Sunday, August 8, 2010

Separate Worlds

One of my colleagues is leaving Goma, taking a new job in Bangui (Central African Republic). I’m not sure if I envy her, or feel glad that I’m not going-; it’s a big promotion, but CAR sounds like a tough place, for a variety of reasons.

In any case, she can’t leave without a proper send-off, and we host a party at my boss’ house, on the shore of the lake, a lakeside villa with a gazebo and a view that would cost $20 million were it anywhere else, but instead rents for about $2000 per month. It’s hard to imagine more beautiful scenery or better weather, but it comes with trade-off of seeing the degree of inhumanity humans can inflict on each other. Add one of the most active volcanoes in the world on the outskirts of town, a lake filled with billions of cubic meters of poisonous methane and carbon dioxide, and the raw scars of a genocide that killed 800,000-plus people on the opposite shore, and there’s a reason why a popular nickname for this place is ‘hell in paradise.’

All of that aside, the party goes off without a hitch, except for a lack of ice. The electricity is off throughout the city today– no electricity, no ice. After four unsuccessful stops, we give up on trying to find ice, and settle instead for a blowup swimming pool in the gazebo, which we fill with cool water- everyone will have to enjoy their Primus, Mutzig, Sprite and Fanta semi-chilled, the best we can do. Nobody seems to mind though- everyone at the party has either lived in or is from the developing world, and warm beer is normal when electricity is iffy. There are plenty of goat kebabs, large plates of French fries, and cabbage salad- I even spring for a cake at the supermarket, a chocolate creation with ‘FELICITATIONS ET BON VOYAGE’ written in frosting across the top. My colleague has decided that the dress code for her going-away party is African pagne fabric, so the party is packed with blue flowery shirts, printed pictures of various saints on dresses, and a sport coat made from yellow and red Turbo King beer fabric-(slogan: Une Affaire d’Hommes (A Man’s Business). My colleague Jacques takes the prize, however, with a matching shirt and pant combination made of embroidered Primus Beer print-the explosive combination of red, yellow, blue, and dancing women would be enough to wake your average person…in a coma.

Something surprises me at the party though, something I’ve rarely seen in the years I’ve worked in Africa. Typically at parties like this, where both local staff (Congolese, in this case) and expats are invited, there are really two separate parties. The Congolese all hang out off to the side, drinking Fanta and joking in Swahili; the expats are in the other part of the room, drinking beers and mixed drinks, and trying to hear each other over “Tainted Love,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” and whatever the latest hit of the past three weeks happens to be. Some of this can be chalked up to the music, I assume; Bono’s humanitarianism notwithstanding, U2 doesn’t exactly have a huge following around here, and the average mzungu back home isn’t exactly up on the latest in the Papa Wemba or Koffi Olomide catalog.

This time though, the two groups mingle, a great surprise. An Irish guy from Mercy Corps indulges in Travolta-esque Saturday Night Fever antics, while Jonathan, our Congolese-born and Ugandan-educated Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, shakes it in the middle of a circle of dancing Congolese and expats. Jules, our Congolese Non-Food-Item program manager, belts three fingers worth of Bacardi and launches himself into the crowd.

On the edge of the circle, I see Bienvenu, our Logistician, joking in French with my colleague, the guest of honor.

“C’est interdit pour toi de partir. Je ne le permets pas,” he says. ‘You’re not allowed to leave. I won’t permit it.’ My colleague smiles and suggests that Bienvenu comes to Bangui instead.

And on it goes, with Americans, Italians, British, and Congolese having a good time- the beer flows, the music goes on, and my colleague gets quite a goodbye. I’m still struck by the fact that locals and internationals are mingling as much as they are- you really don’t see that frequently.

It’s part of a larger issue, I think. Although both Congolese and foreigners live in Goma, in many ways we live in completely separate worlds. Yes, we drive the same lava-rock strewn roads, breathe the same dust, and battle the same mosquitoes, but for the most part our lives split there. Most Congolese shop at the local markets, buying bread, manioc, fish, beans, and meat- it’s inexpensive, and not far away. Most expats go to Shoppers or Kivu Market, the two big grocery stores in town, where virtually everything is imported- water, milk, and candy come from Kenya and Uganda, but chocolate, cheese, spices, and AquaFresh toothpaste all come from the US, China, France or Belgium, with a price reflecting the 10,000-mile trip. There are Congolese who shop at these places too, of course, but they tend to be the relatively well-off professionals, for whom buying something imported is a stretch, but not impossible. The restaurants I go to with my foreign colleagues are far, far out of reach for the majority of people here, and usually are packed with groups of mzungu- most of the Congolese there are serving drinks and carrying plates.

I’m not saying this is fair, and it isn’t particularly nice, but it’s the reality of life in a place like this- the disparity is enormous. We live parallel lives from the people we’re ostensibly here to serve, and it requires a mental gearshift to pay laborers a decent wage of $3 per day, and go to Petit Bruxelles in the evening with friends for a $20 steak. I understand how exploitative that sounds, but it goes back to something I’d written about earlier- living at the same level as the people you’re here to serve isn’t part of the job description. Attempting to do so would be almost entirely pointless- difficult for you, and patronizing for people here.

Living life on a different plane isn’t normal, but I’m not sure if there’s any other way to do this job. NGOs and international organizations aren’t going to be able to retain people if they can’t promise them a decent quality of life– I saw that firsthand in Sudan with a previous position in a different organization. It’s a difficult shift for many of us, having served as Peace Corps volunteers, or something similar, where that’s the explicit purpose of why you’re in a community. That integration, while admirable, isn’t really the goal in the NGO life, at least not directly. Of course it’s a good thing to cultivate local friendships and relationships, but the point of coming to a place like Goma is to do what you can to help, not to become Congolese. If that means living a life apart, despite the consequences, I think that’s the price of admission.

That ticket can be a steep one though, a feeling like I’m constantly missing out. There’s an entire other side of Goma that I never see. I pass it on the street, see it from a distance, or simply have no idea about it. Some things are probably best not to see- this is ‘hell in paradise,’ after all. Other things, I’m sure I’d regret missing- if I knew about them. I started doing this work, at least in part, to see as much as possible. In that, I’ve succeeded, experiencing things I never would have imagined- New Year’s Eve in Yaoundé, playing Hacky-Sack with a Chadian toddler, and a sunset over Masisi Territory and Lake Kivu that would make the most hardened cynic gasp at the utter beauty. I’ve also smelled reeking fish in the Yaoundé Central Market, discovered that the same toddler I played hacky sack with died of Malaria before her third birthday, and know that the waters of Lake Kivu were responsible for one of the single worst Cholera outbreaks in history… Parallel tracks, indeed.

I suppose it comes to this; as I continue to move along I have mental pictures of Chad, Uganda, Niger, Sudan, Cameroon, and Congo. Living a life apart though, what I’m mostly seeing, unfortunately, are the broad outlines.

DRC #12-Lake Kivu Paradise, Apr. 10

Yes, Lake Kivu really is this beautiful...

