08 November 2013

A Bunia Girl in the Big City

I think it’s possible that I need a vacation. I know, I know, seems like I just took one. But suddenly, proposal season is upon us and I’ve been working till the wee hours of the night (thus the long posting silence). Moreover, I just really miss being home. I miss being able to choose who to get drinks with on a Friday night and bars that serve something other than Drostdy Hof and Nile and being able to walk after nightfall and grocery shopping and watching football and my dog and…well, basically I’m just a bit tetchy lately and I really need to vanish for a while. Three weeks in the States should just about take care of that. Sadly, before that can come to pass, I have a whole host of proposals and concept notes (five, at last count) to get out and a few more field visits to undertake. Starting, of course, with a trip to Kinshasa (one could hardly call it a field visit), where I am at the moment (was, rather, when I started writing this). 

Either because Bunia is such a rinky-dink little town or because the air travel infrastructure of Congo is so poor (or some likely combination thereof), one cannot really fly anywhere direct from Bunia. Anywhere but Goma or Entebbe, that is. Not only is there not a straight flight to Kinshasa from Bunia, but you can pretty much write off ever making a connection on the same day you arrive – the flight times vary too much. So what should be a 4-5 day trip is actually taking 11 with nearly as much time spent in transit in Goma as in Kinshasa. 

Our Goma digs were not quite as luxurious as last time. Rather, they were outfitted with a wildly different standard of what constitutes luxury. Where the Lac Kivu Lodge, which was run by and clearly catered to expats, was all understated elegance and stately gardens, the Rusina is decorated in ivory and blush pink and canary yellow. Top that off with all the crown molding, and it’s like a My Little Pony house come to life. It was also undergoing some construction during our stay, which does interesting things to the wiring. We lost water and internet a few times, and the in-room kept ringing though there was never anyone on the other end.

When you check in to any given hotel in Congo, you are obliged to register with nationality, passport number, duration of stay, reason for visit, etc. This country is obsessed with superficially tracking people’s movements (superficial because you can’t convince me that anyone ever goes through all of the massive log books that are kept by the DGM or hotels and ever cross-checks anything). Edison, the Rusina’s clerk, was delighted to be registering someone from the States. He observed that I was ‘America - like John Cena. Cena of cinema!’ So tickled was he by his wordplay that he giggled every time I walked past. Where he compared me to a professional wrestler, my CD he was proposed to. I was unable to decide if that meant that I need to work out more or less.

We did eventually make it out of Goma, courtesy of an ECHO-piloted Bombardier Dash 8. Can you imagine a more delightfully evocative designation for a plane? It gave me dreams of Yossarian in the nose. Dash 8 was our call sign and I, for reasons that may or may not be evident, was Nately (without the dying bit, obviously. Though I might keep the foxy Italian whore).

Aside from the diverting dreams (I almost always sleep for the first hour of a given flight), it was the nicest aircraft I’ve been in while in Congo and actually boasted both a flight attendant and intercom system! The crew had even developed an idiosyncratic set of security procedures. Weirdly, the attendant was adamant that no one sit in first or last rows for takeoff. Landing there, though, was totally kosher. Likewise, the placement of my yoga mat on the floor under the chair in front of me way a cause for concern, but the back row was casually filled with loose backpacks. Regardless, I promptly forgot my security skepticism when the attendant came around with mango juice and biscuits.

Once in Kinshasa, I am afraid that I fell victim to sensory overload, or perhaps cogitative dissonance. The city reminded me, oddly, of New Orleans. Please keep in mind that I’ve only ever been to the post-Katrina New Orleans, so that probably has something to do with the association. But the two feature similar foliage and even architecture, some of which was über modern. There were also a number of really lovely, large, well-manicured boulevards. A massive sports stadium dominates the business district. Finally, one cannot discount the parallels created by the presence of a considerable river. Kinshasa is still identifiably Congolese, of course. Its side streets are in shambles, it utterly lacks any identifiable traffic laws, and dotted throughout the city one finds the requisite piles of burning trash. In comparison to Goma, though, the wigs are better, the cars nicer, motos bigger, and stores better stocked.

I’m quite serious about the traffic laws. Based on a week of observation, the only rule governing movement in Kinshasa seems to be fortune favours the bold, even pedestrians. I saw about an accident a day while I was there, and, honestly, I’m still amazed that I didn’t see more (or participate in any!). Cutting one another off, what friends in the know refer to as Masshole pokes, California rolls, even just scampering across eight lanes of traffic all seemed de rigueur. The worst offenders seemed to be the microvans with wooden seats and back windows that looked like luxuriantly malevolent eyebrows. Barkers hang out the side and off the back of these rusting death ships as they careen down the road, urging fares to squish and shove themselves in. In the interest of fairness, I do have to note that Kinshasa has the only traffic lights I’ve seen in Congo so far and that people mostly obeyed them.

Our first Friday in the city was particularly hectic, travel-wise, as the roadways were aswarm with cars jam-packed with young people spilling out windows and sunroofs and blowing whistles and singing. My CD queried our driver if it was a holiday. The young man, who had the deeply un-Congolese name of Antonio, explained that it was a university graduation. The students have to celebrate now, he observed, because their troubles are only just beginning. With a 90% unemployment rate (according to Antonio, which seems improbable, but okay) few of the students will be able to find honest work. Instead, they will all go into politics for the easy money. He concluded his analysis by declaring that they had better hope to die in the car crash they’re going to cause with their reckless driving (a heartless assessment, to be sure, but they were a hazard – swerving between lanes so that the occupants could pass items – cigarettes, bottles, noisemakers – back and forth, randomly slowing down to harass pedestrians or speeding up to give the passengers a thrill…). Interestingly, the graduates demonstrated very similar behaviour to a funeral procession for a fallen police officer. The funeral was better dressed, though no less belligerent.

One good thing about the persistent traffic jams was that it gave me more time to simply observe the city as it crawled by. Young men duck between the creeping cars (and even the speeding cars, on those rare occasions when we were moving), selling a range of goods. There was the more standard stuff like biscuits and sucres and gum and tissues. But also on offer were ties (on the off chance you left for your business meeting in a hurry or spilled coffee on it in the car. Fairly practical, when you get to thinking about it), dog collars and muzzles (that…I can’t explain. Perhaps a rabid dog was trying to steal your stereo and is stuck in your car with you?), even fans and passport holders. There was also one memorable instance in which I could have gotten a very reasonable price on a hologram of London and Sydney in a trompe l’oeil frame.

Kinshasa is teeming with a diversity of life that far outpaces what one finds in Bunia. There were still the standard sights of entire families stuffed on one motorbike and women with towers of food stuffs on their head, but so too were there business men in three-piece suits and flip flops, markets on the shoulder of the roads that sold televisions next to woven baskets, and painters balancing on makeshift latters to touch up storefronts. For a while, we paced a woman riding on back of a motorbike, twirling parasol worthy of Kaylee. An entire army of street sweepers, who apparently recognized that they were fighting a losing battle, were generally found smoking with all the studied ennui of a Frenchman, twig brooms propped against their knees and cars trundling past mere inches beyond their toes.

As in Goma, Kinshasa is graced by some truly impressive statuary. The start of embassy row was announced by a white dove carrying globe made up entirely of Africas of various sizes, which seemed a bit cheeky. Another had a beautiful marble girl kneeling elegantly, large dish balanced perfectly on her head, under the most bland, utilitarian metal faucet. I suspect that the faucet was at one time intended as a fountain, but it was dry throughout my visit. Was this incongruous work it intended to be a profound commentary on the subjugation of Congo’s rich traditional way of life to the pallid, ultimately fruitless demands of modernity? Was the absence of water intentional – an artist’s rendering of the abysmal WASH conditions found in the rest of the country? Or was it just awkward and in need of maintenance? We zipped by too fast for me to offer it the meditation it deserved.

There was a bevy of colleges and other centers of higher learning - fine art and design (apparently struggling), architecture, business, statistics. Posters of Joseph Kabila were almost as pervasive as those of Obama, though only the latter was used for economic purposes. One restaurant had a particularly clever series of ads, offering deals for couples – featuring BHO and Mobaba, clearly – and family meals. Malia and Sasha were involved. I can’t imagine that the White House would be thrilled. In fairness, though, it wasn’t only the First Family that was thus appropriated. Tyra Banks was being used to hawk a grocery store and Megan Fox a cosmetics shop. At least neither was in the ad for skin whitening cream that purported to turn one’s visage the colour of coffee. Based on the model, I’m guessing that they were thinking of café au lait. In other dubiously offensive advertising, there was the Mecca Church of Jesus, and the Jesus the Rock men’s ware shop, adjacent to the Blazing Bush, which sold lingerie and women’s cloathing. Possibly also STIs.

I think what will stay with me most about Kinshasa, even more than Goma or Bukavu, is the palpability of the wealth disparities. Where the other two cities have a band of wealth around the lac, here it’s mostly just tumbled together. A resplendently modern Zara abutted an alleyway photocopy/salon du coiffure with driftwood facade and plastic sheeting for windows (I have discovered that the Congolese are willing to fuse just about any kind of service, no matter how incompatible. My favourite might well be the travel agency/fish monger just around the corner from our office in Bunia). The futbol stadium is glorious and would be easily at home in a mid-sized American city. It is surrounded on two sides by tin-roofed slums (the other sides run up against the banking district). A store hawking traditional medical remedies was around the corner from the gleaming ICRC hospital. We were actually stuck outside of a luxury golf course for some 15 minutes as Antonio maneuvered out of a massive sinkhole. There were of course some areas that were overwhelming wealthy, like the Gombe neighborhood, which is home to most of the city’s expats and attendant embassies. There, all the coffee shops had verandas with lattice work and hanging vines and the walk-in supermarkets were stocked with Nutela and yogurt and liquid body wash (these are things that one never sees in Bunia, unless you special order it from the UN’s PX). Outside of Gombe, though, I saw more albinos than mugunzus.

