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September 27, 2021

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Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 13)

By Erin Pohland

Good evening from Kinshasa-

Andrew and I had a fairly eventful day, starting with a mosquito net maze (he LOVED waking up in it, and played with it for about 20 minutes before he let me take him out of it), proceeded to him bathing himself in peanut butter, and ended with him going to sleep early….big day at the embassy tomorrow!

J picked us up around 11 a.m. to go to the Symphonie de Arts, which is a gorgeous art gallery in the nicest section of Gombe (the same neighborhood of Kinshasa that I’m in, but really worlds apart). It’s in a compound, basically; there is a gate and a guard to get into this walled neighborhood. If I ever lived in Kinshasa, I’d definitely live here — and I have just the house picked out. It’s an old colonial house with huge windows with white shutters. Simply fabulous. Of course, given that J’s rent for her place is $3500/month (cash only!), I can only imagine how much a house like that would cost. The house is on the river, right across from the first church established in the Congo. It’s more of a chapel, really — a tiny little building built in 1891 when Kinshasa was known as Leopoldville (after King Leopold of Belgium).

To enter the Symphonie de Arts, you have to go through big gates that are guarded by men with machine guns (naturally). It’s simply beautiful inside; you take a meandering path through tropical flowers, waterfalls and outdoor art. The best surprise comes on the other side of the gallery — peacocks!

I counted at least a dozen of different colors, plus other tropical birds. What a surprise, and in Kinshasa of all places! The gallery was filled to the rafters with art — paintings, fabric work, wood carvings, malachite carvings and objects, bone carvings….so much to see! I don’t think we even saw half of what was there. According to J, the prices are high, but there is something nice about being in this place where no one harasses you and you can shop in peace. Other than the gorgeous African art all around us, it was almost like I wasn’t even in the Congo! I might try the Market of Thieves tomorrow, assuming that all goes well with Andrew’s visa. That’s a place for bartering — you should never pay more than half of what they originally quote you, apparently. I’m excited to try out my bartering skills.

After the Symphonie (which, for the record, is run by a very dour German woman. Not at all friendly.), we went to Cafe Mozart. At the nicer Congolese restaurants, you drive through their gates and park inside, away from the craziness of the Kinshasa streets. We did that here, and went inside to classical music and luscious smells. We met J’s friend B there, who is French and also works for the UN. She’s a font of information and very, very sweet. Andrew had a breakthrough today, by the way — he let both J and B hold him, and even was OK when I walked away while he was sitting on B’s lap! We ordered lunch (nothing special) and then moved on to pastries — delicious!! We shared an apple cream pastry, a Linzer torte, a slice of black forest cake (soaked in kirsch with whipped cream icing) and a marbled pound cake. If it weren’t for the fact that service was so incredibly slow (another fact of Congolese life), it would have almost seemed as though I were in Europe instead of the Congo!.

Andrew fell asleep on me during the car ride home, which is a miracle in and of itself given the condition of the streets here. I am still trying to figure out how J figures out where to go — there are NO street signs, and unless there’s a particular store on a given corner, the landmarks aren’t so great (turn left at the third pile of rubble after the trash heap). To add to the confusion, some streets are one way for part of the day, and they are one way in the opposite direction for another part of the day. The rest of the time, they are two-way streets. There are no signs; you just have to live here to know this, apparently. It amazes me that I’ve yet to see an accident.

I’m moving to J’s apartment on Tuesday. I’m afraid that with the holiday on Thursday (Congolese Independence Day), I won’t get Andrew’s exit visa until next week (assuming that no one will work on Friday as well). I also need to go to the French embassy and get him a transit visa; because he’s still a Congolese citizen — even though he’s considered a permanent resident of the U.S. until I re-adopt him, at which point he becomes an American citizen — he needs a transit visa to even be in the French airport. This child is going to run out of space in his passport before his 5th birthday! Anyway, J’s will be more comfortable and secure, and most importantly….she has a washing machine! Granted, it’s European, so it takes about 3 hours to wash and dry a load of clothes, but it’s better than (a) hand washing in a bucket myself or (b) having the hotel wash my clothes. Anyone care to guess how the hotel washes things? I’ll give you a hint: it involves buckets and rocks. I had given the cleaning staff some of Andrew’s things after the first few days here — he was still sick then with the worms, and we had a lot of diaper accidents. Everything came back slightly hard and dingy. I realized then that was how they must be washing the clothes — and I confirmed it with the front desk clerk later. While I don’t so much care about Andrew’s clothes — I plan to leave most of them here anyway — I don’t particularly want my clothes to be ruined. So I’ll go to J’s and have American TV, a swimming pool, a dishwasher, a kitchen and a washer and dryer. And two cats that Andrew is afraid of, but I’ve decided that he’s going to have to get over his fear of animals — we’ll work on it this week with the cats! I’m slightly terrified of letting the cats out, by the way — apparently, the soldiers guarding a government building across the street will kill and eat them if they find them. Animals aren’t part of the family in the DRC; they’re dinner.

