Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Suddenly gone away

No time for saying goodbye

Only memories

The neck of a fried chicken sits on a white plastic platter inches from my face. I sit on a brown, plushly upholstered chair with a lumpy seat on the cement porch my colleague’s house the day after his funeral. His family and friends fill every available seat- the men on the porch and in the women in the dirt yard cooking a meal for all the mourners. There’s no wailing or music as there was yesterday. Today all is quiet conversation and contemplation.

I and two other colleagues came to offer condolences and monetary assistance from our employer. We sip Cokes and wait to be served food- food that I don’t necessarily want to eat. My stomach has been doing flip-flops for the last day partly with the sudden and unexpected loss of an employee and partly with the stress of now trying to find someone to implement the project that is scheduled to start next Monday.

We had met with the family and wife a few minutes before gathered in a circle in plastic chairs at the back of the house. She was assisted to her seat by two women, apparently too aggrieved to walk on her own. The representative of the family had gathered us around, introduced the brothers of the deceased, the wife, her sister, step-mother and father. Everyone was quiet, staring into space or studying the cement floor.

Our office administrator said a few words of condolence then shared what we would be doing for the family, emphasizing that the wife was to be the main beneficiary. (It’s said that when a man dies in this tribe, the wife is often left to her own devices.) I felt somewhat like the executor of a will enforcing who would get what. I told the wife I would pay for her kids to go to school for the year.

That was met with a particular thank you from the sister, but when the administrator asked the children’s ages to verify the information we have at the office, the three oldest children actually live in another city with other mothers. The two children with this wife are 3 years and 9 months-- not exactly school age. So, when the wife comes to our office to pick up a check, we will ask her what she actually needs and if she is willing to pass school fees along to the other children.

Back at the office, another consultant sits at JP’s desk inputting data from a recent post-project survey. That’s the hardest part- knowing that he won’t be back at his desk with his smile, staring out the door into the parking lot when he had nothing to do. I won’t have to dream up ways to keep him busy in between field assessments, but he won’t be around to be my right hand and offer up ways to do something better.

Who knew Friday would be the last day he’d sit at his desk? He left early from the staff meeting where the new head of office was introduced. After the meeting another employee said JP was sick and he was taking him to the hospital. It wasn’t until hours later that we knew he had vomited blood and fainted. Five of us visited him in the hospital Friday night and all seemed well; JP was talking and said he was feeling better and would be back to work. There’d been a similar episode in December and all had turned out. But not this time. JP was gone by the next afternoon and buried by Monday.

No time for goodbye.

So, goodbye, JP. Goodbye.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Prom Again

Today I went prom dress shopping with two girlfriends, R and H.

I found a gold, lace spaghetti strap mini dress at the second-hand clothes market.

For $5.

There were lots of other dresses to choose from as well. The green lace, the hot pink satin, the white ruffles. Some were size 22. Some were size 2. But, the gold lace dress fit perfectly.

I'll be wearing it to our '80s prom this coming Saturday along with my gold 3-inch heels and a strand of pearls.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Simba, the Kitten

We've had a rat roaming around in our ceiling for a couple weeks now. Obviously, the rat we killed a while ago had family who decided to continue sharing our home.

I've been oscillating between going the poison route or the cat route. Poison route means its a one time deal- no long- term care of a cat, but it isn't a long term solution if rats keep moving in. The cat route means no dead rat smell in the ceiling and a furry friend to come home to that keeps those pesky rodents away.

I was leaning toward the poison option mostly because I've been hesitant to up my level of domestic responsibility. I was quite comfortable with level 1- house plants (which we don't have yet.....and the gardner takes care of the yard....). Getting a cat is the next rung on the ladder towards level 3- dog, level 4- significant other then kids at level 5.

After expressing my hesitancy over a lunch of rice and beans at the office cantine, my fine co-workers pushed me to take the leap to more responsibility. And so, this afternoon I went to a colleag
ues house and came home with a kitten. In keeping with the fine (recently established) tradition in my family of naming pets after beer brands, we now have Simba (a Congolese brew) which also means lion in Swahili. A fitting name for a cat, if I do say so myself.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What's a girl to do? Part 2

April 17

Text from stalker man:
"Honey...I'm sorry, just understand my emotion and see how you can manage me. Don't play with my feelings 'your grace is sufficient for me'. You occupy my thoughts, please do something before I fall sick, even Hello! When I look at you, I feel good and I remember when I was in the United States."

