"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

2.17.2007

it will lay her burdens down

Some days I really miss Congo.

Today is one of those days.

You should take a look at Rob's blog about the park rangers who risk their lives to protect the wildlife in Virunga National Park, which is north of Goma. I interviewed Rob for my dissertation. He's a cool guy who saw a problem, knew it could be addressed, and works with the affected community to figure out a solution. The solution to the problem in the park (see below) was to train an elite group of rangers who are trained and equipped to deal with violent attacks on the park (and themselves).

The Congo Rangers do amazing work, with very little reward. They are constantly in danger because the various and sundry militias operating in the park love to take their weapons, uniforms, and equipment. They also like to kill animals for food or other uses. The militias regularly attack these park rangers. On top of that, people in the surrounding villages hate the rangers too, because they won't allow cultivation on park lands. All they're doing is enforcing the law, and trying to save the rare species, including the mountain gorillas, who live in Virunga. And they don't have many friends because of it.

Why do I miss stuff like this? Because it's Congo. Because when I lived there, I saw the absolute worst things that one human being can do to another, but I also saw examples of incredible courage and valor in the face of horrible circumstances. I saw clueless expatriates who never bothered to learn the language or the culture of the people they were presumably there to help, but I also met people like Rob, who approach Congo's overwhelming problems with humility and as partners, not overlords.

Outsiders who choose to live in Congo go for all kinds of reasons. Some are genuinely good-hearted and want to make a difference. Others are thrill-seekers there for the conflict high, or to avoid the reality of a wife and kids and a house in the suburbs of London or Brussels or Mumbai or St. Louis for a few years. Or a lifetime. Some are there because they feel called. Others are there because their government sent them. They count the days until they can leave. Some would just rather be in Africa, forever.

Whatever the reason for being there, there's something about life in that environment that feels more real, more intense, more like life. It's terrifying and exhausting and overwhelming, but it's never mundane. You may not have electricity on Thursdays or entertainment beyond watching the lake change color or the certainty that you won't be killed by an angry mob or a rocket attack tomorrow, but you know, every single minute of every single day, that you are alive. Leaving that behind - going back to the regular life of running water, professional sports on tv, and state parks that are underfunded but certainly won't ever be terrorized by armed warlords - is a relief, but it's also hard to adjust. Even after awhile.

There will be a documentary covering the Congo Rangers on the Discovery Channel sometime soon. I'll be glad to watch it.

But it's not the same as being there.

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