21 June 2012

Stories People Tell Me. (Or, I Tell Them.)

Whenever people hear that we are "visiting from Africa," they inevitably have a story.  It's what people do in conversation; they find common ground.  So, here are some of the things people have told me in the week since we became the folks "visiting from Africa."

Note: I love these conversations.  I am not at all annoyed, irritated, or exasperated by people's stories about Africa, Africans, African princesses, African dictators, Joseph Kony, expats, living abroad, airplanes, airplane food, and/or Obama.  I love it all and may, on occasion, "accidentally admit" to "visiting from Africa" when it is not at all necessary or socially appropriate.  A manipulative expat faux paus, certainly.  Fascinating, absolutely.

"I know some other missionaries that work in Africa!"

Alas.  We are not missionaries.  I know many very lovely missionaries in Kinshasa, but, my family is not among them.  Sometimes, people are disappointed to find out that I am not an exciting missionary-meets-romance heroine like Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (totally filmed in the DRC, by the way).  But, their disappointment quickly turns to confusion.  Why would anyone live with their family in the Congo if they aren't missionaries?

"I knew this guy who married an African princess."

Which is when the conversation goes (because this dialogue has happened more than once.), "Oh, a princess from where?"  "No idea."  "Oh, okay."

My {aunt's cousin's sister} lived in Africa and caught malaria and she really never was the same again."

This general malaria concern is expressed by many.  From my mother (obviously) to my dental hygienist (really?), and I do get it.  Malaria is terrible.  Most of my Congolese acquaintances have chronic malaria, which takes them out regularly for a week of chills, fever, and malaise and they consider themselves among the lucky.  Johan did have one bout with the disease in April.  He still somehow managed to throw a (highly febrile) 30th birthday party for me.  We are among the happy people who can arm ourselves to the teeth with anti-malaria equipment and make use of it frequently.  I came to the U.S. with home malaria tests and Coartem should anyone be silly enough to get a fever in the first couple of weeks out of the "zone."

"Do you go on safari most weekends? I've always wanted to see a giraffe."

Nope. No giraffes in Kinshasa and I've never been on safari.

Kinshasa looks like this (kind of):

Kinshasa Miniature by Christophe Rigaud

Not so much like this:

"You came all the way from Africa to have your shoe soles repaired by me?  I had another customer come from Africa one time...what was his name?"

How unethical is it, exactly, to butter up a local business person by insinuating that you traveled to Harrisonburg, Virginia from the Congo just for their particular flair on shoe repair/hot dogs/haircuts/etc.?  Not at all!  Because it's absolutely true.  I have a notebook filled with lists about things that I was planning on doing when I came back this summer.  I wrote a blog post about it.  I have been dreaming of a haircut by Anna for months.  Johan really did walk around on peeling soles until he could have them fixed by the guy at Preston Dry Cleaners.  We rushed, still jetlagged, to buy enormous pork chops from Jim at the Farmer's Market 10 hours after we arrived.  Maybe you can get a glass of Evan Williams whiskey in Kinshasa, but it tastes better at the Blue Nile, listening to friends play super loud music at 1am.

I'm a little worried now that I've written this post that I'm totally that annoying person, (far worse than Sarah's "those people"), who uses the "I'm visiting from Africa" line to get attention after only being there for ten months.  I can think of a few people who are actually African and/or who have actual Africa chops that are reading this and rolling their eyes.  Sorry, everyone.  

I really don't know anything about Africa.  I know a little bit about Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo and more about Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I have a kid, who, if someone asks him where he's from, he says "Seattle, Washington."  We're all getting a little confused.  And maybe it's actually me that is telling the stories.

But, I really do think that it's okay in the end.  Okay for me to try identifying as the outsider, even if I'm really a townie.  Okay for my mom to remind me to buy even more mosquito repellent.  Okay if people assume we're missionaries.  Okay if people assume we're crazy.  Okay to strike up a mini-conversation about American influences in Africa with the bagger at Red Front.  Okay for the shoe guy to remember a long ago exotic customer who may or may not have been married to an African...or was it Indian...princess.  It's all okay.  Or, maybe kind of great, actually.

At One End of Lincolnshire Drive.  Harrisonburg, Virginia by Jill Humphrey

Kinshasa from the EU by Jill Humphrey

1 comment:

  1. Your stories are beautiful, Jill.
    (this article: 'better than the best that it can be')


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