Friday, October 26, 2012

Congo, “The Wild West”

Several weeks ago we were preparing for a trip to East Kasai.  Part of the preparation always involves fixing and maintaining the Land Cruiser.  One day Tatu Sammy (the driver), Tatu Tshibuabua (the mechanic) and I were driving to town to have some parts repaired.  We stopped at one place but they weren’t able to help us.  On our way to the next place, driving along one of the major arteries in Kananga, a police officer waved for us to pull over next to the large market.  To my chagrin, Tatu Sammy evaded the police officer’s instruction and kept driving, egged on by Tatu Tshibuabua in the back.  In vain, I tried to convince Sammy to heed the police officer and pull over.  It was too late.  We were gone!

Less than a kilometer later, we made our second stop, not too far from the large market.  Within a few minutes, two police officers arrived on a motorcycle, both donning their large riot helmets.  As you might guess, they were not pleased with us and a heated argument ensued.  Tatu Sammy played it cool, acting as if he hadn’t done anything wrong.  Tatu Tshibuabua accused the police officer who attempted to stop us of being “a foreigner” and always stopping people for no reason.  Somehow, the welder whom we had come to see became the arbiter of our dispute, as both parties were defending themselves to him.  To complicate matters further, our vehicle was now blocking the side road.  A motorcycle with three passengers tried to squeeze by, but failed.  The motorcycle tagged the side of our car as the driver unsuccessfully tried to pass.  Thankfully all three passengers were okay, but to the driver’s misfortune, he was then harassed by the police for not having a driving license.  The police took possession of his motorcycle.  By God’s grace I was able to stay calm in the midst of what felt like growing chaos.

Eventually I got out of the Land Cruiser and sat with the others outside of the welder’s compound.  Tatu Sammy pulled me aside and asked for 5,000 francs (about $5) to appease the police.  Feeling that we were clearly in the wrong, I suggested instead that we go with them to the police station.  Tatu Sammy roundly rejected this idea, stating that going to the police station would only complicate matters.  I gave Sammy the money, but told him that he would need to pay me back.  He agreed.  Tatu Sammy went to make amends with the disgruntled police officers, but they wouldn’t comply.  They wanted $20, which we flatly rejected.  I pulled Sammy aside and asked him if he had his driving license.  He said that he left it in the vehicle of the Legal Representative, the car he normally drives.  I gently chided him, asking if that was the reason that he evaded the police.  Humbly he acknowledged that yes, that was the reason.  He also informed me that Tatu Tshibuabua had gone to see the chief of police of the entire province, a probable advocate since Tatu Tshibuabua regularly works on his vehicle.  Apparently Tshibuabua had told Sammy that we shouldn’t have to pay anything.  About ten minutes later Tatu Tshibuabua arrived on a motorcycle taxi.  With an air of unadulterated confidence, he handed a note to the two police officers.  They read it and dutifully let us go.  We were scot free. 

Driving away there was a palpable sense of victory amongst our small band.  We won our little quarrel with the police.  On the exterior I couldn’t help but bask in the victory, but inside, I knew that we were at fault. Tatu Sammy was in the wrong for not pulling over.  He acted to save face, thus getting us into more trouble.  Yet, here we were, driving away with no fine, no penalty, no consequence.  Sometimes living in Congo feels like living in the Wild West, where laws are bendable and what matters most is “who you know.”  In this case, we knew the right person and we were thus exonerated despite our guilt.  The next time I drove with Sammy, the first thing I asked him was, “Do you have your license?” 

Tatu Sammy, Lubondai, Oct 2012Tatu Sammy, Lubondai (Oct 2012) -
our driver; we recently learned
that he is also a traditional chief!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


We know that Congo has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. We know that common sicknesses like malaria, typhoid, and measles are often the cause of death for both children and adults. But when it happens to someone that we know, and when we walk with them through this tragic process, the statistics take on a face and it weighs on our hearts.

For the last two years, we have consistently attended the neighborhood worship gathering on Wednesday evenings with our local parish. Each week, Mulami (Deacon) Simon has been our guide to show us the house that is hosting the meeting. During our first year in Congo, Simon invited us to be part of the celebration when his wife came home from the hospital with their second daughter, Tshituka. The women sing as they dance down the street to the house with the new baby, and then everyone is served beans and rice – a joyful celebration!

DSCN3999Mamu Vicky (right) at the celebration of the birth of Tshituka in 2010

Since then, we have enjoyed getting to know their family and have eaten beans and rice with them many times at their house and at ours. Simon has escorted us all over our local district (neighborhood) to visit people in the church, pray for people who are sick, or to support those who are mourning the death of a loved one. Simon and Vicky lived in a house next to the church, and the church gave him a small stipend for watching the church building. Simon seemed to know where everyone lived and was always our first source of information about events going on in the parish. We have been grateful for someone we can count on to help us learn the back paths and help us to connect to people in our neighborhood.

