29 July 2013

Ango 2: Building bridges to ghost towns

When we left off (I love this installment format more than I should. It’s like I’m broadcasting an old-timey serial radio thriller), I was sore but happy in Ango, drifting off with a belly full of pizza in a dubiously comfortable bed. I awoke to the sounds of church bells and cat squabbles. We had a simple breakfast of porridge and then it was back on the bikes.

Even surrounded by crushing poverty and with pain lancing through my SI joint (it shifted out of my hips on the second day), I wanted to throw my arms wide with joy (I didn’t, of course. The gallant Jean Pierre, who was driving me that day, would have thought I was bananas). I am still not entirely sure what life decisions led me to this moment, but I am fairly confident that they were the rights ones. I was even lifted out of the depression I’ve been working though, if only temporarily (we’ll see how long the high lasts. Perhaps I should amend that to mostly confident. Somewhat confident?). I think I might have to look into getting one in place of a car when I get back to the States. But only if it is eco-friendly, of course, and preferably with a vintage feel. Like something Steve McQueen would have ridden, but powered by biofuels or sunshine or something. They have those, right?

Of course, my joy of the open road was short-lived. We were out for less than 20 minutes before we had to cross this river: 

Though another NGO is building barges to support the crossing, they are not yet finished and we had to move three bikes and six people across in a dugout canoe. It probably took an hour, though they seemed to have in down to a science, and had to be seen to be believed. I’m still not sure how we didn’t lose either a person or a bike. 

I was interested to learn that, even after the three shiny new barges are completed and champagne (more like Priums) broken over their hulls, there is no one to operate them. The NGO isn’t staying. The local government hasn’t stepped up. And apparently the canoe operator has not expressed interest. It amazes me; here is this incredible entrepreneurial opportunity – no start-up costs! inelastic demand! – and no one seems to want it. It was frustratingly symptomatic of the longevity problem so much of our work faces.

After the river, we passed through a stretch of mostly uninhabited grassland and cool, loamy jungle nearly 50km long. The only noise was the growl of the engines and thawk of our helmets being smacked by branches and occasionally each other. It was, without question, glorious. However, it also meant we never had cause to stop and I was still sore from the day before. Eventually, I assume, you get used to this mode of travel, but I was desperately trying to remember all of the tricks I learned horseback riding at summer camp a lifetime ago and thinking about exactly how much yoga I’d have to do to get my hips back in place. Not squirming around was also much harder given all of the luggage we were hauling; every bump shifted my backpack and the mosquito nets and water jugs and me too, until I was listing alarmingly far to the left and had to correct myself. The trick was trying to time it with the bumps so I didn’t through off the driver’s balance any more than I had to. Rather, more than I already was, given how I was constantly peering around his should to see the road ahead or take a photo or steal a glimpse of the time from his blue-banded watch. I was terribly proud that I only lost my camera once (and I hadn’t even been fiddling with it! It flew out of my partially zipped pocket after we tackled a rough patch particularly aggressively).

While on the motorbike, I came to a few realisations. One, it is possible to get sleepy (this might have been related to my lack of protein consumption), so I had to be careful not to nod off. I’m not sure I could have withstood the shame. Or the road rash. Two, I am prone to flights of fancy (this is not unique to while on motorbikes of course, but it seemed to enable my already overactive imagination). In my mind’s eye, the encouraging hand cupping my knee after a violently bumpy section was one that I knew and when we speed up, splashing through puddles of butterflies that scatter away in rainbow droplets, I could slide my arms around a man that I loved, resting my head on his broad back as my hair tangled behind us. In my fantasy, clearly, we are not wearing helmets. Given how many things battered my head over the course of the trip, this is something I would never do. There is also no way we would ever be this serene. I would be complaining about how haphazardly he had strapped things to the bike of the bike and he would be yelling at me to hold still, woman! I can’t find domestic bliss even in my fantasy life. Dysfunctional or not, the blue bill of the Kangol hat poking out from under the helmet in front of my nose brought me back to reality. I hardly knew Jean Pierre at all, and I kept my hands to myself. It was bad enough that my thighs were glued to his for every bump.

Eventually, the silent forests gave way to grasslands dotted with villages. In almost every one of the piyotes we passed, people were engrossed in some truly epic games of mancala. Most of the boards were four rows deep! It was played by old men and boys, putting me in mind of a grandfather teaching chess in the park on a Sunday afternoon. At one village, where we had stopped to examine a depot used in food distribution, we were able to watch a match first-hand as we drank strong coffee out of tin cups painted with apples and grapes. The mancala game was a soothing reprieve from an otherwise disheartening discussion about why the depot was piled high with pallets of rice and flour and cooking oil all stamped as gifts from the American people, when its stocks should have been distributed months ago instead of quietly moldering away.

Continuing on our way, we came across the site of a LRA attack where only a few months ago, one of our clinic staff was killed and another taken hostage. The debris of their burned motorbikes served as an informal memorial. There have actually been a number of LRA assaults in this area, despite the deterioration of the group from fearsome militia to petty bandits and poachers. In a surprisingly inspiring story, the attacks outside of one village became so frequent that the local clinic was forced to close for a few months as residents were too frightened of being killed or kidnapped to even walk the 2km to access its facilities. In response, the clinic staff and village elders gave their homes over to be used for treatment until the army was able to chase the LRA to a safer distance. The head nurse’s hut became the main exam room while the village chief converted his into the pharmacy and drug depot. The inpatients had beds in an old cotton depot build by the Belgians in the 1960s. Though there remains some disquiet, the FARDC has set up camp a few kilometers away and the clinic is rebuilding in its original location.

