The night of our “gotcha day” we all crawled in bed next to each other in our king-sized bed — me next to Rose and Ken next to Emmanuel. We turned off the lights, snuggled up, and fell asleep.
For about an hour.
Then Rose began kicking, screaming, crying, fighting — all in her sleep. I began to count how long between episodes. Twenty to sixty seconds.
As I laid there in bed being pummeled by my tiny fighter, I remembered working with a pediatrician who never treated kids with ADHD with stimulants. He only did sleep therapy and medication. He pointed out that he believed that he believed the root of all ADHD problems were sleep related, which is why kids need stimulants like Ritalin to keep them focused. Rose’s personality was being explained right next to me in the darkness of our convent room. She was and is too tired.
And so was I. I got almost no sleep that night, and neither did anyone else get much more. The fatigue manifested itself in their first tantrums and standoffs. It was just their first challenges to our authority. After all, we were perfect strangers trying to tell them what to do. We had a rough morning, and by afternoon, we were ready for a change of pace.
Our interpreter told us that we were going to do a little bit of sightseeing and take the kids to a playground.
Just that morning, our kids had been banished from the front lawn of St. Anne’s and sent to the back courtyard, which was basically 3 inches thickness of dirt surrounded by a burn pile, a 3 foot by 6 foot hole, clean laundry, and a bunch of garbage. We needed space to run and play. While we weren’t wild about being out in public, we were assured that we would be fine.
So we packed up a few things and the four of us, the other family, a driver, our interpreter, and two body guards hopped in the van — one from our agency, and one with the driver.
Driving around the streets of Kinshasa we noticed that the police were everywhere. Rumor has it that the police aren’t paid a salary, but earn whatever they can collect in fines. Most of the police aren’t even armed, but are vigilant.
We toured some national historic sites first. Emmanuel was still pouting from an earlier tantrum, but Rose was chatty and had boundless energy. As we were walking, she asked our interpreter what her new American name would be.
So we stopped and told her, “Adeline Rose will be your new American name, and we will call you Addie Rose.” She giggled with delight, her typical response to anything about her! At that point, we had our interpreter ask a sulking Emmanuel if he wanted a new American name. He shook his head no. although I’m fairly certain that he would have said no to anything at that point.
We continued on our tour, to a large stadium, which we were promptly dismissed from because they had an upcoming soccer match. As we all piled back into the van, a crowd of homeless boys surrounded our van, asking for anything we would give them. I couldn’t help but notice that they were just slightly bigger than our son. There are tens of thousands of homeless and abandoned children on the streets of Kinshasa, who are left to fend for themselves. They are the outcasts of their society at the age of eight. We held our children a little more tightly, recognizing that the great but ironically miniscule difference between life of those in the van, and those outside.
We drove on and were preparing to turn left at an intersection, when suddenly, a police motorcycle drove up in front of the van, blocking our path. Two police officers on foot stormed the van and all three began yelling in Swahili or Lingala (none of us could understand). Suddenly our vehicle was commandeered by the police, our body guards were taken away, and we were driven a short distance to police station. We could see our driver and body guards arguing vehemently, especially the one from our agency.
Our interpreter, only in her twenties, struggled to remain calm so as not to frighten us. She tried to explain that the police were trying to get money for something, but was vague. But since it was our body-guard in the midst of the heat of the argument, we were quite certain what money was in question. Ours.
So we sat on the streets of Kinshasa for what seemed like an eternity. With the police officer still in the front seat, the sun beat down on the vehicle and the air grew stagnant from sitting and waiting for our fate. The children were unusually quiet. We were even more so. We couldn’t open the doors and windows. The only thing we could do was wait. And pray.
More police officers were called in. Phone calls were made. The argument seemed like it would come to blows.
Then as quickly as the incident had started, it ended. Our body guards and driver got back in the van, and we moved on. We were told that a superior officer released us without penalty.
We were shaken. We really just wanted to go back to the convent, but our interpreter encouraged us and told us that she had told the children that we were going to the playground. Okay. Just a playground. We can do this. Some swings, some air, and some bathrooms would be good.
We pulled into the “playground,” and immediately had to pay for parking. As we made our way through the crowds, we realized that this was no playground, it was a carnival. Hordes of people carrying toys, prizes, children, pushing their way past each other. The van took us all the way into the carnival and the driver’s guard opened the door. Immediately, vendors shoved toys in the kids’ faces, trying to bait them to take them.
We shouted “No thank you!” in French a dozen or more times as our interpreter led us to a concession area where we could get drinks. We were all dying of thirst. We were surrounded by bumper cars, a carousel, loud music, and hundreds and hundreds of people.
