What happens when you stay up past your bedtime… and you can’t speak Swahili

Okay friends, I know this is a repeat, but I just got back from vacation and the reality of what I have to pull off in the next 3 days. (Just minor things…roof over my head, money to pay for said roof…job to provide money to pay for roof over my head. Don’t worry, I’ll pull it off, I always do…but my creative juices are a bit stifled at the moment).

So, since this is, in fact, another Congo adventure, I thought I would recycle it for those who missed it the first time…or for those who just want to laugh again at the ridiculous shit I get myself into…

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Saving Lwiro

I was only one month into my 6-month stint working at the chimpanzee sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the fact that everything I was seeing and doing on a daily basis was on the verge of surreal, I was confined to a very small area (given the whole ‘conflict/tail end of civil war’ thing) and my daily routine was already getting a bit monotonous.

Although I am an introvert through and through, my only options for companionship were my limited encounters with the chimps, awkward charade-like exchanges with the staff (French/Swahili speakers) and way too much time spent with my cantankerous Spanish-speaking supervisor. I was becoming increasingly desperate for civil, grammatically-correct, ‘I can actually crack a joke’ conversation.

I seriously started considering my exit strategy when I found out two women were coming to volunteer for a month. The thought of late-night talks, belly laughs and an occasional sounding board for said cantankerous boss quickly overrode all introverted tendencies, and I began counting the days. Not surprisingly, we were all close in age and cut from the same cloth (it’s a rare breed that decides up and moving to the Congo to save the chimps seems like a good idea), and it was immediately apparent that getting ourselves into trouble was not going to be a problem.

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No big deal…just taking a stroll with Jane Goodall.

Typically, our work day started at 6:30am and ended around 4:30pm. Dinner was served at 5, and we had all usually ‘showered’ (in a tub/bucket kind of way) and eaten by 5:30.

Since we weren’t supposed to leave our house after dinner, this left a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves with very limited options; there was no electricity, we were usually too exhausted to read by candlelight, and going to bed before 8pm was simply torture. So most evenings were spent sitting around a candle on the porch, chatting, sipping beer or tea and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we had until our self-imposed bedtime of 8:30…because come on, who goes to bed before 8:30?

It was 8:30 on the dot. We had just blown out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room, then immediately came running back out saying there was a fire outside their window. They jetted outside while I fumbled around in the dark trying to find my lantern, which had conveniently disappeared, yet again.

By the time I emerged, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate and ran into Valentine, one of the night staff. Usually, when I’m in panic mode, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is English (Spanish on a good day). But this time, the words flew out effortlessly (thanks to the trusty French podcast I listened to each morning while preparing the chimps’ breakfast.)

Tu sens ca? il y a un feu! (Do you smell that? There’s a fire!)

His eyes widened and he threw open the gate, taking off in a sprint. I silently congratulated myself for my mastery of the French language, translating his urgent response and subsequent actions to, Yes, Natalie, I do smell a fire. We should go immediately and put it out!

And with that, I was off to save Lwiro from its fiery fate.

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Everything up to this point seemed completely logical- there was a fire and we were running toward it to put it out. But when we got to the fire, Valentine stopped abruptly, took a sharp turn to the left and lept into the forest. So I did what any insane woman in the heart of Africa would do.

I dove in after him.

This is a good time to point out that I had seen Valentine on a daily basis since my arrival. He was a sweet, soft-spoken older man who always had a smile on his face.  And although our conversation never progressed beyond the usual ‘ca va?, Oui, ca va bien’, he was one of my favorites.

So as ludicrous as it sounds, I never questioned my safety when diving into the depths of the jungle to follow Valentine. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle with no lantern and no clue as to where we were going or why.  And all I could think about were the millions of hungry, venomous predators I was pissing off as I stomped on top of them trying to get to wherever we were going as quickly as possible.

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Before I knew it, Valentine was long gone, and I could see nothing other than thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The reality of being lost in the jungles of Congo with my extremely challenged sense of direction jolted me into survival mode. I screamed out at the top of my lungs… at the very moment that I ran smack into Valentine.