At dusk, we arrived at the reference health center in Assa, approaching the border with Central African Republic. This was hands-down one of the best clinics I’ve yet seen. Its brick buildings were constructed by a since-vanished American missionary in the 1980s – the mysterious Mr. Downing. The painted walls were pot marked and there were dents in the concrete, but all six (it was a HUGE facility) structures were resolutely standing. In a movie it would be haunted, but in this context it seemed more like a particularly well-aged painting. The ward rooms were clean and spacious with curtains separating the beds and thrush stretchers to move patients. The pharmacy was well-stocked, meticulously organized, and boasted female condoms (women-controlled tools for family planning are an unusual but very welcome sight)! The operating room was furnished with iodine, ketamine, and diazepam, as well as scrubs in three colours and lizards and a hand-cranked surgery table that had ten-eighty scrawled on it in cursive like a soda machine from the 1950s. There was even a (defunct) airstrip in anticipation of medivacs. This clinic was beautiful. The only thing it was missing were people – it was being maintained by a handful of staff, catering to even few patients. It was the absence of patrons, not the broken glass in the windows that made Assa a little spooky.

We spent the night at the clinic. Very kindly, the nurses gave up own their cottage for our use. The house had own shower stall (but no running water, which was par for the course) and they heated several buckets of water so that we could wash away all of the grime and sweat from the road. As they were only able to offer us wash cloaths, I was pleased that I had thought to pack a towel (I always travel with my towel, though much to my disappointment, no one has yet called me a hoopy frood). After we had cleaned up and eaten (the staff prepared antelope and rice, while we shared our pineapples), the head nurse took us on a tour of the broader village, which mirrored the clinic in that it was beautiful, almost entirely brick, and eerily deserted. In the course of our walk, we met the former headmaster of the local school, who wistfully told us about before the war when he had students enough to fill two and three classrooms. Between the death and displacement caused by the war and LRA, less than a tenth of the population remained in the village. It turns out that Assa was haunted, if only by memories and silence.

Our accommodations did have a few downside, most notably the contingent of rats, alarmingly concave mattress, and a toilet that I assume they pointed out just to confirm that they once had had indoor plumbing, or possibly as a joke. I preferred the squat latrines behind the women’s ward to that Black Horror. It honestly made me uncomfortable sleeping in the same house; I kept imagining I could smell it through the wall.

The next morning, after a breakfast of rice and chicken, we topped off our canteens with strongly chlorinated water from an old detergent bottle (it was lemon-fresh!) and visited one of the newer construction sites for our bridge project. Supposedly, this project being done in conjunction with WFP and we pay the local labourers with a mix of cash and food. Unfortunately, the WFP hasn’t moved the food for months (remember that scandalously full depot?), so the people had effectively not been paid at all since the program began. Consequently, they had stopped working about a week ago and the project was falling behind schedule (not that I can blame them!). Instead of food, then, we held a cash distribution and the work recommenced before my eyes. The project manager also vowed to bring our own truck all the way from Ango in the coming weeks to distribute the food ourselves, WFP be damned.
An unrehabilitated bridge
The village chief arrived for the distribution, wearing a Police tour shirt and carrying a rifle. He offered us a chicken in thanks for our visit as I was taking his quote about the project’s impact in the area. When writing my formal report on the trip, I was amused to look back at my notes and see, tucked away among the discussion of economic growth and increased humanitarian aid, a quietly incredulous parathentical: ‘are they really giving us a chicken?’. Those suckers go for ten dollars, while we were only paying our workers 50 cents a day (it was supposed to be paired with food aid, remember. For context, more than 70 per cent of the Congolese population lives below the global poverty line of 1.25 USD per day. The annual GNI per capita here is 180 USD).

During the distribution, it also came to light that one of the workers was a bit on the young side for our comfort level, leading to a spirited discussion – very much in English, not that most of the labourers even understood French – about international labour law and whether or not employing a 15 year old was kosher. That’s assuming she was actually even 15. She certainly looked younger, though it can be hard to tell. As one of my colleagues pointed out, in so many of these villages you really only seem to see the very young and the very old. People grow up quickly when food is scarce.

We stayed to watch the work progress for a bit, chatting with the townsfolk. One was sporting a Vote for Kony t-shirt that promised a Congo that is united, strong, prosperous. I would eat that shirt if that man had ever had the opportunity to vote for anyone. Finally, though, my driver strapped the chicken – very much alive – to the back of our motorbike and we set off on our return to Ango. Even now, I remain amazed at how (mostly) blasé the poor bird was about the whole thing. I only felt it flap against my back two or three times. However, when we were once again crossing the large river in dugout canoes and its beak was dangling just at water level, I think it began to suspect that the odds were not in its favour.

During our return, we also happened upon some of the the nomadic Mborobo and their donkeys, one of which did not look like it was in good shape. We laid odds on how long it would last before the poor thing turned into lion fodder. The project manager wasn’t sure whether or not to hope he would be in the field when it happened.

That night, we enjoyed beers with the team at the local hotel/bar, paired with a simple dinner of rice and beans (finally! A protein of which I could partake!) and then collapsed into bed. The Minister of the Interior was set to arrive on the heels of our departure the next day, supposedly in an effort to convince the disinclined CAR refugees to make the long trek south to that beautiful, uninhabited camp. It seemed the whole village turned out to welcome him. There were contingents from the army and police, church and women’s groups. Everyone was dressed in their finest – a dishwater brown leisure suit next to a lemon-yellow track suit next to a truly spectacular feathered leopard-print hat. The Bunia-based pilots teased us that we must have made quite an impression to warrant such a send-off.
So long, Ango!
And then, courtesy of a much-needed nap, I was suddenly back in civilization! Which is…a very different reaction to the first time I flew here. Next, I’m off to Goma and Bukavu and expect the stories to be very different, but hopefully just as good.
Why hello there, Bunia