DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Some Things Sound Better In French

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Some Things Sound Better In French

Thums Up Cola

Bilingual people are lucky.  Not just in all of the usual brain-expanding ways, but because they have options.

Sometimes, English just doesn’t cut it, and I wish I could effortlessly sort through my mental rolodex for a more helpful way to express myself.  Code-switching, or flipping back and forth between languages in a single sentence or conversation, is something common to bilingual people, big and small.

My bilingual four-year-old just did it about five times in the last two minutes:

These are my favorite chausseurs.
I can danse très bien avec these.
Mon ami à l’école doesn’t like them.
Je veux…ummm…I want le marqueur to make le dessin!

You don’t even have to be truly bilingual to reap the benefits.  Jacomine, from Multilingual Living, gives this example: “When I talk with an [Arabic speaker] in the Netherlands, we might both use Dutch and I might sometimes use some Arabic words in order to identify myself as a person who knows some Arabic, even though my Arabic is very poor. Code-switching is a powerful tool for identification.”

That’s more my style, because while I wish I was a “balanced bilingual,” it will never be so.  I can function in French and Spanish, but I think and dream in English.  Unfortunately, I’m stereotypically American in my relative monolingualism.  However, after three years in Congo, there are several French phrases I appreciate for their descriptive power.  I will share three of them, but with the disclaimer that I may have invented my own understandings in the midst of my adult-language-learner’s fog.  I also acquired all of my French in Africa, not France.  Apologies, and please feel free to laugh.

#1:  On est là.
This phrase sort-of-literally means “we are here.”  I hear it a lot around Kinshasa, usually from people who want you to be extra aware of their presence and help.  I like it because it feels more subtle than “at your service,” but still demands a certain degree of recognition.  It seems like a way to point out that you are offering time, skills or attention that deserves appreciation.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot after reading The Confidence Gap last week.  Women of the world: on est la!

#2:  Ça va un peu.
Sometimes you just aren’t okay, and it’s fine to say so.  I say, “Ça va?”, about fifty times a day.  The conversation often goes like this:
Jill: Ça va?
Other person: Ça va un peu… (“I’m a little okay…”)
Jill: Ohh?  Pourquoi?
Other person: (long story about worries, illness or other trouble)

When I ask someone if they are okay in English, the response 99% of the time is, “I’m fine”.  In French, although I sometimes I dread the explanation, I believe in the opportunity to truly express yourself. I find that I’ve been embracing emotional honesty more often au français.

#3: Bon courage!
This is an important one.  I can’t think of a way to tell someone in English with equal sincerity and brevity to “take heart,” “be brave,” and “have godspeed” all at the same time.  This simple phrase gets the job done neatly and concisely.  People have said bon courage to me at some of my most tender moments;  when my child was hospitalized, when I was facing a tough decision or when I felt tired and sad.  Somehow, the phrase bon courage never seems trite.

I always think it would be the perfect thing to say to a woman in labor – somehow expressing, “You can do this, but you have to do it yourself.  No one can help you, but you will be okay.  Have courage.” All that in just two perfect words.

Some things just sound better in French.

What do you think? Can you think of any phrases in languages other than English that use less words to express so much more?

This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Jill Humphrey.  You can find Jill blogging with Sarah Sensamaust at Mama Congo.

Photo credits to the author.

Congo: It Used To Be So Easy

Congo: It Used To Be So Easy

It used to be so easy.

A $30 box of Rice Krispies was worth writing home about. Sewing pillowcases from pagne fabric was so exciting that I had to Skype my friend in Virginia. Our morning oatmeal topped with cheap passion fruit was worthy of photographic documentation.

Painting congo

I couldn’t stop collecting stories from the new people who suddenly surrounded me. I clearly remember walking to my neighbor’s house one night thinking excitedly, “I am walking…in Africa!” and wondering if I should write a poem.

 people in Kinshasa Congo

Now, everything about my life seems either too complex to describe, or just not worth it. A few weeks ago I tried to write a fluff piece about the blue tins of Nivea lotion that are ubiquitous around Kinshasa and before I knew it, I was going on about globalization. Other things, I just forget to mention. I don’t notice anymore that it’s weird to pay $40 for laundry detergent, soak your veggies in filtered water and vinegar, stop your car conversation briefly to say “pas aujourd’hui” to a seven-year-old beggar, or pop a live worm out of a person’s skin. These events are ticked off neatly in the daily rhythm of life. I don’t honor them with the thought I once did.

