Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye to the Naughts

...and happiest new year (decade), everyone!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve/Christmas Diaries

Four (4) hours drive across the border and down Rwanda, from Goma to Kigali. Altitude: Varying dramatically through the green mountains of the Rift Valley.

Plastic Santa faces gilding the checkpoint on the DRC side of the border. Plastic – lovingly decorated – Christmas tree visible behind the copper who stamps my passport. But! Stark as always on the Rwanda side. Not a hint of messy holiday joy. Score one point for Goma! (To counter Gisenyi’s ten-thousand-and-five cumulative points.)

Crossing the border opposite us (heading Gisenyi-to-Goma) is a loaded-down white pick-up truck with something loose under the hood. It doesn’t cough – it doesn’t clang – it jingles. I swear to God. Jingles. Like St. Nick’s sleigh.

Kigali Airport.

The flatscreen TV with fuzzy reception in the waiting lounge is showing an Animal Planet special on small sharks. The vinyl gray creatures are being snatched from the sea by wide nets. They are then swooped up and paraded around for us by beautiful, aging men with sun-damaged skin and sunglasses pushed up to the tops of their shaggy dirty-blond hair. The bouncing camera zooms in gleefully on the yellow eye of a hammerhead. Its eye socket is round. Its pupil is over-enlarged and (the poet in me personifies the creature) panicky.

Merry Christmas little hammerhead shark, wherever you may be.

Forty-five (45) minute flight from Kigali (KGL) to Entebbe (EBB), 0212 miles. Altitude unknown.

Seatmate is trying to talk to me, even though I was clearly reading (and now am clearly typing something desperately important). He’s a tourist, eager to bond. ("Ooh yes, we’re in Africa, oh wow. We’re so bloody adventurous.") I snub him. He gets his revenge – his terrible, terrible revenge – by immediately falling asleep and snoring. Loudly. In my ear.

Two (2) hour flight from EBB to Addis Ababa (ADD), 0757 miles. Altitude: 35,000 feet.

Same Seatmate. Still snoring. Bah humbug.

(There’s the possibility that, after he wakes, Seatmate will write his own blog entry about the mean-spirited woman he was forced to share a row with for two entire flights. If he does, well then, what can I say but "Good for him!" and "Cheers!" to self-indulgent rants, his and my own.)

Addis Airport: The Place of Lost and Found Possessions

The first time I was ever in the Addis Airport was in 2005. My friend E & I were dragging our backpacks and our tired bodies towards the gate when a young man came sprinting after us. He was waving a cardboard tube above his head, a familiar tube. Rolled and stuffed in it (we knew) was the huge intricate painting-on-hide of the saga of the Queen of Sheba that E had purchased for a hefty price in Merkato, and which (we didn’t know) she had accidentally set down (to hold up a white scarf) and forgotten (we were so tired) in an airport gift shop. “Stop! Wait!” the young man called. E and her painting were reunited before we realized they’d been parted.

This time, I forgot my favorite fleece jacket on the plane from Entebbe. By the time I noticed it missing, almost an hour and a half had passed and I was heading back through security for my next flight. But! Christmas miracle! After looking a trillion places and questioning a billion people, I approached two lovely security guards. They, through crackly Amharic on a two-way radio, managed to locate someone who found someone who asked someone to check seat 14C on the Kigali-Entebbe-Addis flight. And they found my fleece for me! While we were waiting for the fellow to sprint across the airport with my fleece, the guards and I shared a nice Christmas Eve conversation, talking about lots of things: Evergreen trees, Congo, chimpanzees, feeding hyenas in Harare, and, always fun, the meanings of our names. (Translated to English their names meant, respectively, “Angel” and “Like”. They taught me the Amharic word for “sheep” because Rachel means “sheep” in some long-dead language Hebrew.)

I told them that my mother had bought me the fleece (she had) because mothers, and the need to respect their gifts, cross cultural boundaries.

But the Other Thing about the Addis Airport is This:

Every time I have been here, I have seen handfuls of couples (eight or nine or twelve on this Christmas flight alone), young, flushed, happy – white – couples, clutching their newly adopted Ethiopian babies to their chests. In the airport, you can watch these new families taking their first family photos, the man and the woman giddy, grinning, while the baby sleeps; kissing the baby all over, his tiny fingers, her hot cheeks, his shut eyelids. I have never been one of those people who sees problems with intercultural adoption. A child needing love is a child needing love, period end of sentence. But I do wonder what it must be like to be a person who works in the Addis Airport, be you the graying man serving coffee at the small restaurant – the rotund woman sweeping the linoleum floors – my two friends, Like and Angel, who found me my fleece – security guards, x-ray checkers, flight attendants. What is it like for you to watch, day-by-day, so many tiny children from your community get onto planes to leave your country, the country of their birth, to be raised in a foreign culture? It seems to me your hearts must slowly crack and break, watching this. Mustn’t they? I think mine would.

Six (6) hour and twenty (20) minute flight from ADD to Roma (FCO), 2779 miles. Altitude: 34,000 feet. Boeing 767-300.

It’s past midnight. Merry Christmas. Even when you are tired, like I am right now, it is important to write. Like a teacher once told me, “A writer is the same as a truck driver: both just have to get behind the wheel and drive...” Oh… screw it. I’m going back to sleep.

Ten (10) hours and fifteen (15) minutes from FCO to DC (IAD), 4495 miles. Altitude: 32,000 feet. Boeing 767-300.

It has been Christmas in Rome for four hours. I’ve slept through most of it. In the bathroom mirror, I saw that my cheek has a round red imprint from the drink indentation in the seat-back tray. I’m only awake now because some jackass keeps hitting the attendant call-button like he is an eight-year-old boy playing ding-dong-ditch. Not so silent night here, miles above the fields of France (where shepherds are presumably watching their flocks).

Here it is Christmas, but across the Atlantic, it is still Christmas Eve. This year, as we fly, chased by the sun, I will get to live through a thirty-one hour long Christmas. Ha! Not many other people will get that.

Dulles Airport, 4:51 PM Goma time, Christmas Day

Chai tea. Change of clothes. $15 ten minute manicure. America, it’s good to see you, too.

(“I live in eastern Congo!” I announced, overly loud, to the manicurist before putting my hands on the table – an excuse for the fact that my nails are dirty and bitten to the quick. That is, um, not something I’m proud of saying. But I was embarrassed to show her my nails – she whose canvas I take such terrible care of! And there’s little chance that she would know that there are men in every fruit market in Goma carrying around three-tiered metal baskets resplendent with a rainbow of nail polishes, ready to kneel on lava rock to paint your toes or stand to paint your nails at your first beckoning.)

Dulles Airport. Still and always, now and forever.

Shockingly - shockingly - the one tiny little United Airlines flight I have to take is delayed, by more than twice the length that the flight will actually last. I hate them. I want to embrace my American heritage and sue them. I want to cry. Luckily for me, the woman behind me began crying. She's become the honorary crier for us at this gate. No one else need cry now, because she's taking care of it for us.

Another woman spontaneously came up to me and handed me a People Magazine. "I've already read it," she said. Ah, human kindness. You win my heart back every time. Okay. I don't truly hate anyone. I'm just. So. Tired.

One (1) hour and one (1) minutes (seriously, that’s what’s on the schedule print-out from the travel agency) from IAD to Pittsburgh (PITT), 0194 miles, arriving at God-knows-when, Christmas Day.

Sleep. Sleeeeeeeeeeep.

Still to come: Forty-five (45) minute drive from PITT to my childhood home, hopefully with my parent’s new puppy snuggling in my lap.

I did ask them to bring her, Liesl, to the airport, so I can meet her as soon as possible. But I'm not sure they will.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Plastic Evergreen Trees

I remember watching a CNN report years ago – I don’t know how long – the end of high school, maybe college – about the epidemic of rape in eastern DR Congo. I remember being horrified, hearing about fistula and a war being carried out against my gender, and I very clearly remember thinking, “Well, God, what a nightmare spot. I will never go there.” Ha.

I’m very sheltered in my life here. There is a lot of horror outside of this city. I’ve heard about it. But at the same time, this is a place where people live lives. I’m the same person here as I was in Kitgum, in DC, in Brattleboro, in Basse Santu Su. My neighbors, who have always lived here-just-here, are people. With families. Who are excited about Christmas coming. There are lots of plastic evergreen trees for sale in little shops in town.

New reports often seem to skim over the humanity (the normality) that exists here as they chase the war monster. Maybe it’s not the fault of the news reports – maybe it’s the fault of us, and our interpretations and our prejudices.

Yes, it’s important to talk about the war and it’s crucial to lend assistance to the people who live here – to give back, or, really, to take less. But I think that sometimes we pile all of our fear on one spot in the world, asking it to carry our terrors for us. This allows us to go about our lives thinking “At least I don’t live there,” like children who personify their fears into monsters in closets, beneath beds; like teenagers who enter darkened movie theaters for two hours to scream themselves silly at horror movies. We watch news reports, we thrill at the fear we feel, and then we think good thoughts about ourselves for being so affected by others’ miseries.

Going home for eight days for Christmas – at holiday parties – I’m going to have to have conversations about misperceptions a lot. Or I’m going to have to lie about where I live. I won’t lie often, but I may lie sometimes. I’m not an ambassador, after all. Nobody has chosen me to be their representative. Many of the people I talk to will just hear what they want to hear, anyway, and forget the rest.

