Monthly Archives: May 2010

See How Easily You Can Learn Swahili

Five days a week, I awaken to the creaking of our compound gate being opened, followed by a clear, high-pitched noise. It’s our cheerful Swahili teacher, Mwalimu Jean, whistling to summon the wuzungu students for the morning lesson. Mwalimu speaks Swahili and French, among other tribal languages. Unfortunately, he speaks no English. NONE. Therefore, our lessons usually consist of pantomime, charades, or pictionary. When those methods fail, we resort to a professional liaison: the French/English Dictionary.

One morning a few months ago, Mwalimu was teaching us new vocabulary, specifically referencing transportation. Here’s how the lesson ensued:

Mwalimu: Scribbles the new vocab word on the chalkboard: gari. He starts the explanation in French, which has remarkable similarity to English, “Gari. Signification: automobile.”

Me: Affirmative. I nod to indicate understanding: gari = automobile.

Mwalimu: Writes the next new vocab word on the board: forbeifo. He gives many clues, tries to articulate it.

Me: Blank face. No clue.

Mwalimu: Draws a rudimentary sketch on the board, pictionary style.

Me: “Does it mean truck?” I look it up in the dictionary, pointing to the corresponding French word.

Mwalimu: “Hapana.” Taking the dictionary himself, he attempts to look up the French word. But the dictionary is too limited. We’ve been defeated. Fail. Epic fail.

swahili teacher

Mwalimu Jean

Well, it would’ve been an epic fail with any other teacher. But Mwalimu is tenacious and persistent. Pausing to think of another way to define the word, he eventually explains that this is the type of gari driven by the Kasali family.
Then, he writes on the board:  4WD.

Wait for it.
Wait for it.

Oprah is now delighted (well, she would be if she was taking Swahili lessons with me), because I finally reach the Aha! Moment.

Me: This is why I love Swahili. Because I get to laugh. A lot. The illusive word I’m struggling to grasp is really just a bad spelling and pronunciation of English: for-bei-fo = four-by-four, four-wheel drive

I’ll allow you to imagine the rest of our lesson, conducted in a similar manner, with words like:

piki piki = motorcycle, moto-taxi
ndege = anything which flies (bird, airplane)
meli = anything which floats or moves on the water (boat, ship)


How to deliver a baby…in Congo

God gave me a great blessing upon returning to Congo. My dear friends, Drs. Justin & Aline Danga, gave birth to their first child, Jeremiah.

I first met Justin and Aline when I went to the hospital for Malaria testing. Since that day, they have quickly become close friends. At just 35 years old, Dr. Justin is the director of Nyankunde Evangelical Medical Center. His wife, Dr. Aline, is second in command and one of the only other full-time, licensed doctors at the hospital. Medical students in residency are on rotation but frequently Justin is on-call 24/7. This presents a problem when more than one patient requires surgery at the same time. As is the case of Dr. Aline’s delivery.

After having determined that she would require an emergency c-section to deliver her baby, Dr. Aline learned that her husband was unable to perform the surgery. Fully aware of her situation, she called for the only (semi)qualified assistance available to perform the surgery: a nurse. Aline herself walked the nurse through the entire operation, step by step, to ensure the successful birth of her unborn child…seriously!

congo baby gift

The baby sweater I knit, a small gift for Aline and her new baby.

The very next day, I went to visit Aline and her new baby, Jeremiah, in the hospital. Because of her status within the hospital, she is given her own personal room; fortunate not to be relegated to the postpartum ward alongside twenty other women. Her room is small and cramped. There is but a small table next to a wooden bed above which an old mosquito net hangs. No chairs. No sink or toilet. No medical equipment. No bassinet. No window. No flowers. This sullen environment must cause boredom and loneliness.

Aline assures me that she is not lonely here; there is a constant stream of women and children coming to visit. (Males, in general, are not allowed to see a new mother and baby until she is discharged from the hospital. Good thing Dr. Justin is medical director and head physician here!)