He was in the US? Okay, so maybe he doesn't need me for a visa. Still, I find the text to be creepy. I asked Coach B if he'd given out my number, and he said he didn't. But, he did know who the guy was and said he was a good tennis player and had played in tournaments in Europe. Interesting, but still creepy.

This time I actually tried to text him back, but as fate or chance would have it, the text wouldn't go through. I took that as a sign.

April 21
"Charity, good afternoon, I know that you are well! In fact, I don't know what to say....but, I count on you because I love you. Be happy."

Again I tried to text back, this time to say, please stop texting, since my avoidance maneuver was obviously not working. The text wouldn't go through again. My dear friends suggest I inform our security officer about these texts. I didn't feel threatened enough, yet.

April 22
"Hello, sweet heart, 'My husband doesn't like that...' (What I said to him when joined me on my walk home after tennis one day pre-texting drama). Give me the chance to be this man. 'Be my guest'. Kiss.

Getting creepier....

April 23
"Honey I know that you receive my messages and I'm confident in a favorable response because you said "Hello" this morning. You know, one must live the caprice of love to know how many times one can suffer. You are beautiful and I love your style, your way of dressing is fantastic. Give me your hand. My father says silence is gold. Peace.

There was someone who said hello to me in the street that morning and I automatically responded with hello, but didn't even look at him.....ugh. This is getting to be uncomfortable.

April 27
I received two texts, but the second one was the tipping point. "My love, I am in bed alone and I know that you are also alone in a pretty bed at the same time (it was 6:30 pm, and I most certainly was not in my bed, not even near it!). I am thinking of you...one day if GOD wants. Night."

Okay, enough. The next day I told the security officer at work who called the guy up and told him to never contact me again or else my agency would write a complaint letter to his agency. He seemed to accept this and I have not heard from him since.

I think he was at the tennis court this weekend when I came to play, but he left without saying anything. Hopefully, this is the end of the story!

Friday, April 16, 2010

What's a girl to do?

Text out of the blue #1 Apr 9

Honey, bonjour. quelque fois quand la realite depasse la fixion on manque comment s’exprimer. C’est comme un coup de foudre....tu es trop belle, tu occupe mes pense et tu m’a fait trop rever. Mon pere me disait que dans la vie on peut toujour rever, car on ne sais jamais sur quelle genre de personne on tomberras sur. Bizard, mais, realite je besoin de vous dans ma vie “donnez moi la chance” svp. Dimanche je vais passe chez vous apres culte pour un bonjour. Peace. BW

(My translation: Honey, hi. Sometimes reality surpasses fiction and one doesn’t know how to express oneself. I saw you, realized you are from the US and am really hoping to persuade you to help me get a visa. You are too beautiful. It was meant to be. My dad even said so. Please give me a chance. I’ll come by and see you after church on Sunday. Peace BW)

I did not respond. First of all because I didn’t know who it was writing me this amorous message, and second, because my general strategy in these situations is to not say anything. An answer is an encouragement to try again-- at least in Haiti.

Text #2 Apr 10

Bonne nuit, mon amour. Je pense a toi et surtout a notre avenir. “I have a dream” une belle femme....il n’ y a rien que plus bon que la famille. “Il y a confidence”. A demain. Love BW.

(My translation: Good night, my love. I’m thinking of you and our future together- you know, the one where you help me get a visa.... I have a dream of a beautiful woman and our family together in the United States. Until tomorrow. Love BW)

So, ignoring didn’t quite work, but I still didn’t respond. Who was this guy and how did he get my number? Maybe my tennis coach was playing match maker??

Text #3 Apr 11

Suis desole, mais quand meme il falait me dire de ne pas passer. Tu es libre! thank you.

(My translation: I’m sorry, but all the same you must tell me not to come. You are free! Thank you.)

I received this text after J, my wonderful, heroic, rat-killing housemate agreed to shoo the guy away when he actually showed up at our gate on Sunday afternoon. However, I deduct from this message that, D, as I now knew his name thanks to J, is aware that I really am single despite my best attempts to have J pass for my husband.

