Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finally in DRC!!!

The pace of life these days is wonderful.  I had an amazing two weeks in Rwanda that ended with a night of bowling and ‘clubbing’ with a new group of friends that I had met through a friend of a friend of a friend x2.  The club we went to was supposed to be popular locally, and had a classy hippie intellectual feel, but wasn’t said to pick up until 3am.  We left around 2:30 when exhaustion and lack of sufficient people watching took hold.  It was a great group and I love meeting young people who have had amazing experiences, are incredibly bright, and are passionate about what they’re doing.  My final day in Rwanda was spent with my Professor, learning more about her work, each other’s lives, and how to spot the unadvertised gems that aren’t in the guide book.  I love clasping my lonely planet anywhere I go to make sure I see all that there is to “see,” learn about the area, and mostly to feel confident that I won’t be seen as an incompetent tourist and thus easily taken advantage of. 

My professor Nancy, fellow classmate Jen, and I crossed the border into the DRC yesterday around 1pm.  We took an easy flight from Kigali to Kimembe (on the Rwanda side) and got in a taxi to the crossing.  The southern side of Lake Kivu seemed more appealing to me than the north that I had visited.  I don’t know if it was because the view is better, looking down at the water with great greenery, or if it is my optimism knowing that this is the place I will be spending some time in and my excitement sees it as preferable.  Either way- it’s undeniably gorgeous.  And for this I’m grateful.  Nancy’s colleagues met us at the crossing, which made it a smooth process for us.  It was actually simpler than any other border crossing I’ve done in Africa, because there weren’t swarms of people.  Had they not met us, I’m pretty sure it could have been the most difficult crossing I’ve ever made on this continent. The bridge to cross over did surprise me and I wasn’t sure that cars made it over it, but sure enough we did. 

We had a very warm welcoming and Nancy’s colleagues had decorated the house since her last visit to make it more like a home.  We sat and talked for a while, much in French which I’m trying to be diligent in listening to and using my dictionary, but also in Swahili and English.  Paul is an engineer who started an organization called Rama Levina Foundation with his wife who is a doctor trained at Panzi, a well known hospital in the area, but I haven’t met her yet.  Rama Levina provides health services to those hardest to reach including with mobile clinics.  I am hoping that this will be a good connection for me to explore the issues I am interested in.  Remy started a microfinance organization with Paul’s brother called PAIDEK, but more remarkable for me, has 10 successful children!  Clovis, Remy’s son stayed in the house while no one was here and is an economist on the project.  They are all remarkable people that I hope and am excited that I get to learn about their country from.      

The project house is massive and I feel a bit spoiled like we are staying at a beach house.  Right now I’m sitting on the second floor living room that has a balcony overlooking the lake and peninsula where the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world (MONESCO) has a base.  Last night Jen and I were sipping our airport bought treasure Amarula on the balcony when we witnessed the UN slowly patrolling the street below us.  It was kind of surreal and we actually stopped a beat to acknowledge how strange it was.  We were sitting in the Congo (where I’ve dreamed of coming for a few years) feeling fairly secure, but knowing and curious about the undercurrents of what we don’t know about that are both frightening and intriguing.      

Last night when we were out to dinner, since we hadn’t yet bought our stock, Nancy got a call from a former colleague Eileen.  An American woman was sick, at a local private hospital, and they were worried.  Nancy and Jen are both nurses, so they went to check it out.  Ashley is a 28 year old woman and we have a remarkable number of similarities.  We both just finished our first year of PhD programs, vegetarian, interested in mental health and trauma recovery, became yoga teachers in our quest to understand healing the mind, determined to work in the DRC, and our birthdays fall on the days that alternate as the summer solstice.  Strange.  After a rough day and night, Ashley is now staying with us and it has been a pleasure to learn about her work and meet the Congolese friends she has made.        

Today was our first trip to the market and Jen and I decided it was best to people watch outside the market as Angelina, who helps out at the house, and Nancy haggled with the sellers.  Paul has invited us to his nephew’s wedding on Thursday and I stupidly didn’t bring anything nice to wear so I’m on a mission to get a dress made by Thursday.  I may fail, but darn it, I’m gonna try.  The first step of buying fabric is complete.  Jen and I found a blue and green wax fabric that looks like it has peacocks on it J  Ashley works with a woman who teaches sewing and sows well and fast, so hopefully we can get dresses and go as twins to the wedding.  I love weddings and dancing. 