DRC #11-Ngungu, May 10

I took a quick trip up to Ngungu to see how one of the WASH (WAter Sanitation and Hygiene) projects I'm managing is coming along. Things seem to be going well, and Ngungu is still gorgeous...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Death and Taxes

My first field visit after coming back from a vacation in the States feels like a serious mental shift; less than a month ago, I’m browsing through specialty food stores at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, trying to decide if I wanted Ciao Bella’s Bartlett Pear or Dulce de Leche flavored gelato; fast-forward 23 days, and I’m lurching along the roads in Masisi territory, the southern end of North Kivu province, making my way through thick clouds of reddish-grey dust. Moments like this, the distance between Congo and home feels every bit of the 10,000 miles it actually is. Challenging though it may be to come back, at least the scenery is beautiful- Masisi has some of the most stunning landscape I’ve seen my life; bright green hills, carved in geometric plots of potatoes and corn crops along the steepest hillsides, Eucalyptus trees, plump cows, and a cool breeze, all thrust against the shores of Lake Kivu. The view here reminds me of the shores of Lac Léman in Lausanne, Switzerland- if Switzerland went on a tropical vacation, was the size of Western Europe, and had no roads.

As beautiful as eastern DRC is, it was tough to come back from my vacation this most recent time, much harder than I remember it being in the past. I’m not really sure why though; I have a more comfortable life than I’ve ever had working in Africa, I have a good job, and for the most part work with great colleagues. I think at least part of it is the realization of time; sounds cliché, I know, but I’ll be 30 in less than a month, and maybe seeing a milestone just around the corner is a good time to stop and reassess. When I was just home, I met three friends’ new babies, two newly married couples, and others who’d just gotten engaged; all this, and I’m here. I am absolutely aware of how privileged I am, that I get to see things that most people from my world will never experience, fly around to exotic places, take vacations every 3-4 months, and have a generous salary. I have very, very little to complain about. Taking off from San Francisco on the way to Amsterdam, Nairobi, Kigali, and finally Goma was hard though, really hard. Everyone has heard the expression about the grass being greener on the other side- actually though, it’s greener here in Congo, literally.

The green grass along the side of the ‘road’ in Masisi is mostly the color of rust this time of year. I’m traveling with Made, one of the Program Managers I supervise on an education project; we’re building schools in a few communities in Masisi territory, including two in Ngungu, the place I visited a few months back for one of our Water and Sanitation programs. I’m coming along today not only to see how the construction is progressing, but also because it’s my job as the boss to deliver bad news. The news actually isn’t that bad, but it’s one of these things that will sound a lot better coming from me than from Made; whether fair or not, as the mzungu, my words tend to have more impact when explaining policies. Basically, I’m here to explain to the construction workers building our schools that with the Congolese government having changed their policy, we’re required to take 15% of the salary we owe them to pay as taxes to the state. Considering that we’re paying the masons, carpenters, and laborers anywhere from $3-5 per day, this feels absurd, but it’s the policy, and in order to remain in good standing as an organization, we have to follow it.

“If I tell them, they’re going to assume that I’m just putting the money in my pocket,” Made says, when he explains the situation to me the other day. “You should go, and tell them- they’ll believe you more than me.”

We have four school sites to visit today, and four groups of workers to whom I have to deliver the bad news, that although we’ll cover the taxes this time, next time, they’re only getting 85% of what they originally thought they would be. Not a fun message, but it has to be explained. Our first stop is in a village called Kanyabikono, a short detour off the main road that eventually will take us up to Ngungu. We bounce along past yet another incredible mountain vista, passing by the remains of a coffee roasting plant, until we arrive at the construction site. Six new classrooms and a director’s office are quickly taking shape; off to the side a group of kids, looking bored, watches as the carpenters hammer and the masons mix pyramids of cement and gravel. I walk around with the director, asking deeply probing questions like, “How many students do you have here?”

Everything looks like it’s moving along on, or even ahead of, schedule, a relief. Now it’s time to deliver the bad news. Made and I ask all of the laborers to join us, and we sit on benches in an old classroom the new school is replacing. Made speaks with them in Swahili, while Janvier, one of his assistants, sits next to me and whispers the translation into French in my ear.

“I’m very impressed by the work you’re doing here- it’s going very quickly, and you deserve a round of applause,” he says, clapping his hands for them. Oddly, the workers clap as well. Made explains the schedule we expect things to finish on, and again repeats that he’s very happy with how things have been going. He continues to speak in Swahili, but I see him turn to me, gesture, and I hear mzungu- they’re playing my song.

“Vous avez la parole,” Janvier whispers to me. You have the floor.

I quickly introduce myself- I speak in French, as my Swahili is limited mostly to ‘hello,’ ‘water,’ and ‘mzungu.’

“On behalf of our organization, I also want to thank you for all of the work you’ve been doing, we’re very impressed,” I say. “I know that this work is very difficult.”

“Très difficile,” one of the workers agrees.

“I came here today to see how the work was going, but also because we needed to talk with you about something important,” I continue. “As you know, we’re an organization registered with the Congolese government, and because of that, we have certain obligations. One of those obligations is to pay taxes to the state. What this means is that today, we’re going to give you the whole amount of the money we originally agreed on.” I stop and look at the contract we prepared- $800.

“Today, we’re going to give you $800. The next time though, Congolese law requires us to take 15 percent of this back as taxes for the state.”

The workers don’t look happy about this; I can’t blame them. Even though we pay them a decent wage by rural Congolese standards, their take home pay suddenly going from $88 to $75 is a hard pill to swallow. Many of these guys are likely the only ones with any sort of job, even a temporary one, and too many of them support too many people on too little money. Not only this, but paying taxes here is about as useful as putting a pile of Francs in a barrel, adding kerosene, and setting the whole thing on fire.

In the States and in the West at large, we have issues with corruption, of course, but at least in theory when we pay taxes they have some useful purpose, like roads, schools, and police. In Congo though, the road are a volcanic-rock-strewn, potholed and muddy mess, NGOs like ours are responsible for building schools and paying teachers, and the sole job of the police seems to be to stop people for meaningless violations to demand money and/or cigarettes. Given this, I can understand why these guys aren’t enthusiastic about giving up a portion of their pay for nothing.

Suddenly, an idea hits. People around here are big on expressions and proverbs, and one pops into my head. Maybe this is a good way to get the message across.

“Here is an American proverb,” I say. “Dans la vie, il n’y a que deux choses qui sont certaines. La mort, et les impots,” I tell them. In life, there are only two things that are certain; death, and taxes.

At first, I’m not sure if the message makes it through. Made looks at me for a second, pauses, and translates what I just said into Swahili. It works. The workers laugh, and I hear at least a few of them repeat the saying in French.

I still don’t think they’re happy about it, but at least they seem to understand that this is something we have to do, not that we want to do. After they sign a receipt, I reach into my backpack and pull out a stack of $20s and $100s, which I count out slowly as they watch. We hand the money to the supervisor, climb into the cars, and head to the next site. We have the same conversation three more times during the day, and each time, it’s a similar response. Nobody is happy about losing money, but after we make it clear that this is the government policy, and there’s nothing we can do to change it, the workers seem to accept it, and we move on.