For our part, we were staying on the outskirts of town at an apartment owned by a dentist friend of our security officer. The house was beautiful, though the neighborhood was…up and coming. Gentrifying? Sure, we’ll go with that. The neighbors immediately across the street lived in a cloth lean-to and cooked their meals in an oil drum. Our digs were palatial by comparison. There were air conditioners in every room (bananas! It seemed like an almost showy extravagance), power outages never lasted longer than an hour, a trampoline next to the garage (yes – a garage! This was also were they prepared our meals, which…I chose not to think about overmuch), and a pet monkey in the trampoline. He was a bit sad, really, pacing back and forth on his little tether. I tried not to focus on him too much, either. Though a bit far away from the city proper, it was something of a haven after all of our meeting. My CD and I easily fell into a pattern of working out (yoga for me, Insanity or Jillian or some other circuit workout DVD for her), preparing the dinner that had been left for us, finishing up on the last few emails, and then settling in to watch the IT Crowd with a glass of wine or two. Not so bad, all considering. I mean, it did come with a cook and a dedicated chauffeur!

We grew to know Antonio fairly well, given how much time we spent in the car. He was scandalized by our unmarried status. C’est pas bonne, c’est grave, he was given to mutter at totally random intervals. He accented the care with both Israeli and American flags and knew almost nothing about what was happening outside of Kinshasa. Indeed, he was very nearly as uninformed as Gordon, asking us whether the war wasn’t still going on? When we explained about our work with IDPs, he assumed we referred to Goma and shrugged it off when we corrected him. There’s always problems over there, he explained with a dismissive wave.

It wasn’t just Antonio that I passed my time with, of course. I spent nearly every waking minute with my boss. And you learn a lot about someone when you travel with them this much. CD finally, if tentatively opened up about her boyfriend, which was cute. Interestingly, she was much more forthcoming with less fuzzy things, like the time she was almost raped, or a persistent illness that turned out to be some kind of bizarre non-pregnancy. Or how one of her eggs wanted so badly to fulfill its potential that it tried to make a human on its own. She went in to have her appendix removed and they took an ovary that was swollen to the size of a grapefruit. She was just bummed that this didn’t mean she only had a period every two months.

The entire point of the trip, of course, was to meet with our donors, whether current or potential – OFDA and OCHA and ECHO and UNICEF and UNFRA and WFP and SIDA and CIDA which is now DFATD and DFID… The acronyms all started to swim together after a while (which is probably what happens when you read these missives. Sorry!), along with their priorities and funding mechanisms.

The UN offices were in a high-rise in the middle of the business district. The view was stunning, with the entire city laid out below. I could see all the way to the river. However, having observed Congolese building techniques, a high-rise is never where I would choose to be, no matter the view. The lack of insulation made it astoundingly loud. We fought to make ourselves heard against the symphony of honks yells coming up from the streets below, the trills, moans, and howls from the building itself as it swayed in the wind. We might as well have held our meeting in the parking garage. At least then I wouldn’t have been concerned that the entire structure would buckle and collapse during the next solid storm. The coffee they served was quite nice, though.

I tried to distract myself from my impending doom by studying OCHA’s fabulous risk assessment map. It featured a range of catastrophes, all with their own clever cartoon interpretation. There were volcanos, falling rocks, and a cholera icon that looks the symbol for a Swedish death metal band.

Happily, not all of the UN offices were in skyscrapers whose ambition outstripped their builder’s capacities. PAM had an airy, two-story affair just off the main road. As she came to meet us on a UN holiday, our interlocutor was a bit distracted. Rather than talking about our on-going work with them in Ango, she was more interested in lamenting the increasingly hostile working environment in much of the East. Not hostile in the security sense – this was all about bureaucratic headaches. We certainly had a fair amount to commiserate about. Local authorities inventing fees and paperwork, police setting up tolls every few hundred feet, demands that every expat re-register with the DGM or that we pay for the privilege of maintaining an airstrip that everyone in the district uses. In some areas, the NGO-targeted corruption is reaching thresholds that are making us consider shutting down our programming.

This sort of behavior is not limited to the Congolese, of course, as nearly ever donor has stories of how they are hoodwinked by their own partners. I think I mentioned previously that we tend to refer to households, rather than straight numbers, when discussing beneficiaries on account of all the children. It is also helpful with distributions – every head of household gets a card that they can redeem for food and NFIs and the like. After a field visit, one donor noted dryly that some of these heads of household seemed awfully short and very well preserved for their status as refugees. Basically, someone cough *WFP* cough was giving kids cards so that they could bump their numbers when reporting to donors. Of course, because it’s the UN, nothing happened. All of the major institutional donors have a ‘trust’ agreement with the UN – no agency ever gets audited or really has to account for the funds at all. No, seriously. They NEVER HAVE TO ACCOUNT FOR THEIR FUNDS.

In another meeting, a chat about expansion into North Kivu resulted in a warning about how territorial some of the NGOs operating there can be. I already think about NGOs as knights with banners, but this took on a slightly more sinister bent. Rather than serving discrete areas, in my imagination the expats swan into to lord over fiefdoms that they will defend from other NGO marauders. The vision of them sabotaging Land Cruiser fleets or leading one another into Mai Mai ambushes is tricky to shake. This helping other people is cutthroat work. There also might exist the possibility that I need to lay off GoT for a bit. There’s just so much book to read (I put the first five on my iPad and it NEVER ENDS)! It didn’t help that donor kept referring to a given cluster as weak and leaderless, subtly encouraging us to strike now. Like an overlord who knew that a vassal wasn’t getting the job done and so offered to look the other way if a more efficient one came in and lopped off her (my bloodthirsty fantasy land is all about female empowerment!) head.

Not all of our donor visits went terribly smoothly. Take, for example, the Americans. It was they who scheduled our meetings to commence at 8am on Columbus Day, when embassy was closed, and, despite my stalkerish effort, never bothered to reschedule. The Ambassador’s residence shares a lengthy, lightly guarded fence with British Embassy. While awaiting our meeting with DfID, at which we were presented with a delightful tea service and then made to wait for nearly an hour, I seriously entertained how much trouble I would be in if I just happened to hop the fence. Could I pull out my passport before the Marines shot me?

We experienced no such problems with the Canadians, whose embassy was functional, if bland, or at the lovely Swedish Embassy. It was decorated all in blue with mosaics of fish and photos of the royal family tastefully framed. The furniture was clean and modern and blonde. The library in which we met the First Secretary was eclectic, featuring multiple histories of Sweden, some Grisham and Franzen novel (both in English), Stieg Larsson (seemingly his complete works), and Petit Robert French-English dictionary (it was not so petit). I was exasperatedly amused to note that, in any given meeting, no matter the nationality of the participants, almost no one ever finished a sentence. It was just a series of fragmented thoughts and dangling modifiers cushioned by sounds of compassion (mmhm and yeah and I see and ahhhh).

Over the course of the week, we managed to only miss one meeting. When wanted to go to African Development Bank (think the little sister of the World Bank), Antonio took us to the Development Bank of Africa Kinshasa, which was…just a bank. Irksome, but by that point we needed a bit of a break.

On the weekend, went to the gallery of the art school, where the student’s beautiful work displayed a worrisome preoccupation with breasts. We also paid homage to the storied Congo river. After we had parked in front of the Chinese Embassy and were making our way to the bank, Antonio cautioned us that we were not allowed to take photos. Apparently we were too close to the presidential residence, though the entire length of the river was dotted with guard stations built from sandbags every 100 yards or so. Even so, it was worth it - lovely, peaceful, quiet. I could just make out the roar of the falls in the distance; they must be enormous. All other sounds of this very loud city fell away. We sat at the foot of the Swiss Embassy, wishing we had thought to pack a picnic, but otherwise enjoying the stillness and the swift flowing river, clumps of well-shod earth moving past us in a stately hurry to reach the ocean. Used to exercising in the red haze of Bunia air, Riët reflected that this would be a perfect place for a run (as clearly every member of every embassy staff knew, as they were all out in shockingly abbreviated shorts). The more uninhibited of the Congolese youth, though, found it better suited for romantic rendezvous and could be seen canoodling under the trees.
The only photo of the river that I managed to take.
We couldn’t remain there forever, unfortunately, and it was soon back to the noise and the exhaust smoke and the meetings and then finally on to Goma. Luckily, we able to stop over long enough to pick up some maps (humanitarians are obsessed with maps) and indulge a bit. I managed to order not one, but two of my favourite Congolese beer (Tembo. It’s really aces – smooth and dark and delicious. I have only managed to find it in Bukavu and Goma so far, but I will keep hounding MONUSCO House to carry in Bunia!) as well as pause for the best cappuccino in Congo (you know how seriously I take my cappuccinos!). Café Deo in Goma is the singular place where I have been served real foam instead of whipped cream. Even the ‘French’ café attached to the wildly European grocery in Kinshasa was not this good. The café is situated on one of the main thoroughfares, so it has the added benefit of spectacular people watching. One fellow (I almost want to call him a Bro) pulled up in a low-slung yellow sports car that was at least 15 years old, colour dulled and painted chipped on account of the fact it was being driven in Congo. The dingy appearance didn’t seem to have an effect on the driver, who was blasting some lesser-known American rapper and hanging his arm out the window, cigar dangling from fingertips. He got out, smoothing out his tight white slacks and ensuring that the collar on his orange polo was sufficiently popper, swaggering so hard I thought he would put out a hip. This was a man who was so clearly the hero of the movie playing in his mind, and if we weren’t willing to be a part of that film, well, that was our own fault. Actually, you have to admire that level of unironic braggadocio. After he had taken care of whatever business he had at the coffee shop and sped away, tires spitting dirt all over those of us mere mortals he had left behind, my CD only just managed to recover her powers of speech from the vision, sputtering that everything about that man was…was wrong!

Finally, then, it was back to Bunia and ‘normal’ life. What with craziness of my work schedule and then the trip home, this will probably be my last post for a while. I should be back in fighting form in December!

31 October 2013

Morbid and creepifying

Not so very long ago, some of my team members shared, in a hushed Skype conversation, the conviction that they once heard a demonic voice emanating from the country director’s room in the middle of the night. While a number of questions popped into my mind in response, chief among them just what they were doing listening at her door at 2am, my response was one of muffled skepticism. As the confession continued to unfold, utterly without any prompting on my part, it gave the impression of being reluctantly typed. My housemates seem to fear that even a digital acknowledgement of the occurrence would invite the thing back, but equally honour-bound to alert me to the terror under our roof.

What amazed me is that, a few days after the incident, they apparently confronted our CD about it! What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall when that conversation went down. “Hey, Boss, when you have a minute, can we talk about the finances for the ECHO project, and oh, yeah, I DENOUNCE YOU AS HAVING CONSORTED WITH THE UNCLEAN ONE LAST NIGHT.” To their somewhat dubious credit, the pair actually thought that she was on the receiving end of a curse, not that she was signing her name in the Black Man’s book. At the time she offered the seemingly rational explanation that she had fallen asleep listening to a sermon (a sermon! It’s too perfect. You didn’t mistake 30 Rock or Bones or NCIS for a minion of perdition, some episodes of which might have been understandable. You mistook a sermon. Perhaps it was delivered by Zuul?). The sermon was in Dutch, and so that’s probably why it sounded a bit off to them.

