Category Archives: Africa

Bodenge – My Africa Story – Part 4

Jacques has a farm at the village of Bodenge about a  45 minute drive from Gemena.  This is his place of retreat.  He took us out there one day. 

On the way we stopped and attempted to make our way to a large outcropping of rocks, a high cliff, below which we could see the dark opening of a cave.  Jacques says that people will go there to  pray.  No one seems to have been there for awhile.  The sobi grass is tall and thick.  We followed a path that took us past some gardens but then disappeared into grass and brush over our heads.  We gave up since we had no machete with us to clear the way.

We continued on our way to the farm which is reached by taking a turn to the left partway through the village, between the rows of huts that line the road. 

Jacques isn’t the chief but acts the part of benevolent landowner.  The village benefits from his presence with access to a clean water source and a certain level of security.  He knows the political leaders and is not afraid to speak out against injustices like theft of livestock by passing soldiers.  But his goodness isn’t always repaid in kind.  One of his herders, from this village, disappeared one night.  So did three head of cattle. The timing was a bit suspicious. 

There is a mud brick house with a small cookhouse off to the side.  The thick sobi thatch keeps it cool.  Out behind is a covered area and “goi goi”  (lazy) chairs.  Jacques brings out a large cooler.  There is cold pop for myself and the kids.  Jacques enjoys his cold Mitzig.  While we relax our meal is being grilled over a charcoal fire.  Authentic barbecue- the way most food is cooked in this country.

Afterwards Sara, Grace, Tantine and I walk down to the water source, a fresh water spring that has been capped so that pure water flows out of a couple of pipes.  There is still a pool for washing and bathing but the drinking water can’t be contaminated.  Bruno comes along with us but is warned by his father that at this time of day it is the women’s turn to go there.  And, sure enough, we are there a few minutes and a woman comes to bathe.  He hikes off back to the house while we women and girls enjoy the coolness of the water.

The girls have brought along one of their soccer balls.  Before long there are dozens of village kids – the boys – eager to play.  It has been years since they last played with a real soccer ball, maybe the first time for some.  When it came time to leave, my girls presented the ball to the village.  Jacques made a little speech.  All the kids told Grace and Sara “merci”  but the sparkle in their eyes spoke more than their words.  The girls will become part of the villager’s stories – how the girls from Canada brought them a ball.  That is part of how things happen out here.

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While Waiting at the Airport – My Africa Story – Part 3

Equateur province in the Congo is still recovering from the effects of war.  Jacques and I drove to the airport in Gemena to meet the plane coming in from Bangui.  The airport is occupied by soldiers.  From what I was told, these soldiers don’t learn how to dig pit latrines – any space will do.  It may be a long time before passengers use the building again. 

We sat and waited in the vehicle for about an hour – there was more trouble for the SIL plane getting out of Bangui than anticipated.  During this time we watched the soldiers drilling down on the tarmac. 

The ragtag army was standing in formation – some drill or listening to some political speech. Then they “marched” back up to the airport,some wearing bits of uniforms.  Most wearing flip flops rather than boots.  All with some kind of weapon.  Ammunition?  Hopefully it is scarce.  They look like they could hurt themselves – or someone else – by accident.

One group marches up to the other end of the parking lot, mostly in step – a semi-goose-step.  Maybe these are new recruits – not much for uniforms among the dozen or so young men.  One of them is soon down on all fours doing push-ups.  Must be the universal discipline measure for soldiers!

Then the whole contingent moved back up to the airport and began packing up.  Bed mats were being rolled up.  An assortment of packs from black plastic bags to school packs were hoisted onto backs or their women’s heads.  And off they went (marching is a bit too formal a term) down the road leading back into the city.

We have no idea where they are going.  If east to the front in Bukavu, they will be pushed to the front of any fighting.  They won’t know the local language and to the easterners they will be dispensable. These guys are young, ignorant and vulnerable.  Jacques says that any villages they pass through will be sure to suffer.  The soldiers have guns and they use this power to rape and steal as they go.

Later, we see that they have only moved into town, taking over a school vacant for the summer.  That did not make Jacques happy.  “The school will be destroyed.”  Getting an education is already difficult enough.

