Chez Nous

I live in Couvent, one of two houses for MSF ex-pats here in Lubutu.  Since I keep talking about the place in many of my posts, we should go on a tour.

I live in Couvent, one of two houses for MSF ex-pats here in Lubutu.  Since I keep talking about the place in many of my posts, we should go on a tour.

Photo: D Postels, MSF | Chez nous, Couvent

Photo: D Postels, MSF | Chez nous, Couvent

From the outside, the building is surrounded by a high bamboo fence.  Guardians are continually on duty to pull the gate open and greet us.  The front yard is completely shaded.  The only lawn ornament is an unused badminton net.  The building has a brick exterior with a high metal peaked roof.  All of the floors and walls are concrete for easy cleaning.

There are 14 single bedrooms in the main building and three individual banana leaf roofed houses in the back yard.  When I arrived I was offered one of these cute little rondavels;  it sounded tempting until I heard stories of bats, mice, and lizards living in the roofs.  So I'm in the main building, which is U-shaped.  We'll start at one end on the terrace and walk through.

We sit on the terrace most evenings to talk, read, or play games.  The furniture is wooden with cushions covered in wild Congolese patterns.  There are two coffee tables which double as dining tables if people want to eat en plein air.

Photo: D Postels, MSF  | Marie-Aude in Couvent

Photo: D Postels, MSF | Marie-Aude on the patio

The first indoor space is the Game Room, home to a ping pong table, some broken couches, and a non-functioning television, the victim of lightening.  Two or three times per week we project movies onto one of the walls.  Since arrival I've seen "Slumdog Millionaire"; "The Reader" and "The Duchess", both dubbed in French; weird films from Serbia and China, and several French movies.

Entering the main hallway, there are bedrooms on either side.  At the far end, lined up one after the other, are the dining room, kitchen, bathroom, pantry, and laundry.  The only decoration in the otherwise austere hallway is several shallow round baskets set between the doorways.  These are receptacles for our dirty laundry.

My bedroom is in this main hall.  It's quite small, with a concrete floor and walls.  I have a big window with metal casing and screens.  Inside there is room for only a single bed with mosquito net, a desk and uncomfortable chair, and a set of shelves for books and clothing.

After the bedrooms we come to the shelves where our clean pressed laundry magically reappears, two days after it is deposited in the hall.  The clothes are sorted by type- t-shirts in one stack, pants in another, a small hillock of socks.  One evening ritual is to sort through the clean clothes to find your own.  Almost directly across from this cabinet is the door to the dining room.

Our dining room contains a single long communal table, seating twelve.  All the food is served on a side buffet made of rough hewn darkened wood.  A third table holds the condiments (pesto, Nutella, honey, ketchup, among dozens) that we use to spice up our meals.  There are also two "hot weather" refrigerators in the room.  Only one even partially functions.  The other deceased fridge was the victim of a lightening strike.

Next door, with a pass-through to the dining room, is the kitchen.  Although there are two four-burner electric ranges and ovens, the staff prefers to cook on an open fire.  The walls, ceiling, and preparation areas are black with soot.

Our communal bathroom has a central hall with three showers and three toilets.  The showers are cold water and deliver slightly more than a trickle.  The weather is so warm that the lack of hot water is inconsequential.  We have three Western style toilets.  Each stall has buckets or water that are used to flush.  There is no water inflow to the toilet tanks, so after you've finished your business, you pour water in the bowl till it is clean.

Next door is the pantry.  It has two large institutional freezers containing mostly cheese, beer, and soft drinks.  As we have no functioning refrigerators, we have to cool drinks in the freezer.  This often leads to a huge mess when someone forgets.

I love the laundry.  It's a long narrow room with three large built in concrete wash basins.  These basins, several clothes lines, and a lot of work, get our clothes cleaned.  The pressing irons are metal and hot coals are used for heating them up.

Back outside, we come to the three rondavels.  Couvent has a large back yard with an herb garden, vegetable garden (eggplant, tomatoes, onions, pineapple), and several papaya trees (for breakfast).  There are two loudish generators.  There is also a cabana containing some furniture and a hammock. No one has set foot in there since my arrival due to rumors of "big green snakes".  There are beautiful birds here.  Sitting on the terrace I've seen bee eaters, hornbills, and owls.  Insects are minimal, but once per month there is a Mass Suicide.  One early evening each four weeks, large black flies swarm around the artificial lights for an hour.  They die almost simultaneously and it is impossible to walk without stepping on a crunchy carcass.  How sad I only get to experience this a few more times!

Currently the inhabitants of Couvent are 7 Belgians and one person from each of the following:  Burundi, Germany, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Taiwan, Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Norway, and the USA.  Maison Rouge, the other MSF ex-pat residence in Lubutu, houses one Belgian, one French, one Swiss, and one Gabonese.  Conversations flip quickly between English and French, though not everyone speaks the former.

As far as I can tell, in MSF you either work in medicine (doctors and nurses), medical support (pharmacy, laboratory), logistics (getting supplies, supervising and planning construction, assuring clean water, supervising vehicle movement), or administration.  The Lubutu project is apparently heavily medically weighted.  Among the 21 ex-pats we are 13 medical personnel, 2 medical support, 4 logisticians, and 2 administrators.  Five of the six people doing logistics and administration had no particular training in these areas before starting with MSF.  They applied, went to a two week training course, and were off.  So those of you thinking you'd like to do some overseas volunteer work but aren't medically inclined, le voilà!

I like Couvent a lot.  The people I live with are very nice, diverse, and interesting.  It's a great place to hang out for six months.