Equateur’s Ebola Crisis Is Over

Congolese health officials prepare to disinfect people and buildings at the general referral hospital in Mbandaka on 31 May. Photograph: John Bompengo/AP

The Ebola outbreak that killed 11,000 people in West Africa three years ago has ended its threat in the Equateur Province of the Congo (DRC). The relatively low death toll of 29 during this most recent crisis can in part be attributed to Congo’s past experience in countering 8 prior outbreaks in the country. This was, however, the first instance of Ebola’s spread in Congo to an urban center, Equateur Province’s capital of Mbandaka with 1.2 million people. The organizing of an international campaign and the crucial contributions of local Mbandaka partners are highlighted in the following article by the DRC’s Minister of Health that appeared July 25 in The Guardian newspaper of the U.K.

“We’ve halted the spread of deadly Ebola in Congo – so what went right?”

by Oly Ilunga Kalenga, Minister of Health, Democratic Republic of the Congo

“The ninth and latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is now over. I did not think I would be able to utter these words so soon after it all started on 8 May. This outbreak, the most challenging the country has ever faced, had all the makings of a major crisis.

M. Kalunga, DRC minister of health, during the launch of the Ebola vaccination campaign in Mbandaka. Photo: Junior D Kannah/AFP/Getty Images

Ebola surfaced simultaneously in two remote rural zones, with health workers among the confirmed cases. The virus quickly spread to Mbandaka, a city of more than 1.2 million inhabitants on the Congo, a heavily used transportation corridor. It could have spread to other major cities including Kinshasa, our capital, where more than 12 million Congolese live, and neighbouring countries, but it did not.

So what went right? The global community’s ability to contain the spread of the Ebola virus has greatly improved since the 2014 west Africa Ebola epidemic. With our partners, we applied many of the lessons learned from our experiences in both west Africa and DRC.

Local ownership remains the cornerstone of a successful response. The Ministry of Health stepped up to lead the efforts on the ground. By the time international support arrived in DRC, the major elements of a full-blown response were already in place and functioning.

Swift mobilisation of finances is another key factor. The government’s $56.8m (£43.3m) three-month action plan was fully financed within 48 hours of it being released, starting with the DRC government putting forward $4m. International partners including donor governments and the World Bank also stepped up – the latter triggered its newly operational pandemic emergency financing facility for the first time and swiftly repurposed funds through its existing health programme in DRC to support the effort. This is in stark contrast with west Africa, where it took months to raise the necessary funds, while the death toll kept rising and finally reached 11,000.

Nurse prepares to begin Mbandaka vaccinations Photo: Junior D Kannah AFP/Getty Images

The use of the Ebola vaccine, which proved highly effective in a clinical trial in Guinea in 2015, was one of the most innovative components of this response. The new vaccine has not just proved safe and effective against Ebola; it also changed community perceptions of the disease, which is now seen as treatable. Throughout the outbreak, more than 3,300 people were vaccinated. I was vaccinated myself to show the vaccine’s safety and break the stigma around it.

I learned that working with the community, especially on public health information campaigns, will get you a long way. Church and traditional leaders are your best allies to carry public health messages that require communities to change age-old habits and challenge their traditions. In Mbandaka, our strongest health advocates became the 4,000 motorcycle taxi drivers, whose daily work put them at risk of transporting infectious people. They started promoting vaccination and hygiene messages on local radio.

The pan-African nature of this response was quite exceptional. Epidemics do not stop at national borders. The importance of regional cooperation for outbreak prevention and management cannot be overstated. Health responders from Guinea participated in the vaccination efforts, epidemiologists from the newly created Africa Centres for Disease Control and the African Field Epidemiology Network worked with our experts on surveillance. This regional collaboration sends a strong signal that Africa is willing to take the driver’s seat in solving its problems.

While Ebola remains a formidable challenge for DRC and the rest of the world, we raised the bar on our own ability as a country to detect and respond effectively to outbreaks despite highly challenging circumstances. We must continue to improve our capacity to contain diseases and prepare for Ebola outbreak number 10, which we know will happen.

