Where do I even start? Today marks one year since I arrived in the Congo. I can easily list off tangible things that I have learned in the past twelve months – gaining any sort of fluency in French being the biggest milestone but also how to drive manual, speak Swahili, and run a business. But those are just the tip of the iceberg and don’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the ways I have grown. So in honor of the twelve months that I have spent in central Africa here are twelve things I have learned:
- Being polite means interrupting conversations. If I walk past a group of people having a conversation my American instinct is to smile politely if I happen to catch someone’s eye but pass by without disturbing them. However here in the Congo it would be considered extremely rude if I didn’t stop to greet them and shake hands.
- Add at least 30 minutes (but probably an hour) to any start time you receive. Transport can be complicated and infrastructure is unreliable so being patient and realistic about when events or meetings will actually start is a much better way to organize your day.
- Honking can be polite. It doesn’t always have to be a way to let the other driver know that you are upset they cut you off or did something stupid. It can also be a way to signal that you are passing someone or that you are a taxi available for clients.
- Formality isn’t all bad. Coming from a notoriously informal culture and a language without a formal “you” tense I was hestitent about using the formal “vous” in conversation. I didn’t know who I needed to use it with and when. At first I made a decision to just use the informal “tu” all the time but I’ve found myself appreciating the nuances of formality. It’s a way to show respect, for example with a cleaning person who could be considered socially below me, and also a way to create distance, if there are men who are trying to be overly friendly with me (that one is very useful).
- Kids make the worst days better. That’s just a fact. I already knew this but I can’t begin to say how often this has been true. If I’m ever having a rough day I know that I can walk over to a nearby children’s center and spend some time laughing and playing. It’s an instant pick me up.
- Thumb war works in any language. This classic children’s game was one of the first things I played with the kids here. It required me to only be able to count to four in French so I could play it the first day. Since then it’s become a classic and I’ve learned how to count to four in Swahili as well so that I can play with any of the kids I meet.
- Charcoal pills are amazing. Digestive issues are commonplace here and I cannot begin to explain how amazing charcoal pills are. They soak up any toxins or things that you might not want and flush them out of your system. Put the Immodium back on the shelves people and pick up some charcoal pills.
- Phone calls after midnight are not necessarily booty calls. Cell phone companies routinely offer free minutes from midight to 4:59am so it is not uncommon for people to want to use their free minutes to catch up with their friends. However I am one of those people that loathes having their sleep interrupted so I quickly broke any friends who were being judicious with their minutes of that habit.
- Cutting men’s hair is harder than cutting women’s. I have become the official hair stylist of the volunteers. Thankfully mostly that just means trims for the girls which isn’t too complicated. As of Saturday I have successfully cut Andrew’s hair twice. Men’s hair is harder. Especially when it involves actually using a scissors and not just buzzing all the hair. I don’t think I’ll be going pro anytime soon but Andrew hasn’t complained yet.
- Inflation is no joke. When I arrived last year the exchange rate was 1200 Congolese francs to every dollar. Now the exchange rate is 1610 CDF to $1. That is a huge difference. There was a time in July when the exchange rate was climbing so rapidly that we had to change our prices three times in a single day. I had to call back clients and let them know that the price I had quoted them that morning had changed. It was also sobering to see that for our Christmas market this year we made about 30 000 CDF more than last year but with the inflation we made $200 less.
- Support systems are vital. I cannot say enough how grateful I am to my friends (old and new) and family for their love, laughter and encouragement during this past year. Whether it’s sending me the twentieth Snapchat of their dog that week (Hannah…), taking me out for a Tembo when I’ve gotten some bad news, or laughing at my terrible jokes I would have never made it without these amazing people.
- God has bigger plans for you than you can ever imagine. No we are not all meant to travel across an ocean and live in a place where you can barely speak the language but whatever ideas or dreams you have about what is possible for your life, they are nothing compared to what God has planned for you.
Thank you to everyone for reading this blog and for coming along on this journey! With Ash Wednesday coming up this week, I’m going to try and make one of my Lenten resolutions be to post more on this blog. Happy Mardi Gras and have a blessed Ash Wednesday!