Ndjoko Punda

We have just emerged from the heart of internet darkness. Still, in the bustling city of Lubumbashi, at the southern tip of the Democratic Republic of Congo, electricity and wi-fi are intermittent so I will post this when I can and put pictures at the end because that’s the easiest way to deal with mobile technology.

So much to write and yet I want to go out and do, too, because Vic and I are in L’shi for the first time since we lived here in 1973-74. So until we gather energy to walk up to the new shopping center that has sprung up near the new golf course on the edge of a newly created lake, I’ll scribble a bit. Much has changed in this relatively prosperous town in the copper mining region. It is bigger now. We don’t recognize much. Tomorrow we’ll go look for the street we used to live on and visit the university where Vic taught and maybe try to find the hospital where our daughter was born.

We spent last week in the province of Kasai Occidentale, mostly in the dusty diamond town of Tshikapa, which is HQ of the Mennonite Church of Congo. We attended another ordination that included a woman, talked to many, many people, met friends and made new ones, and Vic and I took a river trip to Ndjoko Punda, the ultimate stop on this pilgrimage.

On the eve of this whole trip, back around September 18, I had a dream about looking across a wide river through windows without glass. In the river were large crocodiles, dangerous but not immediately threatening. A parade of animals walked by on the opposite bank–zebras, giraffes and what I at first identified as a wildebeest. But it turned out to be a combination of centaur and unicorn–a wildebeest with a human torso and head which looked like that of a sorcerer, and out of this head grew a single, tree-like antler.

My sense was that the spirits were waiting for us on the other side of the river. Not clearly good or evil but powerful.

When we were waiting on the edge of the river last Thursday for Kazadi, the volatile dinghy pilot, to get the tiny rubber boat and outboard motor ready to go down the Kasai River, I recognized the place of my dream and I thought about crocodiles. We didn’t see any but something was there, churning up difficulties at every stage of the trip.

This trip will be a chapter in a book some day. There is the short version: we did get to Ndjoko Punda. We did hear and record the Grand Tam Tam choir. And we did get back safely. And there is the long version, the book chapter. I am trying to see if I can get an intermediate blog version out of it. It might go something like this:

We did go to Ndjoko Punda but not when we planned to go and not with the person we had been negotiating with extensively and not entirely on our own, thank goodness, because Vic and I would never have managed sorting out all the complications ourselves. French didn’t cut it; Tshiluba was essential. And it was clear that we were very, very white with all the cultural baggage that brings with it. We were so white that we scared babies. Literally.

We did hear and record the Grand Tam Tam choir–and seven other choirs that we did not ask to hear and really did not have time to listen to because our time was compressed by the difficulties of getting there. It was glorious and hectic.

We did get back safely, our pockets empty of cash. Along the way we learned quite a bit about artisanal diamond mining along the river; how to repair rubber dinghies; and negotiating the rapids in the Kasai River as well as the ravines that used to be roads in Ndjoko Punda (on the back of motorbikes). We did spend the last two hours of the trip churning up the river at top speed in the dark, no moon. Fortunately, Kazadi, who had little sense of time and got into one fistfight along the way, did know his river. And the stars were lovely!

Actually, the whole trip–including an overnight stay with our fellow Mennonites at this 100-year-old former mission–was lovely, hard, exciting, and worth every dollar we spent and gave, even those we hadn’t budgeted.

I have had my wished-for adventure. I am rather proud of myself for insisting on it though it seemed impossible at many points. The spirits where there, waiting and powerful. Presiding over all, though, was Holy Spirit. We were blessed and I do not use that term lightly. I think we were a blessing, as well.

And now we are lolling in luxury in a lovely guesthouse and acting like regular tourists. As the plane from Kinshasa filled up last night with wealthy-looking expats and Africans who were also going to Lubumbashi, we felt like country bumpkins. The dust of Tshikapa was under our toes, I was wearing glad Congo cloth. I hadn’t looked in a mirror for 10 days. We had come from a different world.

I love that world we came from. People from there are calling us–just now one more scratchy call from Ndjoko Punda and this morning at sleepy 7 am a call from Tshikapa–to make sure we have arrived safely but I feel that somehow, with all our advantages (including enough cash but also the care we are given) we will always arrive safely. How can we reciprocate such care?

P.S. As I go to awkwardly load photos onto this post, for some reason this boat picture, of someone else’s dinghy, is the last picture available. Nothing after that except a few I took this morning. A whole lot of black pictures. I’m sure they’ll show up sometime, just not when I need them. That’s the way this whole NP business has been. Spirits? Just sayin’.


Tour director

People ask, Are you getting ready for your trip? My next trip to Congo is less than a month away and yes, there is some kind of prep nearly every day. Today it is getting the overdue haircut I’ve delayed so that it will last until I get back and stopping at the health food store to stock up on probiotics to ward off digestive problems.

Emails, too. I receive confirmation that St. Anne’s in Kinshasa has my revised reservation for 4 rooms. (See this blog for a picture.) Nothing yet from Jeffrey Travels (except that they received my message and would get back to me the next day, which was yesterday) or Bougain Villa in Lubumbashi, where I asked yesterday for reservations. They responded promptly to my request for information, which is one reason I decided to go with them but now I’m wondering. So much depends on promptness and accuracy of communication. Successful communication in a place like Congo always seems miraculous.

