I’ve been remiss in posting an update since finally returning “home” to the Democratic Republic of Congo on February 20, after six months away. It took awhile to sink in. I don’t think I let myself believe that I was actually going until literally seated on the Ethiopian flight that had been changed three times since the previous September. A flight that was nearly changed a fourth time when it appeared that my passport would need another week at the embassy to get an updated Congolese visa. I had flown from Tucson to Washington D.C. the day before (nervously, with just a driver’s license, wondering if those things still worked on domestic flights) on faith that my passport would be ready in time. When I checked into the D.C. hotel, I asked if a package was waiting for me. The clerk said “Let’s get you checked in first and then we’ll see,” followed by, “How many nights are you staying?” to which I replied, “That depends on if you have a package for me!”
He did. So I stayed one night and flew across the Atlantic the next morning, after flying the other way across it only a week before. I am not proud of my carbon footprint.
On top of feeling incredulous and out of sorts, once I got home, it didn’t feel like home at all. Except for being reunited with Seb, of course, who had certainly paid his dues while I was gone, taking care of a cat he never wanted, eating peanuts or a can of beans for dinner when he wasn’t at the mess hall, and living in a new, unfamiliar house without a housekeeper and with a long commute to the office.
You may not remember, but we had just moved from base camp to Bravo not even a month before I left last August. I hardly recognized the place when I returned, and couldn’t remember where anything was. The pantry had collapsed under its own weight while I was gone, and the tub in the second bathroom was overflowing with stuff we had set aside during the move-in to give back to the company or give away. Six months of dust had settled over everything (Seb does do house chores when he has to, but dusting is not one of them), and I had five days to get everything presentable for a houseguest and birthday party (my own) that weekend. Monday morning after the party and a late-night round of dishes, we were all up before dawn to catch the plane to Joburg where we had a little business to attend to. After returning from that two-night trip, I’ve gotta tell you, everything feels like quite a blur. Company parties, Whiskey Wednesdays and Saturday Sundowners with friends (at the golf course, pictured at top), two Sundays on foot in Fungurume for various reasons… Last week I caught the flu that’s been going around here, apparently imported from India, a nasty bug that feels like glass in my throat and relegates me to the couch as if to purposely say, “Enough. Rest.”
Today, I’m taking stock. The house has been, slowly but surely, put back together. The luggage emptied, the laundry done. The tub uncovered, the gifts given. Most of the drapes have been laundered and the windows washed. Except for a few corners, the place has been rid of cobwebs and dust. The initial shoving of items in closets when we first moved in has been more thoughtfully and strategically stored. Seb repaired the pantry shelves the day before I got home, and the mountains of jars, cans and bags he left on the floor for me have been carefully sorted and replaced. There’s food in the freezer, food in the fridge, fruit & veg on the countertops, and I’m finding my way around the kitchen again, a kitchen much bigger and better than the one in base camp.
Except for the termite damage I just found:
Pretty sure that wasn’t there before. The house was treated for termites before we moved in, but it looks like I’ll be sharing my kitchen with repairmen this week.
I know from Facebook and emails that many of you have a lot of the same questions. Questions like…
How safe is it there? What’s happening with the elections?
Last November when DR-Congo was supposed to elect a new president but the elections were postponed for supposed financial reasons, there were problems in the big cities (Kinshasa and Lubumbashi) but not locally. Which is what we all expected. Plenty of other foreign mining companies in our region did not send people home; in fact, two American friends of ours (outside the company) stayed and celebrated Christmas here! However, we had our own local issues at that time, partly due to the change of company ownership, so it turned out to be a good thing that the company had taken steps to remove as many of us as possible. Since then, things appear to be back to normal, locally speaking. Quiet. Peaceful, even.
But one of the reasons it was hard to believe I was coming back here until actually sitting on that plane was that, literally speaking, nothing has changed. If the threat of election violence existed before, then it still does. Elections still loom. There are various news reports of rebellions and government crackdowns across the country. Some are plausible and even par for the course, unfortunately; one is particularly horrible; and others are rumored to be fake news. I’m neither an expert nor extremely courageous — so forgive me for choosing not to talk in a public forum such as this about politics in this country. I’d like to keep the subject of this blog as much as possible on our personal lives, happenings, and observations.
