05 July 2013

To be an American in Africa, working for the Swiss, on the Fourth of July

So far, this week has seen torrential rain storms, three earthquakes in two days, and a prison break in Beni.  In other words, it has been an eventual start to my July!  And all I really want to do is focus on a rather large proposal that’s due – I need to prove that I can earn my keep, especially since our technical advisor at one point called my spin on her resiliency model stupid in front of the head of country programs.  Talk about aftershocks…

Not that any of this bananas weather bothers me, particularly.  The earthquakes haven’t reached a level where they’re scary – just inconvenient (one knocked me out of pincha mayurasana, and another forced me outside during a rainstorm in naught but my pajamas.  I didn’t even manage to find pants, but had to use my towel).  They do combine in darkly humorous ways with my Lariam dreams, though.  In them, an earthquake cracks the roof such that all the rats living above us cascade down onto my mosquito net with the same pitter-patter as the rain, their squeaks of protest sounding suspiciously like the crickets that live outside my window.

The only real downside of all the storms (because there are many upsides – it’s cooler and easier to sleep, and the dust is much more manageable) is that we run the generator much less, lest it get blown out by the lightening.  Au revoir, internet!  And with it, communication with family and friends, and work email, and updates on the whereabouts of those escaped prisoners…

Luckily, the thunderstorms in no way impact my ability to work on the proposal in which my organization is taking lead, mostly, I think, for the simple reason that the potential donor is British and I’m the only native English speaker on the proposal writing team.  The consortium includes two Italian NGOs, one of which has a German Chef du Mission, and all of which have Congolese staff on hand.  Our meetings have been mostly in French and English (exclusively for my benefit and much to my shame) with Italian subtitles and the occasional German outburst, although he also curses quite fluently in Italian.  It’s the first thing you learn working at an Italian NGO – the dirty words, he confided in me.  And then looked quite sad as he determined that the Swiss would likely not be offering the same education to me.  He has thus promised to teach me how to swear in German.

As this is the day when one should be proud to be an American (and this one is, and very much missing her tradition of a Potomac picnic with good view of the fireworks), it seems as good a time as in to reflect on the melting pot that is the Bunia community.  I hate to give into stereotyping, but it’s amazing to me how people here seem to become caricatures of their nationality, almost as though to remind themselves of home.  The MSF contingent, which is entirely French, hardly interacts with anyone at parties except to swan in en masse and drink all the booze and smoke astonishing quantities of cigarettes inside the houses.  The men all always wear scarves, no matter the temperature, and the women are mind-bogglingly fashion-forward, considering the location.  They have nothing on the Italians, though, who wear leather jackets and high heeled boots and no bras and have asymmetrical haircuts and are constantly drinking espresso (they brew it at home and then bring it to the bar themselves).  The South Africans curse a blue streak, but in a jovial way, and play rugby and drink so much beer that I’m surprised their livers haven’t revolted.  The Brits are like the South Africas, but in a more longingly restrained way that hints they wish they could be more so.  The Indians and Americans are the only ones with families here.  The Americans are, by and large, missionaries and are quiet, polite, good at sports, and don’t stay out late.  The Indians run most of the restaurants in Bunia and throw the best parties.

And so on this Fourth of July, to all the Americans, missionary or otherwise, I hope that you are able to celebrate like an Indian with all the charm of an Italian and good will of a South African.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go practice my French and wonder if earthquakes and lightening are close enough to fireworks to count.