Monthly Archives: November 2010

retrospective no. 6: juicebox gardens and looking forward to january.

a garden in cartons

This garden caught my eye the second or third day I was working in the office in Kinshasa. It’s under a tree right next to the pool in the yard outside the office. Something about it is so beautiful: simple, utilitarian, creative, colorful… I’m not sure who put it together, but anyone could have. It’s not exactly the kind of project requiring a degree in agroforestry or soil sciences. It’s just a few cartons growing herbs and flowers and other small plants. But it’s brilliant.

I’m home for Thanksgiving and thinking back to the spread we had on our table yesterday (and the containers upon containers of leftovers now in our refrigerator). Two turkeys, stuffing (vegetarian and regular), potatoes, squash, salad, cranberry sauce, bread, and more vegetables. The array of desserts was even more obscene. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say there were seven different kinds of ice cream.

I am extremely grateful for the abundance in my life (and not just food abundance). I wonder, however, where the line is between opulence and excess. What does it mean to have such a huge spread on the table? How is it any better than a dinner with just enough food for the people there? I understand the social implications of food: feeding someone to show you love them or care for them, gathering around a food table to share in a feeling of community, preparing food together and spending time with people you love. Somehow these feelings were partly lost on me yesterday.

I wish it had been more about family and sharing, and less about a display of food that could have fed a small nation. A simplistic version of Thanksgiving could be just as nice. To ensure that we only have as much food as we’ll eat – and not be weighed down with more leftovers than the amount of food we brought to begin with. Don’t get me wrong; I love Thanksgiving. It’s by far my favorite holiday and I would never want to do anything to take away from what it is. This year, however, there seem to have been forces at play that adulterated the real meaning of my favorite day of the year.

Black Friday sales starting on Thursday or even before; the less-than-subtle infiltration of Christmas and Christmas consumerism; the ridiculousness of the production (do we always have to out-do ourselves from what we did last year?)

I’m moving to Bamako in January. And trying to simplify my life between here and then – become a little bit more minimalist, so-to-speak. Thinking about the non-essentials in my life feels like a direct contradiction to the dinner we had last night. This might be a bit of a stretch, as comparisons go, but I was slightly disturbed by the consumption and the need to produce. Could we have done with less? (Okay, obvious answer is yes. Next quetion: how, exactly?) How can I make do with less, what do I have that I don’t need or that I could get rid of?

Over the next couples of months before I leave, my project is to scale back. To minimalize what I own and have and buy and use. I’m not sure exactly where to start, or how serious I want to be about it, but I think it’s a good exercize in simplicity and in analyzing my life a bit.

A life like a garden in juice cartons – simple, utilitarian, creative, colorful.


retrospective no. 5: banks, art, fashion.

There is something very powerful about the ability to express oneself through aesthetic means. Everywhere I’ve been in Congo, there have been statues, paintings, sculptures; stone, metal, wood, oil, acrylic, colored sand, cloth, any medium you could imagine.

mask, Goma, Congo

It doesn’t matter how poor or rich a place is, there will always be art, music, culture.  The cultural outputs of a place or a people that is most often seen as destitute are some of the most vibrant and beautiful that I’ve come across.

One of the biggest banks in Congo, TMB, has more art on the walls of its Kinshasa office than any other bank I’ve seen. Beautiful murals and paintings from several different Congolese artists. One of them (whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) has sworn to sign his name upside-down on any ‘oeuvre’ he produces, until the situation in the Congo rights itself up. Apparently there was a period of about a year when he was signing his name right-side-up in the mid-2000s. This is no longer the case.

The bank also has an art gallery that hosts some of the most beautiful Congolese art I’ve ever seen. And c’est pas donné non plus.  Paintings go for thousands of US dollars; the artists are known for their particular style and genre, having really made a name for themselves. One of my favorite artists has this amazingly vibrant style using some of the brightest colors in a sort of abstract way, and then also incorporating metal or wooden statues into his works. I’m trying to find a picture of one of his paintings that I can post. The originals go for about $10K, so when the kitchen counter change jar is full, I’ll be right on my way to buying one of those…

Across the street from this branch of the bank is one of the biggest houses of haute-couture in Kinshasa: Vlisco. Incidentally, a Dutch brand, but the super-wax they sell and their clothing design is unmatched by any other.

I said I wouldn’t roll down the streets of Kinshasa in Jean-Paul Gaulthier, but if someone were to offer me a Vlisco gown, you’d have a hard time getting me out of it.

The défilées must be positively blinding; a super-saturation of color and shapes the likes of which Bryant Park has probably never seen.

Mind you, the super wax in this store goes for about $100 for a bolt of fabric (six yards) and the dresses they have on display are not priced.  That’s probably for good reason.  The wealth in Kinshasa can be just as blinding as the colors of the fashion, so I am sure there is no lack of clientele.  But the difference in price between a Vlisco gown and a tailored dress made by a street tailor has got to be about as striking as the contrast between apartments lining the Grand Boulevard and those in the outlying communes.

