“On March 17th ,” 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’."
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!
Quotes taken from Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo (1917), by William Sheppard.