A Faith Without Borders

Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin
Members of my home congregation get up close and personal with the python skin

A recent visitor to our home prompted me to take out for the first time in twenty plus years the python skin from Congo.  It was brittle and a few of the scales fell as we rolled the skin out on the living room floor; forty years out of the rain forest in our relatively dry atmosphere will do that. We took out the tape measure and no one marveled at the length more than I: eighteen feet.  I had estimated it to be between eight and ten feet.

The python skin along with pre-ban ivory figurines are among the tangible possessions I carried away from two years in Congo 1969-71. Rarely in the forty years since have I stopped to admire the delicately carved ivory figurine of a woman’s head or the design on a three foot iron “executioner’s” knife. But the tangible artifacts from Congo serve as occasional reminders of the lasting impact on my life of those two years. And their display in my home represent a public testimony that the Congo experience shaped my life in decisive and indelible ways. They are clues to who lives inside the house and who I am.  They help others get to know me as they help me understand myself.

What a joy to find on my return to Congo that my presence forty years before had not been

Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine's home
Joseph and Mrs. Ikete at daughter Christine’s home

forgotten by the Congolese.  Joseph Ikete, the bright, dignified youth leader of 1969, met me at the airport in Mbandaka and we laughed about the photo I had taken of him and his wife at their home in 1971.  A couple of weeks after my arrival in June, 2010, we dined in his home again, but this time daughter Christine and husband joined us.  She now serves as the Director of the Women’s Department of the Disciples of Christ community.

What a joy it has been to share the 2010 experience in Congo with you readers of this blog.  That I have continued these postings for two years has helped me understand the place of Congo in my life, how it has shaped who I am and especially its role in shaping my faith. If we accept Augustine’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”, theology has been the overarching theme/tag/category of every posting.

So as wife Kate Moyer and I prepare for a two year assignment with Disciples and UCC churches in Mexico, beginning this fall, I want to wrap up my lokoleyacongo blog postings with some questions that have guided and will guide my future theological reflections on what is going on in Congo.

How could the richest nation in Africa with an incomparable wealth in strategic minerals and other natural resources rank at the bottom of the world’s nations on the UN Development Index (number 187 out of 187 countries ranked)?

How could the nation considered a priority for African development aid by the United States have failed so miserably at the task of nation-building and forming a government which is held accountable by the people?

What is the responsibility of the Church in the U.S. and in Congo in upholding the human rights of the Congolese people? When will the unified Protestant Church, the Church of Christ of Congo defend the fundamental right of one person one vote and the nation’s right to hold free and fair elections?

When will the weak and corrupt regime in Kinshasa be seen as the primary source of continued conflict in eastern Congo – which an article in the National Geographic called the richest tract of land on earth? And when will Congo be permitted to form a government made up of persons committed to serving the people?

At the 10th Congo Independence Day celebration Mobutu’s political party provided dresses for the occasion with the slogan: “To Serve Oneself: No! To Serve Others: Yes!”

There is little doubt that Congo is a tough assignment.  The questions above will perplex and bedevil anyone who goes there.  But I hope this blog has succeeded in highlighting some of the rewards awaiting anyone who makes the effort to live and celebrate life alongside the Congolese.  One of those rewards comes from the insight that Congo and what happens there is at the front line of African and, indeed, of human liberation.

Since my return to the States in 1971, we have celebrated the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa and the end of apartheid rule in southern Africa. There has even been progress in Sudan with the formation of an independent South Sudan in 2011. Among the new nations of Africa, only in Congo has there been retreat from the people’s aspirations in 1960. Only in Congo has the government failed to protect and further the rights of the people to such an extent they now proclaim the Mobutu era as the good old days.

At the same time, the Protestant churches of Congo have carried out ministries we in the States have had a hand in and can be proud of.  Among the sixty plus Congolese Protestant denominations, the Disciples of Christ played a leading role in the creation of the unified Church of Christ of Congo and the Disciple Rev. Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale served as its first President for 30 years.  In many areas of the country, Protestant churches are the lone providers of health, education and community development services.  While the government often fails in its promise to support these services in urban and rural areas, the churches and its leaders help raise the funds to keep them going.  In the fields of public service, the churches both Protestant and Catholic lead the way.

In the midst of the decline in the country’s roads and other infrastructure, the growth of the Protestant movement in Congo challenges our imaginations.  The Disciples community has grown from around 25,000 members in 1960 to more than 650,000 today.  With missionary zeal, Congolese Disciples have planted new churches throughout Congo and the neighboring Congo Brazzaville.  The honor and respect accorded the U.S. missionaries who first planted the seeds extends to those fortunate enough to visit and represent the U.S. Church in our day.

