Saturday, July 26, 2014

Cultural Conundrum

As he removed the bandage, I cringed at the large open wound that covered most of Muambi’s shin. He was a tall, strong young man, but now he could barely walk with the help of a crutch. He told us the progression: In March, a railroad tie had fallen on his leg while he was at work constructing a building. It was not a large wound, and he assumed it would get better in a few weeks. But it didn’t; the wound got bigger and more painful. In late April, Muambi’s father, Malandi, came to us to ask for help. Malandi is our night guard, and part of his work contract is that we will cover medical expenses for his dependents. But because Muambi is nearly 30 years old with three children of his own, we did not want to set the precedent of taking on all of his medical expenses. So, we gave a contribution to them for the purpose of going to the doctor or getting medicine, and affirmed that we agreed he should get treatment. In late May, I asked our night guard how his son was doing. “Not good” was the reply. “He can’t walk. The wound has not healed. We have a friend who is a pharmacist who has been treating it at home, and he said he has tetanus. We don’t know what to do.” I told him that I would go see him. The next day, I happened to be with Sankara, a Congolese friend who is a nurse. I told him about Muambi’s situation, and he suggested that we go together to see him. And so here we are, sitting in the lush valley of their compound, with Sankara assessing what should be done about the wound. Sankara was able to confirm that he did NOT have tetanus, but that the wound was infected.

Muambi and his father confirmed that they wanted him to go to the hospital and get treatment. I asked which hospital they wanted to go to, and they said that they preferred to go to PAX, which is the Presbyterian clinic in town. I came home and called Bob, who was traveling at the time. We decided we would cover the costs for him to see the doctor and get tested and treated for infections. The following day, I met Muambi at PAX and accompanied him to see the doctor, get the wound cleaned, and get some antibiotics and other medicines. We paid about $13 for all of that – a modestly significant sum for medical treatment in Kasai. The doctor told him to come to the clinic each day for a week to get the wound cleaned.

In early June, a few days after going to the clinic, I saw Muambi’s wife on the road and asked how he was doing. “Not too well. His leg swelled up after going to the clinic, so he gave up going to get the wound cleaned.” That evening, I asked Malandi, Muambi’s father, about the situation when he came to our house for work. “Muambi’s leg swelled up after going to the clinic, and he was not able to climb the hill to the main road to go to the clinic for cleaning the wound. A couple of days ago, someone came to our home who told us that this wound was not an accident. Someone cursed him with nkuba. ‘You will never be able to heal this wound with Western medicine.’ he told us, ‘You need to find a traditional healer who is able to heal these types of wounds.’” I started to get frustrated. But Malandi continued “This visitor recommended someone, and he came to see us. He said that he can heal the wound, but he will charge $150 and 2 chickens. We hope that you will help us to cover this expense because we can’t afford it ourselves.”

I was getting angry now. “You didn’t even follow the doctor’s instruction for a week, and are already pursuing this other path of treatment?! You waited for 2 months without seeing a doctor. Now that you’ve seen one, you give up on the treatment immediately?” “We didn’t know the real cause,” Malandi responded, “We couldn’t discern ourselves that it was nkuba. It was only when this visitor came and told us that we realized what should be done. I know that we have different ways of seeing things, and your culture does not believe in nkuba. As Africans we know that sometimes people use mystical powers to attack someone – because of jealousy or as punishment for something they have done. the healer has already started the treatment; he mixed up a solution and put it on the wound, then put his lips on the wound and sucked until a large black bug about the size of my finger came out. He will come tomorrow morning to treat him again. You could come and see for yourself.” Malandi had been explaining patiently, like a father trying to help his child understand a foreign concept. Now he got defensive “If we had followed the western medicine instructions, they would have amputated the leg! We don’t want that to happen.”

I had heard nothing about a need to amputate, and was frustrated that he was believing that rumor. The following morning I had to leave early for a meeting, so was not able to take him up on his offer of coming to see the traditional healer. I told him that we had agreed to help him get treatment at PAX, but were disappointed that they did not follow through. They were on their own now if they wanted to continue with the traditional treatment for nkuba. We parted, both rather exasperated.

Nkuba is a Kasai term that refers to a tribe of people (the Bakuba), but also means “thunder”. The Bakuba are believed to have power to kill or wound people remotely – e.g. to put a curse on them. The death usually happens during a storm and somehow by the storm– hence the reference to thunder. There are different terms based on different regional tribes and the specific “medicine” or power that they use. In the west we know the existence of the scientifically verifiable physical world (including germs, wind, etc.) Most Christians also believe in the existence of a spiritual world, including angels and demons. But as far as I know, in English we don’t have good terms or concepts for much in between. Dozens of times we have heard reports of people being killed or debilitated by nkuba or something similar. This is not just a phenomenon that happens “deep in the bush” or among uneducated or unchurched people. Malandi, our guard, is an elder in his local Presbyterian congregation. His conclusion was that some people were jealous of his son Muambi because he had a job and a family and had good character that they could not fault. And, because he was in a Christian family, he would not retaliate with mystical powers. That is why they sent this nkuba, or “thunder medicine” to attack him.

