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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 9)

By Erin Pohland

Hello from Kinshasa, or should I say Hell’s Waiting Room….

Seriously, it seems like all I do here is wait.  Wait at the hospital, wait for the power, wait for my laundry (it took 4 days for 2 baby blankets and a sleeper), and wait at the Embassy.  Poor Andrew is going to think that his new life is a waiting room.  He’s had a lot of firsts in waiting rooms!!

Today should have been easy.  I got a call around 8 am that the Embassy needed a copy of my passport.  Why they needed it is beyond me, given that the State Dept is the one who issued my passport, but whatever.  They say jump, I say how high.  I headed over around 11:30 with another American woman named K, whose time in Kinshasa had been a total nightmare thus far, complete with scheming orphanage directors asking for more money to release her child.  Unreal.

We get to the Embassy, baby in tow, shortly before noon.  We sit down and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  At 2:30, I’m annoyed — we were the only people in there, and no one had called us to a window. I asked the security guard why we hadn’t been seen, and he told me — in broken English — that they were “in meetings.”. I asked when they’d be done, and he said “I don’t know.  Soon.”  Well, soon turned out to be 5 pm.  Poor, poor Andrew and poor, poor Mama. I was about to seriously lose my cool.  I was called up to the window to hand over that single piece of paper.  I did so, and was told to wait because the consul wanted to talk to me.  I waited.  10 minutes later, I’m called back and told that the consul didn’t need to talk to me.  I’ll admit that at this point, I was very close to the edge of my patience.  I maintained my composure as I asked the officer if she was aware what the State Dept’s warnings were for Americans regarding Kinshasa.  She looked at me blankly.  I said, “your employer, the State Department, doesn’t want Americans in this country, let alone this city.  This embassy is significantly slowing the ability of Americans to leave this country, and I can’t figure out why.”  She interrupted to tell me something about how the embassy doesn’t want any Americans stuck in Kinshasa.  I told her that if something happened to one of us because we were stuck there due to them, there would be hell to pay (I said it more nicely, but not by much).  And so we left.

Poor Andrew didn’t fall asleep until 4:45, and was up by 5:15 when we left the embassy. Poor Mama hadn’t eaten, figuring that we’d get this done in short order and grab something to eat at Hunga Bustas (seriously), a pizza place down the boulevard. Poor Mama also hadn’t packed a drink for the same reason, and decided to get a drink from the Embassy water cooler.  Bad, bad plan.  Apparently, the US Embassy in Kinshasa fills its water cooler with local tap water, because I am sick, sick, sick, and I haven’t had anything that didn’t come out of a package or a bottle since I got here.  God forbid I make the assumption that the US government provides clean drinking water at its embassy — or even that water in a water cooler is purified.

When we left the embassy, it was Congolese “rush hour,” which basically means there are thousands of people on the main street (Boulevard 30 de Juin, named for the day of Congolese independence in 1960). It was the last thing I needed.  I grabbed K by the hand, squared my shoulders, and bulldozed my way through that crowd.  I put on my most serious face, and made no eye contact at all. People called out to me, and I ignored them.  I had enough of Kinshasa for one day.

I got up to the room and cried.  I’m just frustrated.  I don’t want to be here for one more week, let alone two to three more weeks! If that happens, I’m getting a burka.  I can’t keep being the sideshow attraction the minute I set foot outside of the hotel.  It’s not  being here that is so hard — although it’s not easy!! — but not having an end date.  Anything is doable as long as you know it’s finite.  Right now, this trip is neither finite nor doable.  And so I cried.

But life goes on, and tomorrow I meet J for lunch (and by “meet J for lunch,” I mean have the UN drivers pick me up. Thank goodness!).

Andrew news: super cute today, and very good at the embassy.  He’s eating like a champ — two packets of Quaker oatmeal for breakfast, and a ton of cheese & crackers for dinner.  Lunch was cobbled together from his diaper bag at the Embassy.  Jerks.  He was very good, and had some firsts — first wave, and first two-handed wave.  K’s usual driver, John, was at the Embassy with another American and Andrew was fascinated by John (who is Congolese).  At one point, Andrew touched John’s arm, then stared at it really hard.  He then picked up his arm and out it beside John’s, then grabbed mine and lined it up, too.  Apparently, Andrew has realized that I’m white. Smart kid! He then played peek-a-boo with John for the better part of an hour.  He’d also hand John his cheerio cup, and John would “hide” it.  Andrew would get really anxious, John would give it back, and then Andrew would crawl onto my lap and try to hide it in the diaper bag.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I learned something tonight about life in a Kinshasa orphanage that just broke my heart.  Some of the older kids here at the hotel with me who are being adopted by other American familes eat at least half a chicken a day, in addition to whatever else they can get their hands on.  Totally understandable. The hard part, though is that they eat the entire bird, bones and all.  Apparently, the nuns forced the kids to eat the bones when they got chicken (rarely) for extra nutrition from the bone marrow.  It’s troubling — and incredibly sad.  I don’t know how they do it, or how they haven’t choked.  Kiss your kids tonight, and be so thankful that you live in the United States.

