18 June 2014

Béni Beni

We’ve recently expanded our health programme south, stretching our toe across the border into North Kivu. The growth of this particular branch of programming actually began with a trip I took last year, so it was really nice to be able to come back and see how things had progressed to this point. And progressed they have! We opened a new base at the beginning of May, we’re sending teams into the field weekly, and the health cluster has even asked us to pick up the health needs in a growing IDP camp. This all sounds great, and it is, though there are a few problems (it is still Congo, where even the best laid plans usually end up with Scooby-Doo levels of dysfunction). The cluster has no money for the IDP camp, and no one seems interested in picking it up. The teams can’t make it to the project sites without passing through Uganda because of the rebels, which adds time and money for visas and whatnot and an extra 392km to their trips. And there’s only one expat at the base, which is still under construction three months after it was supposed to be finished.

Despite whatever other excuses have been generated to explain the purpose of my trip, I’m really here to keep that expat company. My organisation doesn’t like to leave one person alone for too long, considering it to be both a security and mental health risk. So we at the main base occasionally get trotted out to keep the field staff sane and I was super excited to finally be up in the rotation. I suspect you could tell from my last missive, but I was going a bit stir-crazy in Bunia, and gallivanting down to Beni was great: I got to run amok and explore a new town; interview my Congolese colleagues about their working experiences; asked to make decisions about the house and base for which I am totally unqualified (You know what you need? Furniture for your roof! Also, lots more baking supplies. Let’s go to Butembo and get some! Yes, I do think that water tower should be higher. Why anyone decided that I should have this kind of power, I have no idea). Being under construction, though, the base does have its peccadillos, including limited to no internet, so while it was somewhat difficult to do my actual job, but I managed to make due (my colleague and I were actually forced to abandon our base several nights in a row, wandering from hotel to hotel, on foot, clutching laptops to our hearts. Please, sir, may I have some wifi?).

Before I get ahead of myself, I actually had to make it to Beni. As I have already written about this trip once and don’t want to cover old territory, I’ll try to be brief. Even so, I think it’s worth reiterating that this is a really beautiful country. Congo looks like raw silk feels – unfinished, unrefined, but undeniably lux. Rich. Difficult to stop touching. The further south you go, out of the rolling grasslands of Bunia, the richer it becomes. The forest seems to grow away from you, expanding endlessly in a lush multi-hued maze so that you have only the faintest sense of the life that teems beyond the edge of the rough road. The Congo forest is dense, with secrets to match, and you can almost feel it whisper them at you, if you would just hold still for a moment.

But we didn’t. Patience is not numbered among our driver’s virtues, and we spent the better part of five hours slaloming between motos and potholes and chickens and children. Makey – the driver in question – is actually rather notorious around our office for the…let’s call it intensity…with which he approaches his job. The senior staff never ride with him, if they can avoid it. The rest of us all just make sure to have an empty stomach before we get on board.

But even Makey can’t will away or avoid or simply bull over all of the obstacles we came across. A major bridge along this heavily trafficked route had nearly collapsed a few weeks ago, and they were in the final stages of repairing it. As this is the main route from Bunia to Beni – think as close to an interstate as you’re likely to get her, the collapse created a truly impressive traffic jam. With a few mumbled curses (I assumed that’s what they were – Makey speaks both rapidly and without moving his jaw, making him nigh impossible to understand, but if ever you make the mistake of asking him to repeat himself, he snorts and turns away. It makes for a solitary ride) Makey threaded through the lines of idling trucks that dwarfed our Land Cruiser. No one cried foul on our cutting the line, though I can’t imagine it made us any friends.
The transportation authority – Foner – had set up a detour just to the left of the bridge, ploughing frontage roads down to the river and erecting a temporary bridge. The crossing itself was the only part of the operation that seemed under any sort of control, and we were made to hover on the precipice of the steep descent for several minutes until we were allowed to cross. The suspense of the moment was effectively built, as we had front row seats to watch the failure of several other cars to make it down to the temporary bridge. Lucky for all involved that there were so many trucks lurking about to drag the stranded cars out of the way.

Most of those that were not able to cross were what amounts to public transportation here – ten year old four door sedans packed with as many as a dozen people that makes the entire trip up to four times a day. I cannot begin to fathom how uncomfortable that must be. It costs, I believe, 10 USD. These hard-ridden vehicles were not up to the task Foner had set before them, no matter the misplaced optimism of their drivers. That said, I have come to believe that the Congolese have embraced Tim Gunn as their spirit animal (Faire Marche should be emblazed on their flag) and when it became obvious that the taxis could not make the crossing, they simply switched passengers. People got out, gathered their belongings, forded the stream (Oregon Trail-style!) and got in another car. If there was no taxi handy, they simply took a seat along the side of the road and watched the shenanigans along with the rest of us. Others tried to earn back the cost of the trip by working as porters for some of the larger trucks that were undertaking the same sort of swap, only with material cargo in place of human. Suddenly I understood why things had been so much more expensive in Bunia lately.