This ninth Ebola outbreak in DRC was unlike any other, but the lessons learned here can be applied anywhere in the world. With increased levels of global trade and travel, there is a higher risk of outbreaks increasing in frequency and spread. In this respect, all countries are equally vulnerable, and it is in our common interest to achieve global health security. The firs step is to learn from each other and take responsibility by improving our capacity to detect and respond to any outbreak that starts within our national borders.”
*************** **************************** ***************

The Guardian newspaper also featured Mbandaka in its “Cities in the Spotlight” series on June 27. The article by
the Mbandaka director of a local radio station, Peter Gbiako, was titled “Mbandaka has fought off Ebola – but can the DRC’s equator city recover?” The entire article with accompanying photos and videos can be found at:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jun/27/mbandaka-in-the-spotlight-fought-off-ebola-but-can-the-drc-equator-city-recover

A Faith Without Borders

Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin
Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin

A recent visitor to our home prompted me to take out for the first time in twenty plus years the python skin from Congo.  It was brittle and a few of the scales fell as we rolled the skin out on the living room floor; forty years out of the rain forest in our relatively dry atmosphere will do that. We took out the tape measure and no one marveled at the length more than I: eighteen feet.  I had estimated it to be between eight and ten feet.

The python skin along with pre-ban ivory figurines are among the tangible possessions I carried away from two years in Congo 1969-71. Rarely in the forty years since have I stopped to admire the delicately carved ivory figurine of a woman’s head or the design on a three foot iron “executioner’s” knife. But the tangible artifacts from Congo serve as occasional reminders of the lasting impact on my life of those two years. And their display in my home represent a public testimony that the Congo experience shaped my life in decisive and indelible ways. They are clues to who lives inside the house and who I am.  They help others get to know me as they help me understand myself.

What a joy to find on my return to Congo that my presence forty years before had not been

Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine's home
Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine’s home

forgotten by the Congolese.  Joseph Ikete, the bright, dignified youth leader of 1969, met me at the airport in Mbandaka and we laughed about the photo I had taken of him and his wife at their home in 1971.  A couple of weeks after my arrival in June, 2010, we dined in his home again, but this time daughter Christine and husband joined us.  She now serves as the Director of the Women’s Department of the Disciples of Christ community.

What a joy it has been to share the 2010 experience in Congo with you readers of this blog.  That I have continued these postings for two years has helped me understand the place of Congo in my life, how it has shaped who I am and especially its role in shaping my faith. If we accept Augustine’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”, theology has been the overarching theme/tag/category of every posting.

So as wife Kate Moyer and I prepare for a two year assignment with Disciples and UCC churches in Mexico, beginning this fall, I want to wrap up my lokoleyacongo blog postings with some questions that have guided and will guide my future theological reflections on what is going on in Congo.

How could the richest nation in Africa with an incomparable wealth in strategic minerals and other natural resources rank at the bottom of the world’s nations on the UN Development Index (number 187 out of 187 countries ranked)?

How could the nation considered a priority for African development aid by the United States have failed so miserably at the task of nation-building and forming a government which is held accountable by the people?

What is the responsibility of the Church in the U.S. and in Congo in upholding the human rights of the Congolese people? When will the unified Protestant Church, the Church of Christ of Congo defend the fundamental right of one person one vote and the nation’s right to hold free and fair elections?

When will the weak and corrupt regime in Kinshasa be seen as the primary source of continued conflict in eastern Congo – which an article in the National Geographic called the richest tract of land on earth? And when will Congo be permitted to form a government made up of persons committed to serving the people?

At the 10th Congo Independence Day celebration Mobutu’s political party provided dresses for the occasion with the slogan: “To Serve Oneself: No! To Serve Others: Yes!”

There is little doubt that Congo is a tough assignment.  The questions above will perplex and bedevil anyone who goes there.  But I hope this blog has succeeded in highlighting some of the rewards awaiting anyone who makes the effort to live and celebrate life alongside the Congolese.  One of those rewards comes from the insight that Congo and what happens there is at the front line of African and, indeed, of human liberation.

Since my return to the States in 1971, we have celebrated the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa and the end of apartheid rule in southern Africa. There has even been progress in Sudan with the formation of an independent South Sudan in 2011. Among the new nations of Africa, only in Congo has there been retreat from the people’s aspirations in 1960. Only in Congo has the government failed to protect and further the rights of the people to such an extent they now proclaim the Mobutu era as the good old days.

At the same time, the Protestant churches of Congo have carried out ministries we in the States have had a hand in and can be proud of.  Among the sixty plus Congolese Protestant denominations, the Disciples of Christ played a leading role in the creation of the unified Church of Christ of Congo and the Disciple Rev. Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale served as its first President for 30 years.  In many areas of the country, Protestant churches are the lone providers of health, education and community development services.  While the government often fails in its promise to support these services in urban and rural areas, the churches and its leaders help raise the funds to keep them going.  In the fields of public service, the churches both Protestant and Catholic lead the way.

