08 April 2014

More random thoughts on living the expat life

We’ve lately enjoyed a raft (bevy? Gaggle? What pithy turn of phrase best describes a group of aid workers?) of new staff coming in. In addition to this providing a much needed shift in team dynamic, it also furnishes me with the perfect opportunity to reëvaluate our life through their eyes. Indeed, when a new colleague stopped dead in his tracks at a recent house party, remarking that it was all just so weird, I was forced to agree to the sur-reality of the expat existence.

I mean seriously. Where do our enormous houses – with rooms for eight and sprawling gardens and full-sized kitchens and tiled floors and beautifully beamed ceilings - even come from? We can’t fully blame the Belgians – most of our houses are (quite clearly) not that old. It’s quite popular to assume that these are war houses, built by the ill-gotten gains of rebel commanders and their cohorts (NGO workers love to make ourselves feel guilty about collaborating with those who committed atrocity, even where there is no evidence to support such conclusions). I think, though, that we can settle on a still disturbing though less horrifying conclusion – they were built for us. The elite of Bunia (with all of the caveats inherent in that thought, including that several of them might well be war profiteers of some ilk) have, over the last twenty-odd years, constructed a series of shabby-chic mansions to fuel the NGO boom here. And when this area is declared sufficiently stable that our funding dries up and we are forced to decamp (NGOs hardly ever leave because there is legitimately no longer a need for their services), our shadows will stretch far, embracing empty houses and burned out land cruises and thousands of unemployed coping with an inflated standard of living. Is it worth it? Does the good we do while we’re here offset the gross distortions we cause in the local markets and the inevitable crash when we leave? I certainly hope so, but to me it’s a more troubling thought that is the possibility that I live in a warlord’s old domicile.

Perhaps it’s the fury of the existential winds raging ‘round them, but any one of these lovely NGO houses seems ready to come apart at the seams once you get past the surface gloss. For example, outside of the main living room, our floors are concrete. What minimal plumbing there is goes out every other day. The walls are tissue thin. Which is why we can only really gossip when our neighbours are on vacation and I’m never as forthcoming when skyping with my friends as I would like to be.

Still and all, though, most people here live in one to two room huts with either plank or thresh walls and tin roves, so this beggar won’t be too choosy. The disparities in standards of living between expat and local are reinforced in myriad ways, both large and small, every day, usually by the simple fact that we have guards and house mamans, as do the majority of expats. We often compare them, after we’ve had a beer or two and can better shrug off the guilt. We were once shut out of a friend’s compound because the guard was doing maintenance work with a chainsaw and didn’t hear us yelling to be let in for some 10 minutes (this is legitimately a security concern, but highlights the other fact that, were a riot to break out, we would hide behind walls whereas the locals have nowhere to go). The actual resident of the house speculated that he was punishing her for not giving him something on the side from his salary (‘you should be nice to me’ was his particularly oblique way of soliciting extra cheddar).

We also discuss the mamans, though often in more favourable terms. How often they cook, are they any good at it, how fast to your cloathes wear out (we fly through unmentionables). Ours are such lovely women. We have five. Janette is the one who actually takes care of my house. She does all the dishes and picks up the dried cockroach husks that I avoid and ignores the sports bras we hang all over the bathroom to dry and never says a word. Alphonsine is the energetic village woman who warmly pumps your hand for solidly 30 seconds when greeting you in the morning. She’s a great cook, but is scared of the oven and speaks less French than I do. Marthe is the serene head maman, totally unruffled, Grande Dame of Bunia Base. I had the great pleasure of interviewing them for a story on international women’s day. It was March 8 and probably represented the most sustained interaction I’ve ever had with them which is, frankly, a damn shame. All I had to ask them was what women’s day means to them and these ladies went OFF. For an unexpected two hours, I was regaled with stories of the Time Before, when women were not allowed to eat eggs or meat or fish, as all of the best things were saved for the men and boys. It was a time when a woman had no more value that what her dowry would bring, when women were expected to approach their husbands only on their knees. As they walked me through the awakening of worth that women’s day represents, their passion and pride were deeply affecting, especially for a women from a country where woman’s day seems quaint.

As much as I appreciate and feel warmly towards these women, if I’m being totally honest, they make me uncomfortable. I’ve been watching Downton Abbey (we’re getting ready for season 4 down here – one of the British girls is promising to bring it back when she returns from her next R&R) and the parallels are…unsettling. Last week, someone complained about how late lunch was (table wasn’t even set when we arrived from the office. The horror!). And the laundry can take more than a week (our clothes are dried on line strung through the mango trees in the yard, so if you’re not paying attention you can get a face full when you go to get breakfast. Hopefully, they’re yours). And all of this can be irksome, but be sure. But…they iron my underwear (part of the reason they wear out so fast. The other is that they use a stone to scrub the laundry. Vicki Secret is not made for this). And change my sheets. I did get a little miffed when the gardener cut the grass, though that was mostly because he used a weedwacker to do the entire lawn and it took almost 8 hours. I couldn’t complain about the noise because I was too busy feeling bad for him. Moreover, the mamans are terribly efficient, sometimes to the point of irritation. I keep coming back to the laundry, but never have I appreciated what a luxury it is to control the fate of your cloathes. I do try to take care of myself, sometimes, washing certain delicate things or stuff I need quickly by hand. The last time I did this, however, the mamans stole it off the line to iron it. I was forced to do Zumba in my regular bra and slacks.

Much like with real mothers, when the mamans are gone, we’re a bit at a loss. Over the last three day weekend, I ended up eating brownies for breakfast.

In fairness, I have my suspicions that both the grousing and the gossiping are reciprocal. One often feels that s/he is living life in a very subtle zoo. They notice what you eat and which towels you prefer and who will feed the cat and who has allergies and what other NGOs you visit the most (MSF again? One of my guards asked slyly after my third visit in a week). From a personal stand point, you are always faced with concerns of what is and is not proper. After all, what constitutes acceptable behaviour on the part of expats and locals is wildly, and often invasively, different. Sunning yourself on the back porch, for example, becomes extremely uncomfortable when your guards walk past – even in a tank and shorts, you’re acutely aware of how little you have on. And, should you desire a cold beer on a hot day or glass of wine with dinner, you always consider how it will look to the mamans judging the empty crates of beer and boxes of wine. Forget brining someone non-Medair home in the early morning weekend hours. I think we all live with it, and feel the pressure of observation. Who could have guessed that my cracked and dirty windows, strewn with mosquito nets, would make such a perfect fishbowl?

