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Friday, July 2, 2021

Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 7)

By Erin Pohland

Good evening from Kinshasa!

As I write, there is a dance party happening on the street in front of my hotel.  Luckily, Andrew is a good sleeper — too bad his mama is not.

Today was relatively uneventful, as far as things go.  We had no appointments and nowhere to be.  Instead, we spent the day with our new American friend “J”, that works at the UN.  After getting up for breakfast, a bath and then a nap, J picked us up at the hotel.  It was SO nice to be in the car with a non-native driver!! Unlike every other driver I’ve had so far, J is sane.  She doesn’t cross into oncoming traffic or nearly hit pedestrians.  Heaven!

We first went to the Kinshasa City Market, which has as a slogan “Home of KFC, Kinshasa Fried Chicken.” I’m not too sure about the butchering standards in this country, so I don’t think I’ll try it. For now, if it doesn’t come out of a sealed container, I’m not likely to eat it.  I might have to change that rule, though; an advantage of being a former Belgian colony is that certain items, like chocolate, cheese, bread and pastries, are prized.  The Congo apparently has fabulous breads and other goods, so I make have to make an exception…

J is fantastic.  She’s fluent in French, and moved to Kinshasa in March after 4 years in Haiti.  Before that, she had been in Kinshasa for 2 years, and before that, East Timor and Liberia.  What’s hilarious is that she describes herself to me as “not a risk-taker.”  But I suppose when one can call UN Security to protect you, it’s easier to feel safe.  It’s just funny to me how many things about living in 3rd world countries she takes for granted — like taking a de-wormer every few months, or spending $262 on less than a full cart of groceries.  And speaking of de-wormers, Andrew’s seems to be working.  Fingers crossed!!

I met J through a Congolese adoption group I belong to; she’s looking to adopt a child while she’s here.  It was fantastic to actually talk to someone here that speaks English fluently and can explain all of the strange stuff to me – like grocery store pricing, for example.  I hadn’t really looked at the prices, since I figured I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.  What could I do, go to the local Wal Mart super center and get a cheaper box of Cheerios? In Kinshasa, the prices fluctuate wildly.  So instead of re-labeling the products or even the shelves, they’ve devised a system so that all that has to be changed is a piece of paper.  Each item is labeled with a letter and number — like B83 or A24, for example.  There is a sheet of paper nearby where you can look up the price.  It’s an incredible pain, but I suppose it makes sense for the owners in its own way.

I had been wondering why DRC police help you find parking (all street) at the grocery store, open your car doors, etc.  J broke it down for me — about 5 years ago, the Congolese government was sick of soldiers walking off of the job because they didn’t get paid.  So they passed a law requiring certain establishments, like grocery stores, banks and restaurants, to have police on duty at all times.  The stores pay them, and then the police shake down the patrons for bribes.  I asked J what would happen if you didn’t pay them.  She told me that you could get away with it once or twice, but if you never paid, the police simply would not let you park. They remember the cars and apparently are always there during operating hours.  Imagine that — not being able to shop at a grocery store if you didn’t bribe the police.

She also said that Kinshasa wasn’t hard hit during the wars; the crumbling and rubble was from simple lack of maintenance and total neglect.  It’s sad, really; her opinion was that the Congolese figure that someone (ie, a foreign government or aid organization) would just give them money to build a new one.  She directs a UN mission here, handling a substantial budget for in-country projects, so she has a pretty good idea.  It’s a complicated issue where foreign aid tends to create a dependency.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Congolese are a generally happy people (as far as I’ve seen). Perhaps if they weren’t so happy, they’d be more motivated to change their surroundings? I don’t know the answer — it’s confounded better foreign policy and development minds than mine.

She also helped me figure out what to do about the hotel staff.  I’ve told you that one woman got me to buy her a $2 coke, and the concierge asked me for $50 for the airport driver that I never saw.  Today, the cleaning lady came while Andrew and I were napping.  I explained to her that the baby was sleeping, but she insisted on cleaning anyways.  When she was done, she made exaggerated motions to me and said in the most pathetic voice “Hungry! Hungry!”   She was awfully skinny, and I have a fair amount of food in the room, so I gave her some Luna Bars and other food. She then figured out that I was an easy mark and asked for money for medicine for her baby (who probably doesn’t exist).  I knew I was being scammed, but I just wanted to get rid of her — Andrew was still sleeping!  I gave her the equivalent of $3 in Congolese Francs.  The sad thing is that this was a lot of money to her.  It’s hard to know what to do, knowing how bad it is here.  It’s not as though there’s some sort of social welfare program to help.  But I need to draw some lines, because I am going to run out of cash really soon if this continues.

