Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mosquitos in Winter

I swallowed the last of my malaria pills yesterday, tossed the empty bottle into the recycling bin and then assembled my scattered belongings for a ride across town to the newest in a series of temporary dwelling places. It's scarf and winter coat weather here, in late-December Seattle. It's easy to forget that a short while ago in Uganda, the mosquitos were out and biting, and the medication might prove useful after all.

Since my plane landed a week ago, I've been feeling about as incongruous as a mosquito in a snowstorm. I took off almost immediately to Los Angeles and sat at my aunt's side for three days, until she finally stopped breathing on the eve of my scheduled return to Seattle. One of the hospice nurses, just making conversation, asked me what I like to cook, and I couldn't remember, since I barely made anything during the 15 months I've spent in Africa. I realized that I have no idea how much it costs to mail a letter in the U.S. these days. I'm feeling sick and sluggish and dazed; the Kampala half marathon was a month ago, and I haven't run since. I've been otherwise occupied with reports and goodbyes and planning the logistics of this transition back to the States.

Which I am so incredibly ready for. I'm finding immense gratification in tiny achievements, like navigating my way through town in a stick-shift truck on loan from a generous friend, buying oatmeal, recalling my long-neglected password at the ATM, spotting familiar mountains on the horizon during unexpected breaks in the typical grey drizzle of the northwest winter.  I'm surprisingly moved by the sight of weathered wood on old Victorian homes, of picture windows glowing golden in the early morning sunlight. I'm not usually this sentimental, but I can't help it. I feel like a long-lost northerner come home again.

I'm not by any means "done" with Africa, I'm just done for a while. I'm even plotting (with some seriousness) a trans-Africa bicycle trip, but that wouldn't happen for several more years at least. In the meantime, I'm planning to plant myself here long enough to begin to feel grounded again.

And so the blog ends here. Thank you for reading. The writing and readership have done a lot to help keep me sane in some pretty far-flung places surrounded by circumstances largely beyond my control. I'm taking back some of that control now. And so this chapter ends, and I don my winter coat and step out into the next.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lango 101 and Why it Matters

...along with the easy happiness I had come to associate with the country, I was aware of a new and perhaps less superficial sensation - that sense of familiarity and alienation that comes to one who knows a place well, but who can never hope to become a part of it.
                                                       -Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow

Every morning on the way to work, we pass a gaggle of construction workers slowly producing a large house from piles of cement, bricks and iron bars. And every morning, I try out one of my new Lango phrases on them. A tia wor a teech, I say today, meaning “I’m going to the office.” I’m going to come visit you this Saturday, one of them tells me. Tell me where you stay. Okay, no problem, I reply, continuing on my way. Plenty of people here say they’re going to visit; I’ve found it best not to protest, just to nod noncommittally. The ones who actually follow through are few, and usually feel awkward when they show up at your door, in your territory.

I must have passed these same laborers during my first couple of weeks here, but I don’t recall them. At the time, I was still assembling my essential Lango vocabulary, and wasn’t bold enough to be greeting too many strangers in a language I didn’t yet have any kind of ear for. And they ignored me, in turn.

Until you learn a language, you will never really understand the people who speak it. This is one of the great challenges of the humanitarian world, where most of the big players are expatriates who have no real personal stake in the places where they work. While I'm hardly among the more influential of these folks, I still find my lack of insider perspective limiting. I'm here to evaluate a project, then to recommend ways to modify the intervention to increase its impact in the future. But, as I am reminded every day, my logic does not always apply here, and what I see as a great solution may well dissolve into vapors when tossed out under the glare of the Ugandan sun. 

Simsim (sesame) drying in the open air.

Here's an example: Most rural families here rely on subsistence agriculture for the bulk of their food supply. The harvest for the second agricultural season traditionally takes place now, in November, and crops are set out in the sun for several weeks. Once dry, they're moved into storage, and provide the family's primary calorie supply for six months or so, until the next harvest.

But: In recent years, the rainy season has been continuing well into November, perhaps because of climate change. The frequent late-season rains prevent thorough drying of crops, which often succumb to rot and must be tossed out. Four months of heavy labor in the fields, gone. And people lamenting their losses, year after year, but continuing to apply the same outmoded harvesting practices.

To my western mind, the answer seems obvious, constructing some kind of shelter, built of local material, that allows for airflow while shielding the harvest from direct rainfall. But so far this idea has been met with rejection. Too much work, say the villagers. We couldn't manage it. I don't know where their skepticism comes from. Are they simply resistant to any kind of change? Would shelters really represent too great an investment in materials and effort? Or are there other technical issues I'm just not seeing?

The point is that seemingly good solutions won't work unless the people they're intended for people are willing to embrace them. To accurately foresee that is no small matter. And while I can never hope to be a part of this place - there's no escaping my western upbringing, or this white skin - I can try to gain insight, by reminding myself of how little I know, by asking lots and lots of questions, and by showing my interest in the Lango, which I partly try to accomplish by making small strides in language learning.

Last week, for the first time in my short humanitarian career, I met a beneficiary who speaks English. I was thrilled; all of the questions that would normally pass through translators could simply be asked, and answers given. She was my age, recently divorced, with four children, two oxen, six goats and one plough that she shares with another beneficiary household. She told me that while the cash she received from our organization has certainly helped, her household is still not back to where it was before the LRA displaced it. Occasional sales of goats keep her children enrolled in school, but it will take some good luck and disciplined management of crop sale money to build the family assets back up. None of this was particularly surprising, but somehow hearing about her situation so directly made the project more real to me, and highlighted its potential value to individual people facing pretty significant challenges.

So when I try out my rudimentary Lango, joking with people about how many husbands I have or asking about what they like to eat, or grow, I'm not just trying to make a spectacle of myself (although that often can't be avoided). I'm trying to forge a connection, to show them I am open to their ideas, in hopes that some of their perspective will find its way into my report, and make the projects designed to help them a bit more effective.

Monday, November 7, 2011

For my Aunt

It’s been a solitary weekend. Although I’ve been introduced to a veritable posse of expats here in Lira, they were all out of town this weekend, headed to Kampala for meetings, Zimbabwe for trainings or Kenya for breaks. There are a couple locals I could call, but frankly, I’m suspicious of their motives; one girl, the friend of a friend’s friend, asked for my number at a dance club at the end of the evening, even though we had not even been introduced, and the other asked if she could call me while tallying up my purchases at the grocery store where she works. Some tell me Ugandan girls are just shy, and won’t start up conversations with white girls they don’t know, and their asking for my number is just an indirect way of proposing friendship. But I don’t feel like putting myself in an unfamiliar situation right now, don’t want to be expected to take a trio of Ugandan fillies out for beers (as inevitably happens) and talk about clothes, and hair, and men.

