Tuesday, September 20, 2011

And you thought I was done....

... to be honest, I did too! I did not think there would be much to "blog" about after returning to the United States. But as Bob and Taylor (and others) probably predicted, my "journey" is just beginning. The "trip" to Congo was really just "one small step" in my larger Congolese journey. I now think of EVERYTHING through the lens of my time there and my experiences. I'm writing a lot right now-- creative non-fiction pieces that I will be submitting for publication in literary journals soon (which feels really good, by the way... it's been a really LONG time since I had the "drive" to write creatively, and even longer since I played the submission and publication game... but if you really want to know and ask nicely, I'll share some of my previously published work with you....), and writing for the newsletter, and speaking my mind about my trip and my experiences.

To wit, I wanted to share two things on here that really "touched" me lately, and will probably seem totally unrelated to Congo, but for me were quite salient. The first is an article about "Terror Management Theory" which I am really into... I think it says a lot about how people respond to horror in the world, and the ways and reasons we react as we do, and the value of treating lightly and using hope as a motivator instead of scare tactics. That article is here:


The second is last week's "This American Life" poscast, their own 10-year retrospective on 9-11. Though I really loathed all the media coverage of it, and in a lot of ways feel that it is insensitive to those we should actually be honoring, this podcast was AMAZING. you should listen to it for that reason alone. But, beyond that, the first "act" is about a young man who has been living in Afganistan since being a teenager, and how he viewed his "transformation" as a result of living in such a politically tumultuous climate. It may seem tangential, but it reminded me A LOT of the Congo. It is here:


Signing off for now...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Re-Entry: Day 11

Well, I apologize profusely for my lack of entries for both the remaining week of my time in the Congo and since I've been back. For anyone who was actually still following this, it must feel like I sort of left you hanging... The long and short of it was that I was really overwhelmed between traveling and being back in the United States. I was so surprised (despite the fact that Bob and Taylor prepped me for this) how difficult it was to come back "home". Having now met several people who've traveled in Congo, I can say with certainty that everyone's "re-entry" process is different.

For me, when I got home, I had a really hard time with food. This appears to be a relatively frequent response after coming back to a country of excess after being in a country like the Congo with such lack. But I really could not eat for the first few days I returned, because I would open the pantry and feel so perplexed and overwhelmed by the vast amount of food in our house, that I simply could not make a decision about WHAT to eat. When you go to a country like the Congo, the "food and water politics" is in every bite you consume and it becomes a part of you. This made it intensely difficult for me to transition back to "American" food. Especially because food and water was so deeply and inextricably linked to women's issues while I was there, and I would often spend entire days working with the women just to prepare the food, which, as I previously alluded to, is just so much work. This is an issue that affects women all across the economic strata of the country, because even well-educated women spent so many hours every day working in the kitchen. So it was appropriate that I did it too, and even now, with everything that I did and saw, some of the most intimate, touching, and true moments happened when I was sitting in the "kitchen" over a charcoal burner. And when I came home, it was as if this labor of love had transformed my relationship to food, such that I no longer understood how to be in relation to food.

It transformed my relationship to American culture as a whole, and indeed, so many parts of "home" now feel very "foreign" to me. I have found it immensely hard to explain to others what it "was like" to be in the Congo, because it's so unlike any other place in the world you will ever visit. It is even quite different from many other parts of Africa, it seems. For me, in a way that I cannot yet (and maybe never will) articulate, it was like traveling to a different reality... An excellent metaphor given to me by a friend recently was that I did not merely walk through the doors of perception-- i took the doors completely off their hinges. My perception of the world is now forever altered, and I don't feel I have the option to "close" those doors again, because where there were once doors, there are now only doorways.