I brought back pastries for K, who missed this morning’s outing because she had taken her son back to his orphanage to say goodbye to his friends (at his request). After Andrew woke up from his nap, he had a snack that involved peanut butter….and it ended in a bath, as he loves peanut butter SO much that he was shoving gobs in his mouth and then thought it’d be funny to rub it all over his face and “wash his hair” with it. Bath time for the little guy! So when he was all clean, we went downstairs to deliver K’s pastries. She opened the door and practically fell in my arms crying. Between the orphanage visit and MK leaving with his two kids — her son’s good friends — he had been a train wreck all day. Their room looked like a tornado had hit it. He perked up for an instant when he saw me and that I had a package …until he realized that the pastries weren’t what he wanted (his tastes are VERY limited since he mostly had a mush made of stale bread and water at the orphanage). Then it was back to a complete meltdown. Then he demanded to eat dinner, right then. Things got hairy again, so I ended up going with them to the Green Garden — K couldn’t get to Western Union that day, so she had no money. We’re all in this together, so Andrew and I treated them to dinner. One of my favorite things is S’s laugh — he has the most infectious giggle! When we go to Green Garden, the first thing he wants to do is get on the swing — and he just laughs and laughs and laughs while K pushes him. I love hearing that; it is like rays of pure sunshine, especially when combined with his big, beautiful smile. He also really wants to push K on the swing — he tells her ‘Mama! Mama! Sit!” It’s so incredibly sweet.

Speaking of Western Union, this cash-only thing is beyond tiresome. Even more than that, it’s getting absurd that no one will take certain bills (well, I’ve discovered that some retailers are more picky than others). At Symphonie de Arts, where most of the art is really pricey, it’s a cash-only transaction (and apparently, I have several $100 bills that are simply no good in the DRC. There goes my budget — in figuring out how much cash I’d need, I never really factored in not being able to use 1/3 of my cash if it was torn, wrinkled, etc etc). I don’t know if there is a restaurant in town that takes a credit card. One of the grocery stores takes cards, but you have to ring everything up at the regular register, get walked over to a separate table with a manager who has the machine, wait there while it goes through (takes FOREVER, and this assumes that the power AND the internet are working), and then be walked back to the original register to complete your purchase. It’s seriously easier to just pay in cash. If I ever come back, I’m going to sit at the bank and demand perfectly new, uncreased, untorn, pristine bills. Or I’ll just hope that this place comes into the modern age between now and then (for the record, if I come back, it’ll be to bring Andrew to Goma, where he was born. It won’t be back to Kinshasa if I can help it.).

Speaking of Andrew, he has started to shake his head yes and no — which is cute, until he shakes his head no when I ask him for a kiss. We’ve been dancing a lot lately, so he starts to shake his head and bounce anytime he hears music. He also is seriously into imitating me. Tonight, I was cutting chicken off the bone to give to him. Once he saw that, he wasn’t interested in the chicken for eating — he wanted the bone so he could learn how to cut the meat off of it himself. This process has been fascinating; it’s like normal growth and development on fast forward.

So, early to bed tonight. With any luck, we’ll get our visa in the morning and then can head over to DGM (immigration) and beg to have the exit visa prior to Thursday. Naturally, I don’t trust Bashaka, so I’m going with him to DGM. If I’m such a hit on the streets, maybe I’ll be extra popular at the government offices.

With love —
Erin & Andrew

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9 Responses to “Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 13)”
  1. I love reading your story, Erin, and seeing Andrew. Given all that he had to deal with at such a young age, it’s kind of amazing that he began to look so healthy so quickly and learned so much in such a short time.

    I thought dealing with money was a pain in Guatemala. The hotel, where there were people who spoke some English, could only change a small amount into Quetzals for us so we always had to go to the bank where no one seemed to speak any English – communicating at McDonalds was easier. In the city that wasn’t too bad but up in Barillas, (back in the 90s when we were there – now they have a real bank), it meant going to a locked room with the owner of the hardware store who would take your personal check from the USA. A little scary and I always wondered, but didn’t really want to know, how he happened to have so much cash on hand. At least no one seemed to care about the condition of the bills. How frustrating.

  2. Elsie says:

    I love reading the tales of Erin and Andrew every Sunday. What an amazing story of persistence, love, anxiety and tension.

    The only thing better would be if this amazing story had its own category of links at the top of the page, so that we could easily review the tale in its entirety whenever we clicked up there, going from the very first one through to the present time.

    *************
    Yo, AKM….
    Hon, when you have absolutely NOTHIN’ to do, could you set up a link like that? It would be much appreciated, especially since you already have links to certain dirtbags, and these “Dispatches from the Congo” contrast so masterfully with THAT other unhappy stuff!

    Just a suggestion from the peanut gallery here who realizes your schedule probably doesn’t need ONE MORE THING added to it, which is why I waited weeks to mention this….

  3. UgaVic says:

    I have to admit I am feeling your anticipation of being able to travel back to the US, but so much of what you are sharing with us is extremely interesting to me!!

    Although I have traveled overseas a fair amount I have never had to deal with the our gov’t when in another country, what an eye-opener!!

    Andrew’s little face is so darn cute I have to think even when he is shaking his head ‘no’ for a kiss, even that can make you laugh at times.

  4. formerwriter says:

    what delightful pictures!!! andrew is soooo cute!!!!

    that cash problem is so incredibly hard to understand as an american. wow!

  5. Zyxomma says:

    Health and peace to Erin and Andrew.

  6. Baker's Dozen says:

    I can hardly wait to see if you get out! 🙂

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