When I sit down to write about my life in Kinshasa, my mind is blank. Sometimes I tell myself that this sudden block is self-preservation. After almost three years, the compounding effects of this city are just too much. In order to function as a nurse and a teacher and a mother and a friend and wife, I can’t stop and ponder every injustice; whether it’s my righteous indignation at the price of the imported fruits I can very well afford to buy, or the story my gardener tells me about the three pregnant teenagers he and his wife feed every day, sometimes giving up their own portion of dinner to do so.

At other moments, I pardon myself by remembering that my lack of enthusiasm is the natural progression of time and familiarity. The honeymoon period with Africa has passed and now I’m just living life. No wonder I don’t hold my pillowcases in rapt reverence anymore. They’re just my red and white pillowcases, getting a little grimy and thin with age. The sellers of trinkets tap at my car windows and I greet those that I know with an open window and a few words and ignore the others. It’s not dramatic, it’s the way to the grocery store.

Then there are the times I berate myself. I’ve become comfortable in my pretty bubble. I let it happen. I cancel French lessons to go to kickboxing class. I allow my housekeeper to buy fruits and veggies for me instead of trekking down the hill to the market and doing it myself. I haven’t learned Lingala. I’ve never seen where the woman who helps me raise my children lives. I’m ridiculous for not being able to write about the Congo. I’m not satisfied with rice and beans and spend hundreds of dollars on imported food that sometimes goes bad before it’s eaten. I don’t listen enough and complain too much. Just another expat.

My parents came to visit Kinshasa just after Christmas – their first time. I felt sad that I couldn’t seem to muster excitement for showing them “our life in Africa.” I couldn’t seem to tap into that newcomer’s elation and share it with them. I hardly took any photos (usually an obsession) and was uninspired by the shots I did snap. My suggestions for food, sights, and experiences were halfhearted. I couldn’t figure out what to do. Even in retrospect, I can’t figure out what I could have done to give them a more authentic experience of my home – which I consider to be wonderful in so many ways. Trying to provide a planned glimpse into my contradictory life proved impossible.

Congo is often described as a country of vicious contradictions: a land bursting at the seams with diamonds, coltan, and fertile dirt yet home to some of the poorest people on earth. NGO workers throw up their hands in frustration and spit nails about failed projects over too many drinks at night. Many of my Congolese friends struggle with the creeping knowledge that they’ve always truly believed it will get better, and it never has. No one I’ve asked has any great ideas. Everyone is just doing the best they can.

I’m not sure what to do with the reality of the Congo I know, so I do the very best I can. Sometimes, that means that I throw myself into the stories of those around me, asking questions I know will lead to heartbreaking tales. Sometimes I read Celebrity Baby Blog instead of Congo Siasa. Sometimes I eat beans and rice. Sometimes I complain loudly about the price of my cereal and buy the box anyway. Sometimes I talk incessantly about the number of mothers and babies who die in this country every day to people who I know are not interested. Sometimes I hear my daughter speaking Lingala and smile proudly.

Sometimes I fret that when I no longer live in Kinshasa, all I will want to do is live in Kinshasa.

but i live in Kinshasa, congo

What things about your life are too complicated to talk about or even ponder?

This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Jill Humphrey.  You can find Jill blogging with Sarah Sensamaust at Mama Congo.

Photo credits to the author.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: What Sick Means to Me Is Not What It Means to You

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: What Sick Means to Me Is Not What It Means to You

Malaria CongoMalaria has been in the news this week.  Or, rather, the antimalarial medication mefloquine has been getting a lot of attention.  The FDA recently issued a black box warning on this old standard for soldiers, vacationers, and expats in faraway, mosquito-infested lands.  Faraway lands like the Congo, where I live with my husband and two small children.

For us, malaria is always on our minds.  We think about the disease as we spray on our daily layer of chemicals in the morning, shun outside games at dusk, and gaze through the gauze of the nets above our beds just before closing our eyes at night.  My son was even an Anopheles mosquito for Halloween one year.  Malaria is that scary—and also that normal—for our family. (more…)