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...