27 June 2013

For those who get tattoos and quote Leviticus against LGBT rights, I pray

Our internet has been intermittent over the last few days, leaving me mostly ignorant of the news from the States.  However, last night we enjoyed a connection for just long enough for my Facebook feed to explod with the news that DOMA had been overturned!  That, combined with an epic thunderstorm, left me the happiest I’ve been in weeks.  I feel the need to note that the last time I was overseas, DADT was repealed.  Perhaps I should just stay until there is equality for all!

Seriously, though, if you haven’t read Justice Kennedy’s majority decision, you should take the time.  It is a ringing statement on how the right to marry confers dignity and personhood and the federal government’s denial of that right constitutes a deprivation of an essential liberty.  Once you make it through the legal jargon (unless that’s your jam, of course) you might cry.  Some (Justice Scalia comes to mind) might quibble over whether or not Kennedy proved his point.  He cites the Fifth Amendment, which entitles us to due process, rather than the more likely-seeming Fourteenth, which addresses equal protection under the law.  Moreover, as Emily Bazelon pointed out at Slate, “Kennedy also didn’t make clear whether he was striking down DOMA because it failed the rational basis test—Congress had no good reason for it—or because it failed to pass the higher bar of heightened scrutiny.”  She continued, however, “You know what? Good. I think what really matters is that Kennedy’s opinion passes the common-sense test. The government can’t single out a group of people for second-class treatment because it just finds their behavior yucky or unfamiliar, when what they’re doing turns out to be perfectly harmless (and even a social good). “

The victory of common sense and equality and human rights and progress and, yes, cliché though it may be, love, are all reasons to celebrate today.  But they are not reasons to rest.  This was just one step in the long and winding road to equality for the LGBT community and, even as we’re toasting the Supreme Court, we need to continue marching on.  Roughly one-third of the world’s countries continue to criminalize consensual same-sex conduct.  Seven have named it a capital crime. 

Arguably, LGBT individuals are persecuted nowhere more viciously than in Africa.  Where much of the rest of the world has seen advancements in queer rights, ranging from full recognition of marriage and adoption rights to smaller, though still significant advances in visibility and activism, Africa seems to have been backsliding.  According to a report released by Amnesty International, the incidence of human rights violations based on orientation, gender identity, and same-sex relationships are on the rise across the continent, including ‘corrective’ rapes and murders of LGBTI individuals in South Africa.  In The Gamiba, it has been reported that there have been mass arrests of those who are or are suspected of being LGBT, while in Malawi the maximum prison sentence for same-sex sexual conduct is 14 years for men and five for women.  In February of this year, the Nigerian House of Representatives passed a bill that would not only impose a 14 year prison term as punishment for same-sex marriage (I have no idea why 14 is the magic number), but also criminalize aiding and abetting such marriages or even belonging to a queer-rights advocacy group.  Cameroon is said to prosecute more homosexuality cases than any other country in Africa, based on such solid evidence as effeminate clothing and text messages.  Possibly most infamous piece of anti-LGBT legislation was drafted just across the border from where I sit, in Uganda.  Though it has not yet passed since it was first introduced in 2012, the bill calls for the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’: namely, having more than three homosexual encounters or having one while HIV-positive. The bill would also punish Ugandans who fail to turn in those suspected of being LGBT to the authorities. 

Given the state-sponsored homophobia (I don’t care what the AP says, ‘anti-gay’ just doesn’t cut it) of its neighbor, the DRC seems downright progressive.  Sexual activity with the same sex is legal and the age of consent is equal regardless of orientation (forget for a moment, if you can, that the age in question is 15 for girls).  Indeed, in what may be one of the few ways Belgium did not complete eff up this country, homosexual acts have never actually been criminalized here (they were made legal in Belgium in the late 18th century).    

Unfortunately, legal does not mean either equal or even accepted.  The Congolese constitution explicitly only recognizes the right to wed a person of the opposite sex, and same-sex PDA can be prosecuted under public decency laws.  Even in absence of legally enshrined discrimination, the LGBT community remains vulnerable to harassment, humiliation, extortion, hate crimes, and honour killings.  Indeed, in their comprehensive annual report, the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association observes that “the absence of criminalisation does not demonstrate the absence of risk of persecution and/or sufficiency of state protection. The question of legality of gay sex is only one element, and cannot alone be taken as an answer to the question of risk of persecution based on sexuality.  Mocking, shame, ostracism, scorn, violence and prayers for salvation are reported means of keeping homosexuals in the closet or making them ‘normal’.”

I had the misfortune to experience the latter first-hand.  A few short weeks ago, while ‘shopping’ for a parish in Bunia, I was treated to a lecture on threats to the Christian family.  They were, in descending order of severity: same-sex marriage (and the LGBT community generally, I gathered), women’s rights (as they would replace the man as the head of the family), polygamy, and the rights of the child (because that clearly leads to premarital sex).  When the pastor kicked off his message by praising the Dominique Venner suicide at Notre Dame, I knew we were in trouble (never mind the cognitive dissonance inherent in protesting the moral decay of society by committing a mortal sin). 

