Congo Disciples Commemorate World AIDS Day

Translated by Dr. Gene Johnson, this posting is from the blog of Nathan Weteto of the Disciples headquarters office in Mbandaka, R.D.C. The blog address is http://natana.tumblr.com.

World AIDS Day December 1, 2010 was a first for the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo. Indeed, for the first time, the CDCC has participated in festivities marking the World AIDS day, despite the existence of an AIDS office in the General Secretariat and various actions that the Community has undertaken in the sense of awareness for the prevention and encouraging voluntary testing. The CDCC has not only participated in these events, on Friday, December 3, 2010 it launched the activity of micro – credit for people living with HIV (PVV) in the presence of many dignitaries of the Provincial government and the Church. 44 PVV are involved in this project which will give them financial opportunities that will enable them to reintegrate into society without hang-ups. The hardest task will be the psychological training of these people for their rehabilitation because they were often stigmatized and often lived on the margins of society.

Nathan Weteto or “Weteto” as he is known by friends and colleagues fills several positions at the “Secretariat”, headquarters of the Disciples “Community” of the Church of Christ of Congo. He is Director of Communications, Head of Personnel, and serves on the Development Committee which oversees such projects as the “Centre Agro Pastorale” at Ikengo.

Advertisements

"Soul Work"

This was written in mid July after planting rice with the Pygmy young men and children at Ikengo. It’s an attempt to describe and account for the feeling of being so closely observed by one of the Pygmy youngsters while I filled the hole with dirt after planting the rice seed.

“Soul Work”

Just a pinch of seed/

You take and leave/

In the bed; the earth/

Crumbles beneath your touch./

 

This earth, a mix rich and strange,/

Teeming and foreboding,/

We handle microbes and nutrients,/

Imaging green shoots from doom./

Joints and muscles sigh/

Moving to rhythms of grace/

In the field to be,/

Now a grid of holes./

A rice harvest in the making/

In foreign fields and laboratory,/

The strain now here well studied,/

A product of microscope and cerebellum,/

From that other realm which yields/

Products but not the secrets/

Of its enthralling power;/

Behold, here now an acolyte./

He plants with us with such care,/

Laborious in filling the earth;/

His industry fascinates;/

It is not our way./

We are sprites from the forest,/

Kin to the fireflies dancing/

Before they lay a constellation/

Of stars in the grass./

To laugh is our industry,/

Our calling to live/

In the darkest, deepest places/

With, but why claim this?, our own secrets./

 

This one has come to plant with us/

A field of rice, and we stare/

In wonder for he plants differently/

And we all may eat this rice together./

 

 

THE PYGMY PEOPLE

Thursday, July 29, 2010

After tea was served, the second meeting of the Committee for the Advancement of the Pygmy People was convened on my porch at 7:45 one morning this week. Present along with myself were Rio Bosala, Director of the Disciples CAP at Ikengo, and Sandra Ngoy, daughter of the Regional Minister of the Bolenge Region. Pygmy rerpresentatives were a watchman for the Mbandaka power company, a primary school teacher and John Benani, the co founder and now Director of REPEQ, a non profit supported by UNICEF which promotes Pygmy civil rights.

John Benani has emerged as a national spokesperson for Pygmy civil rights and as UNICEF’s primary contact with this minority population which makes up one fourth the population of Equator Province. Our conversations have educated me on the very slight progress of his people from their traditional status as an inferior, even sub human caste, exploited by their Bantu neighbors.

With my encouragment, the Ikengo CAP director Rio has spoken more openly of his history of support and affinity for Pygmy friends. It is becoming more widely accepted now that this minority must be educated and integrated into the Bantu-dominated society for the Equator Province, with the largest pygmy population in Congo, to develop economically.

That statistics for completion of primary school in Equator Province remain abysmal, some say as low as ten per cent of the children finish sixth grade, is due in part to the incapacity of Pygmy parents to pay their children’s school fees. An unfortunate irony of the Mobutu years of corruption and self indulgence is the fact that the policy of free education of Pygmy children ended with the fall of the dictator’s regime. That gesture of support for the minority did little to relieve the exclusion of Pygmies by the Bantu population.