03 April 2014

A saint for the single girl

So, as I might have mentioned in my last post, it’s Lent.  The season of penance and good Catholic guilt and fasting and all that jazz. I don’t give things up for Lent. It seems almost as pointless as a New Year’s resolution, and often leaves me irascible and even more difficult to deal with than normal.  We shall not discuss the Lent I foolishly forwent chocolate.  Suffice it to say, I did not at any point feel closer to God.  And then there was the ill-fated Lent in college when I had intended to give up complaining (what would I ever talk about, you ask?  I have no idea) only to go through my first real heartbreak.  So instead of talking to people about it, I just kept bursting into tears at random and inappropriate moments.  Fun times were had by all.  Instead, now, I generally try to grow in my faith.  And if that seems hokey, well, fair enough.  But be prepared for some Catholic-flavoured discursions in the coming month.

Let’s begin with the one that was sparked in, naturally enough, Paris.  Popping in and out of churches and wine bars as we were, it seemed appropriate to try to determine who is the Patron Saint of Chicks (interestingly, the German equivalent for chicks, in the young woman sense, in snail).  That shouldn’t be so hard, you might scoff – after all, there’s a patron saint of lumberjacks and STDs and necromancers and against enemy plots (this list is not exhaustive, but is delightful).  Someone somewhere must have selected a saint for single ladies.  Ah, but this is the Catholic Church!  An equation of (career + childlessness + reasonably casual sex) x 2-3 mixed drinks on Friday night = a mortal sin (probably.  It’s certainly frowned upon).  We don’t deserve to know who to pray to for redemption when we’re this far gone!  Thus, us poor wanton women are left to our own devices to sort through the some 783 options (and that’s just the ladies!  Who’s to say that the Patron Saint of Chicks wasn’t a gloriously fab fella?).

Some might suggest Agnes or Agatha or Dymphna (or even St. Barbara, which is like the Catholic answer to Rapunzel), but, honestly, wispy child bride martyrs don’t really speak to me as a professional woman who also happens to be looking for romance. I’ve more or less edged out of their demographic, I guess.  And I think we can also nix off the top any angelic mother figures, biological or otherwise.

Who else is does that leave?  Saint Rose?  Okay, so she was the first American canonised, and that’s spiffy and all, but she was also so concerned about her phenomenal beauty distracting people from Christ that she rubbed her face with chili peppers until it blistered.  I…can’t really relate to that.  Maybe I should just go with Saint Rita, who ended up in a loveless and abusive relationship and is now the patron saint of hopeless causes.  That sounds about right for my love life.

But I hold out hope that there are better options for all of the working girls of the world!  Wait – that’s not what I meant.  Off the top of my head and with no real knowledge on the subject, I would like to nominate the following:

Teresa of Avila – the lady was a firebrand who had frequent conversations with God.  When she was being persecuted for being bananas (which was often.  She was also frequently accused of receiving visions from Satan), she was said to kvetch about it to Jesus.  The Son of God apparently answered that this was how he treated his friends, to which she replied that then it was no wonder he has so few friends.  She was also said to have observed that she more feared those who fear the devil than the devil himself.  Basically, St. Teresa was pious but rowdy and driven to action.  She loved her friends and good food.  She seems like the kind of chick who was mad saintly (obviously – she still did get ecstatic visions) but that I still want to get a drink with.  Rock on, TofA.

Catherine of Siena – Catherine seems like a solid choice (she also happens to be my confirmation saint, so I’m a touch bias); she was a mystic, doctor of the church (she was the second woman to be so honoured, behind only Teresa of Avila),  and generally formidable lady who deservedly had the respect and ear of several popes.  She resisted intense societal pressures to either get married and start poppin’ out babies (at least once refusing a suitor via an epic fast and a terribly dramatic hacking off of her hair) or demurely cloister herself in a convent.  She instructed her confessor to “build a cell inside your mind”.  In other words, the lady had herself a mind palace.  She was venerated during her life for speaking truth to power and held a remarkable amount of influence on the global stage for a woman of her, or really any, era.

In the interests of full disclosure, she also professed to have had a vision of her own ‘mystic marriage’ to Christ in which she received, as a wedding ring, his foreskin.  I…don’t really know how to address that.
She also received the stigmata, but requested that it be visible only to herself.  God complied with this wish, which makes her terribly humble, of course, but also makes this mark of divine favour somewhat difficult to verify.  If I walk all over my country and give all my food away and then have raging headaches and pains in my hands, feet, and side, can I also claim an invisible stigmata?  Don’t get me wrong – I love her, but this is a bit on the fishy side.  I suppose that this is where that whole faith thing comes in.  She kicked it when she was naught but 33 and after death her head was incorruptible, so they separated it from her body and encased it in bronze.  As you do. 

Above it all, Catherine a testament to how much a woman can accomplish.  And that makes her a goddess. 

Joan d’Arc – I mean, sparking a religious war (or converting an existing one into a religious war) is maybe not the best thing, broadly speaking, but she’s so cool…and doesn’t every woman wish she could rock a breastplate so well?  Joan was a cross-dressing, premonition having, soldiering (to varying degrees, depending on which historian you read) badass, no two ways about it.

She was also the inspiration for one of the best works in the oeuvre of that champion of women’s rights, George Bernard Shaw.  “Don't think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone. France is alone. God is alone. And the loneliness of God is His strength.” Amen, sister.

And my last, perhaps best, choice for the Patron Saint of Single Ladies…wait for it…wait for it…

Mary Magdalene – she seems like a logical choice, no? 

Mary has, as you probably are aware, gotten a fairly bad rap in Church history.  Her tarnished reputation, for which we can really thank the supposedly super-learned Pope Gregory the Great, is almost assuredly bogus.  He gave a frankly slanderous speech in 591 in which he took the passage about a Mary possessed of seven devils (which in its own right might have been illnesses and not related to sex work at all) and declared it was in fact Mary Magdalene, though there is ample evidence to suggest that it was in fact a TOTALLY DIFFERENT MARY.  Anyway, the upshot of the speech was that our girl Mary had been in the thrall of the seven Deadly Sins and Jesus saved her and she became Mary the Pennant (this so-called ‘composite Magdelene’ led the Church to declare her the patron saint of wayward women, which I suppose is close to what I’m looking for.  I think my morals are loose enough to probably warrant it, at least by some standards.  I don’t think that I’m nearly as prudish as my image of myself).

