Dangerous assumptions

Yesterday a woman died on the D.C. Metro.  I have no idea who she was, or where she was going, but she was certainly just minding her own business on her way somewhere (or from somewhere) when the Metro car she was riding in filled with smoke and, ultimately, she lost her life.

As everyone knows, last week 12 people were sitting in their office, writing stories, drawing cartoons and, again, minding their own business, when terrorists charged into their offices and summarily executed them in Paris.  The next day four people were murdered while they went grocery shopping in Paris by another extremist terrorist.

Today people will die in car accidents in D.C., they will be shot in D.C., they will be mugged, robbed, or raped in D.C.

Yet, I’m pretty sure if I told everyone we were moving to Paris with the State Department no one would say “Aren’t you worried about the danger?”  And I know no one said that to me when we moved to Washington.  So why is everyone so worried about us moving to the D.R.C.?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% sure people will die in Kinshasa today as well, but the point is what is the difference?

I’ve been pondering this question as I do more in preparation for our move, and as I hear the terrible news both far away and close to home.  It strikes me as an odd juxtaposition against the slightly askance look I get from people when I talk about moving to DRC and one of their first questions is always about whether we are worried about the danger there.   The Congo is, to be sure, a place with a violent history, with political unrest, guerrilla groups and millions of poor and unemployed who make many areas dangerous by their sheer desperation. Statistically it is more dangerous than D.C. or Paris.  But statistics mean very little unless you look at them with a critical eye.

When I was much younger and afraid of flying my grandfather once told me that more people in the world die from being kicked by donkeys than die in plane crashes.  I’ve never checked on that statistic, and it turns out it may have been made up by an “expert,” but even if the donkey statistic is true, does it matter to me? I’m sure lots of people in un- and under- developed countries have donkeys.  However, I do not, on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis come in contact with donkeys (I can think of three donkeys I’ve come in contact with in my lifetime – none of them even kicked me, let alone tried to kill me). I do get on planes though, pretty often.  So, am I more likely to die by getting kicked by a donkey than in a plane crash? No, clearly not.

donkey

Which leads me back to the dangers of the DRC.  If we were going to live in the city proper on our own without any of the support we will have, I’ll admit it would be crazeeeee.  But we’ll have 24 hour security when we live there.  We’ll be traveling on diplomatic passports and driving cars with diplomatic plates.  We will know the places to be avoided – and will be required by the Embassy to avoid those places.  We will live in the most affluent part of the city – full of other affluent people and, no doubt, policed significantly more than anywhere else.  And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll be aware.  Aware of our surroundings, aware of who, what and where to look out for, and aware of how to get out of those places and circumstances as quickly and effectively as possible.

How will know how to do all of this? We get to take FACT training.  That’s “Foreign Affairs Counter Threat” training to you and “Crash Bang” to everyone in the Foreign Service.  We’ll learn skills to better prepare us “for living and working in critical and high threat environments overseas.”  B has to take this course, and it is “highly recommended” that I take it too.  And I will, in FACT, be taking it.   FACT training teaches emergency medical care, improvised explosive device (IED)
awareness, firearms familiarization, and how to perform defensive/counterterrorist driving maneuvers, among other things.

defensive driving

No one gave me any training to move to D.C. even though, statistically, I’m sure it is more dangerous than Charlotte.  So this is why I’m not freaked out about the “dangers” of Kinshasa. I know our friends and family who ask about the danger are only worried about us, and I love them for that, but we will be aware of our surroundings, we’ll wear sunscreen, we’ll avoid snakes, guerrillas and, I promise, donkeys.

The Heart of Darkness

Admit it. Heart of Darkness is what first comes to mind when you think about the Congo.  It is the first thing many people say to me when I tell them that we are moving to Congo in July.  “Yikes,” they say. “The Heart of Darkness.”

Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and, while some things may not have changed (the Congo is still “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”), we are not moving to the Congo of Conrad’s time, any more than D.C. is similar to its former self, or, if you moved to Charlotte you’d find a city of 7,084 people that looked like this:

Charlotte 1899

To be sure, Kinshasa is also not a first world metropolitan city, but it may not be what most people are expecting when we tell them where we are going either.  Obviously even I was not very well informed when we first learned we were going to DRC – I called it “West Africa  (home of war torn strife and ebola).”

So, first, it’s not West Africa – it’s actually Central Africa.  Second, while ebola the disease got its name from Ebola the river, which is a tributary of the Congo River and is located in the DRC, it turns out that the disease actually began miles from the Ebola River, and, in the current outbreak that dominates the news, no cases of the disease have been identified in DRC.  There have been plenty of prior outbreaks in the DRC, but most were in rural areas and, from what we’ve read, the population understands Ebola better than in many other African countries and treats preventative measures seriously.  As of today this is what the ebola outbreak looks like in Africa:

no ebola

Our new home is approximately 7 hours – by plane – from this area.  Don’t worry, a trip to Liberia is not on our “Bucket List for Africa.”

What is on the bucket list? We’re not sure yet.  But there are a lot of options.  There is even an entire blog with a list (or several) of things to do in DRC and Kinshasa.  We’ll take our time getting adjusted, but we’ll also enjoy our time in Congo – that’s part of the point of this adventure, right?

When I have travelled in the past, I have always been sad that I couldn’t really immerse myself in any culture in a week, or two, or even three.  But now I have two years.  Two years to learn more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo than I ever thought I’d know. It’s crazy, but exciting.

One other thing I’ve learned in the last few weeks is that we won’t be taking any “weekend” trips to other places in Africa (beyond Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, which is right across the Congo River from Kinshasa).  I knew Africa was big, but the sheer enormity of this continent is a little mind boggling.

real-size-of-africa

Crazy, eh? If you take out China and Japan you can add Canada to the list to the left instead (at 9.985 km squared).  That means that the entirety of North America fits into Africa, along with a good portion of Europe, as well as India and several other countries.

My parents want to meet us in Cape Town – it’s an eight hour flight.  Farther than flying from D.C. to London.  Farther than flying from D.C. to Denver AND back.   Our friends J and B are moving to Agadir, Morocco.  To visit them it would be a 10 hour flight – I could go to L.A. and back from D.C. in the same amount of time.  And that doesn’t take into account the fact that there is no such thing as a flight from Kinshasa to Agadir.  To fly there we would have to fly from Kinshasa to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (yes, for those who are familiar with a map of Africa that is on the other side of the continent from Kinshasa and Morocco), then to Cairo, then to Casablanca and then to Agadir.  That is the fastest way – it would take over 24 hours of traveling.

One of my friends wondered if we could drive instead.  It’s impossible to say – since there are no passable roads that stretch between Kinshasa and Agadir.  Of course, even if there were it would be literally days of driving.  Given this image though it may be worth it…

Agadir

The bottom line is that I’m really hoping we get to explore other places in Africa while we’re there on this tour, but I’m definitely learning that I need to manage my expectations.  Still, while the world is a big place, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?