Tribute to a Friend

Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969
Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969

Before closing this marathon of blogging begun with my return to Congo in June, 2010, I want to pay tribute to a good man I sorely missed seeing on my return.  Rev. Thomas Bosai was the Director of the Youth Department to which I was assigned as a “Fraternal Worker” – now Global Mission Intern – in 1969. Without his trust and friendship so readily offered on my arrival, this blog writing would not have happened.

Back in the mid-1990’s Thomas wrote the last letter I was to receive from him.  He asked if I could help arrange for support of his son to continue his studies in medicine in the States.  Eric had nearly completed his course in medicine at the University in Lubumbashi by then.  In a time of job transition and divorce, co-parenting two primary school daughters, my response was feeble and discouraging.

Now standing out among my memories of the 2010 summer in Congo visit is lunch in the Mbandaka home of son Dr. Eric Bosai and

Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana
Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana

family where I was again able to greet Thomas’ widow, Eyenga Bekana.  Eric, now Director of the Disciples hospital/clinic at the old mission post of Monieka, cast no blame in his account of his father’s death.  In his mid 60’s, Thomas was making the long trip by pirogue from the Mbandaka 2003 Disciples’ biannual Asembly when he was hospitalized in Ikela following a severe stroke.  Just before his Eyenga, “Sunday” in English, would arrive from Opala, Thomas died.

Thomas had served the Disciples as a pastor in several settings after his term as Youth Department Director.  Opala, a remote extended village in Orientale Province, was one of the Disciples new posts when Thomas was sent as the “missionary” there. It was the first Disciples post in the province to the east of Equateur. Today there is a growing Disiples presence in Opala, with primary schools and congregations in outlying villages among the fruit of my friend Thomas’ labors.

Those are some of the facts of Thomas’ life but had I been able to give testimony on the occasion of his passing I would have thanked him for taking me under his wing like an older brother in 1969.  In a vastly different culture, with multiple reasons to suspect and distrust this young white man from the States, there was little Thomas did not share with me – about his past, his education in Kinshasa and his joy and hopes in marrying the beautiful, young Ekana. While it was I who had the title of “Counselor” to the Youth Department, Thomas’ earnest advice on maintaining a respected image as a young, single “mondele” male still rings in my ears though it was not entirely heeded.

Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director
Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director

Thomas’ propulsive energy and faith quickly persuaded me that the vision of a Disciples farm project at Ikengo would become reality.  I hope that if that Projet Agro-Pastoral d’Ikengo continues to expand, the roles of Disciples President Dr. Paul Elonda in shaping the vision and Rev. Thomas in carrying it out will some day be honored and celebrated by the Disciples Communaute in Congo.  In the meantime, Thomas, this blog’s for you!

How Ikengo Hospitality Saved Henry Morton Stanley

1970 Ikengo villagers with a skinny 23 year old Doug Smith in front of the chicken coop at Disciples' Agricultural Center
1970 Ikengo villagers with a skinny 23 year old Doug Smith in front of the chicken coop at Disciples' Agricultural Center

“The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return” was the beginning of this blog’s “Return to Ikengo” on July 13, 2010.  In that article I described how I had been joyously welcomed  back by the people of Ikengo 39 years after my last visit.  Only this past week did I learn that the great grandparents of Ikengo villagers had saved from starvation Henry Morton Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame) on the first descent of the Congo River by a non African.

Having fought repeated battles with the aggressive, obstreperous Bangala who controlled the river trade, Stanley threw

Stanley with Kalulu
Stanley with Kalulu, the African boy he “adopted” as his gun bearer and servant. In 1877 Stanley christened the site of the boy’s death on the Congo River Kalulu Falls. It remains one of the few Stanley place-names that has not been changed

himself and his men on the mercy of the people of Ikengo, located twenty five kilometers below Mbandaka.   “Since the 10th of February we have been unable to purchase food or even approach a settlement  for any amicable purpose” Stanley wrote in his February 18, 1877 journal entry quoted in Through the Dark Continent .

