Landing on the narrow red-soiled airstrip next to the lake in Kalemie felt like arriving in a different country (it’s just under 500km south of Goma, still in the east). I wondered as we descended about the numerous plumes of smoke rising from the forests of trees below. I later realised this was the reality of the “slash and burn” process used in the dry season to clear land for agricultural use, which has led to desertification and increasing food insecurity. It wasn’t quite “The Poisonwood Bible”, and I didn’t attempt to wear half my wardrobe, but I did labour under the weight of my too-heavy hand luggage. The heat hit me as I stepped off the tiny UN plane (seating about 20), but it was offset by a bracing breeze off Lake Tanganyika – the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and depth (after Lake Baikal in Siberia). My Congolese “tandem”, Maheshe, was there to meet me. The UN compound is about a 5km drive down the straight road from the airport. The requested room in the “guesthouse” – comprising a double row of adjoined pre-fab rooms facing each other – had not been prepared for me, but I was bundled into an end one on the side that has en-suite bathrooms.
Maheshe took me over to our Civil Affairs offices – again pre-fabricated containers – a stone’s throw from the lake. He opened the room of my office, and it was completely bare: no furniture; no computer; NADA. He seemed to find this amusing. I took a picture of it. Welcome to Kalemie! We were late for the start of the annual workplan workshop at 3.30pm, less than an hour after my arrival. Do they have no mercy, I wondered.
The workshop went on until 6pm. Most of the discussions were in French, and mostly I was in the semi-darkness, taking note of the fact that there were only three women in the room – including the facilitator from Goma. There was a cluster of Cameroonian “mafia” – as I like to call them – who generally misbehaved (the school teacher in me observed), but everyone was friendly enough. Jacob, the Kenyan Head of Office – nearly always speaks English – even though his understanding of French is obviously very good. He is very courteous and easy-going, and clear in what he says.
Following a meal in the cafeteria of fried fish, home-made chips, plantain and some kind of spinach-like green called “Amaranthes”, my sparse, army barracks-style room awaited me Monday night with its uninviting neon strip-lights and dribbling water. I climbed nervously under the mosquito net already erected around it, and my heart sank along with my body into the big dip in the middle of the mattress. I was so exhausted, I slept anyway. As I fought my way back out from under the net next morning and stood up, the muscle on the left side of my lower back went “ping”. Two weeks of travelling and hauling heavy luggage around had taken its toll. As I held the trickle of water from the shower head over my weary, stiff body, I wanted to cry. I didn’t even bother to try and wash my hair. It felt like purgatory having to sit through eight hours of the planning workshop day two. African French is something else. I’m getting used to the ‘je pAnse” but of course am too snobby to adopt it! I tried to look as if I knew what was going on, but mostly I didn’t. Although there were one or two points of light when I took the opportunity to make a contribution or two – it’s a bit early to blow my cover.
They changed my mattress on Tuesday, but the damage was done. By Thursday, my back was in spasms and I could hardly walk. Jacob wanted me to see the doctor and/or go to see the Catholic nuns down the road who are famous for their massage! I couldn’t handle even the idea and insisted that I just needed to rest and take painkillers. I got Maheshe to send the IT guys over with my new lap-top so I was at least able to drop my folks a line. Then I slept for the rest of the day and night.
Miraculously, when I woke up Friday morning, my back felt almost back to normal and suddenly everything felt more manageable. I was so relieved. I attended a meeting in the morning about protection of civilians, and made it over to the OCHA (the main UN agency for humanitarian affairs) office down the road for an introductory meeting with the team there. They have a proper building which seemed palatial! But it’s being swallowed up by the encroaching lake which has been roaring all week with high waves from the strong winds. We have been warned by security not to go near it.
The large and unsalubrious cafeteria is the hub of the compound, with its rather cheerless provisions. It has tinsel on the walls, a small pool table at one end and a big flat-screen TV at the other (which usually has football on). A long bar runs between the two ends along one wall with a door through which the staff – three or four young men – disappear to a kitchen down the corridor and take up to 15/20 minutes to reappear. Its redeeming feature is that it sells cold, locally brewed beer – “Simba” – which is very good, and cheap. The working week on the compound culminates in the “happy hour” in the cafeteria on Friday evening. The atmosphere was marginally happier, I conceded, with some danceable music. I joined a table where the compound’s doctor was seated with a quietly spoken colleague from South Sudan.
“Doctor Lucy”, half Filipino, half Chinese, is diminutive in stature and huge in character! They call her “Doctor Bananas”, also because eating fruit is included in all her prescriptions for all illnesses and ailments. I ended up on the dance floor with her and an eclectic group of others, including Congolese civilian staff and Beninois soldiers, who constitute the UN military force here. Apparently she has a nice house in the designated area behind the compound with very good guards and security which she said she will be vacating in September. She’s done it up and has a proper cooker! So if I don’t manage to find anywhere decent (and there seems to be a shortage of appropriate housing stock), I might take that – but I haven’t seen it yet.