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.


  1. You are going to do fine! I'm sure that the freedom will come in the field and you will connect with many people and begin building those bridges. I'm inspired by your committment, and hope that I too can "stick it out" here in Madagascar. Good luck with all the frustrations of the "development world" and keep me posted on how you are doing. I love you lots Emily!! Amanda

  2. Emily, Keep in mind that many things are only hard to do the first time. You will soon add many skills to your considerable list of previous accomplishments. If I put a banana in my beer will it taste the same as Congolese banana beer?


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