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Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 3)

By Erin Pohland
On October 15, 2010, my world changed forever:  it’s a boy!!  I listened with wonder to the news of my little one:  10 months old and healthy.  Due to lack of medical care and extreme, crushing poverty, his mother had died as a result of childbirth, just 8 days after giving birth to my baby boy.  His father, an itinerant farmer, didn’t have any way of caring for his son.  Through these very tragic circumstances, I received the gift of a lifetime: my son!
I was the first adoptive family for the Congo for my agency, and we believe that I am the first person to adopt from Goma (most adoptions occur from orphanages in Kinshasa).  It was quite a steep learning curve for both the agency and me!
Over the coming months, I struggled with anxiety and stress.  I wasn’t sleeping due to nightmares of rebel soldiers killing my baby or of him sucumbing to starvation or disease, and I’d often burst into tears at inopportune times, thinking about my poor defenseless son in one of the most dangerous places in the world.  My adoption agency didn’t make life any easier, as I was repeatedly told that I would be leaving within the next week or two, only to have that date come and go without any news. I was constantly on edge.  I never thought that I could fall so in love with just a picture, but from the moment I saw him, he was mine.  I was his mama, and I couldn’t wait to have him in my arms.  The months between the referral and travel were a roller coaster of joy, excitement, despair, stress and anguish.  I turned off my Google News Alert on the Congo, as its arrival in my inbox every day prompted a sense of dread and panic.  I tried in vain to forget everything that I had learned prior to my referral.
Finally, after a set of complications that I can’t even begin to describe, I was on the plane to the Congo.  I flew to Washington, DC first to get my Congolese entry visa at the embassy, and from there, onward to Kinshasa.  I landed on June 14, 2011.  The following is the first in a daily series of emails sent to friends and family in the U.S. I hadn’t planned on writing this travel log, but the trip was so incredible that I was bursting with the daily craziness and had to have an outlet.  I hope that by sharing them, I will bring some much-needed attention to the reality of life in the Congo.
I’m SO not in the U.S. anymore.  The Congo is total culture shock.  I don’t feel unsafe so far, but it’s definitely not a city I plan to explore.   I’m in the hotel now (such as it is). I’ll get Andrew in the morning — it takes about 2 hours to get from the airport to the hotel, so he was already asleep by the time I got to the hotel (the agency people are staying somewhere different). So tonight I’m just going to unpack a bit, get some rest, and try to adjust to the strangeness that is the DRC.
My flights here were both uneventful — easy, actually.  I slept, read, and watched movies.  I was the only American on my flight to Kinshasa, but  not the only white person.  When we landed, we had to go down a flight of stairs onto the tarmac — lots of soldiers and police around us, and way too many guns.  We loaded into a couple of overly-full buses to go to the terminal.  I couldn’t take any pictures — taking pictures of any government building is strictly prohibited.   Going through customs was fairly easy, although it was clear that nothing at the airport had been updated since the Congo was a Belgian colony.  We got our immunization cards checked, and were off to baggage — which was an experience in and of itself.
Apparently, being American (and tall, blonde and blue-eyed at that) gives you a sort of celebrity status here.  I was stopped by three soldiers on my way to baggage, all of whom just wanted to ask if I were American (what, it’s that obvious?) and to tell me I’m so nice and so pretty.  After 24+ hours of flight time, I’m doubtful, but I was just happy that the soldiers thought I was nice instead of some sort of terrorist.
The baggage claim had a handwritten sign on what looked like  a very old dry erase board. The workers were jumping in and out from behind the back area, and were walking up and down the belt because bags kept falling off at turns. Getting my baggage was a nightmare — it was extremely hot and everyone pushed forward like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Luckily, I got everything (and didn’t lift a thing myself!! Congolese men are very chivalrous), and I was off.  I stopped to talk to my friendly soldiers again (it can’t hurt, right? They were thrilled to try out their English on me) and headed outside.  I was greeted by my adoption agency’s staff, a Rwandan man named Reverend Bashaka, along with the minister (Timothee) from Goma.  They all flew in from Goma this morning.  There were three other men there, and they were all super excited to see me — although I have no idea who they are or why they were there.  I think it might be the American thing again — as we walked to the car, a female police officer rushed towards me to ask if I was American and if she could help carry my bags (seriously).  She was a big help when I got into the car — the driver handed me something that looked like the handle of a tiny rotary phone.  She grabbed it from me — it was the handle to roll down the window.  Apparently there is only one for the car (an old station wagon that somehow managed to fit all 7 of us). We took off, and bribed the soldiers guarding the exit — I have no idea why that happened, but I was happy to see that we were waved through.
