Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Congolese Creativity

I must admit that in our moments of frustration, it feels like there is little evidence of ‘resourcefulness’ or creativity. Sometimes we sense an attitude 'of ‘helplessness’ when someone complains about their limited resources. However, we DO see lots of evidence of creativity, so in an effort to remind myself, I will share some with you. :)


1. The ever-versatile flip-flop.

I have watched very young children come into church and find a space to sit on the cement floor. Though only 2 years old, a little boy knows to take off his flip-flops and use them as a seat cushion! One woman told me that she uses her worn-out flip-flops to start her charcoal fire every day. And last week a mechanic was looking under the vehicle we drive to determine a problem. He was laying on some plastic sacks on top of the sandy gravel, but after just a few minutes he took off his flip-flop and slipped it under his head. Smart!


2. The writing in the sand…

Unlike the US, most roads, side-walks, yards, paths are sand or fine dirt. When we were in Munkamba last year learning Tshiluba, we walked with Tatu Kankonde to a nearby village. I was amused that when he wanted to make sure that we caught a new word, he would stoop down, find a small twig, and write the word in the sand. I thought perhaps it was a habit unique to him, until I started seeing it again and again, in all situations. Chalk functions the same way – Churches will paint a black space on their wall that functions as a chalk-board for announcements. Or names being nominated for election in a church are written with chalk on a wood surface, like a table.


A coffee-table is up-ended to stand in
as a chalk-board at a church meeting.

3. Exotic eats

We have heard some people say “Congolese will eat almost anything!”. We would agree – I am thoroughly impressed with their creativity in this area. Caterpillars, termites, dried and salted fish, tree grubs, dried eels —all are a valued part of the diet here. Since there is not electricity or refrigeration in most places, and because livestock is not plentiful, people need foods that are locally available or can be preserved well. In our limited experience with these new foods, the Congolese do not eat everything indiscriminately though. We have learned that some varieties of ants can be eaten, some not. Some bugs can be eaten live (if you make sure to bite the head first), but tree grubs certainly can not be eaten alive.

These “creative” (from our perspective) food options are also not eaten out of desperation or starvation. The Congolese we know thoroughly enjoy their caterpillars and termites. One of our colleagues actually mailed a package of caterpillars to his Congolese friend living in the US, so he could have a ‘taste of home’. Last year when we were first introduced to the flying variety of termites and watching the children eagerly chase them and pop them in their mouths, I asked our tutor, “…but can someone get full eating lunana??” “No,” he replied, “It just makes the cheeks happy.” My cheeks are not quite there yet, but we keep trying.

If all works well, below you should be able to view a video of my first try at eating “Lunana”, one of the varieties of flying termites.



Caterpillars – yum!

4. If I just had the right tool…

We continue to be amazed at the ‘creative’ use of tools here. In America, we often extol the value of having “the right tool for the job”. Here, it feels more like “what is available and could possibly do this job?” For example, one family we stayed with had about 10 children staying in the house, and only 1 knife for cooking. It functioned as paring knife, butcher knife, vegetable peeler, and can opener. I have never seen a can opener for sale in Kananga…I guess people figure it is an unnecessary thing since a knife can be used (although I admit that our Congolese friends make it look easy to open a can with a knife. It is not!).

Plants and natural products are used here in more ways than we thought possible. Long pieces of grass or thin strips from palm fronds are often used instead of string or rope to tie bundles or bunches of vegetables. Hardy grasses are used to weave baskets, sleeping mats, even containers that hot food can be kept in. Fish, insects, and cooked cassava is often wrapped in large leaves to be sold, which helps with short-term preservation.

DSCN3391 fish for sale!

On our recent visit to Mueka, we heard an impressive choir that had chime-like instruments. After the service, I inquired about them, and was told they were bicycle axels! Another choir in that church used locally-made wooden guitars. Men’s choirs often add rhythm using two sticks that are knocked together. Women tend to use shakers to add rhythm, which are made from tin cans that have holes punched in them and beans inside. Make a joyful noise! :)

P1090325 The bicycle-part chimes

I hope that you’ve been as encouraged as I have by these examples of the creativity that we see in Congo. I don’t recommend that you start using  your knives for a can opener or munching on caterpillars, but we can appreciate each other’s gifts! How are you exercising your creativity?


Kiki said...

I'll stick to creativity with fabric, thanks ;-)

Love you guys!

Unknown said...

I love reading your blog, Kristi and Bob!
I think of you so often since visiting with you there in Congo in February.
Charlotte White