A Travellerspoint blog

Reflections, thoughts and musings on a summer well-spent

This is IT, people

-17 °C

Preface: As you probably read in my last entry, I'm leaving for the states tomorrow, c'est-à-dire, I have concluded my 2-month stay in the DRC. Unlike most of my blog entries, this entry is written purely for myself. Basically, I needed somewhere to process and organize all that is going on in my head about everything that I've learned and experienced since I've been here.

So here we go. Here are my thoughts, reflections and musings on......

Poverty: Before I came here, I had never been exposed to extreme poverty. Sure I’d seen it on TV, newspapers, documentaries, movies, or whatever, but I hadn’t experienced it. Until you sit in the dark at night, unable to do anything, you don’t understand what it is like to live without electricity. Until you have poured water down the toilet after you pee, or dragged jugs of water up a steep hill so that you can take a shower, you don’t understand what it is like to live without running water. I only had to experience these things maybe once or twice during whole time here, but it affected me greatly. Even the poorest people in developed countries have access to running water and electricity, even if they cannot afford to pay for it. In the DRC, however, only the super, super rich (mostly expats or high-up government officials) can afford to own generators and water pumps. Most people living in developed countries (and I’m being careful to not single out the US when I say this) are so unaware of this that they frankly cannot conceive of how so much of the world lives. I know this because my initial reactions upon witnessing the extreme poverty of the DRC were confusion, horror, shock and disbelief. I was constantly thinking to myself, “This can’t possibly be real.” Conclusion: You have to see poverty to believe it.

On Corruption: In my opinion, governmental corruption is the greatest problem that the DRC faces. An NGO (that shall remain nameless) recently reported that the government lost 1.3 billion dollars due to corruption, which is more than half of their budget (although estimates as high as 4 billion have been reported). The agencies and businesses implicated were supposed to be providing everything from electricity and water to overseeing Congo's chaotic aviation and insurance sectors. No wonder the government cannot provide the bare minimum to its citizens; half of its money is going into the pockets of ministers. Furthermore, the loss of billions of dollars due to corruption leaves the government unable to pay the salaries of its teachers, doctors, engineers, or gestionnaires, resulting in multiple strikes a year and general economic chaos. How can a government even attempt to function properly when it puts more effort into stealing from it than running it? How can people trust a government that is making itself rich at their expense? And how can people believe in democracy when their democratically elected government is screwing them over? Conclusion: Until the problem of corruption is aggressively tackled, the DRC will remain a failed state.

On the Congolese (very generally speaking, of course): In my opinion, the Congolese are amazing. The fact that so many of them are able to survive and even thrive in a country that 1) is infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, 2) overrun with political and economic turmoil, and 3) lacks basic infrastructure and primary education, is absolutely incredible. On top of all of it, the Congolese are some of the most hopeful/religious people I have ever encountered. I suppose that is because they can only hope that things will get better and tend to look to God for strength and guidance in order to stay sane amid chaos. Some expats here complain that the Congolese are incompetent, corrupt and overly dependent. And surely it is impossible to ignore that a white person can’t walk down the street without getting jeered at, cat-called or harassed. But it is clear to me that that is a function of extreme poverty and political turmoil, and not a reflection on the people themselves. People become incredibly desperate and pathetic when they have less than nothing and know they are going to stay that way for a long while. All I can say is that you would be like that too if that were you. Conclusion: The Congolese are awesome and unique and I will miss them greatly.