I’ll try not to lie. I will really truly try. I’m privileged enough to live here; I know that I should share the wealth by giving stories to people back home.

But I can’t make any promises.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Weekend Before Christmas

I tried my best to amuse myself today, but nothing I tried was working. I went to go visit the government national park services office, but they were shut. One big grocery store was shut and the other didn’t have change, so I couldn’t get small bills and go back to Virunga outdoor market to buy those used hot-pink jeans that I didn’t buy last time but that I’ve been dreaming about ever since. The art shop in the Heal Africa hospital was open, but the compound gate was locked and no one was around to let my driver and me in. So I ended up back at the house, asking the top-boss here if I could take the car out to the airport and sit and watch the planes take off and land. That was a no-go. There is apparently only one car this weekend, and other people may need to use it and I couldn’t take it so far away unless it was a real, true, total necessity.

So instead, D, our top-boss who I rather adore, let me tag along with her to the house of two of her friends, who have a phenomenal garden full of huge pink flowers and small orchids leading down to a small unpolluted swimming spot. And I swam. And I jumped in off the lava rock. And I gained more confidence and I dove. And the waves were big, not too big, but big enough. I was wonderful. I’ve worn shoes every time I’ve swum as a talisman against the snail disease – I don’t really believe it helps, but someone kindly gave me tons of tips as to how to know if is safe to swim, and the “wear shoes” tip was an afterthought but a concrete action, so I clung onto it. I didn’t wear shoes this time. So many Africans were swimming just across the water. And the snail disease is totally treatable as long as you get tested for it. Swimming was SO FUN. Right now at 6 pm I am jealous of my 2 pm self and wish I were back, balancing my toes on the edge of the lava, lifting my arms, and leaping.

*

Yesterday was Saturday, so I went back to the little center to teach a lesson. Because they asked for it last time, this time I told the kids the story of Obama. It was pseudo-successful. The kids are at such different levels of English, of age, of confidence, and there are over thirty of them at any one time. It makes for a difficult class. But they are lovely kids, so eager, and I will keep going back for as long as I am helpful. I like knowing that, in my eyes, they will slowly turn from being a faceless mass of kids to a group of individuals in their own rights – some who are friends and some who are needy, like in all classrooms.

*

Right now it’s turning dark and mosquitoes are buzzing. There are hawks circling one of our avocado trees and a small white pill bottle shining in the moonlight, bouncing on the waves of the lake. The hotel next to us dumps all of their trash into the lake and it gets caught in the little alcove where our house rests. I hate that hotel. (Hotel Linda – NEVER STAY THERE.) I wish there were someone I could call, something I could do to stop them dumping all their trash into our lake (why on Earth don’t they just burn it?!?) but I have no idea who/what. Apparently they have been ordered by the Government to stop a bunch of times, so they’ve bribed the officials and, wipe your hands, the story’s finished!

(Yesterday, as I was being driven to the center, we passed a policeman waving down a truck. The truck didn’t even stop, just braked slightly, and passed 500 Francs out the window to the copper. The copper grinned him on. Wipe your hands, the story’s done. That’s how it goes, here.)

I think there is even toilet waste coming from Hotel Linda. There is brown sludge in our lake. Irresponsible, horrible, wealthy jerks.

*

Overhead there is earthshine on the moon.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Where the earth ends and the sky begins

Saturday morning, and I sit outside with my milk-coffee and my book, watching the lake. Without the rains to wash the sky of dust, you can’t see the mountains on the opposing side, and the lake looks like an ocean. When did this become my life, that I wake up early on the weekend to sit on a veranda overlooking a body of water in central Africa? Really, I don’t know when it happened, how I became this girl. The winds aren’t strong today and the waves lap mildly at the lava rock shores. How can anyone imagine any life other than this? How will I ever be able to return to work in a small fluorescent-lighted office? After this?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dry Season

Last night by 8 pm the sky was pitch black and there wasn't a moon. The stars were hidden by clouds or dust or both. As of right now, it hasn't rained in nearly 40 hours. The dry season is approaching or is maybe already upon us.

Sitting in the living room last night with another colleague, I heard a POP. My colleague and I jumped. It didn't sound like any gunshot I have heard in real life, but it sounded like the way gunshots are often described in novels: like pop-guns, silly and inconsequential-sounding and deadly. After a bit of quiet, I went out to see our guards -- I asked them. Apparently an avacado had falled from a tree and smacked upon their tin roof.

We had a good laugh at my expense.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Goma Glitterati

There are questions about the future of MONUC. Damning reports have come out in the last month from the UN’s own DRC Group of Experts; from Human Rights Watch, who claims MONUC has 1400 civilian deaths on their shoulders from the last eleven months; from the GoDRC, who is worried that the other reports will in turn lead MONUC to interfere further with FARDC.

I’ve felt a little bit of pity whenever I’ve seen MONUC men and women on the street, clutching their guns, in the grocery store, clutching their Christmas chocolates, ever since the first report was leaked a couple of weeks ago.

Not as much pity as for the civilians, though, whose peace they are not keeping.

In MONUC’s defense, how can you be a peacekeeper when there is such unsteady peace? Chess pawns & a lot of questions, that’s what there are here.

Last night I went to the bar DOGA with a handful of colleagues. DOGA is a famous bar amidst the Goma glitterati. It was my first time to go. I was picturing it as more disco-trashy, having heard the stories of the all-night-dancing and the prostitutes. Instead, it is warmer and homier than I expected. With a stone oven for pizza. (And with prostitutes.) With a metal-detecting wand waved over you as you enter and waiters who bring you extra peanuts if you ask really nicely.

I want to make friends with MONUC guys so I can get a ride on one of their helicopters. That probably is not appropriate, though. I want to make friends with the Cessna pilots in the city so I can stow away a hippo-counting mission. I want to get out into the field more and make friends with the women in the villages to join in their dances. Do people dance here, out in the villages? Or has dancing become a casualty of war?

*

Coming home from DOGA last night, we saw police around. Kabila is here in town, somewhere.

Material Goods

I did not pack correctly for Goma. I packed for a warmer clime and I packed for not realizing other people would wash, dry, and iron my laundry for me (something I should have realized). As a result I’ve been stuck in stupid long flowing skirts all week instead of hipper clothes with sharper lines.

Things that I packed that were good: A penguin doll that my aunt knit for me. A small pillow that I’ve slept with since I was born. Penguin posters to decorate my room. My own fluffy white towel (now missing). Three dozen novels. Red close-toed shoes. A 72-ounce bag of Nestle chocolate chips. A palm-sized hammer/knife/saw/scissors contraption. Two containers of freeze-dried strawberries. My Canon Rebel XS camera. With a fish-eye lens extension.

*

There are a lot of questions right now about the future of MONUC.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sunset Over Lake Kivu



Yeah.  It's pretty much like this every night. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sun

If it’s not one thing it’s, truly, another. Now that my internal organs are functioning correctly (Thanks, Cipro!), my external organ, my skin, is burnt beet red. And everyone I complain to at home about this doesn’t give me pity, but tells me how much frost they have on the ground and how much they miss sunshine. Cry me a snow bank.

But this is fun: A circle. When I was sick at work last spring, my boss in the DC office of the INGO I work for gave me cough drops. She gave me handfuls, more than I needed, and so many that I had plenty to stuff into my medicine bag when I was packing for Congo. Today at work, my boss here, at the same INGO only across a huge ocean and many miles of land, was sick at work. So I gave my different boss the same cough drops that were given to me at the different office of the same INGO half a year ago. On a different continent under the same sun.

I love shit like that. Circles and the passage of time and the continuity of stories. Circles, make, me, happy!

Serena Sunday

Yesterday I went on vacation for 8 hours. I came back with a wicked sunburn, an empty wallet, and a full belly. With a couple of friends, I drove across the border into Rwanda in the morning and went to a fancy resort hotel (Serena), the meeting place of a handful of random tourists in ridiculous tricked-out tourist-Hummers, Indian MONUC men in gold aviator glasses and mustaches (I think those are required parts of their uniform along with the blue helmets), Indian businessmen, rich Rwandans, various UN employees and the humanitarian aid crowd (me!).

Rooms at the Serena Hotel apparently run something like $200 a night. They have a $20 buffet lunch complete with salad, a cheese platter, and a dessert table. Getting a lounge chair and a big towel down at the beach costs $6 and is completely worth it, because it means you can leave your stuff lying there while you go swim in Lake Kivu. Instead of murky, suspicious looking water dropping off suddenly from algae-covered cooled-lava shores, there is a beach with real sand, and the water stays the perfect depth of five feet for dozens of yards out into the lake. Gas bubbles – bubbles of something – rise from the underwater sand when you scuff at it with your toes. It is both creepy and cool.

After the sun drained us and the rains began, we fled inside to the bar, where I ordered a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate came in a huge glass beer mug and was perfect.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

School Days

Today, full of Ciprofloxacin and so feeling okay, I went to visit an after-school center for children that is run by a friend of a colleague. Man, the kids were cute. Very smart. They were doing presentations – in French – about what they want to be when they grow up. Journalist – Doctor – CEO – Businesswoman – Pastor – President. They asked me questions – in broken English – about myself and my home. “What are the names of your brothers and sisters?” (They reacted with shock when I said I was an only child.) “Are you a bachelor?” (I explained that men are bachelors and I am a bachelorette.) “What state are you from? Who is the governor there?” (That was embarrassing. I guessed that it was Ed Rendell but said that I wasn’t positive.) The kids then went on to recite the countries of Africa, their capitals, and their presidents (heightening my embarrassment over the “governor of Pennsylvania” question). And then at the end, one teenage girl, who was quickly outgrowing the clothes she was wearing, recited a long segment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech, in English.

