30 July 2012

How the Congolese Military Almost Ruined My Sister's Wedding

I wrote this a few weeks before we returned to the States for the summer. Now that these dresses are officially done and we can all exhale, here's the tale...

Mama Youyou's been making all the bridesmaid's dresses for my sister's wedding. I have to confess I've lost more than a little sleep counting the weekends -or as I think of them "sewing days"- left until we leave for the States with, presumably, dresses in hand. I casually remind Mama Youyou of the countdown when it "naturally" comes up in conversation. And it "naturally" does not often, so I think Mama Youyou is on to my pagne driven anxiety.

She is ever so reassuring in what has come to be a familiar "settle down white girl" tone of voice. I try not to count the dresses vs. days in my head (6 bridesmaids + 2 baby dresses divided by how many more days?...ugh). Oh and did I mention that just as she was finishing my dress I decided I wanted a totally different dress. Twice. Yep. I'm that person. So a large part of this nervousness is thanks to no one but me.

In this, the final week, she's been pretty quiet. "How are the dresses, Mama Youyou?" I nervously ask as if they're her sick children. She keeps saying she's finished with all but one. But she won't show them to me. She wants to bring them to present to me all together. I guess for the drama of it. I'm not really sure. But I'm getting suspicious.

So then this afternoon things got serious. She said we needed to talk. And she started talking so fast I had no idea what was going on. Remember we're working in French here. Second languages for both of us. I kept hearing the words "military" and "raid" and "sorry it's gone."

After a few deep breaths she told the whole story. She had been working in a little shop that belonged to her friend because it had reliable electricity. She was down to the last dress when overnight the military came and raided all the neighborhood shops. They took the dress and her sewing machine and other much more important things, I'm sure.

This wouldn't be such a problem, but remember bridesmaidzilla (me) and the changing of the dress design two times? We're down to very little pagne here. Not enough to make another dress. So Mama Youyou said she took the scraps that were leftover and trudged up and down Ave. de Commerce (which combines every African street I've ever been on into one special piece of hell) asking shopkeepers if they had this style of pagne. They did not. So she panicked. And then got down to work.

The sewing room at Jill's house.

She then presented me with the last and final replacement dress. She used those leftover scraps and added them to black satin and made what I think is a very beautiful dress. Kaitlyn, I hope you agree. Oh. And some Congolese military wife is off enjoying your J.Crew inspired dress. Just so the dress doesn't look too different from the others, Mama Youyou will use her last hours before we leave making other black satin accents for the rest of the bridesmaids.

So take that military men. The Congo-inspired, rural Virginia wedding must go on. And Mama Youyou proves once again the gumption of a Congolese woman up against the man.

Mama YouYou

28 July 2012

Friday (or whatever day) List

Sarah's List:

On the way back from the beach, we stopped at Chick-fil-A. This was my first time. (I know, I know, I'm about 2 decades behind.) The only thing I know about Chick-fil-A is they're closed on Sundays. I was not expecting 4-star service complete with self-adhesive children's place mats, clean booster seats and high chairs and about 4,000 different sauces. And to top it off, they double-checked to make sure it was okay if there was cinnamon in the kids' applesauce. Too good to be true? Probably so. Who thought they could get themselves so embroiled in scandal.

From the "I still think 1990 was 10 years ago" department, Adam and I just discovered the 90s Alternative Rock and Grunge station on XM Radio. Here you can see what's currently playing. I dare you not to feel nostalgic. Pretty sure Adam teared up mid-Greenday/Stone Temple Pilots/Radiohead playlist.

This article combines two wonderful things about Harrisonburg: The Farmer's Market and the Daily News-Record. A cover story this week investigated the Farmer's Market's decision to ban dogs. Climax of the story: dog steals pretzel. An excerpt below:

"On July 17, a dog snatched a pretzel from a woman's hand after she had just bought it from a vendor. Although neither the woman nor the vendor was upset and the dog owner bought the woman another pretzel, the situation could've been worse, Showalter said. It's the potential for it to be a finger and not a pretzel, even if the dog was just going for the pretzel," she said. Did I mention this was the cover story?

