The Smell of a Memory

They say that smells are a powerful trigger for memories. If this is the case, I can’t say that I am terribly excited about recalling my time here. This is not to say that I will not have good memories, I am just not particularly fond of the smells that might encourage them- the acrid smoke of burning trash, overwhelming body odors that seem to linger, even in the absence of bodies, acidic smell of overripe fruit stings as I to breathe in. I am certain that there are more pleasant scents that greet me throughout the day, but they seem to be snuffed out by the present tense.

Nothing, however, can compete with my walk to work.

Our office is located in the Natural Science Research Center- a hauntingly beautiful memory of colonization, consisting of several simplistic yet imposing buildings linked together by long arching corridors that cluster around small, open-air patios. Despite the obvious state of decay, it is a huge source of pride for the locals and attracts visitors and high-level officials from all over the country. It truly is a beautiful place to walk to every morning…until you hit the hallway leading to our office.

Being a ‘research center’ in a remote area of a developing country necessitates a certain collage of accompanying smells that seems to be as much as part of the building as its white-washed walls. Most of the time all of the doors that line the halls are locked, (the government has still not agreed to pay their workers in full, thus the workers are not working) but every once in a while a door is left ajar and you get a peek at why you have opted to stop breathing out of your nose; various animal appendages and skeletons decorate the walls, piles of stuffed furry creatures cover the shelves with jars of what is most likely their former contents scattered throughout. A jolting combination of old fur, mothballs, decaying flesh and formaldehyde mock any admirable attempts of fresh air to pass through the dark, musty hallways.

Luckily, six months of daily exposure has rendered this aromatic concoction as normal to my senses as the screams of chimps that fly through the window of my office. There is, however, one final component that has proven a bit more difficult to embrace; our office is located right next to the bathroom. In normal circumstances, this would seem to be a convenient perk, except that this bathroom has no running water. To ‘flush’ one has to walk over to the neighboring office, fill up a bucket with water, walk back to the bathroom and drowned out the contents. That is the process. No one does it. I will leave the resulting odor to your imagination.

Interestingly enough, my path home is a welcomed journey back to one of my favorite adventures. I have yet to figure out the source, but there is a long stretch of bushes that fills the air with the smell of orange blossoms. I am instantly transported to Sevilla, Spain in the Spring of 1998- Flamenco music spilling into the streets, the taste of Manzanilla wine on my tongue and the sweet scent of orange blossoms making sure that I never forget.
Maybe my next trip to Spain will take me back to the fall of 2013 in Lwiro, DRC.

<img src=”http://nataliebreazeale.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/img_0567.jpg?w=225″ alt=”IMG_0567″ width=”225″ height=”300″ class=”alignnone size-medium wp-image-156″

SOS from the Jungles of Congo

For those of you who have been following my adventures in Congo (first one starts here), we are approaching the end. After reading the excerpt below, you might understand why, at that point, I was counting the days until my escape…literally.

For the last 2 months, the calendar on my wall served as an anchor to my sanity. I became obsessed with finding new ways to break down the months into weeks, the weeks into days, and the days into hours.

For example, every Wednesday for lunch, beans were served with cabbage instead of the usual plantains.

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Only 8 more servings of cabbage before I get to go home.

Besides my 24-hour excursion to Bukavu (read more about that epic reprieve here) and when Eric swept me off to Uganda for 2 weeks (which literally saved my soul), I was pretty much confined to my house and the sanctuary.

I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself due to safety restrictions, especially after dark. I also wasn’t supposed to wear skirts; women’s legs have to remain covered…although no one seems to know why.

So, as my tiny act of rebellion, every Saturday night after the sun went down, I would put on my only skirt and sneak over to the hotel next door and have a beer…exposed legs and all.

Only 7 more scandalous outings before I get to go home. 

