Monthly Archives: July 2010

Seven for $7 – a shopping spree in Bunia

A shopping spree in Bunia, Congo

This post is a girl thing. About shopping. You’ve been warned.

The truth is I really don’t like shopping. I don’t like malls and I don’t like trying on clothes. I do get bored with my clothes, though, and want “new” things, but am too cheap to buy much except at thrift stores, which I have a secret passion for. (OK, not so secret.)

Yesterday I decided to walk to town again, mostly to get exercise, and I enjoy observing cities at a walking pace. I didn’t have anywhere I needed to go, but ended up at the small, exceedingly shabby market near our church at the south end of town.

One row of wooden stalls at this market comprises the used clothing section. I’m not sure exactly how each merchant acquires their wares, but they come with a monstrous sack of clothes, usually of a certain category. One merchant might sell mostly coats, another baby clothes, another button-down shirts, another t-shirts, and so on. It’s surprisingly well organized. Many of the clothes still have the Goodwill or Value Village price tag attached, which tells you that these are clothes that even thrift store shoppers in America didn’t want, so they are shipped off to Africa.  The merchants usually hang clothes in several rows on the three walls of the shack, then pile the rest on the table in front, and I do mean pile – you have to dig through, looking for a color or fabric you like, then pull the item out to see what it looks like – the size, style, condition. It’s a bit like treasure hunting, and there’s a method and art to finding good things buried in a pile of clothes.

Everything (except baby clothes which are cheaper) costs $1 each. It’s seriously hard for me to resist buying clothes when they are only $1.  I found seven promising items, tried them on over my clothes, and bought them.

That evening on my way to a girl’s movie night at the Medair house, I told the women in the car about my delightful little shopping spree. I added that in the US I often try on 20 items at a thrift store and don’t buy a thing, and yet here I found seven, couldn’t see how they looked on me, but like everything I bought! They all said, “…perhaps it’s because you haven’t been shopping in a long time.” Hmm.  Could be.

It’s impossible to explain fully why I get jazzed by this sort of thing. Even when life is boring in a foreign country, there isn’t a day that goes by without some sort of cultural or environmental stimulation. Yesterday it was shopping, today…who knows, but there will be something: it could be a bizarre bug attack; butterflies in the house; a funny conversation with the gardener who speaks very little English and mixes up “ladder” with “water,” producing buckets of water for the wash when we asked him to bring the ladder to the back of the house; a severe tropical thunderstorm; meeting a beautiful, well-dressed, intelligent, educated, English-speaking Congolese woman selling used bags on the sidewalk and discovering that she is a secondary teacher, but reduced to this because the government can’t pay teachers’ salaries. I love all of this. It is chocolate for my soul (dark chocolate, to be specific). I need to learn to find these small joys no matter where I am, even in America.

Public Transportation in Congo

Public transportation in Congo often means hitching a ride on top of an overloaded truck heading toward the interior on horrendous roads with potholes, or "bogs" as my British friend Jane calls them, that are as big and deep as the truck. At times the holes are so deep that when the truck is in the bog, the top is level with the road.

Sugar and Sand

Both sugars are coarse, but one more than the other. Not a huge difference if you don't have both to compare, which you often don't.

Throughout history, when food is scarce or expensive, people find creative ways to extend a food item, often by mixing it with something cheap to make it last longer. Sometimes merchants do the same.

For example, during the Great Depression, meatloaf was a common meal that could stretch a food budget by adding cereal grains or bread crumbs to meat to make it feed more people with less meat. (I personally dislike meatloaf – it resembles dog food and reminds me of the hamburgers served at fast food joints in Manila during my childhood.) My friend Bill Taylor grew up in the African bush; his father was a missionary doctor. He tells how his dad would test the milk sold by the locals to check the percentage of cow urine, and would refuse to buy it if it was too high, like more than 20%. The first time Bill drank milk with no urine, he was shocked by the taste. I don’t know which he preferred.

We don’t have anything quite that severe here (that I know of), but last week I discovered first hand one of the ways they try to extend an item. It’s mixing sand with sugar. At the market they sell sugar in small thin hand-tied plastic bags. There is a slight difference in some of the sugar – one is a light color and finer than the slightly darker, coarser sugar. Cher had been warned when she first moved here to buy the darker sugar, so she did. But we ran out, so when Jon and I went for a walk, we bought more sugar and didn’t know about the light versus dark problem. We bought light.

I sometimes don’t believe the stories I hear from the missionaries because often I think they are passed from one to the next with no one testing their validity. But this time the warning was true. I made three loaves of cinnamon/raisin bread, and my, my, my. That bread was crunchy and grainy. Like eating bread with sand in it. Not nice at all.

