He was very nice about us inquiring if we could shoot in his shop for fifteen minutes. Every time I’ve walked by since then he smiles and says bonjour.
All the sewing machines I’ve seen here are ancient and foot-powered, as electricity is scarce and unpredictable. I love seeing ancient black singers with gold embossed writing on the side of a dusty road being used to sew Congolese pagne.
The tiny kitten we adopted two months ago has GROWN. No longer is she the scrawny little baby whose eyes had just opened, and whose back legs were too weak from malnutrition to walk straight. She’s become a lanky perpetually starving adolescent cat and is a far cry from the days where I had to squeeze drops of water in her mouth to keep her hydrated. I really wasn’t sure she’d survive the first night here, and in the morning had the sick dread that accompanied my childhood nightmares of waking up and finding a rescued baby bird dead on a dishtowel in a shoebox. But she was alive and screaming and hasn’t stopped.
09/20/2009 : UPDATE
Due to overwhelming recent attention brought to this blog as a result from the Brooklyn Library’s decision to censor Tintin in the Congo, I thought I would write a postscript (4 months later). Having spent a mere 3 months as a white woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo I in no way meant to speak for or represent the Congolese people’s interpretations of racism. Through my own experiences I deduced that the reaction to Tintin in the Congo was sharply different than it was in the USA, but I did not have the time, language skills, or anthropological background to research this thoroughly. I wrote that blog post as a means of sharing my experiences with friends and family, and the astounding publicity that resulted is a perfect example of a technologically modern world where what we write on the internet becomes public property.
However, while we’re on the subject, I personally do not condone the Brooklyn Public Library’s censorship of Tintin in the Congo. As a human race, how are we to ever move forward without acknowledging and learning from our own mistakes and misinterpretations? Herge wrote the Tintin books in the 1920s, with the intention of creating exciting and visually stunning stories that dealt with the world’s political and social issues of the time. When libraries ban one Tintin book, where will they stop? Who is to say that Tintin in the Congo is more racist or offensive than Tintin in America (which refers to Native Americans as redskins swinging tomahawks—but through the story really exposes the robbing of tribal lands by white men for financial oil gain)? Once censorship of these books starts occurring, where are the lines drawn, and in drawing those lines are we holding one issue above another?
More than anything I hope that through all of the furor that is being raised in the blogosphere and news sources surrounding the Tintin books, dialogues will be occuring surrounding racism, learning from one’s history, what we choose to teach our children about the world we’ve worked so hard to move forward in, and how, in modern society, censorship of books can enhance or restrict our potential to progress.
Yesterday we drove an hour over muddy dirt roads out of downtown Kinshasa and through the jungle to Chez Tintin, a beer garden on the edge of the Congolese River. Our tires kept sinking in huge puddles and there were a few times they started spinning and I thought we were going to have to get out and push in mud up to our knees. Then we arrived at our manicured destination…
The comic book Tintin in the Congo is pretty much banned in the USA for being too racist (even though a lot of Herge’s books, written in the 1930s, seem racist by today’s standards). The funny thing is that the Congolese seem to embrace Tintin—I think that interpretations of racism are incredibly different in the Congo than the USA.
How can you not love a hand-made life-size cement Tintin and Snowy? There are carved wooden Tintin figurines for sale on the side of the road all over Gombe District.
This email was sent out to citizens registered with the US Embassy yesterday:
"United States Embassy
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
May 14, 2009
Warden Message: Increased Crime
The UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) is reporting an increasing number of
robberies against UN personnel in Kinshasa, including four incidents
since last week. Two robberies occurred near City Market, and two took
place on Blvd 30 Juin. All victims were traveling on foot when they
were surrounded and robbed by groups of people. All incidents happened
during daylight hours and in open view of crowds.
In addition, the British Embassy reported an armed robbery of a British
diplomat on April 28 when he was walking from the British Embassy to the
Grand Hotel. The criminals jumped out of their vehicle and insisted
that the diplomat get into their car. The diplomat refused, but gave
them the money he was carrying. On the morning of May 2, a jogger was
robbed by two criminals near the U.S. Ambassador’s residence.
DRC is a high-crime country. Care should be taken when traveling,
particularly when walking.”
