Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kwa Heri Congo

Well, once again it’s time for me to say farewell, this time to the DRC. I confess I find it much more difficult to leave here and I’m even more at a loss for what I could possible say to describe the time I’ve spent here. I realize that I haven’t written as much while I’ve been here and that I have shared very little of my experiences. At this point I’m not even sure where to begin. I’ve already described where I’ve stayed in Uvira and some of the friends I’ve made here….Clavert, Isadord, Willy, Francine, Rolphe. They taught me much and I admire each of them in different ways:

Clavert for his unflappable optimism and his belief in education, the possibility of change, and the goodness in people, even in the face of a life that has shown him so much death, destruction, and hardship.

Isadord for his inevitable ability to make me laugh. I swear all that boy had to do was walk into the room and he could make me smile.

Willy, Rolphe’s younger brother, for his many insights on politics and history. I had some great conversations with him.

Francine, Rolphe’s fiancĂ©, for being my dose of femininity in a world chalked full of male friends. It was always a good day when Francine and I got to hang out together, cooking and chatting.

And finally Rolphe, for being such a great friend and guide. He is quite possibly the most helpful person I could have encountered in the DRC. I can’t even begin to count the ways in which he has helped me – offering me a place to stay, helping me meet the people I needed to meet and find the places I needed to find, sharing great meals and conversations, welcoming me into his life in the Congo as if we were old friends. I still haven’t figured out how I’ll ever repay him.

And these are just the people that I spent the majority of my time with here, there are plenty of other great people I’ve met and befriended as well. Rolphe’s family in Bukavu, for example, who so generously welcomed me into their home and their lives. I had a great time staying with them, hanging out with the girls (of whom there were 8 between the ages of 21 and 1), chatting with them about whatever they wanted to chat about. Often times that was life in America….they really wanted to know how we live, what I think of the Congo, why I wasn’t married and when I thought I would get married, and all sorts of fun things (my non-married status is something of a continuous theme in conversation in Africa….though I think I’ve pretty much mastered my techniques for dodging that bullet….I find that vague half-truths about plans to marry in the future, after I finish school, work well).

As far as research I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve met with some very interesting and helpful people and had some fascinating conversations. But I won’t bore my non-academic friends with the details. Probably the most important thing I’ve discovered here in regards to my research is that, without a doubt, this is where I want to do my field work. I’ve been fascinated by the history of this region for some time and this trip has just served to add fuel to that fire. There is much to be learned about the history here and, I believe, even more to be learned from that history.

I’ve also learned a lot about language. Language is a fascinating phenomenon, and is rendered even more fascinating in region where conversation flows fluidly between Swahili and French, at times from sentence to sentence, at other times from word to word within a single sentence. Admittedly this made it more than a little bit difficult for me to follow conversations at times….you get used to nodding your head and looking like an idiot half the time. Just Swahili I can do without the slightest problem, just French I can follow with a fair amount of effort, but the way the Congolese switch back and forth between the languages makes my head spin. Still, with a little more time I think I would have it down. By the end even I was beginning to mix the languages. And, it is ever-so-interesting to follow when and where people use French versus Swahili…which language is used to express which ideas and in what circumstances one language is emphasized over the other. I did not have enough time, or enough linguistic skill for that matter, to be able to do any sort of thorough analysis of the matter, but it is certainly fodder for future intellectual endeavor.

I haven’t really even begun to give sense of what, exactly, it was that I did here every day. Many times it included taking long walks around the city in the afternoons with Isadord and Clavert or sitting around in the evenings at the MJA building cooking, eating, and conversing with friends. Other times it included seeking out people to talk to, to discuss the possibility of future research. Other times it included just listening, watching, and recording my thoughts about the things I’ve seen and done here. Other times it included long drives to Bukavu on bumpy, dusty, narrow mountain roads that provide some of the most stunning scenery you’ve ever seen….as long as you don’t look down over the edge of the road. At other times it involved an impromptu meal with a kindly old woman who spends her life caring for orphaned children and was beyond excited to chat with me because she was just sure I’d be able to help her find an old friend from America who had worked for the Red Cross in Uvira in the 80s….even though she only knew the woman’s first name because all of her documents with the woman’s contact information were stolen during the war. Other times it involved watching a team of young Congolese men play soccer against a team of Pakistani UN soldiers….and then having half of the Pakistani players ask me if they could take a picture with me after the game (so embarrassing).

