Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Signing Off

And signing on:

The Best of Us & the Power of Social Networking

Years and years ago (although somehow it was really only 23 months ago) I moved to Northern Uganda for a short stretch of time. Before moving there, I read lots of books about Northern Uganda. Many books were Good Books. One of the books was wonderful. Somehow I dug through my busy schedule and found time to write an inane two-sentence review on

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Very informative.
I bought this book (and many others) before moving to Kitgum for four months. This was my favorite; I found this book to be interesting, informative, and unbiased.

Brilliant, right? (Ha.)

Andbutso. A few weeks later, I got a Facebook friend request from a woman, C. She wrote that she looked up my name from that tiny little blurb of a review. She wanted to ask about Northern Uganda. She’d heard about Kitgum on the news or from Invisible Children or something. Who accepts friend requests from strangers on Facebook? Not me! Andbutso for some reason – somewho, somewhy, somewhat – that day I was in a good mood. I accepted. C and I chatted a bit. Not in depth. But I did like her. From then on, sometimes C would write little comments on my Facebook wall. I would write little comments on hers. Why not? Friendships are funny. You should cultivate them wherever they spring up. C is a single mom of two lovely, beautiful boys in a southern US State. I clicked “Like” on the cutest of the photos of her kids. C looked at my photos. Sometimes she would write slightly religious comments beneath them. I’m not a believer, but if somebody looks at a photo of a sunset or a rainbow and says “Praise God” – well, hey, who can’t appreciate that sentiment?

(Story thread jump.  Now I’ve traveled to Congo. I’m living in the East.)

If you have read this web log from the beginning, you’ll be familiar with A, who was my very first friend in Goma. He’s one of those geniuses of language and intercultural competencies. He’s a very young man – just 23, 24 years old. His English, which he learned in a Goma high school, is amazingly strong. When I first arrived, his ability to empathize with me was incredible, despite his never having traveled and my initial complete cluelessness. We hung out. He helped me a lot. We became Facebook friends. A is very religious. He’s very confident and self-assured in his belief. (I’ve seen another colleague take the piss out of him for praying and A has laughed along, never flinching, joyous and fervent in his faith.) Sometimes, if on Facebook I posted a particularly lovely photo of the green-blue-purple waters of the lake, A would write something religious beneath it.

(Story threads merge.)

One day both C and A wrote something vaguely religious on a photo I posted. Sitting in my bedroom next to Lake Kivu in Goma, I clicked the Facebook webpage open and read the comments, and (with my atheist feelings of faux-superiority) rolled my eyes. I thought to myself “Gosh, they should just befriend each other.” I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t have to. They apparently had the same idea.

C and A became Facebook friends. They wrote on each other’s walls. They commented on each other’s photos and links. They asked each other questions about their respective, and very different, lives, and their respective, and very strong, belief systems. They became friends on Skype. They talked every day. One day I walked into the office while they were talking aloud to each other and I heard C’s pretty, lilting voice for the first time. A talked to C’s young boys on Skype. He told them a bit about life in Goma. C learned several phrases in Swahili and talked to A’s brothers and sisters. This is nothing romantic – this is pure friendship. Mutual curiosity, reciprocated respect, shared support: The loveliest things in the world.

They talked about their desires. A talked about how he wanted to go back to his studies. C suggested he come to college in the States. What an opportunity! That’s the dream. C helped him research schools. A filled out applications. C offered a spare bedroom. A wrote her name on sponsorship forms. They chatted. They prayed. They hoped. A got accepted into school, which wasn’t a surprise, but then there was the visa process. Standing on the porch outside of our office, I took photos of A for the US government. He made me take what seemed like hundreds until he was satisfied. And then – just a few weeks ago – as I was back here in the States deep in reverse-culture-shock doldrums, A got accepted for a visa. Bada bing, bada boom. And now all of a sudden he’s in this country, too, living in C’s spare bedroom – meeting her family – meeting his new church community -- buying pens and notebooks – preparing for school.

Life is, our lives are, so funny. Sometimes people are just so wonderful you could die. What I typed above – it’s not a story. It’s a chapter. What happens now? Brilliant A, young A, has never been out of Eastern Congo before, except once, to go to Rwanda, and now he is in University in a southern US State (with all that THAT entails). Lovely C, warm, open C has just welcomed a new brother into her family – why? Why has she done that? Why would someone do that?

With the evidence I have been given, what follows is my best guess as to the “why”:

Because that is what the best human beings do. They befriend and love, and then they support, the rest of us. The best of us, the top people, don’t give assistance out of pity for their neighbors. The best of us don’t write checks to charity because some organization has mugged their emotions with photographs of naked children, flies on their eyelids.

The best of us give assistance because they respect the rest of us. They believe in our abilities. They recognize that we are all tied to each other – there is simply no Me without You – we are joined, we are one, we are in this together.

Oh gosh – the hi-jinx that will result for A and C over the next year. The intercultural miscommunications. Oh! the adventures. Oh! everything that is yet to come. The good that is yet to be born and the crimes that are not yet committed. The future – that wonderful, terrible, joyous, limitless stretch. The beauty, the death, the life, and the love and love and love and love and love and

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Couple Numbers

22 hours (and 49 minutes) till the $10 million proposal I’m consulting lead writing is due.

Then resting, relaxing, writing something more than 2 sentences on here, and trying to figure out what in the hell to pack for Erbil over the following 10 days.

Then Iraq! Whee! For the YEAR!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Rachel in Arbil (or Irbil) (or Erbil)

I can't figure out which is the best way to spell it. But it looks like I'm moving there in a couple of weeks.

Watch out, Professional Paid Aid Worker World. I'm slowly forcing my way in.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

perks of being a consultant

Being a consultant means that maybe, one day out of the week, when the air is heavy and the sun is smacking the pavement over 110 degrees hot before even 10 am, you can work from home for maybe three hours in the morning, another four hours in the evening and at night, and in between then one of your close close friends can call in sick to work and you and she can drive off to the Six Flags water park 17 miles away in Maryland and sit in innertubes that drop down rushing waterslides at 89 degree angles and scream your heads off and laugh.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

This is an Unexpected Development.

Erm. Um. So. I got a phone call unofficially asking if I would be interested in accepting a job in Arbil. This came yesterday morning. It came completely out of the clear blue sky. Just – poof! – my phone rang. Hello? I said.

All of my job searching has revolved around returning to the Great Lakes region.

So. I get this call. I immediately e-mail 50 million close friends begging for advice. Then I stop abruptly and shut down my computer without e-mailing any other friends at all. Hell, there are no guarantees. Shouldn’t concern/excite people unnecessarily.

So since I’m not telling other people, and I’m waiting for work e-mails to come through in regards to my consultancy, I leave the apartment, walk down to the metro, get on a train, switch trains, and ride the long escalators up at Pentagon City mall. I go into clothing shops and pick out the clothes that I think are stylish, although what do I really know anymore, I don’t live here. I try on the short high-waist skirts and the gladiator sandals and the frilly blouses and the smart-cut vests. I stare at myself in the mirror and I cock my head and I try to decide if this outfit, or this one or this one, is the outfit that a woman who might move to Arbil for a year would wear.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DC in the Summer

Guess who is working for the next few weeks as a consultant writing a proposal for an NGO in Eastern Congo? THIS me!

I’m working remotely, of course, but it is so wonderful to still feel connected to life in Goma via the research and reading and writing I’m doing. In the meantime, I’m playing young urban professional, hanging out with dear dear dear friends in the evenings – visiting museums – going to darkened movie theaters – sipping martinis at rooftop bars – shopping for random overly-priced items at Whole Foods – walking everywhere until my feet bleed in my flip-flops but I don't care because I'm able to walk everywhere – and wondering where I will move to next.

Friday, July 16, 2010

If Wishes Were Dollars, I'd Be Rich

I used Skype – how blessed are we to live in the pocket of time-on-Earth that has given us Skype? – to call a friend back in Goma this morning. And then other friends were with her, so I got to talk to a handful of friends. Oh I love them.

But I wish I were there.

Tonight I am driving to DC, a city I love, to sleep on the futon of two old friends whose wedding I missed last year when I was living in Northern Uganda. Tomorrow morning I am going to see two other dear friends whose wedding I missed this spring when I was in Eastern Congo.

I wish I had trillions of dollars and a private jet and the ability to be everywhere at once.

Monday, July 12, 2010


When I was a kid I used to like reading science fiction novels about space-travel. Little communities would climb into a ship and fly for years and end up on an entirely different planet, disconnected – deep into the Wild West(ern sky). The night of my birthday (Saturday), I was looking up at the planets from a horse field next to the Pennsylvania woods. Venus, Mars, and Saturn were all visible – Venus was even visible at dusk, shining small and bright and white through the pink gloaming. It was the same sky – it’s always the same sky – there is only one sky – but the planets were in entirely different places than when I would look up at them in Goma. Like as if I were elsewhere in the universe.