The supernatural sleuths didn’t buy this. The voice they heard, you see, was moving around the room and so could not have been a lackluster Nordic preacher. Ergo, it must have been Old Scratch. Ever since, our house gives them an uncomfortableness. Any bump in the night – which I generally ascribe to the numerous critters that live on or in the roof – has left them quaking under their sheet and clutching the nearest Bible and furiously texting one another to the extent their trembling fingers are able to navigate the keys of our throwback phones (I tease, but the first time I read a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot, as it happened, I was so scared that I had to wear my rosary to bed. Granted, I was 14 at the time, but I wore that sucker to sleep for months afterward). I briefly entertained the notion of suggesting we undertake the Ugandan method for driving out Night Dancers and invite the thing back, if only so we might call upon God to banish it to its face. Everyone knows that only way to bedevil the devil is in the light! I also felt the urge recognize that it was probably the fault of the yoga classes, but managed to hold my tongue on both counts.

Demons are actually a fairly regular topic of conversation for my team, even out of the Halloween season (possibly especially out of the Halloween season. This weekend, we’re hosting a murder mystery party for the team, partly as a fun bonding exercise, but mostly to preempt an actual Halloween party. The Powers that Be are fine with miming a murder, but didn’t think people dressing up as witches would be appropriate at a Christian NGO. The mind, it boggles). Indeed, it was some months ago that an incredibly interesting dinner discussion of psycho-social programming (it turns out that people in chronic conflict environments are actually inured from some of the most injurious effects of PTSD precisely because the violence is so endemic that it becomes their norm. When you delve into all of the horror they have been/are facing, it can actually create more of problem. Instead, you have to just, in effect, do mental triage. Also, humanitarians are horrible with polite dinner conversation) somehow meandered into the topic of assumed demon possession and how it’s often a smokescreen for abuse of the mentally ill (more on this later). It was really fascinating, if depressing, stuff. And, I thought, rather made the ghost mongers feel a bit silly. At first, anyway.

Our CD, a trained psychologist, who just moments before had been having a completely coherent discussion of methodology and treatment, suddenly postulated that, yes, she does think that some instances of psychosis are in fact mis-diagnosed possession. Here’s the kicker – EVERY ONE ELSE AT THE TABLE AGREED WITH HER. Have you all completely lost your minds? Perhaps it is my mind that is pretty nearly gone. Either that or my faith is super weak. That’s what this must be, yes? From there, we went on to discuss voodoo in Congo. I think, technically, it’s witchcraft here., voodoo being a regional phenomenon. At this point, though, I wasn’t going to argue.

Seriously, though, witchcraft and sorcery are a problem in the Congo. The fear of them and its consequences, that is. I fail to believe that this particular complex crisis is being maintained by the world’s most adept coven or that spurned employees are cursing the expats with malaria, though were that the case…holy cats, my job would become so much more interesting. I would become Grant Writer and Witchfinder Captain. We could use our vaccination campaigns to wage a vicious mystic COIN campaign, build bridges imbued with witch bottles and coloured stones and old shoes, distribute helpful leaflets on witch identification along with our safe delivery kits for new mothers. “They shall speak truths and whisper secrets and you shall know them by their crafts…Also, have a new mosquito net!”

Congo has a strong tradition of witchcraft in its folklore and indigenous religions. But this was a more morally neutral sort of witchcraft that not only followed but defined social mores. If a given witch (generally respected elderly people, often though not always women) wanted to curse someone from another tribe, for example, s/he was expected to first seek permission from that tribe’s witch. It was all a startlingly civilized way of settling debts, really, albeit with a healthy serving of victim-blaming. Unfortunately, the place of witchcraft in society has evolved into something much darker and more twisted. It is increasingly perceived as something malevolent and almost classically vampiric. In the modern practice, when an adult witch determines to curse someone for some perceived wrong or to augment their own power (witches apparently gain strength and longevity by feeding off the life force and successes of others), he or she exercises their craft through a child close to the victim. While the main (adult) target of the curse might lose his/her job or get in a car accident or contract HIV, the child is accepted as having served as a mechanism for the curse. These children are essentially decreed accessories to the crime, orphans by their own hands, witches in their own right, and consequently expelled from the family.

Functionally, of course, this is a child protection issue. Any aberrant or challenging behavior that unnerves or threatens adults (this could take a range of forms from the more predictable - bedwetting, developmental disabilities, mental illness, emotional instability, ugliness, general bad behavior or disobedience – to the head-scratchingly astounding – children who are deemed too nice, too wise, too clever, too imaginative. One of the most common indicators of a child witch is eating too much and not growing strong. How else to explain where all that food is going except to feed burgeoning supernatural powers?), especially if coupled with some crisis in the family or broader community (natural disaster or epidemic, for example), can result in an accusation of witchcraft. This is why it is so often orphans that are targeted by the extended relatives who take them in after the death of a parent. These new families lack the resources to care for an extra child and are mourning for lost family. Blaming the child for the death kills two birds with one stone, serving as an outlet for their grief and eradicating a financial drain. A similar story plays out with step-parents, who might be tempted to find a means of disposing of their predecessor’s offspring.

Suspected witches are often taken to an expert – usually some local pastor who will exorcise demons (usually with a dog, though sometimes a good goat will do) and cleanse witch children, for a modest fee, of course. Though the cleansings, or deliveries, are most often associated with revivalist churches, one can find disreputable men of just about any denomination (Catholic, Pentecostal, African traditional) who are willing to take money from distraught families. Save the Children as a really fantastic, if somewhat dated, report on the issue. They note that “some pastors believe that the problem of bewitchment is poverty-related: because parents do not give their children enough to eat, they wind up accepting food from any old person in the street, giving ill-intentioned people the opportunity to commit their crimes. Another explanation is that the parents are never there, out all day trying to eke out a living, so the children are left to their own devices, opening the door to bad influences. Some people believe that witchcraft is transferred to children because it cannot be transferred to adults, others that children are used by the devil to do evil, the devil’s aim being to destroy a whole generation.” I highly suggest you read the full piece, if not for the depressing information about what amounts to systemic child abuse (it creates some interesting parallels to child soldiers – how that sort of abuse allows them to be seen as dangerous, and therefore adult, and thus able to be blamed for misfortunes. One form of abuse falsely emancipates children as a whole and opens them to more abuse), then for the wacky details about traditional strains of Congolese witchcraft. The witches of yore, for example, were want to transport themselves via foufou spoon (foufou is a delicious, gelatinous substance that is made from cassava and replaces rice in many traditional dishes). In the modern age, they prefer to use planes. According to some, witches can only be caught when their plane runs out of fuel and they are stranded on their rooftops in their PJs. No word on what happens to the planes.

Now and again, the delivered children are welcomed back into their family after days and weeks and months of ‘ritual’ starvation and beatings in what is at best a dubiously happy ending (talk about born again). More often, they are simply cast out to live on the street (assuming village in question is even willing to suffer a witch to live and does not prefer to burn them alive or stone them to death instead). Many make their home in the marché, where they survive on handouts and pilfered scraps. Bunia has its own tribe of marché children who are even dirtier and more malnourished than the standard barefoot urchins one encounters. Most of them are fairly normal, if quite timid, though there are a few who quite clearly suffer from some developmental disabilities. These tend to follow us muzungus around, trying to touch our hair.

As is true the world over, Congo’s orphan witches are vulnerable to drugs, gangs, insurgencies, and other predators. There is an orphanage not so far from our compound, and our guards shoo the more persistent beggars away from our gate. I’m fairly confident, however, that they also share their lunches with these children that they sometimes find leaning against the gate, stoned out of their minds from drinking petrol. Such acts of pity are sometimes the only thing keeping the street children alive, given the near complete absence of social services provided by the state on every front. Even the bulk of humanitarian actors are focused on other, sexier topics like IDPs and child soldiers and mass rape. We’re all too busy playing the role of big damn heroes to be distracted by a few thousand abused and forgotten witch children.

Unfortunately, the child witch phenomenon is not an issue of lunacy or ignorance (though there is plenty of that). The belief in a powerful, unseen world is deeply held here, and it scares people. Even at our local, terrifically Western hospital, nearly everything is first identified as a curse (well, malaria, and then a curse). A firm and pervasive conviction in the reality of the supernatural likely contributes to the unwillingness of many to help these children. After all, what if they are, in fact, witches?

Such wholly fallacious conclusions, of course, appall my colleagues, as well they should. Unfortunately, it’s a bit difficult for me to reconcile how someone can denounce a people for blaming a death from HIV on witchcraft and then turn right around and in the same conversation warn me that fraud in our staff is the work of the Enemy. I have mental whiplash – who knew (Western) Christians were such a superstitious lot? My atheist friends would probably suggest that the very nature of being people of faith makes us superstitious, and I suppose I see that. Likewise, I imagine that my colleagues would chide me that one cannot have God without the Devil. I would be more will to make an argument against that, but that this point, I’m just beginning to accept that I might well be She of Little Faith.

01 October 2013

Knights in not-so-shining Land Cruisers

Though fighting continues, the situation in Irumu has cooled sufficiently for our security experts to finally give the go-ahead for expats to venture into the field. It’s not that expats are necessary for the field work to continue, or even particularly helpful, at least in this instance. The programme manager is a Congolais doctor who is terrifically proficient when it comes to conducting needs assessments. He also speaks most of the local languages and has been working with some of these communities for years. One might be forgiven for wondering why we would ever dispatch the international staff to these project sites. Frankly, sending expats is more of a PR move. It signals to the IDP and host populations that a) this situation is stabalising, thereby hopefully reassuring them (which might be a complete lie); and b) that the broader INGO community recognizes their situation. We actually are often thanked by the beneficiaries when we go to the field (not thanked for anything in particular, mind you, but just for being there while white. It’s more or less the inverse of DWB and it’s super disconcerting).

We specifically wanted to go to Soke, as it is safe while still being reasonably close to the front line and has a tremendous amount of IDPs. It is about a two hour drive from Bunia with a route that passes through Bogoro That is where, in more peaceful times, we were want to go to the waterfalls for a relaxing weekend picnic. Now, both it and the surrounding villages have been flooded with those fleeing the fighting between the FARDC and FPRI.

