I have now completed my missionary year in the Congo and hope to continue along the road that I am called to follow. I was thinking about whether or not to finish this blog since my Congo Adventure finished, but I enjoyed very much writing about what I was experiencing and learning that I thought that I should continue to share insights and discoveries in my life and what speaks to my heart.
The "Mammas" (who are older women) are always smiling with crooked teeth and saying "Mbote" (greetings) while shaking your hand. The Mammas usually go to the market everyday with big baskets on their heads with fruits and vegetables in them. They also are always wearing silk head scarves and beautiful panyes with colourful patterns on them.
Every morning when I leave for mass at around 6:20am the sunrise captures me every time. I am literally walking backwards to mass absorbing in the beauty of the sun. Sometimes it shoots its rays against the clouds, other days it is just bright and glowing. I am going to try and take more pictures of the sunrises here so I can share them with you.
First I would like to say that I am sorry for my last blog for being so long. I didn’t really realize how much I had written until it was posted. Hopefully you didn’t get bored while reading it. I also want to apologize for my blogs for being all over the place. I am going to try to make my blogs flow somewhat better, so bear with me.
Last week one of the Canossian Sisters died in the village of Ariwara of whom I had seen 4 days previously when I had the chance to visit the town. The last image I had was of her sweeping. She worked up until the time of her death. She had spent 50 years in Congo! She lived a very full life which could be seen by the hundreds of people who turned up at the funeral. It was the most beautiful funeral I have ever attended. Mainly because I could see so much appreciation in the people’s faces for this woman of God. When all the people went outside for the burial the band had already set up and music was filtrating through the crowds. As I stood beneath the vanilla bean tree my eyes were drawn heavenward and I could see hawks soaring in the sky. They seemed so free and alive and it came to my mind that even the spirit of the dead lives on. They live on in nature: their spirit soaring high with the hawks, eagles, the wind swaying through the palm leaves and the setting and rising sun in its captivating glow. I am sure Sister Ester’s spirit is soaring with the hawks watching over the people here in Congo.
There is a spirit here in Africa. Nature speaks often. Time is of no essence. Simple is better. Life is precious. Peace is sought. I do not know where I stand here. I am an observer but I am slowly becoming captivated by this spirit of Africa. A simple life where peace is found in the majesty of nature and one feels connected with people because they appreciate the importance of sharing in one another’s lives. Having less is better. It makes life simple, and when life is simple there are less complications. And when there are less complications there is more peace. And when there is more peace there is more love.
As I am learning more about the culture here I am realizing how much I have taken for granted. For example, one of my students told me that I have so many pens because apparently I have come to class with a different pen on various occasions. I did not realize this and was surprised that she would even notice the pens that I brought to class. Also, Sr. Daniela shared with us that one of the young girls here told her how after school she would have to sell baked potatoes on the streets in order to save enough money to buy herself a pen. So for me having more than 1 pen I am seen as privileged. After this realization I have begun to think that I have many things that are extravagant and not needed. For example clothing, owning 2 volleyballs, having more than 1 headband (one girl in my class asked me if she could have my headband and I said no and then she preceded to say that I have 2…they pay very close attention to what I own), and then of course our VOICA house that has electricity, our own laptop, a guitar, running water and a gas stove (and just recently an oven too). Even though at times I feel guilty for having so much when these people have so little, I know that I can share what I have with these people. One time I walked to a field of grass by the church with my volleyball and saw some of the girls in my class and we started up a fun game. Then more people began to join the circle, young boys, little kids, older boys, and the young girls I teach. We played for 45 minutes until I had to go, but I left the ball with them telling them to return it when they were done. I am really happy that a simple sport ball can bring so much joy to the kids here.
