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

26 July 2013

Ango: Zen and the art of health clinic maintenance

Let me begin by saying: Holy Cats. I know that I am often blasé about this whole aid worker gig and all (I have to preserve my worldly street cred), but sweet glorious goodness, was this field trip ever amazing. I spent only four days in Ango territory, which is roughly (very roughly) 500 km from Bunia and I’m still processing everything that happened.

It all began fairly normally. My supervisor and I awoke nice and early on a Saturday morning (our Friday flight had been canceled) to head out to the airport. The sun was barely up, and already there were children singing (raucously and enthusiastically out of tune. A dulcet choir of cherubs this was not). Otherwise, the morning was more or less unremarkable. At six am, waiting in airports is pretty much the same everywhere.

On our way to Ango, we stopped briefly in Dungu at a beautiful airport run by Bangladeshi peacekeepers in jaunty hats. Though the runway was dirt, it was hard pack and meticulously maintained. We were the only plane on the runway had no less than three peacekeepers directing us. It was dramatically different from my own destination, which was essentially nothing more than a dirt strip hard-won from the forest (and the forest wanted it back). As I was unloading our bags, the pilot sauntered off to the edge of the runway to relieve himself.
The PAX terminal at Ango
The base manager took us on a perfunctory tour through the town and showed us around the airy compound. When I imagined moving to Congo, this is much more what I had in mind than the stately house in Bunia. The kitchen and dining area were both in detached payotes (peyote? pailot? They’re grass huts with half walls, and I have yet to find two people who spell the word the same way), and you had to draw your own water for showers from the cistern. I live in the lap of luxury comparatively and promise (well, will try) not to complain again either the cold showers or occasionally having to fill the toilet from the bucket. I will, however, still whine about the rats. We strongly considered pilfering one of their seven(!) cats. Technically, the base here did have a toilet seat for the latrines. Unfortunately it had detached long ago and you now had place it on the raised concrete pit if you felt inclined to use it.

Once there, however, we had time only to ditch our luggage and repack the necessities (rain gear, water, notebook, and camera, of course) because we were on a tight schedule. Off we were whisked on the back of motorbikes for the next five hours. My first-ever motorbike experience was, in a word, liberating (and thrilling, exhausting, and painful, if I can take a few more). Aside from the tremendous discomfort in my hips (seriously, though – this was a thigh and ab workout like none other), the bikes were infinitely preferable to the Land Cruisers. I will take some lower back pain over nausea any day. Our drivers were amazing – I have no idea how they navigated the dips and rocks and mud. I just tried to squirm as little as possible and enjoy the ride. In those stretches where the road was simply too bad for passengers, it was often a great relief to have to opportunity to walk a bit, bow-legged and unbalanced though we were.

Indeed, this trip was full of firsts – the first time I have ever been in a (nearly empty) refugee camp, the first time I’ve seen a black mamba (at least that’s what the guards thought it was. But it was a baby mamba, so I guess that’s okay?), the first time I’ve ever been grateful for a pit latrine, the first time I realized that good dentistry is the ultimate status symbol, the first time I’ve ever seen a WFP distribution center…

The only one of these on that first Saturday, however, was the visit to the refugee camp. Much to my surprise, it was beautiful. It reminded me of the transient camps at KAIA and is the most well-branded place I’ve been outside of an A&F (yikes. How dated does that reference make me?). The camp boasted a cook stove for each tent and latrines and a school and plots for gardens. The refugees that were already ensconced were probably living better than most of the people in the surrounding villages. To complete their perfect camp, the UN now just needs to convince the rest of the refugees to trek all the way (a little over 100km, I think) from the border. It was hard not to compare the orderliness of this ghost town – it was at less than ten per cent capacity - with the almost certain disarray in Uganda right now, where tens of thousands (I’ve heard anywhere from 45,ooo – 70,000) of Congolese have fled in a matter of days.

