Sunday, January 31, 2010


Today our colleagues R and S with whom we lived, worked, danced, ate, drank, boated, laughed, relaxed, etcetera, etcetera, packed their bags. They climbed into a car. They were driven away forever.

It was sad.

Over the next month five more colleagues will climb up into five more cars and go away. Bit by bit, not all at once, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Bit by sad little bit.

Today, to cope, I baked cookies for us who remain. I went to lunch and drank a huge fresh wild strawberry juice with my friend C who is so interesting.

And I paddled my boat out to see the sunset, like when I was a kid living on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay and my mum and I would take the canoe to greet the big sailboats that were mooring in our harbor for the night and to watch the sun turn from a yellow mist to a small red ball and sink beneath the earth.

The more things change, the more they you know.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Night in Goma

Couch Surfing

Oh the things that have been written about Eastern DRC this week.

There is this piece by David Smith of the Guardian, happily deconstructed here.

A selection:
I could see people sitting in grime on the streets, trying to sell whatever they could – live chickens*, sacks of grain, flimsy towers of eggs, pairs of shoes. Others occupied concrete shells and offered fruit and vegetables from unclean floors.

Then there are the nascent columns by Nicholas Kristof, notes jotted down in his blog, written about here by the always fantastically interesting Texas in Africa (whose links to all of the above pieces I have just shamelessly stolen, sorry & thank you, and who should always be read).

And then there is the article that I want to write. It’s also about Eastern DRC. (Actually, can I say “also about Eastern DRC” when those two pieces above are in actuality about sensationalism, self-congratulations, and hyperbole, rather than any specific place?)

I was out at a bar two nights ago and I met a few tourists who were passing through. They weren’t staying at any of the hotels in town. They were Couch Surfers. I feel that Mr. Kristof, who is scared to take a taxi here, should know that, in Goma at least, Couch Surfing is alive and thriving.

Haven’t heard of Couch Surfing? It’s what’s called a hospitality exchange network. Basically, it’s like Facebook, only you befriend strangers, meet them in person, and then sleep on their couches as you are traveling through town**. People do this all over the world. Congolese people from Goma are members of this network and people from other countries (I met an American woman and a Serbian man) befriend them on the website and then sleep on their couches.

Dear Mr. Kristof & Mr. Smith: This happens here, too.

*Note: If someone is selling, for example, live chickens, chances are that he didn't just stumble upon them and decide to sell them as he is selling anything he can. Chances are - obviously - that he is a farmer. Who has raised those chickens from eggs. To sell. And that is his job. And that is how he supports his family. And it's a respectable job. Is that truly so hard to understand?

**Disclosure: I know a guy who used to work for Couch Surfers and when he first told me about it, I told him I thought the website was a great idea as a way to get robbed and murdered and a terrible idea other than that. But I’m thinking I may need to rethink this former thought.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Classe Française

About French class. I hate French class. I hate it for so many reasons. Let me count the ways:

(1) I have to wake up early before work (work starts at 8 am) or stay late after work (work ends between 5 and 7 pm). This is miserable.

(2) I have to do this three-to-five times a week while my colleagues sleep.

(3) I am not an auditory learner. It seems hopeless. Hopeless. Hopeless hooopeeeleeess hoooooopelessssssssss.

(4) My teacher stares at my eyes while I speak. He listens intently. He nods encouragingly. To practice conversation and verb tenses, I have to make sentences like “J’aime… j’ai aimé… j’aimerai… j'aurais aimé…” over and over. Even if all I say is “Je pourrais avoir aimé chocolat,” this is way too much intimacy for me.

(5) Listing out verb tenses, my teacher writes “Je… Tu… Il… Nous… Vous… Ils…” skipping Elle and On and Elles to save time. I sit. I seethe. I think that this is truly the root of GBV and of everything wrong with the world, that “elle” can be passed over - why? - to save time. I finally can’t bite my tongue. I snap. He blushes. He makes a point in the future to always switch back-and-forth, back-and-forth, erring on the side of Elle. I feel like a jerk.

(6) My teacher tells me about his thoughts and his community’s thoughts whenever I ask. He speaks happily, eager for my questions, responding to my queries about the volcanoes, the gorillas, the gases in the lake, fleeing the lava, fleeing the war, MONUC, the walls that are built everywhere, corporal punishment for children, anything I ask. Then he asks me about Les Etats-Unis. Let’s practice comparisons today, he says. Compare the roads here to the roads there! The hospitals! The schools! And I feel sick and I don’t want to talk about it at all. He is generous with his stories and I am not with mine.

(7) My teacher stares at my eyes. He leans forward and touches my hand. I notice he does this to everybody, male and female, with whom he speaks. But I haaaaaate it. I say something to his friend. He stops being so touchy but he keeps staring intently. And why does he do this thing that I hate? Well – it’s obvious. He has to lean forward and stare at my face. To understand my garbled speech. And I appreciate it. But I can’t stand it.

(8) The text book my teacher brings for us to study out of some days is old and yellowed. It is missing a cover. It starts, in fact, midsentence on the dog-eared page five. Seeing this book makes me feel frustrated with myself for my every little frustration with my teacher. He is making so much out of so little. He is a good, hard-working, caring teacher. I am not a good student. This beat up book is exactly what would be invented by the author of a novel to symbolize the relationship between the Kind Caring Teacher and the Spoiled Lazy Student. It is. It just is. And there it sits, staring at me, unintentionally mocking me, every morning, this poor little much-read difficult beaten book.