To those who might consider a longer visit to Congo in a missionary assignment today, I can assure you that your presence there would be answering the Congolese Disciples’ prayers. It has been many years since someone from the U.S. served with the Disciples in Congo in a longer term assignment.  For several years, the office of Global Ministries (www.globalministries.org) has been seeking to fill the two fully funded positions described on the website.  The need for French skills and the high humidity in Equateur Province have ruled a Congo assignment for Kate and me but I would welcome contact with anyone considering the call to serve there.  You may reach me at dsmithy1@verizon.net

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Of Monieka, Malaria and Dr. Eric Bosai

The bite of the malaria infected female anopheles (in the Greek literally "useless") mosquito often threatens the life of children under 5 and pregnant women
The bite of the malaria infected female anopheles (in the Greek its literal meaning is "useless") mosquito often threatens the life of children under 5 and pregnant women

“WE have learned from various sources and confirmed with our doctor in charge of public health in Monieka that malaria has recently taken 406 lives, two thirds of them children under five years of age.”  So we read in a February letter from the Disciples “Communaute” in Congo which appealed for prayers from the partner churches in the U.S. and Germany.

After deciding this grim news had to be shared, I contacted Dr. Gene Johnson who served as the lone doctor in the Monieka hospital from 1957 to 1964.  As to what might have caused a sudden flare up in deaths from this disease, so common in tropical areas with high rainfall, Dr. Johnson responded, “I suppose there has been the development of a new strain
of resistant malaria, though I would guess that most people don’t have access to medication, and die untreated. Resistance to the medications that once worked well has become common. It is particularly hard to treat small children.”

One fifth of the children born in Congo die before age 5.  According to the most recent figures, malaria accounts for 21 per cent of those deaths.  While adults in Congo regularly experience “the fever” brought on by malaria and consider the illness no more serious than we do a common cold, for children with no resistance it is often fatal.  “When a child is born he has no resistance to malaria, and as soon as he is bitten by an infected mosquito will become symptomatic. If lucky enough to survive the first episode there will be a certain amount of resistance.”  So wrote Dr. Johnson in response to my inquiry.

We don’t know what might be behind the current rise of malaria deaths in Monieka.  What we know is that the tragic consequences of the disease can be countered by vigorous, well funded preventive measures.  What we do know is that neighboring Rwanda, whose government spends twice what Congo spends on public health, is among the eleven African countries where child mortality and malaria deaths are in significant decline.  We know that the under five mortality rate in Rwanda is less than half the figure for Congo and that more inpatient deaths from malaria were recorded in Congo in 2009 than anywhere else in the world.

Dr. Eric Bosai of Monieka with family including mother
Dr. Eric Bosai of Monieka with family including mother

And we know Dr. Eric Bosai continues his work as the only doctor at the Monieka Hospital.  Dr. Bosai follows in the footsteps of the 1918 founder of the Hospital, pioneer Disciples missionary doctor Dr. Louis F. Jaggard.  Since Dr. and Mrs. Jaggard retired in 1944,  Monieka has remained an isolated Disciples mission post providing the only health and education service for a large area.

With their four school age children, Dr. Bosai’s wife lives in Mbandaka, a day’s journey from her husband.  The monthly government subsidy amounts to less than $50 per month so most of Dr. Bosai’s salary is paid by a grant from the Global Ministries Department of the U.C.C. and Disciples churches in the U.S..  Eric Bosai’s father, Rev. Thomas Bosai, headed the Disciples’ youth ministries before planting churches in the remote area of Opala, the first Disciples mission outpost in Orientale Province. I lunched in Mbandaka with Thomas’ widow and their son and family in July, 2010.  Son Eric’s determination to provide medical services for Monieka and lead that deprived population’s struggle against malaria and other diseases is worthy of our prayers and support.

Disciples Agricultural Center at Ikengo was started under leadership of Rev. Thomas Bosai on the right
Disciples Agricultural Center at Ikengo was started under the leadership of Rev. Thomas Bosai on the right

Microcredit Congo Style II

Microcredit organizing has already boosted the income of many Disciples households and some congregations and

Nathan Weteto, Congo Disciples Communication Director, is the microcredit organizing wizard
Nathan Weteto, Congo Disciples Communication Director, is the microcredit organizing wizard

provides further evidence that the “social economy” can help drive economic development in Congo.  “Mobilising microfinance is critical to the success of social enterprises including through savings and credit cooperative organizations” observed the recent U.N. Environment Program “Post Conflict Environmental Assessment Synthesis for Policy Makers”.  The UN report touts microfinance as a means to generate employment and allow Congolese to “deal pragmatically with their own development priorities”.