I’ve decided to start a list of things that annoy me about the Congo.  Maybe in keeping a list, I’ll get less aggravated.  Maybe not. Here goes nothing…..

1. Bugs.  I have bed bugs, small ants, and God knows what else in my room.  I’m covered in bites.  I thought mosquitos would be the worry, but right now, I’d happily get malaria for a break from the damn bed bugs.

2. Money.  The Congolese love them some American dollars, but they’re jerks about it. They won’t take ones — they’re worthless here.  They also examine your money and if they think it looks too old, or wrinkled, or there’s a small tear….they won’t take it.  It’s the single most ridiculous thing in the entire world.

3. Locks.  Every door in this damn country is a double lock — ie, you need a key to open it or lock it from both sides.  It’s one of the most annoying things ever when you’re carrying a baby and two bags and need to just leave your room.

4. Gender.  No one here gets that Andrew is a boy.  Everyone asks me if he’s a boy or a girl.  Now, I fully admit that I have an entire Village People wardrobe for him, but that’s back in Alaska.  Here, he’s dressed like a boy (a very adorable boy, but still.  A boy!). I can’t understand the confusion, given that gender identities are really clearly established here.

5. TV. Congolese television is awful.  Our TV is unplugged so I can charge my Congolese phone, but I caught a glimpse in K’s room tonight.  It’s violent and degrading. A soap opera showed a man beating his wife and children.  Lots of gun violence that would make the FCC go haywire with complaints.  It’s awful.

6.  The guy outside of my hotel who wanted a picture with me.  He now hangs out around my hotel and every single time I walk past, he asks for a picture with me.  I don’t get it — it’s not like I’m printing them out for him.  He just apparently wants to have his picture taken.  With me.  Every day.

7.  The US Embassy, unless there’s an outbreak of war or something.  And even then, I’d still hate them, but just be two-faced about it (unless they wouldn’t let Andrew in, in which case, full-on hate again).

That’s it for now.  I’m sure there will be more later…..

Love & miss you-

Erin & Andrew



9 Responses to “Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 9)”
  1. huntforfood says:

    My granddad, now deceased, emigrated from Europe in the 19teens. He always ate as much of the chicken’s bones as he could chew up with his old teeth when poultry was for dinner. He always said it was what made his joints strong.

    The waiting room ordeal sounds awful. I would’ve lost it, I’m afraid.

  2. Wow. You waited this long to tell us you had bedbugs??! omigoodness, i would be totally going nuts!!!!
    I have been reading every one of your installments, your story is amazing, scary, exciting, all at the same time. I love your descriptions of the street, the people, the bureaucracy! THANKS for sharing this, i would have never heard about you if you weren’t featured on this blog.
    And I do hope at the end you tell us how you get rid of those bed bugs.

  3. Baker's Dozen says:

    You are a great family!

  4. Leota2 says:

    Erin, thanks so much for your latest dispatch.

    What a mess Kinshasa is. Luckily you and Andrew could leave it. Not
    so much luck for the poor souls whose country is falling apart as they live with
    the daily dysfunction as a matter of course.

    Can’t wait for your next installment.

  5. auni says:

    Every time I read one of these dispatches I get sort of anxious that it won’t end well. Even though I know you got back home safe and sound, I still get an anxious feeling that you won’t get out of there with Andrew. Silly I know, but just demonstrates my (and everyone elses) caring about you two. God bless you Dear, and God bless that precious baby

  6. beth says:

    Erin — have you spoken with anyone at the US State Department in DC (ie: to The Congo Desk) about your experiences at the Embassy? It has always been my distinct impression and understanding that US citizens, *rightfully so*, have ‘priority’ at any Embassy anywhere in the world. I know Consular Officers are incredibly busy, but, sheesh!, the ‘treatment’ you received from the Embassy was horrible! Inexcusable.

    Not to be snooty or hoi-poloi about it, but did anyone ever tell you why you had to wait and wait and wait with all other folks instead of being accorded the courtesy of having your ‘case’ even semi-prioritized, you being a citizen, and all? To my way of thinking, there is No Way a citizen should have to get their information from a [local] security guard — particularily when the Embassy has called that citizen in for a set time! Something is *seriously!* wrong.

    I wonder if State in DC is even aware… beth.

  7. Zyxomma says:

    Thank you for continuing to share your story with us. Love and blessings to you and Andrew.

  8. jimzmum says:

    What an awful day! I do hope that you raised a stink when you two got home! The story about the children and the chicken is so sad. Thank you for sharing this story.

  9. merrycricket says:

    I have no idea how you managed to keep your cool for an entire day waiting at the embassy. I got aggravated just from reading it. So glad that you are home while I am reading this. You may have adopted Andrew, but this is a labor story I’d I ever heard one.

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