Mots de circonstance

Now that I’ve returned from my 15-day trip to DR Congo I’ll be posting more reports. See the “Congo” category on this site.

The Congolese have a sense of occasion, the importance of protocol and doing things right, especially when it comes to programs and celebrations. This places special demands on an introvert like me.

On Good Friday I was front and center in two ceremonial occasions in Kinshasa. The most challenging thing for me as a guest of honor is delivering the expected mot de circonstance, literally, a word about the occasion, presumably fit for the occasion. For one occasion I had prepared remarks; for the second I had not and was able to wing it. People responded well (clapping, blowing whistles, amen amen). They are very generous. I’ve learned not to worry, be as warm and charismatic as I can manage, and the French will come out pretty easy, especially when I’m well rested.

The first ceremony was the presentation of certificates to the first 20 students to complete the 55-lesson literacy course taught by the teachers we trained exactly one year ago.


The new readers, their teachers (top row), literacy trainer Timothée Sila (far left), coordinator Joseph Nkongolo (front, red and gray shirt), AIMM executive Rod Hollinger-Janzen, and me.

There were enough official speeches, by many people besides me, to give proper weight to the occasion. And enough singing by the gathered crowd of teachers, students, and families and by invited choirs to charge up the joy that was already brimming over.

I was moved to tears by the two new readers who read speeches they had written. I don’t know what they said because it was in Lingala but those were the ultimate mots de circonstance. Here is a snippet.

Such celebrations are not frills but absolutely essential. Many other teachers and students, besides those graduating and their teachers, travelled from far across Kinshasa the Impossible to be there (all told, 19 classes have been initiated, with more than 400 students). The dedication of the teachers, who are volunteers, and the courage and hard work of the single moms, middle-aged and elderly women, teenage boys, and men who say, “I can’t read and I want to learn,” deserve to be celebrated. The transformation of lives–teachers as well as students–must be celebrated. I have never seen anything quite like it.

We were told the celebrations went on all day and night in the households of the finalists.


The second ceremony was in my honor and in honor of my home church. It was given by my church family in Kinshasa, the Bondeko (“solidarity”) congregation, to celebrate a large gift Kern Road had given to buy land for the construction of a school.

I felt right at home on the porch of Pastor François’s house as he proclaimed his properly phrased mot de circonstance across the courtyard of gathered congregants, his voice carrying over the shrieks of a neighbor’s new pups on the other side of a wall.

When my turn came I encouraged them for the big task they’ve taken on and talked about some of the hard work we’ve done together. I praised their vision for the school and promised we’d bring a delegation at the appropriate time to visit the pupils in their shining uniforms. I accepted their words of profound thanks, and the occasion itself, on behalf of my congregation. I partook of the feast. Here I am with some young people of the congregation and my fellow visitors, Rod Hollinger-Janzen and Zac Bowman Cooke of Africa Inter Mennonite Mission (AIMM), the  organization sponsoring literacy program.


(I’m not exactly a fashion model but I love this dress, which is by Zuri, made in Kenya.)


Another mot de circonstance was expected several days later at the opening of the third workshop to train literacy teachers, this one in Mbuji Mayi in Eastern Kasai province.

I had prepared remarks but my friend Rev. Jean-Felix Cimbalanga, president of the Evangelical Mennonite Church headquartered in Mbuji Mayi, went ahead of me and said much of what I intended to say about the history of the project. It was good to hear him proudly claim a role in the planning. He was one of the male leaders to whom the women leaders and I had to “sell” the proposal after we fleshed it out in Burkina Faso in November 2016.

While Jean-Felix was booming away, I greatly shortened my remarks and pulled up this photo on my computer of Claudine Lutondo, one of the certificate recipients in Kinshasa four days earlier. She had been grinning throughout the hours-long ceremony.


I walked down the aisle among the 60 Mbuji Mayi trainees, many of whom had made long, jarring trips on the backs of motorcycles over rutted roads and through military checkpoints, arriving safely and on time for this training workshop. They had literally gone through hell and high water to get there, and receiving this training meant they would carry huge responsibility back to their distant towns and villages.

I explained who Claudine was and made sure that each participant could see her beaming face. I assured them they would see that face many times over among their future pupils. The energy in the room, which was already pretty high, kicked up a notch.

One picture is worth a thousand mots de circonstance.

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