At Mama Congo, we love all things nanny. I can totally understand how this woman would want to keep the nanny after she slept with her husband. Sometimes a good nanny is harder to replace than a husband.

"Olympics! Everyone is so excited they wore weird pants."

Good luck to the DRC Olympic team. These guys look like a fun bunch:

Jill's List:

Frantically adding, "Download as much Mr. Bean as possible" to list of last-minute To Dos.  My kid laughed hysterically and requested to watch this about 50 times last night:

I bought two packs of Muppets Band-Aids today.  Kind of because we can always use imported Target Band-Aids in Kinshasa where they cost $15/pack at City Market.  But, mainly because of this.  Steven Colbert would make fun of me.

Man, DRCongo is all up in the news.  Sigh.

I'm going to rock the pagne pants at Katie's wedding today.  I know photographers are supposed to be somewhat subdued in their attire, but, my mother-in-law (watch her on WHSV Monday morning, by the way) made me some seriously hot, super-tailored, stovepipe pants out of some of the most fabulous pagne print ever.  Oh man, maybe I'm just excited about the Olympics.

Elias was psyched about watching the four athletes from the Congo walk during the Opening Ceremonies.  Medals, anyone?

Okay - off to a beautiful wedding.  Can't wait to show the photos to Mama YouYou and Mama Vida.  They are going to be so thrilled.  Maybe as much as the lovely bride.

23 July 2012

Short List.

A short list to make up for last Friday's no-list:

This girl.  Check out what she has to say about getting braids in NY vs. Lagos, Nigeria.  Quality & Craft.  And, she praises the magic of Moroccan Oil!

Cape Town represents with this neat-o project.

What do you think?  Is it harder to make friends when you're in your 30's?  

Um, yes.  Will go perfectly with this.  Both fit my toy requirements, which are: lightweight and packs flat(ish).

And this - this trash toy geodesic dome is sweet.

An incredible article about Kenyan marathoner, Sammy Wanjiru.  Sorry you can't read the whole thing online unless you subscribe (argh....), but here's more writing about this tragic & amazing runner.

File:Samuel Wanjiru at 2008 Summer Olympics.jpg
Sammy Wanjiru image from WikiCommons; http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/12259.shtml

Track & Field, baby.  I recently realized a new passion for reading and watching running related stuff.  Not actually running, however.  Hmmm.

Made in China?

Did you know that both Johan and I are only children?  If only we had read this first...
More here.

Sarah is at the beach.  Johan's at a whiskey tasting.  Elias is bouncing off the walls.  Lou's stomping around in the fabulous vintage french red heels I scored at this little place in Brooklyn.  And, yeah, I cut my hair.

Less than two more weeks Stateside.  Eeep.  

19 July 2012

I Have a Nanny.

I realize that being back in the U.S., I am guarded in how I describe Mama Vida.  Like this:

Person who lives in U.S.:  Wow!  Great Pili-Pili.  Who did you say made this?
Me:  Mama Vida made it.  She's our...Lou Lou's...the woman...the person...   

Usually, I end up saying that she's "the person who watches Lou Lou", and often, "our nanny" but it usually takes me a bit to get around to it.  Do I define her using the possessive "our"?  Does "the person who watches Lou Lou" give her anywhere near the credit she deserves?  She's one of the people who knows us best, but do I call her a "friend"?  We love her, but does she love us?  Is this business or relationship? 

(This article touches on these feelings. Reading about "The Other Mothers of Manhattan" is what got me writing this post...)