So – what do we do? I talked to some colleagues in Kananga to understand more about nkuba. I heard that the pastor of Malandi’s congregation had experience in “freeing” people from nkuba and responding in a pastoral and Biblical way, so I encouraged Malandi to talk to his pastor. When Bob returned from his trip in mid June, we sat with Malandi and heard again his perspective, but reiterated that we were not going to help with the expenses of this traditional healer. Bob challenged him “Do you think that this nkuba is stronger than God?”

Still concerned about Muambi’s prognosis, we went to visit him around the end of June. The wound still looked big and ugly, but they said that it was scabbing over and getting better. The other leg, however, was grossly swollen. He was not able to walk at all now. What started as a significant problem had gotten worse. He was not able to work now, and his family was hungry. We prayed for him and gave them some money for food. We have asked after him periodically this month, and there does not seem to be much progress.

DSCN4706Muambi, his wife Marie and young child,
and Bob, holding “baby Bob” in 2011 at their home

This is just one incident that demonstrates the cultural dissonance that often occurs. These terms are not used in the Tshiluba Bible, exactly, but could be considered sorcery. Trained pastors here would emphatically agree that God does not approve of the use of sorcery. But most would also agree that it indeed exists.  Thus, the question – How do you respond to people who are apparently victims of nkuba in a way that honors the culture, demonstrates love, and also emphasizes the power of God and allegiance to Him alone? Here is where we live and breathe…and struggle to find answers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Meekness and Rest


After one unexpected visitor after another came knocking last Thursday afternoon, I was finally able to break free and escape to our designated sanctuary of peace here in Kananga.  Kristi and I have been taking personal retreats at the Tabor Center since arriving in 2010.  The nuns and other workers know us by name, and Tabor has become synonymous with peace in our rhythms of life in Congo. 

Sister Justine greeted me, gave me the key to my room, and asked that I remember her in my prayers.  The next 48 hours would be spent reading and reflecting on scripture and books by inspirational authors, taking prayer walks through the vast open space, journaling, centering prayer, resting, watching bugs, and listening to worship music and inspirational teachings on my MP3 player.

One particular word can summarize some of my reflections during this particular prayer retreat – “Meekness.”  A.W. Tozer, in The Pursuit of God, writes that the human race can be described as embodying the antithesis of everything Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes.  Pride, pleasure seeking, arrogance, vanity, cruelty, corrupt imaginings and quarrelling seem to define us.  Sardonically Tozer writes, “Of this kind of moral stuff civilized society is composed.”

Tozer describes the burden of pride.  He writes that many of us set ourselves up as “a little god,” suffering the intolerable burden of cringing under any criticism or imagined slight, “tossing sleeplessly if another is preferred before [us].”  Sadly, I feel that I can relate all to well to this scathing analysis of the human heart.  I want to shine and not be outshone.  I want to be preferred and chosen, not overlooked and forgotten.  I want to be the inspiring person people remember.  All of this pride and disdain of even the perceived slight from others burdens my heart and soul like a 2,000 pound lead weight.  “The heart’s fierce efforts to protect itself from every slight, to shield its touchy honor from the bad opinion of friend and enemy, will never let the mind have rest,” writes Tozer.   

Yet Tozer also offers the antidote - meekness and rest.  “The meek man,” he writes, “cares not at all who is greater than he, for he has long ago decided that the esteem of the world is not worth the effort.” Moreover, the meek person is able to kindly acknowledge to himself the reality of being overlooked, the need to be consistent in her humility before God and before others, and to simply not care what others think.  She may recognize that she is indeed helpless and weak, yet she also knows that she is more valuable to God than angels.  The meek person is not a “human mouse” with a terrible inferiority complex.  Rather, he may be as bold and courageous as a lion.  The key, however, is that he has accepted God’s estimate of his life. 

In the Cloud of Unknowing, a famous contemplative work by an unnamed English mystic, meekness is described as “a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is. For surely, whoso might verily see and feel himself as he is, he should verily be meek.”  However, in true contemplative fashion, the author does not leave us there.  Rather, he states that there are two levels of meekness, and this estimation of self is only the first.  The second level lies in our ability to grasp or seek to grasp the “over-abundant love and the worthiness of God in Himself; in beholding of the which all nature quaketh, all clerks be fools, and all saints and angels be blind.”  Here, he argues, is where perfect meekness dwells – standing in awe of perfection and divine goodness and someone greater than anything we could ever dream or imagine, God Himself!      

