Sunday, September 2, 2012

Things I miss...

Though we've made some attempt to make this a Congo blog, we've suffered for lack of material since our lives are mostly absorbed by school and other boring things.  Hence, the lack of posts...

Thinking about South Africa usually makes me want to post, and now that it's been over a year since we left South Africa and we are planning a brief trip back, I've been thinking a lot about the things I miss.  When we left, we were definitely ready for something new, but with a year's perspective, it's become clear that South Africa is a (but not the only) place I will always call home.  So here are some of the things that I really miss about Mzansi:

Speaking South African - Spending some time in the UK this summer I got a bit more perspective on what popular South African expressions are really Britishisms, but I occasionally still pepper my speech with SAisms.  Just the other day I was speaking French to a little girl and added in an "ne?" at the end of my sentence.  I wonder what she thought I meant.  I also love figuring out connections between languages and was happy to learn the other day that the word for dance (bina) is the same in Lingala and Setswana.

House music - As I wrote about previously,  South African house music has gone from annoying to nostalgic for me.  Every time we go see a Congolese artist (and Congolese music is awesome), I secretly want to run home and flip on "Jika Ma Jika".

My friends - Though we've met some wonderful people here, our friends in Jericho are some of my favorite people in the world.  I can't wait to see them soon, and I'm thankful for Facebook and relatively cheap phone calls to be able to keep in touch with some of them.

The kids - Recently I saw a photo of some of my favorite students...who I taught in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade...after completing a life skills program in 7th grade.  These are some of the most silly, creative, and bright kids I know, and I can't wait to see how they have grown.

TV - I told James that we have to watch "Rhythm City", our favorite soapie, while we are in SA even though we'll only be there for a few days, and I wasn't kidding.  I love South African TV, commercials and all.

Cheap food - We're planning a grocery shopping trip while we're there.  Even with Shoprite here, things remain expensive, and it's a great chance to stock up on chakalaka, peanut butter, and other deliciousness.

On the Congo front, we went to FIKIN (the Kinshasa fair) a few weeks ago.  They have bumper cars and other more dangerous rides that were all imported in 1970 or so and who knows if they've been fixed since.  The bumper cars were fun but probably really dangerous.  We didn't partake in anything where we would have to leave the ground.  I also had cotton candy (something I never found in South Africa despite its wonderfulness) on a bamboo stick.  It was delicious.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

One of the perks of living in the midst of a botanical garden is the fruit. We grew pretty accustomed to being able to pick fruit off the trees in our yard in South Africa, and here we are similarly blessed, but with quite a different selection of fruit. In South Africa, we had oranges, lemons, figs, guavas, grapes, mulberries, papayas, mangoes, and peaches. We also an avocado tree that failed to produce fruit and banana plants that never made it to ripeness before the first frost came. We successfully mooched quite a few pomegranates off of our neighbors. Here, though the area we have to work with is much larger, we don't have the gardening whiz Mma SB to plant trees so our selection is more limited. There's plenty of mango trees though as well as avocado (that actually produce quite a lot of fruit), starfruit, guava, papaya, banana, and passion fruit (which actually is a vine not a tree). We like to go on fruit gleaning missions and are generally successful though James often has to climb a tree, and I almost always get bitten by mosquitoes and/or black flies in the process.

So with less fruit freely available, I haven't really had the chance to do much canning here as of yet. In South Africa, I didn't do as much as I had hoped, but we were pretty successful in canning peaches, orange marmalade, and mulberry jam. I made my first attempt with starfruit jam the other day, and it turned out pretty well even though I could not find an authoritative recipe. I kind of just threw the pectin and sugar in there and saw what happened. I think I'll use a tad less sugar next time.

So the fruit gleaning and jam making have been part of our spring break activities. Having a week off and deciding not to travel has been great. We've done almost everything that we had wanted to do and not gotten around to yet. We bought a wicker couch for our porch and a blender, we traveled to the beautiful Kisantu botanical gardens about 2 hours out of town, we wove our way through the monstrous grand marche, we walked down to the ancient anthropology museum at the bottom of the hill we live on and touched Mobutu's chair/throne, and we took care of the details for our trip to Gabon during our second spring break. Overall, it's been a great week and a great chance to get to explore.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Learning New Things

Despite not being able to write about the Congo because I don't think I'm learning much new about this city, country, or continent of late, I have been learning quite a lot of new things in my own little corner of the world.

