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.

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