30 October 2013

Trick-or-Treating in the Rainforest

Tomorrow night, we will cover our children in paint and trek through the rainforest looking for candy.

That's how we do Halloween around here.

The day starts with the annual parade in the elementary school.  Last year, Adam unleashed his fro and stole the show from the kids.  Jerk.

The subsequent dusk walk through the forest paths makes for the most perfect Trick-or-Treating I've ever experienced.

The trees on the dirt paths lean in close.  Someone inevitably stumbles on a tangle of vines and yells, "It's a snake! The chauve-souris (an exceptionally elegant translation of "bat", no?) dip and swoop in the sky. And the sweat pours off of small children dragging generous bags of treats on the steamy 2.5 kilometer loop, smearing their makeup.  Not to mention their parents - who inevitably end up carrying one or more little ghouls through the Kinshasa October heat.

The best part?  We know everyone.  Here, we eagerly dig into bags of Dean's homemade cookies without fear of urban legend poisons.  We are invited in for cups of cider at Autumn and Jasen's (and Neil provides cloudy, licorice-y Pastis for the adults) and drink without suspicion.  The apples may contain imported chemicals, but no razors.  Every house we go to is that of a friend, a neighbor, a colleague.  This close community where we live, work and play with the same people day in and day out has it's pitfalls.  Halloween, however, is among the most positive benefits.

This all sounds absurdly idyllic.

Despite the dreaminess of Halloween on our campus, I am struggling to create a Spaceman Spiff costume without easy access to Target for the correct color of t-shirt.  Elias is extremely particular these days.  All of my powers of persuasion will be necessary to convince him that the lightning bolt on his top should absolutely be made from yellow pagne fabric.

Tonight's craft project.  Johan is the flashlight + wire Death Ray Blaster Master.

That's what Spaceman Spiff would do if he was in Congo.

Loulou's alien princess dress (she was not about to be the Hideous Blob that her brother insisted was necessary) was purchased from Esther in Accra two weeks ago and is made of pink batik.  It does, however, have the requisite floor-length twirly skirt.  Her petticoats will be a pile of skirts made by G-ma over last summer's Stateside break.

As for the alien antennae...we'll have to make our own.

Mama Vida might help out with the preparations, though she may not have recovered from Elias' first Halloween-in-Kinshasa costume.  He was a Pagne Knight of the Anopheles Mosquito (you know, the kind that gives you malaria.  That's scary, right?)  She was fairly incredulous that we would excitedly decorate our five-year-old with a deadly pest.  Maybe it was a little overly-enthusiastic.

Two years later, the kids are older - and perhaps wiser than their occasionally ridiculous parents - and the costumes will be less contrived, though still peppered with Congo.  The elementary school will march proudly and, later, we will walk softly through the creepy rainforest, taking care not to disturb the snakes.

Oh yeah.  The Jack O'Lanterns?  They are crafted from watermelons

29 October 2013

Interview: Life and Growing "old" in Congo

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.)

Tchic: No.

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.

Everyone laughs.

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.

24 October 2013

Regularly Scheduled Programming...

...will return shortly.

But for now, we are October breaking here in Kinshasa.  This means various things for the teachers and students at our school, but for me, it's been a little of the following:

Devouring my first lobster with a side of Club Premium Lager for a very low price.  Yeah, really!  I figured that "at a dive in Ghana" was as good as any setting for such an important "first."
Afterward, I interviewed everyone at the table about their "my first lobster" story.
I won't lie, there were some tears.

Midnight swimming in this gorgeous pool.  I mostly worked at this hotel (more on that later), but some friends and I did take a midnight swim one evening.  We had to sign a waiver!  They sent a hotel representative marching out with official papers when they saw us attempting a dip.

Crashing a Ghanian wedding.  Sort of.

Frolicking with great friends and colleagues on the (sort of dirty) shores of Accra.

Resisting bedtime routines in order to hold sleeping (not really) babies (anymore) on my lap for many minutes upon returning home.

Taking this joker to "work" with us while Johan and I traded edits on grad school Statements of Purpose.

Documenting important specimens for our resident (mini) entomologist.

Watching the least scary parts of The Hobbit (and introducing Elias to the "this wasn't in the book" game) during Congo thunderstorms while wrapped in overly-touristy Maasai warrior airport souvenirs.

I was also able to deliver Mama Vida's second piece of beautiful batik to her - straight from the arms of her "sister" Esther in Osu, Accra.  She is every bit the businesswoman and I persuaded her with the promise of a large, eager-to-buy, crowd to stay open late for us:

This is what Mama Vida made with last year's fabric selection:

Can't wait to see this year's creation.

19 October 2013

Weekend List!

Sarah's List:

It's Congo Week! Okay, Congo Week is actually next week October 20-26, but we celebrate a week early here. Because we live in the Congo and we do what we want. Here's what Congo Week looks like where we are:

Students mapped Congo's natural resources. Computers = Coltan, Cans = Tin, Volcano = Volcano

Shak Shakito made an appearance. Check him out here.