When people at home picture people in Eastern Congo, they envision starvation and violence and rape. But there’s a lot of normal beautiful life, here, too.

I’m going back next week to do an English lesson. I asked the kids what they want to learn. “Stories.” “Practice with passive and active voices.” “The conditional tense.” “The story of Obama.” I’m excited to research lesson plans.

*

And right now I am listening to the trumpets playing Taps at the MONUC base two compounds down while the sun spreads orange out over great lake Kivu.

Humph.

I had a 24-hour bug and at about the 20th hour I broke down and I took Cipro. It’s not good to take Cipro – it’s a super-powerful drug. But it kills any infection almost instantaneously. God bless Ciprofloxacin!

Of course it was a Friday that I got sick, so I missed Friday night festivities. Instead I lay in bed all day and night and watched a Pushing Daisies marathon on my computer.

What was I sick from? Who knows? Back when I used to have to boil and zap my own water clean, I sometimes wouldn’t, and then when I got sick, I could guess why. This time it seems totally unfair.

*

Oh my GOD. I just looked up Cirpo (C17H18FN3O3) on Wikipedia. Apparently it "kills bacteria by interfering with the enzymes that cause DNA to rewind after being copied, which stops DNA and protein synthesis." Ew!!! What?!?! Oh my GOD.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Things to be Scared Of

When I lived in Senegambia, I was told that it was very off to eat in public. When I questioned why, I was told it was because witches can put spells on you if they see you ingesting food or water – the spells can enter your body with the nutrients. I believed it – not in the witches, per say, but in the beautiful need to respect the cultural norms of your neighbors.

When I lived in Uganda, I asked if I could eat in public or if I had to be wary of witches. I was sort of stared at about the witches and was told that of course I shouldn’t eat in public because not everyone had food. Just as you wouldn’t show off your long thick luxurious hair to a person undergoing severe chemo, you shouldn’t eat in front of someone who can’t afford enough to sustain himself.

Here, I don’t need to ask. I know that I shouldn’t carry my coffee mug the two blocks from home to the office and sip at it intermittently along the way. It’s not kind.

But I wish I were still blind enough to think it is because of witches.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hello!

I wonder who you are out there who read this? I know approximately how many of you there are, and I have an idea of where in the world you are (you're diverse!); but I don't know who you are, not at all. And I think that many of you don't know me. But I can't be sure.

The interwebs are a strange world.

Today marks six weeks that I have lived here on the shores of Lake Kivu in the easternmost part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in subSaharan Africa. The first three months of moving to a new post are said to be the hardest. If that is true, then today marks a milestone. Over the hump, and easier from now on. Smooth sailing. Downhill coasting. Do you hear that, rebels, armies, governments? My time here is supposed to be breezy now. So please get your shit together.

Last night I had French class from 7 pm until 8 pm. I worked on a proposal until 11:30 pm (sitting out on chairs by the lake with one of my bosses, pouring over drafts and studies on the little glowing rectangle of my laptop while the stars illuminated one by one overhead). This morning I had French class from 7 am until 8 am. My French is much better than it was six weeks ago.

Now it is 9 am and I am back in the office. Happy Wednesday to you all out there!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday, Monday

My hair is getting longer and my French is getting better.

We had a long -- three hour -- coordination meeting tonight. Lots of security updates and stories about rebel movements that mean something but no one, probably not even the rebel leaders, knows exactly what.

Tomorrow morning: Six a.m. running and then eight a.m. meeting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Goma

I’m trying to figure out how to get to Bujumbura for next weekend to visit my friend Janine; but it’s complicated, because we aren’t allowed (by organizational rules) to travel on roads outside of cities after four PM. So no cars, no buses. I’m going to try to see if there are UN flights going, but those are complicated too, because even if there are flights, and even if you can get a ticket, they can bump you at the last second for a MONUC guy if they so decide. But once I get to Bujumbura I can crash in J’s hotel room; I can gossip with her; I can see the city, which is supposed to be beautiful. It would be great if it would work.

Last night just about everyone in the group house went out to dinner together, but nobody thought to invite me. Which very much hurt my feelings and I spent the morning feeling very badly for myself. Luckily for me, my supervisor, P, had invited me to go with her on an outing today, so I didn’t have long to wallow.

First we went to an area of the city with a lot of shops with basins, mattresses, fabrics, hustle, bustle, and real true life – so unlike the neighborhood we live. It was relieving to remember that Goma is a real true dynamic city with comings and goings and people. And then we went to pick up A, and together we drove to an orphanage on the outskirts of town. P had spent months working to procure, and finally procuring, a load of scabies medicine and we went to douse the boys. They were darling young kids. We had to get them to wash all their clothes (the clothes hadn’t been washed in about years) and burn their old mattresses (P also bought them new mattresses). The older, uninfected children did most of the cleaning work while A wiped the medicine on the infected boys. After washing the clothes, we boiled them, the younger boys peering out of the windows of their hovel, calling to ask if their clothes were dried yet, sometimes sprinting by, naked and brown, giggling, trying to grab a tee shirt or pants. An astounding amount of the orphans and abandoned children spoke some English alongside French and Swahili and who knows what else.

And then tonight my housemate R & I went on a long walk through the city, got caught in a torrential downpour, and kept walking. It was great.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Weavings, Grapevines & Ties that Bind

I brushed my hair this morning and then cleaned the brush, pulling the extra strands of hair out of the bristles and letting then go into the wind outside of my door. I wonder how many birds on this continent have built their nests out of my hair? Little kingfisher families with red waves weaved into their homes, my strands cradling their eggs. Me, a part of this African ecosystem!

*

Apparently at last week’s OCHA humanitarian situation meeting, an incident was brought up about three young ex-pat NGO women jogging in the morning when they were held up at gunpoint and the phone of one was stolen. O rumor mill! In high school hallways and in war zones, how you do like to embellish.

*

Fantastic happening of the morning: The mama of my first-ever African family skyped me from Senegal. She sent me a photo of my first ever African sister, Ndeye. Ndeye, whom I loved so much as a little two year old, is now a big five year old. She is as beautiful as ever. Her mama, my wonderful friend M, says she is also as curious and strong-willed as she was as a toddler. And now they have a new baby in their family, Mouhamed. I'll always be grateful to them and wish them the happy, spectacular life they deserve.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Spiral Flight

My friend M, who is getting her PhD in etymology (etiology? Whichever one is the study of bugs) entomology, says that the grasshoppers spend their last minutes on this earth attacking our light bulbs because they “have compound eyes made up of simple ocelli that only sense light and can’t form images. They need parallel lines of light in order to move in a straight path so spotlights and porch lights really confuse them. They go into ‘spiral flight’ mode where they will just fly or jump around in circles and they usually end up hitting the lights or flying directly into them.” M ended her lesson with the scientific conclusion, “Crazy, crazy grasshoppers.”

*

At the start of French class tonight, my teacher asked how I spent my weekend. I told him we celebrated Thanksgiving on Saturday. This led to my attempting to talk about the genocide of the American Indians. In French. Which led to my trying to explain what Reservations are. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to explain what Reservations are in English, but it’s downright impossible. Imagine trying in French. To someone who doesn’t know. He asked if American Indian Reservations were like the Nature Park Reserves here, only with special land for people instead of for the gorillas and the chimpanzees. If we had been speaking English, I wouldn’t have known what to respond. It was an impossible and heartbreaking conversation.

Tomorrow morning we are switching from discussions to studying verbs.

*

One of the lovely girls with whom I go jogging in the mornings was complaining today that the water has been shut off in her house for over a week and she’s been having to carry buckets from the UN office where her boyfriend works so that she can shower and drink.

And my first thought wasn’t pity, but almost, nearly, envy. Which is insane. I know. But it is sometimes easier to live without than to be so constantly reminded about the division of rich from poor and haves from have-nots and which side of the line you fall on. It’s easy to feel good about yourself for roughing it (generations of PCVs have taught us that). Capturing the rainwater running off of your roof and boiling it to drink is easier in a whole lot of ways than turning on a tap and watching clean water pour out, spiral down the drain, while your neighbors are dying of dysentery, cholera, and typhoid.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

First Day of December

My direct supervisor has been away, so I’ve had a desk – her desk – for the last week. Now that she is back, I am back out on the porch. There’s a terrible noise coming from our next door neighbors today. At first we thought it was an out-of-shape generator and were confused, because city power is on. But it’s a paint compressor.  They are spray-painting bits of airplanes (the sides, a wing) in their back yard, next to where the clothes of the pilots are drying.

I want to go up on an airplane and soar above the green glory of this land.

Today I am annoyed because I think that everybody has a desk except for me, everybody has a steady salary except for me, and everybody gets to go into the field to see programs every week except for me. It’s not true, and it’s not fair of me to be frustrated like this, but I don’t care and I am. Mainly about the field.  I want to go back into the field. I get sick to death of Goma, Goma, Goma, traveling from compound to compound to compound.  And not even on motorcycle taxis.

