Archive for January, 2011

25
Jan
11

jefferson mok in the congo

One of our beneficiaries in the Congo was pregnant and decided the best way to show her gratitude for our help was to name her child after one of us: if it was a boy, he would be Jefferson Mok, if a girl, Molly Firkaly, my colleague. First name, last name – the whole deal, there was no family name to pass on. Well, guess what? It’s a boy!

Jefferson Mok with Jefferson Mok - the Original meets the New.

I even have the birth certificate to prove it – just no scanner to scan it. Some expats have a child in the Congo; probably a lot fewer are a child in the Congo.

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16
Jan
11

2011

Hey, new year, new commitment to posting more regularly. Lots to do. Maybe I’ll talk about my weekly radio show next? Or my winter holidays on the Trans-Mongolian, followed by a ski trip in South Korea and afternoon tea in Hong Kong? Grand.

16
Jan
11

border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.

“TURN AROUND!!! YOU ARE NOT ENTERING THE COUNTRY! YOU WILL TURN AROUND AND LEAVE RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!!!”

But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME BACK! WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE COUNTRY?”

What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.

Officially.