In the midst of the decline in the country’s roads and other infrastructure, the growth of the Protestant movement in Congo challenges our imaginations.  The Disciples community has grown from around 25,000 members in 1960 to more than 650,000 today.  With missionary zeal, Congolese Disciples have planted new churches throughout Congo and the neighboring Congo Brazzaville.  The honor and respect accorded the U.S. missionaries who first planted the seeds extends to those fortunate enough to visit and represent the U.S. Church in our day.

To those who might consider a longer visit to Congo in a missionary assignment today, I can assure you that your presence there would be answering the Congolese Disciples’ prayers. It has been many years since someone from the U.S. served with the Disciples in Congo in a longer term assignment.  For several years, the office of Global Ministries (www.globalministries.org) has been seeking to fill the two fully funded positions described on the website.  The need for French skills and the high humidity in Equateur Province have ruled a Congo assignment for Kate and me but I would welcome contact with anyone considering the call to serve there.  You may reach me at dsmithy1@verizon.net

Of Monieka, Malaria and Dr. Eric Bosai

The bite of the malaria infected female anopheles (in the Greek literally "useless") mosquito often threatens the life of children under 5 and pregnant women
The bite of the malaria infected female anopheles (in the Greek its literal meaning is "useless") mosquito often threatens the life of children under 5 and pregnant women

“WE have learned from various sources and confirmed with our doctor in charge of public health in Monieka that malaria has recently taken 406 lives, two thirds of them children under five years of age.”  So we read in a February letter from the Disciples “Communaute” in Congo which appealed for prayers from the partner churches in the U.S. and Germany.

After deciding this grim news had to be shared, I contacted Dr. Gene Johnson who served as the lone doctor in the Monieka hospital from 1957 to 1964.  As to what might have caused a sudden flare up in deaths from this disease, so common in tropical areas with high rainfall, Dr. Johnson responded, “I suppose there has been the development of a new strain
of resistant malaria, though I would guess that most people don’t have access to medication, and die untreated. Resistance to the medications that once worked well has become common. It is particularly hard to treat small children.”

One fifth of the children born in Congo die before age 5.  According to the most recent figures, malaria accounts for 21 per cent of those deaths.  While adults in Congo regularly experience “the fever” brought on by malaria and consider the illness no more serious than we do a common cold, for children with no resistance it is often fatal.  “When a child is born he has no resistance to malaria, and as soon as he is bitten by an infected mosquito will become symptomatic. If lucky enough to survive the first episode there will be a certain amount of resistance.”  So wrote Dr. Johnson in response to my inquiry.

We don’t know what might be behind the current rise of malaria deaths in Monieka.  What we know is that the tragic consequences of the disease can be countered by vigorous, well funded preventive measures.  What we do know is that neighboring Rwanda, whose government spends twice what Congo spends on public health, is among the eleven African countries where child mortality and malaria deaths are in significant decline.  We know that the under five mortality rate in Rwanda is less than half the figure for Congo and that more inpatient deaths from malaria were recorded in Congo in 2009 than anywhere else in the world.

Dr. Eric Bosai of Monieka with family including mother
Dr. Eric Bosai of Monieka with family including mother

And we know Dr. Eric Bosai continues his work as the only doctor at the Monieka Hospital.  Dr. Bosai follows in the footsteps of the 1918 founder of the Hospital, pioneer Disciples missionary doctor Dr. Louis F. Jaggard.  Since Dr. and Mrs. Jaggard retired in 1944,  Monieka has remained an isolated Disciples mission post providing the only health and education service for a large area.

With their four school age children, Dr. Bosai’s wife lives in Mbandaka, a day’s journey from her husband.  The monthly government subsidy amounts to less than $50 per month so most of Dr. Bosai’s salary is paid by a grant from the Global Ministries Department of the U.C.C. and Disciples churches in the U.S..  Eric Bosai’s father, Rev. Thomas Bosai, headed the Disciples’ youth ministries before planting churches in the remote area of Opala, the first Disciples mission outpost in Orientale Province. I lunched in Mbandaka with Thomas’ widow and their son and family in July, 2010.  Son Eric’s determination to provide medical services for Monieka and lead that deprived population’s struggle against malaria and other diseases is worthy of our prayers and support.

Disciples Agricultural Center at Ikengo was started under leadership of Rev. Thomas Bosai on the right
Disciples Agricultural Center at Ikengo was started under the leadership of Rev. Thomas Bosai on the right

State of the Congo Disciples

    

Current Disciples President, Rev. Eliki BONANGA chose Palm Sunday to present an overview of the state of the “Communaute”, one of sixty plus denominations making up the unified Church of Christ in Congo.  On his lenten tour of Tshuapa River “Posts” of the Disciples, Rev. BONANGA spoke to over 800 parishoners of Yalusaka, a congregation in the Post of Mondombe 600 miles from Disciples “Communaute” headquartrers in Mbandaka.

