Posted on | March 5, 2014 | 1 Comment
We moved to Kinshasa a few weeks ago. We don’t yet have a car, something most expats consider a necessity in this sprawling city of 9 million. While my older son takes the school bus across town, my younger son and I take a 20-minute walk to his preschool.
We’ve only been doing this a few days and I’m already thinking about all the things I will miss if we start driving instead. When we walk, it’s impossible to tune out the sensory immediacy of the street. We hear the horns, we smell the dust, we jump over streams of gray water, we avoid muddy spots or suspicious-looking trash, we dash across the street when there’s a break in traffic. These are not things one would generally consider desirable, but to me they resonate somewhere deep within, memories of a childhood spent in Pakistan. I want my son to feel the same sense of familiarity as I do with this landscape.
Sometimes, we step aside for speeding SUVs, and sometimes, they slow down to let us pass. We pass street-side vendors with cartons of eggs and baskets of baguettes. As we walk, we join the trickle of other people on foot, Kinois who are always smartly coiffed and dressed in pressed shirts and pretty dresses, carrying handbags or backpacks, and going somewhere — to work or to pursue the chance of work. The rutted hexagon-paved sidewalk cuts in and out like a faulty cellular signal, interrupted by shallow banks of sand, and we adjust our strides to match.
Sometimes someone will look at us, me and my little boy with his little backpack, as if wondering what we’re doing on foot by the side of the road in this neighborhood overrun with expat SUVs. Sometimes strangers will smile spontaneously at us, or murmur a greeting in reply to ours. Today, while I eyed where the shallowest point might be to cross a flooded street, a man cheerfully called out to me with the respectful moniker given to all mothers: “Bonjour, Maman!”
My favorite part of the walk is entering the vast industrial compound where we must wind along a long road to the little corner where the preschool has rented an old office lot and turned it into a child’s paradise. The road into the compound is shaded by giant trees with leaves the size of melons and roots so sturdy and large they look like buttresses on a castle, or more appropriately, the powerful tails of alligators. These old trees block out the noise of the traffic outside, making the dirt and din seem far away. Instead, my son and I see on the ground green and golden almond-shaped berries whose red flesh has burst from passing cars. The little flesh they have around a large seed tastes tart and rather stringy, I remember from my childhood. These berries used to grow in Jeddah and in Karachi. Even my mother remembers them from when she was a girl: vendors would stuff them with masala for an extra-sour treat outside her school.
Sometimes a lizard will flash by in a blur of yellow and red stripes. I try to catch a glimpse of my favorite bird, a tiny sparrow-like thing with a dainty blue head and tail and dusky grey wings. It seems to like the almond-shaped berries too. There are lots of workers around the compound: street sweepers leisurely moving the berries and leaves to little piles on the side of the road, men in overalls napping on the grass, men on large trucks headed out of the compound. My son takes them all in.
And this is why the walk to school has been a gift so far. I live in an upscale neighborhood that is considered isolated from the everyday reality of most residents of Kinshasa, a capital city that is itself considered isolated from the rest of an impenetrably forested and conflicted country. The enormity of the Congo’s geography and painful history cannot be grasped during our two years here. But during our walks at least, my little son looks and exclaims at the ground, the birds, the lizards, the giant trees, the people around him in the Congo. He looks, and he sees, and he grows a little with each excited exclamation. With each walk, he and I feel a little more of a part of Kinshasa.