16 October 2014

I'm Never Leaving Burkina Faso...and not because I like it.

This is the third international move for Adam and me, and let me tell you, that does not make it easier. (Remember last month's jubilous declaration that we'd returned to blogging...and then no more posts until now. Transition is a royal pain in the rear.)

I wish we could have stepped off the plane, unpacked the suitcases and called it a day. But here we are, two months later, still arguing over where to hang the pictures. This is not a joke, I had to give myself a timeout last weekend after Adam spaced pictures on the wall in a way I would have never, ever approved. 

"No, Adam, they're fine. I'm just always going to look at that awkward space between them and grit my teeth, but whatever. It's fine. I'm letting go. I need to leave the room now."  

This, of course, if after he's cursed up a blue streak hammering concrete nails into the wall, which crumble the wall away if you're not careful. He was careful, but he still took out a good chunk of wall. You can't see it, but I know it's there, hidden behind the pictures that are spaced all wrong. 

American drywall, I miss you. Always have.

Remember this photo from the time I gave sage advice for How to settle after your move abroad? "All you need are concrete nails and a good attitude!" Yeah, easy for me to say during my 6th year in Congo. In retrospect, transition is a bit like childbirth. The only reason you think you're ready to do it again, is because you've forgotten the pain.
Sidenote, check out those beautifully spaced photos from the wall of our home in Kinshasa. These are the very ones that caused marital dispute #2,648 during our current transition. 

So somewhere between hanging pictures on crumbling concrete walls, scrubbing previous renters' filth from my bathroom so I can replace it with my own filth, and rearranging our furniture over and over and still not getting the feng shui right, I declared, "Welp, that's it. We can never leave Burkina Faso, cause I ain't doing all this again." No siree, this is it. We're never leaving.

I want a real life and a routine again. I don't want to have to leave work to micromanage the plumber because I'm convinced I know more about hooking up a washing machine than he does. 

We have become obsessive and compulsive expats in transition.

But we've been here before. I know the obsession over the tedium and the trivia is an attempt to control our lives because there's so much going on out there that we can't control. And by "out there" that I mean the culture out there. 

We are still at the cultural transition stage where it drives me absolutely nuts that I am expected to return greetings to each and every single person I pass on my bike on the way to work. I'm on a bike, for Pete's sake. In the seconds that I whiz by, I can't possibly answer how I'm doing and then also ask you how you're doing. And repeat that exchange dozens more times all the way down the street. I am a grumpy American in transition, leave me alone friendly people. 

And so, what we cannot control on the street, we attempt to control at home.

Exhibit A: We have two very lovely people who work at our house everyday. Anastasie takes wonderful, loving care of our children and Mamadou, bless his soul, cooks and cleans for us. Let me preface by saying, we are more grateful to these two than anyone else in this entire country.

However. Each morning when they arrive we are culturally obligated to engage in pleasantries answering and asking1. How our evening/weekend/time since we last saw them has been. 2. How our morning thus far has transpired. 3. A report on the state of our family here and at home. And 4. An inquiry about our own health. All in French, mind you.

Because we are ugly Americans in transition, we merely endure the exchange. Adam put his finger on it during breakfast last week, "They show up right when we've reached peak momentum getting the kids ready with the tooth brushing, the hair brushing, the potty routines. Then I have to stop and deliver a report. In a second language. I can't do culture before I've had coffee."

There's also handshaking involved and I can't touch anyone that early.

We thought of asking them to come a bit later, after the morning routine, just so we could preserve the momentum and respect the exchange afterward. But then Adam wouldn't get his breakfast baguette on time from Mamadou (bless his soul) who picks it up fresh on his way to work.

These are the serious dilemmas one has to work through when adapting to a new culture.

The solution to this completely imagined quandary - which would not bother us if we weren't crazy people right now - is to exert control where we can, for example in our own home over those within our impatient reach.

So Adam worked out a plan for the night guard to go get the baguette from the bakery each morning. He leaves it on our porch without looking us in the eye. Then Mamadou passes by the bakery, a bit later, on his way to work and pays for it. Done. Adam gets baguette, we manipulate, postpone and control the morning greeting routine. I tie the girls' pigtails up in peace. We don't have to touch, talk or be grumpy with anyone until we have finished doing those things with each other.

I promise we love it here. The people are helpful and understanding, despite our angst. We're slowly crawling out of hole of transition. I've started waving and smiling more on my way to work. And it's only partially because I imagine getting hit by a car and everyone standing around saying, "Serves her right, she's the white lady who never responded to ça va." 