We headed off to J’s house — beautiful!! It’s a six-plex of apartments with a pool and a gate with security.  Total oasis — like you’re not even in Kinshasa. She made us lunch and did our laundry while we hung out and chatted — it was a great day. Andrew was pretty wary of her two cats — he screamed when I put him down on the floor for a second while I loaded the laundry.  Eventually, he was fascinated by them, although he still didn’t want to be anywhere near them.  The Congolese — most Africans, really — don’t get the pet thing, so I wasn’t surprised that Andrew was afraid of the cats.  To him, all animals are predators.

If I can brag for just a minute….Andrew is so smart! He picked up my fork while we were eating lunch and started using it! J got him a baby fork and he ate the rest of his meal with it, other than his new obsession — Pringles.  I had picked some up at the store, and he simply can’t get enough of them.  I have to hide the can; if he sees it, he freaks out. It’s the closest I’ve seen to him pitching a fit….all over some Pringles (or as they’re called here, “Mr. Potato Crisp”). He also was studying the puzzle I bought him at the market — he loves to figure things out! Right now, he takes the pieces out one by one, hands them to me, and then watches me put them back.  So cute!

J and I had a great time talking while Andrew napped — she’s lived quite the life, and is a great Kishasa resource. We’re going to the “Market of Thieves” for Congolese art, and she said she’d send a UN driver to pick me up for lunch one day this week. She offered to find me a babysitter so I could go out to dinner and dancing with some UN staff next weekend, but I’m not ready to leave my little peanut just yet.  And given that he starts calling “Mama mama mama!” the minute I walk out of his line of vision, I’m pretty sure that he’d freak. J also made an amazing offer.  She’s going on R&R in Europe in about 10 days (the UN requires that you physically leave the country during R&R).  She offered me her apartment to use — I’m floored by the offer! I may take her up on it.  It’d be amazing to have a 3 bedroom place with a kitchen, washer and dryer, two balconies and a pool.  And she has American TV! We’ll see — I’m still hoping that things will go quickly and I won’t need to take her up on that offer!

Now the dance partyoutside includes what I hope are fireworks.  If they’re not, it’s some sort of rocket-propelled grenade, and that can’t be a good thing. Nope, fireworks — whew!!

Tomorrow should be a low key day — passport pictures for the little one (I’m getting them at the big Kosher store, which I want to check out.  It wasn’t open today because of the Sabbath.  Who would have thought that Kinshasa has a large Jewish population?!).

Good night to all, and happy early birthday to my mom (aka Grandma), who finally got to “meet” Andrew via Skype tonight!

Erin and Andrew



19 Responses to “Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 7)”
  1. UgaVic says:

    I am a little late in getting to my ‘weekend’ but am so happy to see another installment from you and Andrew.
    The adventures you have had in ‘picking him up’ will be with both the rest of your lives and I am sure will account for many laughs and smiles as the years pass.

    Let’s hope you will someday be able to return with him and you will both find a country that has been able to build and progress on many of the issues you have mentioned. Your insight has definately increased my base of knowledge of the area and for that alone I am greatful to you both.

    Hugs to you both and so glad he has made some peace with at least dogs as pets:-)

  2. laurie says:

    I can’t help but imagine what was going through baby Andrew’s mind while you were taking that photo. When I first saw the picture I thought he looked afraid. Now I’ve decided that he is thinking: what is she doing now with that weird contraption.

  3. Kath the Scrappy says:

    Thank you for another wonderful read! It’s good that you are doing it in installments. Otherwise I would have gobbled it up in one sitting and be clamoring for more. Your Son is just beautiful and delightful!!! Clearly very smart, a lot of kids take time to learn how use a fork but he just starts right in using it after simply watching you. Wow!

  4. bubbles says:

    this is a wondrous journey you have undertaken Erin to claim your child. through your eyes i see better the reality of life in that part of Africa.
    the malicious neglect in Africa by the colonial nations is the shame of the world. so sad.
    Andrew now has a mama who labored and struggled to achieve him. what lucky little guy.
    thank you for sharing your amazing story.

    hmmm. i would probably live like a queen in Kinshasha on my income. probably wouldn’t last a month though. worms you say….and also insects and snakes even.
    hugs and love to you and Andrew Erin

  5. auni says:

    I thank you too for your story–and that little guy is beautiful!

