Now that I have been here for a few months, I can tell you that this is actually one rather fine place to live, in its own way. There is color, music, friendliness, and people go out of their way to do whatever they can to help you. Certainly they are doing it hoping for some money, but the truth is that they are satisfied with about 50 cents, and although it’s the home of trickle-down economics, fortunately I’m on the upstream side. For as little as $10, you can get someone to come to your house and skillfully make a shirt, pair of pants, curtains, furniture or dinner. If you need milk and eggs, someone will literally run to the store buy some, and deliver them to you. If you want your garden planted, someone will come dependably for $5 a day, cut the grass, plant tomatoes and peppers, pick the fruit when it’s ripe, make a chicken dish, and serve it hot when it comes out of the oven. All with a smile.
A typical day begins with me walking to school from home. The housing I get initially looked like a somewhat dilapidated adobe structure, but after seeing what the options in Kinshasa are, I realize that this is pretty solid fare. And if the air conditioner goes out, the plumbing seizes up, or the porch gets a leak from a mango falling onto the corrugated plastic cover, someone is there in minutes to repair it. Sure, it has its idiosyncrasies, like the dozens of millipedes that I find on the cool tile floor in the morning on my way to the shower (I used to gather and flush them, but now that I know they are harmless, its live and let live), or the swarms of flying ants that appear magically at 10pm every night and hover in front of the TV screen (now that I turn on another light, they hover over there instead. I hear that they are delicious eating, but it’s the big ones that are best and these are the small ones). But these things only serve to remind me that I really am in the depths of Africa.
The walk to work passes through about 1/4 mile of a bonafide rainforest we have on campus. The ecosystem in the lower Congo basin can support a full-fledged 3 tiered canopied forest, but the urbanization has cleared it out for about a hundred miles around. However, a remote corner of our campus that used to house Bonobo monkeys has reverted back to its primordial state, and my walk to work takes me through its heart. I always pause under a dense bamboo cluster, where the path opens up from a tunnel of dark hanging vines and smell of sweaty rotting leaves, to a cavern-like amphitheatre canopied with a bamboo arch, and I listen to the family of African Grey parrots whistle and caw. In the distance I can hear a family of monkeys howling, and usually some small animal of some sort dashes through the deep undergrowth when it hears my arrival. One morning last week, I met one of the gardeners coming out of the undergrowth with a machete and a plastic bag. I asked what was up, and he showed me what he gathered. Every night, he lays open a papaya and covers it with leaves. Then, the next morning he uncovers the fruit and picks up the snails that are feasting on it. Most are bigger than your fist, with some as large as a softball. He steams them and has escargot for lunch each day.
After emerging from the rainforest (where I find most of my best feathers for tying flies), I walk through a patch of mango and papaya trees that produce fruit throughout the rainy season, which lasts half the year. I often breakfast on the freshly fallen fruit, peeling the mango skin with my penknife and eating the papaya whole. There is also an avocado tree with the best avocados I have ever had, but often the workers have beaten me to them. Once they realized that I like them, too, they started leaving a few lower down that I can reach while they climb to the upper branches to get the others.
Speaking of climbing, the bravest man I ever saw in my life works here. And that’s saying a lot, since I spent years working whitewater rivers and know some folks who do things that would make most folks pucker in horror. This little man has the job of keeping the trees trimmed on campus. Many of our trees are old oil palms, standing up to 100 feet tall. He takes a palm branch, strips the leaves off, and wraps the central stalk around himself and the tree. He closes the loop by tying the end with a grapevine knot made with a single half hitch on each side, then he shimmies his way up the tree barefoot just like telephone pole climbers do with their thick 4″ nylon belts and spiked boots. I have seen him perched in palm trees, 100′ over my head, hacking at dead leaves with his machete inches away from the delicate belt that passes around his back, with his bare feet jammed out in front of him against the tree. He often stops there for a few minutes and munches on palm nuts before he climbs back down, singing a song.
There is a local woman named Rachele who makes lunch for the workers. She comes in at 12:15 each day with a huge tray balanced on her head, and in a little clearing in the jungle, sets up a bamboo table and some lawn chairs. The workers have the ground swept off with palm leaves before she arrives to make it more pleasant. Every day is the same thing: bread made from cassava paste, beans and rice, dried fish, chicken, and hot pilipili sauce. I am the only “mun’dali” who eats with the locals, and we always have great conversation. Sometimes she brings a special dish just for me that I love: shani, wild mushrooms and steamed greens. Shani are large, barely fried caterpillars, and to my initial surprise they are incredibly tasty. Sort of like raw hot dogs.