There was one interesting moment when he began to talk about the great plague. I thought that hearing the HIV/AIDS epidemic might be interesting enough to justify sitting through the rest of it, especially given the impact of homophobia on the success of treatment campaigns.  Alas - he was in fact referring to the imminent collapse of Congolese society, which he flamboyantly dubbed the ‘American Disease’. 

In fairness to the church, I feel compelled to acknowledge that this was a guest pastor.  The main one urges the congregation to get tested for HIV on a regular basis and tells them where the nearest clinic is, according to the colleague who invited me.  Though it was same this enlightened soul that added television and the internet to the list of threats facing the Christian family following the conclusion of the main speaker.

I suppose there was some silver lining.  My colleague and I did have an interesting discussion following the sermon.  I was…a bit hot under the collar, possibly due to being an incurable carrier of the American Disease, but even she (the earnest daughter of Ivoirian missionaries) seemed perturbed.  She said she found his message to be ‘strong’, and worried about those in the congregation who might be struggling with their sexual identity.  According to her research, not all people choose to be gay, and that sort of talk might not be very helpful.

In response, I did the only thing I could think of: I prayed.

For those who get tattoos and quote Leviticus against LGBT rights, I pray. 

Please forgive all of my parentheticals!  And thanks to Unvirtuous Abbey for the post title.

20 June 2013

Road Trip (s)

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!

14 June 2013

Settling in

I am slowly starting to get a grip on the rhythm of my new life.  Work-wise, that means attending UN cluster meetings (and I cannot fully explain how geekily giddy that makes me) and starting to meet donors.  I’ve been introduced to new proposal formats, evaluation criteria, and reporting schedules.  This all might sound about as fun as watching paint dry, but I’m actually really loving it – learning, writing (once I get used to the French keyboard, that is), most of all finally contributing.  I’m sure I’ll soon wish I had more free time, but right now I can’t wait for it to pick up steam. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be so bad if work waited a bit for my French to catch up.  Corresponding with donors and the like isn’t terrible (thank all that’s holy for Google Translate).  In person meetings, however, are another matter entirely.  This is particularly true during the security briefings that seem to preface each and every meeting, regardless of participants or topic, from the UN to my local parish.  When your French is a poor as mine, these briefings gain new levels of drama. 

'Toute rest calme'.  Okay - that sounds good.  All quiet on the Orientale front.
'Sa minibus estat abondonée'.  Wait, what?  Where did the minibus come from?
'Les traces de trois personnes...'  Traces?  What kind of traces?  Of what people?  The people from the minibus?  How is that calme?!
'MONUSCO répondu à la situation avec la acción'.  Really?  Those poor people in the minibus are totally screwed.  At least it wasn't the FARDC.
'17100 des personnes déplacées vont à la plage'.  IDPs on the beach?  That can't possibly be right; it sounds like a rejected MTV reality show.  Are these new IDPs? I refuse to believe there were that many people in the minibus.  You're just messing with me at this point.

It's a bit like watching an episode of Law & Order during a thunderstorm.  My favourite example of this came when everyone was abuzz over something involving rebels and the provincial governor (who is, by all accounts, remarkably  efficient and corrupt, even if you aren't grading on the Congolese curve).  Every report on the subject kept mentioning cobra and mata.  Relying overmuch on my Spanish, I jumped to the conclusion that a rebel group tried to kill the governor Kill Bill-style, putting ricin letters to shame.  With a little digging, however (because English-speaking media could not have possibly ignored such a story, even here), it turned out that the commander of the rebel group in question uses the nom de guerre Col. Cobra Matata, and that they were actually engaged in peace negotiations.  I have never been so glad that I didn't ask a follow-up in my life.
Our compound, from the hammock.  Life here is so difficult.

Of course, there have been some instances when the language barrier has not presented a problem.  My driving test comes to mind.  Even if I didn't fully understand the detailed explanation of the engine maintenance required for our (British-made) 4x4s offered by our Chief du Flotte as we drove out of town, I'm fairly sure the panic in my eyes was universal when he told me I had to get back to the office.  Happily, I managed to make it, all while playing frogger with the motorbikes and potholes that could swallow a Fiat.  They now make me drive nearly ever weekend for practice.  I'm feeling slightly better about the whole endeavor, though I do still turn on the windshield wipers every time I want to make a turn.

13 June 2013

Its been a while

When I last wrote on this blog, nearly two years ago, I was preparing to depart Afghanistan.  In the intervening time, I returned to DC, reconnected with friends, found in a job in development (of the international flavour), fell in love, got a dog, and made a new life in the States, only to realize that what I really wanted was to be back in the field.  If I’m being honest, I also had to, were I serious about my career going anywhere.  With the help of some savvy friends, I found a Swiss humanitarian outfit that was willing to take a risk and got on a plane for the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I’ll be popping around the eastern provinces (based in Province Orientale) for the next year or so, working on issues a variety of relief and recovery interventions.  It’s a new paradise with the same old notes.