(9) This is the main reason I hate French class: It brings out the less kind, the less patient, the less forgiving, the more bitter aspects of my personality. Language is difficult for me; as a consequence, I spend the entire class on the defensive and ready to attack.

Imagine this: A healthy twenty-something white woman sitting on a wide porch, paying for private lessons, overlooking one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Can you see her? She is the absolute picture of privilege. And all she does is feel sorry for herself. Poor little rich girl. It disgusts me. I really need to suck it up.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Yesterday at noon our cook JB and I had a brainstorming session. How do we keep those whose contracts are up from leaving? Unfortunately, seven or eight or nine of our colleagues' contracts are coming to a natural end over the next week-to-four-weeks. JB and I exchanged ideas – Nail down the doors? Call MONUC to block the gates? Contrive to give them mild-but-recurrent cases of food poisoning so they are always too sick to leave (but never too sick to hang out)?

[We did all this brainstorming in French – Good for me! Good for my French!]

Over half-a-dozen of my ex-pat colleagues will be leaving. These are people whom I see talk to work with eat with laugh with bitch to tease on a daily basis. These are people whom I like, some a great deal, but even more to that, these are people I am used to. They are simply always here! And now they won’t be! How changed will our dynamic be? How much we will miss them!

P (who is one of the leavers) says to me that when she first arrived in Goma, and was here for a couple of months, and the first person she was close with left, it was tragic. But then the second person and the third and the next and the seventh and the tenth left, and many more people came and joined in, and it was fine – you get used to it.

It’s not unexpected; we’ve had plenty of warning; aid work is a small field, anyway – we’ll all run into each other again - blah blah blah comforting platitudes. Now I’ll be the old veteran of the office, not a newbie – that will be nice.

But o! that MONUC could block the gates! that we could remain in our small, crowded, sometimes prickly, but basically comfortable status quo –

that I could keep my friends here with me. Not forever! Hey! Just until it is time for me myself to more on.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Yet Another One About the Lake

Last night at 7 pm I was sitting down for French class. I was being asked by my tutor to read an old short story, using out-of-date phrases and, anyway, beyond my level. I tried and I bit my lips and I bit my tongue and I didn’t manage to not exclaim with aggravation.

And then, after my tutor left, his chin down, I pulled my head up and remembered my surroundings. Sitting outside on our porch. Overlooking on this wide dark lake. Listening to the waves crash against the lava. Watching the summer lightening, no thunder, slicing down through the sky to the distant waters, illuminating the clouds.

How fantastic is my life that this has become commonplace to me? I am so used to this wonder that I can ignore it entirely while bitching about verbs.

This morning I will have French class at 7:30 am. God help me. God help my tutor. But we will be sitting in the same spot above the lake, and the morning light will be pink and clean. Wooden canoes filled with fishermen, singing, will slip between the waves beneath the wide sky. The green hills of Rwanda will roll along peacefully, transforming silently into our Congo.

And I will glare and huff and hem and hopefully improve my abilities to describe the pastconditionalblahblahblah blah.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

MONUC Employees; And What My Limited Viewpoint Has Shown Me About Them

Google-search MONUC and you get any number of accusations articles commentaries critiques declarations documents editorials impeachments indictments laws papers rants thoughts.

My closest Congolese friend has told me that he thinks (and then he has qualified his statement by saying that, well, okay, he personally doesn’t necessarily think – but he knows people who think – and he understands their reasoning –) that MONUC peacekeepers are in the business of war. After all, he has said to me, they have been here for ten years – he has seen them here for more than ten years – and what? What? War blood gore. A decade of horrible violence against civilians and a decade of paychecks for MONUC.

Me, I have seen them here for less than three months. My colleagues and I live side by side with MONUC soldiers nurses guards doctors commanders administrative assistants. From their guard towers, they point the tips of their machine guns lazily towards us as we walk down the lake road our house rests upon. They get sloshed at the same bars that we drink at. They buy chocolate and peanut butter at the same grocery stores. They laugh at cultural confusions like we do and they miss their families. Like we do.

Each and every morning, hummers tanks trucks full of soldiers wearing little blue caps or hard blue helmets, clutching their shiny rifles, blare their horns at us as we saunter to work and they speed by.

Last weekend, my housemate, R, and I crammed ourselves into my little one-seater Ndege-Samaki, my legs dangling off the back as he paddled. Giggling as we attempted to stay afloat, we rowed past three of the MONUC barracks – Indian, Indian, and South African. Everything looks different from the lakefront perspective. People look smaller and razor wire curls more gently, more forlornly, around delicate rock-piles and walls – like creeper vines that have lost their bluebell blooms. Behind the second Indian barrack, we saw MONUC men dressed in their skivvies, taking a jerry-rigged shower, lathering up and passing the soap. (I waved cheerfully – even from the distance they could tell I was female, and even from the distance I could see their cheeks burn red.)

