Africa · Congo · Family · Memorable words · Memories · The Internet · Travel

Disappearing act


This is something I’ve been thinking about for a week, but also most of my life. It’s about the disappearing act of moving to a place like Congo.

My mom and dad moved here when they were a young, artistic couple, with a toddler. Mom is French and at the time was a trendy young thing, a trained soprano singer, singing along with Maria Callas vinyls. Dad was an artist, a fantastic photographer, grad of Stanford’s French lit department with a thesis on absurdist theater. They left a pretty cool lifestyle to move to Kinshasa in 1981, shutting the door to that life. We lived in Limete, for the first years. A dusty, bustling, populous “Cité” neighborhood, and we had a busted-up sky-blue Renault R4 (4 standing for 4 horse-power) that usually broke down on the way to my primary school.

I have no concept of what it was for them, and honestly, if I ask them, the troopers ususally chuckle and shrug. That was 28 years ago. They’ve lived through birthing a kid in a Kinshasa hospital, raising two kids into adulthood through 2 countries, 4 kinasorta wars, 2 evacuations, one in an Israeli military plane and one in a French tank. A TANK. Dad spent 4 months under fire during a full-blown war, running out of food to the point where he was rationing himself a limited number of almonds a day, and to the point where his dogs ate grass. He lived through bombs falling inside the house, alone, being robbed and nearly attacked on a daily basis, driving out into the forest with a carfull of possessions. He was almost executed by a doped-up rebel. So, honestly, when your kid asks you “what did it feel like when you first moved here?” you just drop and roll, chuckle and shrug.

I do have to say…I remember one thing very vividly about moving to Mobutu’s Zaire in the 80’s: the first thing people would tell you, and this is engraved in my mind is:

“If you run someone over, don’t stop. The mob will beat you to death. If you run someone over, drive away, as fast as you can.”

That’s not something you forget, even if you’re five years old when you hear it said. And for all of its alarmist, over-dramatizing undertones, that shit was REAL. And it still is, although DRC-Zaire was and always will be more more violent than Congo.  I remember being a kid and seeing a guy beat to death for having stolen someone. I assume he was beaten to death by the mob, but I didn’t stay and watch, I was whisked away as it started.

The only thing I can say is that Zaire in the 80’s and 90’s was not what living here is like now. No phone lines, no internet, no email, no cell phones, and snail mail was literally delivered at a snail’s pace if it was not confiscated or censored, or just plain lost.

One time, we got a letter in the mail that was six years late.

We lived in complete isolation from our previous life, and mom and dad kept in touch only with family. They lost touch with every single other person, only to get back in touch, decades later, and be greeted as if they had returned from the dead, which of course, in a sense, they had.

It’s obviously not the same now, but there is something that happens, when you’re in a place like Congo and your friends know how far it is: you lose touch gradually, almost imperceptibly. It’s a fact of distance, it’s a fact of isolation, it’s a fact of life far away from your friends. It just happens. One day, months or years after you’re there, you realize…hey, I used to know this person, whatever happened to them?

I know what you’re going to say…Facebook is AWESOME for exactly this!

I just don’t do that. I deleted my account a couple of months ago, and haven’t regretted it. I didn’t feel that the type of “keeping in touch” that Facebook was providing me was worth the junk, the neverending trivial applications, the getting showered with information you can do nothing with, the constant buzzing of information that you have to prioritize and sort through, and the generally shallow level of communication. It wasn’t cutting it for me, so I deleted it from my life, and have not gone back on that decision, but I do miss out on some things. And I’ve caused quite a disappearing act of my own. :-)


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