31 October 2012

Go On Home

This piece was originally published as a guest post on the super great Harrisonburg, Virginia blog, Old South High on October 3, 2012.  

(What?  You didn't know I was a special Kinshasa correspondent?)

Apparently, if you aren’t sure, your home is the place where you went to high school.  If that’s so, Harrisonburg is my home.   But, I live in Kinshasa.  As in Congo.  As in Africa.  So, is Harrisonburg still my home?

People often ask me where I’m from.  If I say, “Route de Matadi, Ngaliema” they smirk and give me a sort of sympathetic look and say, “No, really.  Where are you from?”  I guess they are asking me about my home.  So, I say, “The United States.”  If we are having this conversation, it’s because they know someone in the USA, so they want more details in order to make a connection.  Plus, they knew I was from the United States before we even started talking.  So, I say, “I’m from Virginia.”

I am certainly from Virginia.  I was born at Waynesboro Community Hospital back when it existed.  I went both of the local Mennonite educational institutions.  I pay a mortgage for a Collicello Street house.  But where is my home?

Is home where the heart is?  Is home where my spouse and two kids are?  Is home my house?
What I’m getting at is the obvious fact that home is a transient concept.  And, I am a transient: traipsing from Harrisonburg to Seattle to Harrisonburg to Kinshasa.  It’s absurd for me to say that Kinshasa is my home.  And while I once imagined I would be in Seattle forever, I’m not.  And no one from my family lives in Waynesboro anymore.  The place that I keep going back to is Harrisonburg.

I left because I never thought I would always be in Harrisonburg.  It is my home base.  Not my home town.  But what a home base!  I imagine my kids developing these lovely idealized memories of Harrisonburg’s best hits:  visiting Jim Randall’s stand at the Farmer’s Market, getting summertime hot chocolate at the Dodger, fishing with Omi & Pop– Virginia-style, being Kathleen Temple, Tailor,’s #1 client, hugging John and Ramaswari in the steamy Indian American kitchen, sneaking into Honky Tonk night with Jason at the Nile and being treated like royalty, buying awesome helmets from Wonder Skate for first bikes refurbished by Kurt at Shenandoah Bicycle, dancing until too late in garden-filled backyard house shows with dozens of honorary aunts and uncles and cousins…

Harrisonburg, for me, is a terribly beautiful home base.  When it is my hometown, I find myself drifting away from appreciation.  The humdrum of routine starts to fog my perspective, making darling Harrisonburg almost unlikeable.  Thankfully, I live in Africa, where for ten months every year, I pine gently for kale, fireflies, music played by friends, film festivals, polaroid exhibits, fancy dinners, family, strawberries, and home friends. 

Distance makes the heart grow fonder?  Sure.  But it also makes home farther.  Which, for me, is just right.

30 October 2012

Cuddle Up.

Stay safe, stay dry East Coasters. 

Image of a dark Manhattan by Joanna from Cup of Jo.

...And coming from lots of Congo power outage experience, remember to eat the ice cream first.

27 October 2012

Friday List!

Sarah's List:

Let's get back in those pictures, moms.

 What!? I'm in  picture!

 A band from Kinshasa made up entirely of men with polio. Intrigued? Catch Staff Benda Bilili on their US tour.

No, it's not the year of the dragon in China, it's the year of the breastfeeding flash mob -a father's account.

Tiny foodscapes. Totally bizarre.  

The worst years of your life? I happened to enjoy my middle school, for the most part. Some thoughts on making it a bit better or at least less awful.

Cherokee Heights Dance 1984 by TheeErin, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  TheeErin 

President of the European Council meets Prime Minister of the DRC.

Google Art Project. Explore collections from MoMA to the White House. Google really is changing the world.

Jill's List:

Recently re-discovered this gorgeous blog.  I feel like Mrs. French is my style-twin.

Beautiful home via blissfulb via Design Files

Used this awesome tutorial to make Lou's Halloween costume.  Thanks, Alpha-Mom for helping me create my own petite chauve-souris!