But as is typical of Congo culture, microcredit Congo style is often different from the pattern followed in other countries and often varies from group to group.  While some groups begin with seed funding, the Microcredit Union of women in Mbandaka’s Besenge parish began with no funding other than what was brought by members of the group.  Twenty five women divided into two groups and met twice a month, each member bringing at least 1000 Congolese Francs (about $1.20) to the meeting.  One group of women is invited to take a loan on the 10th of the month, according to group leader Mama Micheline Mwami, and the other on the 25th of the month.  The next month the women return the amount taken out plus 10 per cent interest.  Some women bring more than the minimum contribution from month to month to enable larger loans and larger profits for the group.  Within a year, the Besenge group distributed among the 25 women, proportionate to their “investments”, savings and profits of just under $1900.

In the urban setting, many of the women participating in a Disciples organized Microcredit Union begin small businesses with their loans.  By contrast, in the rural setting of Bonsombo (Lofoy is its “mission post”), ten families decided to pool their funds and buy seed and tools to cultivate ten hectares of land, agriculture being the primary source of cash in their experience.  In the cash economy of Equateur Province’s capital of Mbandaka, the potential for larger investments and earnings is much greater. 

Aided by $1400 in seed funding, the Mbandaka pastors’ wives group enabled group leader  Mama Lombe to receive a total of $100 the first three months from her Union’s fund pool.  She set up a table on a downtown Mbandaka street and began selling children’s underwear, soap, tomatoes and biscuits and returned $105, 5 % interest being the group profit on the loan.  After the “Emmanuela” group’s first six months, $2417 was distributed among the members.  More recently, after two years of the growth of the group and of the participants’ small business ventures, $12,000 in savings and earnings was shared by group members.

With no banks now providing credit to the 750,000 persons of the city of Mbandaka or anywhere else in Equateur province, the Microcredit Unions have rekindled the “social economy”, the UNEP report’s term, and         

Mama Lombe on right with Mama Bonanga, the leaders of pastors' wives' Microcrdit Union
Mama Lombe on right with Mama Bonanga, the leaders of pastors' wives' Microcrdit Union

entrepreneurship in urban areas where groups have been organized.  Enthusiasm among Disciples for the Microcredit organizing has led to Pauline Ngoy presenting for students at the Bolenge Protestant University of the Equateur a lecture on “Microcredit and Evangelism”. 

You can contribute to the  Microcredit Union organizing by the Disciples in Congo by sending a check designated for “Microcredit in Congo”  to Global Ministries, P.O.B. 1986, Indianapolis, IN 46206-1986.  You can also make a gift online by going to:

http://globalministries.org/africa/projects/microcredit-congo.html

A contribution of $150 will enable purchase of a group’s “kit” – a wooden box with calculator, notebooks for each group’s three “accountants”, pens and pencils.  The more contributions received by Global Ministries, the more groups will be started with some “seed” funding as well as the “kit”.

Follow new developments in the Microcredit organizing on Nathan Weteto’s blog; English translation can be accessed at:

http://globalministries.org/news/africa/blog-congo.html

A Congolese Warrior Against AIDS

Augustin Bolankoko, Assistant Director of Disciples AIDS programming, died on October 25, 2011
Augustin Bolankoko, Assistant Director of Disciples AIDS programming, died on October 25, 2011

Africa has lost one of its warriors in the ongoing battle against the AIDS epidemic. Because he waged a courageous, public struggle to help stem the spread of the HIV virus among the Congolese people, Augustin Belanoljo Bolankoko  could not be described as a victim of the disease.  When I met him in July 2010, I met a man illuminated by the conviction that he had found his true calling.

In Congolese terms, Augustin Bolankoko had become a wealthy man thanks to employment in the accounting office of a multinational corporation in Kinshasa.  When he was diagnosed with the HIV virus in the year 2000, he gave up his large salary and became the Treasurer of the Disciples’ “Communaute” of the Church of Christ of Congo.  He returned to Mbandaka in his home province of Equateur but his frequent treatments in Kinshasa and the illnesses that beset him forced his resignation as Treasurer. So in 2006, he began the work he will always be remembered for among members of the Disciples Community of the Church of Christ of Congo and among many others in Congo. 

