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.

24 Hours in Bukavu: Part I

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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.

Germs

IMG_0519Mind 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.

The System

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.

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First day in the sanctuary

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I really had no idea what to expect when they told me I would be helping out in the sanctuary… and I can’t say that I came away from my first day feeling satisfied and encouraged. Christophe, who is in charge of overseeing the workers, has so much on his plate. When I asked him what time the feedings were and when I should be there, he pretty much told me: 6:30-9, 10:30-3:30. I almost laughed, but refrained and tried to explain that I was here primarily to write grants and to ask for money. He shook his head, looking just as confused as I was. Herein lies the problem; I’ve lost the little bit of French that I had learned in Paris; Carmen, my supervisor, is Spanish, so most of my training has been in Spanish (which I assure you, mine is not perfect!); and I’m reading and researching all day in English…and Swahili is clearly not my go-to at this point. With all the different languages flying around, trying to learn the very regimented procedures in the sanctuary was a bit of a disaster! We worked mainly in the food prep room, and the breadth of my knowledge regarding kitchen utensils and appliances is limited in English, so pretty much non-existent in French. The animals get fed three times a day,  and each piece of fruit and vegetable (usually around 8-10 different types) has to be weighed and portioned out for 128 animals! You can imagine the scenario:  Christophe asks me (in French) to grab the bowl on the table filled with ‘choux’ (cabbage), cut it into 5 pieces and place each piece in the bowl that corresponds to the specific animal or group of animals outlined on a piece of paper taped to the wall. Complete deer in the headlights moment and then all I could do was laugh…then panic! Christophe was mildly patient, but  my insecurities took over and I translated every encounter between him and the other workers as, “Wow boys, we got a real gem this time; she can’t speak, understand or chop an ear of corn into 6 pieces with a dull knife!

But, I wanted an adventure…