As for the drive, well….combat driving would be a nice description.  Picture a pitch black night with no street lights AT ALL and the only form of light at all coming from small trash fires burning along the road (yes, they burn their trash here.  All over the city, apparently) and from the occasional small lightbulb powered by portable generators. Maybe 20% of the drivers on the road had headlights, and I’d say about the same number were even in decent enough condition to be on the road.  There are no lanes, and the drivers swerve into oncoming traffic if they feel like it (or so I gather).  No one uses a turn signal — they honk and shout out of the window.  No one uses a seat belt — the majority of vehicles on the road had at least 3 times the recommended number of people.  Lots of vans, filled to bursting with people, and the back doors would be open with people standing on the back.
The road is largely dirt/gravel, with gigantic potholes that are more like craters.  The road would be paved in some places and then the pavement would just stop and it’d be a 2 foot drop to the dirt.  Cars were breaking down and running out of gas all over the place, and you’d come to a standstill because the car in front of you just died.  Then the driver would lurch into oncoming traffic with a honk and a shout and you’d be around that car — until the next one broke down.  I couldn’t even count the number of vehicles I saw with people pushing them down the road.  There were also people just walking down and across the road — since there are no lights (seriously — this is the third largest city in Africa, and much of it has no electricity), you don’t see the people until you are about to hit them.  There are NO traffic lights and no traffic signs (stop signs, street signs — none of that).  I only knew that there was an intersecting road when traffic would come barreling through the main road and almost t-bone us. Complete and utter insanity.  I don’t know how far we went, but it was about two hours of nerve-wracking driving.  I’d like my next trip in a vehicle to be in an armored tank.  The road in front of the US Embassy looked like an off road  dirt bike trail.  So crazy.
As for the city itself, well, the best I can say is that while the Congolese are a beautiful people, this country is just broken.
I can’t imagine a government that allows its people to live in such abject poverty and to have its capital city be literally crumbling around it.  I didn’t see everything by any stretch of the imagination, but what I did see was really sad to me.  I was prepared for a bad situation, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this.
I got to the hotel in one piece, and in a flurry of French and Lingala, neither of which I speak, my bags were whisked away and I was shown my room.  It’s a bit on the rustic side, but it’s fine.  The important thing is that there is air conditioning and a refrigerator in the room.  Tomorrow I’ll take Andrew to the grocery store with me and stock up on bottled water and whatever other perishables I might find.  I don’t think we’ll leave the hotel much, except when absolutely necessary.  It was kind of funny — one of the guys who took my luggage to the room,  Patrini, decided to turn on the TV for me.  What channel did he choose? BET.  It was a grainy 50 Cent video — he was very proud of himself for finding this for me.
So, I got settled and took a quick shower then headed to the room of another American family staying one floor down from me.  They adopted an older girl — they think she is between 10 and 12, but they have no real idea.  They are going to meet me in the lobby in the morning and take pictures of my first meeting with my son, and then we’re all going to go to breakfast. They pointed out where I can get Coke and water, and gave me the Internet password — hooray!! I did go downstairs to get some water and Coke (no diet coke!!!!) at the brassiere off of the lobby, and the one girl working there somehow scammed me into buying her a $2 coke.  If it means I have a friend working at the hotel, $2 is a small price to pay! Of course, I’ll have to get a handle on that before I’m buying every Congolese man, woman and child a coke to get them to be my friend.
Until tomorrow….



