Extreme Culture Shock
My flight got in last night (FINALLY) at around 7:15. I knew that my boss for the summer was going to pick me up, but I had never actually met him, so I didn't know what he looked like. Going through customs was pretty painless, I had all of the right documents, so it only took about 15-20 minutes. When I walked through to the baggage claim area, I was immediately harassed by about 4 taxi drivers, but I said "Non merci, j'attends quelqu'un...quelqu'un va venir pour moi." Like a second later, I saw the big sign with the American flag with my name on it, and I was relieved. It took me about 50 minutes to get my luggage. I was told by Greg, my boss, that I should start getting used to thing taking 3 times longer than they should, because that is how things work in the Congo...from there I knew things would be interesting.
Since it the sun had already set, I couldn't really see anything. Coming in from the airport, we drove through some slums outside the city, which was the most extreme poverty I have ever seen. People were just hanging around in the streets, often running out into the road without warning. One of the first things I saw was someone throwing things on a burning tire. Greg said that this is a common sight, and that this spectacle is unfortunately very popular not only throughout the DRC, but also throughout Africa. Other than, I couldn't really get an idea of the city or anything because it was dark. I got an official tour of the house that I'm sharing with 4 other interns who are either interning with state or USAID, and it is a really nice house. It has a huge kitchen, two dining rooms, a living room, 5 bedrooms, and at least 3 bathrooms (there might be more, I don't know yet.) Also, I'm pretty sure the floor is marble. I met all of the other interns, and they are all super nice. Most of them have already been here for 2-3 weeks, so they had gotten pretty much settled. Also, they tell me they are obsessed with the TV show "Lost." I better catch up on Season 1. I was exhausted from having not slept in 2 days, andI had barely enough time to close the malaria nets when I passed out.
Greg told me he would be pick me up for work at 7:30 am...which was actually 15 minutes later the interns usually get picked up. But because it was my first day and I hadn't slept in two days, Greg said I could probably use the extra 15 minutes. When I woke up at 6:45, I immediately went to the windows to see what was around me. From what I could tell, our house is in a compound of 3 houses, and diplomats live in both of them. It is totally secured and walled, and we have bars on all the doors and the windows. The area is really pretty with lots of palm trees, and other tropical looking trees. The area we live in is called La Gombe, which is really the only safest place in the city. Basically, it is the area where all the diplomats and expats live and where all the embassies are located, and it is right on the Congo River. Our house is only about 2 or 3 streets over. Greg calls this area "La Creme de la Creme."
Greg picked me up promptly, and drove me around La Gombe a bit. He pointed out some of the other embassies, as well as some markets and restaurants. Since it was my first day, I had to go through some formalities, like get a medical briefing, a security briefing, get a cell phone, meet everyone, etc. I'm specifically interning in the ECON sector, and everyone in the section is, from what I can tell, really nice. Greg was great showing me around, and talked to me about some of the issues that the sector is particularly interested in reporting on, like the mining sector, the diamond industry, inflation, debt relief and general macroeconomic issues. I had talked with him before I came about possibly doing a cable (what they call a report) on property rights in the Congolese music industry, which I'd still be up for. I got a huge stack of introductory materials to read on the history, politics, economy and culture of the DRC, which was really helpful cause I hadn't done much research beforehand. Today was a bit of a crazy day, because 6 congressman came from D.C. to visit and brought up to update on what's going on in the DRC, which is what they call a congressional delegation. I was by myself for most of the day, but I kept myself busy with all reports and things I was given. I also spent some time reading local newspapers, of which there are about 3-4. One of the other officers in ECON told me that you kind of have to take journalism here with a grain of salt, because people are probably not being paid for their articles, so the quality of them is not great, and if they are, being paid, the person who is paying them probably wants to get a specific message across, so the articles are often really biased.
For lunch, one of the other interns in my house, Cynthia, brought me over a sandwich and we ate in the embassy. Afterward, we walked outside for a bit, and I actually got my first real chance to see downtown Kinshasa. I can't really explain it other than saying it was a HUGE culture shock, and you'll just have to take my word for it. It is extremely dirty, with garbage everywhere, most of the buildings are falling apart and decrepid, and there are a ton of people in the street, and I wasn't really sure what they were doing. Also, it is extremely dusty and generally dirty. Some of the women were carrying huge amounts of fruit on their head though! That was cool. Cindy showed me one of the main grocery stores, called Hassan et Frere, which Greg told me later, is surprisingly a Jewish grocery store. This really surprised me because the Jewish population in the DRC is practically nonexistent. They even had Kosher wines from New York and are closed Friday and Saturday because of the Sabbath. I had heard here that the food here is extremely expensive (because it is extremely expensive to import things), and this is very true. For example, a small container of cream cost about $4. I bought some oranges, shampoo and Prince cookies, (and those of you who have lived in France know what I'm talking about). I didn't know how much it totaled because I paid with dollars and they gave me Congolese francs back. I guess I'll figure that out later.
An interesting point. Dollars are used very frequently here. This is probably because the Congolese franc is pretty unstable, and inflation is rather high, probably around 20-30% a year. In fact, the prices are not even posted, you have to look at a chart to figure it out, and they can change at any minute. Also, they will not accept dollars if there is a rip, scratch or mark on them, but the Congolese francs are like ripped and falling apart, and they accept those just fine.
After that, we walked through "Le Marche des Voleurs" or the market of thieves, but fortunately, I was later told that this does not mean you are going to get robbed. There they sell artwork, African masks, and other little trinkets, which I was told is a good place to get souvenirs, because it is pretty cheap. As we walked down the market, someone was basically calling "Madame, madame, venez voir" non-stop. I have to stay, it was worse than Marrakesh, and they didn't come up with funny lines like "Bonjours les gazelles" or "Bonjour les fromages blancs." I guess I'll have to get used to the lack of creative name-calling.
When I got back to the office, I tried to get back to reading, but I couldn't really read for too long without losing concentrating and thinking about what I had just witnessed. I guess since I've never been to such an impoverished country ( I think in 2005 it was the 3rd poorest nation in the world), I really had no idea what to expect.
From what I could tell from today, I think that the living conditions and security restrictions take somewhat of a toll on the employees, especially those that have been in Kinshasa for more than a year. It can get pretty isolating, because it is sort of a restrictive lifestyle, with almost no entertainment and a very small community of peopel to socialize with. Also, just seeing the extreme poverty (and this is supposedly the nicest section in town!) day to day can get pretty depressing I imagine. I can see how it would be difficult to be here for the long term, but I think I am really going to enjoy the time I have here. I've already learned so much, about the DRC and about the state department, and it was just my first day. And by the time I get fed up, I'll be gone! After all, I'm leaving in 2 months.
I suppose that is all for now. Per the request of someone who shall remain nameless aka my mom, I was told to tone down the language from my first blog. So you will be seeing much less s* and f* words. My apologies to those you might have been offended.
Since, I have to get up early, I should probably pack it in. I'm not sure how often I'll be updating this blog, probably as often as I feel like, so I don't know how regular that will be. TTFN!