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.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

- in Lubumbashi

After flights down the country today in Antonov aircrafts with carpeting on their walls and wheels beneath their wings and seats that sit facing backwards around tables like in a train, I arrived at this pristine shiny hotel in Lubumbashi with MODERN ART in the center of the lobby cordoned off behind velvet ropes. The private bathroom off my bedroom has soap that is so fancy that I thought it was candy. I had to sniff it to decide I shouldn’t eat it.

I am here for five days to meet with colleagues about a ~$10 million health proposal which I am taking the lead in writing. I am scooping up information from programs, finance, operations, etc.

I miss the lake and my friends in Goma sweet Goma but the proposal is getting more and more interesting the more and more I meet with more and more people about it. I’m nervous and enthralled and excited – ten million USD! Whoa.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Pa-pa-pa-poker Face

You’re a sophomore at a preppy New England college and you’ve woken up early to go run three miles with your roommates before your respective classes. (Early is relative for college students. It feels early and your eyes are blurry – but in reality, it’s already 8:46 AM.) Your third roommate is slow tying her sneakers so you and B flip on the TV as you wait. There’s a shot of downtown New York City flickering in the pixels of the screen and there’s a lot of smoke. You and B glance at each other not sure what to think as the voice of the anchorwoman jerks through her speech, taunt with nerves. Your third roommate finally appears and together, you walk to the door, jog out of the dorm, and run down the streets, your shoes crunching up the first red leaves of autumn.


You take the train two hours on the weekends from your college with the ivy-covered stone chapel into New York City. You register with the Red Cross. When it’s drizzling out and you can’t find the shuttle stop where the volunteers for the Family Assistance Center (FAC) are supposed to wait, you knock on the window of a cop car and ask them for directions. The cops smile. They let you into their Crown Victoria and drive you down cordoned off streets to Pier 94 and, because they think you will like it, they flip on the siren for a block or two. They are right. You like it. The FAC is wallpapered with missing person posters – and people with the same eyes, cheek bones, noses, mouths, of the missing and the dead come up to you and grip your hand and ask you how to apply for death certificates. They bring you hairbrushes with the deads’ DNA. One older woman with a thick accent won’t let go of your hand until other volunteers bring her Valium.


(Years later, when you shut your eyes and picture that older woman who wouldn’t let go of your hand, you see her in a Muslim headscarf. But for the life of you, you really can’t figure out if that was reality or if that’s your memory playing tricks on you, simultaneously imagining other stories from the war. You remember clearly that she told you her daughter was smashed to death when the second tower collapsed.)


The third weekend you leave the FAC and begin working at Ground Zero. You struggle holding huge hoses and spray down the boots of the firemen as they shuffle in from the crater. The crud on their boots turns to mud on the cracked sidewalk. You wonder how much of the mud is cement dust, how much is steel shavings, how much is crushed telephones and photo copiers and desk chairs, how much is smashed human, how much is burnt paper, how much is airplane. You get perks, as a volunteer. All the brand name snack foods you want. Twix bars and Ritz crackers. Free shoulder massages, all crammed together in one room, massage chairs arranged like school desks. One of the other volunteers starts sobbing loudly in the middle of her massage, in the middle of the room. No one says anything. When her massage is over, she stops crying and leaves. One of the other volunteers has bandages on her wrists; it’s a strange crowd. You hang out with the firemen, who sleep in a dorm-like area, having 8 hours off at a time. They teach you to play poker using Skittles (from that pile of snack foods) as chips. You slap cards onto the table and together, you laugh until your bellies hurt.


Yesterday afternoon, Sunday afternoon in Eastern DR Congo, on the deck of somebody else’s NGO house overlooking the lake, in the middle of a different war, you are taught to play poker again. Straight flush royal flush two pairs full house high card. You play with real chips and for cold hard cash. The waves smash into gray lava rock and behind your back the sun sets pink. Wine stains your lips red and you bluff and lose and laugh. Then you win. You win seven dollars and then you lose nearly twenty. By the time your driver arrives, you’ve won back most – you cash out down only five bucks. You leave with two friends and drive home to where three other friends are waiting. The generator is still broken and so by candlelight your friends cook pasta and you set the table, plate napkin knife fork spoon. Water glass. Champagne glass. Dessert plate for the tiramisu. You sit around the long table with the warm deep red tablecloth and giggle at stories of California, Iran, Hong Kong, Spain, preppy New England colleges, weird volunteers, snack foods that you miss, computers, gorillas, volcanoes, TV, hair cuts, running shoes, massages, scarves, sirens, cop cars, airplanes, dorm rooms, bluffs, communal living, thick accents, and all sort of things that are only and so very hilarious among friends.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why I Like You (Yes, YOU!)

