Reflections on path chosen by an absent friend

Dec. 24, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

I'm planning a holiday dinner and I'm obsessing over the menu. Should I serve turkey, shrimp or ham? All three? Should I make Christmas cookies or buy them? Should I buy fresh flowers for the table or make a holiday centerpiece?

And then I stop thinking about the dinner and wonder how my friend in Zaire is doing. She left Davis last summer and will be gone for two years. Her adjustment from this wealthy, sheltered university town to an impoverished African city has not been easy. "I continue to be shocked and deeply concerned by the conditions in this country," she wrote recently.

"Zaire has 90 percent unemployment," she said. "Every working person has an average of 12 people dependent on him or her and in many cases these are not children, but members of an extended family. There is no Social Security or welfare. If one does not have a job or a person to help, one starves. The need is so tremendous that it's overwhelming. For this reason, many foreigners leave. They are adequately paid but after their work is done they leave. Newcomers are advised to select one or two families to assist while they live in Zaire. Some elect not to assist anyone. Zairian employees provide cheap labor, working for $5 a day, and are often treated as inferiors. I have found the Zairian people to be cheerful, kind and helpful friends," she added.

My friend asked that her name not be used, fearing retribution from the Zairian government, which does not welcome criticism.

"The roads to the interior of the country, where food is grown, are virtually impassable for lack of repair. In the city, most Zairians live 12 to a tiny room in concrete apartments without bathrooms, kitchens or running water.

"A Zairian cannot mail a letter because the postal service will take the stamp and burn the letter for fuel, which is scarce," she added.

Zaire has rich mineral wealth with diamonds, copper and cobalt in the interior along with all the botanical and medicinal wealth found in the rain forest but it is nearly impossible to transport this to Kinshasa, the capital, where it could be shipped to foreign destinations. The reason again is the poorly maintained road system. Most vegetables have to be imported from South Africa and are far too expensive for the average worker to buy.

The 10 percent employed in Zaire make an average of $25 to $40 a month and pay $15 in rent. Most subsist on a diet of tapioca root, pounded into a powder, leeched of its poisons and made into a paste. The life expectancy is pitiful. Most children die of diarrhea from contaminated water.

"I would welcome any correspondence from Davis residents and would appreciate suggestions of ways to assist Zairians," she added.

In the interim, any donation of supplies would be valued. Items must be small as mail privileges are minimal. But vitamins, tooth brushes, old pairs of glasses, Band-Aids, ibuprofen and aspirin and other small items would be of inestimable value to these people. Students, for instance, are required to pay for their schooling and must provide their own pencils, pens and pads of paper, all of which are expensive and in short supply. Should anyone in Davis be moved to send something, towels make good padding and the average towel in Zaire costs $20.

"I've visited many countries and this is the worst poverty I've ever seen," she added. I had fun this year buying holiday gifts for family and friends. Presents were wrapped and boxes were mailed to faraway places. But I was happiest when I sent my friend a box of old clothes and a box of inexpensive but valuable items ranging from candles to soup, candy to crayons.

If any Davis resident would like to join me in making a contribution or would like to send a note to my friend, please drop off gifts or messages at The Davis Enterprise or e-mail me directly at

And to all near and far, a very, very Merry Christmas.

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