29 June 2012

Friday List!


Living on the equator, we think a lot about sun. And sunscreen. This photo makes me think a lot more about it.

This past weekend was my sister Katie's bridal shower. Check out these lovely tissue paper dahlias made by her even lovelier friend Kelsey. They were so great Adam asked how to make them, but was embarrassed so told her he was only asking because I wanted to know. Busted. I had already asked.

Photo by Jill Humphrey

The Failed State rankings are out. Looks like we're #2 after Somalia. That's a promotion, or demotion, from #4 last year.

Somalia 1992 by Monica
"Somalia 1992"
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Monica's Dad 

And here's what "Living in a Failed State Looks Like" or here's what living in a failed state can look like. Or this. Or this. Or maybe even this.

Oh Nora. So sad. I remember reading her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck in my early twenties. It's a book about getting old and I couldn't really relate at all, but laughed the whole time. That's a good writer. Also, in reading a bit more about her this week, I'm remembering I may have stolen my famous marriage advice from her: "Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from." I tell Adam I'd be divorced from him any day.

Adam and I are in Chicago this weekend for dear TASOK friend John Searles' wedding. Looks like our favorite blog is also taking a summer vacation there too.

Can't wait to see the reunion of these two. (John & Charlotte in Cape Town, 2011).


Pondering the used clothing stalls all over Kinshasa.  Ever wondered where the cast-off, cast-offs go after they are dissed by the Salvation Army?  Check out this article.

Photo from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Beast article, The Lifecycle of Used Clothes.  Via BoingBoing.

Remembering a beautiful nurse and friend.  Thinking of all her expert lactation advice emailed to me across the ocean this year.  It was distributed far and wide.  Many mamas have you to thank as they nurse their babies.  Thank you, Judy.

Judy and Adam examine fresh, new baby Annais.

Got a great fabric gift from friends visiting from Kenya: kanga.  Kenyan pagne, in other words.  A couple of good friends have been doing research on kanga and are mentioned in this article - amazing stuff.  Anyone speak Swahili and want to translate the message on this particular piece of cloth?  Here goes:  EWE MOLA WANGU IPOKEE DUA YANGU.  

Laughing about how a 12-inch blue bicycle (perfect for a 6-year-old birthday) appeared on the side of the road in a trash pile right after we emerged from a house show featuring these lovelies (and him, and them) where we REALLY remembered one of our favorite bike enthusiasts, this guy.  Kind of a great coincidence.  Taking it to Kurt at Shenendoah Bicycle Company for a post-trash-pile tune-up.

Not to us, it isn't.  Thinking of all of our favorite bikers.

Going to make a huge pile of chocolate devil dog cake, strawberries, and cream (as requested) for my very own six-year-old tomorrow.  It will then melt into a pile of delicious mess in the 108F Virginia heat.  Seems  to me there was a Seattle heat wave in June/July 2006 that resulted in a sweaty pile of new mama and baby.

Thinking about little tiny kids playing fiddles.  Or, violins.  Thanks to a fellow TASOK kindergartner waiting for a plan in the N'djili airport, Elias got to try his hand at the instrument.  Except, he's a total lefty and some chin rest issues arose as a result.  Our friend teaches Suzuki method - which intrigues me.  If we somehow figured out how to get a tiny, lefty violin back with us to Kinshasa, Elias could go for it...maybe with some help from these guys, who practice next door.

Investigating netbook ideas for Mama Vida.  She's been wanting one and we said we could get her one far cheaper here in the U.S. than she could ever buy in Kinshasa.  Anyone have ideas for a very inexpensive netbook?  She just needs basic internet and word processing...

Bonne fête de l'indépendance congolais et congolaises!  30 Juin!  Watch this.  From the amazing and tragic film, Lumumba.

And.  Happy Day tomorrow, my lovely, fun, witty, beautifully irrepressible boy.

27 June 2012

Guest Post: This Too Shall Pass (or) UNFAIR and STUPID

I've known Andrew Jenner since 9th grade when he first re-landed in the U.S. after an eight-year stint in Kenya.  He was fascinating then and now.  Lucky for Mama Congo, he's also a real writer.  

Here a little something fancy for your Wednesday.  Thanks, Andrew!

