Monday, January 26, 2009

Malaria, the Rebels, and English

So to break the news, Emily has Malaria. She started feeling poorly a couple of nights ago and I thought immediately that it was probably the disease, as it seems to infect everyone in our town at some point. She is on meds and doing quite well, and should be back in action soon. Now all I need to do is go the last few weeks without contracting it!

The Rwandan troops, working with Congolese government troops, just caught the notorious leader of the Congolese rebels, Laurent Nkunda. This is big news here. Nkunda is responsible for a huge number of atrocities all across the northeast region of Congo where we live, things too terrible to write about, so this comes as a huge relief for many. The problem however is two-fold. First, there are still 6,500 Rwandan rebels hiding in the hills in our region, along with a huge number of Congolese rebels loyal to Nkunda. The question is, will these troops surrender now that Nkunda is captured, or will they fight on? Secondly, there are still large numbers of Rwandan troops in the northwest region, and for the most part people here don't trust them. These troops have sent Nkunda to Rwanda, but have refused to say if they will send him to the Congolese capital to stand trial for treason and crimes against humanity. So the issue is complex, but everyone agrees that life is better with Nkunda behind bars.

Finally, I am beginning my English course on reading tomorrow. I am teaching four hours tomorrow, four on Thursday and four on Friday. Then I teach all next week. Wow. The teaching load is a bit more than I was counting on, and I would be lying if I said that I know what I am doing, but nevertheless those students will be taught four hours a day for the rest of the week. What exactly they will be taught I don't know, but they will be taught. Oh the joys of being forcefully removed from your comfort zone and thrust in front of people!

For a cool map of the violence around Congo and our location, along with my travel around the world, go here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Congolese Realities" Chickens, Bucket Showers, and the Dark

How do you get 25 screaming Congolese children to let go of your arms, stop dancing around you, and let you walk through the door to your house? That is the problem that I was confronted with yesterday as Emily and I went for our evening walk around town. Every time we go for a walk around our neighborhood we inevitably gain a following of literally dozens of tiny Congolese children who may be cute, but will absolutely not let you go when they have a hold of you. Last night a neighbor who witnessed our plight came to our aid with a newspaper in hand, literally shooing the kids away running around yelling. That being said, the walks we take around our neighborhood have quickly become a highlight of our time here. We have learned basic French phrases and are quick to wish our neighbors “bonsoir!” or “bonjour! Como sa va?” to which they always respond with a grin and returned greeting. Congo is an interesting place because of the variety of different languages spoken, Swahili, French, English, and two other languages are most common, so often they will combine them by saying “Jambo! Como sa va?” (hello in Swahili, how are you in French.) I have also learned this since my stay began: French is a far easier language to learn than Korean. Every day I try to learn a new phrase or few words, and I am enjoying it immensely.

Emily began her work at the local health clinic yesterday, and is eager to get in on all the action she can. I on the other hand have yet to begin my teaching as there are no English classes until next week, so my job has mostly consisted of being excessively friendly with the students here at the University and helping however I can. Some highlights thus far:

The people are incredibly friendly and constantly thanking me for coming to their country, for a country as ravaged by war as the Congo is, you wouldn’t know it by talking to the people.

I went to a three-hour French speaking church on Sunday that was incredible. Upon entering and sitting amongst the hundreds of people packed into a small empty warehouse, a song began, perhaps the most beautiful I have ever heard in my life. It began almost as a whisper, then was picked up by more and more voices until the entire place echoed with the sound of a beautiful African song. I was moved almost instantly to tears, (a completely unexpected reaction,) as the weight and power of these combined voices pressed in on me. Although I had no idea what they were singing about I was sure it was something deeply beautiful.

My friend Noweh has promised me that before I go I will kill a chicken. He will kill one soon to show me the mechanics of the killing operation, but the next chicken is mine! “You just, like this!” Noweh said to me, demonstrating with his hands the sawing motion used in the operation. “You must feel no pity! Do you pity Jon?” “No” I hesitantly said. “I don’t pity.”

Yesterday I was reminded again of the danger of the country when I saw a young boy run over by a motorcycle. The motorcycle hit him and rolled him forward a few feet before finally bumping over him, the boy’s books and things he was carrying flew into the air. The driver just kept going and never looked back, the boy slowly picked himself up, brushed off his pants, picked up his things and kept going. Unbelievable.

“Congolese Realities.” (Spoken with a soft African accent.) This phrase always makes me smile and is usually said by a Congolese person (often Noweh) to break any awkward tension each time something happens that is an inconvenience; like the bag we lost, like the extra money we had to pay the corrupt soldiers at the border, like no electricity but from 7pm to 10pm, the bucket showers we take. Yesterday we all laughed when we were in the car and we noticed the molding coming off from around one of the windows. “Congolese realities” Noweh said with a sigh, as he tried to fix it. The longer I am here the more I am learning to accept and even appreciate these “realities.”

Walking along our dirt streets last night a mother holding her baby came straight towards me. Without saying a word she held her baby up to me. Not knowing what to do I grabbed its hand and said hello; instantly her child opened its eyes and his face lit up in a beautiful smile. His mother did the same, smiling from ear to ear. I am consistently amazed at how little I have to do to make people happy here, something as simple as touching a child’s hand can have an enormous effect.