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Gemena – My Africa Story – Part2

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. 

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Check it out

Just posted some pictures in the gallery – the market in Gemena.  Check them out.

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The Return – My Africa Story – Part 1

We landed in Bangui at the beginning of the day, before the heat became unbearable – 7am.  There are no fancy gates sliding out to meet the airliner, just simple steps rolled out and down we go down to the tarmac in front of the dingy airport which has lost all of its glass to the war. 

We aren’t alone.  Other mission travelers joined us in Paris.  Z’s returning to see what is left of their belongings; returning to see if the proposal of working for a private well drilling company is feasible.  Can they do it psychologically?  They left their house by the back as the rebels came in the front and that whole experience still stings.  Are they ready to try this again?  Can they subject their children to this again?

G. L’s are, like us, transiting to the Congo, only in Bangui long enough to visit a few friends and stock up on staples for the stay at Karawa.  We (my girls and I) are only in Bangui overnight.  In the morning we will take a small SIL plane to Gemena in the Congo. 

We see our contacts waiting in the reception area, just past immigration.  In Africa, if traveling by air, it is essential to have contacts someone who knows the routine, someone respected and recognized by the local authorities.  You do not want to arrive alone, easy prey for the immigration officers, the customs inspectors and the hordes of porters all waiting to exploit the unwary traveler.  They wait for you and your luggage like crows after road kill. 

All of a sudden, a woman turns back to the gates barring her return to the plane where luggage is being off loaded.  She is screaming; the soldiers are holding her back.  Hysterical, sobbing and screaming she is creating a scene worthy of an African woman of high standing whose bags are being pilfered.  She claims the bag and continues to sob for the things she has lost. 

We are still waiting for our paperwork to be completed.  Waiting, part of a moving mob of people, jostling to stay close behind our friends.  Knowing that pushing will not make the line go faster, but also knowing that we do not want to be the last in line the last chance to become their victims till the next plane arrives.  First our health cards are checked for vaccinations. (One does not want to travel without the required stamps in this card risk of being vaccinated right there in the airport, dirty needles and all.)  Then our visas are examined slowly what is the rush?  Passports are stamped.  We are in oh no another line the passports must be checked to make sure they were really stamped! 

Finally we too are in the baggage claim area – about a hundred people and luggage in a space only marginally larger than my living room at home.  We and our traveling companions claim a spot by the wall and begin collecting our bags which amazingly come in on a turning carousel.  As I sit on one waiting for the others, I realize that here I am in Africa again.  In the midst of all this confusion God comes.  I realize that the bags will come and that even if they don’t, we will be just fine.  He will arrange for us to have just what we need.   There is none of the panic and anxiety that I remember from years gone by.  This is God’s trip and I sense his control in the chaos.  Our bags arrive all seven trunks. 

Romans 8:31 What can we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?”

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Back Home – A Trip Summary

It is good to be home again.  The trip to the Congo was wonderful.  Incredibly wonderful and amazing.  But home is a good place to come back to.  And the hot shower with unlimited water well experiencing no showers for a couple days in the tropics sure changes one’s appreciation for these little luxuries.

How do I begin to describe the trip I have just returned from?  If you have never had an experience in which God has been very present, you may think that my trip just consisted of a lot of fortunate coincidences.  But to me this trip just had God’s handprints all over it.  From the very beginning, God was in the planning and the working out of travel, visa’s and funds.  The time was right God seemed to be telling me this was the right thing to do at this time and the church at home here seemed to be ready to get re-involved in this part of the world again.  So when I tell you that all the trip went well I am not kidding.  And this is not the norm while traveling in this part of the world.  I had a sense that I could just relax that someone a whole lot bigger than me was in control. 

We landed in Bangui in the Central African Republic, arriving on the once a week Air France flight from Paris.  All seven pieces of our luggage arrived too not a thing went missing from any of our bags.  And as the luggage was inspected nothing was pilfered from it.  The dental supplies were held in customs overnight and the next day were not even opened.  We just loaded them up into the SIL Cessna that came to take us to the Congo the next day.  And, again, when we arrived in Gemena they were not opened in customs and we were not hit with a big amount to pay to satisfy the long unpaid inspectors looking for easy prey. 