I wish that I could say that God healed me from my heart of pride during this two day escape into the rocky wilderness of my soul.  He didn’t.  But I am on a path, and I pray that in due time I will be able to gently and lovingly chide myself when I am overlooked or feel slighted, remember who I am in relation to God, find my soul at rest in Jesus who offers us rest (Matt. 28: 11), and see God standing exalted before all persons, angels, creatures, created things and creation as Greatness personified,deified and magnified. 

Sister and brother, may we with utter meekness of heart and depravity of soul say with Isaiah the prophet of old, “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6: 5). 

In our meekness, may we find rest.  Glory be to God.

Blessed are the meek:  for they shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5: 5)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Widows in Kanyuka

Last Sunday we went with Pastor Kabeya and Mamu Ngosa to visit a congregation in the village of Kanyuka, just outside of Kananga. Bob had been invited to preach, and Pastor Kabeya was formerly the pastor of this congregation, so for them it was like a reunion with old friends. One old man who struggles to walk and is nearly blind they have nicknamed “David” because of his gift for songs. He got up a few times in the service to spontaneously sing a solo. Everyone loved it when his feet started shuffling in dance as he got absorbed in the song.

Pastor Kabeya and Mamu Ngosa have been wonderful advisors for us and we admire their hearts of compassion and their strong faith in Christ. It was their initiative for a small house to be built at this church in Kanyuka that would house widows who do not have a place to live. That house is now a few years old, and just last year a second building was built that houses 3 more widows. We joined the congregation along with Pastor Kabeya and Mamu Ngosa for a picture.

Most of the women who live in these houses are too old or weak to farm or work for themselves, but most have some relatives nearby who bring them food regularly. The church also has a field on its property where they grow some beans and other crops that can help to provide for the widows. The pastor told us over lunch that other women have come and asked to be able to sleep on the church floor because they have nowhere to live…so the need continues. But right now 6 women have a clean and durable structure to live in, thanks to some help from Pastor Kabeya’s friends in the U.S.

Mamu Ngosa sits with Mamu Ndaya in front of her room

The current pastor at Kanyuka (left), stands with Mamu Ngosa and Pastor Kabeya
along with the six widows who live in the two houses.

Each of the women has their own room – which seems like a great combination of being able to have some private space but also be in community with others. There is also a rain-catchment system, so that during the rainy season water from the roof is collected in a barrel. And there is an outhouse – not to be taken for granted in Congo, where many homes do not have one! We are glad for this example of caring for those in need, and grateful to this small congregation who seeks to be faithful with the little they have.

“Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us.” (James 1:27, NLT)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

“Ndungu wa mu Munyinyi!”


Is it possible to die from eating too much chicken?  Recently I spent two weeks in Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  When traveling and being hosted by others, we are always reminded of the extravagant hospitality offered by Congolese sisters and brothers.  After worship on the second Sunday of this particular trip, we were taken to the home of Elder Mutombo Francois and Mamu Odja Marie and served a lavish meal.  After praying for the family, we were whisked away by some Congolese friends who also wanted to “bless” us with drinks to celebrate coupled with another meal.  While with them at the Guest House of Mamu Rita, we learned that the home where I was staying was preparing another meal for us as well that evening.  My friend Pastor Mboyamba and I looked at each other knowingly, rebelling in our spirits – no, not another meal!

We prayed for the home of Elder Mutombo
after being served a wonderful meal

Just two days prior I had been served five meals, and multiple times I felt bloated and sick to my stomach through the night having been served multiple meals.  Kristi once was obliged to eat eight times in one day when we stayed with Pastor Mukendi in the Lukonga Commune of Kananga.  On a trip between Luebo and Mueka we were obliged to eat at every church where we stopped.  We probably made 8-10 stops that day. 

At this point you might be wondering if I have read the Boundaries book by Cloud and Townsend.  You might also be wondering if it is okay to say “no” to a meal here and there.  In some cases it is okay to say no, but you must have a very good reason.  Responding to Congolese hospitality is like walking a high tight-wire.  It requires skill, tact, diplomacy and love.  The basic rule for survival is this – eat enough to not offend and usually not more because the next meal might be right around the corner.  I, unfortunately, cannot say that I always follow this rule – it is easy to forget when such good food is placed before you and your host and colleagues encourage you to take that last piece of chicken.  Traveling is the worst, because you have the least control of your schedule. 

Tatu Giyomme took us out to Chinese! (Lubumbashi)

A while back on a trip to Tshimbulu (towards Lubondai) Pastor Mboyamba taught us an expression which encapsulates so well the tension we face.  In Tshiluba, we say “Ndungu wa mu munyinyi.”  Translated literally, it means “the hot spice tucked under the meat.”  Figuratively, the expression has this connotation – “A good and pleasant thing can, indeed, spell suffering.” 