The team, which, in addition to the Doctor and myself, included two national and one international staff, made our first attempt early last week. After a series of typical office snafus delayed our departure by nearly two hours, we were set back even further at the military checkpoint newly installed at the southernmost entrance to Bunia. The lengthy detention seemed less rooted in bureaucratic necessity or a specific security concern than in sheer boredom. The soldiers waved motorbikes and less interesting cars through as they inquired about our work with what bordered on genuine curiosity and expounded on the glorious successes of their FARDC brethren against the villainous Cobra Matata. All the time they were speaking to us they were grooming one another. One soldier was almost meditatively combing the bangs of his colleague’s wig. It was sweet, if bizarre.

With well-wishes still on the lips of the troops, we took off down the dusty path, our logo pennant proudly flapping in the wind like the standard of some knight errant. Almost all the NGO land cruisers fly them. I keep waiting for us to joust along the main street. Instead of the favours of fair maidens, we would be trying to win funds from the UN, EU, and USAID. And, after the tourney, we would sally forth, not to do battle, but to deliver mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and NFIs. Given this level of absurd whimsy, you might expect me to love the pennants, but I might actually hate them. They’re dingy and self-serving and obscure the view of the journey. MSF vehicles tend to have two or three, which seems about right.

At any rate, we had been traveling merrily along, singing along with a tape of Congolais worship songs. I can only join in when they invariably come to a repeated series of Alleluias, but then I do so with gusto. This is partly why I, along with most of the team, failed to notice when our driver began to express some unease. The fact that he did so in Hemma, which is only comprehensible to the project manager, certainly didn’t help. He was unnerved by the sheer volume of motorbikes coming towards us (they’re like rats on a sinking ship - good indicators of militia activity, given that many of them are more or less militia reservists). When we were finally passed by a truck stuffed to the gills with people all waving at shouting at us urgently, barreling so fast down the road that we had to drive partway into the ditch to make room for it, India (the expats all use his call sign, India Zulu, as his given name is a humdinger) didn’t even wait for input from the PM before K-turning out of there. The PM made a few calls and we stopped to chat with some of the motos who had been fleeing. Early reports were that the militia had just begun shelling UN and FARCD positions in and around the town. Just, as in ten minutes before. That was when reinforcements from the military checkpoint we had passed less than an hour before went thundering down toward our former destination. The only IDPs I would talk to, then, were the ones who prevented us from waltzing into a fire fight (or so we thought). Even so, the morning wasn’t complete loss – the team shared road-bought bananas and sugar cane and mango Tang on the return trip, and I made it back in time for my French lesson. As the PM said, c’est ça le Congo!

With time and a little more intelligence, however, turns out that no one was shelling Bogoro. They were shelling Kasawara, which is a bit farther afield and where the ‘war’ is raging in earnest. What sparked the panic in Bogoro was that MONUSCO deployed a tank unit to go assist the beleaguered FARDC forces (as they’re supposed to be working together and whatnot) and for reasons unknown to just about everyone but the Congolais troops themselves, the checkpoint guards outside of Lagabo turned them back. Yes, the FARDC dismissed a UN tank. When the good people of Bogoro saw the UN troops coming back their way, they assumed that they had been recalled for military reasons and split. Though making for a rather anti-climatic end to my mission, it does give a decent idea of how jumpy everyone around here has gotten (even so, I’m not entirely certain what one mistakes for the sound of mortar fire).

The following day dawned with a heavy feeling in the air. Undaunted by the sultry weather and armed with the knowledge that we would be at least 10km away from the active frontline, we opted to try for Soke again. We somewhat sheepishly passed through the same checkpoints, but the soldiers that were still awake were too lethargic to do much more than muster a listless salute. Under the cloud-heavy sky, even the pennant was subdued. India navigated up through the handful of villages betwixt Bunia and Bogoro, passing the usual motley collection of children, goats, road-side vendors, and even a few hand-cranked wooden bikes ridden by double amputees.

The talk in the car was astoundingly wide-ranging. What began with the expats asking after our co-workers kids somehow transitioned to the subject of canine exorcisms (using the dog to trap the demon once it’s been exorcised from a person, that is. Not exorcising demons out of dogs, though that might have been even more intriguing. Don’t ask what happens to the demon-infested dog post-exorcism) which then lead to a discussion of social security. I have no idea how that happened. It was fascinating though, to hear a Dutch women (whose home country has one of the most advanced social safety nets in the world) discuss welfare with a Congolais man on our way to a camp for displaced persons. All the talk about the value of money (it can’t buy you happiness, my Dutch colleague opined. No, but it can buy you food, shot back our logistician) and handouts vs. earned income and saving vs spending habits was a bit surreal.

We eventually reached Lagabo, a tiny village of less than 500. It’s actually too small for even the INGOs to put it on our maps. It was in this blip of a village that the FARDC suggested we stop for the day (it’s also where they stopped the tank. The Lagabo unit is tough). Accordingly, we disembarked from the Land Cruiser and asked around until we identified the village chief. It didn’t take long. Walking up to his hut, our PM shot an appraising look at the camera in my hand and suggested that I store it for the interview. The chief was reclining on a bench outside his house in black loafers, green track suit, and a houndstooth newsboy cap stitched with shimmering silver thread. He was holding court with his brain trust, a handful of FARDC soldiers (presumably these soldiers outranked those that stopped us), and a gaggle of dirty children with beautiful eyes. The site overlooked Lac Albert, so I was at least able to enjoy the view as the PM chatted with the chief and a black rooster kept pecking at my feet. The chief was not in the least pleased about the IDPs, though he was tolerant. There were just too many for his village, he explained. Lagabo doesn’t have enough resources to share.

If at first I found his sentiments uncharitable, that changed when our interview ended and India eased the Land Cruiser through the tall grasses in the direction indicated by the chief. We came over a rise, parked under a tree, and were immediately surrounded by some of the 23,000 IDPs that have invaded Lagabo. Small wonder the chief was piqued – how was this village of a few hundred, with only one potable water point and two latrines, supposed to absorb that many people? Lagabo doesn’t even have a functioning health center; residents have to hoof it down the hill to Bogoro for anything beyond bush treatments.

By and large, the IDPs hailed from Kaguma and Soke. There were so very many because, as the fighting neared these larger, more established towns, people from satellite villages fled there. When the fighting engulfed them in turn, those who were once hosts turned IDP along with everyone else and they all absconded to wherever they could (for what it’s worth, Lagabo was a terrible choice. It’s an area that is contested between two tribes who were openly fighting less than a decade ago, it’s windy, it’s cold, it’s in the middle of nowhere…). Some had walked as many as 50km in the past weeks. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like such a great distance (hardly more than a marathon in two weeks? I hear you ask. Pfft), and in the strictest sense, it isn’t. But when you’re traveling with a passel of little kids, all your worldly possessions, insufficient food and water, and in constant fear? It’s herculean.
We tend to talk about numbers of displaced in terms of households rather than persons because there are always so many children.  Parents send them away with relatives and neighbors, often with nothing more than the cloathes and possibly a younger sibling on their back.
The entirety of the staff from the Kaguma health centre was now residing within eyesight of our tree in Lagabo. All 28 personnel (nurses, midwives, technicians, etc) were still performing consultations under its generous shade. We arrived during a distribution of medicines, including antimalarials and treatments for ARI and diarrhea. The drugs might have been coming out of a cardboard box someone carried to Lagabo on her head, but the whole thing was meticulously recorded in the logs they had salvaged from the clinic before they abandoned Kaguma and duly resented to our PM for approval and reimbursement (we subsidize treatments for IDPs). The head nurse described the entire process in a shirt emblazoned with George W. Bush’s face and the words ‘Somewhere a Village Is Missing its Idiot’.
As the PM peppered the staff with questions about the morbidity and mortality statistics (which we refer to as M&Ms, rendering me both depressed and peckish), demographics, latrines, and supplies, I tried to make myself useful by taking photos. I couldn’t have felt more useless. Here I am, the intrepid NGO worker, coming to meet with the great displaced masses and…photograph their destitution. I am an inspiration. My aimlessness was all the more manifest when compared to the ceaseless activity of the impromptu camp. During the entirety of our visit, lines of women and older girls snaked through the throng, carrying messy bales of thrushes to the various buildings sites or drying racks. The temporary shelters can be erected in a matter of days and the grasses are woven so tightly that rain cannot penetrate (the thrushes have to be dry before they start for this to work, though. Which is tricky, given that this is the rainy season), but I can’t imagine it’s terribly comfortable. The peaks of the roofs only reach to my chest. Admittedly, most Congolais aren’t tall, but still.
When we finally set back out for Bunia, the IDP children chased after our truck, waving and cheering, like we were the solitary float in a pathetic parade.
For what it’s worth, the team (sans me) finally made it all the way to Soke two days later. I’m not certain if it was because they finally wore down the Lagabo guards or they were just in a good mood (one of my colleagues opined it was because none of the expats on this trip were women). The photos they took were of a ghost town. The population is a fragment of what it was a month ago and surrounding villages are utterly empty. The health post still running, though. A skeleton crew is treating all IDPs that stumble into town, late for the great flight (which is now being arrested by the FARDC with violent measures. As if these people didn’t have enough to contend with). One assumes they must be new to the area. Next time, they’ll be ready.

22 September 2013

This one is a bit histrionic

It was little more than a month ago that I was kvetching about not having a Person and how nobody understand my Africa woes and they just want to talk about real life, etcetera, etcetera. And then Colorado started drowning and some crazy shot up DC and my normalcy, my rocks slipped away. I am, in retrospect, an idiot. A self-absorbed ninny (yes, I still know that I’m writing a personal blog, which is probably the high-water mark of self-absorption). I have a Person. I have many Persons. And I love talking to them about real life. That’s what I want. I want to call home and talk about shoes and pumpkin spice lattes and the absurd profiles on on-line dating sites and GoT and the Broncos and dog antics. I want to hear about apple picking or mountain climbing or happy hour shenanigans. I don’t want to call home and hear death tolls or numbers of displaced and missing or evacuation orders. Because that’s what makes being here bearable. It is how I can keep a safe distance from the suffering and not be consumed by it – knowing that there is somewhere that, in my memory, tastes like cinnamon and joy and that the only sorrows that invade it are the standard ones. There is no horror there.