Another survival tactic was keeping a regimented workout schedule. Thankfully, my room was spacious enough that I could work out on the days I didn’t run with the boys (more about dodging goats and small children here)- So, running on Monday/Wednesday/Fridays, Bar Method video on Tuesday/Thursdays, circuit training every Saturday, Yoga on Sundays…

Only 6 more yoga sessions before I get to go home.

Yes, there were pockets of fun throughout the day. I loved the staff and, of course, the chimps. But the circumstances and treatment I had to endure had worn me down. And I missed my boys terribly (Eric and Biscuit)…and my freedom.

I was ready to go home.

Only one more month, 7 days and 10 hours sitting across from her, inhaling her smoke…

SOS

I never imagined that my biggest challenge in the Congo would be a tiny woman from Spain.

I have tried to spare you the details of trying to navigate one of the most tumultuous relationships I’ve ever experienced (which happens to involve the same person who dictates what and how much I get to eat; if I can leave the area I’m confined to; when I get to use the internet; how much second-hand smoke I will be inhaling a day; and whether or not I will serve as an outlet for her random bouts of anger originating from any number of sources on a given day).

Below is a glimpse of a weak moment, during an exceptionally trying day, at the end of a grueling week…that pretty much sums up six months of enduring an impossible situation.

ROCKET FLARE

I often envision myself setting one off, seen from a birds-eye view, catapulting out of the trees like a frantic, directionally-challenged shooting star, alerting some sympathetic flyers-by that there is an overzealous crusader trapped in the forgotten trenches of the Congo, held prisoner by an abusive, parasitic woman who exists solely on souls and cigarettes, exhaling an endless stream of poison that slowly, methodically extinguishes the essence of those who have unknowingly landed in her web, kept alive just enough to quell her appetite as she whittles them down to an empty shell of their former selves, forcing them to resign the passion they once had for the cause they were fighting for…and question whether anything is worth fighting for at all.

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A side note:
This woman does, in fact, have some redeeming, even admirable qualities. Perhaps, on a day far removed from this one, I will remember what they are.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction. 

A storm’s a-brewin’ (and we’re all in the same ‘boue’)

Warning: this one gets a little messy.

The Congo adventure continues…

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A storm’s a-brewin’

When I first arrived, DRC was in the thick of its dry season. Just looking over the fields would elicit thirst-  a dull brown backdrop of cultivated plots with little to offer but dried out crops scorched by the relentless sun.

Tragically, deforestation has rendered the ‘forest’ a sparse collection of trees, most of which have acquiesced to the parched color du jour, extinguishing any thought of moisture.

And then the rains came.

Almost daily, around three in the afternoon, dark, ominous clouds start to roll in, a deceptive calm awaiting their arrival. Everything is still, just a light breeze dancing in the trees, slowly gaining momentum that elicits long, languid backbends from the palm branches towering above.

Soon, an eerie darkness settles in. In a matter of seconds, the clouds unleash with a ferocity I’ve never experienced. A barrage of raindrops pummels the roof, drowning out all other sounds…until the lightning joins in. The entire sky lights up while I hold my breath, waiting for the thunder to come crashing down. It’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying. But the reward is worth the terror.

The parched landscape has transformed into a decadent patchwork of emerald, lime, and avocado greens. There is still brown, however. Only now, it’s a rich chocolate brown that covers everything.

And there is no escaping it.

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La Boue (mud)

The dust that used to make its way into every possible crack and crevice has been replaced with a pasty, relentless, dark clay that consumes most of my day. I am either trying to maneuver my way through it without slipping or searching for any available surface to scrape it off my shoes, only to step right back in it. When I finally reach safe grounds, I have to deal with the dried up remnants trailing behind me- in my office, my house, my sheets. Chunks of mud are forever finding their way into my socks, shoes, drawers, books…a bit more intrusive than its dusty counterpart.

This seasonal intruder doesn’t appear to relent to experience or adaptation: local farmers on their way to the fields, women on their way to church, children on their way to school. Even the goats roaming about tread lightly.