Mama Vida is an essential and central person to our life in the Congo and I want to give a proper description when I talk about her.  I just almost always do a bad job.  I worry that people will think that if I casually throw around "our nanny" that I sound impossibly privileged (which I am).  I used to secretly think that my third-culture-kid friends were kind of awful when they mentioned the slew of housekeepers, nannies, and guards that surrounded their childhoods.  Especially the former missionary kids.  Really? Missionaries who have house help?

Now, I don't judge so much on this topic.

Mamas Vida and YouYou have helped me get over any qualms that I might have identifying as an employer.  When a TASOK resident chooses not to hire a gardener, housekeeper, nanny, or other possible house worker, they are all over that situation.  They want to know why.  They know the perfect person for the job.  Why would someone at the American school not want to provide a job if they have the opportunity?

For us, we consider worker salaries the best money we spend each month.

When we left Kinshasa for the summer, Mama NouNou pulled me aside to tell me how the income she makes working at our house has changed the way her family lives.  Not dramatically, but enough to allow them to stop just figuring out how to just get through the day and start thinking about the future.

NouNou (a trained chef/caterer) told me all about how she wants to start a system of portable lunch trucks.  She noted that many of the mass employers don't provide lunch options to the workers.  And because the factories are self-contained, it isn't easy to just walk somewhere to purchase a quick meal.  She explained how this would be a woman-owned, woman-run business, giving jobs to some of the most-vulnerable, least-employable populations: the older women and mothers.  Because it would be lunch-only, mothers could be home in time to meet their kids after school.  Older women could watch the babies while the younger women cooked, served, and washed up.  They would serve a simple menu of old favorites:  fufu, pondu, baguettes, and beans.

Basically, NouNou has re-imagined the food truck scene for Kinshasa:
Original logo from the Philadelphia Food Truck Association.

I think Sarah and I will help her write up her idea into a proposal this Fall and submit it to Le Fonds Pour Les Femmes Congolaises for business support and funding.  

She would rock the Kinshasa lunch scene.

I sort of hate myself for writing this piece.  I hate to imagine painting myself as the wealthy benefactor, waxing eloquent about how I've made life better for "my workers".  Ugh.

But, I also want to crazily appreciate everyone who helps us in Kinshasa.  Yes, it's a business arrangement.  Yes, there are power imbalances.  No, I don't know how to exactly define our relationships.  But, I really hope it's good for everyone involved.

17 July 2012

Nuggets of Wisdom from Congo's Dog Whisperer

One of our favorite Congo characters is our dear friend Joseph Kukemboko. Over the years he's served as our dog walker, French tutor, personal assistant and good friend. He often keeps our dog, Falafel for us. I've saved up some of the email updates he's sent us about his time with Falafel. 

Joseph + Esther (and Falafel.)

 Here are some highlights and nuggets of Joseph wisdom for your personal enjoyment. (Keep in mind English is Joseph's fifth, maybe sixth language.) Some excerpts:

From yesterday Monday evening, there must be something of good understanding between me and my friend Falafel, and you can't imagine the conversation we had on Sunday evening. The conversation happened as he came close to me from about 5h00 pm and until 8h00 pm. I told him, as a good friend, to trust me, for it is a principle of friendship between loyal people: the more you trust, the more you receive. I said to myself, I won't sleep in the bedroom, but on the sofa in the sitting room. That was great. Some time he left his bed and came to my place, so we slept together. Since then we have trusted each other and all the dogs are fine, even with the cat. They eat well and after 2h00 we go for walk and game. You know, I really love them, and I am here for them.

Have a very nice and safe holiday.

I am so glad for reading you again, as here, not long time past. For about 15 minutes ago, as I was polishing my shoes in the kitchen, one of the guys came to help me there, when I saw him, I said: what a good friend. You should surely know who that friend is, Falafel. Yes, he is the one. We have made a very good progress, and with him (Falafel) I don't have much trouble.

I went on my experience to know exactly how much food he needs in the whole day (morning and afternoon), as I already know it for the others. Since I care for this, like last night he slept very quietly as never before. When he left his bed to find me, it was just to tell me good morning at 6h00, as we used to go out for the first walk before the breakfast at 7h30. Fantastic! And it seems that some other people may discover that I care for the dogs.

