Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Monday, March 29, 2010

Volcano Photo Album

The waves are crashing tonight and yesterday morning we climbed down from the summit of Nyiragongo.

Shit, it was incredible.

My God, but we’re in pain today. Our legs! Our arms! The sunburns on the backs of our necks!

There aren’t photos of the hail. I wish I could have gotten photos of the hail that started when we were half way up. But it was pretty violent and could have broken my camera.

With all the rain, the steep path turned into a waterfall. We hiked up a thin waterfall.

There aren’t photos of the last leg of the climb. It was 7 pm and pitch black. The smell of sulfur was intense. The slope was 45°. Pure terror and sweet adrenaline got me to the summit, where it wasn’t pitch black – the red glow from the lava pool lasted all night.

There aren’t photos from inside our tent. It wasn’t terrible. It was small and wet and cold, but we all spooned together for warmth. It was like a sleepover party as a little kid. I thought about all the families that live in one room homes and sleep in the same bed together every night, and sometimes their roofs leak. Our tent leaked. I thought of the banana leaf shelters of the North Kivu IDP camps. Those are barely bigger than our tent. Those leak when it rains. People live in those for two, three, ten years. We only had to spend one night in the elements. We cuddled with each other. We stayed warm.

It was really crazy and incredible.

There aren’t photos of the wind at night that made us think the tent might blow off the edge of the cliff and we might all tumble down the steep slope all the way back to Goma.

But there are photos of the glorious terrible power of our Earth.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I spent last night...

(cuddling for warmth with five other people, in a leaky three-person tent, in a wind-and-rain storm, on the side of a sheer cliff, next to a ROILING bright red lava lake, atop Mt Nyiragongo, on a fault line in the Rift Valley of the Great Lakes region of Africa, on Earth, in our solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy)

...in the sky.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Goma Dichotomy, Example #459

And so this morning Lake Kivu was still as sleep, smooth as obsidian, stretching out for miles and miles until the sudden rise of deep blue mountains stabbing up into the bleak white sky.

Already, I stare out over the lake with such nostalgia.  It will be hard to not live beside, alongside, amidst this immense beauty.  The cormorants diving deep towards the methane pooled in the lake basin.  The kingfishers beating their wings faster than the human eye can see.  The fish swimming dizzy circles beneath the black. 

And so last night we went out to dinner, some colleagues and me.  Depending on you, dear reader, and your generosity for hyperbole, depending on your leniency with the sliding scale to define a happenstance as a disaster, I may or may not refer to last night’s dinner as an unmitigated disaster.   

The food didn’t come.  Our blood-sugar levels crashed.  The food finally came.  The bill didn’t come.  We got pissed off.  The bill finally came and we paid it.  The change didn’t come.  We fought and yelled and groaned and smashed our heads into the wall.  The change came.  We walked outside in the rain.  There was our car; we climbed in.  We drove thirty, forty feet, exhausted, complaining, and suddenly everyone in the car with me strangled-gasped and half-screamed.

I look up: There’s a motorcycle with two men on it swerving towards, away from, towards, away from our car.  I whip around: There’s a woman lying prostrate on the ground, in the middle of the street.  Face forward again: The men on the motorcycle are grinning, the one riding bitch waving his arms, a sick gleeful dance.  Back to the woman: She is dragging her body up.  Dazed confused. 

We aren’t sure exactly what happened.  Our driver didn’t see the woman, he only saw the motorcycle, and did his best to steer away, get us away, as fast as possible.  My three colleagues saw the mugging/GBV, saw the woman grabbed and smashed into the concrete of the singular paved street in this whole city.  I saw the woman slowly stumble back up and stop, still, in the middle of the road, in the rain.  I saw the motorcyclists grin and I saw them dance.  The assholes.  The assholes. 

We drove away from her and we drove away from them.  We drove back to our razor-wired gate and our strong guards and our warm house beside the lake where our colleagues were watching an old episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” projected up onto our living room wall.  We curled up on our comfy red couches, joining them.  When we blinked, when we shut our eyes, we saw the woman still standing in the middle of the street, alone.  In the rain.  Where we left her.  We wished that our car had hit the motorcyclists.  Not really.  But kind of.  We don’t believe in an eye for an eye but the base vile depths of us wished that they’d been hurt.