On the way back from our excursion today, I had my first adverse experience with the police.  Our car was selected as one to be pulled over and checked to make sure all our documents we in order.  The glove compartment was a bit out of order, but the 4 documents required were in there.  We were stopped at a roundabout where there is a statue of some soldiers and 6 Congolese flags.  I, more impressed with the pretty blue flags actually than the metal monument, started taking pictures while we were still driving.  Something about flags and the display of loving one’s country always gets to me.  I’m so American.  When we were stopped, Jen passed her phone to me to snap a picture.  Whopsiedaisies.  The police didn’t like that and instantly started talking fast and angry.  I tried to talk but they didn’t want to hear.  One police came around to my side, stuck his hand through my window trying to open the back door.  Nancy, with impeccable reflexes, pushed his hand out, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and turned off the car.  When things settled down, she opened the window a tad and said it wasn’t right for him to try and enter a car with three women in it, it was our first time here and we didn’t know, and that all our documents were in order.  She then got a call from Clovis who had heard through the grapevine that we had been stopped and was checking to make sure we were okay.  We were, the police said we could go right after the call. 

This evening I went on a run with Nancy which confirmed that I need to get my arse in better shape.  It was fun running along these streets because it was almost like running in a race.  I suppose it’s a semi-strange sight to see 2 white ladies running along so we easily attracted a bit of attention.  I was running behind Nancy, sometimes at longer distances than other times, and felt empowered by frequent comments of “courage” (in French) and smiles from men and women.  When we got home Remy had stopped by to visit, for work planning, and to check that all was okay.  Later, in a house full of non-cooking types, we made an exciting dinner of eggs, sweet potatoes and avocado.  Eileen and her brother Alan had come to visit bearing a large basket of fruit and veg from their father (who we had met the night before in the hospital) possibly worried that the 3 vegetarians need to get enough to eat.  Not eating meat may be stranger here than it was even in Tanzania and I have a feeling that I will probably be doing some meat eating at some point over the summer.  The avocados here are almost the same size as the watermelon I’ve seen in Africa (which is much smaller than the American ones) and very tasty.  Just as the 6 of us were enjoying our platter of eggs, potatoes, and avocado, the lights went out.  With a little help from solar-powered lanterns, we were able to enjoy the rest of our dinner along with some interesting conversation about how health centers and prisons operate here. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hiking a volcano

It was so fun to be amongst trusted friends while traveling.  We spent 2 days in Gisenyi relaxing and taking in the lake.  The hotel we stayed at, Paradise Malahide, had its own immaculately groomed private island that we paddled the hotel’s boat out to.  We did some yoga, ate a picnic lunch and lounged.  That evening we tried to visit the Primus factory but they only take visitors on Thursdays and apparently arriving at 5pm on a Friday there was no way they could be persuaded to let us visit.  Instead we read the sign describing how methane gas is used and stopped by a local pub where we watched the fisherman and soldiers coming and going in their boats singing the way. 

Our next stop was Musanze, formally Ruhengeri, on an active Saturday.  At the arena on the church grounds we stayed at there was a biking competition and at the town’s arena there was the Rwandan version of American Idol.  Upon being swarmed by children, we decided it was in our best interest not to wait for the performances.  We arranged a car to take us to the gorilla park headquarters for 6am the next day so we could hike Rwanda’s second largest volcano.  The instability around Goma prevented us from crossing over into the DRC to hike the volcano we wanted to there, but as I realized, physically this was probably a good thing.  I hadn’t read what the hike entailed nor had I prepared my body for the hike, but mind over matter, we all made it to the top.  Bisoke is 3711 meters high with a climb and decent in one day.  In comparison, when I climbed Kilimanjaro at 5896 meters, we took a 7 day path.  The climbing team surpassed my expectations although we ignorantly declined the service of a porter.  By porter, I mean not only to carry your bag, but also to hold your hand to pull you up the steep spots and prevent you sliding down the volcano like a mudslide.  Fortunately, one porter had tagged along anyhow and the 3 gun toting yet friendly guards were happy to help us less acclimated beings. 