My heart isn’t here.

My aunt is in the hospital. She’s normally the first one to read my blog entries when I post them, responding each time almost at once, with unflagging praise. Now she’s hooked up to a breathing machine, in an induced coma, fighting an abdominal infection following an extended cancer-removal surgery.

When I last saw her in LA, three months ago, neither of us knew that she was sick. We wandered through the Venice Canals, ogling ducks and display case homes. She insisted on buying me a few tops to augment my utilitarian post-Congo wardrobe. As usual, we nibbled on vegetable slices and fruit and hummus and a little cheese, and sipped wine with her neighbors at a nightly “cocktail hour” in their apartment complex’s courtyard. I kept her company as she fed and cleaned up after the sickly cat of a neighbor who was on an extended trip to Europe. One morning the cat showed signs of kidney failure, and my aunt, the most devoted cat lover I have ever known, tried her best to stay calm as she made arrangements for him to be put down.

In short, her life as I knew it was carrying on as usual.

She was diagnosed in September, shortly before I left for Uganda. Her surgery, in mid-October, went as well as could be hoped for, I was told, although the cancer was more extensive than the doctors had previously thought. I even spoke with her as she lay in the hospital, recovering. She sounded like herself, upbeat, levelheaded and even a bit image-conscious despite the sedatives. “My legs are so bloated,” she told me. “They’ve been pumping all these fluids into me.”

And then my father emailed a few days later. My aunt had returned to the hospital with debilitating pain in her abdomen. Apparently she had acquired an infection during the surgery, and in her already-weakened body it had gone systemic. She was in critical condition, and on life support. My dad was flying out to see her. 

When my 93 year-old grandmother was dying in Massachusetts two years ago, my aunt spent the better part of two months by her side, trying to ease her mother’s considerable physical pain, along with the anxiety and uncharacteristic moodiness brought about by a series of opiate-based painkillers, and her frustration with her sudden helplessness. It seems unbelievable that my aunt now needs someone to offer the same support to her.

And here I am in a rainy town in northern Uganda, carrying on with the day-to-day but acutely aware of the cruelty of distance, with five more weeks to go before my evaluation is complete and I return to the US. According to my father, my aunt’s condition, though still very serious, is slowly improving. He says there’s a good chance she’ll fight off this infection, and although there will be plenty more challenges ahead, we should have a moment to breathe and regroup.

And so, to you, my lovely aunt, I send this message from across the world. I love you. Keep fighting. Come home. Read this.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Running Under an Equatorial Sun

As we come into view of the compound, a wild-haired man cries out and launches himself towards us. The attention is nothing new; the sight of two white folks in fitness gear is quite unusual here on the footpaths of Lira's rural outskirts, and provides much hilarity, and occasional terror, for the many members of the under-10 crowd we come across. However, this is the first adult to respond to us with such enthusiasm. He's carrying a small bottle, I note, no doubt some kind of home-brewed liquor, foul and potent.

We figure he'll lose interest quickly, and so choose to ignore him, continuing our Sunday afternoon trail run. But he's pretty impressive for a drunkard, and his flip-flopped feet keep pace with us even when we speed up, hoping to lose him. All the while he mutters unintelligibly, though it's clear he's mocking us. The villagers who spot us with this unlikely third on our tail smile with a bit of sympathy, until finally his grunts fade off into the distance, and we are alone again.

I'm in Africa, and I'm running. Anyone who has been following my humanitarian adventures in the last 16 months might guess at how significant this is, at least to me.

When I first got my job offer for South Sudan back in 2010, I had about two weeks in which to resolve my work with the census, come up with a pile of red tape-intensive documents such as a criminal record check and an international driving permit, bring a slew of vaccinations up to date and transport all of my possessions (there aren't too many of them, thankfully) from California to Massachusetts. Somewhere in the shuffle, I mistakenly chucked out my running shoes.

I figured I would just make do with the only footwear I'd brought with me, a pair of sturdy trail shoes. When I arrived at the base, the other American stationed there gave me hope. "I try to go running a few times a week," he said. "We can go tomorrow if you want."

True to his word, he approached me at around noon the next day, when the equatorial sun was directly overhead and the thermometer at 90-something degrees. "You feel like a run?"

"Sure," I replied, not wanting to appear wimpy in front of my would-be running pal, though silently questioning his sanity. I felt better once we left the compound, jogging at a reasonable clip towards an abandoned airstrip, the carcasses of decades-old plane wrecks coming into view. Scraggly grass poked through compacted orange dirt, with the figures of children in the distance, playing soccer before a net-less goal.

Suddenly, we stopped, in front of a schoolyard where two towering teams of Dinka high schoolers were facing off across a volleyball net. "So I usually stop here for a while and either play or just watch. You feel like playing?"

"Um...I guess we can watch for a bit," I muttered with ill-concealed surprise. We had been running for about seven minutes. And so we watched. The volleyball match wasn't all that impressive, but those kids were sure tall. 

After we'd watched a few points, it was time to move again...back to the base, apparently. "So, d'you wanna run back, or d'you feel like walking?" asked my compatriot. 

"Let's run," I offered, my disappointment tangible now. We took a shortcut back to the base, completing a whopping 12-minute loop, at an easy trot. 

"Yeah, so I really like running," my pal repeated. "I try to get out a few times a week. It helps keep my stress down."

He was the most athletically-inclined expat I've shared a base with since. 

Congo was no better. In fact, it was much worse. My housemates, when I had them, aspired to consume large volumes of whiskey. I managed to convince one of them, with a sizable gut, to join me for a yoga session, once. (After which we recovered over whiskey and wine.) 

When it came to running, I would definitely be on my own. 

Except that I wouldn't really be alone. The second I left the compound for a run, the alarm was sounded, and quickly spread to every single one of the hundreds of barefoot and gleeful children who inhabited our overpopulated neighborhood. Soon several dozen of them were right on my tail, giggling, poking my freakish white skin, demanding money, candy, a reaction. 