Thunderstorms. Every morning since I have been here from about 5 to 8am a thunderstorm strikes Beni, making the streets into mud and the metal on the roof sing. The crack of the thunder and the sound of the rain in Africa is unlike I have heard it anywhere, it is a sweet but indescribably powerful melody, sung to the surrounding hills and forests, sung to wake me up each morning.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hope and Water in the Desert

“This place is hope,” the tall, thin Congolese man standing next to me said as he held his hands out in front of him. “It is like a few drops of water in a vast desert.” A smile crept over his face revealing his white teeth that shown brilliantly against the dark color of his skin. He was taking me on a tour of the Christian Bilingual University in the DRC, a place with great potential but for now consisting of only one building with dirt floors and 90 acres of beautifully dense untouched land. He led me into the building and into the office of Dr. David Kasali, an energetic man with a soft voice and a deep soulful eyes. He showed us a map of his vision, a plan for the University that included dozens of buildings in and around the 90 acres they own. It is a grand vision, one that is slowly coming to fruition. The Congolese way of building is strange from a western perspective, they begin building and build until they run out of money, then they wait and when more money comes they continue building. So the University grounds are scattered with construction, construction that won’t continue until more money is provided. As Dr. Kasali gave us the tour of the University, the students that were on a break from class came and introduced themselves amidst much giggling and laughing as each student prodded the others into introducing themselves. Everyone was so joyful, so full of energy and life, and most had no shoes. Nothing rich about them but the smiles on their faces.

Our tour around the University was the final stop in our haphazard journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Emily and I enjoyed an 8 hour layover in London and made the most of our time by going to Tower Bridge, Picadilly Circle and Hyde Park. We came close to missing our flight to Uganda as I had inadvertently set my watch an hour behind the actual time, so it was not until we were on our way back to the airport that I realized my mistake, but thankfully we made it with five minutes to spare. After London we enjoyed another 9 hour flight to Entebbe, Uganda, at which we arrived at 8:30 in the morning. The first thing I noticed was the heat; the oppressive, humid, heat. We made it to our hotel that was a nice place and were greeted by a small quiet woman who spoke mostly through her deep smile. She showed us to our room, and left without a word. We decided that we needed to contact the Kasalis and ask about the status of the violence that had been reported nearby Beni. After wandering the dirt streets nearby looking for a phone to use, we finally found a small booth that people could use to call internationally. None of our numbers worked, and after trying for a while we gave up and decided to go to Kampala, the capital, and look for phones or internet cafes there. To get there we took a cab, or rather a bus packed to capacity with passengers, about an hour. During that time we drove at wild speeds, almost hit multiple people, cars, and bikes, and witnessed at least one collision between a motorcycle and biker. I don’t know much about Kampala, but I will tell you this: it is completely overwhelming. Thousands of people packed the streets, the air was filled with the noise of people yelling, laughing, arguing, bartering. Bota-botas weaved in and out of the people honking and calling for passengers, the air was filled with the hot humid smell of dirt and body odor. Needless to say I was confused. To make a long story short we got a hold of people in Beni, who told us it was safe to go, but we realized that we had to go back to the airport to track down the people who were supposed to fly us to Congo in the morning. So we made one of our sketchiest decisions to date: we decided to take a bota-bota the whole hour long trip to the airport. We knew it might be a little scary, but we were in for an intense ride. If he wasn’t weaving in and out of traffic, our driver was driving as fast as his motorcycle could go, passing cars and other bota drivers on the way. We arrived safely an hour later, having at one point ripped the left rearview mirror completely off of one of the cars we passed. It was close.

The next day we journeyed to Beni, DRC, a small city in the northeastern area of the country. To get there we took a small propeller plane that was deafening from the inside, as I was seated directly between the two propellers. First we flew to a small city called Bunia, a city that has seen a lot of violence in the last few years. As we exited the plane we were met by a beautiful Congolese woman who greeted us with a jovial “Bonjour!” (French is one of the primary languages spoken in the DRC.) She led us past rows of gruff looking soldiers with AK-47s and into a stuffy room marked with a small hand painted sign that read “immigration.” There we received our visas and were led out of the room and back to our plane. Along the way I made eye contact with a particularly rough looking soldier who smiled and said “Jesus” and started laughing. We gained a few more passengers and were informed that we were going to make an unscheduled stop about 45 min away. As we had no say in the matter we simply smiled and consented. 45 min later we bounced onto the runway at our stop, and I looked outside to see that the reason we bounced around so much was that we had landed on a tiny dirt runway. Greeting us this time were 15 armed soldiers next to a sign that read “Avec Joseph Kabila” (with the president.) Emily and I were cautiously surveying these soldiers when Emily asked me “Jon, what are those long stick things they are carrying?” I looked harder and responded “um…those are rocket launchers Em.” Three of the soldiers carried this deadly weapon in such a cavalier fashion that I wondered if they knew what they were holding. Thankfully we didn’t have to leave the plane this time and in a few minutes we continued on to Beni. We arrived and were met by Dr. Kasali’s brother and taken to our residence for the next month. The house we are staying at is more of a compound than a house as it is huge and surrounded by a large brick wall around which large amounts of frighteningly sharp barbed wire is coiled. We have a friendly night security man who patrols the yard with a machine gun, and at any given time there are 10 to 15 people living in the house so its never quiet. We have met tons of people, all of whom are eager to grab our hands, introduce themselves and smile. The level of poverty here is remarkable, many have no shoes, most have no work and nowhere to go so spend their time sitting in the shade of a tree. I am enjoying the Congo immensely, the love and the sense of community Emily and I have experienced thus far is like nothing else. Each day has proved to be an adventure, and I remain excited to experience all those adventures yet to come.