16 April 2014

Don't Forget These Things

It's sobering to realize that I'll forget 98% of the past three years.

I'll fill my brain with other moments and my hours in Africa will be crowded out.  It makes me feel sick and a little relieved.  Give me three weeks out of this country and all the things that matter so much at 7:44pm on a Tuesday night in April will just slip away.

So, I'm taking notes like a patient preparing for amnesia.  Don't forget these things:

Sulky boys on porches.  Little red sandals.

Dress up in the rainforest.

Dewy morning school prep.

Nounou's samosas.

Fresh baby fists at the maternity centers.

First birthdays and rare raspberries.

Sleepy reads. (Lord of the Rings this week).

Impromptu concert after an important purchase.

Photos in the bathroom mirror.

French lessons at this table.

Rain like never before.

Mosquito net movies.

Locker art.

Games on the field.


Steamy days.

Soccer field mushroom harvest.

Nontraditional celebrations and sink sitting.

This. This. This.  Don't forget this.

13 April 2014

Weekend List!

Lists are Back!

Jill's List:

Say what?  (Homeland + Cape Town fans, you will be happy.)

Elias.  On the lookout for threats to national security in Cape Town.

The daily rituals of artists.  I learned that in order to be brilliant, I may have to up my caffeine consumption and consider a daily, public ice bath.  (You should also check out Info We Trust.)

Teaching children how to apologize.  What do you think?


How are you feeling about the Colbert announcement?  This is a pretty great retrospective-summary-reflection.  The bit about Neutral Milk Hotel at the end really got me.

After observing/participating in hundreds of labors and births as a nurse, it really, really seems that the women who are the least "prepared" end up with the nicest birth experiences.  I have definitely seen internet-induced anxiety interfere with perfectly normal childbirth.  This article seems to agree.

My advice: Take pictures of yourself in the mirror instead of Googling-while-pregnant.

Oh, so sad.  Bye, Piecora's!

And I'm also sad about this maybe-closing.  I spent $50 on pens last July at this place.  I was kind of hoping to go back-to-school shopping here with my boy... (See, I even wrote an ode on this very blog.)

And for those of you in Kinshasa...start training!  The 2014 Kima Mbangu 5K Run/Walk (here's last year's event page) is scheduled for Saturday, May 17th.  We spent some hours filming a very entertaining promo video this weekend.  (Thanks, soccer guys who helped with this flashback scene.) A still:

Sarah's List:

In honor of the return of Weekend Lists, here are some lists.

14 Celebrities that look like Mattresses. Seriously.

9 Children's Book Morals for Adults.

20 Amazing Children's Room Ideas. #12 genius (and possible).


20 Rare Historical Photos. NASA before PowerPoint. Ha!

A new approach to sex ed for boys

Are we all in agreement that Comic Sans is terrible? I mean really, really terrible. So terrible that it's getting a makeover. What do you think of Comic Neue? Download it for free!

By bancomicsans.com (http://bancomicsans.com/pdf/nocomicsans8164.pdf) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pope Benedict's only flaw: Using Comic Sans.

And how could geniuses make such a weird choice?

Why UPS Trucks Don't Turn Left.

Everything you've ever wanted to know about tipping. Where does your demographic fall on the Tipping Spectrum?

And if you've been within earshot of me in the last 3 weeks, I've been preaching executive summaries of "The Overprotected Kid." Just in case you missed it, you must read it. Let's stop watching our kids!

8 April 2014

3 Tips for a Successful Medical Evacuation

Now that Jill is not dead we can all laugh about her troubles. Which truly is the best possible outcome. As previously noted, Jill was evacuated to South Africa a few weeks ago for a virus that could not be diagnosed nor treated in Congo, which led to a corneal ulcer. Which led to much misery.

Let's fast forward and begin with a photo of Jill recovered and about to be discharged from her hospital room in South Africa. Spoiler alert: Jill is fine now. Strangely there is no photo documentation of her suffering in Congo.

When it became clear that Jill was not getting better in Kinshasa and could not get better anywhere in this country, we knew she needed to leave. But like any rational person on their death bed in Congo, she said no. I mean, think about the last time you were sick. The thought of picking yourself up and going to work feels impossible. So when we proposed to Jill that she would need to pack a suitcase for an indeterminable amount of time, leave her house, drive to the airport, fight N'djili, then walk on a plane, she gave us a look like, nope that ain't happenin'. It's much easier to languish in Congo than make this trip. This would not be a medevac via helicopter scenario. This was a commercial air/DIY medevac.