I can’t remember who said it, but to paraphrase, it’s been written that the taxes we pay are the price of admission to have a functional society. Without taxes, the police don’t come when you call, the fire burns down your house, teachers don’t come to work because they don’t get paid, and the roads fall apart. Without taxes, you have eastern Congo.

The next time the Tea Party set feels like they’re throwing money away for the government, I’d suggest a visit here. Yes, money gets wasted in the US; the difference, however, is that in Congo, there’s rarely even a transparent attempt to make people believe that the state is serving their best interest. In my mind, that’s the difference between a state, and a failed state. Failed state or not, taxes are taxes, and as four groups of laborers in Masisi territory can now explain, few things are certainties in life, but this is one of them.

Kigali, May 10

I took advantage of a long weekend to visit Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It was a nice break, and chance to have a little bit of normality, with coffee shops, 24-hour supermarkets, and more.

DRC #10-Fun in Goma/Gisenyi, Apr. 2010

Since I arrived in Goma, I've been fortunate to meet some great people, and despite all the work, managed to have a good time...

Monday, May 17, 2010

The African?

Back home, my stepfather was recently in a community theater production of Man of La Mancha. It’s the first time he’s been in a production in more than 20 years, following his glory days in high school and college as the lead in practically everything, from ‘The Music Man’ to ‘Hair.’ Obviously, I wasn’t able to see the show, as much as I’d have liked to, but one of the tradeoffs of living overseas is that you get to see things you’d never experience back home, but the experiences back home are often the ones you’d most like to be a part of.

I at least get an emailed version of the program from the show, however, which is fun to read. Something catches my eye as I scan through the biography though.

‘Ken also has two grown step-sons, Nathaniel "the African," and Alex "the Singing Chef" Tishman.’

The whole ‘Singing Chef’ thing is a long story- one better left to my brother’s blog. But ‘the African,’ I guess that must be me.

Really? Have I become African?

In some ways, maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe I’ve picked up some of the positive qualities from the places I’ve worked and lived on this continent. There’s a lot of good to be had here; the resilience of the Chadians who became my friends and colleagues in Gounou-Gaya, the welcoming hospitality of many of the Congolese I’ve come to know over the past few months, the artistic talent of the silversmiths and leatherworkers in Niger from whom I bought jewelry and sandals, or an appreciation for the athletic wizardry of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon on the soccer field. Obviously, I’m not saying that I’ve picked up all of these skills, of course, but being exposed to them has at least shown me parts of Africa that I would never have known about before this whole job/career/adventure/experience started.

Looking at it from the other side of the coin, however, many of the patterns and traits I see here are things that I’m glad that I haven’t learned or adapted. Too often, it feels like creative thinking is an impossible task, that fatalism saps any sort of progress, and that the ultimate ambition is to end up with a Mercedes-Benz, a potbelly, and a houseful of servants to order around. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve developed too many of these ‘qualities,’ as far as I can tell.

But what does being ‘African’ mean, exactly? That’s like saying I’m ‘North American,’ implying that by being born in Alaska and raised in Florida and California, I somehow have the same outlook and mentality as someone from rural Mexico- they’re North American too, after all. On a continent of 1.3 billion people broken into almost 55 separate nations, there are certainly plenty of commonalities, but the average Moroccan is likely to have at least a slightly different outlook on the world that a Mozambican would, considering they live as far from each other as England and Kazakhstan.

When you hear about ‘killer bees’ in the US, they often talk about them as being ‘Africanized,’ a breed of more aggressive insect. Has the Africanized me become more aggressive too? Maybe. I’ve noticed that the longer I seem to work in places like Chad, Cameroon, Congo, or anywhere else, I have less and less tolerance for what seem to me to be poor decisions, lack of foresight, or simply acceptance of a non-functional status quo. If something doesn’t work, rather than simply living with the problem or claiming that the French/Belgians/British/Portuguese or (insert other colonial power here) caused the problem, I wish I saw more people making an effort to solve the problem, and when I don’t see it, it can drive me crazy.

Maybe that’s overly aggressive, maybe it’s a lack of cultural sensitivity, or maybe it’s simply an inability to adapt, but I think it’s something else- simply a realization that no matter how long I spend here, I’ll never be ‘African,’ even if that was something I wanted. My outlook on the world is always going to be different than people I meet in Goma, Juba, or anywhere else, and the clash of perspectives comes to a head at times, pissing me off.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, one of the most important things to focus on was on ‘integration,’ becoming part of your adopted community. In that sense, the idea was to ‘become African’ in a way, if that meant taking an adopted name, bargaining at the market over the same dried fish parts and millet, and traveling in the same bush taxis and cargo trucks with everyone else. It was a critical part of your ability to succeed; working at such a micro-level, often with a small village or a few close colleagues, there had to be a sense that people in the community understood you could relate to their experiences, even if you still lived a life apart simply by virtue of having the magic blue booklet stamped ‘PASSPORT’ with an eagle on the front.

As I’ve continued to work in Africa though, I’ve come to realize that the higher up you move in the field, the less it’s possible to integrate. As a foreigner working in the NGO world, my life is a world away from the average person I see in Goma; I buy things without being overly concerned about price, I travel when and where I feel like it, and my housemate and I have cleaners, gardeners, and 24-hour guards at home. I live a life of ridiculous wealth on a salary that’s solidly average by Western standards. The reality of this is a distance that didn’t exist when I was teaching 11th graders in Gounou-Gaya.

Some people try to integrate a bit too much, I think, the clichéd idea of ‘going native.’ To me, this just seems stupid. It doesn’t prove anything, except that you can endure Giardia on a regular basis, and that you’ve sublimated everything about who you are to make a point that seems lost on the majority of people in the adopted community; they know you’re not one of them, and barring extraordinary and impossible adaptation, you never will be, at least not all the way. I remember a colleague as a Peace Corps volunteer who tried this, seemingly drinking the dirtiest water available, walking alone through N’Djamena in the evening, and basically doing everything possible to be as Chadian as possible. One time this person asked me, ‘Why are you really here?,’ disdain dripping from every word. Clearly, I wasn’t ‘African’ enough for this person’s taste. Maybe it was something that I realized even then, that you can live within a community, but that still leaves you a long way from being completely part of that community. It’s one thing to be culturally sensitive, but sensitivity doesn’t mean a complete abandonment of everything that makes you a Westerner, just because you’re not living in the West, at least to me.

None of this is to say you can’t have close friends and colleagues in an adopted home in the developing world, but the differences grow greater as you move higher, and trying to pretend they don’t exist serves no one, in my mind. If you have a decent job with a good salary, attempting to integrate by living like a broke volunteer is simply patronizing to your local friends and co-workers; they know perfectly well you can afford to live a comfortable life. But again, a nice house and financial freedom doesn’t mean you can’t have local friends and make an effort to learn as much as possible of the language, culture, history and traditions of a place.

