Friday, February 26, 2010

Some more Reflections from my trip to Bunia

Bunia Market Day

The smell of charcoal burning in the street. White faces and hands from cassava flour. Babies sleeping, crawling and sitting beneath the market stalls. Flies dancing over slabs of meat in the little meat shacks. sewing machines from the old-in-days whirring with colourful fabrics and designs. Gaping mouths of Mammas puffing on tobacco leaves. Tiny one roomed restaurants caught between the chaos of charcoal burning, cassava flour grinding, shoe making and of course Congolese music floating through the air from a near-by shack. Mayonnaise jars sit empty on the wooden table and the classic tin bowls hang unevenly on the poorly arranged plank walls. No one seems to own the restaurant as it is empty with no one in sight. There is the banana alley with the “plump” small bananas, long and thick plantane and men pushing wooden carts piled high with bushels of bananas. The meat alley is very potent. The flies dance with the flying rag that swats at them. “Dieu Merci,” “Notre Dieu,” “Dieu Donne,” mark the entrances to the Boucharies along with oil paintings of cows and steaks on the stained walls. In the back of each shack hang the legs of cows almost the same height as the vendors. The charcoal alley is full of strongmen, big trucks, black earth, and smoky air. Bags of charcoal are thrown into the air to be piled precariously on dirty Chinese camions. Sweat drips down the faces of the bandana wearing men and it doesn’t seem like a place for a woman. 

Our exciting and yet sad outing to the MONUC House Restaurant

Here we are walking through the muddy streets of Bunia with our thoughts resting on one thing: ice cream. So Karen, Tomas and I arrived at the MONUC House (for UN workers, and for anyone really who is not Congolese and has a passport) restaurant/bar and found ourselves speechless looking at all the options of food to choose from that did not include eggplants, rice, sweet potato, beans or fou fou. I am now entirely certain that when I arrive back in Canada I am going to need assistance in choosing what to eat a restaurant. If it took me 20 minutes or more to decide what to eat at a restaurant in a town in the Congo I am pretty sure I am going to take at least an hour at home. So I ended up ordering what I had first decided, haha, that always seems the case, which was a ham and pineapple pizza. I also ordered a Heineken beer which was superb compared to the terrible Nile beer or Eagle beer in Congo, although their famous Primus beer isn’t all that bad, just tastes like a cheap beer whereas the other two taste like water. Tomas ordered a steak and Karen and hamburger and for appetizers we ordered spring rolls. My pizza was amazing! I enjoyed every bite of its cheesy goodness although I surprised myself in that it was a big struggle to finish it. I usually have no trouble finishing a pizza, and this pizza wasn’t even that big. Tomas’ steak looked decent and Karen’s burger was a little weak with not much to it. Since I didn’t know if I would have another chance to go to a restaurant I ordered a desert even though I probably didn’t need one. The thing is we were told they had ice cream here and of course when we are there they don’t have it. I was quite disappointed. Instead I ordered a pineapple crumble and Karen ordered chocolate mousse. The chocolate mousse was terrible. It had the texture of gelatine and just a hint of chocolate taste. My pineapple crumble was more crumble than pineapple and wasn’t anything special but I enjoyed it all the same. The restaurant had cable t.v. playing, and seeing this I automatically thought that I might be able to catch some of the Olympics. I went to one of the bar staff, which by the way speak only English which I found rather amusing, and asked him if the Olympics were on. There weren’t unfortunately but when we were paying our bill I asked one more time and sure enough in 15minutes it said that the Olympics would come on. Unfortunately it was already getting late and we didn’t have a key to get back into the convent so I had to slowly walk away from MONUC House knowing that this was my only chance to see any Olympic action on t.v. which was a really hard thing for me. I really love watching the Olympics and I knew that my year here in Africa was going to mean that I would miss the Olympics and that it would be a great sacrifice for me. 

