Congo is a nation of many ironies. Here is a capital city replete with brand new SUV’s and rickety VW buses. There are few functional land line telephones in a city of over eight million people. Yet everyone seems to have a cell phone and prepaid minutes are sold almost everywhere in $5 increments. I was downtown today with my boss for several meetings and in the afternoon we realized we were both out of cell phone minutes. He handed me some money so that we could stock up. I set out into the hot sun to look for someone selling phone time. (Another irony: As you probably know, this is a very poor country and cell phone minutes are among the several daily items that are very expensive. It’s about $0.20 a minute to call within Congo and $0.50 to call the USA.) I walked about a half-block and found a kiosk where a woman had a refrigerator and she was selling cool Coca-Cola to some men who were taking a break from the sun. She had some signs hanging down advertising phone cards. A man on my side of the counter asked me what I needed and I told him, “$30 in Voda-Com cell credit, please”. I handed him the $50 bill and he promptly ran down the street and around the corner. My first thought was to yell after him. Now, since nobody was making any commotion and since I figured they’d be laughing at me if the foreigner had just been taken for $50, I waited. I thought to myself, “I guess I’ll be waiting here until that $50 comes back or until a $20 comes back with $30 of phone credit or until I come up with a good enough story to explain why I lost that money and didn’t put up a fight.” Sure enough a few minutes later the business man comes trotting back with the phone minutes and the change. I’m sure he ran to make the arrangements as quick as possible and then ran right back. This, my friends, is Congo.
There are so many things being sold on the streets here in Kinshasa that if you needed almost anything you could probably stand on the sidewalk and just yell out your need for some facial tissues or a sport coat or the transmission for a 1993 Ford Taurus and someone would come running with three to choose from.
Here’s a wild thought for you. I have officially landed in a world where the microwave oven does not exist. OK, I don’t really know if there are any microwave ovens here but I haven’t seen any and when I do see one, I will try to make sure that it works and I will report on it here on the website. Most appliances are here, even if many people can’t afford them. The microwave loves to eat a lot of electricity to do its magic. I bet if I plugged one in right now and zapped some soup I’d take down all of the electricity in the entire neighborhood. This is a good and bad. It means that restaurant food was not zapped if it’s hot when it lands on my plate. It also means that leftovers are harder to reheat. That’s mostly what the microwave is good for anyway, right? That and softening butter for baking. But here the butter softens itself just fine.
I also went to the US Embassy today to register my presence here and get some new blank pages added to my passport. It’s a collection of bright white buildings with a bright white fence and a bright red, white, and blue flag. In a way it was like entering a private club. We approach and the five guards out front are gruff asking who we are and why we want in and what our business is. Then we flash the American ID and they act like we own the place, “well come right in!” I have to say that the consular staff there are very nice (to Americans like me at least). They welcomed me to Congo and gave me a packet of information on how to stay safe. They told me that they will be coming through Kisangani every couple of months to visit with the Americans there. I asked how many there are and they said 10-15 which is more than I thought there were. It’ll be interesting to see if those meetings really happen.
There are lots of little guys around here who try to make some money by hanging out in the streets and acting like they are guiding you into parking spots, or by conscripting themselves to guard your car while you are in the store, or just by begging. If only these guys could be in school making grades rather than spare change. It reminds me of what we are trying to accomplish by the grace of God.
One last irony: I studied French from 8th grade to 12th grade. I was in a TV Production class at the start of 8th grade that was not very interesting or challenging and the French teacher asked me if I’d like to drop that and join French 1 about a month into the school year. She said she’d tutor me and catch me up. Thanks to her and to my terrific high school French teacher Mike Buscaglia as well as friends from Haiti and Africa, I am fluent today. But here’s the irony. French numbers are a little tricky. There’s no seventy. It’s sixty plus ten. There’s no eighty, it’s four-twenties. There’s no ninety-nine. It’s four-twenties-plus-nineteen. I have never been too great with the numbers since I came in after they’d already learned them in French 1. On top of that the French here is influenced by the Belgians who colonized DR Congo. They have some numbers that they created to deal with the French wackiness. Here I am, the guy who is weak on his French numbers, working in micro-FINANCE. Suffice it to say that my numbers are improving by the day - and thank goodness the calculators are in English
Loan money repaid. Thankfully it’s not my job to count it in FRENCH!