This week, during a routine security check, our convoy stopped at a MONUC outpost (up north). The soldiers brushed aside business talk in order to serve us cookies and steaming chai. They took us to a back corner of the compound to show off their pet guinea pigs. (“Where did you get so many?” R asked. “Well,” said the MONUC commander, “we found two, and then…”). They showed us the delicate green sprouts of their freshly sowed vegetable garden. (“The DRC government wants us out. If we really are leaving soon, it’s important that we take care and leave this place nicer than we found it,” the commander explained.) They talked about their dreams of beginning a project to care for the widows of the FARDC soldiers (“Soldiers from all governments deserve respect. If their families were taken care of, it could help the soldiers feel more pride in their sacrifices, and feel more unity and brotherhood.”) They explained that they get all their food rations shipped in from Europe or the Middle East – nothing is bought locally. (What ridiculousness! Why? What a terrible shame!) When we stood to leave, they offered more chai. No? How about coffee? No coffee? Well, have you eaten? We could fix you a fresh breakfast! Here, stay, do. We have a great makeshift kitchen. (Oh. They are so lonely.)

Last month at a happy hour, drinking South African white wine and chatting with strangers, I met an Iraqi MONUC administrator who had himself once been a refugee. He is now sending his monthly paycheck home to family in Jordan, their country of refuge, and to his friends still in the camp. He had been in Congo for nearly the entirety of MONUC’s mission here. He says he is happy. He had learned Swahili. He wants to stay.

Once, in one place, at one time (and I wish I could go into great, splendid, colorful, flowing detail, but it’s not my story to tell), I was an accidental witness to a MONUC doctor breaking MONUC rules in order to treat injured children, joking with them; teasing them; ultimately showing real respect for them, their dirt, lack of status, decomposing wounds, STDs, childish fears, hopes, expectations, dreams and all. (Rules exist for reasons. I follow the rules that I am asked to live under. I’m making no comment about the ethicality of this doctor’s actions. I only wish to describe the initial terror and then the slow relief evident on the children’s faces; the kind eyes and the worried, wrinkled forehead of their physician.)

In 1994 Rwanda, a armed band of Belgium blue helmets willingly gave up their guns and were slaughtered by genocidaires. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, UN peacekeepers stood by while thousands of women and children were massacred by Milosevic’s troops. Too often, (and probably too simplified, but this is how I understand it), the mandate of UN peacekeepers is to hold guns grenades rocket launchers but never fire, never pull the pin. (Why hold them, then? It just makes people afraid and angry!) But UN Peacekeepers are not an It. These soldiers are individuals, they are varied. They are the poor, the young, those who saw no options for themselves except joining the army; and the old, the experienced. They are those who want to save the world, who want to feed their families, who want to grow rich. Those who want adventure, who want relief, who want love and family and food water self-expression.

Maybe they are not so varied. They are those who want the same two basics (physical sustenance & art) as you want, as I want, as the civilians murdered in this long war wanted, as the soldiers killed wanted – and. And. As those left alive need, desire, deserve, and must be able to procure.

So why aren’t these knotted up conflicts easier to untie?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rutsiro Photos

Hearts & Kisses!

Do you know what’s lovely? The amount of friends I have made so far just by writing down things I think on the internet. It’s not been creepy at all like internet friends stereotypically are. It’s never been bizarrely nasty like youtube comments. It’s fantastic. I obsess about some little detail I see around me – I write a mildly self-indulgent yet basically good-humored few paragraphs about it – and I get sweet encouraging e-mails from strangers who have stumbled upon my writings. Disagreements? Sure, we've had a few. (Huzzah for debate!) But no cruelty - no mean-spirited e-mails. Thank you for the milk of human kindness. Hello to you all out there! I like you.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Children, Part II

I’m not completely a people-person, but I am a children-person. I like children. And (partially I’m sure because they can tell that I like them) children like me.

Yes, this is painting with broad brush strokes. Children are individuals – as different from one another as adults are different from each other. But – in general – they listen better than adults, as they are intent on constantly learning about the world. They are slower to judge than adults. They have fresh eyes which they use to draw unique, insightful conclusions about the state of society. They are more transparent. They are curious. They can be terribly cruel, but it is a more straightforward cruelty that you can often see coming.

Children don’t bend as fully to the rules of society as adults. E.g. if a child wants to go climb a tree, then she goes to climb a tree. If a child feels like he needs to scream loudly, then what does he do? He screams. It’s refreshing. If I want to go climb a tree, as an adult, I have to consider who would see me climb said tree and what they would think. And even after the worst day of work, I can’t scream to release frustrations. It’s annoying.

In Rutsiro, after the second day of the foire, as we tugged bamboo stakes up from the ground and completed the last legs of our ticket-counting marathon, children gathered to stare. Five then ten then thirty-six then fifty-five.

A colleague started swinging at them with a stick to keep them back, like they were cattle.

As for me, I decided to help the situation by drawing them away from the piles of tickets. By giving them a bit of attention – by joking with them – by chasing them in sport.

