Saturday, November 13, 2010

Food. And goats.

It's hard to understand how malnutrition exists in eastern Congo. Food grows easily here, given the two rainy seasons each year, the fertile volcanic soil and the tropical climate. Although I personally haven't planted anything yet, I hear that you can grow a cabbage from a seed in two months. And practically all the land within view is cultivated, from the few flat parcels of land along the lakeshore to the near-vertical slopes of the foothills and mountains to the west.

But exist it does, or else my organization would not be here. The malnutrition rate is low compared to that in southern Sudan, around 5 % versus a staggering 20+%. But 5% is still significant. I'm not an expert, but I'd attribute malnutrition here to the frequent displacement of the population because of ongoing militia activity and conflict, which obviously disrupts agricultural activities, inefficient agricultural practices, such as broadcast seeding, and ignorance regarding nutrition in general and the importance of a balanced diet. In addition, there's very little investment in ecological agricultural practices such as terracing of slopes, which will no doubt have serious negative consequences on the food security of the population over the long term.

I, on the other hand, eat very well here. Normally I eschew dietary supplements, but given my rice, beans and bread diet in Sudan, there I indulged in a multivitamin each morning. But after a week in Congo, I put the supplements aside. Even in the relatively small village where I am based, food is abundant and varied. Despite the spread of bacterial wilt that is the focus of my program, the region still produces plenty of bananas. The price has gone up with the growth of the disease; the giant cluster of bananas produced by one shoot, which can weigh over 100 pounds, now costs around 3$ in the local market, as opposed to 1$ before the disease hit, but at least by expat standards it's remarkably cheap. Avocados, mangos, passion fruit, tomatoes and a plentitude of other fruit and vegetables are widely available. The local market sells beans, corn and various tubers, along with meat (turkey, chicken, goat, beef, pork), eggs and small but tasty fish from the gas-filled waters of Lake Kivu (I haven't yet heard of any studies examining the health effects of eating fish from the lake, but would be curious to know more.) For the more processed foodstuffs - tinned meat, powdered milk, jam, coffee, yogurt - Goma, an expat mecca, is only 90 minutes away, and generally someone from the base takes a shopping trip every week or two.

Our cook is a motherly and rotund but not particularly old woman whose dedication to her job is almost embarrassing at times. She arranges our salads artistically on the plate, minds her spices, fills your coffee cup and embellishes it according to your taste (milk? sugar?) and doesn't let you carry your dirty dishes to the kitchen sink if she can help it. She's been known to show up on a Sunday morning to prepare omelettes for the household, though it's ostensibly her day off. Unlike our cooks in Sudan, she's quite interested in learning new recipes and expanding her cooking repertoire. She's repeatedly asked me about how to obtain refugee status in order to be resettled in the States (and work as a cook there). I've tried to explain that it's probably something she'd rather not obtain, that refugee status is for the displaced and war-affected. She's intimated that war has indeed affected her life, and that most of her immediate family is dead, but we haven't pursued that subject further, not yet.

As for goats: They're here, along with cows, poultry and pigs, though this is by no means a herding society, but an agricultural one. Though you run into small herds while passing through the countryside, you rarely see them roaming free. They're normally tied to a tree or stick in the ground, which is advantageous for me, considering that their browsing can contribute to the spread of banana wilt. And goats, at least, are surprisingly pricey. We bought one for a celebration in honor of the first harvest of bananas coming from our macro propagation efforts (started back in 2008) last week, and it ran us a not insignificant 50$.

In brief, I eat well here (though I'm staying away from goats for the moment). The Congolese are quite a different breed from the Dinka, and many villagers are stocky, muscular and even a bit chubby. Given my lack of mobility, and the motherly cook hovering over my shoulder at mealtimes, Í fear I may put on a few pounds myself.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

tennis (or, perhaps more generally, recreational activities available to you and everyone else)

By everyone else, I assume you are referring to all the other expats, since very few Congolese indulge in tennis. What I have done "for fun" since my arrival can probably be counted on one hand, busy as work has kept me. Here goes:

1.) Joined expat crew for poker night at the home of an International Refugee Committee employee in Bukavu. Took a bluff too far and lost 20 bucks.

2.) Went dancing at Bukavu nightclub. Watched with amusement as persistent male prostitute tried to chat up a potbellied French male colleague. Performed a spirited twist to "La Bamba," and otherwise attempted to stay on beat to a stream of Congolese tunes, which is not always an easy task.

3.) Feted a costume-less Halloween at a swanky mansion with a bunch of consultants and entrepreneurs in Goma. Shivered the night away after being tossed into the swimming pool fully clothed. Admired the illuminated palm trees while sipping a cocktail.

4.) Swam in Lake Kivu, during a spontaneous day at "the beach," a small but sufficient and completely undeveloped strip of sand 8 kilometers from my base. Enjoyed a picnic lunch of cheese and beer while hundreds of curious village children looked on. Have since learned that swimming in the lake is against our security rules, so count this recreation option out.

5.) Spent several evenings at various Bukavu establishments: lakeside bars with pool tables, Nepenthe-like eatery on balcony perched above the water, pizzerias. Could not understand anything my French colleagues from the main office (both of whom speakin mile-a-minute slang) were saying, yet refrained from getting roaring drunk.

My field experience has been very limited so far by various commitments in Bukavu and Goma, so I can't say for sure what recreation at the base will be like. Security rules are strict; I'm apparently supposed to bring a radio every time I leave this walled compound, even if just for a 30-minute run. But of course I'm not really here to partake in "recreation," at least not in a traditional western sense. Some of my best moments so far have involved trips to the market and exchanges with my field staff. I get some pleasure from my attempts at yoga, which alleviate my burning desire for physical activity at least somewhat, and am looking forward hugely to actual trips to remote villages accessible only on foot, which should begin on Monday with my staff.

I cannot speak for traditional Congolese forms of recreation, if that's what you mean. Soccer is big, and that's about all I know. I can speak for my expatriate colleagues at the base, many of whom fill their weekends with booze, lovers and lots and lots of television. And for me, who is not a huge advocate of any of these things, but who could nonetheless use a lot more quality recreation in her current life.
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