Infographics are all the rage now. We can't get enough! Here are 13 of the year's best informational graphics. (Check out the iPhone inky fingertips one.)

Visualizing Africa’s Coltan Trade by Jon Gosier, on Flickr
Bonus: Congo Week infographic!
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Jon Gosier 

What do you think about these tips on how to be a man?  

"If you are wittier than you are handsome, avoid loud clubs." YES.  
"Pretty women who are unaccompanied want you to talk to them." Um. Not always.

Cary Grant by twm1340, on Flickr
Real men play the harp.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  twm1340 

Real women are amazing multi-taskers. Check out all the things we do while breast-feeding or pumping. (That plank photo's for you my workout ladies.)

1938WPA.3f05325v -- Nurse the Baby: Your by Children
See. You can nurse and stay out of trouble at the same time.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Children's Bureau Centennial 

A great post from our friend over at Mama's Minutia on reorienting, resettling and regrouping after time abroad. The Adjustment. So, so true.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Jo. Coming home kinda feels like this fog. (Please don't sue me, Jennifer Jo, in your adjustment fog, for using your photo without permission. P.S. Can I use your photo?)

From the "in case you missed it" department. Can you read people's emotions?

Bill and Melinda discuss their marriage. And saving the world.

Relatedly, the latest on the malaria vaccine. (Thank you, Bill and Melinda.)

Mosquito by tanakawho, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  tanakawho 

And finally, check out this article from a local Lancaster, Pennsylvania newspaper about a Congolese refugee. I thought it was just a typical interview until I got to about 3/4 of the way through the article (2nd page). See what refugee Terry Mulumba says about the first time he met a gay couple. That's some profound cultural adjustment. Bravo, Terry.

Jill's List: 

I'm in Ghana!  Accra is really a great place.  Just the chance to smell the sea is amazing.  I'm hanging out at the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel for a conference...which gets some horrible reviews online, but it actually kind of incredible. (Or maybe that's the power of the mama-cation speaking?) I even watched about five minutes of Amish Mafia last night...

There is this painting in my hotel bathroom that I can't stop thinking about.  I'm don't usually consider myself a big fan of this style of art, but this woman on her hot pink background is just calling me to inquire of the manager if I might purchase her off the wall above the toilet.

Some of my Grade 7 students "re-imagined" this commercial for an assignment on Public Service Announcements this week.  I cried (secretly, I think) every time they showed the original version, and harder when I saw their re-make:

And, then, Johan forwarded me this article about how serious even a small car accident can be in Africa, and I cried again.  Wear your seatbelts, friends!

Yes.  Wear them, even if it makes your face go like this.

I'm on a mission to find Esther and her fabric shop while I'm in Accra.  Yes, I must buy more amazing Ghanaian fabric for myself and everyone I know.  But, more importantly, I must show her a picture of Mama Vida wearing the gorgeous outfit she made using the fabric I bought her during last year's trip. Read about how I chose what to buy here.

Loulou and Mama Vida on Wednesday.

Oh! The Internet is luxurious here.  What should I download?!  Orange is the New Black?

Love this post showing what it can look like to teach Middle School.

Images by Alice Proujansky.

What do you think?  Is the journalism you just read on Africa trash?  Or is this article just overly-reactionary?
If a political report devotes a substantial chunk of attention to tribal dancing, and “vibrant African music” — beware. You wouldn’t sample the nightclubs and “vibrant American music” in Adams Morgan when doing a piece on Democrats and Republicans arguing over the U.S. budget. Just like the sky is the sky in Africa and not the African sky, music is music in Africa and not African music. And if music wasn’t vibrant, well then it’s probably not music.

And.  The Accra beach - despite it's abundant human-made flotsam and frothy gray jetsam - is lovely....and possibly described as "vibrant."
See? (sorry Johan, Elias, and Loulou.  Next time, you can come with me.  I swear.):

Also.  In need of more shea butter.  Trying to find time to buy loads (probably at Global Mamas) - but the local stuff vs. the "imported" French variety.

Want some?  Buy it here if you're in Accra!

17 October 2013

Guest Post: Having a Baby in Kinshasa

This post is a challenge.  

You will see photos that might make your pity-sensors go wild.   Resist. 

Because these pictures represent success.  They prove that Western ideals of fancy equipment, pretty rooms, or even completely germ-free operating rooms aren't necessary for a baby to be born safely.  The seven clinics that you see below represent some of the most hopeful maternal and infant mortality rates around in a country well known as 'the worst place to be a mother.'

This is a guest post by Ruthie Schaad, who has been working with moms and babies in Kinshasa for years.  She is a fellow Labor & Delivery nurse (we get to call ourselves that forever, right?) and has a long and close working relationship with seven local maternity clinics in Kinshasa.  I could listen to her stories forever.  Here's a little glimpse into what it's like to be pregnant and give birth in urban Congo...

