Waving like the Rose Parade Queen at the Funeral

Mourners line up to pay respects. Photo by JMD

Saturday morning Nancy, Nina, and I pack our bags, preparing for our immersion into Kinshasa life. Nancy and I will spend a few days with Gaston and Marie-Jeanne while Nina stay at Pastor Francois and Felly’s home. Then the plan is to switch places.

I am feeling anxious, not knowing what to expect. Francois and our translator, Izir, arrive and we wait for Marie Jeanne and her driver. At last they arrive, we climb into Marie Jeanne’s SUV: me in front, Nina and Nancy and Marie-Jeanne in the middle seat, and Francois and Izir in the very back with our luggage. Suzanne stands outside my window saying good-bye. I am beginning to panic and I don’t want to leave Suzanne and her home. I get teary-eyed and she takes my hand and reassures me that all will be well. She tells me in a quiet voice, “They are not going to let anything happen to you. You are safe—don’t worry about your physical safety. You’ll do fine.” She kisses the back of my hand and says goodbye to me then says good-bye to the others.

I wipe away my tears and feel comforted by her words and kindness. As we drive away I replay her words and pray: “Yes, God, I am safe. Help me to be free and not so fearful.” At this moment I feel my heart open up—my binding fear is loosened and I can breathe again. I feel eager to experience DR Congo.

Originally we were to visit a hospital but plans were changed when the wife of a prominent Mennonite pastor died and the funeral was scheduled for this day. The challenge is that no one is exactly certain where the funeral is located so we spend a lot of time driving down narrow roads, asking for directions, backing up and turning around. (See Nancy’s terrific description here). At last we find the location tucked in the back behind some building. The funeral is in an open area with folding chairs set up for a few hundred people. The funeral has started and we are latecomers creating a distraction as we walk past a group of people in the back. I begin greeting them—they are looking at us anyway. I say, “Bonjour, bonjour” and receive “Bonjour” with smiles in return. I begin waving to people like I’m the Rose Parade queen, loudly whispering, “Bonjour, bonjour.” Thankfully, Izir is behind me and whispers, “We need to keep going” and directs me to the left for us to be seated. I am in the front row between Nancy and Izir, who tells me what is happening as the portable sound system pops and hisses as people speak in either French or Lhingalla, a dialect. I sit back and watch everything, occasionally asking Izir what is happening.

*I see the head usher working hard at directing people, or turning them away, consulting with the pastor, all trying to discreetly keep the funeral moving along. I think of William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”—with apologies to WCW:

So much depends
upon

the head
usher

forehead glistening
with sweat

near the beloved
pastor.

*I see different families of the deceased wearing clothing from the same fabric as a way to identify themselves.

Members of the same family wear clothing created from the same fabric. Photo by JMD

*I see a group of mourners from the woman’s home village sitting around the coffin but allowing enough space for the guests to walk past to pay their respects.

Mourners from the village. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

*As we pay our respects—trailing behind Pastor Francois—I see the woman’s husband greet Nina in English: “We are so glad you are here. We’ve been waiting a long time for you.” And he embraces her with the traditional pressing one’s check to the other face three times.

After we pay our respects we leave. I wave again as I walk past people saying, “Au revoir!” Izir keeps correcting my pronunciation but I don’t fret—I am feeling safe and free and ready for the next event in our Congo adventure

Mango sampling in Kinshasa

Maman Lucrece and I at the produce stand. Photo by Nancy Myers

Day 4

I wake up feeling much better and eager to face the day—and to face Kinshasa. Mixed in with my eagerness are droplets of anxiety: anxiety of culture shock, anxiety of getting sick again, anxiety of new experiences. But I am ready to be brave.

Suzanne drives us to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) office located near her home. It is a large cement building that houses offices for many Protestant groups and mission organizations. As we enter the building, the lobby is an open space with a guard/receptionist behind a glass enclosure. Suzanne calls out, “Bonjour” to the man who returns her greeting. He greets us with “Bonjour” as well.

We walk up the three flights of concrete steps—without hand rails—turn right, and at the end of the hallway we see the large sign with MCC logo. As we enter the offices, we are greeted by a lovely young woman with chin-length hair. She introduces herself as Maman Bea (short for Beatrice). Nina immediately hugs Maman Bea and says in Frenglish, “I’m so pleased to meet you!” As I meet Maman Bea and do the cheek-to-cheek greeting three times, I begin to speak Spanish to her. I catch myself but end up speaking a hybrid of Spanish, English, and French. She corrects my French pronunciation (this is the first of scores of corrections I receive during the next two weeks).

Ben Munongo, MCC-DRC. Photo by Nancy Myers

We also meet Ben Munongo, Suzanne’s assistant who jokingly (and perhaps, proudly) shows us his “domain” in the office, comparing his three desks to Suzanne’s one desk. The three MCC offices are interconnected with Suzanne and Ben’s office the furthest from Bea. In one of these other offices are Francois, Mimi, and Jean Felix, waiting to be interviewed by Nancy and digitally recorded by Nina. Nancy has edited a book of stories from Congolese Mennonites in preparation for the upcoming centennial celebration of the Mennonite Church in DR Congo in July. These interviews will be part of the celebration.

