I have no idea what I’m doing…

chow time

You ever have those moments where you have to stop and think, “I have no idea what I’m doing…” I had one or two of those today.

Being a Program Manager in Congo has its own set of challenges and unexpected events. However, it’s the ones that don’t come with job description that are the most surprising. Today, I found out one of my staff’s grandfather’s had passed away yesterday. On the same day, one of my other staff had a new baby. Today, because all my field staff were actually in town, we decided to go visit both the one that had lost his grandpa and the one that had had a baby.

Crammed into a hardtop land-cruiser, fourteen of us bumped along the dirt roads of Bunia till we came to his house. Piling out, we all passed by Pascal, and then his extended family who were mourning, to give our condolences. Then we entered his living room and sat down to talk. First, a couple of the guys said a some words of encouragement, then Pascal told us about his grandpa and how he had raised Pascal when he was a boy. Afterwards we sang a couple songs and prayed for his family.

Then it was my turn to speak.

What is a mid-twenties, white boy supposed to say in that type of setting. Because I was the manager I was expected to have a speech of sorts. Twenty faces were turned toward me, expecting profound words of wisdom and encouragement. And yet, they were all older than me, have experienced more than me (living through several wars), many have wives and children already. Pascal, himself, is in his mid-thirties, married already for five years, and has two kids. A little daunting to say the least. But I didn’t really have a choice as all eyes of the room were on me.

And so I talked.

I talked, just trying to express myself and convey our emotions to him as a team. I talked about how the stories of his grandfather touched us. Although none of us knew him directly, it felt as though we had a lost a family member because any loss by our team is a loss to us all. I talked about how his grandfather had impacted us because of how Pascal had been impacted by him. I talked about how as a team, we were a family, and through both joyful moments and serious ones, we would go through them together.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of talking (although probably only 5 to 10 minutes), and struggling not to choke up, I sat down, breathing a sigh of relief.

That was over.

The rest of time there we looked at family pictures of Pascal, we talked and joked and told stories, and we probably could have kept going all night. But we had another visit to do.

After saying goodbye and leaving Pascal’s family, all fourteen of us piled back into the car and bounced over the hard roads to get to Benjamin’s house. He was just coming out and saw us drive up, complete surprise on his face. No one had told him we were coming, and there we were on his doorstep, 14 guys.

We opened the doors and flowed out of the car like a rush of water. Benjamin lives in an ‘L’ shaped house with multiple families. Multiple families means multiple kids. Being the only white person, I was mobbed by at least ten children, all running up to touch me, shake my hand, hug me. Huge smiles spread across their faces as they held my hand and pulled, if not dragged me, to the newborn baby.

Her name was Imani, which means faith in Swahili. Just over a day old, she slept soundly in her mother’s arms, wrapped in soft pink blankets. Her mother shown with joy and perhaps embarrassment that so many people had come to see her and her child.

Once we were all inside, and the kids quieted down, several of our team spoke again. They gave blessings, advice, and told jokes about Benjamin. This was already his third child in a short span of time.

Benjamin than told us the stories of this children’s names. His first was named Amani, which means peace in Swahili. The child was given this name because Benjamin had peace when he was born because he had finally found a job. His second, a girl, was named Tumaini, or hope in English, because she was born while they were hoping for a new house to live in – and they found one. His third, Imani (Faith) is to remind him and his wife to continue to have faith that God will take care of them.

After these deep stories told by the couple, I was once again asked to share some thoughts. Once again surprised, and  not at all qualified, I stood up to talk.

What does one say to a father and mother who have lived through a war, have been jobless, house-less, and yet survived it all, having three children who’s names give testimony to their trials, but also evidence of their passing through them.

And so I talked.

I told how their pride in their child radiated off of them like vibrant energy. I talked about how all fourteen of us men in the room felt like new uncles because one of our brothers had had a new child. I talked about how their testimony and stories were an encouragement to us and I told them how we in turn would encourage them as they parented their children.

After 10 minutes of fumbling for the right words I was able to sit down again and breath. The rest of the time was spent passing the baby around, people telling stories of their own kids and names, and just cherishing the moment together. We left over an hour later.

In the little space of two hours this afternoon I was put into situations where I had to talk about things and emotions that I don’t usually have to talk about. Although similar situations, it was the two extremes of life – a death and a newborn baby.

In both cases, as I stood up, one of the thoughts pounding through my mind was, “I have no idea what I’m doing…” It was a very humbling, but good, experience.