Far from busloads of refugees – of even streams of people on foot – the only traffic with which we had to contend with children riding in pairs and sets of three on bikes more wood than metal at this point. All of it – wood, tires, metal, kids – had turned the same rust brown as the mud. We must have been impossibly rude as we blew past women with bundles of sticks on their heads and men in fedoras carrying machetes, but they all stepped smoothly back into the foliage to let us streak by (we never actually went all that fast. The road was simply too bad. But it felt like we were jet-powered). One man, who was using his machete to both peel some kind of yellow fruit unknown to me and at the same time herd a gaggle of children (with the flat of the blade, but still!), goggled at us in our helmets and high-performance rain gear like we were the crazy ones. You’re shepherding children with a sword dripping juice, sir! Given the context, though…fair enough. One of the little girls gave chase after us, waving and screaming greetings in Lingala. When we waved back, she beamed so broadly the flowers chalked on the mud hut behind her bloomed.

I suppose this also should have been on my list of firsts, but this was without question the first time I have ever been this close to absolute poverty. Real poverty. The people in the tin-roofed houses in Bunia are not why the life span in this country is 53 for men and 56 for women. It is because of the girl with the dead eyes dressed in rags, a single button holding what was once a dress to her body. Because of the man with no teeth and a withered leg who clung to my hands for support when he wished me a good morning. Because of the women who paused from their work in the muddy creek waters to watch us motor by impassively; they were washing cloathes and children in the same source from which they would later gather water to prepare their meal of rice and banana leaves.

Realizing the extent of the destitution in this area made it all the more moving, not to mention deeply uncomfortable, when you simultaneously experience outbursts of profound generosity. The staff at the first clinic we visited, in Mbibili gifted us with pineapples and eggs that I’m reasonably sure someone had used in lieu of payment for treatment. Our little party inspected birthing rooms, latrines (one of only two in the surrounding 50 km! Let that sink in for a moment), the pharmacy and drug depot, even the pit where they burn placentas, and 15-20 people dogged our every step. The entire staff and several patients tramped past a girl who had given birth only two days before. She was unfazed.

To me, though, the most amazing thing about this clinic might have been that it was solar powered. My NGO had apparently designed a system where the solar panel fed a motorbike battery (so that it could be reasonably easily replaced) that powered the lights and kept the fridge running to preserve vaccines. I’m not sure I’ve ever had more pride for an organization I worked for than in that moment.

The tour did not stop with the clinic. The head nurse also led us to the church and market, showing off the highlights of his village with pride. The large (Catholic) church had unexpectedly delicate stone work and simple cut logs for benches. Meanwhile, the market offered a large array of plastic shoes, cigarettes stacked in artful towers, and monkey meat, cooked or fresh. The recently deceased monkey had its tail tied around its neck so you could carry it like a furry, creepy purse. We threaded our way to the back of the market where, selling knock-off Crocs and kola, we found the nurse’s wife. She invited us to stay for dinner. When we demurred, she pressed us to at least take some bananas back. They…mostly survived the trip. And my bag still smells pleasantly fruity today!

By the time we arrived back at the base, the team had begun to make dinner. In the 15 kilos we were allowed on the flight, we had been sure to pack flour, fresh vegetables, cheese, even wine, all of which are difficult if not impossible to get in the local markets. The team repaid us by making pizza in an oven crafted from an old oil drum. In a burst of my own generosity, I shared my emergency ration of brownies. I packed them at the behest of head of country programs, who warned me that I would have very little to eat during my stay (meat and rice are the regional staples). It was possibly a bad move and I was a bit nervous for the next few days. Motorbikes and fasting do not make for an ideal combination.
Would I survive? Well, yes, clearly I did, so there’s not much dramatic tension there. At any rate, I’ll have more on the rest of the trip soon. Stay tuned!

19 July 2013

Where is my spoon full of sugar?