I have been thinking about what it means to be “free.” I believe that when one begins to share and give of oneself to others “freedom” is found. This is something I have sought after in my life and I believe is very true. When I am giving to others I begin to stop thinking about myself and my own world, my own problems and selfish thoughts. It is not easy to always be giving to others all the time, but when you make the effort in whatever small way a feeling of freedom is found deep within. We are also able to give more of ourselves to others when we have less distractions and temptations that prevent us from giving. In North America there are many things that keep us entertained, that give us pleasure and paralyze us into self-absorbed and selfish people. When these barriers are stripped away, when our pride, our titles, our accomplishments and securities fade away, we will feel naked, strange, afraid since this feeling of having nothing is far from the reality of Western living. This feeling of having nothing can take a weight off one’s shoulder’s. There have been many people who have gone into the wilderness or remote places of the earth to get away from this weight of the world and to seek freedom and peace in their lives. One can find freedom when all alone in the majestic and powerful creation of God such as the mountains, I know I have. But I believe the truest “interior” freedom is found when we are able to give ourselves as a gift to others and there are no barriers such as our pride and selfishness holding us back. And most importantly from the words of St. John’s gospel, “the Truth will set us free.” Thanks for reading; I hope I didn’t bore too many of you with my spiritual insights. I think it is good sometimes to share insights into life and the purpose of our lives. It is so easy to become stuck in our mediocre way of living where we soon become lost and confused in what our purpose in life truly is which results in unhappiness. To finish I would like to share a quote from the book Into the Wild, a story of a young guy who went into the wild searching for purpose in his life. This quote doesn’t really have to do with what I have been talking about but it does have to do with our need to make changes in our lives when we feel we are unhappy and have no peace or a sense of interior freedom.
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basis core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” Chris McCandless
First of all Happy New Years to everyone! I can’t believe it is already 2010. The Olympics will be starting up pretty soon which I am sad I am missing. I don’t think I will be able to watch any of them since we don’t have satellite TV. and the internet connection here is too slow to watch anything on the internet. So if you want to send me some Olympic highlights and things that I can download that would be super! As for my New Years I will definitely remember it as being unique. Our New Years Eve Tomas, Karen and I spent together just hanging out and watching a movie. Our original plan was to burn some expired medications we had and see them explode, but we were too lazy to start a fire. On New Years day we went to another amazing mass with cheer leading girls and dancing Altar servers and a cheering excited congregation. We then had a wonderful lunch with the Sisters and in the afternoon Tomas, Sr. Mary-Jean and myself played some basketball together. Then in the evening us volunteers cooked up our special unidentified meat that was given to us from the Sisters in an ominous black plastic bag. We later found out it must have been a pig. It came with a thick layer of skin on it and a few black hairs sticking out of the skin. I honestly could have become a vegetarian right then and there but I somehow forced myself to eat a bit of it. Since we only have a Coleman style camp stove to cook with it is difficult to figure out how to cook things, so we just fried our pig meat on the stove. Most of the meat was ribs so we put the ribs into a soup and ate it the next day. I have never seen so little meat on rack of ribs in my life. It was really sad meat, I think I took two little chews and the rib was clean.
