Leaving Mbandaka

On leaving Mbandaka after the two months’ stay here I want to write about a couple of the more challenging aspects of life here. I hope what I have learned in dealing with them will help make the stay of other travelers more pleasant and fulfilling.

The regular requests for financial help from both strangers and friends will annoy and disturb. Well into my second month, I learned that even a little something given in response will often suffice.

Early on, I turned away requests for help paying school fees thinking that anything less than full tuition support would disappoint. I now realize that any sort of gift can be satisfying. A few oranges, a shirt, a ball or deck of cards recognize and affirm the person making the request. How this works is still a mystery but seems to have something to do with the satisfaction, if not power, gained from relating to another and to a foreigner in particular. What I can unequivocally state is that no gift has been turned away or scorned.

It is also important to remember that such requests also represent an opportunity for the other to reveal and teach us about life in this very different environment and culture. An hour plus conversation with a retired minister covered his objectives to marry again following the death of his wife, to build another house, and to buy new mattresses for his children and himself. With such large goals, I thought there would be no way to avoid disappointing him. I was slightly stunned and quite relieved by his gracious thanks for my gift of a sum equivalent to a few “toleka” rides on a taxi bicycle – or a couple of cups of coffee in the U.S.

But prayer in such situations also helps greatly. When the needs are daunting and surpass anything you are able to do, consolation comes in joining with the other in experiencing the realm where all is possible and answers are beyond our grasp and comprehension. The power of prayer in such encounters and relationships has been among the greatest pleasures of my stay. Both the prayers of others and my own prayers seem to have touched new places within me. So for those few visitors whose pleas for help were met solely by my offerings of prayer, I should single them out with words of thanks for their visits.

I have also learned that the frequent delays and waiting normal to life here can enrich and fulfill. Life is so different here it is hard to imagine being bored or not being able to learn something in any setting. Like the constant activity on the river, life teems and fascinates. But even when there seems little to attract one’s attention, the opportunity to reflect on what one is feeling and thinking has brought rewards. Giving myself, or being given, the chance to check in on myself has made myself, as well as life here, more fascinating. And for someone who always avoids waiting in lines if at all possible, this learning too will I hope transfer to my life in the States.




Riding the bike up the Avenue Bonsomie (Independence) hill on the way home, as I began to labor a bit, I hear behind me, “Mondele (white man), natindela yo?” I grunt in response without fully understanding the question. Suddenly I know the meaning as I am pushed up the hill by a bicycle taxi driver who releases hold after several vigorous steps.


A three year old across the way cries out “mondele” every morning when I leave the compound. One evening he is there as I wait for the gate to be opened. So he shouts for me the order to the watchmen, “Open up the gate. The white man’s here.”


The rain began to fall hard as I rode home late one afternoon. I sought shelter under the tin roof of a street stall where used clothes were displayed on boards laid across saw horses. A half dozen early to mid teen youth hung out in the “store”. After directing me to a dry spot, one of them was intent on teaching me the Lingala for “to get wet” as she offered me a chair. While one of the boys wiped my bike with a rag I gave out a box of “bics” with the hope expressed they would all be able to stay in school.


When the Regional Minister introduced me to the pygmy secondary school graduate, the small man in his early twenties went down on one knee as he extended his arm for a hand shake. At the end of the conversation about his desire to become a nurse in one of the Church hospitals, he repeated the gesture. Again, the Regional Minister chuckled, slightly embarrassed, and this time said something in Lonkundo which I could not understand.







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.

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.