  6. merrycricket says:

    How wonderful to come home from work and find another installment of your journey waiting for me. I am loving this.

  7. Erin, I love reading about your journey with Andrew. That really is the right word to describe it. Andrew is so little, but I wonder if he will remember any of it – if he will remember that he ever lived some place besides the US.

    As a little kid, we spent time as a family looking at slides going back to when I was a baby and a toddler. Each time, my parents told me the story of who was in the picture and what we were doing. Some of those images are more memories of the event than memories of the picture. I think it’s because I never really had a chance to forget some of those things and that’s what helped my memories remain. But that’s just my take on why I have some very early memories.

    Andrew is adorable and from the pictures you’ve posted, it is easy to see that he is bright and inquisitive. And he is at that delightful age when they change every day. So much fun.

    Peace, Love, and Joy to you both. ♥

  8. jenjay says:

    Thank you for sharing the story of your and Andrew’s first journey together. What amazing experiences! It’s great, too, to hear your (wo)man-on-the-street perspective about the people and city of Kinshasa.

    I know you are posting these after settling in back home, but do you mind if I ask: what did your friend J and you, “figure out what to do about the hotel staff”?

    • Erin Pohland says:

      Ah, the hotel staff issue was simply solved: I told everyone that I would not tip or give money out of any sort until I left. Interestingly, the maid who tended to ask me for money daily no longer cleaned my room. In her place, I had two women who were fantastic and did a great job (well, with the supplies they had. Cleaning was mostly pushing dirty water around with a rag and stick). I tipped them generously before I left the hotel; more than a month’s salary (which I had learned was $20). I stuck to that rule for all hotel staff, and it worked out very well.
      It’s just really hard because you’re surrounded by incredible poverty, and even a middle class American such as myself seems rich beyond imagination to the average Congolese person. I felt a lot of guilt that I led such a comparatively privileged life, largely by accident of birth. I also struggled with the fact that handing out money didn’t solve any problems in the long-term, and may create more in the short-term (for example, when I gave one of my favorite street kids $10, he was beaten and robbed within minutes). Ultimately, it became a practical issue; I only had so much cash on me, and I was stuck there for an unknown period of time. And so I simply couldn’t give out money. I tried my best to instead buy local goods and services so that money would be injected into the economy that way instead.

      • jenjay says:

        (Sorry if I double-comment. My internet hiccuped. o^_^o )

        Thank you for sharing. What a brilliant solution. You must have felt incredibly conflicted and disheartened by the poverty and by your (lasting only an) instant “wealth”. Like digging holes in endless, cascading sand. That poor street kid.

        Thanks for sharing your story.

      • When we were in Guatemala in the mid-90s, we found the same thing. The doctor we traveled with refused to pay bribes to government officials. He eventually got things done, but it took much longer and when someone new came into office, he had to start the negotiation process all over.

        We rarely gave out money, but I often bought things in the market or from a lady who had organized other women to sell their clothing, bags, and jewelry. In the city, I bargained, especially in touristy areas – their prices were too high and they expected us to bargain. However, when we were in a small village in the Northwest Highlands, I bargained enough to be respectable but paid close to what they asked – they needed the money more than I did.

        We were building a school and when we hired local workers, we paid them what would be a fair wage in their village. It always seemed like so little. But as the doctor explained to us, if we paid them excessively high wages, it really would throw off their whole economy, and it wouldn’t really help because we were going to go away.

        Our daughters were 11 and 14 and while we were in the city, they liked going down for milk shakes in the hotel. (Best milk shakes I’ve ever had, btw.) So we let them sign for it and they knew they should include a tip. They just didn’t quite understand how to figure the amount so they gave a tip that was about 10 times the amount of the shakes – those two got the best service from all the staff the whole time we were there. We thought it was because they thought our girls were cute – till we got the statement when we checked out. Ah well – it was all good, and we still have a good chuckle about our high tippers.

      • Zyxomma says:

        I had a similar issue in Brasil. I spent a lot of time in Rio, and figuring out what to do about the street kids — who always showed up when I ate a meal at a sidewalk restaurant — was pretty easy: I just asked the waiters which ones were better-behaved, and gave them my leftovers (I always had leftovers, portions were huge). These kids often sold hot peanuts (in homemade heaters made of pierced food cans); they weren’t solely beggars.