Text #4 Apr 16

Juste bonjour et savoir si vous etes ici. Je voulais vous voir “tu me manque aux yeux”, please. Take care.

(My translation: Just checking in to let you know I haven’t gone away and am not giving up! I want to see you! I miss seeing you! Dammit, would you give me a chance??)

Ugh. Despite the lull in texts and absolutely no response from me, Mr. D is still trying his chances. I keep forgetting to ask Coach B if he gave out my number.....

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Many Uses of a Flag Stick

A flag stick, unlike a flag pole, is a piece of wood about 4 feet long used to hoist and attach an organization’s flag to said organization’s vehicle. I find flags of this type to be extremely ostentatious. So when I returned from my recent vacation to find flags affixed to several of our organization’s vehicles, I set about scheming on how to remove them.

Luckily, my housemate, J, agrees with me that neither of us want to drive a vehicle with a logo-ed flag flapping to announce us. On Friday, we took home one of these flagged vehicles and immediately cut the black rubber strip tying the flag stick to the truck.

We went about our business, which for J, was to burn the trash. Looking around for something to poke and stoke the fire, the flag stick was the most appropriate tool to be found. With flag still attached, the bottom end of the flag stick took on its new purpose. (Of course, we had a laugh over burning the flag, but the stick, except for a bit of char, and the flag remain intact.)

Around 5 am Sunday morning, the flag stick took on its 2nd new use. At this blessed hour of the morning, I was awoken by a noise in my room. I tried to tell myself it was part of a dream. It wasn’t. A minute or two later I heard a bit of a scuffle near the window and saw my curtain move. In the darkness I tried to discern what this thing could possibly be and how in the world it had entered my room in the first place. Was it the snake that allegedly entered our house a month ago and was still hanging around or was it a a different creature? Bat? Bird? Rat?

I worked up my courage to leap out of bed, bound for the door, and turn on the light. Keeping my eye on my room, I knocked on J’s door across the hall, “There’s something in my room!”

Without hesitation, J did a bit of poking around and rat (a rat!) ran out from behind my bed. After chasing the stupid thing around the room, into the bathroom and back again the rat ran up the curtain and into a cubby at the top of the window.

“What could we stab him with?”, J asked.

“The flag stick!” I answered from outside the bedroom door.

I monitored the mouse in the cubby while J grabbed the flag stick off the front porch. Thus threatened, the rat took a flying leap onto my bed at which point I screamed and ran for the living room. I let our night guard in to assist with the rat hunt. He and J chased it into the living room, and I ran for my rat-free room and shut the door.

I could hear movement round and round the living room and down the hall then whack! whack! whack!

“Is it dead?” I called.

“Yes, but don’t come out now, there’s blood dripping from the rat on the flag stick.”

(The first time a peace promoting NGO’s flag has been used for violent purposes??)

The guard disposed of the rat, J cleaned the floor with bleach and I changed the sheets on my bed.

The stick will be used again to burn the trash and burn the rat germs off the stick. In the meantime, I’m sure we’ll find other purposes for our well-used and useful flag stick.

a HAIKU for you

travel, work, retreat
time escaped me once again
back to writing more

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Helping, hurting or just being taken

Wednesday after work, I was very hungry and with my collegue, J, we finagled a car to go get some Lebanese food at the new somewhat fast-food restaurant. Before we got far, we were called back to the office- first for an office key, then to change vehicles. As I sat in the car waiting for J to come back out, a boy of 10 or 11, approached the window.

"I'm hungry. I haven't eaten. I am displaced and living on the street...." He asked for money for food. Usually I don't give money because I am used to the boys around the stoplights in Port-au-Prince who make a business out of begging. But, since I'm in a new context, I thought why not give something? I pulled out my wallet and handed him 200 francs. Accepting this he then asked for money for clothes. I said no, I'd already given him something at which point he started sobbing and saying he had no family, he had no clothes, wouldn't I please help him????

I was at a loss. Was this real? Was he really in such dire straits or playing the white girl to see what he could get?

J came back at that point and shooed the boy away, but he clung to the side of the car even as I tried to move it through the office gate, but let go as I pulled away.