But if we put aside the hooker with a heart of gold stereotype and focus on the confirmed Mary sightings in the Gospel, an image emerges of a woman who was loyal, compassionate, and tremendously courageous; alone among the Disciples, Mary was brave enough to stand by Jesus in his hours of suffering, death, and beyond (in all four books, it is Mary that is first to realize that Jesus has risen).  Beyond the cannon scriptures, the apocryphal texts portray her as a visionary and leader of the early Church whom Jesus loved more than the other Disciples.  Indeed, the depth of Jesus’ affection for Mary is so clear throughout the Gnostic texts that there is a suspicion that the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John was originally Mary Magdalene, before being later redacted in the official Gospel.

If we consider her Gospel (yes, the lady wrote a Book, though most of it is lost to us today), we find a dense text that is strongly reminiscent of Plato in its dialectic construction.  In the few fragments we have, Jesus is having a post-resurrection debate with his disciples about the baser and higher natures of man.  He explains that salvation can only be achieved by discovering within one’s self a true spiritual nature of humanity and by overcoming the deceptive entrapments of the bodily passions and the world  (someday, I’m going to put together a pop quiz – yoga sutra or Apocrypha?).  Jesus vanishes from the locked room, as is his want post resurrection (he’s a bit of a drama queen, that Christ), and the Disciples are scared and confused by his words, as is their want ALL OF THE TIME (not the swiftest armadillos on the highway, those Disciples), so Peter asks Mary to help them understand because he knows how tight she and JC are.  So she does, much to his shock and dismay.  In response to her enlightened teachings, Peter and Andrew question her credentials and Peter actually belittles her until she cries.  A smart, capable woman who gets attacked by the male establishment until she begins to question her self-worth?  I think we have a winner (in the end, Levi stands up for her and all is well.  It’s Levi’s moment in the sun!).

In working on this post, I did discover a few wacky things about Miss Mary (because it’s not authentically Catholic unless there’s something deeply bizarre going down).  In the gnostic gospel of Thomas, Jesus suggests that he will turn Mary into a dude, so that she may become a living spirit like the other apostles (because women, like dogs, have no eternal souls).  How…Freudian.  Other saints have suggested that the Resurrection re-virginized her.  Sweet glorious goodness, didn’t he have anything better to worry about?  Frankly, I have a hard time believing that Jesus was that hung up on her sexual status.  Tells you a lot about the Church, though.

Most notably, many in the Church believe that some 14 years after the Resurrection, the Jews tossed Mary, along with Sts. Lazarus, Martha, Maximin, and Sidonius, as well as the body of Saint Anne into a boat without oars or sails and banished them to die at sea (except for St. Anne, who was already gone, of course).  Instead, as one might expect from a literal boatload o’saints, they miraculously land in southern France, where Mary spends the rest of her life living in a cave.  A nice twist on the guru on a mountain trope, no?  She fed only on the Eucharist, which was proffered to her daily by angles (because who else delivers to a cave?  I mean really.  I hope she tipped well).  Upon her death at age 72 (records were that good back there), she was transported (presumably by the same obliging delivery angels) to the chapel of Saint Maximin, her old boat buddy, where she received the last sacraments (because DAILY DELIVERY OF THE HOST AT THE HANDS OF ANGELS was insufficient to procure her salvation!).  That, or she might have gone on to focus on leading the women of the fledgling church and taking care of that other Mary, the Mother of God.  Which seems a scoosh more plausible, no?

This is part of the problem with being Catholic.  I believe.  I do.  But there is some seriously bananas stuff found in the cannon, when you really start to dig.  I suppose that I can chalk it up to all the weight of history?  Like when you find old laws on the books about not being able to drive in housecoats or wrestle bears or take you pack mule on the second story of a building or get a fish drunk or harass Bigfoot or what have you.  It doesn’t shake my support for the bedrock principals of how laws are drafted in the States, it just makes you appreciate how utterly insane people have been throughout history.  Or gives you context about how much things have changed.  That analogy works, right?

18 March 2014

I'm still dreaming about that truffle cheese

A few, quick thoughts on Paris before I resume my Congo streams (in which I have been accused of bitterness. To which I say bugger off! But seriously, I think the bitterness is gone. Cheese and wine and good company and the advent of the rainy season have leeched it out of me, so hooray for that). I am not going to dwell on Paris overmuch. Not because it’s not amazing. It is. Paris is glorious. I felt like I even got a whisper of the fabled Parisian spring; only a few things were blooming, but it was enough to get the feel for it. For the purposes of this blog, though, it’s more a matter that Paris is a bit more accessible to most people. So I’ll just urge anyone who has not yet gone to go – and any time of year will do, as a rainy Paris is still a lovely Paris – but be prepared for tourists.

So, about Paris…Paris smells like truffles and tea and cheese and bread and flowers. With the exception of the metros, which are rather pungently urine-smelling, but really, what metros aren’t? The light in Paris is amazing. It filters down narrow cobble stone streets, spilling from slanted roofs onto brightly coloured shutters and cheerfully chaotic windowsill flowerbeds. Even at dawn, it never seems direct, the light of Paris, but always a bit soft, a little sleepy. It’s the light of drowsy mornings filtered through bedsheets that just highlights the face of a new lover. It’s different at night, of course, when the monuments are lit up and compete with only the bravest stars for a reflection in the Seine. Apart from it all, the Eiffel Tower shimmers and winks like a girl twirling in a sequin gown – joyful and fearless and captivated by her own beauty.

