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.