Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Congolese Creativity

I must admit that in our moments of frustration, it feels like there is little evidence of ‘resourcefulness’ or creativity. Sometimes we sense an attitude 'of ‘helplessness’ when someone complains about their limited resources. However, we DO see lots of evidence of creativity, so in an effort to remind myself, I will share some with you. :)


1. The ever-versatile flip-flop.

I have watched very young children come into church and find a space to sit on the cement floor. Though only 2 years old, a little boy knows to take off his flip-flops and use them as a seat cushion! One woman told me that she uses her worn-out flip-flops to start her charcoal fire every day. And last week a mechanic was looking under the vehicle we drive to determine a problem. He was laying on some plastic sacks on top of the sandy gravel, but after just a few minutes he took off his flip-flop and slipped it under his head. Smart!


2. The writing in the sand…

Unlike the US, most roads, side-walks, yards, paths are sand or fine dirt. When we were in Munkamba last year learning Tshiluba, we walked with Tatu Kankonde to a nearby village. I was amused that when he wanted to make sure that we caught a new word, he would stoop down, find a small twig, and write the word in the sand. I thought perhaps it was a habit unique to him, until I started seeing it again and again, in all situations. Chalk functions the same way – Churches will paint a black space on their wall that functions as a chalk-board for announcements. Or names being nominated for election in a church are written with chalk on a wood surface, like a table.


A coffee-table is up-ended to stand in
as a chalk-board at a church meeting.

3. Exotic eats

We have heard some people say “Congolese will eat almost anything!”. We would agree – I am thoroughly impressed with their creativity in this area. Caterpillars, termites, dried and salted fish, tree grubs, dried eels —all are a valued part of the diet here. Since there is not electricity or refrigeration in most places, and because livestock is not plentiful, people need foods that are locally available or can be preserved well. In our limited experience with these new foods, the Congolese do not eat everything indiscriminately though. We have learned that some varieties of ants can be eaten, some not. Some bugs can be eaten live (if you make sure to bite the head first), but tree grubs certainly can not be eaten alive.

These “creative” (from our perspective) food options are also not eaten out of desperation or starvation. The Congolese we know thoroughly enjoy their caterpillars and termites. One of our colleagues actually mailed a package of caterpillars to his Congolese friend living in the US, so he could have a ‘taste of home’. Last year when we were first introduced to the flying variety of termites and watching the children eagerly chase them and pop them in their mouths, I asked our tutor, “…but can someone get full eating lunana??” “No,” he replied, “It just makes the cheeks happy.” My cheeks are not quite there yet, but we keep trying.

If all works well, below you should be able to view a video of my first try at eating “Lunana”, one of the varieties of flying termites.



Caterpillars – yum!

4. If I just had the right tool…

We continue to be amazed at the ‘creative’ use of tools here. In America, we often extol the value of having “the right tool for the job”. Here, it feels more like “what is available and could possibly do this job?” For example, one family we stayed with had about 10 children staying in the house, and only 1 knife for cooking. It functioned as paring knife, butcher knife, vegetable peeler, and can opener. I have never seen a can opener for sale in Kananga…I guess people figure it is an unnecessary thing since a knife can be used (although I admit that our Congolese friends make it look easy to open a can with a knife. It is not!).

Plants and natural products are used here in more ways than we thought possible. Long pieces of grass or thin strips from palm fronds are often used instead of string or rope to tie bundles or bunches of vegetables. Hardy grasses are used to weave baskets, sleeping mats, even containers that hot food can be kept in. Fish, insects, and cooked cassava is often wrapped in large leaves to be sold, which helps with short-term preservation.

DSCN3391 fish for sale!

On our recent visit to Mueka, we heard an impressive choir that had chime-like instruments. After the service, I inquired about them, and was told they were bicycle axels! Another choir in that church used locally-made wooden guitars. Men’s choirs often add rhythm using two sticks that are knocked together. Women tend to use shakers to add rhythm, which are made from tin cans that have holes punched in them and beans inside. Make a joyful noise! :)

P1090325 The bicycle-part chimes

I hope that you’ve been as encouraged as I have by these examples of the creativity that we see in Congo. I don’t recommend that you start using  your knives for a can opener or munching on caterpillars, but we can appreciate each other’s gifts! How are you exercising your creativity?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Palm Sunday


Happy Celebration of Christ’s triumphal entry!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fair trade in an unfair place…

What exactly does ‘fair trade’ mean? I understand the principal that a worker who produces a product should get a fair wage rather than being exploited by his employer or by the distributer. But when you are living in a foreign place, trying to figure out what things are supposed to cost and attempting not to get taken advantage of, the lines get a little grey sometimes….

