Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shoshanat Congo, Kinshasa V'Samecha

My flight from Kenya was uneventful, with Kenyan Airways providing a professional and comfortable ride. Given the variety that my kosher meal represented compared to my menu this past month, I've never enjoyed airline food so much! I arrived at the uninspired and inscrutable Kinshasa airport having memorized Adela's detailed disembarking instructions, which were as accurate as they were meticulous. The Embassy expediter, Pitchou, was waiting for me with my name on a sign, the second time in a month and in my life where that's happened. I collected my luggage and went outside to meet Daniel who was fully regaled in business suit, kippah and US Embassy ID Card - not remarkable for Daniel, but dissonant with everyone and everything else around him. Which now that I think about it, is *also* not remarkable for Daniel :-)

We hopped into the waiting massive SUV sporting diplomatic plates. As  I tried to close the impossibly heavy door, I realized the vehicle was also bulletproof. The small tank whisked us to the Embassy, through a city scene which was not unlike everything in Kenya except Nairobi. People milling about engaged in informal commerce, brightly painted concrete storefronts which looked capable of falling at the first tap of a wrecking ball, dilapidated infrastructure incapable of sustaining the traffic, small indicators of the crushing poverty such as the children selling thin plastic bags filled with water by the sides of the road, and the risible such as the guy going car to car selling stacks of square waffles, a paean to the Congo's Belgian colonial roots.

I took a quick tour around the Embassy, met both Adela and Daniel's colleagues, and caught up on some news of the world on the Armed Forces Network while they finished up their days work. We headed out into the city for some food shopping, include onto the "Boulevard" the somewhat more upscale 8 lane road which has some more robust construction, a few towers and a supermarket that accidentally stocks some kosher cheese. The more shocking food shopping was at Hasson and Frere, a massive supermarket cum department store which in addition to a sprawling, completely non-sequitur selection of toys, appliances, electronics and clothing, stocks a broad variety of frozen kosher meat, a full four racks of only Kosher wine, including a few labels that are made exclusively for the Congo. Did not see that coming in the middle of Kinshasa. Turns out it is owned by a Satmar friend of the Rennas who spends half his time in Congo. Go know.

I realized pretty quickly that I would be a language idiot for this part of my journey, as my feeble attempts to respond in Kiswahili to people who speak Lingala and French were not destined for effectiveness.

We got home to prepare for Shabbat at the Rennas gorgeous villa. A continuing exercise in contrast, they live in an Embassy guarded home surrounding by a tall whitewashed wall. Inside the opaque iron gate which grants access to their driveway, is a beautiful four bedroom home complete with a pool, a gorgeous garden, a roomy kitchen with modern cabinets and granite countertops, and a lovely patio with a massive built-in brick grill all tastefully decorated with the prodigious collection of stunning African Art that the Rennas have amassed over the years. All this just steps from the Beit Yaakov synagogue.

Speaking of the synagogue, we walked over there as night fell (with our retired policeman escort in tow) and enjoyed a Sefardi style kabbalat shabbat davening with the approximately 25 attending French-speaking Israelis (and a few others) and the very warm and welcoming Rabbi Ben Tolila who just celebrated 20 years of Chabad in Central Africa last week in a gala affair. The drasha was almost completely in French, so I won't pretend to have gotten the subtleties, but the topic was almost certainly Shabbat Zachor.

The Rennas provided a magnificent spread for Shabbat dinner, and my stomach began to adjust to the expectation of "real" food again. We had plenty to reminisce about and lots to catch up on, and we schmoozed up until I was ready to pass out, having started the day at 3 AM based on the time difference. It was the warmest of welcomes, exactly as one would expect from the Rennas, though unexpected given the remoteness of this massive country and the degree to which they toil to get access to the staples of Jewish life.

Shul on Shabbat morning was more of a typical Chabad endeavor, although I would imagine that Renna's mussaf is probably the only instance of a "Keser Yisnu" pronunciation anywhere in the world. (Sorry to any for whom that joke is unintelligible, but it would simply take too long to explain.) The Rabbi and Rebbetzin hosted us above the shul in their apartment for a luxuriant lunch for 25 or so people replete with l'chayims and delicious chamin. After mincha and some schmoozing, we headed home for quick nap and then to prepare for Purim.

Always happier at the kids' table...
Dining and drumming with an Indian princess,
 the Rabbi's youngest daughter "Sushi"
Sitting around singing Mizrachi songs after the feast
Although it turned out that the Rennas and I were the only people over 12 years old to arrive in costume (they in their African bubus and my in my ersatz Masai garb, we had a great time listening to RBT read the megillah and enjoying an outdoor repast of "couscous royale" with the whole community. Fortunately, we were able to snag seats at the kids table first. No substitute for missing my own kids in their costume parade, but we did get to hang out with Spider-Man, Jasmine, Snow White, some Hindi princesses and others before rejoining the unadorned crowd. After dinner, we joined the remaining Israelis in a big Mizrachi singalong.

Returning home late, we still had a little preparation to do for the Rennas' Purim Seudah tomorrow, namely making a large batch of hamentaschen for dessert. This was best accomplished out of costume, but we prepared a nice looking couple of trays for consumption tomorrow. 

More to come tomorrow, and Chag Purim Sameach from the Congo!

1 comment:

  1. These are memories that will last a lifetime. Totally amazing. We've just begun our festivities in this part of the world, so I'm off...