A Surprise Package

At the start of the day, you never know what it will bring. It could just be “another” day, or it could be something completely different.

Today started as any other day, until one of my staff brought me a package with my name on it. Intrigued, but busy, I didn’t get a chance to open it until later and what I pulled out surprised me.

A gift

A thick, wool-like sweater. Not that I had any expectations, but this was definitely not what I was imagining. I had no idea why I was getting this package, or what inspired this particular article of clothing.

It was only after some thought that I put the pieces together: A couple days ago he had been wearing a similar sweater and I had commented how sophisticated he looked in his sweater (he’s usually on the field wearing work clothes, so it had seemed quite odd to see him dressed so differently). Apparently he appreciated the comment and went ahead and bought me a sweater as well!

That’s something I love about team, just how generous and caring they are. No matter how much they have, or if it’s an inconvenience for them, they will go out of their way to do stuff for you. It’s an amazing mentality that I think more of should have. I mean, I can’t say that I’ve ever bought a sweater for someone just for giving me a compliment. I think it just shows the size of their hearts.

Now, the question is….will I ever be able to wear something this warm in Africa?

Another Travel Blog

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You’ve probably read enough travel blogs by now that you’re about to be sick just reading the title. In a pathetic attempt to entertain I wrote out a whole blog about ranking trips on the number/quality of toilets used (this trip was a score of 19 in case you were wondering). However, after revisiting it, the pictures and text just didn’t line up enough to make a convincing post.

sunset

Instead, I decided to keep the pictures and change the text. After seven months straight in Congo I was able to take a week vacation. I decided to visit some friends in the Netherlands (talk about complete opposite setting than Congo).

Holland in the fall is absolutely stunning. This wasn’t necessary the most adventurous of trips, but I did get to appreciate that beauty and I hope you can experience that as well through a few pictures.

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We walked and biked in so many parks and woods throughout the central Holland area that it all started to blend together. But it never got tiring because it was so calm – a break from the hectic life of work, cars, technology, etc…

Lunchen met HellAngels 009

We did make a day trip with motorcycles while there. You feel pretty cool driving in a gang of four motorcycles, whipping through traffic and flying down the highways. Everyone looks at you.

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Dutch culture is one of my favorites. Not necessary because of the history and traditional Dutch things (wooden shoes and windmills), but because of how they live. They bike everywhere. They take for coffee and tea. The value nature.

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The have quaint streets, cars, canals, and then contrast it with massive cathedrals, trains that go everywhere, and huge cities.

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All in all, it was an amazing trip. It’s good to have a mental break from everyday activities to see new things, meet new people, and explore new places.

But now back to the adventure of life in Congo – hopefully more posts to follow in the future (also I hope to invest more time in them as this one was rather quickly written so may not be the most interesting: I apologize).

Rutha Androsi

 

Rutha Androsi
Rutha Androsi

Rutha Androsi was forced to flee her home last August when rebel troops attacked her village. The rebels began to group the villagers into small groups of 5 to 10 people. As they were getting grouped they heard more gunshots in the distance. The rebels, thinking it was military troops arriving, ran into the forest to find cover. As the rebels ran one way, Rutha and her family took advantage of the moment and ran the other. They spent the rest of the day walking through the hilly and forestry terrain before sleeping outside a small village about 15 km from their own. The next day they continued on another 20 km to reach Gety where they have been living ever since.

The first few nights at Gety were spent sleeping outside on the ground because there was no where else to stay. Realizing they wouldn’t be able to return to their home quickly, they started looking for ways to survive. They set up temporary houses made of reeds and volunteered to work in other people’s gardens in exchange for food. This is how she has been living for almost 11 months now.

Her husband is too frail to work because of breathing issues, so most of the responsibility falls onto her. Besides her own two kids that she looks after, she has taken in another 5 orphans meaning she has nine mouths to feed on any given day.

Recently she and her family were selected to be participants in an agricultural project run by Samaritan’s Purse. The project is targeted at long-term displaced people, like Rutha, who want to return home, but haven’t been able to for a long period of time. The project will provide her and her family with agricultural tools like hoes, machetes, rakes, watering cans, files, etc… She will also receive help finding land. Once the fields have been prepared, SP will also give seeds. This upcoming season will be beans, corn, and peanuts.

Throughout the project she will also receive monthly training from qualified agriculturalists in order that when she does return home she is not just returning with physical tools but also with knowledge that she can use both now and later on.

