I was jolted from my trance when the car abruptly stopped and everyone piled out. I quickly realized that I had no idea where I was meeting Sylvie. Fortunately, she picked up her phone and we arranged to meet at the Ice Cream shop next to the Hotel Residential. The thought of something cold was enough to make me scream out loud, but something frozen…actual ice cream! The possibilities for the next 24 hours seemed endless. After yet another prayer-inducing moto ride, I was soon chatting with Sylvie over pistachio ice cream, cramming our life stories into abbreviated versions that led us to the here and now. Two hours later, we dashed out to find Sylvie’s car. We were losing daylight and still had a full itinerary to tackle- a tour of the city, a ‘snack’ at her house, dinner at The Orchid, a Congolese concert and dancing at the new trendy spot in town. I was relieved to discover that Sylvie was equally excited about my visit. Her close group of friends had gradually moved away and she rarely went out. After a whirlwind tour of the city, we arrived at her place, hidden behind a enormous, solid gate with a guard on watch 24/7. Her flat seemed like a penthouse, with a huge balcony overlooking the river and an actual shower with an actual shower head, hot water and an impressive selection of fruit-scented toiletries…this time I did scream out loud. Sylvie’s roommate, Habib, had a full spread of delicious food waiting for us, 2 different types of salad, grilled broccoli and cauliflower, mouth-watering grilled chicken. There was no question, I fell off the vegetarian wagon with absolutely no remorse. Next stop was The Orchid, the hot spot for ex-pats and wealthy Congolese. We met up with a couple of Sylvie’s colleagues and settled into a cozy spot overlooking Lake Kivu. My cold beer arrived and I closed my eyes, soaking in the cool breeze coming of the lake, the relaxed chatter in French, English and Swahili and the soft beat of African drums in the background. Any exhaustion from the day melted away as I waited eagerly for my second meal of the evening. No matter if I wasn’t the least bit hungry, I still had a full night of music and dancing ahead. And, as it turns out, I can hold my own dancing Congolese style and can still stay up later than 9pm.
After a month and a half in the bush, I decided it was time for a break. As often happens in situations like this, I became fast friends with a woman, Sylvie, who visited Carmen a few weeks ago. She is the director of conservation for Kahuzi-Biega, the national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site where CRPL is located. We instantly clicked and she invited me to visit her in Bukavu, the closest city to Lwiro. I was a bit hesitant to take her up on the offer, primarily because she is moving to Tanzania in July and I did not want inconvenience her. I was also dreading the thought of making the trek there by bus, which I imagined to be a long, hot, exhausting affair. The closest village to Lwiro is Kuvumu, which is only about 7 Kilometers away. But the only available mode of transportation to Kuvumu is by moto and the road is a brutal collection of deep rivets, enormous potholes and large, loose rocks; the whole ordeal takes over half an hour to conquer and this is only the first leg of the entire journey. However, the thought of a hot delicious meal (ex-pat style), wine and good company trumped my reservations and two weeks later, I was on the back of Obe’s moto (my new friend and ‘chauffer’) on my way to the ‘big city’. I was already sweating in the mid-day heat as I clung to Obe’s thick down jacket, which he wears faithfully regardless of the temperature. He agreed to drop me off at the ‘bus stop’ in Kuvumu, which turned out to be a row of old cars parked on the side of the road. He led me over to a man leaning against one of the cars that in any other context might have been mistaken for scrap metal. Obe assured me, “This is much better than ‘le bus’…”much faster, much better”. I deducted that this was the ‘official’ taxi service to the city, a process that entails waiting as long as it takes to fill any random car way beyond its intended capacity. “What the hell?” I declared in English. “When in Congo…” The back seat was already occupied by one poor woman who was smashed between two large, very well-fed men. The driver informed me that he would grant me the opportunity to claim ownership of the entire front seat for an extra 2,000 Francs (less than $2), or we could wait to find another passenger to sit on my lap. I tried to seem casual as I quickly rummaged through my bag, praying that I could locate the extra 2,000 before my potential travel companion was spotted. An hour later, front seat all to myself, we approached our destination. Lake Kivu dominated the view, expansive and tranquil, inhabited by only a few men in pirogues retrieving their nets from the murky water. But any sense of calm was instantly consumed by the cacophony of competing noises that bombarded the senses – relentless car horns, excited chatter from hundreds of vendors lining the road, herds of goats emphatically expressing their reluctance to follow orders, a haze of chalky dust making its way into the car accompanied by a steady stream of smoke from the piles of burning trash. The intoxicating beat of Congolese music spilling out of the radio served as the perfect soundtrack to capture the colorfully staged, frenetic scene. I caught a glance of myself in the review mirror, a huge smile firmly in place.
Welcome to Bukavu.
