Jul 5, 2007

Aquaculture in Africa Journal Letters from a Zaire Peace Corps Volunteer

Doug and Carrie Melvin of Boise, Idaho are committed to working on African fish farming and harvesting efforts. Doug Melvin was in Zaire for Special Forces and Carrie (that’s me!) worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

This is part two of the fourth in a series of letters I wrote describing working and traveling in Africa.

Letter #4 Part 2
10 January 1989

New Year’s Day a few of us borrowed a canvas boat from the Center’s storeroom and decided to go for a casual row on the lake.

It was a beautiful day in our leaky boat, and we were having such a great time we lost track of time and direction. When a sudden storm hit, we knew there was a reason we had been warned not to do this. We realized we were closer to a small island than to home, so we pushed ahead and started rowing around this small tropical island looking for a place to pull up. We saw some men fishing, some mamas washing clothes, and kept going until we saw some huts and corn and manioc fields and banana trees.

Soon we had attracted a crowd of kids chasing us along the shores, shouting in Swahili. The crowd grew until three small children got into a dugout canoe and rowed over to us, using palm fronds as oars. So, we pulled up to shore and the kids suddenly looked a little nervous as they circled the boat. When we got out we realized we also felt a bit silly in our bathing suits without enough language skills to tell them why we were there. We all sort of stood there awkwardly, until Liz had the brainstorm of music and pulled out her tape player from her backpack. Soon, all of the children were dancing to the Grateful Dead, with far more rhythm than I’ll ever have! So we danced and laughed for awhile before realized we should get going to get back by dark.

So off we went, thinking we should continue around the island instead of backtrack. We underestimated its size, and soon realized it would be dark before long, and we’d be in trouble if another storm came up. Then we came upon a group of men having what looked like a cookout on the beach. They waved, and then three of them came out to us in their dugout. One of them spoke perfect French, and when we told them where we had to go he broke out laughing and clearly relaying this story to his friends. He said we’d never make it, and offered to tow us! We refused at first, but he insisted and tied a rope to our boat. And spent the next two hours towing us home!! Typical Zairean hospitality.

It turned out they were fishermen who live in Kadutu, but who fish from this island for days at a time to get fish to sell at the market. Turns out the island actually belonged to Rwanda. Anyway, the kitchen was closed when we got back, so we couldn’t get these guys anything to eat. All we could muster up were some cigarettes, which they appreciated as they set off for their return journey. [This episode reminded me of a much later trip, ten years later in Haiti, when as UN human rights observers we were getting transit for work to an island in the US Special Forces raft with Captain Doug Melvin.] The motor stopped in the middle of the channel and we were stuck and looking for a tow until we got the motor started again.

Motorcycle training is going well. There are some bikes I fit on pretty well, though I still wish I had a smaller one. Anyway, for some reason it is pretty easy for me the motorcycle trainer kept saying “have you done this before? No? How about a scooter? Horses?” He said I looked too comfortable on the bike to be a beginner, and moved me up to another group- we got to go out on the road during the next lesson.

Other activities of late have included presenting fish culture topics in French, complete with visual aids. My topic was “why raise tilapia nilotica” as opposed to catfish or carp. An easy topic for me, since I had covered the same material in English in training in South Carolina. A bit harder in French, but fun.

Last Saturday we had a fish fair Рwe split into groups of 4 or 5 and worked on projects like making rudimentary wheelbarrows, salting fish, making a balance scale out of sticks and a beer bottle, etc. My group had to cook Рso we made a great little oven and baked the fish in tomato sauce and beer and saut̩ed onions and garlic. We were skeptical but it turned out delicious and a welcome change from fish fried in palm oil- it hit the spot after everyone finished presenting their projects. The oven is a charcoal burner with a big pot. In the pot you put a layer of sand, with rocks or old tin cans on the sand. The cooking pan with food you want to bake sits on top of the cans or rocks, and the big pot is covered. The air circulates and forms indirect heat. Volunteers even cook bread and cookies in them!