Outside of our doors, the lake stretches calm and sweet.  The cormorants dive deep towards the methane pooled in the lake basin.  The kingfishers beat their wings faster than the human eye can see.  And we people here, we try to do what we can to live together peacefully beside them.  And we try.  And we do try.  And we try.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Goma is also:

Draping yourself in the back seat of J's car, A riding shotgun. Tape deck turned up full volume blaring Tupac*. Bounce bounce bouncing down the hardened lava flows that are referred to as roads. Darkness of the evening.

*J is a lovely blond woman from Siberia whose entire cassette tape collection consists of various albums from Tupac Shakur and Simon&Garfunkel.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Just now I began to type something light and pretty about the rain, something pretty and light like a dandelion seed, about the rain, and how sweet and soft it is today, and how the lake is green and navy blue, and the sky is gray.

Then I got distracted and did some work and checked my mail and clicked on my bloglines account and read this.

This morning there was a teenage girl sleeping on the grass in front of our razor-wired gates. Our guards smiled and waved off our concerns: “She’s just a maibobo* resting.”

My friend JH turned 24 years old so there is a birthday party for him tonight at the dance club Coco Jambos: Pizza & wine.

Yesterday my dear colleague who works on GBV issues was trying to figure out which statistic about the number of women & girls raped in the last year in North Kivu is the most accurate because they all seem rather off and anyway in this context of insecurity and displacement and returns, how could anyone ever know?! We joked about it hahaha stupid statistic makers.

Walking home for lunch today I got wet in the sweet cool rain and so I exchanged my flip flops for striped wool knee socks & tennies and I pulled on my sweater with the sea turtle on the front. How cozy I am now!

how terribly terribly cozy

*Street kid

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I just walked over to my computer and it was weird because while I was walking, chairs and tables and my computer got closer to me.

That was weird because I spent the last hour on the treadmill and no matter how fast I ran, nothing came closer.

It makes your brain a little bewildered when you exercise at 9 pm at night (down the street at the gym in MONUC headquarters).

I’ve gone to the gym five out of the last six nights. That’s probably partially why I haven’t written on here much this week. I’ve been running and biking out my roiling thoughts instead of tap-tap-tapping them onto a keyboard.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


On Thursday (before Friday’s pseudo-non-evacuation) we traveled North from Kiwanja up to Shinda in Rutshuru Territory.

In Shinda most of the houses look like this:

and like this:

You might see these houses and you might feel pity for the people who live inside them because the houses are small and because they must be dark inside and because they are made of dirt.

Poverty doesn’t mean a lack of individuality. It doesn’t mean you have nothing. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your home.

Proof of this: Look closer at the houses in Shinda and you see: Dirt walls, yes. Metal roofs, yes. But the doors.

No two doors are the same.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I spent this morning

Watching the cormorants dive beneath the green water and guessing where they would come up, fish in beak –

You can never guess. They are simply too fast.

A Non-Incident

We had a bit of a non-incident yesterday by which I mean we were pseudo-non-evacuated from Kiwanja – a careful precaution.

Nothing actually happened. A little tiny part of a marginal section of a minority of the nearby community made several crazy accusations against our NGO. (Truly crazy stuff, e.g. that a hospital we support doesn’t even have sutures in stock and so once after an emergency caesarean section doctors just bound up the new mama’s stomach with scotch tape and she died. Horrible. Terrible. Completely false and not at all true.) Anyway, this little tiny part of the marginal section of the minority of the community declared things like this on the radio and in a threatening letter dropped in our mailbox, cold copied to the local government.

The entire non-incident? Kinda boring. First I sat around thinking about all the work I should be doing. Then I walked here and there following orders. Then I sat in the car. Nothing happened. We were driven back to Goma. La di da, that was that.

Even our national colleagues were just given money and asked to blend in on buses going back to Goma, and to stay there for the weekend. It was thought public transportation would be a better option than having tons & tons of our cars on the road with our big bright NGO stickers on them.

MONUC told us in a meeting that, hey, if we wanted, instead of leaving Kiwanja, we could just come hang out on their base for the weekend. That was very nice. But we demurred.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


On our drive up, A was talking about the “amazing power of love” (or however the hell he phrased that) because we had just passed an FARDC base, and he'd seen a woman there, and he was thinking about what it must be like to be a wife of a soldier.

“Imagine leaving your home, your family, the city or your village, to go live with your husband in an army camp in the bush,” he said. “Love has amazing power.”

To which I said: “Do you really think that women here have a choice in who they marry?”

“Usually,” said A.

To which I said: “Do you really think they marry for love? Or do they marry to escape their lives and to seek out something better?”

