two weeks in the congo

Reflections from my recent trip to the DRC to start a new Lifewater project. 

My time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo reminded me of Benin, of a time in life when I spent my summers in a small village in the bush doing water research and living a rather simple life. The places themselves were quite different, as was my work, and my companions. But, at its core, there was something so oddly and wonderfully familiar, something that made me smile over and over again.

congo flower

congo soccer

Maybe it had something to do with pulling my very rough, very ‘bush’ French out of the drawer it had been stored in. Or maybe it was the sounds of the bush at night that were louder than any sound maker you would put in your room. Or maybe it was food that was new, but the spices familiar. Or maybe it was the people, a character about them that brought to mind old conversations. Or maybe it was the red dirt roads lacking motorized vehicle traffic. Or maybe it was the cloth that was full of colors. Or maybe it was bathing out of a bucket (though, sadly, not under the stars). Whatever it was, it was familiar.

congo sunset

congo fabric

This was a wonderful trip of beginning new and exciting work in a new place that had a little taste of home. Stay tuned in the months to come to hear more about this program. We are designing rain tanks and latrines for primary schools that have neither, and we will have to build a classroom for the rain tanks because the wood and mud rooms with thatch roofs that currently exist will not work. It is so exciting to be working in a new place, one where people are eager to join hands to solve their own problems. A place that is remote enough that you do not see other NGOs. It demands imagination and persistence, and those are available to us. One step at a time, we will work together and change the WASH situation and change the health of the children in this place that is new but feels so familiar to me.

congo school

congo toilet

A little bonus for me: traveling in fun, little planes.

congo plane

remembering life in a village



I am working on putting together some of my favorite photos from the last decade of traveling and living in Africa, which is bringing back a flood of beautiful memories. Some of these take me back to when I was living in a village in Benin doing research every summer. This is a favorite of mine: all of the basins lined up outside of a home – carefully placed in a row and standing at attention. These basins were used to carry water, cook food, do laundry, and to store water or food. In so many ways, they were a central part of life, each one’s shape useful for its task. To me they are reminders of learning how to use each one – how to carry water on my head, to cook over a stove, to pour water into a water jar and shower under the stars. For me these basins hold beautiful memories.

saying goodbye

I believe that a proper “goodbye” is important. It is important because it provides closure. It does not mean that the person or place will be forgotten. It does not reduce the memory. It does not remove longing. It does not mean that you will never see that person again. Rather it honors that person, that place—the relationship. It means that those times were worthy of saying goodbye to as we feel no need to say goodbye to the unimportant things in life—they simply slip into our past.

Today is the age of quick travel from one place to another, seemingly reducing the need to say goodbye. In 24 hours of travel I can make it from West Africa to the Midwest, US of A. We have internet and phones. When I am in the bush I can use a satellite connection to phone or email as needed. It is an age in which I can travel to a country thousands of miles away six times for my doctorate research. No slow ships or trains making that too timely, no state laws or cultural norms preventing me, as a woman, from pursuing graduate degrees. All of this worked together so that over six trips, four of which were summers based in one village, I could fall in love with a land and a people. Not just a people, but certain people.

Today we give business cards and trade email addresses like they are sports cards. You are checking my blog, which instantly allows friends—old and new, and even, possibly, people unknown to me, to check up on my life and travels. This has taken away the old fashioned goodbye. Now we say, “See you later.”

Over the past week I said, “Goodbye,” to a country and people that I love. I said goodbye because these things that seem to make my world so small do not translate to life in the bush. I can hand out piles of business cards, but that does not enable long distance communication. Internet has come to the town where we go to market weekly. Unfortunately, many of the people that I love most do not even make it in to market but a couple times a year. Forget the hurdle of physically manipulating a computer and the internet or finding the money to use such resources—they are hardly ever in town. It would be beautiful to return to the village again in the future, the village where children great white people by yelling, “Pameeeeeela.” It would be beautiful, but it would not be the same.