The day before yesterday a bunch of us hired a guide to take us up Mt. Kahuzi, the highest mountain in the national park here. It’s just a bit lower than Mt. Triglav in Yugoslavia. What an experience! It was a beautiful climb but much different than I’ve ever seen. I suppose because the mountains are older and so much closer to the equator. Only a small part of the climb was the kind of rock scrambling and desperate search for toeholds. Instead it was a very steep but muddy climb through rainforests, incredible giant bamboo forests, along ridge plateaus, and through meadows dotted with neon pink and orange flowers. There was the oddest mix of vegetation all the way up: fern grottos, bamboo, low scrub, lush forest. When we got up into the clouds/ mists we could just make out outlines of gnarled, hanging moss covered “Dr Seuss trees”. Even the top was green with grass and low sagebrush-like scrub. It was a strenuous three and a half hour climb to the summit- but it was truly breathtaking and looked totally uncorrupted by civilization.

In a few days we take the Foreign Service exam to test our French. Four weeks is not a long time to learn a language, and I am glad I had a head start. Sunday we leave for a one week field trip (“sortie au village”) where we will stay with farmers and help them with their activities (pond construction, harvesting, etc). Should be exciting since we don’t speak Swahili – we’ll have to use sign language, so it will be good practice for the first few days at post. Then when we return we will start our regional language training, which means I will finally know which part of Zaire I will be spending the next two years in! The bad news is, Kivu is out, because the one spot here – allegedly the nicest post in Zaire – already got taken. So, now the assignments are really a grab bag. All traditional village posts except one possible placement at a fish station in Shaba. I won’t go into the region specific details until I know where I am going and can give you details in the next letter.

Not much else to report –


Jun 28, 2007

Aquaculture in Africa Journal Letters from a Zaire Peace Corps Volunteer

Doug and Carrie Melvin of Boise, Idaho have both committed their time and considerable efforts working on African fish farming and harvesting efforts. Doug Melvin was in Zaire for Special Forces and Carrie (that’s me!) worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

This is the fourth in a series of letters I wrote describing working and traveling in Africa. This letter had so much detail, I’m splitting it into two blogs. In this first blog, I talk about our visit to Kadutu, learning more about cultural differences in Africa and more about the many wonderful people I met on my trip.

Letter #4
10 January 1989

I am writing from the luxury of my “room with a view”. Taking a sick day off from French class. French is still going very well. It now consists of hours and hours of conversation about every topic under the sun. (Literally, since the classes all take place in little open grass gazebos outside). I am learning a lot about Zairean history and politics (not to be discussed outside the Center!) as well as philosophy and, believe it or not, California history! One of my Zairean teachers has studied in depth the formation and progression of the Carmelite nuns and their spread through northern California. Amazing the distances we travel to learn out heritage.

The nice thing about Bukavu is that while it is a very comfortable and easy lifestyle, it is also very exciting and “African” in those things that happen and things I come across day to day are so different.

One day a group of trainees went on a field trip to Kadutu, a village about a 30 minute walk from Bukavu, but a world away from Bukavu’s wealth. There is a dense population of people living in tiny houses blanketing the mucky, muddy hillsides. We picked our way through the ‘streets’ and alleys being greeted by happy mamas, skipping over sewage ditches, and stopping every ten feet to shake hands with hundreds of smiling, laughing kids shouting “Muzungu! Muzungu!” to let others know that white people were in town. In their best English, even the tiny ones greeted us with “How are you” and “good morning” (though the afternoon sun was already slipping).

We reached our destination, the cluttered, colorful, noisy, sprawling outdoor market which PC trainees are urged to visit weekly to “get into the culture”. This first time we were accompanied by the trainers, to show us around and help us feel safe from the touted dangers of pickpockets. We spent hours wandering through the mamas selling produce and kids selling cigarettes and vendors selling everything from plastic shoes to donuts to Salvation Army clothing to K-mart quality jewelry. The smells and the sights and the noises were all so different and exciting I felt like I was walking around in a surrealist painting. There were women selling pagnes – the beautiful cloth they use for skirts and other things – and rows of tailors with foot-pedal sewing machines ready to make anything requested on the spot.

Then there was the rather grisly “meat department” which truly must make even the most devout vegetarian respect Safeway packaging and that blue seal of inspection. ANY part of a cow, chicken, goat, or sheep was available and on full display for sale to anyone who dared whisk the flies away and take their parcel home. Goat heads with nerve cords sticking out, unidentifiable organs, intact intestinal tracts, you name it. Perhaps the most fun part of the trip was the enjoyment the butchers and shoppers alike got out of seeing our slightly green faces as we tried to maintain composure. With flashing white teeth they would point to their wares, going into gales of laughter at our weak “tolerance and cultural sensitivity” smiles. Too funny!!