I do encourage you, though, to keep your eye on the news. There’s plenty of it, though it may not be on page one of your local newspaper. There are also lots of fascinating books on this country if you wish to educate yourself more. I highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz for historical perspective, and there are lots of good choices regarding more recent events. Seems like a hot topic; every time I browse for Congo books there are exponentially more than there were before. Several are sitting on my bookshelf, but I tend to distract myself with adventure/travel books like Canoeing the Congo and Blood River. Also good reads.
How’s the new company going, what’s Seb’s work status now?
Seb did sign a contract with the new Chinese owners (nope, not an April Fool’s joke), but it doesn’t tie him to any particular length of time. So we don’t know how long we’ll continue to be here. The transition from old to new company won’t be complete until November. The management team is the same, most of the people are the same — personally speaking, since I’m not an employee myself, there have been very few signs of a change in ownership.
Except for this cute little story. One Sunday a few weeks ago, we went walking through Fungurume to hit up the local market for fresh vegetables. We were with two friends, all four of us your average North American mzungus. All four of us have lived here for years and made this market run many, many times. People know us, or at least they should. But this particular Sunday market run — my first one in probably eight months — was quite different. Instead of hearing shouts of “mzungu!” from the local kids, we heard “les Chinois!” instead. (The Chinese!) And instead of “good morning” which the kids used to love practicing in English, this time they shouted “nihao!” (Hello, in Chinese.)
Hilarious. I guess the news is well and truly out. As I said before, maybe it won’t be long until my next language course, this time in Chengdu instead of Nice.
Speaking of your French course, how was it?
Fantastic! Seriously, I had a great time, and found it very productive. I’m still enamored with this school and would highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of your experience in French. It’s just impossible to leave without learning a lot.
I’ll talk more about the experience when I get back to writing about the French Tales, which I’m only halfway through. In the meantime, I’ll just leave it at this: When people ask me if I speak French, I’m coaching myself to answer “yes” for the first time and just leave it at that. Even though I’m always tempted to add a caveat. I suppose my answer varies depending on who’s asking. English speakers, yes, French speakers, yes, a little.
Caveats aside, this last course did put me over some invisible hurdle. The immersion really worked; I lived and breathed and dreamed and thought in French for the whole month. (Except for a few English news reports on the U.S. Presidential Inauguration — drat the timing! Obama and Trump dominated the French news channels, but I grew frustrated overhearing English in the background and getting only half of the French translation.) Since then, even conversations over the phone with my in-laws in Québec are going much easier, and I’ve noticed Réjean is cutting me less slack, speaking faster and in longer sentences! Seb and I spoke only in French during my month in the course… but for some reason, have reverted to English since my return. Ha! Old habits die hard.
I’m not disappointed; I’m finally at peace with this whole thing. I overheard my professor responding to a question one day at lunch about couples switching languages, and he just shook his head. He said no, it’s simply not natural. The language a couple share at first is probably the one they’ll stick with forever. Even if it’s not the native language for one or both of them, it becomes “theirs,” and keeping with the status quo may even be necessary to the survival of the marriage!
So short of us moving to France or Québec where I could truly immerse myself on a daily basis (versus all us expats here in Congo using English as the lingua franca), I am not likely to reach true fluency, nor for Seb and I to make the switch at home. But if that day comes, I know it wouldn’t take long, and secretly I’ve got my fingers crossed for the opportunity.
How’s Viviane, and why isn’t she still working for you?
Viviane is doing great! She had her third child in November, a daughter named Orvaline. We visited her and the kids at their home a few weeks ago. Carmel was at work, grateful to still be employed and doing well. Viviane met us at base camp and we walked together to her house, bearing gifts. We were stunned to arrive and discover that the kids were locked up in the house, alone. She had arranged for a friend to babysit that morning while she went to meet us, but apparently the friend had decided that since the baby was asleep, it was a good opportunity to lock the house up and go to church. Viviane just laughed.