I learned what the word 'sinicized' meant this week. One of my favorite parts of teaching ESL is helping my 9th and 10th graders to wrap their heads around the college level textbook they use for AP World History. The 10th graders in general have an easier time as they've been doing it for longer and seem to be used to the text as well as better able to use their knowledge of French cognates to figure things out. For the 9th graders, it's been a challenge but one they are starting to excel at. We were working on comprehension strategies and summarizing when one of the students came across the word sinicized. Usually, I'm pretty good at getting them to figure out what the word means for context clues, but I was lost on this one. Looking it up in the dictionary, though, I had an aha moment. I shared with them that the prefix sino- means Chinese, and they figured out within seconds that it means to become more Chinese (in the context, it was about nomadic people settling down and adopting Chinese culture so it was quite the appropriate word).

I have been learning to use Photoshop. Photoshop has always seemed somewhat daunting to me as its tools are not like any other program I've used before. The whole idea of layers didn't make sense to me. Generally, I've opened it and then quickly closed it again because I don't even want to try and figure it out. My starting to understand it began with doing an after school photojournalism club with one of the other teachers. He was teaching the kids how to use it so I figured I would try as well. Then, we've been putting the yearbook together, and of the pages were made in Photoshop so I had to figure out how to tweak them. In the final hours of working on the yearbook, I even made some pages myself that kids did not get done in time for the deadline. I can say now that I no longer harbor a fear of Photoshop and can actually do a lot with it.

Finally, I've been learning to be a swim coach. One of the teachers who was coaching the swim team left the school, and I was not particularly surprised when the other coach approached me to help since I'm just about the only teacher who swims laps on a regular basis. I agreed to help out despite my definitely not seeing myself as coach material. I was never the greatest swimmer - well, I guess my form has always been fine, but my speed was the problem. Though I placed a few times in breaststroke, I can't remember if I was 13 or 14 when I quit the swim team. It's been a long time. At least I had some context for a swim practice somewhere in the back of my mind, and the other coach is a great mentor, but it's been on the whole far outside of my comfort zone. This past week, the other coach was not able to attend practice one day (we practice 2-3 times a week not everyday), and I think I pretty successfully handled the whole thing from deciding what the practice would entail to actually making sure the kids did it. It's been fun so far and given me a chance to reexamine what I'm capable of. Plus, we get to go to a swim meet in Morocco in May so that will be quite another opportunity to step out of my box.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


It's been quite a while since we updated the blog mostly because it's a bit of a challenge to think of what to write. Our lives here, though generally pleasant and comfortable, aren't particularly interesting. I do not really feel like I have much insight into life in Kinshasa beyond what I read in the news online or the general observations that just about any outsider would make about this place. So I have been holding back from writing. I cannot think of anything I feel like is worth sharing. My brother Thom says I should write about teaching, and another teacher expressed similar sentiments to me recently when I explained my trepidation about writing about my life here. He said that writing about the elite students that we work with could be a fascinating blog in and of itself. Yet, I shy away from writing anything too personal on the internet about people whose permission I don't have, and I don't really want my students searching out this blog so I'd never ask for permission. Plus, I seem incapable of focusing my attention on the uniqueness of my students' experiences as I am always getting wrapped up in their inability to use commas appropriately.

So should we just put this blog to rest? I don't think I'm quite ready for that just yet, but I'm still not sure what my goal should be in writing. I have been thinking about this issue lately as I have been reading quite a lot and questioning my own lack of inspiration for writing. I know that I can write, but why is it that I have nothing that I want to write about? And why is it that I seem to have an almost moral opposition to the romanticization and fictionalization of reality. My nitpickiness which probably comes from my grandfather makes me wary beyond belief of writing anything that is not 100% accurate. I also take this out on James as I have quite a proclivity for correcting and clarifying. So, I am still trying to figure out how it is possible to write about my experiences in a captivating way while preserving accuracy.

As I continue to try to sort these issues out, I will attempt to update more, but who knows how it will all work out. For now, I will look out my window and ponder the jungle in my backyard, one part of Kinshasa that I know rather well.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Coming to terms with house music

After two months in the Congo, I am still struggling to think of interesting things to write about our life here. It's not that we are by any means unhappy or even bored. As I mentioned, our quality of life is quite high. We've got a great place to live, can afford to treat ourselves to some of the ridiculously expensive imported foods, spend many afternoons at the pool, and always have people to hang out with. This blog is supposed to about "African" things, right? And we're just not in a position to gain much in the way of a perspective on the state of the Congo as relative outsiders.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one interesting thing about living here is getting to see the intersection of Central and Southern African goods and culture. Though the Congo is geographically in central Africa, South Africa seems to be working towards co-opting into it's area of dominance (that already extends across Southern Africa). South African companies are worming their way in, and the DRC is part of SADC (the Southern African Development Community).