I mimicked one boy speaking Kinyarwanda and the children surrounding me screamed with laughter. Literally, they screamed. With laughter. It is a wonderful, heady feeling – mob adoration. Soon my own stomach muscles were aching with my own laughter. A little boy (and then five or thirteen or twenty-nine more girls and boys) grabbed my hand – they pulled me over to show me the fire burning the trash from the foire (Cool!) – they showed me the big bug on the leaf of the coffee plant clinging to the side of the hill (Amazing!) – they showed me the karate stances they learned from Jackie Chan movies (Hahaha!). These are all things (fire! spiders! wild, uncoordinated joy!) that I find fascinating, too, and that adults overlook.

For the scant price of a bit of attention, the crowd of children treated me like a Rock Star. I gave them so little, and in return, they gifted me with enough energy to last me a month. I am so. Lucky.

The mamas and papas of the children were grinning, shaking their heads, watching us. They probably had a bit of work getting the children to unwind and calm down after I left. (A sincere apology, mamas and papas.) But I bet that most of the kids slept deeply through the night.

I know I did.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In the Interior

I have been on loan to the Rapid Response Mechanism team for the last several days. In my loaner capacity, I got to travel up north along the Kiwanja Axe to Rutsiro. It was fantastic.

The first night out, there were stars so bright you could see layer upon layer of light years lying across the sky. The Milky Way curved around to meet us like Christmas ribbon. This is my first time ever below the Equator and this is the most stars I have seen since I arrived. That means that Sunday night I saw stars that I have never seen before in my life. Some of these stars burned out millions of years before I was born and their light still shown down upon me. Sometimes you feel very small when you are looking at the stars but sometimes you feel very crucial.

Monday & Tuesday, the RRM team held a foire. A foire in NGO terms is like a distribution, but with music, dancing, local economy, and choice. We worked from 7 am until 7 pm both days. We were out in the hot sun. Dust blended with suntan lotion to make us strange colors – grays on top of bright reds. We checked off names and counted tickets and danced to drum-beats and counted more tickets and counted more tickets. I packed peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches in little zip-lock baggies for each day and both days had stuffed them down my throat before 10 am. Monday night the glow of the volcanoes was brighter than I have ever seen it. A bright red spot of lava shone like a stoplight from the mountain top.

There were 34 of us or so, ex-pats, national staff, drivers, all sleeping on the floor of the same house connected to a lovely little concrete parish. It was a gigantic sleep-over party, like in junior high school.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

See ya!

Leaving today for three days “in the field”. Will be back (with bells on) Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The "Miss North Kivu" Contest, 2010


Yesterday, with a friend, I went to see an orphanage on the outskirts of the city. It is truly horrible, full of children with sores and without love. A pastor runs the orphanage. His church is next door. He won’t let the children attend his church because they are dirty. At least one is a former child soldier. I heard stories.

Horror, as it were – I have seen this before, and violence. This is not my first time meeting people damaged by the brutality of society. Switch on switch off – that’s what you do to go back to your day-to-day life.

But it isn’t always easy like a light switch.

This orphanage, these children, their stories, wormed under my skin and I haven’t been able to dig out and shake off my sadness.

Sometimes I clutch sadness to my heart like a stuffed animal.


So what helps? Forcing yourself to socialize. Today was Saturday so I went to teach at the school where I volunteer.

Seeing these kids – my kids – helped.

They are poor, yes, but they are clean and loved. They are untaught but brilliant and hopeful. They are our future doctors, lawyers, farmers, politicians, businessmen, aid workers, teachers. They welcome me into their community for two hours a week.

One of the boys drew this. The head teacher taped it on our classroom wall.

How can you stay depressed when you live in the same world as a child who draws that?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Day in the Life

Scene: Orphanage on the Outskirts of the City; 3 pm

Seven-year-old boy: “I’m fatherless.”

Me: “I know. I’m sorry.” [Pause.] “Um. I don’t have any brothers or sisters.”

Seven-year-old boy: “What? That’s terrible. I’m sorry.”


Scene: Our Office; 9pm

Colleague: “How long have we been working on this budget?”

Me: “Months.”

Colleague: “How long have we been working on this budget today?”

Me: “Twenty-nine hours today.”

Colleague: “Hahaha. Well, thank God you’re good at numbers.”

Me: “Budgets are funny. Hahaha.”

Colleague: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”

Me: “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”

Another Colleague, entering: “What’s so funny?”

[Confused silence.]


Scene: Our Living Room; 11 pm; James Bond Movie Projected onto Wall

Colleague: “I like watching James Bond movies. Our lives look really boring in comparison.”

Me: “Compared to James Bond, we are living in a little cottage surrounded by a white-washed picket fence with our husband and two-point-five children.”

Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow

Nyamulagira is still erupting, but less. While volcanic activity continues, lava fountains are (reportedly) barely more than 100m in height.

Today it is freezing. I’m bundled in my leather jacket. I blame this on Nyamulagira. The sky is covered by smoke and volcanic ash and little sun gets through. And now we no longer have the heat of the lava spurts to warm us up. Honestly. Freezing. I half expect snow to start falling from our stark white sky.

Tomorrow is a holiday. I will go out on my boat (Ndege-Samaki). I will visit an orphanage. I will attend a meeting (“holiday” only means no need to come into the office; it doesn’t mean no work).

