A few weeks ago Mama Youyou celebrated her 50th birthday. It had been a rough 49th year for her, health-wise, so the occasion was an important one.
I sat down with her and Tchic (our friend/French tutor) as they reflected on their lives and getting "old." Here's a bit of our translated conversation:
Me: Tchic, did you know Mama Youyou just had her 50th birthday? Isn't that exciting!?
Tchic: Yes. But I'm already much older than 50.
Mama Youyou: (laughter) Yes, but it's harder for us women!
Me: Really, why do you think?
Mama Youyou: Well, for starters, we do most of the hard work. We work in the fields and a lot of times it's easier for us to get jobs than it is for men. Often, we're the ones bringing home the money. It's a hard life. We're very stressed.
Tchic: Okay, you're right. That's true. Women do work all day and night while we mostly relax.
Me: When you think of someone living to "old age" in Congo, what age is that? For example, I think when I hear of someone in the States living to their 80s or so, I think that's been a good, long life. What do you think?
Mama Youyou: Well, if you live in the village, you really should live until you're 70 or 75. But if you live in the city like us, we're dying around the age of 45.
Tchic: In the village, people eat food from their land. They eat their own chickens. They use the plants around them for medicine. You can live a very long life there.
Mama Youyou: It's true. My father-in-law is 92-years-old and he just moved from the village to live with us in the city.
Me: Do you think you can still find "the village" in Kinshasa? (Note: "Kinshasa" is a city-province which stretches nearly 10,000 square kilometers.)
Mama Youyou: Yes, but it's creeping away from us.
Me: So tell me what it was like when you were children. How was it different than today.
Mama Youyou: The first thing I think of is that our parents didn't have to worry about sending us to school. They could afford to pay the school fees.
Tchic: Today we worry about things like feeding our kids and sending them to school. It didn't used to be this way. The government used to help out with stuff like that. Today if we can afford to send our kids to school, we still have to worry about their teachers hassling them for money on the side. The system didn't used to be corrupt. Congo was a good place to live between the years of 1965 and 1973. Before the economy collapsed 1 Zaïre was worth $2! However, I remember my grandparents talking about being afraid to go out at night and to only travel in large groups for fear they would be stolen and sold into slavery.
Mama Youyou: It's true. I think we've already lived through Congo's best days when we were younger.
Me: Right, so tell me about Zaïre. What were your names before the "Authenticity campaign?" (Note: Mobutu renamed Congo, Zaïre and ordered everyone to change their European names to more "authentic" ones. Men were disallowed from wearing Western suits and ties. The abacost was born.)
Mama Youyou: My name until I was 15-years-old was Monique. Then when Authenticité happened, my older sister who cared for me because we were orphaned, renamed me "Youyou." She liked that name for some reason and it was more "African." Tchic, what was your name?
Tchic: Oh, I've always been just Tchic.
Mama Youyou: That's not true. What was your name? C'mon.
Tchic: Okay fine, I was Maurice.
Then we all laugh in agreement that Maurice is a ridiculous name for our Tchic.
Mama Youyou: Not long after I changed my name, I met my husband. He passed me on the street and asked for my address. I didn't want to give it to him, but he insisted.
Tchic: That's very strange. No one does that.
Mama Youyou: So I told my sister I had given this man our address and she was upset. Not long after, he showed up at our house and asked to marry me.
Tchic: That is very, very strange.
Mama Youyou: So we got married and we've been married for 32 years.
Me: See Tchic, it worked out!
Tchic: She never said she was happily married.
Mama Youyou: Yes, we're very happy.
Me: Mama Youyou, when you were my age, how did you imagine yourself at 50?
Mama Youyou: Well, I wished for myself that I would be happy doing whatever it was that I was doing. I always wanted to sew. My sister taught me how and I'm still the happiest when I sew.