*

Afternoon and I am less grumpy. I went to lunch at the cantina in one of the UN office buildings (UNOPS) with some friends. It was fun. I had boiled and salted banana and potato. Delicious. We had strong French press coffee on a balcony overlooking two MONUC quarters (Indian and South African), an FDLR DDR center, and the lake. Our host told us how this entire neighborhood had been wiped away in a day in 2003 when the volcano exploded, except for the remnants of one brick building which we could see in front of us. What now looks like the first floor of that building was at one time the second floor, fifteen feet high. Our entire world is built upon two meters of hardened lava.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Lunch

Today at lunch, we discussed the different news reports (Group of Experts at the UN say that MONUC exacerbated, not helped, the situation) and rumors (10 billion Rwandan refugees/soldiers/DRC returnees have entered the area... but, um, where?) and scares (CNDP is fragmenting away from FARDC and peace is dissolving) and then we wondered which to believe. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Happy Sunday

Today I love it here. Like everything about this place, my feelings for it happen in stark contrast. Some days I am horribly frustrated, but other days, like today, I’m in awe of the beauty. From where I am sitting right now, I can see a kingfisher flying in place, in one little spot of air above the lake, and it makes me want to cry with love.



Today I am eating well, because we had a post-Thanksgiving pre-Holidays dinner last night here at the house and now I am sitting, typing, looking over the lake, and eating candied sweet potatoes and spicy apple cake.

This morning, I took the car to pick up A at his church and then traveled with him to the hospital where his mother is resting. She just gave birth to A’s baby sister. The tiny infant is 36 hours old, white and smushy, with perfect hands and perfect fingernails the size of forget-me-knot flower petals. She doesn’t have a name yet, so the mama said I could name her. I said “Mary,” like my own mother and my grandmother, and the mama said, “Hmm.” Anyway, it’s on the table.



Before picking A up, I’d gone to Virunga market, a large outdoor market with electronics, veggies, and clothes, and found three little baby outfits, two pink and one blue, for the little girl.



With our driver, I drove A back to his house, which is in a lovely little neighborhood called Himbi. It’s crowded and full of flowering trees of every color. I like it so much better than the neighborhood of our compound and our office, which is empty and ugly. A’s father and baby sisters greeted me and invited me back to visit any time, which was so kind.

Our driver, my friend E, who was also my driver in the field in Kitchanga and Nyanzale, drove me home via the port, because we were near it and he knew I hadn’t yet seen it. It’s small but beautiful, with medium metal boats of every color, several half sunk, and green hills behind it, and of all the places I’ve been in the world, it looks the most like Amalfi or Cinqe Terra.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Orion, Upside Down

After lunch, N, our receptionist, walked the three flights up to my office, and told me that a woman was there to see me – maybe someone I’d studied with – some “Jeanne d’Arc” or something.

I raced down the stairs, two at a time, and there’s Jeanne d’Arc, whom I know from a former life at graduate school, who knows me. Everyone in Goma is a relative stranger to me – and all of a sudden, here’s someone I have seen in other, familiar contexts. Jeanne d’Arc is Congolese and I had tried to e-mail her when I first got here, but she hadn’t responded – I hadn’t even known she’d been in Goma – and then, all of a sudden, on Thanksgiving, here she is, finding me.

Our mutual friend Grace, who is Rwandan, but is living in Pennsylvania at the moment, told Jeanne d’Arc that I was here. So that is how she found me. It was such a wonderful shock.

Moreover – Jeanne d’Arc said that as she’d entered our office compound, telling the guards that she was looking for “Rachel”, they told her that I was learning Swahili. I’m not really learning Swahili – I am only repeating back the small-small phrases that the guards say to me. But in our hundred-person office, the guards know who I am and told a sweet anecdote about me when a stranger asked.

After work, French lessons for an hour, and then one of the women I run with picked me up and drove me to another’s house for Thanksgiving dessert and drinks. (I knew that running would pay off.) We spent four hours there, a group of about seven or eight, sitting around the table, eating Treacle Pie, and talking.

Treacle Pie – like the tea party in Alice in Wonderland. And what is Wonderland but a foreign country and who is Alice but our quintessential sufferer of culture shock?

Above the house we could hear the MONUC helicopters buzzing by, circling again and again. At the end of the month, apparently, they fly to burn off the fuel they didn’t spend, so that in their monthly report, they can list it as spent.

At the end of the evening, as we left to go home, the sky was spilt ink and the stars glimmered through. Orion was hanging upside down to the east. O familiar body in an unknown pose.

**

When we go running, we run in a big loop through our neighborhood of the city, past everyone’s respective compounds. I get picked up last, so I run with company for the first two and a half miles or so and I run the last half-mile alone.

As I was running the final stretch this morning, our cook JB zipped by on his motorcycle, heading to the house. He slowed down, yelled “Courage!” at me, and then kept going unhurriedly – far enough ahead of me for it not to be obvious, but slowly enough that I kept him in my sights and he could look out for me in his rear-view mirrors.

It was sweet, and it kept me running after the point that I usually stop to walk – like there was an invisible thread attaching me to the motorcycle, tugging me along.

(JB)

Mutual Mistrust

Someone (a Congolese friend) told me today that, earlier this year, before Nkunda was arrested, there was a phrase going around about MONUC and other international players in this war – “No Nkunda no job”. Some local people would mutter this when international people passed them in the street, implying that international people wanted Nkunda to stay at large so the war would continue so they (the international people) (we) would stay employed.

Outside this morning it is bright and sunny, but thunder just crashed loudly, and when we ran to the balcony to see the sky, off in the distance it’s black as pitch.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Life in Goma

I had my first French lesson last night at six PM and my second this morning at seven AM. That gave me a thirteen hour respite from French, which is maybe not enough.

But no, actually, my French professor is wonderful. We’ve just talked during both lessons, and I’ve talked to him in French and he’s understood and he’s talked to me in French and I’ve understood. And we’ve talked about fun things. Like the lake. And the deadly snails in the lake. And the rivers which are the biggest rivers in Africa. And the gorillas. Gorillas. Gorillas, gorillas. And how much I want to see gorillas. And how he grew up fifteen kilometers away from gorillas in Virguna. And how Virunga is now more secure, and maybe I can go see the gorillas. And how he’ll call some of his friends to ask them about taking me to see the gorillas and let me know the responses at my next French lesson.

Yeah, okay. French lessons rock. Vive le francais!

**

LATER…

Well, unfortunately, our provincial head has said “No” to me and my plans to see the gorillas. Maybe next month.

**

EVEN LATER…

My officemate A agrees with our provincial head’s assessment that the situation is still too volatile to travel into Virunga Park and see gorillas. I wasn’t complaining to him; I will always abide by security rules and regulations. But at the same time, he could tell that I wasn’t thinking too seriously about it.

After all, living here, it doesn’t feel volatile. It feels normal.

Sure, there was the crazy guy with the hoe, but he was crazy, and singular. And okay, yes, my phone was stolen, but that could have happened anywhere. It happens every day in NYC, in DC. Petty theft and muggings.

We see MONUC Blue Helmets all the time, but that is because our compound sits in between their base-of-work and their bases-of-sleep. So they traverse our road many times a day.

We have guards, but I’ve often had guards. Our guards here are extensive but they aren’t armed. (Even my guard in Kitgum was armed! Although – I’d be shocked to learn that her rifle had bullets in it.) Here, our guards only have radios, which they would use to call MONUC and other mobile units in the event of an attack on our compound. Backup would come quickly – we’re well protected. But not seeing the physicality of weaponry has a soothing effect on your mentality. You forget.

It’s not like we hear gunshots off in the distance. We hear drumming and music and car horns and airplane engines and voices calling and chatting and laughing.

But. A says that people here often discuss the safe places to take their families in case the conflict manifests itself into violence again. If this city suddenly turns dangerous, I’ll be evacuated with my US passport to – where? It depends, I guess – Rwanda, probably.

But my neighbors will stay here.

**

P, one of our guards, asked to take a photo of me with her camera-phone as I was leaving the compound after lunch. This is a great sign that she likes me as a person, and not just as an ex-pat she’s paid to watch over.

It wasn’t a bad photo, either. My hair looks soft and healthy today!

Wow!

I left the US four weeks ago on Monday, and I arrived in Goma four weeks ago today. It doesn’t feel like it has been that long. Time, we have all heard told, flies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tuesday:

Sleep Run Work Work Work Peanut Butter Crackers French Lesson Work Sleep.

Monday, November 23, 2009

How I Live Now

I come home from running and there is the water, freshly boiled and purified, waiting for me.  Cleansing water -- o hated chore!  How glad I am that somebody else does you, now!!!

Even if I feel like kind of a prat that someone else makes my own water for me.  And washes my sheets.  And picks my clothes up off the floor of my room.  And sweeps dead grasshoppers away for me.  Makes my coffee.  Drives me where I want to go.  Guards me as I sleep at night.

It's a weird life, here.  A cross between living in a Jane Austen novel with servants and luxury; and living in a Charles Dickens novel with dirt, trash heaps in the street, and danger and hunger and desire.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jumped into the lake again today!

It was BEAUTIFUL. I wore a life jacket and floated on my back. The tides turned me so I couldn’t see lava; I couldn’t see razor wire; I couldn’t see dead grasshoppers or the rickety ladder or hear people speaking NGO-lingo or French.

All I could see were me, the green mountains of Rwanda, and the sky reflected in the lake.

All I could hear were the waves.



I could wallpaper the White House with all the photos that I've already taken of this lake...

“And so a plague of grasshoppers descended upon (Goma); very grievous were they.”

Seriously. A plague.

With their wings, they’re beating down our doors and windows to come inside to the light to die.