The Disciples office of AIDS programming opened in 2004 following the training of its Director Rev. Alain Imbolo Lokalamba, previously Director of the Community’s Youth Department.  Supported by a grant from the UN   

Director of Disciples AIDS office Rev. Alain Lokalamba assists in receiving the confession of faith of two youth in a rural parish
Director of Disciples AIDS office Rev. Alain Lokalamba assists in receiving the confession of faith of two youth in a rural parish

Development Program, Rev. Lokalamba shepherded the writing and publication of an AIDS education booklet (“Linga Kasi Keba” or “Love But Take Caution”) in comic strip format that gained wide circulation.  The staff of two in the Disciples AIDS office made “I’m Not Passing On AIDS” the motto of their campaign and focused on testing, abstinence or condom use as the cornerstone strategies for preventing transmission of the virus.

Today, there are 8 virus testing centers in Equateur Province, with 5 located in  Disciples clinics or hospitals.  With community education as another key element of their prevention strategy, Rev. Lokalamba with Augustin Bolankoko’s assistance has trained a Director of AIDS Education and Prevention for each of the 22 Disciples’ regions.  Every Disciples Regional Minister has been trained in “accompanying” their ministers and lay people stricken by the virus.  Doctors, lab technicians and nurses in the 6 Disciple hospitals and many of the clinics have been trained in the diagnosis and treatment of the virus and its development into full blown AIDS.

Through the trainings and other public outreach efforts of the Disciples, Augustin Bolankoko shared his own story widely.  Clearly a man with a mission, his proud dignity and the strength of his conviction made it difficult if not impossible to maintain an indifferent or scornful attitude with respect to others with the disease.  Nathan Weteto of Disciples headquarters in Mbandaka wrote in announcing his October death, “He did not spare himself in his efforts to convince the populace to be tested for the virus and to train those suffering from AIDS in the formation of micro credit savings groups to generate income for their treatments.”

Disciples Recently Co-Sponsored a Mbandaka AIDS Community Education Fair
Disciples Recently Co-Sponsored a Mbandaka AIDS Community Education Fair

 Augustin was eager to tell me his story during my Mbandaka stay in the summer of 2010. He was aware that he was part of a world wide movement to turn back the spread of AIDS and I believe he wanted people in the States to know Congolese and in particular Disciples in Congo were doing their part to wipe out this scourge.  I know he would have wanted me to thank Disciples here for funding of the trainings and the German VEM Church for funding the opening of the Disciples AIDS office.  I believe he knew that in spite of the setbacks – the presence of UN troops in Ikela led to half the middle aged adults contracting the virus – the world’s battle against AIDS would be won some day.

While the prevalence of AIDS in Congo has been as high as 7 per cent of the population, Rev. Lokalamba noted there has been a decline to 5 per cent more recently. Given the associated scourges of warfare and abuse of women in Congo in the past fifteen years, the decline must be in part attributed to the work of people like Augustin Bolankoko. So we join Congolese Disciple Nathan Weteto in praying, “May our Lord acknowledge his efforts and may his soul rest in peace”.

A Mbandaka Policeman Undergoes AIDS Testing at the Fair
A Mbandaka Policeman Undergoes AIDS Testing at the Fair

UN Aid in Congo’s Equateur Province

UN plane unloads election materials at the Mbandaka airport
UN plane unloads election materials at the Mbandaka airport

Following the decrease of rebel activity in the Congo’s Equateur Province, UN troops and service agencies now battle random banditry, poaching, a cholera epidemic and other effects of dire poverty in the vast rainforest province of the Congo. In this post we share some highlights of the UN efforts as reported on the mission’s web site http://monusco.unmissions.org.

 With the extension of the mandate for the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force for another year, there’s a much better chance that legislative and presidential elections will be held in late November this year. On a recent visit to the still ungoverned eastern Congo, MONUSCO’s (the UN mission’s official name) chief staff person Roger Meece declared, “I can assure you that everything is in place to provide security for the

"I've voted; have you?" coasters for voters in the late November elections
"I've voted; have you?" coasters for voters in the late November elections

upcoming elections.”  Security as the priority for the UN was further signaled by Meece’s commemoration on September 18 of the 50th anniversary of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarsjkold’s death in a plane crash during the early period of post independence conflict in the Congo.

In a now peaceful Mbandaka, the UN’s anti mines unit recently organized and funded the scanning of an area around the Mbandaka airport for buried ordinance.  Having declared the land safe, MONUSCO announced on September 6 that construction would begin on the construction of a new terminal for Mbandaka.