According to family lore, my parents were going to name me Adam until a second cousin of mine was born a few months before me and his parents stole the name. I then almost became Christopher, and I’m told my dad was partial to some of the B-list O.T. names like Noah and Ezekiel.

But in the end, they settled on Andrew. And so I happily began my life, sharing a first name with the patron saint of Russia, Scotland, throat ailments and fish mongers, not one but two relatively obscure U.S. presidents and an enormous number of other American males born during the late Cold War era.

For the first couple years, my name presented me with no real challenges or heartache. Then my parents moved to Kenya in 1989. Andrew, it turns out, causes non-native English speakers enormous difficulty, both with its lead-off aggressive American “AEH” and the tricky “dr” bit that comes off more as a “jr” in U.S. English. A couple of the more common Kenyan attempts:

• “EN-jel”
• “AHN-duhr”
• “AYN-jew”
• “AHN-too-roo” (about the closest they ever really got)

I don’t really hold it against Kenyans, either. I certainly inflicted a great deal of violence on Swahili grammar, syntax & pronunciation during the seven or eight years I lived there, and they were nothing if not gracious and kind as they went about butchering my name.

The issue arose, though, in the Kenyan custom of referring to mothers as “Mama X,” X being the name of her firstborn child (or maybe son; honestly, I don’t remember, and it’s not like all those neat & wonderful “cultural traditions” that we sort of expect from quaint, poverty-stricken societies are really ironclad anyway, and regardless, I was both firstborn and a son). Janice Jenner should have been Mama Andrew, but the Kenyans just couldn’t swing it.

They could, however, nail my sister’s name: Hope. They could easily, on the first try, every time, hit it out of the park. Hope: one syllable with a nice long Swahili “o” and two straightforward consonants. And so, Janice Jenner – who, as I believe I may have already mentioned, was supposed to have been Mama Andrew – took the nom de mère Mama Hope.

To an eight-year-old boy, this came as a grievous, wretched injustice. My younger, hair-pulling sister gets all the glory just because my name is hard to say? It was a seriously UNFAIR and STUPID situation. When I brought my perspective on the matter to the attention of Mama Hope, she just kind of smiled and said something trite about life not always being fair. Which was doubly UNFAIR and STUPID because Mama Hope was the one that gave me my STUPID name in the first place and then showed no remorse or sympathy or anything. Do you remember the book Alexander and the Terrible,Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? At least he wasn’t stuck with a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad name FOR LIFE.

I don’t remember much else about how this played out. I may well have gotten a little too mouthy about it a time or two, and ended up being unfairly sent to my room by Mama Hope. Sister Hope may well have goaded me about it, causing me to hit her or pull her hair, and then get unfairly sent to my room yet again. But then I got a little older, and the grievous, wretched injustice of the Mama Hope situation became a little less grievous and wretched. Kenyans never really got my name straight, but this became less and less of a bitter pill, until eventually, the experience coalesced and settled in my mind as a lesson about how extremely shitty life circumstances sometimes arise, and how sometimes they are unfair and stupid, and how making an issue of this inherent and immutable unfairness is usually counterproductive, and how sometimes, you just need to give things some time.

Andrew totes Elias around during a Virginia summer dusk walk.  Photo by Jill Humphrey

25 June 2012

Male French Flight Attendants: A Love Letter

In catching up with news items from the last year, I came across this article about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or as his friends call him, DSK. Allegedly, Air France assigned an all male crew to this alleged sexual assaulters flight. I would imagine male French flight attendants would have no problem wrangling infamous sexual assaulters because they're great at handling toddlers and pregnant ladies.

Adam and I fly frequently with Air France (I think there's a term for that) and I'm convinced all male French flight attendants are hired based on their good looks, wit and ability to swoon me with their nurturing ways.

Here are just a few times I've fallen in love with male French flight attendants.

Heartwarming Interaction #1: About a year ago I was 9 months preggo when I boarded our flight from Kinshasa to Paris. I must have looked like hell. Flying out of N'djili Airport is like running the final gauntlet Congo throws at you. If you are feeling sad about leaving Kinshasa when you pull up to the airport, by the time you've been yelled at by the 5th power-hungry, fakely-epauletted guy pretending to check your passport, you're ready to peace out.

