The guesthouse where we have been staying for the past week in Kinshasa is popular with Americans who are adopting Congolese orphans. It is spacious, clean, and reasonably priced, which is important for people who may be stuck in the city for some time until the adoptions are approved by relevant agencies and the American embassy issues visas.
It is located just across a rutted street from the embassy, in fact, which is surrounded by ugly cement walls topped with barbed wire. I can’t show you any pictures of that because pictures taken on the street might capture some security guy and that is forbidden. I took some street pictures last year but Azir, the interpreter and guide who goes everywhere with us, strictly forbids it because he doesn’t want us to get in trouble.
Azir really worries about us, clucking about like a mother hen whenever we set foot outside the door, except when he’s not around (he does go home at night, to our relief). We also have a car and driver at our disposal, which is extremely convenient. The car, which belongs to a diamond dealer downcountry who is a friend of our good friend Pastor Francois here, stays in the Ste. Anne guesthouse courtyard overnight and the driver, 18-year-old Joseph, and Azir show up at an appointed time every morning to take us on our “programme” for the day. Yesterday, before the agreed-upon programme was to get underway I decided to carry out a quick errand on my own. I commandeered the car and driver to take me to the travel agency down the boulevard to change the date on Charlie the journalist’s ticket to Tshikapa. I can communicate there perfectly well, no problem, I don’t need Azir. A few minutes down the boulevard I get a call from Azir. “Where are you?” he demands. I say I am on my way to Jeffrey to change the ticket, an errand I had told him about. “I’ll follow you!” he exclaims. I picture Azir running down the street in his black suit, in hot pursuit of the unaccompanied American. I assure him that is not necessary. I complete the errand in record time and return to Azir’s protective fold.
Many Congolese treat us like soft, helpless babies with too much money on our hands. Some, therefore, try to take advantage of us while others–most of my friends here–are overprotective. There is a certain truth to this image. I see our collective helplessness in some of the newly arrived adopters, like a pair of men from Alabama, a prospective father and grandfather, who seem to be entirely on their own. They asked one of our party if they could accompany us to church tomorrow because they heard she would be preaching. They hoped for a service with a little English. But I picture the church we are going to–still under construction in a labyrinthine quarter, getting there in an SUV already chock full of our party of 6 plus driver and interpreter, and then dinner afterwards with a bunch of our friends, and I suggest that she tell the Alabamans that it won’t be possible. I was like the Alabamans on my first recent trip here last May but fortunately I was thoroughly shepherded and “programmed.” Now I am doing much of the programming and some of the shepherding and my French is increasingly serviceable.
Charlie Malembe, the journalist who is working with me, specializes in tracing the backgrounds of adopted Congolese children and potential adoptees. She works for a service and gets assignments on her own as well. I met Charlie last year, before she had done much of this, and she was eager to get some writing assignments. Charlie, like me, is a Mennonite and is interested in church stuff, politics, conflicts, policies, and all. When I took on this assignment of writing about women’s ordinations for church papers I decided to do it with Charlie. I have not been sorry. Charlie is an energetic and intrepid interviewer and she knows everybody. Push a button and see Charlie go. At a noisy gathering where I can hear or understand hardly anything she sticks our recorder in people’s faces and then writes it all down word for word so I can find the gems. I will do the writing later but I couldn’t do it without Charlie. I brought her a computer as a present and she is making good use of it.
Charlie is continuing her adoption investigations while she’s working with me for two weeks. Most cases are pretty straightforward she says, but she thinks she’s seen evidence of a ring of baby sellers. I hope she doesn’t get herself into trouble. Services like hers are needed. Congo’s beautiful babies–those are the real innocents. We bumbling Americans can use all the help we can get to make our way in this fascinating, demanding culture. And to avoid doing harm with all our good intentions.