When I first started doing this work, now more than 5 (!) years ago in Chad, I felt like it was critical to integrate as much as possible, to become a part of the community as much as you possibly could. I still think this is a noble idea, but as time has gone on, I’ve come around to thinking that maybe a healthy degree of respect while still maintaining some sort of distance might be more appropriate. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. Rather than try to be something I’m not, I’d rather pick and choose where I can, combining the cultures I’ve lived in as some sort of mixture that’s better than the sum of its parts. I’m happy to try to live a life here that combines the education, values and beliefs that have been instilled in me from childhood as an American, hopefully coupled with some of the positive traits I’ve come to admire over the years in each of the places on this continent I’ve had the privilege to live in or visit.

In the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote spends his time ‘tilting at windmills,’ living a fantasy form of adventure that doesn’t really fool anyone else. To me, the idea of trying to ‘be African’ in a place like this is a similarly fantastical quest. It’s not that you can’t appreciate and acquire some of what you see in a place like this, but attempting to reinvent yourself as Congolese, Chadian, Cameroonian or anything else is as transparent and as doomed to failure as Quixote’s attempt to joust a set of whirling blades. Becoming ‘African’ is something that perhaps a small part of you can transform, but its impossible to adapt completely; I, for one, would rather be happy with who I am- a little African, a bit Floridian, mostly Californian with a hint of Colorado and Massachusetts, but in the end, still me, and better off for the good qualities here that do exist.

In my stepfather’s program, I’m ‘the African;’ maybe that does play a role in who I am, but if it does, it’s not the lead. In the play of my life, there’s an African understudy, but the lead is definitely American.

DRC #9-Walikale/Ndjingala, Mar. 2010

One of our projects is in Walikale Territory, about 200km west of Goma in the forest. We've been installing a water system and other similar projects for people who have been displaced by conflict in the area.

For more information, see the captions...

DRC #8-Rutshuru School Opening, Apr. 2010

As we've been finishing up one of our education projects, we held a ceremonial opening for a few of the schools we built in Rutshuru Territory, north of Goma in Virunga National Park. We traveled as a group there at the end of March to participate, and inaugurate the new buildings...

DRC #7-Gisenyi/Goma, Mar. 2010

We all need to be able to take a break, and for those of us in Goma, we're fortunate to have Gisenyi, Rwanda just across the border... It's a nice break, and they even have a beach.

I promise that life really can be challenging here, photos of paradise aside...

Monday, April 5, 2010

DRC #5-Walkikale NFI Fairs Part 1, Mar. 2010

I traveled to Walikale, about 200km west of Goma, in the forest. We were organizing NFI (non-food-item) fairs, where people who had been displaced by war are given vouchers that they can use to purchase things like mattresses, cookware, clothing, and more.

DRC #6-Walkikale NFI Fairs Part 2, Mar. 2010

More photos from the Non-Food-Item Fairs in Walikale


A few days in Ngungu, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m becoming numb, if I’ve reached the point in the humanitarian and development field where little, if anything, surprises me any longer. Maybe this sounds melodramatic, but walking the short distance between our office and guesthouse, I see things that would shock people unfamiliar with life in the developing world. Has something changed in me to the point where I barely notice some of these things any longer?

I walk with the team to go and visit one of the local authorities this morning- it poured last night and mud is everywhere, punctuated by the occasional stone jutting out of the alleged ‘road’ through town. We pass between two houses and make our way towards a central square of sorts, the office for the government representative. We pass one of the front courtyards of a house, and I see a toddler, a little boy who looks to be maybe around a year old. He’s wearing the ragged remains of a white sweater, of which a few shards dangle from each corner. He has nothing else on and sits plopped down in a pit of mud, making noises to himself. His nose is dripping a grayish-green mixture, and his face is streaked with dirt. His stomach, distended, protrudes from underneath the bits of sweater that remain. This kid is a toddling, lurching, pediatric nightmare- undoubtedly undernourished and presumably filled with amoebas, parasites, and disease from the contaminated water he drinks and the mud he plays in. Drop him down in front of your average parent in the States, Japan, or Europe as-is, and Child Protective Services (or whatever the local equivalent) would seize him from his abusers without a second thought- in Ngungu however, the mud puddle is day care. I walk by, and although I see the toddler, I barely react- I keep walking- another day in Africa.

As we continue back to the house, I pass a soldier. This isn’t anything unusual; DRC is a heavily militarized place, and soldiers are a constant presence. What strikes me though, is that rather than a soldier, this is a kid of about 13, wearing fatigues and cradling an automatic rifle. To identify him as exactly what he is, a child soldier, is to understand that his existence here, in these fatigues and with his gun, violates dozens of UN and national policies about the use of kids in combat, and would expose his leaders to charges of child abuse of the worst sort if this were a different place. I glance at him as I walk along, and although I have some peripheral awareness at how bizarre and wrong this is, I keep going.

On the way back to the house, I see three women, walking barefoot in the mud; this may actually be the best strategy to keep from slipping. This isn’t what catches my attention though. The women each have a 25kg sack of cement on their backs, attached by a strap tied onto their foreheads. They’re clearly struggling under the weight of the bags, and have a blank glassy-eyed expression on their faces that can only be described as cow-like. I’m well-aware of how bad that sounds, but it’s the truth- it’s as if everything making these women people is gone, and all that remains is a beast of burden. The vacancy behind their eyes is something that would shock most people, I know, but I’ve seen it countless times over the past few years, to the point where it doesn’t faze me, I simply accept it as part of life here.

When I was a kid, and through my early teenage years, my dad was a funeral director. To answer the inevitable question, we never did live in the funeral home. Having him in this line of work meant that I was exposed to death far more regularly than most people, certainly most kids, to the point where walking in on my dad in the middle of embalming someone or scraping ashes out of the crematory seemed almost normal. I remember asking him about it once, how he handled being around bodies, some whom were people who had undoubtedly suffered violent, untimely, and painful deaths. He explained that the only way he could do this sort of job was to compartmentalize himself, the same way firefighters of police officers would at the scene of a horrific accident or crime. It’s not that this is a unique skill, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. I’m starting to think that humanitarian worker is another one of those professions where this is necessary- seeing so much human suffering, degradation, appalling conditions and misery can tear you apart if you don’t have some way to cope with it. Many people in this field turn to alcohol or drugs, and burnout/mental breakdown is a constant threat. Although I’ve been able (fortunately) to avoid substance abuse, I suppose this work has caused me to form a sort of mental callus, to the point that things that would shock me in another life barely seem to elicit a shrug.

In spite of the numbness that can (and does, at times) exist, there are little moments from time to time that make doing this sort of thing feel worth it, and make me realize I’m not completely crazy to go 15,000km from home and work in some of the most impoverished, conflict-ridden and otherwise fucked up spots on the planet. Looking out the doorway as I write this, I see a little girl in a clean neon-green dress, maybe four years old, running along a muddy path. She’s towing a homemade kite made of a few scraps of wood, a length of thin vine, and a plastic bag stretched across the frame. She clearly doesn’t have a care in the world, and seems concerned only with keeping the kite in the air- I can’t help but smile as I watch her.

Driving to a nearby village the other day, we get briefly stuck in a large mud pit. Forced to stop while the driver coaxes the Land Cruiser free of the thick brown/black goo, I find a scene of almost impossible beauty spread out in front of me. The sky is sapphire blue with a few wispy clouds sailing on the breeze, and a series of dazzlingly green mountains and fields planted with corn and potatoes surrounds our car. In the distance, I can see herds of black and white cows gorging themselves on the hillside. It’s a scene so perfectly idyllic as to be cliché, and a place that my family and friends back home are likely never to see.