When there is, and I’m worried about my Persons beyond whether they’ve managed to find a job or love or perfect that red wine cupcake recipe (not that these are any less real than other worries, they’re just ones I can relate to and allow in my cinnamon-scented world) it feels like my tether is fraying. When there is such profound suffering in both of my realities, I lose track of my anchor (this raises a whole other question, of course, about those who don’t have an anchor to begin with and who have no horizon beyond their suffering. For whom ‘real life’, as I so flippantly refer to it, does not exist. And it’s a question that I look forward to exploring someday, when I feel grounded enough to approach it. Today, however, is not that day. On an unrelated note, I’m really into ship metaphors today). So forget it – talk to me about Pepco and your horrible boss and your cold, please., and I will never bemoan it again.

I had thought it had reached a low point during the summer, what with the enormous wildfire that tore through the same part of the state where I grew up. And that was bad, certainly, the knowledge that some of my childhood was burning away. The fire was tragic and weirdly located, to be sure, but wildfires are a fact of life in Colorado and you learn to accept them. Floods, though? We don’t have floods. This is not a Colorado concern, except in the most vague way, like how you might absently worry about a blizzard in Texas or the Second Coming . So this has gone beyond your standard natural disaster horror and passed into some kind of surreality. This would be how I felt if someone told me that Germany just declared war on France. Or, better, Canada on the US. It’s so far outside the realm of what I had accepted as possible that it’s still a little difficult to believe. The photos I’m seeing look more like the flooding in Dungu (a territory northwest of Bunia where flooding last November displaced more than 8,000. It’s started early this year, already destroying the homes of several hundred) that we’re actively working to halt. The bridges that are being washed away are more basic hwew, sure, and the water has crocodiles, but a flood-ravaged house is still a flood-ravaged house. And we have fewer deaths. I can’t deal with cataloguing photos of IDPs, knowing that there are some in Colorado. I’ve begun having a recurring nightmare about my family having to evacuate and leaving my dog behind. And I’m not even on Larium anymore!

As for DC…nothing about that is surreal, I’m deeply saddened to say. Another mass shooting, another day in America. I’m almost numb to it. Would it not have taken place in my second home, I’m not convinced that I would have noticed beyond a prayer for the departed and a faintly shaken fist in the general direction of the NRA. At this point, is it even worth ranting about gun violence or the need for gun control? I think I’ll let the gun-deaths tracker at Slate speak for me. Right now, a battle is raging less than 20km from where I sit. It’s displaced 100,000 people. It has killed about 50. The international community has responded with medical supplies, food, trained counselors, human rights activists….I could go on. Meanwhile, the CDC estimates that more than 20,000 people have been killed by small arms in the US in some eight months, and all we can both to respond with is some failed legislation (and in the odd chance that it is successful, a recall. Damnit again, Colorado) and suggestions to put more guns in schools. This last shooting happened in DC! Do you have any idea how many cops there are in DC? More guns are not the answer. That’s like suggesting what Lyons needs right now is more water.

Upon reflection, this is a stunningly selfish post - just as selfish as the Person post, in fact. I have a lot of growing to do. I mean – just look at the news this week, and you’ll find terrorist attacks in Kenya, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, state-sponsored violence in Egypt and Syria, mudslides in Mexico, typhoons menacing Hong Kong… There have been a plethora of crises, man-made and natural. I doubt many people emerged with their tethers unscathed, if indeed they remained intact at all. Right now, though, it’s hard to muster anything but a sense of exhaustion. I’m exhausted by the violence and the suffering suffusing every corner of this blasted world, no matter how safe it seems. My memory might hold some things sacred, but the real world doesn’t smell like cinnamon and never has. It smells like scorched earth and tears.

On a related but lighter note, a number of friends and family have contacted me to ensure I was okay, in light of the attack in Nairobi. Not to underplay the severity of the situation still unfolding in Kenya, which is horrific, nor the concern of my friends, which is both well-meant and deeply touching. But, man, are Americans bad at geography.

16 September 2013

Hoping to beat the APC rush hour…

The walk to work this morning was a bit surreal. There were police everywhere. Potentially they were soldiers. Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to tell. If I’m not mistaken, there were also additional peacekeepers outside of Monusco House. There was some unrest over the weekend betwixt the police and taxi men, so I suppose they didn’t want to take any chances. ‘Taxi men’ is how we broadly refer to the young toughs who seem to always be itching for a riot, as the majority of their number drive motorbikes. They are the football hooligans of Bunia. Late Saturday night, an apparently drunk taxi man ran into a car and was killed. The driver of the car was savvy enough to hightail it out of there (variously, he either sought shelter with the police or at his home), but the damage was done. The car was torched and the taxi men engaged in a mini-riot, clashing with the police all over town. Gun play continued for the better part of the night, and on Sunday the funeral procession for the lost taxi man snaked its way through most of Bunia, ending at the football stadium (I told you they are hooligans). We were warned to stay in our compound as a precautionary measure (I tried to go to mass before that word came down from our security focal point and my guards very gently suggested that might not be the best idea. Our guards are the sweetest).

I would like to say that this amped-up security was totally out of the norm, but I would be lying. On any given day lately, my walk to or from home is held up by some sort of military footprint. Yes, this morning it was three pickup trucks full of FARDC soldiers toting AKs and rocket launchers (this was a bit shocking in and of itself, since the Bunia police are normally outfitted in riot gear that looks like they simply stuck a flip visor on a batting helmet. Some only have a single clip of rounds and I suspect their back-up weapon is a rape whistle). Friday, though, it was a UN APC flanked by tanks (which did some really fabulous things to Bunia’s ravaged roads).

Instead of the taxi man riot, I suspect that all of this troop movement is related to the most recent outburst of fighting in Irumu (technically, Bunia is in Irumu, but the conflict is southeast of me). The closest skirmishes are about 12 km away (we could actually hear some combat-related detonations Sunday) and there are IDPs everywhere.

Just to offer a bit of context, late last month the FARDC launched a surprise offensive against Cobra Matata’s (remember him?) FPRI militia. There is all manner of speculation about why (it is interesting that no one seems willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are performing their sovereign duty by tackling sub-state armed actors, but whatever). The pet theory of most of the expat community is that Congo has finally decided that it wants to get its paws on the oil in Lac Albert (given that the bulk of the Lac and its oil belong to Congo, this doesn’t seem unreasonable) and the FPRI is standing in their way. As you might have guessed, I find this to be a positive development. Don’t’ get me wrong – I have no love lost for the FARDC. That said, you can’t pretend to be a functioning country when there are some dozen rebel groups in the span of 400km that are hijacking your natural resources willy-nilly and terrorizing your citizens with impunity. Development and security are two sides of the same coin, two of the heads of Cerberus (I suspect that the third head is a functioning civil society. As to why I selected a hellhound for that analogy, I have no idea). So cheers, FARCD, for finally finding some stones. But let’s try not to rape too many people or pillage too many villages once you ‘liberate’ them, mkay?

What is less great, assuming the assaults and ransacking are kept to a minimum, is that it was truly a surprise offensive – they didn’t even give the NGOs a heads-up, so a ton of people got stuck behind the front lines during routine field trips. One friend ended up sheltering in a MONUSCO APC for five days. Two of our supervisors had to flee to Uganda and make their way back to Bunia through North Kivu (you know things are bad when your escape route takes you through a Kivu). Another had to hide out in the clinic at which she had been conducting a training for midwives for nearly a week until we could organize a rescue mission. Of course, in the process of springing her, we managed to deliver a whole host of medications and hygiene kits, giving us bragging rights at the first NGOs on-site. Silver lining, I guess?

Currently, OCHA is estimating that there are some 100,000 new IDPs in Irumu. While the numbers might be inflated a touch (there are only 140,000 people who lived in that area originally), that’s still an awful lot of people hiding out in schools and churches and trees and wherever else they can find a ghost of shelter. For fun, I checked the major humanitarian news outlets for word on the fighting in Irumu. The only Congo news I could find was about the renewed peace talks in Goma. And I’m not talking about BBC. This was IRIN and Alertnet. 100,000 displaced in the last two weeks, and no one cared. I know that it’s nothing next to Syria, but come on y’all. Over the weekend, I was asked by visitor from HQ if we were having trouble finding funding because we lack an in-country communications officer. Sweetie, if even the UN news outlets aren’t paying attention to that many IDPs, we’re effed.*

In fairness, there might simply be a lot of Congo-fatigue among humanitarian journalists. After all, when you start actually chatting with the IDPs, it becomes quickly apparent that these people have been displaced multiple times. So many, in fact, that they’re pretty good at it. The nurses who staff the clinics, for example, made sure to stop by the abandoned health centers and grab what vaccines and medical records they could carry (I know this because they were able to present them to our teams when they arrived for an assessment, pointing out the most at-risk IDPs). There are mothers who mark their children’s ages by the times they’ve had to flee. Pastors who know which potential host villages have the best trees under which to set up impromptu worship services. It would be inspiring were it not so astoundingly depressing.

To add insult to injury, while all this is going on (in fact, perhaps because all of this is going on) the Ugandan army is still chilling inside Congo. They’re not doing anything in particular, mind you – our staff is joking that they’re here on holiday. Again, motives are a bit sketchy (the official line is something transparently absurd about where Congo is building their customs house), but the prevailing theory is that if the FARDC is actually able to clear a path to Lac Albert for oil, Uganda will suffer (given that they are merrily pilfering said oil and have been for years). So, apparently, the UPDF is there as a rouse to distract from the FPRI offensive. It’s not working, and they don’t seem interested in doing anything else. It’s just…uncomfortable.

Likewise, it is actually more the politics than the actual violence that has made the situation tricky, work-wise. The FARDC claims that the INGOs, with their medicines and shelter and food distributions, are actually aiding and abetting the rebels. This is a classic humanitarian catc-22. If insurgents integrate with a population of IDPs, do you feed everyone or no one? This is why the UN would not allow registered IDPs to leave the camps in Sierra Leone and was perhaps best exemplified by the cross-border strikes of the Interahamwe following the Rwandan genocide. The bungling of that particular aid mission is a large part of why North Kivu is such a hot mess today. But I digress. Back to the present moment, when the army is using this as an excuse to fairly arbitrarily deny access to various NGOs to reach the most vulnerable communities. On the other side of the front line, the FPRI feels that MONUSCO is assisting the army, rather than remaining neutral (the specter of the Intervention Brigade is everywhere, despite their not yet having engaged any rebel group. Nowhere is its presence more a cause for both optimism and trepidation than Goma, of course, where the M23 – hilariously – has suggested that the Brigade needs to work in areas distinct from normal peacekeepers so as to avoid confusion, observing that “It’s a very complicated situation for us”). The rebels will actually reference SCR 2098 before claiming that the aggressive stance of the peacekeepers means that the entire international community is arrayed against them. Then they won’t let the aid workers pass, either, and may in fact threaten them or even open fire (the rebels are a bit less predictable than the FARDC, and that is saying something). So the movement of our teams has been bit restricted of late.

