Category Archives: Travel

Enjoying the Fireworks

It’s easier than you might think to become indifferent or lose that first-time magical wonder about the world when you see wondrous things almost daily. I liken it to watching a fireworks display with all the oohs and aahs in the beginning, but 20 minutes in, it takes much more spectacular explosions to elicit the same response. An hour later, I would be yawning and heading for home. If the sky still crackled with color a month later, most of us would hardly notice, or complain of the noise.

So you see, in many ways it’s a job hazard to experience a fairly constant stimulation of foreign people, places and things. I know, no one is crying for me. Just hear me out.

There’s something warm and secure when the extraordinary becomes ordinary. Imagine you have a famous friend and react to that person like you’re star-struck every time you see him. The fun actually begins when the spotlight is turned off, and you reach the comfort zone of true friendship where you don’t see the star but the person.

One extreme is wide-eyed wonder. The other, cynical boredom. Somewhere in between is where I want to be – still enjoying the fireworks with the occasional “wow!”

 

When I go to a new place for work, I always pray that I will see it with fresh eyes, that the stories will come into focus, that I can ignore the irritations and frustrations. Often it is one person on the trip that will light up my sky, one moment of clarity or insight, or maybe just a visual chocolaty feast – like Lindt’s 60% Extra Dark Chocolate Truffles. Sometimes the pilot has to drag me away, as I’m saying, “Wait, just one more…”

 

On my latest trip to Tanzania, there were several of these moments on the medical safaris that MAF runs.

Martha Katau, lit up my sky. She’s an educated female Maasai – a rare thing for someone raised in the bush. She says it’s “by the grace of God” that her father insisted she be educated, the only one of six children who finished school. She has been key to helping MAF find new places in South Maasai that are most in need and she joins the safaris, to pray, preach, and translate.

Martha was upfront on some of the problems with Maasai culture, including what life is like for an overwhelming number of young Maasai girls, age 13-15, who are married off to men 40+ years older with multiple wives, subjected to a life of no education, no options, and a husband who beats you. After speaking to some young pregnant girls at one of the clinics, Martha declared angrily, “They are still babies! It is like rape. I can say that. It’s not their decision to be married. It’s not their decision to be pregnant. So why don’t I say it’s a kind of rape!” She believes that only education for these girls will change things, when they know enough to say “No.”

 

I had several dark chocolate visual feasts on this trip. My two favorites: the blue and white fashion of the Maasai women, and flying through a landscape dodging massive columns of moving rain like some kind of video game.

The fashion of these Tanzanian Maasai women is extremely different from the more familiar Kenyan variety. Kenyan Maasai tend to favor all shades of red and wear huge brightly colored beaded jewelry around their necks, arms and ankles. Not only is the cloth color different in Tanzania, but I found their jewelry to be unusually simple and made predominantly of tiny white beads, or no jewelry at all. My favorite ‘accessory’ was their baby bottles, made from gourds and beautifully decorated with white beads sewn on dark leather. I now have one hanging on my wall. It makes me smile every time I look at it.

And the rainstorms are otherworldly, like giant alien ghosts floating all around the plane. How many pictures of rain does one person need?

 

And lastly, my moment of clarity was the realization that these beautiful Maasai people, the tall, proud international celebrities of the African world, are human like us all. We seem to attach a higher level of romanticism to their traditional lifestyle, but they suffer from lack of healthcare, bad or no educational options, dirty water, and terrible road access. They may live in the bush but they’re not stupid. They want these basic services. They feel forgotten. Their culture as well has some pretty ugly parts to it. I’m talking of the way children and women are treated. I don’t need to be politically correct. It’s not acceptable to force a child into early marriage, and it’s not acceptable to beat a woman. So like my earlier analogy, the gloss is gone, and I see them as I see others – humans with issues, like us all. I can still love them, and feel honored to be part of a mission that helps them.

 

So, in spite of my moments of indifference, I’m still enjoying the fireworks.

 

 

 

Okapi and Pygmies

(See the bottom of this post for a slide show)

Happy plane, happy people landing at Epulu in the Okapi Reserve.