So we board the plane close to midnight and I'm hugely pregnant with 1 year-old Charlotte in tow. Soon the entire fleet of flight attendants gathers round to judge me for waiting so late in my pregnancy to fly. This is where I feel like reminding them they chose to work for one of the only airlines without restrictions on how pregnant you can fly. I don't even mention I'm having a crazy amount of contractions, but they need to deal.

 Baby Charlotte rocks the Air France bassinet.

Just then my future French flight attendant boyfriend (with real epaulettes by the way) walks up and whispers that he used to be a fireman so if I go into labor not to worry. He said he had delivered a baby once before, so he was prepared. I told him I had given birth once before. He said he felt like we were a good team. Blushing ensued. And I managed to make it all the way home without giving birth.

Heartwarming Interaction #2: Once Charlotte was fussing (or maybe it was Adam, I don't remember) and a flight attendant took one look and returned with two plastic cups in which he had sweetly smashed warm, wet tissues in the bottom. He said if you put these over your ears it helps equalize the pressure. And incidentally also makes you look like a plastic ear-cup alien. Because I can't really find anything to corroborate the plastic ear-cup effect, I think it was mainly for the distraction or to make the American family look ridiculous. But it totally worked to calm Adam...err, Charlotte, down.

Heartwarming Interaction #3: Charlotte has been known to freak out about wearing a seat belt. I think it's mostly because she's unfamiliar with the idea of being restrained in a moving vehicle. So when she started screaming from her seat in Franglish, "Pas seat belt! Pas seat belt! Papa! Papa!" on landing, all the female flight attendants told us it was strictly against FAA regulations for her to use a child seat belt and sit on Adam's lap. Just then a man swooped in with that great baby seat belt extender and said she could sit with her Papa because, "C'est comme ça avec les filles et leurs papas."

And so hats off, chapeau bas. DSK, you've got nothing on my family and the troubles we cause in flight. Thank goodness for the Jean Dujardins of the air.

22 June 2012

Friday List!

Sarah's List:

Tipped off by good friend Andrew Jenner to Vice's Guide to Congo. An excellent five-part series. Look for Andrew's guest post coming up on Mama Congo.


Can you tell me how to get...how to get diapers without Sesame Street characters on them? Some good points about advertising and our children. And finally someone asks why newborn diapers always have a design with yellow swirls that fool all new parents into thinking their baby has a dirty diaper. This tripped us up every time, with both babies.

Remember this pic from this post? Jill and I both marveled at how beautiful this diaper is. Man, so beautiful.

Best part of my morning was seeing Robin Roberts' face when Maggie Gyllenhaal used the word vibrator twice before 8am. Anyone seen this movie?

I know I'm the last person on the planet, but I'm loving the show Girls. Nothing beats a funny girl in my book. Totally worth it just to watch Brian Williams' beautiful daughter. And in an interesting plot twist, Adam has become a bigger fan than me. He somehow manages to say, "It's just like that one time in Girls," in most conversations.

Speaking of working Girls into every conversation, here's a piece about f-ing redheads. As Ani's hair starts to peek out, we might have two redheaded girls on our hands. Only once has someone said, "Well, let's just hope that hair color is just a phase."

Even better than the unknown side of the by e³°°°, on Flickr
Redheads unite.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  e³°°° 

Jill's List:

Let's talk about this decorated diaper issue.  After peeling Lou out of the weird Turkish diapers we bought for the plane ride, I was ready to splurge for my old, I'm-a-lazy-hippie, standby of Seventh Generation diapers.  I mainly like them because they are an earthy shade of brown and nothing else.  They are aesthetically pleasing as far as diapers go.  No longer.  I went to buy a pack at the Friendly City Food Co-op and found that Dr. Suess has attacked them.  I'm not the only one who's mad.   How quickly I get picky after re-entering.

Just because we've become semi-famous for our attention to eyebrows on this blog.  The NYTimes is copying us and doing salon pieces.

Donna Alberico for The New York Times

Johan just got back from a 5 mile run with our favorite ultra-marathoner.  I'm super jealous.  It's not that I like running.  I don't at all.  But, I have been so busy this week that I haven't gotten to exercise.  And I'm really grumpy about it.  Am I like these people?

