Thursday, December 16, 2010

Diversion: Christmas in Congo

For the last 3 posts, I have been sharing our early days in Congo on this blog. Today I want to share with you what a typical Christmas in Congo is like. Transport yourself to another world, the Third World country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo, and see that many of our traditions will not find themselves out there whatsoever. No Christmas trees. No decorations. No Santa. No gifts most likely. No snow. No malls. Try to start with a clean slate, which means erasing your childhood and adult memories that equate Christmas to you. As best as I know how, I will describe to you the surroundings that you would wake up to on Christmas morning. Here we go!

Christmas in Congo

Your bedroom consists of one small wooden bed frame covered with a grass-filled "mattress" gathered by you on a dry, sunny day. No dresser or chest of drawers enhances your bedroom, just a small trunk with yours and your siblings clothes locked inside; no comforters or soft sheets to cover up with, just maybe clothes or old rags. If you have visited the local boutique lately, you may have been able to purchase a small, lacey curtain to cover your screen-torn window.

The living room consists of a couple of unupholstered wooden chairs surrounding a small coffee table, and off to the side of the room is a somewhat larger table and two more chairs used for guests who drop by to visit and chat. The coffee table may boast a daily crocheted by the woman of the house after attending the Women's Literacy school where she has learned to sew, write her name, and read the Bible for the very first time. Some of the walls may be lined with Penney's catalogue pages with which children have been rewarded for memorizing Scripture in Sunday School. No Christmas tree will light up the room, and no decorations will give a festive mood.

There is no inside plumbing, no closets, no picture windows. The home will either be made of cement block, approximately 600 square feet with a tin roof, or it will be a mud/stick dwelling with a thatched grass roof, about 400 square feet. As many as four children will sleep in one bed. The average-sized family has eight to ten children because so many die in childbirth or from malaria, typhoid, measles, pneumonia, or who knows what. So your home may have three bedrooms with four or five kids in two of the bedrooms and a third "master bedroom" for the parents.

Your feet will not feel the comfort of rugs, but instead a dirt floor. There will be no pretty dishes, no wallpaper, no paint on the walls, few towels, no TV, and no kitchen cupboards. An outside kitchen, which is really more like a smoke house, sits close by. That way, if the kitchen catches on fire, at least the whole house doesn't burn down. meals are cooked over an open fire, no ovens, unless you have had one made out of mud brick. In either case, the aroma of Christmas cookies will not entice your senses.

Stark is the atmosphere, drab the surrounds, but stout are many hearts because their faith in Jesus is rich and firm. However, Christmas is still Christmas, and children are still children. you can make a big difference in the lives of these hard-working men and women of Laban and their precious families. One option we offer every Christmas is what we call The Dream Package. For $300 you can feed an entire family of 8 to 10, consisting of a meal of beef, rice, gravy, bread, chicken with palm oil and tomato sauce, luku (like a thick, thick porridge), greens, beans and cokes for the family. This Dream Package also includes a new cloth for the mother to make her a dress, a new pair of shoes or shirt for the father, clothes for each of the children as well as a toy. Will you pray about how you can make their Christmas Day special.

Your kindness will brighten up the dullness and flood their lives with holiday cheer and the love of Christ.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kikwit, a place you can spend a week in in a night

So after arriving in Kinshasa, Democratic of Republic on Dec 8, 1978, my husband, Jim and our three children Shawn, Nicol, and Todd with one more on the way, and I were rescued by a unique couple called the Voths. The next seven weeks we learned a few ropes in the capital city, met some wonderful fellow missionaries, and then it was time to leave.

We flew on a Mission Aviation Fellowship plane to the city of Kikwit, a town of then around 700,000 people, including several mennonite missionaries, none of whom we knew before. After Solomon (cook at the missionary guest house where we were residing) exhausted his culinary arts, specializing in burnt toast, eggs cooked quite well, and plain rice for lunch and dinner, our taste buds got desperate for a change. Gloriously, one day Jim went to the post office where we had established a mailing address, and brought home a large box, really large.

Ode to Joy! A box! For us? What could be inside and who sent it? We excitedly gathered around the table and with bated breath waited to discover what treasures could possibly be inside. The box was addressed to Jim's mom from his mom, and she sent it fourteen months before its arrival date by boat. Two things I remember clearly that were inside were her girdle and some packages of dried gravy. Shawn (10) and I grabbed the packs and jumped up and down all over the room. We exclaimed, "Brown gravy! Now we can have delicious gravy to go with our plain rice." The lack of variety in our food for 21 days released in us all a deep sense of gratitude for something so basic as a gravy mix! Rice never tasted so good after that!