Hoping to stay here in Lubumbashi

Hoping to stay here in Lubumbashi

This is not prejudice but reality. The St. Anne guesthouse manager assures us they have consistent Wi-Fi because they have a generator. That’s what it takes even in the capital city, where electricity and water are intermittent, postal service iffy. Cell phones are lifelines but I’ve discovered that my hearing and French are not up to understanding everything through crackly international cell connections.

My mind is in Congo much of the time. I am thinking everything out, imagining every event and excursion and night of rest because someone has to on a trip like this. That responsibility has fallen to me though nobody asked me to do it. Taking charge of this trip, this pilgrimage, and my fellow pilgrims, is more like an ethical response.

Of the 5 Americans who are going to Congo to attend the same two events — ordination of the first women in the Congo Mennonite Church in two cities — I am the only one who has been to the country recently and who is fluent in French. Except for my husband, whose French is rusty and whose Congo experience dates to the 1970s, my fellow travelers have never been to Africa and speak little to no French. So what was I to do? I couldn’t exactly let them fend for themselves, could I?

I suppose I could have, but that would practically guarantee some really bad experiences. Not that I can prevent all bad things from happening, but I want people to experience as much of the good as possible. I have been intrigued, enlightened, charmed, and forever changed by my two recent trips to this amazing country. So I have decided to embrace the role of tour director and see what I can learn from it, see whether I can help others find themselves, love, Jesus, friends, and more good things in Congo, as I have done. So here goes.

There’s always something. Two days ago it was a rumor that plane connections to and from Tshikapa were only Wednesday and Friday. There goes the Monday flight that was supposed to bring my fellow travelers back to the capital for their Tuesday flight home. But it turns out that the report was incomplete. The domestic airline had actually added flights. You can now get to this diamond-mining town in the middle of nowhere, which is home base for the Congo Mennonite Church, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday instead of just on Monday. Phew.

But wait. Wasn’t I going on this trip to write? I’ll try to wedge that in somewhere.

tshikapa walk

Fellow travelers walking in downtown Tshikapa last July


Preparing for a pilgrimage


photo by Nina Lanctot

I am going to Congo again in a month. These trips are never easy and this one is especially complicated because I have taken responsibility for most of the arrangements for a small delegation of people who haven’t been there before.

I guess I’m the expert since I’ve been there twice in the last year but when a place we counted on staying turns out to be booked, I’m stumped.

And how much will translators cost for my fellow travelers?

And how the heck can we get to Ndjoko Punda?

I ask myself regularly, why am doing this? Remind me!

Sometime before my first recent visit, in May 2012, (my first visit since the 1970s) I got the sense that going to Congo would be a sacred journey. I don’t know why, exactly. My involvement with the Congo Cloth Connection–which was all about beauty–had revived my dormant crazy Africa love. But this was about more than sentiment, more than a romanticized attachment to things Congolese. I decided to prepare for that trip as if it would be a pilgrimage.

Before I went I prepared with prayer, offerings, and ceremony. When I was in Congo I tried to see every event and circumstance with the eyes of the heart. I considered the possibility that every step I took over garbage-strewn streets was on sacred ground, that every traffic jam was a trial on the journey to a sacred destination. And that was as close to the truth of that trip as any story I can tell about it. God was everywhere! I thought often of labyrinths. At the center of the labyrinth of rutted streets was the outdoor funeral; the roofless church building bursting with praise; the dinner served in the hot, crowded home; the store stacked with gorgeous cloth.

kalonda exteriorjs

Because of that experience the second trip, just two months later, became even more obviously a pilgrimage. It was a celebration of the centennial of the Mennonite Church in Congo, a visit to places and people important to that history. Like any true pilgrimage, that trip was full of trials for me–an injury to my knee, too many encounters with noisy, welcoming crowds–but these did not diminish the sacredness of the experience. On that trip the holy of holies for me was the unique music of Congolese church choirs.

So I am now setting out on a third pilgrimage, this one with three themes. The first is choirs. They are calling me back and I want to bring my husband into that experience. Vic is going with me and we are going to listen to and record/video as many choirs as possible. We are going to great lengths (upriver in a rubber raft with a diamond trader) to record the best choir I heard last July, a choir whose music seemed to come directly from the spirit world.

The second is to celebrate the ordination of the first women as pastors in the Mennonite Church of Congo. That is what brings our fellow travelers with us. We all come to celebrate with these women and the church that has taken this step. I have writing assignments around that and, in fact, I am writing about all of this. The two ordination services we will attend will be splendid, full of music and spirit. They will bring the Mennonite community together and we will be among friends.

Finally, Vic and I are making a personal pilgrimage to Lubumbashi, the city where we lived for two years back in the 1970s. Is the hospital where our daughter was born still standing? Have the shattered windows in the university administration building been repaired and does the chemistry lab have running water? Will the Park Hotel still host us in shabby grandeur? Is the French Consulate swimming pool, where Joanna took her first steps, still open? We will try to find our airy little house on Ave. des Mandariniers, surrounded by jacarandas, poinsettias, and hibiscus, but who knows.

All of this feels holy. Pilgrimages include trials, like squat toilets and iffy lodging, and the trials begin now as I deal with logistics, not my favorite thing to do at all. The rewards lie ahead.