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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 17)

By Erin Pohland
Days 20 and 21

Good evening from Kinshasa-

In 48 hours, I hope to be on a plane back to the U.S.  In 48 hours, I hope to get through customs with the help of someone called a “protocol,” who will deal with the paperwork relating to the baby for me.  In 48 hours, I hope to say au revoir to Kinshasa, possibly forever.

But what to do between now and then?

Today, I spent some time packing; I certainly bought more African art than I expected.  Between that and Andrew’s scooter (handmade by his foster family in Goma, and one of Andrew’s favorite things), my suitcases are getting full (even with leaving so much behind…I’m putting my carry-on into one of my suitcases, because Air France is absurdly strict about carry-ons and I’d prefer to not get tagged with another $200 fee to check it at the gate.).  The power has been out for a grand total of about 6 hours so far today, rendering most activities, like watching TV or even doing the dishes (the water apparently comes from some sort of cistern and requires electricity to pump it), completely moot.  I already read the one book that I brought, and I’m not a huge fan of reading on my iPad.  Even when the power is on, TV isn’t a great option; most of the channels are in French or an African language (everything from Yoruba to Swahili to Kirwanda), and the English language channels are random (largely kids’ programming).  And the internet here is maddeningly slow (although J says that it’s pretty fast for a 3rd world country.).  In short, I’m bored.  I’m trapped in this gated apartment complex, which is certainly safe — but it’s also VERY boring.  Andrew took two long naps today, making him unavailable for my general amusement (although he’s less and less amusing, what with refusing to be anywhere but in my arms or on my lap unless he is sleeping).

Even if I were at the hotel, I couldn’t have done much today.  There was a political opposition meeting/demonstration scheduled for today near my old hotel at the 30 de Juin plaza, and I couldn’t have gone anywhere.  Running around from place to place with a hot, exhausted baby and being mobbed by people wasn’t very much fun, but it might actually be better than this (actually, I’m exaggerating.  At least I’m not spending money now.  When I get John for the day, it’s $80.  Then I pay bribes/tips to just about everyone we see, it seems, and I end up having to spend money on something else.  So it feels pretty good to not be hemorrhaging money for the first time since I’ve been here).

I did talk to John today, to ask him to please offer more money to Simon to ensure that I get my exit letter by Tuesday at the latest.  That’s my scheduled flight, and I want to be on it.  If K could get her exit letter around 4:30 yesterday and then be on a plane at 10 p.m., I should be able to do the same on Tuesday (and if I get it tomorrow, I’m just staying until Tuesday.  I have spent so much money in the past 3 weeks that I can’t stand the thought of paying ANOTHER $500 to move my ticket up 24 hours.).   John promised to do his best, and even helped me out with my Congolese cell phone — I was out of minutes, but I couldn’t exactly go out and get minutes without calling John to ask him to come get me (although they sell minutes along the road and just about everywhere you can think of, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the guards were selling minutes.  Or I could probably give one a few hundred francs to run down the road and buy some for me.  But at the time that my cell ran out, it felt impossible).  So John bought some minutes for me, and texted me the PIN numbers. When you’re out of minutes, apparently you can get incoming calls and texts but you can’t send them out.  What’s amusing to me is that one PIN number was good for $6.25 and the other for $3.75 (I had asked him for $10).  I have no idea how they’re selling minute cards in such random increments, but whatever — my phone works again.  Of course, he didn’t send instructions for putting the minutes onto my phone, but thank goodness for the internet — you have to enter a long code with lots of *’s and #’s, and then your PIN number.  And all of a sudden, you have credit!  Ahh, the Congo.  I don’t know what life will be like when I go back to the land of monthly billing for cell phones.

Right now, I’m listening to the sounds of a party at the Namibian Embassy next door, and contemplating my Spanish words list for John (I’m teaching him Spanish).  Montana comes tomorrow, hopefully with some homemade pili pili (the local spice blend) for me to take home.  I’m looking forward to a freshly-cleaned place — I’m seeing the need for a domestique here, given the amount of dirt and dust in this city!  The floors are all white marble tile, and they show absolutely everything.  I see lots of little J’s dirt footprints all over the floor — cute reminder of him, who should be in the States by now and meeting his father and two big brothers.  I hope the transition goes well.

So, one more full day to get through — and the 4th of July at that!  Let’s hope that I can celebrate the holiday with an exit letter, aka independence from the Congo!!  Happy 4th of July from Kinshasa!!

Love, Erin & Andrew


Happy 4th of July from Kinshasa!

I wish we were there to celebrate with everyone, but alas…we’re still here.  With a little luck, we’ll be on our way back to the U.S. tomorrow.

Andrew and I just hung out today.  Montana was here to clean, which was great, since Andrew loves him (and I really was ready for the place to be cleaned)!  He has offered to make Congolese food for Andrew on Wednesday, but I’m hoping that we won’t be here to sample it!

I got an email from Andrew’s foster mother this evening, and in English no less.  I’m not sure how she got access to the internet, or who helped her write the email. I suspect it’s through the church, although Reverend Timothee doesn’t speak much English.  She speaks no English, but it was so sweet of her. When we met, I gave her a thank you note (written in Swahili), along with my email address and some money.  I honestly didn’t expect her to email me, and was very pleasantly surprised that she did. She mostly wanted to check on Andrew and see how we were.  I can’t ever explain to her how grateful I am to her for caring for Andrew.  The way that he’s bonded to me makes it clear that he was very loved.  I am going to try to sponsor her directly through Women for Women International, an organization that helps women rebuild their lives after war. I’d love to help her out given what she has done for me and for my son.

