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. 



The Upper Flat said...

Molly would like to see a picture of Jeremy. And the African man in your pic is the same man she met when in Cameroon.

aaron wk said...

This is fantastic.

Mrs. How? said...

Oh, everything in me just aches to be there. But you do such a good job of bringing us there - and beyond. Love, this is really really good writing. Poetry and magic.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on Mrs. How?'s comment!!

Praying, here in River City, Iowa!

And the little girl in me, the one who turns on her computer in the morning and checks this blog even before her email (gasp!), is excitedly asking, "Please, sir, may we have more?"

Anonymous said...

It sure is nice to read your blog and find out how my boys are doing. Love it. The canoe ride sounds much like the rides we had in Peru in a pecki-pecki --their long dugout canoes with Briggs-Stratton motors.

Anonymous said...

LOVE THIS BLOG!!! Thank you for doing such a good job of keeping us up to date! Will you be doing any medical training type stuff or sticking to the well drilling? I am so there with you in spirit!! Sending up lots of prayers for you and Uncle Jerry!!!!
Lisa Hall-Lehr