At approximately 7:22 am Goma-time (GMT +2), the sun will disappear, hiding itself behind the moon. According to MSNBC, we should expect a “cosmic ring of fire”. It is not a total eclipse – only an annular eclipse. I will set my alarm and I will drag my body out of its warm bed and I will place a small mirror on my windowsill and watch the shadows beneath the tree leaves. But I will not expect to see much, because of the volcanic ash clouding our view.

Yesterday I couldn’t speak French to save my life and today I seem to understand nearly everything. What will tomorrow bring?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sand Castles

For centuries, this happened: Monks of the Capuchin religious order buried the bodies of their newly deceased brothers in shallow graves. Waited two or three years. Dug the bodies up.

The still-living men took the bones of the dead men. Cleaned them. Organized them. Bound them together in patterns, creating works of dead art. In this way, the still-living men decorated their chapels. With pelvis chandeliers and arm-bone altars. With spine mosaics and jawbone wallpaper. With vertabrae fleurs-de-lys.

There is a wonderful example in Rome, Italy, created from the remains of 4,000 friars. It includes six chapels and on the wall of the hallway is a sign in six languages:

What you are now, we used to be; what we are now you will be.


This happened: In ancient Rome, as a general was completing his victory parade though streets of cheering women and men, tradition dictated that his slave stand behind him and whisper “Memento mori”.

Remember, you must die.

This guaranteed that that the dictator during the pinnacle of life would not lose himself in the idolatry surrounding him.


This is happening: On 10 January 1977, right outside of Goma, the crater walls of Mount Nyiragongo fractured and lava spewed out, devastating the city, killing between 70 and several thousand people. The government of the DRC asked people not to rebuild the city in the same spot, warning them that, one day, the volcano would erupt again. But they did. And it did. In 2002, 80% of the city was again destroyed.

In 2002, 400,000 people were evacuated. They came back. They rebuilt. But why?

Love for a city. Love for commerce. Love for nightclubs and beautiful beaches. Love for family who live here. Love for friends. Love for money – Goma is place of great wealth.

There is more than that: There is an inability to leave, actual or simply perceived. You flee to the fringes of the city and you are chased back inside, by fiscal and physical violence. In Gisenyi, in 2002, refugees fleeing the streaming lava were not welcomed. They were charged $10 for a small bottle of water and more for food. They returned to Goma to survey the damage when the ground was still hot and steaming. Displaced persons fleeing to Massisi found a different life and a population without enough to share. They returned to Goma.

Today, as I type this, there is no building in the neighborhood I am sitting in that is more than eight years old. How much older will the buildings grow? How many people will cook in our kitchen and sleep in our bedrooms before Nyiragongo explodes again and destroys it all? All the cars in the road – all the TVs hanging on the walls – all the materials goods will be gone. Lives will be lost. Flowers will burn in trees. Everything here is ephemeral.

This Goma is fleeting. Its destruction will happen next year or in two decades. But people still build their sand castles on the shores of the poisonous lake above the rift in the earth below the looming mountains that throw fire.


There is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, my favorite poet during my teenage years:

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand;
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.


Except to Ms. Millay I would say that devastation is too often mistaken for romance. And in the case of Goma, it is the most vulnerable who will suffer. Those who can afford to build shining palaces can afford to rebuild them. But those who can only afford ugly huts will be left with nothing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Acts of Violence I Have Seen Recently:

  • A woman throwing a small handful of gum into the middle of a very large crowd of hungry children.

  • A man standing (uninvited) in the middle of a poor farmer’s field, breaking a stake in half that was holding up a tender vine, just because the stake was poking into his side. (He could have moved.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

One Step Past One-Hundred

This is apparently my post #101, according to blogger!


Sunday morning, and the sun is shining through the volcanic dust that has marred our sky for a week. (Last night we found Pele’s Hair on our outdoor dining room table. It is crazy stuff, lava spun out by the wind until it is thin as a strand of your bangs and the color of amber resin.) Yesterday I inflated my new rowboat and today seemed the perfect opportunity to lift it (her – aren’t boats female?) up over the razor wire on our molten rock beach and take it (her) for a spin.

I had asked Santa Claus for a rowboat – $30 on – but Santa Claus had read that over-the-top New York Times article about the lake gases several months ago and thus said “Absolutely not!” to my request. This left me to arrange the logistics of the purchase myself. (Santa Claus, reading this, is not going to be happy with me, but luckily he is on a ski trip with some of his good friends right now, several continents away from me. Hopefully, they will buy him a beer and tell him that his worries are misplaced.) I got my boat, I got it/her back here – and I have just dragged it/her back up over our shoreline after a very satisfactory expedition.

Looking at our house – one of the two compounds that we spend our life traveling back-and-forth, back-and-forth between – from long meters out to sea, and seeing how small it looks, and how tropical/exotic, with the huge palm trees and multi-colored flowers, is bizarre. It made me wonder who lived there, because I couldn’t possibly, right?

Looking out at the rough shacks on the MONUC soldiers’ beach front – looking at MONUC as a whole from the other side – the side that is not all high metal walls and machine-gun guard towers – also was strange and worthwhile. What must it be like to wake up each morning and find yourself locked up there, when your family is in India or Columbia or South Africa?

A half-dozen little boys and their sister swam out to greet me in my little boat. We talked in French as they doggy-paddled and I struggled with my oars. They swam way out far to keep up with me, which made me nervous for them and made me keep closer to shore, but they were safe enough – not pretty swimmers, maybe, but very strong swimmers.

