Food for thought

The D.R.C. (or “My Congo” as it will be henceforth known to distinguish it from the Congo on the other side of the river, the “Republic of Congo”) is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources. Most nations could only dream of possessing the vast variety and depth of resources found here. But, unlike the U.S. and Canada, the riches here have been rarely seen by the country’s own people. Instead, for hundreds of years Europeans (primarily Belgians, but the Portuguese, French and English can’t claim total innocence) pillaged this country in a way that is hard to describe and harder to accept once it is described. Add to that the history of violence that has plagued the D.R.C. since it’s independence and the images that most frequently appear beside the word Congo are, to put it mildly, bleak. But this is not a bleak place. On the contrary it is a place of light and unexpected beauty, despite its dirty and unlovely aspects. And the abundance is, even on a micro level, amazing.

Every couple of days a wizened (love that word, by the way) old man named Papa Clement shows up at my door with boxes and boxes of fresh vegetables. The bounty is overwhelming and I haven’t been able to stop myself from totally overindulging every time he shows up. The result of my inability to control my vegetable buying has been hours of wonderful time spent in our kitchen.


In the last week I’ve made: gazpacho, eggplant parmesan, cabbage and apples with sausage, ratatouille, guacamole (twice), moussaka, zucchini-banana chocolate chip muffins (twice) and an assortment of carrot side dishes. All of it (well, except for the sausages) with produce brought to my door by Papa Clement.



If he doesn’t have a vegetable I’m looking for, then I can go to Shoprite and buy it – it takes more effort than in the U.S. (no weighing and taking veggies on your own here – there is a dedicated person to whom you bring your produce who weighs, bags and tags it with a price in the middle of the produce section), but most of what I’ve needed I’ve been able to find.


Some things are wildly expensive by U.S. standards. Last week I bought a bunch of asparagus (C’s favorite) for about $14. Yesterday they had strawberries – a quart was about $18. Broccoli is routinely in the $15 range for a head. But other things are cheaper since they are so readily available – an avocado here? It’ll cost you about $0.50-$1 depending on where you buy it. Fresh cilantro, mint or parsley – $0.50-$1 for a huge bunch. A pineapple? $2. A mango? $0.50. Bread is amazingly cheap – a really nice loaf of crusty multigrain or white bread– cooked onsite and daily – is somewhere in the range of $1.50-$2.

There are, not surprisingly, some things that are rare and difficult (if not impossible) to get here: “real” milk, salmon, chocolate chips, Mexican food and an assortment of very “American” items like single serving mac & cheese (which C loves and I feel decidedly guilty about ordering, but which I buy from Amazon anyway). But, most things are ultimately here and available – albeit, in some cases, at a price. You just have to decide what you’re willing to pay for.

I was going to make shrimp tacos this week – homemade tortillas (another thing difficult to find and/or expensive), fresh pineapple, slaw and avocado, but I looked at the bags of frozen shrimp and discovered that a pound cost $56 (actually probably more than that as it was 56,000 Congolese francs and, while most of us do a 1:1 exchange in our heads it is not quite that good, so it was probably more like $60…). Needless to say we will be eating chicken tacos instead.  But, on the flip side of that, I found my favorite cheese (Cambozola – a mixture of Camembert and Gorgonzola) in not one, but two stores for a pretty decent price.


Another thing that is bizarre by U.S. standards in some of the grocery stores (City Market being the one I know) is that nothing has a price – just a number. So you find the number of the item you need, say B103, then you go to the end of the aisle and look up B103 on a long price list posted at the end of each aisle. It drives me batty.

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From what I’ve been told all the stores used to price items like City Market does, but now there are at least two large stores (Hasson et Frères and Shoprite) that put prices for each item directly in front of you rather than making you walk up and down aisles repeatedly to compare prices. Maybe it is the competition lawyer in me, but I keep wondering if City Market will be forced by competition to eventually change its ways and put prices on the shelves for each item. Only time (a lot of it knowing Kinshasa) will tell.