Such an incredible photo by Jean Depara - who captured life in Leopoldville/Kinshasa between 1951 and 1975:

Really interesting personal perspective on tearing and post-birth complications.  Did you know that in France and some other places, it's super normal for women to be referred for special nether region therapy to ensure proper care and healing after a vaginal delivery?  Misplaced or totally smart?

I need some jogging headphones.  Any suggestions?  What does Otto Mond use?

Since it's not particularly easy to get new toys for our kids, we sometimes treat them to new things for "iPad time." This site is an incredible collection of the very loveliest kids Apps, electronic books, and games.  We're really enjoying this one right now:

Love fake-looking in glamourous people's makeup bags.  Awesome.

25 October 2012

But I Just Want to Help

You know that picture.  You've all seen it.

A happy foreigner surrounded by a pile of joyful-yet-ragged African orphans.  The person describes the experience captured in the picture as "life changing" and reports "I just really felt like I was making a difference" and "those kids were absolutely starved for love and attention."

These are authentic experiences and honest feelings.  Most of us can totally understand.

But, how do the orphans feel?  Was the experience life changing for them?  Did it really make a difference to the kids?

This is such a sticky situation.  Because we are programmed to want to help children. That's how humans work.  If a child needs something, we naturally want to provide.  A baby cries and everyone jumps to fix whatever is wrong.  It's biology.  Plus, lots of people are really trying to do a good thing and when their actions are questioned, it feels terrible.

So, when a person finds themselves living in the middle of one of the poorest countries in the world, full of orphaned children all seemingly crying out for help, of course they want to respond.  They want to visit, cuddle children, and shower them with all the things we consider essential for childhood.  If you Google "orphanage" you get thousands of links for people and organizations that want to take your old shoes, body lotion, discarded t-shirts, and stuffed animals and give them to orphans.  Expats find themselves being invited to visit nearby orphanages and are moved and motivated by the conditions and the attention-starved kids.

But how does a person know they are helping and not actually harming?  Sometimes people ask me this question, because assume that I'll somehow the right person to ask.  I think it's the nurse thing.

At any rate, I really don't know.

There is a lot of research and writing out there about orphanages.  The issues are numerous, ranging from the obvious to the surprising.  For example, did you know that in some countries, international investigators have shown that up to 90% of "orphans" are not even orphans?  When parents feel like they can't take care of their children, they may consider an orphanage a good place for their child to get food, clothes, and care.  More on the idea that supporting orphanages may actually create orphans here.  Whoa!  What?

Yeah.  When you stop and think, the unintended consequences of good intentions can be really shocking.

So what's a good-hearted person to do?  How can we fulfill the emotional need to help while also respecting the rights of vulnerable children?  Yes, that's right.  I am suggesting that sometimes, untrained do-gooders are reckless in their actions and short-sighted in their strategies.  I am suggesting that the basic human rights of children are violated in many earnest efforts to help.

(Did you know that all children have rights?  They do!  Read about them here.)

Think back to that photo of the volunteer and the orphans.  That photo is actually not okay.  No permission was probably officially granted.  A legal guardian most likely did not give the go ahead.  Those children are not tourist attractions (more about that here).  While their bright smiles and tattered clothes may indeed motivate friends and family to join in the efforts to "help," their images do not belong on Facebook.  We don't have the right.

It's one thing to be that rare person who can go hang out with these kids every other Saturday for years (and I'm proud to actually know people like this).  But that kind of dedication and consistency is not something most do-gooders can offer.  Most of the time, it's easiest to arrange donations (p.s. - 6 Questions You Should Ask Before You Donate Goods Overseas) and give money.  But is this really the best alternative if you want to help?

