7 January 2014

3 "Life Lessons" After Our Kinshasa Attack

If you talk to anyone who stayed here over the break, it was pretty chill until the day we all woke up to gunfire. Some very misguided men decided to attack the military camp next door and they fought back. Hard. Because they are the military and that's what they do best.

But it was totally fine, I mean it was really scary. No really, we were all calm, but we freaked out. We knew we'd be okay, but it was really terrible. It feels like you have multiple personality disorder when trying to describe the mix of emotions one feels when machine guns and grenades become part of your morning. And then the next day all's back to normal and the city is calm again. The problem is, when you wake up to "war" or a "coup" or whatever the heck is going on, you can't travel into the future and read tomorrow's press release about when calm was restored. You have no idea what to expect. 

It wasn't a war or a coup, really. Just crazy fighting. I think the media is mostly using the word "attack." Nevertheless, people died right outside our wall. And this is the real world for many folks everyday. But just on our side of the wall we were all okay. Which kind of sums up the juxtaposition of our weird lives in the Congo in itself.

Our side of the wall. Photo credit: Jill Humphrey

So here are the shallow, expat lessons I learned from our privileged side of the wall. The most serious of which is that I'm supremely grateful that in retrospect it was just another adventure to add to the list, and in the end I can make light of it, even though it was terrible. (See what I mean by multiple personalities?)  

1. I grab truly weird stuff in 5 minutes.

Everyone on campus spent the day in our safe room (which is in an undisclosed location because I'm sure Mama Congo is on top of every guerrilla's blogroll.) 

It's been a while since we've had a "go-bag" packed due to relative calm in Kinshasa lately (read: because I'm too lazy.) So when I've got 5 minutes to pack for our family for an unknown time away from our home, I throw in lots of pants for my children and one shirt, for both of them. I grab my deodorant and my razor and all of our toothbrushes, except for Adam's. I add in toilet paper, an inordinate amount of wet wipes, but no diapers.

I've also learned that in an emergency I do think of packing really important things, but just because I grab them doesn't mean I actually put them in our bag. For example, I happen to know the air conditioner remote doesn't work in our safe room, so I grab ours which I know works for the safe room's AC too. I feel like the queen of emergencies for remembering this. I will be the hero of the room for thinking of this detail. I'm so busy congratulating myself that I put down the remote before it gets in our bag because I think of something else I need to pack. Same goes for aforementioned diapers.

Thank goodness my husband thinks of logical things to pack like passports, food and cash. Looking around the safe room, others thought to bring: a power strip (genius!), an eye mask, a 5 kilo bag of stale Honey Nut Cheerios, and half a dozen bottles of tonic water. Fascinating.

It never crossed my mind to take a single thing that's remotely sentimental. No pictures, no baby's firsts memorabilia, not even our precious dog Falafel. Just us.

I did, however, remember to put my family in tennis shoes because I've seen The Sound of Music one too many times to know those kids didn't flee over that mountain in their flip-flops.

No flip-flops on these kids.

 Which leads me to...

2. My children would give us up to that Nazi Rolf in a heartbeat.

I'm not sure why I had always assumed that our children, no matter how young, would be able to sense urgency and just know to fall in line. This did not happen. As Adam ran around making phone calls and I packed our weird bag, they stayed glued to watching Pippi Longstocking. Then they started crying to me because their butterfly wings weren't on straight. Let me reiterate, there was gunfire and exploding things outside our house and their only reaction was to complain about their wings and turn up the volume on Pippi so they could hear over the commotion.

Wings trump war.

When it was time to throw them in their clothing, one complained about wearing blue pants not pink ones and the other was really unhappy with her shoes. How can I possibly get it through to you children that this is an emergency and we need to MOVE without scaring them by yelling, IF YOU DO NOT PUT ON YOUR SHOES, WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! Ani resolved to carry her glittery shoes while wearing her sensible ones. And Char threw her pink pants in with the 30 others I had already packed.

Once we got to our safe room, they ran around having the time of their lives. Still no sense whatsoever of the situation. C'mon children of mine, even Gretl knew to pipe down when they hid in the abbey.

3. Mangoes and stray cats can scare the bejezus out of me. 

In the days afterward, needless to say, we all stayed on high alert. Do you know how many everyday noises sound identical to gunfire and grenades? A mango falling on your roof will make your heart stop. Stray cats jumping around in the rafters will wake you up in terror. Put mangoes and cats together and you'll run straight for your "go-bag." And don't even mention cars backfiring.

It also didn't help that the next day was New Year's Eve and thus the military camp that had just been attacked, celebrated as they always do with you guessed it: gunfire. Did you know celebratory gunfire and non-celebratory gunfire are completely indistinguishable? And can we take a moment to reevaluate the use of fireworks as a fun activity that is meant to actually replicate bombs?