So we’re back to the dark, coarse sugar and using the other for tea or coffee because the sand can sink to the bottom.

Football, Bombs, Butterflies, Beef, and Beer in Bunia

If that title sounds random, it is. (It’s also alliteration, which I like.) I keep thinking of little things I want to write about life here in Bunia, but then get lazy and don’t. Now it’s piled up to a random collection that I will write about in one post.

Watching the World Cup final at the MONUSCO House in Bunia.

Football and Bombs

For the final World Cup, we went to the UN club here, called the MONUSCO House. MONUSCO is the name for the UN mission to Congo. It used to be MONUC but as the mission mandate changes, so does the name. It stands for (in French) “Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo”. Try saying that 5 times fast. I may write about the UN another time, as that is a whole other story.

The MONUSCO club has an indoor/outdoor restaurant, weight room, tennis court, and a track/field. There are barricades and a wall on the outside, a guard who collects ID inside, and another guard who frisks the men and looks in their bags. Women are not checked.  NGO and missionary staff with IDs can come in, as well as their guests, so I have been able to go with Jon and Cher.

If you’re wondering why such detail, it is because on World Cup night in Kampala, Uganda, two restaurants where locals and expats gathered to watch the World Cup were bombed, leaving 74 dead (and counting) and many more injured. Several young Americans from a church in Pennsylvania were at the Ethiopian restaurant and received injuries. One will likely lose her legs. Two more bombs were found before detonation, one at a restaurant in Makindye, the neighborhood where all the MAF pilots live, and where Jon and Cher used to live. These events are too close to home, and caused us to speculate that in Bunia a likely place for a terrorist attack would be the MONUSCO House. Will that stop us from going? No.

When we choose to live overseas, we don’t necessarily throw all caution to the wind. There are risks depending on where you live. Congo is a risk in itself, and going to the club might be considered one as well. But I can’t live my life running from all potential danger. I wouldn’t be able to live at all if I did that. So we look at the risks, figure out how to minimize what we can, and then…go for it.


There isn’t much to say except that there are butterflies in the house. How cool is that! They aren’t pretty. In fact, they look more like small moths, but I think there’s something kind of magical about having butterflies all over the house: sitting on my computer, in the kitchen, on the dining table. This never happens to me in America.

The meat seller at the market in Bunia, taken with my small camera, trying to be discreet as taking photos is frowned upon.

Beef and Pork

Bunia is not a shopping haven. There are no supermarkets, grocery stores, malls, or anything resembling these. We buy our food at the market and the tiny shops that carry a few packaged products imported from elsewhere. (For those of you from the Philippines, these are like Sari Sari stores.) The market is not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. It’s large and run-down with several long rows of shabby stalls where people set up their meager vegetables or other products. Many displays look like someone picked ripe vegetables from their little corner veggie garden in the back of their house – tiny piles of tomatoes or potatoes, possibly a handful of cucumbers or lemons. No one bargains. The price is the price. In some ways this is refreshing, and certainly faster when you don’t have to bargain.

Electricity is unreliable, and refrigeration units are imported and expensive so few shops have anything that need refrigeration. Meat is one of those things…that doesn’t need it. Now, you might be thinking, “But…wait a minute…” Yes, I know. We think it needs to be chopped into small amounts on a sterile surface in a clean environment, covered in plastic wrap, and placed in a refrigerator or freezer. Here we find our pork or beef in the market, in small wooden shacks, the body of the animal hanging from a hook in the back, a small wooden table in the front with large pieces of the chopped animal sitting in the sun or shade with flies crawling all over it.

This is when I usually become a vegetarian, but Jon and Cher buy some of their meat here when they can’t get it from Kampala, and the theory is that if you cook it well done, you kill off anything that might have killed you. We had pork and beans last night and it tasted good, as long as I kept the image of the meat shack out of my mind.

Stalls at the main Bunia market. Pictures are generally not allowed without permission, and even then, it's wise to be careful.


This really isn’t about beer. I just liked the alliteration in the title. It’s about shopping in Bunia.

I’m not getting any exercise here and I’m getting fat, so I decided that I would try to find an excuse to walk somewhere in town everyday. Yesterday I thought I would make beer bread for dinner, so I needed a beer, and we need an extra set of single sheets for some guests coming in a week. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the main street and a small secondary outdoor market that sells veggies, meat, and used clothes.