Rev. BONANGA stated there are now 23 Posts founded by Disciples in the provinces of Equateur, Bandundu, and Orientale, and the city of Kinshasa as well as missionary extensions in the cities of Kisangani, Lubumbashi , Gemena, Boma, Bikoro, and Lukolela.  In a brief review of the Disciples 112 year history in Congo, he called on the parishoners to give thanks in prayer for the missionaries who died on duty in the Congo or in retirement in the USA. He then noted the transition from a missionary led to an autonomous church in the early 1960’s and the paramount importance now of local support of the church’s mission. 

Yalusaka parish of Disciples Mondombe Post following Palm Sunday worship

 

Relying primarily on the support of church members, Congolese Disciples have built schools, clinics and churches in significant numbers even during the turbulent years of the recent past.  Under the continuing adminstration of the Church’s central office of Education are 486 primary and secondary schools with 65,000 students and 2700 plus teachers.  In addition to 6 hospitals staffed by 12 Congolese doctors are pharmacies and clinics in all the Disciples Posts.  While the Congolese government is committed to health and education services through payment of salaries, local labor, church offerings and user fees  maintain the buildings and make up for delayed and inadequate salary payments by the state.

Tremendous growth of the Congolese Disciples is reflected in the fact that the Church consisted of 10 Posts at

Disciples Education Director Mr. BOFEKO and Bolenge Regional Minister Rev. NGOY meet with Ikalenganya parishoners building the village's first primary school. Children have been walking over twenty miles round trip to school.

independence in 1960.  Another sign of progress among Congo Disciples is the Church’s relative unity after a period of dissension resulting in the split of the remote Tshuapa River Posts.  A native of the Tshuapa Post of Mondombe, Rev. BONANGA appealed to the Yalusaka congregation to support the parish through their offerings, their tithes and community projects (e.g. a parish manioc field) to generate revenue.  Following Rev. BONANGA, four pastors prayed for the local and world church, including Disciples partners in the U.S. and Germany, for missionaries both dead and living and for social concerns both international and national.  The five hour Palm Sunday service ended at 2 pm, long after the Sunday lunch crowd has dispersed in the U.S.

NOTE:  Report of the Palm Sunday service is from Nathan Weteto’s blog originating from Disciples headquarters in Mbandaka.  Address is natana@tumblr.com  He concludes the report by noting there were among the 825 persons at the worship service 57 Bibles and 14 song books.  The several offerings taken up totaled around $70.

New Drumming on the Tshuapa River

 

Ceremony of Ordination of Rev. BOOLA

The Congo Disciples blog (read it in French at http://weteto.tumblr.com ) notes that women in the pastorate have brought gender role changes in aspects of the traditional culture as well as in the life of the church. Rev. Regine BOOLA of Bokungu, drumming in the picture above, and Rev. Suzanne INGOY of Boende were ordained last month in their home parishes with the Disciples President Rev. Eliki BONANGA presiding.

 Blog editor Nathan Weteto wrote this week: “according to tradition, only men can sound the “Lokolé, an instrument formerly used for communicating between villages (such as the telephone today)”.  Weteto tells us that churches in Congo have in recent years adopted use of the lokole.  And so an increasing number of women like Revde. BOOLA, “play the Lokolé as pastors in their parishes to call the faithful to worship”.

It is also cause for celebration during this special week that the photos accompanying this blog were received the day after they were shot in a remote area of the Congo.  I was astonished last Monday on seeing that Weteto was able to post them to his blog

Palm Sunday Yalusaka Parishoners Greet the Visiting Pastors After Worship

following the Palm Sunday worship at Yalusaka, by his estimate some 1000 kms. from Mbandaka.  The remote village is in the Mondombe Disciples’ post region, one of several posts on the Tshuapa River. All the Disciple posts along the Tshuapa have been pillaged and terrorized by successive waves of rebel armies using the River to make their way from eastern Congo to Kinshasa.

 The rebel looting has accentuated the importance and the difficulty of the Disciple posts’ providing the only medical and the only education services, both primary and secondary schools, for the people living along the Tshuapa. Surely Rev. BOOLA and Rev. INGOY’s ordination in two posts of the area promise an even stronger response to the church’s call to the local population to build more schools, clinics and hospitals.

Footnote to this posting:  Dr. Gene Johson, translator of the Weteto blog postings and responsible for Disciple medical services in the Tshuapa region for several years in the 1960’s and 70’s, informed me that Bokungu, nearest Disciple “poste” to Mondombe, has a cell phone tower and therefore may well offer internet service also.

