On my first morning in Kinshasa, I put on my sneakers because I figured I should “be prepared” in Africa. For those of you that don’t know me well, I wear heels most days out of the year.
Our driver suggested we go out to the lake, because it’s one of the few places foreigners can enjoy being outdoors without being hassled by locals for money. The last leg of the drive was very bumpy, and there were children pretending to dig holes. As we drove past them, the children would throw away their sticks and gesture, “hungry, need money.” First morning in Kinshasa, and this was already becoming a familiar ritual to me - Locals gesturing various reasons for wanting money, and our driver politely, yet firmly declining. But for the most part, the drive was normal...for Kinshasa. (One of these days, I’ll do a blog about a “normal” drive through Kinshasa. Stay tuned!)
The lake was beautiful! We hiked around the entire lake, and I shrieked every time I thought I saw a snake. At one point I saw a huge colony of ants beneath my feet, so I stopped to admire them.
“Ooooh, so many ants!”
As Kaori and I stopped to stare at the massive colony of ants moving about, just as I began to feel proud for spotting these critters before the driver’s sharp eyes had, he yelled, “Keep walking, don’t stop!” Turns out event ants are aggressive here. They latch on and bite! Not a major health threat, but another lesson to be learned.
After our “adventurous” hike (the driver may disagree) we sat down to drink some soda in the shade overlooking the lake. A woman placed 3 bottles of soda next to 3 round cardboard pieces and without thinking, I laid out the three cardboard pieces and put a glass on top of each. The woman smiled and explained that these weren’t coasters, but lids so bugs wouldn't fly into our drinks.
I’ll admit I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type. But even then, I was shocked amused that these simple gestures, like looking at ants, or using a lid as a coaster, could be so wrong here. For me, as a first generation Japanese raised in NY, I do think my ideas of culture and social norms have been stretched and challenged my entire life. Even so, it didn't take long for me to realize that any sort of assumptions I made were going to be wrong here. The biggest difference between making these mistake as a foreigner in NY or Tokyo and making them in Kinshasa was that the repercussions here seemed far greater than simply offending somebody or feeling humiliated.
It’s only natural that when you’re somewhere new, you draw from your other life experiences to try to make a connection. I was drawing from my life experiences to react to what I thought were similar situations in a new environment, and I realized that I was going to be doing that a lot in the next few days, without even thinking about it. I was trying to make connections where connections were hard to be made, trying not to make assumptions but making them anyway without even realizing it.
But maybe that’s OK. It’s OK, because you need to start somewhere if you are going to try to make some sense out of anything that is completely new and different. As long as you can stay open-minded and be flexible when people stretch your thinking, there’s a lot more out there to be discovered!
Oh, I never wore my sneakers again after that day. I stuck to my heels and had an amazing time in Kinshasa!