I started talking to some folks I know who are experts in the field of child welfare in the developing world.  Then, I sent emails to other people who have thought a lot about this topic - from a variety of perspectives: research, missions, health, academia.  I wanted to know their reactions to the following questions I've heard discussed many times:
1.) Why not orphanages?  They LOVE it when I visit!  The kids hug me and hold my hand and don't want me to leave.  The people running the orphanage thank me every time I bring toys and clothes for the kids.  How can this possibly be bad?

 2.) Isn't doing something better than doing nothing?  Even if I just make one day brighter for one child, isn't that making a positive difference in the life of an orphan?
 3.) I'm living in this impoverished country and I can't just sit back in comfort and do nothing.  What CAN I do to help?
So, as I receive these responses, I'll post them.  I know it will be helpful as I continue sort out what it means to be me in the Congo. I think that at the very least, it will be an interesting read for you too - whether you live right here in Kinshasa or just finished watching a Orphan Fund commercial in Virginia.

And mostly, I hope that if we pause, think, and learn, we can actually do what we are setting out to do, and help those we want to help.

22 October 2012

Cooking With the Mamas: Nyanpul

The first time we tried nyanpul was on the street straight from a bowl atop a guy's head. We thought he had sold us magical coconut bits. It was unbelievably delicious. We reported back to Mama Youyou who thought we were ridiculous because it's so easy to make. Here's the recipe that can be filed under, Why haven't we been making this our whole lives?

Congolese Nyanpul
1 small coconut
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk

(That's it. Really!)

1: Grate a fresh coconut. This process can serve as amazing entertainment for the baby plopped on the counter beside you.

1 fresh coconut, grated
Baby entertainment

2: Add sugar. Add milk. Stir a bit to dissolve the sugar.

All the ingredients in one little bowl.

Also good toddler entertainment

3: Cook on the stove top. Let it come to a boil and continue to stir and stir and stir.

Two stirrers are better than one

4: Cook and stir the mixture until it's good and dried out. It can take a bit of time to achieve maximum nyanpul crunchiness.

And voilà, finished nyanpul.

I dream of sprinkling a bit of nyanpul on ice cream or on top of a cake. But if you want to be traditionally Congolese, just eat it by the handful. That's very culturally acceptable, thank goodness.

all photos by Sarah

19 October 2012

Friday List!

Sarah's List:

Mama Congo promised ourselves Friday List would be cheerier than our previous week of posts. So I'm resisting the temptation to link to this week's This American Life, all about dying people or people who almost died. Thanks, Ira. Please enjoy these uplifting distractions below:

Live in Vancouver, Canada? Science World has really done quite the ad campaign

My entire childhood was spent waiting for Tuesday afternoons when Newsweek would come in the mail. Now it's gone all digital. How long before no more magazines to hold?

Cooking Comically. The Cook Abides.

Wild bird photographs of the week, featuring some of our own.We have some pretty ridiculous birds here in Congo. Including ones that live right outside our house with tails so long they can barely life themselves off the ground.

Speaking of birding, anyone seen this movie? Lots of birder humor, if that's a thing.

The evolution of corporate logos. How many do you remember?

Adam is watching his favorite movie, Mary Poppins (sorry Adam, it was bound to be revealed sometime) with Charlotte for the first time. It's now called "Mama Poppins" around here.


P.S. We visited baby Jean Baptiste this week, or JB as he's called. And he's perfect, of course.

Baby J.B. 

Three girls, Sarah, & Dr. Laure at our visit.

Jill's List:

The Odyssey is on my "to-read" vs. "I-read-it-ages-ago-and-can-discuss-the-themes-with-great-eloquence" list.  This illustrated version, however, is serious literary motivation.

When I found out I was pregnant with a boy (we found out with Elias and waited for the surprise with LouLou), I went to a run-of-the-mill mall kid's clothes store.  And cried.  Because the baby boy clothes were horrible.  Elias + Congo have manage to destroy much of his wardrobe.  So, I ordered from the Bobinette summer sale (part of the joy of living in 80F weather year-round).  This Brooklyn-based shop has gorgeous boy's clothes, incredible customer service, and everything is made in the USA.  Super.