The natural beauty and unadulterated joy I get to see and experience as part of what I do doesn’t erase the other side, the poverty, dirt, abuses of basic human rights and dignity, but it helps make it bearable, at least to the point where I’m not ready to abandon this field, not yet. The good manages to balance out the bad, to an extent, and form some sort of reasonable mental equilibrium. As I write this last paragraph, a song comes up on my iPod, and I can’t help but laugh at how well it encapsulates this state exactly. “I,” sings Roger Waters and Pink Floyd on “The Wall,” “have become/Comfortably Numb.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

DRC #3- Rutshuru Part 1

I traveled to Rutshuru, a region about 85 kilometers north of Goma in the middle of Virunga National Park. We've been working on a project there to build new schools, pay teachers, and provide supplies for communities that have been displaced by war throughout the region.

As a bonus, the area is absolutely stunningly beautiful, as you'll see below...

DRC #4-Rutshuru Part 2

More pictures from the trip to Rutshuru and the villages in and around Virunga National Park

Up to Ngungu

I’ve never been to Ireland, but visiting Ngungu, I think I have a sense of what it might be like… if I was visiting 1,500 years ago. The hills are emerald green and grassy, there are plump cows everywhere, potatoes and cabbage are the staple foods, and the weather seems to constantly cycle between fog and rain, chilly all the while. Ngungu is 80 kilometers from Goma, easily another 1,000 meters up, and many, many centuries behind the times in terms of development, minus the tin roofs and the occasional nasal beep of a motorcycle horn.

Beautiful as it is, I’m not here for the scenery. Like virtually every human settlement in DRC, from the urban chaos that is Kinshasa to the tiniest village, access to water is an enormous problem. There might be plenty of it around, but drinking a bit is likely to give you stomach cramps, diarrhea, and maybe even a bacterial infection or amoebas if you really hit the jackpot. This is where we come in; I’m leading a team in collaboration with Ibrahim, our water engineer, and we’re conducting a study about people’s perceptions about the quality of the water they drink, and seeing how knowledgeable they are about basic sanitation, things like washing hands before cooking or after using the latrine. We have a team of agents on the ground already, trying to spread messages about simple things anyone can do to have better hygiene. A truckload of PVC pipes, valves, clamps and cement arrived this morning, the first step in construction of new water points, latrines and showers for the people of Ngungu.

The ‘road’ up here from Goma, if you actually can label it as such, is something to behold in more ways than one. It’s spectacularly bad in sections, with enormous patches of thick, blackish mud, seemingly wide enough to swallow a 4x4 whole. Equally, if not more spectacular though, is the beauty of the drive- North Kivu is undoubtedly the scenic jewel of DRC, and the way to Ngungu might be the single most beautiful point in the province. Climbing the mountains out of Goma, the views of steep green mountainsides and the enormous bluish-gray expanse of Lake Kivu form a vista that would rival any Swiss postcard. Once you actually arrive, however, the scenery is still beautiful, but the town is behind the times, even by the standards of the developing world. Electricity is a distant dream, naturally, everything is muddy, the market has very little available aside from the ubiquitous (and weak) Tiger Head brand batteries, tubes of super glue, and barely edible ‘Glucose Biscuits.’ There’s a strong odor of cow manure that seems to come and go on the wind, and soldiers in mismatched fatigues who look like they couldn’t possibly be more than 15 wander around aimlessly cradling large machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

On the first full day in town I accompany Ibrahim and our team of technicians to a series of water points, where we’re collecting samples for testing. Each water point, usually no more than a pipe sticking out of the ground is surrounded by women and young kids carrying large plastic Jerry Cans- water collection is definitely not a man’s business in this or any other part of Congo. The pipes were put in place by a German NGO many years earlier, and although they still deliver water, they’re badly contaminated in many cases. The water points are surrounded by a sea of mud, and people wade across it barefoot to fill their containers, often several times daily. The technicians take turns filling small sample containers, checking the pH, taking the water temperature, and measuring the turbidity (the cloudiness) of the water at the source. Each result is carefully recorded in a notebook to be included alongside bacteriological tests later on.

In addition to the water testing, we also administer our questionnaire to a random sample of households throughout Ngungu and a few of the surrounding villages. We’re asking very simple questions, things like, “Do you think it is important to wash your hands?” and “Does the container you store water in have a cover or not?” It’s fairly basic information, but the sort of data that’s essential in allowing us to get an idea of how much, if anything, your average family of residents or internally-displaced people knows about elementary hygiene practices. The interviewers go to a randomly-chosen house and ask to see the adult woman, as she’s almost always the one responsible for collecting water, feeding and bathing children, and cleaning up garbage inside and out. Many of the women seem shy or reluctant to respond at first, although a little by a coaxing by the interviewer seems to cause them to open up. Listening to their answers, even though a translator, can be revealing, and it’s surprising just how low the level of knowledge about this sort of thing seems to be. Multiple people said that they rarely, if ever, wash their hands following a trip to the latrine, and the idea of having a covered storage vessel for water seems foreign to many. The interviews are (for the most part) conducted entirely in Swahili , the local language in this area. This was actually a big surprise to me; I’d never thought of Swahili being spoken outside of Anglophone east African countries like Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, and finding out it was the main language in eastern DRC wasn’t something I’d expected. It makes sense though- this part of the country borders Uganda, and Tanzania farther to the south, so it’s only natural that the language would have made it here, although it does have a strong French flavor to it in these parts.

Since Swahili is the common language here, there’s one word I recognize immediately from my (brief) time in Uganda, ‘mzungu,’ the universal word for ‘foreigner,’ or ‘white.’ I hear it constantly here, from the hordes of kids who follow me whenever I leave the house, fascinated by every move I make. I’ve often wondered what could be so endlessly fascinating about me simply because my skin is a different color- as I write this, I’m sitting outside, and more than a dozen children are watching me as I put pen to paper silently. Walking around collecting water samples with the team yesterday, I (no joke) must have heard mzungu 2,000 times in two hours of testing. Something I’ve noticed over the years that holds true here as well is that the sight of a white foreigner seems to inspire people to do the most bizarre things. Kids mug and stare at me as I walk by, make faces, give exaggerated thumbs-up or karate poses, while young teenagers shout bits of fractured English (“HowareyouIamfineandyou!”), while others simple stare, hiss, or give what feels like a mocking laugh- it’s enough to drive you into blinding rage, if you let it get to you. Instead, I try to let it bounce off, stay as impassive as possible for the most part, although someone being particularly persistent or ridiculous can make me show a flash of annoyance or smile a bit. It’s not that I enjoy being stone-faced while being shouted at, bur I find it’s the best defense mechanism to prevent me from going insane over being stared at like a zoo animal. In this, I have to say that I envy Ibrahim, who’s Sierra Leonean, and blends in with everyone else.

One word I’ve been called is a surprise though, and I hear it for the first time as I’m walking around; after the first time, I hear it several hundred more times.