Congo Disciples Commemorate World AIDS Day

Translated by Dr. Gene Johnson, this posting is from the blog of Nathan Weteto of the Disciples headquarters office in Mbandaka, R.D.C. The blog address is http://natana.tumblr.com.

World AIDS Day December 1, 2010 was a first for the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo. Indeed, for the first time, the CDCC has participated in festivities marking the World AIDS day, despite the existence of an AIDS office in the General Secretariat and various actions that the Community has undertaken in the sense of awareness for the prevention and encouraging voluntary testing. The CDCC has not only participated in these events, on Friday, December 3, 2010 it launched the activity of micro – credit for people living with HIV (PVV) in the presence of many dignitaries of the Provincial government and the Church. 44 PVV are involved in this project which will give them financial opportunities that will enable them to reintegrate into society without hang-ups. The hardest task will be the psychological training of these people for their rehabilitation because they were often stigmatized and often lived on the margins of society.

Nathan Weteto or “Weteto” as he is known by friends and colleagues fills several positions at the “Secretariat”, headquarters of the Disciples “Community” of the Church of Christ of Congo. He is Director of Communications, Head of Personnel, and serves on the Development Committee which oversees such projects as the “Centre Agro Pastorale” at Ikengo.

ALWAYS SURPRISING

Friday, July 17, 2010

It has not been an easy week. A visit to Bolenge, the Disciples first mission post, always disturbs and always raises questions about the future. How will the stately buildings of the old secondary school ever be restored or even saved from further deterioration in the relentless climate of the Equator Province? How will the Church maintain Bolenge’s reputation as the seat of learning which produced most of the Church’s leaders and many others who now teach, heal and lead in Congo and outside the country? How provide quality medical services with integrity when the State only offers a $30 to $40 per month stipend for doctors, absolutely nothing for nurses in the Disciples hospitals and virtually no assistance with the purchase of medicine or equipment?

These questions were set against the background of the Bolenge Regional Minister’s account of three days of pillaging of the village and the Bolenge Parish’s 5 schools and hospital by the rebels who brought an end to the Mobutu dictatorship in 1997. Anyone out of doors, mainly Rwandan Hutu refugees, was shot and corpses continued to be found in the fields long after the rebels had moved farther down river.

Yesterday’s conversation with retired ministers of the Church would also be unsettling Rev. Bonanga had advised me. The 80 year old President of the retired ministers summed it up by saying that the pension paid them by the Church fell way short and some of them were in risk of dying from hunger. The top pension, paid the widow of the former President of the Church, amounted to $30 per month. The grizzled small man sporting a clerical collar slightly askew noted he received $2 a month. He began his remarks with thanks for the missionaries who had evangelized and educated him. “I begin each day with a prayer for them; I thank God for the holy spirit that brought them here and ask that God will bless them this day and every day because of their service here.”

The plight of the retired ministers and the needs of the Church in maintaining a network of 486 primary and secondary schools and 6 hospitals, the Sisyphean challenge faced by the Church here, weighed on me this morning. While contemplating the river two young men singing in a pirogue came on the scene. The one in back cried out in a cadence, “open your heart white man and let us live” and the other picked up the refrain as they drifted out of sight, “open your heart white man and let us live”. The good cheer and spirited magnanimity of the boatmen’s call suggested part of the answer to the weighty questions of the week.

As I have written earlier, life is full of surprises here. And never boring. But let me provide someone else’s testimony to the uncanny beauty of the spirit of this place by quoting another Mbandaka visitor, the U.S. journalist Helen Winternitz. Her book East Along the Equator reports on her mid 1980’s boat trip up the Congo River. In a summary statemnent later in the book she writes, “I wasn’t to be satisfied until I found that imaginary peace I had left behind in Mbandaka, that place in my mind where the narrow confines of life disappeared, where rampant flowers bloomed……, where surprises were delightful and where people fell in love with the world every day.” (page 118) Her first description of the city of over a half million people at the time of her stay includes these words, “I didn’t want to leave Mbandaka and its unfettered sky. Despite its history, Mbandaka was not a place of beaten people. It was a place of survivors, of Africans who knew the strength of their continent.” (page 85)

I share the above as another way of paying tribute to the Disciple missionaries whose faith and love of the people here have surely contributed to the unbeaten spirit of Mbandaka’s leading Protestant Church and of the city’s inhabitants. I also share the above in the belief that those who come to know better these people will come to know their own strength better as well as the strength of the African people.