Wheels are a relatively new invention, as far as village life in Congo is concerned. Each time I have the opportunity to get on a set myself and leave base camp, maybe 2-3 times a week, I still can’t help but stare out the window at all the action outside, all the people coming and going on foot. They are a kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes, colorful clothing and big smiles. On Sundays we often skip the wheels and walk to the village market, mixing and mingling with everyone else. This is my favorite part about living in Africa, actually. People spend most of their time outdoors, interacting with their neighbors, each other, and with us. Each time we make the market trip I count at least two dozen hello’s and how are you’s. I love it.
It’s always a huge culture shock in reverse when I return home and realize how few people are out and about on foot. We have sidewalks everywhere, built expressly for this purpose, yet no one uses them! A good friend from Warsaw who used to live in Congo with us told us about the time she was walking along a perfectly nice wide sidewalk in a Dallas suburb. A nice wide sidewalk that was also empty, since this was the kind of place where people didn’t walk; they drove. She was so out of place that she got the attention of some police driving by, who pulled over to ask her if everything was all right. She said yes, I’m just getting some exercise. Still suspicious, they questioned why then wasn’t she wearing a jogging suit.
The only kinds of people on sidewalks back home are joggers, bums, or weirdos, right? (Except for certain large cities like New York, Seattle, etc., and probably the inverse too: really small towns.) It’s so weird that if you happen to be the weirdo using a sidewalk in a mid-size town, or you use them all the time in a large city, you have most likely perfected the art of ignoring anyone else you happen to come across. You probably gradually move to one side on approach, then quicken your pace, and focus on your feet. You don’t look up. Maybe at the last minute, just in case they are looking at you and you don’t want to be rude. But if you don’t make eye contact, you don’t know them, AND they actually say hello to you—well, that’s totally breaking protocol. You should probably run.
Around here, it’s totally the opposite. Here it’s rude NOT to say hello to a stranger walking by. Bicycles are very common, and motorbike taxis and vehicles and buses do exist, of course—more and more as the village prospers, in fact—but still the vast majority of people are on foot. Viviane, for example, walks 45 minutes to come to work every morning. This is not uncommon. Needless to say, people are fit here. And they get plenty of fresh air, Vitamin D, and also… they are in no hurry. People walk very slowly here, I’ve noticed. Which makes perfect sense. Why get yourself all winded when you do this every day, and you’ve got a long way to go? Better to pace yourself.
Which must make it all the more strange for them when they see us going out for short bits of intense exercise. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, us girls have a car waiting to take us to the little airstrip about 30 minutes away, just so we can walk up and down the runway. There is a grocery store nearby, in our defense… and the runway was chosen long ago by our predecessors as a good, safe, flat spot… but still, think about how strange this must look. We have a car take us from point A to point B so that we can walk in a certain spot back and forth, up and down. Without actually reaching any particular destination or doing anything truly useful, like carrying a load of bananas to market. The only thing more ridiculous would be using a stationary machine that runs on electricity so that you can walk in place without leaving your house! (Oh yeah, a treadmill! We have those too.)
Then, when we get to the airport, we climb out of the car with all our funny-looking exercise gear (special shoes, special clothes, water bottles or camelbacks, iPods, hats) and we walk as fast as we can to get our heart rate up. We work hard, get all sweaty, and then maybe 30 minutes later we stop. We climb back into our air-conditioned vehicle, which takes us to the grocery store a few minutes away, and which then delivers us right in front of our doorways after that. Home, finally! Where we can feel good about sitting around the rest of the day and eating bonbons to make up for our extreme calorie burn. Whew! Exercise over.
Now normally, we have the runway all to ourselves. So at least our weirdness is kept to a small circle of people. There’s a small crew working there who knows us by now; we always say hello up at their office, verify there’s no plane coming in today, and then they leave us alone as we go do our thing.
But today there was a group of about 25 Congolese women, many of them dressed in traditional clothing underneath safety vests, apparently out there to do some gardening work. When we arrived they were standing around the office getting their instructions. Their meeting came to a screeching halt as they stopped and watched us get out of our magic exercise car. We said hello, they gave us a big hello back, then they watched us go on our merry way.
Halfway through our first lap, the ladies descended onto the runway where they spread out just far enough that they could continue chatting with one another as they began hacking at weeds along the ground. We sped by one, twice, four times. Each time we passed a group, they would all stop working, stand up straight, and watch us. Literally staring, facing us, turning with us as we walked by. Mostly friendly stares, though—if we made eye contact it would be returned with a smile and a wave. Sometimes a thumbs up. Many times a greeting in either French or Swahili. Occasionally someone would holler, loudly, in a long string of words we didn’t understand nor even know was intended for us. It caused a chain reaction of women far ahead of us to stop their work to watch us walk by. One woman asked us, in perfect English, “You’re going where??” A very good question. We’re going nowhere. Yes, nowhere. That’s right.
The best moment was when another woman, apparently the class clown, tried to mimic us. She jumped up from her position in the grass onto the edge of the runway and marched like us: slightly bent forward at the waist, arms pumping, face all serious, trying to match our pace. It made everyone around her laugh and laugh. It made us laugh, too. Which can also help diffuse a potentially awkward situation! “Oui, comme ça!” I hollered. (Yes, like that!) She gave up after just a few paces, and we all laughed together and then waved goodbye.
It was fun, but awkward enough that my friend and I whispered to each other, let’s make this our last lap, ok? And so, we finished early, did our grocery shopping and then went home, where I don’t know about my friend but I definitely ate an extra bonbon or two.
(Pictured above: The view from one edge of the runway. The road to Nowhere.)