Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lock-Down Day #2

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

First Day in Lock-Down

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 28, 2010


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

Spent Sunday lounging around the beach in Gisenyi with friends.

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Break into "The Business"

This is the career advice people have given me recently:

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

I mean, good heavens! Damn!

Next question: What do me myself I want?

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

Deep down I’m a homebody who craves consistency.

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Science is Fun!

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

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


Monday, June 21, 2010

what we talk about when we talk about love

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

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


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

Snap open your eyes.

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



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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

But You Can't Trace Time

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


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

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

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

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


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

But we are still best friends.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Horizon

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

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

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010


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

She doesn’t notice until too late.

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

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

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

Us in our beach gear.

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

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

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

“Creepy,” says S.

"Yeah, creepy," I say.


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

My dear heroes, they are.


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

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

Creepy, right?



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

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

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

They’re so not.

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


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

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

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

Thursday, June 10, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

the last 10 days & the next 3 weeks

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


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


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


(frankly) I love

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


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


(to be honest) I want to stay.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Golden Chukadu

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

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


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

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

Thursday, June 3, 2010

And neighbors

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

chirp scra-aaa-atch

gurgle chi-ii-irrup

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

in my room.

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Existence on Earth of All of My Friends

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