Men’s ribs

Kinshasa, 2013. It is a day like many. I leave work a bit late. I see few Congolese colleagues waiting for someone to pick them up. I stop by with my car and offer a lift in my direction and a colleague took advantage of the offer: lady, mother of 4, very nice and well respected by all colleagues.
The ride was short, less than 10 minutes. In those ten minutes, after a quick small talk, my colleague asks me point-blank : “Are you saved?”. The question was not really connected with the preceding sentences.
I think for a second. Trying not to offend the sensitivity of my colleague I start: “You know, in Italy we all grow in a context permeated by a very religious culture…”. “Oh, yes, in Italy there is the Pope!” she responds with an outburst of excitement. “Yes, every Sunday he preaches in St. Peter’s Square overlooking the mass of the faithful from his balcony. He is shown on TV” I say. ” Oooh : have you ever been there? “. Moment of silence . “Well, not really. You know, the Vatican is not really close to where I live…” . I can hear her thoughts even before she comes again: “So, are you saved?”.
I realize that I can not really avoid the subject and take a few more seconds to structure my answer: “Let’s say that I do not have very strong religious beliefs. I do not deny spirituality, but the creation, as described, is a bit…”.
“Are you telling me that you believe in the big explosion? that we descend from apes? Oh Lord!” she interrupts. (Ironically, in the Congo, not far from Kinshasa, there is a reserve where the famous “Bonobos” live, the breed of apes genetically more alike to humans. Scientists from all over the world fly to Congo to observe them…).
“Well… I feel it is more likely…”.
” Aha! Aha! Aha ! ” the lady outbursts in a big, loud laugh.
I then try to rephrase: “What I am trying to say is that, assuming that a god exists, the story in the Bible should be contextualized. It was written thousands of years ago, it reflects the knowledge, myths and beliefs of the time, when science was not there yet, and our ancestor did not know much about the world, the universe, biology and so on. Clearly you cannot believe that God took a rib from a man and created a woman…”.
“Do you know how many ribs you have?” She interrupts me: “Ask your doctor! See: you have to put into question your certainties. You have to challenge your doctor. You will find out that on one side you have a missing rib!”.
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Mr. Firas, the law of relativity, or the relativity of the law

A few weeks ago my wife and I were supposed to move to a different apartment within the building where we used to live. For two months we were talking with our Syrian manager and handyman Issam, who sought to accommodate all our requests. On December 23, the day we were moving up, we receive an incomprehensible stop by the landlord, the terrible Mr. Firas …

The poor Issam, frustrated and disheartened, comes to give us the news, taking all the insults of the case, which soon would be turned to the landlord.

For the record, the redoubtable Mr. Firas, Lebanese immigrated in DRC 30 years ago if not longer, owner of massive properties and well known developer, is a bit like the Phantom of the opera: none of the tenants have ever met him, but his presence is in the air and usually manifests itself in negative ways.

The next day, December 24, I went to face the terrible Mr Firas: with faltering steps I approach the corner behind which, well hidden, you can find the entrance to his office, where the mirrored door does not let you guess his presence inside.

I open the door and sunken in a human leather chair, a head is just off the desk out of any proportion. “Good morning” I say in a firm tone. “Good morning” I hear answering from a squeaky nasal voice. A small hand attached to a short arm emerges from under the desk and invites me to sit down pointing at the small chair for guests.

A little sharp, I express to Mr. Firas my disappointment for the inconvenience caused by his change of mind with respect to our moving from one apartment to another, for which we had already bought furniture from the outgoing tenant. Mr. Firas says “but I never said that you could move”. “Yes, but Issam …” I say. “Who is Issam?” He replies. “Issam: your employee, to whom I pay the rent every month, who made me sign the lease.” “You signed the lease with me.” “Maybe, but this is the first time I see you so, as far as I am concerned, if Issam does not exist, it means that I never signed any contract.”

The conversation follows in this vein without any development, except that somehow Mr. Firas, sitting on the tip of his sit with both arms leaned on his desktop as if he clung to it not to slide underneath, accepts, despite everything, to refund the cost of the furniture.

