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.