Friday, January 16, 2009

Hope and Water in the Desert

“This place is hope,” the tall, thin Congolese man standing next to me said as he held his hands out in front of him. “It is like a few drops of water in a vast desert.” A smile crept over his face revealing his white teeth that shown brilliantly against the dark color of his skin. He was taking me on a tour of the Christian Bilingual University in the DRC, a place with great potential but for now consisting of only one building with dirt floors and 90 acres of beautifully dense untouched land. He led me into the building and into the office of Dr. David Kasali, an energetic man with a soft voice and a deep soulful eyes. He showed us a map of his vision, a plan for the University that included dozens of buildings in and around the 90 acres they own. It is a grand vision, one that is slowly coming to fruition. The Congolese way of building is strange from a western perspective, they begin building and build until they run out of money, then they wait and when more money comes they continue building. So the University grounds are scattered with construction, construction that won’t continue until more money is provided. As Dr. Kasali gave us the tour of the University, the students that were on a break from class came and introduced themselves amidst much giggling and laughing as each student prodded the others into introducing themselves. Everyone was so joyful, so full of energy and life, and most had no shoes. Nothing rich about them but the smiles on their faces.

Our tour around the University was the final stop in our haphazard journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Emily and I enjoyed an 8 hour layover in London and made the most of our time by going to Tower Bridge, Picadilly Circle and Hyde Park. We came close to missing our flight to Uganda as I had inadvertently set my watch an hour behind the actual time, so it was not until we were on our way back to the airport that I realized my mistake, but thankfully we made it with five minutes to spare. After London we enjoyed another 9 hour flight to Entebbe, Uganda, at which we arrived at 8:30 in the morning. The first thing I noticed was the heat; the oppressive, humid, heat. We made it to our hotel that was a nice place and were greeted by a small quiet woman who spoke mostly through her deep smile. She showed us to our room, and left without a word. We decided that we needed to contact the Kasalis and ask about the status of the violence that had been reported nearby Beni. After wandering the dirt streets nearby looking for a phone to use, we finally found a small booth that people could use to call internationally. None of our numbers worked, and after trying for a while we gave up and decided to go to Kampala, the capital, and look for phones or internet cafes there. To get there we took a cab, or rather a bus packed to capacity with passengers, about an hour. During that time we drove at wild speeds, almost hit multiple people, cars, and bikes, and witnessed at least one collision between a motorcycle and biker. I don’t know much about Kampala, but I will tell you this: it is completely overwhelming. Thousands of people packed the streets, the air was filled with the noise of people yelling, laughing, arguing, bartering. Bota-botas weaved in and out of the people honking and calling for passengers, the air was filled with the hot humid smell of dirt and body odor. Needless to say I was confused. To make a long story short we got a hold of people in Beni, who told us it was safe to go, but we realized that we had to go back to the airport to track down the people who were supposed to fly us to Congo in the morning. So we made one of our sketchiest decisions to date: we decided to take a bota-bota the whole hour long trip to the airport. We knew it might be a little scary, but we were in for an intense ride. If he wasn’t weaving in and out of traffic, our driver was driving as fast as his motorcycle could go, passing cars and other bota drivers on the way. We arrived safely an hour later, having at one point ripped the left rearview mirror completely off of one of the cars we passed. It was close.

The next day we journeyed to Beni, DRC, a small city in the northeastern area of the country. To get there we took a small propeller plane that was deafening from the inside, as I was seated directly between the two propellers. First we flew to a small city called Bunia, a city that has seen a lot of violence in the last few years. As we exited the plane we were met by a beautiful Congolese woman who greeted us with a jovial “Bonjour!” (French is one of the primary languages spoken in the DRC.) She led us past rows of gruff looking soldiers with AK-47s and into a stuffy room marked with a small hand painted sign that read “immigration.” There we received our visas and were led out of the room and back to our plane. Along the way I made eye contact with a particularly rough looking soldier who smiled and said “Jesus” and started laughing. We gained a few more passengers and were informed that we were going to make an unscheduled stop about 45 min away. As we had no say in the matter we simply smiled and consented. 45 min later we bounced onto the runway at our stop, and I looked outside to see that the reason we bounced around so much was that we had landed on a tiny dirt runway. Greeting us this time were 15 armed soldiers next to a sign that read “Avec Joseph Kabila” (with the president.) Emily and I were cautiously surveying these soldiers when Emily asked me “Jon, what are those long stick things they are carrying?” I looked harder and responded “um…those are rocket launchers Em.” Three of the soldiers carried this deadly weapon in such a cavalier fashion that I wondered if they knew what they were holding. Thankfully we didn’t have to leave the plane this time and in a few minutes we continued on to Beni. We arrived and were met by Dr. Kasali’s brother and taken to our residence for the next month. The house we are staying at is more of a compound than a house as it is huge and surrounded by a large brick wall around which large amounts of frighteningly sharp barbed wire is coiled. We have a friendly night security man who patrols the yard with a machine gun, and at any given time there are 10 to 15 people living in the house so its never quiet. We have met tons of people, all of whom are eager to grab our hands, introduce themselves and smile. The level of poverty here is remarkable, many have no shoes, most have no work and nowhere to go so spend their time sitting in the shade of a tree. I am enjoying the Congo immensely, the love and the sense of community Emily and I have experienced thus far is like nothing else. Each day has proved to be an adventure, and I remain excited to experience all those adventures yet to come.

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