Saturday, my first full day in Congo. I wake up with the sun, or maybe a little after, 6:45. Cars are *klaxon*ing in the street and the city is in full swing. I am refreshed and don’t really feel the jet-lag at all.
I take a walk in the back garden; the hibiscus are in bloom, bright red atop long-leaved stems, and bananas small and green but already propped up with a piece of bamboo so they don’t topple the banana tree. (Bananas aren’t really a tree and a good hearty bunch can topple the long stem before it’s ripe.) I take pictures and return to my room to download them, only then realizing that I don’t have my cable to hitch my camera to my tablet.
After breakfast, I have a long meeting with Charles and Jeanette, interrupted multiple times by phone calls from Robert who was working very hard to get Bill on the bus to Kikwit. The bus was “full” but somehow Robert got him a seat; there is always a way to get something done. We talked for several hours about how to lead coach training and the cultural sensitivities around teaching coaching values. It was a good meeting and I think we’re going to be as ready as we can be.
On a short break while Robert is arranging Bill’s life, I chat with the man who sells carvings and paintings in the foyer of the guesthouse. As with many markets there are well-carved and aesthetically crafted items alongside some which have less appeal. I will end up buying a few things from him, it’s very convenient and we won’t have time to travel to a tourist market if indeed there still is one here (which I suspect there is).
Charles explains very carefully, three or four or five times, to Robert that we cannot stay long after church tomorrow. Robert would like us to … he has a grocery list of things he’d like us to do. Go see some fields, meet this group or that. Charles explains that if we are not at the baggage pickup tomorrow by 2:30 in the afternoon there is a good chance I will never get my luggage. He explains that I have nothing. (Indeed, I am washing a pair of underwear and socks every day, glad I have a second pair to wear while the other dries out.)
We say good-bye to Bill. He is very adventurous to go to Kikwit by bus, although everyone says that the “Double-V” line is really well organized and he’ll be fine. He will arrive at midnight or one in the morning. All the baggage will stay atop the bus until morning light. I suspect this is so that nobody can be accused of stealing anything while it’s dark. Most of the travelers will stay and sleep (probably on the ground) at the bus station. Bill’s host will probably go get him, then they’ll return in the morning. Such are the travel challenges.
After a nap this afternoon, which I sort of need but I’m not desperate for, at about 3:00 PM, we set out to walk about 3 kilometers to Albert and Aberti’s house. Well, I should say, their childrens’ house. Albert and Aberti don’t live there most of the time. They leave their eight kids in Kinshasa while they work Albert is an Education Extension Instructor, which means he’s training pastors off-campus if I’ve got it right (which I might not) and that means he travels; they have a house in Tshikapa I think. The oldest of their children is perhaps 26 years old, the youngest about nine, he’s in second grade. If he’s only seven, he’s very tall for seven. The father and several of the children are quite tall; the two young ladies have an inch or two on me I think. I am ahead of myself here.
As we approach the house, what a reception they send. First the youngest, a boy, and the fourth child (the younger of two daughters, a young lady I should say of perhaps 19 years old) come running to meet us as we walked along the street. Big smiles for Charles, whom they already know. Slightly shier smiles for Jeanette and me, but smiles nonetheless. The daughter, a very classy who hopes to work in the hospitality industry, kisses everyone three times in the European fashion (press cheeks, un, deux, trois). We walk a little farther and the oldest daughter greets us, then finally the oldest son is sent as we draw nearer the house, he also greets us. This greeting us as we come near is done in stages, and has a dramatic effect of showing us that perhaps they can hardly wait for us to get there. (And perhaps that is so.) Charles has not met the oldest son before but was eager to see the entire family together.
We walk down into a valley. Charles remembers as a boy that the valley was his playground before the city had grown this far; now, it’s completely packed with a sprawling neighborhood, little alleyways leading this way and that. We hop a stream on two stones, then up a little to where Papa Albert and the rest of the family greets us. There are 10 chairs, most likely rented for the occasion, blue plastic lawn chairs that look exactly like the ones we have. Everyone is wearing their absolute best clothes. We sit in a circle and the second son prays thanks over our visit. We are under a mango tree, the fruit is mid-ripening, the shade is plentiful and the sun drifts toward the Atlantic and a breeze blows through. We relax. We are among Charles’ friends, so … we are among friends.