Thursday morning stepping out of the house and running a bit late, the temporary day guard told me there was a girl at the gate. Joining me step for step to the gate he explained that she was looking for work, particularly if I would hire her to wash our clothes. He was replacing our regular guard, D, a lovely woman with a bright smile who had to take a couple of days off because her infant was sick and in the hospital. Was this girl outside the gate a friend/relative of this new guard and he thought there might be opportunity? I explained to him that we already had a Maman to wash our clothes and clean our house.

Stepping through the gate I continued the same explanation that I'd been giving the guard. "I'm sorry, we already have someone working for us. We don't need another person."

A girl of about 12 was wearing an off-white t-shirt and a darker colored skirt was leaning against the gate. Her shortly-cropped hair wasn't braided and stood on end to give her a bit of wild look that didn't match the dejected look on her face. In the 10 seconds I had had to form an expectation of this girl before seeing her, I hadn't assumed she'd be so young.

Who was this girl? Where did she come from? She's so young!
"That is what you wanted, right? To work for us?"

The girl nodded, and I in my rush to walk the two minutes to the office, said I was sorry I couldn't take her on and turned and walked away.

Friday afternoon I was to meet Coach B to take four kids- poor kids he teaches tennis- to buy proper shoes for them to play in. I needed some as well, so when he brought up the need for shoes to this white foreigner, I said I'd buy the kids shoes and get some for myself as well.

Due to a little logistical snafu in getting a vehicle, I didn't meet them until 4:30. By the time we got to the huge outdoor market covered with a tin roof where they sell shoes, it was just starting to rain and get dark. Not the most ideal conditions to look for shoes, but Coach B insisted that we look for shoes for me first before looking for the kids. With three kids in tow (one couldn't make it), we moved from stall to stall with vendors pointing to shoes and calling out to me, "Maman, look here". "What about these!" I'd look at them and reject the shoes in turn as most did not have a sole to wrap up around the front of the toe to protect against toe-drag when playing tennis.

"Do you have anything in a 42?" Coach B would ask a vendor. They would look, pull something off the wall and try to get me to try it on. I did try on a few pairs, disconcertingly most were damp on the inside from being washed. It was a used shoe market, although any pairs I tried on were quite new looking.

To try on a pair I'd pull out a sock from my purse, stand on one foot as I put sock and shoe on and try not to fall over as other customers brushed past in the aisle. After a few try-ons with no success, I found a pair that fit well and Coach B started to barter.

The bartering started in French at $65 dollars and quickly switched to Swahili and I couldn't follow any more except for the many references to "mazungo" that the vendor was making. I'm assuming he was saying, "Dude, I'm not dropping my price for this foreigner!"

I started to show interest in other shoes with other vendors to show I wasn't really interested in buying his shoes hoping he would drop his price, but he wouldn't go below $50. So, Coach B said we'd have to come back another day and we walked away. At this point it really was too dark to keep looking and many vendors were packing up. Coach B suggested coming back the next day and we started to walk out. I and the three kids got into the car, but Coach B was still inside. He came out a few minutes later and said the guy would accept $35. Deal! Coach B went back in and bought the shoes while the rest of us waited in the car.

By this time it was pouring buckets, but the kids asked if we could go the best grocery store in town and get candy. Hmm, so shoes aren't enough, huh? What 9 year old wouldn't much rather have candy than a new pair of shoes? So, off to the store to let them pick candy and then I dropped them home.

At this point, Coach B asked how we'd handle getting the shoes for the kids. Obviously, my presence would just drive prices up. He suggested that I could just give him the money and he'd buy the shoes and show me what he bought. He estimated $25 per kid, so I handed him the $100 bill I'd brought along hoping I wasn't being suckered and reminded him to get the remaining $5 in change from the vendor who had sold him my new shoes.

Three days. Three encounters. Helping, hurting, or just being taken?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Yesterday, I walked back into my office that I share with between 2 and 6 other people (depending on the day) and found my little, cute buddy B who'd helped me by all the stuff for the new house with his hand in my wallet.

Let me back up. Our office compound is shared with two other organizations. We are the step-child relegated to three rooms of the outdoor annex. (Except for the head of office who sits on the second floor of the main building. This means we get our exercise going back and forth.) The three rooms of the annex, each about 10'x10', all sit in a row, so you have to go outside to get to another office. Each only has one window right next to the door. There is zero air circulation and with a tin roof, we are all baking by 10 am. I like to refer to these rooms as our little sweat-box caves.