But we did it in 3 easy steps:

1- Lie. I told Jill the car would take her straight to the plane. All she had to do was walk out of her house and then walk up the airplane steps. This clearly was never happening, but it made the journey seem more manageable. We ended up arriving at the airport 6 hours before the flight with much waiting ahead of us. Whoopsie!

2- Cheat. It turns out if you're wearing an eye patch, look pathetic, and have a really bossy friend in tow, doors will open. Literally. We made our way into the diplomat's lounge. We did not check ourselves into our flight, we did not check our own luggage. We did not even enter the airport. This was all taken care of for us.

We just sat in the lounge for 6 hours, which was conveniently located next to the airport's latest construction project and thus a few feet from a jackhammer. I did not account for this glitch, so I forced a Percocet down Jill's throat as she listened to the audiobook of Bossy Pants (because remember, she couldn't see) and in solidarity, I read my own hard copy. Tina Fey always saves the day. In retrospect: a precious moment. At the time: the worst 6 hours of the whole ordeal.

From that point on, we cheated the rest of our way through. Turns out when you shout: Medical Evacuation! Urgence! and Step aside, blind girl coming through! You can make your way to the front of every line from here to the hospital in South Africa.

3- Steal. Jill had been sick for several weeks before her evacuation. We were led to believe that her Congolese doctors knew what they were doing. That she would get better. But in fact the situation was quite the opposite.   

A funny kind of PTSD comes over you when you're in the hands of a questionable doctor, and then it turns out he's completely incompetent and might have actually blinded you. You learn to trust no one. Therefore we convinced ourselves that even though every medical professional at one of South Africa's best hospitals (shout out, Sandton Mediclinic!) was lovely and capable, there's a chance they might not actually be doing their job. Because we had trust-no-one-PTSD. Were they really giving Jill her meds every 4 hours?! Had they woken her up overnight? I bet these people are incompetent!

So we stole her chart to take a look for ourselves. And in it we found the kindest, most careful medical notations. They noted her sleeping patterns. They noted our friendship. "Laughing with friend" and "Having good relations with friend" and "Friend still here, doesn't she have anything better to do? Starting to suspect they're more than just friends." (Kidding, but that's what all the nurses were thinking.)

They also noted their careful administration of her medication overnight. We discovered they were giving her sleeping pills, so they wouldn't disturb her when they needed to give her medicine. To thank all the lovely nurses and apologize for our PTSD, we left them with flowers and our hundreds of gift shop magazines that were starting to swallow us in the hospital room.

Those wonderful women even brought us tea. How could we have ever thought they were less than saintly?

The only evidence I was there. Most likely sorting magazines in Jill's room. 
Captured behind Jill's evening Rooibos tea. That girl's got her priorities straight.

And just like children's hospitals that dress up their window washers in super hero costumes, they knew it would cheer us to send this incredibly beautiful man to clean our window.

We have more pictures of this guy washing the window than of anything else during our trip.

Jill and I sat there the whole time he washed and stared and gazed and giggled. And remarked at his beauty. Our oogling proved to the nurses that 1. It had been a really long time since we had seen our husbands. And 2. We were not actually lesbians. Just really good friends. Really, really "special" friends.

2 April 2014

From the Heart of Africa to the Big Apple

Thanks everyone, for your sweet comments and well wishes.  Luckily, in health, my memories of the experience are funny.  Just imagine Sarah leading me (more than a little delirious, wearing a sexy eye patch to protect my absurdly painful corneal ulcer and high on a very old Percocet we scrounged up on campus) through African airports while getting us through customs in record time by mentioning the magical words: "medical evacuation."  She's got serious skills, that friend of mine.

As Sarah mentioned, we're also leaving Kinshasa in June.  Because we thrive on stress, we decided to leave our fate hanging until the last possible moment through a process called "applying to grad school."


The results are finally in and come summer, we will be residents of New York City!

I snapped this as we wistfully drove out of the city last summer, wondering when we'd be back.

Johan and I have almost moved to NYC about 50 times over the past 15 years.  When we were 18, we drove to Brooklyn together to visit his aunt and uncle, romantically taking turns reading Les Misérables aloud in the car.  Aunt Mary made fudge with quality NY chocolate, we rented "Psycho" from the local public library, bought a Tom Waits CD in St. Marks Place and slow danced to the perfect combination of Nick Drake and traffic noise in the artist's loft after everyone else had gone to bed.

I have been enamored ever since.

Little Loulou.  Obviously also enamored.  She loves a good chain-link fence.

However, I applied to seven different public health programs and Johan applied to an equal amount of alternative teacher certification programs...all over the United States.  We thought that if NYC worked, it would be fun, but after a two year prep process (including getting statistics textbooks shipped to AfricaGRE-inspired summer panic attacks, and other anxieties), we really wanted to move for the program versus the city.  Happily, the best programs for us *happened* to be located in New York.

