29 May 2014

The First Goodbye

So, it's begun.

The Goodbyes.  A thing so profound that capitalization is required.

Dr. Laure came by yesterday for a final porch chat.  We talked about babies and medicine and trying to make life a little easier and a little safer for women in Congo. We talked about New York and Burkina Faso and Kinshasa.  We bemoaned la douleur de la s├ęparation.  The first Goodbye.

27 May 2014

Kinshasa Guru: Mel Schellenberg

In 2010, right after Loulou was born, I began to have swelling in my left knee.  The pain and stiffness spread to other joints and I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  


I started on a bunch of fancy medications and got better, but when I arrived in Kinshasa three years ago, I still struggled to get out of a car and definitely couldn't sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor with my kids.  I felt lucky that the meds were working and that my rheumatologist didn't freak when I said I was moving to the Congo, but I was resigned to a new kind of life.

I first met Mel Schellenberg after about six months of watching Sarah and others go religiously to her kickboxing classes.  Their dedication was almost ridiculous.  They asked me to come along.  I laughed and gently reminded them of my little chronic disease issue.  How insensitive of them.  But, eventually, I relented.  I tried to whine about my "condition" to Mel.  She assured me that as long as I listened to my body, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn't do serious exercise.  I did a lot of modified moves that first year, and slowly realized that a lot of my body issues traced back to inactivity, not disease.  My doctor agreed when I saw him that first summer after several weeks of regular exercise.

After years of Mel-induced sweat-fests, Sarah and I wanted to recognize her for everything she has done and meant to us.  I'm off several medications and have nicer joint action than ever before. I'm stronger, happier and less anxious.  I can honestly tell my students that their school-nurse-and- incessant- lecturer-of-all-things-health-and-fitness works out exactly like she should.  I've always sort of lied before. I also don't look like a fool when throwing an air punch anymore and I value that.  

I believe in my body again.  Mel insisted that I step it up, stop feeling sorry for myself and explore my personal limits and I'm eternally grateful.

I can continue on, but really, nothing except for the many words of those who know her would suffice to explain the impact Mel has had on our whole community. We actually had to cut parts of people's responses, they were so enthusiastic. When's the last time you emailed a large group of people and every single person wrote back instantly? That happened this week. People truly love Mel.  It's obviously not just me.  

Jill L.: 
I love dance and sports and have worked out all of my life - until I was in a car accident and injured my neck and shoulder. After the accident, I re-injured my neck every time I tried to start working out. This went on for about 4 years and I had pretty much given up on being fit. When I met Mel, I was really afraid that the same thing would happen again during exercise (because she is super hard-core!) and I would wind up with months of severe pain. Mel assured me that she would help me learn alternative exercises and movements that wouldn't aggravate my injuries. In those first crucial weeks, I was amazed how she kept in contact with me almost every day and really coaxed me along. I've found that she is hard-core, but she's also sensitive to each person's situation and wants the best for her clients. While I wouldn't yet call myself fit, I've been working out with her for 4 months with no injury. I'm very encouraged to be back on the road to fitness! 

While brutal, painful, and often demoralizing, Mel's training sessions are the highlight of my week. I have the privilege of being pushed to exhaustion and extreme fatigue by Mel four times a week. I must be a glutton for punishment, because she pushes me to lengths I have never tested myself before. Her workout sessions are more than exercise. Her work is therapeutic, and helps me work through personal and life challenges. Mel is motivator, life coach, and drill sergeant wrapped up into one tiny, dynamic package! I could not imagine life in the Congo without Mel Schellenberg.

Mel’s classes make me want to die, but I still can't wait to return every time for more! She is a powerhouse of motivation and energy. I am the most fit I have ever been in my life. Mel provides a fun and challenging workout that keeps me at my personal best.  


Without fail on the day I have personal training with Mel, I start to think of excuses to get out of it, but I am so glad that I can never think of a good enough excuse.  I feel amazing, my clothes fit better and I truly feel stronger and healthier.  I have even managed to reduce my medication for hypertension!

Mel personalizes everything she does.  She changes plans on the fly, based on how I'm feeling and how things are going.  She's very responsive and quick to find what works best.  She is encouraging, but holds me to a high standard and makes me work really hard.  She does an amazing job blending what's fun, what's tough, what's challenging, and what I'm getting the hang of.  I had never, for a moment, thought of working with a personal trainer, and now I wonder why I waited so long to start working with Mel!

