More news from faraway friend in a strange land

Feb. 18, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Several people in Davis responded to the "Printed Matter" column of Dec. 24, 1995, in which I described the difficulties being faced by an adventurous friend who moved to Zaire nearly a year ago. I described the hard time she was having adjusting from a privileged university town in Northern California to an impoverished African city.

I offered readers the opportunity to contact my friend, whose name I did not, at her request, make public. She feared retribution from the Zairian government. Now she and I would like to thank all those who responded. She was thrilled to receive towels, candy, pencils, vitamins, Band-Aids, candles, hydrocortisone, tooth brushes, crayons and muffin mixes, all of which were distributed to needy friends. In turn, she sent some African handicrafts back here, some of which are for sale at Afrika Adorned on G St.

In January, she wrote a letter (on stationery beautifully illustrated in watercolors by a Zairian friend) describing a new year that started off badly.

"Accidents here tend to happen frequently and to have massively devastating effects due to the concentration of the population. First, an overloaded manioc or tapioca root truck with numerous people sitting on top blew a tire and rolled, killing 60 passengers and passersby. Then an overloaded cargo plane took off from the airport and immediately crashed into the largest outdoor market, killing more than 350 and seriously injuring 100 more. Then a boat struck a rock and sank killing another 60 or more. To put it briefly, the conditions here are truly horrible for these people.

"And although anything helps out, it's a drop in the ocean," she wrote. "These people really have to repair their country themselves rather than having outsiders apply Band-Aid measures. The stamina of the long-time expatriate residents here must be enormous. But they also put up barriers between themselves and the Zairians, barriers that at first might look like coldness and insensitivity, but are simply the mechanisms of survival. A sad truth."

My friend would like to be Robin Hood. "I'm a soft touch," she describes herself. "I tend to be high-strung and distracted by many concerns," she adds.

She was rebuked several times for mixing too freely with Zairians but found her curiosity and sincere desire to help too powerful to ignore. "I've given away well over half of what I brought here," she admitted.

"I was not prepared for the onrush of desperate, miserable people seeking employment from me," she said. "I've already hired a gardener, a former French teacher, that I don't need but he will be feeding a large extended family from my $40 per month. And I have a housekeeper.

"Food prices are five times higher than in the United States. Just finding a store is impossible without inside knowledge. In one tiny grocer y I found eight employees hovering around trying to help me with my paltry purchases."

Any demonstration of respect toward a Zairian elicits a warm, friendly response. She has found the people to be good-natured and to work extremely hard when they have one of the few precious jobs available in the country.

She also became friends with a particular native couple and was able to help them get started in business. The man had been a security guard who worked daily 12-hour shifts for a monthly salary of $40. She was able to front them enough money to start a small soap business. They set up a tiny store on a dirt road and are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. They are doing very well by Zairian standards. The store has an iron front door to shut at night, a metal roof and no electricity. As business picks up, they'll add shelves.

But this relative success story is the exception. My friend is being worn down by the grinding poverty that surrounds her. And a difficult work schedule is taking its toll.

"I don't have it in me to build up the mechanisms necessary for survival," she said. "Zaire would simply destroy me if I stayed. One year is enough."

So in June she will be coming home, although not to Davis. She'll visit family and friends on the East Coast and attend a conference aimed at placing Americans in overseas jobs. She's eager for a new assignment...anywhere but Zaire.

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Genre Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market