29 January 2014

Les Serpents du Congo

Are you wondering what is so fascinating?

Oh, you know.  Just a cobra.  Staring at my child.

But, no worries.  Serpent expert, Mr. François Nsingi, told us that a cobra showing his famous, flashy head is just sending a warning signal, not getting ready to strike.  The cage enclosing the snake was even more reassuring.  

Look how bored this guy is holding that poisonous snake (see above).  He actually said, "Okay, did you take enough pictures yet?  My arm is getting tired."  
I'm assuming that he knows his snake body language.

Clearly giving us the "back off" signal.

I can barely stomach this picture of my small child next to a green and black mamba.  They call these creatures a "seven step" snake due to the incredible toxicity of their venom.  Meaning, a person has seven steps to walk before they keel over.  Mr. Nsingi says it's actually more like 3-8 hours.  
I'm judging my parenting decisions in hindsight...

Speaking of venom.  Les Serpents du Congo is actually a part of the University of Kinshasa anti-venom program, where all the anti-venom for Congo is created.  Unfortunately, there aren't many locations where this antidote is available in the country, so a snake whose bite can kill in 3-8 hours is truly deadly in most parts of the DRC.

That Gaboon Viper (the one that's looking at you) is easily one of the creepiest creatures I've ever seen.

Here's Mr. Nsingi hefting that snake back into his cage.  We were told that these vipers are slow moving and don't usually bother humans unless they are sat or stepped upon.  

Not poisonous.  Really.  I promise.

   My pulse rate would speed up or slow down depending on toxicity levels.  We irrationally protected our children, flinging our arms out to push the kids back when a snake would jump or hiss from inside the cage.  Loulou told me to calm down.

Tchic, my French tutor, was horrified that I had allowed my child to touch even a non-poisonous snake.  He wisely pointed out that now, Elias and Loulou might believe that any snake can be picked up and cuddled.  Luckily, Mr. Nsingi gave the kids several stern lectures about serpent safety:  Don't touch.  RUN.  Tell you parents to put a bucket over it.  Call me.

Neighbor James thoroughly loved/hated every moment of this trip.  
We'll call it "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy."  Look at that therapeutic forced smile.

Every mother hopes to one day see their child enveloped by a python.

When in Rome...
(It was really pretty incredible.  The snake was cool to the touch and muscle-y.)

The rats were Loulou's favorite animal at the snake park.
Mr. Nsingi quickly broke it to her that those cuties serve a purely nutritional purpose.

Naturally, there was also a turtle.

And a crocodile.  Or an alligator.  I can never remember which is which or why. Which makes me bad at trivia games.

All of the snakes and other creatures at the park are indigenous to the DRC and most were found along the Congo River not far from where we live.  

I haven't decided if this is somehow amazing or just horrifying.

And here is the sweet picture I took when I proudly believed I captured Elias in a quiet moment, using his French to pick up a few more educational tidbits about snakes of the Congo.

He was actually negotiating to buy a python.

"Mama!  He said that I can get one for only $150!"

True story of a day at Les Serpents du Congo.

Les Serpent du Congo is a highly recommended activity. The facilities are beautiful and the staff well-trained, knowledgeable and excellent with kids.  The snake park is located along the same road that goes to Lac de Ma Vallée/the Bonobos - so the location is quite lovely.  You can stop for veggies at the market along the way. 

It's best to have at least one French-speaking person with you so that you can be sure to understand all the information that is given.  Calling the director ahead of your arrival is recommended: + 243 81 9918530 or + 243 99 9918530

Where is the park located?
In the farm called SOGENAK (it's SEBO)
Quartier Sebo – Route de Kimwenza
Commune de Mont-Ngafula à Kinshasa

When is the park open?
Tuesday-Sunday: 09h00 to 18h00
The park is closed on Monday except by special appointment.

An entrance fee is asked for the care and upkeep of the animals:
$10 for adults and $5 for children under 12

For those of you who would rather stay as far away as possible, Mr. Nsingi will also come to the rescue if you find a snake in your Kinshasa house or yard.  Put a bucket over the creature and call: 082 362 0634 or 089 946 0477.  
He'll identify it and take it away for you.  If it's poisonous, your call could provide an important contribution to the anti-venom program at UNIKIN.