There have been pleasant surprises (beyond Papa Clement and the Fresh Produce (band name in my next life?)) and funny moments as well in my grocery buying time here so far. One of the bags used by some of the stores to package bread has a large picture of President Obama on it, so I have dubbed it “Obama Bread.”


And one of the ubiquitous brands for many items, soda, mayonnaise and water included, is “Canadian Pure.” How can I go wrong with that?



Lizards and Spiders and Beers, Oh My!

Life in Kinshasa is settling into a bit of a routine. We got into our “permanent” (in the FS this means 2 years) house last Sunday and we’ve unpacked our suitcases and the 16 boxes I sent myself from the U.S. before we left. We’ve received one Amazon Prime Pantry box of goodies and we’ve got another on the way, so the knowledge that we are only an online order and two weeks from more mac & cheese singles (C’s favorite) or dog food, is comforting.


The house also has two major advantages. First, it has a lovely pool that not only provides endless hours of entertainment, but also makes the view from the living room that much nicer. The walls of our living/dining room are entirely windows across two full sides and look out to the pool area and the backyard. Ironically, the water is a bit cold for too much swimming, though we understand that once the wet season starts in about a month and the weather gets hotter the cold pool temperature will be a welcome relief.



The second advantage, at least from my perspective, is the proximity to Shoprite, a South African grocery store chain. The strip mall where it is located also has a clothing/fabric store that I can’t wait to explore and an ice cream store called Nice Cream that will also be a welcome spot during hot days. As was probably clear from my earlier post, the ability to get out and MOVE is important to me… For some reason we run out of things to drink way faster than things to eat, so the ability to trot the 500 ft. over to Shoprite and pick up juice, soda and beer, makes life just that much easier. And this is my kind of place as far as beer. The most popular local beer is a lager called Primus. After enduring the last 11 months in Arlington where asking for a lager a restaurant seemed akin to asking for Spam for dinner, I am a happy lager-drinking girl.

C might disagree on the second advantage to our house. For her it is that there are about 14 other children living in this compound of 8 homes. Four of them are teenagers and might as well be adults from C’s perspective, but the rest range in age from 2 ½ to 9. On most afternoons (and many mornings) the whole lot of them can be found in the compound courtyard riding bikes in circles (thank heavens for the folks who’ve been here a while and have extra bikes), drawing with chalk or playing. During the day, at least right now when school is not in session, they rotate between houses and pools. Usually, there are also a number of additional children from other U.S.G. housing nearby.

The only thing the children share the courtyard with are the lizards – a wide variety of green, black and orange lizards sunning themselves and doing “push-ups” if any of the kids (or adults) get too close to them. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where there were no lizards, but I find them fascinating. B couldn’t care less about them and I chalk that up to growing up in Florida where they are not exactly a novelty.


The only other creatures we’ve come in contact with are birds, most with beautiful songs, and one very large spider.

So here’s the deal about me: I don’t kill things (except cockroaches) unless they are a threat to my child, my husband, my dog, or me, or they are known to be dangerous. Therefore, when I walked into the bathroom yesterday and found this spider staring at me, my first instinct was not to stomp on it.


My first instinct was to say, “Huh. That is one BIG spider. Wonder if it is dangerous?” I had my phone in my hand, so I took a picture (it had, by that time scooted over to the side of the toilet bowl) and emailed it to B with a message saying “Can you ask around and see if anyone knows whether this is dangerous?”

In my defense, I wasn’t wearing shoes (and was, in fact, still in my PJs) so it’s not like I could have stomped on it anyway, but once I’d sent along the email I backed out of the bathroom to find some shoes and wait for B’s response. B called me almost immediately.

“Kill it,” he said.

“Why?” I countered. “Is it dangerous?”

“I have no idea, but it is huge. Just kill it. I don’t want it crawling on me at night.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “It won’t crawl on you at night – our bed is covered in mosquito netting. It won’t be able to get in there.”

B was having none of it.