25 Responses to “Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 3)”
  1. scout says:

    I knew I should have held off reading this until the next chapter in this journey of love is published. I’ll be right here, pacing nervously, until that beautiful baby boy is in your arms, Erin… and you make it safely through the broken-down car slalom to the airport… and…safe passage home and

    my heartfelt congratulations, Mama! With apologies to Mr. Simon, I adjust his lyrics and dedicate to Erin Pohland “Mother and Andrew” (“Father and Daughter” by Paul Simon)

    I’m gonna watch you shine
    Gonna watch you grow
    Gonna paint a sign
    So you’ll always know
    As long as one and one is two
    There could never be a [Mother]
    Who loved [her Andrew] more than I love you

  2. Erin, he is adorable. Your description of DRC reminds me of many of my first impressions when we went to Guatemala in 1993 – especially the way people drove and the lack of seat belts or safe cars. (We rode in one where someone had to hold the door on so it wouldn’t fall off. Good grief – made me appreciate American drivers. I do imagine that Guatemala City was in better condition though, and they had started doing some much needed construction and repair of the roads. (Most of that damage was due to a large earthquake in 1976 and neglect through their civil war years, rather than actual fighting in the city.)

    You had voiced concern about what you will tell Andrew about his heritage. Have you resolved that issue? That’s a tough one, but I’m sure that you will handle it well.

    It’s nice to know that Andrew has a loving, caring, determined and courageous mother. That’s most of the battle of growing up after all.

  3. Baker's Dozen says:

    What a lovable little one.

    He looks like his mama! Those big, intelligent eyes. The knowing, introspective but curious expression, That picture tells as much of his story as your words do.

    Love is what makes a family. You two already have that down pat!

  4. Kath the Scrappy says:

    What a precious little cherub Andrew is! Thanks for sharing your story Erin, someday Andrew will be wanting to read it too.

  5. 1smartcanerican™ says:

    Wow, Beth, I’m not sure that T&J have the common sense to be good parents. I hope they have learned since then, but it sounds as if little M had at least six cold years! Do you know if her reality changed after you talked to the parents? I’m sure you did…..:)

  6. barbara says:

    he is beautiful. all the best to you both.

  7. beth says:

    [Old Lady Buttinsky’s two-bits, here…AKA: A Cautionary Tale for Everyone]

    I would caution *severely* about assigning trauma to our Andrew as a foregone conclusion. (Sorry, Erin, you thought Andrew was all yours, didn’t you? Ha! Not with the mudpuppies around!)

    He is a year and a half old. He now has, among other things too numerous to mention, a full belly, safety, stability, routine, and love, love, love; anything that came before, is not his reality, now, or in his going forward. Unless, of course, we dredge his ‘before’ up and keep it hanging over his head and/or keep using it to inform all actions taken on his behalf — use it to color how we think of him.

    The reason I say this is: Years ago, we had some friends, J & T, who adoped a darling little girl, M, from Thailand. M was an infant when adopted, and 6 when we met her. The first time I saw her, she was wearing a sweet little cotton dress and a cardigan to match — as cute as a button! She was also wearing frilly white ankle socks and sandals, and had her arms crossed in front of herself with her hands in her armpits. What the…? Then it dawned on me – me, standing there, outdoors, in the dead of a European winter, all dressed in long pants, shirt, sweater, jacket, socks, solid shoes, and a pair of gloves (as was everyone else, including T & J!) – the child, poor dear, is Cold!

    I mentioned to J that M seemed to be chilled and asked J where M’s coat was — I’d help her (M) put it on. J’s response? “Oh, M doesn’t have any coats. She’s from Thailand, you know, and Thai babies don’t get cold –especially those born in Bangkok, which M was.”

    I’m sure there is a seismic recording somewhere of my jaw hitting the ground to J’s reply; J was absolutely serious! And T backed her up!

    T& J were using M’s before reality, not her Now reality, to inform their actions with her. Any trauma the child suffered was *not* from her ‘before’, it was from T & J hanging onto every single part and piece of it *as if* it were germane to the family they’d created with adopting M. M didn’t know from “Thai babies don’t get cold” — she was just cold.

    That is all. beth.

    • fishingmamma says:

      Oh, good grief. What some parents do to their children astounds me.

      Beth you make a good point. Focusing on his early hardships will not help him become a functioning human.

