Making a Start - Part 2
This post is part 2 of the article called Making a Start. Here I continue chronicling the adventures of my first Computers for Congo trip in December 2017, and today we pick things back up on day 3 of the trip - Saturday. The plan for the day was to travel to the new Computer Training Centre in Kinshasa - the capital of DR Congo, being opened by the men I met the day before as described in part 1. The following is taken directly from my trip journal…
"I woke this morning at 6:30am to a breakfast prepared for me by my host Delice, who had gotten everything ready just for me after she had already fed, dressed and organised 5 kids (all under 12)! I was starting to think SuperMum was a more adequate name for Delice, as she seemed completely unphased by the chaos of 5 children, which I think was due in part to the fact that she was content with grooming and housekeeping standards much lower than what we expect here in Australia.
One thing I was beginning to notice on this trip was the irony (or even myth?) of comfort. We perceive comfort to be that zone which we can’t live below without creating frustration, discomfort and inconvenience. But this comfort is relative, because our current lifestyle sets the point at which our standards are set – should our lifestyle change, we then think that our new normal is the appropriate level for comfort. I thought that my standard of living was around middle of the pack, but it turns out it was actually so high, it was beyond funny! So whilst it felt like the conditions I was experiencing were rock-bottom, when seen in the light of global reality, I realised just how good I had things at home in Australia, and what I was seeing now was the true middle of the range… I just had to get used to them!
We started out and drove through the usual busyness, which never slows down, even on a Saturday. After about an hour we came into a section of town that even Delice hadn't been to before. Therefore, every 100 metres we pulled over and asked a local for direction to the location of the Computer Centre. Most people's attention had to be called for multiple times before they would even ackowledge and look at you.When they did, they would keep walking and nonchalantly yell something at you, point in some direction and walk off. Sometimes if we asked a group of people who were sitting down, they would give a more detailed explanation. We continued in this fashion for some time until we started to do many U-turns and blockies, which made it evident that while we were close, we couldn't quite find the exact location. The roads were also starting to get treacherous and unless you had a 4WD (which we didn't), it was nearly impossible to get anywhere at a speed faster than a crawl. Every twenty metres the car would bottom out in a ditch or almost get bogged in sand. The roads had gone from bitumen to packed earth to loose sand. It was hard to imagine what it would have been like after a heavy rainfall. I'm certain it would have been impossible for our Nissan sedan.
Another reality which was beginning to stand out was the independence of Congolese children. As we drove around, it was hard to tell if a child was an orphan or not because children aged five and older were simply roaming the streets. Many of them walked with purpose, carrying goods, performing tasks and moving in and out of traffic with confidence. I was noticing that this was part of the African culture because even Delice would often have the kids just roaming and running and playing around the house whilst she sat with me at a meal, without showing any signs of worry as to their safety or whereabouts. I asked her who managed the finances of her husband Dr. Luc's organisation (M.H.C.D - an NGO with 50 staff) and she said she did. When I asked her if it was stressful, she replied it was extremely stressful, however she failed to show it. There were times when she needed to write a report or do some paperwork for a few hours, and she did this in between bathing, feeding, organising her household, and cooking for me! She spent a large amount of time with the kids, but never stressed about things being perfect all the time. The kids would sometimes run up and cling to her, wanting to sit on her lap, pull apart a teabag, pour its contents into a cup and then fill it with water and stir it for ten minutes while we talked and ate. The freedom endowed to children there, whilst not neglect, creates a different kind of child than what we're used to, those who are more independent at an earlier age, whether that be for better or worse. Often with no toys (as was pretty much the case in Delice's house) and roaming around in seeming boredom, although there was some TV when electricity was available, these children are a world away from what we would consider normal.
So as we were driving around, all of a sudden, Patrick (one of the men from yesterday) shows up out of nowhere, opens the door and hops in. It seems as though he had been watching for us from a street corner, not far from where the centre was. He directed us for another 3-5 minutes of driving on roads which were more off-road than the actual "off-road"! The locals had put tires in amongst the sand to help stop the erosion so the road was a mixture of mud, sand, concrete and tires. When we pulled over, we got out and walked half a block over to where a group of people had gathered. Prior to the trip, I had purposefully tried to avoid building any pre-conceived ideas about what to expect, so when I came to the steps of a concrete shed, built into the roadside shopfront of a random side laneway, it wasn't all that surprising.
There were about 10 students and half a dozen other people crammed in or crowded outside this "building" when we arrived. The structure was about 2.5 metres wide and 6.5 metres long, with a roof, a front door and side door, and a table in the middle with 12 chairs and the laptops. They had graciously setup a fan and some tissues for the soft white guy, because it was HOT! I don't know how long the students had been waiting for, as we said we'd be there at 10am and it was now 12. I had the task of "opening the centre" and kicking off proceedings, whatever that meant. I had my laptop with me so I decided it would be best to stick to my pre-prepared plan. I was introduced to a man called Jean-Paul, who said he was a journalist and was filming the entire thing on his cell phone. He spoke very little English but one of the two teachers who would be running the course spoke a bit of English and his name was Fidele (like Fidel Castro), and he would be my translator for the day. I started by getting Delice to introduce me and where I came from, why I was here and what the goal of this whole thing was. I soon found out that Fidele had been to India to become a software engineer, so I understood straight away that he already knew everything I was going to teach these students. I asked him if there were any areas of teaching he felt lacking in and would like my guidance on. He said he was OK, and if anything came up in the future, he would Google it (on his phone or at an Internet Cafe) - this was my kind of guy!
It became immediately clear that there was no set schedule for today, because when I arrived and got settled, no one said anything, tried to start anything or indicated that they knew what was going on. When I asked Patrick and Blashar (the leaders), they just said for me to do whatever I wanted to do. Great! Activating my innate ability to just make up stuff on the fly, I realised that with all the students here ready to go, I wouldn’t be able to have a meeting with just the teachers. This was not ideal because there was almost no point "starting" their course now in this unorganised manner. I was hoping to have had a teacher’s session so we could go over their content, lesson plan, etc. I would also have liked some time to make sure all the computers were French compatible and working properly. However, because they wanted to use my presence as a bit of "prestige and legitimacy" in opening or christening the operation, that's what we did. This would be a trend which continued throughout my entire trip, with no planning, purpose or clear communication evident. Therefore, things had to be done spontaneously without getting uptight about the situation, and I just had to roll with it.
I found out that some of the students had never used a computer before, so it was a steep learning curve for them as I went through my structure of basic computer literacy (normally taught over multiple weeks). I would briefly explain the desired concept to Fidele in English and he would then explain the process to the students in Lingala, and because he knew all the concepts anyway, it worked well. This went on for some time, with people learning how to click and control the mouse for the first time. We eventually wrapped things up after several hours in the sweltering, muggy heat. Everyone clapped for me, which I didn't like but I understood that my visit was important to the guys who had opened the centre. The students may not fully appreciate it yet but they will eventually. Like all young people around the world, they just tried to act cool and not treat anything as too important! So after some photos in the backyard and exchanging details with Fidele, we went on our way.
This experience was recorded on the 2nd of December whilst on the annual Computers for Congo trip and helps to give an idea of the current climate of culture and lifestyle in DRC. More articles like this will be released each week on the Computers for Congo website found at: www.computersforcongo.com.
Written by Tom Cecil - Founder of Computers for Congo.