We ate in a great little picnic-tabled, religious-paintings-on-the-wall restaurant called, in English, “Restaurant Soup.” We ate delicious beans and rice and peas and bread, all with tons of the local hot pepper called pili-pili. Yum! We didn’t even let the pouring rain spoil our fun, though I was wearing flimsy flip-flops and slid and slipped around getting mucky market mud covering my feet and had to stop to put my shoes back together every few feet! We returned to the Center exhausted and filthy – but happy. I have since returned on a much mellower mode – a few of us went over on New Year’s eve day and watched people getting ready for their celebrations. Lots of goats, chickens and the ubiquitous Primus beer changing hands.

On this trip we were accompanied by an 11 year old boy who began following us in Bukavu when he started asking me for American dollars. As is typically the case with the very common occurrence of us being asked for things, this boy didn’t seem distressed or bothered when I said no, explaining that we didn’t have any dollars or Zaires with us. He sort of said “Oh” contentedly, and kept following us, where he proceeded to be a great help in the market haggling for us and showing us around. We bought him lunch at “Restaurant Soup” which was quite an ordeal. We just ordered some plates of food and had them in the middle of the table, and though he had just said he was hungry, he wouldn’t eat. Finally, an onlooker explained that he was scared to eat with us because 1) we were white, 2) all women, and 3) kids don’t usually eat with adults around here. Finally, we got him a separate plate, and put food right in front of him. He happily devoured it and downed a Fanta orange before we went back to enjoy the day.

To Be Continued!

Jun 10, 2007

Aquaculture in Africa Journal Letters from a Zaire Peace Corps Volunteer

Doug and Carrie Melvin of Boise, Idaho have both devoted their time to working on African fish farming and harvesting efforts. Doug Melvin was in Zaire for Special Forces and Carrie (that’s me!) worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

This is the third in a series of letters I wrote describing traveling and working in Africa. In this letter, I talk about spending my first Christmas holiday in Africa and about the ongoing training classes I attended in Zaire.

Letter #3
26 December 1988

Happy New Year!

Well, the Christmas holiday in Africa… my first of three… is officially over. While it was certainly the least “Christmasy” Christmas I’ve had, it was a fun and relaxing weekend. Christmas Eve featured a fish program meeting, then some window shopping in Bukavu. There are stores here that sell things like shoes, radios, fabric, even a store that sells Snickers (at the cost of 2 days per diem for us). Bukavu is a very wealthy city compared to most of Zaire. We people-watched for awhile from the vantage point of a bar’s sidewalk table, where we drank some beers. Not much to-do about the Christmas holiday in Africa – a few decorations in the window of a Christian bookstore but that’s about it. About the only other manifestation of a holiday was the increased number of people milling around carrying chickens or goats, likely for a holiday feast.

This morning I had my second moto-lesson. Riding motorcycles is a blast! I’m a little against the motorcycles since they intensify the “us-them” syndrome when you are at post – but it is not really feasible to go the necessary distances without them (and it is so much fun!!) Don’t worry though, I’ll be safe. And, I might not even get one if Peace Corps can’t find a smaller one. Can’t believe they only have one size.

French class is going pretty well. I am still the only one in my class – since I was the only trainee who already knew some French – which is a great opportunity but also very tiring. The teachers are fantastic – very fun, animated, and quick to laugh, like all Zairois I have met so far. Class usually starts out with some exercises or drills, but always ends up a discussion on cultural comparisons, politics (US only, Zairean politics are a taboo subject), religion, etc. My viewpoints are ever so simplistic in French, but it is fun to try.

[It was interesting to compare French class methods with Doug Melvin from the TSA in Boise, who learned French for US Special Forces service in west and central Africa from US Army training program. They also had immersion training, from French and African instructors, but since the training all took place in the US, it was not as effective as the full immersion you get in an all French environment.]

It is rainy season right now (approx 15 August through 15 March) so it rains a little just about every day. But the rain comes and goes so quickly that usually no one even stops what they are doing. Storms are tropical – quick to come and go, lots of thunder and lightening, warm rain. The dry season will have rain only once in a while, but it is also cooler then. (Though Kivu is pretty cool – relatively – even in the rainy season). The clear nights are truly awesome. The moon outside my window shines down on the lake through all the trees and the southern hemisphere stars seem twice as plentiful, practically competing for space in the sky.