We ordered drinks and as we waited, we all grew increasingly wary. We explained to our interpreter that we were really very uncomfortable and wanted to leave immediately. We had thought that we were going to a place with swings and a slide, not to the DRC State Fair. She told us that she had already sent our driver away and it would take a while to get him back. She encouraged us that this was normal life in the Congo and that the children were enjoying it. They would want to ride on a ride or find a toy. So since we had to wait, we might as well ride just one ride. Then our driver would take us back.
Okay. Just one ride.
The less expensive rides were at the opposite end of the park, and we had to walk past vendor after vendor pushing toys, hats, and all manner of junk that we were not going to buy into our kids’ faces. They began to cry that they didn’t have any toys (well, except for the dozen back in our room). We were miserable.
By the time that we got to the rides, Addie Rose was already complaining that she had to go to the bathroom, but we had already learned that public toilets were just a pile of dirt behind whatever one could duck behind, so we encouraged her to wait and that we would be leaving soon. Emmanuel wasn’t talking to us because we wouldn’t buy him a toy, and was hanging out with our agency body-guard.
We bought tickets for the ride for the two American moms (me included), three children (including our two), and the body-guard, who agreed to take Emmanuel. We hopped onto the little twirly ride.
Ken asked our interpreter if he could take pictures of us on the ride. She pointed out that there were lots of families taking pictures, and even video taping. So the two dads started shooting pictures.
Just as the ride was getting ready to start, the police and park security surrounded the dads and started shouting. Our interpreter started shouting back. Our body-guard hopped off the ride, leaving Emmanuel by himself. The ride began.
Terrified, I eyed Ken every time the ride would go past him. He was fighting. Our body guards and interpreter were fighting. I tried to laugh with Addie Rose and pretend everything was okay. Emmanuel looked like he was laughing and having fun. But it wasn’t okay, and it wasn’t fun.
The ride stopped, we got off, and the dads explained that the park owners/police wanted $55 for one picture that the dads took. Multiply that by all the pictures they had taken, and it the price was climbing rapidly. We weren’t allowed to just delete the pictures. Our interpreter refused to let us pay, even though we just wanted to get out of there. We taken to a side area to wait while the fighting continued. Other parents continued to take pictures of their kids, even video taping. We were being penalized for the color of our skin.
Suddenly our van appeared, and we were herded onto the van. We were hopeful that we were making our escape, but we were told that we were being taken to the main office. Our body-guard was taken to the office ahead of us, and an officer got on the van with us to prevent our escape. We drove back through the carnival, but this time the whining about the toys dissipated. There were much bigger things going on.
We sat in the musty stench of the overheated van and waited. This time the arguing was in French, and Ken could hear our interpreter saying, “These are our guests, not a bank!” Our body-guard was taken inside where we couldn’t see him, but a throng of police officers, park employees, our interpreter and now even carnival guests gathered around and started shouting. There was nothing we could do but wait and pray.
Phones were pulled out. Phone calls were made. It was clear that whoever knew the most important person would win. Where was our attorney at this point? Soon a man in a suit, though not our attorney, who seemed to have great authority (an attorney? park owner?) appeared and began to argue as well. For close to two hours (with a four-year old that had to go to the bathroom) we sat and awaited our fate for the second time that day.
Then they called for the other dad’s camera. They wanted to see the pictures. As he climbed out of the vehicle, Ken slipped me the memory card from our camera. We could live without our camera. The memories on the card were much more important.
Slowly, the crowd began to disperse. Our body-guard was released from the office area. The police gave up their fight. The other dad returned to our van. Phones were put away. The tone of conversation dropped.
Finally, after two hours, our body-guard and interpreter got back in the van. She explained that she had called in the man in the suit who was the father of one of her friends, and that he was the one that got us released. We were allowed to drive away.
We pulled into the gates of the convent at sunset. It was too late to either sign up to eat dinner there, or to go to the market. But at that point, we didn’t care. We ate plain tuna on bread and Pringles for dinner, showered, and tucked our family into bed, thankful to not be in a Kinshasa prison that night. We couldn’t have been more close.
I will say, that in all of the chaos, the representatives from our agency fought valiantly for us. Our body-guard was as charming and friendly as they come, great with the kids, but when someone tried to cross us, his inner monster came out. We needed that monster.
The intensity of the stress of that day, especially being sleep deprived, isn’t one that has gone away quite yet. The memories come back frequently in the darkness of the night.
Just a few days later, our driver was arrested on his way to get us, but with no other explanation. The danger of the Congo was very real. We needed prayers for protection, because clearly, we were facing a fight that wouldn’t end until we boarded the plane to leave Kinshasa.
And certainly, there was more fighting to come.