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?


  1. (a) You do get rather dark when exposed consistently to sun. The difference between Italian and Pakistani may be difficult to notice. Haven't seen any recent photos of you, so I can't comment on the beard.

    (b) Winning hearts and minds, even while stagnating on the mission. A Google search for MONUC biscuits turned up your blog first, as well as "butter biscuits," "high-energy biscuits" and "biscuit diplomacy." There seems to be a broad criticism of the biscuits. Maybe they would be more welcomed if served with a side of carrots and a garnish of sticks?

  2. Hey babe, Sorry I've been so not-in-touch, and would still like to Skype one of these days...just say the word! Your blogs are beyond fascinating. I hope they're not the only thing standing between you and insanity. Hope things are at least generally stable political-wise, around there. Can't wait to see you sometime this year!! (and talk BEFORE then)...

  3. Well, you might find an excuse for biscuits but your sure as heck won't find an excuse for "bonbons"... Unless we're talking about "bonbons pour la gorge" and somehow all the Congolese have sore throats...
    Nice post again; this feeling-filled blog is a great window into these places of the world that one generally only sees through the sterilized lenses of world news or pathos-oriented documentaries.

    Cheerio and thanks!


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