teaching, learning and living around the world
I moved to Kinshasa right after college. On the one hand, it was frustrating at times to be a minority in a foreign country. To be stereotyped and oversimplified. To feel lonely and misunderstood. On the other hand, my topsy turvy experience learning all the new rules was still colored with white privilege.
Being white in Congo still equates to privilege.
It’s just less of an invisible knapsack and more like
a heavy, neon rolley-suitcase that’s glued to your hand.
Perhaps this was the first new category shift.
In America, where whites are the majority, white equates to privilege.
And in Congo, where whites are the minority, white still equates to privilege.
What the what?!
I remember the first time I invited a Congolese friend over to my place in Kinshasa. She was the cousin of Sandra, a Congolese girl I studied with at both T.C. and UVA. I was nervous about how she would be treated at the gate of my compound.
“Just call the guards and tell them your friend’s name!” a veteran teacher advised.
But I don’t speak a word of French, I thought. How embarrassing would it be to make a phone call and I wouldn’t understand what the guard is saying and he won’t understand what I’m saying?! Unthinkable!
So I wrote a note. I walked up to the gate, used some incomprehensible combination of Mbote! and Ca va? gave my note to the guards, and walked back home.
Later that evening a guard knocked on my door. He said something to me, which I assumed meant, your friend is here, and I followed him over to the gate hoping that I had assumed correctly and wasn’t making a fool of myself.
And there she was at the gate, where she left her ID card.
The procedure itself didn’t bother me. The fact that the procedure wasn’t for everyone bothered me. A white person in a car could just drive up, say I’m here to see Sara and come on in. No advanced warning, no note, no ID necessary.
There were a lot of moments like this, that made it feel like going back in time. A white person in a car could pretty much go anywhere. A Congolese person on foot? You better have an ID, letter of invitation, and prepare to have all your bags searched upon entry and exit.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable at the idea of hiring a housekeeper and a gardner, but the expats convinced me that it was my duty to do so, so I did it. I wanted to be flexible. I wanted to follow the new rules. I can’t say that I talked a lot to Mama Esther, my housekeeper. Neither of us spoke much French. I got used to seeing her every morning and always having a clean house and clean laundry. I met her daughter on a few occasions. I’m utterly embarrassed at how little I learned about Mama Esther. (I was one of those cold, snobby mundele. Yuck.) To top it off, I fit the stereotype of the ugly american who spoke no other languages. Which just becomes ultra embarrassing when you live in a country where most people speak at least three. (I was one of those mono-lingual, ignorant mundele. Yuck.)
I remember going to Zambia over spring break, visiting the Livingstone Museum and reading about all the rules for segregation when Zambia was colonized. I remember having this sad, angry feeling when I realized how… not enough had changed since then. But when I got back to Kin, did I rally to change our gate-keeping procedures? Nope. (I had become one of those cowardly mundele. Yuck.) Actually, that’s not even the worst of my cowardly moments.
On many occasions, while dining off campus at the house of friends, I noticed that they talked to their cook and other workers with a really harsh tone. And as I started to learn more French, I started to understand the insults. My heart would race, but I said nothing- hoping that I had simply misunderstood. Until one night the yelling was so loud, and the insults were so clear, I had to excuse myself from the dinner table. I went straight to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, looked myself right in the eyes, and burst into tears. WTF WAS I WITNESSING?!!!! How could I just sit there? How can I call these people my friends?
But did I go back out and confront them? Nope.
I had become one of those mundele who tolerates humiliation.
I hate that memory so much. It makes me feel angry and sad and ashamed of myself.
I had always imagined that if I had lived in 1960s America, I totally would’ve been a freedom rider.
or Skeeter in The Help.
or Lily Owen in The Secret Life of Bees.
This fantasy of myself as a fighter against injustice… was squashed by my own silence.
Moving right along…
I started to figure out the dangerous single story of white people in Kinshasa.
The contents of the neon rolley suitcase:
-a passport that allows you to travel to most countries without a visa, without having to prove anything
-a job that you chose. not one you needed, one you chose.
-a salary that allows you to afford a car, house, groceries, cook, nanny, gardner, cleaner, doctor, dentist, round trip plane tickets for the whole family at least once a year and some extra money leftover for funsies.
-an automatic door opener for any restaurant, party or compound gate.
In America, the knapsack of privileges is invisible.
In Congo, it turns neon because my skin, my car, the way I dress, the way I talk- everything.
Everything about me shouts out to the world- THIS GIRL IS WHIIIIIIIIITE!!
And the sheggae on the crowded streets shout back- MUNDELLLEEEEE!!!
As my favorite storyteller Chimamanda Adichie says,
the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete.
And I think maybe that was the hard part. Everything that everyone assumed about me was true. My neon suitcase was full of all of those things, and I had to carry it around everywhere. And it didn’t necessarily feel like “the white man’s guilt.” It was more just the frustration of always being noticed but not being known. Not only that, but I didn’t know all the rules like I did back in America. I didn’t know how to navigate the language, categories and culture. I didn’t know how to safely break the mold to escape my suffocatingly true stereotype.
Not to overdramatize or anything, but there is something somewhat dehumanizing about being called a generic term, over and over again, instead of your name.
Walking around the streets of Kin Making the quick dash from my car into the supermarket, I wasn’t Sara Rich, who either went unnoticed or was greeted by name. I was just Mundele, and always noticed. Mundele, mundele, mundele!!