I sit in the very back of room #3. I usually leave my bag on the floor next to the wall since one would have to be behind my desk to reach it and that's hard to do because my chair blocks the space.

I'd walked out to make a couple of copies in room #1 and when I returned, B was all alone behind my desk reaching over doing something. What is he doing?

"Your phone was ringing, so I was going to bring it to you."
"Oh, okay. Thanks." I said walking to my desk and accepting the phone from B.

There was a missed call from M, our housekeeper, which I returned as I sat down at my desk. M usually calls when she is finished working for the day to let me know she is leaving. As I hung up, I turned towards the wall where my bag sits (don't remember why...instinct?) and saw my wallet lying open just inside the top of my bag. Since I hadn't touched my wallet all day (it was 2 pm) I knew what B had been doing.

I picked it up and quickly looked at what money I had -- and I thought it was still there-- all 200 Congolese francs ($0.22), 9,000 Rwandan francs ($15), and 290 Haitian gourdes ($7.25). I'd recently spent my US dollars and hadn't yet replenished my wallet.

I sat my wallet on my desk still open and said to B who had taken a seat at another desk, "Good thing I didn't have much money with me today, huh?" He looked at me with a blank stare. My exasperated French was coming out garbled, but I'm sure he would have understood my message even if I was speaking Cantonese.

I finished filling out some paperwork using the copies I'd just brought back while shaking my head and thinking of how disappointed I was to find out B was as innocent as he looked. B walked out of the office and I took my completed paperwork to the administrator to whom I explained the situation. He said he'd talk to B, wouldn't let him sit in that office again and suggested I keep my bag locked in my desk. He also blamed our office situation-- each of us piled in tiny offices one on top of another and not able to control other program staff in our space.

Unfortunately, petty theft in the DRC is as prevalent as oxygen. As sad and disappointing as this is, it is all the more so when you catch someone you like and trust doing it to you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Maman Champion

I like to play tennis early in the morning before work. I love to play at Cercle Sportif at that time in the morning because the top of the volcano is visible in the clear morning air. I take inspiration from the majesty of the volcano just as I used to be inspired by seeing the Citadel sitting in the distant mountains when I worked out along the bay in Cap Haitien in Haiti.

This morning when I met Coach B at the court at 6 am just as it was light enough to see a tennis ball on the court, he greeted me with, “Bonjour, Maman Champion!”. “Um, not yet!”, I responded as we walked through the gate.

Coach B is doing his best to make me a champion. This morning I ran the version of tennis suicides. He placed tennis balls on each intersection of the court and had me run forwards to get each ball and run backwards to place them all on the racket at the back of the court then replace them all again. This is his strategy to improve my lung capacity because, frankly, at an altitude of 4,820 feet, I could use an oxygen tank after playing hard tennis for 10 minutes.

Even though I’m not yet a champion, I have spectators every morning. The court is surrounded by various forms of fencing- but mostly some oversized chicken-wire on denuded tree branches that serve as posts. There is a constant stream of people walking by the far end walking past on their way to or from their homes higher up the hill. Many of them- women dressed in their colorful pegne, soldiers in their green army fatigues, children on their way to school- stop for a few minutes and watch.

Do the women think I’m crazy playing a sport in a short white tennis skirt? Do they wish they could play, too? Do they just stop to take in the spectacle of a white girl in their neighborhood playing on their tennis court?

This morning I asked Coach B about the roofless building with the partially destroyed stone walls that sits overlooking the court. It does have “Cercle Sportif” painted on the front, but has lots of other graffiti as well including a red snake. Apparently, it and the hill above are part of the sports center. There used to be a pool, club house and extensive grounds, but they were destroyed in the war. All that remains is the rehabilitated tennis court that a foreigner helped to restore and the basketball court.

Despite the seen-better-days appearance, Coach B told me they do host tournaments there, so maybe one day I really will be Maman Champion.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tennis Lessons

My recently acquired litmus test for deciding to live or work somewhere is whether or not I can play tennis there.

I began tennis lessons for the first time in Haiti in August of last year, and when I interviewed for this job, I made sure there was at least one tennis court here. There happen to be five clay courts in three different locations.