Even with the odds stacked against it, childbirth in Congo can be safe for both mother and child.

Although the biological process of birth is the same the world over, the experience of it varies widely. In Kinshasa, mothers look forward to welcoming their newborns just as mothers do the world over and children in Congolese society are by tradition, revered in families. Many women give birth in neighborhood health center maternities (clinics that specialize in mother-baby care) where the facilities are basic and often run down. 

The entrance to Liboke Center.

In spite of this and the lack of hi-tech equipment and supplies, these places can be vibrant with dedicated, competent, and trained staff that strive to assure safe care for mothers and babies.

Tshisuaka clinic delivery room midwife with a homemade plastic apron.

The Presbyterian Health Center Maternities of Kinshasa have been providing such care for the past twenty plus years. Each of the seven maternities are located in heavily populated, disadvantaged neighborhoods of Kinshasa, all facing extreme social and physical challenges in a city with inconsistent, if any, city services. This makes for a challenging work environment for health care workers, many of whom are as disadvantaged as the populations they serve.

The receptionist at Tshisuaka, Annie, nursing her new baby at work!

Expectant mothers come on specified days, usually Fridays, to maternities for their prenatal care or “kilo” (meaning kilograms of course but referring to “weighing in” or “check-up”).  There is a specified national standard for prenatal care. Individually, each woman sees a nurse or midwife for the usual checks and basic lab work is ordered and done on site. The mothers receive iron and folic acid pills, specified, periodic doses of Fansidar for malaria prevention, Mebendazol for intestinal parasites and Tetanus vaccinations during pregnancy.  In centers affiliated with a mother to child prevention of HIV/AIDS program, the mothers will have the choice of receiving voluntary testing and counseling and treatment at a referral center if this is necessary. An ultrasound is generally ordered although not all women can afford to pay for it.  At some point during the weekly checks a group discussion will be held by one of the midwives on a topic related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Not a prenatal class, but another group education opportunity:  Immunization Day at Tshimungu Clinic.

Women are taught, among other things, to prepare a birthing kit and what basic supplies to put in it  including an ample piece of used cloth that should be washed and ironed and will be precisely folded to be used as the first maternity sanitary napkin (little access materially or financially to disposable ones).

Nurses from Liboke Clinic with Safe Motherhood Kits.

The centers have  mosquito net distribution programs for expectant mothers administered through the health zones and the maternity wards have nets for each bed, something that was not always so. Prenatal visits improve outcomes for mothers and babies so are strongly encouraged as are well child clinic visits.

Mosquito protection and a full house at Boo Nsuba Clinic.

The simple and sparse labor and delivery rooms are usually next to each other or in the same room together, expectant mothers walking between the two. Women generally labor alone with no support person other than the nurses and midwives; significant other men, for a variety of practical, habitual and cultural reasons, are not welcome.

Delivery room at Boo Nsuba Clinic.

Delivery room at Centenaire Clinic

Once having given birth, the new mother is helped to dress and then walked to the nearby maternity ward which tends to be one main room. Meals are brought in by family members and new mothers are taught and expected to wash their own soiled clothing as an infection prevention mechanism. 

New mother washing clothes.

It is an accepted and expected natural norm that mothers will breastfeed their babies, even twins or triplets. Mothers and their babies stay in the ward for around three days, although some find themselves staying longer as family members put together enough money to pay the bill. 

Baby washing at Boo Nsuba Clinic

Yes, except in rare circumstances, mothers are not discharged until the bill is paid. Paying the maternity costs is probably one of the biggest stressors of giving birth for these women.  Depending upon the center, uncomplicated births cost between $10 and $45. A C- Section costs around $200.

A mother and her new baby - less than one hour old!

Six of the seven health centers and maternities have a doctor working on site or on call and if needed can perform emergency caesarean sections or other surgical interventions. If possible, the physician sees and examines expectant mothers on their first prenatal visit. Surgeries are done in sub-optimal conditions with minimal equipment and supplies but nevertheless save lives.

Operating room at Mayamba Health Center.

Transfers to a bigger, more equipped, hospital is the ideal but so often not possible in the middle of the night when it is not safe to go out on practically impassable secondary roads. There are few functioning ambulances that will venture to such places or that could even get to them and the use of them can be a bureaucratic headache. In addition, there are more costs involved in a transfer; a big deterrent for patients and their families that stall things into becoming life and death situations.

The centers have managed to keep providing services in spite of huge economic short falls. They strive to maintain fees at accessible rates in order to serve their needy populations.  Health care worker salaries are based upon center production, thus salary expectations are a constant roller coaster. Amazingly, given the odds, staff like their profession and are motivated by the ongoing desire to serve their patients, many driven by a Christian faith that is reflected in their daily life and work. It is noteworthy that in the city of Kinshasa, having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, in 20 years of operation these maternities have had a total of only 5 maternal deaths in their facilities.

Text and photos by Ruthie Schaad.

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