“Nothing could be worse than to be a woman living in an army base in the bush. If they were fleeing a hard life, they wouldn’t flee to there,” said A.

To which I (who have probably been reading too much Kristof) said: “But don’t you think they are just coerced or forced or assaulted into it?”

A, ever calm and patient, allowed that some girls/women may be forced into marriage. Maybe even a lot. But some, maybe even a lot, actually chose their own husbands, and truly love them, and follow them to army bases because of that love. And that even if it is only a handful of women who leave their homes and live on army bases in the bush because of LOVE, then it is still worth commenting on, because it is still beautiful.

Yeah, okay.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I'm up North in our Kiwanja office for two days. Oh I'm in love. It's so much nicer than Goma. Oh sometimes I don't like Goma, Goma with its dirty sterility, its tall walls, its suspicion. Kiwanja is a town. People greet each other like neighbors should.

Driving up we skirt the park, Virunga, and you can see for miles out over green blue brown grasslands to the sudden rise of Mt Nyiragongo.

"It's like the ocean," I say to mon petit frère A.

"I've never seen the ocean," says A.

"It's like this," I say. And then I add, "But you'll still be totally psyched when you see the real thing," because he will, I know it, and sooner rather than later.

We drive in silence for a while, and then A says musingly, "Rachel, do you ever think about how absolutely powerful love is?"

To which I roll my eyes, snort, and respond, "Oh, for God's sake. What?!"

A is such a dreamer.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Good & Bad

My mood (I am sure you are thrilled to hear reported) is lovely cheerful happy today! Really I don’t know entirely why: I’m still sick.

Maybe it is the fact that at breakfast this morning, when I could barely speak, JB made me a concoction of ginger, Ugandan honey, and hot-HOT-hot water which was delicious. Or maybe it’s that my cold is partially a badge of honor from marching side-by-side step-for-step with colleagues yesterday beneath rainclouds spitting freezing drops while we cheered for women’s rights. Hell, maybe it is the fact that between my painful throat and fluid-filled lungs, not enough oxygen is reaching my brain so I am a bit woozy and giggly. Who cares!

I am coughing up a storm and wheezing for breath and singing in the office and dancing with my colleagues in the hallways and life today for me in Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, is good.

There is more to be said about the women’s day march and pictures to show you, but I haven’t had a chance to think it through/download them yet.

However, to end this gleeful blog post on a terrible horrible sour note, let me quickly report this: While us women were stomping and cheering in our matching outfits with our signs proclaiming our RIGHTS, a handful of policemen were beating the shit out of some guy by the side of the road. You know when you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and she does a roundhouse kick to destroy an evil baddy? It was like that, I saw an actual ROUNDHOUSE KICK, before the crowd around the spectacle got too thick and I couldn’t see anything more. Only, of course, and this is THE KEY POINT of the matter: It wasn’t an evil vampire. It was a human person a young man, brown eyes and a blue shirt and a personality, a being. With, I presume, a mom, and brothers, and a family. And with his hands BOUND BEHIND HIS BACK.

And this is right, right, right beside our march for women’s rights.

As if it’s too much work to concentrate on both article 2 and article 5 at the same time. O! Goma policemen. Please. PLEADINGLY: Please. Can’t we learn to multitask?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hot & Cold

Have a cold. A terrible horrible no good very bad cold. But today was pretty okay anyway.

Woke up and six of the housemates and I had brunch sitting down by the lake, our French colleague making us crepes thin as tissues spread thick with Nutella.

Went to the tailors to pick up my outfit for the International Day of the Woman march tomorrow. Me & the cashier & the cleaner & the laundress, we all have matching fabrics and we will walk together and I can’t wait.

J came over and we sat in front of the lake (which was blue and white today) and we talked about how beautiful it is, which never gets old. And then we decided we wanted to fly kites, so we looked up on Google how to make kites & we cut up plastic bags & sliced green twigs off a tree & taped & tied and then had beautiful kites.

Unfortunately there was no wind.

Next time.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Went to teach English at the little school. We talked about Uganda and my vacation there and big wild animals and reconstruction in post-violence Kitgum and comparative and superlative phrases like “Peace is STRONGER than war” and “People united are STRONGEST of all”.

Love love love those lovely kids.

Went to the tailors to drop of fabric for my outfit for the International Day of the Woman march on Monday. Fun fun fun stuff.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This Career Means a Lot of Goodbyes

This morning we lost another colleague/housemate/friend to the FUTURE to the NEXT STEPS IN LIFE to MOVING ON & MOVING FORWARD to NEW FRIENDS NEW WORK NEW ADVENTURES NEW OPPORTUNITIES.

