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Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 6)

Greetings from the DRC-

Andrew and I had a rough day — harder on him, unfortunately. It started at 3 a.m. when he woke up screaming. He seemed freaked out by both me and his surroundings — like he didn’t get why he wasn’t in Goma and why I wasn’t his foster mom. I walked around with him for a while, and then genius struck — Cheerios! And because my kid is an addict, he immediately calmed down at the sight of his snack container. So that was that….until I tried to go back to sleep, and he began to shove Cheerios in my mouth to get my attention/keep me awake. So, no sleep for me — he had been asleep since 6 p.m., and never got up from a late nap.

Andrew has been fairly sick since I got him, and it’s got me a little worried because he’s losing so much fluid (and I’m going to run out of diapers!! And the poor housekeeper is going to be sick of changing our sheets!). Poor guy had 5 diaper changes between 4 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Funny thing is that since I’ve had him (umm, Day 3), he has only been sick like this in the morning. For some reason, after 8 a.m., it stops. I’ve experimented with foods and formula to see if there was a connection, but nothing changed. So I figured I’d ask the doctor to check it out during his exam — I’d prefer to wait until we got to the U.S., but Andrew is so tiny that this constant sickness can’t be good for him. So, we met Bashaka in the lobby as scheduled at 9:30.

Today he was wearing a snazzy Rwandan outfit — flowy purple cotton pants and matching tunic top. I must say that the man is a snappy dresser — he pulled it off. We headed to the hospital with his friend (one of the men who picked me up at the airport) in tow. This turned out to be key, since his friend is Congolese. We headed up to the second floor entrance this time, and the friend handed the receptionist our appointment card. Andrew and I sat down, and he began babbling “Mama Mama Mama.” I asked him, “Where is Mama?” and he turned and pointed — my kid is smart! And a suck up! He knows who keeps him stocked in Cheerios.

The best part of a Congolese waiting room is hearing everyone’s ring tones. The best one today was the guy in front of me and his Beyonce ring tone — Irreplacable. I’m assuming that he doesn’t really understand what the song is about, if that’s his ringtone (or he’s gay, and he can have another man in a minute, but I don’t think it’s safe to be out & proud in Kinshasa). This waiting room was far better than the pediatric one, for one big reason: a TV. And guess what was playing today? A DVD about Alaska! What are the chances that a nature show about Alaska would be playing in a hospital waiting room in Kinshasa? Well, I suppose that chances are good if someone was DVRing the Discovery Channel…

In addition to reliable electricity, sanitation and traffic laws, the Congolese are sorely missing another aspect of American life: privacy. It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally realized why so many different people were calling out the name of the next patient. It’s because the patient leaving that doctor’s office takes the next patient’s slip with him or her, and calls out the person’s name. I suppose it’s efficient, other than the fact that another person has the slip of paper with your name (hey! No last name for my baby!) and the reason for your visit on it. And the fact that the other person leaves by the time you’ve gathered your stuff and are trying to figure out where to go (the doors are closed and unmarked). So, in Andrew and I went to the first unmarked door, and we got lucky — it was our doctor! But it didn’t seem like it at first, given that there were posters of the female reproductive system all over the office and the exam table had stirrups. The doctor seemed equally confused, so I broke out my best pidgin French and told him about the visa examination.

Luckily, the doctor spoke some English and agreed to perform the exam and fill out the paperwork. Here’s where things get weird: the U.S. government requires certain tests be performed in order for an immigrant to enter the country. The Congolese don’t so much care about legal requirements. Instead of the tests, I got a series of questions. “Does the baby have asthma? You understand?” I pantomime wheezing, and said, “Well, not as far as I know…” Then he asks, “He have heart problem?” I again answered that if he did, I didn’t know about it. Last, he asked if Andrew has TB. Now, I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure that an x-ray is required to make that call — it’s not really about the personal opinion of a lay person/parent who just took custody of the child 72 hours before. But when in Rome, I suppose… And we were on to the physical portion of the exam.