On Sunday we went for a “promenade” (aka a “walk”) with Sr. Daniela, Tomas, Karen and myself to an area called Ondele, about 5km by foot from where we live in Aru. It was a scorching day and the 5km seemed to have quite a toll on my body than it usually would. The strong sun really takes the energy out of you. My hands were beginning to swell as well as my knees. I have never experienced doing hand exercises while walking and I felt quite strange walking with my hands up like I was under arrest while wiggling my fingers. We reached to the top of one of the surrounding hills where we took our lunch of peanuts, bread and bananas and tried to enjoy the scenary as much we could despite the local children who found our whereabouts and incessantly threw English words at us which I am quite certain they had no clue of their meanings. This area we walked to was very much removed from civilization (and when I say civilization I do not mean according to Western thought but of course to African standards.). We came across many people walking along the rough road leading to continuous vegetation, fields and rolling hills of endless greenness where one would not expect anyone to live. I was amazed by the women carrying food from the market on their heads in the heat of the day up the hills taking up to 2 hours. I was tired without even carrying anything on my head; they are used to the heat so it is not as draining for them but still this requires a lot of energy for them. This leads me to share about my observation of the people here as well as their history. I can describe these people as simple. They live their lives from day to day simply fulfilling the tasks that need to be done to survive and to manage their homes and that is all. The “mammas” (the older women) simply go to the market sell their produce from their land which usually is: bananas, peanuts, peanut butter, manioc (traditional food they eat here, it is a rooty vegetable that is white and smells salty), avocados, mangoes, eggplant and potatoes. They do this everyday and yet they are so joyful. This leads me to the history of the people here. As we walked Sr. Daniela told us the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the most recent years, since 1996. The reason people in Aru are so joyful is because they specifically came here to find peace. Most of the people living here are from all over Congo, mainly from Bunia, Goma and Magi. When there was much unrest between 1999 and 2006 Aru’s population slowly began to grow. It is in a very influential location being very close to the border with Uganda (only about 5km) and having a UN headquarters here. DR Congo is one of the UN’s largest operations starting in 1960 and continuing having as many as 17,000 peacekeepers in 2003. Aru therefore has many different tribes, one of the main being Lugbara. The main languages are French and then Lingala, Lugbara, and Swahili. The Lugbara tribe also exists in Uganda. Something that stood out to me during our walk was that Congo is very rich in resources: gold, diamonds, rubber, and its vegetation and so forth. Great things could be done with this beautiful land but unfortunately the infrastructure and transportation are not in place. Sr. Daniela described to us the view of Congo from the airplane when she flies from Kinshasa to Aru frequently and how amazing it is to see the rainforest stop dramatically and how great and green this country is.
I would also like to share with you what I am actually doing here in Aru, DRC and how my way of life is here. I start off every morning by going to mass at 6:30am at the parish Church. Then our community has a wonderful breakfast of peanut butter with bread from the bakery together every morning. Then I rush off to AITI secondary school for my 7:30am class for 1 hour. I teach them volleyball every morning as well as some fun warm up games and stretches. The problem is that there are only about 5 girls that show up in the first half hour of the class and then by the time our class time is over there are at least 15 girls. It is really frustrating because it is really difficult to plan a lesson where you need a certain amount of people and then there are never enough. The girls usually want to stay and play for a half an hour after the lesson and play with the volleyball. To have one’s own ball is a privilege and so they really enjoy having the chance to play with a ball. I just don’t understand why they don’t come on time to class so they would have more time to play. I am also beginning to realize that the things I take for granted such as having a pair of running shoes is not the same here. I told the girls that next class they all need running shoes because where we were going to set up the volleyball court the ground is really uneven and difficult to play on with flip flops. After class more than half of the girls came and told me that they don’t have runners which made me feel a little bit for demanding this from them which is impossible for them. I said it wasn’t a problem. I am learning to make do with what is here as well as becoming more grateful for what I have received as a kid. Sometimes I don’t even want to think about the luxuries I have received growing up because it makes me think of all the things that I would love to provide for these girls but I know that it is impossible. These girls really enjoy playing since most of the time they are working. This is also something I have noticed here, that people work hard. People are always working here it seems, everywhere you look there are men working in the fields, cutting grass, harvesting, women carrying food to the market, women cleaning, sweeping, people burning their garbage or grass (their way of lawn mowers) and other forms of work such as cutting wood to cook with, herding goat or pigs etc. I am really happy to be able to give these girls an opportunity to play and do things that children should do more often. So after my morning P.E. class I either go straight to the health centre, or if it is Tuesday or Thursday (Mardi ou Jeudi), I teach another P.E. class for the kindergarten kids from 8:45-9:45am. I have only started teaching there in the new year and so I have only had one class so far which turned out to be quite a headache. The kids are really adorable especially the girls with their hair in all kinds of beautiful braids with beads in them. I took them out to the field behind the school along with their teacher and I taught them how to play tag which they were able to understand in my French. Then I got them to just toss the volleyball I had around in a circle but during