Saturday, September 20, 2008

An unexpected life

In starting this blog, it occurs to me that I owe my readers some sort of explanation. After all, who am I? And why am I living in Congo? (sometimes I ask myself this very question) I am from a small town in CT. I am a high school teacher by profession and have spent most of my career teaching in NYC. Congo was not exactly the logical next step.

However my husband (who is also American) grew up in Africa (Burundi and Rwanda) and when we got married seven years ago, we went to live in Rwanda for two years. Rwanda is an important part of my husband's life and I wanted to make it a part of mine as well. We lived in Kigali, Rwanda for two years and then returned to the US. My parents are in the US and I am an only child so that is the force that is always pulling me back there. But Africa is addictive. There is something about life here, that is a little more raw. In Africa you have to come face to face with the realities of life, realities that in America we have become good at softening. So we came back to Africa. We have been here in Congo for the past two years. We will not be here forever. I feel torn between my desire to be near my parents, and my love for this place here. I am sure that the rest of our life will involve a balancing act of some sort...with lifetimes spent in both places.

But for now we are here. My husband works with microfinance, and I came here with no real job in mind. I have spent a good amount of time learning Swahili and am now working on French. I have done some teaching at one of the local universities. But the people in Goma are poor, and the ones who can go to university and learn English are the fortunate ones. I wanted to do something to help those who are a little less fortunate. In Goma, I found myself living in a perfectly nice house next to neighbors who were living in a tiny tin shack. How can this be just? This is the eternal question I find myself asking in Goma, a land of such extremes of poverty and wealth. I don't have an answer, but my struggle here each day is to find ways to make my life here a little more just.

A year and a half ago I started a small sewing group despite the fact that I know nothing about sewing. I was looking for something tangible to empower a few people to better their lives. That group has become SHONA, a small group of physically handicapped women who sew. We sell their products through our website and through ebay (check us out: but the group is about more than just sewing. It is about empowerment. The women are learning to organize and lead the group themselves, they are learning to read and write, play sports and live on their own. They work as a group and live as a group, an incredible example unity and interdependence. While at the same time, they offer an incredible example of empowerment and independence. In Congo, handicapped people are expected to beg in the streets. Handicapped women are expected to be particularly dependent as they are often not sent to school, and are assumed to be unable to marry. The women of Shona are now earning the money to provide for themselves, and are beginning to consider the ways they can help provide for others as well. This is our goal. In the midst of a culture that teaches dependence on foreign aid, the women of Shona are independent; in the midst of a culture that teaches “service to self”, the women of Shona are preparing to serve others.

My life here in Congo is unexpected. In the sense that it is not what I thought I would be doing at this point in my life. But there are plenty of people around world, working with similar projects, with similar goals. It is the women of Shona, as they sew, play sports, and help others who live a truly unexpected life. And that is where the beauty lies.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Welcome to Eastern Congo

This is Eastern Congo.
Where the sunsets over the lake can break your heart. Where the land is incredibly fertile and the temperature close to perfect. And this is Eastern Congo, where lava covers the ground and everything seems ruined.

I love contrasts. But Congo has a few too many, even for my taste. My husband and I have been living here in Goma (Eastern Congo) for the past two years. And what can I say? Congo is impossible to summarize.

We live in a small apartment near the airport. Let me be a little more specific. We have a plane super-highway that runs directly outside our home. We stop conversations atleast 5 times daily because you cannot hear yourself think over the roar of the planes. Yet we live in a town where the vast majority of people have no running water or electricity. Truly. People walk by our house with water containers on their heads as the planes fly by. But wait, if you are lucky, you might even see that person who is carrying water reach in their pocket and pull out a cell phone. It is the strangest combination of the 19th century and the 21st century.

We have a plane super highway outside our house because the roads in Congo don't work. Literally, you can't get anywhere in Congo by road, you simply have to take a plane. The roads that do exist in Eastern Congo are in terrible shape and are cut by rebel soldiers so they are unsafe to travel. So if you can't seem to have functioning roads in a country, why not move on? Go straight to planes.

Likewise, there is a lack or running water, because there are virtually no public services in Goma. So who can fix the government? The water supply system? Skip it...and buy a cell phone. Goma is a regional hub for fancy cell phones. You go to Goma and buy a cell phone because they are cheaper. We may have no water but we also have cell phones without a state imposed tax. There is always an upside in Goma.