"the more things change……" April 5, 2010

Well it wouldn’t be travel to Congo if political unrest wasn’t part of the picture. I awoke this morning to the email from Indianapolis Disciple headquarters that Mbandaka had been attacked on Easter Sunday by a force of 200 rebels and a UN soldier and one other person was reported killed. NPR had already reported the rebels’ attempt to seize the Mbandaka airport. Presumably without success.

By the end of the day I was thinking about my arrival in Kinshasa in June 1969 on my way from Zambia via Lubumbashi. On arriving in “Kin” I was feeling pretty good about the fact I had entered Congo and gone through Customs in the Katanga capital without paying any “corrumption” to anyone. We had not been made aware on the plane that Kinshasa was under military lock down, streets deserted, the city of nearly 2 million quieted after over 80 students, reported as 8 by the local press, were shot and killed by the Army. Later that summer Mobutu quelled the continued grumbling of the students by conscripting the entire student body of the National University into the Congolese Army.

The dictator was at the height of his power at the time and the regime’s true character was never more publicly and more alarmingly displayed than on that day. I arrived about 1 in he morning but the desk clerk at the Mission Guest House had been alerted and was waiting with the key. “Are you willing to share a room with a Congolese?” he wanted to know. Even in my near unconscious state I did rouse myself enough to respond, “Well I guess I better if I’m going to spend the next two years working with them.“ It was the first evidence that relations between black and white were tense even in the Church in Congo that year. My entering the room woke up the President of the Disciples in Congo, Rev. Paul Elonda, my roommate.

Lokoleyacongo posting

ON RETURNING TO CONGO

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  Someone dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”   (Lk 7:24-26)

  It was nearly midnight when we entered the town on the Tshuapa River. Boende most likely.  The church was packed still, the congregation having waited for untold hours, cement block walls decorated with palms. As we entered, the throng inside exploded in song.  Kerosene lanterns lit the space casting shadows as Rev. Elonda preached for upwards of  an hour.  I understood little of the sermon but rode the waves of hums, the listeners’ acclaim for his words.  It was the first of several “posts” with schools, clinics and churches we were to visit on the upriver trip.  Each greeted Rev. Elonda, the President of the Disciples “community” of the newly united Church of Christ of Congo, and his entourage, with palms, flowers, song and hums.   We returned to Mbandaka the day before Christimas.  

In 1969 I went to Congo expecting to catch a glimpse of the future of Africa during my two year assignment.   I was to serve as a “conseiller/advisor” to the Youth Department of the Disciples.  Having studied African politics and history in college, I was excited about the potential of the newly independent nations of Africa, the wealthy former Belgian Congo outstanding among them..  Now looking back as I think about returning to Congo, the two years I spent there have shaped me like no other experience of my adult life.