Sarah S.
It's no exaggeration when I say that Mel changed my life. [Insert awkward tearing-up here.] Three years ago when I started taking her classes, I had just had my second baby and pretty much thought, what most women think after pregnancy, that my body would never be the same. But I'm in better shape now than I've ever been. And that feeling goes a long way living in Kinshasa. Mel is quite possibly the nicest, least judgmental, most motivational person I've ever met. Sometimes women feel pulled in so many directions, and especially guilty about what we're missing at home while we exercise. But during a recent workout, as we're all covered in sweat and near exhaustion, Mel said, "Nobody else needs you right now. This is exactly where you need to be." I can't think of a better way to sum up how I feel about Mel's workouts.  


I love working with Mel because of how human she is. In my experience with personal trainers, it seems that their “buffness/healthy” is unattainable; they never eat junk food, or bake cookies with their kids, or have a drink with their friends because they’re too busy maintaining a bodacious bod that everyone stares at and says, “That can never be me.” But with Mel, she never judges when you engage in a drink or two, or confess that you may have had a little “junk food splurge”. In fact, she admits she has them too…with two children and a husband it’s hard not to enjoy a treat every once in a while. And her attitude encourages me because even though I splurge more than I ought to, Mel still pushes me to know that I can still attain the body that I want when I am ready to make that commitment…and I don’t completely have to give up all of my tasty treats!

Mel and her kiddos. 

Sara M
Working with Mel in personal training and group sessions has truly made my life better.  Not only do I see a difference, but I feel a difference in my attitude and outlook on life.  I have more energy and am happier in general because I am working out regularly. Mel is incredibly patient and supportive, but also pushes me to my limits in the best way possible. I never would have imagined several months ago that I would be able to do some of the things I am able to do now with relative ease like regular push-ups, weighted squats, and much more. 

Can I just submit a picture of my abs? 

Photo credit to Emmanuel & Micah Schellenberg.

Note to Self:  Work on face when taking "jumping photos".

See?  Effortless.  

If you would like to get buff and happy, call Mel.  She'll transform you in more ways than one.


25 May 2014

Weekend List!

Sarah's List: 

11 Hidden Messages in Company Logos. (I'll never forget the day I first saw the Fed Ex arrow.)

Fedex by Dano, on Flickr
You'll never unsee it.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Dano 

Looks like they caught the guy who scared the bejeezus out of us in December.

The Little Art House in Eastern Congo. It's not all bad news coming from Goma.

A house paint that vaccinates your house. Sign me up.

It sucked my blood by gagstreet, on Flickr
Take that!
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  gagstreet 

The Most Positive Countries in the World.

Feelin' fine in DRC. Too bad nobody asked. We're gray on the map, as usual.

An excellent list of some really great reading.

What happens when kids only see white people in books.

Emma Thompson would rather have a root canal than join Twitter. Ditto.

And when your entire life is about to change, I've found rewatching every episode of Sex in the City is a very effective coping mechanism. 10 years later, here's how the seasons ranked.

Yes, that is a pink velour case.

Jill's List:

Doing my pre-flight reading.  Not sure about the "lady" part, but this is pretty good advice.

This is amazing. (Where are my scrunchies and stirrup pants?)


Too many claim white people are at risk in communities of color. Really, it's those communities that are threatened.


Is "doing what you love" actually the best advice?

How do you feel about  this depiction of Kinshasa and the final, take-away message:
My ultimate advice? Simple: don’t go to dangerous places like this unless you have a really, really, really important reason to go there.

Dang it.  I have apparently wasted a lot of time.

Groaning-cheese, anyone?  I hear it's better than an epidural.

Image from Wikipedia

No cheese?  There's always the over-the-top birth plan to get you through.  I may have once been handed a birth plan by a patient that instructed me to call in a sushi order after delivery.

20 May 2014

Expats in Congo: Purposeless Walking

This post has nothing to do with Mamas or culture (nor leaving Congo - thank goodness). It's more of a Humans of Kinshasa piece. Or rather, the fortitude of expat humans in Kinshasa. Or maybe better yet, how Congo makes you do crazy things.

We live on the 42 acre campus of the American school here in Kin. There's a path that surrounds us. Some people run it. Some people walk it. And some people really walk it. 