The longer we waited, the more time I had to grow sceptical of the reconstruction job on the bridge. The struts and ties looked terribly impressive, but they were building on the old foundation. I can’t imagine it’s going to be as structurally sound as it looks (one thing about working for an organisation that does infrastructure rehab – I’m gaining a tremendous appreciation for the importance of bridge foundations). This approach did mean that they could put the new bridge up much, much faster, which I supposed was as important as anything else.

We were eventually cleared to make the crossing ourselves, which proceeded with very little fanfare all considering. Unfortunately, escaping the jam on the other side took twice as long as it had to work our way up to the bridge in the first place. All along the road, an impromptu market had arisen, probably stocked with goods that ‘fell’ off of the waiting trucks. The vendors sold all manner of supplies and constructed little shanties where drivers and taxi refugees might take shelter for the hours that they wait for their turn. There were generators where people could charge their phones, and shack restaurants like those seen in the little villages with names like Restaurant Misericord de Chez Mama Mtwenga. I enjoy how they follow the name of the restaurant with the name of the proprietress – like a celebrity chef branding his restaurant or a Tyler Perry movie. The air was thick with exhaust fumes spewing from the hundreds of idling cars. My nausea from earlier in the trip gradually abated, only to be replaced with a floating, somewhat insubstantial headache from the exhaust.

Makey took us just up to the border with North Kivu, where there is a significant toll before you enter the Land of Rebels and Paved Roads. We walked across the dividing line and got into another vehicle. Beni base somehow finagled most of the good cars – they’re right-hand drive, not more than four years old, and all of their breaks are as responsive as you could possibly wish. It was like moving from a wooden roller-coaster to a bullet train. That might also have been due to a contrast in drivers, though – Ali never went over 60km/h (Makey was hitting 90). He also never left fourth gear. I spent the remainder of the trip biting my lip so that I didn’t hiss at him to shift.

The route to the new house is a fairly direct one that runs through the centre of town, passing two large roundabouts (where you have to break to allow others to enter. I do not understand Congolese traffic conventions), and turning at the small La roundpoint de la rasta (I do however understand that Bob Marley is universal). The house itself is wedged between the ICRC, a disco, and a chicken farm. This smells exactly as pleasant as you might imagine, but at least they have ready access to really fresh eggs! Apparently, in scouting the location, the team never had any idea it was next to a poultry producer (that is, the IRS were clueless. I’m betting the national staff knew at first glance). It is an utterly unremarkable house. I myself might never have realised it (the occasional clucking and errant feather are decidedly not conclusive evidence here) but for the Chicken Rampant painted on the second floor.

Part of the fun of visiting Beni was watching a new team coalesce. We’ve moved around a few existing staff from other bases, while interviews were on-going for other positions. This is a rather substantive change from Bunia where, for better or worse, our national team is extremely well-established. As you might well imagine, any job posting draws a very diverse crown, especially here in Beni where the population has had, on the whole, much less exposure to humanitarian expats than Bunia and don’t always seem to know quite how to deal with us. Case in point: we were stopped by a failed applicant on the street on a Saturday afternoon on our way back from the market. Judith had to turn woman down for the third time, and explained that if a position came open, it would be posted on our gate (this is how pretty much all the NGOs and UN offices do it, which means you often have about 10-15 strangers milling directly in front of the gates in one of many indications to me that security is not a serious concern here). The woman seemed to take it with grace, and then offered to sell us feminine hygiene products out of her bag. She was certainly full service. In fairness, I’m now thinking about adopting it as my new interviewing technique. It would make me memorable, no?

Of those who made the cut, originally met Didier in Ango. With the opening of the new base, he got a substantial promotion and the ability to move back to his childhood home. Really enjoy his company, though I do sometimes worry that his polish and flash possibly make him seem more productive and knowledgeable than he actually is. Patricia, HR/finance, reminded me of a stork, all long and lovely, but with something ungainly in the way she carries herself. She throws back her head and closes her eyes when she sings during devotions, setting the rhythm with a convoluted three part clap that I can never catch. Assumani, head of the medical team, tends ties a sweater around his shoulders over his Medair Gillette. It’s like he’s a country club humanitarian.