On Aid and International Development: I’m very conflicted about what I think about aid and development. I’m pretty sure that before I came to Kinshasa, I thought it was a good thing. Why not, right? Now I’m leaning toward the view that perhaps the ridiculous amounts of money and countless efforts by government development agencies and NGOs aren’t doing a damn thing to speed up development. The situation in the DRC is frankly pretty hopeless, and these organizations are barely scratching the surface. Conversely, I think it is in fact the private sector that has the potential to significantly impact the speed and breadth of development in the DRC. Some have estimated that it could take as much as 20-40 billion dollars to build the infrastructure that the DRC needs. Unlike government agencies and NGOs, the private sector actually has that kind of money. It may be hard to believe, but many companies with billion dollar investments in the region have business incentives to develop the region where they’ve invested for the long-term. In particular, I’m thinking of the copper companies in Katanga that are planning on mining there for 80-100 years. They aren’t just going to build crappy roads and then peace out, if you know what I mean; they are in it for the long haul. Conclusion: The U.S. government should spend more time working with the private sector on development issues.

On the Olympics: Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are awesome. The Chinese cheated in gymnastics, which was lame. Conclusion: China is taking over. Brace yourself.

On the Foreign Service: I know that Kinshasa is supposed to be a ‘special’ post in some respects, but from what I can tell of my experience here with the foreign service, it is a career of extremes. There are really incredibly awesome people, and really quirky and/or obnoxious/pretentious. Foreign service types tend to be either super social, drinking/partying all the time, or self-isolating, staying at home all the time and developing bizarre hobbies like painting egg shells. They also tend to be obsessed with travel/learning about other cultures/learning other languages/living abroad, or totally have an aversion to anything non-American and create ‘American bubbles’ at whatever post they are. Whether or not the FSOs in Kinshasa are representative of people in the foreign service as a whole, I do not know. I must say, though, that it takes a special kind of person to be able to live and thrive at a post like this. All in all, the large number of incredibly amazing people that I have met here have totally overshadowed those few who have not exactly tickled my fancy. And it is those people who made my summer truly incredible. Conclusion: I have definitely not ruled out the foreign service as a career.

On the Hilarious: So many crazy/hilarious things have happened here that I can’t even count. There was a crocodile in my bathtub. I ate a caterpillar. I saw a goat slaughtered and gutted. I held a cobra. I swam in the Congo River. I took a private jet. I socialized with diplomats. I played the djembe. I spoke with Congolese government officials. I’ve investigated the extent of child labor in the mines. I’ve had an allergic reaction to every malaria medication that I’ve taken. I met an NBA player. I laughed for hours with my roommates. I’ve been mistaken several times for being Chinese. I stayed up til 5 in the morning watching the Olympics. I ate at KFC (Katanga Fried Chiken). I turned 21. ….Conclusion: A lot of crazy/hilarious things have happened to me here, and I’m not going to forget them anytime soon.

On Myself: While I generally think it is lame for people to pour their heart out on the internet, it is impossible for me to talk about/reflect on my experience in Kinshasa without acknowledging that I’ve changed quite a bit in the two short months that I’ve been here. To avoid long-winded ranting and self-reflection, I will detail these changes in list form: I’ve become extremely grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, yet I feel horribly guilty for having everything handed to me in life. I now know how to use a can-opener (and a bottle-opener). I’ve finally learned how to be at ease when working with and talking with people 10, 20, 30 years older than me. I feel much more self-assured and confident in my abilities to succeed after I leave Brown. I worry less. I've fallen in love with Africa. I’m happier. I’ve realized I’m more interested in development and economics than I thought I was. I’m no longer scared of the unknown, nor am I terrified to leave Brown and go into the real world. Most importantly, I’ve started to believe what everyone has been telling me all along, that I’ll be just fine. Conclusion: If you want an unintentional personality makeover, spend time in a developing country.

Final thoughts: Since the DRC is the first truly developing country that I’ve been to, I know I will always have a special place for it in my heart. I won't ever be the same after this experience, and I know I've changed for the better. All in all, I'm not sure what the future holds, but I'm sure whatever happens is going to be awesome.

Go to a developing country! It will rock your world!