Even for someone who works for an organization specializing in emergency health care, it’s been a medically-focused day. Prior to departing for the office, we had to re-load about 100 mosquito nets into the Land Cruisers for delivery to some clinics; we took them out when we went to dinner last night so that they wouldn’t get pilfered. Then, during the morning security briefing, we discussed whether our clinics had enough PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis, or what you take when you’ve been exposed to HIV/AIDS to reduce the chance of becoming infected) on-hand for the victims of the mass rapes that occurred in latest round of rebel attacks in Irumu. These assaults were totally separate from both the rash of M23 clashes with the FARDC north of Goma and the ADF/Nalu attacks east of Beni, which led some 70,000 people to flee to Uganda (I’ll have more on those soon, I’m sure). In this instance, Cobra Matata’s FPRI soldiers seemed motivated by the need to intimidate and control the local population when they told a group of women vendors not to go to a market held in an army-controlled area. The women snuck out and went to sell their goods (so that, you know, their families could eat) and the soldiers raped them upon their return.

Following that charming discussion, my first email of the day was a missive from the WHO that rather tersely requested those in the health cluster to please stop talking about Ebola, as there is any number of other hemorrhagic fevers that might be behind a given outbreak. It is apparently irresponsible to go around throwing out the E word. I was still ruminating on the fact that I now live in a country where only some hemorrhagic fevers are cause for panic when I was caught in a traffic jam in Bunia’s main square. Even those of us on foot had to pause for a demonstration regarding the importance of vaccinating children against Polio. Given that at home there are vocal protests against childhood vaccines, it was actually quite heartening to see that here vaccine proponents have motorcades and police escorts (though it didn’t exactly cancel out the risk of Ebola or horror of mass rapes).

Of course, the best awareness campaign in the world can’t overcome rampant stock-outs and wide-spread medical fraud. A recent visitor from our Swiss headquarters experienced the latter first-hand when he ill-advisedly bought some cold medicine at a pharmacy near one of the field bases. To be sure, his cold cleared up, but he was also left vomiting for days after taking the meds. Fraudulent drugs – what the WHO refers to as spurious/falsely-labelled/falsified/counterfeit, or SFCC medicines – range from pills that have been mislabeled to those that have no active ingredient to those that are flat-out toxic. This is by no means a new problem, but recent decades have seen it worsen in scope and frequency. In 1995 in Niger, 50,000 people were inoculated with fake vaccines during a meningitis epidemic, resulting in some 2,500 preventable deaths. The same year, cough syrup tainted with diethylene glycol (an ingredient more commonly found in antifreeze) caused the deaths of nearly 100 children in Haiti.

Industrialized countries are not safe. Indeed, the US, which probably has the most sophisticated consumer safety regime in the world, has had its fair share of SFCC scandals. In 2007 and 2008, almost 150 deaths were linked to a contaminated blood thinner while just last year a batch of steroids that were made in Boston infected more than 100 people with fungal meningitis, killing at least 11.

Though conclusive data on SFCC drugs is hard to come by (the global market is simply too large and unregulated) FDA guesses that counterfeits make up more than 10 per cent of the global medicines market. Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of these cases (perhaps as much as 70 per cent) are found in the developing world, where officials tend to be more bribable, health systems more lax, and consumers more desperate. It is estimated that up to 25 per cent of the medicines consumed in poor countries are counterfeit or substandard.

Anti-malarials are a favourite target of counterfeiters, probably because they are so widely used. A study in The Lancet concluded that up to 40 per cent of artusenate products (those are among the best medicines to combat resistant malaria) contain little to no active ingredients and therefore have no therapeutic benefits. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest market for medicines, a WHO survey conducted in 2011 found that more than 60 per cent of antimalarial drugs were fake. Interestingly, those specimens that contain trace amounts of the active ingredient of artemisinin – likely so that they can pass the most basic quality tests – are actually more dangerous than those with none at all. Neither fake holds any benefits for the patient, but the former actually promoted resistance to artemisinin among exposed malaria parasites.

