A Teacher's Life in Goma

Thursday, July 22, 2004 | Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo

My classroom, full to the brim, during one of many boisterous moments
Today we met Musengo's year-old daughter, Odile, named after Edouard's wife. Musengo picked Lisa and I up from l'Ecole des Volcans—the school where we are teaching an informal English class to local kids each morning while in Goma—to take us back to his house, a two-room abode beside a wide field of lava rock. When we entered, little Odile was wobbling, but upright, clutching against a coffee table leg for support. She smiled at her father's voice, and thought nothing of these extra feet and legs that shuffled into her world.

When her father picked her up, however, and she came eye-to-eye with the first white people she had ever seen, her eyes widened and stayed transfixed in frozen shock. Musengo spoke to her in Swahili, in a high voice to soothe her, before taking her hand and reaching it toward me. She cringed and squirmed backward, evidently terrified of touching the pale skin of my outstretched hand. "Don't you remember when I showed you the muzungu on TV?" Musengo asked her playfully, and laughed.

It feels like "muzungu"—Swahili for "white person"—is all anyone has called me in weeks.

When they see me in the streets, local kids just shout it at me, similar to the way American kids blurt "lion!" upon seeing one in a zoo. Nobody ever expects that the lion might understand, much less react. And indeed, the Congolese kids always seem at a loss for words once they do succeed in getting my attention.

* * *

Several days ago, I rose early in the morning, and before my usual dip in the chilly lake to wake up, I decided to go for a run. The air was cool, as always, as I set off westward along the road that hugs Lake Kivu's north shore. My blond hair earns me plenty of stares around Goma already, and jogging only augmented pedestrians' bewildered fascination as I trotted past. Several paused to smile, wave, and offer a heartening "Courage!"

After a mile or so, I reached the famed "palace" of longtime Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The rambling series of low-slung buildings—painted in garish yellow and adorned with tacky images of lions, giraffes, and other animals—was the ruler's lake-side vacation spot during his infrequent trips to Goma and North Kivu province. It looks like what it is—a palace designed by a little boy.

I chugged my way back toward the Stella, passing Himbi beach en route. In the absence of plumbing, this trash-strewn field of rough lava rocks descending to the lake provides cooking and cleaning water for the residents of eastern Goma. Women and young children trudge in a continuous stream to the water's edge, where they stoop to wash themselves or their clothes, and fill large plastic jugs with water, before trudging uphill through the dusty streets to home.

* * *

On our first day teaching, Lisa and I had fewer than ten students in our class—essentially just the children of MHI's workers, who had heard that we were in town. By now, almost two weeks later, their numbers have exploded. Lisa takes the younger children, and I the secondary-school-aged ones, and both our classrooms now overflow. Kids stand for hours at the windows, leaning in and participating with the same boisterous fervor as those doubled up on the chairs inside. In just two short weeks, teaching has given me a whole new respect for my own professors. I have also learned that English is an incredibly frustrating, inexplicably convoluted language which I am lucky to know already; I pity anyone who has to stumble through it in a classroom. Explaining English idioms and phrasing in French is an arduous process that leaves me exhausted after every day's class, while all my students just want more.

When Lisa and I are not teaching at the Ecole, we give basic lessons to a number of the men who work at MHI's comptoir (the company headquarters in Goma). The workers, though not as quick as their children, are certainly more studious, and work diligently to memorize English greetings, days of the week, and other basic vocabulary. When they break for class each afternoon, some of their colleagues continue working, sitting in the small warehouse sifting iron and other impurities from the coltan, or weighing and packaging the minerals.

One veteran worker is a legend around the comptoir. When I was first introduced to the gentle old man with finely wrinkled skin and a toothless grin, the other workers called him "Cow-hosh"—or at least that's what I thought they said. Later, however, I pieced together what they were actually calling him—KOH. Pronounced Kah-Oh-Ash in French, the nickname referred to the potassium hydroxide used in the mineral refining process. KOH earned his nickname through his habit of casually dipping a finger into the highly corrosive solution in order to mix it.

To date, KOH had yet to show any negative side effects from his toxic habit. On the contrary, at the age of 71, he is very old by local standards, and apparently still quite robust. Earlier this week we visited his home for dinner, and met his four wives and 23 children, including the youngest, still just a newborn.

1 comment:

Andrew Farrand said...

Browsing online today, I happened across a New York Times article on Lake Kivu that came out when I was away in Morocco. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/06/world/africa/06kivu.html

Among other dangers, it discusses the lake's deadly gas deposits (which I remember hearing about frequently during my time in Goma, though that didn't keep us from swimming every day). Lake Kivu also apparently has a higher incidence of lightning strikes than anywhere else on the planet!

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