Thursday, February 25, 2010

Take Me Home Country Roads...Or Better Yet, To Bunia!!

This past week I was privileged to take a small tour around Congo. The head hauncho of the province, Madre Tina, needed to drive to Bunia from Aru and invited Tomas, Lydia, and me along for the ride. Early (like before sunrise) Saturday morning Madre Tina, Tomas, Lydia, Sr. Carmela, our chauffer (and it’s totally legit to use this word here because it’s French), and I piled into the Sisters’ jeep for the ride to Bunia. Bunia is just over 100 miles away from Aru. In America 100 miles would maybe take 3 hours if you try to drive really slow. In Congo it takes 9 hours. And we even took the shortcut though the super fancy paved roads of Uganda, which cut approximately 2 hours off of the journey, even though it added many miles. So you can imagine what the roads are like when it takes 9 hours to go 100 miles. However bad the road conditions are, I still greatly enjoyed traveling through the countryside and seeing what Congo looks like outside of my little village. We arrived in Bunia in the late afternoon and were heartily welcomed by the Bunia community of Canossian sisters. I then took a nap. After nap, I joined the community for prayer and dinner and went to bed early.  

There are 4 sisters and 11 postulants in Bunia. This make the convent feel a little less like a convent and a little more like an all girls dormitory since there are 11 22-24 year olds running about. Despite being in a city, the convent has power for only a few hours in the evening, and has some serious running water problems. The up side of the water problems was that we were given a bucket of warm water with which to shower. I like showering with warm water. Running water showers are great and all, but as it turns out, I would rather shower with a bucket of warm water then a running cold shower. But, alas, I was destined to return to Aru and the cold shower there, so I thoroughly enjoyed each warm bucket shower while it lasted. The convent was gigantic (it has room for 11 postulants, you see) it even had stairs, lots of stairs, in fact, since it’s built into a hill. I haven’t climbed more than 3 stairs in several months, so the 10 stairs to my room felt like quite the haul. The other remarkable thing about the convent was the lack of mosquito nets on the beds. On this subject, I give you one piece of advice. If you ever find yourself in Bunia and someone shows you your bed without a mosquito net and says to you “We don’t have mosquitoes here in Bunia,” call them a liar. Call them a big, fat, liar. There are mosquitoes in Bunia and they will torture you while you sleep (or try to sleep).  

Bunia is a “big” city with stores and restaurants and a ton of UN people running about. It’s so big they even have a traffic cop on the main drag. During our stay in Bunia we visited their impressive market, which included dozens of meat shacks (Aru’s market has 2 goat shacks and 1 cow shack) and tons of other foods. None of the food was different then what you can find in Aru, there was just a lot more of it. The stores were a different matter however. They were full of stuff you can’t find in Aru, like fake Nutella, canned pears, salmon, and Cadbury’s chocolate (actually, most of this stuff we bought at a open air shack at the side of the road, so I’m not sure it qualifies as a store). I was so excited to see candy bars I bought a way overpriced Mars bar. But it was worth it. We also visited a priest from Spain who runs a youth center and library. I enjoyed seeing how his library was set up and it gave me some inspiration for setting up the library in Aru. Too bad he only spoke French (and Spanish I presume) and I was only able to fully understand a fraction of what he told me about the library. I got the basic gist of it, but I would have loved to understand the details and maybe even be able to ask some questions. A real highlight of Bunia was eating in the MONUC (the French acronym for the UN mission in Congo) restaurant. It’s great, the people there don’t even speak French, only English. Oh, the UN. Here’s the thing about restaurants: you sit down and ask for what you want, then they bring it to you, then they take your dishes away and you pay and leave. You don’t have to cook the food or do the dishes! It’s awesome. I had a burger that had spent a large amount of it’s life frozen, but was still good because it was a burger, plus fries and an interesting interpretation of chocolate mousse. 

We also took a few side tours during our week in Bunia. On Tuesday we left for Butembo. Butembo is about 150 miles away in the next province, North Kivu. It took us only 9 hours to get there. Heavy rains had covered the entire region the previous night so the roads were wet. It wasn’t so bad going for most of the time until we reached the forest and the land of mud. It was probably about a foot deep in places. We passed a semi that had gotten stuck going up a hill with a bunch of people trying to dig it out. I can’t imagine how they were going to get that thing up the hill. At the bottom of a hill was a tiny white car in mud up to it’s doors. That thing wasn’t going anywhere. Driving in this mud reminded me of driving in a really bad blizzard minus the visibility problems. There was the same feeling of slipping around the road with no control and that if you stopped, you’d never be able to start again. Basically we glided through the whole region. It was slow going, but we made it. After the land of mud, we crossed the border into Ituri’s neighboring province, North Kivu, or, the land of plenty. It wasn’t long after we crossed the border that we found ourselves driving along an asphalt road. Wow. We were in 5th gear for whole minutes. We went 100 km an hour. Wow. Sadly, we could not sustain this 5th gear speed even in the land of plenty since goats do not care if a road is asphalt or dirt. They will run in front of your vehicle no matter the terrain. So after whole minutes of zooming along in 5th gear, we would be forced to slow down for some inconsiderate goat traipsing across the asphalt.  