On a tour of the town my first week here, we (fellow co-workers and I) went out to the Caribou Hotel where they have two courts. When I say we drove out to it, it really was a long drive on rutted roads. It’s in a beautiful location right on Lake Kivu, but a bit too far to drive to two or three times a week. That was out.

Two weeks ago I checked out the two courts at the Ihusi Hotel, also on the lake, but within two minutes of the Rwanda border. When I asked around the court for the tennis pro, a short man holding a broom and wearing a navy blue gardner’s uniform approached. He said he was the tennis pro. I had a hard time believing him, but I asked how much it cost to play there--$100 per month-- plus the price for lessons--$5 per lesson.

I wasn’t too keen on the Ihusi, and mentioned that I wanted to play tennis to a local staff person, B, who helped me with the shopping excursion.

“Oh, there’s a court at the Cercle Sportif.” I’d been trying to figure out where exactly that was.

I asked if he could take me after work. He agreed and said we could walk there!

Just a three minute walk from the office and four minutes from my house-- literally around the corner-- is a public sports center. On first glance I wasn’t too impressed. Run-down at best, all the center contains is an open area with a tennis court at one end and a basketball court on the other.

B and I could see two guys playing a match and a few spectators sitting and standing around. We stepped through the turquoise-painted wooden gate and walked to where a few others were lounging in plastic chairs. One of them saw us and brought us two chairs to sit in. I hoped we weren’t imposing. He asked if we wanted to talk to the coach. Yes, exactly why we had come. I also hoped the coach looked a little more like he knew what he was doing than the guy at Ihusi.

Our host/facilitator called in Swahili to one of the guys playing and he came over to us. Since I’d just been admiring his tennis abilities, I was pleased when he introduced himself as the coach. After a few social pleasantries and introductions, I asked prices.

“How much for the court?” $30 a month. “No matter how many times I play?” Great!
“How much for lessons?” $5 per lesson and $1 for the ball boy. Nice.

It’s been two weeks since I started playing with Coach B, who happens to be ranked #2 in all of Congo and Rwanda.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ti Lamond Sa (This Small World)

Today, waiting for a meeting to start at UNICEF, my colleague, Ib, looked across the yard and said, “I think I recognize that guy.”

We’d just been talking about waving to people from a distance and then once closer recognizing that we, in fact, don’t know them and then feel embarrassed.

I said, “Well, wave to him!” Ib chuckled, and I turned for a closer look.

“No, I think I really know that guy. He looks like the guy I worked with in Chad who worked for Oxfam.”

I turned to look. “The guy in the red shirt?” I looked a little closer. “Actually, he looks kind of like a guy I worked with in Haiti who worked for Oxfam.”

The man in the red shirt and his colleague approached us. As he drew near, both Ib and I exclaimed, “It is him!”.

Then followed a round of hellos and hugs and catching up in Creole.

It was nice to speak Creole and see someone from “before”.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Money, Money, Money

You may think that being in the middle of Africa, US dollars would not be the popular currency. DRC is in fact former Belgian colony, so wouldn't the Euro be the prized foreign currency? Oh no.

I use US dollars so much here that I actually haven't and won't be exchanging currency. The local currency is the Congolese Franc which I've seen in denominations of 100, 200, 500 and 1000.

With an offical exchange rate of 925 francs to the US dollar, you can imagine the stacks of money one would have to carry around to be able to pay for anything.

Here in Goma, the exchange is actually 1000 to 1 to facilitate transactions-- especially considering that I haven't actually seen anything less than a 100 note($0.11).

The only reason I have seen this currency and carry some in my wallet is because the francs are used as change. For instance, if my grocery bill comes to $25.40 and I pay with two $20s it is likely that I'll get a $10 bill and the rest in francs. And, it is expected that if something costs $1, you can pay with a 1000 franc note and not expect any change.

Oh, the joys of money.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Setting Up House

Last Sunday, I and my new housemate J moved into our new house. It’s not a new house, but it is new to the organization. So, while the house is furnished-beds, chairs, tables, stove and fridge- there are many things that are lacking. Since it is considered group housing, the organization will pay for common furnishings- pots and pans, shower curtains, etc. This also means that there is an entire purchasing process to go through. We can’t just run out to Target and be done.

As I do want to enjoy these extra furnishings, I’ve inserted myself in the process of buying them-otherwise it would be left up to the men in the purchasing/logistics department. Not that they couldn’t do it, but frankly, when it comes to quality and color coordination I need to be involved!

