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.

Schooling in Congo

Nearly everyone here is “Mama” or “Papa”. Children at an early age are acknowledged half wryly but affectionately in this way. Rev. Bonanga is not “Monsieur le President” as the head of the Disciples community; he is “Papa President”. And I have never heard Sandra Gourdet, the Global Ministries Africa Executive, referred to as anything but “Mama Sandra”. There is simply no more respectful honorific the culture can bestow than “Mama” and “Papa”.

While everyone is given the title, both parents and non parents, adults work hard and sacrifice heroically in their role as parent. “Papa Pierre”, one of my night time guardians in the compound, hopes to receive an advance today of $45 on his salary. Tomorrow his daughter graduates from her sixth year of primary school and there must be an appropriate celebration of the milestone. A new dress and shoes at a feast shared with family and friends crown the occasion. The expense projected is more than his monthly salary but is not an unusual outlay for a child even when there are eight or nine in the family, as is typical here.

The other night sentry in our Disciples guest compound “Papa Dominique” has with his wife continued to work a field more than 20 kilometers from the family‘s home in Mbandaka to pay his 9 children’s school fees. Papa Dominique’s wife sometimes spends two or three months away from home cultivating and harvesting before marketing the manioc root and leaves, corn, rice and potatoes. Even parents who have jobs in Equateur, the least developed Province with the highest unemployment, must seek additional income for their children’s education.

The school fees, averaging $4 monthly for primary school in Mbandaka, are largely seen as necessary to supplement the teacher’s measly salary which the State is often late in paying. Where parents’ committees in the States are concerned with raising money for the arts programs or athletics, in the Congo they are focused on paying the teachers enough to keep them on the job in the classroom.

The first Disciple missionaries in Congo were moved by the profound emphasis of the culture on the role of parent. Dr. Royal Dye and wife Eva, in the early 1900‘s, acquired a new identity and standing with the birth of their first chilld. In keeping with Congolese custom, they were after Polly’ Dye’s birth primarily referred to as the “Papa” or “Mama” of Polly. Their daugther many years later testified to the help of the Bolenge villagers in raising her in her book In His Glad Service . To ensure the survival of Polly’s parents and their child, when the white family’s food stock dwindled, villagers in Bolenge beat on the lokole drum an S.O.S. which brought ample relief from a Baptist mission station nearly 300 miles away.

June 16, 2010

What a show! What a show! After an hour or more of lying in bed, at four thirty in the morning I began recording the pounding and the shaking brought on by what would be an epic rain in California. A series of two, three , four flashes of lightning shone as the ground shook with tremendous blasts of thunder. The rain itself was not to be outdone by the other displays of power. The rain ‘s pounding was constant, with occasional crescendos in its pouring.

The audio recording does not capture the thunder The experience of the whole event defies description, but as I lay, struck with awe, it was as though Beethoven‘s “Ode to Joy” was being played at high volume in the room. I was surrounded and lifted by a massive chorus of benediction, with all of nature exulting around me.

The day before the rain we were crushed by what had to be readings in the 90s for both heat and humidity. What had been the increasing, inscrutable force of the equatorial heat climaxed in an explosion of the heavens washing over sticky bodies with a breeze that assuaged and soothed. And this, I’m told, is the “dry” season in the Equateur Province of the Congo.