We had our first intro session today with the Center’s farmer – he works primarily as a trainer for the agriculture volunteers, but will be available to teach us about gardening, and raising chickens and rabbits. Rabbits I could never raise because I could not possibly kill one. But chickens aren’t all that cute and it would be great to have eggs. PC can get us “improved variety” chickens like Rhode Island Reds, and apparently PC Volunteers often trade eggs so that the villages can hatch the improved variety and have better egg-layers. One volunteer we visited had a great chicken house which he said is easy to care for.

I suppose I better sign off because I really start rambling – but when I am writing I feel like I am talking to you. In fact, looking out my window today above the trees into the fog over the lake wasn’t all that different from sitting in the living room in Carmel looking out into the fog and trees. It is really beautiful here. I love this region of Zaire!

I love you all,

May 25, 2007

Aquaculture in Africa Journal: Letters from a Zaire Peace Corps Volunteer

Doug and Carrie Melvin of Boise, Idaho have both devoted their time to working on African fish farming and harvesting efforts. Doug Melvin was in Zaire for Special Forces and Carrie (that’s me!) worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

This is the second in a series of letters I wrote describing traveling and working in Africa. In this letter, I talk about travel in Kinshasa, the posts where we stayed and my introduction to fish harvesting and African cooking.

Letter #2
17 December 1988

Hi everyone.

Just got back to Kinshasa after an experience-a-minute week-long “sortie”. We split into four groups and went to stay with volunteers at their posts. Pretty eye-opening. All in all, Zaire travel is a lot like I expected it to be, I guess, but it is still really odd to be here. Travel in Kinshasa is noisy, crowded, dirty, colorful, a free-for-all. Don’t ever move here! Traveling along 350 miles of Zaire’s under 1500 miles of paved road (Swiss cheese style road, I believe) was something different altogether. As far as the eye can see in all directions is green savannah, dotted with anthills and termite hills, scrub and manioc fields plunging down into forested valleys with jungle and rivers and women carrying huge loads on their heads and thousands of little kiddos shouting “mundele” (‘white person’ in Kikongo) almost hysterically and running after the truck as we drive by.

My group went to Bandundu. We went to two posts: 1) Tina and Bob are a married couple living in an old Belgian colonial house looking over the Kwenge river. They have a huge blooming garden, bathe in the river, have a separate motorcycle hut, cooking hut, WC (outhouse, etc.) It’s pretty nice. 2) Nick’s house is a more likely Peace Corps post – small, mud brick, grass roof house (cozy but dark) , bucket baths only, struggling garden. Nick’s house is really in the village, whereas Tina and Bob’s home is outside of their village. In both places the people were extremely friendly and nice. Though we obviously couldn’t have much conversation (they speak Kikongo – I don’t) they seemed honored to have us there and very gracious. We went visiting and were continuously offered palm wine and cola nuts (blecch – bitter). [Cola nuts are a very bitter tree nut with a stimulant effect. According to Doug Melvin from Boise, Idaho they are also common in the Angola border region – but not common in the eastern part of the country.].

At both posts we went to a farmer’s fish harvest. I must say that fish harvesting still doesn’t thrill me – mucking around in a pond with 8 inches of fish slime trying to pull idiotic tilapias out of the muck before they get baked in the broiling sun. And it is HOT here. Africa hot. Usually wherever we went to harvest fish the farmers make little shaded places out of palm fronds for us.

And after harvesting fish they would lead us back up to the village and we’d drink palm wine and when they’d had a few glasses they’d start singing Tilapia songs. (pensez poiso-o-o-n, a way, a way a way) Too funny. Then we’d gather around for some traditional African cooking: fufu (bland, dough-like stuff you rip off into a small ball and use to scoop up everything else), manioc greens, duck or chicken in peppery sauce, of course Tilapia, and one delicacy I managed to pass up- boiled palm grubs! I hear they’re better fried, so I’ll hold out for that. One person tried to convince me: “Try one – they taste just like bacon fat!” Tempting, huh?? Otherwise, African cooking is pretty tasty. Apparently a lot of volunteers last year got sick right away, so in general the volunteers have been feeding us American-type food as much as possible. I’m not too psyched yet about malaria medicine. They are being awfully vague about the side-effects. I’ve heard everything from hair loss to sterility. Hmm. This letter is pretty scatterbrained – because that is how I feel right now – this has been a lot of information to process.

