I was on a mission this time. I wasn’t heading out in the field to see if just anyone was interested in sharing their stories, this time my focus was narrowed. The target? Mothers. The mission? Discovering their dreams for themselves and their children. I was excited to have such a specific task ahead of me, and to be able to visit a new site with Rachel, a loan officer I hadn’t spent much time with.
We spent the taxi ride out to the district of Diata chatting about exploring more of Congo – Rachel has a sister living in Point Noire. Diata is a quieter, more well off residential area of Brazzaville. Here electricity is more consistent, as is running water*. Everything seemed more tranquil and peaceful than the rest of the city when we reached the church Victoire et Vie (Victory and Life). While enclosed in a courtyard, the actual church itself is a roof with no walls. The wall-less church invited the gentle breeze inside carrying the distant sounds of children playing, birds chirping, and the odd goat “baaing.” It was a welcome change from the bustle of other sites where loud car horns, music, trucks and vendors all compete for your ears’ attention.
We arrived early to a meeting of Les Enfants Unis 3 (United Children 3, apparently this name is popular, so they are the third group to choose it) to find the sub-group leaders already present, working to fill out Passbooks in preparation for the meeting. Rachel and I made good use of our extra minutes by talking with several of the women in the group. Marie told me she dreams of her four children finishing school well, and then being able to travel in future. Al’drin said that she hopes to multiply her business and thus be able to take good care of her two young daughters. Rose dreams of her children being able to not only finish school, but to then make use of their studies and find a job. Out of all the women I was able to speak with though, Martine was different.
She first volunteered to help me translate from French into Lingala so I could talk with Marie, patiently transmitting my questions and Marie’s answers. Dressed in a patterned blue, white and purple dress with her short hair pulled back simply with a clip, Martine is the mother of four daughters ages 21 to 38 and speaks beautiful French. I was curious. While most Congolese speak French, many have varying levels and often an African accent. Martine’s sounded as if she was from France, and I soon discovered why. It turns out that Martine started out working in a florist’s shop with a French woman as the owner. Day in, day out spending time in her company explained Martine’s French. Her colleague didn’t stay in Brazzaville however. Eventually she left to go back to France and the business fell apart. Martine took up a new job selling motor parts at a hardwood store, working for a man from Cameroon… but then war came to the two Congos. Her business activities were destroyed, and Martine was left unemployed. Soon after that, her husband died and Martine was left as the sole provider for her four daughters.
Now what? Unemployed, picking up the pieces of life in Congo after the war and now struggling to provide for her family after her husband’s death. How would she be able to keep her children in school? Where would the money for school fees come from? To make matters worse, Martine and her children were living in a compound belonging to her husband’s family. After his death, her brother-in-law kicked Martine and her children out of the house. Seeking some way, anyway, to make an income, Martine began to make bissap and ginger juice. Bissap juice is made out of hibiscus leaves, boiled to bring out the flavor before adding sugar, and ginger juice is roughly the same but with a ginger root. Going from door to door selling her homemade juice, Martine was slowly able to bring in an income. One of her daughters still makes and sells juice at her school.
When a friend told her about HOPE, Martine realized that she could expand. Martine began to add other products when she went on her rounds with the money from her loans. First she added sandals, then kindling, and then other diverse packaged goods. Eventually Martine expanded to selling salted fish that she purchases in bulk from Point Noire. Now on her third loan cycle, Martine has been able to take out loans investing in her salted fish business, and also sells kindling in bulk.
She talked proudly about her four grown girls: two are teachers, one continues the bissap juice business and the fourth is doing her first year studying law at the local university. Her girls might be grown up now, but Martine still loves little children. She happily volunteered to take the treasurer’s nine-month-old baby so she could work counting and recording the member’s payments. Walking around to keep the baby quiet, holding him in her lap, Martine’s smile came out, so easily hidden when a camera is turned on her.
Out of all the clients I’ve been able to talk to, Martine is one of the first to turn the tables and ask me about myself. She asked about my family: how many siblings did I have? How did my parents feel about me being all the way in Africa? Where was I from? All of a sudden it felt like a barrier was lifted. It wasn’t just me asking the questions anymore. Now I got to answer, contribute, and share.
With Martine, our words suddenly became a real conversation where both sides were able to give and take. She told me all about wanting to travel to Canada, and hoping that her children might be able to study there one day. She was excited to share her knowledge of her home country with me, advising me to visit Point Noire, to go to the north and see the forests, the wildlife. “Congo is a beautiful country” she told me – I just need to explore it, see more than just Brazzaville.
As the meeting wrapped up, I thanked the group for letting me visit and talk with them, and talked with Martine while walking out. After thanking her for sharing her story with me, she asked, “So when will you come back? Next week?” I smiled. I plan to see them again next week and make good on my promise. I enjoyed getting to be on the other end of the interview. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to report back to Martine that she was right – I can’t wait to explore more of Congo and see this beautiful country for myself.
*Water is one of the biggest problems in Brazzaville- while it might be flowing to Diata, that doesn’t mean it’s clean.