We have noticed that items which are hand-made with local materials are often dramatically cheap. One day a young boy came to our door selling some hand-made mats and baskets made of palm fibers. We did not really need anything, but decided to inquire about the price of the basket. “500 francs”, he said (about 50 cents). “500 francs??”, we questioned, surprised but wanting to verify that we had heard correctly. “Ok, 400.” he said quickly. “No, 500 is a good price. We’ll buy it.” This basket perhaps took one day, perhaps 2 to make? Is that a fair price? The price is determined partly by what people are willing to pay, and apparently the local demand has set the price at 500 francs.


In another case, the woman in the picture below is a widow who lives with the family of her adult son. She does not want to be a financial burden to them, so she makes brooms out of palm branch fibers and sells them. In the picture below I am holding one of her brooms while she works on stripping the palm branches. Brooms like this are ubiquitous in Kananga, and the standard price is 100 francs (10 cents). This woman is able to make 2 brooms per day if she works all day. The profit she makes is not enough to buy food for one person, let alone support a family. It gives her a small amount that can supplement the income of her son, and perhaps is a good job for an older widow. But how is it that the people making these brooms are willing to accept 100 francs as the purchase price??


On the other hand, sometimes we feel ‘taken in’ by what seem like exorbitantly high prices. We might be told that a small statue is $30, or a woven piece of material $25. We realize that there is a culture of bargaining here…people rarely buy anything without negotiating the price with the seller. So, sellers tend to start a bit high, and with foreigners they might even notch their price up again just to see what they can get. We have artists or distributers of art come to our door frequently. We do want to enjoy locally made crafts and support these artisans, but we also want to do it at a reasonable cost. We bargain with them, and hope that they will not agree to a price that is not reasonable. Our goal is to find that ‘sweet spot’, where they make some profit and feel validated, and we feel we have paid a fair price for the product.

The concept of a ‘fair price’ is tricky, though. A few weeks ago, an elder in the church came to show us his hand-carved figurines made of coconut shell. We were impressed, and decided to buy a village scene. He said his starting price was $20 for the set, but he would negotiate. We decided to answer with $10, figuring that we would settle somewhere in the middle. But he just looked a little disappointed, shrugged his shoulders, and said “Sure. If you think that is a good price, $10.” We hurriedly decided to give him $12 for the set, and tried to assess in our conversation if that price was really OK. Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and say “I just want to know the truth! What is the price?? What is a fair price?” As Americans, we place a high value on truth and fairness. I hate the feeling that I am being treated unfairly, or that I am treating someone else unfairly. We are not trying to get such a good price that the producers do not make a profit—we just want to know what the right price is!

The economic environment does play a part. Average wages in Congo, in real terms, are only a fraction of what they were before independence. A qualified medical doctor in Kananga earns about $150 per month. An unskilled day-laborer earns only $1 or $2 per day. Even salaried workers have little money to spend, which keeps the profit margins very low for farmers and producers of local goods. So, if the woman making brooms charges enough to make a ‘living wage’, would it make sense if she earned as much as a doctor? That is how a market environment works, for better or for worse. Only those people who have no other options of earning an income are willing to make brooms, and they thus have little bargaining power to push up the price. It’s true—life is not fair.