Meeting Safi

We stayed with the Sisters in Bunia during our stay and I was fortunate enough to meet a little 12 year old girl named Safi there. She had lost her sister in the Market in Bunia 5 days ago and her family as I understood were in a different village somewhere but it was not sure where exactly. One of the Sisters knew her so had taken her into the convent to stay until they knew what to do next. When I first met her she was sitting outside looking completely desolate and I could see so much sadness in her eyes. Some of the Sisters tried talking with her but she barely said a word and if she did it was in very quiet Lingala. I thought to myself that this little girl needs something to take her mind of what she’s going through. I couldn’t imagine losing my sister and family at the age of 12! So I automatically thought to play some soccer with her. I found a soccer ball and then gently asked if she’d like to play with me. She was timid at first and didn’t respond but slowly she got to her feet and followed me. We kicked the ball back and forth and she slowly began to open up. By the end of our time playing together she was smiling, laughing, giving me high fives, and hugs and speaking French with me. This is an experience that will stay with me forever. She was pretty good at soccer too. When we took turns in goal she was nailing some hard shots at me and scored twice on me. When she scored she raised her hands in the air and jumped up and down and we exchanged high fives. She really touched my heart and I think I also helped her take her mind away from all her sufferings. It was sad saying goodbye because I wanted to know that she would be safe with her family. The childcare services here will take her to the village where they think her family is, so I pray to God that she is welcomed and that her sister is found as well. The Sisters here were sharing about children on the street and they said in Kinshasa the capital, it is common to open one’s door and find 2 or 3 abandoned newborn babies. 

Karen, Tomas and I at Lac Albert. This lake runs parallel with the border with Uganda where half the lake is Uganda and the other half Congo. This would have been nice to know since I got fined for taking pictures near an area where there is a border. The hot equatorial sun beat down on us as we walked along the beach. The water was really warm but dirty and even though I would have loved to go for a swim I would didn't want to catch a nasty virus. 

Reflections on my trip to Bunia the capital of Ituri District and Butembo in North Kivu District

Journey to Bunia
The African sun is sinking lower in the expansive sky and the night noises are becoming louder; the crickets chirp, the frogs croak and the bugs whiz by often making their appearance in an unpleasant way on the front window. Although the darkness hits and the bush that we blaze through on the washboard roads is as thick as the backside of a buffalo there is motion, movement and light within. Families sit outside their hardly habitable huts by the light of tiny fires or if they’re lucky a Kerosene lamp. Most of the time the lights of passing jeeps and camions are the only light most families will get. The high beams illuminate men with muscles straining and eyes bulging pushing their bicycles up steep hills laden with kilos and kilos of bananas or charcoal. Other times the lights catch an arm or a leg of a wandering child running into the tall enveloping grass or a man or woman walking in the dark to who knows where. These people have nothing else to do in the evenings except sit around with each other and talk under the bright canopy of stars. Faint music can be heard form the occasional tiny radio and the rustling children and goats in the brush. We are stopped occasionally by night herds of cows and bulls blazing through the African jungle brush colliding with the dirt road (well it shouldn’t even be called a road). The jungle stretches outwards in all directions in complete darkness. If one strains their eyes into the darkness smoke can be seen spiraling above the darkness of the jungle into the starry sky from families cooking their dinner on their charcoal fires. These families are nestled deep in the forest with nothing but a roof of palm leaves over their head and four mud walls. They will go to bed thinking that when they wake up they will go through the same strenuous day as before which could be pushing bananas on their bicycles up hills in the hot sun, carrying wood on their backs to help arrange their houses, and of course children are not excluded from intensive labour such as carrying wood, water etc. on their heads. They will come home to possibly their only meal of the day which could be either be fou fou, rice, beans or sweet potatoes then go to sleep and start again at the crack of dawn. This makes my life in Canada seem extremely easy and full of time for “myself” such as entertainment. 