The cultural norms here are different from the norms in Goma. Instead of wearing bright colored cloths people wear costumes of khaki pants and polo shirts. Out at dinner, I have to think and think to remember which angle to rest my salad fork at on my plate so that the servers don’t grab it out from under me, imagining I’m finished. People can talk for hours about the genealogy tests they had done on their dogs, and “Oh,” I say in response. The shadows of chandeliers and fir trees on white-painted walls are gorgeous like carved wooden masks. There are deep woods and moss-covered felled and fallen logs and slippery rocks in trickling streams and trees taller than me twenty times over. There are blasts which are fireworks, not gun shots, and there are gun shots which are people shooting clay pigeons, not aiming at each other. When people ask me about Eastern Congo while I am sitting beneath a chandelier that is reflecting rainbows on intricately pattered wallpaper, and when I respond in a voice tinny to my own ears, it seems to me that I am making up stories, that I am lying – that these two worlds do no overlap, they cannot co-exist – that I never have been anywhere but here.

Space-travelers in the novels I used to read would fly for hours or years to get to their new planets, dependent on the universe created by their author. Me? I was up and down in the sky for 36 hours to get here. Miles above human habitation, I wasn’t quite closer to space than to terra firma, but I was still pretty high. I landed in an entirely different place, where people look different, talk different, dress different, and care about different things. I remind myself of those astronauts in those paperback books. I like imagining that this is a different planet entirely.

It’s not, though, a different planet entirely. On our one singular earth, everything is interconnected. The fiscal and structural architecture of our global society is one formation, and the life that I live here does impact the lives that people live there.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back Home

I had my blood drawn today – which hurt like a witch – to be tested for schistosimiasis. The doctor came into the room flipping through a diagnostic book because he had no idea what it was I was asking to be tested for. That was concerning.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

4th July 2010

Here in the United States on America’s 234th birthday, there are fat robins, manicured lawns, and paved sidewalks. The TV news channel headlines with “Janet Jackson Discusses Oil Spill”. I went to bright, shiny Old Navy and bought a new swimsuit because mine went missing in action three days ago when I was packing and there is a party at the city/country club pool that I am going to attend tonight with my parents and next-door neighbors, with brokers and businessmen and young pregnant wives.

Today, I’m typing this sitting on the kitchen counter of my childhood home with my feet in the sink, my laptop balanced on my lap. This is the only place I can find to grab wifi (with permission) from a neighbor.

Yesterday, I was on an airplane miles and miles and miles above the Atlantic Ocean. The airplane was crammed full of people: There were the teenage missionaries with their braids and bandanas, the hunters who didn’t want to pay $40,000 to kill an elephant so shot a leopard instead, the dozen white American couples clutching their newly adopted Ethiopian babies, and me. The kid next to me was reading a self-help book about leadership on his iPad. I’d never seen an iPad before. The yellowing pages of the book I was reading (about Robin Hood in Sherwood) kept falling out after the binding cracked when I turned a page.

Two days ago, I was also up on airplanes, one of the members of the lucky minority of this world who periodically get to look down on the clouds and chase sunshine across the sky.

Three days ago, I was in Eastern Congo.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Love love love part #2

Yesterday – Thursday – was my last day in Goma – for the time being. As terrible last days and sad goodbyes go, it was pretty lovely.

Morning – I woke up and packed. That was awful. But then my sweet, darling friend C called and we decided to go get coffee. Waiting for C to pick me up, I climbed up into the guard tower and clutched the non-razor sections of the razor wire, looking out over the dusty street. Our guard P was up in the tower listening to music. She took one of the ear buds out of her ear and stuck it into my ear, so we listened to music together. It had a lovely beat with lyrics in Lingala. I pulled out a cigarette and offered one to P. Turns out, she’d never smoked before. So we shared a cigarette, one puff for me and one for you, and the whole time P giggled like a 13 year old sneaking behind the high school. Which made me giggle too. And we felt like young best friends acting silly.

C came and we drove to get coffee, whirling around the round-about with the golden chukudu statue. The golden man riding the golden chukudu was dressed in a basket ball uniform that must have been sewn on him, the colors of the Congo flag, decorated for Independence Day. We laughed at the wonderful sight and took pictures with everyone else.

We ordered Mochas at Nyira and they came with little cookies, and we sat with another friend, M, who told me how jealous she was of me for my unsurety about where my next job will take me and when the pieces will fall into place. She said that if she were me she would go to DC, sleep on her friends’ couches, and volunteer at the zoo. She said she’d watch my Facebook page for updates about playing with pandas and French classes that I could take at local libraries until the time came for me to leave the States again. She said it sounded unsure and perfect and wonderful.

C and I ate lunch together at my home, overlooking the lake, and A joined us. A was my first friend in Goma. I will always owe him a debt for his initial kindness to me when I was friendless and clueless about where I’d landed myself. My experience here would have been totally different and far less vibrant without either C or A.

After lunch, I went to K’s apartment building. K has been on vacation for the last ten days and I missed her terribly. She is one of the most hysterically funny and also one of the most pure, lovely, good people I know. It was three in the afternoon and we went to a fancy hotel and got glasses of white wine and sat by the lake watching the cranes and talked about every single thing in the whole wide world and my stomach muscles hurt from laughing. I’m so lucky to be her friend.

K’s wonderful wonderful partner J picked us up at the hotel in the evening and we went to the grocery store. They bought cheeses and grapes. A small handful of my dear friends came over to their house and we sat and watched crappy TV and ate cheese and grapes until past midnight.

Today – Friday – I woke up early and finished packing. I sobbed on H’s shoulder – sweet, supportive, darling H who I have lived with for the last 8 months – she and I had been living in our group house the longest of anyone. H gave me cookies and magazines for the airplane ride. My funny, kind housemate B made me a mixed tape. K also made me a mixed tape. I cried when I said goodbye to our chef, JB, and he gave me his phone number and made me promise to call. I hugged P goodbye and she started crying. My Cote d’Ivoirian housemate, J, called me by the Swahili name she had given me, which means “Joyous”. I rode the three hours to the Kigali airport with B and V, and V bought me a croissant and a water.

But then they left. And I was alone.

Sitting all alone in the coffee shop at the Kigali airport, crying quietly to myself, I pulled out my computer and opened up Skype. An old friend’s name popped up, a wonderful woman I haven’t talked to in months. I double-clicked on her name. And I began typing to her. I asked for stories about her life in Spain to take my mind off of my loneliness. And she told me about love, love, love. We talked about friend love, lover love, and family love. We talked about how damn DIFFICULT love is. And how impossible it is. But how difficult and impossible it is for everyone in the world – every single person. And so I stopped crying. Because I wasn’t sitting all alone in a coffee shop anymore. I looked around. I was sitting next to an old man who kept having to get up out of his chair to chase down his little granddaughter, who kept running hither and thither. I was sitting next to the waitresses, one of whom rolled her eyes and whispered something to the other, just at that moment, and laughed. I was sitting next to a young biracial couple, two tables down, and next to another woman jiggling a screaming baby on her knee. I was sitting in Rwanda beside my friend in Spain.

I do not make life easy for myself. My heart gets broken all the time. Sometimes somethings that would not hurt someone else very much will hurt me a great deal. But I think that this is okay. It is okay to be sad sometimes. I get sad because I love, I love, I love.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Love Love Love

Thursday before Friday when I Fly

Woke up early & got up out of bed to pack.  That way I will have some time to spend with my dear friends today-my-last-day.

Took a break from packing and lay out on the hammock looking over the lake, puffing on a cigarette.  I'm not a smoker, but I've allowed myself all the cigarrettes that I want this week because starting tomorrow I will be back in the land of $10 cigarettes and won't be able to afford them, anyway.  So there's no worries about it becoming a habit.

A little tiny tiny little lizard crawls up next to me on the hammock, the same light green color as the hammock, with huge eyes, a tiny body, and huge toes.  The songbirds are singing.  The cormorants are fishing.  The kingfishers are winging.  The lake is the pastel green color it is in the mornings.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lock-Down Day #2

We are in lock-down yesterday and today, which means that we aren’t allowed to leave our compound. We’re locked down in it. One may conjecture that this would encourage me to have already begun packing. Ha.

We are in lock-down because this week, today, 30th June, is the 50th anniversary of independence for the State of Congo/Zaire/DRC. There are worries of insecurity but none of my friends thinks the city will be attacked. The more plausible worry is small riots by overly excited citizens.

Yesterday we got a security SMS about a protest going on in front of the Governor’s building. There was a huge lottery advertized all month, the winners to be chosen this week. Apparently the losers were marching, chanting in anger. We snorted at the ridiculousness of gambling, losing, and then protesting your loss. But a Congolese friend told us that, while the government had all month promised that 1000 tickets would be winners, they actually stopped drawing numbers after the 440th. So people were legitimately upset.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

First Day in Lock-Down

Goodbyes are starting. I do not like goodbyes. One of my friends came to say “See ya later” today. We sat by the lake and talked. Then she left. I started to cry, so to feel better, I curled up in bed with two housemates and we watched reruns of Top Chef on a laptop.