Our whole household is sad: This morning I told JB our cook that I was going to the office, Goodbye and see you at lunch! And he responded No! Don’t go! Help me block the big gate so D can’t leave forever!

And so me? I started to cry.

Poor, poor, sweet JB awkwardly patted my shoulder, his face looked horrified, he pulled me to the gate, opened it, pushed me out, and said Okay! Please! Go to the office! It’s okay!

I love JB.

At the office, we cut a paper doll out for D and thumb-tacked it up on the wall next to the paper doll for P.

My dear sweet colleague H (WHO IS STILL HERE AND IS NOT LEAVING YET!!!) smiled at me and didn’t make fun of me for crying. H understood. And anyway, it’s a genetic thing. My mom cries too when people leave. I always do. There are photos of me with my cousins from multiple summers, photos taken on the last day at the end of August, when we were leaving the summer house we shared and going home, and in all these photos my cousins look normal and smiley and I am flushed and red eyed and snotty and sad.

I interned in DC for the same NGO I am now working for. I cried when I left.

So I always cry. It’s not a shocker when I am outwardly emotional. But that does not diminish the fact that we are, our household is, sad.

D and I both had rooms with doors that opened up onto the lake and sometimes at night she would sit out on the stairs looking out over the dark expanse of water with a cigarette in her hand, and I would come join her, and we would talk. She spent her last hour before leaving this morning not relaxing, not taking deep breaths, not gazing over the lake, but sitting in her office and pouring over recommendation letters that she had promised to write for several employees but that she hadn’t gotten a chance to write in the hectic madness of handover week. She laughs a lot, and all the time in the office you can randomly hear her laugh from one room or another, even floors away, and you glance at your colleagues, and roll your eyes a little at her, and you laugh, too.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Anybody's Guess

When I first moved here and I didn’t have a single acquaintance in the country, everyone told me that the first three months are the hardest. Again and again I was warned about those first three months. I was told that chances are I’d be perfectly fine friends with all the other months, but those first three – they were untrustworthy and I should watch out for them.

Well? It’s totally true. Those first 14 weeks or so were rather bullying and gave me a rough time. But now that I am ensconced in month four I am much happier. And busier. I have a life. Plenty of projects. Tons of toil and lots of labor and an abundance of amusement and friends.

But. This is such a weird profession that I am trying to be a part of.

I’ve been here four months and I have ten more weeks to go and it is time to start looking for my next position – my next “first three months”.

When I’ve been an expat I have always lived in sub-Saharan Africa. There are 54 diverse countries on this continent (out of a total of 198ish countries on our small blue earth) so I realize how ridiculous this broad generalized statement is (but when is love not irrational?): I love Africa.

Or, at least: I love Basse Santu Su; the lovely city of Addis Ababa; communal Kitgum; crazy Goma; beautiful small Harar; dusty hot loud vibrant Cairo; the huge birds in downtown Kampala; feeling safe enough to hitchhike in The Gambia and in Djibouti; wearing flip flops all the time; tailors and bright lovely clothes; all my friends; all those kids; etc. Etc etc etc.

I need a job with a salary. I need to begin my career. I can’t play volunteer intern associate assistant forever. So? So I have started to consider the possibility that the job I will be able to find may not be on this continent, this place AFRICA that I foolishly feel like I “know”, that I presumptuously imagine I somehow am a part of, that I love.

The opening that makes sense for my career – I want to be in HUMANITARIAN AID – may be in Asia. Or elsewhere. In three months I will probably be relaxing in Pittsburgh. In four months I could live anywhere.

Or maybe they’ll keep me here.

It’s really anybody’s guess.

Monday, March 1, 2010


A lovely friend who I know from DC is here in EASTERN CONGO for the week on work.

It is so trippy to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar context.

We had dinner last night. We gossiped about all you guys yes you our mutual friends back home.

She’s here for five nights and I’m torn between taking her out to see all the lovely restaurants and bars overlooking the lake with fresh-squeezed-strawberry-rum-drinks – or searching out dirtier places so she reports back to my friends that I’m SUPER HARD CORE living here as I do in EASTERN CONGO.


I have been here in EASTERN CONGO for four months already. This means that I have two months left on my non-contract major iNGO volunteership handshake.

I am starting to think about maybe thinking about the future.