Elias, observing circa 2010 Brooklyn construction and contemplating his return as an 8 year old.

So, what exactly will we be doing?  We have no real concept of what our daily life will look like, but here's the basic rundown:

  • Johan was selected as a NYC Teaching Fellow and will be teaching full-time math to middle schoolers in a yet-to-be-determined NYC public school while also going to night classes to get a master's degree in education.  He wouldn't ever mention this, so I will:  this program only accepts 10-15% of it's applicants, indicating that Johan is...well...awesome.  
  • Elias and Loulou?  Well...I'm kind of hoping that some of you might have some tips and ideas for all of the kid-related plans we need to make.  The whole registering for NYC public school process (and Pre K?!?) is way more complicated than living in the Congo...especially if you start throwing in wishes like a dual-language program.  I'm secretly relieved that there's no planning we can do until we have a NYC address.
  • We're looking to live in Washington Heights/Inwood and again, welcome (beg) for any wise suggestions, hookups, or ideas regarding the neighborhood.  Anyone have an affordable-esque 2-3 bedroom and looking for great renters?  (ha.) Where should we eat our weight in Dominican food?  Any District 6 public school shout-outs?  Gulp.

This is where I pause and am grateful for three years of Kinshasa cost of living.  I think that cereal in New York will be less than $20.77 a box.  And the milk, though expensive, is not exclusively UHT and is thankfully kept in the refrigerator, not the cabinet.  

My current cabinet: milk goes next to the cereal and above the pasta.
Each one of these lukewarm babies costs around $3.

Someone once described living in NYC like "going every morning to your window, opening it, and throwing handfuls of one-hundred dollar bills out the window before shutting it and getting on with your day."  I am well acquainted with the fleeting Ben Franklin after expat life.

That said, I'm scared that our daily schedules will be hellish and we'll all hate each other after six months in our inevitable 300 sq foot apartment.  I know that I'll be terribly jealous of Sarah, Adam, Charlotte and Ani, still living in Africa.  I will cry as my children lose their French (as although there are public French/English immersion schools in NYC, the chances of my brood getting a spot seem little to none).  I'm worried about money.  I'm worried about stress.  (Why did I just decide to read this book?)

Bad pre-move read.  Find it here...unless you're planning to move to NYC.

However, I'm desperately relieved to be going to a huge metropolis after three years in Kinshasa.  I can't imagine moving to a place where English is the only language I hear all day long. I am trying to remember how it feels to speak Spanish.  I now crave a certain amount of stress and uncertainty in my daily life.  I sleep best to loud music and traffic outside my bedroom window.  I have gained a lifetime immunity to caring about cockroaches.  

Mostly, I want my kids to continue to understand that the world is big and everyone has a story.  I think that the subway itself is enough to teach that lesson.  NYC, here we come.

20 March 2014

Where We've Been...

Dear Readers:

You may (or may not) have noticed that Jill and I have been gone for a bit. Jill managed to catch a pretty impressive virus, which quite literally could not be cured in Congo. So she was medevaced out of here to South Africa. I went along to boss around her perfectly capable doctors and ensure her magazine supply never ran out. Our husbands stayed at home to take care of the children.

The good news is, Jill will make a full recovery. She had the best care possible in Johannesburg. I returned to Kinshasa yesterday, and Jill will arrive in the next day or two.

The bad news is, neither of us will be able to post for a bit because I head to Burkina Faso on Saturday and Jill is on strict orders to rest up.

But the best news is, we have more blog material than one could ever imagine. We don't even know where to begin. One thing we'll always remember is what a man told us in Jill's hospital room -- a complete stranger, no less, who had to come to visit us --

"You don't have to look very hard to find the kindness in people."

8 March 2014

Weekend List!

Jill's (Short)(Sick) List:

Hello, friends.  I've been sicker than ever before this week with the stupidest maladies usually reserved for childhood, including pink eye among other things. What gives?  Mama Youyou said Congo was just making sure I still respected it's power over me...

Awhile ago, some friends of ours Skyped us and said they were subtly reducing their circle of friends in order to be better friends with the people they really liked.  I kind of thought this was a great idea (mostly because we made the cut) for people in their 30s with small, time-sucking children.  Turns out, Pamela Druckerman has the same philosophy for folks in their 40s.
 But you find your tribe. Jerry Seinfeld said in an interview last year that his favorite part of the Emmy Awards was when the comedy writers went onstage to collect their prize. “You see these gnome-like cretins, just kind of all misshapen. And I go, ‘This is me. This is who I am. That’s my group.’ ” By your 40s, you don’t want to be with the cool people; you want to be with your people.