Things did not resolve at all: Svetlana was still very pissed, so was I. In less than 24 hours we find another apartment in another building. I meet Mr. Firas for the second time, this time in the parking lot. I barely recognized him: he seemed ridiculously small, with a big head. I tell him that if he is ok, my wife and I would move out in the coming days, as long as we do not be charged for not giving the agreed notice, given the drawbacks caused. “Pas de problemes! ” is the answer. The next day, in reality, “beaucoup de problemes” await us. After having deposited the letter for termination of the contract and paid in advance for the first month of lease of the other house, I go back to see Mr. Firas, who goes back on all agreements: “how can you rely on a word given in a parking lot?” he objects.

Mr. Firas, like a scratched vinyl, keeps repeating: “we have a contract where it is written blah blah blah”.  More and more pissed I keep answering “yesterday you told me “pas de problemes”, and now we have “beaucoup de problemes”!”.

Not happy with the unsolved issue, the following day I go back bringing Svetlana along, hoping to convince him in front of another witness to at least acknowledge the existence of Issam, who was the person that we communicated to since the beginning of our arrival in the building. As soon as Svetlana opens her mouth to support my argument, the progressive beliefs that Mr. Firas was carefully hiding from us came out: “woman, know your place!”.

Moral of the story, following an intervention by the UN Security that mediated between us, a few weeks later we come to a satisfactory agreement, due to his fear of ruining the large business with the UN staff in the country…

What I still find absolutely incomprehensible in all this story is that in a country with no trace of law, where people live in constant breach of any possible rule and common sense, where only money talk (better if cash), the fucking contract still mattered!

Our new bedroom...

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A hardship post

If it was not preceded by its fame, Goma at a glance could hardly be said a difficult place.

Lake Kivu is anachronistically calm, peaceful, surrounded by a hilly landscape, intensely green, that contrasts with the black lava ground on which forest proliferates with arrogance. The majestic volcano Nyiragongo is just as impressive as a volcano can be.


It is one of the most contradictory place I have ever seen: the land of the world’s richest mines, scene of a twenty-year war, where impassable streets lined with decaying buildings contrast with lakefront residences, hotels and restaurants that rivals the ones on the most touristic Italian lakes. And as soon as you step across the border with Rwanda, you find yourself in a real touristic area, where roads and buildings are brand new, housing and hotels are first class and war can be seen only on TV.

Lake Kivu

From the plane you see rain forest all around as far as the eye can go in any possible direction. The Congolese forest cover is incredibly dense: you can fly for hours without being able to observe any interruption, except for some groove strip of water. On the opposite in Rwanda, where the population density is tens of times higher, forest gives way to crops.

Almost two weeks after the capture of the city, today the M23 has left Goma, leaving us in the company of MONUSCO’s helicopters monitoring the situation, while waiting for the FARDC to resume possession of their territory.

It is the usual calm weekend of fear.


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People leaving

When people write stories about themselves, it is for a reason. When they write about others, it must be for a good one.

For the second time in my life, I happened to be part of a story of a friend who wanted to leave.

I am one of those who decided, at some point of their life, to leave, no matter what, for no matter where. In the last 11 years, I lived in 12 different countries, for short or longer time. I stopped asking myself what prompted me originally to follow this life and what still does, like people stop wondering why they wake up in the morning and go to bed at night.

For two of my friends, at some point of their life, what I do, what I am or what I became in these eleven years, must have represented a source of inspiration and probably the last hope to find a relief from the unbearable pain they were going through.

Both of my friends were looking for a place to go, and very similarly they thought that I could help to find one, far enough from where they were and could not stay any longer.

But their urge to escape brought them further than any place I could have ever offered.