Thankfully, he didn’t have Andrew sit on the gyn exam table, but examined the baby as he sat on my lap. I did have the opportunity to ask about the series of small dots all over Andrew’s chest and back, which I couldn’t figure out — they were too aligned to be bug bites. He barely had to look — they’re tattoos. Apparently, it’s some sort of tribal medicine thing. At this point, Bashaka was back in the room and lifted up his shirt to show me his. I don’t even want to think about the kind of instrument that was used to make these marks. I know it’s a cultural/traditional thing, but it really makes me sad. My poor baby has small circular scars all over his body; it looks like he was branded. I don’t know how someone can hold a baby down and do that to him. I managed to bring up Andrew’s intestinal issues, although Bashaka (my supposed translator) thought I was asking for treatment for the tattoos. The doctor agreed that Andrew needed treatment and noted that he needed to eat more, too. So he wrote out three prescriptions and we were on our way.

The first pharmacy didn’t have what we needed, but I was pleased to note that the security guards (random guys who sit outside of the store with matching t-shirts on) recognized me from the other day and all waved and asked about the baby. We went to a second pharmacy (after getting stuck a few times on the lovely craters in the streets), and they had it — $15 for 3 prescriptions! Pretty amazing. Of course, no trip anywhere in the Congo is complete without Bashaka arguing with someone….and this time it was with the pharmacist about how to take the medicines. I later learned (thanks, Google!) that the doctor had prescribed the medicines to be take in a series, starting with a de-wormer (it’s looking likely that Andrew has a parasitic infection, given his distended belly, low weight and intestinal issues, but if the Congolese doctors aren’t doing an x-ray for TB, they certainly aren’t taking a stool sample.). While the argument continued, I noticed that a small crowd had started to form outside — hey, the American with the black baby is here! I kind of don’t get it. Adoption isn’t THAT common in the Congo, but it’s also not that unusual. Two other adoptive families are here with me now! Of course, their children are older, so that may be the distinction — it’s more obvious having a baby on your hip.

So I went outside, said my bon jours, and we took off for the grocery store. Side note: I’ve figured out part of the driving insanity. Apparently, cars come into the Congo from all over the world. Some have the American style left-side driver’s seat, and some have the European right-side driver’s seat. I mean, really, how could that possibly make driving dangerous? At the grocery store, we were greeted by police, who opened my door and helped me with my bags (slash proof plus diaper bags). I quickly got a few essentials in my cart, including more Cheerios — and Andrew freaked out at the sight of them. That boy sure does love those things! Given that my total for 3 prescriptions was $15, care to venture how much my groceries were? My list was as follows: 4 cans of diet coke, 4 bottles of water, 4 pack of Dannon yogurt, laughing cow cheese, 2 bananas, 1 box of cheerios, 1 package of teething biscuits. If you haven’t guessed, it was a lot more than $15. Like over 4 times as much — $62.

I don’t get how anyone can live here, especially not the throngs of people selling things on the street or who otherwise seem unemployed. It’s not like you can use your WIC card at the store (in fact, you can use exactly NO cards in the DRC!). Back to the hotel, where it took Bashaka and his friend about 45 minutes to figure out Bashaka’s local phone number for me to call if I needed him. Against his will, I gave Andrew his medicine, and he conked out after a half hour of playing (and one laughing cow cheese later — he LOVED it). When he woke up, he saw that I had a banana out….and this is apparently familiar food to him, because he almost fell off the bed trying to grab for it. The best part was that I paired it with peanut butter, which I’m sure he hasn’t had before, judging by the way his eyes lit up when he took his first taste. He went to town, and was covered in peanut butter and banana in no time. He wanted another, but I thought it best not overload his stomach.

There was still light outside, so I decided to take him for a little walk around the neighborhood. I thought that maybe he could practice walking a bit, forgetting that Congolese streets and sidewalks are hard for experienced walkers. I had tried on the shoes I brought for him, and he wore the smaller pair today (which are still a bit big) — and he LOVED them. When Bashaka saw him, he said, “He American boy now! He wear shoes!” He did not want to take them off, and insisted on putting them back on to show his aunt on Skype. Back to the street….I managed to get some pictures (technically illegal), but was interrupted by some shouting. A group of young men were yelling/being yelled at by some soldiers. My driver from yesterday saw me then, and walked me away. He apparently decided that we were going for a stroll together, so we walked around for the next 20 minutes or so (OK, so it was probably for my safety — but in my defense, I stayed within 1 block of the hotel, and UN soldiers were parked in front of my hotel). At one point, a man on the street ran up and asked for a picture with the American and her baby — he saw my camera (so much for the stories about the Congolese being camera shy!).

