Friday, October 4, 2013

my charm is enough to grease the wheels of corruption

my last day in kinshasa certainly wasn’t the best.
the night before i was awoken very late by the my project surveyor, steve, who has been stuck in brazzaville with the plane for the past few days. It goes like this. The plane we were supposed to use for our project crashed in malawi (steve was on board and survived and told me the whole crazy story), so the backup plane was doing a job in congo brazzaville and was going to pop over when it was done. Just needed 2 days. Easy peasy. Right in time for our press trip. Well as it turns out brazzaville doesn’t have the right kind of fuel, and so the plane was popping over to kinshasa to refuel – stopping at n’jili international airport and going through customs (2 hours), paying fees and then hopping, literally 5km away to N’Dolo domestic airport, paying more fees and refuelling, dealing with the crummy authorities there (3 hours). So one day they happened to be delayed until night and they couldn’t fly through the fog so got stuck in Kinshasa and the pilot never got a stamp in his passport (had a visa, just no stamp!) and this meant another 2 day delay being stuck at immigration, poor guy wearing the same overalls and underwear the whole time. 
So steve calls me and says they don’t have the right permit to land and that they won’t get it for another week and i need to pull some strings. I can pull strings! I look into the stack of business cards from the previous week and woohoo - There is patrick, assistant to the important someone who will sign our permit! At our meeting he held my hand a little too long when he told me he would do whatever it would take to help our project but anyway. I call him first thing, 7 am. He says he’ll call so-and-so and get me a meeting with another so-and-so in 2 hours. I call omba, my slowest driving chauffeur/go-to civil aviation ministry guy. We plan a strategy and we’re there.
Before you go to any of these ministries though, you better arm yourself with hard and soft copies of whatever it is you already sent them. In this case, a signed letter of support from the former president of DRC (yes, our project has been delayed since 2011) and all the stuff that accompanies the permit application. We’re kind of in a hurry, got stuck in a big traffic jam on the way to the office. i quickly send everything to the printer and when i go to pick it up there’s a crowd standing around like someone just got into a bike accident. I push in, Let me through! As if I am a paramedic. But i am, I am the emergency personnel because my office mates cannot ever seem to comprehend the printer.  They’ll open and close the compartments, and lift and press buttons when the screen clearly says „insert paper in tray 2.“ And then all the print jobs they each sent a million times because they weren’t coming out pile up and delay everything. My letter comes out sideways. Someone messed with the manual tray. Gah! I send again. Low toner. The letter is barely visible, the map doesn’t look so hot but f it, this is DRC, come on.

So we go the Civil Aviation’s second office in my best congo dress– i have been to the fancy one on the boulevard, this is a whole other story. We are on the same crazy street i bought my fabric. Blaring music, handicapped children, madness. People selling sneakers, and locks and police everywhere. I climb out of the truck and instantly someone is showing a plastic bucket in my face, 1$! I feel like i’m part of an undercover drug deal movie where someone is following me in their sniper viewfinder. Shday dealings here. We meet some guy on a crowded sidewalk and shake hands, he leads us into a dank alley where people are reparing motorbikes and cars. I have to step over oil cans and pumps and machines. We go up a back stairway and see a paper stuck to a door that says civil aviation. Inside is a maze of chairs and tables and offices in closets. The fact that it is indeed the civil aviation office is proven by heaps and heaps of dusty old binders with titles like Air France/1989-91. Documents everywhere. They are piled on the stairs, against doors, and even a huge mess on the balcony. A man sleeps on a desk, he has a very fancy suit, but neither shoes or socks. There are 2 computers, maybe, for the 11 people crammed in one office.  Every so often I want to take a picture but i recall how much edouard had to pay in fines so i slink back. They instruct me to sit on some antique chair which is totally broken, i sink through it and spend the next 10 minutes picking out splinters from my dress. A gust of wind comes and blows documents around- receipts, xerox copies, the kind that printed in purple. Some of the documents swirl out the window and land like falling leaves in the chaotic street below. 

