Adventures in the Congo – Part 3

I’m writing this from the comfort of my living room, having been home for about a week. This is no longer Mateusz Buczko reporting live from the ground at Kinsevere, coordinates: bar. Although my intent was to wrap up my journal while still over there, a debilitating cold & cough meant I lost the willpower to do so… So here’s my belated, final dump of thoughts & impressions from this wild African safari.

An easy way to structure this might be to actually examine what made me sick – coz there were a number of factors, I think, that came together to tear down the walls of my immune system and keep me bedridden for days after arriving back in Melbourne. While my sickness is hardly the point, they serve as interesting stepping stones for one last literary tour of the Congo.

An obvious starting point is the weather. I landed in the country at the end of the wet season/beginning of the dry season, and I gotta say, for metereological schizophrenia, Congo aces Melbourne hands down. One moment things can be dead calm & still, then nek minnit – not rain, but a torrent of water bucketing down from the heavens, like standing over a waterfall. This colossal downpour doesn’t just pitter away like normal rain either – it vanishes in a flash, literally like a tap has been abruptly wound back. It’s incredibly sudden, and on several occasions I was caught out by what seemed like the second coming of the Great Flood, unable to see more than a couple of metres in front of me.

In drought-prone Oz we’ve been ingrained to appreciate rainfall – “it’s good for the farmers” and all that – but the mining sector hates it. Wet weather turns dirt roads into mud slides and pit bottoms into swamps, bogging down vehicles and making work doubly difficult. Several people remarked to me out of the blue that they’re happy the wet season’s nearly over… Not only do dry conditions suit mining activity much better, at the end of the day it also means less puddles which is where Public Enemy Number One – the mosquito – hangs out and spawns.

Sickness cause #2 would be the long, regimented days of mine life. A mine’s much like a prison in many ways – you wear standard-issue bright orange garb, eat meals at particular times of the day in a mess, wake up early and go to bed early, have to wear identification at all times, and at Kinsevere, you’re even surrounded by a barbed wire fence guarded by uniformed security. Out of these, it’s the waking up early that got me… Coz at a mine, ‘early’ doesn’t mean 7am, it means 5am, and that’s 7 days a week. There are no weekends here; shifts at Kinsevere are generally 6 weeks on, 3 weeks off, with occasional ‘fatigue days’ granted for when a miner’s had a big night and probably won’t pass breath testing the next morning.

If you’re not an early riser, it’s a brutal regime and it really puts the ‘severe’ in Kinsevere when you’re dropped in and put to work jetlagged after 20+ hours of flying and airports… The final iteration being a concrete Pac Man maze filled with wild-eyed machine gun-clutching ‘authorities’.

But wet weather, jetlag and early mornings aren’t all that uncommon, especially for work trips… What really did it, I think, was the training itself, the whole rationale for my being there.

This was probably something to mention way back in Part 1, but the purpose of my going-over to Kinsevere was to oversee the launch of, and train people in how to use, ‘Magnet’ – Magnet being MMG’s global intranet. For those familiar with this kind of stuff, it’s a SharePoint 2010-based thing split up into a number of mirrors – one mirror per mine site – and it’s a heavily customized, incredibly complex beast – part website, part applications portal, part document and multimedia repository, part collaboration workspace, part news channel… You get the idea.

Training people in how to use it, even the basics, isn’t easy. Training people who need to know how to create and manage content is considerably harder… And that’s still assuming they speak English, are well-versed in computers and possess, shall we say, Western sensibilities vis a vis training and professional development. This assumption is fatally wrong on all counts at Kinsevere.

The problem isn’t simply the language barrier. Most of the Congolese, in addition to their native Swahili and French, do have a reasonable command of English. But this means nothing if the desire to learn isn’t there, and that’s an issue I wasn’t expecting but which certainly made its presence felt – like the mosquito bite itch you wish would go away but it won’t, and you just gotta suck it up and deal with it.

There’s that joke, ‘If all else fails, read the instructions’. We’re all guilty. But at Kinsevere it’s beyond a joke – it’s an excruciatingly frustrating reality, with trainees refusing to refer to the step-by-step guides that I painstakingly put together for weeks prior to the trip. They’d simply sit there and click aimlessly at the screen or just stare at it blankly like a cat, a behaviour I found difficult to comprehend… But like so many things, it’s easy to forget the cultural divide that gives rise to such misunderstandings – in this case, the fact that most of these locals did not attend a First World school followed by six years of university, and do not understand in the way I do the value of referencing information or sharing it…. Which yes, made training them in a fairly user-unfriendly IT/communications platform – designed for storing and sharing information – one of the most challenging work experiences of my life to date.

The happy and bizarre upside though is the kids were completely the opposite.

On one of my last days at Kinsevere, a bunch of MMG volunteers including myself travelled into town to host a ‘day out’ for kids and teens from three local orphanages. I had no idea what to expect, but I know I was pleasantly surprised… Far from being an anarchic bunch of delinquents, these kids were well-dressed in bright clean clothes, with funky, carefully styled hairdos and gentle manners. They lined up diligently upon arrival and even when the call was made to commence the Easter egg hunt, and we waved our arms to get ’em to start scrambling, it was not at all the Pamplona Running of the Bulls that I expected… Just a calm, measured search of the grounds for whatever tinfoil-wrapped treats they could find.

This is of course a far cry from Aussie kids. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings in my childhood, yet these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or tip a Fanta onto their leftovers… Instead they instinctively broke their cupcakes into pieces which they then shared, and some tucked away their soft drink cans into their handbags for later consumption. It wasn’t what I expected and thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – food and drink are not things to be frivolously wasted in a place like the Congo.

The girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were asked to be husbands and on several occasions I was requested to take part in a “pich” (I eventually figured out they meant ‘pic’)… Most of which have been lost as whoever did the honours didn’t know how to operate my camera. But these young ladies were chirpy, sassy and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne.

Nevertheless, the orphan day out and the DRC trip in general brought home that old adage that’s so easy to forget – Be grateful for what you have. It’s yawn-inducing to read or hear but when you go overseas to a place like the Congo, boy do you remember and recognise its truth. Being a First Worlder isn’t all fun and games either, as we all know – commuting to work and sitting in an office all day isn’t most people’s cup of tea either, but at the end of the day, when you’ve done your sitting and you’ve caught that crowded Metro carriage back to suburbia, you’ve got your own nice neat home with nice neat stuff and plenty of food and clean water and heaters and soft beds and Medicare and the option to go to a restaurant or a movie or the beach or pretty much whatever the hell you feel like. Right? Spare a thought for how awesome that is coz speaking for myself, right now, as I’m finally getting over my sickness and can feel my energy returning, I could pretty much make myself high just reflecting on how lucky I am to be in this world-class city with all this stuff and all these opportunities just waiting for me, without ever having to worry about whether the essentials will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yep – it was an adventure. It was a lesson. It was a workout. Like all travel, well worth doing and an excellent reset button for one’s perspective on the world at large…. as well as appreciation of the precious little world you get to call your own.

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