Light, in the Heart of Darkness

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Byline: Rhona Murphy

Machine Guns, thieving cabbies, and a sweet baby girl: welcome to adoption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I knew that adopting a child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo would not be easy. But I never expected to be stuck on a pitch-dark road in the middle of the night, somewhere outside the city of Kinshasa, wondering if I was about to become another grim statistic in this troubled country.

It all started back in early 2009, when I had applied via an agency in the U.S. to adopt a child. Having fallen in love with Africa on various visits–the people, the land, and the endless skies–adopting from there was especially appealing. International adoption is a roller-coaster process, however; after a long year in which nothing seemed to be happening, I heard of a new option in the form of a pilot program in Congo. I was intrigued. I was also wary. More than 5 million people have died there since 1998 from poverty, war, and disease, half of them children. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

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And so, in the summer of 2010, with swirling thoughts of Joseph Conrad and his dark colonial tales, I applied.

On March 17 this year, I got the much-anticipated referral phone call from my agency. A few hours later, I was looking at a photo of a beautiful baby girl named Anna. Was this really my future daughter? It was hard to think about anything else. In June, I was finally able to travel to Bukavu in eastern Congo to meet her. An orphaned child, she was living with a foster family. It was unclear when I would be able to take her home; my agency recognized the great need in Congo, but was still sorting out all the details of the new program.

My boyfriend, David, and I landed in Kigali, Rwanda, late on a Saturday night. We spent the entire next day being driven to the Congolese border. When we got there, a simple wooden bridge separated these two war-torn nations. Soldiers stood around with Kalashnikovs.

A couple of hours later, we walked into a modest home, where an 11-month-old sat on a woman’s knee, staring at me with the most enormous brown eyes: Anna. I think my first feeling was relief. It was really, truly her. We gazed at each other, and then the woman put her on my knee. By the time I said goodbye on that bridge two days later, I was entirely smitten.

Months passed and I was very conscious of the looming Congolese elections, set for Nov. 28; friction was guaran-teed. I had to get there before that date. Then, in October, days before I was due to fly to Kinshasa to finalize every-thing with the U.S. Embassy, my agency warned that it was too dangerous. But I had received little recent news of Anna. What if the elections resulted in total anarchy? It was too much of a risk. With my best friend, George, in tow, along with baby supplies and the strongest mosquito repellent we could buy, we flew to Kinshasa.

The first thing we noticed upon landing was how eerily dark it was, as the city and its environs have little electric light. When we stepped outside the decrepit airport, we were hounded by taxi touts, with no sign of the driver we had hired to pick us up. We decided to take the most reliable-looking cab we could find.

That’s when we wound up on that dark road, in the middle of nowhere, with the driver attempting a shakedown and refusing to drive. We stood our ground, and eventually he drove on, muttering angrily.

Anna appeared at our guesthouse in the morning with her foster mom, who had flown with her from across the country. Just like the first time I saw her, I will never forget exactly what she looked like in that moment. The feeling of relief was there again, mixed with incredible joy. She was actually here. And she was almost mine.

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The first week was a whirl of meetings with officials. David arrived, and the people outside our guesthouse got used to our comings and goings, smiling at “le bebe.” But the tension in the city was palpable. Soldiers were all around with machine guns, warding off political protests.

And finally one evening, after three long weeks, we headed back to that dimly lit airport, my baby daughter in my arms. The steps of an airplane never looked so welcoming. I whispered to Anna, “I will bring you back to visit.” And I will, someday. In the meantime, my family and friends are getting to know this happy little spirit, as I am. She literally lights up every room she enters.

Rhona Murphy is publisher and managing director of Newsweek International.