North Kivu District
The bumpy road slithers and crawls through the thick encroaching jungle. One would only know this is a road by the passing motos and camions but other than that the red earth that stretches onwards looks like a path for the company of feet only. The trees spring upwards outstretching their greedy branches into the sun’s mighty dominion. They cast a dramatic effect on the jungle with twisting branches, long and delicate leaves, vibrant colours of purple and red, and a blend of white and brown bark spiraling up the tall strong trunks. Then out of nowhere the Switzerland of Africa emerges with hillsides and mountains full of grazing cows. A startling green meets the eyes and transfixes them. Although all my life I have been surrounded by green forests of the Pacific Northwest this green is indescribable. The colour is magnifying, rich and fluorescent. The hills almost reach out and embrace you with their soft curvatures. The land rolls and dances and plays with the sky. Rocks like out of the Lion King find their way into the landscape enriching the already breathtaking scenery. The climax of this landscape is when the road reaches a peak and to the west all one can see for miles and miles is dense jungle. I feel as though I am in an entire new world and removed from the world I once knew. There is nothing, absolutely nothing but forest for miles. This landscape truly reveals how immense this country is. The only thing that can be seen other than green forest is the spiraling smoke from fires within the canopy floating up into the expansive blue sky. This country has blown me away by its vastness, diversity, colours, geographical landforms, natural resources and its untouched beauty. I wish more people could experience this beauty found in the centre of the African continent hugging the equator.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Here are a few random things I would like to share:

I recently had a dream that I was in a grocery store and saw the biggest green apples I have ever seen. They were bigger than the size of my hand. So I excitedly brought my big green apple to the cashier where she told me it would cost a whole $3.87 Canadian. I was traumatized because it was too expensive for me to afford. This dream is reflecting how I am feeling right now here in Africa. I really really miss APPLES. A nice crunchy apple would make my day right now. The thing is that I have been eating apples since I was a child, probably at least 1 every other day, and when all of a sudden you don’t have apples anymore it is quite a shock. Just previously to this dream there was a lady who came to the bakery to buy some bread and she had in her hand a shiny green apple. I was so excited that I had to ask her where she bought it. She told me that she bought it next to the hospital, so the next day I went in search for someone or someplace that was selling green apples. They must have been quite secret at selling them because I came home empty handed. This was a sad day which was then followed by my depressing dream. I am sure in another month or two I will forget about apples all together, I hope.

And another random event:
One evening when Tomas, Karen and I were walking home in the dark, my eye caught sight of a speck of light on the ground near the gate to our house. I exclaimed, “look there’s a light on the ground!” followed by, “Hey! it’s a light up BUG!” So there we are, all three of us crouched around this tiny little “light up bug,” more commonly known as a “firefly,” when all of a sudden we hear a child’s voice say something in French right behind us. I was not expecting a little boy to come out from the darkness and tell us the name of this fascinating “light up bug,” so I was quite taken by surprise. It was a pretty funny sight: 3 foreigners crouched in the dark around an ordinary firefly in great awe (well, mostly me. I was oooing and awwing for quite awhile). After the little boy came and said, “luciole,” (firefly in French) he paused for a few moments, probably thinking to himself “these white people are really strange,” and then disappeared into the darkness. It was so random that it made me laugh, not that it is difficult to make me laugh.

There are some strange and interesting characters here in Aru whom are worth mentioning:
First off I will start with the most interesting character whose name is Mao. Some may call him a beggar, but us volunteers prefer to call him a prophet. You see he doesn’t actually “beg” for money so he couldn’t possibly be called a beggar. He wears all kinds of bangles on his arms and ankles which for me defines him as a sort of magical character. But as for a prophet I think this comes from his strange demeanor. One time Mao was sitting next the bakery and the cyber cafĂ© (where he is usually always hanging out) in the dirt half hidden behind the plants and flowers and was waving. I looked in the direction he was waving and there was absolutely nobody. Another time I saw him sitting again in the dirt next to the bakery kicking his legs up and down. It seemed as though he was pounding his feet into the dirt like some sort of ritual. I often see him sitting next to the embers of trash fires picking up stones and dirt. Trash fires are very common since there is no such thing as garbage trucks or recycling systems here. I am not sure why Mao enjoys sitting next to these smoky trash fires because the smell is rather toxic and appalling. On two occasions, told to me secondhand by Tomas, Mao has been seen trying to fit into society. Apparently Mao was sitting in the dirt as always but this time instead of picking at the dirt he was stitching his pants! I wish I could have seen this because if you saw Mao you would think it funny for him to all of a sudden care to look appropriate since he looks so helpless as it is. The only articles he has on his body other than his numerous bangles, which by the way are the thickest and heaviest bangles I have ever seen…they almost look like he could have been chained up in a prison with them, are a pair of pants. Now pants is stretching it. I mean they are sewed like pants but they look more like a giant brown potato sack. The funniest thing about his pants are that the only way the stay on his skinny body are by him holding them up, and many times he forgets to do this probably because he is thinking so many deep prophetic thoughts I presume. Well, maybe next time instead of stitching his pants he should make himself a belt. Tomas then saw Mao sitting underneath someone’s moto trying to fix it. He could possibly be trying to gain himself some handy skills incase he wants to go and search for a job in the future. Also I have never heard Mao speak, I am not sure if he knows even Lingala one of the local dialects here. Every afternoon when I am at the bakery I always give him a free piece of bread. When I hear him shuffling outside the bakery I go over hand him his bread say, “Mbote” (greetings) and then he shuffles away and sits in the dirt slowly eating the piece of bread. Some days he will just lie down on his back in the dirt usually close to some shade and eat his bread. Mao is starting to become part of my routine at the bakery. If I don’t see him I begin to think about where he would be. Yes, he is a special character
So there you have it: the most interesting character here in Aru. I hope that by the time I leave he will speak one word to me or that maybe I will figure some interesting history about his life (who knows maybe he did escape from prison, or perhaps he really is a prophet).

