Breaking Out of the Bubble

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‘Tu as peur? C’est ça?’

No, I wasn’t scared to visit our housekeeper (ménagère) in her quartier, not in the way he meant anyway.  But it had been two months since she’d had her baby, and he was right to wonder. I had plenty of reasons I could offer: I’ve been too busy; it’s difficult to fit in a journey far out of town; I don’t want to impose; she might not want me coming to her home; the kids would want to come with me but they’re always at school or activities. But I knew that I could no longer honestly offer any of these excuses, that I was using the ‘maybes’ as defence against the apprehension that I might have to face an uncomfortable reality. Despite knowing that working for a family like us is a relatively well-paid job (compared to government employees like teachers or police for example), that we pay fair salaries and generous bonuses, and that she has an impressive wardrobe of vibrant pagne outfits, I had no idea what her actual living conditions would be like.

But the driver’s prompt, combined with the upcoming Christmas holiday deadline, help me dispense with laziness (and self-flagellation). Once I actually ask, it turns out to be just a short drive, of course I won’t be imposing, and I know the kids can see the baby another time.  I find a window in my week, make the arrangements, and wrap her children’s Christmas presents.

After dropping my children at school, and buying some flowers at the gate, it doesn’t take long before we are on roads that are unfamiliar to me, a fact which highlights just how physically small our bubble is here. While I have friends who every week get out into local communities to do compassionate work (I console my white guilt with the fact that most* of those are women who don’t have the demands of being a parent here), for many expats the sphere of existence in this small town lies between the airport and the centre-ville, with occasional forays to the grand marché and weekend trips on the road out of town to barbecue restaurants or beach huts. So the roads less-travelled by expats are just a right- instead of left-turn away. It actually feels refreshing to be on new roads, with a different view.  Ridiculously, it feels like being in Africa again, like I’m travelling.

A view towards the main street in the centre-ville

It’s still early, so the side of the road holds a steady stream of on-foot commuters, making their way from the quartiers to the centre-ville for a day’s work. After a few minutes, our SUV starts to become more conspicuous, but the roads are busy and in surprisingly good condition. Many of them are wide boulevards, kept safe with barriers planted between carriageways, and plenty of space for pedestrians. We pass the large landmark of the impressive-looking hospital at Loandjili and cross a junction that is a mess of turns and exits. I’m in awe that as usual our driver knows exactly where to go, but even he comments, ‘This junction is crazy, they’ve made such a mess of it.’ Still, the roads stay smooth until we meet a diversion for road works up ahead.

We are turned off the main road straight into a slum, and have to negotiate a maze of muddy tracks past makeshift homes. Local young men have installed themselves on corners to help guide the traffic, probably hopeful of earning a few extra sous. At one corner there is a sharp and narrow 90-degree turn, where two boys are working hard.  They could be young teenagers, are short and slight, but hold themselves like men, standing tall and directing us with deep voices.  One of them darts barefoot from one viewpoint to the other, holding back an out-of-sight vehicle with a steady palm, beckoning us forward with a sweep of his arm.  As we slowly negotiate the turn, there is a girl waiting with her barrow, pressed into the fence beside her.  There’s barely room, and we nudge the barrow with the side of the car. Once clear, the driver stops. I’m worried about the girl – she’s fine, seems unperturbed. But the driver only wants to check that there’s no scratches on the car – our car, but his pride at stake if it’s not in optimum condition as he drives around town.

Now we’re heading back up towards the main road, passing plots where shelters have been fashioned until more secure homes can be built, boundaries marked with sheets of corrugated iron pressed into the ground. Meanwhile some neighbours here have earned enough to build their homes of brick or concrete, solid walls and elaborate gates delineating their territory.

It’s a relief when we mount back on to the main road and continue our journey more smoothly. The houses are improving too. We take a few more turns and I try to keep track of the route. But as someone who quickly learns the names of streets around me after I’ve moved, I’m lost without names on signs. The driver knows where the house is, but has no address. We’re looking for the house on the road towards somewhere, beside the school, opposite something else.

It’s a busy street, thanks to the large school we’ve parked beside. Teenagers – girls and boys – in their simple uniform of blue shirt and khaki trousers are cheerfully converging on the school, chatting in the large open space flanked by low buildings, girls doing each other’s hair, practising dance routines, boys practising backflips. We get out of the car and I unload as the driver knocks on a metal door in a wall, then enters. I follow him into a small compound, with laundry hung in the yard, and a row of three or four doors along a wall to the right marking a series of small homes. He knocks on one of the doors, but it turns out we’re in the wrong place. A shirtless man answers and is not a little bewildered by the sight of this mundélé at his door.

We leave the compound and I wait for a moment by the car as the driver asks around for directions: ‘Which is the home of…?’ If local people don’t know her name they will certainly know her description.

As I wait I become aware of how conspicuous I am. Dressed for work in a white blouse, a flash of festive red lipstick somehow emphasising my blonde hair, I could not be more white in this moment. As it is, I’m so palely northern that I often get asked here if I’m Russian, and the driver has told my dark-haired husband he has the whitest family in Africa. So here I am, with flamboyant bouquet of flowers in one hand, bulging bag of Christmas presents in the other, trying not to see myself as Lady Bountiful. I hold myself, look around nonchalantly, simultaneously trying to disappear, camouflage myself into the car beside me. I return the open stares of the people passing with polite smiles. But there’s no reciprocation or reaction to my presence, nor hostility, just stares. If I was at the grand marché I’d be hearing calls of ‘maman mundélé!’ every few steps, exhortations to buy, but here, I’m just unusual.

The driver bounds back over, ‘I know where to go now, it’s the other side of the school.’ So we get back into the car and drive a couple of hundred metres. Our hostess is ready for us, standing at the entry to the compound, baby in her arms. I’m conscious that perhaps I exaggerate our greeting, turning the bisous into a cheerful hug, as if trying to prove something to the neighbours.

As we enter I’m relieved to see that the compound and her home are solid and secure concrete structures – she explains that the metal doors have made all the difference, and I remember that in the summer, before the doors were installed, she had been targeted by burglars. It’s a similar setup to the one we’ve already been to; inside her home there’s a small, well-equipped kitchen, separate bedrooms, and even an AC unit.  She offers to feed the driver some manioc – they’re old friends who’ve been working together since long before we came along – and he installs himself in the kitchen.

She takes my flowers, gives me presents for my children, brings coffee, and we pass to the very normal business of visiting with a new mother and baby.

* Most, but not all, I hasten to add.

Breaking Out of the Bubble

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