24 January 2014

Weekend List!

Jill's List:

I'm so interested in this article.  My exposure to modern day standardized testing is very limited. Thinking. Thinking.

Trying to learn French?  Frantastique subscriptions are 20% off this week! (Here's a review.)

Screenshot from Frantastique.

Combining the faces of people who are genetically related.  Craziness ensues.  Mind blown.

And these people aren't twins.

Oh shit.  Oh, nice!

Vlisco's hero fashion.

Found this gem of a bronze pendant hidden in the case at Je Gagne Ma Vie here in Kinshasa.  Never been to this great shop where the profits directly support the artists?  Go this weekend!

This is so weird and gross.  Even more disturbing is the fact that the story keeps popping up... (Go here for a calmer perspective, thanks to a reasonable reader!)

How to be present for a friend experiencing loss or tragedy.  An important piece.

Sigh. Celebrities and their "African adventures". I had a hard time with this article. (Thank you, Alice.)

Let's Save Africa! - Gone wrong.

Sarah's List:

Breaking news: Froot Loops are all the same flavor.

froot loops by Andréia, on Flickr
That's right. There's no lime, grape, orange, lemon or cherry. Just the same sweet cardboard flavor.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Andréia 

Here's what happens when you give poor people money.

The Central African Republic's got a new president. And she's a woman.

Here's a list of all the other women running the world. And a map.

Pink equals a female head of state. (Thank you, filibustercartoons for the image.)

Everyone over-thinks social interactions. Except for people outside the United States. The rest of us suffer great peril.

Le Baiser des Amies by simpologist, on Flickr
Just two friends sayin' hey in France. No big deal.
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  simpologist 

40 Maps to Help You Make Sense of the World. Especially #36. Ah, that world just makes so much more sense now...

Dove has a new ad about selfies that's so good it debuted at Sundance.

365-336 by Canned Muffins, on Flickr
Pretty sure this is a selfie by Dove.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Canned Muffins

God Loves Uganda now playing in DC. Won't someone see it for us and write a review.

21 January 2014

Bélya and the Magic of African Print

A few weeks ago we linked to African Prints in Fashion. Have you checked it out? They're about all things African print or pagne as we call it here in Congo.

African print is everywhere. Can you think of anything else we use to hold our babies on our backs that also looks good on a pair of Vans?

Pagne is our curtains, our clothes, and the dozen or so headbands my kids fight over in the mornings. Oh and now it's a line at Target.

So when I saw these designs by Bélya on African Prints in Fashion, I did a double take. I can't remember ever seeing pagne used in such a beautiful way.

This is our tablecloth looking as fine as can be on a leather purse. (See, here it is also serving as a backdrop for a worm.)

And wouldya just look at these boots?

And these shoes.

This bag!

And portes monnaies.

But guess what! You don't have to live in Africa to order. Go to Bélya's Etsy shop and check out all the amazing things Senegalese owner and designer Aïssatou Sene has there.

Because Aïssatou is not only a fabulous designer, but also Mama Congo's newest reader, she has offered 10% off on orders $100 or more. And she'll ship from Senegal if ordering from Africa! Be sure you mention Mama Congo when ordering.

Check back mid-February for even more designs on the Bélya site.

Thank you, Aïssatou! Best of luck on the start-up of beautiful Bélya.

20 January 2014

Weekend List!

Sarah's List:

Looking for the meaning of life? Look in poor, religious countries.

Photo credit: Jill Humphrey

More on the meaning of life. Today is a pixel.

How figure skaters pick their music.

figure skater in motion by isla_yelo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  isla_yelo 

Who is this guy?! The pope tells women to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel.

Another nanny photo essay. Can't get enough. (Latest addition to the series of links I send to Jill at work just to make her cry.)

First day of school.

Take a wild guess where $10 will buy you the least amount of stuff.

