Last Week's UPI Column

Well, Friends. I am back in the Land of E Pluribus Unum, as the Wizard would say.
Looks like I didn't post my final UPI column from Africa. Probably had something to do with getting on a plane on Tuesday. Here it is.

I will be posting photos and lots more Africa writing during the month of March.
My, but this connection is Fast! Well, actually everything seems fast at the moment.
Still pretty Jet Lagged and Culture Shocky - sure it will pass.

Enjoy - from the road to the Congo...

The Community of the Bus

So there I was ...

On the people's bus going into the Congo; that's the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The World Health Organization recently named Bukavu, DRC, as the worst place in the world to be a woman. I was heading to the city of Goma, just north of there — working on the presumption that this dire classification would not apply to me.

I was traveling solo; not by choice, but by need. I had made arrangements for a skilled, fluent, trustworthy friend to accompany me on this journey. On the evening before departure one of his loved ones fell seriously ill and it was clear that I could not take him with me. I decided to proceed despite several handicaps.

A major handicap was the lack of language. On my journey I would be in lands speaking Kirundi, Kinya-rwanda, Kiswahili and the standard educated backup of French. I have at least a half-dozen words in each of those languages. Truly, not enough.

I had four border crossings to make, two each way. I had counsel on what to expect, but I am not knowledgeable enough to know when to pay up and when to have a nice African temper tantrum in response to the demands of petty despots and bureaucrats.

In Africa, border crossings, like everything else, are very real. You do them on foot. Your public bus drops you on one side, and then you and all your luggage walk to the small building with the long line where you stand in the hot sun and wait for the exit visa stamp. Then you pass by the men with guns guarding the actual border and show them your fine new stamp. Then you walk the ground that constitutes the no man's land until you get to the men with guns at the other gate, who look at you suspiciously and then condescend to let you stand in the long hot line where you hope to get the entrance visa to the next country. I do not know what happens if one country lets you leave and the other decides not to let you enter.

The no man's land between Burundi and Rwanda is especially spacious; there is a nice long walk and a river. I do not know who repairs the bridge. But there are poor children on that bridge begging. I do not think that they have stamps of any kind. I do not know which country claims them.

Traveling like this gets a person down to the basics. You carry enough water, and you rely on the kindness of strangers — a lot.

Fortunately I have found that African strangers are almost always very kind. I had a conversation many times that went something like this.

"Madame; blah, blah French blah?"
"I am so sorry, I have no French."
"Blah, blah Kirundi (Kinya-rwanda, Kiswahili) blah?"
"Oya, sorry, I really have no Kirundi, either.
I have only English."
"Only English?"
"You go where?"
"Congo?" (incredulous) Whistle

Then often they took me by the hand, literally, and kept an eye on me.
Nice folks; pity for the stupid and helpless.

One thing you have going for you is the African cultural value of instant group identity. When you get on a bus, you enroll in the group of that bus. It is now OUR bus, and you are one of US. Our pale, retarded, little sister, but ours.

They tried to educate me about thieves, as if I had no concept for larceny. They helped me find food to eat. This can be challenging. Travelers often go hungry. But the bus drivers know the standard stopping places where roadside vendors sell fast food. This is usually a roasted cob of corn so tough that Illinois stockyard cows would send it back to the kitchen. The other choice is goat on a stick. On one of my buses, a kind old father educated me like a child. "This is what Rwandan money looks like. Goat should cost this much. Here are two bills, go buy two goat sticks, one for you and one for me, and I will watch from here. It's OK — you can do it." Well, actually, that was communicated with a couple of words of several languages and hand gestures — worked fine. Turns out that goat on a stick is delicious, and hurt me not at all. The Baba also informed me that this roadside was famous for the sleeping potion in the coke trick, where a planted thief on the bus cleans you out as you sleep. Make sure you see them open your coke, sweetie.
Thanks, Baba.

Also, like a small child, you need help finding the toilet. I tried to go from breakfast to dinner without, but some days I just couldn't make that 12-hour wait. Toilets in Africa run the gamut from the fancy hotel equipment with the lovely French bidet to what the locals euphemistically call the "precision" toilet.

Now you who have traveled may think you know about this phenomenon, but unless you have been to an up-country African precision toilet, you have not lived.
The idea is a variation on the standard hole in the floor
— try your best aim - affair.

At one of the borders, I was informed by my bus team members that this was a good place to go; you pay 100 francs to that man over there and he will escort you up the hill to a very nice facility run by his family for several generations now.
I had hope.
I paid my fare.
I followed the man up the goat trail to an adobe outhouse.
I was still hopeful.
Because I didn't know any better.

I entered the facility as the man stood guard for me immediately outside the door. He thoughtfully kept a hand on the latch. I felt safe because I could see him clearly through the many finger-wide gaps in the door. I was grateful for the gaps, as they admitted the only light, allowing a good view of the target. The floor of the outhouse was constructed of many sticks the size of broomsticks. The pit below was a refreshing two meters down. Many of the floors sticks appeared sound. The broken ones were well spaced. The essential gap in the floor was about a palm's width. Because the word "precision" is a serious euphemism, the sticks on either side were very slippery for a foot or so, and they turned nicely with this lubrication. Somehow I did what I came to do. I used one of my nice Kirundi words and thanked the attendant.
He was also grateful as he now had a story to tell his wife when she asked how his day went.
My busmates congratulated me on my courage.

After several long days of this kind of travel you think that you cannot be shocked.
I considered myself to be seasoned beyond reason.
Then life threw me a real shocker.

On the last bus ride, we stopped at a roadside stand that was new to me. My busmates informed me that this was a good place to use the toilet. I assessed my need and decided to be courageous.

Behind the goat and coke stand was a very pretty yellow sign that said toilets. Hmm, a sign, did I dare hope? Naw.

There was a man at the door, but he was wearing a white lab coat. Hmm.

I opened the wooden door into a room with a sink, two standard porcelain urinals and two stalls labeled "gents" and "femmes." I pulled the door marked "femmes." And as I did, a very cheery, obviously canned, Japanese voice, said in perfect English, "Hello! Welcome!" I tried the door several times, each time I welcomed by the invisible Japanese girl. The toilet was the automatic flushing variety, and there was a sign stating that it was a gift to the people of Rwanda from the people of Japan.

How thoughtful!

However,I was a little disconcerted by the ghost voice of the Japanese girl. I kept looking around to see if she was holding the door for me, but I could not find her.

I looked at the shiny receptacle. I knew if I missed, everybody, including the Japanese girl would know it was me, because obviously everyone else had been very precise. Somehow I relaxed enough to do what I had come to do, but I jumped out of my skin a little when I exited and the invisible Japanese girl bid me good day.

I bought a coke and some goat to calm my nerves.
My busmates congratulated me on my courage.

friend peggy you write so very well. every column and every blog entry, they are good. you have a gift for it.
Welcome home. Let me also congratulate you on your courage.

We held you in prayer this afternoon at Quaker Heritage Day in Berkeley, for your safe and sane return.
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