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.


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