She told us that she hopes to use the harvest to first feed her family and then secondly to pay for her kids schooling. The school fees for primary kids is 1500 CDF, or about $1.5/month and for secondary school it is 4500 CDF, or $5/month. Despite these low fees, they remain too expensive for her right now.

Village Life: Another Day in the Office

It’s been awhile since I’ve written any posts and I apologize for any that were desperately waiting for one (Grandma…), so I figured I’d try to start up again – we’ll see how it goes. In my defense, I have actually been making a list of topics that I’ve been meaning to write about but just haven’t gotten around to doing it. A lot of that is because of how busy I’ve been with my project activities (that’s one of those topics I want to write about), but also probably a good solid portion of laziness.

field assistants

With so much to talk about it was difficult choosing a topic to re-open my blog with. In the end, I decided to write about where I currently find myself. Not in the abstract sense of “where I find myself in life,” but in the very literal sense of where I am sitting, which is most accurately put as the back of a motorcycle. Granted it’s not moving and I’m facing the wrong way, using the passenger foot pegs as foot rests and the baggage rack as a table. However strange this might sound, it’s really just another day in the office.

office

The project I’m working on is based out of village in northeastern Congo called Gety. One of the first things we had to do was set up a sub-base (another one of those topics). Two months later that is where I am, working from the back of a motorcycle. On my right several field-assistants work on reports from seed distributions that have been happening the past few days. The sound of hammer on nails rings through the base occasionally as a man works on constructing a hangar for the motorcycles. Voices from the small office in the house fill in the quiet gaps between each hammer ring. Behind the house are more voices talking as the cleaner does the day’s laundry by hand in a basin and the cook works on the meal for noon using charcoal grills. Most likely the meal will be beans and rice, a staple here in Congo. Nearby our cat takes a nap in the tropical sun.

Raj

Village life is hard to explain, and even this blog post won’t do it proper justice. For many visitors they only spend a few days out here with us and they find it usually one of two extremes, either mind-numbingly boring, or incredibly stressful/busy. However, neither of these extremes captures the true essence of what village life is. It moves at a different pace than the rest of the world. Time isn’t dictated by a clock on a wall but more by the movement of the sun. We might say a meeting will start at 10, but if it rains it’s understood that it’ll start later. No one is surprised when someone shows up an hour late. Work never really stops, but because of that it also never really starts. You have the opportunity to take in the moment.

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For example, our seed distributions would often take 12 hours of day. We would begin conditioning kits and loading trucks at 6am and wouldn’t get back to the base till 6 at night. Long days to say the least. Today there were no distributions so for the past few hours we have been working on reports, but at the same time telling stories and laughing. Like I said, it’s hard to explain, I think you have to live out there for a while to really appreciate the pace of life, to not get frustrated at how inefficient it is at times (very western mentality) and learn how to see the value of relationships, the value of talking, and the value of listening instead of being caught up in the rush of life.

cook joy

I’ll leave it at that for now. Sorry if this isn’t the most interesting or informative post. Perhaps it is more just me reflecting on how amazing it is to get to travel, work, live in Africa with such amazing people. Maybe the take-away is simply to look from the computer, the phone, and see the people around you. See them and interact with them. Try to live some days as though you’re in the village. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

rice and beansOn a completely separate note, if there were ever a time I would have to request a last meal before dying, it would be the one pictured above: beans, rice, and an avocado on top. I would die a very content man.

 

Tournaments and things

The Team before game 1
The Team before game 1

“It seems that soccer tournaments create those relationships: people gathered together in pubs and living rooms, a whole country suddenly caring about the same event. A World Cup is the sort of common project that otherwise barely exists in modern societies.” 
― Simon Kuper

I don’ t know if you’ve heard or not, but there’s tournament going on right now (it’s called something like the “World Cup,” or some epic name like that), but apparently it’s somewhat of a big deal (note sarcasm – always harder to convey in writing).

The field
The field

In honor of this once-every-four-year event, I decided to tell you about a tournament I myself participated in recently. Several weeks ago it was proposed that all the international NGO’s in Bunia (the city in northeastern Congo where I’m currently living/working) should come together for a soccer/football tournament.

After much debate, several interesting training sessions, and an official “drawing” for who would play who, the day finally arrived. The rules were fairly simple: play soccer (in a respectable fashion), total time per game was 30 minutes, if it’s a tie you go to penalties, and if you lose: you’re out.