And did you see this?! Guinness uses Congo's Sapeurs in their newest ad. Yes, it's the other Congo across the river, but we've got our Sapeurs over here too. Side note: Adam and I have been to the random bar used in the ad. I can assure you, they were not serving Guinness.

Les Rapides. Brazzaville. No Guinness.

Finally, my sister moved abroad this week. As she packed up she said those words we've waited 8 years to hear. "How do you guys do this every year? This is hard."

It helps a little when this is where you're headed, Katie.

Jill's List:

Can't stop looking at Afrographique.  Unreal.  For example:

An infographic depicting the percentage share of formal firms that are owned by women in Africa. Data from the World Bank.

Can't stop thinking about [Love X Infinity] Squared.  Not sure what I mean?  Check out this site by my beautiful friend about being a "not-quite-fairytale cancer princess".

She was not a princess in a pink, sparkly, vomity kind of way, but rather in a more “when life gives you truly horrible lemons you get a tiara” kind of way. She also had long, blond hair, and if Disney has taught us anything, it is that princesses have long blond hair. (Disclaimer: The author in no way condones the use of racist Disney princesses unless they can be used to make a point about long blond hair). 

She wasn’t especially brave, or good, or kind. In fact, most of the time she was a real pain in the ass, but she, however, did love. She loved fiercely and unapologetically. And if there is one quality all princesses must possess, it is love. 

Randomly, my home in Kinshasa is one of the largest houses I've ever lived in.  I fully expect to return to the world of 500 square feet when we go back to living in the U.S.  Reading My Tea Leaves is full of tips for folks in that sort of situation.

Or maybe, it's not so random.  An amazing post titled, "'The Help' in Togo."

Have you seen a Lego ad recently?  They've certainly and sadly drifted very far from their 1981 reality.  Though, we are still fans.  Can't help it.

Beyoncé on gender-equality.

Such an interesting topic.  Zero-tolerance in schools.

I keep thinking about this article about old men trying to sit and drink McDonald's coffee for hours. My grandma loved McDonald's coffee.

15 January 2014

We're on World Moms Blog!

Head on over to World Mom's Blog for more philosophical-psychological-sociological confusion as I keep trying to write about what I think I know about Kinshasa.

Elias not touching a fresh painting by Aicha.

14 January 2014

You Just Don't Know

Helping other people makes us happy.  There's a biological connection, even a specific nerve, that connects empathy and kindness with personal happiness and health.  Maybe that's why Congo isn't even mentioned on this infographic:

An infographic mapping the happiest African nations. Data from the UN World Happiness Report 2013.
Afrographique is easily the best thing that happened to me today.
I couldn't stop looking at each and every one of these creations.  So incredible.
Even better, Ivan, the guy behind the Tumblr site, lets people use his graphics for nonprofit purposes. OMG.

It's hard to help people around here.  

Don't get me wrong.  This statement has nothing to do with Kinois kindness or empathetic ability. It has everything to do with logistics.

Case Study #1:

A well-educated woman who would be considered the Congolese equivalent of "middle class" lives in the neighborhood of her birth.  Since that time (a few decades, give or take), her neighborhood has gone from middle-class to very poor.  She has stayed put, feeling strongly that it is important for her to remain a part of this community.  She notices that many of the young girls around her dropped out of school at around age 10 or 11.  They hang around, doing all of the seemingly nonproductive things marginalized kids seem to gravitate towards: pregnancy, truancy, eye rolling.  

She is aware that the main barrier between these girls and school is not uniforms, sanitary napkins, dozens of miles down a dirt path, or even money. It's motivation.  They don't want to go to school. Playing house, hanging out with friends, and sitting around are more appealing. So, in the few "free" hours of her week (she commutes 2 hours each way to work, arriving at 7:45am and leaving at 4:30pm), this woman develops a plan with a few like-minded unofficial community leaders and they proceed to work on motivating teens in the community to want to go to school or learn a trade.  She feels like it's working.  

