Written Monday, January 19
Baby Djeni turned a year old this Saturday. Viviane was hoping she’d start walking sooner than her older brother did, which was a week before his first birthday, just to show how Girls Rule. She’s not walking yet, but she is beating him in another way. She’s talking earlier and much more than he did. (Kind of sums up the difference between girls and boys, doesn’t it?) She chants and sings whenever her mother asks her to, and in perfect pitch with her. I think she’s going to be a lovely little songstress.
This weekend we got to celebrate with Djeni and family at their house, our first-ever visit. The timing was a coincidence, just the first weekend everyone had available since Viviane’s invitation last fall. She wanted to show us the house they finished building and what they were able to accomplish “grâce à vous” (thanks to us). We didn’t help much, really, other than giving them an interest-free loan and a small cash gift every now and then for Christmas or birthdays or such. When I tell her so, she insists it’s having the job itself that makes all the difference.
On Having a Maid
I speak of Viviane often here on the blog; she’s a big part of my life. She’s been here nearly every weekday since we moved here over four years ago. She’s raised two babies in this house. She’s my occasional English student and my full-time tutor of French, Congolese cooking, and good posture.
But I sometimes forget how weird it must sound to speak of having a maid. It totally weirded us out at first, too. It’s a bizarre feeling to have someone here washing my dishes and cleaning my floors while I sit around having tea with friends or reading a book. Colonial! Slavish! It’s a constant psychological battle over guilt and selfishness and privilege.
But here’s why we did it, and continue to do it: It provides a job for someone who needs one. Plain and simple. Unemployment is ridiculously high in this country, and this town continues to draw thousands of people each month in the hopes of getting a job with our company. There are many more hopefuls than there are openings. We feel it’s our duty—and our privilege—to provide a job wherever and whenever we can.
Still, the weirdness remains. I’ve always wondered but never known how different our homes really were. What must she think, for example, when she looks at my pantry, a hoarder’s lair? I’ve got so much stuff in there I need a chart to tell me where I’ve stored everything. Once a long time ago I hinted at visiting her place (it had to do with saving her from carrying a large mortar & pestle here to show me how to make sombe, aka pounded manioc leaves), but she wasn’t receptive to the idea. I got the impression it would have been embarrassing for her. That was their previous place, a place they rented and eventually had to leave due to “differences” with their landlord.
Now to their new place, which they constructed and own outright, I was honored to receive an invitation. In fact I’d been hoping for such an occasion for many years. How can we have lived in Congo so long and not have a clearer picture of how local people live?? I find it almost embarrassing. Seb, on the other hand, has not exactly been hankering for home visits. He’s sure we’re going to be offered monkey or cat to eat, get food poisoning, and then be sent home with a live chicken.
Around 9:30 Sunday morning a reluctant Seb and I set out on foot, stopping by security for the obligatory check-out and phone number exchange. As we walked, this time not towards the market as usual but across the tracks (literally, there’s a railroad there) and farther, we caught a lot of people’s attention, that’s for sure. Lots of head-turning, stopping, staring, a little shouting. Several motorcycle taxis pulled over to offer us a ride, which we always declined. One guy walking the opposite direction asked in surprisingly good English, “Why are you on foot?” as he passed us. “Good exercise!” we responded. He laughed and said, “You should drive.” I don’t know if he meant it as a safety warning or just what one usually sees mzungu doing around here. But there’s no way we would try driving. Too many potholes, too much mud, too many potential hazards, namely those hundreds of motorcycle taxis that descended on the town about a year ago. Besides, where would we park?
We made it to our agreed meeting point, the bridge, right on schedule. Viviane had told us it would take at least 45 minutes to walk there, maybe an hour. We did it in about 20. (I told you speed-walking was a mzungu thing.) The area was full of people, shops, activity, noise. Soon Viviane met us there and took us towards her place, down a dirt lane that had more trees and shrubbery than we usually see in town. As we walked it became noticeably more quiet, cool, and pleasant. Around a bend we went, and then arrived at her place, a cute masonry structure with a tin roof, the only one around painted cooling white, and with a green stripe for flair.
Carmel, her husband, was waiting for us on the patio. A super nice guy—I’d met him a few times before and was always impressed with his politeness. He writes us the most beautiful thank-you notes whenever we send a birthday gift home with Viviane. He was trained as a carpenter but unemployed when they married, so we commissioned a set of shelves for our overburdened pantry from him. (I’ll never forget how he turned up carting the huge and super-heavy set of shelves on the back of a bicycle. Ouch.) They turned out so perfectly built to spec and so solid, we commissioned another. (Because you know, my pantry’s huge.) But the occasional carpentry work wasn’t enough to keep him busy. He filled in for my gardener once for a week or so, and then the neighbor’s, and I noticed how hard he worked, how he never once took advantage of the fact that his own wife was working inside. They acted as if they didn’t know each other. I recommended him to other friends here, an expat couple who work for Caterpillar and needed a carpenter-painter type at the shop. They took him on, and have reported only good things ever since.
Carmel told us he’s now training to be a mechanic, a very good job to have here, and showed us photos of him at work. I told him the boss has said good things about him; he blushed and said things are going well.