We will soon release control over the little things. We will trust the plumber and gladly shake all the hands. For now we fight about hanging pictures and trust that the day we take them down we'll forget who knocked the hole in the wall behind them. (Except, not really. It was Adam.)

23 September 2014

Back-to-School (Back to Blogging)

Hello Mama Congo readers. We know. It's been a while. Who knew switching careers and countries would take up so much of our time? Funny that.

Jill and I would like to mark our semi-settlement in our new lives with a comparative look at back-to-school in New York City and in the New York City of Africa - Ouagadougou. (Ha!)

Our back to school journey in Ouaga began by translating and deciphering the school supply list. (Not all that different from the girls' crazy supply list in Congo. Remember that?) Here in Ouaga we just handed it over to the neighborhood Papeterie guy and he picked everything out for us.

Feigning excitement over pink notebook protectors. 

Les listes.

No need to go behind the counter. Mr. Papeterie is full service. 

Each day before school Mamadou (our house-helper extraordinaire) delivers the fresh, morning baguette. I consider my greatest accomplishment in Burkina thus far to be never trying the morning baguette.  I once tried stale, evening baguette, which confirmed my suspicion that one bite of fresh baguette would be my gateway drug to a habit of 5 whole loaves a day.

Best torn. Not sliced. 

Some time during breakfast, Anastasie, our new nanny arrives.

A note about Anastasie: Although she is our new "Mama" so to speak, mentions and memories of Mamicho and Mama Youyou bubble up each day. More often than not, those are accompanied by sentimental tears - on my part, but I run away and hide before anyone notices. Because the key to successful transitioning is hiding emotion, right?

After breakfast, the girls travel just a few blocks on a mostly washed out dirt road to maternelle.

Charlotte's teacher, who speaks beautiful French and makes fun of Adam's. Love her already.

This is the look of discovering we have bought the wrong-sized notebook. 1/2 inch too narrow.
Back to the Papeterie we go. 

After sorting the rejected school supplies from the approved ones, Adam and I waited around until the girls felt comfortable. They never got comfortable, so we left and they wailed. Charlotte tried to hold back her tears, but then made a last minute decision to run screaming for the door. Luckily her teacher clotheslined her and snatched her up. Good work teacher. It'll be a great year.

Per Loulou's request, a close-up of Char. (Taken before her tragic abandonment at school.) 

Stay tuned for a look at Jill's back-to-school routine in NYC. Which is sure to include better roads, but the jury's still out on their baguette.

13 July 2014

We'll be back.

Hello Dear Readers - 

We're taking a short hiatus. A break. A breather, if you will. Did you notice?

Once we're settled in our new lives -in New York and Ouagadougou- you'll be the first to know.

For now, it's play time in Virginia.

Hidden Meadow Farm. Photo credit: Jill Humphrey.

1 June 2014

Weekend List!

Sarah's List:

Guess what! Good news! Reproducing might not destroy the planet. (As long as you raise your kids right.)

And let your kids play. They probably won't kill nature either.

Photo credit: Jill Humphrey

This. This is exactly what I needed to read at this precise moment in my life. This is the last week of the only life we've known for quite some time.  And it's the pits. Can it just be the future already? Or I'll settle for a week from now when I twist off the cap on a mini bottle of Air France wine.

Speaking of airplane perks, The Ultimate List of Airlines That Serve Free Alcohol.

Ever been on the beach and wondered what's across the way?

Adam and I were Stayers (expats left behind) for a long time. I agree with this article, that sometimes it's harder than leaving. Take away: It hurts because it is good.

We're doing lots of packing, ditching and giving away. The only consolation is it feels so, so good to fit our lives in 8 suitcases. But check out these minimalists.

Using Parentology to raise your kids. This guy's got all the answers.

And the strangest thing happened this week. Mama Youyou came to work wearing this shirt, which I swear is an old shirt of mine from high school. I remember buying it because I thought it looked so cool and "African." I guess Mama Youyou thought the same when she found it at the marche. It's completely possible this is my actual shirt.

P.S. These dogs after a bath.

Jill's List:

Always researching ways to feel beautiful on an airplane. (Insert laughter.)

Sapeurs.  The endlessly fascinating dandies of Central Africa. Thanks, Alice!

These people will put together your Ikea furniture for you.  Interesting.

I've been attempting a hipster top knot again recently and it freaking hurts my hair.  Sarah and Johan are really sick of my detailed descriptions of scalp pain.  This is an interesting explanation, but really, I do wash my hair!

