“Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”
― Wendell Berry
[Journal entry, Democratic Republic of Congo – 2003]
This trip has changed me.
I’m not sure what I expected when I landed here. But it wasn’t this. This is a country on the backside of civil war. It is a country full of paradoxes. We landed in Lubumbashi on an old and abused Russian jet that was questionable at best. The airport also serves as a military base and there were anti-aircraft guns and junked out planes along the runway. We waited for a couple of hours for our passports to get stamped before heading to the hotel.
Lubumbashi feels post-apocalyptic. There are still soldiers with machine guns barricaded behind sandbags on street corners. Though the war is over, there are reminders on every street of the fighting that went on here.
But it’s the hotel that I find the most surreal. There was a time that it was obviously a nice place. It was a grand old hotel from another age. It was the kind of place that you can imagine dignitaries and high rollers, from all over the world, came decades before for their African adventures into the Congo. But that was another time that held its own darkness beneath the glamour. Now the hotel is run down and beat up like the rest of the city.
What makes this place surreal isn’t that it’s run down. It’s that they’re acting as if it’s not.
Everyone who works here acts as if everything is not just normal, but that the hotel is still in its prime. The doormen and bell hops wear those weird uniforms that I’ve only seen in movies. Except they’re worn and tattered. There are clay tennis courts. But the nets are torn and there are craters in the courts from mortar shell explosions. There is a grand piano in the large ornate lobby. But one of the legs is missing and propped up with a board. In my room, there is a telephone that doesn’t work. I followed the cord to find that it was simply placed behind the headboard of the bed where there was no place to plug it in. It’s not just that the phone didn’t work now. It’s that this room was never wired to have a phone at all. In the morning, they served breakfast by the pool. The breakfast was eggs. Just eggs. The pool was so green with algae that you couldn’t see the bottom.
Good morning. Would you like another egg?
Later that day we drove back to the airport to meet our bush pilot, Gaston who will flew us to our destination, a village called Kamina, deeper into Congo.
The pastor that I traveled with came there the year before when things were much worse. He watched the soil get pushed over a mass grave of children who were shot by soldiers at a feeding station and presided over the funeral with Bishop N’Tambo, the Methodist bishop of the region. Starvation was common in a land that has abundant natural resources. When I arrived, bullet holes in buildings could be seen most everywhere including the house I was staying, and young adult men were visibly absent. Killed by both war and AIDS. At night, you could hear the sounds of drums carried through the night signifying yet another death.
To be so remote, there were few sounds of nature there. No birds singing. Just smoke from brush fires. The practice of burning over brushland to hunt game has decimated wildlife populations. Riding in the back of a Toyota pickup truck with my camera when the driver was forced to punch through a wall of fire to keep us from getting trapped. N’tambo himself had survived assassination attempts during the war. His family had been exiled during the conflict and he had returned to the area with the singular focus to build in the face of that war. He didn’t want to simply put things back together. He wanted to build them better than they had ever been.
His life was an extraordinary one. As a younger man, he had literally paddled down the Congo River starting new churches. Jon Mac, the pastor I traveled with told me of a previous trip where he witnessed the bishop talk down a group of armed rebels with a box of Bibles in his hands. These are the kind of stories most people think as fairy tales.
He was a strong man with a big personality and enormous influence in the region. Now, he was working to rebuild his beloved Kamina. At first, acquiring a portable sawmill to mill lumber from the neighboring forest and using modernized building techniques to build new churches in Kamina and the surrounding villages. Replacing thatched roofs with metal, these churches functioned as community centers to build out from. He then began digging fresh water wells, building schools and establishing medical clinics. It was with a medical team that I and the Jon Mac traveled with on this trip. A few years later he would start building canals to drain water from the land to reduce the mosquito population and ultimately reduce the spread of malaria.
When I got there, N’Tambo had just acquired the land to develop a ranch to not only grow food, but teach local people how to grow and prepare new and more nutritious types of food. Finally, he showed me the foundation that had been laid to eventually build a university. Three years later when I returned, it was well under construction.
It’s not just that he was trying to build a better infrastructure. He was building hope.
The birds may not have sung, but the people did. I can assure you, you’ve never heard something so beautiful as the sound of a hurting people singing with hope and joy.
Walking through the village in the afternoons and evening I could hear singing everywhere. Outside the churches, groups of people would gather under the shade of trees and practice their songs. The harmonies they created as they blended their voices into sounds and rhythms that sounded as natural as the wind and as old as time itself. Often, I would sit with them and just listen and take it all in. Foregoing whatever task I had set out to do, just to be in that place for a while. No one was expecting me to be punctual.
Time moves differently there. It’s something akin to what people know as island time. And island time undoubtedly originated here. N’tambo told me early on, when I was being impatient about being late for some appointment, that “In America you keep time while in Africa we make time.”
I use an adaption of this phrase regularly now when I feel myself or those around me are pressed for time unnecessarily.
We don’t keep time here. We make time.