The twins would be too large to throw into the air as their lungs filled with laughter. Little Felecite would no longer be able to get piggy-back rides (almost too big for that now), and she would be able to out run me. Big Felicite would no longer grab a bucket to join me for my nightly shower. Pascal would no longer run to great me as I walked past his house. New mud houses might have been built, old ones fallen apart. Trees, even the large Baobabs, might have fallen due to old age or insect influxes. Time changes both the land and the people.

Maybe some things would be the same. I could still sit in Martine’s kitchen filling my clothes with the aromas of burning wood. She would still laugh when I suggest such odd combinations as peanut sauce with rice for dinner. Fortune would still be working to get one step further, to educate his children. I would still hear Andre’s deep, booming voice before I could see him. Remi would still take me to see his expansive farms. The women would still use large mortars and pestles to pound yams, and stones to grind peanuts. Morning would still be greeting time. The red dirt road would still be red and the jagged hills magnificent. These are things I imagine and hope would be the same if I were to return in 5 or 10 or 15 years.

But I don’t know if I will go back in 5 or 10 or 15 years. Even if I do, it will be different. Regardless, my relationships in Benin are such that they warranted a proper goodbye—no “see you later.” So I said goodbye. A good, hard goodbye. I cried. It has been good.

parents: a top 5 list

A week with my parents and we were able to explore Benin from the south to the north, from the east to the west. Much could be said about this week, so I have reduced it to a top 5 list. Thanks Mom & Dad for coming!

1 – Meeting the Team
My parent’s first night in Benin was spent relaxing in Cotonou meeting this year’s team (minus CR who had stayed in village). When we entered the section of the hotel where our rooms were I heard several squeals as the girls busted out of their rooms. Even though it made her uncomfortable, RC managed to use my parents first names. Later in the trip mom made the following comment, “I knew it would be wonderful to get to know your village, but I had no idea how wonderful it would be to meet your girls.” Yeah, I love them too. (Picture: the village team.)

2 – Village Life
The morning after they arrived we tackled the visa situation and then headed north to village. During our 45 hrs in village we got to go to market, greet a ton of people, eat my favorite village foods, listen to a big rainstorm early one morning, work with a couple people from another village to finish training on one of the water quality monitoring instruments, go for a walk, deliver gifts, take outdoor showers, get bit by mosquitoes in the latrine, sleep under mosquito nets, and say goodbye. It was packed, but it was perfect. I do not think I could have asked for anything more. (Picture: Me and Dad in front of some of the beautiful rocks & trees near my house in village. Our clothes were made locally with fabric bought at market during previous trips.)

3 – Beautiful Land
Benin is beautiful. As the country is not large, we were able to drive most of the way north and almost east to west as well. I think the most beautiful regions are where I live…the beautiful hills that give the Colline Department its name are fantastic, and at the north (north of Natitingou) where there is a stunning mountain pass. This was my first trip north, so it was exciting to see how the land, villages, and people changed. (Picture 1: Me & mom in front of the lower waterfalls in Tenengou, on the border of one of the national parks in the north. Picture 2: Mom & Dad relaxing.)

4 – Rich History
We stopped in Abomey, the ‘capital’ of the Fon people, which was the largest Kingdom in old Benin, where we toured the palace. Benin’s original name was Dahomey, after this kingdom. In the south we spent some time in Ouidah where we saw a Portugese slave trader’s home and did a tour of the slave route. In the US of A the history books seem to start on the slave boats, but the story began long before that with a rather dehumanizing process that occurred along the slave route. For me, these pieces of history are important as it creates a framework for both history and the modern culture. (Picture: Monument at the ‘Point of No Return” where the slaves boarded the ships for the Americas.)