That's all folks!!
-Bonster

Posted by bbrodsky 05:51 Comments (0)

Last weekend in the DRC

Brazzaville

This weekend was my last weekend in the DRC, so naturally I left the country. Me and a TDYer, Krista, traversed the magnificent Congo River over to Brazzaville. I figured I might as well go over there since it is just across the river, and it was definitely a good decision. But before I get into my trip, here are some 6 quick facts about Brazzaville:

1. It is the capital of the Republic of the Congo

2. Kinshasa and Brazzaville are the two closest capitals in the world.

3. In 1884, the city became the capital first of the French Congo, and then of French Equatorial Africa, a federation of states which encompassed Gabon, the Central African Republic and Chad.

4. In 1944, Brazzaville served as the capital of "free France." Charles de Gaulle briefly lived there.

5. It is a lot safer than Kinshasa (you can walk around and take taxis).

6. Unlike Kinshasa, photography is legal.

So anyway, we took a "canot rapide" over early in the morning, so we had pretty much the whole day to explore. Brazzaville is a LOT nicer than Kinshasa, and I was pretty culture-shocked. Like every 5 seconds I was like, "Wow, look at these smooth roads!" or "Look, there are sidewalks!" or "It's so clean! or "They have ice cream here?!"or "Look how beautiful the buildings are!" At one point, Krista finally told me to shut up, haha. She actually grew up in Cote d'Ivoire, and she emphasized to me that most of Africa is not as deeply impoverished as Kinshasa, and even though she grew up in West Africa, even she was culture-shocked coming to the DRC. SometimesI have to keep reminding myself that the DRC is one of the poorest nations in the poorest continent in the world, and that it is truly not the norm. Anyway, we stayed with the ECON intern who has been there this summer, which was cool cause we didn't have to rush home/didn't have to pay for a hotel.

In the morning we stopped at a patisserie, which I very impressed with. I'm sure there was nothing impressive about it, other than the fact that it existed (there are no patisseries in Kinshasa). We then checked out Poto-Poto market, which was a huge sprawling market that seemed to go on endlessly (even more than the souks in Marrakesh). I got a nice tablecloth and a fake Louis Vuitton wallet, which added up to a total of 7 dollars. Another good thing about Brazzaville, it is a lot less expensive than Kinshasa! I was amazed at how cheap things were there.

For lunch, we took a taxi down to the rapids on the river, which was beautiful, and I got some nice pictures. It was really cool seeing Kinshasa from the Brazza side of the river...it actually looks somewhat impressive (although I know better than that, lol). In the afternoon we checked out Charles de Gaulle's old house when Brazzaville was the capital of Free France, and the mausoleum where Pierre Brazza (the man who founded the city) and his family are buried. I was absolutely amazed at the mausoleum, which was made completely out of marble and had a beautiful dome. It was built about 3 years ago, and was extremely controversial at the time, because the government blew a ton of money on it while a lot of people still were without running water and electricity.

For dinner, we ate at a Moroccan restaurant, which was very good. It had very much a Moroccan decor, and made me nostalgic for Marrakesh. Afterward, we went out, ROC style. The club scene there is very much similar to Kinshasa, except there is perhaps more mingling of expats with the local crowd. The Brazzaville embassy is very small, only having about 8 ppl. There is also a much smaller UN and UNICEF mission, so in general, the expat community is tiny. I noticed that all of the expat community hangs out there (American, French, Italian, Russian), whereas in Kinshasa people are more cliquey with their own embassies.

Although Brazza is overall a nicer city than Kinshasa, but I can see how it could get boring pretty quickly. Like I said, the U.S. mission is tiny, as is its budget. Plus, there are only about 3-4 million people living in all of ROC, (whereas there are only 8 million people living in Kinshasa alone) so there just isn't as much stuff to do. I'm glad I spent my summer in Kinshasa, but I'm glad I got to see the other side of the river.

As soon as I get home, I'm going to upload pictures (I took a lot of them), so hopefully you'll get to see the difference between the two cities. I still don't have a lot of pictures of Kinshasa (since photography is illegal), but hopefully I'll have enough for ppl to get a sense of what the city looks like.