I tried to summon my inner Zen and just ignore them, figuring that they would tire after a few minutes. I was right, kind of. But when some kids tuckered out, a mob of reinforcements would emerge from thirty new doorways. I couldn't hack it; I was seeking respite from the many stressors of my cooped-in compound life, and this swarm of over-eager taggers-on behind me only stressed me out more.

So my Congolese running ambitions fizzled out.

Of course, I got back to it right away once I got back home in the States, building up to a half marathon that I ran with an old friend in September. I'd simply resigned myself to regressing for a couple of months during my stint in Uganda.

Then I met a German fella with an extensive knowledge of Lira's footpath network and ambitions to run the Kampala half marathon in late November. He's an excellent guide, and a pretty reliable deterrent, so far, to mobs of children, if not to the occasional enthusiastic drunk. 

Kampala, here we come(?)!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Land of Barefoot Bowling

Last Friday, I joined several colleagues for a fine Italian meal at a cushy outdoor restaurant. Last night, I bowled an unimpressive 91, and this morning, I pseudo-cycled up France's Alpe d'Huez at a spin class led by a zealous Canadian triathlete. It could easily be just another weekend in Seattle...except that our table's check came out to 289,000 shillings, the bowling alley lacked rental shoes, so we bowled barefoot, and the spin class...well, it was a spin class, I guess. Now it hurts to walk up stairs.

In other words, I've arrived. And while Uganda's capitol, Kampala, is surely swankier than my digs up north will be, it's clear that this will be quite a different kind of mission from my previous two in (Congo and South Sudan). The signs of relative stability and wealth are everywhere: in the clothing donation bin at a local supermarket, in the fact that no one has yet called me out for being white, in the way the motorbikes power, rather than coast, down the hills.

To be sure, the country's northern regions, where I'm heading tomorrow, have experienced a lot more hardship in recent years than has Kampala. For almost two decades, a frightening rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army terrorized much of the north, raping women, pillaging villages and kidnapping youths to assert their power and reinforce their troops. Most of the population sought protection in overcrowded internal displacement camps. The Ugandan army finally pushed the LRA out of the country in 2005, and while the militia's raids continue today in several neighboring countries, most of the survivors in northern Uganda have had a chance to return to their land and try to recover their lives.

I'll be based in Lira, a large district capitol with restaurants, a swimming pool and other amenities. It's an important regional center, and a logical place for a base of operations, but a far cry from the isolated rural areas where our organization actually implements programs. I will be getting out into the field as often as possible, to supervise and guide the staff who will conduct the surveys for my evaluation, but with poor road conditions and still-rigid security restrictions (no overnighting in the field allowed!), both of which will limit field time, this is destined to be a largely "comfortable" post.

So tomorrow will bring a scenic drive northwards, across the rapids of the upper Nile, past a national park with intact trees and begging baboons. It's a far cry from Congo, and although I feel slightly guilty for the luxury, I may as well enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Back In

I'm heading back.

Not to Congo this time, but to northern Uganda instead. It's a short commitment; I'll be there just two months, to evaluate a cash transfer project and write a report on it. Barely enough time to get situated. But I'm a bit more prepared this time than I was a year and a half ago to dive right in to Africa and the NGO world. And oh-so-well rested.

Nine months in Congo took it out of me. The lack of exercise, the walled-in lifestyle, the incredibly complicated and often depressing humanitarian situation, and especially the overbearing supervisor. When I went to France for break, three months in, I could barely remember how to ski. There were weeks when I literally didn't leave the compound, an area of maybe 450 square meters. I knew that I'd need a bit of free floating once I got back to the U.S. to start feeling like myself again.
nearing the summit of Mt. Rainier
And so, since my return home at the beginning of July, I've been indulging in everything I couldn't in Congo - hipster ice cream joints, burritos, rock climbing, hikes, glaciers, Goodwill, so-awful-they're-hilarious movies with the brother, half marathon preparation, wilderness medicine courses, and lots of glorious, anonymous, walking. The novelty of feeling unremarkable as I stroll down the street has not worn off.

And I've been visiting friends, scattered throughout the major cities of both U.S. coasts. Friends with architecture degrees that feel like surprisingly useless, and unbelievably expensive, pieces of paper; friends on libertarian pig farms whose swine snort up several tons of Pixie Stix, Keebler cookies, orange juice and other assorted supermarket refuse each evening; generous friends with funds who take advantage of the slow economy to get into biking shape and take me along to sample fine restaurants; friends questioning the value of their PhD programs; friends scouting out movie storylines in Madagascar; friends bewildered by the economy who have taken to living in homeless shelters to save money during the job search, or else working jobs they never would have expected to claim as their own. 

It hardly seems the time for too much introspection, especially as concerns careers. But I knew I needed a break, and that the humanitarian world, regardless of my persistent qualms about it, would be there for me if I needed it. I still feel, as I did when I left Congo in June, that I'd like to be more stable, and settled, and that I'd probably be happiest if I lived in a place more conducive to an active lifestyle, and for several weeks now I've been scoping out Seattle as a prospective home. 

But the bank account is nearly empty, and when I got the Uganda offer, it didn't take me long to accept. It's only two months, after all. And despite everything, I'm very excited to go back.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Crisis in the Congo: A Short Film

For those of you who are interested in finding out more about how the current situation in Congo came about, and what Western countries can do to improve things, check out this short film:

Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering the Truth

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems...But all these stars are silent. You--you alone will have stars as no one else has them. In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night. You, only you, will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me... You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure... It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh.  -Saint-Exupéry

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Into the Blue

When we start paddling out into the lake in the early morning, the air is perfectly still. The slate waters blend into the distant mountains, obscured by dry season dust, and the hazy sky. We steer our kayaks into this surreal and sun-bleached blueness, broken only by the dark silhouette of a dugout pirogue where a lone figure hunches over, pulling in fishing net.

I am leaving the Congo at the end of June, meaning three months sooner than expected, to reduce pressure on a financially desperate mission. The news came three days ago, delivered apologetically by a country director I barely know. And so, suddenly, unexpectedly, it is almost over.

I've been on the waters of Lake Kivu only once before, during my initial trip to Minova back in October, but I spent the entire trip trapped in a tightly-packed ferry cabin, distracted by the jabberings of a stand-up comic on screen in front of the passengers and my racing thoughts as I tried to figure out where on earth I had landed. This time is different. In the kayak, I can consider this place freely, encumbered only by the memories it triggers in me and the anticipation of departure.