Completely disoriented and beyond traumatized, it took me a few seconds to gather myself and realize we were both staring straight at Susan… who was standing on my back porch.

She immediately burst out laughing, “Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes!”  

“Wait, what? Fifteen minutes? I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing someone for hours! Athough I’m not sure who…or why.

And did anyone manage to put out the fucking fire?”

The light of day…

There was no fire. The neighbors were burning trash like they did almost every day. Although in our defense, we had never seen them do it at night, and it in no way resembled a harmless ‘we are just burning trash’ fire.

And as it turns out, my flawless execution of French was all for not. Most of the older workers communicate mainly in Swahili and know very little French if any. Valentine most likely saw the panicked white woman flailing about, pointing toward the forest, and assumed I’d seen some dangerous intruder.

And as for my near brush with death in the bush? I was actually in my own backyard, no further than a quarter of a mile from our back porch.

Lessons learned

Not a terrible idea to learn a few ‘could save your life’ phrases in the local language

Keep flashlight/lantern attached to your person at all times

No going out past bedtime

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. 

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Down & dirty in the Congo…germs included.

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Be clear, I’m not a germaphobe.

In the states, I probably take more liberties than most with the various bacteria lurking on doorknobs, kitchen counters and community peanut bowls. I’m sure I’ve raised a few eyebrows when I fail to skip a beat before rescuing a precious morsel from the floor that fell off my plate.

Cringe if you must, but I’ve always had a resilient immune system, which I credit to the steady flow of all things vitamins and minerals I try to consume…and the threat of having to stay in bed all day if I do get sick, which I rarely do. So why dowse myself with copious amounts of anti-bacterial gel?

So off to the Congo I went, armed with my super-human immune system and a solid supply of vitamin supplements, fully prepared to embrace any unsavory bacteria strings I might encounter in the jungles of Africa.

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…Let’s just say, since my arrival, I’ve found myself a bit hesitant to ingest the contents on my plate…or breathe in, really.

The reality is, soap is a luxury item here (as is toilet paper). The only cleansing option available is a toxic-looking, soap-esque powder that’s locked up in the sanctuary office.

Each morning, Christophe scoops out a small portion on a scale, scribbles down the exact weight, and then distributes it to the workers for their daily shower. (It seems counter-intuitive to shower before you are going to do hard-core labor for 8 plus hours, but it’s to protect the chimps and monkeys from germs).

Beyond that, the only cleaning supplies I’ve spotted in the kitchen are an extremely weathered scrub brush and tap water.

That brings us to drinking water. A seemingly normal process, the water is boiled and stored in plastic bottles…that held their initial purified contents a very, very long time ago.

You know the smell- the water bottle you refilled a couple of times, left in your gym bag for too long, opened it back up, got a whiff…and decided against it. I’ve found it best just to shut off my senses and chug.

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Mama Bea…Love that woman.

And then there is the issue of electricity. There is none.

This means our refrigerator is now more of a bug and cat deterrent than a means to preserve perishable items. I’ve refrained from trying to explain my loss of appetite when Carmen offers me leftover chicken from two nights before…I just can’t do it.

My break from my carnivorous tendencies has proven timely at this point, placating my conscience and my stomach.

Or so I thought…

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I’ve just finished my first round of antibiotics. And yes, my bottle of anti-bacterial gel is my new constant companion.

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You can run, but you cannot hide. (Congo adventure continues)

It’s super gloomy out, my body hurts and I’m sleep deprived. These all seemed like perfectly valid excuses to skip my run this morning.

But now the guilt is starting to set in, so I suppose the least I can do is write about this little hobby of mine that I’ve frequently risked life and limb for… in the most unlikely of places.

So for the rest of you who chose leisure over physical excursion this morning, you can suffer vicariously through my brief tale of another adventure trying to save the chimps in the Congo.

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I haven’t gone more than two days without running for most of my adult life. There has been a handful of exceptions, most of which were related to precarious travel circumstances, most of which I would usually find a way to circumvent.

