20 May 2013

5 Congolese Myths*

*Or truths. Who am I to judge?

After living in Congo for a while, there are certain cultural understandings that are well, hard to understand from a Western perspective. And I'm not even talking about banishing your child to the streets for suspected witchcraft. Which does happen.

Of course not all Congolese believe in the following, but many do...and that's what keeps our lives interesting.

1. Cold water kills. Okay, it doesn't kill, but drinking it will definitely make you sick. Not long after we moved to Congo a friend had a sneezing, eye-watering cold and I offered my condolences. Then he said, "Yeah, I got it from the cold water you served me at your house." I now have a tepid water only policy for my Congolese guests. I was reminded of this a few days ago when a friend filled up her ice-filled bottle with water. I commented on how refreshing it looked and she whispered, "It's so bad for my health, but I let myself indulge every once in a while."  

A guilty pleasure. Image from here.

2. Air conditioning is just as bad. I'm starting to believe this one is true. Every time I go to the doctor, his first prescription is: Turn off your AC, you will feel better. And it works. Many Congolese have a strict no AC rule. I think it mostly comes from not wanting to spend you day in an air conditioned office, then return to your home, baked in tropical heat, with no electricity. It's a shock to the senses. I can completely understand preventing your body from being conditioned by air conditioning. But I still can't convince Nurse Jill it's making me sick. I swear, it is!

You try turning off the AC when this is your life. Image from here.

3. Pink eye came from the moon. A few weeks ago Charlotte got pink eye. The mamas hovered and said, "Oh, she has Apollo!" She has what? Well, did you know the astronauts brought pink eye back from the moon? I personally, did not know this. It turns out pink eye showed up in Africa about the same time as the moon landing. Hence the name. Funny how astronaut heroes got blamed for conjunctivitis rather than clueless American backpackers, or other literal foreign bodies. But really, who am I to say Neil Armstrong didn't come back from the moon with gunky eyes?

"That's one small step for man, pink eye for mankind." P.S. Now we know why they covered their eyes. Image from here.

4. Baby girls wear earrings. No exceptions. We have two girls. This is a fact. But it is not obvious. Since birth we've had to explain they're girls because they don't wear earrings. I guess it's a bit like dressing your baby boy in a pink, floral pattern in the States. We look for those cultural markers to indicate gender. Charlotte was quick to grow hair, so it became clear. Ani, on the other hand is still lacking in the hair department. Proper Congolese baby girls have their ears pierced after delivery and get beaded extensions soon after if they can't grow hair. Or some particularly desperate parents have to break down and buy the knitted fake-baby-hair-hat. Because a bald, un-jeweled baby is just embarrassing.

Desperate times call for desperate baby hats.

A group of ladies from a local sewing school regularly bring clothing they've made for our children. Charlotte gets a beautiful dress. Ani gets a pants suit because she is a boy. This has gone on since she was born. We were too embarrassed to correct them. (And after all it is our fault for not piercing her ears.) So we continued to refer to her using the gender neutral "le bébé" in front of them instead of using her name. Then recently they overheard someone call her Annaïs and the jig was up. "But we've always made her boy clothes," they said. "Well, we thought she was an awfully girly-looking boy." And then like clockwork: "But why didn't you just pierce her ears?!"

Charlotte in her dress and little boy Ani in half of her pants suit. (We just couldn't bear to put her in the button down shirt and reinforce the belief of Palm Sunday church-goers that she's a boy.)

5. Fever = Malaria. If you have a fever, you feel like you might be getting a fever, or your friend has a fever. You most certainly have malaria. Then you start taking self-prescribed antibiotics immediately. Or your doctor says you have malaria, when you don't or they don't really know, but they just want to cover all the bases. There's a whole phenomenon of over-treating and over-diagnosing malaria.

When our children get a fever, the mamas rally and ask/demand I give medicine immediately. At first I tried to explain that I wanted to wait and watch, and let a low grade fever do its job. This caused far too much anxiety among the mamas. "What if she has malaria? You must give her medicine." So now I give a little Gripe Water "medicine," pay close attention to the fever, and everyone's happy.

Source of anxiety, real and imagined. Image from here.

I get it. Where I'm from, people get sick and then they get better. In Congo people get sick and they don't get better. Thankfully, my kids just keep recovering. They must be witches.


  1. I lived in Germany for a number of years & they also believe that cold water (or milk or any other beverage) leads to digestive issues. There was no reasoning with them that they all had digestive issues while I had none, so I learned to sneak ice cubes & never let anyone see a water bottle in the fridge!

  2. The craziest one (or maybe not that crazy?) "myth" I heard in Tanzania was that cell phones attract lightning. Like immediately. A storm would roll in and my host brothers would go crazy telling me to turn off my phone. They told me that the telephone lines in the US protect us from this threat and that our phones are different from their phones. They were terrified of a phone that was on during a storm.

    Also, any nose sniffling, whether from disease or dust exposure is the same thing.

    Oh, and the Masons and Nike are coming to convert Tanzanians by bribing them, but that's a whole other story.

    1. That's crazy! And it reminded me of the other belief here that the Chinese workers in Congo are responsible for the shortened rainy season. In some roundabout way, maybe there's some truth to that due to clear-cutting trees, but who knows. Funny how these stories get started!

  3. i don't know you, but i wish i did! this post is fantastic. some of my friends are friends with jill--which is how i learned of your blog. i enjoy it very much!

    1. Haha! Yes, let's be friends. Glad you are enjoying Mama Congo!


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