I leave you with a sunset.  Just because.


retrospective no. 4: getting there.

I love Congolese fashion.

sapeur congolais

From their style alone, to the stark contrast with the surrounding. Bright colors against the dusty roads.

mec du bas congo

Somehow, no matter what, it works. There’s no real taboos, nothing is out of line. That’s not to say I’d walk down the street all got up in Jean-Paul Gaultier, but à 95%, anything goes. Especially when jackets are coordinated with the burnt ochre of the road.

red on red

red shirt, pink shoes

It doesn’t really matter if it matches or not. Those standards – set by I’m not even sure who – don’t apply. Sometimes there’s a statement, but to be honest I can’t always tell what it is.Kinois fashion is something all on it’s own. Kinshasa, like most capital cities, has it’s haute couture and has those who strut the streets looking straight up fly. As Ghostface Killah so aptly tweeted: “You can take the wackest gear but make sure that gear, that K-Mart gear, whatever you wearing, you official wit it.”


retrospective no. 3: and, long nights in kinshasa.

I spent most of the night last night wishing I wasn’t alive. A bout of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics, to put it nicely, kept me up most of the night, vacillating between chills and sweating profusely, having delusions and anxiety attacks, and thinking only of the conversation with Cédric where he warned me about the water in Kinshasa. “C’est moyenne sure de choper le choléra.” So this morning when I woke up from whatever delirious excuse for sleep that was last night, and almost fell over trying to stand up, blacked out trying to get dressed, and fell back onto my bed soaked in sweat, the only thing I could think was: “Shit. Cholera.”

Baguette and fromage Vache Qui Rit for breakfast, a bit of strength regained, and a one-hour trip through traffic jams (a specialty Kinoise) later, I found myself at SOS Médecins, a medical center in most francophone countries across the world, and my new favorite place in Kin. Well, sort of.

Blood pressure: very low; slightly dehydrated; possible food poisoning; possible malaria. “Come back at 17h and we’ll go over the results from the blood tests, and go from there. Not to mention urine samples, an injection to calm my stomach and the most disgusting salty/sweet mixture to mix with water that I’m supposed to be drinking. Yetch.

Well, at least it doesn’t look like cholera. Silver lining?

Four times in the Congo, four times this sort of digestive adventure has rendered me useless for hours if not days. Kinshasa wins for the level of seriousness, Butembo takes second place (an overripe avocado?), Lubumbashi, I blame the fufu and the poorly washed vegetables, and Goma was my inaugural voyage. Nothing out of the ordinary.

So to the root of the question: is it a matter of not being accustomed to the food? Is it water that’s not clean? Is it poorly washed vegetables and cooking with water that’s not clean, some combination of those things, I’m sure. The thing that throws me, is that it’s not just foreigners who are affected by this. Food security and a lack thereof is a huge problem in developing countries, especially in urban areas. The fact that a good percentage of the produce grown in urban settings (Kinshasa, Kibera in Nairobi…) is not regulated, zoning laws often don’t allow for access to clean water (the solution? waste water.), and farmers very often don’t own the land they are cultivating, it’s not hard to see why the food produced isn’t the safest to eat.

woman farming in urban setting

The necessity to produce food wherever and however one can is more and more urgent as urbanization rapidly – an estimated 70% of the world’s population will live in an urban setting by the mid-century (UN figures). Urban ag is by no means new. It’s a legitimate source of income and work, and market farmers can offer long-term employment to city dwellers, who have often migrated from rural areas with a background in agriculture. The list of things to regulate, problems to address, before urban food production is a safe and sustainable venture, is long. Zoning laws, access to safe inputs, recognition by governments of the existence, even, of urban agriculture, access to credit, regulation (of some form) of production – these are all things that demand the attention of several different actors.

The good thing is that urban agriculture is getting more and more attention. It’s difficult to see a way past some of the biggest problems, however, when the Kenyan government refuses to acknowledge even the existence of Kibera, one of te largest slums in Africa, and one of the largest centers of urban food production. I’m not entirely sure what the next steps are; there are plenty of NGOs working on the question, and I plan to dedicate the next few years of my life to studying it close up; what is sure, is that something’s gotta give. For my stomach’s sake and the GI tracts of so many others, je vous en supplie.

retrospective no. 2: where are you, goma?

In a meeting this morning with two colleagues and the “chef d’agence adjoint” of one of the biggest Congolese banks, we were talking about the different branches they’ve established across the country. They’re present in almost all the provinces (of which there are, at least for the moment, ten), and have several branches in Katanga, the mining capital of the country. This in and of itself is pretty amazing, considering that the country in question has been steeped in war and conflict arguably since 1960, and even things as simple as constant electricity or running water are not to be taken for granted. Currently with 29 branches – with two more opening before the end of the year – TMB has managed to make of itself a credible and credit-worthy institution. But that’s not what this story is about.

