Tag Archives: congo

Worth it

This morning my alarm clock sounds different from normal. Instead of the beeping, I awake to a choir of tropical birds backed by clanging pots and a crowing rooster. The cries of a baby are the descant; the bass is sustained by a man’s deep voice singing along the path outside my window.

Sitting up in bed enveloped by a mosquito net, my soul smiles as it finally registers: I’m back in Congo.

Arriving late in the night and weary from the 42 hours en route, I must have been delusional, stumbling to bed in the darkness of a home without electricity.

Now in broad daylight using solar powered internet, I open my journal and share my heart.

Contemplating my return, I remember all the illness I suffered last time.
Is it worth it?
With increased danger due to Congo’s elections, I examine the risk.
Is it worth it?
Spending nearly equal time traveling as I will visiting, I wonder,
Is it even worth it?

But something in my gut told me to go.

So, 5 days in transit and a mere 7 days in Beni.

  • When the Mamas welcome me with smiles and songs, praising God for bringing me back, I know its worth it.
  • When I arrive at UCBC and see the look on students’ faces when they realize I have not forgotten about them, I know its worth it.
  • When Bethany and Chelsie (volunteer staff) need assistance with English courses and I can help instruct, I know its worth it.

Anselme replacing guitar strings and receiving drumsticks for the band

  • When the chapel band drummer is playing with literal sticks (as in, twigs from the forest) and I surprise him with several pairs of drum sticks, I know its worth it.
  • When Anselme shows me the worship band’s guitar with only 5 fraying strings and I’m able to exchange him for a brand new set, I know its worth it.

And even if I accomplish very little by American standards, my presence is accomplishing more than I ever imagined it could.



Is HOPE on your Christmas list?

I went over to Africa thinking that my small efforts just might change the world. Quickly I discovered that the journey was more about self-change than world-change.

Experiences along the way left frayed ends within my heart, unable to make amends with my head. And although my mind fails to reconcile the things I saw and experienced over there, I now know too much to do too little.

As I rolled paper beads with women in Congo, trained with women in Kenya, and taught sewing skills to women in Burundi, I recognized this:

Its trade, not aid, that will help bring change in Africa.

And this week, I’m spreading that message in Milwaukee.

I returned with suitcases full of handmade products from the women I worked with in East Africa. Handbags, jewelry, accessories. These items will be sold December 16-18 December 15-17 at the US Bank Center.

Come check out the products. Find some last-minute holiday gifts. By purchasing these items, you’ll be providing HOPE to women in need.

Good news: If you don’t live in Milwaukee you can still buy products online!

Goat’s Meat and Beatitudes

With a new blessed mindset, I’ve been studying the beatitudes that I might truly take to heart a new attitude concerning the blessings of Christ.


neighbor boy in Beni, Congo

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall possess the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And in thoughtful discussion with a new-found friend, I processed that passage (Matthew 5:3-12).

Like tough, fried goat’s meat, I had to chew on. And chew. And chew. Until finally, it was broken down enough to swallow, be digested, and nourish my body.

“Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.” Pretty straightforward. And though my character has not yet mastered any of those qualities, I understand them.

But I was still stuck on the very first bite of this goat-meat: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

What does it mean to be poor in spirit?

I don’t think it means lacking in spirit. We’ve got spirit, yes we do; we’ve got spirit, how bout you?

To my interpretation, it might be phrased, “Blessed are the people who have a spirit like the poor.”

I’ve spent some significant time living among poverty throughout East Africa. And here are a few general observations:

  • The poor will never, ever decline food.
  • The poor wait in eager anticipation for their next meal.
  • The poor are always hungry; they can always eat more.

So what if my spirit was like that?

What if my soul was always craving, always wanting more of God?

What if my soul had an insatiable hunger to feast on His Word?

Oh, that my soul would be as desperate for God as the poor are for food!

