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.
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