28 February 2014

Home and high – dry and home -drome-

I know it’s mentioned it previously (multiple times. I’m very single-minded lately, but I suspect that you would be, too), but it’s the dry season here. And, in the era of climate change, this is serious business – even the locals are complaining. I’ve also kvetched ad nauseam about the dust (one of my colleagues recently called the massive plumes stirred by the wind ‘majestic’. I was terribly proud of myself for my restrain in not smacking her) but…it’s pervasive. Walking outside, the effect is immediate. I can feel the dust settle on my hair and coat my skin in a fine talc. My eyes begin to sting and my throat becomes parched. The grit gets in your teeth and textures your tongue. It is not remotely majestic. It is unforgiving. The dust doesn’t even whirl (again, respectfully disagreeing with my rose-tinted colleague here) – it billows in harsh, menacing waves. It dulls everything. This is a truly beautiful country, but the longer the dry season progresses, the more it’s bucolic loveliness is leached from the surroundings (I readily admit that this might be a question of perception – as the season marches staunchly on, I get more and more tetchy). The light in Bunia has become harsh and flat. It bleaches and drains and renders the world in sepia. Even the clouds are lifeless and two dimensional. The sunsets can occasionally be really striking, though. 

To my mind, and thereby illustrating how deeply frivolous and narcissistic I am, one of the most irritating consequences of the Great Bunia Dust Bowl is the curtaining of leisure activities. This is, hands-down, the worst my asthma has been in years. Practicing Pranayama, not to mention going running, has become a rather fraught endeavour. I’ve also been doing a lot of slack-lining lately (don’t ask. There’s a cute French man involved, and that’s about all you need to know). It’s surprisingly fun, and I’m (slowly. Ohhhh, so slowly) getting better, but I’m not sure if it’s a matter of actual improvement or simply and intense desire to not have to dismount from the line. Where once I would have had a mattress of verdant grass to cushion my falls, I am now met by the hard ground. Twigs and clumps of dead grass adhere to my feet and dust clings to my yoga pants (how unsightly! What will the cute French man think?!). It’s harder to walk the line with debris all over your toes.

The dust also has moments – generally transportation-related and independent of a generalised lowering of lung capacity – when it can be downright dangerous. Case in point (or two): a mototaxi passed me this morning with a toque pulled down to the level of his chin. I’m unconvinced that he could properly see where he was going, but I suppose it’s all a question of priorities. Similarly, last week, someone (who really should have known better) unthinkingly turned on the AC in our Land Cruiser, not wanting to open the windows to the dust. It was like a haboob in the car. Apparently some of this is Sahara sand, so it’s not an inapt comparison.

Bug prevalence is also worse, or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure if it’s water related, but it seems that nearly every morning there is a new cockroach inverted on our kitchen floor. In their down-side-up panic, they try to fly, spinning, no whizzing around in circles like some grotesque wind-up toy. They can survive for days like that. I would rather have expected the mosquitos to lessen, but they’re magic. I have been interested to note that when you successfully slap a mosquito, the body squishes to one of your limbs while an outline of it is left imprinted into your slapping hand, almost distressing in its detail (my hand-eye coordination as really improved, buoyed by an intense desire to not get malaria again). What with all the infestations in the bath and bedroom, I feel like I check myself for creepy crawlies more often than a meth addict.

Maybe would be easier to look past the dust if there was any possibility of relief. But there isn’t. You see, what with the lack of rain, we have no water. Generally speaking, the house depends on rain run-off to fill several massive cisterns dotted around the property. We’re also hooked up to the city system, of course, but they ran out of water weeks before we did. All of Bunia is experiencing a shortage. Even the broad spot on the river that serves as the communal car wash has been shuttered for insufficient H2O. Our logistics team had to go out and forage a tankful from the river farther out and then truck it back in.

When it arrived it was…somewhat less that pristine. Really, it looked more like rooibos tea (if only it had smelled like it, too). It’s difficult to feel truly clean when you’re taking a bath in dirty water, but you do managed to feel refreshed, I guess, so that’s something. On the bright side, my hair has great body and texture right now and my skin is terribly well exfoliated. We’ve also had good fun joking that too much time in Congo turns you into a mud-bath taking hippo. Look out if I start becoming super aggressive and territorial.

The paucity of even dirty water has created something of a merry water war between the two houses on our conjoined compound (resource wars involving humanitarians seem like a wonder premise for a topically absurdist play, no?) that is aided and abetted by our rotating guard staff. We are periodically able to convince one guard to siphon water from the main house so that we might have a shower, only to have them steal it back for drinking filtration while you’re mid-shampoo rinse. Despite the obviousness of these shenangins, no one talks about it. It’s Water Fight Club. Occasionally, I furtively wash up at the main house (a pre-yoga foot scrub behind enemy lines!) and enjoy the most absurd sort of gloating accomplishment for sneaking one past my teammates turned advisories.

What I really don’t like to think about with regard to the quality of water we’re working with right now is that this is the same water in which we wash cloathes (assuming that we even can. We’ve actually put a temporary moratorium on laundry, which is becoming increasingly worrisome as my stock of unmentionables dwindles down to nothing. I’m going on R&R soon people! A girl needs skivvies!) and – worse, to my mind – dishes (it’s fine for drinking, incidentally. Our water filtration systems are aces, which one would expect from an NGO that specialises in WASH). Someone chided me for not washing off a piece of fruit before cutting it for a salad, reminding me that this is Congo! Sure, I thought, which means that there are no pesticides on this fruit, and it’s not like the dirty water will make it clean from the dust of transport… Someone else made the rather tragic mistake of looking in our water tanks. The spit of liquid that remained was apparently covered in an oil-slick film. All in all, I think it’s an amazing accomplishment that we’re not half-dead all the time. Here’s to the resiliency of the human body!

If I look past my personal inconveniences, the dry season is not all bad. Cholera epidemics, for example, rarely occur during the dry season and it’s a great time to vaccinate kids (measles and meningitis are worse, though. Malaria stays the course. It’s tremendously consistent, as far as murderous epidemic diseases go – I blame those damn resilient mosquitoes). Travel is also much, much easier. Partly because of that, the cost of many goods, including food and medicine, noticeably drops.

Finally, it’s a great time of year for major construction projects. On this bright note, and in no small part due to the recent visits of both the President and (muzungu!) Governor, work on the main road has progressed steadily (steadily, but not quickly. This is the central boulevard through all of Bunia, and it has been closed for going on three weeks now. Getting into work has been…complicated, greatly increasing the traffic volume on the narrow market road we take and adding burning tar to the dusty bouquet of Bunia scents). Once they completed tarmacking the first stretch of road, we were treated to the rather endearing site of people strolling along the finished product, dressed smartly, a great many of them be-hatted. I found it terribly Victorian of them.

I’ll end with a final happy piece of news – based on the trees in our yard, mango and avocado season are just around the corner, and there are dark clouds massing on the horizon. Things are really looking up!