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.