Life in Beni

I have been in Beni for a week now. By describing the first few days of my stay in Beni, I thought that I might be able to give an idea of what life is like here.

Pano from Bethel

I live in the Bethel House that is a guesthouse for visiting international staff of UCBC. The picture above is the view from the second floor veranda. The house is cared for by Mama Noelle and Mama Georgette. They are my Congolese Mamas and are wonderful ladies! We hire them to cook for us because there are no stoves or fridges. Everyday they go to the market and get fresh food and cook meals on charcoal stoves. We eat a lot of potatos, plantains, cabbage, red beans, beef, and goat meat. On occasion we have chicken and fish. The tropical fruit here is fantastic and is much better than the stuff we import back home. There are always fresh avocados, pineapples, bananas, mangos, and passion fruit! I find that I eat heavier foods here, but at least it’s all natural.

Beni does not have a city power grid. The few places that have electricity purchase it from businesses that run diesal generators. The hydro poles are extremely half hazard and it is no wonder that there are often power problems. At Bethel house we get power from 6:30pm to 10pm. This means that I have to get into the habit of plugging in my electronics to charge during this time! When I work on the computer I always have my screen brightness on the lowest setting to make the battery last as long as possible. Internet here is entirely through mobile companies. It is expensive and so I have to be careful to do as much work as I can offline. That is difficult though when my work involves online research!

The day after I arrived I joined activities of the GIS group because they were doing their first practical component of the training they had received in ArcGIS and two other data collection applications. It was fantastic for me to jump right in because I was able to see what data collection is like in this context and how it might influence the design of the mapping framework. The group was eight current and former UCBC students who were split up into partners that were each collecting locations and names of amenities in a single quarter. I joined the team that was scouting out hospitals, medical centers, clinics, and pharacies. At most places that we stopped at, we would be offered a seat while we explained what we were doing. Offering a seat and being welcoming to strangers is very much a part of Congolese culture. At one point in the day it started to pour and so we ran to a nearby house and were offered a seat while we waited for the rain to pass. The group went out the next day as well to finish the last quarter of the commune. That time I joined the team who were locating schools. The following day the group met at UCBC to begin analysing the data they had collected. There was only one or two computers with ArcGIS and so I provided them with QGIS. This coming week I will probably lead a few training sessions to teach QGIS, JOSM, and Field Papers. It has already been a full week!

On Saturday I went with Lauren and Jessica into town. Jessica has been a staff at UCBC for a year now and so she introduced us to the various shops along the main road and the large market. It is possible to find all sorts of things at the market. It is made up of rows upon rows of tightly packed stalls. There is a large food section, household wares, random trinkets, and fabric. The fabric section is fun to see. The Congolese are very fashionable and try to look their best. A typical Congolese dress is a matching top and skirt made out of brightly patterned fabric. The shirts are fitted and the skirts are narrow and long but often flare out at the bottom. I wasn’t planning on buying anything but came across a beautiful blue and gold patterned fabric. I will probably get a Congolese style dress made while I am here.

On Sunday I went to a Swahili service at the UCBC church. There is also an English and a French service, but it was fun to experience the Swahili one. Although I didn’t get much from the message, I pulled out my Swahili dictionary and looked up words that I heard the preacher say. Since I took two months of Swahili lessons when I was in Kampala two years ago, the Swahili is coming pretty fast. We’ll see how much I can learn in three months! The church building is still under construction . I say “still” because it was under construction when I was here two years ago. The work is slow because they build as the money becomes available. They are working from the top down; the two towers are done!

Beni architecture is something to comment on. It is typical here that anyone who has wealth builds houses that are far to big, but that still aren’t built to a great level of quality. It makes me cringe. There is a disparity between the scattering of large houses and the more common small wood and mud huts. If I designed a house here it would be small but well made. There is great potential for craftsmanship here since everything is made from local materials.

So hopefully this gives you a picture of Beni! I hope I will have more photos soon as I jump into life here.

– Lise

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