I went to one shop and asked for beer. They directed me to another shop that had beer. I decided to get two bottles to make two loaves. 1200 francs each, so I handed over the money and started to take the bottles. “No, no!” they shouted. (This was all done in charades, mind you, as I don’t speak French or Swahili.) They said I had to drink the beer right there, and give them back the bottles. I tried to explain what I needed it for, and offered to bring the bottle back after I used it. “No.” I offered to pay the deposit price. They looked at me sternly, then indifferently, and said, “No.” I walked out of the tiny shop, thinking they might change their minds and call me back. It was a sale, after all! But they didn’t. I finally found a shop on another street that was willing to sell me an extra large bottle of local beer, for 1600 francs, and take the bottle with me. (I’ll copy the beer bread recipe below. It’s quick and easy.)

I then moved on to the market to look for spinach and sheets. For the last four months, spinach has been plentiful in the markets, but last week, it completely disappeared. I managed to find one woman selling 4 bundles. I snagged them quickly.

I found one stall selling used sheets. It’s hard to find anything matching (as in, made for each other), and fitted sheets are extremely rare, but he had one checkered single fitted sheet in good condition, and I rummaged around until I found a solid color flat double sheet that matched. It had a huge tear on one side, but I can cut that part off and hem it. The two sheets cost $10, more than what I would probably pay in a thrift store in the US, or new at Walmart.

I managed to do all of this by greeting in Swahili, asking how much in Swahili, and then getting them to write down the price on paper for me.  It worked OK, but I do wish I spoke the language.  Everywhere I go I’m talked about openly and loudly, but the only word I understand is Muzungu, the word used for whites. I imagine what it would be like to turn and say something in fluent Swahili so they know I understand what they said about me. I feel a bit vulnerable not knowing the language. No one speaks English.

BEER BREAD (courtesy of Audra Cadd)
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each of dried thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary and basil
Dash of dried dill
1 can of beer at room temperature
1 teaspoon butter, melted
Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl. With a wooden spoon, stir in beer just until incorporated. Scrape into greased 8″x4″ (1.5L) loaf pan.
Bake at 375ºF (or 190 C) for 45 to 50 minutes or until crusty and golden brown. Let stand in the pan for 5 minutes then remove to rack and brush with melted butter. Makes 1 loaf.

(This isn’t very good the next day so finish it off immediately.)

Bum in the Butter

I’ve picked up some interesting expressions and slang from Jon and Cher who lived in Zimbabwe for 22 years where they picked up their Afrikaans, British, and Zimbabwean lingo: funny words like “skebenga” (Afrikaans for a low life thief), “Voetsek” (pronounced “footsack” – a very strong “get lost” sort of thing, used mostly with dogs), or the expression “Coke and Buns” (meaning that the event or restaurant is very low key, not fancy, basic).

Mkuki, Jon and Cher's Congolese Hunting Dog, landed with her bum in the butter when they adopted her from a pygmy in the Uturi Forest.

But my recent favorite, which I think we should spread around America (no pun intended), is “landed with his bum in the butter.” The meaning, according to Jon and Cher, is basically a good luck thing with a twist. You fall, but land in nice soft butter. (I said, “and then you can eat the butter!” and everyone, in unison, said “Eww!”) It’s where something bad might happen to you but it turns out good. Like your car breaking down in front of a nice resort and they let you stay there for free for a week while they fix your car. They refer to their Congolese Hunting Dog as “landing with her bum in the butter,” because they bought her from a pygmy in the jungle, and if she’d stayed there she would have had a horrible life of hunger, worms, diseases, and beatings.  She’s got a loving family, and is fat and happy now. She landed with her bum in the butter.

My British friend, Jane. Wouldn't you invite this girl to stay at your resort?

My life has many “bum in the butter” stories. My British friend, Jane, always says that amazing things happen when she travels with me. (She also says that she has more near-death experiences, but that’s another story.) One “bum in the butter” incident landed us at a private resort on a pristine island off the coast of Mozambique…for free. We were traveling on a dime, staying at the cheapest places possible, and wanted to get to the island to camp on the beach. There were only two resorts on the island, but of course, they were out of the question for us, and no regular boat service. We were directed to a white South African man, the manager of one of the resorts, who had a small boat heading back to the island the next day. We chatted with him for a while and then broached the subject of a lift to the island.  He looked us over, thought a bit, and then asked if we would like to come stay with him and his girlfriend at their resort, which was closed while they waited for the government to issue a liquor license. How could we refuse? We stayed in one of the beautiful bungalows, ate meals together and sundowners on the beach, all served by the staff of ten, and became friends. They didn’t ask for anything from us, and told us later that they rarely met travelers they liked enough to invite over. We stayed for three days before going back to our life of $5/night shabby rooms. We had landed with our bums in the butter for a few days.