The good and pleasant gifts of hospitality we receive in Congo can, at times, feel jarring.  Being the victims of extravagant hospitality, especially while traveling, can tax our minds, bodies and spirits.  However, receiving hospitality is a form of inclusion and a way of blessing a home and a family.  The Congolese like to say that a home that doesn’t have visitors is a home that dies.  Thankfully, as we learn to adapt and survive in Congo, we have this expression we can quietly and discreetly share with each other after we smile and accept another plate of bidia, chicken, greens, goat meat, rice, beans, plantains, and fruit.  “Ndungu wa mu munyinyi!”  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Jingling Bracelets

“In our culture, we have a saying”, explained Mamu Luta. “‘one bracelet doesn’t jingle’. Women want to wear several metal bracelets at once so that they will make a sound. When we work together, we make a beautiful ‘sound’, But alone, we are nothing to be proud of.” She was presenting a banner to the Sheppards and Lapsley presbytery celebrating ten years of partnership with the Nganza and Tshibashi presbyteries in Congo. On the banner was a painting of a woman, showing one arm with several bracelets, and the other arm hiding because it only had one bracelet.

Last week I had the privilege of traveling for a couple of days with the Tshibashi and Nganza presbyteries as they hosted two representatives of the Sheppards and Lapsley presbytery from Alabama, helping out with translation. It was incredible to see our colleagues pull out all the stops in welcoming and caring for their visitors. On the first day of the visit, both presbyteries held a joint worship service. It was remarkably short by Congo standards (just one hour), but there was dancing and joy such as I have rarely seen in Congo. It has been several years since members of the Alabama presbytery had been able to come to Congo, so this was a much-anticipated visit.

Nganza and Tshibashi presbyteries cover a wide area near Kananga, and it was significantly meaningful to each of the parishes for the visitors to see their church. So, each day the leadership here sought to introduce their visitors to as many churches, schools, and activities as possible. I’m sure that as we lurched along over Congo’s notorious dusty roads in the bright sun, it began to feel like a blur to Billy and Lynn. But they valiantly and gracefully persevered. We heard a similar message over and over again in so many places “This school now has an office and latrines because of the partnership. We got these school benches or church benches through the presbytery partnership. Roof sheets for that church were given through the partnership. The land for this office/school/church was purchased with help from Sheppards and Lapsley.” The variety of things that have been accomplished in the last 10 years is remarkable. And what impressed me most is that nearly all the churches in the two presbyteries had received something significant, according to their need. In Congo it might be tempting to focus the attention on the churches of the leadership or on those that were largest. But a joint team of both presbyteries has tried to include everyone in this partnership, as challenging as that is. This means there are still plenty of needs and priorities of things to be done, but it does appear that they are on the right path. I don’t think that there were any complete churches or schools built with partnership funds, which leaves a significant (and perhaps good) challenge in the hands of the Congolese to not depend completely on their US partners.

Most of the church buildings we pulled up to would have palm branches posted 100 yards out as a sign of welcome. Women were dancing and singing their greeting out front as soon as they saw the vehicle. All the leaders were assembled, and as soon as we were introduced, the pastor would read a short prepared greeting and word of thanks to the visitors. Often, people would give gifts – hand-crafted wooden objects, horns or skins of animals, or gifts of food. A real outpouring of generosity and expression of thanks for the partnership. At one church they even gave a dish of live termites. Lynn leaned over and asked “And why would we want termites?” “For a snack!” I replied, and she responded “Ah yes. Of course.” I remember driving toward one school, and 200 yards away we could see the flashes of color from the children assembled in rows out front who were waving their folders as they sang a song of welcome. Incredible.

Members sing their greeting to the guests at Kapanda parish. The land for this church
was bought with support through their partnership with Sheppards and Lapsley

Each day over lunch, there was time for discussion with some of the church members and leaders. There were some good exchanges as members on both sides tried to understand the vastly different context of the other. As they shared their typically weekly schedule of worship, The Americans were amazed that one CPC parish gathers every morning at 6:30am for morning worship. The Congolese, in turn, were impressed at the outreach and generosity of this small US congregation. One Congolese elder inquired, “At the end of a Pastor’s term, there is often accusations and vying for position from others who want to be the pastor in his parish.  Does that happen in the U.S.?” Other questions included “How do you keep your youth interested and involved in church?”

From our experience here, cross-cultural church or presbytery partnerships are challenging to do well. In addition, there are about 100 presbyteries in the CPC and only 3 with partnerships, which of course means it is not going to be an effective means of bringing assistance to the church as a whole. This is one reason that we see our role as being a support and resource for the whole church. However, all that said, I do commend the leadership of Tshibashi and Nganza for their hard work to maintain this partnership and and organize a comprehensive visit this week for their guests!

The ‘traveling team”, including Pastor Tshiyoyo, Pastor Mukendi, Billy and Lynn,
along with Mamu Helene on the left (Pastor Mukendi’s wife)