Simon, Vicky BobBob with Simon and Vicky, who is holding
their daughter Tshituka

Neither Simon nor his wife has a wage-earning job. They have a field of palm trees and can sell the palm oil. Sometimes Simon uses his bicycle to go to his home village to get Cassava or other staples that can be sold for a higher price in the city. Sometimes they are able to earn an income in casual labor or other jobs – but always unpredictable and insufficient. Usually they would eat one meal per day – on good days, they would eat twice. Frequently, they would share with us that they were unable to buy medicine for a sickness, or that they were hungry. Often, we would give them some food or a contribution towards one of these needs.

Unfortunately, a few months ago Simon had a “falling-out” with the leadership of our parish. He felt ostracized and hurt, so moved to a different house at the edge of town. He has stopped attending our parish and the cell meetings, so we do not see his family as frequently.

This year, Simon’s wife Vicky was pregnant with their third child. She experienced some pain and sickness during the pregnancy, and we prayed with them often for health for her and the baby. She delivered in early September, but the baby died a few hours after it was born. She was told it was because of malaria. When we heard the news, we went to visit them early in the morning. We grieved and sat with them, grateful to see that there were other friends who had come also to sit with them in their grief. We had brought a dozen doughnuts to share, and I think their two young daughters, Ntumba and Tshituka, ate half of them, slowly but eagerly eating them in small pieces and crying for more when they were finished.

Two weeks later, we learned that they had gone to Mama Vicky’s home village because of a disturbing conflict in her family. While there, their daughter Tshituka, who had been sick, died. She had been thin and may have been malnourished or had worms… we are not sure. They have not yet returned to Kananga, so we have not seen them to hear more of what happened. But we grieve that this tragedy has overwhelmed their family – losing 2 children in the same month. Because of their recent move and the falling-out with the church, they no longer have the social support in Kananga of neighbors and friends during a time of grief like this.

Please pray that God’s shalom would continue to be known in Congo. We long to see people have healthy relationships, healthy bodies, and to know the peace and fullness of life that only Jesus can provide. Pray also that God would make us people of hope in this environment of discouragement and suffering.


Tshituka, in April of this year

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Nsumuinu (Proverbs)

In the Congolese oral culture, proverbs are as plentiful as mangoes falling from mango trees.  To emphasize a point or to infer an idea, a Congolese will invariably toss out a “lusumuinu” (proverb).  For instance, Pastor Kabasele heads an organization in Kananga called CEPRES, providing vocational skills and job training.  Recently he told a group of young people seeking jobs to be patient as they waited to hear from CEPRES about the training start dates.  To buttress his point, he emphatically stated, “"Kabwa ka lubilu kakashila nyama panshi,” meaning, “the small dog who runs fast forgot the animal he left on the ground.” 

During our orientation, before coming to Congo, we were advised by missionary veterans to learn the proverbs.  We were told that the best missionaries know the local proverbs.  They know what makes people laugh, and they know what makes people cry.  One of the first proverbs we learned relates to our language learning - “Kakese kakese, nyunyu wakamana disua diandi,” meaning, “slowly by slowly the bird builds its nest.” 

DSCN3200 Kristi, with bird’s nest and
our language teacher Mukulu Muamba (left), Tatu Sammy (right)

Recently we travelled to an old mission station called Lubondai.  It is a beautiful, tranquil setting with plenty of mango trees.  On trips, evenings are a time to relax and converse with others.  One evening in Lubondai, a group of us were sitting in the guesthouse - we moved inside because it has become a bit cold.  Staying at the guesthouse with us were a couple of young men from Kananga who recognized Kristi and I.  One young man casually mentioned that our Tshiluba was probably about as good as his English, not a very good compliment.  A colleague of ours jumped in and said, “Actually, their Tshiluba is quite good, and I’ll bet they know more proverbs than you do!”  The die had been cast, the bet had been made, and now it was up to us to try to live up to this bold statement!

For the next hour or so we traded proverbs back and forth.  We began playing a game where one side would begin a proverb, and the other would have to finish it.  Or, one group would say a proverb in its entirety, and the other group would have to explain the meaning.  According to a young man who travelled as part of our team, Kristi and I actually won the contest.  I think we all had more laughs and fun, however, than worrying about who won or lost.  Kristi and I were amazed at how many proverbs we have learned, and later that night we lamented not sharing other proverbs that we forgot in the heat of the moment.  We were also glad to learn a few more “nsumuinu” from our two new friends and others who enjoyed playing this fun little game.  

The key to a proverb is using it at the right time.  A deftly delivered proverb is like a Joe Montana pass thrown across the middle for a touchdown.  It strikes, it delivers, it makes a point, and the crowd erupts.  We are enjoying learning this art and this skill.  It is as ingrained a part of Kasai culture as is eating bidia, the local staple.  A Congolese colleague and friend recently said, “Nsumuinu ya bantu idi ileja lungenyi ludibu nalu,” meaning, “proverbs indicate the intelligence of a people.”  Well, perhaps we are growing in our social and cultural intelligence here in Congo.  I sure hope so.  We are trying our best to follow the advice we received on a cold winter day in Louisville in January 2010, a place where there are no mangoes.   
children picking mangoes, LubondaiChildren pick mangoes from the ground under large mango tree -
early morning, Lubondai, Congo (Sept 2012)