Many countries are taking steps to fight the scourge of SFCC meds. The US has expanded the FDA, opening several overseas offices to inspect foreign manufacturers. Nigeria and India also beefed up their inspections procedures in imports and exports, respectively. Possibly the most zealous – if maybe not effective – response can be found in China, which has been linked to the majority of tainted medicines globally. Concerned for the reputation of its drug-export trade, the Chinese government has staged huge seizures counterfeit medication and detained thousands of people accused of being complicit in their manufacture. It also executed its top drug official in 2007 for approving untested medicine in exchange for bribes.

When suppliers in DR Congo are able to find good meds, they tend to go quickly and stock-outs are common (though whether it is worse to have tainted anti-malarials or none at all is difficult to say). This is even true of those distributors that are, say, funded by foreign governments and co-managed by international NGOs. I myself ran into the stock-out problem, as I have now had to restart my series of rabies vaccinations three times after the local distributer ran short of the last vaccine in the set and won’t have in back within the necessary time period (interestingly, it is better to have never been vaccinated against rabies than to not finish the set. In the meantime, I’m avoiding strange dogs and dreading the bats in the ceiling). The travel clinic I visited in the States wouldn’t even give me the vaccine (rabies? They asked. Why would you possibly need rabies? They said the same thing about cholera…and there’s a cholera outbreak here). It’s a good thing for me that the Swiss were more obliging, though that might have only been for the money. The doctor complemented me on being the most expensive person he’d ever treated at the travel clinic.

That is because rabies and cholera are far from the only shots I had to procure. They were joined by yellow fever, Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis), meningitis, polio, an MMR booster, and several others I know I’m forgetting. The Tdap was without question the worst – my arm hurt for days (though nothing approached the unpleasantness of the live-virus Small Pox vaccine I was given – for no apparent reason - for Afghanistan). Cholera was the most…interesting. It’s a liquid vaccine that you dissolve in water. It tastes a little like some sort of tropical Kool-Ade mixed with the smell of nail polish remover. There were two doses that were to be taken a week apart, and it had to be kept cold. I took the first in Switzerland and wrapped the second in ice packs and trucked it to Congo. I have no idea how I made it through airport security.

On-hand, I now have my own set of hopefully legitimate anti-malarials (Larium, specifically. And the dreams, while not unmanageable, were not exaggerated. Our resident nurse has comforted me that I have nothing to worry about until I start having them while awake). On top of that, I have a malaria ‘cure’, because (as everyone has told me) I’ll get it any way, eventually. Whereas at home, you treat most things as a cold, here you apparently treat even the slightest fever as though it is malaria and take the drugs. My favourite on-hand medication has to be the PEP, though. I have been assured – repeatedly – that no expat staff has ever been exposed to HIV through their work. Still, we all carry it at all times. One would like to believe that the major risk of exposure would come at the clinics, in the guise of an errant blood sample or misplaced needle. The fact that women are encouraged to carry a double dose, however, suggests that would be a naïve reading of the main sources of transmission. I have also been asked – again, multiple times – whether or not I was on birth control. If not, they would include emergency contraceptives with my PEP allocation. Of course, being with a faith-based NGO, I had to sign several waivers and memoranda on what I would like to happen in the event of an assault-related pregnancy.

Hmmm….how now to end this incredibly up-lifting post? Perhaps with the knowledge that, as a part of our emergency health programmes, we provide free care to survivors of SGBV and those suffering from STIs. It’s a great programme, with two really interesting trends. First, in general, the only men coming in for treatment are those suffering from STIs as they can’t seem to afford any other treatment. Second, 10-20 per cent of SGBV cases do not receive emergency contraceptives because they are not eligible. A donor inquired about that statistic in one of our reports. Our reply nearly broke my heart. Do you know what kind of SGVB survivor is not eligible for contraceptives? Those who can’t get pregnant, i.e., men, boys, and girls under the age of ten.