But to say the truth; I, with my young brothers have learned this from our father whom in the past when we were teenagers was making business on the sale of animals. He bought them from villages and sold them in Kinshasa. And all the time before he travelled to Kinshasa for sale, it was our responsibility, my brother and I, to look after those animals. And yesterday I told the one electrician: when I decided to keep my hen my hens were able to leave their way and follow me, as when I came from the bush, and on my way back, as people greet me or talk to me, so when they hear my voice, I can see them running to me until we go home. And there I could offer them some rice. And I am very pleased that I can do it here again with all these good guys here, and I like them.

Sincerely your's,

As you may imagine, we had a very great time of Christmas with all my good friends here. We preferred to look very good on that day, so they had a bath on Wednesday. And yesterday we had a wonderful time of games and congratulated with some treats of Dog biscuits. As I am writing, I just told them greetings from you, they are all excited and a happy ending with one treat of biscuits just now. Falafel likes it and is requiring one more. This means that we are fine, and even in the town, it's quiet here.

Thank you guys for writing and for reading this one again.

Truly your's,

Everyone is very happy by hearing that you're coming back very soon. I will make sure my friends will sing a joyful song and dance to say welcome back. Because we love you...especially Falafel. You know, we've got a very great time with this new friend, so I discovered many of his best qualities; first in dialog. Every time he needs some thing, he tells me. And I used to learn to understand someone's else language...in everything he has been as good as the others.

Sincerely your's,

And there you have it. Mama Congo is about more than Mamas and babies. We love our Papas and dogs too.

13 July 2012

Friday List

Sarah's List:

New theory on morning sickness. Totally fascinating and worth reading to the end. Don't let the title throw you off. Or maybe it will suck you in.

I read this article a couple years ago when it first came out. It's resurfaced and is as interesting as ever. On ducking from divorce.

Would you ever take a vacation by yourself? I have twice this year...well okay I was with other people, but got in a lot of alone time. I definitely recommend it. Especially when you stay at this place.

tropic by paul bica, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  paul bica 

Responsibility begins at conception. Pretty sure a daily back rub during pregnancy should be included in this law. I totally had Adam convinced this was a medical necessity during my pregnancies. Almost worth being pregnant. Almost.

It's guaranteed the word "bandwidth" will come up in about 75% of our conversations in Kinshasa. Looks like Congo might soon join the 1990s in internet advancements. Does this mean there's a bigger, better, faster Mama Congo coming soon? Probably not. But thanks to Josh Baugher for keeping us apprised of what's going on at home.

Jill's List:

Really happy we are paying someone to do our taxes this year.  Working abroad suddenly made the old standard of Johan + Turbo Tax seem a little novice.

Remember our dedication to Moroccan Oil for Congo-induced frizz?  I'm being lured in by the pretty packaging of another product...

So happy this comes in gallon size.

Elias told me yesterday that he only likes it when we travel "back to Harrisonburg." Then he paused and added, "Or Congo, or Spain, or Dublin, or Cape Town."  Mark Bittman on travel.  I really liked this bit:
The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

Did you know that "Full Episodes are not currently available"?  Now that I actually can stream, I can't watch the Colbert Report?!  What the what?  Sounds like there's a fight going on...

Need to read up on this before we leave.  Gotta get in my Federal Post Card Application...

Will be referring to this guide starting tomorrow.  Johan and I are off (sans kiddos) to Brooklyn for the weekend.  Wahoo!

12 July 2012

To Chop or Not.

Warning.  This post is pure fluff.

No deep thoughts or philosophical concerns today.

While I am busy applying for free medications (thanks Dr. Gelburd)! and collecting supplies (thanks Jennifer!) for Dr. Laure's clinic and a few other upstanding summer projects, I am also thinking about my hair.

