Travelin’ shoes


These shoes are traveling in my suitcase. They’re for a bride in Kinshasa, DR Congo, and her mom, and good luck to them tottering up the aisle! They’re sent by the bride’s older and younger sisters who are in the US.

I am going to Congo again. This is an unfolding story with a plotline that I would never have predicted when I went back to the Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2012 for the first time in 40 years. It is about women and their aspirations. Continue reading

An ordination in Kinshasa

I set my meditation timer and then spot a mosquito dancing against the screen that frames my view of the Congo River in our room at Procure Ste. Anne. I spend the first meditation minute chasing down and killing the mosquito.

Later, after breakfast, I go up toward my room on the third floor. But my husband has stayed down at the desk to sign us up for dinner and he has the key. As I wait in the open stairway, I hear a fugue of chants rising from a distant room. A choir of nuns? We are after all staying in a monastery guesthouse. But a woman’s voice becomes louder and I see the singer coming out of a room. She is the cleaner. A minute later a man comes up the stairs carrying a mop and bucket. He begins singing softly and his chant twines with hers, rising unearthly in the high corridors.

The sacred and the mundane are never far apart here.

I’m not sure what I’ll remember of the ordination service yesterday, when it’s all said and done. How hot I was five hours. Spotting so many faces in the crowd of 500? 1000? people whom I knew or thought I knew. The fact that I hadn’t remembered to try to estimate the size of the crowd, what kind of journalist am I. The glorious harmonies of two men’s choirs and “Mamas United.” The bangy, screeching, amplified instrumentals of another. Amplification and French mixed with Lingala and my hearing impairment making it difficult for me to understand anything, even with a translator behind me (what kind of journalist am I, thinking I can report on this, knowing this about my limitations.)

Taking my own discomforts and preferences out of the picture, I remember the attention of the crowd, the church leaders, the speakers, the prayers being directed at two women being ordained. Plus two men. The four sat dressed in black, head to toe to fingertip, facing the crowd from a corner and backed by their spouses, who later stood behind them like shadows on the platform as they were instructed, prayed over, and, finally, ordained. The women were the stars of this occasion, a century-old church naming women as pastors for the first time. “Révérende” with an e.

During the moment itself, they were surrounded by other ordained people who were present, many men. But the American women who are traveling with me are also ordained, and they were invited onto the platform. Sandy went up and joined the prayers over the kneeling candidates. She was asked to offer a spoken prayer for one of the candidates. Singing went on. After a while the crowd on the platform parted and the ordinands emerged, wearing clerical robes over their black suits. The newly ordained pastors remained somber throughout, sweating and, I thought, stifling some yawns. It was a very long service.

I tried to take some pictures but my friend Charlie rescued me early on. Charlie is the journalist I arranged to work with while I am here. It was a wise move. Charlie is a real journalist. She took my camera and traipsed around during the service in her pink dress and 4-inch heels, capturing the moment. That’s Charlie in the picture, standing next to Amanda in the second picture. Amanda could have gone up on the platform but decided not to. Although the two were just waiting for their cameras to be handed back by the bolder photographers they’d given them to, who had crowded in behind the pastors, I thought it captured something.

I can’t share the pictures Charlie took because they must be downloaded to a computer I don’t have with me. I’m trying to travel as light as possible and that means iPad. I’ll try to use it more so I can post, but the quality isn’t always the best.

Toward the end, Charlie and I went outside in the hot sun and talked to people. What were their impressions? What did this mean? “Joy” was the word everyone used, women and men, young and old. “Great joy.” “Immense joy.” “Profound joy.”

One 55-year-old pastor said he had been working for the ordination of women since he entered the ministry at age 25. Why had it taken so long? “This is a very conservative church,” he said.

Women were more blunt. A female member of parliament said, “Men want to hold onto power in politics and in the church.”

What we missed was the part of the service where the ordinands were given gifts by their families and supporters: Refrigerators, microwaves, TVs, and perhaps ironically symbolic gifts of brooms and duspans.

Politics, emotion, discomfort, endurance. Spirit was there, too. My iPad took the strangest picture I have ever seen. It would have been my only good shot of the day, of the candidates kneeling. But it is a picture of blinding light. Probably just multiple flashes going off at once. But I wonder.

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    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.