An Inside Tour
After a round of greetings and small talk outside, Carmel and Viviane showed us inside. Solid walls made of cement-covered brick had a nice cooling effect; overhead was a tin roof that looked pretty wind and leak proof. The house was wired for electricity but it was off, as usual; a couple of windows let in light instead. The cement floor was cool and clean (except for a little fresh chicken poop we stepped over; the house is shared with two hens, for eggs). We sat in the living room on furniture that Carmel had made himself, which looked good enough to have come from an actual furniture shop, while Viviane served tea.
The person I was most eager to see made an appearance. Little Olivier peeked at us from around the furniture, shyly. He was dressed up and looking healthy. Viviane says he’s recovering well from typhoid and another disease with a name I didn’t recognize; something that little kids often get from a certain insect that ends up in their curious mouths as they’re crawling or playing around on the ground. Olivier didn’t recognize me at first but knew there was something familiar about me. I kept talking to him and showing him photos I had of him in my house, or with our cat. He warmed up to me quickly after that, but never said a word. Viviane said once we left he would be full of questions and stories.
Soon Djeni woke up from a nap, wearing a colorful birthday dress. She recognized me quickly but eyed Seb suspiciously nearly the whole time, burying her face in her mother’s clothes when he tried to speak to her. She’s seen him before when he comes home for lunch, but apparently not enough.
As we sat in the living room eating tasty French fries and sautéed baby eggplant, Carmel showed us a video of Olivier’s second birthday party where they presented him with a toddler’s bicycle they bought in Likasi. A nice gift! The video showed a circle of neighbors dancing and cheering when the gift was opened, and a couple of adorable dressed-up kids handing over two more fancily-wrapped boxes.
Prosperity abounds, it seems! Well, I would have to say yes, and no. Yes, Carmel and Viviane are living above the average for this town. They appear to be not only meeting their basic needs (shelter, food, clothing) but also moving into the “and beyond” category. A nice house, nice clothes, electronics, gifts, things. They are getting there thanks to two incomes but also thanks to their own resourcefulness. Carmel as a carpenter has made all the furniture himself, and impressively so. The camera they used to film Olivier’s birthday party is a hand-me-down from us, as well as the computer they showed it on. I’m amazed to see them both still working — they were handed down years ago, when we thought they were on their last leg — especially given the reputation we’ve heard many times that Congolese don’t take care of their stuff. Which seems counterintuitive when you don’t have a lot of stuff. Happy to see these guys are proving the stereotypes wrong.
On the no side: There’s no plumbing (though that’s normal here), just an outhouse with an outdoor bucket shower and three walls for privacy. Water is carried from a nearby well in buckets. There’s a small refrigerator, but the electricity isn’t good enough to keep it running. The windows all have burglar bars; the front door, too. (Viviane and Carmel told us how they had originally hired a contractor to build the roof, and he had run off with their construction materials, never to be seen again. But they sort of laughed as they told this story, like what a clever chap he was.)
So it’s the kind of prosperity that exists only when you look from a certain perspective. Compared to those around them they are prosperous. Could I live here? Technically, yes. There’s nothing unlivable about it. There’s plenty of pleasantness in its simplicity, actually. But given the fact that lately I can’t even handle being cut off from the internet, much less electricity or plumbing (well, for any length of time), I guess it’s only fair to say NO. Or maybe HELL, no. Call me weak. I don’t care. These are stronger people than me.
ANYWAY, back to the story
Perfectly timed after the French fries and eggplant and stories of thieves and other pleasantries, Olivier heard an ice cream cart rolling by, so he jumped up and ran outside with the rest of us following. A round of ice cream cones for everybody! I said, then harassed the poor salesman to take photos of all of us together (none of which turned out). Seb and I agreed if we ended up with any food poisoning, it would be from that guy, not Viviane’s cooking.
With sticky hands from the melting cones I asked Viviane if I could wash up. She took me into her kitchen and ladled some cool, clean water from a large bucket into a clean plastic bowl for me. The kitchen is more of a storeroom; besides the water which is stored in buckets, there’s a small table for her prep, a shelf for storage, and a portable set of electric burners that she says don’t work because of the weak electricity. Instead, she cooks with charcoal out on the patio. She also showed me the bedroom with one large bed that they all share. There was another mattress propped against the wall; she said they tried to get Olivier to sleep on it in another room, but, like most kids, he prefers to sleep with Mom and Dad.
So that’s the story of our first real home visit in Fungurume. We’d been inside two other homes in the village, but not for a real tour or a meal or anything. This was different, and it was fun! And Seb survived. On our walk home I felt braver, more accepted, more local. Like we were blending in or something. I didn’t want to go home just yet, I wanted to see what this new shop was, and look there’s a bar we’ve never been to before. As I talked him into stopping for a drink we were cornered by three drunk guys, one after another, asking first for a beer, and then for a job. And then I fumbled my beer on the plastic table and spilled it everywhere. So much for blending in. So it’s back to base camp for us, and probably a long time before I can talk my husband into this kind of an outing again.
P.S. No food poisoning was incurred as a result of this story, and no we did not come home with a live chicken.