The problem with this job is that when your contract ends, you not only lose your work and your office and your desk and your colleagues. You also lose your bedroom and your housemates and your friends and the city you’ve been living in and your daily rituals.

I like excitement. I like some measure of uncertainty. I don’t want any other career. But it’s not easy.

One day I will actually have a salary and so when my contracts end, I will be able to afford a trip to Zanzibar or to Petra or to Thailand to relax, to bookend assignments. Until then, I will be grateful for what I do have. Which is a lot.

It’s good to be sad about losing things, because it means that you have things to lose – and to remember when they are gone.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Played poker Saturday night, tag team with a friend. We lost all twenty bucks, but then when the World Cup game went into overtime, we bought back in. It was good we did – at the end of the night we ended up even. The joy of winning (or at least not losing) money mitigated the pain of the USA defeat at the (quick and nimble) feet of the Ghanaians. The inky lake stretched out beneath the porch and the water lapped at the lava rocks.

Spent Sunday lounging around the beach in Gisenyi with friends.

Tomorrow we go into lock-down and I will have to start packing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Ready for some initials? Here we go: My friends C and H and I went to dinner last night at IndBatt1 (a large MONUC compound) where my friend S lives and works with his friends R and P.

I met S here – I mean, here on the internet – before I met him here in Goma. He’s been a wonderful supportive friend, leaving me nice blog comments all the time, and then inviting me to dinner. It was a lovely dinner. The six of us sat in a circle on a wooden dock on the lake. A gentleman served us white wine (any drink we wanted, actually, and we chose white wine) and delicious cheesy hors d’oeurves. Kivu was flat as glass, black like ink, and the moon was bright. S and R and P told us about their homes in India, about their travels through North Kivu, about their jobs, about their daily routines.

They told us how they used to swim in the lake until they saw a lake cobra slithering along the surface one afternoon. Sceptical? So was I. Then they showed us a picture of the lake cobra. Yes. That’s a cobra all right. C screamed at the photograph.

S showed us pictures of the north of India, where the land is elevated and dry as the desert and gray as the moon. He showed us photos of his adorable dark-eyed son back home.

We talked about security. Nobody at all thinks that any proverbial shit will hit spinning fans on the 30th, which is a relief to hear over and over, again and again. We compared curfews and talked about hippopotamuses and lions and communal living and life far from home.

There are so many of us living in Goma. There are the Congolese who come to Goma from other areas of the country because it is a city of opportunities. There are the Lebanese and other businessmen who move to Goma because you can make money here. There are the wealthy from other provinces who travel to Goma to vacation on the lake. There are the MONUC soldiers who are sent to Goma for their careers. There are the aid workers who sign up for Goma because they want to put EASTERN CONGO on their resumes. And last and sometimes viewed as least, but not least, God, never least, there are the men, women, youth, boys, girls, and babies who were born to inherit this city because their ancestors settled it and built and rebuilt it, defiantly, in the face of earthquakes and wars and volcanoes. Who will still be here when the rest of us ridiculous transients leave.

All of us live in our defined groups beneath our little labels. We live in funny non-concentric circles, our lives overlapping in weird and wonderful places like Venn diagrams but rarely blending, only touching.

But the luckiest of us are invited to partake in the experiences of the others.

Thanks to S for the wonderful dinner and insight into how he lives here. Thanks to A for letting me meet and befriend his family. Thanks for JB and J for the hospitality and opening the doors of their homes. Thanks to C for letting me volunteer at his school. Thanks to N for opening his office. Thanks to etc etc etc. I’ve been lucky.

How to Break into "The Business"

This is the career advice people have given me recently:

  1. Do ANYTHING to stay in Eastern Congo right now – even taking a very low paid position. You know this context. And being in “the field”, especially in a singular place, for a protracted period of time, will look great on your resume. Don’t get stuck at home.
  2. Do NOT take another low paid or volunteer position. Go home. Stay and hold out for something great, something that will look better on your resume.
  3. Go to an English speaking country – even if you don’t know the context. Get a job there and become really adept at it, and then, with confidence and resume built up, you can come back to a French speaking country.
  4. Learn even more French. Become a fluent writer in French. Nothing will be better for your resume.
  5. Stay with the organization you are with now. Institutional knowledge etc. Resume.
  6. Get experience with a UN agency. Build a well-rounded resume. Here’s an easy way into the biz – become a UNV.
  7. Do anything you want, but do NOT be a UNV. You’ll get burnt out and you’ll never actually get hired because everyone will still view you as a “volunteer”.

I mean, good heavens! Damn!

Next question: What do me myself I want?

      A.  I want to stay here.
      B.  AND and and and I want to stay with this organization.

Deep down I’m a homebody who craves consistency.

I might be able to work out one or the other of those things, if I keep pestering people – but I can’t get both.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Science is Fun!

On the LEFT: Rose hip tea made with steaming hot bottled water.

On the RIGHT: Rose hip tea made with boiled Goma tap water.


Monday, June 21, 2010

what we talk about when we talk about love

You wake up yesterday morning – late, because it is Sunday – and you roll yourself out of bed. Slip beneath the mosquito netting into the pink light of the day. You pull on socks and tennies, not the 500 franc flip-flops your feet are used to wearing. A baseball cap. Shorts – shorts! A ratty gray tee-shirt that says PITTSBURGH – City of 446 Bridges. You walk out onto the crackly gravel of the driveway and find a chauffeur.

Fifteen minutes later you pull up to the local tennis courts – brown clay, dusty, beneath the brilliant sun of the dry season. Beside a water source swarming with small children clutching jerry cans. The tennis pro grins and greets you in French and you respond easily, in French, and he loans you his light, tightly strung pink racket. Beneath the brilliant hot sun, dust clings to sweat turning your skin red. You smash the ball into the net, over the ratty fence, and sometimes, once in a while, into the opposing court. You beat one of your dear good friends in THREE GAMES. Three games! Three whole games are yours, yours, yours, you WIN them. It doesn’t matter that those three games are out of a total of thirteen. You scream with glee and gloat and run to the net to laugh.


Nighttime Recipe: Tired tired tired from a long week, open your bedroom door. SKITTER SKITTER SKATTER! There goes a tiny black crab skirting sideways across your floor. Rush upstairs to breathlessly tell your housemates. Swing around and run back down to your bedroom clutching a broom. Sweep the silly little guy into your orange plastic trashcan. In the soft breezes beneath the stars, carry him to freedom by the lake, gently over turning the basin. Bang on the basin – it’s for his own damn benefit! – when he won’t unpinch his tiny claws. Watch him skuttle away and feel GOOD about saving his life, about your contribution to the life force, about one more small soul still attached to its earthly body because of YOU. Return to your room. Brush teeth. Brush hair. Pull on PJs. Pull down mosquito netting. Switch off light. Crawl deep beneath crisp clean sheets. Clutch your stuffed penguin. Shut your eyes and breathe deep and GURGLE GURGLE BURBLE SCRATCH!

Snap open your eyes.

Kneel on your bed. Fumble for your flashlight. Swing the light across the floor. See a tiny black claw sticking out from beneath your blue pumps.



Two of your dear wonderful friends are in Zanzibar. Barring security crises which are very unlikely to come to pass, and barring delayed flights which are much more likely, they will be home in Goma three days before you leave. They have promised – PROMISED! – to bring you a shell.

Spirals of shells can be distilled into beautifully pure mathematical formulas. Your recognition of that is the closest you come to believing in religion, and it’s enough.


Today the waters of Lake Kivu, filled with crabs and shells and the bones of murdered beloved people and fish and methane gases and white capped waves, are brilliant bright blue, like Renaissance paintings of heaven in the sky.


Have you seen the movie “The Stepford Wives”? Friends who live in Gisenyi tell stories of midnight police visits – knock knock knocks on their doors. “You don’t have enough flowers in your garden,” the police will say, or “Excuse me. Your gate is 13 centimeters higher than regulation.” Yeah. Just like that.

Homes and small businesses that are built too close to the road, according to the “regulations”, get a bid red X spray painted on them and get smashed in with sledgehammers.

In the last few months the mayor of Goma has undertaken a similar campaign. In a province where the average daily income is well under a buck, shacks where people scrape by meager livings, support their families by selling cigarettes and flip-flops, have been broken into and destroyed – for what? For the aesthetic improvement of not having them roadside.

A man I know, N – a lovely guy with a wife and kids and an okay job (not quite what he wants to do in life, but hey, a job) – got a frantic phone call at work last month. The mayor and his team of army men were at N’s house banging down the gate. Heart in throat, N sprinted out of work and flagged down the first boda-boda he saw. Clinging to the back of the motorcycle he urged the driver to go faster and faster over the lava flow roads but even so – when he got home, his house, his home was all but demolished. The army men had looted it. N grabbed what possessions were left and hid them in the homes of his neighbors.

