Congo Sketch – Waiting Room

The clinic’s always busy on a Monday morning, the maladies of the weekend being called to order as the doors open.  Patients sit, patiently, on long wooden benches set in schoolroom rows.  Like the GP waiting room I remember from my childhood, where eyes were all raised expectantly to the number display. (I remember that waiting room with a 70s-style filter.  My memories look like an Instagram feed.)  But here, there’s nothing to look at, we all look forward, or down at phones, or distract ourselves by cooing at the babies in arms – there are always babies in arms. The walls are finished with some sort of pebbledash, giving the feeling of being not-quite-indoors.  There have been three power cuts already – the Monday morning surge of activity seems to be unsupportable.

Then, names are called, fuzzily, by the receptionist behind her glass, or the pharmacist over the intercom, or hurriedly, by the nurse technician popping his head through a door.  He’s doing the malaria tests.  I strain every time the receptionist raises her head to speak, to hear some variation of my name, for the French cannot pronounce it the same way twice, it seems.  An ineffective AC unit hums, babies cry, thumbs tap.

There are Congolese men here, tall, holding themselves taller, strolling confidently forward, bellies proud.  They know many people here, important people, and declare each recognition and greeting for public consumption.  When they sit, arms are flung back over the bench, eyes are alert and scanning.  The younger men are dressed in western-style clothes, and sit round-shouldered, looking down over their phones – they have many connections too.

The women need not declare their presence.  Many of them are in their traditional everyday dress.  Colours and patterns sing out from the fabrics wrapped around the waist for a skirt, worn with matching blouses (never just a ‘top’) tailored to fit every proud curve, embellished with crystals or lace.  On others, the resplendent wax cotton has been made into a one-piece shift dress, or full skirt with bodice.  Others are in western dress, but ‘dress’ nevertheless: feminine, glossy, put-together.  All complement their outfits with matching shoes, coordinating jewellery, and especially their hair: if not protected under a grand flourish of matching fabric, then braided or bewigged, not a strand out of place.  This is their everyday.  Apart from me, only the teenager in front of me, living through her thumbs, is ‘casual’, in plaid shirt and jeans, hair long and relaxed…but she’s fully dressed in youthful gorgeousness and confidence.

My name is called – helpfully, she decides to use both my names rather than just Madame – and I edge out from my bench.  But I’ll get a prescription and be back in a few minutes, waiting again.

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