I'm probably going to be writing my last blog entry tomorrow (or maybe even this afternoon), which will be sort of a reflection on all my experiences here. I have MANY things to say about my experience here, so I figured it would be a good thing if I summarized it all and put it one place (for keeps).

I can't believe I'm leaving tomorrow! I am going to be incredibly culture shocked.

See you all soon, I hope!
-Bonni

Posted by bbrodsky 01:25 Comments (0)

There are ZERO Jews in the Congo

That is not, by any means, an exaggeration

With only one week left to go, I'm sorta wrapping up my summer in the DRC. Nothing really new has happened, other than the fact that most of my roommates have already left. It is just me and Tiffany now, and it certainly is a lot less interesting/hilarious than it was with all 5 of us. Oh, and they made us move AGAIN. That's right, AGAIN. We left our gorgeous house (and unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the lovely pool) and have moved into an apartment complex right next door. It was really incovenient and everything, and we had really settled nicely into the old house. The apartment is fine and I'll only have to stay there a week, but it was just super inconvenient to have to move everything again.

Anyway, today I went to CALI (the Congolese American Language Institute) to speak at their English club. Every week or so they get a native speaker to talk to their English club about various topics. I decided that I wanted to talk about Judaism/being Jewish/Israel etc. I thought it would be mildly interesting to them since there are approximately 0 Jews in the DRC and I figured that they would probably hold a ton of awful stereotypes that I could try and correct. I started out with just a basic introduction to Judaism, basic beliefs, holidays, traditions, etc. They looked generally interested in what I was saying, but seemed pretty bewildered by all the 'foreign' terms I was introducing to them (Torah, Zionism, rabbi, antisemitism); I got the impression that I might as well be talking to them about aliens. They actually had a pretty solid understanding of what the Holocaust was, but didn't have much of a historical background on antisemitism. At first, they asked me a lot of questions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, like "What is the difference between Passover and Easter?" "Why is the Sabbath on Saturday and not Sunday?" "What do Jews think of Jesus?"and things like that. But as we continued talking, I got more bizarre questions, such as, "Why do Americans think Jesus was white?" "What is Mother Nature?" "Is the pope in charge of the Jews?" They inevitably asked me if I was Jewish, and when I said yes, they responded, "Well you are rich, then!" I then asked them to elaborate more on what they thought Jews are like, and they said things like, "They're clever...genius!...powerful...wealthy." I tried not to laugh, and explained that it is true that Jews have made important contributions to humanity with regard to science, math, philosophy, finance, law, entertainment, music, etc., but that their perceptions of Jews were based on common stereotypes. From there, I talked to them about what a streotype is, how streotypes are formed, and how they are inaccurate. They were a bit confused at first, but seemed to understand when I gave this example of a streotype: "All Congolese people are good dancers." I asked them to try and keep an open-mind, and to not indulge in such gross generalizations, even if they appeared to be positive. All in all, I'm just so glad they didn't bring up the whole "Jews killed Jesus" bit. I'm not sure how I would have handled that.

They also wanted to talk about why the U.S. government has traditionally been so pro-Israel, and they gave me truly bizarre comments. One person said that it was because "Jews are in positions of power in America," and another one said they because they "control the government." One person even said it was "because George Bush is Jewish...or maybe Clinton." I couldn't help but laugh out loud at that. I guess they assumed that since George Bush is so pro-Israel, he must be Jewish. I tried to respond to this diplomatically, and said that there are many people of all religions who support Israel, and conversely, that there many Jewish people who are in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state. I tried to explain the logic that was used to create a Jewish state, and I gave them a bit of background on Zionism. None of them were familiar with the concept of Zionism, nor had any idea that the Holocaust and the creation of Israel were in any way related. Of course, the students wanted to know my opinion on all of this, but I was careful NOT to give it to them. I explained that I simply wanted to get them to talk about these issues, so that I could fill in their gaps of knowledge, and correct what I saw as misperceptions, misinformation and stereotypes.