Loneliness settled in and made itself at home in our family. Times were hard in Congo. Gasoline was hard to come by. We had no car. The missionary families in Kikwit used very conservative measures to make things last, which meant no one offered to pick us up for church, fellow shipping in homes, holding or attending Bible study, or just visiting one another. By now, I was 6 months' pregnant and had actually lost weight. Be that as it may, we all longed to be with other people, and so walking became our mode of transportation despite the heat and pregnancy issues.

The first gathering we attended was a Bible study at an older couple's home. I remember walking up hill and down for what seemed a long time to get there. No children were present. There were no other missionary children in Kikwit the same ages as our kids, but that was not a problem. We were all so homesick that age didn't matter. All we felt that night was the wonder of being with people and the momentary subsiding and dulling of the prickling pain of culture shock. Our children experienced the comfort of men and women who could be their grand parents whom thy missed terribly. We sat together and held hands the whole time.

Missionaries are their own breed of extremely independently thinking, opinionated, survivors. They have to be. Sometimes the mix is like oil and water. I grew to absolutely love two women missionaries in Kikwit. One was a single lady, and the other was married, who could possibly have been my mother. Both had served the Lord for years and years in Congo. They were a marvel to me. Two other servants of the Lord there did no understand my pain. One told me to just snap our of it, and the other's stern way made me want to run out of the room whenever she came around.

Then one day in waltzed a woman to the guest house I can see in my mind's eye as though she is standing before me now. Tall, built like my mother-in-law, well-endowed, hair done up in a bun, wearing a typical missionary flowered dress, black old lady shoes as I used to call them (they tied and had stout heels), no make up, but what a face she had: full of love, chiseled out of a broad spectrum of life I had yet to know, including hardship, joy, sorrow, miraculous acts of survival by God Himself, predicaments that only the Lord could get her out of, wisdom and CONTENTMENT!!! We spent just minutes together, but she made a profound impact on me. She equated the Presence of a Holy God. Immediately sensing my not fitting in, she put her arms around me. Instantly I felt peace. Then she said something I couldn't have disagreed with more. Something so strange and so unlikely unbelievable, and unwanted I shirked inside.

She said, "Congo gets in your blood." Short. Pungent. Ridiculous.

It will never get in my blood, I screamed inside. But it did. . . eventually.

Life continued in Kikwit for the next six weeks. Jim made regular trips to the post office, where at that time we actually received mail. Each time we greatly anticipated his return. Would there be more packages? Yes! One day another box came. This time we found food items that were to die for! Cocoa mix, packaged mac and cheese, canned meats, peanut butter, and goodies we had not tasted in more than a month. Food never tasted so good. The Voths came through once again.

That same night Nicol and I went into the dimly lit kitchen, and our kerosene lantern showed us around. We combined the cocoa mix with powdered milk and sugar and drank in the deliciousness of hot chocolate. It was heavenly. Visitors from the area knocked at our front door. Jim, Shawn, and Todd were not there. I brought the lantern through the living room and for some reason let the strangers in. They sat there with us. We didn't understand a word they said; nor did they understand us, but their concern for us transcended our lingual lacks. Because they knew that in the States we were never without electricity, knew that Jim's mom had died, and knew that Africa was not our homeland, they wanted to comfort us. So we sat in silence and took in their love.

Easter was upon us. It was April, 1979, We all walked to church together and then to a wonderful resurrection celebration. There must have been 20 of us missionaries meeting together. And you know what? One of the items was real potatoes made into potato salad. Oh bliss!

While in Kikwit, Jim was able to visit his mother's gravesite. His father is buried there as well. But they are not next to each other. Both bodies are buried in African soil to be resurrected one glorious day. Both are legends in Congo. Totally sold out, not really counting their lives dear unto themselves, they put their hands to the plow and never looked back. Heroes. Servants of the Most High God. How indebted I am to them for not taking the easy way out, the simpler route, for doing the hard stuff by God's grace. They set the bar high. They inspired. They both finished the race well. Marcella and Laban, I don't know how to thank you. Words aren't enough. You made decisions that changed my life forever!!! I love you.

Next step is moving into the Interior or the Bush of Congo. Kikwit would become a much wanted retreat with paved roads, on again, off again air conditioning, other expatriots, and shops opening up with a little bit of real food in them.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Part II: If i can be a missionary, anyone can!

Three months after arriving in then Zaire, Africa, we were ready to go on to the mission station of Nkara. Staying with the Voths for almost two months cemented our friendship til today. We love them dearly and, though they would never take any credit for helping our agonizing souls hold on and brace ourselves for what was ahead, the Lord knows how much of a Godsend they were. We so love you, Jody and Lee.

I will back track a little. During the 7 weeks we were privileged to begin the acclimation process to a third-world country in a state of the art home like the Voths were blessed with, we experienced some wonderful times. The first one was to meet other crazies like ourselves who decided to serve God in Africa. There were several MAF families there who to this day hold a special place in our hearts, plus a missionary couple, Jim and Dawn Sawatsky, a peace corp gal at the time by the name of Sharon Kenna, who later would come to live on our mission campus for a year, Wayne and Sylvia Turner, Jim and Sue Comer, Gary and Sharon Wagner (MAF), Bob and Carol Fish (Carol would later be instrumental in saving Shawn's life), and others whose names do not come to mind right now.