Limited, that is, for the Congolese staff. Most of the area is still strictly off-limits to expats. This, honestly, is problematic for me. Is it a statement that my life is more valuable than those of my Congolese colleagues? Or that I’m so obnoxiously white that I would actually put the rest of the team in danger? The latter I can deal with. The former I find unconscionable. It’s a question that I haven’t been able to answer for myself and no one seems interested in discussing it.

With all of the shenanigans taking place at Bunia’s doorstep, coupled with the general antics of the taxi men, the shadow of the Incident looms large. I know I’ve mentioned it in passing, but the Incident last November occurred in part because Goma was getting sacked and the UN was perceived as doing nothing. It encompassed several days of massive riots and the sacking of NGO houses and offices and culminated in the evacuation of the bulk of the expat community. There exists some (reasonable) concern that it will happen again because of the war in Irumu. Yes, we are legitimately worried that the town will begin pugnaciously rioting against an increase in violence. Let that sink in for a moment.

While I readily admit that this is a very real possibility, what strikes me as a bit absurd is the paranoia of those who were here last November. They are, by and large, still so afraid, and were even before things got tense. The sound of a rock being thrown at the gate sent one to shaking. They are fearful and they are angry. I can’t help but wonder how can you serve, or even just work with, people you distrust to the point of almost hating them? They also absolutely despise the UN; that APC trundling down the main street serves as reminder of what they perceived as the UN’s failure to protect them (never mind that they fed and housed almost the entire NGO community for three days and then made sure they got to the airport for the evacuation. How is it the UN’s fault that FARDC or rioters or someone apparently shot at you? Whether or not they were actually shot at is a point of great consternation, even today). They refuse to even drive past the UN base camp, which in my mind is pure silliness – it’s the best place in Bunia to go for a run.

Again, I don’t totally mean to downplay where they’re coming from or suggest that security isn’t a worry. Going over our incident report template is frankly terrifying. It is astoundingly comprehensive, including options for security, corruption, protection and abuse. For each type of incident, there is a sub-range of colourful options including abduction, detention, looting, armed conflict, sexual assault, landmines and UXO, militia attack, collusion, kickbacks, and my personal favourite – near miss. We have contingency plans for all of these eventualities (one could argue that they went haywire during the actual emergency, but still, they exist).

Moreover, even outside of Ituri, the array of armed group is dizzying. The names change and alliances shift so often it feels like looking through a kaleidoscope at an AK (this is an old list, but it’s still fun reading). We’ve even had word that Al-Shabbaab is in the Grand Nord (that’s the area that encompasses South Irumu and the north of North Kivu). Given that only about 10 per cent of the population here is Muslim, I’m betting it’s just rumors of the one ADF-Nalu guy who converted.


*IRIN did have something they posted right after the offensive, but nothing since.

02 September 2013

Muzungu in the Mist, cont.

After Queen Elizabeth, I took a break from the animals and headed to the Rwenzori Mountains, or Mountains of the Moon (when – not if – you come to Uganda, you should go a bit slower than I did. The trip was amazing, but also a bit more breakneck that was probably good for me). I stayed in the valley village of Ruboni at what turned out to be my favourite venue. The food was, without question, the best (instead of tasteless omelets and coleslaw sandwiches, I had cinnamon pancakes smeared with local honey and vegetable curry. Not together. Some people adjust to the vegetarian thing better than others). The ‘community camp’ offered hot water and a great mattress; at this point, I could care less about the pit toilet and even the mosquito infestation. When the power went out, I was equipped with candles. The whole effect was quite romantic, in the aesthetic sense. Of course, the absolutely stunning location helped.
The camp was run by a coöperative that owns the land abutting the national forest, having turned it into a conservation area. A row of flowering red trees demarcated the border, acting as a buffer to reduce negative farmer/animal interactions. It was also working with farmers to stop erosion of the steep crop plots and introduce more efficient agriculture techniques. It did all this, of course, through tourist dollars. All of which allowed me to give myself an utterly unearned pat on the back.

I mostly passed the day traipsing over the hills and through the jungles. Elloy, my guide, was less chatty than Michael of the Salt Lake, but also gruffly efficient. This area was probably the most impoverished I visited in Uganda. I kept remarking on how beautiful it was and he threw me some serious shade. He couldn’t really see it what I meant, but allowed that, since you people keep telling us it is, so it must be. He then opined that maybe he would go to the States and find it beautiful. Poof! went my unmerited sense tourist pride. Ruboni is where I came to the conclusion that this type of trip is probably better is not experienced alone. It is less a question of outright solitude that the lack of having someone with whom to share your joy and awe, because the locals really aren’t feeling it. Some appreciate it, though, while others are vaguely hostile to it. Vacationing in truly poverty-stricken areas is often an uncomfortable experience, knowing, for example, that the staff is ensuring that you are staying at a level of comfort they will never experience themselves. This is true of many posh hotels in the West as well, of course, and also true of Bunia (which is something I will almost certainly discuss in a future post). But the sense of guilt seemed more acute here, where I was often the only tourist in sight.
As we toiled (well, I toiled. He bounded like a pro. Which I suppose he is) up the steep hill, he shared a wealth of information with regard to the habits of locals and plant life. He pointed out the best trees for making carvings or building houses, a flower that can be used as a substitute for cotton, a tree whose bark can be used for cloth. It only got more colourful from there. There were the trees that are planted in a circle to mark graves. There was tree whose long, bulbous fruit is used in beer, and also by young girls and boys to measure their breasts and penises against – tradition holds that they’ll grow as large as the selected fruit. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be on either end of that deal. Then there was the touch-me-not, so-called because its fruit springs off the vine when so much as grazed, but really known as a plant that encourages sociability in children. The small green fruit is quite sweet, and local kids will spend hours at a patch, popping them at one another and chasing them down the hills. There was also the tree out of which they make traditional xylophones, which are played for days after a death so that the spirit doesn’t curse the living. Also during circumcision rituals. When I asked boys or girls, he was quick to answer boys. He paused. Traditionally, it was for the ladies, also. Which might be the nicest description of FGM I’ve ever heard.

There were myriad other medicinal and practical plants (like those preferred in treatment of syphilis or used as makeshift candles) that I’m forgetting. Elloy reminded me that the first line of medical defense here is always homeopathic. Then reflected that it was not good. Not always having a keen understanding of what ails them, villagers can easily ingest a plant to treat a cough, only to die of malaria. I was actually familiar with these challenges, as we face the same proclivities in our medical programming.

In additional to marveling at the scenery, I expressed amazement at the people who have to make this trek daily to work the fields and cart their harvests of yams and passion fruit and coffee and Irish potatoes back down on their heads, barefoot through the fire ants and saw grass, often as not carrying a baby. As I might have expected, Elloy was bemused at my amazement. Do women in Congo not do the same with their children? Sure they do, and they impress the hell out of me, too. I fell at least five times on the way down, but he mostly just slid gracefully in his galoshes and suit pants.
I had hoped that the hike would afford me a, in the parlance of the many brochures and every single local I met, view the snow-capped peaks of Ruwenzori, but it was too cloudy. Next time, perhaps. Instead, as we made our way down from the hills, night descended in time with us, the sun setting and mist creeping down from the higher mountain. It had the same tangible opacity as in Bwindi, seemeing to swallow the hills and forest and town like a benevolent version of The Nothing.

As we made our way back to the camp, Elloy described the historic flooding earlier this year that knocked out the hydroelectric dam that powers the nearby cobalt mine in addition to the town and has been in operation since the Canadian government built it in the 1950s. It also wiped away foot bridges, farms, and over a dozen people. The town was still in the process of recovering. Elloy complained bitterly that the government had been little to no help; they apparently felt that any rebuilding efforts they undertook would be gone within years if not months. He asked several times if I was certain that we only work in Congo. I so much wanted to help, and felt so guilty that I could not, that I just ended up over-tipping.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, Gordon and I had a number of…interesting conversations, including discussions of baboon assassination for defecating in one’s car, and why it is preferable to marry a woman with small breasts. But when he shared the story about the night dancers that evening, I decided it might all have been worth it. Night dancers are apparently shamans who dance about your house at night (thus the name). Naturally, they do so naked, cloathed only in human remains. Their nefarious purpose is to steal your good will, leaving their bad luck at your door by literally slamming their nude bum against the front door. Their magic paralyses you in your sleep so that you are helpless to stop them. Then there was something about cash dowries and water magic and complicit wives. At any rate, his family, realizing that they had long been the target of one of these black conjurors, played a trick on the night dancer by leaving their doors unlatched and remaining standing throughout the night to that the paralytic magic had no chance to take effect (side note – for such powerful magi, they seem remarkably easy to thwart). The night dancer fell through their door wearing only bones and a woman’s breast, which he kept that way (what way? Firm? Round? Rose-tipped? It was never specified) with his magics. Gordon’s mother declared that now that God had let her see the night dancer’s face, her family would be protected from him. He then had to pay her two cows. Afterward, his wife died and he lost his fortune and now he doesn’t even have enough money to buy his own soda. WTF.