Paris, despite the atheism currently en vogue, is a great place to kick off Lent – there are so many glorious churches to meander in and out of, dropping to ones knees before favoured saints and lighting candles for intercessions and even joining in the odd Mass as the spirit moves you. I’m so super Catholic right now. Though, if I’m being fair, it’s also a somewhat tricky place to embrace the whole self-denial aesthetic that generally defines the Lenten season. There’s just too much deliciousness (those dangerous sensuous pleasures) to abstain without serious regret (and I’ll have the forced austerity of Congo for the rest of it, so I don’t feel too guilty. Wow. I’m actually a terrible Catholic right now). We ate some astoundingly amazing food (the fit of my yoga pants now expresses that pretty clearly). There were copious baguettes and truffle oil and creamy cheeses and jewel-toned macaroons (lots and lots of macaroons. We had to take a stand in sugary war begin waged between the major patisseries, after all. It was our touristic duty. I found the chocolates rather disappointing on the whole, though) and sherry that tastes like the stained glass at Notre Dame.
Seriously.  This is what PX tastes like, only better (it's not lopsided)
Side note, here – Notre Dame, it goes without saying, is a fantastic edifice, a truly glorious piece of architecture, but it almost totally lacks any aura of the sacred at all. In fact, it’s pretty much the only one we visited in which I didn’t feel compelled to pray. I didn’t even light a candle for the poor, ill-remembered Joan d’Arc (she’s the patron saint of France, people! The woman deserves more lovin’ in the cathedrals than a handful of barely flickering 1€ candles! Spring for the 5€ mammoth one that will burn for the next two months! Which I did, just not at Notre Dame). It was almost like a Disney-ified church – stunningly well put together, but somehow more like a prop than an actual working edifice. I could also never imagine attending Mass or confession there. God knows someone would probably try to replace the Host with their Ladurée Pétale de Rose or start snogging during the Our Father or the overeager tour guides would try to narrate, unasked, and somehow inexplicably work in a Ronald Regan reference before noting that the US is a different country now. I am willing to concede that my Notre Dame experience was an odd one.
Light the woman an candle!  She's so pious and well-armed
In addition to myriad churches, Paris also has more than its fair share of stunning museums. The Musée du quai Branly is one of the most well organised museums I’ve ever been in, and their collection of non-European art is deeply impressive (even if it does raise some squiky questions about colonial raiding of art and culture from the developing world). The Musée d’Orsay has so many perfect pieces of art that it makes you dizzy. The Louvre just makes you dizzy (there is just so much to see! When even the walls and ceiling are masterpieces, it gets…overwhelming).
I got a kink in my neck from looking up so much.  What kind of museum leaves you needing a massage?!
A few words to the wise on planning your own Parisian excursions (because a week there makes me an expert!): if possible, never use a main door anywhere; you can almost always find some squirrely way to circumvent the hours-long lines. Always trust French bartenders named Axel. Making out in crypts, no matter how nicely put together, is never recommended. Consignment Channel is still not affordable Channel (I wonder if there is some kind of consignment consignment?). It is trickier than you might expect to walk into a couture store. On a related note, Parisian sales clerks and pickpockets seem to have a similar ability to sniff out wealth. The Eiffel Tower, should you endeavour to climb it, requires cash, helpful French tourists (especially if you didn’t know about the cash thing), and a solid mantra (if you are inclined to bouts of paralysis stemming from your conviction that you will fall to your death). Even so, climbing is a wildly preferable alternative to ascending in the funicular (see the aforementioned note about lines). You can reward yourself at the bottom with a Nutella crêpe, though you might want to pass by the vendor who describes them as French pancakes and also sells churros. One line you will not be able to bypass is that for the catacombs, but it is totally worth it – use the hour you’re waiting to eat lunch and edit your Eiffel Tower photos. It will help to ignore the handsy couple in front of you. Parisians are lovely people – don’t pay any mind to all the rumours. And where there are fewer tourists, the nicer they are. Even in the super touristy areas, the way the waiters ignore you almost seems charming. Finally, if you can’t make it to Paris in the near future, it seems the best place to get authentically Parisian goods outside of Paris is Japan. So, there you go. Choices!
Perfect for those of us who enjoy our French history with a touch of the creepy.  And really, isn't that everyone?

As a final and somewhat unrelated note, I certainly have to hope that Kenya Airways is not, in fact, the pride of Africa, as it offered the most underwhelming international travel experience I’ve had in recent memory, and that includes a trans-Atlantic flight on United. Flying into Nairobi at dawn, though, is not to be missed.

28 February 2014

Home and high – dry and home -drome-

I know it’s mentioned it previously (multiple times. I’m very single-minded lately, but I suspect that you would be, too), but it’s the dry season here. And, in the era of climate change, this is serious business – even the locals are complaining. I’ve also kvetched ad nauseam about the dust (one of my colleagues recently called the massive plumes stirred by the wind ‘majestic’. I was terribly proud of myself for my restrain in not smacking her) but…it’s pervasive. Walking outside, the effect is immediate. I can feel the dust settle on my hair and coat my skin in a fine talc. My eyes begin to sting and my throat becomes parched. The grit gets in your teeth and textures your tongue. It is not remotely majestic. It is unforgiving. The dust doesn’t even whirl (again, respectfully disagreeing with my rose-tinted colleague here) – it billows in harsh, menacing waves. It dulls everything. This is a truly beautiful country, but the longer the dry season progresses, the more it’s bucolic loveliness is leached from the surroundings (I readily admit that this might be a question of perception – as the season marches staunchly on, I get more and more tetchy). The light in Bunia has become harsh and flat. It bleaches and drains and renders the world in sepia. Even the clouds are lifeless and two dimensional. The sunsets can occasionally be really striking, though. 

To my mind, and thereby illustrating how deeply frivolous and narcissistic I am, one of the most irritating consequences of the Great Bunia Dust Bowl is the curtaining of leisure activities. This is, hands-down, the worst my asthma has been in years. Practicing Pranayama, not to mention going running, has become a rather fraught endeavour. I’ve also been doing a lot of slack-lining lately (don’t ask. There’s a cute French man involved, and that’s about all you need to know). It’s surprisingly fun, and I’m (slowly. Ohhhh, so slowly) getting better, but I’m not sure if it’s a matter of actual improvement or simply and intense desire to not have to dismount from the line. Where once I would have had a mattress of verdant grass to cushion my falls, I am now met by the hard ground. Twigs and clumps of dead grass adhere to my feet and dust clings to my yoga pants (how unsightly! What will the cute French man think?!). It’s harder to walk the line with debris all over your toes.

The dust also has moments – generally transportation-related and independent of a generalised lowering of lung capacity – when it can be downright dangerous. Case in point (or two): a mototaxi passed me this morning with a toque pulled down to the level of his chin. I’m unconvinced that he could properly see where he was going, but I suppose it’s all a question of priorities. Similarly, last week, someone (who really should have known better) unthinkingly turned on the AC in our Land Cruiser, not wanting to open the windows to the dust. It was like a haboob in the car. Apparently some of this is Sahara sand, so it’s not an inapt comparison.

Bug prevalence is also worse, or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure if it’s water related, but it seems that nearly every morning there is a new cockroach inverted on our kitchen floor. In their down-side-up panic, they try to fly, spinning, no whizzing around in circles like some grotesque wind-up toy. They can survive for days like that. I would rather have expected the mosquitos to lessen, but they’re magic. I have been interested to note that when you successfully slap a mosquito, the body squishes to one of your limbs while an outline of it is left imprinted into your slapping hand, almost distressing in its detail (my hand-eye coordination as really improved, buoyed by an intense desire to not get malaria again). What with all the infestations in the bath and bedroom, I feel like I check myself for creepy crawlies more often than a meth addict.