In the next day’s entry, the bold adventurer overcomes his fear of the local populace by dwelling on a greater fear, “This morning we regarded each other as fated victims of protracted famine, or the rage of savages, like those of Mangala.  But as we feared famine most, we resolved to confront the natives again.”  Reflecting throughout his account the racism characteristic of 19th century Europe and America, Stanley finds his fears unfounded in meeting the inhabitants of Ikengo and nearby villages.

“We arrived at Ikengo, and as were almost despairing, we proceeded to a small island opposite this settlement and prepared to encamp.  Soon a canoe with seven men came dashing across, and we prepared our moneys for exhibition.  They unhesitatingly advanced and ran their canoe alongside us.”  After Stanley and crew presented gifts and were rendered “rapturously joyful” by this meeting, the explorers and villagers  “proceeded to seal this incipient friendship with our blood with all due ceremony”.

Stanley titles this section of the book, “Among Friends” and sums up his account of the day with the words, “During the whole of this day life was most enjoyable, intercourse unreservedly friendly and though most of the people were armed with guns there was no manifestation of the least desire to be uncivil, rude, or hostile.”  The explorer characterizes the encounter with the Ikengo villagers as an “act of grace”.

How their hospitality was ultimately received and repaid is a woeful fact of Congo’s history.  As the European/American explorer who contributed the most to knowledge of African geography, Stanley also bears responsibility for opening up Congo to the brutal exploitation of King Leopold’s Congo Free State.  So far as we know, Henry Morton Stanley never returned to Ikengo.

2010 Ikengo villagers in the Disciples parish manioc field. Pastor Luc is third from right.
2010 Ikengo villagers in the Disciples parish manioc field. Pastor Luc is third from right.

That the people of Ikengo have continued to welcome visitors from afar in our times with joyous hospitality is an “act of grace”.  That the Congolese as a whole have held to their traditions of welcome after centuries of foreigners’ abuse of their trust is also a matter of grace.  What a gift to us all.

The Two Congos

Politics in Congo Remain as Chaotic as this Polling Place
Politics in Congo Remain as Chaotic as this Polling Place After the Election

It’s a somber beginning to the new year in Congo.  The hope for political change brought on by the nationwide election has been met by the repression and chicanery of the current administration.  Cries of protest against the conduct of the election and the vote count have been muffled if not silenced by brute force.  The leading opposition candidate for the presidency in the 2006 election (Jean Pierre Bemba) remains on trial in the International Criminal Court and the current opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi languishes under virtual arrest in his home in Kinshasa.

Congolese in Washington, D.C. and Other World Capitals Organized Demonstrations Against the Conduct and Results of the Election
Congolese in Washington, D.C. and Other World Capitals Organized Demonstrations Against the Conduct and Results of the Election

What will come out of the vote count, assisted by British and U.S. delegations, to seat the national legislature would seem to promise little for the economic prospects or the civil rights of the Congolese people over the next five years.  Two widely circulated recent studies rank the Congo dead last on important scales of well being.  The U.N. Human Development Index ranks the Congo 183rd among 183 of the world’s nations.  And a grim article in The New York Times of January 2 reports on the International Food Policy Research Institute finding that hunger is widespread in Kinshasa and the country as a whole.

The Institute found that the Congo is the only country where the food situation worsened from “alarming” to “extremely alarming” in the last year.  Half the people in the country are under nourished.  In reading The Times article focusing on hunger in Kinshasa, I kept thinking about Mbandaka Disciples pastor Frederic Lombe (featured in the last blog) telling me his one meal of the day comes in the evening.

Agricultural development is neglected by the Congo’s government concluded the Institute. Its report noted that only one percent of the national budget is devoted to agriculture and the country now imports beans and other food that could be grown in Congo. The government’s priority has long been development of the nation’s minerals’ extraction operations.

