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!