        Elsewhere in Brasil, I always took my leftovers to go, and gave them to anyone who begged, and looked hungry. Bargaining at the markets was de rigueur, but $3 for handmade leather sandals was quite cheap enough, thanks, so sometimes I didn’t. (This was 1984.) I bought handmade earrings in Fortaleza, lots of other stuff as souvenirs (lembranças) and presents. I didn’t give anyone cash.

        I still miss Rio (I stayed in Fatima), and my 3-week trip flying on the BrasilAirPass I bought from VASP was one of the most remarkable trips of my life. I’d love to get back to Paraty (summer home of the royals, when Brasil had royalty) to take some photos of the vultures sitting next to the crosses on top of the church, and the gold mine open to tourists (Passagem da Mariana) near Ouro Preto was fascinating (I’d never been in a mine before, and this one had been open for over 400 years). The beaches of the northeast are remarkable (stripes of turquoise, aqua, cobalt, and jade on the water, multicolored sailboats), and I was very popular with the boys who climbed for coconuts, because I let them use my knife to open them (they were cracking them on the curb before I announced “Tenho faca”); in return they kept me supplied with cocos.

        No bribing of officials was necessary (although I almost resorted to bribery at an airport when my flight was canceled).

  9. Leota2 says:

    I always look forward to your posts!
    You and Andrew are so lucky to have each other.

  10. Zyxomma says:

    Thanks for sharing more of your adventure/adoption, Erin. SO enjoying it. Love, health, and peace to you and Andrew.

  11. beth says:

    Hooray — it’s Sunday and we get another photo of our most handsome bairn Andrew! Such inquisitive eyes, your lad has, there, Erin. You two are so lucky you’ve found each other in this great big old world of ours, and I, for one, am ever so greatful you are sharing your experience with us; it truly is a fantastic love story. Thank you, thank you, thank you! beth.

    (I don’t know if you meant it the way it ‘reads’, Erin, but the whole cat thing… I’d hazard the Congolese aren’t that ‘into’ pets for a variety of reasons — most all of them being more cultural than anything else. The way I read the section though, it sounded as if such avoidance was a genetic/inborn thing deep-rooted amongst his birth countrymen/continentmen [how’s *that* for a Palinesque word?] and that’s why Andrew was so wary of the critters. I’d suggest he was afraid of the moving balls of fur not because of the whole ‘predator/prey’ thing, but merely for the simple fact that he’d not ever been exposed to animals running around in a home. b.)

    • Erin Pohland says:

      Hi Beth-
      More than anything, it’s that the Congolese view cats and dogs as a source of meat and can’t figure out why Westerners feed these animals and keep them in their homes! J warned me that if her cats escaped, they’d be food for the guards at the Ghanan Embassy across the street. It makes sense — if you can’t keep food in your own belly, you certainly aren’t going to waste it on a pet when that same pet is a great source of food.
      For Andrew, being from Goma, I’m positive that the only animals he ever saw (if any) were wild animals, and that he never saw domestic animals, particularly not in a house (he may have seen cows, as Goma does have some of those). It really is more of an environmental/cultural factor than anything else — all a matter of what he’s used to!
      I’m happy to report that after months of terror at all cats and dogs, he’s warmed up to dogs in particular. He’s pet several dogs, and even shared his beloved pringles with Shannyn’s dog!

      • The whole pet thing does make sense, but having always had pets, that’s a hard one for me.

        I would be careful about sharing Pringles with the dogs, though. Potatoes aren’t good for dogs. Or so my mother always told me. She got the information from the American Kennel Club years ago, so it’s always been one of the forbidden things in our house. The other is chocolate, but that seems more well known. Of course, it never stopped my dog from stealing my Oreos if I happened to have one in my hand and it was anywhere near his mouth.

      • merrycricket says:

        Speaking of cultural differences, I had a gentleman in the store today that spoke with a very strong accent and pointed to the nail brushes we sell in automotives, next to the hand cleaner and asked what it was for. When I explained that it is used to clean dirt and engine oil out from under your finger nails, he laughed at me like it was the silliest thing he had ever heard. I wish I had had a chance to ask where he was from.

        I wonder what Andrew would think of my talking birds.

      • Ninufar says:

        Dunno about in DRC, but in some parts of Ghana (for instance), there are lots of cats, they are feral, and they carry rabies a lot more often than your usual cat here.

        If you were raising a child in an environment like that, you’d want to train ’em up to avoid those kitties like the plague, bc that would not be too far from the truth.

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