They finally invite us in to an office which is about, 2.5 feet by 14 feet. It’s more like a corridor, with a big closet at the end. Everyone sits side by side, but all look to the guy at the desk all the way at the left. I explain in my utmost polite french our situation, the plane wants to come here, we just want to move things along. I hand over the letter. The director guy reads it, beginning to end, at the pace of about 1

Then he reads it again. Even slower.
This letter is from the time of the other Kabila! Yes, i know…he is super nice. He says he’ll give us a permit for whatever we want. But this letter, it seems to lack toner and is it printed sideways? Please go to a cyber cafe and make me a better copy. He did just read it in his entirety, but the hue of the text is now not to his liking. This letter is also in the dossier that is sitting open on his desk but i won’t argue. So we go to an internet cafe, which is a whole other fiasco. I need to get into my email and get the files. They ask me if i want to use aol or yahoo? Really? Aol?

Neither, i need the internet. I want to print.
You want to game or chat?

The computers are from the 80s and there are far too many plastic chairs to fit in this room, people keep bumping into them.
Uhhhh. I am starving. This place is owned by lebanese, there are tons of cats lounging on windowsills, and they serve schwarma. Not so bad. We finally manage print our stuff and go back to hand over the docs. Omba says i can wait in the car, he will run in. He comes back, with the dude from the street, who gets in the car, sits right next to me and wants to ask me something. I have my phone in my hand, my mind is back in the sniper movie…i should record the conversation i am about to have…but i can’t seem to do it not obviously, he’s already talking to me. Omba and his driver trainee or whomever it is, tune out. this is my business. The guy says that to bring our file to the next office, you need to pay for transport and i say, no need for transport, we will take you now, buckle up! And he’s all no, not just that, you have to pay a fee, for the delivery and i say, no problem! I’ll pay any fee as long as i have a receipt! And so he’s all nooo, no receipts madame and everything is in slow motion, i have papi’s voice floating in head „smallll biiillls!“ there’s a man knocking eagerly on my window, he has 50 brooms and wants to sell me one. What do you want me to do with a broom?? How on earth does one man carry that many brooms? My mind flashes to my wallet, which i recall i emptied to pay for the internet cafe and only has a 100$ bill left in it..yeah, i’m certain this guy will give me change …woah hold on, wait a minute, i’m being asked for a bribe! Cool!

But wait, guy, i’m broke, without a receipt i pay out of my own pocket and sorry but times are tight. I need to pay my rent, my 50$ go pass, and the hotel bill of my mindless colleague who skipped out on us! So, no can do, really. So why don’t you do what you usually do and take a bus and call me when you get there. he grumpily leaves the car, and omba drops his head into his hands, shaking his head.
What, i was supposed to pay the guy? Really? How do i know he’s not going to just pocket it? We kinda have a policy against this stuff, ya know.

Aurelgrooves, you are so congolese, but you are not entirely congolese.
So we drive off. Omba is quiet. i’m trying to justify my morality but he just turns up the music. He is very disappointed, all this work for nothing.

I get back to the office and poll my colleagues. My assistant elvis (whom i’ve recently bummed money off of) is all, man, you gotta play by the rules! Cyril uses the analogy, „well I hope you left a door open, you have to stick your foot in before it closes.“ My logistician Serge comes in, almost angry, why didn’t you call me?? I tell him the predicament, that our permit might not arrive at all now, and he shares omba’s disappointment. When will you learn, aurelgrooves? He looks at his watch, he makes a call, he has a plan. I am now ranting about my principles, my finances, the fact that this country is so fucked up, yet it actually has a mandatory insurance rules for employers! Government shuts down every day but they have affordable health care! I gotta pay my go-pass! Serge asks me what i think i should pay. As a moral employee of my orgnization, i did not answer „ok, less than 50$ but maybe more than 25$,“ i did not hand him cash and he did not provide me with a mystery receipt 4 hours later….and i did not receive a call later from patrick saying „we have expedited your dossier, it is now with the security authorities and will be approved first thing tomorrow morning!“     
when i reach my bed, i am deflated. in the end, Congo prevails, nothing will change it. the next morning Serge comes to pick me up, and he asks me how the dossier is going. i thank him for his wizardry and tell him as expected our application is all in order will be ready later that morning, by the time i am boarding my flight to nairobi. but he says, "i still have your money, i was about to drop it off with the guy now!" no way! you mean i did this on my own! with my congolese charm! still got it! 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

ya rezo?