5 – Cassa del Papa

The second to last night was spent at a nice, European / American style hotel. Only 7km from Ouidah, the hotel was located on the beach, had several pools, various other forms of entertainment, hot water, big towels, and great food. It was perfect after nearly a month in Benin for me and a week for my parents. We were able to be lazy around the pools (there is dangerous undertow along the beaches in Benin, so we enjoyed the pools while listening & watching the surf crash), play some speed scrabble, and just relax. Oh…and my first big breakfast in a month was eaten in the morning. It was luxurious. (Picture: View from our balcony of the storm rolling in just before sunset.)

. versus !

As so happens with many things on the French keyboard, the “.” and “!” are not on the same keys as they are on the American keyboard. However, I find it interesting that on the French keyboard you have to press the shift key to access the “.”, but no shift is required for the “!”. I guess people are just more expressive in French!

back to cotonou

A week later and the trip is just about done. I have a few more hours with mom and dad before they leave tonight and then I leave tomorrow night. Since last writing we had several days in village, I said a tearful goodbye to my dear friends there, we travelled most of the way north, then back down again, did a few tours of historical areas, and had a fantastic 24 hrs at a nice beach resort. Over the next day I hope to write a few blogs with pictures to give you a snapshot into all that has transpired during this trip, and will post them as soon as I land myself in the US of A. Thanks all for following me with this last journey through Benin. Much more to come on Friday…

recent silence

I’m sorry if you have been checking the blog and have been disappointed
due to the general lack of substance that has been posted. Life has been
busy and exhausting here. That does not mean not good, just that the
last thing I want to do at the end of any day is sit back and reflect on
all that is going on beyond the processing necessary to prepare for the
next day. So today is Thursday, the day I have designated as the day of
rest this trip, so that is what I am doing.

What does that mean? It means lounging in my pj’s all morning. It means
sitting in Martine’s kitchen talking and playing with the twins. It
means doing laundry. It means listening to the girls sing random songs
from musicals. It might even mean taking a nap this afternoon. Maybe a
long walk before the sun sets. Today it also means a blog update.

Since I have arrived I have met with all organizations involved in my
project, had initial meetings in 4 villages who I started working with
last year, and then met with 3 of those villages for their final
debriefing. In 2 of those villages I closed out the project, something
that I will do in a third tomorrow. This is a task I wish I could avoid,
but with the work done and my PhD near its end, it is unavoidable.
Thankfully, this has been easier than anticipated, though no less

The project is continuing in two villages–one of the four from last
year and the village that it started in, where I live. Due to a new well
being drilled in the other village and a few other individuals leaving
due to jobs in other villages or towns, this is requiring doing a
training like I have done in the past. Trainings are normally 2.5 days
long. As time is limited, the training will take place in 1 day this
Saturday. It is always sweet to watch people as the grasp new concepts
and become scientists with their own little ‘field lab’, so this should
be another good, though hectic day.

On Monday we will head to Cotonou. Tuesday night my parents arrive.
Wednesday I will head north with my parents and everyone else will board
the plane for elsewhere. This trip is flying by.

random conversations

RC: My feet do not get clean until I return to the States.
PC: Do you use your lofa on them when you shower?
RC: Ewww. It touches the rest of my body. Why would I do that?
PC: Because it has soap on it.
LS: It tastes like sweat. (Of oral rehydration salts.)
SR: Good ting I have low rise pants on. ( Due to the effects of dinner
expanding in her stomach after drinking some water…)
Of cheese just boiled, that had previously been sitting on the ‘kitchen’
LS: And then it will go back to being unrefridgerated?
RC: No….then we will get electricity and a fridge.
Describing her junior high crush…..
SR: He was sooo popular… and once he gave me a Milky Way!
While reviewing some data….
PC: I bet you didn’t know you could have a pH of a 100.
LS: What is the difference between ‘por favor’ and ‘s’il vous plait’?
RC: Ummm…..’por favor’ is Spanish?

ode to mosquito coils

Written by ‘my girls.’ To the tune of “God Bless America”

God bless mosquito coils
spirals that we love.
Stay lighted all nighted,
till the sun rises high up above.
From the kitchen
to the bedroom,
protect us from itchy bites.
God bless mosquito coils
Guarding our home sweet home.

market day exhaustion

Sometime you will get to hear more about the joys of market day, but a
morning of work and an afternoon at market means that I am exhausted.