Maybe would be easier to look past the dust if there was any possibility of relief. But there isn’t. You see, what with the lack of rain, we have no water. Generally speaking, the house depends on rain run-off to fill several massive cisterns dotted around the property. We’re also hooked up to the city system, of course, but they ran out of water weeks before we did. All of Bunia is experiencing a shortage. Even the broad spot on the river that serves as the communal car wash has been shuttered for insufficient H2O. Our logistics team had to go out and forage a tankful from the river farther out and then truck it back in.

When it arrived it was…somewhat less that pristine. Really, it looked more like rooibos tea (if only it had smelled like it, too). It’s difficult to feel truly clean when you’re taking a bath in dirty water, but you do managed to feel refreshed, I guess, so that’s something. On the bright side, my hair has great body and texture right now and my skin is terribly well exfoliated. We’ve also had good fun joking that too much time in Congo turns you into a mud-bath taking hippo. Look out if I start becoming super aggressive and territorial.

The paucity of even dirty water has created something of a merry water war between the two houses on our conjoined compound (resource wars involving humanitarians seem like a wonder premise for a topically absurdist play, no?) that is aided and abetted by our rotating guard staff. We are periodically able to convince one guard to siphon water from the main house so that we might have a shower, only to have them steal it back for drinking filtration while you’re mid-shampoo rinse. Despite the obviousness of these shenangins, no one talks about it. It’s Water Fight Club. Occasionally, I furtively wash up at the main house (a pre-yoga foot scrub behind enemy lines!) and enjoy the most absurd sort of gloating accomplishment for sneaking one past my teammates turned advisories.

What I really don’t like to think about with regard to the quality of water we’re working with right now is that this is the same water in which we wash cloathes (assuming that we even can. We’ve actually put a temporary moratorium on laundry, which is becoming increasingly worrisome as my stock of unmentionables dwindles down to nothing. I’m going on R&R soon people! A girl needs skivvies!) and – worse, to my mind – dishes (it’s fine for drinking, incidentally. Our water filtration systems are aces, which one would expect from an NGO that specialises in WASH). Someone chided me for not washing off a piece of fruit before cutting it for a salad, reminding me that this is Congo! Sure, I thought, which means that there are no pesticides on this fruit, and it’s not like the dirty water will make it clean from the dust of transport… Someone else made the rather tragic mistake of looking in our water tanks. The spit of liquid that remained was apparently covered in an oil-slick film. All in all, I think it’s an amazing accomplishment that we’re not half-dead all the time. Here’s to the resiliency of the human body!

If I look past my personal inconveniences, the dry season is not all bad. Cholera epidemics, for example, rarely occur during the dry season and it’s a great time to vaccinate kids (measles and meningitis are worse, though. Malaria stays the course. It’s tremendously consistent, as far as murderous epidemic diseases go – I blame those damn resilient mosquitoes). Travel is also much, much easier. Partly because of that, the cost of many goods, including food and medicine, noticeably drops.

Finally, it’s a great time of year for major construction projects. On this bright note, and in no small part due to the recent visits of both the President and (muzungu!) Governor, work on the main road has progressed steadily (steadily, but not quickly. This is the central boulevard through all of Bunia, and it has been closed for going on three weeks now. Getting into work has been…complicated, greatly increasing the traffic volume on the narrow market road we take and adding burning tar to the dusty bouquet of Bunia scents). Once they completed tarmacking the first stretch of road, we were treated to the rather endearing site of people strolling along the finished product, dressed smartly, a great many of them be-hatted. I found it terribly Victorian of them.

I’ll end with a final happy piece of news – based on the trees in our yard, mango and avocado season are just around the corner, and there are dark clouds massing on the horizon. Things are really looking up!

17 February 2014

You kiss, others tell*

My Congolese colleagues all properly call it St. Valentine’s Day and were tickled when I wore a (unintentionally) thematically appropriate red shirt. As a valentine’s gift, let me begin by sharing the rather critical information that sex apparently makes you smarter. I thought you would want to know that. For what it’s worth, my personal take-away from that article is that I now need to follow intercourse with some light philosophy reading and meditation. My cognitive and hippocampal functioning will improve like whoa, though all future partners are now guaranteed to think that I’m insane. The speed with which they flee might well determine if the experiment is a success or not.

With that out of the way, I’m going to return to my recent ruminations on what it means to live the expat life here in Bunia. Most in the NGO world (and not only here, but in most humanitarian contexts) are forced to live in community. There are sound logistical reasons for this. It allows for a safer team, it’s cheaper, and finding your own place is, frankly, a bitch. Some people do it, but it’s super complicated and more difficult to maintain, landlords and real estate agents around here being somewhat less than responsive (and the latter non-existent). Organisationally speaking, team living is the only way to go. Even personally, there are some real benefits: it’s not as scary, not as lonely, and I don’t have to do my own laundry or go grocery shopping unless I’m really motivated.

That said, I haven’t lived with this many people in a single residence since college, and it’s…a challenge. I like my space. And you never really have that here. One of my colleagues is forever disparaging people (particularly the Dutch, for reasons I don’t fully understand) for never leaving their rooms. But, look, if I just want to listen to some quiet music and read a book without interruption, it is impossible to do in the living room. If you sit in the open, no matter how bugger-off your body language reads, people will take it as an indication that you’re willing to have a 30 minute-long discussion about their trials in acquiring a green card or learning to wind surf or experiences nursing in Switzerland or the societal breakdowns that make Americans gun-toting fatties and the French godless Bacchanalians. And it’s not that I don’t care about these things or the person I’m speaking to. It’s just that, sometimes, I would rather not chat. And if I want that time without blowing people off like an insufferable ice queen, I have to take it in my room.

Sorry for the rant. The upshot is that we all live and work in very close proximity with each other. This set up is only successful when approached with patience, sensitivity, respect of privacy, and maturity. Which is to say, it’s not generally successful at all. I kid, I kid. Seriously, though, no matter what happens, we’re one another’s soap opera. For a bunch of what are ostensibly adults, we can get awfully petty. I remember a co-worker once ranting about how nasty someone was because she (the supposedly nasty one) didn’t clear her (the ranter’s) plate from the table with the other dishes. I mean, that bitch! Another time, someone opined that the cat had gone missing because one of our colleagues had bribed the guards to kill it (it was fine. It turned up after a week, none the worse for ware and desirous of fish). I think the Country Director bears the brunt of the interpersonal strife – in addition to being our boss, she had the dubious honour of also being our RA, chastising people when they stay out past curfew or drink beers they didn’t buy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

She’s also the lucky party who gets to manage inter-office romance. Like the couple that announced their engagement after very unsubtly dating for a grand total of three months. No one wants to say out loud what a bad idea this is, so we all just manage that we’re happy for them and we really hope it works out and leave it at that with a damningly pregnant pause. And while that was fairly straight forward, if perhaps ill-advised, we’re now avidly watching what is shaping up to be a proper love triangle. The non-emotionally entangled members of the team (the women, at least. I don’t know where the other fellas stand) watch obsessively for clues in body language, rooting for the ladies involved to variously step up their efforts or, for the love of God, tone it down, the local staff is watching, for Pete’s sake! It doesn’t help that the women in question had something of a tempestuous professional relationship to begin with. Throw a dubiously eligible man (he has, on multiple occasions, expressed the desire to become a Protestant monk, so they both might be barking up a celibate tree) into the mix, and the sparks are flying in the most entertainingly understated, passive-aggressive manner.