I was also rather interested to observe that the Mama here always changes for work. In itself, this is not that remarkable, as ours do, too. What is interesting about her is that she wears Western clothes to work (one morning, a denim pants suit) and traditional clothes at work. Our Mamans always wear traditional clothes of varying degrees of fanciness. I think it’s probably just to keep clean, but it makes me feel guilty – here is a young woman, progressive in fashion (for the context) that has been hired to do work that is very traditionally reserved for women, and when at work she dresses the part. I’m reading too much into this, I know, but I can’t help feeling that we have a hand in her continued repression. Fly free, my sister! Go to school! Become an accountant or a lawyer or a nurse (all heavily masculine fields here). Basically, find something where you can continue to rock your Canadian tux all the live long day!

The team that is already in place has apparently decided to bond through music. There is constantly music drifting through the two small offices (medical, where I was crashing, and support) and it did not always harmonise (this is not a metaphor for the team, but a statement of fact). As a group, they do love their Celine Dion. However, the super-timely Christmas carols favoured by the clinic supervisors were frequently at war with the logs guys, who seems to favour early 90s boy bands. The only constant is Michael Jackson – everyone turns off their music to let the construction crew outside play MJ (Assumani was mis-singing ‘just beat it’ as ‘just feel it’ in a heavy phonetic accent).

I was initially hoping that I would be able to bop around with the medical team for a bit, taking photos as they evaluated clinics for inclusion in our project. I don’t actually find an excuse to get out to the actual project sites and I really enjoy it. Also, I have found that the majority of photos taken by the supervisors are…somewhat shy of useful. Most of the national staff tends to cut people’s heads off in photos. I’ve chalked it up to a previously unknown national foot fetish (we should get an anthropologist on that, stat). The also have a tendency to record video when they believe that they are taking stills, but I can mostly work with that. Unfortunately, since they were making the trip all the way through Uganda, it was not to be and I instead gave them a quick tutorial in broken French on the aged Medair camera and hoped for the best (they actually did a pretty good job, all considering. The problem this time around was the subject matter. Most of the clinics had been looted by the militias many times over and the staff that remained were treating people in what I found to be abysmal conditions, though the team members themselves were rather blasé about the whole thing. I’ve decided to censor the photos for the time being, until we can present them to the world as a shocking before, countered by a presumably soothing, post-Medair after).

So while the medical team was off arguing with customs officials and being politely horrified by clinics, I turned my attention to helping set up the new base. Even though the house was so new as to still be under construction, it put me in mind of one of those particles that vanish as soon as you look at them – the builders only had to tell us something was done before it began falling apart. The staircase (a rarity here) was enormous and the steps uneven. One step was the size of my calf. No exaggeration – the thing came up to my knee. It was like climbing a pyramid every time I went to the bathroom. There were also not yet mosquito nets in the windows. Had I known this going in, I might have starting taking prophylaxis again (I don’t in Bunia – we don’t have a big problem with malaria there). Though it did give Judith and I the opportunity to wax wishful that our organisation could afford to give us Malarone. Long-term expose to the other meds on offer is either hard on your liver or could drive you slowly insane. Instead, I began wearing mosquito repellent as perfume. It made me sneeze and my keyboard and mouse and sandals sticky, but it was mostly effective, at least until twilight, when the mosquitoes began to swarm. We picked up some electronic zappers that vaguely resemble tennis rackets and would run around the house in the early evening, glass of wine in one hand and zapper in the other, filling the air with sparks and a metallic sharpness and littering the floor with mosquito corpses. It was like we were playing a very esoteric, house-wide game of squash with especially tiny, disease-ridden snitches.

The racket zappers were acquired during a rather epic supply run to Butembo, which sits about 45 minutes south of Beni. This corner of North Kivu is much more heavily forested than Bunia. It is redder, richer, and feels younger somehow. It also has, in very limited quantity, road signs – street names, yield, even pedestrian crossings. To my amusement, the stop signs are in English and almost universally ignored. The buildings, village sizes, cloathes, toys, level of activity, all indicate a higher standard of living than we typically see in Province Orientale. Certainly far beyond that found in Ango (which speaks to why this field can be so frustrating – the needs in Orientale are wildly higher than in North Kivu, but the ‘acute emergency’ is in Beni and so that’s where the money is. Absolute destitution will always take the backseat to punks with guns, so it seems).