Going in Reverse

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Traveling eastward from Congo to Kenya, there is a steady progression towards westernized civilization. As the bus approached Nairobi, my eyes widened at the sight of city lights and traffic jams. My journey from Beni to Nairobi lasted just three days, yet somehow I’d been timewarped 100 years into the future.

During my final month in Congo, I began anticipating the reverse culture shock and re-entry issues I might experience upon returning to America.

Who would’ve guessed that I could experience reverse culture shock while still in East Africa?

My first few days in Nairobi have been spent with a most-gracious, newly-married expat couple, Phil and Mel. They live in a high-rise building similar to the condo towers of downtown Milwaukee. Their home is spartan by American standards, but equipped with many luxuries I’ve lived without for the past 9 months in Congo…electricity, hot water, television, gas stove, refrigerator, oven, washing machine. They have re-introduced my tastebuds to omelets, pancakes, deli sandwiches, korean barbecue, indian curries, and chocolate ice cream.

nairobi skylineDespite the presence of modern conveniences and the abundance of good food, I find myself feeling uncomfortable and disillusioned. Each passing hour during the first few days seems to come with another realization about the differences between these cultures. The first day I awake to the sounds of Nairobi: honking cars and construction work. I’m not convinced those are any worse than the sounds of Beni: tropical birds chirping incessantly, roosters crowing, guards singing, and bleating goats (which I often confused for crying children). Driving through the city that day, I notice that very few people travel by foot. Fewer still are those riding bicycles or motorcycles.

Throughout the city there are other anomalies…

Babies aren’t strapped to their mothers’ backs but rather perched on hips or riding in strollers. Women don’t use their heads to carry items, opting for plastic shopping bags or hand totes instead. Dirt roads are the exception rather than the rule…most everything here is paved. Other things non-existent in Beni: credit cards and ATMs, skyscrapers, racial diversity, shopping malls, rush-hour traffic, fast-food restaurants.

The intangible contrast

The material differences between the two cultures is easy to identify and describe, but the larger differences exist in the abstract concept of culture. Community, as I’ve seen thus far, exists not with the locals, but with other expats. Overstimulation is at its prime. A steady stream of background noise is provided by the television or radio, which are always on—whether or not anyone is actively watching or listening. Purchasing and preparing food lacks the social and interactive aspect of bartering at the market. The grocery store and take-out restaurants require little-to-no human interaction.

The things which I will miss the most about Congolese culture seem to transcend the material things…

I long for quiet afternoon naps, hours spent reading good books, playing card games with my housemates on the porch. I miss the random, unannounced visits to drink tea together and chat about life. I miss greeting and being greeted by all who pass me by as I’m walking through town. I miss the smell of Mama Furaha’s home-cooked meals…even if it’s boiled plantains for the third day in a row. I miss the deep and stimulating conversations with my roommates in which we debated the spiritual, strategized about bringing change, analyzed the value of foreign aid, discussed lessons found in classic literature or laughed about the perplexities and misunderstandings of language learning.

We’ve only just begun...

Something tells me this is just the beginning and a transient stage of culture shock. My training in Kenya lasts just 10 days and soon I will depart for Burundi (in a less-developed city). I anticipate a more intensive adjustment and lengthy period upon returning to the States in October.

So can you offer any advice? Have you been to Africa? Another third world country? Did you study abroad and experience any re-entry issues? I’d love to hear words of wisdom or nuggets of advice…

Fashion Advice from my Financial Guy

Before I left for Congo, my financial adviser offered me some advice, the nature of which had nothing to do with finances. His suggestion?

People of other cultures are more eager to embrace you as a foreigner if you dress as the locals do. So when you go to Congo, make sure you don the African style.

Naturally, I thanked him for the suggestion, but in my heart I scoffed at such a notion. I believe he was genuine in wanting to share valuable advice, however, I doubted the validity of it. He has never been to Africa, let alone Congo, so how would he know?