I’m not particularly alarmed—Kinshasa is a city of 9 million people and in any large city there is crime. White people are targeted frequently and this justifies my reasons for not strolling around the city on my own. Yes, my biggest fear is that I’ll be dragged into some policemen’s car and taken God knows where, but I’m afraid of that partly because there is no system in place to respond to emergencies. You cannot call the local police here and expect justice to be served in any capacity, at least probably not without paying them yourself. The USA Embassy luckily has an emergency line that I have in my phone, and if you call it they’ll send out armed troops within minutes to extract you from your situation. Knowing how quickly things can happen here I never leave the house without my phone anymore, even if we’re just walking to the fruit stand half a mile away. Being a dual citizen means I’m backed by the British Embassy too if I requested it.
The irony is that probably because of my extreme caution in the Congo and the limitations that accompany that, I’ve seen worse crimes happen in Berkeley than I have here (but that doesn’t mean they’re not happening in Kinshasa every day). I live in a diverse, gorgeous, quiet neighborhood in West Berkeley, just a few blocks from the Bay. My neighbor shot my other neighbor one evening, and I came home to a dozen policecars on my block and almost crashed my bike into a cop in my garden holding a two-foot long gun. There were dogs and megaphones and helicopters circling overhead but they did catch him after a day (and what a scary day of waiting that was). There have been quite a few shootings in my little neighborhood since I moved there in July 2008, but they’re all gang-related and I don’t worry that I’ll be a target. Plus, since the shooting on my block, that area of Berkeley is high on the radar of Bay Area policemen so anytime ANYTHING happens they send full forces out. Like the time a crazy woman was wailing in the middle of the street and six cop cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance arrived. I feel safe.
I had no idea what to expect when I came out here two and a half months ago, but I’m glad that I’ll be leaving in two weeks without memories of fear. I’d choose claustrophobia over that any day.
Here’s a couple photos of our set cop, Pascal. We hire him to diffuse any potentially bad situations while we’re shooting. He usually stands at one end of the street we’re shooting on, and Monzon (former national boxing champion) stands at the other. They stop cars driving by and quiet the shoe cleaning kids’ token clapping, and detain any curious passerbys who wants to stroll onto set and have a conversation. He takes his job seriously and occasionally smacks kids across the head or throws rocks at dogs (which I hate), but is always very kind to me. It’s amazing to me that almost all the cops and even military I see strolling the streets of Kinshasa don’t have guns, and if they do, they might not have any bullets. Such things are in short demand, but even though Pascal has no weapons on him the uniform itself is enough to keep people at a respectful distance.
Note the plastic handcuffs on the right—they’re his sole tool and the same as the ones riot cops use during protests in the USA.
Yesterday, just as I finished the last post, there were two huge explosions outside. It sounded like a car backfiring twice, but much deeper, so that the walls seemed to shake a little and the lights started flickering. All of us sitting in the office slid off our headphones and looked at each other, and then went back to our work. About 20 minutes later BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, sounding like it was right outside the front door. It was hard to tell if there were explosions of light in the air or if the lights were just flicking on and off really fast, but the electricity wasn’t going down as the UPS machines weren’t beeping.
So we left the house and peeked out the gate into the street, and saw a 2 foot wide dirt hole with burning wires sticking out of it, and lots of black smoke. There’d obviously been some sort of electrical explosion literally 6 inches from our wall (and 1 foot from our pool—good thing it’s broken and we weren’t in it). As we stood around wondering what to do some sort of government SUV pulled up and a couple men hopped out to look at it. In typical Congolese manner (everyone loves to be involved) a crowd started gathering, but no one seemed to know what to do. Someone half-heartedly kicked dirt on the fire. Most people just stared at the confused group of white people. Our papas told us to turn our electricity off, which meant no more working, or running water, or opening the fridge, or air conditioning. Power outages sound like so much fun until you realize what they mean.
There are exposed electrical wires all over Kinshasa, and I believe it when people tell me electrocution is a leading cause of death every time there are rainstorms. From what I’ve experienced electrical wiring in Kinshasa is another example of a city that was on the rise in the 1970s with new technology and architecture, which then suffered so much war and pillaging and governemental changes that there has been no infrastructure to maintain anything. The way to live is to wait until something is broken and then hope you can find the skills and the bits and pieces to put it back together again. Or in our case, avoid the gaping wires outside the front gate whenever there’s a rainstorm.