At Charles’ invitation we ask to hear what the dreams of each of the children are. The oldest son would like to be a musician but struggles to find a producer. The oldest daughter has completed beauty school (she is an “aesthetician”) and would like to set up a shop, but doesn’t have the money for equipment. (Oh, for a micro-lending organization!) And so on, each one with a dream but also a challenge, for the school kids the challenges are typically “I have to pass the test to go to the next grade” (which isn’t easy) or “I need money for tuition” (probably more difficult). Until we reach the youngest, who says he would like to study math/physics or, if that doesn’t work out, study theology like Papa. This is met with a great deal of enthusiasm (which makes me wonder if he’s well aware of what reaction that can get him!) but I also don’t sense falsehood in him. In fact, I’m a little surprised none of the others have mentioned theology. Then it is Mama’s turn, and she holds back. Albert says that one of his dreams is to learn more about coaching.
We share about our dreams too. I tell them about my four children.
The kids cannot believe Jeanette is 60, because she has all her teeth.
We take pictures before we lose the sunlight. Several of the older kids have cell phones, and they are adept selfie-takers; I am hugged and selfied a lot. Charles also takes photos with his good camera. I will soon have new Facebook friends. I especially enjoy taking photos with the youngest two boys. I am thinking of my boys.
We are seated for dinner, three guests, Papa and Mama. The children will eat after us. The girls hold soap and water so we can wash. I am asked to pray, and decide to do so in English, though I’m really doing pretty well in French and understanding most of the conversations, able to share about my family and my work with them, etc. There is FOOD. Fufu, which is a ball of manioc (that’s the stuff we make tapioca out of) and corn meal pounded and pounded and pounded until it is smooth. This is the best fufu I’ve had. I don’t remember liking it as a boy; today it went down very well. You can eat about a piece the size of your fist. If you eat much more you will feel like there’s a rock in your stomach for twelve hours (I think that is considered a bonus here, to have your belly full for so long). There were also a smoked fish dish, a salted fish dish, and grilled fish, please count them, my friends, THREE kinds of fish at one meal, as well as two kinds of greens and a bowl of red pepper paste (piment) which will shred you from the day you import it until the day you export it, and it will also make you feel as though, just maybe, if you can conquer it, you can conquer the world. I think (tongue in cheek) that piment is why Congolese have families with eight children. Wow, kapow! That’s hot!
It’s clear they are disappointed that the lights have gone out in the neighborhood. Because they are renting there isn’t much they can do to improve the house; (like put in a generator for times like this) and they are apologetic. We eat by flashlight and our wits. Silverware is provided; none of us use it. Fufu is meant to be eaten with the hand. Roll a ball, make a divot, catch some fish sauce or greens in the divot. The food is so good. All of it. Without a single doubt in my mind, this family has prepared the best food they could afford, cooked it with every bit of care they could muster, served it with love and pride. I can’t see the fish bones too well so I just crunch them up. It’s for the better. I can barely see where my pile of piment is, so I end up with mouthfuls inadvertently. Mama is congratulating Jeanette on how well she eats fufu. She says “felicitations” which actually means “congratulations”. My mouth is on fire and I eat just enough, I am satisfied and I have eaten some of every dish and my whole lump of fufu. They serve us oranges for dessert. They are sweet, the very outside layer peeled with a knife to leave you an edible rind. Mama trims a circle and you can suck the juices out.
Over dessert, Mama decides to share her dreams with us. She does so in Lingala, her heart language, and Charles translates for us. It’s a powerful and intimate moment. I’ve decided to keep this to my chest and not write it, it is between the five of us who sat at the table. She has shared the deepest desires of her heart, and it has taken her some time. But she has spoken it. She does not cry, but I sort of want to.
Everyone files in to say good-bye. We shake hands, they ask for my Facebook handle. We walk back up the hill with Papa and Mama, and hail a taxi. It’s 7:15 and dark; best not to walk through the city in the dark. The visit with this family is an authentic slice of Congo, from the walk through the city, to the meal, to the hopes and dreams a family has shared with us, not so unlike the dreams you might hear at home, children who want to do well in school and get good jobs or start a business, parents whose hearts want nothing but the best for their children.
So we did all these things. We talked, we ate, we took photos, we shared our dreams, but in the middle of all this doing, we simply honored each others’ presence in the world. We built a bridge.
Bridges are meant for walking across, even if they consist of nothing more than a few stones high enough to step upon. So I must come back again some day to walk across this bridge again.