She is a little street vendor who put up shop next to the entrance of the church with the long name.
A few weeks ago, I returned to Kinshasa. An assignment at the Catholic University there. I had longed to be back in Central Africa where, as a teacher, I had shared part of my life with nuns, priests and prostitutes. That was thirty-five years ago. Friends warned me: things had continued to disintegrate. I would find more lewdness, filth, perils. The population had tripled. Kinshasa, they said, had become an immense garbage belt upon which eight million people tried to survive.
I also wondered about the pioneering Mormon presence in Congo’s capital. I looked forward to attending Church in one of the new wards.
The plane landed after dark. Sister Leonie, a black nun of the congregation of Sainte Marie de Matadi, drove me to the suburb of Limete, where I would stay in the compound of the Catholic Radio Station. The ten mile ride along the boulevard Lumumba, once a desolate road I had taken many times, now fiercely exhibited Kinshasa’s expansion. As our minivan sped with the intense traffic flow through the night, we passed thousands of people packing the broad and jagged sidewalks of the boulevard, walking, talking, selling, buying, begging, mile after mile. Shadows in colorful pagnes, crossing the four lane road amidst the six lane traffic, kept popping up in the headlights of the vehicles — at least of those that still had headlights — and managed to elude collisions like toreadors the bulls. Honking bulls spewing black clouds of fumes.
- Masina, Sister Leonie said. It’s grown a lot since you were here. Very much peopled.
The crowds, convening on the boulevard’s sidewalks from miles of dark slums beyond, were moving in the glow of erratic streetlamps and shimmering oil lanterns, against the backdrop of sheds, minuscule stores, crude cafe terraces with an occasional flickering neon, unfinished houses looking ruinous, teeny markets, junk shops, crumbling factory walls with barbed wire on top, ramshackle bars with blaring loudspeakers. As we passed those bars, wafts of cadenced music pierced through the minivan and left as quickly. The odor of scorched earth and smoldering trash. My eyes got moist. I did not have to wait for daylight to recapture Kinshasa’s spirit. It was still here, that unexplainable harmonious anarchy, relentlessly exorcising despair and reconstructing life. It was still there, that self-confident, sensual music which, in the midst of misery, testified of an impudent verve against fate. I felt home.
She is a little street vendor sitting next to the entrance of the church with the long name. Her miniature merchandise is displayed on a tattered board, two feet by one, precariously resting on a cardboard box. She organized it in tidy rows: a dozen suckers of dubious color, roasted nuts in teeny-weeny heaps, chewing gums sold a piece, and, as surprising feature of the day, a number of small, Swiss cheese-spread triangles in their silver wrapping. Who knows how long past expiration date, and in Kinshasa’s heat!
They call it the informal economy, an immense network of vendors and revendors, partitioning the goods over ever smaller sizes, down to the tiniest display in some rutted alley, down to a child or a decrepit oldie waiting, hour after hour, for a business deal of a few cents. Upon that partition, and the proportional gains on sales, millions depend for their survival. In this world of tens of thousands of street vendors, scattered along miles of decaying sidewalks, our girl at the church entrance is a particle, an infinitesimal cog trying to be indispensable in the machinery of subsistence.
She is around nine, perhaps ten. As I slow down walking towards the gate, her timid smile to the white mundele I am speaks of innocence. My years of experience teaching in a suburban girls’ school in Kinshasa allow me to deduce details of her life. Her dress is just a piece of cloth hanging over skinny shoulders. Worn out from beat washing on stones, worn out by the wear of sisters before her, the pattern and colors have wilted. But it is clean. The fraying edges have been sewn. She is no thrown out street child, not one of those thousands in rags and dirtiness, thugs and victims at the same time, abused by police and military, vulnerable to assault and rape as they hide at night in gutters and corners.
- Mbote. Ndenge nini? I greet her with hello and how are you.
From my Lingala, grey suit and age she must infer I am some missionary priest who has served for decades in Congo. The whiteness of her teeth spreads over her face.
- Malamu, mon père, melesi.