Apparently, Sarah and I both think about hair a lot.

After several years of hair-growing the urge - or obsession - with chopping it all off in anticipation of another steamy round of Kinshasa is upon me.  This is a cycle.  A very un-unique issue that plagues women around the world who are not bound by some cultural or religious hair promise.  In Congo, nobody ever dares describe someone by their hair, because thanks to wigs, a woman is bound to change it up frequently.  Even Mama Vida, who is far from fashion-obsessed, has shocked us on occasion when she decided she needed a hair change.

My hair has always been resistant to length.  Which I took as a challenge.  So, after five or nine years, it's just below my shoulders.

Luxuriously long for me.  I was proud of it and my own feeble attempts at a high hipster top-knot, until I saw this photo:


So.  Now the question is: If I do the chop, can I convince Sarah and/or Johan to help me cut my own hair so that it keeps looking like the above picture for the next several months?  Or is forcing your friend/husband to be your stylist team against their will officially a horrible idea and I should just get a wig already?

11 July 2012

A Different Kind of Birth Story: My Kind

On the eve of Annaïs’ first birthday, I’m thinking a lot about her birth. People are pretty into their birth stories these days. There are entire blogs dedicated to birth stories. Jill used to send me links to particularly good entries. Until I had to break it to her how much I hate birth stories. And then she started sending me videos of women giving birth in the ocean. With dolphins. This actually exists, folks.

Most of the time people who write about their births have had candlelit, natural births at home in their organic bathtubs. Or they have dramatic stories of 3 day labors that end in emergency C-sections. I can’t identify with either side of the spectrum. I usually scan for the words “induced” or “hellish pain” to see if I’m interested. But no one really writes about those details.     

We have two identical baby books for our nearly Irish twin children. I’ve done a fairly good job of documenting the supposedly important things like “first blueberry” and "first bird" (so hipster). In fact, I ran out of space writing about Charlotte’s birth. It wasn’t organic, but made for a nice and tidy story for her to read when she’s older.

Annaïs on the other hand, has a blank page. I’m not sure I can spin her story enough to make it nice to put in print. Both of our babies were induced at 38 weeks. Electively induced. No one is dumb enough to write about that. Jill says inductions bring contractions from another universe. I cling to this statement because I’ve found it to be so true.

Jill checked us into our hospital room the day Ani was born and at the end of her shift handed us over to our personally selected labor and delivery nurse. (Proof Jill knew how to be corrupt even before she moved to Congo.) This nurse asked, “Ladybug, do you have a birth plan?” She thought my name was ladybug, for some reason. And that I was the type of person who would have a birth plan. I said my only goal was to be finished when Jill returned for her next shift. This gave me about 12 hours. Charlotte was born in 13, so this was not too lofty a goal.

I think my first mistake was believing all those tales, or reading too many birth story blogs about second labors being a piece of cake. Or at least easier than the first. I spent all morning waiting for my induced labor start. And then within about 3 seconds, I went from zero pain to actually looking around to see who was stabbing me in the uterus. It was bad. However I have some strange personality quirk that only allows me to share with Adam how I’m really feeling. Must maintain ladybug status with hospital staff. Must not show signs of weakness or pain.    

Soon after that person started stabbing me in the uterus, I decided to try laboring in the bathtub, mostly because of all those women who blog about the natural relaxing effects of water. I’m here to tell you they’re all liars. I’m pretty sure I cursed every mommy blogger who’s ever told me how great bathtub labors are. I started visualizing what I would write in their comments section. These weren’t nice things.

Then the nurse asks how I’m doing and I want to remain a ladybug. I say I’m doing totally fine and am really loving the bathtub. Then I’m pretty sure I shoot Adam a death look just in case he starts to think I’m doing "totally fine." She then asks if I’d like some sort of IV pain relief. “Oh okay,” as I’m only getting about 15 seconds between each hellish contraction. She tells me it’ll feel like I’ve had one too many margaritas. And it does. For about 5 seconds. I swear I could even taste the salt. Why don’t I drink more margaritas? After this is over, I’m drinking more margaritas. No more getting pregnant just so I can drink margaritas. (This is a promise I’ve kept.) 