“Says you,” he said. “Just put on your big girl panties and go and kill it.” (as if my reluctance to kill it was because I was afraid of it rather than because I don’t think it is my place to randomly kill other creatures).

Unfortunately for B, the spider was nowhere to be seen when I returned to the bathroom. I did keep my eye out for it all day, but I (turns out wrongly) assumed that once it had met Miller it would leave the house of its own accord, just as it had unilaterally come in.

I did do some due diligence and asked the nannies in the compound whether it was dangerous – to which they said no. One of our neighbors identified it as a “huntsman” or “hunting” spider and said it killed roaches. This further justified my feeling that not killing it at first sight was the right move – anything that kills roaches so I don’t have to is a good thing in my book.

As we got ready for bed B repeated his concern that the spider might join us under the mosquito net and I poo-poo’d his worries. The netting goes all the way to the floor – surely it could not get in there (setting aside the question of why it would want to get in there in the first place). We settled down, turned off the lights and started to drift into sleep…then I happened to look up. Almost directly above my head, on the netting, I saw a long leg move.   I slipped under the net and turned on my bedside light.

The spider was inside the netting.

“Um, B,” I said. “You need to slowly get out of bed on your side of the bed.”

He was clearly almost asleep by that point and he slurred, “Why?”

“Uh, well, turns out you were right,” I replied. “The spider is on the netting. On the inside.”

He moved pretty quickly at that point, spluttering “arrrrgh, I hate you!” as he scrambled out, and we ended up both standing outside our bed, looking at the spider inside.

Needless to say the spider did not get another chance. He was summarily squished with B’s shoe. Sheets were changed and, somewhat surprisingly, we both got a really good night’s sleep. So while in Africa at least, it appears I will have to abandon my moratorium on killing first and asking questions later, and, for the rest of my life, B will never let me forget that he was right and I was wrong about spiders and mosquito netting.

Tuesdays are radio call-in days

Every Tuesday while we are in Kinshasa we will test out our U.S. Government issued radio to be sure it works in case of an emergency.   For the next 99 Tuesdays, give or take, we will call in to Post headquarters and say “this is Echo 1 Zulu,” or something like that, and they will respond, “we read you Lima Charlie, Echo 1 Zulu. Over and Out.”

So on top of my daily exercise in French, and my desire to learn some Lingala (the local language) while we are here, it turns out I’ll also be learning the military alphabet.

For reasons that have always been unclear to me these letters have evaded my best efforts to remember them. We were forced to call in on C’s call sign today because I cannot for the life of me remember what “y” is. Yellow? Yahoo? Yoda? I have no idea. In our threesome of a family, I am the “y”, B is the “x” (some slight irony for genetics geeks) and C is the “z.” The only one of the three I can remember is “Zulu,” so C is the caller on this first Tuesday of our time in Congo.

All morning long we’ve been hearing the chatter as other folks call in. B had to tell me “Lima Charlie” meant “Loud & Clear” before he left this morning so who knows what other “phrases” will also pop up that will seem as foreign to me as the Lingala spoken by most people on the streets here.

We had a hard day yesterday. C and I have now been in this apartment, almost non-stop, for 6 days. We have only the things we brought with us and the contents of two of the boxes I sent from the States. Thank Amazon one of the boxes contained Mac & Cheese and an art project, so I’ve been able to keep C relatively occupied and fed. My phone stopped working on Sunday, and the internet died sometime in the middle of the night on Monday. All we need to do is replenish the money in both accounts, but we are struggling to figure out how to do that. Luckily my phone can receive calls and texts, but I have no way of calling out.

The day yesterday was a bit cooler, with almost no sun. Overcast and hazy. Lovely in many ways with a fresh breeze blowing through the palms in the compound yard, but not really pool weather (at least for 90 degree loving me). So, we did an art project, wrote a letter (a lost art that I am thrilled C will get to know and love), and walked the dog. C played on the phone while I worked out in the handy little gym downstairs.