this time one boy began vomiting so the teacher had to leave. The ball tossing game was turning into a disaster since everyone was trying to grab it and such so I tried to get their attention the way their teacher did but with no avail. It seems that they only listen to her. So then I tried to get them all together into 2 lines to play another game but they all just wanted to grab my arms and legs and the ball and I could not get control of them all. Ahhh! It was really frustrating! Then some girls were trampled on when everyone was trying to fight to touch my arm so they began to cry and then I was trying to comfort them while I was being mobbed by kids. I was still thinking to myself, “I can still get them to play another game,” but after 5 minutes of chaos my optimistic thinking plummeted. So I just decided to get them into pairs to walk back to the school which took another couple minutes until their teacher arrived and all of sudden they all did as she told. Ah! Hopefully I will eventually be able to have some control over these rambunctious kids. It was a pretty trying morning. Then I go to the health centre and will hopefully work in my clinic for the remainder of the morning until lunch which is anytime between 12:30 and 1:30pm. The progress as of right now is looking pretty good. I have the door open and I have cleaned the walls and the floor and have recently been sanding and cleaning a desk that was in there and will be moved somewhere else. I know that there is a need for rehabilitation here; many people suffer from polio, birth defects, club foot, and low back pain. I think low back pain is very common here in women since at a young age girls are carrying their baby brothers and sisters on their backs. Then when they become mothers they carry their own babies on their backs. We will see what I will come across when my clinic opens. I still laugh when they call me a physiotherapist because I am far from being qualified. I have told them many times I am not but that I only know a little but they don’t seem to care what I say. Anyways, it should really be a great experience for me. I am also getting used to working with Sr. Claire who runs the health centre in the most “African” way I have ever experienced. She cannot seem to multi-task at all which is I would say a common skill amongst most North Americans. She said I would have to wait until someone came to fix the termite eaten door before I could wash and paint the walls, but I am thinking to myself that while I am waiting for the guy to come and fix the door it is possible for me to clean. Lets say that I am learning to be patient here! So after lunch I usually have a break for myself until 3pm, but if it is Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday then I only have a break until 2. On Monday and Tuesday I visit with Mado, the girl with hydrocephalus for an hour, but lately every time I have come her sister just says, “Elle dors,” (she sleeps) and I go home and that’s that unfortunately; and as I said before schedules mean nothing here. And on Wednesday at 2pm the three of us volunteers get to have an hour of French lesson with one of the Sisters here. Then at 3pm until 6pm I work at the bakery. The bakery was started by a past volunteer from Italy named Lucca who was a baker. The bread is called “Pain de Lucca,” and is well known throughout the entire village. Even mammas and children on the road will often ask you for “Pain de Lucca.” I don’t actually make the bread, I only sell it. There are 2 or 3 guys who prepare the bread from a beautiful Italian oven in the mornings. I don’t mind working here actually, it is a good way to practice my French and get to know the faces of the villagers. One of my favourite moments so far at the bakery was when this little girl saw my face at the window selling bread and just burst into tears. Her face was priceless! Pure fear was in her eyes and she had to hide behind her brother. I just began to laugh because I found this really hilarious and she was bawling and poking her head behind her brother staring at me with these terrified eyes. Yep, I really am a scaring person. Even little children cry when they see me, hahah. She didn’t cry when she saw Karen who is also white so it obviously has to do with my face or something, hahah, who knows, but it is quite amusing as well as saddening that this is what has to happen with me and the little children here. Okay, I am exaggerating, this was the only time. Anyways, the bakery is supposed to close at 6pm, but of course here in Africa that means nothing. Some days there are people still buying bread at 20 past 6. It’s pretty funny here sometimes. I really wonder what the point of making schedules is when they mean absolutely nothing. So after the bakery I then come home and Tomas, Karen and I prepare our dinner together. We have quite a variety of food to choose from to cook. Some days we can cook potatoes, other days eggs, and then egg plant and rice or pasta. That’s about it. But oh the things you can come up with….it is just mind blowing. Like for example (hahah, Christina I haven’t been saying “like” anymore here, I think my habit will finally stop), we have a wonderful creation called “Po-Plant-Aroo,” which is potatoes and eggplants and I just added “Aroo” on the end to make it sound exciting. We eat lunch on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at the convent and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday is when we cook our own lunches. My cooking day is Friday and so far I have prepared tortillas with guacamole and scrambled eggs. Oh yes, and we have 2 giant avocado trees in our back yard but they aren’t ripe yet as well as 2 banana trees which I am enjoying greatly! After dinner and dishes we have our community pray time led by our one and only seminarian Tomas. We usually have about an hour to hang out before all of us are so exhausted and need to fall asleep which is usually around 9:30pm. I am learning some new chords on the guitar but haven’t had much chance to practice. We sometimes watch some films or t.v. series on our community laptop in the evenings which is really relaxing. And so that is how things are shaping up for me here. I am pretty busy here which is good because I like to be kept busy. I am working lots and I know that things will only get better in regards to language barriers and difficulties. But I do know that community wise things will get a little more difficult considering we will be adding 3 Italians with limited English to our community, but I really believe we are going to form a great community of 6 here.