Seriously. No, SERIOUSLY. Our upstairs bathroom is the scene of a terrible buggy holocaust. There must be two-dozen dead grasshoppers on the floor. Reaching the toilet without crushing buggy corpses was a dance.

**

Our guard has me that B has "gotten a call" and that the process to find my phone is "moving forward well". But he said all this in French, so I'm not sure of the specifics. But. But! Ha ha ha! I am hopeful!

(Of course, there's a good chance that I won't be able to afford to buy my phone back from the thieves. But it would be nice to see it at least.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Foodstuff

JB, our cook, has spent the morning chasing grasshoppers around our compound, capturing them, and sticking them into a plastic baggie to fry up later.

I’m okay with spiders. I’m okay with snakes. Frogs are my friends. Rats? No problem here. Bugs? We’re good. Scorpions? Okay! But with all these, the big caveat being: As long as they are alive. I cannot STAND dead things.

JB has been shaking his plastic bag of dying grasshoppers at me all morning. It’s terrifying.


(But at the same time, it’s nice to be teased. As if I belong!)


**

To thank B for all his help navigating the Black Market, I gave him three of the American chocolate chip cookies that I baked last night. I don’t know if he liked them, but I hope so.

**

My RRM housemates cooked a four-course dinner this evening. And then? And then they offered to share. There are some very wonderful perks to communal living.

Liars and Thieves

“J'ai un probleme,” I said to a driver, B, this morning, and then I explained in my halting, broken French about my stolen phone. “D’accord,” I said. “Take me to the Black Market.”

So we went. And I must say, I haven’t yet found my phone, but I do feel way better about the whole thing. I’ve talked to many street boys, several thieves, and a handful of ring leaders. I’ve seen where they work, where they live, and their networks.

I put forty-five dollars in my wallet, twenty dollars in one pocket, and twenty dollars in another. I figured that, if it came down to it, this could help me with bargaining and save me if I got robbed wandering through the rainbow umbrellas of the Black Market. But as it happened, I never got out of the car. Instead of wandering from stand to stand in the small market, B and I drove around the whole city for two hours calling people over to our car windows and chatting with them.

At one point we drove down a road that was more a trash dump than a road, and that led to the lake. Here is this spectacular view of water and distant navy mountains and deep sky, and in front of it, here are these men and boys scavenging in the trash for I-don’t-know-what, smoking something, drugs, I-don’t-know-what. B waved a young man over. The young man took a drag of whatever it was and jogged to our car.

B spoke in Swahili. I drew a sketch of my phone and B wrote down his phone number beneath it, and we handed the paper over to the young drugged man in the trash heap.

In describing the situation, the trash and the drugs, I don’t mean to imply anything. I don’t mean to say that I pity these young men, and at the same time, I’m not glorifying in the fact that the man who stole from me probably spends much of his life scrounging in trash heaps. Clearly, the world is very unfair; we all know this. I don’t really understand this specific context and I don’t mean to pretend that I do. I just am glad to have talked to some people and have met them.

This is my city, after all, for the next six months. I need to know something about it.

The Fagins of Goma were very sympathetic, and promised, for a fee (to be given after the fact), to get my phone back for me, if at all possible.

**

At the very least, I spent the morning having to speak only French to B and to the thieves. It was a good exercise, and much more interesting than a school lesson in French could ever be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday Night

Today, while we were in the car on the way back from a conference, A pointed the Black Market out to me. That’s where the jackass bandits who stole my phone will probably be selling it. A then gave me a lot of tips to think about if I go to the Black Market to look for my phone; the thing is, A is young and he’s kind of a goody-two-shoes. I mean that in the best way. He’s wonderful; but I’m not sure how much he knows about the deep-dark-sordid-underbelly of this conflict city.

On the one hand, being Congolese and living here, presumably he knows much more than me. On the other hand… I want my damn phone back.

**

Today was a Good Day. I’m starting to get real honest work to do. I am so much happier with Work To Do than without Work To Do. I’m slowly less confused about French and by NGO-speak. I’m more relaxed.

Right now there are cookies baking in the oven, more cookies baking in the toaster over, and a 1970s Goldie Hawn comedy (Foul Play) playing on the big TV in our living room. A handful of my housemates and I are sitting around on the bright red couches, with too-strong margaritas in our mismatched glasses and baguette and cheese in our stomachs, giggling at the slapstick.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Damn.

Who said what about bandits not being up and running at 6 am?  That hypothesis has been definitively disproven and my phone has been stolen.  Stupid, stupid me for letting myself be distracted.  Stupid, stupid city for having a dearth of law & order.

I'm not really sure which is worse: Having lost my expensive phone with all my information in it, or feeling so dumb for having taken it with me running in the first place...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This Spot on Earth

I made some toss-away comment today, in the car, about how this long/lat is the worst possible place to have built a city. Forget the rebels and the war. There’s the volcano, the earthquakes, and the poisonous gases beneath the lake. It’s just insane. You can picture Zeus up in his clouds, aiming his lightning bolt, one eye squinted shut for perspective, the other eye focused directly, harshly on Goma.

My supervisor responded that she loves this city. Why? Because they rebuild. Every time, after everything, people rebuild.

But I don’t know. I’m not convinced people rebuild out of love for the city. Maybe it's just simple, horrible necessity; or in the case of rebels and miners, greed. It’s a romantic notion: That people rebuild this city out of love. But the volcano is going to erupt again. And the lake may invert itself. And the tectonic plates beneath this earth’s rough surface will shift, wrecking havoc up here above. People will die. Schools will be destroyed. Health centers will burn beneath hot lava. Goma is anything but sustainable.

And then there’s the war.



And yet. This is the home of over 240 thousand people. It’s their homesweethome. Who deserves to judge that?

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Oh, yes, I'd love to."

Knowing, as I do, absolutely nobody in this entire city (hey, country), I feel a compulsive need to say "yes" to any invitation I am offered.

What, you ask, do I do if a group of girls invites me to go running with them at six a.m.? I'm no runner... but oh yes, compulsively, I gush "I'd love to."

What, you ask, about bandits, since we will be running outside of our compounds with no guards? Oh, no worries. Bandits aren't awake and running at 6 a.m. Nobody reasonable is.

Chez Moi






Saturday, November 14, 2009

I jumped

into the lake this morning. Did two panicked doggy-paddles back to the ladder. And climbed out.


Still. It was kinda lovely. I feel brave now. It's a start.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Colleagues

A week ago today, I was sitting in Mungote IDP camp near Kitchanga, with M. As M and I were wrapping up our interview questions to an informal group who had gathered, we asked if anyone had anything in general to say to us. One woman said that we should just look around us – we saw the situation – it was awful – they had to get out of there – they had to leave – but they didn’t know where was safe to go. M translated this for me and I stared back at him, certainly having absolutely no clue what to respond.

Luckily, I didn’t have to speak, because M did. He spoke seriously in Swahili for a while. And then he stopped, and we stood up to leave. Everyone then shook our hands, and the same woman who had spoken up before squeezed mine and told me and M that we had to come back to visit. Later, in the car, I asked M what on earth he had said.

“I was displaced once myself, and that’s what I told them.” M then told me the same story. During his time at university in Bukavu (in 1996) the town had become unsafe. He, along with fellow students and soldiers (“who were just shooting, randomly, at anything”), had to walk 700 kilometers on foot to an IDP camp that was housed in an old hospital. They had managed an average of 45 kilometers per day. And then for five months, they had lived in the camp (M described it as “doing nothing but eating and sleeping”) before the situation stabilized enough. First M went home to his family, and then, finally, back to complete his studies.

I thought I knew, but I wanted to hear it from him, so I asked M to explain why he had told the displaced persons that story.

“To comfort them,” he responded.

“They were saying that they were unable to understand what was happening to them. But when you have experienced displacement like I have, you know that it is something that can happen to anybody. I don’t know when they will be able to leave, but for me, one day it happened that I got to go home, and now life is continuing. And so, for them, too, the day will come when they can go back to their villages. But in the meantime, I understand how they are feeling.”

And there you go. Case-in-point, why I am glad to work for the organization that I work for: Because I have colleagues like this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Friends & Neighbors

Sitting on my porch/office tonight, I can hear the rhythmic beat of drums in the distance, echoing off the hills. A second ago I was annoyed, thinking I was in DC listening to the Sunday afternoon bizarro drum circle from Meridian/Malcolm X Park. And then I remembered. I have no idea where the drums are coming from, but in this ridiculous nonsense world of high walls and barbed wire that is Goma, they are wonderful to hear. I bet it’s a rocking party. I wish I were there.

**

Yesterday I made a new friend. She is on the RRM team and came into our office to chat with A. She was wearing hot pink pants and I was wearing light pink pants and so we laughed. She told me that she would “give me” French if I would “give her” English, and then she told me, in English, “Welcome home”. This was probably a total mistranslation of something in her head, but regardless, it was lovely, and she said it twice. There is nothing more important to your happiness, your sanity, and your safety than being friends with your neighbors.

The two men who work in the radio room are also my buddies. With them, I can speak French. With everyone else, it flees my brain and I stutter like a child. I speak French easily with the guys in the radio room and they correct me easily when I make mistakes and we tease each other. I value them. They're kind.

Once I have my French under control, it is VITAL that I learn more phrases in Swahili. Some of our guards began trying to teach me last week and have since sort of given up, which is depressing, but I am not a good student.