How do we determine reasonable prices to pay for things? How can we positively influence the livelihoods of these crafts-people and producers, while honoring the culture environment here? We are open to suggestions and comments!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Special Providence

“On March 17th [1892],” writes William Sheppard, pioneer Presbyterian missionary to the Congo, “we boarded a flat-bottomed stern wheeler wood burning steamer, the Florida. After many blasts from her whistle, the crew, thirty native men, pushed her from the beach and climbed in over her sides.” Thus began the 800 mile perilous journey from Stanley Pool, running from the Congo River to the confluence of the Kasai River, then on to the Lulua River, and ultimately to their destination at the rapids of Luebo in the Kasai Region of the Congo Free State.  This journey was replete with adventure, daring, danger, and near loss of life.  It included a tornado, regular and powerful tropical storms, a cannibal tribe, hostile and friendly villages, three consecutive days of intense hunger, herds of hippopotamus and large crocodiles, and repeated bartering with local tribes for food. 


On March 21st, only 4 days into their journey, the Captain of the vessel knew trouble was brewing.  He and the others could see the red waters of the Kasai River running into the Congo River like a “mill race.”  Writes Sheppard, “All the tributaries of the Kasai valley run into the Kasai river, and just here at its mouth the Kasai is only about 150 yards across, with a great wall of rocks on either side.”  Undeterred, they turned the nose of the steamer directly into the strong current of the Kasai.  Though the Captain rang his bell for full speed ahead, the current was too strong.  The vessel was forced back to where she started.  They tried again and failed again.  Writes Sheppard, “The whirlpools and strong current seemed too much for the Florida's strength.  Not a man on board spoke a word; all was still as death.”  After five hours of steaming, they moved forward one half mile.  Finally their rudder chain snapped and they were only saved by the quick thinking and action of the Captain and Sheppard who somehow guided them to a sad bar sandwiched between two giant boulders.  God’s grace saved them from being dashed against the stones and plunged to the bottom of the river.  At this point, due to mechanical problems, the engineer insisted on turning back for Stanley Pool.  Yet, the Captain refused and on they continued after a day of repairs. 


Three weeks later, on April 15th, after plenty of adventure and danger already, the crew and courageous missionaries had a near brush with death.  Writes Sheppard, “By a special Providence we were delivered from a watery grave. Four different times the steamer came near capsizing, caused by strong currents and whirlpools. The Master has certainly been good to us and has led us step by step safely.”


And indeed, it was by ‘a special Providence’ that on April 17th Sheppard and Lapsley entered the attractive region from which they would begin their work.  They turned from the Kasai River to the Lulua River.  At this point, “The whole country was filled with palm trees; the hills and valleys and everywhere beautiful palms.”  The river was alive with activity – canoes skimming over the water with excited villagers, traps set for catching fish, and plenty of small towns on the banks of the river.  The following day, at Luebo Rapids on the Lulua River, this exciting journey came to an end.  The Captain assured the two missionaries that he would return in nine months.  Writes Sheppard, “At this point we [were] 1,200 miles from the coast and 800 miles from the nearest doctor or drug store, but we were comforted by these words, ‘Lo, I am with you always’."   


Spot where Sheppard and Lapsley landedThe spot where Sheppard and Lapsley landed, April 18th 1892


Kristi and I recently visited Luebo, where the American Presbyterian Congo Mission (APCM) began its work in 1892.  We were keen to visit “the spot” where Sheppard and Lapsley first stepped foot into this region.  We asked a group of pastors and elders if it would be possible to visit this place.  They said that after some hiking and a short boat-ride, we could arrive at the spot, although the pastor to accompany us seemed hesitant about the ‘boat idea’.  After some investigation by Pastor Mbikayi and Pastor Mboyamba (our colleagues), it became clear that the ‘boat idea’ was not a good one due to the swift current, the small dug out canoes…and perhaps even crocodiles!  We learned that it would be possible to make the whole journey by foot, so we set out with two local pastors who showed us the way.  After a 45 minute walk, taking off our shoes in one spot to traverse a muddy ravine, we arrived.  The place is currently a destination for medium-sized vessels coming from Ilebo and even Kinshasa.  At this famed place where Sheppard and Lapsley landed so many years ago, we gave thanks to God for what He had done in the last 120 years.  We also prayed for the church of Congo today and in the years to come.  LORD, bless the work of the Congolese Presbyterian Church and the Church as a whole!  