We are all its victims, taking every opportunity to scrape it off the souls of our shoes. Some continue on, letting the layers build up. Others give up and carry on barefoot. But no one escapes its unmerciful grasp…and it seems we are all in the same ‘boue’.

You can support all the work the sanctuary does to protect these amazing souls by donating here.

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Women and Goats

 

“The Greatest of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
                                                  – Mahatma Gandhi

I saw this quote when I first arrived and have had some time to think about its application. I agree with Gandhi 100%, but I think he missed another important barometer for the moral evolution of a nation; the treatment of women.

In fact, most nations or societies who demoralize and disempower groups of people viewed as “less than” often coincides with their inhumane treatment of animals. I guess this makes sense…as incomprehensible as it is.

As for the treatment of animals in the DRC? Well, I have officially converted to being a vegetarian-watching so many of goats and pigs dragged around by a short rope tied to their necks or one leg; forced to ride on the back of a moto, legs bound; or tied to some random object for endless hours in the raging sun.

All of the chimps seeking refuge at our sanctuary experienced similar treatment, if not worse. Seventy-five percent of elephants have been slaughtered over the past 15 years in what is considered the “best protected park in the DRC,” and white rhinos no longer exist.

Did you catch that? The Northern White rhino has been completely wiped out in the DRC. Of the estimated 2,000 that roamed the areas of Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1960’s, only 3 remain…in a protected conservancy in Kenya.

“We put millions of dollars into protecting the northern white rhino in Garamba national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Susie Ellis of the International Rhino Foundation. “However, the species was lost there when the park became a conflict zone and we had to pull out to ensure the safety of our staff. If there is no political will, there is only so much that organisations like ours can do.”

Bonobos and Grauer gorillas, endemic to to the DRC, have suffered a similar fate.

But are you married? 

When I pass the women on the way to the fields, hauling 3 times their weight in wood, sugarcane, potatoes or bananas, I can’t help but think of the goats. Not cows, though, because cows (a symbol of wealth here) are never used to transport heavy cargo like the wives of their owners. Although the ‘proverbial rope’ that keeps them bound and subjugated is not motivated by hunger or survival, but by over a century of oppression, fear, stupidity and a distorted interpretation of religion. have more value here than women

Every women here in Lwiro is addressed as “Mama”. Why? Because that is her identity. In fact, after a woman has her first baby, her name forever changes to the name of that baby, such as “Mama Patrick”. (this made me laugh out loud when I realized that my name would forever be “Mama Biscuit”)

The first question I’m asked by men is if I’m married, the second, how many children I have. When I explain I don’t have chidlren and am not sure if I will, I’m simply dismissed.

One of the guys I work was so convinced I needed to remedy my “childless” issue, he offered to give me one of his. When I asked him how his wife might feel about this, he explained, “No problem, we have 5 others.” Yes, he was joking, I hope. But I opted to change the subject, anyway.

But this is the norm here. In fact, of the dozens of men that I have met, each of them proudly declares how many children they have, beaming, “Yes, here in the Congo, we have lots of children.”

“You have lots of children?” I respond, my tone thick with sarcasm. But it inevitably gets lost in translation. I think we can safely say that my limited capacity to speak the language has kept me in good graces here.

Because yes, the norm here more is good, regardless of the financial strain it puts on their families or the physical risks involved for the women.

And who exactly takes care of these children? The same people I see planting, harvesting and preparing the food, washing the clothes, fetching the water, hauling huge loads of produce to sell at the market. And they are not the “man of the house.”

Because most of the men I see are sitting idly with their neighbors, watching the world go by…and the women.

Out of all of the thirty plus guys that I work with (all of whom are married and have 4-6 children), I have never met any of their wives, except for one woman who comes up to the sanctuary to sell her produce. Women are not invited to any gatherings and most likely have no say in whether or not their husbands decide to go hang out with the “muzungo” instead of coming home to help with the chores.