N’s home wasn’t too close to the road. He has all the evidence to prove that, and he brought that evidence to the mayor. “Whoops! My bad,” said the mayor. N has taken his evidence to the courts, and the judge will rule in N’s favor – he will have to. But even when N wins – nothing, nothing at all is likely to happen. No compensation, nothing. He had a home and possessions. Now he doesn’t. He’ll scrape together what he can and he and his family, together, they’ll rebuild.


Yesterday, Sunday, I took advantage of the hospitality of one of my colleagues, F, and went to his home to meet his wife and children, to eat chips and fried bananas, to drink a beer and watch the World Cup on his flat screen TV (except when the kids batted their huge eyelashes at their daddy and he let them change the channel to cartoons, “Just for ten minutes, though, kids,” because he’s a pushover and loves them so). In Goma, city of devastating poverty and ghastly riches, F is one of the few members of the solidly middle class.

But. But but but. 2002. F had met a lovely woman at University – a freshman when he was a senior. He had waited four years for her to finish her studies. He had finally felt free to propose. She said “Yes”. Both sets of parents agreed. Dowries were collected. And two weeks, no more than two weeks before the wedding date there was a trembling underfoot, deep in the ground. Nyiragongo. Lava spewed up and took everything. Not their lives, and not the clothes on their backs, but absolutely everything else. Possessions, money, their homes. The banks burned down. They fled deep into Rwanda and slept outside beneath the stars. Overnight, they went from excited youths planning their wedding to homeless people living day-to-day.

But then. Slowly, slowly. Somehow, somehow. Where does that type of strength come from? From necessity and with hope and through love. They rebuilt.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

But You Can't Trace Time

This week four of my dear lovely friends left for vacation. They won’t be back in Goma sweet Goma until after I’m gone for good. / This includes my closest friend here and her kind quirky partner. I have basically been living on their couch for the past two weeks because they are lovely dear humans, because I am clingy by nature, and because they have a Play Station with games like SPIDERMAN and DANCING WITH THE STARS. / Oh how I’m bad at goodbyes.


Here in Goma, every Friday and Saturday night under the dark starry Eastern Congo sky there are house parties with Primus beer and dancing, with music blasting and blaring. Last night was Friday but I was too sad about having to leave Goma for good in only two weeks. At the party, the loud music and moving bodies on the dance floor overwhelmed me. I fled inside, helping to blow up pink balloons, hiding from the crowds. It was because I was inside that I was the first to see N all dripping blood.

N was standing there, all dripping blood, and she called my name. I rushed over and helped her sit down on the step between the hallway and the kitchen, grabbed kitchen rags, and wrapped up her wrist. There were spots of blood speckling the floor, blood footprints. I tried to say comforting things and she told me that she’d gone to lie down in one of the bedrooms when a friend’s young dog, terrified by the loud music of the party, hiding beneath the bed from the blaring bass, had leapt at her.

Other people came quickly, got her into the bathtub, washed out the wounds. Four of us piled into a truck and drove on the bumpy roads to the Level III MONUC hospital, N leaning across me, me trying to grip her so she didn’t bounce too much. Because none of us is a UN employee, we had to fight our way into the hospital – but because she was bleeding like a gutted animal, it wasn’t a very difficult fight.

She’ll be fine, she’s fine, and she was brave, attempting jokes even while she was badly shaking from shock. The Indian doctors got her all bandaged up. When she was wrapped up and shot up with drugs and went home to sleep, and when everyone went back to the party, I stayed sitting up on her couch, watching movies, waiting around, just in case. But it wasn’t necessary. She’ll be fine. A few weeks will pass and her open cuts will crust and scab and turn to scars, and a year will pass and her scars will fade back to skin.


Yesterday afternoon, before the party, before the loud music, before the teeth and the blood and the hospital, I was so sad about having to leave Goma. I bummed a cigarette and went out to sit on the porch off my office at work with my cell phone and called my best friend at home, my college roommate T. Before I’d even begun speaking she knew why I was upset, and she laughed at me a little. She reminded me of how heartbroken I’d been when we left college, and how I’d cried like we were dying – and when we left that summer on Nantucket, how sad I’d been – and when we’d left study-abroad in Rome, when we’d left all the places we lived together. A lot has changed in the six years since college. T told me about her lawyer husband and her golden retriever dog and her pretty green house. She talked about what it’s like to be in your second semester of pregnancy, how the nausea has stopped, how her mom still keeps accidentally offering her wine, how her little brother is convinced she has control over the sex of the baby and says he will be furious with her if it is not a boy. A lot has changed. I talked to her about Lake Kivu and Nyiragongo and the dry season and life in Eastern Congo. So much has changed.

But we are still best friends.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Horizon

It is dusty in the dry season. Yesterday the dust was so deep in the air that looking across the lake, you couldn’t see the horizon. It was blue water that faded to white that spread up out into blue sky, but there was no line, there was no border.

I haven’t seen the volcano glowing red in months.

The end of this month marks the 50th anniversary of DRC independence. Our office shuts for a week and we will be in lock-down in our house for two days. A handful of my friends will be gone to the beach or in ancient European cities, not to return until after I've left. I will be packing, packing, packing and taking my little boat out into Lake Kivu several last times.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Today, Gisenyi, the paved street off of the beach: My friend B’s phone is stealthily sneaked out of her pocket.

She doesn’t notice until too late.

B and S and I stand dumb, look hopelessly in circles, try to try to find something to do to track down the little boy thieves.

The little boy thieves: By then far far far away gripping her phone, giggling and grinning over it. And maybe feeling a little guilty deep deep deep down beneath their adrenaline. Or maybe not.

While B and S and I stand there helpless, several foreign army men (Indians? Bangladeshis?) come up to us and ask to take a photo with us.

Us in our beach gear.

As if we are all three of us Britney Spears? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

“But just one photo? Come on. Why not just one?”

Conclusion: They don’t get a posed photo of us, but they do get a photo of us sneering, shaking our heads, telling them “No”.

“Creepy,” says S.

"Yeah, creepy," I say.


Foreign army men like to take photos of me and my other white friends on the beach. Once I was climbing out of a kayak in my swimsuit and three foreign army men snapped my photo, and I got so mad! and then my friends F & A, who rent out the kayaks and the catamarans, saw me so mad! and they were mad, too! mad for me! and they grabbed the men’s camera & searched through it & deleted photos.

My dear heroes, they are.


Also today: A white man I know is swimming in Lake Kivu with his two little boys, two and four years old. Several foreign army men call and wave and ask him to get out. Ask him to bring the boys out. So that they, the army men, can take photos of themselves next to his little children.

The man does not move from the four feet of lake that he is standing in. The boys, with their blond hair and tiny white baby teeth, giggle & cling to him. They are oblivious, splashing in the water.

Creepy, right?



Because then, there’s also this: So many acquaintances of mine travel to so many villages and play with the dusty little lovely mischievous “African” children, pose with the children, take photos of the children, snap snap snap the children. They show the children the photos on their camera and the children scream with laughter and clap and the acquaintances take more photos of the children laughing. And then they post the photos on Facebook. New profile pictures! Cute big deep “African” child eyes! Curly soft brown “African” hair! Breastfeeding “African” mama cuddling her tiny “African” baby!

That’s not thought of as creepy. Those new profile pictures make my acquaintances look adventurous! exciting! mysterious! international! multicultural! COOL!

But how are those photos of “Africans in the village” any different from the photos of “white women and children on the beach”?

They’re so not.

(Except that the "Africans in the village" often don't have access to cameras to snap snap snap photos back.)


And me? I have taken photos of the foreign army men, their olive colored hands gripping their guns, their brown waves of hair crammed under blue helmets. I've done that, a little in love with the guns and the helmets and the idea of protection and danger and adrenaline and life life life. That's a little creepy.

So maybe none of us is creepy. Or maybe we all are.

Maybe we are all just curious about each other, one another.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Way back in December (lo those many years ago), through a series of twisting happenstances, it was assigned to me out of my group of acquaintances to go search the city’s pharmacies for a pregnancy test for a Congolese woman we knew who might have malaria but who might also be carrying a child – and who needed to know about the latter before starting the fetus-damaging treatment for the former. It was all melodramatic and secret but it needed to be done.

The second pharmacy (the first had been gated & padlocked) that my driver drove me to was a small dark room, white painted crumbling concrete walls, stacks of small cardboard boxes spilling pills. I held my breath and walked in and looked up – and there! There was a woman behind the counter. I smiled with relief. I had no idea how to say “pregnancy test” in French, much less Kiswahili, and was dreading playing the charades game with a man.

I took a breath and searched deep into the reservoir of the middle frontal gyrus of my brain for French. "Mon ami, elle pense qu’il y a (peut- être) un bébé dans son estomac, mais – d’accord, elle ne sait pas. Et… elle voudrait savoir."

Blank stare. I continued. "Avez-vous un examen? Ou, je ne sais rien, avez-vous quelque chose l’aider?"