Departure was inevitable, of course. The when of it shouldn't really matter. I never intended to stay here forever. And yet I want to have the time to say goodbye properly. I called Ariane, the cook, yesterday to make sure she would be there for my final week in the field. Why? she asked, suspicious and shrewd as ever. Well maman, I said, I'm going home. Ariane with the cousin in the States who has invited her to come and stay, but only if she leaves her husband behind in Africa (which she can't bring herself to do, although she dreams of attending cooking school somewhere in the West). Ariane whose family takes care of eight war-orphaned children and who is an orphan herself (although I still don't have the whole story). Ariane whose hefty two year-old has clearly inherited his mother's bulk, and whose one year-old came down with mysterious sores on her tongue that prevented her from eating until we cured them with honey.

And there is Iledéfense, the night watchman who shows no sign of fatigue on our long weekend walks into the bush, despite his not having slept the night before, who took refuge in his friend's home in Bukavu during the war, fearful of a deadly encounter with the Interahamwe militias who prowled the streets, attacking anyone with the delicate facial features of a potential Tutsi, who has studied logistics and computers but makes do with the work he can get (as we all must), and spends a good chunk of his week opening and closing doors at our base, unmarried still at age 30 but with several prospects, unfailingly, excessively polite Iledéfense.

And so on.

After forty minutes of paddling, the islands we were aiming for remain distant, so we pause to take our bearings. Turning to face the shore, the city of Bukavu sprawls before us, its terraces of once-stately colonial homes succumbing to decades of neglect. Dust-filled, rust-rooved, potholed Bukavu, with hospitals full of rape victims, hotels full of mining magnates and Land Rovers toting hundreds of humanitarian workers from one gated compound to another. I have never really found my footing in Bukavu, although the occasional weekend retreat here has helped me gain much-needed perspective after long stints in the field.

Right on cue, the wind begins to blow, and the once-still waters turn choppy. We head back to shore, fighting the wind all the while. The kayak keepers chide us, politely, upon our return; apparently we had briefly ventured into Rwandan waters during our jaunt. We apologize in Swahili and head back home.

Time soothes all sorrows, as Saint-Exupéry said. And departure is inevitable, eventually, for all of us. The Congo of my day-to-day is vibrant, bold with exquistely tailored pagnes, pungent with fermenting manioc drying in the sun, heartbreaking in its hardship, inspiring in its persistence. It is not the kind of place to fade away quietly, memory blurring into memory like water into sky.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evaluation Time

We are being evaluated.

A Frenchwoman my own age joined us in Minova ten days ago, at the mission's invitation, to examine the impact of the last two years of our project's banana wilt interventions. My team members have spent the past week in the field, conducting focus groups with banana wilt committees, seed distribution beneficiaires and plain-old community members, trying to get a sense of the strong and weak points of our project's strategy.

The conclusions thus far are on the discouraging side. It seems that any gains we've made are far outweighed by the constraints we face. Despite two years of fairly strident awareness-raising efforts, most villagers remain reluctant to put in the hard physical labor required to get rid of their infected banana plants, an essential step in ridding the region of the disease. NGOs are a mixed blessing here in the Kivus; while they bring much-needed resources to an area virtually devoid of tangible government, they also seem to stifle individual initiative and community spirit. Why take the trouble to uproot your infected banana plantation for the good of your children and your community if there is an international NGO nearby who might pay you to do it? While the committees that we put into place have managed to produce a significant number of healthy banana shoots, there's little reason to hope that those shoots will help rebuild local livelihoods over the long term. Wilt-infected plantations still dominate the landscape here, and as long as they remain, any as-yet uninfected shoots are at serious risk of contamination.

The project as conceived certainly has flaws, but the biggest barrier to real progress seems to me the very feeble position of the state. The national agricultural service is the logical actor to intervene when crop disease strikes, but even the higher-ranking Congolese ag employees that I've met suffer from insultingly low and/or nonexistent pay and few resources at their disposal that would actually permit them to do their jobs, such as a means of transport with which to get out into the field. I don't know that what we're trying to do is feasible, given the current political environment. It's perhaps another example of good-intentioned development doomed to failure for lack of long-term, realistic, careful planning.

Perhaps inspired by this bout of introspection, I decided yesterday to create my own evaluation of sorts. We ordered a batch of banana wilt t-shirts for this project. They're on the glaringly ugly side, in my humble opinion, but being new and blindingly white, they're the envy of the entire base. Everyone - the drivers, the storekeeper, the night watchmen - wants a t-shirt.

Hence the evaluation. As I see it, anyone who sports one of our t-shirts in public should have a decent sense of what banana wilt is and how to fight it, as well as how we as an organization have chosen to approach it. And so I wrote up a quick quiz. Want a t-shirt? Answer these questions, correctly, without copying off of your friend's paper, and one shall be yours: Name one difference between the symptoms of fusariose and those of banana wilt. When and where did banana wilt first appear in the world? List three means of preventing the spread of banana wilt. And so on.

The logistics manager presented me with a typed-up answer sheet this morning, and even threw a question back at me. The night watchmen last night huddled together around a flashlight-illuminated banana wilt brochure, searching for the responses. I almost gave them a t-shirt on the grounds of their enthusiasm alone.

And that's the thing. It's hard to be totally discouraged when you're surrounded by such marvelous people, who are clearly getting more out of this project than simply healthy banana shoots or a monthly paycheck. My staff have devoted the bulk of the last two years into this effort, building personal relationships with hundreds of villagers, many of them quite a ways from their spouses and children. They have learned, and shared, an enormous amount of information about how to combat the disease, and, in a larger sense, how to work towards something bigger than themselves.

I am certainly not condoning careless humanitarian interventions. I guess I'm just recognizing that every project involves people, and I am lucky enough to work with a genuinely humane group of people. No matter how flawed, I can't believe that our project has been all for naught.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan

My project is broke.

That's the latest word from headquarters. It's possible, even probable, that we will have to end our activities early, since the funds aren't available to pay the staff, and all of the associated support costs, through the end of August.

I have protested, of course, on the grounds that abandoning our banana wilt committees prematurely will negatively affect both the long-term impact of our project and our reputation as an organization, at least within the communities in which we currently work.

This budget crisis was a long time coming, I suppose. This is a two-year project, and many budget lines had already been overspent before my arrival. The entire mission is in a bit of a crisis, with many projects coming to term and very little new funding emerging. This means more financial pressure on the few remaining projects, which must cover the numerous and significant support costs, like office rental, vehicle maintenance, and paying the cook and the numerous other logistical and administrative staff. On top of that, my project activities take place in two bases, so we have twice the support costs of your average project. I deal directly only with the portion of the budget that covers program-related expenses, such as seeds for distributions and the payment for the carpenters who construct the banana macro propagators. I was only informed that we had a major problem about a month ago.

