There was a commotion outside our room yesterday morning. I opened the shutters and saw a group gathered around two travel-worn women who had set their suitcases down in the dust. Loud chatter and then a brief prayer. I went out to join the welcome party. The delegation from Bandundu North had arrived! Hugs all around.
It was the last day of the four-day Consultation of the Federation of Mennonite Women of Congo. Or, as they call themselves, more charmingly, the Fédération des Mamans Mennonites.These two Mamas had traveled to Tshikapa from Kikwit by a succession of vehicles, each of which had broken down. They ended up making their way mostly on foot. It had taken them more than a week.
A few hours later these women were in church, dressed in their finery, fresh as daisies. They sang a duet in sweet harmony and testified to the glory of God that they had gotten here at all. Never mind that the business of the meeting was all over, that they had missed the exhortations, inspirations, fellowship, and arguments. They were here, safe and sound!
Their story was not unique. Most of the 34 delegates who had gathered expended considerable effort, and money they couldn’t afford, to get there. The church has 11 ecclesiastical provinces, each allotted 5 delegates. Considering the appalling condition of most roads and the expense of flight (the round trip from Kinshasa costs $690), the fact that 34 out of 55 managed to get there was a real triumph.
One of the other delegations from Bandundu Province had simply walked. It took them a week. They weren’t complaining. They didn’t even mention it until another provincial leader, asked why she had come alone, without her allotted delegation, said there simply wasn’t enough money to bring everybody, that she had come on the back of a motorbike at her own expense. She didn’t get any sympathy, though I have heard a tough American man describe that particular motorbike trip of more than 24 hours, from Ilebo to Tshikapa, as “punishing.”
Congolese women can out-tough American men any day, and they make American women feel like pampered shrinking violets. As my friend and I slept 9 or 10 hours a night to recover from the hot days and long meetings, the Federation officers in the room next door stayed up all night praying or woke up at 4 to talk business. Self-pity is not encouraged. “Don’t think you deserve an easier life,” one woman said in a lecture in which she described the suffering and hardship that these women understood all too well. “Accept your responsibilities. Trust God to help you.”
Suck it up and trust God. It’s something we Americans could practice a bit more. On the other hand, I wondered, as the meetings dissolved frequently into loud argument, whether the toughness takes its toll in other ways. Couldn’t we have a little more kindness and gentleness? How about that namby-pamby concept of self- care?
Maybe a Congolese woman’s idea of self-care is to put on pretty clothes, sing at the top of your voice, and dance. There’s something to be said for that.