Like bookends to my seven-month Congo experience, I spent a wonderful weekend in the Ituri rainforest for the second time before leaving the country for good (maybe). During the first trip in April, Rosie, the Swiss caretaker of the Okapi Conservation Project, allowed me to sit for hours inside an Okapi enclosure where a male and female-in-heat performed their subtle courting dance (i.e. smelling her urine, sniffing his ass). Okapi are very shy and suspicious animals who are essentially loners, so entrance inside their personal space is rarely allowed. Rosie is very protective of her 13 Okapi.

Ikenga, the 30-year-old Okapi.

Ikenga, the 30-year-old Okapi. Ikenga licks Rosie's hand.

On this trip, Rosie asked me if I would take photos of her oldest Okapi who she thinks is over 30 years old, their estimated lifespan in captivity. He was about 8 years old when Rosie and her husband first came to Congo in 1987. She wanted to document the signs of old age in an Okapi, and when I started looking closely at this beautiful animal, the signs of age were obvious: wrinkles, arthritic joints in his back legs, blotchy coat, and even some gray hair on his temple. He’s still shy like all the Okapi, but he likes Rosie and seems to enjoy her stroking his coat and petting his face. Surprisingly, he even licks her hand when she puts it up to his mouth – a very unusual thing for an Okapi, even one who has known their human since birth.

Rosie pointed out to us that Okapis’ poo is uniquely different in shape and size from each other. She can identify an individual Okapi simply by it’s poo. Tayari’s looks like round chocolate colored Peanut M&Ms, while Ikenga’s poo (the old sage) is pointed at one end.

Walking through the rainforest with our armed ranger. Our pygmy guide demonstrates how to make rope by twisting several strips of a plant together and rolling them on his hairy leg.

Our pygmy guide drinks water from a vine.

The second day we took a walk in the forest with two pygmies as our guides and an armed ranger along for protection. Our group consisted of Jon, Walt, an Australian woman named Jenny and her son Ben, Bobby – an American doctor, and me (Cher stayed behind). Jon loves it when pygmies teach him how useful the forest is. He likes to say that the rainforest is a pygmy’s supermarket, hardware store, and pharmacy. They know every plant and animal – how it can be used, or which ones to avoid. At one point, one of the pygmies climbed into a thicket of large vines, cut off a piece at a specific point, and showed us how water is stored inside the branch. If you cut it at the exact right place, it’s like a bottle inside – closed at one end and open at the other. You simple pour it into your mouth from the open end.

The droppings from the flower of a tree form a purple skirt around the base.

They also showed us the plants used to make rope, leaves to make the sides of their igloo-style houses, and a variety of other useful plants. It’s as if these people have a Doctoral degree on the forest. We could die there, but they would thrive, simply from a wealth of knowledge passed down through the generations.

A pygmy delivers his load of plants gathered from the forest for the Okapi.

The day we left, I watched the daily ritual of food delivery for the Okapi, collected by pygmies in the forest. Up to 45 pygmies gather specific plants the Okapi like to eat. Even women with babies strolled in with a massive pile of branches and leaves on their head. They deliver their load to a large staging area where the plants are divided up into bundles to feed the Okapi twice a day.

Walt and Cher chat alongside the Epulu River.

We stayed in a small bungalow that sits a few yards from the beautiful Epulu river, watching the sunset casting an orange glow across the water, and the moon reflecting off the deep blue. The only downside to this place is the evil biting mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies. A week later now, and my legs still look diseased from all the red sores. (And no, you will not see a photo – don’t ask. I have some pride.)

Faces of Pygmy women and baby.

An armed ranger waits on the airstrip for our plane to leave.

 

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Ben’s Thesis

Ben gives a speech to three professors acting as judges, and an audience of about 30 family and friends.

It seems unusual in Congo to find a common worker who is simultaneously attending university, but such is the case with Benjamin who works for Jon and Cher as their night guard. It’s a cushy job for him as he mostly sleeps the night away (to Jon and Cher’s chagrin).  Still, I’m happy that he is trying to better himself and I’ve tried to be supportive, showing interest in his classes while trying to understand the stories told in his meager English.

After finishing his lab tech courses in early summer, he spent the months of July, August, and September working on his big thesis paper, 28 pages of research on Bilharzia, which culminated in a presentation before three professors, with family and friends as spectators. Ben invited me.

The judges read through the thesis paper while Ben presents it in a speech.

