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.
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