 Banditry and looting by armed former rebels continue to plague some parts of the province and UN investigators have accompanied Congolese police in efforts to maintain law and order in the villages of Ilenga and Bosenga not far from Mbandaka.  To the south, poachers hunt elephants and prey on villagers in the remote Salonga National Park and surroundings despite deployment of the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) with UN advisors.

 On the health front, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Equateur was hit hardest by the cholera outbreak in Congo this year.  While cases are now on the decline, WHO figures show 1981 cases were treated in Equateur with 119 deaths in 8 of the province’s 20 health zones.

A $500 grant from Disciples/UCC Global Ministries bought desks for the secondary and primary school at Monieka
A $500 grant from Disciples/UCC Global Ministries bought desks for the secondary and primary schools at Monieka

 On the opening of the new school year in September, UNICEF promised to push Congo’s Ministry of Education to improve furnishings in primary school classrooms of those provinces where enrollment is below 75 % of the school age children.  According to UNICEF figures, 1.2 million children have been newly enrolled in primary school in the six targeted provinces, with Equateur still having the lowest rate of enrollment in the country.  One can hope that UNICEF’s efforts may also result in more regular payments for teachers in Equateur Province as well as outlays for classroom furniture.  Currently, Equateur parents have to contribute to a fund in each school to keep teachers in the classroom.

Return of a Native Son

 
 
M. Boetsa with sheaf of papers in hand stands among a few of his visitors

A long line of visitors waited for hours to speak with Mbandaka native son M. BOETSA  during his stay last summer.  Living next to him in the duplex housing at the “Maison des Missionaires” I had the opportunity to get acquainted with this esteemed native son and learn the reason for his return. 

During the colonial era, the Belgians had built in Mbandaka what they envisioned would be the first and only Institute for Tropical Medicine in Central Africa.  Independence scuttled those plans but a Belgian foundation now wants M. BOETSA to carry out the original vision of a medical research center in Mbandaka.  Having caught wind of those plans, the Congolese Ministry of Education has asked him to also consider assuming the post of C.E.O. of the University in Mbandaka.

For more than twenty years, he has raised a family and taught biology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.  Raised in the Disciples church, BOETSA told me about his baptism at the Mbandaka III cathedral church and how his parents continue to participate in the Ikongo Wassa Disciples parish of Mbandaka.  When I told him of my friendship with Pierre Sangana, now resident of Indianapolis, BOETSA exuberantly described Pierre’s son Georges as one of the most respected surgeons in Paris. He also noted that Pierre’s daughter Aimee, now living in the San Francisco Bay area, had ignored his childhood crush.

M. BOETSA returned to Paris at the end of last summer to ponder the logistics of maintaining a home in Mbandaka and one in Paris.  He planned to return with his wife on his next Mbandaka visit and planned to again stay in the “Maison des Missionaires”.    His wife  had rejected the Ministry of Education’s offer of a large house in town in favor of staying next to the river and enjoying the porch’s cool breezes.

 

 

Moringa at Ikengo

Ikengo Farm Director Rio Bosala and visitors next to the Farm's Moringa grove

“And the leaves were for the healing of the nations…..”   (Rv 22:2)  Ten years ago Church World Service’s West Africa Director Lowell Fuglie began promoting the growth and use of the moringa leaf to combat malnuturition.  Today the tree is widely know across Africa as a drought resistant, fast growing tree used for treating a variety of ailments, including malnutrition.  A recent article on the properties of moringa observes, “It is commonly said that Moringa leaves contain more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas, and that the protein quality of Moringa leaves rivals that of milk and eggs.”

The bark, seeds and pods of the moringa are also used with the seeds providing a low cost water purification technique. According to the same article, “ The journal Current Protocols in Microbiology published a step by step extraction and treatment procedure to produce “90.00% to 99.99%” bacterial reduction. The seeds are also considered an excellent source for making biodiesel.”

Two or three years ago someone brought some moringa seeds with them on a visit to the Disciples farm at Ikengo.   The

Ikengo's malnourished infants may soon be given daily doses of moringa powder

resulting moringa grove caught the eye of Equateur Province’s Governor who exclaimed that he uses the moringa leaf for his diabetes.  And the Provincial health ministry is now interested in obtaining leaf powder for treating malnourished infants. 

A Mbandaka native son now Professor of Biology at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris was fascinated by moringa’s water purifying capacity.  Wanting to see the trees, M. BOETSA accompanied me on my return to the Ikengo farm this past summer. More about the reason for his return to Mbandaka in the next posting.  For now, those interested in more on the amazing moringa tree can go to the Wikipedia article at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moringa_oleifera