So we’ve been here at the headquarters of this cattle ranching company for 3 days. The welcome has been wonderful, we have 2 well equipped houses (one of which is the CEO’s second residence) for  our10 people, rainfed water system for refreshing bucket bathing, a little man who makes coffee in the morning and serves breakfast and cleans up, at night we eat dinner with the operations manager , monsieur Ntondo in his home. We eat beef. Lots of beef. Grilled, roasted tenderloin, liver, you name it. Mr. Ntondo seems tob e vegetarian. He says meat is bad for your health. He doesn’t mind serving us lots of beer, which he also doesn’t touch. There’s a generator that provides enough electricity to charge up our phones and computers, we really couldn’t have asked for more. When we are not on a trip visiting villages or pastures, we sit around our plastic table on the veranda, the germans chain smoking and trying to crack the problem of how to figure out a feasible emissions reduction project. We play a little frisbee and make fun oft he complaining journalist, talk politics with the congolese and receive our share of visitors. The DGM guys who ask for our passports, the Public Relations guy who seems to like the Yankees. It’s a very nice ambiance and could almost be like vacation if i wasn’t ask to pull up imagery or a map every 20 minutes, and if lunch didn’t consist of stale bread and sardines.
When i have some downtime, i’ll take a walk through the worker village to find the „reseau“ the one square meter where you get vodacom reception. The first night i found it by walking towards the little glitter of lights that resembles fireflies – as i got closer i could discern the little nokia screens lighting up the faces of their owners. As i got closer i met a man who goes by the name rambo, who lit the way through the field his phone flashlight (the nokia really has anything you can need). On this little mound in front of a hut, seems to be some church or something. we all gathered around, phones reaching fort he sky, shouting eagerly like at bingo – i have 2 bars! And then we all huddle closer, then one person breaks away, and the crowd follows him and so on. I was able to download a few messages, and send some more, trying to get an update on my lidar plane! After i started getting devoured by mosquitos, i headed home.
The next day was Sunday. We had a lazy morning around the house and mina and i decided to take a walk and go check our voicemail. We went through the market, some houses, saw some lazy dogs and acquired the usual 50-75 kid following. We get to the little spot and it’s a rather crowded. Kids, mamans, it’s a bit chaotic and hard to hear your messages and write down numbers when kids are tugging your hands and hair and pants. The phone is cutting in an out, you have tob e really careful not to move an inch when on a call. I’m desperately trying to understand what my LiDAR plane pilot is saying in 1 second intervals between 4 seconds of silence. This is really challenging. When i finally find a moment of streaming conversation, 4 kids turn the corner with drums and flutes. These are the kimbangiste congregation, mass is starting! 
The drums and music drown out my phone, what did you say? Can you repeat? Gahhhh, this is not going to work. i give up. The kids all cheer when i hang up, dance! Dance! Pictures! And so begins the conga line, the jumping, the cheering, the hair pulling and hand shaking, total excitement because mondeles never dance, i guess. The angry pastor comes out oft he church and demands everyone come in. Oooh le big boss, smirks one little boy. The adults are getting angry, we are distracting everyone, we really should go. NO! Les copines restent! The little girls demand! They are grabbing our hands and clothes, trying to get us to join them for mass, which for these guys lasts aaaalllll day. Non non we have to work! The pastor bangs a bell hanging from a tree, which is an old truck tire hanging from a branch by ropes. Don’t leave!  For a second i consider it – well, if there is good reception inside, i could sit in the back and surf facebook or chat with my friends? Non non, désolée les amis…i really should go. I’m in a fin fond of Congo, i’m going offline, i don’t need to checking my email!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