The woman fished around in a big box filled with littler pill boxes and emerged holding up a sheet of birth control pills.

"Oh! Non… il est trop tard pour ca," I said.

At which point the woman’s blank stare slowly suddenly turned cruel and she yelled and shooed me out of her shop. Maybe she was frustrated with my inability to be articulate. Maybe she thought I was asking for mifepristone or Plan B. Whatever my issues were, she wanted no part in sorting them out. I fled.

My patient driver, asking no questions except whether he couldn’t accompany me into the pharmacy to help (“Oh God, no!” I gasped) drove us to a third pharmacy.

Of course, of course, I enter the third pharmacy, and – it’s all men. Men everyone. Two men behind the counter. Three men lounging in front of it. If we were in Banjul, they’d have been drinking attaya and gossiping. In Kitgum, they’d have had waragi. In Cairo, they’d have been smoking shisha and playing backgammon with bottle caps. Outside of Pittsburgh, they’d have had beers and there'd've been sliced off heads of dead deer decorating the walls. At their gaze, and envisioning what I had to ask them, I wanted to melt into a puddle on the ground, feeling wicked like the witch of the west.

And so what happened? They couldn’t have been nicer. They played along with my game of charades, smiling kindly – until suddenly, Essai de grossesse! exclaimed one of the men like he was in a bingo parlor and had just gotten all four corners marked off. He laughed. His friends grinned. I blushed. I smiled. I purchased two pregnancy tests for two dollars and quit the shop, followed by waves and winks.

But in the car – in the car I leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the window (rolled up halfway as dictated by security rules) and I felt alone. I’d been so happy to see the woman in the first shop. I’d thought – French? Who cares! Swahili? No problem! English? Who needs it! – I’d thought the woman and I would naturally speak the same language of womanhood. Instead, it was the men who were generous. Generous to my broken sentences, to my made-up sign-language, to my embarrassment. Maybe that one specific woman whom I met was having one very specifically bad day, or had a terrible headache. Maybe those men, who were probably fathers, husbands, brothers, were just exceptionally nice human beings. It’s quite possible. But this wasn’t a singular circumstance. There have been many times – before then, since then – where I’ve entered a street, a government building, a coffee shop, and it is the men who help me and the women who stare.

Perhaps it is because, if you are a man, you are more used to being listened to yourself when you speak. You have more confidence in your own ability to communicate. Perhaps that gives some men a little extra patience when it comes to attempting to comprehend the communiqué of a stranger. It's more complicated than just that, I know. But maybe that is part of it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

the last 10 days & the next 3 weeks

I have applied for around two hundred billion jobs in the last ten days


I am trying not to be fatalistic about the whole horrific process of job searching, sending my history deep into the dark black hole of cyberspace, like shutting your eyes and holding your breath and throwing a coin over your left shoulder into a wishing well – that is actually a bottomless pit that sucks in light –


at the same time I am attempting to actually do my full-time unpaid job


(frankly) I love

(First there is a terrifyingly blank Word document on my computer – blank, blank, blank – and then there is a concept note – and then there is – somehow! – a 50-page proposal – which is then approved and put into PDF – and becomes a signed contract – which then – alchemy! – is suddenly, before you know it, new colleagues and projects and program activities, success stories and schools and psychosocial care and health centers – all from that damn blank Word document. It’s a bit magical.)


I only have three more weeks at to finish up the unfinished and to tie up the untied


(to be honest) I want to stay.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Golden Chukadu

For the first seven months I lived here, the center of one of the roundabouts of Goma was draped with flowing orange plastic tarps. I wanted so badly to sneak up at night and peek in between and see what was hidden. But you can’t be out and about like that after dusk, and you can’t screw around with the laws or the police, so. That dream was dashed. I was so worried I’d fly away from here never seeing what lay beneath.

And then last weekend I’m lying on the beach in Gisenyi and my phone bings, it’s one of my friends, she tells me that she drove by a crowd surrounding the unwrapping ceremony, and the statue is a


A chukadu is a traditional eastern Congo wooden bicycle. Men and children are paid to transport tons and tons of goods back & forth up & down hills.

The rumor (which I suspect is more or less true) is that the owner of Hotel Ihusi paid for the statue. It symbolizes the fact that his first business was tiny tiny, he started from nothing, and now he runs the most expensive hotel in the city.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

And neighbors

Two nights ago I was sprawled on my bed watching “30 Rock” waiting for friends to get their eyeliner on straight for after-work cocktails at Doga when I heard this

chirp scra-aaa-atch

gurgle chi-ii-irrup

sound which just kept repeating until finally I got up to check and there was a little tiny baby

in my room.

Lake Kivu has crabs swimming around in it. Who knew.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Existence on Earth of All of My Friends

One of my friends is moving from Goma to Dungu today. Dungu is in the heart of LRA territory, a true emergency, not Goma with its beaches and dance clubs. Last night I went over to his house to fill up his computer with TV shows & movies. Our other dear friend, his (ex-)housemate, was baking him chocolate chip cookies for the plane ride and I ate too much raw cookie dough while their 2 month old kitten stalked and attacked my bare feet. We talked about the funeral they attended today for their colleague who spit up blood and died over the weekend and about two lovely people we know whose house was raided by “men in uniforms” at the end of last week and about men, women, people, communications, relationships, confrontations and Glee. Some of the things we talked about were sad but nothing in this world or beyond can ever be too terribly sad when you are discussing it with people who are kind and thoughtful and supportive and brave. It was just a silly little stressful evening but it was also a reminder of how much I really truly am grateful for the existence of my friends.

Monday, May 31, 2010

My Life is Idyllic

Sunday, Sunday: Hiked up smoothly paved roads on Rwandan hills with two friends. At some point along the way, after the turn off for the hydro-electric power plant but before the military base, we were latched onto by two small schoolgirls dressed in brilliant red who were walking to church. I (in my flip-flops) and the two little girls (in their plastic sandals) ran races with each other up and down the hills & we giggled a lot.

After the hike, two more friends met us on the beach. We sprawled around all day and flipped through magazines and gave up secrets. We rented a catamaran for an hour and in the middle of the lake steered the bow windward so the sail luffed and the boat stalled and I dove off into the deep lake. I climbed back on and then balancing, balancing, balancing, positioned myself to back-dive deep into the water, speeding through, I love back-dives more than anything. I climbed on again, clinging to a hull, giggling, and then gracelessly fell off backwards, and proceeded to laugh so hard underwater I swallowed a gallon of Lake Kivu and needed help getting back on board.

It was Ja's birthday and K brought candles for him and we talked to the waiters about sticking them on a slice of chocolate cake and the waiters were so excited about it, making up stories about unpaid bills to get me to secretly sneak back to the kitchen, where we could discuss their timing for beginning to sing "Happy birthday" and ultimately decide that it should be right when their shoes first touch sand.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Before lunch, I went to the MONUC hospital to bring my sick colleague her toothbrush and toothpaste. She was sitting up in bed wearing a kick-ass Metallica tee-shirt, rubbing absent-mindedly at the catheter connected to the peripheral cannula on the back of her hand. She spent the whole of our visit not talking about typhoid or herself at all – but instead asking me questions about my job search and telling me to have more confidence in myself. When she got a phone call from a friend and started chatting in fast Italian with him, I wandered around her cozy little room, out onto her porch, and into the adjoining area, which turned out to be the birthing room. I stood in the middle of the empty not-too-sterile room with the beds with stirrups and plastic glove boxes and took deep breaths, knowing that I was inhaling air that contained the first tiny exhales of new lives, and thinking that that was magical.

It would make it easier on us now if we had someone to blame.

In May 2007 while I was living in The Gambia our country director’s daughter died. She was a good half-decade younger than me, a school girl, bright and chubby and cheery by accounts. Our country director was Senegalese and so we loaded into one of our pick-ups on the weekend and traversed South across the border into Casamance to his ancestral village outside of Ziguinchor. It was my first time in contested territory. It was my first time at a funeral from a culture outside my own and the wretched screaming crying singing of the women was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced before. It was my first time to see a dead body up close. I knelt by the girl’s side in her mud-walled home. Some man unwrapped her face – her head lolled and they propped it up with cloth. B said to me in his imperfect English, “This is my daughter, Khady,” as if she were visiting us in the office and he were making an introduction. Khady’s empty shell was bone thin and in the dim light of the house her skin looked old-paper yellow and so later my friend, gripping my hand, speculated that it was yellow fever that killed her.

I was immunized against yellow fever in 2004. Then I misplaced my yellow card, and in 2006 got immunized again. Double immunity for me. None for Khady.

Here in Congo, I took a Western colleague to the hospital two days ago for the usual round of tests – malaria, typhoid, etc. – because she felt ill. In the waiting room I left her to stand in line all alone, fighting to pay her bill, while I lolled on a bench a ways away. I made sign-language small talk with the other women waiting. I cuddled this happy, happy baby named Fidel who had a unilateral complete cleft palate leading to a dark recess instead of nostrils. I thought about how if I’d been born like he was born, by the time I was his age I’d only have had a scar, not a gaping hole into my brain. My colleague, swaying on her feet, texted me to say how sorry she was that the process was taking so long. I texted back: No prob.