Mimi and Jean Felix. Photo by Nina Lanctot

Suzanne and I leave the others to run errands to the bank and the water store to purchase bottled water. There are stores dedicated to selling bottled water throughout Kinshasa. Suzanne replaces large empty water jugs with filled ones.

Nancy and Pastor Francois Tshidimu in the MCC offices. Photo by Nina Lanctot.

After the interviews are done, the four of us visit a grocery store with a fruit and vegetable stand across the street. The store is small and crowded and stocked with imported foods and beverages. After we finish in the store we cross the street to the produce stand where we meet the gregarious Maman Lucrece. She is a savvy and shrewd saleswoman who engages all of her expat customers in her form of Frenglish.

Maman Lucrece’s produce stand. Photo by Nancy Myers

As we look at the lush and beautiful produce, Maman Lucrece decides to give us a taste test of a variety of mangoes. With her very large knife—the blade looks about twelve inches long—she slices into the mangoes, makes 1/8” slices and gives each of us a slice off the edge of that knife. As I bite into the sweet, juicy slice I think: “I am standing on a street in the Congo eating sliced mangoes from Maman Lucrece.” It is another “But I’m just a girl from the Valley” moment that I occasionally experience—when I was in jail in Santo Domingo, D.R., and when I was at the outdoor butcher market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. These moments always feel incongruous from my Valley upbringing!

After our lunch of bread, crackers, and fresh salad, we head to the market district in downtown Kinshasa in search of Congo cloth. We park across the street from a high-end fabric store which is wonderfully air-conditioned and the fabric is shrewdly displayed to cause serious fabric lust. But the prices discourage us from purchasing fabric plus Suzanne tells us we can get it for less money at another store.

We walk into the market district which is dusty, dirty, with garbage piled up on the corners, the sidewalks dilapidated and packed with street vendors selling things from old books, sunglasses, electronic equipment, plumbing parts, and clothing. As we walk past the vendors call out to us. I am last in line, trying to avoid both people and merchandise while mindful of my weak and wonky left ankle. And because I am the slowest I become the most vulnerable which brings unsavory attention with men literally getting in my face or purposefully blocking my way. Also, frankly, because of the size of my breasts men have grabbed at them in the past so I am scared this will happen again (although it doesn’t, thankfully). At this point Nancy walks back to me, grabs my hand and holds on tight as she leads me through the street. I feel relief and gratitude for her wisdom and generosity.

At last! The fabric store with fabric bundles piled high along the walls to the ceiling. But wait—am I reading the sign correctly? Six yards for $12.56 FR—six yards of 100 percent cotton for $10.00 US? Unbelievable. I purchase four bundles of six yards each. Yet, despite finding such bargains and being surrounded by fabric, I am unsettled by the market experience and am fearful of walking through the streets again back to the car.

Suzanne is feeling unsettled as well and hires one of the store clerks to escort us back through the streets. I take Nancy’s hand as we leave and Suzanne is behind me as we maneuver around cars and men to follow our guide. One man intentionally blocks me and refuses to move so I plow into him with my left shoulder (and I think how my brother would be proud of this move) and Suzanne yells at him, “Get away!” and elbows him. The man begins parroting her as we continue across the street. We begin to giggle at the parroting which diffuses some of my fear as our escort leads us into calmer streets.

As we leave the area I try to regain some inner equilibrium: I am angry with myself for being so fearful and causing such problems for the others, especially Suzanne, yet I am grateful for their compassion. I want very much to appear competent to my friends like I can handle any situation but the truth is, I am not and I cannot. I remember how traveling can cause us to confront our selves. I try to hold my fearful self with the same compassion extended to me by Suzanne, Nancy, and Nina. This is not an easy thing for me to do.

By evening we are laughing about Suzanne, the committed pacifist, elbowing the fellow in the marketplace. She is generous in her laughter and a lightness returns to us at end the day. Nancy writes a funny and beautiful blog post about the day. I send Kevin a quick message telling him that I had a hard day but am feeling better. He quickly responds his empathy about the day but assures me of his love. I head to bed surrounded by compassion, love, and laughter. It helps redeem the day.

Further reflections from Brene Brown on vulnerability

I am a big fan of Brene Brown and her work vulnerability and shame. I love her honesty, humor, and openness. If you are like me, you watched her first TED talk when she shared about her breakdown (“spiritual awakening”) that saved her life. In this video she talks about how vulnerable she felt afterwards.

My favorite quote from this talk is this: “Vulnerability is the birthplace to innovation, creativity, and change.”  Wow. I need to be vulnerable in order to risk–to risk writing a prayer from my heart, to risk stitching an art quilt from my heart, and to risk sharing from my heart. But, wow, shame can really snap me back to a hidden place like a stretched rubber band snapping back.

The antidote to letting shame run my life is vulnerability, risk, and an open heart. A good dosage of courage and boldness helps too!

Be sure to check Brene’s webpage with her blog for further wisdom and insight.