January 2, 2010

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a bustling city on the Congo River of 8-10 million. Across the River lies the capital of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville. This is the only place in the world where two capitals lie side by side. From certain locations, you can see Brazzaville and it looks just as large and busy. There are no bridges connecting the two cities and many people cross by speed boat and others on the overcrowded ferries. You need a visa to visit there. Many of the boulevards in Kinshasa are very wide, but traffic is heavy and during rush hour, the busses and taxis race each other to get the next passenger. These yellow and blue vehicles defy description. Some of them look like vans or old delivery trucks and windows have been cut out of the sides and people hold the doors closed by just hanging on to them. They are full, full, full of people and remind me of the old ‘70s game of seeing how many people can fit into a Volkswagen! Many look like they can barely move, but my colleagues tell me that just a month ago, the worst of them were taken off the road. I can barely imagine what they looked like as this bunch is so rag-a-tagged. We have been told not to use busses or taxis as they are not safe mechanically and you might get robbed. I have no desire to ride in one. During rush hour, it seems as if the total population is waiting for transportation, but that’s not possible as at least the other half are in cars busses, or taxis trying to negotiate their way up the main boulevard. Yesterday, my driver drove on side of the road facing traffic so he could negotiate faster in traffic. When he was not going on the wrong side of the road, he was driving on the sidewalk with the pedestrians and he was not alone doing this either. We had our own traffic jam on the wrong side of the street or the sidewalk. The poor men and boys without a limb seem to hang out in the middle of the boulevards asking for handouts. If you ignore them, they tap on your car window, preferably with the stump or deformed limb. There are also street children, boys, who are looking for handouts. I was so moved by a little boy about five that I gave him five francs (about 50 cents) and then I was sorry I did as another boy came and took it from him as we pulled away. They may be barefooted or only wearing one flip-flop, or, if they have two, they often do not match. I have never seen a woman or girl here so I do not know what they do. They are putting street drains in the main street, 30th of June Boulevard, which you have to take to get almost anywhere and certainly to get downtown. This means that one of the lanes is out of commission and there are deep ditches along both sides of the street. When they are finished building the drains, they cover them over with sidewalks squares in which the tiles have spaces between them to catch the rain water. This means that if you are going to go to a particular store and the street is torn up, you have to go to the end of the block and drive down the sidewalk to the store. I thought that when they were finished, people would walk on these sidewalks, but cars tend to parkt here. African women are some of the most chic in the world, no matter their weight. They have amazing straight posture, wear colorful, interesting clothing (both of Western and African design), and amazing footwear. I have seen shoes that have a 5 inches heal and the toe just as long, coming out that far from the end of their toes. Men also wear these elongated toe shoes and when they get worn, they tend to turn up at the end like a pair of Arabian slippers. Today, one of my Congo colleagues has a beautiful eyelet material dress in bright yellow and she looked quite beautiful. There is something about the dress of African women that has a class not found anywhere else in the world. There is no way, even if I weighed less, that I could begin to look as well as they do. I am constantly looking and taking in what I see. Both men and women carry things on their heads effortlessly – I have no idea why we in the North never learned to carry things that way. Sometimes they can be a small shopping bag just effortlessly perched there and other times, they are 100 pound sacks of produce. They stand straight and tall and what is difficult to me seems effortless to them.


Week Two and Not Counting

January 2, 2010

The unsung heroes in the development world are the local staff.  If it was not for the regional administrative assistant, I would be completely in the dark.  He has organized temporary housing and working on permanent housing; he has helped me interview and hire household help; he has made sure I have drivers to take me around and without them, I would be lost; he has made sure that I get groceries; and he has just been there to answer questions.  He works long hard hours, juggles many priorities, is constantly on the move, and an amazing asset.  I take my hat off to him and others like him who have taken care of me around the world.

The house is in the works and I hope, if there are no glitches, to move in the end of the week.  I have hired a widow with six children to work five days a week for me.  She has some English and will clean, wash and iron my clothes, and cook for me.  It’s a little incestuous as she is the sister of one of my colleague’s housekeepers and the aunt of another.  Just goes to show that it pays to have connections.  As soon as I can move in, we, she and I will go the house and see what we need and go out and buy it.  I look forward to getting settled.