North Kivu had a more prosperous feel then Ituri Province where Aru and Bunia are located. There seemed to be more power lines and commerce. Or maybe it’s just that a stick and mud hut village looks more prosperous when it is situated next to a smooth ribbon of asphalt complete with a little sign warning drivers to look out for children. At any rate, I was impressed with my foray into North Kivu, it just had a general feeling of prosperity.  

After Beni, about 25 miles short of Butembo, the asphalt miracle ended and we passed over the mountains on the more typical Congo style “roads.” At dusk we finally arrived in Butembo, a lovely mountain town and were welcomed by the Praying Sisters (this can also be translated as talking sisters). Their place had plenty of electricity (until 9:30 pm) and running water, plus a comfy bed. On Wednesday, after mass at the sister’s chapel where we received our ashes for the Mercredi de Cendres, one of the sisters took us on a short tour of the beautiful grounds. Then we waited around for one of the postulants who had traveled with us to take us to the market. In typical African style she showed up over 1 hour late. But that’s how they roll in Congo. The Butembo market is very interesting. I think an excerpt from our Congo guide book best describes it “Butembo is a curious town of riches where there really should be none, a financial [center] in a place where there really should be none…It’s a curiosity to be sure, and whiling away your time wondering how all this fancy stuff gets here, after grinding along awful roads for so long, is the main pastime” This is true. The Butembo market was teeming with people and stuff even though the town is basically in the middle of the mountains surrounded by barely passable roads. This is Congo. We bought potatoes, onions, peas, carrots, cloth, this, that, and the other thing and then headed off to Bunia, a mere 7 hours away (the roads had dried up so it was much shorter on the way back since we didn’t have to drive through the land of mud).  

Since we didn’t finish with our shopping until after noon, we were on our way very late to Bunia so we drove for the last hour and half in the dark. Dark in Africa is serious. The road was through the savannah (think Lion King tall grass) and it was truly dark. The sun goes down and it’s like a light switch here. The sun is up and it’s light, the sun is down and you can’t find your hand. So this last bit was interesting driving, but we made it back safely, unloaded the vehicle, ate a simple dinner (remember, it’s still Ash Wednesday even though I had sweat my ashes off some 9 hours earlier) and crashed into bed, even before the electricity was turned off at the convent (lame, I know, but I was tired). 

Our second side trip was to Lake Albert situated about 2 hours (so like 5 miles) from Bunia on the border of Congo and Uganda. It was one of the worst roads I have experienced in Congo. I wanted to throw up. But I didn’t. But I was very happy when we made it to the lake and the car finally stopped. The lake is kind of pretty, although it’s quite polluted and the beach is covered in trash. So maybe a better description is that it could be pretty, if it were properly cared for. There were tons of fishing boats, although most were pulled up on the beach. It was wretchedly hot under the noon sun and the sand was like walking on fire whenever a few grains slipped through my sandals onto my skin. We walked down the beach a bit taking in the sights and then were on our way back to Bunia.  

After a week in Bunia and surrounds, we had seen all the sights and done all there was to do in Bunia. Early Saturday morning, we packed up all our purchases from Bunia and Butembo and were on our way back to Aru.

It was wonderful to have this opportunity to travel through Congo and see other parts of the country (especially that land of plenty, North Kivu). Congo is a truly beautiful country with varying landscapes and terrain. From flat grassland where the lion once roamed, to pine filled woodlands (the kind that get John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” stuck in your head, especially when you are bouncing along a picturesque dirt road), to rainforest, to tall, lush mountains, and gorgeous valleys. It was also interesting to take note of the population. Sometimes as we were driving along I felt in the middle of nowhere, so far from any kind of settlement, and then we would turn the next bend in the road and there would be a village, or a group of kids, or a woman standing in a field. My observation is that Congo is both very full and very empty. There are people everywhere, yet at the same time there is a massive amount of open space. There wasn’t a lot of other vehicle traffic on the road, although there were many people on bikes or walking along, especially near the larger towns. When there were other vehicles, the majority were UN. Goodness knows what all those UN people do here, other than drive up and down Congo in their spiffy white vehicles with UN painted on 4 sides. Traveling in Congo was certainly a memorable experience and I am grateful I have gotten to see more of this beautiful country.  

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