Over the past six months, I’ve seen a number of my former classmates, including some close friends, take off to live in some very difficult places.
Two years ago we were spending our days in the library and our nights drinking cheap wine in the osterie of Bologna. Now, these same people are working for NGOs, government agencies, and international organizations in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.
Knowing how much these friends enjoy their wine, I was curious to learn how they were coping with their new surroundings: how do you unwind after a long day’s work in places that have been ravaged by war, civil unrest, and a severe lack of resources? So I sent them each a set of questions to give me a better idea of their new lives and habits.
I received some really interesting, unexpected responses. In fact, they were so interesting that we decided to start a new series on Terroirist called “The Wide World of Wine.” Each installation will take us on a virtual tour of a new location through the eyes of an oenophile.
Our first stop will be Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Growing up, my knowledge of the DRC consisted of (1) mountain gorillas (the subject of “Congo” the book and movie) and (2) that it was the easiest African country to recognize in “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
It turns out there’s a lot more to know! The DRC is a Francophone former colony that has been through several civil wars and violent uprisings since gaining independence in 1960. They held elections last week — votes are still being counted, but spurts of extreme violence have prompted several international organizations to make a call for calm.
Our interviewee, “E.” works in the eastern city of Bukavu, near the Rwandan border, for a prominent international NGO. E. is a native of California wine country and has a serious love of lambrusco.
E. buys wine in one of two “supermarkets” (i.e. “holes in the wall that sell a variety of random things”) in Bukavu, which stock everything from wine to liquor to hard cider. Generally, E. will pick up “a $15 bottle of Nederburg or a $10 box of Drosdty-Hof.” Most bottles typically cost between $20-$25, but E. was recently granted access to a UN-operated store where prices are a bit cheaper.
Most wines E. has found are from South Africa, France and Chile. E. remarked that South African wine is probably so prevalent because the DRC is part of the Southern African Development Community, which means fewer import tariffs and a friendly trade relationship between the two countries.
Finding wine in bars and restaurants poses a challenge in Bukavu, since most of the locals drink beer.
“Specifically, Primus,” says E. “It tastes like Natty Ice. Everyone says that the Primus brewed in Bukavu is the best in Congo because they brew it with Lake Kivu water. Other commonly consumed beers are Mutzig, Amstel, and Heineken.”
Despite the prevalence of beer, E. has found a few hotels nearby that serve a full-to-the-brim glass of boxed wine for $5. Black-market altar wine is also commonly served around town.
Life in the DRC is difficult. E. logs long days at work, and after only four months on the job E.’s office has been evacuated until the post-election violence dies down. With so much environmental stress, E.’s favorite escape after a long day is to “crack open the Drostdy, get out the pickles and cheese and crackers, and watch some True Blood in the living room with the curtains shut.”
Spoken like a true Terroirist! E. will be in the DRC for at least another eight months. We wish E. all the best of luck, and we hope to hear more about E.’s African wine adventures!