Most of her visitors remain by her side for several hours at a time. Evidence of these visitors: One live chicken clucking in the corner of her room. Several pineapples resting against a wall. Folded on the bed, a few handmade baby blankets. A casserole dish, hot water thermos, and lemon peels sit on the table beside her bed. Needless to say, I was relieved that I didn’t arrive empty-handed.

Mental Floss 001 – Fight for your life

mri imagingMy brain is growing. No need to call 911. No need to be alarmed. It’s less encephalitis and more stretching, refining, developing. The root cause of this growth can be attributed to reading (which I never truly enjoyed until coming to Congo). Increased reading leads to critical thinking which leads to an enlarged brain (theory not yet confirmed with AMA).

So, I’ve decided to keep my brain healthy and encourage its growth by using “mental floss”. I’m becoming intentional about pondering the deeper things of life, making time to think about my own ideas in addition to ideas from various other sources.

I embark upon a new series of blog posts, sharing my latest musings, hoping to cultivate healthy habits among my readers: regular mental flossing for your developing brain.

Here’s the first piece of floss:

Sometimes we fear that fighting for what is right will kill us. Then again, it occurs to us that to stand by and do nothing out of self-preservation is to be dead already. -Beth Moore

Throughout history, there have been a long list of people who fought for worthy causes and risked their lives doing so: Esther, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa, among others. Can you think of anyone who as recent as the past 50 years? I’m certain they exist, but I’ve had trouble identifying them.

What are we fighting for in today’s society? Are we doing so passionately? Are we willing to risk our reputations or even our lives for such a cause?

Conflict: Exposed

How a Beer Slogan Brought Me Back to Congo

Authenticity is highly valued in my generation. My heart is worn on my sleeve; my emotions are written across my face. Since you’re not here to see my feelings, I want to be brutally honest with you: returning to Congo (after a respite in Austria) has been difficult. Life is hard in this seemingly irreconcilable mess of poverty, corruption, warfare and rape. A market stall near my house says it best; the shop is called, “Life is Fighting.”

My aversion to returning was perpetuated by inconvenient and untimely issues with the airline. The original itinerary included a simple flight from Austria to Uganda with a brief layover in Egypt. That was the plan. And if you’ve ever traveled internationally, you’ll agree that nothing ever goes as planned.

According to the universal law of travel, “what can go wrong will go wrong”. Especially in Africa. Thus, my return was transformed from a simple one-stop hop into a tour of every East African capital including Cairo, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Kigali, and finally, Kampala. Three days in transit and still I was not yet home (Beni). I would spend one night in Kampala and awake early the next day to embark on a road trip back to Congo.

At the guesthouse in Kampala, I enjoyed a small takeout meal from Pizza HOT (not to be confused with the popular American chain, “Pizza Hut”).

Then I noticed the slogan on my drink: “When you know where you have come from, you will know where you are going.”

tusker beer kenya

a valuable lesson from Tusker

In my journal, I reflected on the statement:

Once again, I’m reminded of my purpose and I’ve resolved to persevere. I will return, determined to press forward. I am not here by accident. I am not here to satisfy my adventurous spirit. I may not know what the future holds. I may not know where I’ll be living or what I’ll be doing in six months. But this much is certain: I know where I’m going because I remember how far I’ve come. I’m not talking about the distance here (but in case you want to know, its 7988 airline miles). I have come from the pit of despair. Several years ago I was raped. And with the help of family, friends, faith, therapy, and medical care, I can say that God has healed me. He has redeemed my life and now, I believe, He is using it for His glory.

Not that I assume my experience qualifies me to speak with any authority on the subject. Nor do I assume to have shared a similar experience with these women (because I cannot fathom how the same word is used to describe what happened to me and the brutal, violent, mutilating atrocities done to Congolese women). But somehow, someway, I feel we are connected. And my mission is to bring hope. Whether teaching English or making necklaces at the Women’s Center, I am confident that both my work and my writing has a purpose.

