19 June 2014

Very béni Beni

Back in Beni, I had reason to question Didier’s assertion that his home town is a bureaucratic machine when OCHA projected their PowerPoint onto sheet, just like us on movie night. As I think I’ve mentioned, the humanitarian complex is not nearly as developed here as in Bunia. It’s about the only area where they’re lagging behind us. The cluster meeting room was furnished with couches but no cushions. We started almost a half hour late, and Medair was the only INGO on-time (mostly because we’re new and eager). Even the chair was late. One of the national NGO reps shrugged – the INGOs don’t come because they have actual work to do. Once it did get underway, the meeting was more…Congolese than I’m used to. It was going into the third hour that they doled out a round of Djinos. It lasted long enough for an industrious spider to construct a web between the co-chair’s pant leg and the desk. On the upside, the UNDSS guy related an update on some protests against the péage route (residents claimed that it was an illegal tax, as they were paying but the roads never seemed to get better) with relish, as though it was some great oral tradition epic. He was the only reason to stay awake in hour two.

Like the team, the Beni base is full of items both new and those recycled from previous project. The scanner from the recently closed base in Mambasa puts a rose-tint on everything. The chairs from Dungu are somehow all uneven and upholstered in pink flowers mixed with tiger print. All of the Thurayas are broken. Even these, though, have their place. We cannibalised the base station of one to repair the others and by combining several sets of chairs, managed to come up with a set for the table that was only moderately wobbly (you just can’t really look at it straight on without all of the clashing patterns making you dizzy). We did order a new cover for the hideously ugly couch, and after taking measurements the seamstress set up her portable machine in an empty flower bed in the shade of a tree. We worked to the metronome of her clacking pedals for the better part of an afternoon.

The highlight of house set-up, by far, had to be the positioning of the connex. We had sent a shipping container down from Bunia chalk full of stuff – motos, furniture, records, the works. Trying to move it to an out-of-the-way corner of the compound – where it will act as a depot – was not easy. At first, we solicited the UN for assistance, as they have a decent-sized crane that would have done the job nicely, but they couldn’t be bothered (not surprising, considering that they apparently also huddled behind their camp walls when a village less than five clicks away was being sacked). Instead we hired out a local forklift that promptly got stuck in the soft sand of the compound’s back lot for close to three hours and did little aside from rip up the terrain. Even the land cruiser couldn’t drag it out; the driver had to call for a bigger truck from his company to come and save him. Finally, Didier suggested that we just hire some locals. Judith and I were a bit sceptical, but 20 guys and a couple of long beams later and job was done. Apparently, all they needed was some work songs in Lingala and elbow grease. It took less than a half an hour. One of the watching supervisors turned to me and observed that la force est forte dans ces - the force was strong in these ones. They had just more or less levitated a 2,500lb shipping container. I laughed, and he laughed, though possibly for different reasons.
I had my doubts about this, and suspect that they did, too

But it worked, complete with Jedi-style levitation
 Lest it seem like this trip was all work and no play, I did spent a fair amount of time exploring Beni together with Judith. Despite the affluence of the town (and it is affluent – there are money changers everywhere, their stalls painted with aggrieved-looking Ben Franklins, with inched faces and swollen jowls and bulging eyes), people here are not shy about asking for money, but they do like to be a little sly about it. Instead of just holding out their hand (à la Bukavu), they always seem to ask for café. At the park where we went running, the guards ask for café. On the street, people stop and ask you to buy them some café. It’s the preferred code word. One of our guards popped in one night and also asked for café, but I took him at face value and gave him a cup of Nescafe.

You did read that correctly, by the way – Beni has two, real-live, honest-to-goodness, proper parks (or as close as I have seen to parks anywhere yet in Congo, including Kinshasa). One is an abandoned industrial park where, if you pass the old timber mill, there is a defunct airstrip that makes for a perfect running track. The other is a somewhat more mysterious compound that houses a handful of beautiful, abandoned manors and a covered pool. There is a tennis court and small but serviceable loop for runs. It’s beautiful and peaceful and absolutely teaming with bats. Just as evening falls, it also fills with squads of young men armed with air rifles and sling shots, hunting for supper. Their fist-full of bats don’t look like much meat, dinner-wise, and after the ebola outbreak, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but what do I know?

Somehow, both of the parks still seem to have guards and groundskeepers, though I cannot fathom who might be paying them. There is precedent in Congo that, even after your income has dried up, you still dress in uniform and go to work. It’s the perception of having a job that is important, more so than the job itself. All of the stations along the now defunct railways are, by rumour, almost fully staffed, even some four decades after the trains stopped running. Even today, a significant number of the civil servants don’t received regular pay checks but continue to do their jobs. Of course, that’s also why so very many people here are always thirsty for more café.
So very beautiful

So very creepy

As a part of our social outreach experiment, Judith and I also tried to insinuate herself with the (tiny, as far as we knew) expat community. She had warned me that they were nice enough, but not terribly welcoming, so we pulled out all of the stops. The gas shortage was still on-going at that point, so we had the guard light the charcoal braiser for us. He used a plastic bag (inventive and effective, sure, but it smelled terrible. We tried the same method the next night and failed miserably. We tried again, this time using the heating unit from an old MRE Judith dug out of her stock. God only knows how it got there. While it, too, worked, it smelled even worse and chased us back inside for nearly an hour). We managed to turn out a pretty good spread, if I do say so myself – a kicky salsa, guacamole with notes of tequila, creamy black beans, all topped off some homemade tortillas. In some ways, it’s really easy to cook here – everything is so fresh, the flavours are amazing. We even made some lightly spicy brownies for dessert, though the electric oven is so ancient that all of the markings on each of the seven (!) dials have been rubbed off and we had no idea what the temperature was. I strongly suspect that we were actually roasting the brownies for a while there.
The guests started arriving (this is not as grand an affair as it sounds – only about four people showed), and one on one they were really lovely. They readily spoke English or slow French, made gentle fun of the quirky glory house, praised the food, and were altogether charming. Though one did observe that the beans looked rather like those severed at the local prisons (he was working on reforming the corrections system – the corrector of the corrections system!). He followed it up with a sheepish assurance that they were delicious. Food jokes aside, the comment kicked off a really fascinating discussion of prison maintenance, the World Cup, spiders and other venomous things, strangulation and avoidance thereof, and how easy it is to fall asleep to heavy metal music. Rather, our guests discussed it. I understood most of every topic, I thought, but I somehow missed the transitions.