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    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.


    The way of Invisible Woman

    I started reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs last night. It is haunting me, affecting my dreams, because the voice in the early chapters is one I hear in my head all the time.

    An image from my dreams of last night: Three pieces of fried chicken–two legs and a breast. My younger brother and husband are there. My brother takes the two legs, my husband, the breast. I worry about whether it is enough for them.

    When I wake up I realize I didn’t even think of taking one of the pieces for myself.

    The voice of the novel is like the part of myself I think of as Invisible Woman, the one who works behind the scenes, serving others and perhaps never getting around to her own art. It is the voice of both the main character in the novel, an elementary school teacher who is really an artist, and her late mother.

    We are haunted by what we have not done with our lives because there is always another mess to clean up, another demand waiting to be met, someone else’s work to help with, and we are good girls. We let these things take priority. It is not in our nature to put our own work first, it simply isn’t. And sometimes this makes us really angry, not at the world but at ourselves.

    However, recognizing this aspect of myself doesn’t send me into a tailspin any more. Invisible Woman has her own ways of doing things and sometimes it works out well, in a way that serves my purposes as well as other people’s. Here is a story about that.

    Recently I agreed to host a dinner party for two Congolese businessmen who were visiting church agencies in the area to learn about church finances. I agreed because I believe in showing hospitality—an Invisible Woman trait. I agreed because it seemed like a simple thing, hosting a potluck for an unknown number of guests. However, potlucks require a critical mass of guests and dishes and it became apparent, in the planning, that this one wouldn’t reach that number, so I just went ahead and cooked an entire meal. This is usually no big deal for me but I was tired that day and would have preferred sitting in and watching a movie rather than pulling out my outgoing, French-speaking hostess self.

    These events usually turn out to be worth the effort and this one did, too. It took a while for the Congolese men to warm up but the other Americans carried the conversation until they did and then, toward the end of the meal, I mentioned our desire—my desire, which I have persuaded my husband to share—to visit Congolese Mennonite churches sometime in the next year and listen to as many choirs as possible, to do what I’m calling choir tourism. And to write about this and maybe put together some videos.

    The Congolese businessmen lit up and became downright chatty. And this is when Rod, the agency director who was squiring the Congolese about, pointed out that the first women were going to be ordained in a major branch of the Congolese Mennonite Church in September and October of this year and would I like to go and write about that?

    Well I most certainly would. The ordinations, I know, will be occasion for grand celebrations, with lots of choirs joining in. It is the kind of event I was looking for.

    I didn’t tell Rod that I would rather not write on assignment for church publications, that I had been set on writing entirely for my own purposes (I’m not saying “book” yet even to myself). I didn’t tell him that this next trip to Congo was to be a kind of self-test of my seriousness as a writer, a test of whether I had enough confidence in my own work to spend tons of money, uproot us for a month, and plan an arduous and complicated journey just so I could write.

    I didn’t say any of this because the opportunity seemed just too serendipitous. Of course I can do some articles. The assignment will, in fact, force me to be serious about interviewing and making notes. I won’t get away with the kind of vague intention I harbored last July when I concluded that I simply wasn’t up to writing about Congo. I didn’t have the chutzpah to do interviews, the energy to write down all my observations, yada yada. No excuses this time.

    Still, I managed to write quite a bit on that trip, and I had written even more on my first trip, when I had my laptop rather than the iPad with the onscreen keyboard (which I never got used to and, believe me, writing technology makes a huge difference). As for the energy I need to work hard, I’ve lost 20 pounds since last July. I am renewed, revived.

    I can’t believe I shouldn’t take this opportunity to do something for someone else and use it as a way to support my own art. The money, the discipline, the deadlines will all help. I may use some of the money to hire my friend Charlie Malembe, an ambitious young Mennonite journalist in Kinshasa, to help with the interviews. She doesn’t yet know how to write for a US audience but she’s a great interviewer. My stringer. I will happily share a byline with her.

    This is the way of Invisible Woman. I don’t have to do everything by myself, for myself. I am a team player. I seize opportunities that provide the momentum I can’t quite generate myself.

    And, of course, the tiny bit of effort I expended to feed those two strangers (chicken grilled, not fried) will no doubt be repaid tenfold on this next trip. The Congolese are magnificent hosts.