Our guide Patrick was selected for his position out of 7000 applicants.   It had helped that he had received a scholarship with the Dian Fossey Foundation and wrote his dissertation at the Park on the domain protecting habits of female golden monkeys.  In this species, it is the females who guard the group.  Guides rotate their daily routes working 6 out of 7 days, 5 shorter hikes to the gorillas and 1 a volcano hike.  I couldn’t imagine how someone’s joints could hold up coming down the steep volcanoes, and he explained that guides over 40 kept to the shorter gorilla treks.  Patrick also said it took him about 5 months to get his body completely used to the terrain but that now he never feels tired.  We westerners were in awe of how the local team did not eat or drink throughout the nearly 11 hour day (although we arrived for 6am, the hike didn’t start until about 9:30).  I spoke the most with one guard named Samuel, once I accepted that I needed help in the rough patches, and we discovered we both spoke Swahili.  He said he had always wanted to speak with foreigners but this was the first time he met one who spoke one of his languages.  There are buffalo, elephant, and other forest animals in the park, so 3 guards is the optimal number to frighten away any risk.  It was explained that they would not shoot the animals, only the air.  Unfortunately we didn’t run into any, just the buffalo chips left behind.  Samuel and I talked about traveling, languages, music, race, work, and families.  My assumption had been that the same military guards oversee the Park and were used to the hike, but I was wrong.  The military rotate where they are stationed throughout the country and it is a hard life. 

The views were amazing as we were climbing up and the plant life varied at different elevations.  After an attack of prickly bushes, there were soothing milk plants, followed by the moss slung over trees which was my favorite, and then orchids.  When we finally got to the top, I just wanted to sit down and eat our packed lunch.  It was misty just like you would imagine from Gorillas in the Mist and there was a crater lake.  Patrick asked one of the guards to run (he literally ran, don’t ask me how) down and back up the steep hill to the lake to fill up a bottle of water so we could see how cold the water was to explain why they don’t allow swimming.  The only people he ever let swim were a pair of Marines who signed that they would not hold anyone responsible if there was a negative outcome. That night we took it easy, enjoyed our Primus, large plates of food, and the European football games at the church compound’s bar. 

My friends took off the next morning and I am once again flying solo.  It’s hard transitioning from constant engaging conversation to being more introspective, but it’s great for productivity and meeting new people.  I’m now staying in Kigali at a place called One Love.  The grounds here are large, woodsy and well kept, but there are very few people- great during the day, a little creepy at night.  I was lucky to secure the only room with “completely hot water” as opposed to other rooms with not completely hot water.  There’s even a bathtub and my favorite, a raised western toilet.  It almost reminds me of my beloved throne of a squat toilet from my TZ village days.  Nothing like stepping up and feeling regal when you have to relieve yourself. 

I went to Lalibela an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner and received a massive plate of vegetarian yumminess.  One of the workers, Rasshimo sat with me and we shared experiences.  He is a teacher by training but pursues other income activities because a teacher’s salary is meager and inconstant.  Teachers earn about $120 a month, but after taking out health insurance comes to $90, then another $30 gone for housing leaving about $60 for food and other things. Rwanda is actually pretty expensive with food prices approaching those of a frugal person in the US.  Like in Tanzania, he said teachers will receive a salary for 2 months, but then will not be paid, or be delayed in payment for a few months.  He walked me back to my hotel since I did not know the way in these hills.  Guards are all over the city and we even witnessed some picking up sex workers to take them to jail.  When I said that the men seeking sex workers should be the ones taken to jail, Rasshimo laughed heartily.  We had an interesting conversation about this, clearly seeing things in a different way, but open to hearing another view.  Earlier he had said that I should work in Rwanda because it was safe and I joked that maybe I would come back and start a program for jailing or educating ‘johns’.  Actually, if any of my brilliant friends know anything about the supply and demand of prostitution, I would love a crash course!             

Monday, June 11, 2012

arriving in Kigali

So it’s my 5th night in Rwanda and I can’t sleep.  This may have something to do with the latte macchiato I had for dinner…  I’m the only occupant of a dorm at the presbyterienne church compound.  (Next day)  Ironically, as soon as I typed that there was a knock on the door and I became one of two occupants.  I arrived at Kigali airport around 11pm, walked down the steps of the plane and was guided to the terminal.  Conveniently, no visa is required for US citizens so I got by bag and found a taxi to town.  The driver was a Rwandan with a similar history as the President.  His parents had moved to Uganda when they deemed it was unsafe here so he was raised in Uganda.  He moved to Rwanda in 1995 after the genocide but likes to visit where he was raised from time to time.  When I told him I would be spending a few months in the Congo he described what he sees as the key difference between the countries and why it is better to live in Rwanda, ‘In Congo, people do not love their country.  They are just living for themselves and because of this it is dangerous and anything can happen.’  He described the law and order including the large fine for just hitting one of the street lights, or being locked up for seven years for starting a bar fight.  We passed a police stop and he told me they were looking for drunk drivers because it was the weekend.  When we arrived at the hotel, I learned they had not saved me a room but was incredibly impressed with the driver’s patience and help in looking for another hotel, without expecting an additional charge. 