Fast-forward nine months to an event which proves his advice

During a conversation with my stylish friend Tete, I mentioned how I love the creativity and design of African hairstyles. Changing month-to-month, the hair of these women can completely alter their appearance. Long, short. Dark, light. Maybe even colored accents. Curly, straight, crimped. Braided, twisted, rolled. The possibilities are endless.

The following day, Tete and her hairdresser came to get the party started braid my hair. Had known what I was getting into, I doubt I would’ve agreed to it. The process lasted over 6 hours and cost a mere $10 to transformthis American into a true Congolese…well, my hair, at least.

hair weave mesh

Did I mention it hurt? Cause it did. Immensely. Slightly less painful than being stabbed to death with a blunt object, I imagine.

Slowly, but surely, the pain subsided.

Slowly, but surely, the attention I received increased.

Week 1, I questioned myself. Was this really a wise decision, considering I am already a spectacle with my shockingly pale, glow-in-the-dark skin? Frequently, I feel like the lone white-chocolate morsel which got mixed in with the bag of dark chocolate chips. I stick out like a sore thumb.

By week 2, I was convinced that my financial adviser was correct. Granted, I had already observed that the people in the community love it when I wear my kikwembe (Conoglese skirt), but that has never caused such extreme excitement as my hair.

I’ve just now found the secret to unlocking the door of relationship building

  • Walking through the market, women no longer jeer at me, shout muzungu, or ask for money. Rather, my hair seems to bridge the gap between our difference in skin color. Somehow it has leveled the playing field. The same women who used to jeer are now discussing my hair, remarking on my beauty, and sharing how glad they are to see me embracing their style.
  • Walking around the university, students giggle from excitement. They pull out their camera phones, requesting to be photographed with me. The women offer advice about how to maintain and care for it, what products to use, how and when to wash it. The men thank me for my commitment to becoming Congolese.
  • Walking around the Women’s Center, everyone wants to engage me in conversation. “Who braided it?” “Is it your natural hair or is it mesh?” “Please let me braid it next time. When you’re ready for a new style, you must come and see me.”
  • Walking in my neighborhood, the children finally remember my name and run to greet me  when they see me coming. They want to touch my hair instead of my white skin. One woman has invited me to join her for lunch next week and offered to sew me an African style outfit to complement my African hair.

Saying farewell to the hair

By the end of week 3, it was time to bid farewell to my Congolese locks.

Mama Furaha and her daughter Brigette helped me to remove the braids. Noticing that my natural hair had developed major crimping, they declared that I have now become Congolese for good. Sad to disappoint, I informed them that the crimps would release when my hair became wet. They begged me to refrain from washing it, insisting that my students would LOVE to see it crimped.

(Personally, it reminded me of a bad 1980’s hairstyle. At this point though, I’m much less concerned about my appearance than you might imagine. I lasted 3 weeks without washing my hair…why shouldn’t I wait just one more day?)

So, here are a few pics showcasing the various styles and the life of my hair over the past few months.

braided mesh african hair

1. short, cropped, everyday style 2. hair braided with mesh 3. crimped hair after removing braids 4. for in-between, lazy days

Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll think twice before I dismiss advice from my finance guy.

the news stories that you haven’t heard:

The news doesn’t stop. Not ever. Even if I’m out of touch, the news will still go on. Because whether or not I believe things are noteworthy, life continues to happen. And someone out there thinks they’re worth reporting on. But from time to time, stories which are newsworthy go untold.

I wish to shed light on the stories happening just outside my doorstep that don’t often get reported on…because rather than major crises, they’re more like daily experiences.