I imagine that the thoughts and perceptions will continue to shift and rearrange and reveal new images to me each day--and hopefully, i will be able to share those as they come up. But for now, I will "leave it", as they say, at that...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Day 33: Mulongo

It took us quite a long time to get back to Mulongo, much longer than I expected. It was almost 3 full days by boat. Yesterday when we arrived here, I was sooooo tired, which seems to be a growing theme of mine throughout this trip. But on our way back, we made a brief stop at a village which is well-known around here for being inhabited by the war-lord Vendi, who received Bob the last time he was here. This war-lord is distinguished, as I was told by DS Mulongo, by the fact that “this one… he did not eat people.” Which sounds almost comical in its absurdity, but it remains staunch fact around here that most of the war-lords were known not only for their violence, but for their cannibalism. (As an aside, I’ve read in many historical accounts that as recently as 5 years ago, even the local Congolese shuddered at the prospect of entering the neighboring province of Maniema due to the reports of the cannibalism therein, though again, I do not claim to know whether these reports were true.) So anyway, as I am told, Vendi started our more or less honorably, attempting to protect his village from rebels and soldiers, but as it so often happens, things went somewhat south. The details from then on are foggy to me, though DS Mulongo promised to tell me the whole story later, but it is evident by the demeanor of those who surround him that great atrocities were committed in his name. I was told that nearly everyone (including children) in that village were conscribed into service. 

The experience of being there was so surreal. Even not having to see anything horrific (it really resembled most of the other near-by villages that we visited, belying little of the violence that was committed there) it seemed to be that walking through this village in the seven-am Congolese mist had a certain surreal quality, I’m reminded of the title of a Chuck Klosterman essay entitled “Where crazy things seem normal, and normal things seem crazy” (which, if you’re a Klosterman-fan, no doubt you’ll call me out on the fact that this story was about interviewing Val Kilmer, which clearly has no relevance, so yes, I’m taking the title ridiculously out of context), it felt very much like that. As I heard the somewhat-broken story about everyone in this village being conscribed to commit violent acts, and as I sat before the war-lord watching the growing crowd around him, seeing the hardness of the dozens of pairs of glittering stones watching me, the realization hit me: more-than likely, everyone here standing before me older than about the age of 15, has killed someone. Because if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be standing here looking at me. That realization is deeply humbling, surreal, and even, yes, a bit alarming. 

What struck me most, though, was not the horror, but the fact that they were just like me. There is no discernable difference in our genetic code. Indeed, while there, I met the chief’s daughter, Cecille, who is a woman about my age who attends the nursing school in Mulongo. DS Mulongo told me that they had huge difficulties in the beginning integrating her, because she was so used to violence, being the one yielding the gun, literally, that she was extremely reactive and abrasive to all classmates. And there’s really no different between her and I, except that fate cast me forth on a different continent, and I received all the relevant benefits. As I thought about the killing, I thought, it’s so strange that Westerners so often conceive of killing in this type of context as a choice… but if the choice is kill or be killed, what would you have done? What would I have done? (The fact that I’m such a weakling that I’m sure I would have been one of the first to perish, if I was lucky enough to make it out of the womb, is irrelevant to this hypothetical.) And then I realized that it’s not really a choice at all. Because it struck me as similar to trying to drown oneself—without using external force, you simply can’t do it. At a certain point, your “survival instincts” take over, and you no longer really have a choice in the matter. (Even biologically speaking, your frontal lobe pretty much defects once your amygdala is calling the shots.) It’s a Stanley-Milgram-esque revelation, but there’s always something within us that wants to believe we’re somehow “better” than others in situations like this, that we would have made a “different” choice by sheer will, and chosen not to take people’s lives. But I guess I just don’t believe anymore that that’s really the case. 

And that, to me, is what’s so tragic about Congo, not that “pity” is really helpful to anyone, but I confess that I find myself unable to separate myself from the people here—I am unable to place myself in any sort of superior “helper” roll. And sometimes I confess I get overwhelmed by a terrible sadness when I think about leaving here, and knowing that things will be the “same” for the villages I visited long after I’m gone. I want to be able to been enthusiastic and hopeful ALL the time—to be the stalwartly faithful missionary trekking into the deeper-reaches of the Congo, but the truth is, that’s just not me. I would be lying if I said that this trip wasn’t incredibly hard on me, emotionally, intellectually, and yes, even physically. I get overwhelmed by my smallness. My human-ness. The only thing that helps is a “knowledge” (for lack of a better word) of God’s big-ness… the knowledge that God is so much more than we can ever conceive of. He does not “fit” into the human brackets we have created for Him. This always was and always will be, from the beginning to the end. 