On Sunday we discovered that directly across the hall from us is a little girl named S who is 5 (or who “has 5 years” translated literally from the French). S is also the daughter of an American in Kinshasa and speaks English. So late in the afternoon we knocked on her door and invited her over to play. Apart from a few “that’s mine” and “I’m the winner” moments that are to be expected between any 4 and 5 year old, the play date went really well and I actually got some time to read.

Then S’s “nou-nou” (nanny) took the girls out to the play area where there is a trampoline, swing set (like no swing set you’ve ever seen – metal and more like a swinging metal couch than anything else) and play house. I went downstairs and sat by the pool to read some more, wanting to be in somewhat close proximity since Nou-nou doesn’t speak English and C doesn’t speak French. It was a great hour. I listened to the girls giggle and scream in joy while I relaxed and read.


Then came the fall. Literally.

As we were walking back into the building, Nou-nou and the girls in front, me bringing up the rear, C tripped on the doorframe and fell hard onto the marble foyer floor. When I ran up to them she was crying that her knee hurt, so I picked her up and we went back to the apartment. I sat her down to look at her knee and she said, “Mommy, my head hurts too.” So I lifted up her mop of yellow curls and saw a huge lump right in the middle of her forehead. Yikes.

Now I’m the daughter of two doctors, so I’m not one to panic at the sight of bumps, bruises or blood. So I didn’t panic. I got a bag of rice that was conveniently in the freezer (yes, everything gets put into the fridge or freezer here to avoid any unpleasant bug surprises when you are making dinner…) and put it on her head. Then, once she had calmed down, I started to think about our circumstances.

We are in a strange city where we are restricted in movement. We have no working phone. We have no working internet. We have only a radio. The radio is for emergencies. What kind of emergency qualifies? At what point would a bump on the head qualify as an acceptable use of the radio? I have no idea. I felt the weight of that Lima Charlie.

And these are the questions that plague me on these long indolent days. I am a woman of action. I normally know where to turn when I need help (even if I am sometimes loath the ask for it). I drove across the country in the 80s, in my teens, with no phone or radio and never thought twice about it. But there is something about the addition of my child that makes me feel helpless and unnerved by my lack of knowledge here. Where is a hospital? I have no idea. A doctor? Don’t know. I don’t have a car. I can’t call a taxi. Hell, I can’t even call B. 99 Tuesdays stretch far, far ahead of me.

The booklet we got from Post when we were assigned to Kinshasa said: “The first day will be the hardest day, the first week will be the hardest week, and the first month will be the hardest month.” While it might very well be true that the first month will be the hardest month, the first day was definitely not the hardest day – the 5th day was. But I also ask myself, what if we were in China? Or Mexico? Or Brazil? I wouldn’t know where the hospital or doctors are there either, would I? And without a car, phone or internet I’d be equally at odds when facing a bump on the head and wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable with the language. Even if you dropped me in the middle of L.A., or some other large U.S. city that I am unfamiliar with, I’d still be out of sorts without a car or communication with the outside world. So it’s not really about this particular place, it’s about the unfamiliarity of any new place – and, given the transient lifestyle we have opted for – this is obviously a feeling I’m going to have more than once.

So maybe I need to relax in the knowledge that I have this radio. This little box that sits quietly on our dresser all week except for Tuesdays when it squawks to life momentarily and the Marines at Post One confirm that all is well with the radio and perhaps, by implication, the world that we now live in.

Marines, after all, they are my lifelines to the outside if I need them; what better lifelines could I ask for? This is the bizarre reality of this new life. I don’t have a phone, a car or the Internet, but if I need them the Marines will come to my aid.

Here’s hoping that 99 Tuesdays from now I will sign on (having learned what “y” stands for…) and do my last radio check, and that in between now and then all our bumps in Kinshasa will be minor ones and we will never need to call on the Marines, or have them call on us, for anything else. Over and out.


Freedom of Movement

The gates of our compound are guarded, day and night, by three or four uniformed men. They push open the heavy metal gates at the entrance for cars coming in, and cars going out. There is no separate gate for pedestrians, because the people who live behind our walls do not generally walk out, or walk in. If you live here the guards will open the gates and you are granted entrance to a sanctuary of calm compared to the busy movement of the outside world here.