Mustering up all the courage within me, I make up my mind to carry out the mission to which I have been called. Tomorrow I return with an incontestable conviction that my work in East Africa is not yet finished.

I challenge you to reflect on the very same statement. Do you know where you’re going? How has your past shaped the direction in which you are headed? May you, too, find a renewed sense of purpose in your life.

Why Your Cellphone is Fueling Congo’s War

If you’re like most people, your cellphone is never more than inches away from your body at any time. In fact, if it’s not glued to your ear then it’s attached to your hip, living in your pocket, or lost in your purse. Am I right?

Since you’re well-enough informed by now, you strive to live a more ecofriendly lifestyle, minimizing your carbon footprint and drinking fair-trade coffee. If you’re not yet living green, you’re well on your way. You feel good about the ways which you contribute to the betterment of society. You’ve seen enough movies and read enough articles about Africa to feel outraged by the violence. But did you know that your most recent electronics purchase might be financing the ruthless violence in DRCongo?

congo guard gun

photo credit: j. hubbard

Right now, DRC is touted as the World Capital of Rape, the most dangerous place on earth for women and girls. Rape has become a new weapon of warfare among the familiar and endless scene of brutality. Congo’s conflict is based upon extortion; their political system based on theft (a.k.a. “cleptocracy”). For decades, global ignorance has helped this illicit economy thrive. The overall struggle is rooted in the country’s vast supply of natural resources. It’s about controlling and profiting from the extraction of minerals including tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold.

How are you contributing to this violence? Well, these minerals are found in the technology you’re using every day: cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, DVRs, even jewelry. The minerals are extracted from mines in my region, just a few kilometers from where I live. Armed groups controlling the mines use terror and rape as a means of ensuring cheap civilian labor for the extraction of these minerals. There is no denying the link between the raging violence in eastern DRC and the multimillion-dollar trade of conflict minerals. Foreign governments and international businesses are perpetuating the corruption by purchasing minerals from this deadly supply chain.

So, what can you to do?

  1. Become informed. Educate yourself and others about the atrocities happening in Congo. Learn more about the minerals and find out which companies are involved.
  2. Demand conflict-free electronics and jewelry. Endorse the Conflict Minerals Pledge. Urge electronics companies to do the same. Visit to read the pledge and send your emails now.
  3. Don’t buy electronics you don’t need. The constant demand for new electronics only increases the amount of conflict minerals bought and sold. Recycle your old electronics to minimize the need for new mining.
  4. Contact your Representative and Senator. There are two bills before Congress which would help regulate this industry and prevent armed groups from benefiting from conflict minerals. Writing to your Congressman or Congresswoman is easy and effective. (Click on this link and Send an email to your Representatives regarding the Conflict Minerals Trade Act.)

Flashbacks from Austria

children lederhosen dirndl

the quintessential lederhosen and dirndl

As you know, I’ve just returned from a brief respite in Austria. I’ve tried, but somehow I cannot find the words to describe my time there. Music, art, and architecture are the foundation of Vienna and boy, did I enjoy a healthy dose of each. Just what the doctor ordered for this dry and weary soul.

vienna symphony

Mozart in the Musikverein

Thankfully, I wasn’t wandering the historic streets of Austria by myself…dear, sweet Mom was there to join me. Here’s are some highlights: (click to enlarge each image)

Are You Seeing Clearly?

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

-The Little Prince

kids from my neighborhood. photo credit: Brandon Holmes

May this future generation never have to experience the turmoil, the corruption, and the pain of life.

photo credit: Brandon Holmes

Best and Worst Places to be a Mom

photo credit: Justin Hubbard

Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers report was recently released, comparing the wellbeing of mothers and children in 173 total countries. Norway, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark were listed as the top five countries, receiving very high scores for mothers’ and children’s health, educational and economic status.

On the other hand, DR Congo performs poorly on all fronts, ranking in the bottom five, along with Yemen, Chad, Niger, and Afghanistan, where mothers and children live in dismal conditions.