The current food shortages throughout Congo, read the entire Times article at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/world/africa/in-congolese-capital-power-cut-applies-to-food.html?_r=2&emc=eta1,

present a stark background to the Disciples and other church bodies’ agricultural development projects.  Projects like the Disciples Ikengo project, started in 1970, the palm oil plantation near Bokungu and the communal fields sponsored

30 Women in Rural Boyeka Brought $117.50 to their First Microcredit Group Meeting with Hopes of Distributing $2100 in Six Months
30 Women in Rural Boyeka Brought $117.50 to their First Microcredit Group Meeting with Hopes of Distributing $2100 in Six Months

by many Disciples parishes are critical sources of food for the population in the surrounding area.  For the parishes, sale of food grown is a leading source of funds for the education and health services of the parish.

In the context of government neglect, the Church’s role in micro-economic development is also highlighted by the contributions of Church microcredit organizing to household budgets.  A recent posting by Disciples Communication Director Nathan Weteto reported that many Church organized microcredit groups distributed earnings in November and December which enabled members’ households to celebrate the new year.  A sum of $18,437 was shared at year’s end by the thirty plus members of the Mbandaka Disciples pastors’ wives group.  This brought joy “in spite of the tumultuous situation in the country” in M. Weteto’s words.

M. Weteto’s report last month of a new microcredit group in rural Boyeka projecting earnings of $2100 in six months and recent postings on building projects in two Mbandaka parishes remind us that there are in fact two Congos.  There is a Congo struggling with despair and a Congo charged by hope and faith. There is a Congo riven by greed and conflict and a Congo united by a vision of sharing the abundance of a lavishly blessed land.  There is a Congo weighted with doubt and a Congo celebrating the seeding of a new day.

We also are reminded of the importance of our prayers and solidarity with Congo by the Christmas and New Year’s greetings written by Disciples President Rev. Eliki Bonanga.  Rev. Bonanga writes on M. Weteto’s blog:

“We remember with appreciation those of our friends who follow our news reported on the blog www.natana.tumblr.com and are moved by their prayers for our Church and for the nation as a whole.  We cannot forget those who have responded every time we have needed help. Our prayer then is that God who reigns over all might continue to bless them through their compassion.”

Text messaging may be banned today in Congo but there are some important messages that cannot and will not be silenced even in Congo.

What’s At Stake in Congo

First plantings at Ikengo, 1970.  UN report emphasizes Congo's agicultural potential.
First plantings at Ikengo, 1970. UN report emphasizes Congo's agicultural potential.

The UN office charged with monitoring the health of the earth’s environment has just issued a warning of what is at stake in how Congo’s resources are used in the future.  Some of the report’s findings starkly highlight the need for more sustainable use of the country’s vast wealth in natural resources:

1)    With 80 million hectares of arable land,the DRC has the potential to be Africa’s granary but only around 3 percent of this land is presently under cultivation, mainly by subsistence farmers. Consequently, the DRC has the highest level of food insecurity in the world, with an undernourishment rate of nearly 70 per cent.

 2)    The Congo basin has the highest fish diversity of any African river and supports the largest inland fisheries on the continent, with an estimated potential production of 520,000 tonnes per year. While at the national level this resource is under-exploited with imports accounting for around 30 percent of fish consumption, uncontrolled exploitation has led to serious overfishing pressures at the local level.

   3)   Over half of Africa’s water resources and 13 percent of global hydropower potential flows through the DRC. Yet, only an estimated 26 percent of the DRC’s population has access to safe drinking water, one of the lowest supply rates on the continent. Similarly, access to electrification is estimated at 9 percent in a country with vast energy resources.

Future Forestry Practices in Congo will Affect the World's Health
Future Forestry Practices in Congo will Affect the World's Health

4)    As the tropical world’s second largest forest carbon sink, the DRC’s forests are a critical global ecosystem service provider. The rate of forest loss estimated at 0.2 percent per annum remains relatively low, but is a growing problem in certain areas.