For Chiara and Fede


Continue reading

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Chi conosce Jeffrey Tayler

Qualche tempo fa leggevo su una rivista semiseria, forse su un aereo che mi portava da qualche parte, che il massimo numero di persone che un individuo riesce a gestire nel suo circolo di contatti é di 400 alla volta. Non ricordo piú quale fosse la morale di quell’articolo, ma sono sicuro di conscere almeno una persona in grado di gestirne ben piu’ di 400…

Nel 2010, mentre mi capitò di passare qualche tempo in Ciad a cercare acqua come un rabdomante, un caro amico, A. A., mi mise tra le mani un libro di un tale Jeffrey Tayler, uno dei pochissimi scritti sul Ciad, addirittura in versione italiana: una perla! Jeffrey partí da N’Djamena in autobus con destinazione Abeche, per poi proseguire attraversando tutto il Sahel fino al Niger. Trovandomi in Ciad, ovviamente il suo libro per me terminó con Jeffrey che abbandonava il paese per proseguire la sua avventura verso l’ovest.

In questo periodo mi capita di lavorare in Repubblica Democratica del Congo, innaffiando il paese con acqua santa (clorata, per chi non crede) nella speranza di fermare un’epidemia di cholera. Durante una breve vacanza da disoccupato, mi reco a Mosca per un paio di settimane per recuperare mia moglie prima di tornare alla missione impossibile in RDC. Mia moglie mi racconta di essere stata messa in contatto con un autore che scrisse un libro sulla sua discesa in piroga del fiume Congo nell’ex Zaire (1995, oggi RDC) a partire da Kisangani e fino alla capitale Kinshasa: oltre 1300 km… Il personaggio attualmente vive a Mosca. Lo incontriamo per due sere di seguito, entrembe le sere dimenticando il libro da far autografare, mas senza far mancare vino e vodka.

Finalmente ad una certa ora della seconda sera Jeffrey accenna alla sua traversata del Ciad in autobus. Solo a quel punto connetto i diversi ricordi che finalmente mi illuminano nell’affanno da vodka: Jeffrey era anche il nome dell’autore di quei capitoli letti due anni prima: felice di aver scoperto il seguito non scritto di quella storia, gli stringo la mano congratulandomi. Riconosco una gioia genuina in Jeffrey nell’essere stato apprezzato. Worlds collinding, ed il mondo diventa, una volta di piú, ancora piú piccolo.

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Congo: the neighbor from Hell

Dal punto di vista umanitario, una crisi gia’ precipitata: 2.200.000 tra sfollati e rifugiati; il rischio che se ne aggiungano altri 300.000 a breve se l’attacco dei ribelli a Goma verra’ portato a termine; un’epidemia di colera iniziata nel 2011 e che per varie ragioni, tra cui il conflitto, non si riesce a far tornare ai livelli endemici, con il 2012 come peggior anno del millennio; un’epidemia di morbillo, che non si riesce a controllare; per non parlare del ritorno dell’Ebola (una decina di morti in meno di una settimana) e della malnutrizione che affligge 2.000.000 di persone, aggravata da malattie diarreiche di ogni sorta. Il mondo avra’ pure altre priorita’, ma a questo punto un po’ d’attenzione al Congo bisognerebbe pure dargliela…

Nelle vicinanze qualcuno e’ gia’ ben avviato nella propaganda contro il nemico, stile guerra fredda:, o meglio ancora, stile genocidio…

La deumanizzazione del nemico e’ parte delle tecniche di guerra, ben conosciute in Europa durante le campagne naziste e fasciste, quelle comuniste nella Germania dell’Est, e quelle reciproche durante la guerra fredda, con l’opposizione tra i due blocchi istigata da film tipo Rocky 4 o Rambo III. Gli esempi non mancano, e gli africani hanno imparato bene.

Qualcuno si trastulla pensando che la responsabilita’ sia delle multinazionali che sfruttano le risorse minerarie. Altri attacano l’ONU, colpevolmente consapevole, gigante dai piedi di balsa che lascia il mondo ai suoi giochi. Sfugge invece che le multinazionali non fanno altro che approfittare dell’esistente: cercano di influenzare, a volte sostenute da governi terzi, sono parte del gioco, ma non sono decisive. Mentre l’ONU, se non puo’ nulla, e’ principalmente per propria incapacita’, oltre che per l’inefficiacia del sistema delle Nazioni Unite nel suo complesso.

Le campagne di delegittimazione dei governi, le teorie della cospirazione di ogni segno, servono in ultima istanza a deresponsabilizzare i decisori. La responsabilita’ politica di quello che succede e’, e resta, nelle mani dei governanti.

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