beef. it's what's for dinner

So today we think we found it. The real cause of the problem, and this unsustainable lifestyle, that is, actually, at the moment not yet a problem. DRC is huge, space is not an issue, people cut down the forest like it is limitless, and in a way it is. But not for long.
Monsieur Ntondo took us around in his land rover, showing us some of the camps that houes the workers, some more pastures, and remaining gallery forests that you can see have been visibly reduced. It’s a sad landscape, chopped and burned trees, ovens to make charcoal and a few lonely huuuuuge trees that remain – they are probably too big to be cut down. We go to another village, ikoki. The chief and his deputy is away. This is kind of a good thing, perhaps we can really talk to the people – we want information on how much crops they grow, how much area they use, how they earn their livelihoods.
We thus have a meeting with the chief’s 3 sons. One of them calls the chief and asks for his permission to talk to us, we are given the ok. Same drill as the day before, i try and speak for our group while someone translates into lingala. An odd moment is when the village brings their own translator, they don’t want monsieur ntondo to twist our words. But everyone speaks french so they don’t really need a translator but anyway. We introduce ourselves, tell them why we are here and just jump into the questions. How many houses are here? How big is the average household? That sort oft hing. And the chief guys well they seem clueless, royalty. they just shrug and it’s mostly these younger teenager guys who answer. 53 houses! Everyone has 7-10 kids and 10 chickens! When you ask them to count average things, like how many sacks of manioc they sell downstream a year it gets a little complicated, but joachim, one of our german consultants is chain smoking, making calculations, vewy interested. They tell us how every year they burn all the savanna (one of the problems we are trying to solve is that the villagers make these huge savanna fires in the dry season,  and that spills over into monsieur ntondo’s cow pastures). So we ask them, Why do you burn the savanna?
To make it easier for the women to walk through it.
They generally seem to like our questions, like we are on a little game show. It becomes obvious that these people are pretty well off. Relatively speaking. Of course, they could be bragging, but it is clear they have fish, they hunt, they have lots of food, they have space. There are chickens everyhwere, and goats. A goat starts bleeting urgently behind me. It seems paralyzed or something, calling to her friends. It keels over and dies. One less goat. We figure this village is better off than the others because they are on the river, they can sell food, charcoal at markets, even kinshasa if they wish. I ask them if they have any questions for us. One latecomer comes to the meeting and raises his hand and asks what the heck we are doing here. Everyone hisses at him, you are always late! Go away! He then starts to say his big problem is that they don’t have enough guns to hunt the animals they want. They want us to give them guns. Uh, sorry my friend. Eat more fish!  We ask them how much fuelwood they use and they say, one basket worth. How big is a basket? And one of the mamans proudly models her really nice backpack basket. I totally want one.
We ask them to take us to a place where they have cut down and burned the forest and planted manioc and corn. They are thrilled. The whole village comes with us on a walk. Sadly, my photograhper is nowhere to be seen. He likes to wander off and talk to people and comes back with lovely portraits of kids and mamans, which are very nice for a gallery exhibit but we have very little use for. We want to show the people, in their surroundings, how they are using nature, how they are cooking, it’s not really enough to see just their face. I ask a kid to run and go find him.
As we take the path into the forest, through recently torched savanna we cross all these young women, carrying palm fronds on their heads, piles of wood, everything, it’s the picture we’ve been looking for – the people using the forest in various ways, edouard where are you? We finally arrive to the site. Carnage. Huge burned trees, still lying there and in between little corn plants, manioc. They are very proud. This is so hugely wasteful. I am talking with the germans, it would be so simple to reduce the burning, and allow them to stay on their land longer and they wouldn’t have to keep cutitng down forest. But this is exactly what we are looking for. A problem with a relatively (?) simple solution…though changing people’s traditions is not simple. But at least we know what needs to be done. Edouard is still not there so i am taking pictures with someone’s crappy digital camera. Grrrrr.
So this is it. I thank our villagers profusely, and translating for joachim, i am standing on a burned tree trunk, make a litlte speech on how we want to thank them, and hopefully work with them in the future. Edouard finally arrives and photographs me and i look like i’m a preacher or something…not what we were going for. I look over and joachim is smoking, contently….along with 8 other villagers, surrounded by clouds of smoke, huge smiles on their faces. „my personal supply“ joachim says and yes, i guess it’s better than giving them money, which is what they usually ask for.
We walk back and the gun guy asks me again for guns. I am trying to explain to him, in simplest terms that if he kills all the animals, and since there is less forest every year there won‘t  be any more animals to kill! His children, grandchildren may never even see what a buffalo looks like! He laughs, there are plenty of animals (i have yet to see anything but one type of bird this whole trip). So he asks me for mosquito nets for fishing. Yeah, i bet he wants the one impregnated with insecticide too, they are particularly effective at catching and killing everything.. his friends all crowd around as i try to explain that every time he eats a baby fish, he is essentially eating 100 future large fish – isn’t better to just eat large fish, and let the small fish become big? He laughs like i am totally crazy. Go back to europe you mondele, you don’t know what your talking about! I try to tell him how it was in mozambique, people starving, no fish left because they catch everything…mozambique is millions of kilometers away, DRC is huge! Vast! God gives them everything they need in huge abundance! Look madame, we give you one of our chickens! And one of the chief’s son’s hands me a chicken. I don’t know what to do with it, i’m petting it, showing it to the formerly vegetarian journalist. We toss it in the back and drive off. It freaks out a few times cluckclucking and flapping around the truck. The cook meets us at the car, and then cooks it. This is only night we will not eat just beef my friends!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