Two different favorite friends posted photos this week of essential book collections.  I love them all.  I love books.  Which books do you love?

Per the forever eloquent S.E.: In the end, these were the books that mattered most: The Complete Works of Beatrix Potter, "Momoko and the Pretty Bird," Three different collections of fairy tales, The Sufi Poets, Yehuda Amichai, Pablo Neruda, "The Prophet," Stephen Warren Moore's "Life Days," "The Secret Garden," My dad's New Testament from high school, "Portrait of a Lady," and a nasty little number titled, "The Story of O." There were others of course that changed my life, but in the end I had to let them go. I'm not sure what this small library I've kept close says about me, but here it is in all its glory. 

The books that L.R. and her kids have read together this year.  So perfect.

Our family doctor has been fasting in Richmond, Virginia this week to protest the government stalemate over expanding Medicaid.  Such an important issue.

Photo: This guy. Backs up his words with action. Good luck with the fasting and protesting in Richmond Greg!

Speaking of the working poor and uninsured, this article about maternal mortality in the U.S. is important.  I was able to participate in 2010's Amnesty International report Deadly Delivery and I haven't stopped thinking about this issue since. 

What do you think about this movie?  Too same ol', same ol'?  Yay! A new Wes Anderson?

Have you already seen this video?  I agree so completely and it makes me so sad.  I want to hug all of my middle school boys and especially my son.

And.  International Women's Day in photos.  Le 8 mars is special here in Congo and around the world.

A long time ago in 2012, the girls had special International Women's Day dresses made and this adorable photo quickly claimed the spot as one of our most popular posts ever.

Sarah's List:

In 2016, I fear going from this passport...

Such tasteful understatement.

...to this one. I tend to agree with this article.

Speaking of minimalism, check out these brand makeovers. And these too.

Why Africa is the most homophobic continent.

Rainbow Flag Gay Pride New York 2008
By See-ming Lee 李思明 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/seeminglee/) (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ellen poses for Annie Liebovitz.

Big image news for bloggers. Thanks Getty

Jeu des Echanges. Probably the most telling piece of colonialist memorabilia. 

PSM V85 D315 Map of european possessions in africa
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My child's name has an umlaut, or trema as we say, because hers is extra special and French. (And they are slightly different.) Check out all of these amazing ways not to use that symbol.

I with Diaeresis
By RicHard-59 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When non-Americans throw "American-themed" parties.

And thank you to everyone for your awesome comments regarding our move. I promise I won't start linking all things Burkina, but here's a good piece about their current political situation.

Defense.gov photo essay 100503-F-3745E-305
By English: Master Sgt. Jeremiah Erickson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4 March 2014

We're leaving Congo. Forever.

I hate change. No really, it messes me up. When my favorite websites get a "new look" it takes me a while to forgive them and visit again. When I commute, I have to take the same route every day or I'll be totally off. I do not use an alarm clock. My eyelids just know when to open. I'm the type of person who marries a routine. And never cheats.

But for some reason changing countries always feels exciting. I moved to Egypt and then Congo without visiting either place. And without knowing a soul. When everything changes it's far easier than just one thing being different.

So here we go again. We're leaving Congo after six of the best years of our lives. In June we'll take our last flight from the place we started our family. The only home our children have known. As Mama Youyou has told us over and over, "No one is happy about this." It's true. It's horribly sad and I will probably self-medicate to make it through all the goodbyes.

In fact, last week I wrote about leaving Congo on World Moms Blog and Adam gave me a hard time for writing such a depressing post. Check it out here. I'll be referring to the supportive comments folks left there from now until our departure. (Thank you, World Moms!)

Photo credit: Jill Humphrey

But as a dear friend said when she left us doubled over in sadness upon her exit from Congo:

This was never meant to be permanent.

And so we can't stay here forever. The time feels right to move on.

After our usual visit to the States this summer, we'll pack up and head to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And since we're switching countries, we may as well change our careers while we're at it. Adam and I will be the Country Representatives for Mennonite Central Committee, and our children will go to work charming the locals so we can make friends. They can already pronounce the words "Ouagadougou" and "Burkina Faso" so that's one hurdle crossed.

We've seen pictures of our future house, we have a nanny lined up (sigh), and all four of us will visit Ouaga in a few weeks. In some ways, it feels like we've already transitioned. It is truly a weird time in our lives.

I don't know much about Burkina Faso. But unlike the other places I've moved, I have been there before. Strangely, about 12 years ago I passed through Ouagadougou with friends on the way to Mali. And I kid you not, I had a dream about coming back there to live with Adam. Unfortunately I didn't take my premonition seriously enough to size up the place for its functionality of moving there with two children.

