Mbuji Mayi

Reflections during the adult literacy teacher training in Mbuji Mayi, DR Congo, April 2–8, 2018

Here is how you get your baggage at Mbuji Mayi. Passengers and guys whom you can hire to retrieve baggage crowd on one side of a low platform and the baggage is carried in through a door on the other side and stacked in a holding area while an agent examines each tag and calls a name. Or number. I can’t get close enough to tell. My colleague Joseph is retrieving my bag. I get a glimpse of it coming through the door so I wedge my way forward and point it out, then retreat. I don’t think that speeds up the process but it does boost my confidence that my bag has arrived and Joseph will pick up the right one.

Many police officers are standing around in the small building, rubbing their fingers together and muttering something about drinks. I avoid looking them in the eye. Outside the building are many more petitioners of all ages and appearances. I would like to observe my surroundings but I don’t dare look up.


IMG_1390My colleague Hélène José, president of the Evangelical Mennonite women, and a helper—a thin woman who is her friend and insists on carrying my heavy bag where it can’t be rolled—walk me over to a café to wait in the shade while the other two team members on the flight, Sila, the literacy trainer, and Justice, an apprentice trainer and Tshiluba interpreter, get their belongings. I accept José’s offer of a drink and ask for my favorite orange Fanta, which I only drink here. She doesn’t order a drink for herself and friend. The bottle that comes is double size and not Fanta and not the same. I ask for more glasses to share it. Instead the waitress brings a second bottle of equal size and more glasses. The two women share that bottle, a yellow drink that they don’t much care for. When a young man comes around asking for a handout I offer him the rest of my drink. He looks insulted. The women finish off my bottle.

I had told them I couldn’t drink the whole bottle or I would have to go running to the bathroom. That starts a discussion about finding me a toilet, which I nip in the bud. Fortunately we are soon ready to go. According to the sign on the dashboard, this taxi runs on prayer. We make it to the guesthouse just fine.IMG_1394


They want to put me in a reportedly comfortable room “chez les soeurs” a few blocks away while the others stay in this more bare-bones guesthouse. But I have seen a room here because I was ushered to its bathroom. The room is tiny and there is no regular running water but I’m comfortable with the barrel-bucket-pitcher system. There is a fan. It is private. It’s all I need. I say I’d rather be here, with the rest of the team.

Water guy sells containers filled from distant well for 100 francs, about 6 cents, each.

José lives in Mbuji Mayi so Joseph didn’t reserve a room for her. But her home is a hard ride across the city on a motorbike. Joseph tells her he’s trying to stay within the budget. I tell her I’ll pay the $15 a night for her room. My staying in the guesthouse and having José with us turn out to be good decisions. We all hang out and talk in the evenings.


At the guesthouse we are served a late lunch of rice, greens with little bitter eggplants, chicken all skin and bones, and fried plaintains. I should just skip the meat and leave it for people who appreciate it. The rest is perfect.

José goes out that first day and comes back with groceries for me to keep in my room: bread, bananas, oranges, tea, sugar, packets of powdered milk, a big tub of Blue Band margarine, mayonnaise, napkins, toothpicks, and a huge thermos of hot water. She emphasizes that this is all for me.

The first evening I take all the groceries out into the gathering room and make myself tea. The other four show up and soon we are all drinking sweet, milky tea and eating bananas and bread slathered with margarine. Supper.

Over the next days the groceries in my room get replenished and supplemented with things like fresh-roasted peanuts, fried plantains, Nescafe, and eggs that the live-in manager, Giselle, makes into omelets. The groceries become breakfast and supper for all five members of the team. For lunch we have traditional Congolese food–greens, dried fish, bony chicken or tough beef, delicious tiny potatoes cooked with tomatoes and oil, fufu/bidiya (the staple that is as unappetizing as I remember), rice. José keeps asking me if I want other food but I tell her this is perfect, and it is. I develop a real taste for bread and Blue Band twice a day.

Joseph buys bananas; fresh-roasted peanuts; Giselle

I am expected to store lunch leftovers chez moi so we can have them in the evening. One afternoon my room smells like dried fish and ripe bananas.

Water stays hot in the big thermos for a day and a half. It’s nice to have the instant Starbucks Italian Roast I brought for myself in my room first thing in the morning. It’s nice to have company and a room to myself. I have all I need except WiFi, which means I can’t post much till I’m home. I turn on roaming for a few minutes in the afternoons and exchange texts my husband, check email.


Just as I am thinking it is all good, pow! A real bout of Montezuma’s Revenge. Or Mbuji Mayi’s Revenge. Pepto Bismol, which worked in Kinshasa, doesn’t touch it. I send out for the diarrhea medicine that my friend Dr. Mukinai introduced to me several years ago—Manadiar: a “Medicament Naturel–Efficace et Bien Toleré.” IMG_3713It’s cheap—$2.50 for 20 tablets—and it works. Remember this name if you are ever in Congo.