The surprisingly well-organized presentation lasted for one hour and consisted of Ben giving a short speech about his topic in front of the audience of approximately 30, the judges publicly critiquing the paper, the judges conferring together on whether he passed or not while we waited outside, and finally announcing the results. No secrets here. No being nice and giving only positive feedback in front of the family.

Ben's professors go over the thesis page by page, highly critical of the writing mistakes/grammar, but conclude that the research is sound.

While Ben gave his speech sitting at a small table decorated with a yellow table cloth and white artificial flowers, a friend walked around the front of the room taking pictures, often standing right in front of Ben or the judges without the slightest embarrassment, which seems to be the Congolese style. Ben spoke carefully, clearly, and smiled a lot. The family applauded. The judges ripped him to shreds. His smiling face fell into a frozen grin. For at least 20 minutes, they seemed to tell him nothing nice about his paper, but according to a friend, they were criticizing the written mistakes throughout, not the actual research. Ben doesn’t type or own a computer, so he is forced to hire someone to type the paper and pay to have five copies printed and bound. Since French is his 2nd language, it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made.  As I watched this scene, I couldn’t imagine anything resembling this taking place in America. As my brother says, we Americans are thin-skinned and don’t take criticism well, especially not publicly.

Ben listens to the criticism of the judges, along with more than 30 of his family, friends, and fellow students who will go through the same exercise when they finish their thesis papers.

Although I couldn't understand everything, it was clear that it was not positive feedback. A few times a judge asked Ben a question and his reply sent the audience into cheers and applause. Later I was told he had responded well to the question.

Following the onslaught, we all stepped outside to wait for the results: pass or fail. Someone gave Ben a bouquet of artificial orange and yellow flowers. We took a few family photos. When the judges were ready, we gathered back in the room. They quickly announced that Ben had passed although he would be required to make corrections and print up five new bound copies of the thesis, at a cost of approximately $40 – an enormous sum for a guy who makes about $3 a day, the normal pay for a 12-hour/day guard. The next time you feel poor, think about that. Also consider that this schooling and degree will probably never result in a job as a lab tech for Ben, and even if he got a job in a government funded hospital, he would rarely get paid by the government. Even so, Ben and his family seemed genuinely proud at his accomplishment, and so was I.

Ben is presented with a bouquet of artificial flowers and congratulated while everyone waits outside the room where the judges decide if Ben should pass or fail.

When the judges make their decision, everyone is ushered back into the room for the announcement. A nervous Ben is told that he has passed but must re-write the paper to correct the mistakes. Everyone cheers and applauds, someone throws a Christmas-style lei around Ben's neck, and photos are taken with his mother.

Ben's family gathers for a photo following the announcement that he has passed.

Colorful Congo

The colors of Congo captivate me, from the brilliant green hills contrasted with latte-colored rivers, to the bright colored cloth and blue doors against brown mud huts. Even the dark-chocolate skin and warm earth reds make for rich visuals. Here are some photos from in and around Bunia.

Nyankunde, south of Bunia

Jon waits his turn to buy beef at a local meat shop.

A mother prepares to tie her baby on her back.

The Men's Choir from our church rehearses at 6 am in a small mud house on a Tuesday morning.

A village scene: a man pushes his bicycle loaded down with charcoal; women wait outside a hut to grind their cassava.

Good Hair and Clothes

I know I’ve posted hair photos before (on Facebook), but I’ve seen a few new ones this week and it has inspired me to post the Good Hair photos and Good Clothes photos again. Chris Rock, who made the documentary about African American hair (called “Good Hair”), should come to Congo for new inspiration. It’s clever, funky, wild, and sometimes scary. Our favorite, for it’s uniqueness, is the “satellite” hairstyle (the name I picked up in a BBC quote by a Congolese woman). Jon and Cher always comment, “She’s getting good reception!” when they see a nice one. Enjoy. Again.

The Rubberband hairstyle - front view

The Rubberband Hairstyle - back view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look closely to see the red-girls satellite ball hairstyle.

Peach Suit

This couple attended church decked out in their finest matching clothes. The woman wore matching yellow shoes, purse, hair clip, and earrings. Her husband and child also matched her. The only thing "off" is the umbrella.

Purple Suit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many women wear headscarves for special occasions in the most elaborate styles.

A variation on the satellite theme.

A variation on the satellite theme.

Epulu Girl

This is starting to look like "bad hair."

Definitely moving into the "scary hair" category.