I haven’t been mean to her, my sick colleague. I chased pharmacies across town looking for tests. I brought her a glass for water. I sat on her bed and tried my best to look sympathetic and chastised myself for not feeling more empathy. Last night at 10 pm, after her typhoid test turned positive and she was puking up her pills, I called an Iraqi doctor friend and convinced him to drag himself out of bed and admit her into the MONUC hospital. But – I still haven’t felt the compassion I wish I could feel. I keep thinking: Other people get typhoid. Other people don’t get fluids and drips and tender medicinal care.

Khady was taken to the hospital before she died. But for two weeks prior to that, as she was retching and shitting, she was taken to local healers. By the time she was admitted into the hospital, her young body didn’t stand a change of recovering from the dehydration and trauma it had suffered. My colleague is nowhere near the brink of death. But neither was Khady, for those two weeks. If Khady had been taken to the hospital at the same point in the progression of her sickness that my colleague has reached, Khady might still be alive. Yet here I am, begrudging my colleague her ability to access doctors. It’s absolutely illogical.

The poor woman has typhoid. She is accessing the treatment we all deserve. The inequities of the world are not on her shoulders. I don't know why I have to keep reminding myself of that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How I Live Now

This is the view from our upper porch.

This display occurs pretty much nightly.


Slouched up on a bench in Heal Africa this morning, I wound up a bit too far in my own head trying to dissect how I’ve gotten to be a person who curls herself on a bench in the middle of a hospital waiting room in sub-Saharan Africa.

This morning: A colleague woke up with a temperature of 102° and in this it-is-better-to-be-safe-than-sorry land we decided she should go get the usual-suspects round of tests (malaria, typhoid, and little worms in your stomach). We grabbed a car, we bounced down volcano roads to the hospital, and she was ushered off by white-coats, me left alone to wait.

A small crowd of mamas were squeezed on one bench clutching their children. My arms ached, as they do, to cuddle a baby myself, but I was too shy, so I smiled, gave a half hearted wave, and sat apart from them. Unfortunately/fortunately, it soon became apparent that the reason my chosen bench was completely empty is that there was construction going on above me and plaster crashing liberally down all around my head and so with plenty of clucking tongues and shared Oh heavens, muzungos are hopeless glances, the mamas forced their hips to shrink and found room for me amidst them. And then to complete my happiness, a baby was passed to me, a lovely roly-poly boy named Fidel with no fear of White Strangers, a cleft lip slicing up through his nose, and a contagious cackle when you counted his perfect tiny toes. One little piggy went to market… one came home.

I think it was Fidel’s cleft lip, being able to see inside his beautiful head every time he threw it back with crazy giggles, that led me to wander quite a ways inside my own. First I thought about Hannah, a little girl who also had a cleft lip who I held for an eight hour bus ride through southern Ethiopia, and who peed on me, but that’s a compliment, her mother assured me. Then I thought about the cargo train my friend and I caught from Dire Dawa to the Djibouti border and the soldiers who fired round after round of ammunition out of the wooden carriage into the dark of the desert night, scaring us. I thought about making up nonsense songs with Kewulling, my guard in Basse Santa Su, my best friend in the country, while we waited for attaya to brew. I thought about the sterile fearful feeling of Asmara. I thought about the warm dusty open arms of Kitgum. And stumbling upon a dance in the middle of town. And joining in. I thought about how much I used to think I knew and how little I really knew, and how little I know that I know now. I thought about the reasons I left DC in the first place.

When I handed Fidel back to his mama, she grabbed my arm. She struggled a bit forming her mouth around the words, in English, “Thank you”. She grinned with pride at her use of a foreign tongue.

I blinked in surprise and said “Thank you,” back since clearly it was I who should be grateful to her for her hospitality sharing the bench and her child. I tried “Asante” and grinned with pride myself at my use of Swahili.

Our eyes met in a moment of real communion. Then everything all shifted back to that other reality, the one with me the interloper in her land, she the mama of a child she can’t protect. And I left.

And when I dropped off my colleague at our house before heading to the office, JB (our chef) and Esperance (one of our housekeepers) surrounded me in the kitchen.

"That was a charitable thing you did, going with her to the hospital," said JB.

"That is how we act here, in our culture, helping each other like that," said Esperance.

"We have a saying here," said JB. He held up his hand, fingers splayed. "When this finger is injured," he folded down one finger, "the rest suffer," he wiggled his others.

What was it? It was Mom and Dad, telling me that I am GOOD.

But I think about myself too much.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Saturday morning in a rented catamaran.

Come what may, go what may, there I was, just flying simply FLYING on the wind across Lake Kivu with the rolling green hills of Rwanda to my back and the volcanic mountains of Congo surrounding me, and




There are so many little moments of pure perfection in life. History and future line up to cancel each other out and all that counts is the now the now the now and the glory of sunshine glinting off of water and the wind brushing your skin.

And even though the perfect moments are bound in time your thoughts are not and it is enough enough enough sometimes to know that sailboats and lakes and windy mornings exist even if they only exist for you in the electric buzzing synapses of your memory in your brain.

And then when we got a bit closer to shore I stood up on tip-toes on one of the hulls, raised my arms, and dove off of the speeding sailboat into the deep fresh water and the white-capped waves.

Friday, May 21, 2010

“Border Crossing”, or “Thanks, David Smith, for all the CONTINUING fun. Heart!”

It’s time to once again reference* our favorite recent satirical** writing about Goma!

Those familiar with the piece (found in full here) will recognize quickly the harrowing journey described below that our intrepid author Mr. Smith made through the no-man’s-land of the Gisenyi-Goma border.

In order to make new the old, please find a juxtaposition of his story with the plan for the journey my own friends and I will be undertaking tomorrow evening, as we follow just four months behind in the footsteps of Mr. Smith.

While our tales are sure to be very similar, for your ease in telling them apart, please find my writing in PINK. (This symbolizes the fact that I really like the color PINK).

Are you sitting down?  Are you ready for a crazed tale of adventure and triumph?  Ready or not... here we go!

At the Hotel Before the Crossing is Attempted

Mr. Smith: A jug of hot milk was the only drink proffered. I asked whether there was any chance of a coffee. After another wait, the coffee appeared. I took a gulp. It was, without a shadow of doubt, the most unutterably dreadful cup of coffee ever made. I quickly reached for the water.

Me: I really know how he feels with this. My friends & I are planning to spend Friday night all crowded into a room at this hotel in Gisenyi, and sometimes when you call room service and ask for an iced coffee, sometimes when it arrives the ice is a little melty. Which is totally off-putting and really destroys your adventurous mood. As we’re pulling on our prom dresses and adjusting our blue eye shadow, I’m going to have to keep telling myself that bad coffee does not a bad day make and that these are simply the little tragedies that come with living day-to-day in war-torn Africa.

Arriving at the Border

Mr. Smith: I stood on a dark patch of land, not entirely sure where to go next. A few curious locals turned to look, apparently unaccustomed to seeing someone so obviously not from around their area.

Me: Again, this sentence really hits home for me. It helps me to envision what I may be experiencing tomorrow. Despite the fact that hundreds of non-Africans do cross the border every day, I need to recognize and prepare for the fact that I may, indeed, be stared at. Me. Stared at. Anyone who knows me will grimace reading this, understanding how much I dislike being the center of attention, especially while clad in a pink satin ‘80s prom dress. Especially then.

Mr. Smith: Adjacent to this rough, unromantic clearing, I could see Lake Kivu glinting in the sunshine.

Me: Unromantic? Hmm. Here we part ways, Mr. Smith. That’s not really what we’re going for. The theme of the prom party is “Love by the Lake” and I hope that our dresses reflect that, even while we are standing amidst the barren volcanic rocks of the border crossing. My friend C’s dress probably will be "glinting in the sunshine", though. It’s, like, sewn together from gold sparkles. The fake pearls on the lace sleeves of my dress may glitter a bit, too.

Mr. Smith: I found a shabby brick office and got my passport stamped. "So," I asked, "Is Congo that way?" I pointed at an inviting piece of coastline on my right. The woman laughed and shook her head. "No, it's over there," she said. I looked to my left at the rather less appealing face of Goma – but I was grateful that she had saved me from a week of wandering around the wrong country.

