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

7.05.2007

calm

MONUC says that "the situation in the eastern DRC is calm." This is true. As they point out, they've reinforced their capacity in North Kivu. Never mind that most of those APC's are sitting on the tarmac at the Goma Airport; Goma, for the moment, is calm.


The question is whether or not the situation, especially in North Kivu, will remain calm. I had two meetings with people whose opinion I trust this week. One thinks there's nothing to worry about. The other analyst (who has more experience in Kivus) is quite concerned that something will happen. ("It's not a great time to be conducting research in the Kivus," he said.) A brigade of soldiers is supposed to redploy out of the city tomorrow. They were supposed to leave today, too. Nobody knows what will happen if they refuse to go.


But the thing is, for now, the situation really is calm. There's nothing to worry about. In Goma, for the moment, at least.


Today Mama Helene invited me over to her home for lunch. I didn't really know what to expect; her family lives in the nicer part of town, but their home is more basic than I expected. They live under a tin roof, with wooden walls and a concrete floor. It's adequate and very neat, but surely doesn't keep out all the rain and cold. She explained to me that the volcanic eruption in 2002 completely destroyed her family's home. "By the grace of God," she said, "we survived," because they were at the church (Mama Helene and her family are Baptists.).


They survived, but they lost everything. She was pregnant with her fourth son, they had to go to Rwanda (which means they almost certainly had to go to a refugee camp for a bit), and when they returned, they had to find a new place and start over from scratch. Her brother gave her a job in his store so they could survive (her husband doesn't have a job), so they are okay. The boys are well-dressed and in school, and the family has a refrigerator and a television, if not good electricity. But I'm sad that my friend has to live like this.


After that, I went to my interview with the analyst, and then I walked over to the Ihusi Hotel to buy my ticket for the boat to Bukavu. As I was walking, four (very) white college students approached me. One of them said, "Excuse me, do you speak French or English?" "Both," I replied, and learned that they're here to climb the volcano. They wanted to know where to get supplies for the climb, so I said I would show them where to go.


"Do you like it here?" one of them asked while we were waiting to go to a grocery store. "I love it here," I replied.


It's true. It's chaotic and nothing works right and people suffer and there's a volcano that's going to blow Goma away one day, but I love it here. I love the total freedom. I love that people are so helpful that they'll drop everything to show a stranger where to go. I love that a phone call from a friend's friend's wife's father means that I'll have a place to stay and instant contacts in Bukavu.


I love that cell phone numbers are collected like currency here, because everyone knows that connections are synonymous with power. I love the shocked stares of children who aren't used to seeing someone like me ride around on moto-taxis. I love the looks on the faces of the taxi drivers who argue with Congolese friends that I should have to pay more than normal because I'm white when they realize that I understand Swahili.


I love the dancing in the clubs late an Saturday night, in the churches on Sunday morning, at the politicians' speeches all week long. I love the music that permeates every aspect of life here. I love the madness of the market. I love the guy who won't let me take a picture of his cowboy boot stand without charging me $10, which I refuse to pay (you'll have to use your imagination).


I love I'm part of a small group of outsiders who are dedicated to studying the Congo long-term, that we can meet in Goma and Nairobi and New York to trade information, year after year, laugh about what's changed, see if we can predict what will happen next. I love that the president's wife is building her new lakeside villa on top of the lava flow that ended up in the lake in 2002 - the same lava flow that destoryed Mama Helene's home but not her life. Why not? Nothing will ever grow there, and your home's bound to be structurally unsound eventually, and the scientists are pretty sure that there's a big bubble of methane that will burst out from under the lake one day, but, hey, it's there, it's land for the taking, and it definitely has location, location, location.


That's the thing about Congo. Life here is fragile, and it is short, and it is full of suffering, but it is also lived. You don't know what will happen tomorrow, let alone in a week. It may be calm, it may be anything but. All you can do is keep going. All you can do is climb that volcano, build a new home, bring home your mzungu friend to meet your sons, and dance, dance, dance the nights away. All you can do is live.

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