    5)   Its considerable untapped mineral reserves are of strategic importanceto the global economy (estimated to be worth USD 24 trillion). Yet the legacy of a century of mining in various parts of the country,and particularly in Katanga, has created considerable environmental liabilities and a new modern approach to mining is required. Currently, the DRC has the largest artisanal mining workforce in the world – around two million people – but a lack of controls have led to land degradation and pollution

     6)    The DRC has the highest level of biodiversity in Africa, yet 190 species are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.  Up to 1.7 million tons of bushmeat (mainly antelope, duiker, monkey and wild boar) are harvested annually from unregulated hunting and poaching, contributing to species depletion.

 The UN report also calls attention to the impact on the Congo’s environment of 15 years of occasionally intense fighting in many areas of the country.  Most significant in this regard according to the report is the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) “that still dot the landscape”.  The international Mines Advisory Group    announced this year that it had cleared 4 mine fields with 41 mines in the Disciples post of Ikela on the Tshuapa River.

 With the release of this report, the UN Environmental Program hopes to stimulate a sizable increase in funding of sustainable development practices by international funders and the Congolese government.  A doubling of aid is called for, including an increase of $200 million per year in funding for preservation of the environment.  The report concludes with a summary call to action:

 “The imperative for the DRC to overcome entrenched poverty and recover 20 years of lost development is immense. Long-term support and commitment from the international community to assist the DRC realise its massive potential as one of Africa’s richest countries and key engines for economic growth is essential.

To see the full report of the UN Environmental Program’s “Post Conflict Environmental Assessment of the DRC” go to : www.unep.org/drcongo.

 

Palm Oil May Drive Congo’s Economic Growth

Backyard Processing of Palm Oil by an Ikengo Household
Backyard Processing of Palm Oil by an Ikengo Household

The largest fruit crop in the world today is not oranges, pineapple or apples.  It’s palm kernels with production worldwide about double the tonnage of the second leading fruit crop.  While Palmolive soap may be the best known palm oil product in our households, most of the average American’s consumption of palm oil is in the form of margarine and shortening these days.

In the 1960’s the second largest producer of palm oil in the word was the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Today, the Congo’s production of palm oil doesn’t even rank in the top ten worldwide.  From the mid 1970’s corporate owned plantations were looted by cohorts of the Mobutu regime and production continued to decline until recent years. An Indian company took over the Unilever (Palmolive soap) processing plants in Congo and now buys from villagers “who bring us oil after traveling weeks from deep in the bush” according to the company’s Indian chief executive.

Counting on leading the revival of the Congo palm oil industry is a Chinese company with plans to cultivate 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of palm trees in Equateur, Bandundu and West Kasai provinces.  But the Chinese company’s aim is not to market the palm oil for food products: 90 % will go directly for biodiesel replacing petroleum in Congo and elsewhere.

With Africa’s largest expanse of non forest arable land, only 4.7 % of which is now u nder cultivation, Congo’s palm oil and general agricultural potential is tremendous.  An agency of the European Union  devoted to alternative energy projects in Africa cites

Will Palm Oil replace petroleum in powering Congo's vehicles - and ours - some day?
Will Palm Oil replace petroleum in powering Congo's vehicles - and ours - some day?

Congo’s potential to supply all of Central Africa with food, fuel and fiber and to supply one tenth of the world’s bioenergy demand in 2030 “without endangering the rain forests or the food security of its people”.

Return to Another Home

Eqeuateur Province's Governor walks back to his seat after amusing the villagers who have offered him gifts on the occasion.  Leaders of the Province's Protestant denominations of the united Church of Christ of Congo also participated in the dedication
May 1971 Equateur Province's Governor walks back to his seat after amusing the villagers who have offered him gifts at the Ikengo farm project dormitory dedication. Leaders of the Province's Protestant denominations of the United Church of Christ of Congo also participated in the dedication

In 1971 hopes were high in Congo that prosperity for the new nation, so rich in natural resources, was just around the corner.  Optimism among the people was fueled by the change in the foreign presence in the country:  Americans, representing U.S. based corporations, a large U.S. diplomatic and military advisor corps, and the Peace Corps, had replaced the Belgian colonialists, and the Congolese saw us Americans as true, worthy friends.