Also in the analogs of crazy Gordon stories, he was suffering from back pains throughout the trip, which is no small thing given how much time we spent driving. When I suggested that he go to the doctor, he said that he already had and that the doctor said what he needed was a girlfriend. I…have suspicions about the legitimacy of this diagnosis.
After Rwenzori, I set out for my last full day of safari – this time to Kibale to see the chimps. Theoretically, you travel in groups of no more than seven. While this was strictly enforced for gorilla trekking, only one of the 13 chimp communities in the forest is habituated for tourists (the communities each contain more than 100 chimps and can take up to seven years to habituate) and so it was that I found myself in a group of nearly 20 German tours. The babble of the tourists did little to diminish brilliance of the experience, if it did lead to more competition for good photo angles. Each of the chimps had names and the guides knew them by sight, sharing their stories (this one was the second alpha, or vice president. That one had broken his arm some 12 years ago, but was among the most popular with the ladies. She got her name because the rangers felt she had the nicest eyes in the community). We moved with the chimps for just over an hour. My two favourites shared a log companionably, passing palm fronds back and forth without ever taking their eyes off of the female perched 50 feet above them and with whom they both wanted to mate. It was hard not to giggle at how much this reminded me of high schools, with the girls watching the boys watching the girls go by. That was, until they decided they were done waiting and several males chased the female they’d been ogling through the canopy, screaming at one another. The noises were a bit…unsettling.
Were he human, I would have accused him of being a creeper
As we trekked back to the visitor center, I chatted with the rangers, especially the younger guide who was toting the AK. When I asked if it was also for forest elephants, she laughed. All rangers in Uganda have to undergo six months of military training, as the national parks have long been a favourite hiding place of rebel groups throughout the Great Lakes region. It’s now considered good form to ensure that rangers, animals, and tourists all have some measure of protection. She had just completed her training and was newly installed at Kibale. Her parents in western Uganda were despairing of her ever finding a man while in the forest service. She was only 26, but already her mother was convinced she would end up a spinster. I wanted us to be friends.
After the chimps came baboons and colobuses (colobui?) in a wetland conservation that was established by a Peace Corps volunteers over 20 years ago. The proceeds went to support locals – reimbursing them for food stolen by the monkeys, improve school system, etc. The colobuses, despite completely captivating me, are apparently quite the local menaces. The black and white are skittish. The locals used to skin them for ceremonial garb, and now tend to stone them for stealing crops (a feat at which they excel. My guide found their skillful thievery perplexing, given that they lack an opposable thumb. Indeed, the word colobus even means ‘something missing). Meanwhile, the reds are aggressive and not uncommonly challenge chimps, even without provocation. However, even in sizable groups they are no match for the larger animal and are frequently eaten for their troubles (I had no idea that chimps were so carnivorous). The wetlands were home to about five types of plants that render animals drunk – one for elephants, another for chimps, red colobuses (getting smashed makes them even more belligerent. They really are just like us!), even humans (the local gin is made out of sugar cane). My guide also encouraged me to keep an eye out for snakes, particularly cobras and green mambas. The mambas like to climb trees, making them a real treat to find. I was more worried about them falling on my head (it was a day to fear the sky. The chimps would release their waste while perched high in the canopy and seemed to take special delight in making the tourists scatter).
During the long drive back to Entebbe, Gordon and I didn’t have all that much more to say. Mostly he was just planning my next trip out (with my parents. He especially wants to meet my father. We could come visit his mother in Bwindi! Joy). We did stop briefly to take one more walk through the foot hills outside of Fort Portal and wander through a lovely waterfall with a violently colourful history. The story goes that a beautiful young maiden refused to marry the wealthy man chosen by her father, having given her heart to a poor local boy. As a punishment, her father cut off her breast and threw it in the woods. She vanished, but the water in the falls is still tinted white by her milk, while all the rocks grow in the shape of breasts (not all human. Some resembled the teats of cows, dogs, and in two very special cases, muzungus.  I didn't feel the need to comment on the fact that muzungus were included in the 'non-human' category). My guide helpfully pointed out that they were not in fact breasts, but were actually stalactites. Gee, thanks.

My last weekend in Uganda was blessedly quiet. I just puttered around Entebbe, enjoyed the lake view, and slept in. On the last night, I returned to that pizza joint. The waiter remembered my name and order. While I did not mind eating in the company my book, but the restaurant’s owner (rather her nephew, at her urging) invited me join her family for dinner. She often takes pity on the lonely expats, explaining that she understands how it is to be far from home. She is a Rwandan who came to Uganda in 1995. One guess as to why. Her nephew, who she raised as her own after his parents were killed in the genocide, is now working on a book about a modern history of Africa. We discussed strong men and fluid definitions of democracy in Africa. It was fascinating. The next day, I headed out to the airport reasonably early, as I did not actually know what time my flight was and got no answer when I called the (tiny, missionary) airline (the airport didn’t know, either, nor did the information desk even have the number for the airline. I was just told to stand in the main terminal until a uniformed employee of the airline wandered through and ask them. Magically, this worked). On my way there, I was briefly detained at a police and made to pass through a separate screening station for no apparent purpose whatsoever. Though it took close to 30 minutes, I was not patted down, my checked luggage was not inspected, and the officer’s examination of my hand luggage was so cursory that she missed the pocket knife. Sigh. Bye, Uganda.

30 August 2013

Muzungu in the Mist

My R&R in Uganda has come and gone and it was, in a word, amazing! Perhaps not surprisingly, Uganda was in many ways quite similar to Congo but infinitely more relaxing, if not for the reasons you might expect (lack of work and armed conflict spring to mind, though that was certainly a welcome change). Perhaps the most striking differences for me were how much more obviously wealthy it is (this is all in context. With ‘wealth’ I am referring to the abundance of cattle, full service gas stations, and tarmacked roads), and the use of English as the lingua franca. Though I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to kick the habit of greeting everyone with ça va. 

I only spent one night in Entebbe before setting out on safari. Entebbe is a lovely little town on the shores of Lake Victoria and is about 45km outside of Kampala. I stayed that the guesthouse preferred by my colleagues (after the troubles in Bunia last November, they were evacuated and stayed there for more than a week) and ate dinner at a local pizza/Indian fusion joint on the shores of the lake. Though it was not more than a 10 minute walk, I ran into the owner of the guesthouse on the way back. She was so concerned about me walking alone in the dark that she actually drove out to fetch me, making an educated guess on my destination based on where everyone else in my team eats. We are communally creatures of habit. When I protested that it really wasn’t necessary, she observed that getting roughed or having my back taken would not put me at full strength for my trip. True words, Madame.

At promptly six am the following morning, I left for Kampala to meet my tour guide (for a vacation, there were an awful lot of early mornings). Gordon seemed pleasant enough, though our lime-green Mystery Machine managed to break down before we were even out of the city.
As I was waiting for Gordon and the two mechanics he enlisted to fix the fuel pump somethingorother, I passed the time by listening to PSAs for prostate exams as told by the tragic tale of the near-do-well John and his long-suffering wife. The ad concluded with John’s imminent death, the announcer gravely intoning that 50 per cent of people (people, not men, I was amused to hear) who get tested late for prostate cancer die. Statistically speaking, 100 per cent of them die, but I shouldn’t quibble. There were also good ones for mosquito nets and fighting disease in banana plantations. Welcome to Uganda!

It was a long drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in the south west corner of the country (apparently, I should have just grabbed a boat from Goma), giving Gordon and I a chance to get to know one another. When I explained that I’m living in Congo, it seemed to invite him (and indeed, any Ugandan to whom I was speaking) to heap vitriol on his neighbors. The Congolais can’t cook, but apparently will eat everything including snakes, doges, and in some cases, people. They are beggars and dirty and lazy. The army is composed entirely of cowards. That they have such a rich country and are so poor just highlights their incompetence or stupidity or idleness or all three. Only one young guide I spoke with had anything positive to say, noting that Congolais are on the cutting edge of the music scene and make great dancers.

When they weren’t scornful, they often expressed a rather shocking naiveté. Congo? Is there still a war there? Well, that depends on how you define it, but lets’ go with yes. I haven’t seen the UN helicopters in a while. They are still there, too? Sweet fancy pants, yes. It’s the largest mission in UN history, and it just got bigger! Even people back home know about the Intervention Brigade! And how is the war going? I honestly have no idea how to answer that, but I’ll go with sucks for pretty much everyone (on a related note, two UPDF battalions accompanied by battle tanks actually entered Congo the last weekend I was in Uganda, and folks were still asking if there was a war going on. People. Your army just invaded! I think this level of apathy would give most Americans a run for their money).

Likewise, sharing my profession yielded all kinds of advice and suggestions and project ideas. Gordon himself inquired why I don’t suggest to Obama to step aside and allow the AU intervene to fix Congo. I…there are so many amazing assumptions inherent in that question that I didn’t know where to begin. Obama is also, apparently, the rudest US president ever, on account of his failure to his is distaste for Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in addition to being a huge hypocrite for killing Qaddafi. When I protested that President Obama did not, in fact, kill him, Gordon amended the comment to allowing Qaddafi to be killed, but suck to his guns (this defense of Qaddafi struck me as trés bizarre. Sure, Qaddafi and Museveni have been frenemies for a while, but the man supported the LRA for years. Then again, at one point Gordon dismissed the north as just full of poor people, so perhaps he could care less about the horrifying things the LRA did).
There was money in the banana stand (it's the main cash crop in the area)
At some point, our discussion turned toward domestic politics. Gordon fervently hopes that Museveni will continue his 27-year-long presidency for the next 5-8 years. Although he admitted that, sure, Museveni’s government was perhaps corrupt (he justified this with the Uganda proverb ‘a man eats where he works’), and yeah, some people he may be hard on (like the opposition, civil libertarians, and the entirety of the queer community, and really any gathering of more than three people, but I suppose you can’t please everyone), but he has brought the country so far! Gordon expressed a rather profound fear of civil war, opining that only Museveni was powerful enough to prevent it. But he was concerned that Museveni seems to be positioning his son to take power upon his retirement/death, and that didn’t strike him as the right course.

This was also when I began to keep a running tab of the number of times someone needed to confirm that I was traveling alone or had no boyfriend. By the end of the trip, it had happened least two dozen times. In the interests of full disclosure, I counted in this tally the times someone told me that I needed a man and the many occasions Gordon propositioned me, including: explaining how, if we were to end up together, he would make me eat meat (one of the many reasons we never will, I responded); whenever he referred to us as lovers or suggested I sleep in his bed; the time he offered to sell me to someone for 37 cows (the man demurred – here, we use goats, he explained); and the numerous instances he flat-out asked me to marry him. I did not include the references to how common it is for whites to marry Ugandans or how he was looking for someone, and, say, wasn’t I? I have to admit to being a bit flattered by the 37 cows quote. On the first day of our trip, when Gordan was flirting with a waitress, he suggested that she send his mother two cows, and then she could have him. That I was worth so many more was very complimentary.

Sporadically throughout the trip, Gordon also gave me Swahili lessons. Msichana – girl. Mvulana – boy. Wewe ni mzuri – you are very beautiful. I’m wasn’t sure how much use these will ever be, but decided just to go with it.