So I confess that my musing have gotten more than a little “heavy-handed” but it’s an artifact of the fact that “Congo” as a place, and “Congo” as a symbol, is so vast and is and represents so many things. Coming here has caused me to struggle with my very humanity, just as it did for Conrad all those years ago, prompting him to write “Heart of Darkness”. I confess that in the end, I think my perspective on the country is a little less, well, fatalistic or dire, but it is no less nuanced.

Day 30: On the river

We’re back on the river again today, and have (at this point) been traveling via boat for about 13 hours. It is HOT HOT HOT and muggy, but otherwise the Indiana is about the most sea-worthy and comfortable way to travel. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be terribly allergic to some prolific plant or other allergen here on the river, so I’ve spent the day either sneezing and coughing or drugged out of my mind in a Benadryl haze. For all the whining and complaining I do about traveling, I’m actually a lot more accustomed to Congo travel now, and am easily and happily able to bide my time on the boat as anywhere else. We even have a fully functioning Congolese kitchen on board, out of which much delicious bukari, rice, chicken, and fish have emerged. The Indiana is kind of like a traveling guest house—complete with our two-person pup-tent set up for shade and sleeping (this is where I’ll be sleeping tonight). I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to my iPod, sleeping, and writing a little.

Today Mary also braided my hair to help pass the time and we conferred about consolidating all of our information from our many trips so we can regroup when we get back to Mulongo. It’s funny because when I first got to Mulongo it seemed like the middle of nowhere (it IS pretty hard to get to), but now it’s my “home base” and I’m anxious to return tomorrow night so we can sort out all our stuff and prepare for the two-day sojourn back to Lubumbashi. We don’t have major plans for the next week beyond “regrouping”, but I am hoping to visit the hospital one more time and take some video so I can show it when I get back to Lockerbie Central. Though the hospital is one of the best in the area and I feel that the doctors there are very skilled, this place was one of the most striking visual images as part of my trip, so I’d like to get it on film to show back home. I suppose that’s all for now—looking forward to finally posting all of this when I get back to having internet connectivity tomorrow!

Day 29: Kabalo

Today is our last day in Kabalo as tomorrow we start our 2+ day river descent. (I must emphasize again that travel here is really inordinately difficult—it takes an alarmingly long time to travel an impressively small number of kilometres.) I’ve been finishing up Blood River: A Journey Into Africa’s Broken Heart whilst biding my time in Kabalo, which is just the kind of book I love to read—personal narrative interspersed with rich historical information. The author, an international journalist, decided to undertake a lengthy journey across Congo in 2004 following the path of the explorer Stanley, who is credited as being one of the first European’s to “discover” the Congo River and its tributaries. It’s been kind of like a time warp reading it, because I’ve found myself relating to the narrator so much, with his detailed account of his struggles traveling down the river and across the country. (I found myself especially sympathetic when reading the passage about his being trapped in the city for two weeks while waiting for suitable transport—in that regard, not much has changed since 2004, as I am fondly remembering my “extended stay” in Lubumbashi.) 

Anyway, waxing-romantic about literature aside, we’ve otherwise passing our time here in Kabalo more-or-less pleasantly. (I say “more-or-less” because we’ve pretty much all, including me, been a little sick the past couple days.) Today was, again, laid-back schedule-wise, but emotionally demanding. In the morning we met with the lay-representatives from several local parishes, followed by a meeting with some of the pastors’ wives.  Luckily, they came to us at the guest house instead of the other way around, since we were all feeling a little sickly and tired. I’m not sure I’ve written yet about the struggles that pastor’s face in this community. Pastor’s here are supported by the same mechanism they are in the United States, generally speaking, which is to say that their salary comes from the offerings given by the community members. But, given the fact that the communities here are so poor, that almost always amounts to a salary of 10 dollars (US) or less a month (I haven’t yet met a pastor who made more than that, unless he had some sort of outside venture). Even that is not reliable, and sometimes they can go months without being paid. Additionally, their position in the community is often tenuous, not that the church-members don’t care about them (on the contrary, I’ve found it’s quite the opposite), but the community is unable to support them if any sort of crisis comes up (like a pastor getting sick and needing to go to the hospital). As a result, the pastor’s often are forced to leave a community due to not having adequate food, housing, or health care. Because of the low salaries and high school fees, pastors often “rotate” their children, sending one to school one year, another one the next year, and so on and so forth. Finally, there’s really no such thing as “retirement” here, so once a pastor stops serving his community he’s pretty much on his own. Well, you can imagine the strain that puts on their wives to hold the household together—this is a lot of what I was hearing from pastor’s wives everywhere. 