The more interesting thing to observe is the intersection of culture here. People say 'koko' before entering a room just like in South Africa. They also grab they air to motion someone to come towards them just like in Chad. Congolese music, in addition to being some of the most popular music around Africa, shows some of this intersection as well. I came to surprising revelation the other evening while listening to a Congolese band playing in a bar. Some of the beats reminded me of jiving to South African house music. I had always thought of house music as a European style embraced by South Africans, but I finally realized it was more than this - sure the electronic side of house music is European but the beats are African and that's what makes it so popular. I'm still not a fan of most house music, but at least I can justify enjoying the song 'Jezebel' so much.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Walking Around the Neighborhood

I've been having a hard time thinking about what to write on this blog lately. As I had imagined, our life here is much more focused on school and our students so I don't know that I will ever know enough about the Congo to really comment on culture, society, or politics like I could in Chad or South Africa. Living on the school campus is a bit of a unique experience. Though it's a like a compound that is isolated from what's going on around it, we can and do walk out the gate and around the neighborhood whenever we want. Of course, during the week, we're usually pretty tired by the end of the day and even walking 10 minutes to buy a few loaves of bread seems like too much work, but on the weekend we like to walk down to a busy intersection which is about a 30 minute walk from school. On the way you pass one of Mobutu's old palaces which also housed a zoo (complete with a lion that was killed and eaten during the fighting). It's a cool place, totally overgrown but the cages are all still there peeking through the thick undergrowth. You can see the remains of stalks where soldiers (we think) from the surrounding army have cleared some of the land to plant corn in past years. There's also a museum which we haven't been inside yet, but outside of it, there's a statue of Henry Morton Stanley that has long since fallen down. It's kind of creepy as the way his arms are extended towards the sky it looks like he's reaching towards heaven as he takes his last breath.

Another 10 minutes past the zoo/palace/museum brings us to the circle. There's a Nando's (which I've heard is not anywhere as good as Nando's in South Africa, but since I've never eaten Nando's before, who knows) and lots of small shops that mainly cater to the Kinois not expats though you can get just about anything you need in them. The best part though is that it's the closest market type area to where we live, and there are lots of ladies selling vegetables and fruit for much more reasonable prices than in the expat grocery stores or from the ladies who come and sell on campus. What's crazy about Kinshasa is that people don't really seem to care that you are there. Certainly the vegetable ladies want you to pick them for your business, but we haven't really been harassed at all walking around this busy circle or around our part of the city in general. Though children are occasionally excited to greet us, many children let us pass without a second glance something that would never happen in the other places we've been in Africa. People here just seem to be underwhelmed by foreigners. Maybe with so much negative involvement since Stanley first came down the river til now, they've actually figured out that foreigners and foreign aid aren't the answer, or maybe their just too busy to care. Who knows, but I'm happy to get a chance to walk around the neighborhood a bit.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

getting comfortable

As we get settled here in Kinshasa, we are constantly amazed by how comfortable our life here is. We've moved a few steps up from Peace Corps and though we don't have everything we had in South Africa (like a microwave), we have to filter our water and bleach our fruits and veggies, and sometimes the water or power go out, things are just a million times easier. It's bizarre because we suddenly find ourselves with lots of free time in the evenings and don't really know what to do with it. Here's just a few examples of what's changed...

We don't have to wash our clothes by hand. We've got a washer and dryer and our housekeeper usually does our laundry for us anyway.

When we wash the dishes, our non-stick pots and pans get clean in about one hundredth the time of our dishes in South Africa and we can wash them under hot water coming straight out of the tap.

We can buy alcohol and bring it home without worrying about concealing it.

We can also buy as much as we want of anything because we don't have to carry it on taxis.

We eat salad which we never really did in South Africa mostly because of the annoyance of carrying vegetables home from the grocery store. We also eat lots more fruit because of the same reason.

We can take a hot shower anytime we want. We can go number 2 in the middle of the night if we have to without risking the bad folks lurking in the night.

We can look at as many pictures and videos and download as much as we want on the internet (with the exception of tv shows and movies).

We can walk around our beautiful jungley school compound, see parrots, and enjoy nature.

We can swim in the pool that is a less than 5 minute walk from our house or play just about any sport with the teachers, aid workers, missionaries, etc.

We've got neighbors all around us who are always up for a beer and a chat.

We've got all of these things and yet we still live in Africa. This morning, we walked down to a busy intersection a couple kilometers from the school where there is a small market of sorts, just people selling food and things on the side of the road. We bought some fruits and veggies, and James bought himself a new pair of our favorite African (well really Chinese I'm sure) flip flops since he left his last pair in South Africa. It was nice to get out and see more of the area around the school, and not just from a car driving by it. In some ways, Kinshasa is a scary city, but walking around near the school, you don't feel like that at all. It feels like a much smaller place than a city of 10 million, and it was nice to finally feel a bit more grounded here and less wrapped up in all those conveniences I described above.