This passage in Facing the Congo captures the prevailing philosophy here concerning women:

Congolese: “Your woman don’t know the meaning of respect…they don’t even want to have babies.”

American visiting Congo: “Not all women want to have babies.”

Congolese: Then why in God’s name are they on this earth? God put them here to multiply. Here we have a lot of children. Some are weak and will die, others are strong and will live. But it’s God’s will that women have a lot of babies, as many babies as possible.”

American: “Why not have one or two children and try to give them everything, instead of having seven or eight and hoping the strong will make it?”

Congolese: “Because we are on this earth to have children, I’m telling you! It’s God command!”

I certainly do not claim to have an in-depth understanding of this country and the origins of male chauvinism that prevails here. I also recognize that mine is a culturally-biased perspective based on a very limited understanding of the inconceivable suffering, oppression, poverty, and cruelty these people have endured.

Such relentless violence, poverty and injustice is bound to manifest itself in a vicious fight for power, exploiting the most vulnerable and stripping life of its value and humanity.

Ben Rawlence spoke to this in his book, Radio Congo:

“The residue of colonialism has engendered cruelty, brutality and a lack of confidence in any African achievement or even any African idea of humanity. What is it to be a man? Only money?” If there is no money, then the next mechanism for control on the food chain is power- dominion over those deemed less powerful- which from what I have seen is women, children and animals.”

Be very clear, I am holding on to my stones very tightly. The glass house that is my birthplace has yet to demonstrate equality on multiple fronts; education, wealth and privilege, even democratic values does not an equal and just society make.

As for our treatment of animals; The U.S. is the last remaining country (besides the African country of Gabon) to use chimpanzees for biomedical research on a large-scale- nearly 1,000 of them are still being imprisoned in biomedical facilities throughout our country (see link below for reference).

The inhumane industrial-style animal raising used by most American farmers completely violates any thought of respect for animal welfare- pumping any animal fit for mass consumption with hormones, steroids and whatever other chemicals necessary to speed up production, add unnatural girth and counter the sickness and disease resulting from horrific living conditions. Slowly, progress is being made, but just like in the Congo, economic gain still reigns king.

Is there hope? I guess I would be here if I believed otherwise. I think it all comes down to cultivating, one by one, our collective humanity and taking action.

So, I will leave you with one last quote from perhaps the best source of inspiration for both women and those advocating for the rights and protection of animals…

“Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins…if only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic-one that would respect all living beings. We should be at the threshold of a new era in human evolution-the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.”  ~ Jane Goodall

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130228155438.htm

http://www.releasechimps.org/laws/international-bans

http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001291

Casualties of the Trade

Kathe found in a village, 2009

I suppose this is a good time to explain more about why I am here….the whole ‘saving the chimps’ part that I have hardly addressed.

 

Why DRC?

There have been volumes written on the conflict here, it’s origins and implications. To spare you the dissertation, here is the conflict and its environmental effects in a tiny nutshell:

“In 1994, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into DRC following the Rwandan civil war and genocide, settling in forest areas throughout the east including in KBNP. This destabilized the already fragile Zairian government, plunging the country into civil war and humanitarian crisis. Refugees, internally displaced people and numerous armed groups placed enormous pressure on DRC’s forests through uncontrolled hunting, harvesting of wood for fuel, habitat conversion for farmland, timber extraction and mining”  – IUCN, 2012. Grauer’s Gorillas and Chimpanzees in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Although the country is now categorized as ‘post-conflict’, the crisis continues and you can imagine how this has impacted the already endangered primate population in the country. This is even more alarming considering that DRC is the only country in the world where the Grauer’s Gorilla and Bonobo can be found. Although data collection has been almost impossible due to the ongoing conflict, it is estimated that that the Grauer’s Gorilla population (between 2,000 and 10,000) has declined by 50-75% over the last decade. The Eastern Chimpanzee, though more numerous than the Grauer’s Gorilla, is also in danger of extinction, and the remaining Bonobo population is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.

