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.