    • Kath the Scrappy says:

      Wow, that sort of ignorance might be considered child abuse. I so hope you straightened them out!

    • Clearly, some people aren’t suited to be adoptive parents or parents at all. What nonsense. I hope that at some point those parents learned to make better choices in raising their child.

  8. Judi says:

    CONGRATULATIONS mama and baby Andrew!!! How thrilling!!

    Your adventure together has just started!!

  9. Alaska Pi says:

    Oh little Andrew- I am so sorry your birth mother died.
    I’m not much for magical thinking but I’m wishing right now there was a way to be sure she knew someone special was coming to take up her work as mama for you.
    Someone who fell in love with you from first sight, the way only a mama can.
    Bless you child , for all your days.

  10. Erin Pohland says:

    Thank you so much for the kind words. My son is an absolute joy, and I marvel every day that he is mine.

    That said, as the first grandchild and an only child, he wants for nothing!! The best gift he could receive is sponsorship of a woman in the Congo through Women for Women International:

    I’ll write more about the organization in a later post. More to come!!

  11. Ninufar says:

    Oh wow many wishes of peace and health and safety and JOY to you and your new son!

    If, a few years down the road, you want him to see what life used to be like before the most recent civil war or two in his natal country, check out “La Vie Est Belle” (Life is Rosy), an older silly film now available on DVD. What a rough time they have had (coups, cold-war mess re: Angola, epidemics, bad-to-worse coups) and continue to have.

    Be safe!

    PS: If anyone’s wondering, it’s a “brasserie” for the hotel bar — kindof cool that a tiny typo gets you a different and real word.

  12. Zyxomma says:

    Andrew looks so serious! I guess it comes with the territory when the biological mother died from the birth, and the father can’t afford the baby.

    Erin, Andrew, have a wonderful life together. Health, peace, prosperity, joy, and all blessings.

  13. bubbles says:

    those eyes. that face. you have a beautiful son Erin. may you be blessed every day of your life. may your table be set with overflowing abundance and your child grow up to be the joy and the love of your life.
    so when is the baby shower? i want in on that.

    • beth says:

      Funny you should mention a baby shower, bubbles… We got an email yesterday from my sister who is having a Cyber Baby Shower for her arriving +/- 27 September grandson. With family and friends scattered all over the globe, I guess it’s the way to go…and like it or not, it’s also a sign of the times (I’m not so much liking it — I’d rather “Ooo” and “Ahh” over the gifts whilst eating petit fours and sipping tea with the mom-to-be and other guests. Alas and alack.) Here is the link to where my sister set up the Cyber Shower: beth.

      • Elsie says:

        I’m confused, beth. Is your sister’s Cyber Baby Shower somehow related to Erin Pohland’s adoption here? If so, I can’t find the link to a shower for Erin at the tinyurl you provided. After bubbles’ comments, I thought it would be fun to see what Erin’s link would turn out to be. Or did you just mention your own family’s shower as an adjunct to Erin’s post?


        • Dia says:

          I thought Beth was referring to the CyberBabyShower link to help Bubbles set up one for Erin. Just how I took the post.

        • beth says:

          Ohhh, so sorry for the confusion, Elsie! I should have made it clear that what my sister set up was for her soon-to-arrive grandson…totally unrelated to the arrival of Erin’s sweet little chubbernunks bundle of joy; my bad.

          I included the link as a possible starting-point on the off-chance a ‘pup wanted to hold a Cyber Shower with/for their family and friends. (I’ve seen tons of on-line gift registries set up by brides and for babies, but had never thought to make a full Shower out of the wish list(s)…never in a million years would I have thought to do that! But, then again, as Forrest says, I’m not a very smart man.)

          Again, apologies for the confusion — I should have taken better care with my phrasing. beth.

  14. thatcrowwoman says:

    What a wonder to see this adventure unfold.
    Many thanks for sharing, Erin.
    Toda raba.
    and L’Chaim! also, too.

  15. jimzmum says:

    Wow. Just, wow. I don’t think I blinked while reading this. Thank you.

  16. LaniN says:

    Thank you for reminding us what is important.

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