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.