Since I felt like we had moved to Mars, I just didn't know if I could cope, and so one day early on, Jody sent me to the home of a couple I cannot for the life of me recall as far as their names are concerned. Their faces are brilliantly clear though. I remember sitting on the couch, asking this missionary wife if I could go in with her on a food shipment from South Africa. All that was available on the shelves in the capital city at that time were flour and tomato paste. The president had pretty much made it clear that x-patriot businessmen were not welcomed in Kinshasa, so limited availability of supplies, such as food and everything else really, made it necessary to order goods from South Africa.

Ah, her name was Jeanie and, after discussing the logistics of sharing an order, I looked at her straight in her eyes and asked, "How do you cope?" Rather surprised by my question, she said, "I beg your pardon?" So I said it again. "How do you cope?" and began crying. She came over on the couch and comforted me. Here was a woman who flight followed her MAF pilot husband everyday, seemed content and even happy to be there, and I was sure she could give me some secrets to how she maintained her sanity. She assured me I could do this. I didn't believe her.

On Wednesday nights the missionary community and whomever else desired rotated attending homes to eat wonderful food I would miss terribly once we went into the Interior, encourage each other by sharing their frustrations, testify of the grace of God in their lives, and pray together. Every Friday morning, Dawn Sawatsky opened up her home to anyone who wanted to pray and seek God's face. I so looked forward to Wednesdays and Fridays; and then on Monday nights, there was Bible study to attend at the Voths, which Jim often led, and Sunday we gathered at the International Church of Kinshasa to worship together. Life became bearable because of people sold out to God willing to share their lives with me. I settled into a pleasant routine, knowing it would come to an end soon enough.

That "end" seemingly came after about 5 weeks when we thought we were ready to leave for Nkara. All our bags were packed, and missing Jody before I even got out the door, I feigned courage to say good bye and climbed into the car that would take us to board an MAF plane and fly to Kikwit for the next stage of our life in Africa, since there was no airstrip at Nkara. Kikwit was 60 miles south of Nkara, and we would fly there first to make arrangements to drive to Nkara. As we pulled out of Voths' driveway, Jody smiled and said, "I won't change the sheets til I hear you have safely landed in Kikwit."

After driving all the way to the MAF hangar, when we passed through the gates, we were told we lacked one document needed to clear passage into the Interior. What? You're kidding, right? No., no one was kidding. Back into the car we climbed and drove back to the Voths. Jody had not changed the sheets. She knew life in Congo all too well.

That night at the supper table, I apologized with embarrassment for having to return to stay with them for a longer time until we were truly ready to leave. Hot tears poured down my cheeks. Then, gently Lee Voth, with a twinkle in his eye said, "Now we will have none of that talk. Obviously, the timing is not right for you to leave us. You are not to be embarrassed or ashamed about staying with us. You are part of our family. God wants you here. We want you here."I will NEVER FORGET THAT MOMENT. His kind words were a balm to my soul. And I began to think how wonderful that we had another chance to live with people I dearly loved for a little while longer.

During the next two weeks, we were given advice by another missionary lady who, along with her husband, served the Lord faithfully for many years in Congo. She told Jim that she really felt strongly about our spending a good amount of time in Kikwit to take more time to adjust to Africa before going to Nkara. How I wish I could see her today and tell her how invaluable that advice proved to be.

So that's what we did. We traveled to Kikwit and ended up staying at the Guest House Jim's dad had practiced dentistry in twice a year for two weeks. He had built an office there, and Jim's mom at one time had run the guest house, which was a haven for travel-worn missionaries. Kikwit was a large town with paved roads, a port city built on the Kwilu River, which could not be traveled any further south because of the rapids of the Kwilu. Hot and humid, we found sleep hard to come by. A national by the name of Solomon was the "cook" there. Simple meals awaited us each day, like burnt toast, a couple of eggs (for 5 people) which we took turns eating, and plain rice, Since we didn't know our way around Kkwit and had no car, we didn't know what other foods were available. We assumed that Kikwit was like Kinshasa, and for a couple of weeks ate these blah meals until one day, when a package arrived that my mother-in-law had sent 14 months earlier by boat.

To be continued. Don't want to wear you out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

December 6, 1978 - If I can do it, anybody can!

Thirty two years ago today, we boarded a plane and arrived two days later in the country known then as Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, a mammoth country 1/3 the size of the US. Scared, pregnant, and feeling ill-equipped for the mission field, from which I had always run, I sat numb in my seat.