Oh, I forgot to share about the recent trip myself, Sr. Daniela and Karen took to the village of Ariwara, 50km north of Aru and 50km south of the Sudan border. To travel 50km it took us 2 hours. When we saw the speedometer reach 45km/h it was pretty exciting! The reason for our slow travel is so that we reach our destination in one piece meaning that our heads aren’t completely bloody from being bashed into the sides of the car from racing over giant potholes. The roads in this area of Congo are apparently the worst in the country according to Sr. Daniela. It is absolutely terrible that there is no upkeep of the roads and that no one does anything about this. Even if they aren’t asphalt roads they could at least try to do something to keep these roads bearable to drive. And apparently in the rainy season you drive through puddles up to the door handles most of the way. On our drive there we picked up 5 mammas with 2 babies and a young girl who wanted a ride to Ariwara. They all squeezed in the trunk and away we went with one baby crying for the entire 2 hours. The landscape changed slightly, a little more savanna like with grass that gave you the image that a lion could appear from the grass at any moment. This image is quite accurate actually. Sr. Daniela said that 40 years ago there used to be a lot of lions in this area but when more people began living in this area they disappeared. Too bad, I was hoping I could catch sight of a Simba! (Simba means lion in Swahili). If the road wasn’t so terrible I would have really enjoyed the journey because the scenary is really beautiful. Parts of the road are lined with tall thin trees, then the tall Savanna grass and the typical Savanna tree that I am sure everyone can image when they think of Africa or the movie Lion King (it is tall and the branches stretch out giving lots of shade). I don’t know the name, but they’re really beautiful and usually have baboons and monkeys in them. The road runs parallel with the Ugandan border and we passed a few check points which were about 50m from the main road. The village of Ariwara is much bigger than Aru and is much flatter. I like Aru a lot better though, I found the people in Ariwara to be more aggressive and angry looking. I also noticed there were more drunk men wandering around. When we arrived we met the Sisters of the community here and one the Sisters who is a nurse showed us the hospital. It is the biggest hospital in this area, bigger than in Aru. They seem to be very proud of their hospital but really it is quite small and lacks many things. They have a maternity ward where I got to see a few newborns which were so small and precious; they then have an operating room, and pediatric ward, an emergency room, and injection room and then a general ward. Each room has about 8 beds, so it really isn’t very big. The emergency room has maybe 10 I think. After this we had a wonderful lunch with the Sisters and then toured the grande marche (big market). It is much bigger than Aru’s tiny market and I noticed that I was amazed by all the things they had there. For example, they actually had an official shoes store but all the shoes are used and a store that sold music. It is funny how this seems so great to me now when 2 months ago I would be thinking the opposite. I know already how much of a shock it is going to be when I enter a North American shopping mall. I am probably going to stand in the centre of the mall for 5 minutes with a gaping jaw, hahah. So I have to say Ariwara is a pretty cool place and it was a nice change to see a bigger place than Aru but I am not sure I would want to travel this road very often. I also feel already attached to little Aru where the people are so friendly and peaceful and things are close, familiar and beautiful in their simple way.