Wish I had her hair.  Like everyone else.  At least we can now copy her beauty routine.

Speaking of hipsters.  This article is blistering:
Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics
For all of you expats who aren't packing up.  Moving's hard, but so is staying behind.

Once again, the Onion cuts to the chase.
At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”
When Sandy Hook happened, Elias was also in 1st grade, the same age as the children who were shot and killed. I was so thankful my family was "safe in Africa".  I am actually more anxious thinking about my kids' safety in the U.S. than in the Congo.  My fear is insane, yet legitimate, thanks to this idea that unless everyone has a right to an automatic weapon, our freedom is threatened.  Like the father of Christopher Michael Martinez said, "What about [my kid's] right to live?"  Not one more. 

Image from Moms Demand Action.  Let's get to work.

And.  Kids and their guns.

29 May 2014

The First Goodbye

So, it's begun.

The Goodbyes.  A thing so profound that capitalization is required.

Dr. Laure came by yesterday for a final porch chat.  We talked about babies and medicine and trying to make life a little easier and a little safer for women in Congo. We talked about New York and Burkina Faso and Kinshasa.  We bemoaned la douleur de la séparation.  The first Goodbye.

27 May 2014

Kinshasa Guru: Mel Schellenberg

In 2010, right after Loulou was born, I began to have swelling in my left knee.  The pain and stiffness spread to other joints and I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  


I started on a bunch of fancy medications and got better, but when I arrived in Kinshasa three years ago, I still struggled to get out of a car and definitely couldn't sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor with my kids.  I felt lucky that the meds were working and that my rheumatologist didn't freak when I said I was moving to the Congo, but I was resigned to a new kind of life.

I first met Mel Schellenberg after about six months of watching Sarah and others go religiously to her kickboxing classes.  Their dedication was almost ridiculous.  They asked me to come along.  I laughed and gently reminded them of my little chronic disease issue.  How insensitive of them.  But, eventually, I relented.  I tried to whine about my "condition" to Mel.  She assured me that as long as I listened to my body, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn't do serious exercise.  I did a lot of modified moves that first year, and slowly realized that a lot of my body issues traced back to inactivity, not disease.  My doctor agreed when I saw him that first summer after several weeks of regular exercise.

After years of Mel-induced sweat-fests, Sarah and I wanted to recognize her for everything she has done and meant to us.  I'm off several medications and have nicer joint action than ever before. I'm stronger, happier and less anxious.  I can honestly tell my students that their school-nurse-and- incessant- lecturer-of-all-things-health-and-fitness works out exactly like she should.  I've always sort of lied before. I also don't look like a fool when throwing an air punch anymore and I value that.  

I believe in my body again.  Mel insisted that I step it up, stop feeling sorry for myself and explore my personal limits and I'm eternally grateful.

I can continue on, but really, nothing except for the many words of those who know her would suffice to explain the impact Mel has had on our whole community. We actually had to cut parts of people's responses, they were so enthusiastic. When's the last time you emailed a large group of people and every single person wrote back instantly? That happened this week. People truly love Mel.  It's obviously not just me.  

Jill L.: 
I love dance and sports and have worked out all of my life - until I was in a car accident and injured my neck and shoulder. After the accident, I re-injured my neck every time I tried to start working out. This went on for about 4 years and I had pretty much given up on being fit. When I met Mel, I was really afraid that the same thing would happen again during exercise (because she is super hard-core!) and I would wind up with months of severe pain. Mel assured me that she would help me learn alternative exercises and movements that wouldn't aggravate my injuries. In those first crucial weeks, I was amazed how she kept in contact with me almost every day and really coaxed me along. I've found that she is hard-core, but she's also sensitive to each person's situation and wants the best for her clients. While I wouldn't yet call myself fit, I've been working out with her for 4 months with no injury. I'm very encouraged to be back on the road to fitness! 

While brutal, painful, and often demoralizing, Mel's training sessions are the highlight of my week. I have the privilege of being pushed to exhaustion and extreme fatigue by Mel four times a week. I must be a glutton for punishment, because she pushes me to lengths I have never tested myself before. Her workout sessions are more than exercise. Her work is therapeutic, and helps me work through personal and life challenges. Mel is motivator, life coach, and drill sergeant wrapped up into one tiny, dynamic package! I could not imagine life in the Congo without Mel Schellenberg.

Mel’s classes make me want to die, but I still can't wait to return every time for more! She is a powerhouse of motivation and energy. I am the most fit I have ever been in my life. Mel provides a fun and challenging workout that keeps me at my personal best.  