P1090274The first church in Kasai, at Luebo


The first church building in the Kasai region, built in 1915.First permanent church structure in Kasai,
1915 (still standing, but in need of repair)


Quotes taken from Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo (1917), by William Sheppard. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Charting a course…

While visiting the village of Bulape, we got to spend some time with a dynamic young pastor named Jackie. She is the chaplain at the Bulape hospital, and has a thriving ministry among the patients. Her ‘congregation’ at the chapel is mostly children, drawn to her because she makes her sermons understandable to them. Her heart of compassion and desire to make God’s truth known really inspired us, and we thought you might enjoy hearing a bit of her story.


Jackie, at her desk at the hospital

Jackie was invited to come to seminary in Kananga on a scholarship for women students in 2004. She and her husband sensed God’s call, so she packed up 2 of her 3 children and moved to Kananga, while her husband remained in Bulape. During her first year she gave birth to her 4th child, and 5 days after the birth was back in class. During her first year, 10 female students began studying theology. After their first year, the scholarship ended, and only 3 of the students remained. She pushed on, and her husband and family struggled to support her study. In her second year, her 2nd child and only son got a bad case of malaria and died. In her distress she decided to quit school, but her husband exhorted her to persevere and continue. She graduated in 2009 with a master’s degree in Theology, and returned to her home in Bulape. As we heard her story, we were struck by the sense that she has a true, “tangible'” commitment to her Lord, and has endured plenty of pain and shame in her journey! On a redemptive note, after Jackie returned from university, she had 2 more children – both sons.


In rural Congo, boys are still favored to receive education over girls. Families prefer to save their resources to educate sons, and often the dowry money paid for a bride is used by the family to support the education of their sons. (I should mention that one thing the CPC has always advocated for in its 100+ year history is the education of girls, and Jackie is one evidence of that effort). Culturally, men are also favored for jobs and leadership roles in the community. Women very rarely get a ‘voice’ in decisions, and their lack of education further squelches their opportunities. When Jackie returned to her village with her degree, many were not sure how to respond to her. As a pastoral candidate, she was given the position of assistant pastor in a local parish. After 1 month, the male head pastor left on extended leave, entrusting the ministry of the parish to her. In her first week of solo ministry, attendance at the church plunged from 400 to 90. She cried out to God, asking why God had called her to ministry and brought her this far only to let her be humiliated and the church scattered. She prepared her sermon for the following week, but on Saturday night she had a dream. She heard a voice tell her a specific text and subject to preach on, and describe for her the thoughts and questions that were plaguing many of the congregation. After the service the next day, people went home shaking their heads - “She taught exactly what I was wondering about!” Attendance grew, and after a month attendance was back at 400. She served as pastor in that parish for 6 months, until she was called to be the chaplain at the hospital. She was then ordained in early 2010, and the whole village came to support her at her ordination.

P1090016 The pastors of Bulape with Bob, Pastor Mboyamba
and Pastor Mbikayi from Kananga

Over the past year, she has preached on the radio a few times from a neighboring town. She said that she is the only woman and only protestant who has preached on this government station. Most people who want to preach on the radio pay a fee, but the station director is so enthralled to host a woman pastor that he does not charge her. She said that after each time she preaches, she gets phone calls and letters from rural parishes with invitations to come preach. People say that although they have heard her voice, they want to see her in person – they have never seen a woman pastor before. She continues to teach religion and literature in the local high school, and said that she is encouraged by several families in the community who have supported sending their daughters for higher education. She has also motivated 2 women to study theology at the university level – the first step to becoming a pastor.


In her role as chaplain, Jackie seeks ways to minister holistically to the patients. Chapel is held twice per week at the hospital, and she makes rounds to pray with patients personally. She bought a few chickens, and gave them to a couple of widows to care for. Periodically, she collects the eggs and uses them to feed malnourished children at the hospital. Sometimes she picks a day and makes beans and rice to serve to all the patients at the hospital. Occasionally she buys candy to pass out to the scores of children in her congregation. When patients do not have food to eat or clothes to wear, she is often their primary source of comfort and help.


We thoroughly enjoyed our conversations with Jackie – she is a refreshing and hopeful voice in Kasai. Her husband, Emmanuel, is one of the few men in Congo who would be willing to sacrifice for his wife to be more educated than himself. Her life holds hope for many of the girls in her rural area, that they too can be used of God and help instruct others. We look forward to seeing the fruit in years to come!