I didn’t do much in Kigali, as I had hit up the spots I wanted to back in 2007.  I spent time at wireless hotspots including a nice cafĂ© with good Rwandan coffee and a place with good palak paneer.  One of the key differences in my approach that I want to work on this round in East Africa is being more open to hearing people’s experiences and not be so hard (particularly towards men) always thinking they expect something from me.  So far I have only had 2 encounters that passed my threshold of comfort, but am happy with my reaction.  The first was in Kigali.  I met a young man, Fidele, who had recently completed secondary school.  His parents are dead and he lives with his grandmother in her 70’s.  His family was able to support him in attending secondary school but he has aspirations to go on and study finance at the University in Kigali.  Secondary school costs about $250 a year whereas University costs about $995, a significant difference.  I explained that I was a student but that our fees are closer to $50,000 a year and we usually can get government loans.  He is currently working a temp job at an optical center that will end in 2 weeks and says it is difficult to find work here.  He is looking for sponsors and I admired his commitment to trying to fulfill his aspirations by seeking out the opportunities that are available to him.  Unlike me who can rely on government loans (however forbearing) to fulfill my aspirations, loans are not an option here.  I enjoyed 2 conversations with him, but was uncomfortable when he came to my room early the morning before I took off for Gisenyi.  Whereas I didn’t like that the hotel told him and allowed him to come to my room, I appreciated this lax policy a couple nights before when I was able to go talk to my friends Matt and Judy in their room.  My biggest discomfort came from both him being outside my room before I had awoken and also the fact that I was carrying more than his desired University’s annual fee on me.  It all just seems ridiculous and this is probably why it is easier to be hard and not hear people’s experiences. 

It has been a policy for me not to feel “white man’s guilt” for what has happened in communities before I entered them.  Whereas it is important to be cognizant and sensitive to previous interactions that have occurred, I can only be responsible for my own actions.  Actually, it was from better off Tanzanians during my Peace Corps service that I learned that one doesn’t necessarily need to bear the burdens of others’ struggles but rather appreciate what one has been given in life.  My encounter with Fidele challenged this policy of mine.  On one level, it would comparatively not hurt me too bad financially to help him, but on another level I’m not in a position to be supporting others in that way, nor is it my obligation.  Mostly, I am learning to be comfortable in my own discomfort and share what is in my power to share- a compassionate ear. 

It was a nice bus ride to Gisenyi with roads winding in the fertile hills.  My favorite site was plump orange carrots being placed in a carrier of wooden poles to be transported or sold on the side of the street.  I’m reading a book called Blood River about a British man’s journey retracing the path of Henry Morton Stanley through the Congo.  Being in Rwanda, where my ability to communicate is a mix of three languages (since I do not know the dominant language Kinyarwandan) and reading this book that discusses the history of the Congo, I am sensitive to Swahili being an oppressive language in a way that I never had been before.  In Tanzania, most people speak Swahili so I always felt it was an indication of my integration that I spoke the language.  In Uganda, I was aware that it could be an oppressive language because it was the language of Idi Amin.  But here in Rwanda, it is used much in the way for which it was developed, as a functional language to allow trade between countries and peoples.  Unfortunately much of the trade when the language developed involved the exploitation and even enslavement of other people.  This was most poignant to me when Olive, a young Rwandan woman who works the reception desk of the church hostile and always has a beautiful smile on her face, said I speak “Kiswahili cha Zanzibar.”  In my head I thought, well Swahili of Tanzania but I did live on Zanzibar for a year which got me thinking about the different ways the language is used and how Zanzibar was a major site of the Arab slave trade.  Which made me feel an uncomfortable association with that.             

(Next day) Matt, Judy, and Claire arrived in Gisenyi yesterday and we have come out to a peninsula and staying in a hotel of adorable bungalows.  This setting is the best I have seen so far here on Lake Kivu.  Across a small bay there are some hot springs that we will row one of the hotel’s boats to that is said to have healing powers.  About a ten minute walk from here is the major beer factory for Rwanda where we hope to be given a tour of.  This factory and the electric factory here are run on methane gas from the volcanic lake and it will be interesting to try and learn more about this unique utilization of energy.