Sitting in the second-floor, floor-to-ceiling-windowed office of the deputy director, sipping on bottled water, almost chilly from the air conditioning (I said almost), overlooking what seemed more like the first class lounge of a European airport than a bank in downtown Kinshasa, the thing that struck me the most was the nostalgia that hit me like a ten-ton truck the instant he mentioned the branch in Goma.

I don’t know what it is about that place, but the instant the plane landed there last November, I was amoureuse. Something about Goma, about Lake Kivu, about the entire place, crawled right under my skin and has yet to leave me alone.

le lac, vue de l'hôtel

The first time I was in Goma, I spent about 10 days there working at a workshop with leaders from the Masisi region. I remember talking to one of the old “chefs de la région” about both the big volcano that threatens to erupt again the way it did in 2002, leaving a third of the city under lava (and eating away a third of the runway at the airport), and, to the other side of us, of le lac Kivu, which sits on top of an enormous reserve of methane gas that threatens to burp up at any moment and suffocate the entire population of the region.

le volcan: mont nyiragongo

The striking beauty of the volcano – the pink hue in the sky at night, the constant stream of smoke that climbs towards the sky, the throne of lush greenery it seems to sit on – masks only in part the latent danger both of eruption, and of what that could mean for the lake, strikingly beautiful in its own right, and yet dubbed an “exploding lake” for the ganger it poses.

We spoke in metaphor about the natural wonders in front of and behind us; quite clearly the situation in Nord Kivu was the question sous la main, and the potential for positive, should the leaders work together, as well as for negative, should the war re-erupt. Goma, one of the most idyllic places I have ever seen, is wrought with conflict – both latent and manifest – that keeps the enormous potential of this area very much at bay. The beauty of Goma reminds me of the myth of Medusa: a beautiful woman turned into the ugliest of creatures only by the jealousy and wrath of another.

I won’t pretend to be able to explain the conflicts in Nord/Sud Kivu or the Eastern Congo in general because I have yet to scratch more than the surface of an understanding of what is arguably one of the most complicated conflicts in modern history. Let’s just say that with nine countries bordering the Congo, each one with its own history of conflict, problems with governance, resources, migration and immigration..I could go on..

The point isn’t that Goma is foutu – pardon my French – but that it has captured a part of me.

how could you not tombe amoureuse?

With unmatched intensity, this city sitting between the lake the the volcano – promising to erupt, in one sense or another – is paradise on earth, the geographical love of my life.

retrospective no. 1: also, where i am now.

I promise eventually to update this blog with a “Best Of” set of posts from my travels over the last year. It’s been about three weeks since I created this blog, and only today am I sitting down for the first time to write a post. The (mostly self-imposed) pressure for that first entry to be so witty and catchy pretty much kept me at the widgets and layout phase of blogging. Well, here I am now and I’m sorry if the wit is lacking. I’ll blame it on jetlag.

Kinshasa et le Congo, view from above

Kinshasa is hot. Hot and humid and oppressively congested. I’m sitting in the office here doing some work (‘some’ being the operative word) and wondering if it’s even possible to go “en ville” without consecrating the next three hours to the trip. It took more time to get to lunch yesterday than it did to get a table, order and eat. Which is surprising, given the time it normally takes for even the simplest of meals to be served.

Michel’s wife Mapuseke (a beautiful Lesothan woman whose accent is so charming it makes me feel quite big and bumbling) leaves two hours early to get their children to school. No one seemed surprised when we rolled up an hour late to our meeting yesterday with the tax office yesterday, which was supposedly at 14h. It just adds to the slow pace of life. But also makes me wonder how much work is just completely lost to inefficacy.

I read something once that a Peace Corps volunteer had posted about his experience trying to get things done in Niger during the rainy season. People just can’t (or don’t want to) work in this kind of heat. Admittedly, when the electricity goes out, the generator doesn’t power the AC. Fifteen degrees hotter in the room I am working in, I’m sweating in a very unladylike fashion, and all of a sudden my work ethic is out the ineffectively open window. Alas.

The office where I am working these next two weeks – for the NGO “Initiative pour un Leadership Cohésif et la Cohésion de l’Etat – or, Initiative for a Cohesive Leadership and State Cohesion – or, ILC for short, is situated in a ‘commune’ of Kinsasa that I’m not at all familiar with. Which says next to nothing, considering my last stint in Kin consisted only of a six-hour period: a trip from the airport to the office in the middle of the night during one of the the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced, and then a trip back to the airport (the United Nations section, this time) to hop a flight to the East. But I do know that it hardly matters where you are, because it’s going to take at least an hour to get anywhere.

I’m in Kin until November 13. I promise to post pictures and write more. For now, I just kind wish I were back in Goma.