What is happening to the great apes?

The main threats to the chimpanzees and gorillas in the DRC are poaching; massive forest degradation from human expansion, logging and mining activities; and infectious diseases spread by the hundreds of thousands of displaced people, refugee populations and militia groups that have infiltrated the protected parks. However, it is the illegal bushmeat and pet trade that is the main culprit of their rapidly declining numbers. Tracked down by dogs, the adults of the group are killed for meat to be eaten or sold in markets. The infants, if they survive, are then sold as pets locally and abroad. It is estimated that for every one or chimpanzee or bonobo that arrives at a sanctuary, 5-10 others have died in the process. The Gorilla death rate is much higher due to how susceptible infant gorillas are to stress and illness; one sanctuary in Congo reported that 80% of rescued infants died in captivity. This is in addition to the two parents (and other group members) that inevitably died in the process. IUCN documented that the Congolese authorities and its partners have confiscated 16 Grauer’s gorilla infants from military and civilian society since 2003; this is an extremely low number indicating that hundreds, possibly thousands of baby gorillas died in the process or were successfully shipped out of the country. All 55 chimpanzees at our sanctuary alone were rescued from the bushmeat and pet trade, and we are one of three sanctuaries in the country…so do the math. 

Why would someone eat a gorilla or chimp?

Because they are hungry. The average household here has anywhere from 5-8 children, and three in five of its over 60 million people live on less than $1.25 (£0.80) per day. For the refugees, militia groups and rural communities living in and around the forests,  meat is meat, whether it be an antelope, monkey, chimpanzee. For them, it is not a conservation issue or conscious decision to terminate a species, it is simply food for their families. If a chimp or gorilla is too small to provide meat, then everyone knows that the infant can be sold for a decent price, again food for their families.

Who exactly is buying these animals?

Locally, it is primarily the ex-pats working in these countries (the UN operation in DRC, MONUSCO, is one of the main perpetrators), military, wealthy officials or mineral tycoons and larger scale traffickers, for a start. The illegal great ape trade is no different than the drug trade, and they often go hand in hand; there are various tiers, players and profit margins involved that range from local hunters to large-scale international cartels. The poacher or middle man usually earns substantially less than the guy at the top, who can earn up to $40,000 for each gorilla. When you stop and think about how often you have seen a chimp out of its natural environment- in a movie or tv show, at a circus, as a photo op on the beach or amusement park, at a zoo or safari park…Michael Jackson’s little friend- all of these animals were hunted, captured, smuggled or traded and shipped off, except for those that were ‘bred in captivity’, of course (and you know where I stand on that issue). For these people, it is not a question of survival. The decision to capture or purchase an animal from the wild is a calculated, self-serving decision that will ultimately result in a miserable, abused animal trapped in a cage or chained to a tree.

The realities of the trade (cited in IUCN source listed above):

In 2006, a drug dealer was arrested in Cameroon with 50 kilo of marijuana, cocaine and a baby chimpanzee wedged between two sacks in the boot of his car. He confessed to regularly trading primates and employing at least five poachers to hunt them.

Since 2007, pending requests from zoos and private owners in Asia instigated the export of over 130 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas from Guinea. This transaction, using false permits, was only possible  through an established, well-coordinated network across Central and West Africa.

In 2010, 69 chimpanzees had left the country with valid CITES permits, declaring the animals captive-bred, all shipped off to Chinese zoos or safari parks. There is no captive-breeding facility in Guinea, but there are export routes established by Chinese ‘development’ companies. It is estimated that as many as 138 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas have been shipped to China using these routes, and these are only the ones that were reported.

Between 2005 and 2011, only 27 arrests related to the great ape trade were made in Africa and Asia combined. One-fourth of these arrests were never prosecuted.