In general travel in Zaire is fascinating and really beautiful. The fish program I still have some philosophical issues with. But I can’t wait to get to training in Bukavu. I hear it is great. And it will be a chance to spend two nights in the same place!

More later, but I have to go get this in the mail now.

Love you,

May 24, 2007

Aquaculture in Africa Journal: Letters from a Zaire Peace Corps Volunteer

Doug and Carrie Melvin of Boise, Idaho have both dedicated time to work on African fish farming efforts. Doug Melvin was in Zaire for Special Forces and Carrie (that’s me!) worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

This is the first in a series of letters I wrote describing the move from training in the Peace Corps to traveling and working in Africa. In this letter, I explain how I quickly learned some unique African airport customs, fell in love with the great beauty of Africa, and got down to work with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers. This is also is the first mention of the love of my life, Doug.

Letter #1
December 11, 1988

It’s 10:00 pm on Sunday and I feel like it has been one continuous day since we left training on Friday. Goodbyes were hard but sorrow was overridden by excitement as we departed for the airport in the rain. I left Alex [friend in training, before eventually meeting Doug Melvin from Boise, Idaho] to hitchhike home in the rain.

Our layover was a day in Paris – what a great place! After dealing with customs, we had only six hours to see the city. So, a few of us rushed around like maniacs, shopping, people watching, drinking wine, and seeing things like Notre Dame when the mood struck us. It was an overcast, dreary day which added to the mystique of it all as we ate roasted chestnuts peering at the Eiffel Tower through the mists.

Then it was off again, this time to the land under African skies. Ndjili airport in Kinshasa wasn’t nearly as bad as East Along the Equator had led me to believe. The 26 of us, needless to say too tired to put up a fuss, were led by the hand through the customs and baggage claim processes. No big deal, really, except that lots of both legitimate and illegitimate baggage carriers want to take your suitcases and carry them for you – for a price of course. It’s really a riot – two guys will pick up one bag each, walk about 20 steps, then two other guys will take them from the other two. They figure you will tip anyone who helps, so the more helpers, the more tips. None of us had any Zaires ($$), so Peace Corps took care of the legitimate baggage handlers. The others got nothing and made sure we all knew how put out they were. [Note: it was only after traveling more into and out of Kinshasa that I realized how tough the airport really was, and how much the Peace Corps “expediter” – a full time well-paid local staffer who took care of volunteers customs and transportation needs – really did for us. The first time I traveled out of Kinshasa on my own I had a pretty tough time.]

The drive from Ndjili to inner Kinshasa was wild. We were in a Peace Corps bus- pretty nice – and drove through places that reminded me a lot of Haiti and Barbados. Trees and tropics; buildings and huts that look like they’ve been built with no intention of taming the wilds. Lots of markets and merchants and people selling things like goats, bananas, and car tail light reflectors along the roadside. The general appearance` was not modern and chic, but also not primitive or “tribal” looking. Then again, this was along a paved road to Kinshasa, so it probably does not reflect the big picture.

Our group split into two for the night. My group went to the Peace Corps “Malade House” where volunteers in Kinshasa for health or other reason stay. It’s a nice house with air conditioning, bunk beds, and hot showers. The other group stayed in a Presbyterian missionary visitor house, with mattresses on the floor, mosquitos, and cold water. I lucked out this time.

The bulk of today was spent at the “American Club” of all places. I felt a little like I was in a Miami Beach resort watching Americans walk around with tennis rackets and sip iced tea by the pool. Too weird. We had an administrative and medical training, got some per diem money, malaria medicine, and a spaghetti lunch. We swam and napped, then ate dinner at the Greek Club. All in all a pretty lax introduction to Kinshasa.

Pretty tame African experience, huh? [When I compare notes with Doug Melvin from Boise, who was in Zaire for Special Forces, I realized how cushy Peace Corps made our first few days in country.]

But with tomorrow comes the real deal, when we leave for field trips (“sorties” in French). I’ll spend five days in Bandundu with six other trainees at the site of a married Peace Corps couple’s post. This is supposedly a very pro-fish farming region (and in fact the volunteer whose post we will be visiting was singing fish songs in French to herself all day – is it brainwashing, I wonder?). So I am pretty excited.

Then, next Sunday, we will be off to Bukavu for the official beginning of in-country training. I’ll write again soon after or during sortie. But someone will take this letter back to the states soon, so I wanted to get something in the mail for you.