If you look at it the right way, irony has a great sense of humour.
Before we left on vacation in December, I had been in Congo since August. It was easily a record for me, who usually leaves for a touch of the first world every six weeks when the kids have school holidays. Pointe Noire, Congo is a pretty small place, and even though there are no physical walls, by mid December, I was sure the town was closing in on me.
Compound life can take some getting used to, and although we’ve lived on a ‘camp’ here in Congo and also in Indonesia, it seems more ‘normal’ now, but I still have days where I could just use a little space. Between the full time house help in our small living space, the driver in our car and the security guards at every corner, a girl just craves a little elbow room.
I got that much needed space with nearly a month in Russia, Finland and Estonia over the holidays. The crisp fresh air was a magical contrast to the constant humidity that normally weighs us down in Congo.
After Russia I had some work to do in France and although it was hard to be away from my family for that long, catching up with my expat besties in the south of France wasn’t the worst thing I could think of doing.
That put me at six weeks out of Africa all together. Six weeks with no routine. Six weeks without security guards. And six weeks of anonymity when I walked down the street.
It was fantastic. I clearly needed the break.
The time passed quickly and my work in France finished up before I knew it. It was time to get back to Congo; because I couldn’t hug my kids through Face Time. It was the longest I’ve ever left the girls. I knew my husband was more than capable of holding down the fort while I was away, but as an added level of comfort, the moms in Congo were reassuring me from afar; sending messages to let me know they were also keeping an eye on my girls. My Moroccan friend sent photos of my oldest daughter’s class at the pool. A French friend messaged me pics of my younger daughter at her son’s birthday party, and my Nigerian neighbour was Whatsapp’ing me ‘When are you coming back?’. It was heart warming that people were thinking of me, and comforting knowing that my daughters had so many moms looking out for them in the community.
But it wasn’t just my husband and other moms keeping tabs on them. As a way of giving back to the community and helping employ locals, every family on our compound has someone who works in their house either as a nanny or a cleaner, as well as a driver. I would dare say that almost all of these people working on the compound know my kids by name, as do all of the security guards and gardeners. That’s a lot of extra eyes.I got back to Congo and the heat(and smell) of Africa hit me in the face the moment I stepped off the plane, as it always does.
The girls excitement to have me back to walk them to school in the morning was evident by the way they were hanging off my arms and chatting a mile a minute, catching me up on everything I missed. As I walked across the compound, giant Congolese smiles were coming at me in every direction.
“Ahhh, vous êtes de retour!”
“C’est bien de vous revoir!”
Nannies, drivers and security guards were all stopping me to tell me how nice it was to see my smiling face back on the compound.
Then I stepped out onto the street and my Congolese welcome-back escalated.
The guy who sells flowers on the corner greeted me as he normally does, “Maman Lisa, la reine du Canada” (Mother Lisa, the queen of Canada) but this time with heightened enthusiasm because he hadn’t seen me in so long.
The men who always sit outside on the street corner chimed in, “Madame! Ca va bien?!” and the guy who sells fruit, “Madame Leeza, “Prends les raisins,” he insisted, pushing the highly over priced grapes into my hands even though I didn’t have my wallet; knowing I would bring him the money at lunch when I come to get my kids.
By the time I had given bisous to what felt like all of France at my kids’ school, and said hello to some locals sitting outside the neighboring Italian compound(who somehow seem to know my name), I was feeling so well loved by this tiny little community I live in.
I got back home and our full-time house-keeper was already inside, coming extra early that day because she knew I would be home and she was excited to see me. She gave me a big hug, told me all about what happened with the girls while I was gone and then asked if I wanted her to wash the clothes in my suitcase. Ummm…yes please!
And that’s when the irony hit me. All the things that were getting on my nerves in December where the exact things that it was so nice to come home to.
Yes, it feels like everyone knows me here, and yes, there is someone who is always in my house and vehicle. I have almost zero alone time. But those same people are also the ones who greet my kids by name and watch out for them as they walk to school and play outside. I have to share my personal space, but that has also allowed me to leave the country and have someone the kids are comfortable with in the house while I was away and my husband was at work. Not to mention(again) that part about my suitcase magically emptying itself.
I suppose it’s all about the ying and yang of life on a compound.
That first Friday evening back, we made our way to a beach front restaurant where we met a bunch of other expat families. The kids were off playing in the sand while the adults caught up about the holidays.
My friend’s husband, who hasn’t left Congo since the summer, asked how I was doing now that I’m back.
“I’m good,” my answer possibly influenced by the second gin and tonic in my hand and the warm breeze of the ocean gently kissing my face, “it’s actually nice to be back.”
He smirked, “It would be interesting to see the correlation between the response to that question and the amount of time since the person’s last vacation.”
It was hard not to laugh at the irony of living in Congo. My friend knew too well that in a few short weeks it would be difficult to keep my recently refreshed outlook of life on the west coast of Africa. The things we love about living in Congo are the exact same things that wear us down if we stay too long.