This little impromptu project management team is accidentally using all sorts of research-proven strategies like needs assessments, positive deviance, and purposeful conversation. They would probably be eligible for loads of grants and funding if they turned themselves into an NGO. This initiative has all the hallmarks of a winning international development project.  But, they never will formalize their efforts. On purpose.  They will continue working out of their homes, secretly practicing almost unimaginable levels of kindness.  

They learned their lesson a few years ago when someone wanted to teach computer skills to people in the neighborhood.  They even managed to get several computers donated.  Almost as soon as it arrived, the equipment was looted.  Gone.  In addition, local authorities demanded thousands of dollars in taxes and fines for this "unauthorized" activity.

So, the work with the teen girls continues, but without materials, large gatherings, notoriety, or anything else that might threaten their small steps of progress.

Case Study #2:

A woman is crossing the street after buying some bread for dinner.  It's around 6pm and growing dark.  She's returning to the place on the sidewalk where she sells packets of chickwangue, neatly rolled in banana leaves.  She is struck by a bus and is gravely injured.  A small crowd gathers and looks.  No one touches her.  She lies still on the sidewalk. There is no ambulance to call.  An observer remarks to her American friend, "It is very disorganized, but eventually, someone will stop and use their own transport money for the day to pay for a taxi to take her to the hospital.  No worries."

Case Study #3:

A man and his wife work hard in Kinshasa.  He holds a steady job for little pay. She watches the children, cooks the food, and sells some beans on the side.  They can afford shelter, basic clothing, and borrow money from his employer for the children's school fees each year, but always pay it back in full. They are very poor, but holding steady. Three teenage girls recently arrived from the East to live with distant relatives in the couple's neighborhood.  Two of the girls are pregnant. The man and his wife know well that they don't eat dinner most days.  So, without even discussing it, they began preparing a little extra pondu each night.  Taking a little less for themselves and giving portions to the girls, who drift by at the right time. The know that cassava leaves are rich in protein and iron, which are good for pregnant women.  The man fears the money that will be demanded of him from neighborhood police if they find out that he is "rich enough" to give away food.  

In order to publish these stories (the result of two interviews and one personal experience), I had to promise no pictures, no names, and no identifying characteristics.  Being nice is dangerous and expensive business in these parts, if not downright impossible at times.  

Kindness does not appear until somewhere in the middle/top (depending on how you look at it) of Maslow's pyramid. It's basic human instinct to take care of all of our other needs first.  It's about  survival and for the majority of people in Kinshasa, luxuries like self-actualization, or even friendship, are difficult to achieve.  

Yet, I guess my point in writing down these stories is to remind myself that, thankfully, Maslow didn't explain everything about human motivation.  Just because a person lives in some of the toughest conditions around doesn't mean that they can't be nice. And just because a person doesn't look or act nice to you doesn't mean they aren't kind. (Are you following?) 

In Kinshasa, I look at the photos that I have taken on the street and, inevitably, the first thing I notice are the glares.  Visitors to Congo often remark that the streets lack the friendly vibe stereotypical of many other African nations.  Sometimes it feels like people don't have time or energy to dole out niceness to strangers on the street - especially foreign ones with cameras.

When I was little, and I complained about how mean a friend or teacher acted, my parents would say, "There is so much about that person that you just don't know.  Maybe there are hard things going on in their life right now to make them act that way."  It always pissed me off at first. But, it was humbling - and a little entertaining - to imagine what incredible horribleness might secretly be occurring behind closed doors.

But, I wonder if it is equally necessary to imagine what incredible kindness is occurring behind closed doors.  

It is this question that allows a guest in this city to stop theorizing about the deep psychological effects of incessant stress, applying ineffective research-proved improvement strategies, or simply feeling bitter.  That jerk at the cable company, the customs official who held your passport hostage, your coworker who never seems to "open up", the cop who hit your car because you only gave him a 200FC tip.  You just don't know what they might be doing - against all odds - in their own communities to make life a little easier, a little happier, or a little better for someone else.  Imagining kindness doesn't fix bad behavior, corruption, or a broken government, but it does offer a degree of relief and tolerance.

You just don't know.  

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