A total of 8 teams showed up to play. Our first match was against an NGO called Medair. Thirty minutes of playing in grueling heat brought the match to a close with a nil-nil score line. It therefore went directly into penalties (not ideal, but definitely creates a nail-biting situation). IMG_5022

We shot first. Bruce put it cleanly in.

Medair stepped to respond, but under the pressure the shooter cracks and places the ball directly down the center, right into our keeper’s hands.

Getting ready to shoot
Getting ready to shoot

Heritier, I and Jonas all shoot and score, but for each one we make, Medair responds with one of their own. Finally Serge steps up to close it out for us. He shakes himself to loosen up, waits for the whistle, takes his two-step stride and laces the ball to the upper right corner.

GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Serge gets lifted up
Serge gets lifted up

All the Samaritan’s Purse fans rush in yelling and celebrating. Before we even get a chance to blink Serge is picked up by the crowd and carried around with everyone dancing and cheering. Even our Country Director was picked up and carried in celebration!

Doug gets carried around in celebration
Doug gets carried around in celebration

After that we get a break while several other games happen. Then the next match is scheduled: SP vs. Save the Children.IMG_5014

By now it’s about 1pm in the afternoon. The tropical sun of central Africa is doing it’s job and everyone is exhausted even before the game begins. But nonetheless, we go out proudly to represent our organization.IMG_4846

The first half is a hard-fought battle as each team has several attempts on frame. It almost seems as though it might go into penalty kicks again until about five minutes from the end when Save the Children get a break away and slot one in.

We tried our hardest, but the game ends 0-1 and we were eliminated.

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It was an amazing day though, getting to hang out with the SP staff, getting to have highs (celebrating a win) and lows (losing) together. Even the people that didn’t play came and supported us – so I have to thank them for their support!

 

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Hopefully in the near future I’ll try to catch y’all up on what I’ve been doing in life (like the actual “work” side of things). But that’s a story for another day.

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That’s all folks.

 

There was no turning back

First FallsThere’s nothing. . .absolutely nothing. . .half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats. 
-Kenneth Cole, The Wind in the Willows

The waves rose high above us, like ever growing shadows, as we plunged down the valley towards its base. Beneath us the thundering river pulled us forward to an invariable doom. Above the sound of roaring water I could barely hear the sound of our guide’s voice yelling, “get down! get down!”

There was no turning back. No Turning Back

I grabbed the rope in my left hand, locking my paddle under my arm, while scrambling down as fast as I could into the bottom of the raft, slipping into the small space beside the other paddlers. Just as I was about to reach the floor, I felt the raft lurch under me and the nose rise up as the whole boat went vertical. Time itself seemed to stop, or at least slow down, as we were suspended in the air. But before the moment could be fully appreciated, another wave crashed against the now exposed bottom of our raft throwing us unmercifully into the foaming depths of the river’s mouth below. the wave hits

My hand was torn from the raft’s rope before I even hit the water, but I somehow managed to still be holding onto the paddle as my body hit the surface. It felt as though a heavy-weight boxer had punched my stomach and all the air I had in me was knocked out. As my body became fully submerged I felt the paddle be savagely pulled out of my hands by the angry current, twisting my shoulder before I had a chance to let go. The force of the river continued the wrenching of my left shoulder and I felt it slip out of its socket, becoming dislocated.going over again

All I wanted to do was scream as my body was thrown head over heels under the water, getting tossed around like a rag-doll. I tried to pull my body into a ball so as to reduce the chance of hitting the boulders beneath me, but the river was too strong and I couldn’t bring my left arm in as it was still out of place. I had lost all sense of direction and had no idea which was up or down and although I’d been under only for a few seconds I had already run out whatever air I had. The only thought going through my head now was “I wonder how much oxygen I could get out of gulping down a mouthful of water.”going over 1

The life-vest, clipped firmly around my body, began to tug in a direction which I concluded must be ‘up.’ With all the strength I could muster, I began to kick as hard as could in that direction, hoping to break the surface, with my left arm dangling behind. My head popped out and for a brief moment I could see the large waves dancing around me. I tried to gasp for as much as air as possible, but before I had the chance my head was forced under again as a large wave crashed down directly on top of me and I felt my body twist again as I was pressed further and further down.getting better

