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.


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!



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



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!


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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 --