Day 1: The whole process started with me making a list in English of items and checking it twice with J. Then I wrote out a requisition form listing the items in French for the admin/purchasing guy. The list had to be verified and signed by the head of office.

Day 2: I went with the driver and another random office guy (he works in water and sanitation, but I’m not really sure what he does except that today he is helping me shop) to price items and find quotes. We all hopped into a Hilux pick-up and headed toward the commercial center of town. When I say commercial center, you need to picture dark dirt, pot-holed roads with volcanic rock laying here and there (we’re only 8 miles from an active volcano!) and small shops made of concrete with single open doors lining the streets. Merchandise spilled out of the stores giving one a good idea of what one might find inside. Most stores seemed to be a hodgepodge, but could be loosely grouped into a few categories- apparel, housewares, hardware.

At store #1, which looked more like a hardware store, they had one item that we needed out of a list of 50. Next!

At store #2, they had 10 or so items. This store was like walking into the poorly organized, dusty garage of your great uncle who happened to be a hoarder. It too leaned toward the hardware category with pipes, toilets, brooms, boxes of water filters and display cases packed with assorted electrical doohickeys all dumped together. A dozen light fixtures for sale hung from the ceiling and walls, most memorably a chandelier with chartreuse glass bowls around the bulbs and another that looked like a foot-long pink log.

Store #3 was more about home furnishings. If rummage sales and my grandmother’s attic could cross-breed, this store would be the result. The entire store was approximately 15x25 feet, but stacked from floor to ceiling with just a narrow walkway to the back. There were women’s high heels, glass end tables, office chairs, gaudy framed art, coffee makers, jewelry, strollers, water coolers, dishes, pots and pans and a meat grinder exactly like the one my mother used to use. Not a price tag in sight.

Instead, we played a game of pointing, asking and pricing. There were a few items that were reasonably priced, but for the most part I was in price shock!

In French:
Me: How much is this? (iron)
Shopkeeper: Um, that’s $65.
Me: $65!!

Me: How much is this? (coffee maker)
Shopkeeper: $70
Me: $70!!

Me: How much is this oversized leather chair (just for kicks?)?
Shopkeeker: That’s $2,000
Me: $2,000!!!!

As we were leaving the shopkeeper asked if we’d be back to buy and I told him we were comparing prices and wherever had the lowest price is where we would buy. Amazingly, prices dropped after that.

Store #4 finally had a stove. (The countertop electric oven and hotplate combo that came with the house is taking 30 minutes to toast bread....). Despite being a small oven and of mixed energy use -three gas burners, one electric burner and an electric oven (who’s ever heard of such a thing??)- the price tag was $750. Ouch. I think I repeated the price back to the store clerk 5 times and the price didn’t get any lower. Thankfully, when I went to the grocery store later on, they had a gas stove/oven for a much more reasonable $370. The only downside is that we have to cross the border and buy the tanks of gas in Rwanda.

In store #5, I felt like I hit the jackpot. It was all cutlery and cooking. My helper and I walked in and behind the counter and stacked all along the walls were oodles of pots and pans, serving utensils, bowls, plates and almost all the kitchen tools one could want. After seeing a lot of overpriced electric coffee makers, my big find of the day was a French Press. I asked and they actually had one for just $15.

Now that the list of items is all priced, the list had to go back to the admin guy to do a price comparison.

Day 3: Oops, we need to get a proforma from all the vendors! Going back to each store, each vendor had to write the price for each item on their business letterhead. Back at the office, I gave the administrator the proformas. He called me into his office at the end of the day and told me that we needed to find one store with all of the items. He's Congolese so he knows there isn't one store with all of the items on the list. I gave him a blank stare and told him exactly that. He said he'd have to do a comparison between the proformas and wanted to know which items I wanted. To make things a bit easier I volunteered to make an Excel table and circled the item from that I wanted to buy.

Day 4: I was given a check advance for the items. Off to the bank to get cash -- $1,000 in twenties and back to the stores to actually purchase the items.