The New Normal

ImageGoing to bed at 8pm

Waiting until the chimps stop screaming to finish my sentence

Finishing a book a week

Walking into a dark room and trying to locate the flashlight before even bothering to turn on the light switch

Inspecting all clothes and shoes for spiders before getting dressed

Speaking 3 different languages in a day

Knowing what day of the week it is based on whether there is cabbage or a pile of beans on my plate

Passing cows, goats and men with machetes on my way to work

Sharing the dinner table with 5 cats

Dousing myself with Deet instead of scented lotion

Missing my boys

Bathing with a bucket

Beans and Bananas

Being stared at…constantly

Two Steps Back

There is a zoo in Kinshasa that is privately-funded by a Chinese man who decided he wanted 4 endangered chimps and four critically endangered Gorillas displayed in his zoo. It seems the ICCN (Congolese government wildlife authorities), our founder and supposed partner in rescuing and protecting endangered primates, is now backing the transfer of these four gorillas (from GRACE in Goma) and four chimpanzees (from our sanctuary, CRPL) to appease this man.  Ironically, CRPL’s reputation as an established refuge for orphaned chimpanzees now makes it an easy target if those protecting it decide to align with criminals or corrupt officials out to make a buck.

These chimps, most of which were abducted as infants, have already seen their entire families murdered (Maiko arrived with a bullet fragment lodged above her right eye-most likely the remnants of what killed her mother), been stuffed in bags or tiny crates, chained to poles, starved, abused, forced to live in tiny crates- all for the economic benefit of their worst enemy and biggest threat -humans.  Even after being rescued, they were still kept in cages simply because CRPL did not have the resources to build bigger enclosures. It was only last year that CRPL finally completed 4 large, natural enclosures to house most of its resident chimpanzees and monkeys.  After years of confinement, these four chimps- finally free to roam, to climb trees, to swim and play with their new family- will be anesthetized, stuffed in a crate and wake up in a strange place in yet another cage.

This is something to think about the next time you visit a zoo or a circus; most of those animals staring back at you have experienced similar fates. Although the founders will deny it, and maybe they truly don’t know or choose not to ask, animals rarely arrive at a zoo without experiencing extreme levels of abuse and trauma. And really, are they so much better off in their safe, confined cages, in a climate that is not natural and reduced to sheer boredom and complacency? For what reason, for our entertainment? Or perhaps the more altruistic justification, so these animals on the verge of extinction can breed and continue to ‘flourish’? Are we truly ‘saving’ these animals by perpetuating their existence in cages?  In my opinion, the concept of breeding animals so that they can survive in cages is an oxymoron- akin to stating that a dying man is better off on a life support machine. Both scenarios require a decision to be made, usually for the benefit of the one who still has the power to decide, with little understanding of how severely they are impacting the quality of life for the one on the receiving end.

Of course, it is not so black and white. As a sanctuary for confiscated primates, we provide what we hope to be temporary protection from the elements that threaten the survival of the chimpanzees- rampant illegal bushmeat and wildlife pet trade; increased forest degradation and fragmentation; and high levels of infectious disease transmission from humans- all of which are fueled by the ongoing political and civil unrest.  If we were to release them back into the wild right now, they would most likely be recaptured, especially now that they are more accustomed to human interaction. It is not ideal, and yes, they are confined, but in the closest thing possible to their natural environment and surrounded by their own kind.

I guess I find solace in the fact that there are places like this that are dedicated to the protection, survival and, hopefully, future release of the apes (and other endangered species) back into the wild. ImageYet if these Congolese officials (who represent key players in global declarations for the protection of endangered great apes) approve this transaction, they are undermining the credibility of our efforts to protect these animals. Qualifying for funding is challenging at best, but will our present and potential funders really want to give thousands of dollars to a sanctuary that is subject to trafficking by its own founders? There are too many political layers and players involved to contemplate at the moment.  In the meantime, we have 4 chimps to save. Don’t worry, I will keep my wits about me, just don’t be alarmed if you see a picture of me chained to a chimp enclosure floating around the internet.