I started to realize that the quickest way to add layers of complexity to my mundele story, and to understand the layers of complexity of people in Congo… was to seriously learn French. So I got a tutor and started working on it. In the mean time, I tried my best to understand KinSHAsaaaaa. (You have to say it like the hyenas in the lion king say MuFAsaaaaaaa. 0:48) KinSHASAAAAAA…. wiggle with the chills. giggle giggle giggle. All wild like.
The summer before I moved to Kinshasa, I had coffee at Starbucks with Sandra, my Congolese classmate from T.C. and UVa. Half warning, half laughing she said, “KinSHAsa?! Eh! That is the craziest city I’ve ever seen!” Even after living there for a while, I didn’t yet fully understand her perspective.
Then I started seeing other nation’s big cities. When I got my nails done in Nairobi, the Kenyan woman working there had a similar reaction. As did international teachers in Kampala. Soccer coaches in Johannesburg. They’d all look at me like- of all the wonderful cities on this continent, you picked KinSHAsaaa?! What’s WRONG with you?! I started to understand how the rest of the world saw Kinshasa. (Side note: If you really want to peel back the layers of Kin, read Mama Congo.) I started to learn that every city had slightly different rules and ways of being.
I went to see the World Cup in South Africa with some friends from Kinshasa. We were all either white american or canindian. One night, a white waitress serving us warned us about several bad areas that we should avoid, because “that’s where the blacks live.” We looked at her, puzzled, and explained that we’d been living in Congo for several years so we were used to being around black people all the time. She was surprised and I hope at least slightly embarrassed. I savored this moment, someone finally MISTAKING our neon suitcases for… for I don’t know what. For white people who might still be unaware of their invisible knapsack? Yea right!
I started to travel around Congo, too. Kisangani, Epulu, Goma, Bukavu. Even within Congo people had this same, KinSHAsaaaa??!! response. When I visited Goma for the second time, I got to know some folks who were willing to let me volunteer at their schools. After getting a three year foundation in the rules of Kin, this much smaller city proved to be a much better place to break those rules.
Step 1. I learned Swahili as fast as I could.
Step 2. I practiced a lot with everybody. Waiters, waitresses, grocery store stockers, gate guards, moto drivers… but the best, most patient of all? The street kids outside Shoppers. A gang of about a dozen 9 or 10 year olds.
You know it wasn’t until I moved to Brussels that someone asked me, “What’s the one thing you miss most about Congo?” and without missing a beat I said, “Sitting on the corner, talking to the street kids.” It was then that I realized just how important that was to me.
I’d finally learned enough
to politely break the rules.
I reveled in it. Sitting there in the sunshine, or under the shade of Mama Mado’s umbrella… It was my way of breaking the muzungu mold, which was:
-drive in your car everywhere
-when street kids tap on your window to beg for money or food, say pole, pole. Pole sana. (Sorry, so sorry)
-then when you come out of the grocery store, give them a loaf of bread or something.
I’d say I sat there on that corner for 30 minutes everyday. Just shootin the breeze in swahili. For the first 100 visits they asked me for money or food, and I always said no. I think I felt like if I gave them food, it would somehow ruin any chance of us having a friendly, human to human relationship. It would somehow be this sign that I pitied them. After a while, the kids started to tease me that I was totally mchoyo. Stingey. I didn’t mind, and I don’t think they did either.
I loved knowing their names, and them knowing mine.
Instead of muzungu! Muzungu!, I was Sara! Sara!
Instead of pole, pole! They were Patience! Moise!
I remember one day they got a good laugh over my pathetic admission that I didn’t know how to cook.
They were like- lady, you don’t even know how to cook? What CAN you do?
I was like- seriously guys, I know how to teach. Doesn’t that count for something?!
They said- yea fine, but what else can you do?
I wish I could say that I just didn’t know how to describe all my various talents in swahili.
But the truth is, I think that teaching really is the only skill I’m pretty good at.
So I told them- seriously, teaching is all I know how to do.
“She can’t cook, but she can teach!!” Bwaahahahahahahaha, laughed the street kids.
“Fine, tomorrow I’ll bring my notebook and a pen. I’ll teach you how to write or something.”
What am I Michelle Pfeiffer, now?!
Is this Dangerous Minds?
I came back the next day as promised with the notebook and pen. I’m pretty sure it went something like this:
-I drew two columns in my notebook. (Left side for the model, right side for them to practice.)
-I started writing all of their names down the left side.
-Patience, president of the street kids, starts yelling at me to fix all my spelling mistakes.
-I scratch it all out and turn to a fresh page.
-All the kids are laughing about the ridiculous ways I spelled their names.
-Patience grabs my pen and starts writing all their names.
-Moise starts complaining to Patience about the missing double dots that should go over his i.
-Then there’s lots of arguing and scuffling starts and the pen and notebook are forgotten.
-I exhale loudly and roll my eyes. At the kids for breaking out into a fight (as usual) and at myself, for realizing I had wrongly assumed that they didn’t know how to read or write.
I made lots of mistakes, sitting there on the corner.
Spelling mistakes. Pronunciation mistakes.
Wrong words. Bad timing.
A lot of times the kids were high on glue.
Imperfect as it all was, most of the time I just reveled in our coexistence.
These simple daily exchanges made me feel like I wasn’t just a muzungu to them.
To Mado, Patience, MoÏse…
I was a whole person. With a personality, with strengths, with weaknesses.
And them to me.
I shared my embarrassing moments teaching in a foreign language
learning how to peel pumpkin leaves for cooking bishusha.
Patience told me he wanted to be packed in my suitcase, and when I picked him up from the baggage claim he could pop out and become a black american.
I talked about spending a weekend in Ngungu, meeting Anga, visiting Minova…
Which opened up a whole new chapter of… tales of the races.
A Part 3 perhaps.