A few months ago I went to Africa for the first time. To the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be exact. I know, you’re probably thinking (in this order?) Ebola, dangerous, WHY? Ok, fair enough…let’s start with the why.
About a year-and-a-half ago I was researching a story about several people from the DRC visiting Maine to learn about farming. I wanted to include a little background on the country and I honestly can’t remember how this happened exactly, but someone introduced me to Susan Schulman. Susan is an incredible woman/filmmaker/storyteller/journalist. She’s brave and smart, and spent years documenting the fighting there. Learning about the DRC through her eyes inspired me to want to know more about this country. It was around this time I happened to have a chocolate craving at Whole Foods Market and walked smack into a display of Theo Chocolate‘s Eastern Congo Initiative chocolate bars.
I’m a gal who believes in signs and it’s hard to explain, but that’s when the DRC really began pulling at me. I decided to do a story on Theo’s ECI partnership for the Huffington Post. Ok, couple more facts that will help you figure out why I did what I did. I’m a very curious person and I love to read. While working on the story I managed to stack up about a dozen books on the history of the country/region (thank you Laura S. for recommendations!!).
I mentioned these “developments” to Susan and being her she just responded – well, why don’t you go there. I think it was pretty much like that and I just felt/said yeah why the heck not. That was it. Well, not quite. From there I started connecting with people – everyone from ex-aid workers to photojournalists to diplomats to women who had traveled there to adopt – and it became more real. Hold on – this place has so much more to tell the world than Ebola, war, rape, poverty… And, I wanted – arrogantly enough – to help be one of the people to share those stories with the outside world.
Jeffrey Sachs, a genius/amazing economist/humanitarian…, wrote a book called The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Read it! In chapter 3 “Why Some Countries Fail to Thrive” he writes about how the poorest of the poor are trapped in poverty – and that it is important to understand why economic development is not working by looking at a number of factors and not making assumptions. Not judging. In regard to Sub-Saharan Africa, these are human beings who live in countries, which are held back from developing sustainably because (in great part) of the legacies of colonialism.
Why I am sharing these economic tidbits with you? Because, there are a lot of negative stereotypes made about the DRC, and I believe with some education (not being actively provided by most western media outlets) people will have the opportunity to shift their perceptions of the country.
I am not suggesting anyone book a vacation to the DRC, but speaking from my own personal experience, don’t necessarily be afraid for someone traveling there either.
Here is how I saw the DRC before I traveled there: A place of great history and beauty that has been violated over and over again, and is broken but standing. I wavered between a childlike fascination, a boxer’s determination, and terror at the idea of what I had committed to.
And then, the wheels touched down. Achille, who the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa (the DRC’s capital) had arranged to pick me up, chatted with me as we drove from the airport into town. A 20-minute drive on a paved highway (Chinese built), which would have taken an hour a couple years ago. I realized a few days later, when driving the same route, the lack of light – the real darkness – that had hidden so much life from my view. During the first few days of my trip I woke to the sounds of birds, suffered through the almost unbearable humidity, felt the thunder in the afternoon, met the friendliest most beautiful people, discovered I absolutely love Mfumbwa (essentially a stew of greens, peanuts, and smoked fish), danced the night away at an outdoor nightclub, walked through a couple outdoor markets churning with activity – people buying and selling a selection of food staples (palm oil, manioc, meat, grubs, crickets – oh, I discovered I love those!), learned how to make Mfumbwa, and so much more.
I was the first participant of “Karibu Kwetu” – a nascent program of the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, the basis of which is to share with visiting Americans some Congolese culture and food. The program provides a “home stay” experience by organizing and hosting Congolese dinners at their homes. If you are interested in participating in this program let me know and I’d be happy to talk to you about it!
After a week, I flew to Kisangani on a Congolese airline (one of the single worst experiences of my life, but it all worked out fine and again I met some really wonderful people).
I’ll cover Kisangani in tomorrow’s post. Let’s look at some pictures, shall we?
The pool outside my guesthouse.
A view of the sprawling metropolis that is Kinshasa, city of 12 million, on a road out of town. Driving around I saw a number of high-walled compounds standing directly next to dilapidated shacks.
Liboke (fish in banana leaf) served with plantains and Coca Cola at a little restaurant by the Congo River.
The Congo River.
These are photos of delicious home cooked meals I was treated to by Congolese friends of the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa. The host families made many traditional Congolese dishes including fresh fish (Mpoka) of the river prepared with spices and a few vegetables, Makemba (plantains steamed), a gumbo of smoked fish and spices and vegetables, Mfumbwa, grubs cooked with vegetables, and Fufu (made with cassava roots or plantain roots).
A mask display at the national museum. A small amphitheater outside is where James Brown played prior to the Rumble in the Jungle.
Scenes from open-air public markets. Hey, it was only fair I got in one of the photos. When I jumped in for a lesson in cutting what I was told are cassava leaves, people started pointing at me and taking my photo and shouting out “mundele” (the Lingala word for foreigner or white person). It was all in great fun with a lot of laughing all around.