Me: H’s dress is silver and HM’s dress spins out with black tulle. K’s is the hottest of all the hot pinks. KD’s dress sparkles blue with little bowties at the shoulders. J hasn’t chosen her dress yet, but she is planning a side ponytail in her hair, and JH wants to get a vest made out of Primus fabric. (Side note: Why do all my friends have the same goddam initials?) Blinded by the brilliance of our outfits, and with the bright blues and luminous yellows of our eyeshadows in our eyes, we, too, like Mr. Smith before us, may stumble a bit. We, too, may believe that the way to the border is not the area with all the guards and the gates, but instead, perhaps, straight out to sea. I can only hope that there is a woman so kind to direct us, as the lovely lady who guided our Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith: And so, as with many border posts around the world, the moment of crossing the line was rather anticlimactic. Unsteady under the weight of heavy bags, and watched by a small audience, I penetrated (really? penetrated? is that really the verb choice you want to make here?) Congo in the old-fashioned way – on foot.

Me: Oh God, yes – on foot. But here I’m afraid my friends and I must claim a bit of one-up-man-ship on the honorable Mr. Smith. Unless he took the journey through no-man’s-land (that “rutted, pot-holed, jolting terrain”) while wearing stiletto heels bought at the outdoor shoe market… then, ultimately - we win. 

Who knows? Perhaps Mr. Smith will read this. And perhaps he will return to Goma. And perhaps next time he will try the trek in five-inch spiked heels.

That’s what us real adventurers do.

(...when we get ready for '80s prom parties in Gisenyi and then have to cross in full regalia to the dance floor in Goma.)

*I know. We’ve all had our fun at the expensive of this article already. It’s a bit dull of me to refer to it again. Rather old news now. But! Ha ha! I can’t help it/I don’t apologize! One last spin around the merry-go-round for me.

**I mean, yeah, it is satirical, right? Because, if it’s not, that would mean that he really thinks… and that the Guardian hires… and that no editors caught… and that… oh, god, no. The horror! The horror!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My First "Bleg".

Hi, internet pals. Here's the sitch: I need a job. I want to be in "the field" in a humanitarian aid setting. I'd love to work in media/communications, but mainly, I'd like to work. I have oodles of lovely former/current bosses who have happily offered me glowing letters of recommendation.

Have any advice for me? Shoot me an email.

Very, Very Big iNGO: Grants Volunteer  
•October 2009 – Present, Goma, North Kivu, DRC
  • Grants Writing: Collaborate with Grants team and Program, Finance, Logistics and HR departments to draft, edit and compile concept papers, proposals, donor reports and budgets.
  • Provide research support into donor compliance as needed.
  • Designed and executed media for a community relations campaign in response to localized threats.
Very, Very Big iNGO: Africa Advocacy Intern 
•January 2009 – August 2009, Washington, DC
  • Drafted policy points and co-draft policy proposals. Covered meetings and conference calls and summarized key points.
Largish iNGO: Research Associate  
•September–December 2008, Kitgum, Uganda
  • Research: Ran focus groups and key informant interviews and analyzed resulting data for publication.
  • Writing: Co-authored needs assessment of vulnerable and exploited children in Kitgum District of Northern Uganda with team of Ugandan students.
  • Management: Managed four Ugandan national research assistants.
•June 2008 – August 2008, Washington, DC
  • Research: Researched best practices for designing interventions with formerly abducted children and returned child soldiers.
*Interlude for Grad School*
Small (but cool!) iNGO: Development Intern  
•March–August 2007, Basse Santa Su, The Gambia
  • Donor Communication: Served as lead writer and coordinator on two large UNICEF reports and small reports for individual donors.
  • Finance/Management: Provided financial planning support for country director of finances. Interviewed potential employees and made recommendations for hiring process.
•January–February 2007, Dakar, Senegal
  • Logistics: Provided logistical support for outreach meetings in several villages.
*Interlude for College* 
Red Cross Emergency Response: Ground Zero Volunteer  
•September–November 2001, New York City, NY
  • Helped family members of victims of 9/11 search hospital lists for loved ones and apply for death certificates. Cleaned boots of firemen working to recover bodies and clear Ground Zero.
San Paolo Entro le Mura: ESOL Instructor  
•September 1999–June 2000, Rome, Italy
  • Teaching: Taught English as a Second Language to homeless refugees from Middle East and Africa of varying ages and ability levels.

Woo-hoo! Hire me!!!  (I tried to make this last bit glittery but our internet it too slow for me to find nice glittery HTML codes.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

#1millionpromdresses & #1millionkittens

In which I share pictures of my friends’ new Congolese kitty & our quest in the Goma used-clothing market for the perfect #SWEDOW prom dress

Saturday, May 15, 2010

I heart the beach

So after a Monday working, Tuesday flying, Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday working, Monday flying, Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday working, it is now Sunday again, again, and I am not working, and I am not flying, and I am grabbing friends, crossing the border into Gisenyi, going to the beach.

Friday, May 14, 2010


The point of humanitarian aid is to do such an awesome job that we become unemployed, right? Then I must really be AMAZING. Taking that as our main criteria for success in the aid world, I’m basically one of the top workers out there – I have never ever, ever even been employed. Beat that.

My myriad of supervisors here shake their heads and tell me to not give up hope – that I’m doing a great job – that eventually something will fall into place. They say that the lack of response that anyone in HR departments gives me is embarrassing. They say not to take it personally – it’s not personal – it’s not personal. They say oh how they wish they could keep me here. And then they ask me to work Saturdays, and Sundays, too, to complete this budget narrative or that work plan, quickly, now, before the aid world throws me back out on the street at the end of the month. And I do. Because I care about the “beneficiaries”, I care about the “beneficiaries”, I care about the “beneficiaries”.

Person after person after person talks about volunteers disparagingly. Volunteers: People who aren’t real aid experts, just off to find adventure or to feel good about themselves while on holiday. Volunteers: We aren’t the doctors, we are the people who lie and introduce ourselves as doctors at cocktail parties in order to get the attention of the hot men in the room. We’re the idiots who want to make a difference in the lives of gang-raped orphans by hugging them, because we don’t understand the true complexities of the profession. No wonder I get no response, often not even cut-and-paste form letters, from job applications – I’ve been a volunteer in four different countries.

Volunteers: We shouldn’t even exist.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


This morning I woke up to crickets crickets dead crickets everywhere and if there is one phobia that I have, it’s dead and dying bugs. Hated them as a child, hate them still now.

We are having another 8th plague of Egypt here in Goma, just like back in November/December.

The other night people were over CHEZ NOUS watching TV and one grasshopper swooped down and smacked me in the chest and I fell over and screamed like a child.

They are green and then as they commence dying they turn brown like autumn leaves. Watching the brown ones spin around is like envisioning in your mind's eye the curtain flapping at the end of Harry Potter book 5 – like being privy to a sight of the gateway between life and death. Oh my GOD they creep me out.

So when I woke up this morning with dead crickets carpeting my floor I knew I had to act and act fast to get rid of them before I succumbed to a total panic attack. I climbed the stairs three steps at a time and burst into the kitchen. There’s JB there, our chef, going over his list of ingredients for today’s lunchtime meal.

And a light-bulb flashes above my head.

“Oh, JB,” I say. “Have I got a great idea for an appetizer…!”

No more dead bugs anywhere in our house, now. They are all in our stomachs.

(Okay, okay, not my stomach for God’s sake. I’m a vegetarian.)

Monday, May 10, 2010


So this past week I got to enjoying Twitter, seeing how people there said tons of super-nice things to me. But now today all day I’ve been traveling. Since my $5 company Nokia phone does not allow Tweets-on-the-move, here’s a Twit-down of my morning:

6:04 AM Love love love golden pink light of morning. The sun is getting out of bed: That’s the literal translation of “Sunrise” from French.

6:43 AM Happiness is: Eating cold pizza, drinking piping hot NesCafe, sitting on the floor of the L’bshi airport waiting for flight to Goma <3  

7:02 AM Um. Um. Um. Uh-oh. Hell. Damn it all to hell. Trapped in L’bashi airport toilet. 

7:03 AM Trapped. Trying to pry door open with piece of handle. Why to these things happen to me, only to me, and always to me?

7:12 AM Really, why?

7:16 AM Baaaanging on door.

7:24 AM Banged, kicked on door. Freed by team of MONUC soldiers.

7:30 AM New MONUC slogan? “Always ready to rescue trapped ex-pats when the toilet door handle snaps off in their hands.” (How can Kabila kick them out now?!)

8:02 AM Love love love the cutting lose from gravity feel of take off. Glad I made it on the plane.

10:23 AM Kalemie is all green water and brown land from the sky. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. Hope to God I don’t get stuck here.

11:01 AM Wruuurrring engines, clunk of wheels withdrawing into body.  Love the cutting lose from life feel of flying.

12:39 AM Feeeeck, I think I’m on the wrong side of the airplane to see our house. Where is the Flight Attendant??

12:40 AM She’s not looking. Get low. Sneak over.

12:44 AM There is my house. My house from the air. It looks like a Christmas village, oh.

12:45 AM I wonder if A. and everyone at the office are hearing this airplane chugging along, are running to the balcony (like I do), are looking up at ME. 

1:00 PM Lunch by the still clear waters of the lake

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I’ve been living in Goma for over six months, now. I will be leaving for good in another week or three. It’s unclear. At some point I will be asked to come to Kinshasa, but it’s not clear when, and then I will go to [unknown] to work/relax/apply for jobs [unknown].