Running in the Congo: dodging goats, tasting freedom

Morning Exchange

As surprising as this is, I wasn’t terribly inspired to run when I first arrived, especially after experiencing my daily walk to and from work. Our office is located in the Natural Science Research Center, which is the only significant landmark that exists in Lwiro besides the dilapidated guest house that somehow still functions as the local bar, special event center, wedding venue and hotel (for those tolerant enough to endure questionable levels of hygiene and sharing a bathroom with its sink laying upside down on the floor).

The rest of the landscape is cultivated land with the rare collection of banana trees sprinkled throughout and one main dirt road connecting the small villages on either side of Lwiro.

On my way to work, there is always a steady stream of villagers traveling from one village to the next, and I’ve quickly learned that my presence will never be ignored.  Sometimes I’ll get an enthusiastic Jambo (Hello in Swahili), sometimes a less than friendly glare. But anonymity is definitely out of the question.

A group of young boys is definitely the worst. They slowly approach, all eyes staring straight through me. And just as I pass, the cheekiest of the group will yell out god knows what in Swahili while the others burst out laughing.

Despite all of this, after a month without running, I was ecstatic when Ruth and Susan suggested a jog. The safest route we were told to take was all uphill, winding through the villages on the same path the women and children take to and from the fields and market area.

I expected it to be dry, rocky and crowded. But adding in the ‘running factor’ was a whole different experience. Imagine walking on an uneven river bed, completely covered with jagged rocks, deep ruts, and large potholes. Now extract any reminisce of moisture. That is our path. There is nowhere to land that is flat or soft. It’s just a matter of whether you want to choose the large slanted rock or go for the collection of smaller jagged stones. And then there are the variety of farm animals to navigate-the baby goats being the most difficult and the pigs, the most unpredictable.

All of this, however, is somewhat manageable. But then the path narrows and you realize you’re not making life any easier for the poor women trying to make it down the same trail with twice their weight in tools, wood, sugar cane, produce or any combination of all of the above balanced on their heads…usually with a baby or two in tow. I have definitely hurled myself into a ditch more than once trying to get out of their way, only to have them stop, laugh and cheer us on up the hill.

And then, there are the children. Out of nowhere, they start coming out of the woodworks, like hundreds of them (at least that how it sounds). They all trail behind us, laughing and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Mazungu! Mazungu!” (white person, white person) the whole way down.

After a couple of weeks, we realized one of the workers, Luc, ran regularly and wanted to join us. We were finally free to roam a bit further, out towards the open fields and main road. Having a Congolese with us has helped keep the children at bay, allowing us to focus our efforts on dodging chickens and such.

But the long stretch of open road that I longed for holds its own set of challenges… mainly breathing. It’s still dry season here, which means the occasional UN convoy or random battered vehicle that passes by leaves us quite literally in the dust. And it’s the chalky, brown kind that goes straight for your eyes, and then the nostrils, until it settles into a gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of the fresh oxygen that was previously propelling you forward.

Everyone else is traveling by foot, usually in small groups of men or women, and they all feel compelled to contribute in some way – cheer us on, remind us of the fact that we are indeed white/Mazungu, and sometimes even join us. It’s usually the women who join in, matching our pace barefoot or in flip-flops, laughing and cheering each other on, clearly unaffected by all thing things I find so annoying. They just take it in stride, enjoying the opportunity to run…simply because they can.

It is precisely the adversity of it all that inspires me to faithfully join Luc each week, even when I’m tired and my body aches. How can I complain to a man who does manual labor for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, eats less than I do and runs in a pair of old hiking boots split open along the souls?

And yet he runs, almost every day.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Why does he run when I know how exhausted and hungry he has to be. I can’t say for sure, but I think it might simply be because he can.