I had been hoping to relax into my last few months here, now that a lot of the major stressors up to this point are gone: my problematic boss, the planning and logistics-heavy parts of the project, the initial few months of adaptation. I'm finally finding the time to invest in Swahili lessons, evening conversation with the night watchmen (instead of working 'til I drop) and trips to various far-removed field sites.

This throws me for a bit of a loop.

But I suppose, like any unexpected change, it will simply take some getting used to. The worst part will be having to dismiss my staff sooner than expected, if it comes to that. And of course I need to consider what my next move will be. Am I hooked enough on this lifestyle to want to continue? Am I ready to return to the familiar mountain ranges of the US and start to build a life for myself there? And how to ensure financial autonomy while I make these decisions, with a crushing student loan dept?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

In the Mood for Imodium

When I started puking again, my first thought was of the pizza.

I can't really blame the cook, who, as I have mentioned, is normally wonderful. She's never seen a "real" pizza before, of course, and has to improvise an oven each time she makes one. Also, the only cheese for sale in the Kivus (for less than outrageous prices) is a cheddar-like round hailing from the high mountain pastures. It's pretty impressive that she's able to produce anything resembling pizza at all.

However, this time I was admittedly less than tantalized by the cook's pizza-making exploits. In a burst of inventiveness and frugality, she had decided to insert leftover spaghetti underneath the cheese and eggplant layers. When I bit into my slice and discovered this, my stomach turned, and suddenly the pizza lost all appeal.

Fortunately, the housecat was ravenous that day, what with five new mouths to feed, and she was only too eager to pick up where I had left off. After gorging herself on the cheese, however, she abandoned the slice on the kitchen floor, where the spaghetti strands sprawled like worms for the next day. For some reason, the sight of them there, as they slowly congealed to the cement, made me nauseous.

I finally gathered up the will to toss the uneaten slice into the garbage and did my best to put the image of it out of my mind. But the next day, I felt seriously sick to my stomach, and around midday excused myself from the office to puke all over the gravel driveway. I had experienced similar symptoms about a month before, and although I had recovered quickly, I figured it was time to get some official tests done. Likely, I had some kind of internal parasite that would continue to manifest itself from time to time, and I supposed I should nip it in the bud.

The vehicles were all in the field with the staff. As I waited for one to return to the base so that it could take me to the hospital, the diarrhea began. Intrepid, I prepared a sample in a plastic water bottle, stuck it in the fridge, and popped some Imodium.

When I arrived at the hospital, it was nearly closing time. Though I managed to puke on at least three of the nurses who attended to me, the laboratory was, alas, shut for the evening, so I was informed that I would have to come back tomorrow to have the tests done. Much to my disappointment, my stool sample was rejected, and the doctor suggested I supply him with a fresh one in the morning.

And so I returned in the a.m. as instructed, and produced blood and urine on command. But the third, and most necessary, sample was stubbornly unforthcoming. Determined to wait it out, I plunked myself on a wooden bench outside the lab, clutching the awkwardly tiny glass vial that they had given me with which to capture the stool.

You might think that this would be an unlikely moment for romance, but if so you know very little about Congolese men and their infatuation with wuzungu. A good dozen nurses, interns and other passersby seized the opportunity to impress me with their English vocabulary and try to weasel my phone number out of me, discreetly avoiding mention of the glass bottle in my hand. But my number, like the stool, remained locked away, and I reluctantly told the lab staff I would have to come back later, when my bowels started cooperating again.

Funnily enough, on my way back to the car, my bowels suddenly sprang to life, and I dashed back into the hospital bathroom and triumphantly presented the vial to the lab crew soon after.

The results from a multitude of tests came that evening. Nothing was wrong with me, from a strictly medical sense. No amoebas, no intestinal worms, no malaria, no giardia. Nothing.

As I considered this news, my stomach turned anew. My supervisor would be coming to visit the following day. Although my appetite was returning after this recent bout of illness, the thought of his visit suddenly made me very tense. I could physically feel my blood pressure rising.

Then it hit me...the very same symptoms - the queasiness, headache, stomach pain, vomiting - had struck me two days prior to my boss' previous visit, and had gradually disappeared after he had left.

I can only conclude that my nausea in both cases was induced by the stress I felt in anticipation of in-person interaction with my boss.

The good news is that he has decided to leave the country, and as I write this no longer has any authority over me.

The bad news is that somehow I had allowed one person the power to significantly affect my physical and mental well being. No matter how abusive, irrational and domineering he was, I should have figured out a healthier way to deal with his behavior.

But fortunately, there's more good news, if I choose to view them that way, and it's that there are several zillion Congolese males who don't much mind my non-mastery of emotions. They don't even care if I'm physically leaking out both ends. They just want my digits.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Of Life and Death

Note: The same night that I posted this, a pirogue loaded with merchandise and passengers sank near Minova, killing around 100 people, including family members of at least two of our staff. Almost no one here knows how to swim, and of course life jackets are practically nonexistent.

"We heard shots...the militias had killed a woman in the neighboring compound. So we left our post at the entrance to the base and locked ourselves in the office. We called the logistician, who told us we should evacuate, if we could find an opportunity. But the militias were everywhere. We stayed put and hoped for the best."

The base watchman is recounting a day in September 2008, when militias stormed Minova. The expats were evacuated to Bukavu, and the other staff sought shelter where they could, but the guards were asked to stay, in hopes that their presence would discourage the militias from looting the base.

At first, no one realized the severity of the situation. The guards managed to dissuade the few soldiers that showed up from entering, warning that their bosses were only a few houses away and that any troublemakers would be found out and punished afterwards. But things began spiraling downwards, and the militias shot and killed several people in the neighborhood during their pillaging. With the escalating gunfire, the watchmen retreated to the office, where they remained, unable to find an opportune moment to escape, for the rest of the day and the following night.

They were lucky; for whatever reason, the militias stayed away. All of the other NGOs in town were ransacked except our own, and calm was restored within a few days' time.

It's Easter, and almost Passover, an appropriate time to talk about life, and death.