I was spinning again in circles, completely disoriented. The little air I had been able to gulp down helped, and my mind cleared enough to cringe and panic again as I thought about the rocks I was most likely to be presently hitting. I knew enough to know that I was going deeper and deeper which was not good. Once again I was running out of air when I sensed a new current flow pushing on my back. Suddenly my body got pushed violently upwards again by the current which at the same time rammed my shoulder back into place. The pain decreased significantly and I thrust out with as much effort as possible and began swimming upwards, following both the river’s pull and the life-vest’s tugging.and again

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, my head burst out through the water’s surface and I gasped for air, sucking in as much as I possibly could. The waves continued to beat against me, but with much less ferocity, as though I had gone through their trials and passed – even if just barely. Before I could even get a second or third breath, a safety kayak appeared next to me, offering me to grab on. I grasped the two handles on the front and swung my legs around the small kayak’s body, as though I was hanging from the limb of a tree. The kayaker began to paddle and within a few minutes we were once again in calm waters. He brought me next to the raft, which had been righted by the guide, and I swam over.

Getting up took about all the strength I had left in me. To do so I had to grab the rope, which is about two feet out of the water, and then basically do a gymnastic pull-up to get my body up over the edge of the raft – not an easy task with a sore shoulder. As I kicked to get momentum going up the guide reached over the edge and grabbed my life-vest and lifted me out of the water, dropping me into the raft like a sack of potatoes. I lay there, sprawled out, panting.it's still fun

We were only halfway done and this was just one of the nine rapids that we went over that were classed as either grade 4 or 5. In case you are unfamiliar with the classing of rapids, here they are:

-          Grade/Class 4: Very Difficult – steeper, longer drops, looming obstacles, technical turns, precision movements, occasional “swimmers”

-          Grade/Class 5: Borderline Rafting – transcended to the limits of control. Crews must be agile, aggressive, and follow commands instantly. Should be physically and mentally prepared for adventure and inherent risk. While not absolutely required, it is strongly suggested that everyone has happily experience class 4 rapids before tackling class 5. Make no mistakes…this is big, tough and difficult water

-          Grade/Class 6: (which we got out and walked around): Un-runnable, or, at the very least, survived only with a choir band of angles perched in your lap! Hiding under the bed is safer! (1)group pic

A group of us had decided to take a day trip out of Kampala (Uganda), where we had been attending a training seminar, to Jinja, about 80 km to the east. This is also the alleged location of the source of the Nile, flowing out of Lake Victoria. We decided we had to go on an adventure because rumor had it that Jinja was somewhat of the adventure capital in East Africa (it offers bungee jumping, off-roading, rafting, horse-back riding, etc…). And it’s just not ethical to skip an “adventure capital” when it’s that close.

So we went.

It was an adventure to say the least! My boat was labeled the “extreme” boat and as result this meant we had to tackle the larger portions of the rapids. This, by definition, also meant that we flipped much more often (I believe at least five times), and each time was somewhat of an experience. Granted, they were not all so dramatic as the one above. Some you got tossed around by waves, others you ran into other people (or got hit by their paddles), and others you barely made it through on the raft (often less exciting – but still heart stopping at moments).caught in the river

In the end it was well worth the experience. We definitely bonded as a team, both because of the intensity of the situations we faced, but also just the casual conversation as we lazily drifted down the river in between rapids.

And, at the very least, they fed us a huge meal at the end of the journey – so no complaints there.

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”
– A. A. Milne, Pooh’s Little Instruction Bookscared

p.s. for those of you who are interested, we went with Nile River Explorers (raftafrica.com). I highly recommend this outfit. They were well organized (even to transporting us to and from Kampala), had food (breakfast, snacks, and lunch), had well-trained and confident guides, had safety kayaks that picked you up immediately, and a photographer so you get to see all your expressions as you plunge down the rapids. The cost for all that was $125 – so a very reasonable price. If you go to Jinja – do it! Just know that: “There is a very high chance of falling out of the boat, but this is often the highlight of the day and our safety kayakers are always close by.”

p.p.s. for those of you worried about the wildlife on the river: “In 15 years of operation there have been no crocodile related incidents as they do not like populated areas so are rarely seen. There are no hippos on this stretch of the river.” (we didn’t see any of either on this voyage)

p.p.p.s on another note, for those of you with more motherly instincts, my shoulder is fine (it has slipped out before) and I survived even flipping several more times down the river

1 – http://gotrafting.com/ratings.html

2 – http://raftafrica.com/site/grade-5-rafting/grade-5-full-day-rafting/trip-details.html#main

The haphazard chronicles and musings of a global nomad.

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