Just when I think it’s not possible, my pain gets worse and I distinctly remember my thoughts. I count all the Congolese women I know and add up all their kids. How do they do this without air conditioning? Or stupid bathtubs. Or water. Oh and Western medicine. Or any medicine at all. And then I start to sympathize with anyone who's ever died a slow and painful death. These thoughts do not make the pain better.

Then I start scanning the room for something to kill myself. Nothing. Hospitals are smart that way. Adam tries to be nice to me. I rescan for something to kill him. Still nothing. Then I start to wonder why there aren’t more news stories about husband-wife murder-suicides during childbirth. Then I convince myself there is a major conspiratorial cover-up because this is surely a common occurrence. I make a note to look into this later.

The nurse comes back in and asks how I’m doing. “I’m totally fine.” Must keep up my ladybug-esque exterior. And then I ask for an epidural. Ya know, not because I need it or anything. She asks if I feel any pressure. Now I’ve read enough birth stories to know this is the trick question to see if you’re ready to push at which point they tell you it’s too late for an epidural. I feel the pressure so I know for sure it’s time to push, so I lie through my teeth and say, “Nope, no pressure at all. Baby’s no where near coming.” I want that epidural. I get it. It doesn’t work because it’s too late. Those damn medical professionals know what they’re doing.

Then I push for hours. In South Africa the nurse told me my doctor would only let me push for 20 minutes before she’d vacuum the baby out. “It’s more humane for the mother that way.” And that’s exactly how Charlotte was born. It was lovely. I put in my 20 minutes of work and then the doctor did the rest.

Ani also refused to be born and at one point my American doctor said, “I could vacuum this baby out, but…meh.” This is an actual quote as I was deep into my second hour of pushing. Thanks, doc.

At one point I glanced at the clock and saw Jill would be returning to work soon. We needed to get this show on the road. Finally after some pretty fancy maneuvers Ani was born. Babies are supposed to be born looking down at the floor. She was looking up at the corner between the wall and the ceiling. Hence the stuckness. And this is what her head looked like:

It’s a conehead on the side of her head. I’ve never even heard of this before. Jill says the nurses noted this in her file. I’m pretty proud of that. We showed this photo to a friend and she told us we really shouldn’t ever share it with people. In fact, we should get rid of it. 

Jill got to work about 15 minutes after Ani was born and took over as my nurse. She asked how my labor was and I wanted to cry to my friend, “That was the worst experience of my life. I already have PTSD.” But Jill looked so happy and professional in her pastel scrubs so I lied again and said it was "totally fine." I remained a ladybug and gestured to Adam rocking Ani in the corner.

Ani just a few short hours later...conehead resolving nicely.

And then I don’t really know what happened, but when the doctor came back Jill and I had turned the room into a “murder scene” to use his words.  I won't give details, but there were bloody footprints involved.

Then Jill took Ani to the nursery. When she cheerfully brought her back to me in the middle of the night to feed her, I was so tired I wanted to tell her to go do her own job. But again, I restrained myself and fed my baby.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my baby and it’s true that even after a hellish labor, you’d do it a million times over again for that love. I think when you’re in that deep recovery room sleep, they inject you with a chemical to make you feel this way. There’s really no other explanation for this phenomenon.  

For my third child, I plan on having a non-induced homebirth with Jill delivering the baby. And then I will submit my experience to a birth story blog complete with beautiful untouched, after-delivery photos. (Am I really the only one who retouches the after-delivery photo?) But I’m still not sure about the organic bathtub. And definitely will not be giving birth with dolphins.

Happy Birthday dear Annaïs. Worth every hellish contraction.

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