Friday, December 12, 2008

Infantalism and the Congolese Condition

Nothing is worse than being a whitey project manager and worrying about money. Your staff doesn’t ever think about money, except when they want some, but you are are always expected to have some.

Lots of it. Of course you have food to spare, and money, and cigarettes and gas! Everyone asks. And when you say “No,” the inevitable reply is “Why?”

Why indeed? I recall my time in Goma as being especially cheap -- I think I lived for 3 months on $700. But I wasn’t paying salaries with the same money I used to live on, and I had no gas costs (which seem to be particularly expensive).

What seems amazing is that we can employ 8 people and pay their salaries, feed them AND five chimps daily for $800 a month.

So why do other things seem to cost so much money?

Aside from money, the frustrating aspect is that I’m not only looked to for management, but like a father/mother. Because I pay their salaries I must also want to care for them completely and for all of their children.

Things that would be unheard of in the US are completely expected here. When Olivier and Seba moved house, I had to pay for wash basins and lamps for them. When their flashlights die, we’re expected to buy new ones.

There is no insurance, but when an employee is sick, we are expected to pay for their medicine and hospital bills.

Frustratingly though, today, Papy, our former security guard at the sanctuary and newest chimpanzee guardian came by to tell me that his son was gravely ill. I asked him to talk to Polycarpe (mostly because he doesn’t speak a lick of French).

He was hoping/expecting that we would pay his son’s hospital bills. And this is, of course, his second day in his new position. Oh, and on his way around to the back of the house, he said, bluntly, “Adamu! Cigarette!”

No “please” -- no “s’il vous plait” and to me it just embodies this generalized HandOut culture here. Of course it isn’t a blanket statement applying to all Congolese, but for the most part, the Belgians left here a sense of infantalism that seems to still be pervasive today, 50 years after the Belgians left.

I told Papy that he did indeed earn a good salary, and that if I pay for every thing that comes up in his life, what in the world is his salary for?

(I should mention to that, in addition to a salary, each employee receives money for food daily, so salary isn’t going to food.)

I’d eliminated the advance policy previously in place here, mostly because I can’t imagine another scenario where people get money for work they haven’t yet done. Even so, the first pay period I instituted I was asked for an advance by a certain employee, pleading the need to “send money to his family.” Of course, the next day when salaries were doled out, he went out and bought new pants and new shoes.

Anyway, I digress. I told Papy he could have an advance to help his son, and that I was very sorry, and he gave me this very sour look. I will mention too, that in the time it took me to get money changed from dollars to francs, he just sat in our house, not visiting his son in the hospital or going back to work, but just hanging out.

He got his advance, but he gave me this incredibly sour look that I wasn’t just vomiting money up for whatever cause he desired. Even worse, one of our other employees started giving me a bad attitude, shooting me accusing looks.

Yet I maintain that I am in the right -- and what’s worse, my normal stance in situations like this is to try and not take things to heart and too seriously, and to try and smile and relax and just do what I can. Even if I paid Papy’s son’s doctor a million dollars, it wouldn’t make his son any less sick.

While trying to relax in the yard though and let Detective Munch run around in the grass and chase the chickens, though, I felt judged for smiling and relaxing. Why was I not serious!? It’s a problem I’ve felt here before, and I feel this pressure to be serious and dire all the time might just kill me! (or make me prematurely white-haired).

I think it should be telling enough that in Lingala, there seems to be no word for “funny.” There are SO many scenarios here that are just laughably ridiculous, and there is a word for “sadness”, and a word for “hardship”, but no word for “funny”!!?!

All one needs to see is Adam, stopping through the yard in flip flops, hollering at the goats and chasing them out of garden where they are eating all of our herbs and poondoo, and one would know right away that there needs to be a word for funny.

They did plague me for a good part of today, the parts of me that needed a mental health break and the parts of me that wanted to be reverent in times of “crisis” before I realized that, in the last nearly 3 months here, there seems to be a constant state of Potential-Crisis-Possible-Frenzy and that, were I to pull a hair out every time things got a little crazy here, I’d be bald already!

I worked really hard this week -- in fact, many fewer blog entries since I used all of my computer battery power to work on my literature review and my modified permissions for my research -- and I deserved a little respite, dammit!

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