I think I will share just one interesting character for now, but I will definitely share more.

My P.E. Classes

So as I mentioned already I am teaching P.E. classes here for high school girls. I had to give exams for P.E. which was the biggest joke. I tested the girls on how well they could pass, set, and serve the volleyball as well as their "ready position." If the girls showed up to the class they scored 100% in the class basically. I ended up failing quite a lot of girls actually since so many of them just don't show up. There were even a few girls who showed up the exam whom I had never seen in my class. As I was giving my P.E. class the boys were having their class right beside us. I am not sure how to describe what they were doing but the serious Headmaster was having them hop up and down like frogs for half the lenght of the soccer field. Then he was having them stand on one leg with the other leg crossed over and their hand under their chin like they're thinking. I am not sure what this is testing, and what the benefit of this is. From my Human Kinetics background I tend to think about what the practical purpose of an exercise is, and these were pretty useless. One day they were doing some practical exercises in the area of track and field. The boys all had these crooked sticks and were doing pole vault over a piece of string. Also they were doing hurdles, but instead of an actual hurdle it was 2 guys crouched down. This one really caught my attention. I think I was laughing out loud as I was watching because it looked so bizarre. And lastly, the boys class passed by one morning running down the road for an hour run. What struck me was that as they ran they were all singing together in a perfect rythm and a really catchy melody. I was very impressed by this. 

My girls I teach are a lot of fun. Most of them are around 13 years old so they are still at the age where they are up for doing funny childlike games and are easy excitable. The girls are actually quite competitive. If I am not keeping track of the score at all times they will really fight. And knowing me I have never been good at keeping score in sports games, so this happens quite frequently. We are now starting to have actual volleyball rallies and when the class period is over they beg me to play longer. So when I don't have to go right after class I usually play with them for an extra half hour. If I do have to go I just tell them to return the ball back at my house. This is one of my favourite parts of my day, when I get to play with the girls, laugh, encourage them, get laughed at, give high fives, and being silly. It really is something special. They really are terrible at volleyball, they make fun of my French and sometimes can be very snarky, but I love them all the same. I taught them how to give high fives which they think is the greatest thing, haha. But, I realized one class that they were actually saying, "I'm Fine!" and slapping my hand. I said, "Hold up girls!!! (well in French of course) It is 'HIGH FIVE,' not 'I'M FINE." hahah, it was pretty hilarious.

The P.E. classes at the primary school Ecole Maternelle are actually my least favourite activity here. You would think since they're cute little 4 and 5 year olds that it would be easy and fun, but it's not. Okay, yes they are as cute as can be! but to teach in French how to play an organized game is the most draining thing. One morning I had the 3 year old kids, and it took 30 minutes for them to get into a circle and then when I explained it the teacher explained it in Lingala (the kids only know a little bit of French) and I still don't think the kids really got the game. I taught them hopscotch which I thought would be easy and somewhat fun, but the kids just didn't understand it. They would just jump anywhere! Ah, my patience is truly being tested with these kids. I now know that I could never be an elementary school teacher.