This scenario, however, has taken a little bit longer to navigate. More accurately, the motivation factor has been lacking, especially after experiencing my daily walk to and from work.

My office is located in the Natural Science Research Center. This is the only significant landmark that exists in the village (Lwiro) besides the dilapidated guest house that functions as the ‘fancy’ hotel, local bar, special event center, and wedding venue (for those tolerant enough to endure questionable levels of hygiene and a bathroom with its sink in pieces on the floor).

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There is one main, very dusty road that snakes through the heart of Lwiro, connecting to the small villages on either side. The rest of the landscape is cultivated land with a few random collections of banana trees…and lots of children, goats, pigs, cows and women hauling unfathomable loads of anything and everything on their backs.

Every morning on my way to work, there is always a steady stream of villagers traveling from one village to the next. I am now one of them, but I don’t exactly blend in, and my presence is always acknowledged in some fashion. Sometimes I get an enthusiastic Jambo, sometimes a less than friendly glare. But anonymity is not an option.

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This brief walk admittedly elicits more anxiety than it should at this point, but I’m slowly adapting. Except when I have to pass a group of young boys. Without fail, they approach, staring straight through me without saying a word. And just after I pass the last of them, the cheekiest of the group will yell out god knows what in Swahili, while the others bust out laughing.

Despite all of this, after a month without running, I was beside myself when the new volunteers, Ruth and Susan, suggested a jog. We were told the safest way was to take the main road uphill, winding through the villages on the same path the women and children take to and from the fields and market area.

I knew the path well and expected dry, rocky and crowded. But adding in the ‘running factor’ was a whole different animal. Imagine walking on an uneven, very dry river bed, completely covered with jagged rocks, deep ruts, and large potholes. 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 small, piercing stones. Now add in the variety of farm animals to navigate- baby goats being the most difficult, pigs, the most unpredictable.

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All of this, however, is somewhat manageable until the path narrows and you realize you’re not making life any easier for the women trying to make it down the same trail with twice their weight in tools, wood, sugar cane 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.

Then, there are the children. They descend out of nowhere, dozens of them trailing behind us, laughing and screaming, Mazungu! Mazungu! (white person) the whole way back. Not exactly a stress-reducing endeavor.

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After our first couple of runs, a couple of the boys we work with, Luc and Simone, asked if they could join us. Having locals with us allows us to roam further out of the village…with the bonus of keeping the children at bay so we can focus on dodging chickens and such.

But the long stretch of open road that I’ve been craving 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 literally in the dust. And this dust is not to be taken lightly- a chalky, all-consuming version that goes straight for your eyes, forges its way up your nose and settles into a gritty layer coating your lungs, replacing any thought of the fresh oxygen that was previously propelling you forward.

Everyone we pass feels compelled to contribute in some way – cheer us on, remind us 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 the elements 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. What motivates him to run when I know how exhausted and hungry he has to be. I’ve asked him, and he just shrugs his shoulders. I think it might be for the same reason I do it, despite how challenging it can be.

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

…even if the path he takes never gets him any further than the dusty road back to Lwiro.


A pretty brilliant reaction to this lil’ adventure written by anonymole

“Girl, you bein’ chased?”
No
“Why you runnin’? You late for somethin’?”
No.
“Why you runnin’? You got to go, you know..?”
No.
“Why you runnin’ den?”
Because I can.
“Ah, alright den. You keep runnin’ den. You sure you ain’t bein’ chased?”                                                                                                      

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Love those chimps, but it’s time for a cold beer and hot shower

The adventure continues…

If you missed the first half, it was quite the ride:  A Break from ‘the bush’: Adventures in the Congo

The car stopped abruptly in the middle of the street and everyone piled out. I quickly realized that I had no idea where I was meeting Sylvie.

Thankfully, she picked up her phone and we arranged to meet at the Ice Cream shop nearby. The thought of something cold was enough to make me cry, but something frozen…ice cream, no less. 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 why we were living in DRC.

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 after, maybe dancing…

After a whirlwind tour of the city, we arrived at her place, hidden behind an enormous, steel gate with a guard on watch 24/7.