Ashley asked me in an earlier post how the Congo differs from Tanzania. The answers to that question are numerous. In many ways for me the biggest difference was the circumstances in which I experienced the two places. My impressions of the Congo, where I spent all of my time living with and conversing with Congolese people (exclusively in Swahili) on a comparatively un-structured schedule are inevitably different from my impressions of Tanzania, where I spent the majority of my time with a group of American students in structured program, in a gated compound. My interaction with the people and the culture of the two places was different at its very essence. Here in the Congo I felt like a student, but also like a friend and colleague to my Congolese hosts. In Tanzania I felt like a student…but also like a tourist much of the time.

Still, even if my living circumstances in Tanzania had been more similar to those in Congo, the two places would be markedly different. They have very different histories, different cultures, and very different political presents. The countries share many of the same infrastructural problems - such as poor education systems, unreliable power sources, and poor roads, to give a few examples – but in the Congo these problems are noticeably more pronounced. The DRC is a country that has only recently begun to emerge from a brutal past couple of decades of war (and is, in fact, still plagued by war in some areas), and those decades were preceded by decades of Mobutu’s dictatorship, which were preceded by brutal Belgian colonial rule, not to mention centuries of the slave trade. Tanzania, while it shares a history of colonialism and the slave trade, differs historically from the DRC in marked ways and those differences shape people’s perception of the world and frame the conversations that take place in the present. To give just one example, it shapes the way that people tend to mark time when they talk about their life histories. In the Congo people often marked time by various phases of war and peace – before the war, after the war, when the chaos began, once the chaos subsided. In the Congo most everyone I talked to has moved at least once in their life because of war. I think that such experiences structure people’s perception of time in ways that are unique to a post-war society.

Anyway, I’m babbling at this point. Please forgive the super-long post. I guess that’s what happens when I wait to long to make a post. Congratulations to those of you troopers who stuck it out to the end! I hope I’ve been able to share a little bit of what my experiences and thoughts have been here. In a word, it’s been amazing. And, though I am excited to get back to the states to see all of my friends and family (and, of course, Bjorn), I am admittedly quite sad to leave this place just as I was beginning to settle in and I will miss all of my new friends here. I look forward to my future return.

Ninawatakia wote hapa Congo kila la heri mpaka tutaonana tena….

And now begins the 3 day trek home….I’ll be seeing many of you soon. And for those of you I don’t see, stay tuned for the Swiss Edition of the Traveling Historian’s blog beginning Sept. 12….

Monday, August 25, 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I thought some of you might be interested in learning more about the organization that Rolphe has created here in the DRC. Check out their website:

For those of you who are in Madison, you'll notice that there is a fundraiser going on this weekend. You should check it out....they do great work here and would be able to do so much more if they had the funds....not to mention the fact that they have been exceedingly kind, generous, and helpful to me while I am staying here.

I'll write more when I get the chance. My internet time is quite limited at the moment...not to mention expensive.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nimeshindwa na the Gods of Internet

Apparently I forgot to knock on wood when I posted my last message because as soon as I posted it the internet connection was lost at Rolphe's internet center and we still haven't gotten it back. I guess I counted my chickens before they were hatched...

Otherwise things are going great. Leaving for Bukavu tomorrow...will write more when I get the chance!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I am now in the DRC and things are going great here. The craziness of it all is that I am more hooked up technologically here in Uvira than I have been at any other point in Africa. I have met up with a friend of a friend, Rolphe, who has started and runs an NGO that works with youths and part of his project is to teach them about computer’s and give them access to technology. He runs an internet center here that he charges a small fee for some people to use, but lets others (especially the kids he works with) use for free. He uses the profits from the internet center to pay for operational costs of the place. I am staying right here at the facility where the internet center is and he has even hooked me up with my own private internet access since I have my computer here. His brother Willy lives here with a couple of the youths. We eat meals here together…but I haven’t figured out how to make them let me help with cooking and cleaning…they just tell me to rest. I feel a bit useless. I just haven’t figured out exactly what I should be doing with my free time here and when and where it is ok for me to go wandering around by myself. Other than the internet center, they teach classes on IT here and run a soccer league among various other youth activities. Tomorrow I am going to watch a soccer match being played between the older students here and a team of Pakistani soldiers who work with MONUC (the UN mission here). Should be fun to watch. They are also in the process of putting together a library...which will be filled with books that came from, of all places, an NGO in St. Paul called Books for Africa that is located right across the street from the PBS building I used to work it.