And then I lay back and felt the waves rocking me, like the light, bouncy turbulence in an airplane that is the best kind – or like a swing – or like a cuddle in a cushiony rocking chair.

I named my little boat bird-fish in Swahili – bird for her colors (yellow and blue, like a parrot), and fish for obvious reasons. Ndege-Samaki.

Friday, January 8, 2010

7:35 pm on a Friday night

There are parties tonight out in Goma. I've heard of a few. I'm not at them.

Where am I?

Oh, I'm still at the office. And. I'm here for the foreseeable future.

Oh, yeah, I'm definitely complaining loudly. "Oh. Em. Gee. Coordinating with Kinshasa! And I have to get that document to NYC by yesterday! And what does London say!? Oh - this spreadsheet - what a complete disaster!!!"

And I'm happy. I love all this.

Nyamulagira Update

There was a briefing yesterday at OCHA concerning the continuing eruption of Nyamulagira. Two vulcanologists were present to give their (sometimes contradicting) opinions.

I was not actually able to attend the meeting (the joys of reformatting budgets got in the way!) but colleagues attended, and here is what they reported back (translated from the French, with some of my own comments added in):

For the last two days (now, presumably, three days; the meeting was yesterday) the speed of the lava flow has slowed considerably. When it first erupted, the lava moved at speeds reaching 2 km per day; now, it is only moving at 200-300 meters per day. Partially, this can be explained because the flow has reached a much flatter surface. It is no longer coursing downhill. Moreover, rather than being only 15 meters wide, as it was in the first few days, it is now nearly 200 meters wide. This news is greeted with much relief. While people’s homes were never in danger, a large, important road (along the Gummed/Sake ax) is in the path of the lava. Now it appears that the lava will not be able to reach the road for another 2 to 4 weeks.

This all said, the activity level of the volcano does remain intense. Fountains of lava spewing forth from Nyamulagira have reached heights of more than 50 meters in the last several days. The vulcanologists posited that this high level of activity will continue for several more weeks or months.

One thing that both scientists agreed on (luckily, as it is probably the thing that most terrifies those of us with active imaginations): The “degasification” of Lake Kivu remains very unlikely. To “rock” the gas saturation point, which lies in the depths of the deep, deep lake, a very violent phenomenon would need to occur. Even in the 2002 eruption of Nyragongo, marked by an earthquake of magnitude six and lava that flowed into the lake for several days, the gases did not bubble up to suffocate the population. (Yay!)

The effects of this eruption on the population of Goma and its surrounding areas remain limited. Dominant winds are blowing westward, and people who live in Sake, who are drinking contaminated rainwater, are becoming ill. Spring waters (underground waters) are so far untouched. Surface waters are only slightly contaminated. (Eventually, surface waters may be more contaminated.)

Ashes are not toxic; fruits and vegetables touched by ashes need only be thoroughly washed. However, the presence of ash in pastures is harmful to cattle because of a phenomenon called “Pelé's Hair” where the ashes crystallize on leaves and can affect the digestive system of animals if eaten.

Conclusion: The situation is not currently alarming. However, it is a volcano. Things can change, and quickly, and with little warning. Measuring instruments only caught wind of troubles within the ground 8 hours before the beginning of this eruption. Happily, researchers, general scientists, and vulcanologists are currently pouring into town, conducting in-depth studies and monitoring the situation.


(Oh yeah and PS there is now a spot for comments on this blog, if you so desire.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Seriously?! Seriously. SERIOUSLY?!?!

After the distressing end of the disastrous Kimia II, FARDC is beginning a new UN-sponsered offense against the FDLR rebels.  Guess what it is called?  No, go on, guess.  You'll never get it!  Okay!  Had enough?  I'll tell you.

It is called "Amani Leo".  Don't know Swahili?  Let me translate that for you.  It means "Peace Today".

Can I retype that?

The new military offensive, replacing Kimia II, is named "Peace Today."

Who says the military doesn't have a sense of humor?  Or maybe I'm being too harsh... if the leaders of the FARDC caught Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, they may be justifiably confused...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Nyamuragira, Erupting.


The lava from Nyamulagira is still flowing so we ate lunch inside today to avoid the ash. But I haven't seen any ash. So I'm not sure if that was a true necessity or simply our chef's superstition.

The lava is now just 4.5 km from the main road between Goma and Sake. Luckily it is still not near any person's home, but we don't want it to damage the road, either.

Beggars and Choosers

I’m jetlagged. It’s 2:46 am and there is thunder out across the lake. 2:46 am is only 7:46 pm in my Christmas time zone. 7:47 pm now. But I have work in 5 hours and 13 minutes. Sleep is a necessity. Argh.

Maybe philosophizing about a moral quandary will help quiet my mind. Specifically: when (if) to give to beggars. I have been revisiting my previous conclusions about this subject recently and have been meaning to sit down and truly think it out, but I haven’t had time. I guess 2:53 am is as good a time as any.

(What insane luxury to be lying in a warm bed with a roof over my head and a computer on my lap, debating this – to be on the “giving” side of the beggar divide and not the “asking”.)

