Town Square Delaware has been following Mary Barrosse-Antle’s journey in Africa, and we welcomed the opportunity to share a bit of her amazing and inspiring story here on TSD.
My first memory of Africa is of the wee hours of the morning outside the Entebbe airport, staring at my legs folded in front of me in a heat-conserving position and watching mosquitoes unselfconsciously, almost disdainfully, bite my legs through my jeans. They seemed to be saying, “Mundele [white girl], you don’t even KNOW what you’re getting yourself into.” And they were right. (Mosquitoes usually are.)
I started my voyage in Rome. There the organization trained another volunteer and me for two months. They taught us French, gave us religious formation, and tried to give us an idea of what to expect. Though I was starting from zero with French, the conversations about what life would be like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were the most difficult for me to grasp. At mealtimes I would try to fill in the blanks by asking Enzo, the other volunteer who had been to Congo twice, to tell me more about Aru in his broken English. (As if to prove that there is no one type of person who spends a year volunteering in Africa, Enzo is a 24-year-old, dark-skinned, chain-smoking, leather-jacket-wearing Italian man with a lip piercing and a heart of gold.)
“Do you get sick a lot?”
“No, just typhoid and malaria sometimes, it’s normal, I never got malaria but I got typhoid. You will know you have typhoid when you will be vomiting all night.” [laughs]
“Is it hot?”
“Not too much. Sometimes if I am out working all day it is very hot.”
“Do people wear shorts?”
“You can’t wear very short.”
But I didn’t know the right questions to ask to evoke the feeling of living somewhere so completely different yet weirdly familiar, where you can see a t-shirt of your college’s lacrosse frat on a man pushing a bicycle loaded with bananas through cassava fields on his way to market, where children yell “Hello how are you!” multiple times in succession regardless of your response before you realize that they don’t know any other words of English, where you can hear your high school prom theme song blasting from a small boutique that sells two-shot measures of vodka and gin in plastic bags to a loyal and ever-present clientele for 500 Ugandan shillings (20 cents).
On the contrary, most of what I understood about going to Africa was cautionary. Wash your hands every time you enter the house. Wear closed shoes. Never go swimming. Don’t drink water that hasn’t been boiled or treated. Don’t go out alone at night. Wear long clothes or bug spray between 6 pm and 6 am. Don’t give strange men your phone number. Don’t take pictures of people without their permission. Don’t sit in the grass. Wear sunscreen. And for goodness sake call your parents every once in a while so they don’t think you died of Ebola or got abducted by rebels.
So you can understand that I left for Congo with very little idea of what I was getting myself into, but with a discordant mixture of paranoia and hope. My suitcase reflected my general confusion. I inexplicably brought the restaurant knife bag and left the cozy sweatpants, thinking they would be too hot. (They wouldn’t be, and I often think of them lustily on chilly nights.) I brought the weird hippy water purifying kit I’d purchased from a camping store (not nearly as effective as the simple Clorox tablets we drop into water) and left at home enough DVDs to satisfy our movie cravings for a month. And, most tragically, I brought a slew of white t-shirts that would have to have every bit of dirt hand-washed out of them after just a single wearing. (This is at best a third of the usage I get out of most of my other clothes before washing them – don’t judge unless you’ve ever hand washed socks for two hours, which I have, which is why I’ve thrown caution to the wind and started wearing flip flops despite rule number two above. So far no negative consequences, though I’ll let you know when flesh-eating worms start laying eggs in my feet. You honestly never know.)
Suffice it to say, by way of introduction, that things only got more bewildering after the mosquito incident. I’ve now been in Aru, DRC for eight months, I’ve become quite handy with French, I can have basic conversations in Lingala, I remember snippets of Swahili when I’m inspired, I know 8 words in Lugbara, and I’ve even picked up a little bit of American Sign Language, and I still don’t know what’s going on 70% of the time. I can’t explain to you why the nurse who helps me with a program for the mothers of the malnourished children will translate everything I say except the things I say about nutrition. I can’t explain to you why teachers give kindergarten students sticks with which to discipline the other students. I can’t explain to you why men stop me on the street and tell me they want to marry because I’m white and call me racist when I say no thank you. But what I can tell you, and what I hope to communicate to you over the following weeks that will be my last in Congo, is that I love this place and the people in it, the heartbreakingly beautiful and the obscenely terrifying, with the desperation of someone who is acutely aware that she will never be in exactly the same world again.
Born and raised in Delaware, Mary Barrosse-Antle is a graduate of the Charter School of Wilmington and Yale University. She is currently working as a volunteer in Aru, Ituri Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo where she assists in the treatment of malnourished children. In her spare time Mary enjoys going to market, inventing new uses for cassava, riding giraffes, and washing her feet.