I discovered that I am “allowed” to go out of the compound, although strongly advised not to wander alone outside of daylight hours. So both yesterday and today I went out at 6.30am and walked briskly up the (one and only) road along the lake towards the airport. Just 15 minutes each way, then I did some free-style stretching back in my room. It’s good to be walking on that road, confronted with the reality of people going about their business. The road is not that wide and is two-way, so with cars, many taxi motorbikes and pushbikes and pedestrians on both sides, you get to pass people very close up. Everyone looks at you in the face and most people greet me, and I greet them back. If they say “bonjour”, I say “bonjour”; if they say “jambo”, I reply in kind. The faces of those who don’t greet me haunt me somehow. What a scourge this poverty.
“Business” for many at that time of the morning entails schlepping heavy containers of water on their heads from the lake; mostly women and children. The sheer physical exertion I see all along this long road that runs the length of the town is something that strikes me: men and boys pushing bikes of all shapes, sizes and material laden with heavy goods, like planks of wood, sacks of rice; women with large loads and children on their heads/backs respectively. In the car yesterday, we passed the same overturned truck in a ditch from the day before, only this time, a group of men were using wooden poles and other improvised contraptions to lever it out. The morning air is thick with smoke from burning grass and wood. Whole families wobble past on one bicycle. I think the greatest risk of walking out on my own is being hit by a vehicle of some description.
Back to my first weekend: on Saturday, I eventually emerged from the confines of the compound. The road leading into the town is dusty and full of potholes which my still delicate back didn’t appreciate. It seems to go on forever, and the scenery on each side is very samey: shops, many just a concrete shell, selling no end of cheap Chinese goods. There are make-shift markets interspersed, which consist of a rather unvaried selection of fruit and vegetables. I spotted a woman selling pineapples, so bought one plus some bananas and oranges, then some papayas and avocados from just outside the compound from Kalemie’s version of a pop-up. Apparently the avocados and other fresh stuff like cucumbers (hard to find) come over from Tanzania – a paradise, apparently, compared to here. I’m sure the soil is not easy here, but land rights issues and the de-development caused by years of war, conflict and corruption, have fucked agricultural production – along with the rest of the economy. At the same time, the gold and other mineral diggers get rich and build their luxury houses, which then get broken into and looted.
As we got to the far end of town where it starts to rise up onto the “colline d’état”, we passed house after faded house built in the Belgian colonial era. It was so eerie. I’ve never been to Cuba but I don’t think it would be a good comparison, as I’d imagined before I came. These houses are mostly falling apart and you’d imagine empty with the boarded up windows. But they are inhabited. So many light bulbs outside the houses were on in the middle of the day! At the top of the hill, there is a rusted canon from the First World War and other war machinery. My head was spinning by this point, because the view from the hill over the lake with the red, pink and white blossom-filled trees, was intoxicatingly beautiful. This should be a paradise; and it probably once was. Now it’s miserable: few proper roads, degenerated mains water system, no reliable electricity supply, disease-infested hospitals and a shortage of fresh food. We then went down to the old port: more rusted icons from a by-gone age. And the tracks once heralding the fine railway system overgrown. There were women bent double harvesting dried grass and small children peddling wares. A lot of men idling around under trees.
Sunday morning I joined some of my Congolese colleagues for Sunday mass at the Catholic “Albert’s Church”, bumping our way along the whole length of the town again. I was told it would only be just over an hour but it was a solid two hours and I found it somehow oppressive. Perhaps because I couldn’t follow it all. With the exception of some nice singing by the choir, it was a bit of an endurance test. The children were amazingly “well-behaved” (as in quiet and non-fidgetey), all turned out in their Sunday best. I was distracted by the extreme range of volume and pitch of the priest’s voice during his sermon, which reminded me of tele-evangelists, even though apparently what he said was sound. Suddenly, a man who had been wandering in and out and disturbing people in the pews, seemingly confused and dazed, was yanked by the arm by a fellow worshipper and hauled unceremoniously to the door at the back. I tried not to make a value judgement, but I found myself upset and dismayed at such a spectacle, and terribly homesick for lovely St. James’s in Piccadilly.
Monday morning I went on my first field trip to the rural area of Bendera – 120km north of here. It was my first time in a helicopter – just half an hour’s ride. It’s not particularly comfortable and you really need the earphones, but I enjoyed the views. When you fly over the Congo, you are struck by the vast swathes of seemingly uninhabited terrain. We were picked up and taken straight to the military base run by “Benbatt” (= Beninois Battalion) where our two Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs) are based – both young men. The Mission area for Kalemie has five bases altogether, and 10 CLAs plus two coordinating CLAs based with us here on the compound in Kalemie. We were given a presentation of the current conflict issues going on in the area, ranging from an influx of Rwandan refugees, to Pygmy-Luba battles, to abuses by (often unpaid) government security forces. They had also brought in a small group of (all male) civil society representatives and the local governor, the “Chef d’Antenne”. Sadly we had less than two hours to visit because the helicopter had to get back to Kalemie to go somewhere else (a last-minute scheduling).
I’m supposed to be joining a joint assessment mission to another area next Tuesday; just hoping I will be fit. I’m now starting to feel very hot, but it might be because my office is stuffy, and I don’t want to sit in any more air con today. So deep breaths and back to my room to down the first four of my malaria treatment tablets. Yes: I have malaria! I’m rather discouraged about this, given that I’ve been so careful in covering up and spraying that nasty deet stuff onto my skin. I haven’t been aware of any mosquitoes buzzing around me in my room and I’ve been tucked under my net. But apparently they’re everywhere, even during the day, and the females who carry the malaria don’t buzz. I went for the quick finger pin-prick blood test after noticing a very strange, stiff and heavy feeling in my legs. I had a temperature of 38.8 but had been waking up feeling cold in the night. Apart from that, I can’t say I was feeling especially ill. But it’s the longer-term implications of not treating malaria properly that are more worrying.