15 July 2013

Searching for Jesus in Bunia. Perhaps I should check the couch cushions

Much to my amazement, I have found myself working for a faith-based NGO.  It’s not that my faith isn’t important to me.  It is.  I am reasonably devout, by some standards (though others might – and have – accused me of liturgical flippancy or even of harboring occult tendencies, but that’s a discussion for another day).  It’s just that I never thought I was one of those Christians.  I don’t listen to Christian music. My ability to cite Bible verses is limited at best.  I will not tell you, even if asked, how I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior.  I am about as likely to read the Koran as the Bible, and more likely to be reading the Baghavad Gita than either. 

I readily admit that I applied to a Christian organisation as a sort of affirmative action.  For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting much traction with any secular groups, and if I had to reach back to my college youth group for my Pastoral Reference?  Well, it seemed worth it to do the sort of work I really wanted to (or, as I said in my interview, the work I felt called to do).  The ends justified the means, if I may repurpose Machiavelli’s ruthless consequentialism to describe joining a decidedly deontological group.   

To be totally honest, I wasn’t so sure myself and actually had a lot of trepidation about the whole faith-based thing.  I was worried about exhortations to take up evangelization or how hard-liners might impact the work, especially when it came to family planning.  It turns out that my fears were unfounded.  Faith is important to the staff, certainly, but it is largely expressed through the work that they do.  Essentially, the ethos seems to boil down to the more people we serve and the better our programmes, the more we live our faith and show our love for God.  I can work with this.  Our field work was actually complimented to me by none other than the provincial director of MSF (Doctors Without Borders).  She was surprised that we were faith-based, saying that our work was too good (a strange compliment, to be sure, but one I will take). 
The Pack-and-Ship next door is called The Foot of Satan
 Even so, Christianity plays an important, if not overwhelming, role in our team life and does distinguish us from the secular NGOs.  For example, we hold morning devotionals with the national staff and weekly fellowship among the expats (which we normally describe to the non-religious as ‘team stuff’.  Want to grab a beer tonight?  No, sorry – I have some team stuff).  If the fellowship can grow a bit tedious at times (listening to a 75 minute long sermon is not exactly what I had in mind for my Wednesday night), the devotionals are quite lovely.  On any given day, they are largely comprised of a half an hour of singing that happily doubles as daily pronunciation lesson, assuming of course that they are not in Kiswahili, Lingala, or, on very rare occasion, Dutch.  Regardless of the language, they are consistently organic and lively – people throw in random solos and interjections and everyone is clapping a different tempo, though it all seems to work (though Yesu azali awa has been stuck in my head for weeks).  Devotionals are a really nice excuse to get out of the living compound, where I also have my office and spend far more time than I would like. 

So much time do I spend here that I have memorized the house plan, which distinguishes the rooms with virtuous titles like Goodness, Grace, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Self-Control (not coincidentally, the kitchen), and Long Suffering (even less coincidentally, the office).  I think at some point we should swap rooms based on the most fitting superlatives.  Perhaps someone is going through a difficult personal time and should be in Steadfast.  Or someone else, I don’t know…baked some cookies for the orphanage and so gets to live in Goodness.  Chastity could go to the team member who most needs the reminder of their spouse a continent away.  And, as Love is the largest room, we would all either be a lot nicer to one another, or a lot more scandalous.  Either way, it could be fun!

As things stand now, the woman with the room next to mine (the coveted Love) spends an inordinate amount of time listening to – and singing – Christian pop, but that’s why God invented headphones.  That, and so your flatmate can have sex (which is much less of a concern for me here than in either Afghanistan or the US).  Incidentally, I have figured out why I don’t listen to Christian pop.  I think I might well be talked into it, if only it weren’t quite so bad.  Most of the songs I have been subject to thus far can be characterized by their clunky rhymes, weird phrasing, and poorly fitted bridges.  It’s just not well constructed music and actually frustrates me.  Come on, people!  You’re praising God!  This was the same motivation that resulted in the Hallelujah Chorus!  You should at least be able to write a better hook than the Biebs armed with biblical Madlibs.