I inadvertently pulled out the refrigerator plug and lost all my food.  I was already concerned about it as the refrigerator was not on when I put it in and about an hour later, I lost power for a couple of hours.  I was concerned it never initially got cold enough, so I was reluctant to eat most of the stuff in there.  It was a relief just to throw it away since I was concerned.  I went to a new market that is owned by Jews which was not open when I went shopping with colleagues last Saturday.  They have really nice meat and lots of cooking equipment.  This is where we will probably go when we stock the house.  There are a number of markets and each seems to be better in some areas than others.  There is one with lots of cheese and a great deli and another which has lots of fruits and vegetables.

I had to buy a five litter water container for $20 and will fill it up for a $1 when it gets empty.  I do not know if there will be a filter on the water in my new house, but if there is, I will boil the water before I use it.  If not, I will continue with the bottled water.  Interestingly enough, the place is owned by Lebanese.

Friday night, I went out to eat and dance with my regional director and another colleague and their husbands, plus some other people from other organizations.  The place was in a big open building with mud cloth on the ceilings and walls.  There must have been several hundred people there and the music was great – Afro Pop.  They had a buffet and the food was tasty, but I reconfirmed that I do not like plantain and I did not eat the grubs!  The rest was very good.

We have two days off for Christmas and New Year and most of the staff will be gone so I will probably just stay in my new digs, watch TV, play on the computer, and relax.  I went swimming yesterday in the pool where I am staying and I plan on doing the same where I will be moving.

First Week in Kinshasa

December 15, 2009

I have been here a week now since I arrived in Kinshasa and the Congo is interesting. I went from 16 hours plane sitting to 3 days of regional meeting sitting, so was really glad when the weekend came and I just died. One of the last tips I received before I left the States was to see if anywhere they served a fish called capitaine. This was someone who had eater it 40 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo and still remembered it with fondness. Imagine my surprise at the Thursday evening dinner during the regional meetings that the restaurant served capitaine. I, of course, ordered it. It was cooked in a banana leaf pouch with a lovely sauce and it was truly wonderful. I will have it again, many times.

CRS CARO (Central African Regional Office) is a very interesting place in that most of the major management positions are held by women. I think it sets a very interesting flavor and there seems to be a lot of collaboration and support. The regional director is an African American woman who was three years in the Peace Corps in the Gabon and is married to a Senegalese. She has been RD for the last five years. Although we service seven other countries, the DRC is the largest in terms of program dollars and they have the largest country program which is also directed by a woman, also an American. There is a real hodge-podge of other nationalities here and it is interesting where long term Congolese CRS people have served.

I am still in temporary housing, but it is a nice efficiency and other CRS staff lives in the compound. They clean it every day and today I left a pile of dirty clothes with a $5 note and they will wash, dry, and iron them for me.

I went this morning to see a 3-bedroom house in a compound near work. It is very nice and modern and there is a lovely swimming pool. It includes a refrigerator, TV, and washer and dryer and comes furnished. CRS is in the process of negotiating for it and I could be settled in sometime next week. It is really quite luxurious! They are also looking for household help. I told them I wanted a mature woman with children as I would like to support a woman-headed household.

Things are expensive as there is a large UN presence here and they really run the cost of living up. I had to buy a can opener yesterday and it cost me $14. We took a colleague out to dinner last night for her birthday to a South African-Portuguese chain and it was about $20 for a sandwich, fries, and a beer. They use US dollars for everything, but they have to be in mint condition. I have three $100 bills they have already rejected. The ATM spits out new US bills! If the change is less than US$5, they give you change in the dirtiest, falling-apart Congolese franc you have ever seen.

It will probably be a couple of months before my 3-year visa comes through so I will not be allowed to travel, except in DRC, until then. And who knows when I will get my driver’s license? I start my French lessons soon, but it is amazing what French I remember from two years in high school. There are frustrations, but they are mixed with really wonderful things.

I spent 10 days before Thanksgiving weekend in Baltimore getting an orientation and that was useful for the meetings I just sat through as they were about our new year and what we planned to do. I already gave some feedback on a small Rwanda micro-finance proposal and know I will be inundated once everyone knows I am here. I think this position is the best of all worlds for me in that I will travel to all the projects and operate like a consultant, but I have colleagues and I will be able to see what happens with my recommendations. I will also be able to do a lot of training and teaching.