Generally, the default language at parties is that of the hosts, at least in Bunia. This is not so in Beni. As Judith had warned, as a group, much of the individual warmth evaporated and over the course of the evening our guests began to project that hard veneer of in-crowds everywhere, when they’re not quite sure that you have what it takes to be a member of the group. The kind of people who wear cool like a shield. As the night progressed and more wine flowed, they spoke increasingly quickly, leaving my colleague and I struggling to simply follow the plot of the conversation. In such situations, my boss will simply interject in English, but I haven’t quite worked up the guts to do so. They did make a joke about how quiet we’d grown, but didn’t alter the speed of their conversation.

And for this, I missed a toga party in Bunia.
At least I could drown my sorrows with Communal wine
Originally, the plan was for me to fly back, but our carrier abruptly canceled all their flights for the week (the one drawback of flying for free with donor-sponsored airlines is that they don’t really have to worry about keeping the customer happy). Though it nearly doubled the length of my stay, I felt it was worth it. The flight to Bunia is no longer direct, but rather more like getting on an airbus. The route starts in Beni (with an airport showtime of 0600!) and then sets off for Goma, then possibly passing through Bukavu before going back north. It can take upwards of six hours for what should be a 30 minute flight. I would rather take the road any day. It’s actually shorter, construction allowing, and infinitely more visually arresting. I ended up hitching a ride with the medical programme manager, one Dr. Olivier, who arrived a few days prior from Bunia to go over the results of the evaluation (remember the medical evaluation, so very many pages ago?) with the team.

It rained heavily the night before we left. When we again abandoned North Kivu’s pavement for Orientale’s dirt roads, Dr. Olivier noted that we were now leaving Congo. He formally welcomed me back to Zaire. We passed a gut of those massive trucks lumbering under their oversized loads, rending huge gashes in wet ground out of which water bled. I kept waiting for the road to cry out in protest with each new wound, but it never happened – roads are, as a rule, pretty stoic – and the sun gradually hardened them into scars.

By this time, the construction on the bridge had been completed and the site was completely deserted. Whatever my earlier reservations about the caliber of construction, it certainly did make the other bridges we eased our way over look a bit shoddy by comparison. A sign, clearly purloined from Uganda, remained. I hadn’t even noticed it the first time through, what with all of the hullabaloo. It read, in black, hand-painted letters: Caution/Go Slow/Men at Work/Be Aware/Falling Debs. The letters appeared to be fleeing, as though they dried in motion. I knew that it intended to refer to falling debris, and was necessarily cut back (that’s a lot of wording for one sign, after all), but the mental image of 1950s society girls falling lightly, puffy tulle skirts inflating around them and holding them aloft like Mary Poppins’ umbrella has stuck with me.

At one of the clinics we dropped in on, collecting data and more or less shooting the breeze with the staff, the head nurse informed us that, only a few hours before, the village we had just passed through had been under attack from a rebel faction. We hadn’t noticed anything out of place when we has passed through, not thirty minutes before. But, Dr. Olivier sighed, this is Congo, where such things are not out of place. After that, he began pointing out to me how to recognize abandoned homes from empty ones, reading the signs of displacement all along the road. The story of fear it told was rendered more explicit by the numerous military patrols walking along the road, driving along the road in convoys, manning new and existing roadblocks. For the most part, just gave us flat stares as we pass by. Motos got a full shake-down, as they are apparently the preferred means for militias to transport arms and people (and for everyone else to transport everything. The road blocks were slow going).

Happily, we made a few pit stops for road trip food – roasted corn, five cent pineapples, bags and bags of mangoes. The team very kindly offered me some corn – I think as a joke more than anything. Makey ate his corn methodically as he drove, chin thrust out and nose oddly hawkish under surprisingly spiffy aviators. When Jean Mawa, the lead supervisor, and Makey decamped to purchase mangoes, Dr. Olivier and I had an interesting discussion about eating habits in the West versus the developing world. I’m not certain that I bought his argument that genetically modified corn is worse for you that buckets of ‘natural’ palm oil, but he is the doctor.

As he segued into lambasting the mango sellers for their laziness, I watched Jean Mawa haggle. He bought fruit as might a politician on the stump, flirting with the sellers and tickling the palms of their babies. Makey trailed after him, the big man walking with a graceful, almost feminine sway in his ample hips. It’s a jarring contrast from his brusque driving. I wasn’t trying to ignore Dr. Olivier, per se, though his assessments did strike me as unduly harsh. Dr. Olivier is so fantastically motivated and accomplished (the man is a delight, lest it seem that I’m throwing him under the bus), and I suppose that’s a standard inclination of people everywhere – I pulled myself up by my bootstraps through whatever levels of shit, so why can’t you do the same? No one wants to admit that the truth of the American Dream is really self-righteous schadenfreude.

With every new addition of produce, the bouquet in the car developed and evolved in not unpleasant ways. It was even better once a light rain started again. I hope this is how Congo always smells in my memory – like earth and sweet fruit and popcorn and the wind in my hair.