D R Congo by Wendy Newman

Our 3 travellers to DR Congo

Six months ago I hardly knew where Congo is on a map. Now I know there are two countries in Africa called Congo –  the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is large, roughly the size of Europe. It is a land of contrasts and vivid images. Sunny, blue skies in January, with plenty of large, green trees and bushes. Dusty, red roads carried us over the border from Uganda. We felt guilty leaving a dust cloud billowing out behind our Jeep, leaving any poor cyclist to choke in our wake. These men already had a tough enough job carrying their enormous loads of bananas or rice to market on their cheap, gear-less Chinese bicycles.

Arriving in Aru, situated in the north-east of Congo, there are traditional mud huts with thatched roofs nestling together in the trees – often with a Chinese satellite dish outside! Nearby however, there are a couple more modern homes built of brick and mortar. These have windows and tin roofs. One boasted a beautiful tree by the front porch, covered in dazzling pink flowers. Turning the corner, we came upon 7 foot high concrete walls surmounted by razor wire. There is no bank in the diocese of Aru – despite it being about the size of the UK with a population of about 1 million. The nearest bank is back in Uganda and so they use Ugandan shillings or US dollars. Some locals do have money however – the razor wire started to make more sense.

Our welcome at Aru’s rather careworn Cathedral was be-musingly loud and generous.  We were travelling as (self funding ) guests of the Anglican diocese of Aru and Bishop Ande, a tall, gracious man, together with all of his diocesan staff had turned out to meet us. The senior staff of IPASC – a healthcare training organisation started by a British nurse 20 years ago – were also there, together with a crowd of local school children, delighted to be able to leave school early. They wore the compulsory national student uniform of white shirts with blue skirts or trousers, all girls in skirts, a hangover from Mbutu’s totalitarian regime.  We process up the line smiling, shaking hands and wondering what will happen when they find out we are neither rich, entertaining nor famous…except out here, of course, we are all of these things.

After our formal welcome, we were able to retreat to the simple brick bungalow which was to be our home for the next couple of weeks. The walls were a plain cream colour and like most walls I saw in the Congo were without pictures – I had never realised how much I associate pictures with personal identity. The blue mosquito net over our double bed was a welcome sight in our bedroom, as was the small wardrobe complete with hangers. At the end of the hall was the bathroom. A couple of buckets of hot water and a 3 litre plastic jug formed our ‘do it yourself’ shower kit. There was no shortage of this lovely hot water brought in from the outside kitchen charcoal range by Alphonsine and Esperanze who cleaned and cooked for us.

Or first supper or ‘Soupe’ as the Congolese call it, consisted of plain rice with a few bright pieces of carrot. There were two other turines, one contained tender beef in tomato sauce the other spinach in peanut sauce – delicious! Pudding was pineapple pieces with bananas. I discovered later it would always be bananas with either watermelon, pineapple, papaya or maybe passion fruit. A local showed me how to open the passion fruit without a knife by pinching the skin of the fruit and then pulling – something every Congolese child knows. I had been expecting to suffer some level of deprivation and so it was a very pleasant surprise to discover the oasis that has been created here in Aru by the Anglican church and IPASC. I later wondered how much I could have paid for this alcohol and dairy free detox diet at a health spar at home?

Walking around the site the atmosphere is part university campus, part campsite. IPASC students in their blue and white can be seen filing into long, low, whitewashed buildings for their healthcare lectures. A few days later, we heard these same students singing in lively harmonies at their early morning prayers. We met them again in a local village digging out a trench for a water filtration system. This is part of their field studies – learning how to set out layers of rocks which get progressively smaller and are surmounted by drainage pipes to provide relatively clean water which is free of the major water borne diseases. These fresh water stations cost approximately $300. Frustratingly, we heard about a wealthy church in America giving $100,000 to provide four state of the art, American water filtration systems which will almost certainly fail without the correct maintenance. We met a midwife who had been assigned to this village as a part of her studies and then remained after graduation – the villagers were happy to pay her salary, appreciating her expertise for their expectant mothers. Pity the unfortunate, expectant mother who requires hospitalisation – she will have to endure a 20km ride on the back of a bicycle!

One morning we had a meeting with some local high school children. They attended the local agricultural college and were keen to listen to details of our family and then explained their need for a tractor, proper tools and a strip for their successful football team. This is rich fertile soil and they can grow far more than the ubiquitous Cassava plant. This plant has large, tuberous roots which are chopped up and left to dry – we saw these fly covered mounds in the market. This is then ground down to make flour from which the National dish of Fufu is made. Fufu looks and tastes like wallpaper paste with an extra measure of putty added for texture. A special treat would be the addition of nutritious millet – this turns the pale grey to brown, producing ‘chocolate’ fufu. Writing this, I am reminded of making porridge each morning on the charcoal range and explaining in my school girl French that I am making Fufu for the Scots. I realise with horror, that I did not offer any to Alphonsine or Esperenze – mind they may have appreciated it as much as I appreciated their Fufu.

Another day we were taken out for a ride in the Jeep for 30 minutes down a series of deeply rutted tracks to visit a village with a charming, pentecostal church on the top of a hillside. Ladies came out to greet us waving leafy branches, laughing and singing in delight. We were shown around their health centre – sadly their microscope had been stolen. This was the only crime we heard of during our two weeks. Walking back to the church we came across three Singer sewing machines under the shade of a spreading tree. For £15 I bought a tailored blouse, together with enough material to make a skirt. From my perspective it was an opportunity to make a small gift. We stayed for lunch – salty, sticky rice with a small amount of indeterminate meat – mercifully no Fufu. Afterwards the village elders walked forward slowly leading a goat covered in foliage. This was presented to us with great solemnity and after our guide explained the impossibility of refusing the gift, we accepted ‘Henry’ with smiles all round. He had to be trussed up and loaded into the back of the Jeep with us. On the return journey we thought perhaps we could give him to Bishop Ande. Later that day we heard about  income generation schemes for the diocese – a small herd of goats is one ambition for this year. The only problem is that each goat costs at least $30 and a fine goat ( such as Henry) could cost as much as $40. This would represent three or four months salary on the average wage….I finally started to appreciate the level of generosity of the Allelulia church in giving us one of their precious goats.

One afternoon towards the end of our visit, Rob and I decided to go and support the diocesan youth who we knew were playing football. We were trying  to blend in and look inconspicuous, when suddenly two locals who we did not know, arrived carrying chairs for us to sit in. Earlier that same day, I was walking back out from our bungalow and laughingly called out to Financial Director of IPASC that I had forgotten my key was having to go back for it. He immediately jumped onto his motorbike and insisted on getting the key for me. I gratefully accepted – I needed the loo!

I was told the Congolese people like to sing, dance and dress well. We saw all this, plus a lot of hard work and generosity of spirit. I pray these people will have the peace to enable them to continue their education programmes. There is also a great need for just, accountable government – the sort which pays teacher’s salaries rather than reduce teachers to charging pupils so they can feed their own families. In the meantime, the church is leading the way here in Aru, looking after the physical as well as spiritual needs of their congregations. They need our prayers and financial support as they do this.