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.

Congo Cloth Connection–Day One

Monday, April 30

I finish packing my bags, check my emails and FB several times, and dawdle, waiting until 12:15 pm when I pick up Kevin at work to drive me to the South Bend, Indiana airport. I feel present yet not-present as I wonder if I can still back out of this trip even though I’ve done everything I need to do to prepare for it. Despite my hesitation, I can only move forward, to a place I’ve never seen, to stay in home of people I don’t know, and to be away from Kevin for 16 days. I feel anxious, nervous and excited.  I can only move forward as planned and leave for Africa.

I meet Nina and Nancy at the airport and say good-bye to Kevin. I know Nancy slightly—two face-to-face meetings and a series of emails. Nina I know and trust. She was my pastoral mentor in the late 1990s and she organized a small group comprised of women pastors and their spouses which Kevin and I were in when we lived in Goshen, Indiana. But my friend Eric’s question lingers: “Have you ever traveled together before?”

“No,” I said.

He nods at me and says, “I hope it goes well then.”

I think of Eric’s question as we pass through security with the friendly TSA agents. I think again of how much nicer the TSA agents are at regional airports rather than major airports. Their friendliness makes the entire awkward ordeal of forced intimacy with other travelers easier. Only at airport security checkpoints do I see men re-belt their pants and adjust their flies except in my bedroom. I’m always embarrassed when I witness this re-dressing by strangers and our eyes meet. I feel vaguely like a voyeur.

In Chicago we sit near the gate for our overnight flight to Brussels, Belgium and only see a small group of people for the large plane sitting outside the window. Nina says, “Maybe the flight will be empty and we can get a good sleep.” I cross my fingers, hoping this will be true.

Then I move beyond the large column that has blocked our view of the scores of other people also waiting for the flight. My hopefulness dissipates. The flight is packed. As I watch all these people—the variety of people—I wonder: where are they going? What is their story? Who might be waiting for them at the end of the flight?

In the row in front of Nina and I (Nancy is several rows ahead of us) is a beautiful young mother wearing a gorgeous scarf as her hijab. She is friendly with me as she tries to manage her two young children: Dana, a five-year old girl with her hair in braids and beads, and her two-year old son (I never got his name), who likes to scream. During the flight I try to play with the children as a way to distract the boy from screaming but I end up winding the children up more. (Nina whispers to me, “Way to go June.”)

The mother tells me they are moving back to Mali so her son can run around. She asks me where I am going and I tell her DR Congo. Her eyes grow big and she says, “Really?”

“Not in the eastern part of Congo—the dangerous part of Congo—just in Kinshasa,”
I respond.

She nods in understanding but still looks worried for me.

Sleep is elusive for me on this flight and I watch a few movies on the small screen attached to the seat in front of me as a way to pass the time. I forget the titles and plot of the movies as soon as they are over. Somehow I manage a few hours of sleep before we land.

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.