Now, J and I can actually set up house! We have a stove and dishes and bath mats and hangars-- we just have to wash layers of dust off of everything first!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Twisted Linguistics

I received my cell phone today with the key pad in Arabic.
I open a web browser, it pops up in German.
I communicate with my colleagues in French.
I am starting to pick up some Swahili.
I am teaching a few phrases of Haitian Creole.
I think in English.
And, every once in a while a phrase of Spanish slips in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

VIP Palace

Until my new home is ready with a higher wall and a safe room, I'm staying in the VIP Palace Hotel. A reviewer on Trip Advisor said that this hotel is neither a palace nor for VIPs. They must not have had my room.

The charm begins with what I call "The Stairway to Heaven" that leads only to my room for that special VIP feeling. The room's decor is decidedly log cabin-esque with dark log walls, floor and ceiling and is finished off with two 3-foot tall lamps of half-naked women. One is placed by the bed so that the first thing I see in the morning is a wooden boob.

There are also two toilet-brush head birds (real name Grey Crowned Crane) that like to hang out on my stoop. It was a bit disconcerting to open the door the first morning and find them there taking their morning poop.

I do love it though, and wouldn't trade my little mini-log cabin for any other room....except the one in my new house.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

First Impressions

Evening humidity and the sweet smell of wood fires and damp earth greeted me when I stepped onto the tarmac at 8 pm in Kigali, Rwanda (Jan 14). I breathed in deeply. I love the first smell of a new place.

Kigali was my point of entry into the continent from Brussels because it is only a 3 hour drive west to Goma just over the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda is neat and orderly. There was no pushing in the immigration line, no shoving at the baggage claim and no porters competing for my suitcases. There were porters, but all I had to do was ask for a cart (it's free!) and I managed my own luggage.

A driver from the office met me outside and took me along perfectly paved, perfectly clean streets to a small hotel where I promptly encountered someone who I had first met in Port-au-Prince a few years ago. He would also be working in Goma.

I felt immediately at home at the hotel with CNN on the TV and two cockroaches scurrying across the floor. (I shortened their lives.)

The next morning at 8 am the driver picked me up and we started the drive toward Goma. It took an entire 20 minutes for me to spot a piece of garbage on the side of the road. Shakira and The Dave Matthews Band sang out on Voice of America.

We climbed a hill and drove along green mountains with a red earth background that remind me of the Haitian mountains. I could have been in Kenscoff or Furcy. These mountains were broader, but have the same sloping features and garden plots etched into the hillsides. Banana plants, eucalyptus trees, sorghum, beans, potatoes, calla lilies, impatiens, birds of paradise were everywhere. Houses cropped up here and there. Men and women walked along the road many carrying produce to or from market.

When I am first in a new place, I like to ask local people what they like and don't like about their country. The first people I tend to meet are the office drivers. The Rwandan driver responded promptly to the first question, "Ah, I love that my country is clean." I had to agree!

When I posed the second question in English- what he doesn't like- he asked me to repeat it, then asked for the question in French then said,"We have a lot of security in our country. I cannot answer that question." I remembered Rwanda is the place where everything is neat and orderly and the people reserved, but with very little trust between them.

We met the Congolese driver half way to the border and I posed the same questions to him. He quickly said,"I'll answer first what is not good. The government is not good. They do not take care of their people. They do not take care of the roads. What I love is the beauty of my country."

We arrived at the border and were across within 20 minutes--no fees, no bribes, no pushing, no waiting. It made my memories of the Haiti/DR border experience all the worse!

Crossing into Goma, the road deteriorated- mostly dirt and potholes (although nothing worse than the side roads in Port-au-Prince!). It certainly is not as tidy as Rwanda, but it still looked cleaner and less chaotic than Port!

I think I'm going to like this place.

My New Home in Goma

I left Port-au-Prince January 3. I arrived in Goma January 15. In between, everything changed. My home city for 8 years was destroyed by earthquake. Instead of simply looking forward to new adventures in Goma, my journey here was filled with thoughts, prayers and longing for my friends and former colleagues in Haiti. Even now, I compulsively check e-mail and Facebook updates to check-in on the situation and send whatever encouragement I possibly can.

It doesn't seem fair that I am not there to share in the tragedy, but rather here, where the birds are singing, music is playing and food is in ample supply.

But, this is where I am. Although my heart is heavy, I know I must dive into my new life, my new home here in Goma. And so, I am writing to share with you my new adventure.