Leaving Kabalo, we were given a splendid farewell, Congolese-style, meaning that we were serenaded by the church choirs at an outdoor “concert” at the guest house. I was then gifted with another BEAUTIFUL outfit, a shirt for my husband, and another chicken. So even though we were all a little road-weary, we really enjoyed our send-off. I loved working with Mama Superintendent Mwayuma—she was so enthusiastic and upbeat. Which is definitely needed in a town like Kabalo! It’s hard to believe that the rest of the time (the next 9 days) before I leave the country is mostly going to be spent traveling… did I mention yet that traveling within Congo is extremely difficult and improving transportation is one of our main goals…? J

Day 28: Kabalo

Today was our second to last day in Kabalo (we have only tomorrow left before we depart) and while the “pace” of the schedule is not as rigourous, the emotional drain is more so. I think I said before, Kabalo was occupied by soldiers and rebels for 8 years, meaning that much of the city was destroyed. The most notable thing from Kabalo that I want to spend my time writing about was the foyer (women’s school) we visited this afternoon. This small town on the outskirts of Kabalo was essentially an entire town made up of father-less children and husband-less women. None of the men (very few) that are living there now lived there during the war, because all (and I mean ALL) the men were either killed or forced to join the soldiers. I would guess that more than half of the children in this village are a product of rape. Many of the women are prostitutes, because they have no other way to support their children (the very children that were conceived through rape). Because the town was destroyed, there is literally NO industry, NO opportunity for employment. They are thrust backward in time to an era of hunter-gatherers, except that resultant from the war, there is nothing left to hunt or gather. 

So as I listened to woman after woman tell me their stories of rape, destruction, and hopelessness, I felt buoyed only by the fact that my being there was providing some comfort to them. I’m only one person, and I cannot do all things. But their shame is so great that merely to alleviate a small portion of that seems “helpful”, I suppose. Mainly it has caused me to think rather vaguely, wistfully, of what I might wish to do on my “next trip” to the Congo, if there is such a next trip! It’s funny because life is really hard here—no disguising that. It is hard. And often unpleasant. And yet, every author I’ve read and many people I’ve talked to describe the Congo this way—as a siren song. She sucks you in, and against all odds that great river is there, mysteriously calling you back against all your best judgment and logic. It’s strange how that happens, and I certainly didn’t bank on it happening to me, but here I am, thinking about what I might like to do the “next time” I’m in Kabalo…. 

After being here only a month, there is not much that surprises me about the Congo anymore, except the very fact that I am rarely surprised. Indeed, this is far from being an “ordinary” country, and I have found so many things here that are more than a little challenging to my mental schemas. Initially, whenever I expressed any sort of surprise or disbelief in spite of myself (usually about how expensive something was or how difficult it was to get some place), Mary offered a sort of nonchalant shrug and would say, “This is Congo.” in a rather resigned tone. A fait accomplit, if you will. But now, I find that even I am hard to “rattle”, neither by the alarming size of insects (there is an unidentifiable THING above my bed right now that’s easily the size of my entire hand, though I honestly have no clue what it is), nor the abject wealth and poverty, nor the seemingly-bizarre statements sometimes made by its inhabitants (one man in Lubumbashi told me that the current president was “very good” because “he doesn’t steal from the people, he only steals from the government” and that due to that, this man predicted the president’s re-election in November. Note that I have no way of confirming or disconfirming the accuracy of his statements, I’m just repeating what I heard).

My adaptation to the day-to-day (and sometimes deeply perplexing) life here was much easier than I ever expected.. It has me wondering a bit about how I will “reverse-adapt” to “This American Life” (also the name of my favourite radio program. Someone please send Ira Glass my blog; it’s my life-long dream to be on his show. Not kidding.) when I get home. I don’t know. As I said, the most surprising thing about this trip is me, and I suspect it shall be the same when I get home….