In the evenings, I sometimes head into town with my girlfriend for dinner, but it is very expensive. However, we can sit at an outdoor venue and drink beers for $1 each, and listen to Congolese music. The Congolese music scene is historically well-known, and the reemergence of local bands is a clear sign that things are getting better. The beat is half reggae, half afro-rhythm, and melodies are always tight 4 or 5 part harmonies. Many songs are modifications of what must be old tribal rhythms, sung in Lingala, and people get up and sway at their seats to the music. The most popular dance closely resembles the ‘grind’, and dark-skinned beauties with perfect bodies will stand there, eyes closed, and slowly, sensually twist and thrust their way through song after song….it’s nicer than I can describe. I pretend to not notice when I’m sitting with my girlfriend.
On weekends, until the rainy season arrived, I go fishing on the Congo. The river here is about 1.5 kilometers wide (a bit over a mile) and the current is VERY fast. Too fast to get a sinking line down before it’s past you. So I spend a lot of time on the shallow side-side channels (the tertiary channels off of the secondary channels). These are like rivers themselves, and a lot of locals fish them also. I haven’t had any luck with my fly rods yet, but I still haven’t learned what the local fish eat. The natives, however, have some fascinating ways to catch. There is the ubiquitous throw-net (a round net, rimmed with tire weights, and with a long string coming from the center). They wade into a shallow stretch, and then toss the net like a Frisbee, allowing it to land amongst the rocks and branches. These guys have incredible aim: I have seen them regularly place the net in a convoluted-shaped opening with branches overhanging it and squirrelly current, not missing an inch of exposed water. They let the net settle to the bottom, and then gently start retrieving it. The fish feels the net start to wrap around its sides, and rather than dive for the open bottom, tries to escape by swimming through the net. When the fisherman feels a fish, he reaches down under it and closes off the bottom and gathers the fish in his arms. I have seen one guy bring in a 30-inch barbel this way, at a spot where I had just been dropping streamers with no luck.
Another common method was born of limited materials. A fisherman ties a 2-inch piece of monofilament to a small hook, and baits it with a small piece of meat (often a chunk of bait fish). He ties the mono to a long stalk of reed or river grass, and shoves the end of the reed down among the large rocks along the river, often jamming 10 or 20 reeds in a general area, then goes and contemplates the river for a few minutes. Then he retraces his steps, pulling up one reed after another. About 1/3 of his hooks will have a small eel on them, with the occasional one in the 20-30 inch range. He keeps these in a mesh bag tied to a rock to keep them alive until he gets them home.
The fishermen have become accustomed to seeing me there, and call me ‘le Prof’ since they know I work at the school. Initially, I got stared at and surrounded by inquisitive kids and fishermen, but now they leave me alone and we all fish in peace. Last time out, I ‘accidentally’ left a long piece of mono wrapped around a stick where the eel fishermen could find it. Hopefully, one of them will accidentally leave me a fish, but I doubt it.
The rainy season is wild. It rains about an hour each day, usually about 9 pm (which accounts for my 10 pm visit of flying ants). The short, torrential rains are accompanied by the most hellacious lightning storms I have ever enjoyed. One day last week, the lightning was so rapid-fire that before it started raining, I went out back and was looking at the strobe-light effect on the fruit bats swirling overhead. The flashes were literally coming at a rate of 2 or 3 a second, and the bats were swooping overhead in the strobe, diving among the branches of the mango trees getting mosquitoes and flies. All the neighbors came out too, and we had a wonderful time watching the psychedelic show.
Meanwhile, I get more and more used to this place, its subtle and not so subtle beauty, and look forward to the end of the rainy season when I can go fishing some more. The rivers are far too flooded now to hope to get a clear cast, and the ground is soaked everywhere so access is limited. However, the color ‘green’ was invented with this place in mind, and all the fruit trees and gardens are exploding with food and color. Flowers are everywhere, colors and smells are enough to make you sit down, and life goes on.