Luckily, many expats in Congo have also lived in Burkina. So we've been mining them for information. When we mention our move the most common words we hear are:
  • integrity
  • hot
  • friendly
  • motorcycles
  • strawberries

 Let's compare that to the most common words we hear when we tell people we live in Congo:
  • dangerous 
  • humid
  • potholes
  • Ebola
  • why?

Clearly, we love Congo despite its reputation. But Burkina sure sounds like a great place too.

I know you're wondering...yes Jill and her family are leaving Congo too. She'll write about their change in due time. And no, we don't know about the future of Mama Congo, which feels like another one of our best friends here. Dear readers: Do you have any suggestions? 

But let's get to the most important part of this post - Do we have any readers in Burkina Faso? If so, will you be my friend?

2 March 2014

Weekend List!

Sarah's List:

How armies get fed. MREs around the world.

MRE contents
By Christopherlin (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This week we hosted a dozen or so African presidents, prime ministers, and other VIPs in our little neighborhood. It wasn't disruptive to our lives at all. These guys would never dream of traveling via helicopter back and forth, nor close our roads. And a tank or two would surely be overkill. No, African heads of state are far more humble. (Ahem.) 

Sure hope all this was worth it and you solved Africa's problems.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Meanwhile their spouses held a meeting of their own. During which they probably did solve all our problems. But I've yet to find any publicity of their roundtable discussion.

Notably, the president of Uganda was here. Probably taking cover from a very terrible decision.

If he had just read this: Don't be an asshole. (I especially like the line about Episcopalians.)

Politics of the Belly. A good guide to understanding leaders in Africa. The title says it all.

How to choose a font. How not to choose a font.

Nairobi readers: Did you know someone's trying to map your transit system? Matatus and all!

Nairobi to Cape Town 09
By Dillon Marsh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Salif Keita was also in Kinshasa this week. He came to support the project Blanc Ebene, a benefit for Albinos in DRC.

Featuring a fantastic photo exhibition by Patricia Willocq.

See more of Patricia's photos in this interview.

Jill's List:

Moving from developed and developing to fat and lean.  A super interesting argument for changing the way we talk about the world.
As the old adjectives about Africa — “hopeless,” “war torn,” “impoverished”— fade, fat economies must stop assuming that poor countries should mimic them and instead embrace their models for social innovation and efficiency. 

I've been thinking about this article.  Old Yeller.  My Girl.  Sob.  And then, there were the books of my 80s/90s childhood:  Bridge to Terabithia and all of those teens-who-romantically-die-from-terrible-diseases novels by Lurlene McDaniel. Remember those?  What gives?!

Photographer Lynsey Addario happened upon this birth on the side of a rural road in the Philippines a couple of weeks ago.  I sent the article to nurse friend, Ruthie (remember her incredible guest post about having a baby in Kinshasa?), and she replied with a couple of photographs she just happened to have of birth in unusual places: on an Ethiopian Airlines airplane and TWINS in a canoe!  Do any of you have experience with surprise births?

Displaying Miss AboveAddis_ 30May08.jpg

Displaying canoe twins dec 09.JPG
This photo was taken in a remote part of Equateur Province, DRC.  Via Ruthie Schaad.
To get to this location it is a 15-17 hour canoe trip and at one of the stops along the way a woman gave birth to twins with the help of the midwife from the community who came to the canoe to help.

Um. Cannot wait to see Tey.  Saul Williams in Francophone Africa - with one day to live.  (Have I professed my undying love for Williams on Mama Congo yet?  No?  Well.  Consider it done.)

Current favorite app at my house.  Can't wait to show the kiddos that this place exists in real life.

American Museum of Natural History  -  Image from Wikipedia

Seems to me that I used to know this guy...   Kuddos, Konrad.  Check out more of Possessed by Paul James here.

We used to live right around the corner from Ezell's Chicken in Seattle. The smell used to waft beautifully up the street...   Hungry Lion just doesn't compare, Kinshasa.

Nope.  Just not nearly as good.  Sorry.  Image from Wikipedia.

And.  Grand merci to all of the nurses and doctors at Centre Privé d'Urgence (CPU) who helped take care of Lou this week during her "pneumonia adventure."  Our hospital stay included French cartoons, jus de l'hôpital (a.k.a. meds), and really quality care.

Displaying image.jpeg
Our awesome nurse removes Loulou's IV while Papa Antoine, Mama Nounou look on, ready to take her home.

The above experience makes me think more deeply about a 19th-century mother's handwritten record of her babies' childhood illnesses.
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