Chatti, our base cat and my only housemate for almost two months now, gave birth to five kittens two nights ago. Our housekeeper, a pregnant single mother who initially told me she was expecting in June, quietly had a baby girl one night at the beginning of April. The cook and I went for a visit last week, and when the housekeeper handed me the heavily swathed bundle, she calmly informed me that her three-week-old baby was sick with malaria (and no, she did not have a mosquito net).

She then mentioned that one of her sister's adolescent children had been missing for two weeks now. The family feared that the girl had fallen victim to the "Kabanga" phenomenon, wherein, according to local belief, a ordinary length of rope is accorded magic powers if it is used to strangle a person to death. Such a rope can then be sold on the black market--to merchants or politicians--for impressive sums of money. Kabanga sounds so crazy to me that I am tempted to laugh it off...except that it is real. A local man's body was recently found in a nearby river, and three men were sent to a Bukavu prison, charged with his murder by strangulation.

The insecurity and violence that the Congolese have to cope with on a daily basis is astounding. What often comes across as passiveness in the face of death may actually be something closer to recognition of helplessness. Although the state has begun to regain a bit of clout since 2003, when the war here nominally ended, it is far from functional, and your average resident has little hope of achieving justice for any crimes committed against him or his family.

And so the Congolese continue to play the cards they're dealt, and to stake their claims in the future by having children--lots of them. One of my staff members, an extremely intelligent 40-something who earns about $300 a month, has nine children. And most of the other staff members are not far behind.

I often talk to them about family planning and its benefits, which are so widely accepted in the West--the idea that it is easier to properly feed, clothe, educate and provide medical care for your children if you have fewer of them--and although most seem to grasp the theory, I kind of doubt I've really convinced them.

Here, you're never sure what will happen from one day to the next. I suppose if I were trying to raise children in such circumstances, I might try to increase my odds of keeping at least a few of them alive, as well.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Poorest Rich Country in the World

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not a land of the wealthy. The average annual income here is 189 bucks, less than I spent during last week's trip to Madagascar. Of course, money isn't everything. But according to the 2010 United Nations' Human Development Index, which attempts to account for numerous other factors that impact quality of life, including education levels and health, the DRC trails every other country in the world except for Zimbabwe.

The crazy thing is, the DRC is a land of enormous wealth. Its elephants and rubber trees financed the construction of the decadent palaces and monuments of colonial-era Belgium. It is home to the world's most voluminous river and the vastest tropical forest after the Amazon. Its mountains teem with copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds, to name a few. Even its soil is relatively resilient, as I realized during my Malagasy sojurn (Madagascar has some of the most fragile, and the most degraded, soils on the planet.) Despite the abuse of farmland here, and the almost universal lack of erosion control practices, fields continue to produce, at least for the moment.

King Leopold II's Laeken Palace, Belgium

Political economist types have theorized that such well endowed countries are inherently destined for slow or even backwards development. While plenty of examples (including my own country) suggest otherwise, there's certainly some truth to the theory. Congo has attracted a slew of voracious plunderers, drawn by the promise of boundless riches, heedless of the welfare, let alone the suffering, of the general population.

Leopold-era rubber slaves, victims of the profit-crazed monarch's brutal regime.

It seems to me that true humanitarian intervention, that is, when people, in the case of exceptional circumstances (e.g., post-tsunami Japan), are unable to clothe, feed, or shelter themselves, and the state is temporarily incapable of addressing the need, is almost always justifiable. But a case like Congo is much more complicated. The people here are intelligent, educated, capable, and often willing to work to better their lot, but the political climate makes real progress almost impossible. This environment is incredibly frustrating for me, who
knows that in a few months' time I can retreat to
the States, my mission "complete."

I can't imagine what it must be like for the Congolese.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


I'm halfway done. As of March 26th, I had been in Congo for six months, with another six months to go before the end of my contract. My second week-long break begins a week from tomorrow, and although the next six months will no doubt present more than enough challenges, I have reason to suspect that I've already passed the steepest part of the learning curve.

Some people get addicted to humanitarian work, it seems. They hop from Darfur to eastern Congo to Pakistan, drawn to...I haven't decided what, exactly. The constant novelty? The chance to trade suburban ennui for a largely unpredictable and chaotic environment? The feeling of importance and power that accompanies expat life in a developing country? The sense of making a tangible difference in beneficiairies' lives?

I am surviving, and definitely appreciative of the experience, but am not won over to the lifestyle yet. I am showing signs of extended stress, such as I've never had before. A combination of social isolation, an environment of discouraging corruption and poverty from which even the well-educated and entrepreneuring find it near impossible to escape, an unapologetically critical and often hostile boss, a neverending workload, and most significantly, a level of physical confinement I have never before had to contend with.

I would like to hop on a bicycle and expel this stress in a two thousand mile trail of dust. I find myself dreaming of the American Southwest, the northern Rockies, Patagonia, anywhere where social foibles can be forgotten and a primarily physical existence is possible.

The humanitarian world is extremely liberating on the one hand--you can recreate your image here however you'd like to--and on the other, painfully restricting.

Yet that bicycle trip (or its equivalent) is still a ways away, and my upcoming break far too short to dispel this stress completely. So in the meantime I am trying to focus on the positive aspects of this place, this project, my being here at this point in time. The deepening closeness with different members of the staff, the weekend strolls into the high country with the night watchmen, my slowly expanding knowledge of Swahili, the beneficiairies who are now able to pay their children's school fees because of their new small business, the communities who are finally starting to reap the profits of wilt-free bananas, the neighborhood children who call out my name instead of "Muzungu!", the relative ease with which I now carry out the routine project management tasks, the quiet dignity of the streams of barefoot women hauling impossible loads to market.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Militias in the Mist

"February was a busy month," says the park ranger I am chatting with. "We had a lot of visitors."

"What does 'a lot' mean"?" I ask, doubtfully.

"Maybe two per week," he replies, affably, then adds, "March has been slow..."

I am at the information center at the entrance to Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu province. The months since my last break feel like years, and I have asked for a weekend of leisure with a friend at a neighboring base. Happily, my request was granted, and now I find myself "stranded" at the gate of the only Congolese nature preserve I have yet to encounter, waiting for another vehicle to come meet me.

I have been suffering from serious nature deprivation in the overpopulated, degraded areas stretching along the western shore of Lake Kivu, where my program activities are based. I could not be more thrilled to be stranded here, and it seems the tourist-starved park guide appreciates the sudden and unexpected attention as I pummel him with questions.