I sometimes feel bad about gossiping about my co-workers with other co-workers, but…there’s no one else to talk to about it. It’s hard to gossip about people here with friends from home and vice versa, given the lack of overlap betwixt the two. And I’m fairly certain people talk about me, too (that might be hubris. I’m not sure my ego could fully take it if they didn’t think about me at all). Finally, it can be a bit difficult to ignore gossip that is very nearly thrust under your nose. It behoves those living in community (especially such a thin-walled one) that nothing is ever as secret as you imagine it to be. At least, as far as field relationships are concerned. Home stuff, meanwhile, is as private as your inside voice.

Generally, I think we would all be a lot kinder to one another if we weren’t around each other so much. Some people to attempt to engender that space by living in a kind of self-imposed isolation – hardly interfacing with the team, never joining in any social activities. I found one colleague’s confession that she never joins us for Zumba or yoga or volleyball because she was so tired of making friends only to have them leave heart-breaking (and also took it as an indication that she should possibly get the hell out of dodge). Another is a bit removed, in that she doesn’t live with us, but with her Congolese husband. Even they remain subject to scrutiny, though. The woman with the husband, for instance, has been in Congo for some 20 years and often gives the younger staff (unsolicited) fashion advice, usually comprised of the warning that our skirts are too short (knee-length) or our jeans too tight (boy-friend cut) and someone might mistake us for whores (so that’s why people keep yelling Cherie at me on the street. It has nothing to do with my skin colour or obvious expat-ness. Glad we got that cleared up). We readily ignore her advice, no matter how well-meant, given that, by her own admission, her husband won’t let her wear tank tops (it’s because she’s a pastor’s wife. But, still, you lost me at ‘my husband won’t allow…). 

At any rate, one does always feel subject to some observation, even by teams not your own. It makes the prospect of dating somewhat daunting (I had a friend from another NGO who returned to France in December recently contact to ask if it’s wasn’t true that two other people – neither of which works for her NGO or mine – had actually gotten together and were now pregnant. The gossip mill here does not respect continents or time zones, let alone barbed wire-tipped walls). Often, what coupling does happen is less traditional dating than lusty interactions ranging from smiling too much when talking to someone or dancing together too many times or even furtive, alcohol-aided snogs in dark corners at house parties.

Some folk do legitimately try and date, though it is a fraught prospect. Forget the long-term questions (is this viable? Should I invest in a relationship here? Is this person also single/emotionally available, or are they lying?). Even a non-illict fling would need some kind of date night, and that’s not easy. When two of my colleagues finally came out as being a couple, they could never find anywhere to go on a romantic night out. At MONUSCO House, there is little social convention to prevent crashing. It’s the romantic equivalent of being unable to read a book on the couch unmolested. A determined pair could, of course, also try to eat out somewhere else at one of the many and varied dining establishments of Bunia. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve tried anywhere else. In part, that might have to do with the competition. Take, for example, the months-old Garden Restaurant (actual name). When it first opened, the expat community flocked there; we are voracious in our appetite for diversity. As we walked in that first night, there were sounds of admiration for the lighting and landscaping, about how airy it was, what beautiful gardens (at least the directness of the name is earned, unlike the rather more perplexing Camping). As we crossed the broad lawn to our appointed table, everyone agreed to how lovely it all was. One of my teammates, however, kept appraising the high concrete walls topped in barbed wire and finally allowed that it looked like the exercise yard at the poshist prison in town. I suppose it all depends on how you chose to perceive things. For example, that night, I could have opted to focus on how charming the wait staff was, how delicious and inexpensive the food (my dish was 4 USD!), how much I enjoyed the soundtrack (Congolese artists, where MONUSCO usually plays American and Indian). Or I could dwelled on how less than half the menu was actually on offer (and it took the server nearly an hour to determine what the kitchen had available), once an order was finally placed, the food took two hours and 15 minutes to arrive, was not what I ordered, and ultimately made me vomit for the next six hours (so, of the two words in its name, it at least lived up to one. Batting .500!). The fact that I’ve since been back twice points to the fact that I am: (a) foolish; (b) an eternal optimist; or (c) resigned to the fact that I have few other options, none of which are really any better. Take your pick.

I can’t help but imagine if someone – especially two points on our prickly little love triangle – did try to go on a date. I am presented with the gloriously absurd vision of the rest of the team tailing them, peaking around corners and hiding behind non-existent newspapers and magazine racks and large potted ferns like some kind of sorry, love-deranged spies, our titters barely concealed behind our hands. It would be a shambles. We don’t even have the trench coats convention dictates.

*I had fully intended to post this on Friday afternoon (in a fuller, and one had hoped, funnier, iteration), only to be laid low by malaria. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to come up with anything pithy to say about the malaria, aside from sharing the wisdom that, if you are going to get sick, perhaps try to plan it for the weekend you don’t run out of water and gas. Any illness, tropical or otherwise, is best endured with hot showers and copious amounts of tea.

10 February 2014

Let the Good Times Roll (Part 3ish)

After an initial flurry of activity when I first came back, work has been quiet. Too quiet for my liking, to tell you the truth. My family often asks me what I’m up to, and I feel guilty that I never really have a good answer. But the truth is that life in the field is very often boring and monotonous. We are still waiting for word from our donors (and it already February! This is a bit scandalous), so in the meantime I’m just spinning my wheels and designing impossible yoga sequences. Sure, the pregnant lady and dudes who can’t touch their toes and those professing various and sundry knee and back problems can to Bird of Paradise! It’ll be fun (I kid. I would never. Well, not right away. We’re building up to it.)!

