23 January 2012

Crossing into the Congo

 Part 1: The geology and geography of Congolese well drilling

We reached the Congo Saturday by ferrying across the Ubangi River in long canoes operated by helpful locals who will motor you across, and carry your baggage, and even kindly point at the only open chair so you know where to sit--all for a fee, of course. To get to the Elikya Center in Gemena, where we're drilling our well, requires an 8 hour journey to cover 250km of dirt roads in such poor shape...that it takes 8 hours (12 on a bad day, I'm told) to go 250km. Nine of us accomplished this task in an extended-cab truck by riding three in the front seat, three in the back seat, and three wedged on a wooden plank between all the luggage and the back of the cab. (The travel guide I write based on this experience (Lonely Planet's Guide to Congolese Well Drilling?) will note that for its leg-dangling room, breathtaking views, and cooling breezes, the wooden plank offers the best seats in the house by far, just bring sunscreen.)  

As we walked along the river bank, and while we rode in the canoe, and throughout the bumpy truck ride, Jerry observed the land. How the hills slope, how many rocks you see, the color of the dirt, how the ground handled a recent rain, how the roads are rutted and what that means about the soil or sand or clay directly beneath it, etc. "You see a lot of rocks along here," he notes nervously (well drilling happens around or, ideally, in the absence of rocks). "Looks like all swamp in here," much less nervously. I knew this was going to be a job requiring a fair amount of flexibility to account for all the unknowns, but as I listen to Jerry puzzle over the variables involved in getting this job done, I realize I'm about to take part in the most elaborate improv show I've ever seen. Jerry has never seen the drill rig or the pump we'll install other than in catalogs, never met anyone he'll be training other than the guy who will be interpreting, never so much as visited the country he's working in. And on the plane ride over we came to understand that we weren't sure exactly of the site, either. Jerry's been doing well drilling, in one capacity or another, for about 40 years, but still I'm amazed that he's not completely overwhelmed by the job. 

Part 2: Lessons in Lingala

The official language of the DRC is French, but here in the northwestern part of the country most people are more likely to speak Lingala, so the little French I've picked up along the way isn't particularly useful here. Not that it would have been, anyway, since my conversational phrases feel weirdly out of place here. "What do you do with your life?" "This." "Where are you from?" "Here."


But I generally enjoy learning bits of languages, and Lingala has been no exception. Instead of boring you with grammar or linguistic tidbits I found interesting, though, I'll share this, which I am concerned I might be stealing from The Poisonwood Bible (if I am, I read it like 5 years ago and this is totally accidental) :


Life in the Congo is tough. In order to survive you have to be resourceful, which can often mean seeing all 5 of the uses any item is capable of. Lingala is kind of the same: it's a relatively sparse language with only 1200 words to its name, but what it lacks in variety it more than makes up for in linguistic dexterity. Thus, just as yesterday's trash becomes tomorrow's soccer ball with a little bit of adjusting, Lingala's yesterday ("lobí") is also its tomorrow ("lobí")...you just need to change the context. 

Part 3: The psychology and theology of Congolese well drilling

"My feet are made of clay and they're expecting a miracle."


Jerry slumps down on the bed as he says this, rubbing his temples. We're getting ready for bed, and we've spent the day puzzling over how to best explain drilling and the hydrologic cycle and whatever else. For the first time I realize that Jerry is as intimidated and nervous about this project as I imagine I would be were I in his shoes. Probably more so, since he actually knows the challenges I'm only guessing at. 


To me, this trip seems possible because Jerry undertook it. He came all this way, so obviously he thinks it can be done. For me, he's sort of the "higher power" that makes this project feel like a thing that can obviously be accomplished. But Jerry can't be Jerry's higher power. So as he sits on his bed, feeling overwhelmed, we talk about e challenges we foresee, and we pray like crazy for the rest. 


20 January 2012

Bangui, Central African Republic

 So the well drilling part of our trip has been put temporarily on hold while we wait for our bags to make their trip to Africa. Since the flight from Paris to Bangui only comes once a week, we're hoping the luggage comes on a freight plane shipment today, bringing Jerry and me a change or 3 of clothes and (more importantly) several tools for the well. If those come today, we'll cross the Ubangi River by canoe Saturday, and then hop on a bus to head to Elikya, a little community center near Gemena. (Handy maps included for reference). I'll tell you a bit about that place when we get there, but for now, here's a bit from Bangui, where we are currently staying. 


Bangui is the capital of CAR, but with a population of 700,000 it doesn't feel unwieldy or very stressful at all. There are mostly dirt roads everywhere, the people are friendly, and I have only worried once that a car was going to run me over while walking on the side of the road. Electricity is on here for most of the day, with some scheduled and unscheduled lapses. I hear Bangui and the guest house we're staying in will feel like a vacation home compared to the setup at Elikya, so there's that. 


The smell memory I'll probably bring home with me from this part of the trip is the smell of fire. The second we walked off the plane we were greeted with the smell of burning and smoke. Most people around here burn their trash, and it seems like something's always smoldering somewhere nearby. The visuals I'll take will all be colored red, like the dirt on the streets and the thin dusting that covers almost everything else. 


Yesterday we went to the market. Lots of things to see and things to hear. Behold, I have a sight and a sound to share with you. Here's a picture of the market:



 And if I did this right, here's a link to the sounds: http://db.tt/tIfrCgzj

18 January 2012

In Transit

 I stood over my bags, preparing to zip up and head out the door for the airport. I paused briefly and considered putting a change of clothes in my carry-on, just in case. "Eh, who cares, really? If my bag gets lost (which it won't, duh), I can just wear the same clothes. It's dirty in Africa, so who cares, really?" I thought to myself. 


Having so decided, I confidently closed my bags, went to the airport, and landed in Bangui, Central African Republic, without my bag, which stayed behind in Paris. 


The good news, though, is that Jerry and I have safely arrived on this continent, and we only have an 8 hour or so bus ride to go before we're where we want to drill some water wells. 

16 January 2012

Congo Test Post

Yup, I am testing image uploads too

 Tomorrow morning I'm flying to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's a three week trip, and I'm going to help my Uncle Jerry, who in addition to being a farmer from Western Nebraska has a long-standing tradition of traveling to places that need drinking water, sending a drill to that location, and then instead of simply drilling the well and leaving, trains locals on how to use the machinery while drilling the first well. Then he leaves the drill with them and they can drill more water wells. It's a pretty great system he (and my grandpa before him) have, and I'm really excited and petty proud to be partaking in this family tradition. 


Anyway, I guess there will be power and Internet access at least some of most days, so I'm going to try to post some updates and photos etc while I'm on the road. I'm hoping to do this in the most lightweight way possible, which means that right now what I'm really doing is writing a test post for this particular writing and photo uploading workflow that will not require a computer. Anyway, stay tuned, and if you know someone who would like to know about the trip, send the link on to them, too!