One of the most glaring aspects of life in Congo is poverty. Adjusting to living around the level of poverty here is a constant challenge. It effects the structure of economic society: prices, cost of labor, means of distributing goods. Poverty affects culture … and all of life.
When we arrived at Lake Munkamba, 90km from Kananga, we learned that one of our neighbors was leaving the following day to go to Kananga. He walked the entire way, and back, because he did not have money for other means of transport (and even if he did, there is no bus). Government workers (e.g. teachers, police, nurses) typically earn a salary of $35 per month. The total Sunday offering for a church of about 300 people is consistently less than $20. When people buy sugar (somewhat of a luxury item), they typically buy it in tiny bags that cost 5 cents. A majority of the population lives on an income of less than $1/day. Many people work very hard and earn very little.
In terms of adjusting to life, this means that we often see or hear about difficult situations. We were surprised to see the number of holes in the roof of one pastor we stayed with; he invited us to return in the rainy season to see what it is like to dodge the drips! A woman came last week who is a single mother with a disability, and asked if we could take in her child because she does not have the ability to care for him. Mama Mputu, who brings water for us once a week, came on Monday to ask for food because she and her children had gone to bed hungry for 3 days straight. Visiting our friends and neighbors is often bittersweet – we enjoy seeing the smiles of the children and connecting with people, but we grieve to see the physical challenges they life with.
We recognize that in this context, we are considered ‘rich’, perhaps even extravagantly so. This feels uncomfortable, partly because we would not put ourselves in that category in the U.S. Living around poverty really challenges us in our life decisions. Is it ‘right’ to say ‘no’ to paying school fees for a child we have just met, and then to go to a restaurant for dinner? Should I feel guilty when I eat chicken because I know how rarely many people around us get to eat chicken?
Congo has a communal culture. The culture and the long history of poverty and exploitation means that many people seek out people to help them with their problems. We admire the way that people are involved in each others lives in times of need. Since we are foreigners, and perceived to have more disposable funds than most Congolese, we often get asked for assistance. How do we respond? We often get overwhelmed by the pervasive problems that we see. We cannot help every person that asks, and if we tried, we would be further overwhelmed by requests. We do, however, want to be involved in people’s lives, and we do want to find ways to help people with these urgent needs.
A few weeks ago, we were expecting a transfer of money from Kinshasa which took longer than we anticipated. In our optimism that it would only take a few days, we got down to only 8,000 Francs (about $8) remaining in our wallets. It was Friday evening, and we knew it was unlikely we would be able to receive the transfer until Monday. Some friends were going to the local prison the next day, and we wanted to contribute toward the meal they were preparing for the prisoners. I wondered how we would make it through the weekend! We decided we would contribute $5 to the prison ministry and trust that we could make it until Monday. That night I slept fitfully, worrying and calculating how we could pay the bus fare to church on Sunday, and what we would eat. Because we do not have a refrigerator, we buy food every day or two; how could we make it until Monday without going to bed hungry? The next morning, I reflected on how consumed and worried I was, and realized that many of our neighbors and friends in Congo live with these questions and worries every day! In our case, it was an unusual situation, and we were overjoyed when we were able to receive the transfer on Saturday. It was a good reminder for me though, of the challenges of lack of resources.
I was reflecting recently on systemic poverty, and wondering about the causes. I speculated what steps might help improve the quality of life for individuals or the society as a whole. I realized that I cannot fully understand all of the factors involved, or determine the right solutions—I’ll leave that for the experts. We are simply being asked by God to listen to Him, and be obedient each day. I recently read a quote from Mother Theresa that seemed poignant in this environment: “It is not that you serve the rich or the poor. It is the love you put into the doing.” We are glad that in this context we work with the church. We are not trying to solve problems by ourselves; we are just small parts of the Body of Christ in Congo, seeking to show God’s love and respond to the spiritual and physical needs of the people around us.