We were treated royally by Dr. Jacques Kongawi in his home where we spent our first week  He provided us with hot showers, comfortable beds, e-mail access,satellite TV and the best in African food.  His hospitality was just the beginning of a great visit to the Congo.  During the time we spent with him we visited old friends over at the Catholic mission, Peres Marcel, Cyril, Joe and others, including Jim Fultz and Margaret who are translators with Wycliff.  Went out to Jacques farm at Bodenge as well and spent a relaxing day during which we saw not only the farm but, along the road, some of the homes he had built for leprosy patients, and even a newly diagnosed case of the disease (I went out later that week to help as he examined and started treatment for this patient). 

The next two weeks were spent at Karawa.  This is the mission station where we lived for about 13 out of our 16 years as missionaries.  There have been some huge changes, some lesser ones and some things  have not changed a bit.  The first week I was teaching and this took up all my time so that I didn’t even get to walk around the mission till the second week we had been there.  When I wasn’t teaching, I was busy talking to the guys I had trained in the past or receiving visitors.  Some of the biggest changes were physical – the palm tress on the two lanes bordering “Time Square” are all new and therefore not the towering stately palms that I remembered.  The homes are now occupied mostly by Congolese staff.  They had been looted but were still intact.   There is only one missionary family and one single woman where we were about 40 expatriates plus all the missionary children at the school before.  There are few vehicles – some are just carcasses left after the war and growing weeds.  And the people – they are so poor; so incredibly poor.  They have trouble paying the few dollars that are asked for medical care so that the hospital is four months behind in paying the staff.  Still they continue to give what care they can.  And healing services are held twice a day in the hospital chapel. 

Between teaching and work, I listened to stories.  The war was a hard experience.  They do not want to go through another.  They have already lost everything they once owned.  Many lost family members.  Theft and rape were the norm.  AIDS is rampant.  Frank malnutrition could be seen in the children.  And it was planting time.  Many were so poor and the price of peanuts so high that they didn’t know if the gardens could be planted with this nutritious crop – many would only be able to grow the nutrition poor manioc and maybe some corn. 

I did some work.  Looked at broken down equipment to see what repairs could be made.  Saw some interesting cases.  But mostly I think I was sent to bring encouragement. 

The last week of our trip was spent in Kinshasa.  We flew down on HEWA BORA Airlines – a Congolese run company.  The cost was reasonable and we were even served an in flight snack that outdid the current Air Canada snacks – a sandwich (pretty dry), a bottled cold drink and an apple(apples are an exotic fruit there).

We were met at the airport by my friend Dr. Kasuku.  A person’s success can sometimes be measured there by their influence at the airport – who they know to make things go smoothly.  So, I would say he is well known.  We got through the crowds of preying officials and porters unscathed and into his Toyota Prada.  He was the final of our most generous hosts – we stayed with his family and he made himself available to take us wherever we needed to go. 

In Kinshasa, the girls met their birth families.  Sara for the first time met her birth mother and father whom we had been told originally were unknown.  Grace had many memories – but everything looked so much smaller than she remembered.  She met aunts and uncles and a half brother, but her birth mother died about a year ago and her father is truly unknown.  She now has a picture of her mother to treasure and a bit of an emotional load to deal with knowing that she has a younger brother.

There will be pictures posted – I just need time to get them downloaded and posted in the gallery.  Look for them in the next few days. 

And there will be more stories to tell. 

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And Home Again

Today we should be leaving the Congo.  We fly Kinshasa – Paris – Toronto – Saskatoon.  Then back on the road up to Prince Albert.  Then jet lag sets in again. 

Not looking forward to the airport in Kinshasa.  As I remember it, it is dirty, hot and a good place to get robbed.  No nice food courts.  In fact if the flight is going to be a good one it would be safer not to eat there at all.  There would only be food from sidewalk vendors I would think.  I do not have good memories of Kinshasa airport.  I don’t suppose civil war has improved the airport any. 

It will be good to get back home.  I am sure we will be missing all of our friends.  I know I will be glad to get back to Leo again!  Next blogging should be done from our home computer.

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