By the end of the 1970’s those hopes in American investment, foreign aid and support for the new nation were fast eroding with the increasingly brutal repression of the Mobutu dictatorship. By the beginning of the 1990’s, there was good reason for Congolese to believe that their new American friends had betrayed and turned their backs on them.

A new era for Congo was struggling to be born when I returned in 2010.  Thanks to the presence of nearly 20,000 U.N. troops and increased international pressure on the Kabila administration, a new constitution called for a presidential election in 2011 and again some dared to believe that the post independence years of dysfunctional, corrupt and brutal rule might come to an end in Congo.

But for me it was the reconnecting of  U.S. Disciples with the Disciples community in Congo, leaders in the creation of the Church of Christ of Congo, that led me to return after forty years to Mbandaka.  Since the rioting of Mobutu’s troops in 1991 led to the evacuation of most foreigners, no American Disciple has served as a missionary in Congo.  And until the naming of former Congo missionary Sandra Gourdet as U.S. Disciples Africa Executive and the election of Rev. Sharon Watkins, who served for three years in Congo, as President of U.S. Disciples, ties with our Congolese long time friends had weakened.

This context added to my thrill in returning to Ikengo on June 19, 2010 and seeing the dormitory we dedicated to house the staff of Director and ten young men in training at the Disciples farm project.  Two videos have been posted on You Tube that take up the story from here. The first, titled “Return to Ikengo”, shows our arrival by pirogue and the second records the villagers singing on the shore to welcome us.  You may catch a glimpse of one of the soldiers making up the small Congolese Army outpost at the farm’s port. He was and is a reminder that for Congo to realize those hopes held so widely and fervently in 1970, much remains to be done.

See the videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-r62aw9vRs

I spent a couple of nights in the Centrer AgroPastorale d'Ikengo dormitory  last summer.
I spent a couple of nights in the Centrer AgroPastorale d'Ikengo dormitory last summer.

Moringa at Ikengo

Ikengo Farm Director Rio Bosala and visitors next to the Farm's Moringa grove

“And the leaves were for the healing of the nations…..”   (Rv 22:2)  Ten years ago Church World Service’s West Africa Director Lowell Fuglie began promoting the growth and use of the moringa leaf to combat malnuturition.  Today the tree is widely know across Africa as a drought resistant, fast growing tree used for treating a variety of ailments, including malnutrition.  A recent article on the properties of moringa observes, “It is commonly said that Moringa leaves contain more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas, and that the protein quality of Moringa leaves rivals that of milk and eggs.”

The bark, seeds and pods of the moringa are also used with the seeds providing a low cost water purification technique. According to the same article, “ The journal Current Protocols in Microbiology published a step by step extraction and treatment procedure to produce “90.00% to 99.99%” bacterial reduction. The seeds are also considered an excellent source for making biodiesel.”

Two or three years ago someone brought some moringa seeds with them on a visit to the Disciples farm at Ikengo.   The

Ikengo's malnourished infants may soon be given daily doses of moringa powder

resulting moringa grove caught the eye of Equateur Province’s Governor who exclaimed that he uses the moringa leaf for his diabetes.  And the Provincial health ministry is now interested in obtaining leaf powder for treating malnourished infants. 

A Mbandaka native son now Professor of Biology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris was fascinated by moringa’s water purifying capacity.  Wanting to see the trees, M. BOETSA accompanied me on my return to the Ikengo farm this past summer. More about the reason for his return to Mbandaka in the next posting.  For now, those interested in more on the amazing moringa tree can go to the Wikipedia article at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moringa_oleifera