  • The news you heard: Major BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The news you didn’t hear: For decades, oil companies have exploited the Niger delta to supply 40% of all the crude oil for the United States. And between 1970 and 2000, there were more than 7,000 reported spills. In 2009 alone, Shell spilled over 14,000 tons in two major incidents. And what’s being done about this? Many of these spills are still awaiting cleanup and no significant action has been taken on Nigeria’s behalf. Sadly, the local people suffer tremendously as they are fully dependent upon their environment for drinking water, fishing, and farming.
  • The news you heard: the American economy is in a recession. And no doubt, it has taken a toll on your mental, physical, and emotional health.
  • The news you didn’t hear: The Heritage Foundation published a recent Economic Index ranking the economies of nearly 180 countries, evaluating trade freedom, financial freedom, property rights, freedom from corruption, among other things. Despite the recession that many of you are experiencing firsthand, the United States still ranks among the top 10 economies. Guess who scored among the 10 worst countries for economic freedom? Yep. The Democratic Republic of Congo ranked 172 out of 179 countries. Pretty sobering.
  • The news you heard: the World Cup is occurring…in an African nation, no less. Experts agree that this shows huge progress for the continent.
  • The news you didn’t hear: A large majority of Africa still lacks the ability to participate in such an event. Speculating, I’d assume that the stands are filled with more expats that nationals. But attending the event is only part of it. Millions on the continent are still without electricity, internet, newspapers, or postal services. Hence, its pretty doubtful that Africans—whose deepest love is soccer—are able to enjoy these games. They don’t have the opportunity to watch the matches, read about the final scores, analyze the lineup.
  • The news you heard: Traditional casket-makers are branching into a new market, manufacturing over-sized coffins for the obese. I can’t help but wonder how many of the deceased requiring these caskets died as a result of their obesity. In America we eat ourselves to death.
  • The news you didn’t hear: Yesterday morning, Angelia, 6 year-old girl from the surrounding UCBC community sat on my lap during chapel. Her oversized, secondhand dress was worn to shreds and missing any type of closure (buttons and zippers had long since fallen off). At the end of chapel, she leaned forward, picked up a small piece of discarded chalk from the dusty ground and began eating it. I tried my best to discourage her from eating the chalk, but her face was sullen as she explained the ache of hunger. I guess hunger makes you desperate when you wake to it each morning.

My Father’s World

Planet Earth: Congo should have given you a glimpse of this spectacular country. Last weekend in Epulu, I experienced God’s creation like never before…

  • Relaxing outside in the evening, we watched a family of redtail monkeys gathering figs as they jumped between trees, swinging through the branches.
  • Hiking through the Ituri forest, we tracked elephants’ footprints and fresh dung to their bathing pools. Meanwhile, chimpanzees called out overhead among the canopy of trees.
  • Everywhere, we saw flowers more vibrant in color and more fragrant in aroma than could be found in the Boerner Botanical Gardens.
  • We had fruit so absurd we struggled to figure out the proper way to eat it.

green sweet fruit

Most of the weekend I was speechless; stunned at God’s amazing creations. Resounding through my veins, they classic hymn, “My Father’s World”, came to life.

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

The next verse has been my prayer this past week as I returned to Beni with my eyes burning at the sight of this corruption…

This is my Father’s world. O let me never forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heaven be one.

Planet Earth: Congo

Who invented the idea of a zoo? Whoever it was, I’m certain that they did so with the intent to replicate Congo. More specifically, the Epulu village in Ituri province.

ituri jungleLast weekend, Chelsie, Brandon, and I ventured out into the jungle for a brief visit with our friend, Joel. Fellow muzungu and cartographer extraordinaire, Joel lives six hours north in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

Somewhat of an outdoors enthusiast, I’m familiar with the woods. I’ve spent time in the Wisconsin wilderness, marveling at the deciduous trees and their color-changing leaves. I’ve wandered among the great, towering redwoods of California. I’ve been caught in showers of the Costa Rican rainforest. Never before, though, has this outdoorsy girl seen anything like Ituri. It’s a dense, tropical, rolling region of lush rainforest barely penetrated by civilization. The beauty of this place left me speechless most of the weekend, awed at God’s vast imagination to create such unrivaled flora and fauna.

I’ll spare you the minute details about the trip, sharing just two of my favorite memories: Continue Reading

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.