**

When I lived in Senegambia, I was given the gift of the name Fatima Bintu Chabbeh Dolamina Camara Gaye Kanoteh, Fatim Kanoteh for short. (I love it because “Kanoteh” is a traditional Griot family, and a family of Kanotehs I knew bestowed upon me their name for dancing around like a clown, entertaining them.) In Uganda, I was Abea Rakele Ajok. Abea means beautiful and Ajok means mutant. Beautiful Mutant Rachel. I was given the name Ajok teasingly, and then my friends felt guilty and changed my name to Abea; but I LOVED the combination so I kept them both. (It was also a fantastic icebreaker, as people would laugh incredulously whenever I introduced myself.)

Here, I wonder if they give out names. You can ask for names, but you really shouldn’t. You should earn them. I’m proud of all of mine. I wonder if I’ll get one here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Leonid's Coming!

I am VERY excited for THIS, worried about rain, worried I'm gonna forget it, and hopefully for once that this city loses power.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lucky

Was showering tonight & the electricity cut out. Suddenly it's pitchblackdark and I'm standing beneath a stream of hot water, unable to move. There was nothing to do -- I certainly couldn't get out, I'd have slipped and killed myself. So I stayed. There is something infinitely relaxing about standing beneath hot-hot-hot water in total darkness, feeling it run down your face and through your hair.

It didn't take long for the guards to start the generator up. Familiar buzzing. I shut off the water, climbed out of the tub, toweled off, and thought about what it means to have hot running water, a generator, an indoor toilet, and so much space to myself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Back in the Office

French enters my ears but it doesn’t enter my brain. Like there is a curtain between my ears and my brain that I can’t shove aside. Yesterday morning I woke up with a fever. I think it is on account of the French. I think I am allergic to French. Vraiment.

I am. Absolutely. Not. Allowed. To get sick. I have so. Much. To learn. French. Grants. Budgets. Making friends. There is way. Too much. To do. Fuuuuuck.

**

It never gets tiring watching the little airplanes take off and land over the city. Many do – perhaps two an hour, even. HOW do they stay UP in the AIR?!?! They are so small & so heavy. It’s fascinating. I can see them from my porch/office. (My office is on a porch.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

Thursday morning, and it’s back up the hill to MONUC. They determined that we could make it to Nyanzale, it was secure; and so we headed out.

Flitting little yellow birds raced us up the road.

**

Thursday night, we slept in a DDR center for former children associated with fighting forces and armed groups (CAFFAG).

By Friday my French had all but abandoned me. I could understand words separately, but phrases and the thread of the conversation had become more and more elusive. It was as if I were behind a veil that I couldn’t shove aside to get at the meaning of the conversations surrounding me.

Luckily, I didn’t have to speak orally to communicate with the former child soldiers at the center. Children are so much easier to talk to, so much more aware of intentions, so that words are less important. While N was making phone calls with her office in Bukavu, the two-dozen-or-so boys and I communicated with hand gestures, high fives, and my camera. (I took pictures of them to show them – they took pictures of each other to show me.)

They showed me the rabbits they take care of – someone later told me that when the boys leave the center, they each get two to take with them, as hopeful income generating activities.

We had fun.

**

Friday afternoon we drove back down to Kitchanga and entered an IDP camp. It was awful. There’s no other word. People were trying to make it livable. But the tiny hovels, jammed together, coupled with the mud and rain, made it a mess. M and I stopped to interview a group of parents and children about education.

One woman carried over a stool for me to sit on and a plastic tarp for her neighbors. Several of the women saw my flip flops and shook their heads and worried that my feet were getting muddy.

The children snuck up behind me to touch my hair and snicker and giggle high-octave child giggles.

There is nothing romantic about poverty. There is nothing glorious about filth. There is nothing enlivening about living with nothing. It is only horrific what some people on this earth endure.

There is no great wisdom to be found in lava rock and mud. But the resilience of the human spirit –

The women tied up their hair with head wraps with different knots, at different angles. Some were hospitable. Some showed kindness and charity to me as a guest. Some were angry. Many of them spoke and spoke with expertise about their children, their awful frustrations and their hopes.

M translated the Swahili for me.

**

Eastern Congo has been referred to as the Switzerland of Africa. Obviously, this is not to do with politics, but with scenery. It is so unbelievably beautiful. Drive through the hills and you begin to see why people will fight to hard for this rich, lush land. It looks like the illustrations of Eden in illuminated Bibles.

Saturday morning, on the way to the last village before heading home to Goma, the road was unbelievably bad. Very bad roads are awful to travel on, but unbelievably bad roads are like roller coasters. At multiple points, one of our cars had to attach to the other to toe it out of various mud holes. You laugh hysterically whilst being jerked up and down, even as you realize how crippling the road is to the market economies of the villages that lie along it, and how terrible that is.

It’s like the volcano. Like the lake. So unbelievably beautiful, and so horrible.

Wednesday Afternoon & Evening -- A Scare

Wednesday afternoon. Oh. Where to begin.

M (a Congolese colleague) and I are being driven to a school on the outskirts of Kitchanga for an assessment interview. Our wonderful driver, E, pulls the Land Cruiser over in order to ask a young man strolling by for directions. (He has done this many times before – sometimes the schools can be hard to find within the cluster and clutter of town and IDP camp congestion.) But the young man is clearly not normal in the head; he’s drunk, maybe, or on drugs. He bounds up to the car, utterly ignoring E’s questions, staring at me and giving slurred greetings in French and in English. E begins driving forward, but unfortunately, it’s rained and the road is bad, bumpy and muddy. We can only go slowly. The young man keeps up with the car, yelling God-knows-what, now in Swahili, now grabbing our bumper, now being pulled off by other passers-by.

The school is on the top of a hill of volcanic rock. I walk over to the latrine while M and the headmaster chat. The latrine is unbelievable clean for one that is used by 600+ students a day. The view out over Kitchanga is spectacular.

I take my time, and then climb back up the little ways to the tiny office-shack of the headmaster. (Our driver has turned the LC around and driven a little ways down the road, which I notice, think is odd, and then forget.) The headmaster, M, and I enter the shack, and sit on thin wooden stools in the shadows. M begins the interview; it’s fast and in French, and because it has already been a long day, I lose the thread of the conversation. My mind starts drifting; I start looking at the posters covering the walls. They are awareness-raising posters from different INGOs and UN agencies.

VOTING FRAUD IS A CRIME. SEND GIRL-CHILDREN TO SCHOOL. VIOL: UN CRIME CONTRE L’HUMANITE.

Directly above the headmaster’s desk is a colorful poster with no words, a drawing of a beaten woman, broken water-jug by her side, one arm outstretched, her face twisted in agony, her breasts defined, and blood on her skirts by her crotch. In any other context, what would this poster be? Mild rape porn? Elsewhere on the opposing wall of the office is another wordless poster showing community members carrying this beaten, bloodied woman to the hospital. Clearly, the two posters are meant to be a pair, to show what Must Be Done to Help a Victim. Apart, they are horribly disturbing.

The headmaster is answering M’s questions in a soft-spoken, conscientious way. He seems lovely, thoughtful, caring. He doesn’t seem the type to indulge in rape porn. Suddenly I am terribly, terribly lonely for my friends back home, to discuss things like this with, to understand. And it is at that moment that into the doorway staggers the young man from before.

The young man wasn’t able to follow our car; he’d been blocked by others on the road. But of course he knew where we were going to – we’d stopped to ask him directions. He had not come directly in our tracks – he’d gone somewhere first to grab a heavy metal hoe.

He holds it above his head. He begins yelling things, mainly in Swahili, I think – it sounds to me like “Blah blah blah Muzungo, yadda yadda yadda Muzungo. Laurance Nkunda. Muzungo. Blah blah yadda.” And it is briefly, honestly, truly frightening.

The headmaster stands up and puts his hands out to entreat the young man to leave and SLAM! goes the hoe into the volcanic rock and CRASH! the rock shatters.

The headmaster scurries back into the office. And swings the door shut. SLAM! SLAM! comes the hoe against the door. It’s like some campy low-budget horror flick. We are stuck in the dark in a tiny shack atop a rock-covered hill while some maniac bangs at the door with a heavy metal hoe. My heart begins racing and I take a deep breath.

The young man begins yelling for money. Specifically, he wants 1000 Congolese Francs, which is about 85 American cents. My reaction is instantly No no no, you don’t negotiate with terrorists; but M’s reaction is Yes yes yes, which is probably lucky for us. M pulls out a 500 Franc note, which he hands over to the headmaster. The headmaster calls out, swings open the door, and steps out, the bank note held up.

There is more yelling, and more CRASH! of hoe-against-rock. And then there isn’t. And then the headmaster is in the doorway, and M and I stand up, peer out, and begin making out way to the Land Cruiser.

**

It’s not over.

The car is still a little ways down the road (our driver apparently had noticed nothing). We are halfway to it when the young man shows up again. He has stashed the hoe somewhere. Now he seems almost cheerful.

I walk deliberately to the front seat, open the door, climb in, swing the door shut, lock it, and roll up my window. But in the back seat there is more trouble. The young man manages to shove aside the headmaster, to shove his way in. M and the headmaster shove back at first, but it is no use, and down the young man sits in our car. I kid you not. And we begin driving, him now chattering cheerfully about something or other in Swahili.

I swing around, make eye-contact with M, and widen my eyes. He says to me in English, “Don’t worry. This is under control.” Then he grins, shrugs, and says, “If it’s not, we’ll go to Plan B.” (Of course, this means absolutely nothing.) “Okay,” I say.