All along the route, the main sources of income for the area were obvious – bricks, bananas, and wood. In front of massive, orderly piles of blood-hued bricks, young men toiled on their bikes to transport to market bunches of bananas that were stacked above their heads and slung next to their wheels like saddle bags. Transport of wood, meanwhile (we’re talking logs – these were not bundles of twigs), was largely left to the ladies. Mamans would wrap their burdens in aged pagne and tie them to their foreheads, several securing their knots with machetes. The blades rose in front of them as would a majestic feather gilding the lily of a flapper’s headband. A particularly badass flapper, with a very pointed fashion sense (it’s important that I make myself laugh, if no one else). One woman also carried a girl, maybe just over a year, on top of her logs, the curls of her wig bouncing in time to the woman’s steps. Fiercest maman alive.

Butembo itself is a sprawling city. Where Goma and Bukavu cling to the lake shore, Butembo revels in its size, stretching its limbs and relaxing into the contours of the undulating hills and valleys. I was able to take in its entire scope, as we barely paused enough for the moto mechanic to spring out the back and then blew right through town for a further 45 drive to try and hunt down the rumour of a medical depot from which we could stock our more far-flung clinics. This place was apparently the medical version of the island in Pirates of the Caribbean, in that it could only be found by those who already knew where it was. We stopped and asked the gardener of a local seminary for directions. I have come to understand that, when you ask someone in Congo for directions, they just climb in your car and then melt back into the forest when you get where you’re going. They never seem to take the same road back. The level of inconvenience for them must be enormous, but no one ever complains or asks for money or just offers up the directions.

With the saintly gardener’s assistance, we did manage to find the depot, took a tour, asked our questions, and then, when our business was all but concluded, they brought out a case of Djino, the locally-made soda that I find extremely difficult to drink. It is so carbonated that it effervesces on your tongue, leaving you with the essence, the impression of a taste, rather than the reality. The individual who ran the depot had worked for us some nine years ago, and kept running through the litany of those he had worked with (turns out, once we conveyed his greetings to the staff he knew, that he had been terminated for fraud. Awkward). He finally ran out of small talk and we all sat in silence as we finished our sucres, swallowing as quickly as was polite and the drink allowed.

Back to Butembo, the buildings clearly recall a more prosperous time, with more adventurous architecture and decorative mosaics than you seen in Bunia or even Beni. There was even a post office that apparently functioned in living memory – bananas. The stores had an eclectic range of goods – bottle of toner ink, Nikon D3100s (no word on if they were real, but if they were, damn!). Judith picked up a new cell, and, as in Afghanistan, they sell the phones loose here. You purchase the display model while the proprietor has to rummage through separate boxes, one each bursting with batteries and chargers to mostly fit the minute difference of the myriad phones, testing several along the way for fit and functionality. Another store had everything from an exercise bike to a nut grinder. It was at the store with the neon signs for charge de telephone and velo repair that we finally found a bread knife. There is only the very loosest logic guiding the set-up of these stores, I don’t know if you can tell. It was also easier to buy a machete in Butembo than a baking dish. When we nutty expats tried to describe what we were after, we were variously offered a metallic tv dinner tray, bread pan, and two different spring form pans, one in the shape of a heart.

While waiting for colleagues to haggle for various and sundry goods, I mostly just drank in my surroundings. The low mountains billowed all around us as girls swayed through the pagne gallarie, fruit trays perfectly balanced. A little boy trailed reluctantly in their wake with his own carton of eggs noticeably imperfectly balanced, tilting precariously. The women working the stalls seemed to be appraising the girls as much as the girls were their stock. The porters hauling their loads along the store fronts adorned their chadukas with flags and flowers (even then, some were Brasilian – World Cup fever caught on early here). The Butembo chadukas are longer and lower than those in Goma. There were mini models for kids to play with, carting around battered teddies and younger siblings.

Our team took lunch in an unlit caf/restaurant (that’s not a typo – it’s the name of the establishment). The food was prompt, the sanitation questionable (making me grateful for the lack of light), and the bill took forever to figure out (we were also charged for the ‘cadeau’ of water she had placed – unasked – on the table. That’s one way to make money). Our head logistician, a native son of Beni, claimed that those in Butembo are businessmen, born and bred, which is why they can’t figure out a receipt, which makes…no sense at all. Perhaps because here, business means bargaining and not math skills? According to him, Beni folks overall better educated because it is an administrative city.

During the return trip, Judith and I urged Jean de Dieu, the driver, to stop a few times so that we could take some photos. He seemed tickled to oblige the crazy muzungus. Our actions were so out of the norm, that we even scared some young women into running away from us when we stopped abruptly for a photo. The team made off-colour ADF kidnapping jokes. It reminded me of a rather elaborate running joke my supervisor and I have about getting kidnapped and speculating how our respective government would react. If the Dutch beat the Americans to the rescue, I would be pissed. But I did graciously promised to make the SEALs take us both and not leave her behind. NGO worker humour can be a dark thing.