When I was a child, a woman beggar sat many days on the street two blocks away from mine, holding out a cup in her hands. Sometimes at night when I walked to the ice cream shop with my parents, my dad would give me a quarter to give to her, and I understood from him that it was important to share with people, even strangers. But I am 28 years old now and this woman is still there, on the same street. I suppose that she is happy enough with her life, as she doesn’t seem to have attempted to change her status quo in the last quarter century. But there is more to life than finding your own happiness; there is a responsibility to support the vulnerable in your society. This responsibility should fall on her shoulders, too. I have trouble respecting this woman. The way she asks for money in a high whine; the way her skin is bloated; the way her face changes when she sees someone approaching whom she thinks will give money – like she pulls on a mask of self-pity and need. I have watched her for over two decades. I have never had a long conversation with her, but she has watched me grow up and I have watched her grow prematurely old. If she is truly unable to care for herself, then I would rather give money to an organization that can help her than directly to her. But if she just doesn’t care enough about her society to try to pull her life together, then I would also rather give money to an organization.

When I first moved to this huge and diverse continent, I lived in Senegal for two months (early 2007). Senegal has talibé. Talibé are students. They are young boys who are sent to live with marabouts to learn math, writing, Islam, humility, and how to be strong men when they grow up. Unfortunately, (as I was told the history, and as I remember it three years later) since the big drought in the 1970s resulted in widespread hunger and poverty, the young boys were sent out to beg more and more and kept in class less and less. Since the drought, the culture of excessive begging has remained. This is obviously not true for all daara and many marabout are caring teachers who do not beat their children for not bringing home enough coins in the evening. However, when you walk at night in Senegal you will come across plenty of kids still out, caring around their red tomato paste cans (for some reason, this is the signature begging cup for talibé), scared to go back to their schools to sleep. In Dakar, I knew an ex-pat girl who was a Ba’hai. On the day to break her fast, she and I celebrated by buying sweet muffins and walking through our neighborhood, distributing them to talibé. I remember one little boy, sitting in the sand against a crumble wall with his head in the crook of his elbow. I shook his arm to hand him a muffin. He looked at me, took it, stuffed it up the sleeve of his shirt and put his head back down. He didn’t even smile and his eyes looked so old. I remember another kid, no older than three, snotty-faced, who stumbled up to me on Gorée Island, holding up a tomato paste can. Imagine the sting of pebbles launched from slingshots at your back and legs by tired, angry nine year olds, out alone at night. It really hurts. So – giving a coin to one of these little boys at night might allow him to go home to sleep without being beaten – but what about the next night? This wasn’t a system that I felt I could support. Instead, shouldn’t one give money and time to a local organization that could work to provide a sustainable solution for these boys?

(Side note: At the NGO I interned at, I had colleagues who were once talibé – but in good daara with responsible caretakers. And these colleagues would sometimes give coins to the beggar boys, in accordance with the pillar of Islam that dictates alms be given. But first, before giving coins, my colleagues would quiz the boys in Arabic on Quran verses or in French on school work. When they got satisfactory answers, they were assured that the boys were attending a strong, valid daara and would give the boys coins to reward their humility and hard work.)

In The Gambia, I lived back and forth between the far east of the country, Basse Santu Su, a vibrant market town right on the river which I loved, and a resort town in the west, Kololi, right outside the capital and on the Atlantic Ocean. Kololi has a serious problem with tourism. Prostitution is rampant (most visible are the men, called bumsters, who pick up or are picked up by European females for a week of fun, sex and drugs). And then there are the plentiful tourists who come down with bags of clothes and toys and hand them out to children on the beach. They lie on their towels at their resorts beneath their umbrellas in their knock-off D&G sunglasses and brag about their good deeds, envisioning themselves Santa Claus or a philanthropist, Carnegie maybe, or maybe an old explorer/colonialist, from those romantic times, offering tokens of civilization to the helpless African children. (I would spend hours searching for sand dollars on the beach and I heard so many of these stories). The situation is so bad and ridiculous that children actually skip school to go hang out at the beach and get candies, barrettes, and tee-shirts from the tourists. Besides missing out on education, the poorest of these children then take the candies they are given and sell them to shopkeepers for the coins, so they can offer them up to their caretakers and not be beaten. It’s a terrible system that the tourists partially create and fully exacerbate. It makes you never want to give out money and instead support an organization that will work to change the status quo.

When the children in The Gambia and later in Uganda chased me to ask me for gifts I would make a point of stopping, shaking their hands, looking them in the eye, letting them practice their English, and leaving them with just that – the attention of an adult and the smile of a woman – and no coins or foods or material goods.

In northern Uganda, one of my first times in the IDP camps, my four Ugandan colleagues, one Mauritanian colleague and I were wrapping up a focus group session. We thanked people for their time and participation by giving them soaps. Because I didn’t speak Acholi (and because my Mauritanian colleague, who also didn’t speak Acholi, was awful), I found myself being the sole distributor of soaps while my Ugandan colleagues asked wrap-up questions of the contributors. I freaked out. Here I was, the one white person around, and I was the one passing out items. I told my colleagues in our little rented car on the way back to Kitgum town that I absolutely never wanted that to happen again. I don’t think any of them understood why I was upset. They agreed easily, because they liked me, but with confused looks on their faces – I think they thought I wasn’t making sense, or maybe that I was indulging my “white guilt” and thus would be lengthening our future stays in the camps by not helping with the little task. I don’t know. I just pictured those tourists and their bags of handouts and couldn’t do it. Not that I had any issues with the soap distribution itself – I just didn’t feel comfortable being the face of the handouts.