I am careful to keep my musical critiques to myself, though, lest I ruffle team feathers.  We have, I think, a fairly standard allotment of inter-personal tensions, considering we not only work but live together.  No amount of talk about our Christian brotherhood can overcome human nature it seems, though someone did warn me that office tensions and spats are the Enemy trying to reach us.  I also assume it was the enemy that made me reflect that she was bananas. 

Perhaps the most popular way of building fellowship, outside of the Wednesday night session, is to invite team members to invite one another to their church services. It seems to the faith-based equivalent of going to happy hour together.  Upon further reflection, however, it might also be a subtle attempt to convert me, as my Catholicism seems puts me in the out-group almost as much as my yoga practice.  Chanting OM  and engaging in Contemplative Prayer incur much the same level of suspicion among a certain subset of my coworkers (as you might imagine, there is some overlap between that group and those who are the most earnestly evangelical).  I have so far attended every service to which I’ve been invited, as it seems churlish to say no.  Based on my sample-size of two, though, I might have to learn how. 

I previously wrote about the spectacular lecture regarding threats against the Christian family and the moral fabric of society, but to recap, they were, in descending order of severity, homosexuality, women’s rights, polygamy, the rights of the child, and Western decadence.  All of this was a bit hard to take, especially coming from a man attired in a suit whose pattern is what might have been had Andy Warhol painted Louboutins instead of Marilyn Monroe. 

I honestly can’t decide if that was worse than the sermon I had the week before about Islam.  That day, the (bitty) Muslim population of Bunia had staged a demonstration in the town square during which they denounced Jesus as a false God.  Might that have been inflammatory?  Certainly.  Is it the correct response for the pastor of one of the larger churches in town to give an hour-plus-long lesson on how Muslims are cultists?  My gut (and brain and heart probably spleen) says no.  His rant was truly astounding.  I can’t begin to capture it in all of its atrocious glory (snickering at the need to pray toward Mecca!  Belittling ablutions!  Sneering that Koran is supposedly the verbatim word of God!  The nerve!), but the highlight might have been when he concluded that Mohammed wasn’t a prophet, but a terrorist.  All of this he did, while speaking of ‘our Muslim brothers’. The level of vitriol and ridicule and hypocrisy was flabbergasting.  It made all of the humanitarians in the congregation visibly squirmy, as did the affirmation he received from the congregation.  Their mocking laughter and full-throated encouragement of the pastor might have actually made it more awful to me that the homophobic one, which was delivered to a sea of blank faces.  This was also the only service I’ve been to in English, so I was able to very clearly understand every painful moment.
St. Etienne
After that, the services as the local Catholic church seemed like sweet relief.  The church in question happily naught but a five minute walk from the compound and is called St. Etienne Lumumba.  I have tried, and failed, to find such a saint in the cannon.  Near as I can figure, it is a reference to Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister, who was deposed in a coup and executed in 1961.  Perhaps the holy title is aspirational and they’re petitioning Francis to fast-track him. 

It took me a while to figure things out with St. Etienne, not the least of which was what time Mass actually starts.  Misunderstanding the chalkboard posted in front of the church to be listing Mass times, rather than suggested daily readings, I first tried 9 am and barely arrived in time for Communion.  I then came at 8am, smack in the middle of the homily.   Next I tried 7:30 but was still late for the service that got out TWO HOURS LATER.  I had a brief, hysterical moment when I actually considered searching for Catholic churches on-line.  At any rate, the standard service actually starts at 7am and is upwards of 2.5 hours long.  It’s like they replaced the homily with a revival service of the same stripe you see at non-Catholic churches here.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  In the sense of a mash-up of religious traditions, that is, not the opulence.  The collection basket at St. Etienne Lumumba is a pillow case tied to a stick.  A clean pillow case, with a floral pattern.  And it’s tied to a trimmed, carefully manicured stick, but still.