When it arose that I needed to come to Lubumbashi for work in my second-to-last or third-to-last week in Congo, I was not thrilled, but I was resigned, and happy enough to be WORKING. I like being on a project. I don’t mind that I’m reading and writing on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t mind that I’ll be working all day tomorrow (Sunday). But I do mind – I DO mind – that now I am being asked to stay for another four days.

Why do they want me to stay? Because no one has had time yet for the meetings that I flew all the way down here to have with them.

It’s just four more days. I know. But. It’s four of my LAST days. I want to be in MY room, by the lake, seeing the sunset, soaking up my friends, working in my office, beside my (Goma) colleagues.

Would it be useful for me to stay in Lubumbashi? Yes, maybe, assuming (a possibly big assumption) that people make time to meet with me, work might go more smoothly if I stayed.

Could the work get done anyways? Yes. Could it get done well anyways? I’m pretty sure.

At what point can I say No? I’m a volunteer. I am not being given very much by this organization (other than the brief chance to work for it and amidst great colleagues, which I do appreciate). I want at least to be given a chance to pack up the life I’ve lived for half a year. Isn’t that fair to desire? And to request?

I know that the life of a grants person is waiting, waiting, waiting around for others, bothering them, pestering them, teasing the information we need out of them. I know that the life of a humanitarian worker is travel and change and adjusting fast to new directions. But is it also a scrapping of your personal desires? Is my life expected to be for the ease of the work of my colleagues, and their/our work expected to be my life? I WANT those four days. I WANT them next to the lake, not stuck in a fancy hotel in a dusty city that’s not my home.


And when The Work involves attempting to strengthen the quality of health care available to people in the region with the highest mortality rate in Congo, how do I reconcile that with my desire to skip out on meetings about it, and not feel terrible?

Lost in Lubumbashi

Created a bit of a scene in the middle of a flat crowded dusty Lubumbashi road this morning. It was… lovely.

I’d headed off (randomly, in the direction the hotel doorman half-heartedly waved me) for a nice morning walk and (as is my wont) gotten completely lost amidst the busy shops, paved traffic circles, men selling chunks of quartz and old colonial coins on corners, casino, synagogue, train station, crowds of school children slurping up pink ice cream cones – there was so much to catch my eye. Huge knurly trees with orange flowers that stand upright like tulips lined every street I floated down.

It was like a vacation.

When I stopped in front of a shoe shiner to admire the flag he had flapping above his stand – it had a crocodile biting a soccer ball – he explained to me that it was for the Lubumbashi soccer team and gave me a big sticker showing the faces of all the players – a gift, he said.

I searched through a pile of used clothes in the middle of a square and found a kick-ass bright purple jean skirt, but it was too small. The other women snickered and I giggled with them when I stumbled half over, trying to squeeze it on over my pants.

When the sun spun too high overhead and I realized I’d forgotten sunscreen (and I started to think about all the work work work I really should be doing in front of my computer), I blinked my eyes and looked up and tried to figure out where the hell I’d gotten to. Good little American child that I was raised, I know that when you are hopelessly lost what you must do is look around for a policeman, tug on his sleeve, explain your predicament, and wait for him to pat you on your head, give you a lollypop, and help. So I saw this guy in a blue uniform with gold script reading POLICE on his shoulders slouching over in a plastic picnic chair in front of a bank, his machine gun slipping lazily from his fingers. I went up to him: “Excusez-moi? Monsieur? Monsieur?” The copper didn’t want to help me. He half cocked an eyebrow, shrugged, and suggested I try asking directions from the moneychangers with their huge stacks of Congolese Francs that were stalking stealthily around the bank entrance.

So I did. And they were so sweet. First they wanted to find me a taxi – a reputable taxi, the taxi of a friend, they would bargain the price down to only $1.50 – but I explained that I couldn’t take public transportation (security rules being what they are). They none of them approved of my desire to walk (mzungos are delicate flowers, after all, and need to be driven places, and to avoid the high noon sun) but they respected my decision and decided to draw me a map.

And that’s where the scene began.

Because they wanted to make the map perfect for me. And what started off as a gentle debate soon devolved into waving arms, fists shaken in faces, feet stamping, mouths spitting words. The words were in Swahili, but because some statistic that I read sometime somewhere says that 80% of understanding of language is based upon tone of voice and facial expression, I think that I can translate pretty accurately, with confidence. They were either yelling because one of them had hit the other one’s mother with his car, or they were saying this:

“But no! She shouldn’t take that street, it would be too confusing for her!” “No, no, that map is unclear. Leave it! Let me draw a better one!” “Are you absolutely kidding me with that depiction of the traffic circle?! You are an idiot from the deepest circle of hell. Give me the pen. No – no, I mean it! Give me that pen, NOW!”

I ended up leaving with two maps drawn between three men (with others periodically poking their heads in to add a comment about one corner or another). The maps weren’t beautiful, but after I shook the men’s hands thanking them, and they slapped each other on the backs, everything forgiven, and I took off walking, I found myself back at the hotel in less than fifteen minutes, walking a perfect path.

Lubumbashi. It’s not Goma. But, hey.

It’s kinda neat.

Friday, May 7, 2010

You and Me, Man

So, I sit around and I write things on Facebook and on this web log about loving the crisp white sheets and the pretty soaps and the little shampoo packets in my hotel room, while I’m south in Lubumbashi for these five days. And while I write these things in one internet window, the other internet window is opened to this , and I read it, giggling hysterically– it’s brilliant, no question. And Nathan – oh Nathan. You and me, man. “Unpaid” workers. (Can we take comfort in the fact that, while our monthly stipends are less than our fellow ex-pat colleagues’ weekly per diem, they are also higher than our national colleagues’ salaries?)

But then I think – No! That isn’t me! – Dr. Alden Kurtz and Nathan are traveling to meet with quote-unquote African Experts who hail from Connecticut and Geneva. I’m here in Lubumbashi to listen and question and attempt to comprehend the technical language of our big boss in the health program, and he is a NATIONAL staff. He’s Congolese. My only job is to understand what he desires as best I can and transcribe it comprehensibly for our donors, because he is too busy running programs to write proposals. And because he’s Congolese, that makes all the difference, right, between me and the good Dr. Kurtz?

Why should it? Seriously, isn’t that weird? I have to say, it’s also something that I thought was weird in the OnemillionteeshirtGate phone conference. Amidst all the experts with their various credentials, there were two other people on the line. And they were THE AFRICANS on the line. I missed the opening of the phone call, so maybe I missed their further qualifications, but what I heard is that they were THE AFRICANS. The voice of the continent. But I mean, hell – I’m damn sure not an expert on North America despite having been born and raised there. (Canada? Mexico? California? Texas? Huh?)

In my opinion, both those persons (one woman, one man, one from Ethiopia and one from Kenya, if I remember correctly) offered unique and pertinent contributions to the OnemillionteeshirtGate conversation. But isn’t that because they are both individually intelligent and knowledgeable? And not an indication that their voices match the voices of the populations of 54 counties? That’s 1,000,010,000 people, according to Wikipedia.

Likewise, my Congolese colleague I’m meeting with here is also very qualified and smart, and when I meet with him, you can bet that I will sit back quietly and humbly and try to soak up his knowledge, asking question after question to clarify his point of view in my mind. But isn’t that based on his own personal merits, and not solely, not mainly, his nationality?

So? Are he and I both Dr. Kurtz and Nathan, in our respective hotel rooms with the paintings of rural England waterfalls on the walls? Or are he and I both just trying, with our Good Intentions (not enough) and our individual skills, to map out movements to combat these horrific mortality rates in Haute Katanga, meanwhile enjoying complimentary breakfast brunches with little packets of mixed berry jelly for our toast? I don’t know.

It reminds me of another debate I had with a colleague last week. H said he thought that, in an instance like Ugandan’s anti-homosexuality law, the “international community” should just keep silent, keep out, and if they didn’t like it, they should just leave. But wait, I said – Wasn’t it members of the international community who prodded that ridiculous and cruel law into naissance in the first place? Aren’t we all responsible for each other, by virtue of the fact that we all are trapped here together on this little mysterious rock hurtling through space, enjoying the same blink of consciousness before we disappear? Me for you and you for me. We’re in it, hopelessly entwined, forever together. I breathe in the air that you breathe out.

What would I think if a coalition of people from Zambia moved into my hometown and began dictating MY healthcare system? Honestly, I’m sure I’d be pretty put off at first, because they and I would have trouble with intercultural communication and they would make weird, offensive mistakes and probably do quite a bit of harm along with some good. But in the end – hell, I lived for a few years in the States without insurance. It’s terrifying. In the end, I probably would have been confused, sad, angry, but also RELIEVED if random Zambians had moved into fancy houses next door and fought to give me access to doctors, where my own country was failing me.

That’s just me, though. I mean it. That’s just me. I can't speak for anyone else.