08 April 2014

More random thoughts on living the expat life

We’ve lately enjoyed a raft (bevy? Gaggle? What pithy turn of phrase best describes a group of aid workers?) of new staff coming in. In addition to this providing a much needed shift in team dynamic, it also furnishes me with the perfect opportunity to reëvaluate our life through their eyes. Indeed, when a new colleague stopped dead in his tracks at a recent house party, remarking that it was all just so weird, I was forced to agree to the sur-reality of the expat existence.

I mean seriously. Where do our enormous houses – with rooms for eight and sprawling gardens and full-sized kitchens and tiled floors and beautifully beamed ceilings - even come from? We can’t fully blame the Belgians – most of our houses are (quite clearly) not that old. It’s quite popular to assume that these are war houses, built by the ill-gotten gains of rebel commanders and their cohorts (NGO workers love to make ourselves feel guilty about collaborating with those who committed atrocity, even where there is no evidence to support such conclusions). I think, though, that we can settle on a still disturbing though less horrifying conclusion – they were built for us. The elite of Bunia (with all of the caveats inherent in that thought, including that several of them might well be war profiteers of some ilk) have, over the last twenty-odd years, constructed a series of shabby-chic mansions to fuel the NGO boom here. And when this area is declared sufficiently stable that our funding dries up and we are forced to decamp (NGOs hardly ever leave because there is legitimately no longer a need for their services), our shadows will stretch far, embracing empty houses and burned out land cruises and thousands of unemployed coping with an inflated standard of living. Is it worth it? Does the good we do while we’re here offset the gross distortions we cause in the local markets and the inevitable crash when we leave? I certainly hope so, but to me it’s a more troubling thought that is the possibility that I live in a warlord’s old domicile.

Perhaps it’s the fury of the existential winds raging ‘round them, but any one of these lovely NGO houses seems ready to come apart at the seams once you get past the surface gloss. For example, outside of the main living room, our floors are concrete. What minimal plumbing there is goes out every other day. The walls are tissue thin. Which is why we can only really gossip when our neighbours are on vacation and I’m never as forthcoming when skyping with my friends as I would like to be.

Still and all, though, most people here live in one to two room huts with either plank or thresh walls and tin roves, so this beggar won’t be too choosy. The disparities in standards of living between expat and local are reinforced in myriad ways, both large and small, every day, usually by the simple fact that we have guards and house mamans, as do the majority of expats. We often compare them, after we’ve had a beer or two and can better shrug off the guilt. We were once shut out of a friend’s compound because the guard was doing maintenance work with a chainsaw and didn’t hear us yelling to be let in for some 10 minutes (this is legitimately a security concern, but highlights the other fact that, were a riot to break out, we would hide behind walls whereas the locals have nowhere to go). The actual resident of the house speculated that he was punishing her for not giving him something on the side from his salary (‘you should be nice to me’ was his particularly oblique way of soliciting extra cheddar).

We also discuss the mamans, though often in more favourable terms. How often they cook, are they any good at it, how fast to your cloathes wear out (we fly through unmentionables). Ours are such lovely women. We have five. Janette is the one who actually takes care of my house. She does all the dishes and picks up the dried cockroach husks that I avoid and ignores the sports bras we hang all over the bathroom to dry and never says a word. Alphonsine is the energetic village woman who warmly pumps your hand for solidly 30 seconds when greeting you in the morning. She’s a great cook, but is scared of the oven and speaks less French than I do. Marthe is the serene head maman, totally unruffled, Grande Dame of Bunia Base. I had the great pleasure of interviewing them for a story on international women’s day. It was March 8 and probably represented the most sustained interaction I’ve ever had with them which is, frankly, a damn shame. All I had to ask them was what women’s day means to them and these ladies went OFF. For an unexpected two hours, I was regaled with stories of the Time Before, when women were not allowed to eat eggs or meat or fish, as all of the best things were saved for the men and boys. It was a time when a woman had no more value that what her dowry would bring, when women were expected to approach their husbands only on their knees. As they walked me through the awakening of worth that women’s day represents, their passion and pride were deeply affecting, especially for a women from a country where woman’s day seems quaint.

As much as I appreciate and feel warmly towards these women, if I’m being totally honest, they make me uncomfortable. I’ve been watching Downton Abbey (we’re getting ready for season 4 down here – one of the British girls is promising to bring it back when she returns from her next R&R) and the parallels are…unsettling. Last week, someone complained about how late lunch was (table wasn’t even set when we arrived from the office. The horror!). And the laundry can take more than a week (our clothes are dried on line strung through the mango trees in the yard, so if you’re not paying attention you can get a face full when you go to get breakfast. Hopefully, they’re yours). And all of this can be irksome, but be sure. But…they iron my underwear (part of the reason they wear out so fast. The other is that they use a stone to scrub the laundry. Vicki Secret is not made for this). And change my sheets. I did get a little miffed when the gardener cut the grass, though that was mostly because he used a weedwacker to do the entire lawn and it took almost 8 hours. I couldn’t complain about the noise because I was too busy feeling bad for him. Moreover, the mamans are terribly efficient, sometimes to the point of irritation. I keep coming back to the laundry, but never have I appreciated what a luxury it is to control the fate of your cloathes. I do try to take care of myself, sometimes, washing certain delicate things or stuff I need quickly by hand. The last time I did this, however, the mamans stole it off the line to iron it. I was forced to do Zumba in my regular bra and slacks.

Much like with real mothers, when the mamans are gone, we’re a bit at a loss. Over the last three day weekend, I ended up eating brownies for breakfast.

In fairness, I have my suspicions that both the grousing and the gossiping are reciprocal. One often feels that s/he is living life in a very subtle zoo. They notice what you eat and which towels you prefer and who will feed the cat and who has allergies and what other NGOs you visit the most (MSF again? One of my guards asked slyly after my third visit in a week). From a personal stand point, you are always faced with concerns of what is and is not proper. After all, what constitutes acceptable behaviour on the part of expats and locals is wildly, and often invasively, different. Sunning yourself on the back porch, for example, becomes extremely uncomfortable when your guards walk past – even in a tank and shorts, you’re acutely aware of how little you have on. And, should you desire a cold beer on a hot day or glass of wine with dinner, you always consider how it will look to the mamans judging the empty crates of beer and boxes of wine. Forget brining someone non-Medair home in the early morning weekend hours. I think we all live with it, and feel the pressure of observation. Who could have guessed that my cracked and dirty windows, strewn with mosquito nets, would make such a perfect fishbowl?