My home is strange and dysfunctional and I love it, unquestionably, to death. It’s like a crazy aunt who says irreverent things at all the wrong times, but who is fun to be around, and without whom holiday dinners are just a bore.
By now you already know about the intermittent electricity. Unexpectedly, we’ve had nearly 48 hours of electricity until about an hour ago, and I was able to wash my hair this morning and just for the heck of it, I took a shower last night and one when I woke up. It’s funny how quickly I forget what it’s like to have warm water every morning. Not having to douse myself with cold water from a bucket redefines luxury.
One crazy thing: there is no change in the country. People really are living dollar to dollar. It’s one of those humble moments that you really have to try to take into account when you’re walking around the city. Always have change so that you don’t make these people’s already hard lives un-necessarily difficult by trying to get you change you probably don’t need as badly as they do. Taxi rides are about a dollar, a slice of pizza and a drink will run you about 3 dollars, but bills go in increments of 2, 5 and 10 dollars. If you give one of those bills for anything less than the amount, the shopkeeper and taxi driver will sigh and you’ll have to wait a few minutes for them to find change. Last night I gave a fiver for my food, and left with about a pound of change.
They call coins “tokens”, like casino tokens. This morning I took a cab and as I got up my purse jingled the driver whipped his head around at the familiar sound and handed me the oldest, dirtiest bill you’ve ever seen and asked me to make him change. As an aside, in wealthy countries, torn, dirty money will be taken out of circulation and destroyed. In Congo, that money will stay in circulation until it disintegrates into dust, but not after having been taped back together a number of times.
In a school like my parents’ where you’re always building, you need a constant supply of cement on hand. The Chinese import cement into the country for all their projects, and though we have a constant supply of sand to make concrete with–we live on the coast– the country will regularly run out of cement and you won’t be able to buy any for a few months.
Same with water, you have to store it, just in case. Throughout the whole city, people have 25 liter yellow jugs of water saved up for when the electricity goes out and you can’t get water from your faucets. The yellow jugs used to contain sunflower oil, and they’re really valuable repurposed to hold water. At the school we have a lot of employees on hand all the time. Gardeners, night and day security guards, electricians, plumbers, masons. The guards fill the yellow plastic jugs when there is electricity, so that we’ll have water when the power gets cut.
I often hear the comment in the States that I treat strangers as if I already know them. I’ve been told that I’m overly friendly, as if that were possible. That comment has always struck me as strange but I understand it better now, after having realiwed how different it must seem to people who don’t know Africa. Wherever I go, I just interact with people as if we’d already been introduced, without “please, excuse me, hello my name is, may I ask you something, I’m sorry to bother you’s.” That’s the way people do it back home.
Just today, for example, I was walking to the cyber café, and this woman who was barefoot was facing me coming towards her on the sidewalk. She was at a shoe cobblers, getting her patent red leather sandals re-heeled, and put her hand on my forearm, stopping me in my tracks. “No,” she said, authoritatively and shaking her head. “Look at your cardigan”. I looked down and looked back at her and said “What?” “Girl, she said, you didn’t button it right, look at it!” I laughed and buttoned it, and only then did she let go of my arm and let me get on my way. None of your business is not something that exists here. Neither is personal space.
This happens all day, every day. People just talk to you all the time, unceremoniously. Asking you questions, making personal comments, just talking. You can never really be alone, ever. I walked about a half-mile from the café to my dad’s American Corner, and on the way there, I got comments from at least a dozen men. “Girl, you’re FINE”, or versions of how beautiful I am, even coming from a man in a very fancy suit, who had his taxi slow down to a crawl just so he could stop me, look me in the eye and tell me how gorgeous I was. It is objectifying, particularly when men make disgusting kissing noises and stare at your ass, reducing you to a piece of meat, but I generally stop, turn to them and make a comment to the effect of “Brother, really? This is how you treat your sister?” to which they’ll laugh and half-apologize. But you really can’t afford to let it bother you, since it happens every five feet.
People don’t say “bless you” when you sneeze, but they’ll lament your weight loss very vocally. One of my mom’s friends and a teacher in her pre-school said “girl you lost a lot of weight since last time, you don’t look as good”, and I smiled and said, “Well, you know. They don’t feed you good food in America, so you just lose weight, don’t worry, I’ll gain it all back here.” I think that’s why I never had any issues with weight. In Africa, if you think you’re beautiful you are, and if you’re competing with a skinnier girl, the skinny bitch always loses. I mean…it’s hard not to find your place in a society where women can have a beard and carry it proudly. I am not joking. Women have beards. Not a full-on sasquatch beard, but, you know…hair on their chin and jaw that they just leave there. This may really be hard to accept or even believe, but women with facial hair are considered quite hot here. As are obese women. The fatter the better. This place is not PC and it really doesn’t care what you think. It’s actually kind of nice sneezing and not having to thank someone for blessing you. You just sneeze and get on with it.
You can address people by Ma’am or Sir, but it’s more common to refer to older men as “papa” and women as “maman” or “mama”. You can also call younger men “chief”, all terms of endearment, that are informal, and friendly.
Random fact: rubber dishwashing gloves will melt from the heat and humidity. After a few weeks, they’ll be so sticky that you can’t get any use out of them.
Most people eat at home and make everything from scratch, so there aren’t really that many restaurant options comparatively with a city of the same size in the US. In the center of the city, you do have a few restaurants, French, Italian, pizza places, Lebanese places, Chinese restaurants. The more authentic African food is in the popular neighborhoods, with outdoor seating, or along the streets in oil-lamp and candlelit street stands.
These stands are also places where, during the day, you can pretty much get anything you want made or fixed. For example, you can get rubber stamps made on the street, while you wait. You go over to any of the many rubber stamp stands on the dusty streets, and you tell them what you want on the stamp, on a round or rectangular one, and they sit there, with a razor blade, and carve it out, like a sculptor getting a form out of stone. You just wait a few minutes, and presto, you have your own customized rubber stamp, right there, on the dusty, trafficky street.