For the uninitiated, MONUC is the acronym for the United Nations Mission in Congo, MONUC in French, and the largest UN peacekeeping operation in history, at more than $1.4 billion a year. Apparently I singlehandedly represent the United Nations. I think for an instant about responding, ‘that’s Mr. MONUC to you,” I don’t think the joke would really make it across the language barrier.

“MONUC, biscuit!”, the kids yell, demanding cookies. I find out from one of the agents that the MONUC troops often pass out cookie s to the kids as they patrol. Joseph, my colleague (and fellow mzungu) jokes with me that if you were to come back to this part of Congo in 30 years and ask the adults at that time what the mandate of MONUC was, they’d probably say it was to distribute cookies. Since many of the MONUC soldiers are non-African, from places like Uruguay and India, it stands to reason to the kids of Ngungu that any foreigner must be MONUC, and must therefore, be carrying an endless supply of cookies to be surrendered upon shouted demand.

Being in a place like this, it can be easy to feel disappointed or dispirited at the incredible amount of squandered and ignored potential. I suppose you could make that statement about DRC in general, which has an alleged $24 trillion of mineral resources under its soil, but this goes beyond simple wealth from something extracted out of the ground. If some authority or backer, whether the Congolese government or someone else, were to invest in an actual road, electricity, and a functional water system, it would have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of Ngungu and other communities in the area in several ways. For one, it would notably improve life for everyone concerned, the most important thing. Secondly, it would be possible to bring tourists here- this place could be paradise. If people other than the locals and humanitarian workers were to see the scenery I saw yesterday, the money would pour in, and this region could get on the road to stability and development. Uganda and Rwanda, both less than 200 kilometers from here, have figured this out, and have infrastructure for people to see the mountains, the gorillas, and the lakes- there’s no reason DRC couldn’t do exactly the same thing. I don’t see it happening though, at least not anytime soon- the fatalism, corruption, and willful slowing of progress for political gain seem too entrenched.

Ngungu isn’t likely to change much, aside from (hopefully) an improved water system and fewer cases of diarrhea. It’ll still look like Ireland, complete with hills, mist, potatoes and fresh cheese, but it’ll be the Ireland of the early Middle Ages, for the most part. One reason for this, I think, is the functionality of the government, and the systems that underpin it. In Ireland there’s a legal system which has played at least a part in enabling it to develop in the way it has- the only legal framework I see applying to Ngungu has an Irish name at least- Murphy’s Law.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

DRC #2-Ngungu Baseline

For my first visit, I traveled to the small town of Ngungu, about 80 kilometers from Goma, in the mountains of Masisi Territory. We're working on a project to improve access to clean water for people in the community, and helping to promote better hygiene habits where we can. It's a long process, and not an easy one, but we can at least make a start of it. As a bonus, the area is stunningly beautiful, as you'll see below...

DRC #1-Welcome to Goma

Back in the days when this was the Belgian Congo, Goma used to be something of a resort town for the colonial settlers. With the scenery around here, it's easy to understand why... Unfortunately the authorities here are very touchy about taking photos in town, so there's only so many pictures I can post- I'll do what I can though.

We now return to our regularly scheduled emergency...

“Nah-than-iel, I wanted to talk with you about something.” Christophe, the Country Representative and my boss in Yaoundé is calling me, his English spoken with a strong Francophone Belgian accent.

…And just like that, my time in Cameroon ends and the next chapter begins.

“I was in touch with the regional office, and they wanted to discuss a position in Congo with you,” Christophe continues. “Would you potentially be interested?”

I pause a minute before I say anything, many considerations flashing through my mind. Congo. This is a place that’s been synonymous for decades with war, corruption, dictatorship, dysfunctional infrastructure, and everything else that gives Africa a bad reputation. Truly the ‘Heart of Darkness,’ as it was famously called by Joseph Conrad. Working in Congo would mean saying goodbye to much of the comfort and stability that have come with living in Cameroon, a developing, but largely together place, at least in the cities. It’d mean heading back into the maw of emergency work, having already experienced similar situations in Chad, northern Uganda and southern Sudan- my days of DSL at home, spring rolls at the Vietnamese restaurant, and cruising down the national highways at 110 km/hour would be over, replaced by emergency needs assessments, UN helicopter flights, and awful stories of flight from disaster and other miseries. Do I really want to give up the relatively comfortable life of working in ‘development’ for its rougher, harsher, and more intense cousin, ‘emergency?’ That’s exactly what this would mean. So, on one hand it’d mean saying goodbye to a fairly comfortable life- on the other, it’d be a huge opportunity; my salary would more than double, and I could have the distinction of putting Chad, Sudan, and DRC on my CV, the true humanitarian disaster trifecta.

“Yes, I’d definitely consider it,” I tell Christophe. “What would I need to do?”

One 10-minute ‘interview’ (more of a casual chat) with the Country Representative in Kinshasa, and a brief conversation with the head of the sub-office, and it’s done- I’m leaving Cameroon, next stop Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where I’ll be managing emergency Water/Sanitation and Education operations for CRS. Less than two weeks later I step off the jetway at Yaoundé/Nsimalen Airport onto a waiting Kenya Airways 737, next stops Douala, Nairobi, Bujumbura, Kigali, and Goma. Landing at the small terminal in Kigali, it’s immediately obvious what they say about Rwanda, that it’s a country going places. Following the horror of the 1994 genocide, people have said that the country turned a corner, and is on the way to becoming a well-developed and organized place where things work, in other words, not your typical African nation. The current president, Paul Kagame, has been called the ‘Napoleon of Africa,’ and seems determined to drag his country out of the morass of corruption and poverty that seems to hinder everything in this part of the world. Many people have said that Kagame has overseen this development at the price of true democracy, however, so it’s not as if everything is perfect. Perhaps an analog might be the government of Singapore, which turned a backwater into a global hub, but did it at the expense of civil liberties. Under the surface many of the of the old wounds and tribal hatreds undoubtedly endure, but it’s difficult to see much evidence of this on my brief drive through Kigali’s impeccably clean and manicured streets, with tall buildings and activity everywhere.

“Voici Gisenyi et Goma,” our driver says, referring to the Rwandan border town first. Here are Gisenyi and Goma, the place I’ll call home.The city quickly gives way to the countryside as we climb up steep green mountainsides offering incredible vistas of the landscape below. The highway (and it can legitimately be called as such) is well-paved, striped, and has large white pillars marking every kilometer. It’s a three-hour drive from Kigali to the eastern border Rwanda shares with its enormous neighbor DRC, perhaps 25 times its size, or greater. Goma sits directly on the border, making Kigali far more accessible than the Congolese capital Kinshasa, more than 1,500 impenetrable jungle-filled kilometers to the southwest. Driving through the mountains of Rwanda, we suddenly reach a point where we’re overlooking a body of water that looks as big as one of the Great Lakes in the US, ringed with green mountains and the glint of many thousands of tin roofs in the late-afternoon sunlight.

The border crossing is surprisingly easy, and once we cross, the change is immediate. The well-paved road disappears, replaced by cracked and potholed tarmac; the buildings look less well-constructed, and everything has a more run-down feel to it.