So when it's all said and done, I am fully aware of the privilege of our lives behind these walls. And equally grateful for friends who hunkered down with us and brushed our kids hair because we didn't, played Legos with them and shared their stale Cheerios. We still feel very safe here and strangely even more so, now that we know exactly what to do.

And I really need to brush up on my emergency preparedness beyond lessons from The Sound of Music.


  1. Wow. That's truly terrifying. You, of course, managed to weave the story with humor.

    About the firecrackers: I've never understood how/why Central Americans celebrate everything with loud explosions when they have lived through so many years of bloody war. Wouldn't all the loud noises make the PTSD worse?

    1. Hmm, I was thinking. Maybe these countries use fireworks for the reverse, calming effect. When you hear bombs, you think, "Oh that sounds just like fireworks. I love fireworks! Everything's going to be okay."

  2. After living in Israel-Palestine for the first three months of the Second Intifada, I couldn't handle being near fireworks for a couple of years. Yeah, brilliant invention Fireworks Person.

    I'm glad you're all okay. And I totally get the Multiple Personality Disorder about terrifying events :)

  3. Well South America also celebrates EVERYTHING with fireworks (these days are very common those which make a lot of noise, but zero lights), I lived here my whole life and I still don't get it. Lights are OK, but the explosions are dreadful.
    About the explosions, people thinks something like this: "We celebrated with explosions for decades, no war or economical crisis or hunger is going to take that one from us. So, you get it together and I'll blow stuff".

  4. While on SST, I slept through a massive explosion at an ill-maintained weapons-disposal site on the other side of town that freaked out everyone else in our group (and many of their host parents). At least one of my classmates was whisked into the family car to make a run for it only to end up stuck in panicked traffic.

    1. Oh gosh! We had one of those weapons-disposal episodes in Brazzaville a while back and it broke our windows on this side of the river. I can't imagine being any closer!

    2. Yeah, this one wasn't planned (the old explosives were just stored unsafely), so it was a whole big scandal because it actually rained munitions on some populated areas. I think there were a few fatalities.

  5. Thanks for sharing these snippets of your life that give a great reflection on what it's like to live through these kinds of events as an expat. I was in Mali during the coup in 2012 and had a similarly weird experience of that double life kind of feeling (http://triflesandtreasures.blogspot.com/2012/03/update-from-mali-coup-detat-and-my-etat.html) . Du courage and keep on, keepin' on. I'll keep reading and always look forward to your updates.

  6. I'm so glad you're fine. I wonder what your daughters will remember of that day.

  7. Wow! This takes me back to July 8, 1960, when all hell broke loose after Congo's independence from Belgium on June 30. As a just-turned 13-year old on the ABFMS (now CBCO) mission station, it was an adventure. All of the mission families at LĂ©opoldville (and others who were in town right then) moved into the upstairs of the two-story house across from Sims Chapel--our safe-room, I suppose, though back then we didn't have such labels). After a couple of days of in-the-distance explosions and gunfire, we were evacuated across the river by ferry, and thence from Brazzaville by the USAF, and back to the States. Your post brings it back as though it were yesterday. Marvelous "voice" in your blog, and right-on focus on the minutiae that envelop us in times of high stress.

    1. Thanks for commenting Rusty! What an adventure you all had. I can't imagine actually having to evacuate like so many others have. Love what you said about the minutiae that envelops us.

  8. oh I'm sooo glad you guys are back. Every time I read your blog I get sucked into reading old posts for far too long (and I love it). Sorry you had the scare of an attack. I agree those sorts of situations leave you completely schizo as far as emotions are concerned but make for funny stories when you are safe later. Thanks for sharing. (Rachel, not Menno...it always says I'm my husband)

  9. wow....just. wow. I am glad you all are ok

  10. YES to things/animals falling and walking on a metal roof! It scares me every time and I haven't even been what you went through. I hope you guys have time to relax these next few weeks and chill out.

  11. Wow, that must have been really scary. I'm glad you're all alright. It's funny what goes through your head in an emergency, isn't it? In one way, it's lovely that the children didn't pick up on the gravity of the situation, although I can understand how stressful it must have been getting them out the door! You shared such a serious situation so well and humorously. Stay safe!

  12. I'm glad you all are alright! Thanks for sharing - especially with such a great sense of humor! :) Too bad it couldn't be funny in the moment.

  13. I feel asleep last night thinking about this experience of yours. It must have been terrifying. You do a great job describing it, but I can only imagine the Mama Bear feelings you must have had.

  14. Darn mangoes on the roof - big problem for me in South Sudan! FYI - in my experience, celebratory gunfire sounds more like a hollow POP POP POP (because the bullets are fired in the air), where non-celebratory gunfire sounds more "solid" (for lack of a better word), and sometimes you can actually hear the direction it was fired from / to. Not sure that will help you, but there you go... :)


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