She treated us to a lunch of fried fish heads (way more tasty than they sound), a mountain of rice, a perfect mélange of sautéed vegetables like okra and small bitter eggplant — vegetables I usually cannot manage to render edible myself — and delicious chunks of sweet potato, with a cup of tea. It was fantastic.
The kids were adorable. Three-month-old Orvaline was not fussy, she gave me lots of smiles while I held her. Three-year-old Djeni (pronounced Jenny, she’s named after me, but it’s me who wishes to change the spelling of my name to match hers) was a pistol. Apparently she thought Viviane was going to fetch her favorite character from TV who’s also named Madame Jenny, and was rather disappointed with the reality of the situation. She represents her age (and perhaps her name) well. Four-and-a-half-year-old Olivier was precious, and much more talkative than the last time we visited. Viviane says he loves his preschool. He’s a little ball of sunshine.
As for why she’s no longer working for us, it’s all entirely to do with our move to Bravo. There’s no transportation for her since she does not work for the company. She was a private employee of ours, something the company began disallowing a few years ago. She was kind of grandmothered into the deal while we were still there, but once we moved, game over. We were and still would be happy to help her find a job with the company if possible, though honestly speaking there’s no guarantee we’d succeed; however, we all agreed that the benefits did not outweigh the costs. Childcare was becoming an expensive problem for her. I think staying home is working out quite well for her.
As for me, after six years with a housekeeper I’m kind of relieved to have my privacy back. The house may be far from spic and span like it used to be with her, but I like doing things my way, on my time. I do often miss her company though, and after those eggplants I wish I’d asked her a few more cooking questions!
How’s Lucy the monkey?
Aww, poor little Lucy. Probably the most popular question we get. We tried visiting her twice at base camp, but she stayed hidden. We hear she’s fine, though. People still at base camp say they see her from time to time. She’s changed her favorite hangout spot from our neighborhood since it’s now much less populated, to the medical services area where the remaining expats work. She is capable of caring for herself, though times may be lean as we’re in between fruit-bearing seasons, but she loves people and prefers for them to simply hand her some food. Preferably canned and sweetened. She’s a cheeky monkey.
People ask us all the time why we don’t move her to Bravo. Two things. She would probably never allow herself to be captured again, and I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to try. Ever since being captured once before, she’s extremely protective of herself. I’ve seen her turn on people she doesn’t trust, bearing very sharp teeth and a serious attitude problem. But even if we got hold of a tranquilizer dart and she survived the move, I think she would be more at risk here at Bravo. There are far fewer fruit trees, no thick bamboo grove for her to sleep in, and more people who would eye her as potential bush meat. She knows her boundaries at base camp; here, I’m afraid she would be quite lost.
Why are you guys still there anyway?? Don’t you want to come home?
Yes! Well, yes and no. Seb is very pragmatic; he doesn’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder like I sometimes do (yes, we’re in the middle of gray rainy season), nor homesickness. He doesn’t have a lot of emotion around this topic. I on the other hand made the most of my time in Tucson, and began envisioning myself there again full time. Oh, the things I could do with access to grocery stores, cars, and hiking trails! Sigh.
Seb is here for the rocks. Really. For him it’s all about the work. He keeps saying this place has the most exciting geology in the world. And here, he’s been able to rack up impressive numbers. He says he knows of no one else in the industry who gets to manage a bigger budget (well, in good years) or drill as many kilometers. A few years ago the department celebrated 500,000 meters drilled, a huge milestone. Last Monday, they hit 750,000 meters, which just happened to be exactly the same day as his 11th anniversary with the company.
So, I’ll try to focus on the positive aspects of being here — the peace and quiet, the travel benefits, the daily adventures in the kitchen, termites and all — and for the love of rocks, we’ll stay a bit longer. Or a lot, who the heck knows.