Polite, well raised. Her frizzy hair, trimmed to keep it cleaner and facilitate the chase for lice, has been deftly tied in flat squares separated by clear hairlines. Checkerboard style. It testifies of the patient hands of a mother, or a big caring sister, and thus of a home. But her meagerness, her indigent dress, the insignificance of her shop point to a home deep in the slums, in a shag of dried mud under remnants of asbestos sheets. Her bare feet are grey from walking over ashes of burned garbage. Even so, an innate dignity in her posture eclipses dejection. Her trustfulness shows from her naive acceptance to sell that handful of little Swiss cheese triangles in silver wrappings, which, somewhere along the chain, a wholesaler has slipped in — from looted luxury merchandise.
What strikes me is the choice of her vending location. Why here? This street, ending in a cul-de-sac, is quiet. The ward meets here in a villa, surrounded by the high wall common to all superior houses. The wrought iron grille has been opened. A few families stroll in. The little vendor only earns disturbed glances from mamas who drag their children inside, away from the temptation of the treats.
- Can you sell anything here?
- I will later on, she beams. The mass is long in the church with the long name. Then the children deserve something. They know I’m here.
I am awed. She has it all figured out in consequential steps where even the three-hour block becomes useful. But her strategy is not only about the few cents more at the end of the day to help feed her family. She epitomizes a creativity that still gives meaning to life. Nothing in her countenance betrays the dismay that her future is beyond all hope of enhancement. In realms like Kinshasa, where for slum-dwellers degradation and impoverishment are on an irreversible course, inventiveness still nourishes anticipation.
- You’re going to school?
Her face clouds over briefly. I shouldn’t have asked. I remember the struggles we teachers faced to convince parents to let a girl continue at school. That was many years ago when the system still functioned. Now underpaid teachers in dilapidated schools expect from parents, who can afford it, to help supply salaries. Only a fraction can. If the budget is tight, boys get precedence. Girls are put to work to care for younger siblings, haul water, enlarge cesspits, cut stones to gravel, tan leather, walk endlessly head-carrying chock-full basins from rural sites to urban markets, vend along sidewalks.
- I went two years. I can read.
A sense of worth speaks from her lips. She cherishes the memory of those two years of elementary learning, in an overcrowded class on crumbling benches. The eager faces I taught in such circumstances indeed bore witness it was a privilege, paid by parental sacrifice. Since this girl’s countenance conveys that she is from a home where values have managed to outlive deprivation, I can imagine the pain when the decision fell to close her door to schooling, to the prospect of progress, to perhaps, at the end of the cycle, the emancipation to a better job than guarding two square feet of trivial foodstuff, which she is not allowed to taste herself, even if famished.
I can read. She says it with hushed pride. She knows of the treasures hidden in books she will never have. She knows of the power of documents, identity papers, certificates that others have. She can now read publicity boards advertising the goods of a world beyond her reach. The skill to convert letters into language gives her an aura of rehabilitation, even if it is only a voiceless adornment to her frailty — a frailty both tender and austere, as she chastely pulls her dress a little further over her bony knees.
For how long? Girls of shantytowns… As poverty strangles them further, as disease strikes their family, as vending opportunities are lost, many end up in prostitution. In Kinshasa, an eleven-year old can already make a dollar, twice as much without a condom, dicing with HIV.
Inside the villa, everything is oddly familiar. Pictures of temples and of President Hinckley. The bulletin board with announcements from the Relief Society and the Elders’ Quorum. A box with tithing slips and envelopes. Subscription forms for the Liahona. In the hallway people greet and chat. Two giggling boys chase each other. Meetings proceed as scheduled. We sing in French from the same hymnbook as used in Bordeaux, Geneva, Papeete and Quebec. The Priesthood, all black, blesses and passes the Sacrament. Talks about charity and sharing the Gospel with others. In Primary the children sing with African zest Je suis enfant de Dieu.
One must hear it from the street.
A returned missionary teaches Sunday school.
“… Now, brothers and sisters, we need to respect the Sabbath day. That means no shopping. But for the past few weeks we’ve had that vendor girl at the gate and it’s becoming a habit for some of you to buy from her as we leave the church. I know your children won’t like it if you don’t buy them treats any more after church. Some will cry and yell, but you need to teach them to honor the Lord’s day. We shouldn’t chase that vendor away, but if you don’t buy from her, she won’t come back.”