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)