed someone they considered friendlier to western interests, friendlier to business interests, an eager young up-and-coming general in the army, someone they thought they would have more influence over in the years to come. His name was Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, and he turned out to be one of the worst dictators Africa has ever seen. It’s because of him and his penchant for pocketing the country’s revenues (not to mention the rich donor countries that stubbornly and foolishly continued to send money) that Congo went nowhere but backwards on every possible measure of economic development, and to this day remains one of the poorest countries on the planet – despite being one of the richest in natural resources.

Oops.

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Mother’s Day, Congo-Style

Today, like all days, mothers in households across Congo are quite likely the first to rise. They will wake their children and feed them, probably some tea and a little rice. They will sweep the house and the dirt around it until it’s perfectly striped, like a zen garden. (The better to keep snakes away.) They will wash clothes — by hand in a bucket, using water fetched from a well and carried home — then lay them out to dry on the shrubbery all around their house, or their roofs, just in time to catch the morning sun. Being a Sunday today, they will go to church dressed to the nines, high heels included. But most days, they will visit the local market and buy some beans and vegetables, maybe a protein like fish or caterpillars if they’re lucky, while spending probably no more than 1000 francs ($1) on a day’s meal. They will do all of this while looking beautifully clean and coiffed, balancing babies on backs, and the day’s purchases (or harvests from nearby fields) on heads. British writer George Monbiot said it best: “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Continue reading