Running is the one thing that’s his, on his own terms. He can relish in the freedom- the power and strength he alone has cultivated…even if only for an hour a day on the dry, dusty road to Lwiro.

Saving Lwiro

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I hesitate to write this down and humiliate myself  any further, but why should I deny you all a good laugh for the sake of my already shattered pride. 

To set the stage, I first must introduce you to the new volunteers that arrived two weeks ago, Susan and Ruth.  Their arrival couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was starting to wonder how I would last 5 more months alone. Although this experience as a whole is an adventure, the daily routine can get a bit monotonous, so some company was more than welcomed. We are all close in age and cut from the same cloth, which makes things much more entertaining. The group dynamic has also opened up more possibilities for us to explore the area and socialize a bit. 

Typically, our work day starts at 6:30 a.m. and usually ends around 4:30 p.m.  Dinner is served at 5pm and we have usually all showered and eaten by 5:30. This leaves g a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves, but our options are a bit limited- there is no electricity, we are usually too exhausted to read by candlelight and going to bed before 8pm is just torture. We usually pass the evening hours sitting around the candle on the patio, sipping wine or tea, chatting, laughing and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we have until our designated bedtime of 8:30pm.

This brings us to last night:

At approximately 8:30 p.m., we blew out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room and immediately come running back out saying that there was a fire right outside their window. I ran inside to get the lantern, but by the time I fumbled around in the dark and found it, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate, when I saw one of our workers, Valentine. For once, I knew exactly what to say in French, thanks to a very handy French podcast I had memorized. I confidently posed the question, “Do you smell that? Is there a fire?” His eyes widened, he threw open the gate and took off in a sprint. I took this as a confirmation and interpreted his urgent response as,  “yes, I do smell a fire, and we should go immediately to put it out!”

Assuming the girls were already at the scene, I took off after him, ready to help save Lwiro from its fiery fate. Everything up until this point seemed completely logical, until we started to approach the fire and Valentine stopped abruptly, took a sharp turn to the left and leaped into the forest.  Without pause, I did what any insane, very white woman would do in complete darkness, in the middle of the jungles of Congo; I dove in after him.

This is a good time to point out that I have seen Valentine almost daily since my arrival. He is a sweet, soft-spoken older gentlemen who always has a smile on his face.  And, although we don’t say much more to each other than the usual “Ca va?”, Oui, Ca va bien”, he is one of my favorites.  So, I never questioned my safety in following Valentine into the depths of the jungle. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle in the pitch black with no clue as to where we were going or why, trying to see where my feet where landing and praying with everything fiber of my being that I was not disturbing the silent, hungry, venomous predators that were surely lurking below. I lost sight of Valentine and could see nothing other than the thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The thought of being lost in the forest with my extremely ‘challenged’ since of direction prompted me to yell out in a state of panic… at the very same moment that I ran smack into Valentine.  I was so disoriented that it took me a few seconds to finally realize that we were both staring straight at Susan, who was staring back at us from our patio with a  very confused look on her face.  She burst out laughing, “Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes!  Fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes!! “I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing something or someone for hours…although I’m not sure why or where…and by the way, did anyone manage to put the damn fire out?”

The light of day:

First of all, there was no ‘fire’. It was a bonfire that the neighbors had set intentionally. Although, in our defense, it is the dry season here and the fire was HUGE and seemingly unintended.  As for my brush with death in the bush, I was actually in my own back yard, no further than 1/4 of a mile from our back patio.  And, as it turns out, my impeccable French was for not. Most of the older workers speak very basic French and communicate mainly in Swahili.  It never occurred to Valentine that I would be alarmed about the bonfire harmlessly burning next door, so clearly there must have been an intruder! 

Needless to say, I have been avoiding eye contact with the workers all day and can only imagine what they must think of me…that crazy American. 

 Lesson learned- no going out past my bedtime.

Bukavu: Part II

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.