Some days I wish I was like one of the babies here and could fall asleep
on my mother’s back without a care in the world.

Some where someone is already sleeping…

relationships of resistance

Each relationship is unique and expresses itself differently. A few
things seen recently:

-RC reads letters from her man each morning speaking of his love for
her. Her heart has influenced his such that he now wants to visit Africa
with her to know her heart more.
-Martine sitting in the kitchen, one of the twins on her lap, the other
next to her, patiently feeding them though they could easily feed
themselves by now.
-LS knowing that when she calls home from school worried about time to
do the shopping that ‘Mommy will fix it’ by getting some of it done for her.
-A child calmed by resting on his mother’s back as she walks around the
– RC and SR walking back to the house, their body language screaming to
all around that they are sisters at heart and spirit. As LS has joined
the dishes, breakfast, and evening preparations of our village life, I
have confidence it will soon be a threesome as surviving the foreign,
and making it habits created deep bonds.

These are all good, healthy relationships. But, the relationship of
interest today is none of those. Rather, it is a relationship that,
while containing love, is a relationship of resistance. My little
Felicite. Sunday morning, our first full day in village, she would not
come and greet me though all the children were telling her to come. But
then, as she saw us preparing to head to mass, she grabbed a bucket of
water and soap and marched off to the shower (of course ignoring me on
the way). When she arrived at mass in her beautiful dress, she would not
come near by, but sat slightly in front of me so that I could see her.
As we headed out, without a word, I gave her my Bible, a part of our
past routine, to carry home. She would walk beside or in front of me,
but no hand held out like other children to greet or to hold. At home
she gave me my Bible and off she went to change to her play clothes.
Upon returning, she silently joined the crowd on the porch. A little
later I grabbed her and flipped her upside for she is gymnast at heart.
It was then that her serious face broke. And her dimples slowly appeared
as smile crept across her face.

My you experience and revel in a beautiful relationship today.


Being stuck in Cotonou for an extra day provided a surprise holiday with very little that needed to be accoplished. Put four women together in a city with nothing much that has to get done, and the same thing happens here as happens just about any other place: some quality shopping.

One of my favorite places as of late is a little hole in the wall store about a block from where I normally stay in Cotonou. I discovered it by asking about a little road-side stand that had some shirts made out of beautiful fabric. They said there was more and lead me behind the rusted metal gates, behind a building, and suddenly I found myself in a dirt courtyard where they were dying and hand printing their own fabric to make tablecloths, clothing, scarves, or whatever else you could dream up. No longer confined by the small offerings of a road-side store, I have been able to pick through their color and stamp samples to get what I want. So, a few weeks from now when we return to Cotonou my order will be waiting for me. In case you are not sold on this place, the boss, LS, RC, and SR will all have orders waiting for them as well. Maybe I will post a picture of the beauty when we get it all so that you can share in it.

Then we were off to the ‘Centre des Artisans’ to explore for a short while. Next to the fabric I buy in the market, this is where I do most of my barganning, and today was no exception. I found a necklase at a store that I return to every year… the owner and I have become friends of sorts over the years as we have talked over many a price of various items. Today it was a necklace I mostly liked….but I did not want the bronze pendant, wanted it a bit shorter, and a different clasp. We struck a deal, half the money is down, and I shall be back in June to pick it up. No wonder I often get frustrated jewlery shopping in the US of A. Then, being that it is LS’s second day in Benin, I gladly helped her get a reasonable price on a small, quilted map of Africa.

It is a beautiful thing that I can argue over the price of an item, its design, its utility, and then the price of the item again, and, through this process, gain respect for and respect of the shop owner. And then I insult no-one, but actually add to that respect and subseauent relationship as I repeat the process time and again with the same people.

Ponder this thought the next time you consider using the self-checkout lane at the superstores in town.