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



What a bizarre day.

It started off way, way too early, but my excellent health field contact wanted to meet at 8, so 8 it was. I was out the door before anyone else sat down to breakfast, which confused the new cook and gave the housekeeper (who gets to go fetch my taxis-motos) a headache in the middle of his daily washing of the car.

But we were on the way to what's essentially the equivalent of the local health department by 8:45, and had a good meeting with an administrator there. Then, much to my surprise, we went to see the military hospital. I don't know how to describe this place, except to say that it's in the middle of the main Goma military camp, which looks like a pretty awful place. Most people are living in tents made of plastic sheeting, and there's likely not much in the way of a good sanitation system. I have no idea where they get their water.

But the hospital was interesting, and once the commandant decided that I wasn't a spy, he and his colleagues answered all my questions and more. The only bad part of the visit was the charming invitation to join a soldier who was sitting on top of a cannon holding an Uzi. (I'm sure he was confused by my refusal to come and talk. Nothing says, "Let's hang out" like light weaponry in front of an HIV testing facility.) Well, that and seeing how sad life is for military families here. Soldiers are supposed to get a salary of about $12/month, but they very frequently don't get paid at all, usually because someone along the way steals the money. There's a reason that human rights monitors say that most of the looting in the eastern Congo is now apparently committed by the national army.

After that early morning adventure, I headed back to another office which had promised me some statistics, then over to the Pentecostal church's office. Since churches are responsible for most of the education system and a good chunk of the health system, I'm trying to visit as many of their offices as possible. I'd been to their hospital yesterday (and got great information there), and had a very pleasant experience talking with one of their schools people. But another employee stopped by the office, asked several questions about my research, and then said I should stop by his office after I was done because he's a Civil Society leader.

(I should explain here that the Congo actually has an organization called "The Civil Society." When social scientists talk about "civil society," we're referring to leaders and institutions that are not part of the government, but that have an effect on political life. Everything from a group that forms to oppose a school board policy to a trade union to a gardening club can be considered "civil society." But in Congo, saying you want to talk to "civil society leaders" can cause some confusion, because you mean "elites" and they mean "someone who is a member of this organization called the Civil Society.")

What followed was one of the most bizarre interviews I've ever conducted. "Interview" is not the correct word, really, because that implies that I asked questions. "Being forced to take notes on a long rant" would be more accurate.

But before we got to the rant, the guy started by asking what my true motivation for asking these questions was. It's impossible to prove that you aren't a spy, but why one would be asking questions about health and education is beyond me. He told me his position, and added, "And I am also a pastor." I said, "My father is also a minister," and he said, "Okay, you're from a minister's family, you won't lie to me."

From that impeccable logic, he launched into a long rant on the West, the misery in the Congo, how David Livingstone was the best Westerner who ever helped the Congo, and the necessity of me telling this story. He made me write down every single word he said (Really. If I didn't write something, he'd say, "Write this!"), and he said a lot. (Email me if you're interested and I'll send you the transcript. I'm sure not going to be able to use it in my dissertation.)

I hate this. I hate being blamed for every bad thing every white man has done to Africa, and I hate being asked to fix it all. And I hate being stuck in a situation from which a polite escape is nearly impossible.

I also hate being told what to do by a pushy man who thinks I'm engaged in espionage. He finally finished his rant, and then asked if I had any questions. It's possible that this could have been a valuable interview, but I needed to get out of there and fast, so I said, "No," gave him an email address I maintain for these sorts of things, made up a local phone number, and hightailed it back home.

(What's ironic is that I agree with many of his points. The West has destroyed things for the Congo, time and time again. And of course I feel obliged to tell the stories of the misery here. That's a large part of why I have a blog, why I write about Congo, why I speak to groups at home.)

I came home, took a nap, had lunch, went to the local research institute, read a very interesting article on the Congolese elections, stopped by to see Mama Helene, who has invited me to her home after church on Sunday, and came home just in time to go with C & E and N to a service for a friend of theirs whose daughter died last month. The friend works here for an NGO; she is from Cameroon; her daughter was a university student in Kansas who died in a car accident just after finishing her final exams. It was very sad, but the pastor of the church organized a time for mourning and for her to share her grief, at his home, and it was a good thing for her.

We came home a few minutes ago (around 8pm local time) to find soldiers everywhere, coming out of the bushes as we drove down the hill towards the gate of the house. After some exchanges in Lingala that I didn't understand, we learned that there's an alert out tonight that Nkunda's guys are planning to attack. "What do we do if that happens?" I asked E. "Pray," she replied.

It's possible that Nkunda will try, although I doubt it will be tonight. He won't make it to Goma, and even if he does, MONUC will stop him before he gets this far. If something does happen, of course we will pray. But I will also be calling my friends at the embassy, and a guy I know at the UN. Otherwise, we'll have to swim.



Blogger Angela said...

Your favorite NY Times correspondent recently published an interview with Nkunda ... you should check it out if you haven't yet had the chance. NY Times Select. If you need me to send it by email, let me know.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 2:27:00 PM

Blogger Ben said...

How exactly do you prove you're not a spy? I'm still trying to figure that out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 10:18:00 PM

Blogger Ray said...

god...what an interesting interview to have...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 12:30:00 AM

Blogger Kirstin said...

you're being amazingly productive! how much longer will you be there? the last part of this post has me a bit more worried than i was. i wouldn't mind seeing that transcript, actually, but i can wait until you're back in the States if that's easier for you. how long did the whole exchange last with the guy that made you write ever word?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 12:40:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Kir, it was probably 20 minutes max (or even less), but it seemed like an eternity. :)

Ben, exactly!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 2:42:00 AM


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