Like Gisenyi, Goma sits on the shore of Lake Kivu- back in the days when this place was the Belgian Congo, Goma used to be something of a resort town. The weather is consistently pleasant, the views are stunning, and the black volcanic soil coming from Mount Nyiragongo, 12 km to the north, enables farmers to grow every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. Unfortunately Goma has become has become known for other things over the years, none of them good. In 1994, at the height of the Rwandan genocide, waves of Hutu and Tutsi refugees poured across the border into Goma and hastily-arranged refugee camps on the shores of the lake. In the midst of a natural paradise, conditions quickly became hellishly grim, and a cholera outbreak only added to the misery. Cholera is an incredibly contagious disease, and by the time the epidemic had burned itself out a few weeks later, thousands were dead. To make things worth, North Kivu province, of which Goma is the capital became the scene of some of the worst of the fighting during the DRC’s multiple civil wars in the 1990s. As if to ensure that this place could never get a break, that it was cursed despite the idyllic setting, Mt. Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and sent an inferno of lava cascading through town, largely obliterating the central business district. The last kilometer of the airport runway was buried in lava, and to this day cars crawl along the dried lava flow, leading to streets that are made entirely of large rocks. Driving anywhere in town, with the exception of the handful of recently paved roads feels like going on one of the test courses you see at Land Rover dealerships in the US or Europe, only real, and for kilometers at a stretch.

As the scene of so much misery, human-caused and otherwise, Goma has become a humanitarian and NGO hub, and any international nonprofit worth it’s 501c3 status has a presence of some sort here, and as such, this place is something of a boomtown. In addition to the NGOs, MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission Congo (and largest of its kind in history) has set up a major operations base here, and the massive salaries the UN fonctionnaires bring with them (as well as the comfortable salaries of NGO workers) have sent prices skyrocketing for everyday items. Imported goods are expensive wherever you go, but a box of Corn Flakes doesn’t generally cost $12 except in NGO-stan, places like Goma, Juba, and N’Djamena. Expatriates in the developing world, with the exception of Peace Corps volunteers and missionaries (although even them to an extent) always live something of a life apart from the communities in which they live, but in Goma the divide feels especially dramatic. Foreigners (myself included) live in enormous villas with tile floors, spacious rooms, comfortable furniture, generators to cover for the regular power outages, all surrounded by massive walls and razor wire. Contrast this with the house of the average Congolese family in Goma, which in many cases wouldn’t be fit for animals in the developed world. At Shopper’s Market, the store where all the UN and NGO staff seem to shop, 200 grams of imported foie gras costs $49, but the vast majority of people in town struggle to earn more than a dollar or two a day. I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid this disparity; it seems simply to be fact of life in this part of the world, and in this career.

It can be hard to think of Goma as a ‘hardship post,’ a place where I’m receiving ‘danger pay.’ I think of this the other night when I go a party hosted by someone working for UNICEF. The house sits on the shore of Lake Kivu, surrounded by a stone dock and manicured garden of rolling lawns and tropical flowers. The weather is cool and pleasant, and the slight breeze makes the moonlight ripple on the shore of the lake. I chat with other expats like myself, drinking Absolut and snacking on crackers and imported French cheese. Someone’s iPod blares a mix of upbeat party tunes, and more English is being spoken than anything else. Looking across the lake it’s easy to forget that in a setting as perfect as this thousands have died needlessly and will continue to die from pointless war and easily preventable disease. That’s the paradox of Goma and other places like it, I guess- relative luxury in the midst of suffering. Yes, my life isn’t as comfortable as what I had in Cameroon, but it’s pretty damned nice- one look around is all I need to figure that out. It’s not that this sort of inequality should be the acceptable status quo, but for the moment this is how things are, and it’s time to adapt. This is where I’ll be living, and I may as well find a way to work within it; now entering bizarro-world, population plus-one.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cameroon #9-Thank you, Yaoundé, and goodnight

...And just like that, it's time to move on to somewhere new. Not before a few get-togethers and photos though...

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where it all began

Another entry, another African capital. This time though, I already know my way around.

For the first time since 29 Peace Corps volunteers and staff crossed the Chari to avoid the forces of the FUCD (yes, seriously), April 14, 2006 at about 10:30 AM, I'm back in Chad, in N'Djamena. I wouldn't say if I've come full circle though- I feel like I'd have to go back to Gounou-Gaya for that to happen, and unfortunately that's not going to happen on this trip. I originally came up from Yaoundé for about a month to work on a proposal, but after CRS decided not to pursue the opportunity, I'll only be here a few more days before heading back to Cameroon. I'm a little disappointed; the opportunity to be back here, a place that most NGO people and diplomats dread, is wonderful.

The familiarity begins from the moment I arrive. I step through the turnstile gate into the main hall in the N'Djamena airport, and see a face I recognize. Abba Ali Mahamat used to be a driver for the Peace Corps, and is now working for CRS. He's rail-thin, enormously tall, and with skin so black it looks almost bluish. His hair is grayer than I remember, and he's wearing a dark-red 'func suit' as we used to call them, named after the two-piece functionnaire (civil servant) outfit common around here instead of the typical bubu I'd almost always seen him in as a volunteer. We embrace. "Nathaniel, it's been a long time," he says.

"Too long," I answer.

"Tu me rappelles, n'est-ce pas?" he asks. You remember me, right?

"How could I forget- you're Abba Ali Mahamat," I respond.

He smiles.

Even though my life of Land Cruisers, air-conditioning and high-speed Internet is a world away from what I knew as a Peace Corps volunteer, something about being here just feels right, and familiar. This is Africa as I first saw it five and a half years ago; hot, dry, and desperately poor, with mirrored sunglasses and turbans. Everything feels familiar here- the superheated dusty air, the sand along the streets, the beat-up yellow Peugeot cabs with red and blue hand-painted numbers, even the kids yelling 'nasarra' at me, the most familiar word for 'white person' I know.

Perhaps the epitome of this familiarity happens when David, the Country Representative, takes me out to dinner the first night I'm in town.

"We'll go to one of my favorite local places," he tells me on the way. We pass the Rond-Point de 100 Ans, the sculpture commemorating N'Djamena's 100th anniversary, and less than a kilometer later, turn off into the dust and park against a the high wall of a restaurant. "I don't know if you know this place, but this is Le Pelican," David says. "The food is good, and it's inexpensive."

I can't help but laugh, and I explain why to David. As Peace Corps volunteers, Le Pelican was one of our favorite places to go, for the same reasons as David listed. Also, it was an inexpensive taxi ride from SIL, the missionary compound where we used to stay. I've probably been there 20 times, enough to remember the large pelican (the namesake) that would promenade among the tables, squawking at anyone in its way, and to know that the beef brochettes were best avoided, as they usually had the distinct taste of the propane stove they were cooked over.

