Some days here are impossibly sad. Some days, like the days when I’ve seen too many rape victims, too many little girls who now have little girls themselves, too many starving children in the streets, the Congo just makes me cry. One of the hardest aspects of working in this corner of the world is learning how to process all the tragedies, how not to be paralyzed by the overwhelming need of it all.
But then there are the days that just make me laugh and laugh and laugh. Saturday was one of those days. In the midst of daily life and mundane tasks, and even among all the sorrow and suffering, there are so many things that are just hilarious here. I went into town to get internet access, did some grocery shopping and bought water and phone minutes, two of the biggest expenses here. (A case of water, 12 1.5 liter bottles, is $12. How much water do you drink every day?) I actually ended up making two trips downtown, because I failed to get everything on the first trip. Sigh.
One of the things I cannot find in Bukavu is a washcloth. I usually pack one, but I forgot, and C and E of course had them at their house in Goma. But here, nothing. I’ve looked all over the place in the stores that cater to expats, in stores that import stuff from Europe, and so far all I’ve found is a $30 bag of dishtowels. In La Beaute, which is as close as Bukavu gets to a supermarket and which uses a bizarre system of sale in which you must go to four (FOUR) different counters to make your purchase, I couldn’t find a washcloth, but I could have purchased, among many other items, Chana Masala, 7up Free, and a professional-quality sound board, which could have been mine for the low, low price of about 176,000 Congolese francs (that’s $352 for those of you who are comparison shopping).
To review, shopping in Bukavu: soundboard? Yes, no problem. Washcloths? No.
Anyway, in the midst of all this roaming about, I saw a store selling some particularly awesome t-shirts that say “Je suis fiere” (“I am proud”) and feature the Congolese flag. I Had to Have One of These and very politely asked the mama how much one t-shirt would be. “$10 for twelve,” she replied. I tried to explain that I really don’t have room in my baggage and that I only need one t-shirt, and asked if I could just buy one, but she said no, it’s $10 for twelve.
Keeping in mind that I would have paid $10 for one of these with no questions, I asked if I could buy one shirt for $5. She thought about it for a long time, then said, “Okay, I’ll give the other five to the poor.” We agreed that that was fair, and that she’d make sure that street children got the extra shirts. And then I realized that these would make fantastic gifts for some of you, and decided to keep two others, so that the street kids are only getting three. (Or they were, that is, until I realized that these shirts are nylon soccer jerseys, made in China, in children’s sizes. Ha!)
The thing that’s so funny is that I genuinely believe she’ll do it. She couldn’t believe I’d pay more than market value for a shirt, and I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t sell the shirts separately.
Then there’s the matter of hair. On the way back to the house for the first time, I noticed, for the first time, a beauty salon named Nixon Coiffure. Even funnier was the Intergalactic Coiffure hair salon, which I saw later in the afternoon. Its sign cites a verse from Revelation 20 as inspiration, which is even funnier because in French, “Revelation” is “Apocalypse.” Setting aside the question of exactly what either Richard Milhous Nixon or apocalyptic literature has to do with desirable hairstyles, I’d like to paraphrase Lyn here, who, in reference to John Hagee (who’s regularly on television here thanks to TBN Africa) said something to the effect that if you have to rely on Revelation to support your argument, it’s probably not a very good one.
Walking back to the house, I ran into my day guard, who was carrying the large, empty dog food bag that The Dog finished Friday night. He’d cut a handle into the plastic, and seemed glad to have it to use as a satchel. We greeted each other and said good evening, and I went back home, sad and amused all at once. He’d found a creative use for a strong piece of plastic. But he has a good job, he’s the guy who keeps my stuff and me secure. I’m paying his company $450 for him and the other two guards who are here round-the-clock, seven days a week. I hope that he’s getting at least enough salary from the security company that he can afford basic necessities, that he doesn’t have to use a discarded dog food bag to carry his clothes.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, they say. One person’s logic in naming a hair salon or deciding what products to sell isn’t always the same as the logic I would choose. One city is home to obscenely rich businessmen and to children who live alone on the streets, wearing rags, unless they’re lucky enough to run into a shopkeeper who wants to do the right thing.
After two years of coming to Congo, I’m still not comfortable with all the contradictions, that one city can be home to hundreds of thousands of people who hurt and who still dance, who starve most days and who feast on others, who beg God for deliverance and continue to worship when help never arrives. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this place, it’s that laughter and suffering live side by side, that people are resilient and creative, that the belief that joy will come in the morning can sustain us through almost anything. What can we do but cry? What can we do but laugh?