It’s so absolutely ludicrous that it is halfway funny.

**

Eventually we come to the headmaster’s house, and he climbs out, straddling and stumbling over the legs of the young man. And then we get back to the field where we first asked the young man for directions, and out he climbs, calling goodbye, and waving. And there is the most terrifying part. It’s not the hoe – it’s the absolute lack of shame, and lack of fear. He climbed into our car. We could have driven to the police station. But of course, we didn’t, as he knew we wouldn’t. He had no shame, and no fear of reprisal.

And there he is now, still, today, living in the middle of men women families these tiny children, needing help, needing to be locked up – and nothing is going to stop him from doing something worse.

**

Wednesday night, we ate dinner in a one room restaurant. It is me, my American colleague N, M, our Congolese colleague J, and a dozen-some men from the RRM teams of other INGOs. The electricity is out and I am warming my hands on the oil lamp on our table. The lights suddenly buzz back on, and the waiter comes up to remove the lamp. The men – all of them – begin yelling at the waiter that I am clearly cold, and he can’t take my lamp away. I hadn’t even known that I’d been noticed. It was a warm feeling in and of itself, and I grinned around the room.

**

As the men from the different teams see each other for the first time and greet each other, it’s a tap right-temple to right-temple, left-temple to left-temple, and then lastly center-forehead to center-forehead. It’s such a beautiful greeting.

Tuesday & Wednesday Morning

Last Tuesday, we hit the road heading North. The tape deck was playing our driver's pick of 1980s hits: Easy Like Sunday Morning, Sometimes Love Ain't Enough, Take the World, Make it a Better Place...

Our Land Cruiser only got stuck in the mud once on Tuesday, but luckily we were in a convoy so the other car clipped a wire onto our back bumper and was able to drag us free.

Tuesday, we visited two schools for assessments, and slept in Kitchanga at a parish. There was a car battery with multiple wires clipped to it sitting inexplicably in the corner of my guestroom. The priests made us lemongrass tea at night and in the morning. I spoke with them in French, and we laughed.

**

Wednesday morning, we checked in with MONUC about the security situation in Nyanzale. MONUC’s base in Kitchanga is atop the tallest of the nearby rolling green hills, and it consists of tanks, tents, hundreds of men, a handful of women, and brightly colored flowers set in neat, pretty rows. The soldiers in this regiment are from South Africa.

It was such a relief to hear English. I love English. French exhausts me.

MONUC says that there is fear that the CNDP is fragmenting off from FARDC, thus signaling a possible end to a recent peace treaty. They told us to check back in the next day.

As we drove down the hill from MONUC, I realized that I had been here in DRC exactly one week.

**

When we stopped at the schools to interview and do our assessments, children would rush up to our car, shouting Muzungo! and MONUC!

Laughing brilliant rolling child mobs, like little storms.

They would gather around me as if they were playing a coordinated sports game and touching my hand was the goal.

What’s it like? You feel awkward and weird and unbelievably privileged to be the brief focus of the bright joy of so many little humans.

It helps me imagine how a basketball net or a maypole may feel, and think I can say with some certainty that, as inanimate objects go, they are pretty lucky.

Where We Were


Goma - Kitchanga - Nyanzale (& villages in between)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ah, the Glories of Shared Housing

Between last night & this morning, three quarters of the cheese wheel that I brought back from the field has gone missing.

***

There is a difference between entering a place the first time and entering it the second, third, and tenth. Coming back from the field and running up the three stories of stairs to the director’s room on the top floor, the office seemed familiar to me. Two weeks ago, entering it for the first time, and it was a completely terrifying & foreign place.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hotel Echo Lima Lima Oscar

Apparently the volcano only glows Slightly Red at 9:30 PM and doesn’t glow Very Red until 11 PM or later so my photo-taking excursion was a bit of a bust and must be rescheduled.

The singing at the church on Sunday was un-freaking-believable. Seriously, it’s the type of stuff that you’d pay millions of dollars to go listen to at a bar or a concert hall in DC. Of course, I’m tone-deaf, so I’m a terrible judge; but this is my uninformed opinion: That it was phenomenal. The following two hours of church after the initial hour of singing were a bit hard to take; but everyone was so kind and welcoming and hugging and kissing that I may go back, if only for the hour of singing.

Tomorrow, I go to the field for four or five days. I should have a lot to write when I get back on Saturday!

***

My security briefing included a description of what happens when armed raiders stop your convoy to steal stuff from you. Their aim is not to physically hurt you, but just to procure material goods; but they want to intimidate you into turning everything over, so apparently it can be scary. For example, sometimes they’ll pull out a machete and slap someone with the flat side, or they’ll point a gun at you. Imagine if this were to happen and you were not prepared at all! Luckily, with the description, you can understand that the intimidation tactics are just that – tactics to scare you – and you can stay calm and composed. Both you and the raiders will want the situation to be done with as soon and painlessly as possible, and so recognizing those mutual objectives can help.

That said, there haven’t been any incidences of this sort in something like 10 months. It’s just good to be prepared.

***

I had my radio & satellite phone training this morning, as well. And that was all in French. And I understood a great deal of it. Pas tout. But a great deal.

(D repeated & repeated until I understood all the procedures, if not every single individual word.)

***

Driving to the tailor’s today (well, being driven), I passed a man in the street whom I KNEW. Not from WORK. I’d seen him at that church; he’d been introduced. That was the BEST FEELING – to see someone in the community and know them, from outside of the office.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Hallowe'en!

Halloween night, driving to the party, and there's the volcano off in the distance. We wouldn't have been able to see it except that, from deep inside, it glows red. Great & terrible beauty --

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Good Day!

Today, I started making friends with the ex-pats I live with. Which is, um, so very, very important to do. We went to this great big market to shop for Halloween Costumes! We were three girls and one boy, so in the end we decided to be Charlie's Angels & Charlie.

None of us could remember what Bosley looked like, so it made more sense to have the boy be Charlie, as he is never seen in the show so we could dress him however. "However" turned out to be in tight women's bell-bottom jeans, a woman's button down shirt, and a woman's suede jacket ($10). Really, it was fun having him try on the clothes in front of the laughing sellers, but also, I think that men in the '70s dressed sort of feminine anyway. And he's carrying a radio, to serve as the intercom from the show.

Buying the crazy high heels shoes and flashy shirts for us girls was insanely funny, too. And exhausting. We spent about three hours navigating the crowded market. And then I had to go to my in-depth security briefing, which actually has gotten put off until tomorrow, but I did have a two-hour contextual briefing. The contextual briefing was so interesting that it actually woke me up after the market, instead of totally wiping me out.

Now there's an hour or two of downtime before leaving for the party. I wonder if there's a couch I can fall asleep on at the party? And then tomorrow AM there's the three-hour-in-Kiswahili church service. And after that my security briefing. And Monday, getting ready for the field. And Tuesday through Saturday, going to the field. I love being busy. I love my life.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Ma Chambre

My bedroom has a very solid door and a deadbolt, and is in the basement, and actually doubles as our compound’s safe room. That is (a) true, and (b) for my father, who has checked this blog 96 times in the last five days, according to my blog-counter. Hi mom & dad!

(Also, to my knowledge, the safe room has never been used, and is not expected to be needed anytime soon. That's why it's a bedroom, now.)

Bits & Pieces

NEW KISWAHILI VOCABULARY:
Hello!: Jambo!
Hello back: Jambo san. (***Spelling to be checked)
Welcome: Karibu
Thanks: Asante
My name is Rachel; my name is not Muzungo/MONUC: Jina langu ni Rachel; Jina langu si Mzungu.
How are you?: Habari yako?
I am well: Habari mzuri!

***

I saw the volcano this morning as I walked to work.

The other volcanoes I’ve seen in my life are Mt. Vesuvius and this one in Iceland, where we got to walk up & around the crater, and the ground was warm & a little bit mushy.

***

I had my initial security briefing yesterday, and will have the in-depth one on Saturday afternoon. Now I know some of the things that I am and I am not allowed to do. For example, I am allowed to go with A to his friends’ tailor shop. I am allowed to go with our lovely cook to explore the fruit&veggie market. And for what it’s worth, I am allowed to go to the 3-hour-long Kiswahili church service.

Best of all, next week I get to go into the field for five days! I can’t wait. I get to go up in Nord-Kivu, NNW of Goma, to Kichanga and then as far north as Nyanzale. This is wonderful news.

***

As I was being driven north in Rwanda, from Kigali up to the border & to Goma, a small bird took flight across the road, smashed into the windshield of our car, tumbled down & up & over the roof, and when I spun around, it had landed on the middle of the pavement and was being driven over by another automobile.

Birds NEVER do that at home. Why did it fly in front of the car???

***

Another person told me that he thinks the reason there are so many walls built in Goma is partially to protect people’s homes against the lava, the next time the volcano erupts – since the lava mainly follows the flow of the streets.

Which serves as a reminder to me that there are always far more factors contributing to a situation than one can be aware of.

(You're so welcome for that moral-of-the-day.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wow-o-wow-o-wow!

Within 52 hours this week, I was in seven cities. Baltimore to DC to Roma to Addis to Entebbe to Kigali to Goma.

Friday at 6 pm, I was told I would fly out of DC on Monday at 9 am.

Yesterday (Wednesday) morning, I was driven up Rwanda through Kisenyi to Goma.

Tonight, with three ex-pat colleagues, we recrossed the border to frequent a Kisenyi bar.

