Day Four in Kinshasa. We have confirmation of our Congo Airways flight to Kananga on Friday. That is the city about 60 miles north of Kamponde where we will stage for a few days before heading south in a 4x4.
We’ve been staying at the same hotel where I worked as a journalist two decades ago, as I wanted a sense of continuity and a fill of memories. Yesterday, walking through the lobby I stopped short when I saw the same pharmacy where I had looked for something to sooth my stomach some 22 years ago. It was that day in March 1997 I realized I likely was pregnant, just as thousands of people were fleeing Kinshasa across the Congo River to Brazzaville as the airport had shut down. The civil war was in full swing and the anti-government rebels who had marched west across the country were now 700 miles from the capital.
Here is a scene from the draft of my memoir about the pharmacist who told me that day that it was time to go home. It takes place in March 1997.
From Chapter Five, Morning Sickness:
I was lying in our hotel bed that night, thinking about the grueling day. The U.N. cargo plane, filing my story by satellite phone while sitting crossed-legged on the tarmac at the airport in Kisangani. And then the long, silent flight back to Kinshasa. We were all shell-shocked over what we had witnessed that day: tens of thousands of starving, sick and barefoot Hutu refugees who had been walking for months to escape Tutsi retribution.
They had been swept up in their neighbor’s civil war, one that would go on to become the deadliest since World War II, with more than 5.4 million people killed from combat and its lingering consequences. Rebels who had captured much of eastern and central Congo in the last year were now advancing toward the capital and for the first time truly threatening Mobutu’s grip on power. Hundreds of journalists had descended on the capital to cover the likely downfall of the 32-year dictator. Chris and I had been in the capital for two weeks. It had become one of the world’s biggest stories; I was filing three or four times a day with other AP correspondents who had flown in to help.
It had been one of those awful days where you had to press on and do your job: ask people personal and painful questions, write down their replies, point your cameras at them, and then walk away. Another one of those awful days where you hated the world but loved your job — a photo I took in the Hutu refugee camp that morning would run in The New York Times the next day — telling yourself that giving those refugees a voice was at least a minor contribution. An awful day where you are so anxious about getting your satellite phone to finally connect that you can physically feel your blood pressure rise. An awful day because, in your heart of hearts, you know your story likely won’t do a damn thing to help those hungry people back on the ground, under their tarps and alone in the world.
Just before I fell asleep that night — Chris gently snoring beside me — I remembered how sick I had felt that morning on the plane. I had forgotten because I had rallied just fine and adrenaline kept me working into the night. I rarely kept track of my periods anymore, having by this time figured I wasn’t going to get pregnant after three long years of trying. Sure, I had stopped having my usual glass of red wine at dinner, when all the reporters, photographers, producers and cameramen gathered in the hotel restaurant to share steaks and what they had witnessed that day. I took my folic acid.
But other than a woozy head and nausea, I felt no other signs of pregnancy.
I tiptoed into the bathroom with the reporter’s notebook in which I kept all my travel dates and source contacts, sat on the bathmat in my cotton nightgown and pulled my knees to my chest. I started flipping through to see the last time Chris and I were in the same country, and the same bed, before this assignment.
I froze. It was Monrovia. That wretched day covering the aftermath of the street fighting among the gangs of the warlords. Chris had remained back in Liberia; I had returned to our little yellow house in Abidjan and shortly thereafter was admitted to the hospital with the malaria endemic to the region.
Christ Almighty, I thought to myself, putting my head between my knees. If I were pregnant, the fetus would have been exposed to malaria and the mind-altering drugs that had been pumped into me at the hospital. I sat like that on the bathmat, arms wrapped around my knees, for what felt like hours.
I’m undeserving, I thought to myself, too caught up in bylines and benchmarks to be worthy of this gift — even if I had wanted it so badly.
Finally, I went back to bed, determined not to panic and not to tell Chris. I knew he would make us leave right away. And I wasn’t about miss the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, the man whose portrait still hung in every classroom back in Kamponde — the village where just months earlier they had prayed and danced for me, asking their gods to bring me a child.
I ducked into the hotel pharmacy the next morning. The pharmacist took one look at me and held up a box of prenatal vitamins, heavy on the folic acid. She also held up a pregnancy test, but I shook my head no. We were staying at the best hotel in Kinshasa — the perimeter ringed by armed soldiers to protect all the foreign journalists — and I felt sure the tablets were safe. But I didn’t want to know if I was truly pregnant. I’d have to tell Chris. We’d have to leave.
I thanked her and turned to go.
“Madam,” the pharmacist said softly, “don’t you think it’s time to go home?”
I turned back to her, my hand still on the door, smiled and nodded, “Oui, merci, bientôt.”
Yes, thank you, soon.
I have never forgotten the striking amber eyes of that petite pharmacist in her starched white smock, imploring me to put aside any professional foolishness and take care of myself and my baby. I have often wished I could go back and thank her for being brave enough to tell a stranger it was time to go home.
When I stepped into that pharmacy yesterday and spoke to the pharmacist, I told her my story and asked her if she knew of a young woman who had worked there two decades earlier. She listened politely, shook her head, and then said, “Can I help you with something?”
No thank you, I said, and turned back to the lobby. Congolese businessmen sat drinking their imported beers, oblivious of the lone woman among them whose eyes were damp, heads down as they pecked away at their smartphones.