Recently we linked to an article about the wonders of purposeless walking and its sad decline. That same weekend we had no idea purposeless walking was happening right outside our windows. 

Our friend Andrew, of teaching the Mamas how to swim fame, just walked 50 miles. In a circle. For no reason. Read on...

From Running the Wall.

Q: So Andrew, I hear you walked 50 miles (80 kilometers) this weekend. Just around our campus. I’m speechless. What the heck?

A: Well I walked 36 times around campus. I started at midnight, walked all night into the next morning, and finished at 5:00 pm the next day. 

Q: Why? What was your purpose? What's the point?

A: I didn’t have one. I just wanted to see if I could do it.

Q: No fundraising? No spiritual journey? You were just walking to walk? You didn't even go anywhere!

A: Yep. I had tried it twice before, but had to quit because of severe exhaustion. So Sara [my wife] went away for the weekend and I just decided to try it again. She didn’t think I could do it - so maybe that was part of the motivation to finish - to prove to myself and my wife that I could do it.

Q: Did you get bored? Did you listen to music? Surely you had your iPhone with you. Did you use it to entertain yourself?

A: No, I didn’t listen to music and I just used my phone to keep track of the time. My mind was fully occupied concentrating on meeting the small goals I had set throughout the day. I spent most of my time predicting where I would be at each time of day - to the minute - I really focused on the details, which distracted me from becoming overwhelmed.

Q: How did you keep track of your laps?

A: Well I had two plates, one with 36 fava/broad beans on it and the other one was empty. Each time I passed by it, I moved one bean over. I used the largest beans I could find to feel more accomplished each time I moved one.

Q: So you walked all through the night in Congo - did you see anything interesting? Any wildlife?

A: Well I discovered that all the millipedes and centipedes come out between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning. I definitely squashed a few. And did you know there’s a chicken on campus?! I saw one of those. At one point I heard something fall from a tree and I thought it was a gorilla, but it was only a cat. It was kind of funny seeing what time everyone went to bed. I’d do one lap and see lights on and then on my next go-round their lights would be off. I saw Johan on his porch working on something at 2am. And then I saw him again the next morning after he woke up - all on my same walk. I felt a little bit like a stalker.

Q: I saw you walking Saturday afternoon, but I had no idea you had been walking all night. You didn’t look tired. Did you get tired at any point?

A: I didn't get tired or bored, but there was a period of about 6 miles where I could hardly move my legs because my muscles became very tight and fatigued. I didn't think I was going to actually finish, but around mile 32 I got a second wind, and after that point I didn't look back!

Q: How does your body feel now?

A: Because I walked almost the entire distance and didn't run until the end, my calf muscles are actually not very sore. My hamstrings and quadriceps are very tired, but I am able to walk around without any trouble. I slightly bruised my heels, but that is going away quickly. The rest of my body feels great - my heart and lungs feel strong and I think my body enjoyed the challenge.
Q: Did you have any epiphanies or deep thoughts during those 17 hours? What did you learn about yourself?

A: I realized how much mental effort it takes to do an endurance sport - and that I am naturally more comfortable running for a few hours than walking for many. It was actually difficult not to run the first few hours, and I realized that I often get too excited about things, making it difficult to complete tasks once I begin because I burnout quickly. Deep stuff, huh?

Q: Adam is obsessed, OBSESSED with the fact that you did this. He kept me up last night talking about how he couldn’t believe he doesn’t know how far he can walk. Do you have any recommendations for him or others who want to try purposeless, endurance walking?

A: I would recommend that anyone interested in purposeless, endurance walking - especially in a warm area like Congo - make sure they have a plan to stay hydrated. You need to be sure to replace all the electrolytes that your body is losing along with drinking water. The other recommendation is something that I didn't do - TRAIN! I would not recommend that anyone try to walk 80 kilometers without spending a few weeks building up to it. It is much safer, and better for your health, to start with 10 or 20 kilometers, and build up from there!


My favorite part of this story is that Andrew didn't really have a purpose for walking except to just see if he could do it. He didn't advertise he was going to walk for 17 hours, he didn't solicit support, he just did it. It's funny, since he finished and word has spread of his feat, I've heard friends in our little community say, "Well if Andrew can walk for 17 hours, I can [insert task far easier than walking for 17 hours]." We're all inspired. Joke's on you, Andrew! Turns out, there was a good purpose.

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