Not a moment too soon, we arrived at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (a UNESCO World Heritage site!), home of the mountain gorilla. The name is an entry for the redundancy department – Bwindi means impenetrable.
The line between farmland and national forest is so clearly drawn it's hilarious
And the eve of my trekking expedition, lest it seem like all I’ve done was gripe about my driver, Uganda already rocked my socks. The ‘camp’ at which I was staying welcomed me with a roaring fire, fresh juice, and tea with warm milk, while the tent had indoor plumbing and a glorious view. And these were the budget accommodations! As I took a shower ‘under the sky’ in a rainstorm, I have to admit that, in that moment, I thought I could stay in Africa long-term. I fell asleep with a hot water bottle against my toes and rain lulling me to sleep overhead.

I woke before dawn to prepare for my gorilla trek. The camp manager handed me a bag lunch on my way to the pre-trek briefing (a juice box and sandwich. I felt like I was seven). I was assigned to the Kyaguliro Group, which is currently being observed for research purposes, and given a litany of instructions. Don’t go closer the seven meters to the gorillas, though they are likely to wander closer than that to you. When do, stay still and be calm. If they get aggressive, do not panic and do not run. Adopt a submissive attitude and back away slowly. Do not mimic the sounds of the gorillas. If you take video, do not play it back in their presence. Do not make eye contact. Do not use a flash. Do not cough around the gorillas. Got it? Got it. And then I was off with park ranger Israel and German tourists Ursula and Constantine (as well as two armed ‘escorts’ who were apparently there to scare off forest elephants.We were hiking for not too much more than an hour when we met up with the tracking party. We climbed a bit further and heard some low noises of grunting and shaking branches, and suddenly found ourselves in the midst of gorillas!
I cannot begin to capture the amazing feeling of watching a blackback make coy eyes and play the diva as he pulls a vine off a tree or seeing three babies tumble with one another among a tangle of roots or just standing still and listening to them converse. It was surreal. So, in lieu of trying more than I have, I’ll just offer lots of photos and some statistics. The family had two silverbacks, four blackbacks (as the adolescent males are known), seven females, and seven babies. The youngest wasn’t more than a few months and the family was very, very protective of it.



I enjoyed the most profound sense of serenity and joy for very nearly an hour (you only ever get an hour with the gorillas) when the rangers decided we needed a better view of the alpha silverback. We got to within the prescribed seven meters (and a bit closer, honestly) on a steep slope dense with undergrowth. We were more walking on a net of leaves than the ground itself, and our footing was both treacherous and pleasantly bouncy. That was about the time the silverback got…aggressive. There wasn’t any beating of the chest, but he started growling and then screaming, then bared his teeth, and finally charged us. I have to admit, had my traction been better, I would have beat cheeks (like that would have gone well, considering that even the recommended backing away was nigh impossible and gorillas are surprisingly speedy). As it was, I slipped a bit, causing the rangers to hiss to stay still. By the second charge, I had decided that, were I to die, death by angry gorilla was not such a bad way to go. Imagine the headstone possibilities!
We eventually realized that he was posturing to protect the baby, who was carried past us by his mother during the second charge. That was amazing on another level – being sandwiched between this adorable infant and furious papa. If gorilla trekking was not already on the to-do list for your life, please add them now.

On our way to Queen Elizabeth National Park the following day, we made a not-so-quick stop so that Gordon could pick up some shoes. In the process, he stumbled upon a park guide who needed a lift. In fact, almost the whole trip we acted as a taxi service for stranded guides and hotel employees. Not that I minded. It meant he spent less time talking about our pending marriage. And, often, the guides directed us to the best spots for animal viewing. This first time, the ranger in question worked in an area where lions are known to climb trees. Though we didn’t manage to find any, I so much wanted to see some that every rock or termite mound became a mane, every hanging vine or branch a lazy tail. We did make a stop at a tea estate, which was pretty spiffy.

When we finally arrived at the park, I was almost immediately loaded on a river cruise. It sounds more posh than it was. I was joined by a surprising number of birders. They were almost as much fun to watch as the birds themselves, one stalking the other stalking water bugs through the shallows. They (the people, not the birds) were outfitted with mammoth binoculars, but used camera photos. One actually held the phone up to the binos. I would love to know how that photo came out. Ultimately, I managed to turn my attention to the mammals I was supposed to be watching.

I was interested to discover that I have a here-to-unknown love of hippos. I could have watched them for hours, enjoying how they emerge from the water coquettishly, bashfully, only to start and snort water high in the air, as if mortified you caught them. Water buffalos, meanwhile, always seem to look either forlorn or disgruntled. There were village kids swimming in waters that housed not only the highest concentration of hippos in the world, but also Nile crocodiles and a variety of water snakes (the park was established well after the village, and now proceeds go to support their health, hygiene, and education). The guide on the boat observed the children and then felt the need to remind us silly tourists of us how extremely illegal this was.

Despite having told me the night before that we would leave at 7h00, Gordon arrived for me at 6h30. It was a good thing that I was already up and meditating (on him, nonetheless. That…isn’t as creepy as it sounds. I was going for patience and serenity). Also, he was deeply hung over. Happily for my olfaction, we were rolling with windows down. He explained that he had met up with several of his fellow guides for a beer, and might have had a few more than planned. He further apologized, not for being so slaboo, but for not inviting me along. Given that a) they almost certainly wouldn’t have been speaking English, b) his innuendos probably would have crossed a line, and c) his preferred drink is cold Guinness and Coke, I was unspeakably relieved that he didn’t. Although his driving improved as he dried out, it was still a bit erratic as we careened around a corner and into the middle of a herd of elephants. We skidded to a halt, startling some babies back into the foliage. An older elephant flapped her ears at us in gentle rebuke for our dramatic entrance. Watching them move gracefully, somehow noiselessly, in the predawn light washed away any lingering irritation I might have had with Gordon and return me, if only briefly, to the meditative state I had abandoned. It was too dark yet for flashless photos, and I didn’t want to scandalize them like that (having to flash them…get it? Sigh).

It was in much better spirits, then, that we set off for the remainder of the game drive. The sun was breaking through the cloudy memory of the early morning rain, kissing the green waves of the grasslands with fire. I saw all manner of assorted herbivores and birds – topis and impala and buffalo bathing in the salt lake, munching, playing, nursing. At one point, we heard the rumor of a lion and some 15 tourist vans and Land Cruisers and Range Rovers in various states of disrepair jetted to the same spot, only to be told it had vanished into a thicket. Gordon opined that someone had played a joke. It certainly had a sense of theatre of the absurd, watching all of those ungainly vehicles try to navigate around each other in the mud and muck, camera-laden tourists hanging out the top and swaying like dashboard hula dancers. But I loved watching the topi frolic and the water buck pace with stately grace. Though I had given up on lions I consoled myself that the entire point of this journey was really gorillas – everything else was icing on the cake. I had a few more elephant sightings and even some of my beloved warthogs (warthogs, for those who don’t know, are hilariously in person. In my mind, they are the absurdly pompous dandies of the animal world and I love them for that).
Then, just at about when we had decided we were hungry and it was high time to head back, what was that in the grass? A languidly undulating tail? Some black-tipped ears, perhaps? We stopped smartly, but she had disappeared. The guide in the car behind us – the only other one around, as the gaggle from earlier had broken up – didn’t believe that we had seen anything, but his passengers encouraged him to take a closer look so he pulled his Land Cruiser off the main track. Gordon wasn’t sure that our battered Mystery Machine would be equal to the task (it had been falling apart in bits and pieces throughout the drive, malfunctioning just about every time we left tarmac roads. The previous day, a particularly vicious bump had caused the cover to the glove compartment to completely disconnect and an empty Nile Special bottle to drop on my toes. Gordon claimed that the roadie wasn’t his, but I have my doubts), but these were my lions! I urged him to give it a go. And that is how we ended our morning with the magical charm of watching a mother snuggling with her eight-month-old cub (eight months was Gordon’s estimate, and while on the subject of doubting Gordon is still fresh in our minds, I at times wondered about the thoroughness of his guide training. Remind me to tell you about the plant he claimed was 100x more addictive than cocaine, or the herb that would magically make me crave meat – especially liver – and that he threatened to slip in my omelet one morning. Credit where credit is due, though, the man knew his birds. I think he was disappointed that I wasn’t more of a birder. It seemed to be a German thing).

I have found that I tend to value most that which is unexpected (like the unsung charms of Goma). I anticipated the majesty and grace of the elephants and lions. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t adore them, but the highlight of the day might well have been the unaccountably cool tour of the salt lake. Where they actually farm salt. The ground in this area is apparently super acidic and most of the bodies of water are naturally salt producing (among all kinds of other, more noxious things. One of the lakes is called ‘smelly’ in the local language, though they all smell like sulphur). The non-farmed ones make for great animal viewing – they go by the herd to add minerals in their diet and clean wounds. Meanwhile, the lakes also produce by the bucket load algae that is favoured among migratory flamingos. Some of the larger lakes, however, have been cultivated by the locals in some way or another since the 1400s. They build salt ‘pans’ along the lake shore by lining pits with grasses and wood and then fill them with water from the lake. They can only be farmed during the dry season, when sustained evaporation cases a thin layer of salt to form on top of the pan like ice. The farmer keeps building layers of salt crystal until it hardens and sinks, at which point they harvest and purify it (by stomping on it like wine grapes!) until fit for human consumption.
In the lake itself, the farmers dive down to the lake bed where salt rock has formed. This is gathered for industrial use. Where the plots . are individually owned like plots of land and are passed through families for generations, the lake divers are more or less unionized. Because of the astoundingly high salt content of the water, women are only allowed to work in the pans – the continual emersion of the rock harvesting causes too much damage to their fallopian tubes, apparently. As it is, they already have a worryingly high prevalence of miscarriages and the male divers have to wear condoms to protect their foreskins. They also suffer from near-constant dehydration and have to find alternate employment during the six months of the rainy season, when salt can’t be harvested. Somehow, though, the lake employs some 5000 people and they are actively fighting to preserve their way of life in the face of efforts by a large company to buy up all the pans and rehabilitate and old factory built by the Germans in the 1950s. It was like a super warped version of Erin Brockovich. My charming guide, Michael, pointed out to me that the like was shaped like bean of kidney, or a hornless Africa. Uganda exports its salt throughout the region and, for reasons unknown to Michael, China. 
You can see the rafts of rock salt being towed through the lake
By the time Gordon came to fetch me, the MM was no longer able to reverse. Only three days left to go!