The astounding length of the services (seriously, Father, ten minutes and done and the amens will be even louder, I promise) might not be so bad were it not for the cramped conditions.  I actually haven’t sat inside once but am always in the nosebleeds outside the front door.  There are usually anywhere between 50 and 75 people who sit outside.  They bring chairs from home, lean on the handles of the nearest motorbike, and commandeer benches from the next-door Palais du Justice (did I not mention that St. Etienne is next to a prison?). 
15 minutes before services start, and people are already standing outside
Despite my reservations about St. Etienne, I think I’ll keep going.  The congregation is terribly welcoming (even if an usher did take away my purse when I went for Communion and someone nearly pilfered my Bible) and, after having been almost half a dozen times now, I haven’t once been lectured on the evils of homosexuality or Islam!  But just to be safe, I think I’ll only go once every two weeks.  The services are long enough to count as a double dose of the Jesus, right?  Amen.  (I had intended to take more photos, but Sunday seems to be trash burning day and it is noxious, so I ran back inside.)

10 July 2013

Shenanigans is probably not the right word but is so much fun to say

This past weekend, aided by at least two too many glasses of wine, I worked up the courage to ask some of the Egyptian peacekeepers about the coup (I have to admit a certain fondness for the Egyptian contingent. They are by and large a lovely group of officers – they speak amazing English, are much more respectful than either their Nepalese or Bangladeshi counterparts, and they love to dance). The shenanigans, I think I called them (it was the wine. And possibly the tequila. Let this be a lesson to you: never drink Congolese tequila with UN peacekeepers). The cartography officer I was speaking with has possibly spent more time out of Egypt at this point than in it, so one might be tempted to take his analysis with a grain of salt. Prior to Congo, he served in Chad, East Timor, Syria, and Sudan – twice. He laughed and shook his head at me. No, no, I was assured. This was a good thing! Most people in Egypt, they hate the Muslim Brotherhood. This was an expression of popular will, not a coup. A democra-coup, if you will. Instead of thinking he’d been away from Egypt for too long, I found myself wondering if the military sent out a memo.

Indeed, my friend was apparently toeing the authorized line that the action – which involved a suspension of the constitution, arrest and detention in military custody of a democratically elected president and his party members, and a media blackout – was not, in fact, a coup d’état. It might look like a duck and quack like a duck, but this was a golden goose borne upon the voices of the masses. Slate has a great run-down of the plethora of official rational for the overthrow. Aside from the ‘mandate’ of the people malarkey (apparently street protests are the standard recall mechanism in Egypt?), the coup’s engineers also claim that they were simply attempting to step in to avoid greater violence. So, really, it was a civil war-preempting coup! They should be up for a Nobel alongside Dennis Rodman. Even the reliably liberal (mostly) Mohamed ElBaradei is sticking to the talking points.

Certainly, Egyptians had a right to be angry with the late Morsi government, as compiled by the Morsi Meter - a candy-coloured catalogue of the regime’s failures during its first 100 days. The fledging president was failing on all conceivable fronts. Nearly half of Egyptians live in poverty and, with the country drowning in debt, Morsi failed to secure an IMF rescue loan. Meanwhile, the last two years have seen a dramatic increase in murders, theft, and sexual harassment even as secular and progressive Egyptians have been protesting since December that Morsi was steadily moving toward the creation of an Islamist state. Still and all, the man had taken power during a tremendously tumultuous time and had only been in office for 100 days.

And if was too early to gage how Morsi would have done, it is certainly too early to determine is a coup was the right way to go. And no matter how often the military – even my charming dance partner – says it was necessary, they’re lying like rugs. This latest shift just allows for an open acknowledgement of where power in Egypt has always rested. The military has arguably been the most powerful institution in the country since it first took power in 1952 (by coup, incidentally). The military developed a tumultuous relationship with the political leadership in intervening 60 years. Now, in no small part thanks to US military aid, it is the largest army in Africa and one of the largest in the world, and controls between 10 and 30 per cent of the national economy.