I take a day off to take the pills, nap, eat bananas, and drink tea. By evening I am restored. I have never had such a quick and total recovery from the traveler’s curse. Manadiar plus the prayers of the group.


The weather is astonishingly comfortable. Sun, rain now and then, breeze, not hot for very long, not too humid. I don’t even use the fan at night.IMG_1623


In Kinshasa my long skirts are almost out of fashion–even many older women are wearing pants and shorter skirts. Here almost everybody still wears long skirts.

Jose gives me two dresses made of the same pretty material because cloth comes in 6-yard lengths. What shall I do with two dresses of the same cloth? One, a simple caftan, is very wearable. The other, not so much.


A large banner has been strung on the street side of the compound wall where the workshop is being held announcing, with only one typo, what is going on inside. It is taken down every night so it will not be stolen. I can’t imagine who would want to steal a banner that says, “Literacy program: training seminar for adult educators organized by the Evangelical Mennonite Church in collaboration with the Mennonite Church of Congo, with the support of benevolent women of North America and AIMM, from April 2 to 10, 2018 in Mbuji Mayi.”IMG_2198


In the workshop, the 60 trainees quickly slip into the role of illiterate students, repeating after the instructor, waving their hands to read simple words and syllables, applauding each other. But on the first day the instructor asks them to find several people in the town who really can’t read and write, so the future teachers can learn the challenges and rewards of real teaching. Hélène José is dubious about this assignment. But the next day two of her colleagues show up with half a dozen women in tow. Sila is delighted until he discovers that they have already been learning for six weeks. The two teachers received rather minimal training from José and started classes. The students are from those classes. Sila wanted to start from scratch.

All is not lost, however. He learns that the teachers have neglected the writing part of the curriculum. So he teaches the visitors to write the syllables from the first lesson. They show a great deal of enthusiasm but they don’t come back the next day. They live across town and it is just too far to come.


The workshop is held in a long, narrow room. I worry about people in the back, with the babies, but everybody speaks loudly, in voices trained by loud singing. When people disagree with a response or something Sila says the class breaks out in shouting. When a response is called for, many hands shoot up. People are engaged.IMG_0355

The class is about evenly divided between young and older people, somewhat more women than men. The young catch on quickly, especially the young women. They are beautiful, too. I imagine their classes will fill quickly. It becomes clear that some of the older women in the back are floundering. Some of them don’t understand much French, although this was a requirement for participation. I have trouble understanding Sila, who speaks fast and drops the ends of words and phrases.


On the last day of class one of the teachers trained by José brings five visitors to the training, three women and two young boys who have never had any reading or writing lessons. But again Sila is upset. This time it is because the timing is wrong. The visitors could have learned quite a bit, demonstrating the effectiveness of the method, if they’d come early in the week and stayed. But this is the day he has planned to teach the final, advanced lessons. It is also the last day for practicing, with exams at the end of the day. José is put out, too, because she thought her friend was doing Sila a favor by rounding up true illiterates. They have come a long way and she doesn’t want to send them home.

They sit at the front of the long room while Sila lectures to the trainees for an hour and a half in French. Finally, when the trainees are dismissed to practice and be examined in groups, Sila asks Patrice to teach the visitors Lesson One. I stay to watch.


Patrice (red shirt) does a good job. The visitors master Lesson One and write their first words ever. The three women and two boys bask in Patrice’s loud and lavish praise. They are encouraged to continue learning with the woman who rounded them up in her neighborhood.IMG_1616


When the exam results come in at the end of the workshop, the division between the engaged people in the front of the class, many of them younger, and some of the older women at the back becomes clearer. It turns out I was not the only one who had trouble understanding the instructor. Many fail the test. We encourage them to apprentice to others who have mastered the simple but demanding method. Those who pass are enthusiastic, ready to get started.

I am ready to go home but it will take me three-plus days to get there.IMG_1676



3 thoughts on “Mbuji Mayi

  1. Your experiences are quite different from ours in Costa Rica and Spain. Way back in the late 1960s, Costa Rica literacy rates were above 80%. Spain, in 1973-74 was dominated by dictator Francisco Franco, so the education system and learning were rigidly controlled, mostly rote learning. You are a keen observer, a sympathetic colleague, and grateful traveler.

  2. I’ve seen statistics that say overall literacy rates in DRC are 77% and female 66% but that doesn’t square with my observations, especially in rural areas. Women leaders claim 80% of their female church members are functionally illiterate. In any case, there is a huge demand for literacy education and I am privileged to be part of addressing it.

  3. Pingback: Hungry to learn | the practical mystic

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