At the end of the talk, they wanted to know about religion in America. I talked to them about our tradition of freedom of religion, to which they listened intently. I told them how most people in the U.S. are Protestant; however, all kinds of religions from around the world are represented there, which is reflective of the diverse population as a whole. They seemed very impressed by all of that and nodded back in agreement.

Reflecting on the experience, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to talk with these kids about issues that were incredibly foreign to them. Hopefully at least some of the things we talked about made an impression on them. For the most part, they seemed to understand that much of what they had previously thought was based on preconceived, inaccurate notions. However, when I was about to leave, a girl still came up to me and told me that "I must be rich." Sigh, at least I tried. Maybe I at least peaked their interest enough for them to learn more about these issues themselves.

Posted by bbrodsky 06:30 Comments (1)

Gymnastics in the Olympics

Chinese babies

(Warning: This post has little to do with Kinshasa, the DRC, or my internship.)

I don't know how many of you have been closely following the olympics. Moi, j'adore les jeux Olympiques. As you may have read in my previous post, all the good stuff, aka swimming, gymnastics and diving, has unfortunately been airing here from 1-5 am. You might be thinking, only a crazy person would stay up to watch the olympics when it is airing at that ridiculous hour. Well, I suppose then I am a crazy person.

Crazy or not, I have many thoughts about the China vs. USA showdown in the gymnastics stadium. As you may have heard, the Chinese are clearly dominant. The Chinese men decimated the competition in the team finals, while the American men were thrilled to have won bronze. Simultaneously, the Chinese "women" comfortably won against a mistake and injury-marred American team who were clearly devastated with taking silver. (Comment: It was NOT, I repeat, NOT Alicia Sacromone's (GO BROWN!!!!!!!) fault that they lost gold. Sure, she screwed up royally on the beam and floor. But they wouldn't have come out on top anyway, they would have just lost by less of a margin. If you don't believe me, do the math. GO BROWN!!!!!!) In the men's individual all-around, Chinese star Yang Wei expectedly dominated earning the 3rd gymnastics gold men for China so far (yes, so far). Americans Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin are expected to go 1-2 in the women's all-around competition, but we will see what actually happens, because China certainly has the momentum.

Many people have been discussing this gymnastics showdown as if whichever country comes out on top will be the next great superpower (aka China, since they've been dominating). However, I think that this competition shows only how desperate China is to show the world how awesome they are amidst a highly censored press, controversial human rights abuses, investing in oil in Darfur, Tibet, etc., etc., etc. To prove they are a legit world power, the government has invested a shitload in gyms, coaches and finding the best possible "kiddie" gymnasts. They desperately want to be taken seriously, but so far all they have been proving that they are serious about winning olympic medals and can put on a damn good opening ceremony. Kids are taken from schools/daycares and away from their families to train 8 hours a day for 15 years (much like the former gymnastics superpower, Romania). Moreover, Bela Karolyi has stated, and most people would agree, that at least half the Chinese women's team is underage, and that the government is aware of this and probably changed their passports without blinking. Is that impressive or pathetic? I think pathetic.

So the American women may have won silver, but at least we know that they are all of age, and are getting an education (though they might still be training 8 hours a day). Alicia Sacramone even goes to that FANTABULOUS school called Brown. Moreover, the best all-around female American gymnasts in the world are American.

That is all I have to say about gymnastics and China. GO MICHAEL PHELPS!

-Bonni

Note: Sorry if anyone is offended by comments. I'm not trying to hate on China, but rather, the Chinese gov't.

p.s. Did anyone watch the Georgia vs. Russia match in women's beach volleyball? That must have been super awkward.

Posted by bbrodsky 00:45 Comments (0)

English Access Camp

For anyone who wants to know more about the Access Camp where I taught English at for 2 weeks, here's a link for the US Embassy Kinshasa sight:

http://kinshasa.usembassy.gov/summer_access_camp-kin2008.html

Posted by bbrodsky 01:16 Comments (0)

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