Research is coming along. I've been working hard on making contacts with people. Today I got to have a conversation with a leader of a Kitawalist church (the very same church featured in my MA thesis)..which was pretty awesome. I am going to meet with him again the day after tomorrow to ask more questions. I did not really have many questions planned when I met with him today because I didn’t know we were going to see him until I had already left. I did find out, however, that they now name Patrice Lumumba as the profit who founded their religion. So interesting. My good friend Clavert (19 year-old, one of the students, lives in the center) showed me around the city today and took me to talk to the Kitawalist guy. He helped me a lot with translating (into Swahili) bits of the convo that I didn’t quite catch. I still can’t get used to the way they mix Swahili and French together…it gets me every time. Anyway this kid is cool as hell and has been unbelievably helpful. I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to thank him for his I'm going to thank anyone here for their help, for that matter. Another one of the guys living here (they’re pretty much all young guys…the gender dynamic is a bit strange, though not in a bad way) wrote a history of the violence in Burundi that he wants me to read. Very interesting.

Anyway, I am about done being a computer hermit for the day so I will wrap this up. But, I just wanted to let everyone know that things are going great. Will write more soon....and with pictures.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

In Burundi

Hello faithful readers. Just wanted to let everyone know that I made it to Burundi Safe and sound and will be heading to the Congo soon. Will write more when I can.

P.S. French keyboards suck.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Parting Thoughts

Well...the time has come to bid adieu to Tanzania. I just have tomorrow left and then I head off to Bujumbura where my research adventures into the Congo will begin. I don't really know what I can say about my time here that won't sound cliche. So many parts of my time here have been fantastic....the wonderul people I've met, the engaging conversations I've had, the chance to learn while immersed in a Swahili-speaking community. Other parts of have been eye-opening. Today we took a trip to a home where street children are cared for and educated, mostly in technical skills for future work as farmers, electricians, mechanics, etc. I spent the morning conversing with a 14-year old boy who had lived on the streets for some time before arriving at the home 6 months ago. He was smart as hell. Saidi was his name. He wants to go to college eventually and earn a degree in a math-related field such as accounting, but he feels like it is also important for him to have a good grasp of technical skills such as mechanic-work, wood-work, farming, herding, and welding. Life in Tanzania, he informed me, often requires such skills of every man who wants to have a family and succeesful life....even if his career is not in the technical trades. Such maturity at such a young age; life has robbed him of his childhood and left him with wisdom beyond his years. A meager compensation. I thought about a conversation I had with a young boy of about the same age in America last year. I was up north with my family for memorial day. The kid came over and sat near me by the fire. He proceded to tell me about how stupid he thought school was and how much he hated his teachers. The little punk. I told him he should perhaps think twice about saying such things in front of a future teacher. It's unfortunate that we live in a such a world where a kid like Saidi must grow up on the street dreaming of having education while others get to remain completely oblivious of - and even resentul toward - their own priviledge. But I suppose I am just stating the obvious. Of course it's unfortunate....and equally frustrating.

I don't know that I've had time to fully process the things I've learned here in Tanzania. I am even less sure that I am prepared to process the things that I will learn and see in the Congo. Tanzania was a bit of a soft landing for me. The gated, guarded world of MS-TCDC in Arusha undoubtedly differs vastly from the post-conflict world of the eastern DRC. But I will speak more of such differences when the time comes. For now I will just close this blog entry with an expression of gratefulness to those with whom I've met and conversed here. Nawatakieni wote kila la heri.

Bila shaka Tanzania itakuwa na sehemu maalum moyoni mwangu daima. Natumaini nitapata nafasi ya kurudi badaaye.