Objectively, I enjoy much more freedom in Bunia than in Kabul. I have free reign of a reasonably well-stocked kitchen. I can drive, at least in theory (of our fleet of cars, only one is in working order right now). I can walk through (parts) of town. We can eat at local restaurants and go to night clubs. We violate curfew with impunity (usually, this is the fault of our country director. She loves to dance and will stay out at the parties and clubs until the wee hours of the morning, and who among us is going to tell our boss that it’s time to go?).
There are some restrictions, of course. The UN has blacklisted several areas of town were banditry is rife (one of which surrounds the main MONUSCO camp!). I have been strongly discouraged from visiting either of the two major markets (the smaller is just down the street from our house and the larger is about a 30 minute walk) without a car and told in no uncertain terms to never go alone. The reason is that both boast enormous taxi stands, and it is these inimical young drivers who incite the majority of the riots in Bunia. It’s not that wide-spread violence is a common occurrence here; rather, when things do go bad, they do so quickly and without much in the way of warning. I might be able to make it back to the compound from the small market, which is literally a stone’s throw away (they know this from the last riot). At the large market, however, I would find myself quite stranded and have to take shelter at the nearest NGO until someone was able to come retrieve me. During those same riots, one of our expats took shelter in a cell phone store until a driver was able to come collect him. It was the only place he could get reception to call for help, but the owner was apparently terrified that that mob would burn it down looking for the muzungu.
Even so, I have broken the walking rule twice already (never the buddy rule, though. I’m not that dumb). It’s just that I love the walk so very much, especially when on any given day, I never leave the compound (my office is within eyesight of my bedroom. This fact makes my early afternoon nap cravings very intense indeed). It’s not so much the lack of freedom that makes life difficult in Bunia, but the oppressing monotony. When every day is some iteration on the theme of eat, pray, work, time seems to stretch out before you like a desert.
Thus, I and two colleagues found ourselves violating security procedure walk to the gran marchet over the weekend (the waterfalls south of town would be more fun, but are also much more logistically challenging). The range of products on offer is truly staggering. There are fruits I can’t name next to nail polish next to hardware, all being haggled over in French and Swahili and Lingala, with US dollars and Congolese francs freely changing hands. You can purchase a converter for your laptop, a new wheel for your motorbike, fish for dinner, and an iron for your clothes, all why you wait for the tailor to finish the dress you designed using the fabric you bought at the boutique. The bright fabric patterns even seem to be inspired by the smörgåsbord of the market. Some are agricultural – corn stalks and improbably long-necked roosters – while others are technicolor appliances – lanterns and corkscrews and what I could swear were washers. There are patterns both patriotic (the first lady of Congo and President of Uganda) and religious (minarets and exhortations to the Virgin for intercessions). Some of the more beautiful veered into the Escher-inspired abstract, with spiral staircases and Gordian knots, while others downright creepy – disembodied eyes and gypsy hands. I think my favourite were the Jetson house and tubes of magical toothpaste that jettisoned a colourful spray of confetti.
Ultimately, we ended up buying some fabric to recover the cushions on the couch and a few items to restock the pantry (potatoes, onions, huge pineapples for breakfast, and cooking oil in a Fanta bottle). We also purchased bananas from a tray balanced on the head of one of the girls wandering aimlessly and effortlessly through the press of people (she was a girl – 15, tops) who also had a baby strapped to her back. I felt astonishingly unaccomplished. The produce area of the market smells like fruit – plantains, mangoes, lemons, pineapple, passion fruit, something squat and green and lumpy that I am assured tastes like a tangerine – and fish and urine. The last made sense when I saw a little boy pee next to a vendor’s stall.
Still, I must say it was cleaner than the markets in Afghanistan, where the flies swarmed so thick on the cuts of meat it sometime seemed as though the beef was moving. At the halal butcher, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the sons had been given a cow’s tail and tasked with swatting the bugs away. Another brought in freshly butchered sides from their farm in the hills in the back of a pick-up lined with tarps. A third was roasting hooves. You could purchase joints all the way up to the knee, though I have no idea how one actually goes about eating them. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of brothers (there must have been a cousin mixed in there) ended with another two doing the actual butchering. They wore white silk bathrobes in place of butcher’s coats.
When we stopped by the poultry section for eggs, we probably could have pointed to one of the large wicker cages and specified from which bird we wanted them. And then of course taken the same bird home for dinner, where we would have had to butcher it ourselves. Aside from a squawk of protestation when hauled from their pens, I was amazed at how serene the birds seemed at they were lugged about the market by the wings or feet.
On our way back, loaded down with our purchases and dreaming of a late lunch, we were rather aggressively propositioned by some of those mototaxis I mentioned. Five of them actually boxed us in on the road, refusing to let us pass, nudging our legs with the front wheels and calling us chéri. While searching out a cab in DC I know that I almost always go with the driver I believe most likely to assault me, but here I was strangely disinclined. We ultimately climbed down into the ditch alongside the road to circumvent the taxis, which the drivers found enormously entertaining. Their laughter and dust lingered in the air after they took off the menace other potential fares.
There are a few items that we were not able to find at the market (flour and cocoa powder, for instance). So on our return trip, we dipped into one of the dry goods stores that line the main road, scattered between the walled NGO offices. They all carry more or less the same fascinating array of goods: margarine, instant coffee, sugar, cigarettes, Red Bull, vodka, American Garden’s Yankee-style mayonnaise, a chicken-based Spam knock-off called Chayo, and some unholy drink bearing the likeness of Sly Stallone called Rambo. He should demand royalties.
When we finally returned to the house with our purchases, we gratefully collapsed onto the threadbare couch. Later this week, the mamans who look after us will re-upholster the cushions with the cheerful pattern we bought, and we’ll probably head back to the market to pick up some goods for a Fourth of July barbecue. Anything to get out of the compound.