According to the ranger, this park covers about 2, 316 square miles, an area two thirds the size of Yellowstone, or about the same size as Delaware. The visitor center is reminiscent of an American park service structure, a solid, spacious stone building with large panels depicting tropical vistas and wildlife.

But the comparison to American protected areas is of limited value. Whereas Yellowstone has 4000 employees (including those operating the concessions that run many of the park's amenities), Kahuzi Biega has a mere 200.

And working here is far from glamorous; in the years following the Rwandan genocide, Interahamwe militias, fearing vengeance from their now Tutsi-dominated, post-war state, fled into eastern Congo. Many of them penetrated this forest, seeking its cover and relative abundance of resources, and, later, staying partly for the mineral wealth that they began to exploit. During the post-genocide period, half of the park staff was murdered, and probably an even larger portion of the wildlife. The ranger leads me to the back of the visitor center to a display of piles of giant bones, a sampling of the elephants and gorillas that have been poached in recent years, silent victims of modern-day African war.

Still, there is some hope for this place. Its 200 employees may not elevate Kahuzi Biega to Yellowstone standards, but they're still a solid group. The ranger I am speaking with seems very keen, educated, devoted. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this park receives outside funding, which allows its staff to at least afford some protection for the resources here. While the elephant population has been all but decimated, some of the gorillas, for which this area is so famous, survive. You can even go see them, for a cool 400$ per visitor. The mountains for which the park is named are off limits to tourists for the moment, for security reasons, but they loom high over largely intact equatorial forest. Wilderness still has a stronghold here, and perhaps with enough outside pressure for protection and peace, it will rebound.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Where I Live

This is the view from our office/my front door. The highest ridge in the picture marks the start of the "haut plateau," which stretches a ways west towards the interior of DRC. As much I would like to scramble up there during my free time, I can't. A lot of militias enjoy free reign up there in those ungoverned parts. As a consequence, many former highlanders have relocated to the lakeshore, which is relatively secure. This movement of the population has put increasing pressure on the natural resources here, most notably arable land and soil. (Note the patchworked fields covering the hills.)

With a banana wilt committee, measuring their local "multiplication field." The healthy banana seedlings that are produced in the nurseries our project established eventually get planted in fields, where they grow to maturity and produce lots and lots of clones. These clones can be harvested and distributed to other villagers; this is how the impact of our project is magnified.

At the moment a lot of our multiplication fields aren't ready, and so we're taking stock of what resources are available vs. what we actually need to get all of those healthy shoots into the right growing environment. Hence the measuring tape.

This is one of our base guards, Didier, showing me the garden behind his house, in a hilltop village about 4 miles from Minova. He grows cabbages, mangoes, tomatoes, guavas, sugarcane, eucalyptus seedlings--just your average Congolese agricultural tinkerer.

Our local beach, seen from a hilltop in Didier's village. I swam there once, before learning that the lake's poisonous gases can swallow you alive. It was nice at the time. Now I just admire its apparent serenity from far-off hilltops.

For more photos from the past three weeks, click here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hakuna Biscuit

The MONUSCO convoy is parked in the middle of the road as I stroll by, black plastic bag in hand, on my way to return a couple of soda bottles to the corner kiosk. I nod to the sunglassed, bearded Pakistani driver and his companions. They are all Pakistanis, our local regimen of MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), known to the locals as MONUC (the United Nations Organization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it was called until mid-2010.)

White folks (or wuzungu) are inevitably associated with the UN 'round these parts, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Though the organization has a mandate to keep the peace here in eastern Congo, that's not always how it works. The last time there was
real insecurity in Minova (about a year before my arrival), MONUC's (say "Mo-NUKE's") only real response was to flee. Since our organization, in typical humanitarian fashion, has a "no arms" policy, we rely on the UN in times of crisis. So when our staff evacuated in the company of the UN convoy, the local population, understandably a little miffed with their "protector's" response, began hurling rocks at the vehicles in said convoy, including our own.

When the situation calmed down and the staff returned to the base, our drivers surreptitiously painted bold red stripes on all of our vehicles, announcing to all would-be rock throwers that we are NOT MONUC!!!

Alas, distinctions between this peacekeeping mission and that humanitarian organization are not so obvious to your average Congolese villager. Lightish skin means MONUC to many (the lack of maleness or facial hair doesn't seem to deter them). When I can stand the base no longer and slip out of its confines, I am inevitably greeted with "MONUC! Biscuit!" Or "MONUC-un-bonbon! MONUC-un-bonbon!" ("MONUC a candy! MONUC a candy!")

This invaribly annoys me, because (a) My appearance is not even remotely Pakistani, and, significantly, I am not male. Why, then, do the locals not notice this? Has Congo changed me more than I realize?; (b) What on earth was the United Nations mission in Congo doing handing out candy? ("Sorry that your country is uncurably unstable, sonny. Have a lollipop."); (c) "Biscuits" are not much better. In French, this can refer to either cookies or crackers. To give our MONUC friends the benefit of the doubt, let's say it was crackers, wholesome, whole-grain, vitamin-packed crackers. STILL, what on earth were they thinking? How will crackers ease the ills of eastern Congo? Will they not merely doom every other humanitarian organization that passes this way to be seen as a potential source of ready, unconditional handouts?

So my response, unvariably, is "A pana MONUC." ("No MONUC.") "Hakuna biscuit." ("I don't have any biscuits.")

What did they put in those biscuits, anyway?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Great Days

Whoever coined the slogan "Great days start with Nescafé" clearly never worked for a humanitarian organization in eastern Congo.

Practically all my days start with Nescafé, that highly caffeinated, hyper-processed powder-based beverage that I have come to not only tolerate but also consume with probably a bit too much excitement.

Nonetheless, not all of these days are great. For example, the first thing that I did on one particularly ungreat day in the recent past was open the latrine door on my boss, who, visiting from the city, had decided that he would (1) sleep in the tiny dining room, even though the house is under construction, the dining room wall was scheduled to be knocked down the following day, and I had reserved a room for him at the boarding house next door, (2) use the latrine that is CLEARLY marked with a picture of a woman on the door, whereas my boss is most definitely a MAN, and (3) remain silent when I tapped on the door in the wee hours of the morning, on the off chance that someone was inside.

You might think that such a day could only get better. And indeed, hugging my mug of steaming Nescafe to my chest, I tried to convince myself as much. But I knew perfectly well that this was destined to be a shitty, shitty week.

