Shopping for “essentials” in Kinshasa

There I stood, in the aisles of Kinshasa’s GG Mart, squinting as I held up a pair women’s underwear next to a pair of men’s tighty-whities. The women’s were several sizes too large. The men’s were, well, for men.

A tall Congolese man in a ball cap stood nearby, face in his hands. He was Adolphe, the lucky field producer and “fixer” helping me solve a little problem: my lost luggage.

The previous day, I was on the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the IWMF African Great Lakes reporting trip. As I gazed out of my airplane window during the connection in Istanbul, I spotted what looked like my blue suitcase on a nearby luggage cart. I silently urged the baggage handlers to send it up the conveyor belt and onto the plane. Alas, I watched as one of the workers drove the luggage cart, with my suitcase on it, far away on the tarmac.

Sure enough, when I arrived in Kinshasa, my suitcase, along with dozens of other passengers’ checked bags, was nowhere to be found. A mutinous crowd formed at the luggage counter. A couple hours later, I emerged from the morass of tired and upset passengers with a paper “Property Irregularity Report” in hand and the words, “We’ll call you,” in my ears.

I normally carry all of my camera equipment onto the plane with me, so it was no problem to start work immediately. I simply had no clothes but the ones I was wearing, and few toiletries. Adolphe offered to take me shopping the next afternoon. Among the priorities on my list: deodorant, t-shirts, flip-flops, and underwear.

This last item was the most important, and proved to be the most difficult. Besides the slight embarrassment of shopping for intimate wear with a male colleague whom I barely knew, Adolphe wasn’t quite sure where women in Kinshasa shop for such things. He’s not a lady, after all, and Kinshasa is not his hometown. Luckily he’s not shy, and tackled this errand head-on.

In hopes of quickly finding everything on my list, we decided to try Kinshasa’s local supermarkets. Our first Kin-Marché, sadly, had no underwear for sale. At the second, just across the street, the selection of lady’s underwear included just three packages of cotton briefs—size extra-large. (I am on the petite side.)

“Aha!” Adolphe said with a smile. Then I pulled a pair from the package, and his face fell. “Well those are way too big.”

Ever the problem-solver, Adolphe asked two male store employees where one could find women’s underwear in Kinshasa. The guys smirked and asked where I was from.

Undeterred, Adolphe approached two Congolese women shoppers to see if they knew which stores sold women’s underwear. Surprise briefly registered on their faces. One looked at the linoleum floor. I quickly joined Adolphe’s side.

“For me, of course,” I stuttered shyly in French.

One of the young women found her voice and gave vague directions to nearby GG Mart. My hopes were dashed when I found that the store carried exactly the same selection of women’s underwear as Kin-Marché.

I was starting to feel desperate. That’s when I turned to the men’s undergarments, and pulled a pair of men’s cotton briefs, size medium, out of a package. I held them up to a pair of women’s large underwear.

“I should just get men’s,” I said. Adolphe chuckled and covered his face.

He looked up and noticed a tall, smartly-dressed female shopper who appeared to be a foreigner.

With a meaningful look, Adolphe whispered “Ask her, Holly!” while sauntering discreetly away from us.

This lady, Inez, directed us to still another supermarket with sandals, t-shirts, and underwear that finally fit me. Too bad I have forgotten the store’s name.

Holly Pickett, DRC Reporting Fellow