I won’t bore you with too many details about what I’ve been up to, but I did have the opportunity to take my first trips out of Bunia. For the first, several colleagues and I took an overnight trip to Beni, a large town just over the border in North Kivu. The purpose of the trip was, more or less, networking. We’re starting up a new project just on the Orientale side of the border and wanted to glad-hand some folks and see if there isn’t a possibility to expand south. At the same time, we support a number of clinics along the route we took, so I was able to some of our ongoing work first-hand.
The road to Beni – at least the first 150km or so – was, shall we say, a touch uneven. At first, I approached it as an off-roading adventure. Every bump made me smile. After all, people drive all over Colorado to find roads like this (and if you are so inclined, please don’t start any fires)! It was beautiful and interesting. I even leaned back and pretended that I was in a, admittedly somewhat violent, massage chair at a pedicure salon.
After the first two hours bounced by, though, it was as if the chair had vengefully begun shaking me to pieces, under the mistaken impression that I had reupholstered its one true love. It might not have been quite so bad were the speed more consistent, but our driver seemed to make it a matter of pride to reach 80km/hr as often as possible, even if only for ten feet before breaking for the next chasm. I supposed I shouldn’t complain so much, as he apparently only does that in areas with lots of militia activity, but it does add an extra layer of unpleasantness. I did take some schadenfreude-based joy in that one of my Congolese colleagues seemed to be having an even harder time than I. If such a thing was possible, I would have said that he turned green.
It was, somewhat improbably, a toll road. Each barrier cost us between five and seven USD. This, in a country where 70 per cent of population lives below the global poverty line, or 1.25 USD/day. Of course, the motos didn’t bother to pay and just flew past. I cannot fathom how much worse this road would be without the tolls. It is possible that the money never actually translates into road work, but I’ll try and stay optimistic. One of my colleagues joked that when he is asked if one drives on the right or left in Congo, he answers that they drive wherever there is a road.
During a stop at one of the clinics, the health workers couldn’t help but take pity on us at the sight of our ashen faces and gave us what looked like green lifesavers. And so they were; the candies fought the motion sickness and made the rest of the journey bearable. This isn’t to say that all of us needed it. The driver seemed fine, of course, and another colleague actually fell asleep, amazing as that sounds. There I was, wishing I had had the foresight to wear a bra, and he was taking a nap. Madness.
The only tangible change as we crossed the border from stabilizing Province Orientale to conflict-ravaged North Kivu was that the road was paved. We all cheered.
At the clinic that saved our stomachs, I think at least two-thirds of the women I saw were pregnant or had infants. Most looked barely old enough to have even had a period. One was beaming – she had given birth just two days before, and her husband would be arriving soon to collect her and their child. She was excited to get home and see her new wardrobe. Tradition in Congo dictates that new fathers celebrate their wives with gifts of cloathes whenever they give birth. A lovely practice, I suppose, but think I’ll stick to on-line shopping all the same.
There were also several seemingly unattended children running amok, one of whom couldn’t have been more than a year old. Another, who I had thought was a girl based on the dress he was wearing, lifted his skirts and answered nature’s call. On the front steps of a hospital. I was also able to count up to five – no, six – goats roaming the property.
Even so, the exam room in which we spoke to the director was tidy and well-lit. Sure, it might not pass muster in the US (when was the last time the sheet covering the exam table was washed? Bet money not in the last week), but overall it was clean. There was a washbasin and an assortment of medications and stethoscopes. The wall was decorated with an UNICEF poster and fertility calendar. It had a soothing blue and white colour scheme with cheery curtains. The only thing that really got to me was the smell. It did not smell clean. The hotel we eventually stayed in didn’t smell clean. My room at the compound doesn't really smell clean. I am unconvinced that I will even smell clean again.
Generally speaking, the children at the clinics were captivated by my skin (it might be worth noting that I didn’t see another white person, or muzungu, in the two days we were out). One little girl kept grabbing my hand and rubbing it. Her mother found this deeply amusing. Other children were not so brave. Two boys at a different clinic kept trying to work up the courage to talk to me. They actually squealed and fled when I tried to shake their hands. I felt like I was Boo Radley.
When we finally finished our work and arrived in Beni, our first priority was locating a hotel that fit our needs in terms of both security and price. And there were goats mating in front of it. That was a fairly decent harbinger of things to come. The bathroom was equipped with a shower and toilet, but they had neglected to include running water. Instead, a large bucket had been filled with water. I took a shower using my water bottle to ladle the bucket water over my head and had to fill the tank of the toilet when I wanted to use it.
For dinner, someone suggested we find a Chinese restaurant. I still don’t know if he was putting me on. We didn’t end up finding Chinese (which is, I think, something I should be grateful for). Instead, we grabbed dinner at a local restaurant called Sous les Palmiers. I think that every member of my group made the joke that there was not a palm to be seen. We ate something resembling coleslaw, passion fruit, fries, and whole fried fish. There were also some pleasantly hot peppers. We ate with our hands. I was amused, however, that we used forks the next morning to eat our omelets. There was a distressing lack of coffee.
Beni itself is quite an impressive town, easily three times the size of Bunia. Traffic moved briskly along the paved main road and the traffic circles were actually defined. The majority of the buildings we drove past brightly painted in a riot of advertisements. Simba – butamu ya bietu! D’jino – un explosion de saveurs! Vodacom – Meliurex qualities. My personal favourite was for a Congolese beer: Primus – Wakishahhhh!! I haven’t been able to find a translation for that, but it certainly seems satisfying.
Our team took the full advantage of the bustling metropolis to stock up on a few things that are more difficult to get in Bunia, like extra wheels for the motorbike fleet, gas (114 USD worth!), and cheese. The gas station we went to was slightly more substantial than the lemonade stand-style you generally see around here (photo – no smoking, no phone calls). It was full-service, and the gas was filtered through a cheese cloath as it was poured, rather like the wine at Downton Abbey (we’ve been watching a lot of that during girls’ night). While waiting for the tank to be filled (it took forever. They had to use three different cans to fill the car’s two tanks), one of my colleagues asked if I had any American music. I took out my phone and they searched through, settling on Lady Gaga. So there we were, listening to Beautiful, Dirty, Rich. In the middle of the poorest country in the world.
Happily, the ride back to Bunia was slightly less dusty than on the way down, as it had rained the night before. Being a bit better prepared for the road this time around, at least mentally, I was able to take some photos and enjoy Congo unfolding around me. A totally arbitrary, non-exhaustive list of things I saw strapped to motorbikes along the way included bunches of bananas, chickens and goats both living and dead, precariously stacked jerry cans full of water and fuel, six mattresses that hung over the back wheel and were nearly dragging the bike off the road, bundles of sticks, aluminum siding, panes of glass, struts that were easily 10-12 feet long. This is only slightly more varied than what I have seen balanced on the heads of women.
Goodness. That took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I won’t now go into the minutiae of the second trip, except to say that it was much shorter, infinitely more relaxing, and involved waterfalls, cows, and a scarecrow of a M23 soldier at the gates of a FARDC camp. Good times were had by all!