Monday, October 25, 2010

Everything you always wanted to know about CONGO but were afraid to ask

Ok. I admit it. I am totally and utterly overwhelmed by this job. It's mostly, I think, because of my boss, who doesn't seem to appreciate the difficulty of trying to discern what is and what is not important during his unending rants that never seem to quite provide the information I am looking for. Today he expressed a desire to improve his English, and so perhaps my new coping strategy will be to speak to him only in English and let HIM sweat it out for a change.

I am trying to find a balance, though, so never fear. Played tennis (!) yesterday, with a lone goat on the other side of the fence, munching some weeds, and more spectators than such a blatantly mediocre match would possibly warrant. Met some very likeable colleagues last week, during a training on project management in Bukavu (hence the tennis; we certainly don't have that in the field), and am so feeling more at home with the organization, if not with my direct supervisor.

What I mean to say is this: I am too distracted by all that there is to do, and more so, by all that I don't realize there is to do, to pen a coherent blog entry at this point. So I need your help.

You are my audience, after all. What would you like to know about Congo, food security, humanitarian work, bananas, expat life, tempermental toilets?

Post a comment and I will respond. Your guidance will help the words to flow.

À bientôt.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Catching Up

My self-confidence is struggling mightily after a couple of very intense days of meetings with my technical supervisor. It may just be his way, but he has not made me feel particularly prepared to assume my place at the helm of this particular project. And yet lead I must, starting yesterday, since my predecessor has submitted his final report, turned his computer and phone over to me and left the country for good. Although I have half a mind to sneak out of the base, disappear into the mountains and never come back, I know that beginnings are always difficult, and that the learning curve this time will be steeper than perhaps any I have yet encountered, ever. I must continue to move forward even as I scramble to catch up. And there is ever so much to learn. In an unabashed attempt to soothe my battered ego, here's a sampling of what I've managed to pick up already:

Lake Kivu: The main feature in my landscape for the next year. Highest point in the entire Great Rift Valley, which transects East Africa, at 4,790 feet above sea level. Unusually deep (around 1,500 feet). One of three known "exploding lakes" in the world (the other two located in Cameroon), which means that its depths contain a large volume of dissolved CO2 and methane, which could theoretically rise to the surface, given the right provocation, and suffocate the two million people, including yours truly, living around its shores. (When the water layers of Cameroon's Lake Nyos overturned in 1986, 1,700 people died.) Apparently Lake Kivu's depth makes it relatively stable; it would take a truly impressive influx of heat or pressure to release the gas, which, impressively, is equivalent in volume to 2% of the carbon emitted on a global basis each year. Rwanda has big plans to tap into the lake's methane reserves, which are already powering a small-scale brewery. On top of everything else, it's a bit ridiculous that the people here have to worry about possible asphyxiation from poisonous gases, don't you think?

Mts. Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira: Two of eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountain chain, conveniently located within a day's walking distance of Goma on Lake Kivu's north shore. Nyamurgira is the most active volcano in Africa, although it was Nyiragongo that erupted in 2002 and decimated 15% of the city's buildings. Scientists (and alarmists) point to these volcanoes and associated geologic activity as potential triggers for the "rollover" of greenhouse gases mentioned above. You can climb Nyiragongo and peer into its lava lake, by the way, for a cool $200. The more spartan among us can enjoy gawking at its orange glow, reflected in a plume of smoke from the streets of Goma at night.

Bananas and their bacterial friends: If volcanoes don't kill you, banana wilt might. Only, it will be a slow and much more convoluted death. First, the disease will spread into your banana field, perhaps from a contaminated machete, a pollinating insect, a wayward goat's nibbling or from water passing through your field from affected slopes higher up. You may not notice at first, since your plants will continue to grow, and even produce fruit. If you're clued in to the disease's symptoms, you may notice your plant's new leaves turning yellow and then brown, and eventually snapping off the stem completely. Or the male buds may shrivel, or you may cut open an outwardly normal looking fruit only to find it blackened and inedible. You cannot sell these diseased fruit in the market, of course. (Not even the birds will eat them.) Nor can you brew beer from them. And because they represented a significant part of your diet (many bananas, plantains included, are an important staple food here, and delicious when fried), your family is now in trouble, with a significant part of your diet gone, little income with which to buy seeds for alternative crops, and scarce physical energy with which to cut down, uproot and burn your diseased banana plants. Although the bacteria will die within six months outside of a banana-based host, you aren't aware of this, and in any case there are many factors (marauding livestock, governmental corruption and apathy, lack of appropriate tools) beyond your immediate control that would make it near-impossible to to rehabilitate your fields, even if you were.

House kittens: A welcome antidote to all that hovering death. They attack mutant night insects, so that you don't have to. Should be supervised closely in the proximity of mosquito nets. You don't have to pick the bones out of their meals, though you should not be peeved if later that day they puke up a bony residue underneath your bed. Kittens don't care if you don't specify the width of the planks you're requesting, or if you muddle the future subjunctive tense.

There goes a mutant night insect now.

I feel better already.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Banana wilt, purchase orders, and other unknowns

Today marks the end of my first week in the Congo, and my final day in Bukavu, at least for some time. Tomorrow I'll traverse the length of Lake Kivu by boat all the way to Goma, and on Monday will head to my base, at the northwestern corner of the lake, where I'll stay for the better part of the next 12 months.
Despite the beauty of this city, I am more than ready to leave. Expat life here is incredibly closed in, at least for those of us who follow the security restrictions. The bulk of the city is off limits entirely, and even neighborhoods that are considered safe must be accessed by vehicle. We are shipped from one walled compound to another, without any real sense of life outside. For this reason I have tried to connect with the guards, cooks, gardeners and laundresses, who offer a window at least into the local reality. Most are quite friendly, if uncomfortably (to me)deferential, although a few appear disinterested, as if the worlds of locals and expats are too distant to be bridged.
My newfound claustrophobia has me pining for Sudan, ironically. But I expect that the restrictions on movement will soften with my impending move to the more rurally-located base. "In the village, you will be free, " said my supervisor yesterday, when I expressed my frustration at the cloistered existence here.
In any case, I've been too preoccupied with the tasks before me to dwell much on such concerns. At a glance, the organization's operations seem much better organized here than in Sudan, with better trained and more knowledgeable staff and at least semi-functional partnerships with other agricultural associations. Nonetheless, "program managing" is pretty new to me, despite my brief exposure to it over the past three months, and this week I was asked to prepare my first purchase orders as well as planning documents for the entire time I'll be here, in French, with my admittedly limited understanding of the normal protocol or of my project (banana wilt control). I have never picked a banana from the plant, and I had to look up the names of most of the pieces of the macro-propagators that we will be constructing in the dictionary. Apparently during all those years of schooling and living abroad I never had the need to say hinge, or drainpipe, or even sawdust. And African accents add to the difficulty. It took me a month or so to develop an ear for the English spoken in the Sudan, and will probably take a bit longer to puzzle out the Congolese French.
I am acutely aware of my shortcomings, and it is probably true that this assignment represents more responsibility than I've ever had at one time. (With all of my wandering in the past decade plus, my professional commitments have been quite manageable, and there has often been someone else to assign my next task--Weed the sorghum field, Set up a meeting for these people, Design this brochure, Teach these grammar points, Repair this section of trail.) Even in less challenging circumstances, it always takes me a while to adjust to a new situation, let alone thrive in one.
But I am resolved to stick this one out.

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