Happily for both my sanity and my students’ bodies, I’ve found something new to interest me: cheese. Now, rather than searching for asanas to promote shoulder health and tighten the core (I would go with Utkatasana, Ustrasana, or, if you're really tough, Tittibhasana), I am spending far more time researching farmer’s cheese that I would be willing to admit to anyone in the office. This includes the self-same colleague who put me on the cheese war-path to begin with. This individual, who was raised in as a MK (missionary kid. It’s like the secular version of a military brat) in Uganda and has spent no small amount of time in DRC, brought with him an ice cream maker. The man understanding the cravings of field life and is prepared. Unfortunately, he also manages not the most experienced. He bought from milk from a local farmer. It came to our door at 7 am on a Sunday, unpasteurised, unseparated, still warm – straight from the utter to your compound! Prior to purchase, my colleague had solicited a number of suggestions about how to treat the milk so that we didn’t all end up tossing our cookies clear across town. The responses spanned the gamut from don’t boil at all to boil for 30 minutes, separate the cream first, don’t separate the cream, etc., etc. The first suggestion struck us as unsafe, while following the latter seemed like it would result in no milk at the end of that experiment. We ultimate went for a 5 minute boil, unseparated. To our surprise, the milk promptly balled up and turned into cheese. I was not, at first, brave enough to try it. Lucky, both my colleague and the cat have more adventurous stomachs. After waiting a few hours to see what would befall them (nothing, it turned out), I gave it a go. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant - nice texture, crumbly without dryness, but it wanted for salt.

Heady with unexpected success, we decided our next step would be to make our own mozzarella. Basically, managed to stumble a few steps despite ourselves and determined we were ready for the cheese Olympics. As anyone might have been able to tell us, mozzarella is a bit beyond our reach. You need citric acid and rennet (which can – huzzah! – be vegetarian). However, I have determined that we can attempt ricotta and what purports to be a very nice farmer’s cheese. There is a whole wide, pungent world beyond Goma cheese!

For what it’s worth, we also did manage to get the milk to boil without clumping and eventually tried our hand at ice cream. It was…well, only our first time, so unmitigated disaster is probably too harsh an assessment. That said, it never managed to set beyond the soup stage. It was also shockingly artificial-tasting (the vanilla here is suspect, despite our proximity to Madagascar) and took on a sickly green hue, on account of the old m&ms someone had scrounged from somewhere to share. Well, like I said, it was a first effort only. My gastric future looks bright.

Over the long winter break, the brave and foolish few who remained actually became quite adept at entertaining ourselves. We played a range of board games printed in more languages than we could keep up with – Clue in French (Cludo) was not too much of a stretch (though not a man or woman on my team had ever seen the film. I was astounded and vowed to download it as soon as the internet would support such action. So…never) and (on the more random end of the scale) Settlers of Catan in Portuguese and the Amazing Labyrinth in Russian (the randomness of the games in my house gives an indication of how varied our staff has been over the years. Luckily, the interwebs have been strong enough to support a search for the English translations of the rule). I was also introduced to ‘African rules’ pool, in which a scratch on the eight ball, does not result in a loss. I was suspicious that they just made up pity rules for my partner because I’m so awful.

I also took advantage of my housemate/boss’ absence to paint the bathroom full of fish. It’s not my best work, for sure, but it’s also not all bad, considering I’m using oil-based house paint cut with nail polish remover and applying it with my one eye shadow brush. Desperate times and all that.

More recently, the American contingent of my NGO decided that it was our patriotic imperative to watch the Super Bowl. I am not yet prepared to relive the experience it in any great depth. That shit was painful. Sufficed to say that we spent the better part of two weeks figuring out how to watch the game with no luck. Finally, Sunday evening at roughly 8pm (there’s a time difference, but even so, there wasn’t a second to loose), we were able to marry a television with a receiver. We sweet talked to the head of security at the standard bar into letting us crash between the magic hours of 1am-5am – he, too, was an American and understood. Our Dutch country director took a bit more convincing, but we finally got her on board (by promising not to tell anyone. Sssshhhhhhh!). This was how I found myself at one am in the deserted expat bar, animatedly explaining to a trio of gamely interested Italians about the down system and extra points and then, suddenly, we switched to safteys….then then punts….and then interceptions…and then I got really quiet for a long time. The other Americans picked up my explanatory slack – they were less invested than I – on why there were so many pauses and how a lineman nicknamed Pot Roast could possibly count as a professional athlete. At least the Mexican guy not only knew what was going on, but shared my despondency. Who knew that the Doncos were so popular south of the border? Anyway, the less said of that debacle, the better. At least I won’t be pining for football in the coming months, now that I’ve had my snootful.

The most common diversion, by far, though, are house parties. They usually occur on Saturday nights (Friday night, you see, is ‘happy hour’ at MONUSCO House, so no one would come to a house party, and all the other nights we’re pretty much just hermits). Even these have a sort of anticipatory sameness. MSF will have the best booze and the most restrictive guest list (no UN). Enesco (a UN contractor) has the best food and often the weirdest vibe (they seem to invite a lot of…prostitutes?). Solidarité is super fun, but the dance floor is bitty. Cesvi…hasn’t hosted a party since they got their piglet, and you can’t really blame them. The missionaries and other Christian orgs never host anything resembling a party and don’t mingle with the secular NGOs.

It’s almost like there is an approved soundtrack for when more than five expats get together. I hear the same songs at every house party we go to, over and over again. In one night, I heard Gangnam style no less than three times. I have to admit that I was impressed at how well the Egyptian peacekeepers knew a dance created by a South Korean pop start and made viral in the US. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Of course, as whoever happens to be the self-appointed DJ gets drunker, the music selection tends to get more esoteric. Bollywood standards, Lebanese hits, Australian 80s classics, French or Italian house music…we’re usually at the mercy of the sobriety of the host. Most the us are game to dance to anything though, so we usually soldier on until 1 or 2, when our legs are about to give out and we have to make it back or be late for curfew. Ours is at 1. We…mostly respect that.

Really, implying that we’re limited to house parties or MONUSCO is unfair; there are myriad places we go to dance. After the MONUSCO happy hour closes shop at midnight, we almost always wander over to the townie disco (Champagne Club – the name is misleading) and join in a terrifically popular line dance that is strongly reminiscent of the Electric Slide. Champagne can be hit or miss – the music can be utterly undancable (on good nights, it features Congolese music (for which they are justifiably famous and sounds like a bachata by way of Jamaica), hip hop, and, very weirdly and consistently, Summer Lovin’.), there can be prostitutes everywhere (MONUSCO is not supposed to go to the clubs, for obvious reasons, though that never seems to stop them), and the guys, national and otherwise, can get really aggressive. With the Congolese, the only thing that seems to work is telling them you have a boyfriend. Simply saying no with escalating levels of intensity NEVER works.