Without fail on the day I have personal training with Mel, I start to think of excuses to get out of it, but I am so glad that I can never think of a good enough excuse.  I feel amazing, my clothes fit better and I truly feel stronger and healthier.  I have even managed to reduce my medication for hypertension!

Mel personalizes everything she does.  She changes plans on the fly, based on how I'm feeling and how things are going.  She's very responsive and quick to find what works best.  She is encouraging, but holds me to a high standard and makes me work really hard.  She does an amazing job blending what's fun, what's tough, what's challenging, and what I'm getting the hang of.  I had never, for a moment, thought of working with a personal trainer, and now I wonder why I waited so long to start working with Mel!

Sarah S.
It's no exaggeration when I say that Mel changed my life. [Insert awkward tearing-up here.] Three years ago when I started taking her classes, I had just had my second baby and pretty much thought, what most women think after pregnancy, that my body would never be the same. But I'm in better shape now than I've ever been. And that feeling goes a long way living in Kinshasa. Mel is quite possibly the nicest, least judgmental, most motivational person I've ever met. Sometimes women feel pulled in so many directions, and especially guilty about what we're missing at home while we exercise. But during a recent workout, as we're all covered in sweat and near exhaustion, Mel said, "Nobody else needs you right now. This is exactly where you need to be." I can't think of a better way to sum up how I feel about Mel's workouts.  


I love working with Mel because of how human she is. In my experience with personal trainers, it seems that their “buffness/healthy” is unattainable; they never eat junk food, or bake cookies with their kids, or have a drink with their friends because they’re too busy maintaining a bodacious bod that everyone stares at and says, “That can never be me.” But with Mel, she never judges when you engage in a drink or two, or confess that you may have had a little “junk food splurge”. In fact, she admits she has them too…with two children and a husband it’s hard not to enjoy a treat every once in a while. And her attitude encourages me because even though I splurge more than I ought to, Mel still pushes me to know that I can still attain the body that I want when I am ready to make that commitment…and I don’t completely have to give up all of my tasty treats!

Mel and her kiddos. 

Sara M
Working with Mel in personal training and group sessions has truly made my life better.  Not only do I see a difference, but I feel a difference in my attitude and outlook on life.  I have more energy and am happier in general because I am working out regularly. Mel is incredibly patient and supportive, but also pushes me to my limits in the best way possible. I never would have imagined several months ago that I would be able to do some of the things I am able to do now with relative ease like regular push-ups, weighted squats, and much more. 

Can I just submit a picture of my abs? 

Photo credit to Emmanuel & Micah Schellenberg.

Note to Self:  Work on face when taking "jumping photos".

See?  Effortless.  

If you would like to get buff and happy, call Mel.  She'll transform you in more ways than one.


25 May 2014

Weekend List!

Sarah's List: 

11 Hidden Messages in Company Logos. (I'll never forget the day I first saw the Fed Ex arrow.)

Fedex by Dano, on Flickr
You'll never unsee it.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Dano 

Looks like they caught the guy who scared the bejeezus out of us in December.

The Little Art House in Eastern Congo. It's not all bad news coming from Goma.

A house paint that vaccinates your house. Sign me up.

It sucked my blood by gagstreet, on Flickr
Take that!
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  gagstreet 

The Most Positive Countries in the World.

Feelin' fine in DRC. Too bad nobody asked. We're gray on the map, as usual.

An excellent list of some really great reading.

What happens when kids only see white people in books.

Emma Thompson would rather have a root canal than join Twitter. Ditto.

And when your entire life is about to change, I've found rewatching every episode of Sex in the City is a very effective coping mechanism. 10 years later, here's how the seasons ranked.

Yes, that is a pink velour case.

Jill's List:

Doing my pre-flight reading.  Not sure about the "lady" part, but this is pretty good advice.

This is amazing. (Where are my scrunchies and stirrup pants?)


Too many claim white people are at risk in communities of color. Really, it's those communities that are threatened.


Is "doing what you love" actually the best advice?

How do you feel about  this depiction of Kinshasa and the final, take-away message:
My ultimate advice? Simple: don’t go to dangerous places like this unless you have a really, really, really important reason to go there.

Dang it.  I have apparently wasted a lot of time.

Groaning-cheese, anyone?  I hear it's better than an epidural.

Image from Wikipedia

No cheese?  There's always the over-the-top birth plan to get you through.  I may have once been handed a birth plan by a patient that instructed me to call in a sushi order after delivery.

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