Day 27: Kabalo

So, I’ve noticed, among other things, a peculiar phenomenon here which is that there is a ridiculous amount of “Obama” campaign attire and paraphanalia here. I can only guess as to how so much of it ended up over here, but it is slightly perplexing. If there exists a list of “least-likely-campaign-strategies-to-win-re-election” this definitely makes the list. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone wearing a shirt with words on it that are NOT in English. Most of the clothing people wear here appears to be designed for the American market, yet another sometimes-sad-sometimes-ironic-but-always-symbolic paradox about the Congo. 

Anyway, on to the “news”—Spent the day “chilling” in Kabalo. It’s actually been pretty laid back today, which it good because I really needed the rest. I spent a good harrowing 2-hours in the immigration “office” today trying to get my travel docs approved. They were trying to claim that I had the wrong kind of visa, and that I couldn’t do missionary work because I had a tourist visa. (DS Mulongo kept saying, but she’s not a missionary! To no avail.) I found the whole thing a little disconcerting, but DS Mulongo assured me afterward that there was no real risk of us getting ousted from Kabalo, they were just giving us the run-around because, as he put it, “everyone wants money.” 

Then we just kind of hung out at the guest house here—I read a lot, watched Mimi’s (Dr. Serge’s wife) 1 and a half year old daughter gleefully wreck havoc. In the last afternoon, we visited one of the Kabalo parishes. Though I know this is going to sound repetitive, it was really sad to see because it was just completely leveled. There was nothing left—and it had used to be a bustling town with a clinic, three schools, a women’s foyer, etc, and now—nothing. To put this in a little perspective, the District Superintendent here (female, a marvel in and of itself) told me that last year, 60 children died due to not having clean water. In a community of maybe 250. It’s hard to believe—imagine if in a small-town elementary school in the US 60 children died each year? It would be totally unacceptable. So why do we, as a global community, allow it to be acceptable here? I know that’s a hard question with a very nuanced answer, but it’s thought-provoking, none-the-less.
It’s interesting because as I near the end of my journey, I have now consumed massive quantities of literature about the recent and long-distant history of this country. In doing so, and being here now during a relative time of “peace” in the country’s history, I have to wonder if this most-fraught and meddled-with of the African countries will ever truly “make it” as a peaceful, developed, INDEPENDENT nation. I know that probably sounds horrible to say, but now being here, I am well aware that many parts of the country remain just as impassible as they were in the 1800s, and that there’s such a long, long LONG history of repeated dilapidation and restoration. I think it’s not pessimism so much as a shifting of mindset—as Westerners we tend towards viewing things in black-and-white, war-and-peace, stable-and-unstable. I used to think that this time of “peace” in parts of the Congo represented something all together “new”, the beginning of a “permanent” recovery. And perhaps it truly is—it’s not for me to say. However, for the first time, the thought crosses my mind that, is it possible that it’s just another “blip” of calm in a long, complex, sordid history? Unpleasant as the thought is, it’s a possibility that must be considered. I am, by no means a historian, or a politician—there’s the chance (rather large, I should guess) that I have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s just that I realize that it’s so much more complicated than I ever imagined—I used to view Congolese independence, peace, and self-sufficiency as a sort of door that could be thrown open and passed through, never to look back if one so chose. Now I see that it’s more of a meandering labyrinth subject to so many forces—in fact, it’s a lot like the dirt paths through the bush with their confusing switchbacks, multifaceted “intersections”, and divisions/reassemblances. 

Plus, I know that this is exceptionally simplistic, and perhaps some people would even argue its accuracy, but in regards to racial subjugation, I can’t help but think—It could have just as easily gone the other way. What if the African nations were the first to venture out and “discover” Europe, instead of the other way around? The history of this country, and our human history, would have indeed been very different. Anyway, I suppose that’s enough “philosophizing” for now. But hey, this is why we get paid the big-bucks! (ha, ha...) This is why we’re NOT missionaries—we are missiologists-- some strange hybrid of missionary, community developer, scholar, philosopher, and historian. Welcome to the world of the grey.