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.

My (foreign) jailbird life

My brother and I are separated. I turn to look for him while I am pushed from behind to a closed door. John is standing behind a rope with Frederico, the lawyer for the organization where I work.

“Don’t worry,” Frederico yells to me in English.  “I will take care of you.”

I don’t know why he is telling me not to worry. Nor do I know enough Spanish to understand what is rapidly said to me. Nor do I understand the building I am in.

The door opens and I am pushed into a room with three walls with the fourth a wall of prison bars. Behind the bars in another room are scores of men yelling, whistling, and gesturing at me, the only woman in the adjacent room. I am dressed in khaki shorts, a faded green knit shirt and worn loafers. I panic as I see all that male attention directed at me and I cover my breasts with my arms. A moment later, I am pushed through another door into the next room.

This room has a dozen women in it. It is all cement except for the small window in the right wall with bars that looks out onto the street. In the upper left corner is a cubicle with two half walls that contains the toilet and a floor drain.

I look around me and think: I am in jail. I. am. in. jail. I am in the city jail in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This is one of my fears about living in a foreign country—that I will land in jail and never released. My fear spiked after my brother told me about the movie “Midnight Express,” based on a true story of an American held in a Turkish jail for drug smuggling. Although I am not smuggling drugs, the images of life in a foreign jail return to me.

“Oh God, help me,” I pray.

“Oh shit,” I whisper.

Some of the women look me over then turn away. An older woman gestures to me to sit on the floor near her.  As I sit she asks, in Spanish, “Why are you here?”  I suspect gringas don’t often appear in the city jail.

In my rudimentary Spanish with lots of gesticulating, I explain that while I was driving I hit a motorcycle rider.

“Este muerte?” (Is he dead?) she asks me while the other women lean in to listen.

“No. Uh … hurt,” as I show them my elbow and knee.

They murmur amongst themselves and then turn their attention elsewhere. I settle against the wall and attempt to calm my fear and wait. I have no idea where John or Frederico are nor do I know how to get out of jail in a foreign country where I hardly speak the language. I am trying to not to slip into a panic attack.

I see women talking at the window to persons on the street. The free people hand food and cups to the women through the bars.

A woman at the window turns to me and points across the street. “Es su hermano?”

I go to the window, which is about six inches higher than me, and I pull myself up to the bars to peek. Yep, there’s my brother talking with Frederico and another Dominican man. They are too far away to hear me when I call out but close enough for me to see that they each have a bottle beer on the table in front of them. I hope they are figuring out how to post bail and get me out.

“Si, es mi hermano, ( it’s my brother)” I tell the women as I drop from the window onto the floor.

Various women take turns peeking out the window to look at him as I return to my spot on the cement floor.

One woman, who is one of the friendlier ones, offers me her empty tin cup for a drink. I look quizzically at her as she walks to the bathroom cubicle. She waves for me to follow her then she points at the toilet tank that lacks a lid. She looks kindly at me and urges me to get some water.

I gingerly step into the cubicle, dip the cup into the toilet tank and fill the cup halfway. Her hospitality touches me and I am torn over refusing the water—and her kindness—and my general avoidance of water that is not sterilized.

I take a deep breath, smile at her, and drink the water. At the same time, I am inwardly praying, “Okay God. I’m trying to receive her kindness. Protect me.”

“Gracias por la agua (thank you for the water),” I say after finishing my drink and as I hand her the cup. We smile at one another and I slightly bow toward her. “Gracias.”

I return to my place on the cement floor and return to waiting.

An hour later another woman nearby receives a paper bag filled with food from her daughter. She pulls out her meat sandwich, tears it in half and leans toward me, offering me the half. At that moment I realize that the city jail is not providing us any food and this is probably the only food I will have for who knew how long.

Again, I am deeply moved by the kindness, the hospitality that is offered to me by strangers housed together in jail. I take the sandwich and am grateful.

“Gracias por la comida (thank you for the food),” I say. “Umm…muy bueno (very good).”

She beams at me and we smile at one another.  It is a grace-filled moment.

I wait a few more hours until mid-afternoon and a police officer sticks his head in the door and says something to the room. I don’t know what he says but the women turn to me, smile, and gesture for me to leave.

I turn to the women who offered kindness to me and say good-bye.

“Adios!” they say. “Vaya con dios (Go with God).”

I wish I knew Spanish better to tell them how grateful I am for their hospitality which eased my fear, for their generous spirits, and for their kindness that will live in me for decades. And, how they were the answers to my earlier prayers. But all I can say is thank-you.

“Gracias,” as I place my hand over my heart. “Muchas gracias.”

I step through the door, move past the leering men and into the gathering area. I am relieved that my worst fears were not realized. I see John and Frederico and smile, wave at them and walk toward them.