We had to be driven to the Congo-Rwanda border, but once in Rwanda we could walk in the street, even though it was nighttime. It was rather lovely.

(The colleagues I went with are all French speakers, and they periodically switched to English for my sake, but every time they did I attempted to answer in French.)

Really. Getting to cross the Congo-Rwanda border in the twilight, and run free through the streets of Kisenyi, and enjoy a pleasant meal, and then return to a room of my own in a big house on the shore of the spectacular Lake Kivu -- who in the world isn't jealous of me?

Church

My new colleague, A, in the Grants Department, has been the most welcoming to me. It helps, I guess, that we share an office. He is Congolese, and fluent in English, although I attempt French with him and he speaks French slowly, patiently back to me. (My French isn’t a complete disaster, but it’s not great, either.) He likes photography and just got a camera, so we have taken breaks from work to photograph birds, clouds, and mountains from the balcony off our office. He’s been very helpful in explaining some of the quirks of this city to me. (He says that there are walls everywhere, partially because the volcano erupting made rock free, plentiful & accessible to everyone! People build walls because they can.)

A asked me this morning if I am “a believer”, to which I said an emphatic “no”. I’m not religious & I don’t believe in God, as it were. I feel a bit mystified by people who think that the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud, the Whatever, are factual. But. I did sometimes go to Mass when I lived in Kitgum – I lived across a dirt road from a Catholic Church. Not because I believe anything, but because I liked feeling a part of the wider Kitgum community, even a little bit.

I was raised Catholic, and Catholic services are pretty much the same worldwide. Latin doesn’t change. What are the implications of this dissemination of belief? Probably mainly tragic. (You’d have to ask my brilliant academic friend Gwen about that.) But selfishly for me – honestly – it’s kind of nice. In the middle of Lithuania, in the middle of northern Uganda, I can go take part in a ritual just like the rituals of my childhood, and be in my home culture, for a bit.

In Kitgum, before Mass, folks would gather in the church courtyard. I’d mingle, exchanging pleasantries and small talk with the grocers, the tailors, the women I knew from the vegetable market. I’d make new acquaintances. The children I knew from the streets around my office would hang off my arms. One Sunday, Gloria, a toddler, hid behind my skirts shyly when a local woman she didn’t know approached her, and my heart burst with love for her – and with gratitude for her sweet acceptance of me, not as a foreigner, but as a neighbor, an adult she trusted.

I told a lot of this to A, and he invited me to come to his church on Sunday. I reiterated that I really don’t believe in religion, and he said that he didn’t care; it didn’t matter. He then warned me that the service goes on for three hours and is in Kiswahili, of which I speak maybe three words. I responded that probably, then, I would only go once and never go back; he laughed.

I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to go. I won’t have had my initial security briefing until late this afternoon. And if I’m not allowed to go, then that’s fine. I’ll never ignore security mandates; that wouldn’t be fair to my colleagues or my supervisors. But it’s a bit of a relief to imagine seeing more of the city that the big house, the huge office, and the ridiculous Western grocery store.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Goma: The Weirdest Place I Have Ever Been

Constant electricity. Running water. Functional street lamps. Blue helmets walking up and down streets with their rifles out. A super-market with everything -- EVERYTHING -- that I bought at the last minute and packed for myself, thinking I'd never be able to purchase it here. (Things here are paid for with US Dollars.) Spectacular views. Guards following us as we walk the half-a-block to the office. A guard tower at the office. It's so weird.

I don't think I'm going to get to know my neighbors...

Arrived in Goma at noontime.

The drive up from Kigali, and the view out across Lake Kivu – spectacular.  Rwanda is unbelievably picturesque, with muddy streams slicing green hills – waterfalls & hillside-farms – even in the rain, it’s lovely.

(We’re in the 2nd month of the 6-month rainy season – great timing on my part! Ugh.)

It stopped raining just as I got into Goma.  I have two new stamps in my passport (exiting Rwanda, entering Congo) and many, many, many thoughts in my head!

To be honest, I’m COMPLETELY overwhelmed.  The office is HUGE.  The house is HUGE.  The house is right on Lake Kivu.  Freaking hummingbirds* fly out over the lake!  We can swim in it, just not put our heads underwater, because it’s filled with poisonous gases and we may drown.

My new supervisor gave me a tour of the office and introduced me to oh about 50 bazillion of my new colleagues.  So far, I have remembered exactly zero people’s names.

I came out of the house after lunch to walk to the office, and one of the women I work with now was in the garden, crying.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know what was up.  But she is totally my new favorite colleague.  Because eventually I’m going to get so overwhelmed that I start to cry – thank god I saw her doing it first!  That will make me feel far less stupid once I do it.


*UPDATE: Um, apparently, they're Kingfishers. Still awesome, though.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

DC-Roma-Addis-Entebbe-Kigali

I forgot plug converters when I was packing, so I totally had to jury-rig this thing with coils to plug in my computer.  I'm a little scared that I did that.

***

I'm in Kigali.  It's lovely.  Green rolling hills & terra-cotta roofs, like Kampala.  Like ancient Rome.  And here I am, moving to Goma, the modern-day Pompeii!

(I'm so glad I studied the Classics in school.  Time-and-again they prove relevant to my day-to-day life.)

I'm exhausted.  Exhausted-exhausted-exhausted.  I'm here for the night in a lovely guesthouse, & then driving up to Goma tomorrow a.m.

I pulled a Derek Zoolander on the airplanes, staring at my reflection in the little malfunctioning personal videoscreen embedded into the seat in front of mine, and questioning, "Who am I?"  Who am I, & who do I want to be, as an aid worker?  I'm terrified of being the rich-jackass-on-the-hilltop aid worker, but there is the equally real danger of being the "I'm one with the poor!" jackass aid worker (to quote a blogger, who reminded me that just because in Kitgum I periodically drank, cooked with, and bathed in rainwater, I shouldn't think I'm more special than I am.  Which was a valid point.  We the foreigners are not, and never can be, "one with the poor").

After thirty-six hours of plane-flights & angst, I came to the conclusion that I should probably stop thinking about myself so much and just be myself, whatever that entails, and do my job.

***

For most of the sixteen hour flight from DC to Addis (with a stop off in Rome, but we couldn't deplane), I had three seats to myself.  Insanely lucky.  I slept relatively well.  In the last twenty minutes, a guy came up from the back to sit in my row, I assume so he could get off the plane faster once we docked.  He started chatting with me even though I was clearly attempting to read.  He asked what I was doing in Addis, and when I explained that it was just a transfer point, and my final destination was Goma, he responded with excitement, & detailed how his Grandfather, a missionary, had been killed in eastern Congo in the "uprising of the '60s".

That stunted our conversation.

End of Part One.

Start of Part Two.

Greetings from Kigali.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Next Entry to be from Across the Atlantic!

Loadied up my iPod Shuffle with "Flight of the Conchords" & "The Moth" episodes to get me though the next 36 airport/airplane hours.  Also, I've painted my nails with that purple polish, so I can spend the next 36 hours nervously picking it off...

I fly DC-Addis-Kigali.  Funny story -- I actually have no idea how I get from Kigali to Goma, but I guess I'll figure it out.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Au revoir, DC -- jusqu'à la prochaine fois!

There are things that I am planning to do for fun in Goma.

I want to make myself a compass.  My mom & I did this a few times when I was little, with a magnet, a needle, a square of tissue paper and a glass of water.

I want to learn to cook better.  My housemate in Kitgum, Floor, used to make delicious rosemary potatoes and banana bread/cake.  I bought myself spices to bring to Goma, in case I can't buy any there.  Floor sent me simple directions.  (Don't laugh at the simplicity.  I'm a TERRIBLE cook.):
  • Rosemary potatoes is nothing more than washing the potatoes (in the peel) thoroughly, slicing them very thinly, throwing them onto a baking tray and mix them with olive oil (lots of it but not too much), rosemary and salt, and then bake them in the middle of the oven until they're done. You can do it!!!!!
I want to make myself a sun-dial. I've never done this, but I got it into my head a few weeks ago that I want to figure out how they work.  I think it must be pretty easy.  You have to adjust for your location north/south of the equator.  (Goma is one degree south.)  (I've never been below the equator before.) 

UPDATE: My scientist-neighbor has weighed in on this:
  • In Goma it is easy, because you are so near the equator that there is (almost) no need to correct for latitude or season. Put a stick vertically in the ground. At sunrise -- 6 am -- the shadow will point (nearly) west; mark it "6AM". At sunset -- 6 pm -- the shadow will point (nearly) east; mark it "6PM". In between, mark the shadow every hour on the hour. Unfortunately around noon the shadow (pointing south, because you are a little south of the equator) will be very short -- thus hard to read accurately -- because the sun will be almost directly overhead. But then you'll care about accuracy only late in the afternoon, when you'll need to be confident that you'll make it to tea/gin/whatever on time :-)
I hope my new housemates don't think I'm a total geek.

***

I walked to CVS in Colmubia Heights to pick up last-minute necessities (razors, etc) that I may not be able to buy in Goma.  And there on a shelf was purple nail polish.  And I never wear nail polish.  But I wanted it.  Then I saw the purple eyeshadow.  And I never wear makeup, but I wanted that, too.

It's not like I could have gone home, slept on it, and then gone back tomorrow if I decided I still wanted it.  This was literally my last chance to buy ridiculous purple makeup for six months.

So I bought it.

I'm gonna go paint my nails right now.