SIL (aka Wycliff) has a Cessna five seater plane stationed in Yaounde, Cameroon. This is the closest plane available to fly us across to the Congo, to Gemena. Officially the border between the Republique Centrafricaine (RCA) and the Republique Democratique du Congo (RDC) is closed. Flying into Gemena avoids the border hassels at Zongo and saves us a 20 hour road trip by truck. We take off with four passengers and half our baggage and arrive in Gemena 45 minutes later.
In Gemena we again must pass through customs and immigration but on a smaller scale. The church’s truck brings fuel down to the plane for the return flight and loads up our trunks. One of the pastors takes our passports to take care of these formalities. Again our bags are undisturbed, unopened. We are well cared for almost as if we are under divine protection. God is very good.
Hungry, we arrive at Jacques home in the early afternoon. There is a meal ready for us -fuku (a sour corn meal mash), spinach greens, plantains and goat. As we sit around the table and share this first meal in the Congo, I am reminded of communion. This is a reunion meal, for me a remembering meal. Foods eaten again for the first time in thirteen years, friendships renewed as we share at the same table.
Gemena is a city of eighty thousand or more. No one knows the true number of people living there – no one knows when anyone last counted. Of the buildings lining the main street, four appear to be used – the local political party, Campus Crusade for Christ and two stores selling cell phones and airtime. The others, the bank, the pharmacy, the shoe store, etc. are empty, windows broken.
The most dramatic change in this part of the world has been the introduction of the cell phone. They are just about as common on the streets of Gemena as on the streets of Prince Albert and they, like the phones here seem to begin ringing as soon as anyone sits down to eat. A call from Gemena to Bangui is just a local call even though the cities are in different countries. Of all the changes that have taken place in the Congo, cell phones have to be the biggest progressive change. Other changes were more in a regressive manner. The cell phones were just totally wierd!
The stores may be closed but all kinds of merchandise is available in the “Grande Marche”. One can buy almost anything – cans of Coke, toothpaste, baking powder, baby powder, bicyle tires and repair parts, batteries, cloth, used clothes and soap. Even toilet paper! And food – like a grand farmers market. There is a section for meat, another for fish, another for greens, fruit, hot peppers, peanuts. Meat and fish are sold freshly butchered, “on the hoof”, or dired and smoked – accompanied by clouds of flies. Sugar and salt are sold by the cup. Gas is sold in jugs at the stall next to the soap or flour.
Barganing is an art. Jacques has it almost perfected. But I am white – white people have money – and the price doubles. We look and Jacques makes note of what he wants. Then he sends someone back later to buy at the normal price when I am out of the way.
The girls stick pretty close. There are masses of people here and it is hard to pass through such a place without being jostled by the crowd. They are unable to speak the common language – Lingala – and although they can communicate in French it also marks them as foreigners. I am wondering if after the meat market experience if they will decide to become vegetarians. I know that the Congolese all cook their meat very well – no rare steaks in this country. And I am very glad.