Indeed, the week in question bore witness to the following events, in no particular order:

(1) 25-odd people descended on this dust-filled, unfinished base in preparation for a large-scale survey on the socio-economic impacts of banana wilt in the zone. Quite naturally, this coincided with the head of base's week of vacation, so, as the only other expat present, I was gifted all of his responsibilities in addition to the enviable task of organizing housing, food, transport and general housekeeping for our 25 visitors, as WELL as trying to keep my program's activities in working order.

(2) My boss invited my entire staff, whom I had asked to come to work a bit early in order to assemble questionnaires, into his tiny dining room/bedroom, to eat breakfast (despite the fact that there is a very limited budget for expat meals).

(3) I ordered 45 questionnaires for the training, and the logistics department sent 450. I rented an 8-ton truck to help deliver the materials for the macro propagators, and logistics sent a 4-ton truck. I asked for one rental car, and they sent two. The planks that were supposed to be cut in half were sawed into thirds. I did my best to suppress a scream.

(4) I purchased a goat at the market so that people would have something to eat during the survey training days. Technically my colleague was in charge of procuring provisions, but this fact didn't seem to interest him very much, when I reminded him about the need to acquire a goat on the week's only market day. The goat was like a poorly-trained dog. She pulled at the rope during the entire 2 km trek back to the base, egged on by a wild-eyed pygmy woman who had decided that I definitely owed her some money, or some food, or perhaps a pair of sneakers.

(5) I started to get sick. When I informed him that I thought I should go to the city for the weekend, in order to allow my immune system to recover, my boss said, "No, you can't get sick. I was going to use you as an example of someone who goes above and beyond for work, but if you get sick, I can't do that. So don't tell anyone you're getting sick."

(6) They knocked down the dining room wall. Dust coated my computer screen, the printer, my blankets, my lungs.

(7) I went to the city for the weekend. I took my temperature, and was more than a little disappointed to discover that I was not, technically, sick. I returned to the base and refrained from screaming for another week.

(8) I took a long walk, strolling the last hour along the road that winds towards Kalehe along the lakeshore, with a group of women and girls toting water and munching on sunflower seeds.

(9) I fixed myself another cup of Nescafe.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martyrs' Day

I am trying to connect to the Congolese more.

In the often overwhelming haze of my first few months here, I felt like I was constantly scrambling to stay afloat. Though in theory I would have loved to, the idea of sitting down and devoting the time and energy to learning Swahili was simply not an option. Delving into the details of personal experiences during the post-Rwandan genocide chaos seemed daunting, and at times I even had trouble distinguishing one guard or driver's face from the others. Simply accomplishing all of my weekly tasks before the next Monday morning rolled around was enough of a challenge.

Now, three-and-a-half months in, and after a much-needed vacation that reminded me that there is, in fact, a whole other world out there, I am finding a bit more time to breathe. Though I have certainly not mastered my role, I feel comfortable enough now to step away from it from time to time, and focus on other things.

This afternoon, with an hour of daylight to spare, I hiked up to a nearby village, perched on the broad, flat summit of a foothill. After 15 minutes of slogging uphill on a pitted, mud-slick trail, I entered a humid banana "forest," in which a maze of narrow trails led off to dozens of partially concealed huts.

A family called out to me, no doubt quite surprised to have a lone muzungu appear out of the banana thicket. The daughters offered to show me around. Their clean, crisply painted school, surprisingly large for the village. A telecommunications antenna, from which the high western mountains loomed temptingly close. The miniscule "market," where a not particularly tiny and impressively persistent pygmy man tried to convince me to hand over my cell phone.

When I got back to the base, I sat down with the night watchmen for a spell. They had heard about Martin Luther King on the radio, but didn't know anything about him. So I explained the history of post-slavery racism in the States, and King's role in bringing about an end to segregation. It's a holiday here, too, to commerate the life of another great orator, the independent Congo's first president, Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination at the age of 35 was condoned, if not directly caused by, the Cold War-crazed US.

And so we spoke of the war in Iraq, and my country's dubious motives there, and then radical Islam, and then the Holocaust, and then, naturally, the Rwandan genocide, after which headless and otherwise butchered bodies apparently cluttered up this lake for weeks. Which was nothing compared to what the genocidaires and refugees that fled into the Kivus in the aftermath would bring.

But that's another story, for another night.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep - leave it any way except a slow way - leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it.
-Beryl Markham, West With The Night

Two days ago I was perched on an open slope spread with a thin layer of icy snow, gazing out at Germany's cloud-covered Black Forest, and cursing my lack of finesse on skis. Now, back in the Congo for just half a day, I feel restless already. My chin is chapped and peeling from the winds of a Vosgien winter, here in this never-cold, never-hot Equatorial land where snow is a thing of mystery and the average yearly income wouldn't buy a decent pair of skis.

I am stuck between worlds at the moment, clinging to my would-be life in France, not quite mentally ready to return to my current reality.

I have, by anybody's definition, I think, become a nomad. Since leaving home for college 13 years ago, I have lived in five foreign countries and seven US states, never staying put in any of them for more than a year. I have spread my life as thin as the snow on that French mountain, to the point that it is difficult to say where I come from or where I might logically go next.

There is a great beauty in movement, in flexibility, in the art of adapting. If I have not planted myself firmly enough to master any one skill or subject, this is perhaps my one trump - the ability to grow into the space I am placed in, foreign though it may be.

But the repeated departures are beginning to take their toll. I live and love and then find my yesterdays more and more wrenching to leave behind. I would like, for once, to plant my feet on the soil of a place and call it my own.

Northeastern France was my home, for 10 months, four years ago. I taught English and unexpectedly discovered a group of kindred spirits, alpine types who welcomed me into their circle and fortified my vocabulary, my climbing skills, and my tolerance of potent cheese, in the mountains of eastern France. After a slow and lonely first few months, I found a community in these people, one that I left behind in order to put the fortified French to use, in grad school in California, and now in Africa. And these were the people that I returned to last week, for a mere seven days, enough to understand that their life as I knew it continues, that strong homemade liqueurs still take off the chill after a day of skiing, that four hour dinners endure, that every vacation properly filled means the exploration of a new alpine destination, that houses are built and refurbished and warmed with wood fires.

I have tasted this life, but it is not mine, which seems to require some level of upset and exoticism to be sated. Exactly what level, and taken in what intervals, I am still trying to determine. The Congo is my present, and the future remains hazy, shrouded. But there is surely ground beneath those clouds, and only I can decide where to place these feet.
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