My favourite place to dance, though (aside from my room, where I prefer to rock out in my socks and headphones after a particularly long day) is in the empty pool of Hotel Royal. The Hotel is on the outskirts of town, so the stars are almost painfully bright. In the pool itself, people mill and smoke and generally exude ineffable European coolness in the shallows, while dancing is confined to the deep end. The less adventurous tend to take up perches on the side of the pool, just dipping their toes in the maelstrom of movement and music. The more we drink, the more precarious is it to make the transition from one side of the pool to the other. We probably should just pour out the beer and made a slip’n’slide.

31 January 2014

And ain't it grand (Part 2)

And now here I am, back in Bunia again. With cars that don’t work (I ran into the last logs expat leaving the country at the airport and he warned me that one of the cars doesn’t have working lights, the breaks are giving out on a second, and the third, well, he just said not to drive the third), internet that barely functions, assorted insect infestations (ants in the bathroom, cockroaches in the kitchen, something that looks vaguely maggoty building a tunnel up the wall in my room, and a massive spider web in the avocado tree. Perhaps not a web. It is both too gargantuan and too messy to be a web. So more like a spider hive in the avocado tree. While we haven’t yet seen one of the hive residents, I always pause before walking under it and then scamper quickly past, awaiting the day many-legged death comes for me from above), a malfunctioning sink that periodically turns into a geyser for no apparent reason, and every other wonderful thing about this place.

Honestly, the cars have probably presented the most adventures since I’ve come back, if by adventures I mean mostly likely thing to kill or maim me in the near future. I almost got stuck in a ditch because of having to reverse down an abruptly impassable road, at night, with no back-up lights. Another one of our fleet, which apparently has some sort of ignition problem would not, for the life of me, turn over, leaving me inching down a hill toward a shop-shack and desperately trying to get it to start before I (hopefully gently) tipped over the shop and its occupants. Myself and some colleagues found ourselves driving back through town the car with no headlights after a perfectly lovely sundowner (it was the only car we could get to start, and by the time we remembered which one it was, it was too late!). I spend the ride hanging out the window with a 50€ flashlight in my hand to try and provide some illumination/warning for oncoming pedestrians and praying that we didn’t get stopped by the cops – it’s a much more fraught proposition here than in the US – or, you know, hit someone. Then there was the time when a piece of the engine quite literally fell out while I was driving. The car that is generally agreed to be the best (it’s the one with the ignition problem. You learn not to park on a hill) and is really lovely to drive has recently began determinedly smelling of Cheetos and feet. I feel like one of the hapless competitors in the Great Race who wasn’t dressed in black or white or named Maggie DuBois.

Not all the travel-related news from Bunia is negative, though. Following a Presidential visit that I missed by a day (and, stars, would that have been fun to discuss!) there has been a flurry of construction activities, especially along the main road. Seeing as how the Province itself has no money, there is a well-informed rumour floating about that the work is being financed by a Lebanese gold company. Oh, man, did the assumptions get ugly fast with that one (offering mining concessions as payment for infrastructure work has a long and storied tradition in the Congo that has almost always ended badly for the country). Political ickiness aside, this development means that there are suddenly, and without warning, massive piles of dirt and ripped-up trenches where once there were bumpy, if passable roads (one such pile is how I nearly ended up in a ditch at 11pm). Once construction is completed (and they’ve only managed to do the main road, despite prepping/rendering impassable at least a tenth of the roads in Bunia), it makes the dust worse and traffic move a lot faster (those two things are very much related, and both a bit of a bugger when you’re predominately a pedestrian). They are also building a rather lovely sidewalk, with somewhat mixed results. It’s unmortared, for instance, and seems prone to falling apart. Moreover, people are finding it to be continent parking, which…sort of defeats the purpose. More recently, one of my go-to side roads was blacklisted because the UN discovered a bunch of mines left over from the war. It’s good to be home!

I think I’ve mentioned before that the dry season is upon us with a miserable vengeance. But even as we start every morning by brushing a thick coating of dust off of our computers and chairs and even each other, depending on the level of flexibility in your personal bubble, many of my colleagues have expressed worry about the US held, as it and Canada are, in the tyrannical clutches of Jack Frost and his frozen-hellish Polar Vortex. Almost every day, someone sweetly asks after both my family and the poor (updated this morning – they asked about Atlanta and their TWO INCHES OF SNOW. Pull it together, Atlanta). They are deeply, deeply concerned about how the impoverished in the West are handling the winter. One inquired as to where they picked up their firewood when the weather ‘was not conducive’ or how it was for them, walking on ice. It’s interesting how we assume that markers of wealth and poverty are universal. Here, even the very poor have houses (for the most part. The urban poor – like street children – are another matter), but often lack shoes, cloathing, access to water, etc. This last can be especially problematic during the dry season, when even contaminated sources of water can evaporate.

On a positive note, as I write this, we’re enjoying our first proper rain since my return. It’s cool and the sound of the drops on the tin roof makes a soothing soundtrack to my work, undercut with the percussive hits of the thunder. I am managing to ignore the fact that the water pouring off the roof is, and has been, for like 15 minutes, the colour of weak tea. The ground is so parched that there is no mud.

Another plus to the rain is that it has temporarily broken up the second day of student protests taking place catty-corner to our office. The students are demonstrating against the fact that their teachers are on strike. For their part, the teachers are on strike because the bank through which they are paid has a two dollar fee for every transfer. Now, two dollars is a lot when your pay check is 50$, but I still found it an interesting series of events to lead to shouted accusations of thievery for days on end.

It’s a minor irritant, though, when compared to our neighbours at the living compound. Have I mentioned them before? Our Lady of Night Owls and Early Birds? I kid, of course – I have no idea what demonic presence birthed from the loins of Belezbub and an insomniac these people pray to that demands that they hold their loudest services between 11pm and 6am. I don’t even think my objections would be so strident were it not for two things: (1) the irregularity of the services; and (2) the tone-deafness of the pastors. Without either one of the elements, I might well be able to consign the supplications to the background, as one might when living over a bar or near to an airport. When, however, you are awoken from a dead sleep after days of peaceful dreams by an Amen that is chanted as a sort of guttural scream and goes on for hours, well, it’s just hard to snuggle back down into your pillows. If you manage to, your ensuing dreams might well make you wish that you hadn’t. Thank all that’s holy that I’m off the Larium.