Upon our arrival in Kinshasa I robotically made my way to the door to deplane and walked out into a sauna-like atmosphere. We were on our own. No one was there to greet us. No one even knew we were coming.

"We" consisted of my husband, Jim, born in what was then called the Belgian Congo of great stock: Dr. and Mrs. Laban and Marcella Smith. Laban we were told was the first oral surgeon in the history of the Congo. He lost his first wife to a brain tumor, which threw him into a tailspin of despair while trying to rear their two small children and maintain two dental practices on the East side of Detroit. He met Marcella while attending a small chapel where, after hearing Flossie Knopp preach one day, received Christ as his Savior. Marcella and Laban lived in a beautiful home in Grosse Pointe across the street from Lindberg's mother and not too far from the Dodges and other automobile executives. He had a taste for the finer things of life, but one day he called Marcella from the office and said, "God is calling us to Congo." Marcella had other thoughts. She told Laban he was too zealous, that he should pray more. He did. When she realized his zeal was not going away and that there may be more to it than just hyperenthusiasm, she wrote a mission board in Ohio, applying for approval to go as missionaries to the Congo. As she dropped the letter in the mailbox, she said, "Lord, I've done my part. Now please do yours, and see that this letter gets lost." It didn't, and off they went with two small children to Africa, never looking back. Laban wrote in his diary at the mission station of Kajiji on August 31, 1939, "Lord, I have covenanted for 10,000 of these precious souls. I thank you for the fire you have kindled in my heart, and may it never go out." He yearned to win 10,000 souls to Christ in Congo in exchange for his 10,000 patients in America. He got what he asked for. Jim grew up in the awe and wonder of first hand, pioneer missions.

In addition to Jim and me, we took our three children: Shawn, age 10, Nicol, age 8, and Todd, age 5. We collected our bags at the terminal, and a wave of nausea swelled over me as we made our way to a taxi waiting outside. The drivers of the two taxis our baggage required held up a one hundred dollar bill and said, "We want 3 of these." After negotiating with the men, we were on our way through the garbage and debris-lined streets of the sprawling capital.

We made our way to a place called CAP last visited in 1969 by Jim and I, when we took a trip to Congo to see if the Lord was calling us there. I remember standing at Laban's grave, 4 months' pregnant with Nicol, asking God if Congo was in His plan for us. Inside I prayed that it would never be in His plan. He didn't listen. Jim's missionary "Aunt Renie and Uncle Howard" were running the hotel then, and it was quite appealing. Nine years later it boasted one grey towel, half clean sheets, and hosted cockroaches, lizards, and mosquitos. My nausea intensified.

Diarrhea set in a couple of days later, but we managed to attend The International Church of Kinshasa. Visitors were asked to stand and introduce themselves. Jim did so and explained we were on our way to the Interior or Bush to meet his mother who had preceded us by a month, or so we thought. The next day, Dr. Fountain, a missionary doctor, met Jim on the porch and told him Marcella had died 3 weeks before at Nkara, where we would eventually make our home.

Jim sank in disbelief and the aroma of death was paralyzing. We were perplexed as well by the paperwork needed for us to go up country. Things had changed drastically in just 9 years. We just got there, but the thought of returning to America passed through our minds.

The next day out of seemingly no where, a lady by the name of Jody Voth appeared at our door step. She said, "Get your bags packed. You're coming home with me, and I don't want any arguing." Now, I am a shy person by nature, but I knew God had sent an angel, and so I ran back into the room and started packing.

We went from a non-rated excuse for a hotel to a comfortable, air-conditioned, beautifully furnished embassy home. Oh joy! Jody had heard Jim's testimony, went home and told her husband she sensed the Lord wanted them to take us in, and after he agreed, she came to get us. In my heart of hearts I will always believe that the Voths are the biggest reason we stayed in Congo.

We lived with them for 7 weeks, after which we made our way to Kikwit (a town of 700,000 people at thst time) after all our paper work was in order, staying there 6 weeks, and then into the bush at the mission station of Nkara. I dealt with all kinds of emotions depending on my hormonal level from Dec 6 to early March when we arrived at Nkara, but was sure once we got there, the will of God would fit like a glove. Not!

There is so much more to the story. Come back tomorrow for more. This is enough for one setting.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Evangelism in the boonies

We live in what is known as the Interior. It's a stretch to call it the country. Commonly referred to as the Bush, the best way to describe what it is may be to describe what it is not available there.

There is no electricity provided by the area or wells, let alone running water.

Hospitals and medical care facilities are few and far between. The nearest hospital in our area is a 2 1/2 day walk.

No paved roads.


There used to be no phone service, but now we enjoy the incredible technology of cell phones.

No internet, but we did have satellite TV this summer, which allowed us to watch the World Cup in Johannesburg!

Not many missionaries from America or other lands. Pillaging has discouraged many plus taxation.