So – all of these stories combine and melt into the back story of my life, and bring us to here: Goma, Eastern Congo. Here, where I have two ex-pat colleagues, both of whom I like and respect, who have bought soccer balls for the neighborhood youths; who hand out bread to the beggars in front of the Western grocery store. I just can’t grasp this entirely, but it has made me think a lot about the issue.

And this is what I wonder – despite all the stories and their conclusions which I have written above, I wonder if still the main reason I refuse to hand out coins or bread or soaps isn’t because my morals don’t allow me too – but because I feel so uncomfortable with my place as one of the “Haves” in the world. Maybe I have made good points above. But maybe, partially, I just want to ignore the divisions that are there, when I am face-to-face with them without the buffer of an NGO. I want to shake hands, make friends, sweep the divisions under the rug, hide them behind a curtain, pretend. I have never gone hungry for lack of access to food, and I have never been forced to sleep without a roof over my head. Those facts do separate me from something like 80% of the other humans on this earth.

I’m a firm believer that serious sustainable changes need to be made to the way we have organized our societies. But does it really do harm to give a soccer ball to kids who are kicking around bound up rags? Does it teach them to beg or does it help them learn generosity and sportsmanship? I’m just not sure. (Why am I the one in the position to make these decisions?) If you can give coins to stop one boy from being hit and kicked by his caretaker for one night, even if it doesn’t fix the system, even if it strengthens the system, one child has not gotten beat up one night. What is that worth? How can you measure the worth of that?

It’s 4:27 am. I need to be asleep.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Being Understood

Two weeks ago, I was attacked.

By this:

Okay, it didn't actually get the chance to attack me, but it was planning to, I know it.  This being, this result of the unholy union between a cockroach and a scorpion, was sitting on the stairs outside of my room and it was facing towards my room.

Even in my panic, I kept a clear head.  I did the only sensible thing.  I ran to the watch tower and yelled for our guards.  "J'ai un tres grand problème et j'ai besoin d'aide!"

The younger guard, who I hadn't seen before, actually began reaching for his emergency radio.  Luckily, our older guard, who is always there, stopped him with a look and a shake of his head.   "C'est Rachel," he said, introducing me.  He then he calmly followed me to find and destroy the monster.

Even though our older guard does not speak perfect French (and for sure, neither do I), I liked it, the fact that he understood me, my intentions, when I spoke.  I felt known.

And that is why traveling back to Goma is very different than traveling to Goma for the first time.  This time, I have friends.


Looking at the picture of the bug, from the safe distance of an ocean and two weeks, I feel a bit badly that I was the cause of its demise.  Poor sad buggy.  I am sorry.  But at the time, it seemed huge and it was nighttime and the bug was just glowing, its pinchers casting scary shadows beneath the security lamp.

Jetlag & Culture Shock

Last night Nyamulagira erupted. No villages are near it but endangered chimps may be injured in the lava flow. I wonder how red the sky glowed. I wonder if the sky looked like sunrise at 3:45 am. I've been in Pittsburgh* so I didn't see it.

Tomorrow morning I leave Pittsburgh & begin the 40 hour trek back to Goma. This has been a veryveryvery fast holiday break and for most of it I have been jetlagged. I fell asleep on my neighbors' couch during Christmas dinner.

My flight isn't until 6:15 am but my father is driving me to the airport. Father believes in getting to the airport at least 16 hours ahead of the time your flight will be boarding. Right now it is 4:30 pm, and, to be honest, I'm a bit surprised we haven't already left. Haha. Anyway, we will probably leave at about 2 am. I want Dad to drive me the long way around, via the top of Mount Washington, so I can stand in the sky and look down over my dark city before I fly away: The pinprick lights of the stars above me; the pinprick lights of the skyscrapers below.

But because we drove to the top of Mount Washington just today, and because it will be the middle of the night and we will be stressed and tired, I think this is a want that I will not receive.

My close friend J has been visiting this vacation. She is from a mid-sized village in the North of Uganda. The culture of my family at Christmas involves dressing in short black dresses and ascot suits, drinking a lot of champagne, and eating finger foods, fancy cheeses, and caviar. That is not the whole story: there are also bowls of chips and football talk. But the country club with its crystal chandeliers and black high heels is a part of it. J was sometimes overwhelmed by this, um, very understandably. And what did she think it all? I don't know, I have no clue. My friends and family, wallowing blindly in our merry excess, truly did like her a lot. Nobody said anything too embarrassing (only one person referred to Africa as a country, in my hearing).

Because I spend my life stumbling from cultural gaffe to language-barrier confusion to overwhelming travel shock, and because J was so patient with me in Uganda, I was thrilled for the chance to try to reciprocate her hospitality. I, in my holiday-exhaustion, was not always the outgoing hostess I should have been. But it was great fun for me to have her visiting.

*Best city in the world, for those of you (sadly) unacquainted with it.