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.


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