This story is dedicated to my cousin Megan, and her adorable new arrival. May your futures be filled with happiness, health, and all the livestock your hearts desire.
No, the ladies who called me fat the other day weren’t onto something. (Sorry to disappoint, Mom, Dad, and Grandma!) There’s a tradition around here of naming new babies after one’s boss. As a result there are lots of Congolese children running around with American names like Jeff, Eric, or Bob, instead of Swahili names like Ilunga, Mpala, or Lamba Lamba.
Soon it was our turn. Back in June, 2011, one of Seb’s 175 guys announced he had a new arrival at home and wanted to name him after the boss. He wasn’t an especially close employee—in fact I don’t think they had ever actually interacted—but for whatever reason he wanted to pay homage to the new young manager. We invited Dad, Mom, baby, and a translator (as Mom and Dad spoke only Swahili) to our house for a meet and greet. The translator was surely familiar with this process since he was also named after a foreigner, albeit apparently from a distance. His name, no kidding, was Mzungu. Yep, foreign unnamed white man.
The parents brought with them an official-looking document and asked Seb to write his full legal name. In Québec, that’s five names. He could have made something up, I suppose, but instead he chose two or three of his favorites and wrote them down. (He has a hard time remembering all five anyway.)
Seb Junior slept nearly the whole time, oblivious to the small collection of gifts we had assembled for him. Mom avoided eye contact and barely smiled as we all pretended to enjoy some rice pudding I had cooked up. But Dad, despite being able to say much directly to us, was a real sweetheart. You could see it in his eyes, in his smile. He wasn’t trying too hard, he was quiet and polite, but you could tell he was genuinely beaming inside.
He works in the core shed assembling boxes, where occasionally Seb and I peek in after our Sunday walk to the market, purposely surprising the dozen or so guys working the weekend shift. He always seems to be in the middle of working hard, unphased by the drop-in visit, and greets us with his toothy grin and a big two-handed wave from across the building.
Seb tells me that whenever their paths cross in closer proximity, Baby Seb’s Dad greets him in the only French he can muster: “Bonjour, mon fils.” Hello, my son.
Ha! How’s that for a greeting to your boss? Pretty cute. Seb’s standard greeting to a Swahili man older than him is “Jambo, Papa.” Which works doubly well in this situation.
We were warned by other expats that this custom of naming babies after the boss is not much more than a ploy to get favors, money, gifts. Maybe a college education, they’re probably hoping. It may sound cruel to deny gifts as much as we do, but there’s a prevailing view that Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in development because of an over-reliance on donations. This is true from the top government levels all the way down to the well-fed security guards who still ask us to buy or give them food. So we’ve been careful not to play into that mindset with Seb Junior, except for a few little gifts at that first meet and greet, and a birthday or two. He turned three years old this past June.
But in fact, it hasn’t been entirely one-sided as we feared. We have also been the recipients of gifts from time to time. Once it was a printed photo of the namesake near his first birthday, which is up on our fridge. And last week, Baby Seb’s Dad came by the office with another unannounced package. It was something that meant a lot to him, and had probably been a prized possession. It was a live turkey.
It was tied up and stuffed in a bag, motionless. Seb took a look, saw the feathers, and recognized it as a fowl of some sort. Knowing we have neither the means nor the skills to defeather a bird, but thinking it was already dead, he decided he would regift it or something rather than insult the gift giver by refusing it. Livestock is a big deal here! It takes time and money to raise an animal and look after them, and it represents good food that could feed a lot of mouths. People take good care of their fowl around here, even calling on veterinarians for vaccinations. Receiving one as a gift is a huge honor.
But then the bag moved, and he changed his mind.
Seb called in an assistant to translate for him, trying to explain that he understood the honor and really appreciated it, but he couldn’t take it. Technically, it’s against camp rules to keep or to kill livestock. But that didn’t sound like a convincing enough reason. Instead, he used me as an excuse, saying his wife wasn’t a very good cook; she wouldn’t know what to do with a bird like this.
He’s right, actually. We had a dress rehearsal for such an event a few months before, when a friend brought over a live duck that had been given to her as a gift. She too didn’t want to decline such a meaningful gift, but also had no idea what to do with it, so she brought it to me. Why me, I’m not exactly sure. But I was flattered she thought of me as the sort of badass domestic goddess who would of course know what to do with a live duck, so I promised her I’d take care of it. At first I figured I would either set it free or give it to someone else. But then I started thinking.
- I happen to love duck and had failed on my last two shopping missions to find any. Duck breast is one of our favorite meals and I hadn’t yet made any plans for dinner.
- Just the week before I had finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which had made me entertain thoughts about how I should try butchering my own meat if I insist on being a meat eater. Here’s my chance!
- We do everything else from scratch around here, why not this??
So I decided I actually wanted to try and kill this duck. Wouldn’t Seb be surprised when he came home!
I started googling “at-home duck butchery.” It didn’t take long to realize I didn’t have a good enough knife, or something called a “killing cone,” or a pot big enough to scald the duck whole so it could be defeathered. So I started heading to the mess hall, duck in tow, thinking someone there could help me. The kitchen is full of big knives and pots and Congolese workers who kill stuff all the time at home. On the way there I thought I’d better call Seb and tell him what I was about to do, just in case he had a better idea. He was beside himself. He sent me back home, then called someone from his staff to come pick up the duck (who by then I had set free and was trying to feed) and take it away, back into the village it had come from. I really hope the original owners never found out.
Anyway, back to last week, and poor Baby Seb’s Dad who seemed a little hurt that his prize turkey was being returned to him. Seb said thank you a hundred times; eventually he seemed to understand that we couldn’t take it and it was better off with him. I wonder what was his motivation for bringing it… Did he think his manager/son wasn’t eating enough? (Seb is pretty thin… an indication of his wife’s lack of butchering skills, surely.)
I think he just truly wanted to do something nice. For many of our guys such as him, working here is their first real, steady job. He might be so grateful for it that he wanted to name his son after his boss, and now for the first time in his life he’s getting ahead a little bit, and finally has the means to give a meaningful gift. A turkey that was denied. Ah! My heart breaks a little for him. I hope we can pay back his kindness.