Anybody traveling to Congo may be bombarded with requests to carry stuff to and from the country. This is certainly the case for my July 12–August 1 trip to Kinshasa, Tshikapa, and Mbuji Mayi. I will be one of those Congo mules. So far I have agreed to take, on behalf of specific people:
- Herbal tea
- Surgical lamps
- A new laptop
- A camera to replace one that another Congo mule carried to Kinshasa but it was stolen there.
- Shoes belonging to that Congo mule, which he forgot to take.
- A small suitcase full of clothes and other gifts for the family of a Congolese friend living here. It will be filled, on return, with Congolese clothes for his American friends.
I will also be loaded with pictures of people that my friends and I took on the trip two months ago. On that trip I also carried a new laptop and accessories to a digital projector. We brought back about 36 yards of cloth printed in Pepto Bismol pink to celebrate the centennial. We were asked to carry 150 yards but said no.
For this trip I have said yes to all requests so far but I will have to pack my suitcase soon to make sure I have room for everything. It’s all fine as long as I have plenty of advance notice. It’s the last-minute requests and gifts that pose a problem.
Congo mules serve an important function that the national and international infrastructure is not up to serving. No such thing as free delivery to Congo—if any delivery at all. At least email functions in Kinshasa. So this morning the email request came to buy and bring a new laptop, for which I will be reimbursed by the friend in Congo. It was something of an e-miracle that, after a few hours of intermittent research and communication—Vic researched, I communicated while I cleaned house and did laundry—we were able to agree on the product and make the purchase, which will be delivered to our house, and I will carry it to Kinshasa.
Vic was amused that the friend was buying the computer for himself, so he could pass his old one on to his daughter as a graduation present. It’s exactly what he would have done. A son will be responsible for setting up the computer. Later in the day I called our techno-nerd son to consult on which iPad Vic should buy me for my retirement gift. Families in Congo and USA have much in common.
Congo mules carry more than teabags and electronics. We carry the threads of obligation, reciprocity, generosity, and the stories behind the goods we exchange. These are threads that bind relationships.