Her flat seemed like a penthouse. She had a huge deck overlooking the river. And, most importantly, she had a shower, like a real one…with a shower head…and running water…hot, running water.

 

Sylvie’s roommate, Habib, had a bottle of wine chilling and a full spread waiting for us- grilled chicken, two different salads, grilled vegetables…actual green vegetables.

The day I arrived in DRC, I declared myself a vegetarian. I couldn’t’ stand to see the way the lil’ goats were treated. And that’s the meat I would be eating.

On this day, however, I happily fell off the vegetarian wagon with no remorse.

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Lunch at the Sanctuary…every day.

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Lunch at Sylvie’s.

Next stop was The Orchid, the hot spot for ex-pats and wealthy Congolese.

I guess this is a good time to try to explain what life as an ex-pat is like in a place like DRC. I won’t torture you with Congo’s horrific history of being exploited by ‘white men’s’ religious or mineral-seeking agendas. But you can see ‘our’ footprint everywhere you look. Congolese people are still being taken advantage of and/or repressed, but now it’s under the guise of ‘humanitarian/UN peace-keeping” or “mutually-beneficial economic/trade agreements.” That’s my very strong opinion, anyway.

It’s shocking when you first see it, the wealth juxtaposed to the blatant, extreme poverty. Enormous SUVs forge their way through the streets packed with small piles of scrap metal hovering over four wheels. Lakeside mansions surround lake Kivu, hiding tiny, dilapidated shacks behind them, all packed with an average 4-6 children. And I assure you, it’s not the international aid workers or peacekeepers occupying the latter.

And yes, Sylvie lives in one of those beautiful places on the lake. She doesn’t live quite as extravagantly as some of the larger non-profits, but she lives well.

Living well, however, comes at a cost. People who choose the life of an ex-pat in conflict or poverty-stricken countries are signing up for an extremely stressful, uncomfortable existence. It can get lonely, depressing, frustrating, and dysfunctional.

For obvious reasons, ex-pats are regarded as extremely wealthy and privileged. Most locals believe we (people from developing countries) have infinite resources. We do, comparatively speaking. But it’s hard for locals to understand that not all of us have access to those resources, that some of us really are struggling to keep our heads above water.

I’ve experienced this at the sanctuary. The boys sometimes come to me, telling me in detail about their sick child or dad’s funeral they can’t pay for. It’s heart-breaking to hear their struggles and know they think I’m just too greedy to help them. It’s also very frustrating. I truly don’t have any money to give them right now, to the contrary. But again, they can’t wrap their heads around this. I get it, but it doesn’t make it any less maddening.

On that note, we are also taken advantage of to the extreme when it comes to the buying goods and services. For example, our go-to moto driver charges us $5 each way to get to the closest internet cafe 7 kilometers away. One day, out of desperation, I flagged down some random guy to see if he would give me a ride. He agreed…for fifty cents.

Drivers charge local Congolese the equivalent of $5 or less for the 30-minute drive to Bukavu. As a foreigner, if you don’t know any better and can’t speak French, you will pay $50 or more. I know this from experience. I had a driver quote me $50 to go to Bukavu. I was told this was normal, so I agreed to his fee, getting a verbal agreement before I got in. When he dropped me off, he said I owed him $100. He did not get $100. He got $50.

I know how terrible this all sounds. Why not just give the moto driver the $10? This is infinitely more than he can make anywhere else. This could feed all of his children for a week.

But the reality is, I truly don’t have it. I’m working at the sanctuary for room and board. My sweet husband and I have made a lot of sacrifices for me to do this, financially and otherwise. I can’t ask him to wire me money everytime someone asks me to help them or overcharges me because I’m not a local.

I want to emphasize, THESE STATEMENTS ARE GENERALIZATIONS! Yes, this happens frequently. However, there are also so many honest, generous people here who would give you their last plate of beans if you were hungry, even while their stomachs were empty.

They’ve seen so much horror, experienced so much death and lived generation after generation starving, stripped of their rights, and made slaves in their own country. Yet, they still open up their homes and hearts to foreigners. I have experienced this, as well, way more times than I’ve been overcharged.