I talked to a woman who was making traditional dresses on the street, and we agreed that I’d come by tomorrow to choose fabric for my own. As we headed back to the hotel, several women approached to coo over Andrew. The driver (Jacques, I think) started explaining to them how I’m American, this baby is an orphan from Goma, etc, and suddenly a crowd had gathered. It was mostly women and children, but it still made me nervous (one little boy I wanted to take home — he had multiple layers of eggs stacked on his head for sale. So adorable and so sad that this little kid was a street vendor….but the egg thing was so gross. It’s hot, and I’d bet those eggs were in the sun for at least 4 hours).

At the same time, I saw that the altercation between the soldiers and the young men had escalated. The young men ran off down a side street with the soliders in hot pursuit, and in perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, random civilians decided to detain these men (with NO knowledge of what happened) by beating them. I didn’t see what happened, as Jacques whisked me back to the hotel. Fun times in Kinshasa.

Later, an American woman working for the UN in Kinshasa stopped by. She was incredibly nice and set up my phone for me, and offered to let me do laundry at her place this weekend. She also informed me that the Congolese hate Rwandans, so this was probably why we were having such trouble everywhere we went. It makes sense, given that the Congolese civil war essentially started as a result of the Rwandan genocide (Hutu soliders hid in refugee camps in the DRC and built up an army, leading other African nations to invade the DRC to quash this potential conflict. Given that these same nations did NOTHING during the genocide — where a million people were slaughtered in one month — I’d be inclined to take the cynical view that the invasion was more about the Congo’s minerals than about the Hutus. I digress.).

So that was interesting to learn — Bashaka, a man with very Rwandan features and clearly a Hutu, was my guide and interpreter, and everywhere we went, we had difficulties. I had assumed that it was just the nature of doing business in the Congo and/or Bashaka’s general ineptitude, but perhaps it’s more about the racial/tribal tension than anything else. Perhaps Bashaka caught on as well, and that’s why his friend was along for the ride — we had a lot more success today. Poor Andrew had a rough day; apparently things get worse before they get better with this medicine. He’s conked out now, and I’m heading there as well, with a final thought: today’s driver suggested that I enter the Miss Kinshasa contest, which starts next weekend. Given my apparent celebrity status and the fact that I’ll soon have a traditional dress to wear, I’m a lock to win it, right? Good night from the Congo!

Love, Erin & Andrew



11 Responses to “Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 6)”
  1. Bill OZ says:

    A Novice here, enthralled by the story! How do I access parts one thru five? Any help appreciated.

  2. Zyxomma says:

    Love and all blessings to Andrew and Erin. Health and peace.

  3. Terry in Maryland says:

    “My list was as follows: 4 cans of diet coke, 4 bottles of water, 4 pack of Dannon yogurt, laughing cow cheese, 2 bananas, 1 box of cheerios, 1 package of teething biscuits. If you haven’t guessed, it was a lot more than $15. Like over 4 times as much — $62.”

    It might have been less expensive if you’d stuck to local foods, but with all the other stresses you had going on at the time the imported stuff must have been a comfort.

    • Erin Pohland says:

      Local food really wasn’t an option, as Andrew was severely underweight (14 lbs at nearly 19 months) when I got him, and had a parasitic infection, among other intestinal issues. I was sticking to packaged food to keep him from being re-infected. It actually wouldn’t have been much cheaper unless I bought street food for him, which I absolutely was not going to do. Kinshasa is just terribly expensive, which is all the worse given the incredible poverty there.

  4. laurie says:

    What a great – how you came into our world- story little Andrew has. No kid born in the back of a taxi cab could even top this story. Thank you for the fascinating glimpse into the culture of the Congo.

  5. Elsie says:

    What a nice surprise to check in here at the ‘Flats tonight and find this latest installment of the Erin-and-Andrew Adventures! But I was sorry to read that the little guy needed those meds. Good thing his brand-new mom knew what to do and got him the medical attention he needed.

    I look forward to the future installments.

    (Yo, Erin: The book idea is a GOOD one!)

  6. merrycricket says:

    I now think of you and Andrew every time I watch this video because two of the musicians are from Kinshasa.

  7. jimzmum says:

    Thank you for today’s installment. What an adventure you had!

  8. formerwriter says:

    wow! you should totally write a book and publish it with pics when you get back! this stuff is insane! what a lucky kid andrew is to have you for his mom. thank you for sharing your crazy and heartwarming tale!

  9. UgaVic says:

    A definate shoo-in…and definately with Andrew on your hip!! Thanks for a good Sunday read!

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