The guards greet me in the morning when I take the dog out with a friendly “Bonjour Madame,” tipping their hats and giving me a shallow bow. They are both fascinated and very (very) wary of Miller. They cluster in the door of the guardhouse and watch us walk by. I have told them “Il n’est pas mechant. Il est gentil, vraiment.” (he is not mean, he is nice, truly). But so far only one of them has been brave enough to come close enough to touch the dog – and after he tapped Miller lightly on the head he jumped back as if he’d touched a wild bear.

There is barbed wire covering the walls that surround the compound. Inside our apartment we have a “Safe Room,” where, if necessary, we could hunker down for any unrest to pass. It is “safe” not only because it helps keep us safe from harm, but, with its heavy metal door and large metal sheets covering the windows, it also feels like a safe in which to keep valuables. We feel protected here. But we are restless. This first weekend was eye opening for us. It gave us a glimpse of at least one hard aspect of this post: the compound we live in is our home and it is sheltered, but it is also our prison – the proverbial “gilded cage.” Part of the problem is that we do not yet have our car. There are rumors it is close – perhaps even at customs in Kinshasa, but that means nothing until we have the official word that it has been released and will be delivered back to us. Without a car we are either reliant on others, or stuck in our compound. B has been getting a ride to and from work everyday with a woman he works with, and our sponsors have very kindly taken us out for a tour of the town, lunch at a lovely patisserie and picked us up and taken us over to their place (which is right next door to our soon-to-be house) for a Sunday afternoon Happy Hour. But for C and me, once B leaves, the day stretches before us within the confines of our apartment and the guarded walls of the building.

In both Charlotte and Arlington our weekend mornings were full of conversations like this:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I dunno. Why don’t we walk down to Elizabth/Plaza-Midwood/Clarendon and take the dog to the dog park, then we can swing by the kid park and then have lunch somewhere?”

We left at our leisure. I went to Target for “a couple of things” (and left with dozens of things). B “ran” to Home Depot. We took C to the library, birthday parties, the ice cream store. This is a very real freedom of living in the U.S., Canada and other first world countries that I think most of us forget: the freedom to MOVE. Wherever and whenever we feel the urge to do so. And we can move by foot, by car (with the windows rolled down), by subway or by bike.



That freedom is, for the most part, denied to us here. Sunday afternoon, when we joined our sponsors (and soon-to-be neighbors) for cocktails, B and I left their compound (called the GB) on foot. Immediately next door to GB is Shoprite – a large, Western-feeling grocery store. I forgot to buy ketchup and mustard when our sponsor took me shopping on Friday and in our house of chicken nuggets and sandwiches that sin had to be rectified.

The GB guards opened the big metal gates for us and B and I stepped through onto the dusty dirt “sidewalk.” We walked the 500 feet between the GB and Shoprite and I felt giddy. Just not being dependent on someone else to get me from place A to place B was freeing. We didn’t linger (though B did marvel at the relative cheapness of the alcohol and the relative expense of the broccoli), but just the knowledge that when we move into the GB I will have some small freedom of movement – even if it is just walking to the grocery store – made me happy.

When I was young we didn’t have the internet to occupy us. At my parents’ lake house we didn’t have cable, only an old VCR and a few movies. We played games. We did puzzles. We read books. I am hoping that coupled with some more freedom than we have now, we can also re-learn the art of occupation that does not involve electronic games, on-demand videos, and unnecessary trips to Target just to fight boredom.

In our shipments I’ve packed games and puzzles and crafts (though B may never be coaxed into doing to any crafts…). I have more than a dozen books I haven’t had time to read. I’d like to master the art of making a bagel, ice cream and dinner. I want to make C some clothes out of the amazing fabrics that surround us here.

And I want to learn to appreciate the freedom and privilege it is to open my front door and walk out into the world without a guard, barbed wire and a gate protecting me.