attack of the village kids

One of the goals of our travels here is to try and understand why people are cutting down these gallery forests. There seems to be little forest left in this mostly savanna landscape, but deforestation is also relatively low – there are small patches of forest remaining, cool, shady areas that are a welcome respite from the heat, with cool tannin waters….but they are constantly being burned and chopped down and converted to agriculture in little pieces. or worse, burned just into order to flush out the animals to hunt, until there will be no more left. Then what will they do?
So we want to talk to villagers and see how they feed themselves, what their needs are, how much income they earn from deforesting, in order to determine what would entice them to stop.
So we go to villages. The only problem ist hat when you roll into a village with a landcruiser with 2 white dudes sitting on the roof (they can’t stand being stuffed together in the back and have preferred to be nearly decapitated by branches), it’s hard to go unnoticed. Every human being under 12 years old screams mondele! And come running in packs and mob us when we climb out. I find these kids to be a bit more agressive than the typical village kid i am used to, they grab my hair and twist my skin, indian burns on my arms and even scratch me.
We stopped in a rather large village of ndjonkele, along the fimi river. 6000 people in these parts. Heaps of kids. I am chasing them, scaring them, throwing the frisbee. You can’t cause this type of disruption for long tho, after a while you need to go see the chief. So we send a messenger and we have an appointment. Plastic chairs and a bench are set up in front of some homemade loungers. Out comes the chief, dressed in bright red, i recall from a trip near here in 2007. The chief sits and looks none too happy. We are surrounded by hundreds of people in a curious semi-circle. We are asked to introduce ourselves and explain what we are doing here, through our lingala translator, flory. Despite the kids jostling to look at us and their parents slapping their heads away, it is completely quiet. We go around our circle, and the chief doesn’t even explain himself he jumps right into his questions. Why are you here. In this situation it is rather difficult to start inquiring about the data we are interested in, so we just need to discuss some background on the project. I start explaining the carbon map, the plane, in the most basic way and immediately all these hands go up. Lots of questions. The chief’s deputy, an angry looking young man with lots of arm muscles requests permission to question me direcly. the inquisition begins. First, he wants to know why his village, ndjonkele is never on the map of drc. There is kinshasa, there are territories, districts, but there is never ndjonkele. I promise that his village will be on my map. In fact, i will make him a map that shows his village, and only his village on a map of Congo. I will bring this to him when i fly out of their airstrip on Monday.
Anyway, they start saying that the forest belongs to them and they can do what they want with it, which is agriculture.  They are not wrong in this respect, but it’s all a little…tense. The chief is staring at me, intently, angrily. Kids are creeping up behind me and pulling on my curls, reaching for my elbows. Everyone else in the group is sitting there, smiling. I need to answer, kindly politically. The more i talk, the more i realize, how on earth do you get 6000 people organized to stop cutting down the forest. When there is nothing left, the soil will be depleted, there will be no more animals to hunt, and that’s it. Finally, they’ve had enough and we decide to adjourn. We get up and take a group photo.
The angry chief stands in the middle. At one point, edouard asks to take just a photo of the chief. He moves in close, the chief does not budge. At this point, everyone, everyone is completely silent. Edouard snaps some photos, you can hear the shutter click echoing throughout the huts. No one is moving. Edouard slowly turns the camera around so the chief can approve. He stares, emotionless at the small LCD screen which is reflected in his eyes. Total silence, which seemed to last an eternity.

Slowly, the chiefs face morphs into the largest smile we have ever seen, teeth and all. and everyone cheers at the same time.
Chaos. Kids jumping everywhere, photos! Photos! A hundred kids jump on my shoulders and pull on my earrings. A hundred mini zombies devouring me, i’m down on my knees, overcome. The deputy guy comes and pullst hem off me, and asks me for money. Oddly, he says this in english. „money“ my pockets are empty. Emmanuel, the driver, honks the horn and i make my move towards the land cruiser. Kids reach into grab my neck through the window! Step on it!