Mind you, I am NOT a germaphobe. In the states, I probably take more liberties than most with the various bacteria hiding out on bathroom doorknobs, kitchen counters and recycled water bottles. And, I’m sure I have raised a few eyebrows with my disregard for the consequences of rescuing a savory morsel that managed to escape my plate and land on the floor. I always chalked it up to my super powered immune system, which is inundated with a steady flow of vitamin and probiotic supplements. After all, I rarely get sick, so no need to lather myself up with copious amounts of anti-bacterial gel; I have an army of antibodies ready for battle. I also recognize that there is a tendency in the U.S. to over-sanitize, purify, and pasteurize every last molecule that resides in anything fit for consumption until is hardly a memory of its natural state.
So, armed with my normal dose of vitamins, I felt prepared to fully embrace the conditions I imagined would be inherent in a remote area in the DRC. Let’s just say that I have definitely found myself a bit hesitant, (or perhaps panicked is a better word) to ingest the contents that are often placed before me. For starters, soap is a bit hard to come by. I can usually conjure something up in the main house, usually the dish soap in the kitchen. For the workers, however, it is not so readily available. It is a luxury item here (along with toilet paper), so it is kept locked up in a cupboard. Each morning, Christophe scoops out a specific amount that is weighed on a scale and then distributed to the workers for their daily shower (which is taken here on the grounds). As far as I have seen, washing the dishes, at least in the Sanctuary, (where are lunch is prepared) entails an extremely weathered scrub brush and tap water.
The drinking water is boiled, but then stored in plastic water bottles, which held their initial fresh, purified contents a very long, long time ago. You know the smell, the water bottle that you refilled a couple of times, then left in your gym bag for a while, then opened it and decided against it. I’ve found it best just to shut off my senses and chug.
Then there is the issue of electricity. We have none. This means that the refrigerator now serves as more of a bug and cat deterrent, rather than a means to cool and preserve perishable items. I refrained from trying to explain my loss of appetite when Carmen offered me the leftover chicken from two nights before…I just couldn’t do it and have since declared myself as a reborn vegetarian. This better serves my conscience as well as my stomach. Although the treatment of the animals is no worse here than in the states, it is much more exposed and simply too close to home.
Alas, I have just finished my first round of antibiotics, taken a break from my carnivorous tendencies and made my bottle of anti-bacterial gel my new constant companion.
CRPL’s office is housed at the Research Center for Natural Sciences, a government-run organization that founded CRPL (the sanctuary) and donates our land and facilities. Apparently, ‘the Directors’ of the center have been pocketing a portion of workers’ salaries, (which is only a $100/month, if that). Fed up, all 800 workers rallied a strike, which has lasted for two months with no end in sight. Tensions have been building since I have been here, with frequent demonstrations in the courtyard. I assumed that the strike had little impact on CRPL, since our relatively small staff of 32 has continued working. What I didn’t realize was that our staff is also supposed to be paid by the research center, a promise that has not been delivered for 7 years! This means that CRPL has been paying all of the salaries and medical care for all staff members since its inception. As it stands right now, we only have enough funds to cover three months of food for the animals, with no new funding on the horizon. It is a constant battle between finding the funds to pay to workers who feed the animals, and finding the funds to feed the animals. And, since the research center will not pay their workers and the workers refuse to work, the offices are closed and there is no electricity (it’s also been out throughout the entire area for over two months…curious). CRPL has been supplying the gasoline necessary for the generator (which is crazy expensive, about $6.80/gallon) so that we can continue our work.
So, in short, the directors are robbing the workers, the workers have stopped working and receiving their full paychecks, and yet, YET, ‘the officials’ have issued the revival of the ‘annual census’ (which has not happened in 8 years). This means that every single person employed here has to pay a fee and provide copies of their identification cards and paperwork to present to ‘the officials’. If they don’t provide the documents, they don’t exist, nor will their salaries (if they ever get reinstated), period. However, since the government has yet to fix the broken power line, refuses to pay for the gas to fuel the generator and will not provide a service to facilitate the census, all 800 of them came to our office to make their copies!
At around 8am, people began trickling in to use the copy machine. Word got out, and within half an hour, hundreds of people began flooding the halls and pushing their way into our already over-crowded office…chaos ensued. I sat frozen at my desk, not having a clue as to what was happening, nor the capacity to communicate and try to help. Carmen finally regained control of the situation and thus commenced the excruciating process of calling in all 800 workers, one by one, requesting their necessary documents and making copies of each. Nervous chatter-an indiscernible mixture of Swahili and French, varying degrees of body odor and the scent of an overused printer cartridge permeated every inch of the room. And there I sat, silent, for 5 hours, my bladder on the verge of exploding, which at the time seemed a better option than pushing my way through a mass of hot, irritable, hungry, unemployed workers.