The statistics revealed in the Mothers’ Index only underscore how deep this chasm is between the top and bottom.

In DR Congo, the findings show that on average, 1 in 13 mothers die during complications associated with childbirth. One child in 5 dies before their fifth birthday, while 1 in 3 suffers from malnutrition. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you that nearly every mother in DR Congo is likely to suffer the death of at least one child.

local mother and her children here in Beni, DR Congo

The typical Congolese woman has less than 6 years of education and will live for a mere 49 years, earning only $0.46 for every dollar earned by her male equivalent. Furthermore, nearly 55% of the population lack access to clean, safe water.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the United States (ranking at a modest 28th). The average American woman has 16 years of formal schooling and will live to the age of 82. Only 1 in 4,400 women die from pregnancy-related causes and only 1 child in 125 will die before the age of five.

May this be a year where you celebrate motherhood in whatever country you may live.

How difficult can it be to book a flight?

A journal entry prior to leaving for Vienna:

As I’ve been arranging to leave Congo, the realities of this country have become increasingly evident to me. Take for instance, the purchase of an airplane ticket.

I don’t exactly know why, but everything in Congo seems to be difficult, if not, next to impossible. Today our transportation service is having a protest; when they are on strike, life proves even more arduous. And since there’s no transportation today, I walked 1 1/2 hours to and from the airline headquarters. I’m trying to book a flight out of Congo for a brief respite in Vienna. This airline exists solely in the Congo and the headquarters are located in a large concrete building with a tin roof. The office is quite generous, approximately 20 ‘x 30’. Perhaps it seemed even larger because of the stark absence of furnishings. There are two wooden desks, each with three wooden chairs. The main desk has a credenza on which an antiquated, manual typewriter rests. Only one thing on the walls–a world map—which denotes Congo as Zaire and still recognizes Yugoslavia.

The airline representative is named Safari, which ironically means “travel” in Swahili. After engaging Mr. Safari in several rounds of charades combined with a broken mixture of Swahili-French-English, I’m convinced I may never get to leave Congo. In order to get a flight, Safari must use my cell phone to call a satellite office in Butembo (a city 2 hours outside of Beni, from which I will begin my journey). He must verify that there will be room on the plane for me. But the cellular signal is  poor awful, so he must retry. Retry. Retry. Retry. He attempts to make this phone call about 13 times over the course of an hour and finally he is able to confirm that there is a seat for me in Butembo. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a cell phone so he relies on mine to do his  job. After all these calls, my phone no longer has credit. So naturally, Safari requests $5 and runs out to the nearest stall to purchase another chunk of airtime for my cell. He still must call Bunia (another city) to verify that this leg of the journey has enough space on the aircraft as well. Not less than two hours after first entering this time-warped office, he has confirmed a seat on the plane bound for Entebbe, via Butembo via Bunia, departing next week. Unsurprisingly, this plane only flies 2 days per week because such an antiquated vessel requires a full 5 days of maintenance…very reassuring.

So, how do I pay for my ticket? Cash only. Now when do I receive my ticket? Well, I must wait because Safari’s boss is the only one authorized to issue tickets and the boss, I’ve been informed, has gone out to have lunch. Thus, Safari and I are just chilling, making small talk through that awful mashup of languages…for another 45 minutes. (Did I mention that Congo has been teaching me patience?)

Now when the bossman arrives, he takes the cash and pulls out a small notebook with carbon-transfer paper. He hand-writes a ticket for me and before I know it, I’m leaving the office.  And as I leave, ticket in hand and the promise of western civilization soon ahead, I pause to consider the scenario which just took place. How is it that purchasing an airplane ticket can be such an ordeal? Outside of Congo, it takes a mere three minutes to book a flight online. But not here. No internet or online ticketing. No phone system. No electronic printing. No credit cards. Why is this process so anachronistic? What will it take for Congo to emerge from such primitiveness? What propels a society and a civilization forward?

a view of Congo from the airplane