My friend Krista asked me for suggestions for good books about the Congo the other week.  I’ve read a lot, and can recommend a few.  The classic book about the Congo before independence is King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.  This book is about the horror of Belgium’s colonial rule in the Congo, when unimaginable atrocities were committed in the name of King Leopold in order to exploit the natural resources of the colony.  A more modern book is All Things Must Fight to Live by Bryan Mealer, which deals with the Congolese civil war (also known as the Great War of Africa).  I’ll warn you that both this book and King Leopold’s Ghost are difficult to read, in terms of the sheer violence that is described.  Both are essential reading, however, if you want to understand the Congo. The author and historian Gerard Prunier has an authoratitive guide to the Congo’s civil war (aka Africa’s World War), but it definitely is a dry read.

A more uplifting book is A Thousand Sisters by Lisa Shannon.  The author was inspired by a segment on Oprah on the violence against women in the Congo to start running to raise money for the women of the Congo.  Now, Runs for Congo Women take place all over the country, and thousands of Congolese women have received crucial support as a result.   This book is the story of how Lisa started the run and the charity, as well as her trip to the Congo to meet some of her “sisters.”  This book will inspire you to take action; the statistics about rape and sexual violence in the Congo are astounding.

Before I left the U.S., I purchased a new book that is supposed to be fantastic, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns.  It’s another story of the Great War of Africa, told from the perspective of a journalist covering it (like All Things Must Fight to Live).  Given that I was on my way to the Heart of Darkness, I didn’t want to read it beforehand — I already knew too much!

I should know by 11 a.m. Congolese time (6 a.m. EST, 2 a.m. AKST) whether or not I’ll have my exit letter tomorrow.  I’m almost finished packing, and I’m ready to get out of town.  Hopefully, by this time tomorrow, we will be on our way to Paris.

Love, love, love from Kinshasa-
Erin & Andrew

Andrew celebrates the 4th of July in red, white, and blue!



10 Responses to “Dispatches from the Congo – A Journey of Love (Part 17)”
  1. I love reading these every week. Your story, yours and Andrew’s, is such a wonderful story of love and hope for a better future. Thank you. 🙂

  2. John Larson says:

    I’m predicting one day this kid will be President…

  3. Zyxomma says:

    When I read the first paragraph, I thought this might be the last installment. Glad it’s not, and glad you & your son are home, safe, and sound.

  4. WakeUpAmerica says:

    July 4th? I didn’t realize this was a story written awhile ago. So I’m guessing Little Andrew is in the states by now. I hope so. What a beautiful little angel he is. I love his big, brown eyes.

  5. Baker's Dozen says:

    I am very glad that you and your little sweetie aren’t there for the election aftermath. But your cliff hanger is getting to me!

    A little about Kinshasa after the elections:

    • UgaVic says:

      Thanks for the link. While sitting in one of our hub towns for the second day trying to return home from a meeting I have had plenty of time to catch up some on all sorts of things. The election results are not looking good, nor is the near future.
      Let’s hope before long things steady out for the country and region so when Andrew is big enough and Erin is ready to brave the craziness again they can at least visit his home region, if not the capital.

      • Erin Pohland says:

        The election results were announced on Friday, with Kabila “winning” by a fairly large margin. By all accounts, there was massive fraud involved in this vote, including nearly 100% voter turnout and 100% votes for Kabila in some districts while opposition stronghold districts had their votes “lost.” I truly hope that this can be resolved peacefully, although 4 people have already been killed by police (that they admit) and there are reports that police are going door to door in opposition-friendly neighborhoods in plainclothes and taking away young men. It’s disturbing.

        In Goma, where Andrew is from, the people largely are pro-Kabila. Congolese politics are fairly complicated, but this one can be traced back to the Rwandan genocide. When the ex-FAR and Interahawme (Hutu army and militia) were re-arming in Congolese refugee camps (then Zaire), Mobutu allowed it and even provided them with guns. Paul Kagame, then VP of Rwanda, devised a plan to attack the camps and the army + militia in the refugee camps (after the UN refused to remove them, and instead continued to feed and shelter the perpetrators of the genocide, in addition to legitimate refugees). With the help of the Ugandan government, Kagame enlisted a Congolese rebel group to attack the camps to avoid international outrage. That rebel leader was Laurent Kabilia, Joseph Kabila’s father. Given the tenuous relationship between the Congolese and the Rwandan refugees (who were being fed while locals starved — the arrival of the international aid workers drove prices up enormously), this attack was very much welcomed.

        I’ve simplified a lot, but the upshot is that it might actually be safer for us to travel to Goma than to Kinshasa right now. I am ready to go back, though — I miss the Congo terribly (surprisingly, given my experiences there). I’ll wait until Andrew is a bit older and I can afford it, and then we’ll go. If the East has stabilized somewhat, we can go there (and probably stay across the border in Gisenyi, Rwanda).

  6. UgaVic says:

    Thanks for the reading list.I have to admit it might be a few months before I dive into reading them. I have a tendency to pick the time of year, more chances to be outside and have sunny weather, when reading anything that can be ‘dark’. It is important to me to understand what other parts of the world deal with in trying to just survive…helps me stay a little more grounded.

    I wait on pins and needles to know how easily you and that adorable little guy made it out.

  7. merrycricket says:

    Look at that beautiful face! I just want to smother him with kisses! I made note of the reading list.

  8. jimzmum says:

    Ack! A cliff-hanger! That boy is tugging on my heartstrings like nobody’s business. Thank you for the book list. I am intrigued and want to learn more. I hope you are having a wonderful time being home-home.

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