The last thing I will say here is the vast majority of people who go to work in these situations are doing it for genuinely altruistic reasons. They are sacrificing comfort, safety, relationships, sometimes their lives to try to make a positive impact in these people’s lives. They treat and pay them well. They feel guilty when their drivers drop them off at their fancy houses, then go home to their homes that are anything but.

It’s not an easy life to live, and very few are able to sustain it for more than a year or two. I respect them tremendously…I only lasted six months.

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Another element inherent to living as an ex-pat is a very small community is your world is in fact, very small…which can get a bit incestuous. This means if you are single, your options are extremely limited. There is also the added dynamic of a phenomenon that can happen when you’re reality is so far removed from that of your husband or wife or partner living back home. Communication is limited and chances to see each other, rare. Your reality becomes the small, isolated world around you. You bond quickly with those who are in the same extreme situations. In other words, infidelity is rampant.

This brings us to Jaque.

Sylphie and I got to the Orchid and sat down at a cozy spot overlooking the lake. She ordered our beers and started chatting with the waiter. I closed my eyes, soaking in the cool breeze coming off the lake, relishing the chorus of French, English and Swahili swirling around me with the spirited rhythm of African drums filling in the spaces between. Any thoughts of ‘roughing it in the bush’ melted away as I waited to indulge in my second meal of the evening. No matter that I wasn’t hungry, there was food, and it wasn’t beans and potatoes, and it was hot, and the beer was cold.

But before our beers even arrived, there were two men sitting across from us. I don’t even think they knew each other. I looked around the room and couldn’t help but laugh. All eyes were on us, the men looked envious, the women annoyed.

To be clear, I am not single, nor do I have any desire to cheat on my husband. But like I said, marriage doesn’t register to most as an issue that would interfere with how the night’s events unfold.

Jaque, a married man from France, seemed to think tonight’s events were going to end in his favor. And he was NOT subtle about it.

Before I knew it, he had arranged for his driver to take us to the concert we were going to. After, we would go to a new trendy dance club. And tomorrow, we would be renting canoes from the hotel, after which we would have a fancy lunch before his driver took me back to Lwiro….all his treat.

Okay, Jaque, I’m in. But be clear, Sylvie won’t be leaving my side…and she is who I will be going home with tonight.

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The Orchid: Indulging in the luxury of air conditioning, uninterrupted internet, and cold beer.

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A bit of local music

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Jaque, “I’ve totally got this”. Guy behind him, “Damn, he’s totally got this”. Me, “You got nothing, my boy… besides the beer in your hand, you got nothing”.

As it turns out, I can hold my own dancing Congolese Rumba and still stay up later than 8:30pm.

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A Tribute to Sevilla, Spain & Mi Gente

If Paris was the intense, elegant, somewhat intimidating sister, Sevilla was her charming, beautiful sibling. But when Spring came, they both transformed. Paris into a seductive dream of warm, playful decadence, and Sevilla into an exotic fantasy of colors, music and the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms.

In the thick of writing an academic article about child marriage in Pakistan…so revisiting one of my favorite places in the world, my second home, was a welcomed reprieve.

Today is the last day of La Feria, the spring festival that embodies so many of the things I love about Sevilla. So here are some fun pictures of Ferias past and ‘mi gente’-dear friends, now family- I’ve known and loved for over two decades…

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Mi gente from this year and Ferias Past (mejor amigo, Oscar and I, his wife and daughter, Alejandro & Valen dancing ‘the Sevillanas’, and ‘los chicos’…

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La Giralda

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My first Feria in ’98

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My beautiful friend, Araceli…a patient soul who taught me the Sevillanas

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El toro de oro

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The source of one of my favorite smells: orange blossoms

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My Spanish niece, Esther, and her beautiful mama…

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My Spanish mom and sis…my two favorite ‘Maites’.

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Manolo, my favorite trouble-maker

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Bringing Briya (my company) to the streets of Sevilla (photo by the extremely talented Alvaro Rodriguez Galan

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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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