And speaking of great things in New York.  I could really use a Shake Shack burger.  DHL?  Le Palmier d'Or here in Kinshasa doesn't quite cut it.

Pretty great "what to pack for a traveling toddler" list.  I strongly second the headphones, that awesome, compact carseat, the Tylenol, and of course the Ergo Baby Carrier.  Go here to see the whole list.  (Some of these items will soon be easily found in downtown Harrisonburg -- for you Virginia readers...)

This is one way to make the national news, Harrisonburg.  Glad that I delivered my absentee ballot to the Embassy this week.  My swing state needs me.

Entitled "The Reality of a Newborn Session."  Awesome.

This inspired me to remember that we really need some business cards.  To hand out to unsuspecting airline seat mates and such...

Totally ordering this calendar.  Perfect for our family.  Except I don't see Kinshasa.  Hmmm.

Love to all our friends this week.  It's been a rough one.  Near and Far.  Remembering Jean Baptiste & Javy with all our hearts.

17 October 2012

How to be Devastated

When death happens I am either professional or polite.  

Sometimes, I know what to do because I am the nurse who directs the bereaved. Or, I don't know what to do because I am just a sad friend.  This is how to grieve in America. The professionals tell us what to do and how to be.  Friends are awkward and polite.  Death is terrifying.  It is quiet.  It is to be overcome.

We don't know how to be devastated.

I mean, who does?

Well, maybe the Congolese.  Or at least they have a script that explains what to do.

Before I continue, I think about this excerpt from Binyavanga Wainaina's piece, "How to Write About Africa":
Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
I am going to write about death in Africa.  I am going to mention a Mama.  But, I am not the hero.  I am the confused person trying to figure out if I should smile kindly or cry softly.

Before Sarah and I went to visit Laure after Jean Baptiste's death, I talked to people.  I talked to all of the cultural consultants I rely on to not be offended by my absurd questions.  These people being Mama Vida, Mama YouYou, Tchic, and Evelyne.  I said, "I feel so sad.  But how should I act?  What do I do?"  And they all said, "Just be sad. It's not hard.  Why are you so worried?"

Then, separately, they each gave me the exact same instructions for what to expect after someone dies.

There will be an initial visit to the house.  You will shake hands.  You will sit.  Then, there may be a wake.  If you are Congolese, you absolutely must go.  If you are a foreigner, everyone understands that Westerners don't like dead bodies and you need only stay ten minutes.  Following, there will be a funeral.  In the morning if it is a child.  In the evening if it is an adult.  You may sing in church.  You may march messily through the streets, thrusting photos of the dead one in the faces of the people you pass. You will play happily with the children who don't understand.  You will hold the wife who is destroyed.  It is not hard.  These are easy things to do.

How to be devastated.

There is a script.  So, even at the moment when you find yourself panicking about the social appropriateness of your tears, you can just look around the room to see what everyone else is doing.  And go through the motions.  You sit.  You shake hands. You sit.  

A social script carries the awkward friend through confusion.  It gives a widow something to do in the hollow days after losing her love.  It forces family and friends to gather and support and take care of the kids.  Tchic told me that at most funerals he's been to, the peanut and hard-boiled egg sellers come when they hear the keening and singing, and people buy and they eat.  Funerals need food.

I find this matter-of-fact approach to death both deeply disturbing and seriously comforting.  I tried to tell Tchic how upsetting it was to hear that there is a specific time of day to bury children and everyone knows this.  Children dying is not a significant part of my worldview.  It is an everyday occurrence for Kinshasa.

On the other hand, a collective knowledge about the details of life and death is incredibly helpful.  People sometimes need just know what to do.  A woman giving birth often needs guidance in the last minutes of labor - when she is sure she can't do it.  I think it is the same for those who are grieving.  The brain stops working.

If you don't have a script, you are completely lost. 

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