RETURN TO IKENGO

 

The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return. On our first visits there forty one years ago my role was to drive the Youth Department truck loaded with thirty plus youth singing above the groaning of the truck springs on the 30 km, two hour trip from Mbandaka . Everyone but the driver evacuated the vehicle at the culvert fashioned with branches which often had to be repaired before the last leg of the journey.

My two return trips this summer have been made comfortably seated in a plastic lawn chair placed in a pirogue powered by a 15 horsepower outboard motor. The village has grown considerably; what had been a sleepy village of 500 inhabitants is now several times larger. The deterioration of the road from Mbandaka, similar to the deplorable conditions of the roads and transportation infrastructure throughout the country, has not prevented the Governor of Equator Province and other dignitaries from making the trek to Ikengo these days.

The reputation for size and quality of the pigs raised at the Church’s Centro Agro Pastorale (CAP) d’ Ikengo, and the lovely retreat-like setting on the Congo River attract most of Ikengo’s visitors with vehicles these days. This was not the case ten years ago when a large cattle and pig raising ranch was in full swing. Former President Mobutu’s Minister of Finance maintained the road for the multiple vehicles of his ranch, developed on the land across the road from the Church’s CAP. The rain forest where giant trees emitted the shrieks and squawks of monkeys and birds was cleared in 1980 to house a large work force and sheds for the livestock. The ranch ceased operations with the death of the owner but the CAP maintains the village’s identity as the prime source for the tastiest pork in the Mbandaka area.

Rev. Paul Elonda’s founding vision of the Church’s vital role in developing the natural resources of the country is carried out at CAP today by the cultivation of the most advanced vegetable seed varieties, pig and chicken raising and the trainings carried out at the Center. The full time staff consists of ten workers and the CAP Director, with nine of the men being of Pygmy background. The current director, a Bantu, helped start a network of Pygmy civil rights groups in Equator Province before beginning work at the Center. That organizing effort began his collaboration with one of the Province’s very few Pygmy secondary school graduates now working at the Mbandaka office of UNICEF.

The preponderance of Pygmies on the staff remains something of a mystery to me so I look forward as I write this to having some of my questions answered. Whether the Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years at the Center in the mid 70s brought the village Pygmies into the Center’s life is an unknown. What I do know is that Church leaders years ago spoke out against the widespread discrimination against the Pygmies as an “inferior“, even “subhuman“, minority of the village and Equator Province population. Although I don’t recall ever meeting a Pygmy resident of Ikengo forty years ago, they were confined to the end of the village at the time, I did learn that they were masters of the hunt and supplied villagers with meat from the forest. This weekend I preach in the Ikengo Church where Pygmies now worship and I will no doubt have some fresh learnings to report on later.

The story of the Peace Corps volunteer who married a girl from the village also remains something of a mystery. Before returning to the States they had three children while he worked in Peace Corps headquarters in Kinshasa. No one I’ve spoken with to date seems to know his whereabouts or that of the wife and children. The foundation of the adobe brick house he built next to the River bank provides the outline today of the Center’s “Payote”, the thatch roofed hut without walls where visitors to the Center are now welcomed.

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"the more things change……" April 5, 2010

Well it wouldn’t be travel to Congo if political unrest wasn’t part of the picture. I awoke this morning to the email from Indianapolis Disciple headquarters that Mbandaka had been attacked on Easter Sunday by a force of 200 rebels and a UN soldier and one other person was reported killed. NPR had already reported the rebels’ attempt to seize the Mbandaka airport. Presumably without success.

By the end of the day I was thinking about my arrival in Kinshasa in June 1969 on my way from Zambia via Lubumbashi. On arriving in “Kin” I was feeling pretty good about the fact I had entered Congo and gone through Customs in the Katanga capital without paying any “corrumption” to anyone. We had not been made aware on the plane that Kinshasa was under military lock down, streets deserted, the city of nearly 2 million quieted after over 80 students, reported as 8 by the local press, were shot and killed by the Army. Later that summer Mobutu quelled the continued grumbling of the students by conscripting the entire student body of the National University into the Congolese Army.

The dictator was at the height of his power at the time and the regime’s true character was never more publicly and more alarmingly displayed than on that day. I arrived about 1 in he morning but the desk clerk at the Mission Guest House had been alerted and was waiting with the key. “Are you willing to share a room with a Congolese?” he wanted to know. Even in my near unconscious state I did rouse myself enough to respond, “Well I guess I better if I’m going to spend the next two years working with them.“ It was the first evidence that relations between black and white were tense even in the Church in Congo that year. My entering the room woke up the President of the Disciples in Congo, Rev. Paul Elonda, my roommate.

Lokoleyacongo posting

ON RETURNING TO CONGO

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  Someone dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”   (Lk 7:24-26)

  It was nearly midnight when we entered the town on the Tshuapa River. Boende most likely.  The church was packed still, the congregation having waited for untold hours, cement block walls decorated with palms. As we entered, the throng inside exploded in song.  Kerosene lanterns lit the space casting shadows as Rev. Elonda preached for upwards of  an hour.  I understood little of the sermon but rode the waves of hums, the listeners’ acclaim for his words.  It was the first of several “posts” with schools, clinics and churches we were to visit on the upriver trip.  Each greeted Rev. Elonda, the President of the Disciples “community” of the newly united Church of Christ of Congo, and his entourage, with palms, flowers, song and hums.   We returned to Mbandaka the day before Christimas.  

In 1969 I went to Congo expecting to catch a glimpse of the future of Africa during my two year assignment.   I was to serve as a “conseiller/advisor” to the Youth Department of the Disciples.  Having studied African politics and history in college, I was excited about the potential of the newly independent nations of Africa, the wealthy former Belgian Congo outstanding among them..  Now looking back as I think about returning to Congo, the two years I spent there have shaped me like no other experience of my adult life.