I’m still young in The Aid World. I don’t even have a salary (yet!). I have worked in Senegal for 2 months, in The Gambia for 7 months, in Northern Uganda for 4 months, and now in Congo for 6 and a half. I’ve been bouncing.

All those positions before, in West Africa (intern) and in Kitgum (research associate/student) – I signed on for them thinking of them as non-permanent. I thought of them as A Thing To Do for A Little While. I made friends, but I never worried about making friends, because after all my real forever friends were back in America. I did my jobs, and I loved my jobs, but I didn’t think about Career Moves or The Future.

When I moved here to Congo it was different. Even though I’m still a volunteer, I don’t imagine myself that way. I imagine myself as a colleague in this organization. (Most of the time) the organization I work for treats me (more or less) as an employee. My friends back home are still my friends and still love me. They are getting married and giving birth to mortgages and babies. (Are they leaving me behind?) Me, I am getting ready to bounce to another spot on this globe. (Am I leaving them behind?)

Choosing This Life, The Things I Get:
  • I get to work.
  • I get to be part of a team.
  • I get to see some really bad things and thus some really good things. The really good things are often the responses and resilience and love that flares up in reaction to the really bad.
  • I get to meet really really neat impressive people. I get to sit around dining room tables with them and discuss Aid Work and Ideas and Fears. I get to go to parties with them and yell conversations across loud dance floors and strobe lights and feel as if I am accepted by them, One of Them, one of these really really neat impressive people.
  • I get to work, in theory and somewhat in practice, towards protecting children. I get to talk with fellow women about what They Need, about how I can Stand Beside Them (if they want) and help them in their fight (if they desire help) for a safer world. I get to feel Good about my Intentions and I have people beside me to help me guide my Good Intentions toward helpful action.
  • I get to go to people’s homes, my colleagues here, and be greeted so warmly, be the recipient of such hospitality, and learn small words in local languages and learns small pieces of customs and cultures that are not my own. 
  • This is less important, but also: I get to buy beautiful jewelry in airport lounges and fly on tin planes chasing the Congo River to its origins.
  • I get to live in a breathtakingly beautiful spot on Earth. Someone makes my bed for me every morning and brews my coffee at lunchtime. I have a generator which (sometimes) works and water that (often) flows from taps and access to cars and drivers, and these things combine to mean that, in reality, I lead a softer life than the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the emperors of ancient Rome.
  • I get so much.
The Things I Give Up:
  • Time with family. My mom has recently promised that she will get a computer camera so we can web chat. My dad reads this blog. But my college roommate lives down the street from her parents and gets to see them every week. I am jealous of her for that.
  • Friendships. I will leave Congo soon and go somewhere else. My friends will stay here and then they will go somewhere else. Wherever I end up, I will meet new friends to call when I need companionship or to joke around. I will keep in touch with some people from here (you can never predict who) and others I will not see again (that’s hard). But I am giving up having the same group of girlfriends to get brunch with on Sunday mornings. I am missing out on having guy friends that you get to know so well that over time they turn into brothers. It’s a whole, whole lot to give up.
  • I give up continuity.
Which Brings Us To YOU:
That is part of why I like all you guys out there. No matter where I will be living in one month time, you will still be here, here in the same place, inside the tubes and wires of the interwebs, writing and reading and thinking and caring and partnering and arguing and getting mad and getting snarking and rethinking and joking and theorizing and chatting.

It’s a small bit of permanence and stability for me, when I get lonely thinking about all the work to be done and all the Social Change to be made. And when I get sad thinking about what I am giving up, you faceless voiceless people out there make me feel a little less alone.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Fighting Child Kidnapping by Kidnapping Children

So. My brilliant academic friend Gwen sent me this article yesterday:

And at first I thought it was pretty fantastic since it makes free use of phrases like “crazed warlord!” and “dealing death!” and “found his calling in this quest for a killer!” ALL IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH and what sort of writer has the guts to do that? and who WOULDN’T love it at first, in the same way one might love an article in The Onion?

Of course, as I kept reading, more phrases began standing out.

Like, um:

An arms depot stands at the heart of his orphanage.


I remember once asking Childers whether any villagers had ever declined his offer to take their children [to his orphanage], or whether he had ever taken any against their will. He erupted angrily: “You know what? I don’t have time to be distracted by this sort of interrogation.”

I mean, shit. Forgetting the ridiculous style of the article (another phrase: “Those are people who deserve to die,” Childers says. And a wide grin stretches across his face.) and the cluelessness of the author, that’s messed up and serious and called child abduction or, if it’s across borders as it sounds, couldn’t he go down for trafficking? (Recruitment for cults is defined as exploitation.)

The fact that an article like this can be printed in a widely read magazine and there aren’t immediately police circling this man’s house is f-ed up.