Memories of gas-flavored beef aside, this isn't to say that there aren't any differences though. To the contrary, N'Djamena feels like a city on the move- I'm not sure exactly where it's going though. On the positive side, newly-paved roads are everywhere; the bumpy track that used to lead to the Peace Corps office is now two paved and striped lanes on each side with streetlights running down the center. People still drive horribly along the roads, only now LED traffic lights powered by solar panels control at least a portion of the madness, when taxis and motorcycles bother to stop for them. On the other hand, the beautiful and enormous trees that used to line the shops of Avenue Charles de Gaulle are now gone, chopped down by President Deby's men following an attack by rebel forces on the capital in 2008. The road passing alongside the Presidential Palace and central government headquarters feels far more militarized, with giant cement blocks lining the walls, higher strands of razor-wire, and many, many more of the Presidential Guard, virtually all of whom come from the president's own Zaghawa tribe, their thin, angular, Arab-esque faces topped with crimson-berets and yellow bandanas, toting enormous machine-guns, all in desert khaki uniforms and reflective sunglasses.

The next day, I'm walking along the street, making my way to one of the nearby shops where I can grab an egg sandwich with peppers, one of the few street food options I happen to see near the office. My shoes have turned almost completely gray from several centimeters of sand lining the road. It's hot (no real surprise there), and I'm not really paying much attention to the people around me.

"Na-tahn-yel, bonjour!" someone yells.

I wheel around- I haven't heard my name pronounced like that in years. Who could possibly know me? I see a young man on a bike- he waves. I look a bit closer.

"Ramadji?" I ask.

"Oui, c'est moi," he answers. Yes, it's me. I shake my head in astonishment.

Ramadji Cyrus was one of my favorite students when I taught in Gounou-Gaya, one of the few who I could see had the real potential to be a success, provided he could get out of the village, and somewhere he could use his intelligence and talents. I'm thrilled to see he has, and to meet him on the street in N'Djamena, a city of roughly 1,000,000 people is pretty incredible. I'm running short on time, so we exchange phone numbers and agree to meet for lunch. The next day, over plates of shwarma and fried Capitaine (Nile perch) at La Marquise, the Libyan bakery in the center of town, Ramadji and I catch up. He's in his second year at one of the local institutes of technology, where he's studying telecommunications- with a certificate in the field, he can get a job with Zain or Tigo, two of the big mobile phone operators in Chad. It's great to see that he's been able to move forward, and listening to him tell me about the handful of other students I'd hoped to hear from - Koussoungue, Mystere, and Sippa, it's great to know that they're all doing well too, in universities, working, or something else.

I get back to the guesthouse that evening, surrounded (in typical expat fashion in Chad) by high walls, electrified barbed wire, and patrolled by guards- the reality of life in a place where the gap between rich and poor is so vast. Getting out of the silver RAV4, I stop to talk for a moment with one of the guards, a rail-thin young man with large brown eyes.

"C'est comment?" I ask. How's it going? It's a common saying around here, even though it's completely wrong in French.

"Ça va," he answers, the standard response for virtually any question in this part of the world.

"So, where are you from in Chad?" I ask.

"Le Sud," he answers. The south.

"Where in the south?" I press.

"A little village called Gounou-Gaya; I'm sure you don't know it."

"Are you serious?" I answer in disbelief.


"I lived in Gounou-Gaya for two years" I tell him. "I was a teacher at the high school."

He looks at me again.

"Monsieur Nah-tahn-yel, c'est vous?" Is that you?

"Yes" I answer. "Were you one of my students?"

"No," he responds. "I was already in Terminale (the last year) when you were there, so I wasn't in your classes."

"What an amazing coincidence, in any case," I answer. We chat for a few more minutes, and I walk into the house, marveling at how small the world apparently is.

A few days later I have a chance to meet Grâce, one of the language teachers we had during our Peace Corps training. She meets me in her sister's 4x4 at the French Cultural Center in the middle of town. She wears a matching blue and yellow complet, with a blouse, skirt, and headscarf, typical attire for Christian Chadian women, especially someone relatively well-off, like Grâce.

Arriving back at her house I meet Béatitude, Grâce's daughter, who I knew as a chubby five-month-old, but who is now a beautiful little four-year-old, who shyly shakes my hand and whispers "Ça va?" when I greet her.

As Grâce and I catch up, Béatitude begins to warm to me, coming over to tap me on the shoulder- I stick my tongue out, and she giggles. We talk a bit longer, and Grâce goes to get drinks from a nearby boutique. Béatitude sits on a plastic mat off to the side, playing with a plastic Fisher-Price airplane. She looks at me expectantly, and I join her on the mat. We play with the plane, tossing the pilots in and out, flying circles around her head, and coming to a landing at her feet.

She wears an enormous smile- it's probably rare that an adult will actually play with her, something that isn't common in Chadian society. After awhile, Grâce comes back, we talk a bit more, and I catch a ride on her friend's motorcycle back to the guesthouse, just as night is falling. It's a slightly harrowing trip on a motorcycle with a headlight that works only intermittently, and I'm very happy when I climb off the bike and back onto the ground.

The next few days fly by, a blur of meeting old friends, including a chance to reconnect with Al-Hadj and Adji, two of the former drivers for the Peace Corps. They both work for the US embassy now in N'Djamena, and over a lunch of nachif (grilled meat and vegetables), we catch up on the past few years. Both seem mostly unchanged, although there are new kids, jobs, and marriages- life clearly went on uninterrupted after we left. We talk about 'les evenements,' as the rebel attacks on the capital in 2008 are referred to, where large portions of the city were heavily damaged, with hundreds of people dying in the fighting. The only evidence I see is the machine that I used to get soft ice cream from at L'Amandine, the French bakery in the center of town- it still works, but now sports a rather large bullet hole in the side. Al-Hadj and Adji talk about a wary sort of calm throughout the city, as everyone waits to see what happens next.

That does seem to be the general theme of life in Chad though- always a sense of waiting to see what happens next, a life dependent on the fates, where the next rebel surge could change everything. Despite all of this, however, life goes on, and people find a way to cope. Life isn't easy there, and being back even for a brief time reminds me just how tenuous things can be. Even as a volunteer, I lived a well-protected and insulated life in many ways, and didn't really get a true sense of that fragility; I'm not sure if I ever could have. Now, I certainly can't. I think the realization that that tenuousness exists though provides some perspective, however, and it's one that I'm glad to have. Realizing that the majority of people in a place like Chad tend to look at life with the realization that everything can change on a whim affects how you design and manage anything, and can sometimes make the whole concept of sustainability seem a little ridiculous.

Ultimately, my trip ends up being much shorter than I'd planned, but I feel like it's been meaningful all the same. Not being able to go back to Gounou-Gaya, I didn't get the closure I guess I thought a trip to Chad might bring, but still feel like it was worth it. Seeing familiar places and old friends was a wonderful way to get some perspective, and as I move into the next step of my life in this whole 'development' thing, I'm grateful to have had a moment to catch a glimpse of where it all started…

N'Djamena, January 2010

I had the chance to go back to Chad, although only for about a week due to a change of plans. I was able to visit a few old friends, and see some of the places I remembered, which was truly memorable.

Unfortunately, due to extremely heavy restrictions on photography in N'Djamena, I was only able to take a few photos, mostly of the people I met and a few places I was able to take pictures out a window in passing. I'll post these few though, and hopefully give you a sense of what life in the Chadian capital looks like today...