Have you all read this article?  Thoughts?  I have definitely made less-ambitious (or weirder.  move to Africa, anyone?) career choices because I have two young children who I'd rather spend time with.  I'll save my upcoming, lauded, high-powered, international public health career for later.

And, more from the Atlantic.  We talk about this "idea" a lot at my job place.  So interesting.

Not in the Congo, we don't.  See:

Oh, the French.  Adorable.

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

19 June 2012

On Becoming Those People

A few years ago an American friend told me a story about a couple they knew who lived in their same village in Africa. When they were all Stateside, they got together so they could introduce them to their friends at home. She said they acted totally different and became incredibly socially awkward. "It was like they had totally forgotten how to interact in American society!" This is the anecdote I replay in my mind every time I'm in any sort of social setting. Do not become those people. Do not become those people.

Here are some signs we're becoming those people:

I had never in my life driven either of my children until this past week. I can easily go an entire year without operating a motor vehicle of any kind. Thankfully my sister was in the car because, I-honest-to-goodness, had to ask which was the accelerator and which was the brake. She was kind enough to explain the "one on the right makes the car go." And then we drove from one side of the parking lot to the other. And that was the extent of my career chauffeuring my children. Lucky for them.

Porsche 911 GT1 engine subsystems cartoo by wbaiv, on Flickr
Driving again kind of feels like this.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  wbaiv 

We went to Target within the first 24 hours of being home (obviously) and the Starbucks there had free samples of some sort of whipped cream topped-caramel-drizzled-macchiato-pumpkin spice-chai tea substance. Adam got absolutely giddy and confirmed several times with the poor teenager working the cash register that they were in fact free. He then found a bar of designer chocolate for only $2 and brought me to see it. We both agreed Target should really consider charging more for their products.

jack johnson:better together by visualpanic, on Flickr
It's free. Just take it!
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  visualpanic 

I am about to become one of the oldest people in history to have their wisdom teeth taken out. As the receptionist at my dentist explained to the oral surgeon why I had waited so long, "Well, she lives in Africa." And then whispered, "and keeps getting pregnant." Honestly, compared to the medical events of last summer (read: giving birth) I'm looking forward to the drug-induced nap in the dentist chair.

I am completely shocked how long it takes to fold a laundry basket of baby clothes. It doesn't look like a lot, but you can get at least 50 onesies and hundreds of pairs of baby socks in one load of laundry. Dear god, how do the Mamas do this everyday and then iron it all? Note to self: give Mamas a raise for tedious, never-ending baby laundry tasks.

And lastly, Adam and I actually have discussed, at great length, on several occasions how culturally inappropriate it would be to bring either of the Mamas home to help us. Exactly how much would we be judged? How difficult is it to get an American visa for a Congolese woman? We're proud of ourselves for compromising on only feeling the need to bring one nanny.

So in this, our summer in the States after our sixth year abroad, we're trying to blend in as much as possible. But I still think it's thrilling that at any time of day you can walk into Costco and feed your entire family with samples for zero dollars. Yep, did that two days in a row last week. God Bless America.

15 June 2012

Friday List!

Jill's List:

Obsessing about style.  Beginner & Advanced.

Currently sitting with my finger poised over the "Add to Cart" button.  Cheaper than the cost of a new lens for my Canon, and much more practical for photography in Kinshasa.  No doubt the 5 will be out the second I press "Place Order."

N'djili Airport, Kinshasa.  Hipstamatic.

Finding it funny to watch people's reactions when Lou insists on shouting "Bonjour!" anytime we enter anywhere in Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.  I think I'm proud after reading this reading this article.

Been considering how to convince my mother-in-law to sew me this out of some of the pagne I brought back as her gift.  That's not weird.

Trying to convince my parents to take me out for strawberry pancakes at the Little Grill.  It's JUNE, good grief.  Strawberry pancakes are only the special for a limited time.

Which leads me to waffle obsessions.  Namely, how to make them at home in Kinshasa.  We must dig out this gem from the Virginia storage space and bring it back with us.  Then, since pearl sugar is available for about 1000CDF ($1.50) in Kinshasa (the remnants of colonial influence) vs. the $15 at Whole Foods, we can make massive amounts of these:

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