The current claims that the regime change was initiated in the interests of safeguarding the population ring a bit hollow in the face of the grisly shooting on Monday, which left some 51 dead and more than 300 wounded. Supporters of the ousted president claim that the army opened fire during morning prayers, while the military has countered that they were simply returning fire and defending the compound where Morsi is being held. Given that it was a Republican Guard compound, one would assume that they enjoyed firepower superiority over the attackers and cannot help but wonder if they don’t have any standing rules of engagement for dealing with their own citizens. Perhaps those were suspended along with the constitution. At any rate, the Muslim Brotherhood is apparently now urging a full-scale uprising in response to the coup as clashes between those pro- and anti- Morsi erupt across the country. Clearly, as a means of preventing more fighting, the coup was perhaps not the most well though-out plan.

Talk of regime change is also buzzing on lips here in Congo, if for wildly different reasons. The next round of presidential elections not even scheduled until 2016, and already President Laurent Kabila is looking to change the Constitution to allow him to run and, given the ballot box-stuffing and voter intimidation shenanigans (this term clearly encompasses a lot for me) that happened two years ago, win again. Altering the Constitution in the President’s favour wouldn’t be without precedent. In advance of the 2011 elections, Kabila changed electoral mechanism for the presidency to a single-round first-past-the-post model, replacing the two tiered, more French approach that they had used previously.

To give credit where it’s due, this model is certainly cheaper. In 2006, the elections cost roughly 500 million USD, over 90 per cent of which was kicked in from the international community. In 2011, the election was set to cost 700 million USD, of which the IC only agreed to donate less than half. The switch to the single round election was estimated to save the country approximately 350 million USD.

In practice, though, this sets up a wildly undemocratic election. Essentially the candidate with the most votes in the first round gets elected even if he only receives a very small majority vote. Imagine the American system, but without the primaries and literally dozens of parties; it becomes even more of a referendum on the incumbent that it already is and completely dispenses with the ability of the opposition to form an effective, issue-based coalition. Depending on the vote split among other candidates, Kabila could conceivably pull only the 15 per cent of the population from his home province of Katanga and still win. And it worked. Even without the ‘voting irregularities’, as election observers are wont to call ballot box stuffing and/or burning, Joseph Kabila won with less than half of the popular vote against an intensely divided field.

Now that method of elections tailored to his advantage, the President has seemingly turned his attention to term limits. As the constitution is written, this term is his last. But in Congo, that seems to be no matter. To alter constitution again requires only 60 per cent of the votes in parliament, and what Kabila’s party can’t rally, they can buy. Given the thing was only written in 2002, the Congolese constitution feels a bit like the Morsi regime – it might well be deeply flawed, but it also hasn’t had nearly enough time in place to be effective.

Not that any of this talk of Constitution reform is likely to matter all that much out here in the east (to give you some idea of the scope of this country, the distance from me to Kinshasa is roughly that of Barcelona to Bratislava. Or just shy of DC to Denver, for you in the States), except for the nearly inevitable riots that will accompany the elections. The potential for violence around the election is so much a foregone conclusion that the Congolese make acerbic jokes about it. In the run-up to the elections, they assure me, Kabila’s people will tell us that he alone can save us from the M23 (or ADF-Nalu or LRA or FRPR or Mai Mai, take your pick). There would be an insurgent at every door to steal our boys and rape our daughters, but for Kabila. In this way, he is much like your President Bush. But after he wins again, and the rebels to attack, he will say the UN should help us. And in six months, when the army has no food and so they attack, he will still say it is the fault of the UN. He does not save us from the bandits – he creates them to give to the UN.

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. 

01 July 2013

Going to the Farmer's Market - Bunia is just like NoVA

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.