As an example of the traditional segregation of Bantu and Pygmy, it was only recently that an integrated spring water source was established at a large village 30 kms. from Mbandaka. Where two springs had in the past provided water separately for Bantu and for the Pygmy inhabitants of Bongonde, UNICEF funded the cementing and piping of a new source providing clean water for all in the village. One of the participants in our meeting Tuesday morning teaches in the local primary school. He informed me that 721 men and women enrolled last year in the village’s adult school to gain basic reading, writing and math skills.

My curiosity here about the Pygmy population’s motives in settling in greater numbers in the Bantu villages and even cities of Congo comes in part from the reading of the great book by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, The Forest People. As the author’s account of being captivated by the life and culture of the pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in eastern Congo, the book deserves its reputation as one of the most widely read books on Africa. Turnbull’s recordings of Pygmy songs on Folkways Records also enthrall, and in the book he notes that the words of their songs are few but often profound. The following words are sung only after the death of a fellow Pygmy clan member:

“There is darkness all around us; but if darkness is and the darkness is of the forest, then the darkness must be good.”

For a Congo traveler these days, Turnbull’s book provides a fine contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the work of a man who took pains to get to know very well one of the cultures here. Turnbull casts light on the life of the rainforest which for Conrad remained a place of inscrutable mystery and foreboding.

A Season of Joy

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

About thirty minutes into the worship service in the Ikengo parish church, the sermon came to me. I had the scripture passage, Jesus referring to a child as the greatest among them, but as the service began I still felt stymied to find words for the grand paradox of the message. Gradually, the setting, the singing, the heat under the tin roof freed me and I simply decided to try to describe the sources of my joy in worshipping with them that morning. It was the first time in my life I had discarded my notes for a sermon and I exulted as I scribbled “A Season for Joy” above three points on a page of my notebook.

I began with thanks and praise for the vision of Rev Paul Elonda in the founding of the Centre Agro Pastorale (CAP) in 1969. The village’s two primary schools, secondary school and health center were cited as among the fruit produced by the vision of a church leading the way in rural development. Most recently, the visit of the Equator Province’s Governor to the CAP had brought about the construction of a new school building by a British non profit. Having heard the villagers’ testimonies regarding CAP’s aid in improving their crop yields and quality I moved on to a more personal testimony.

Whites have been coming to the Congo for over five hundred years either in search of riches among the incomparable natural resources of the country or they have come seeking to give of themselves. It is another grand paradox that those who have come to give return with the greater riches. We who come to help strengthen the Church in Congo find ourselves strengthened as those who came in the past to evangelize were themselves evangelized by the Congolese. What a joy to discover spiritual resources within the people here richer than the coltan and the cobalt prized by the powerful.

But the greatest joy, I declared, comes with having discovered that God liberates peoples and persons from enslavement and from the exploitation suffered by the Congolese in these days. In the biblical accounts, the liberation of a people does not result from foreign intervention or initiative. Liberation comes in the biblical record when the captive people find the way to free themselves at hand within themselves. Some day the Congolese people will take up, like David, their five smooth stones or be led from their wilderness by a stuttering Moses and an Aaron.

Just as South Africans freed themselves from white rule under apartheid so will Congolese free themselves from the foreign plunder of their resources and the resulting deprivation and impoverishment. Nothing brings greater joy than this knowledge of the source of the people’s power and liberation. It was I proclaimed this knowledge that caused Jesus to “quiver with joy” (in the French translation of Lk 10:21) for God had hidden such things from the powerful and revealed them to the simple and the common people.

Among the medley of hymns preparing us for the “sainte scene” of communion, we sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. I leaned over and shared with the Ikengo pastor Luka Is’olenge that it had been Gandhi’s favorite. Its meditation on Jesus’ call to draw on the best within ourselves described for the lifelong Hindu why he considered himself a follower of Jesus as well.

On the return to Mbandaka Sunday afternoon, I rode on the back of a motor bike piled with my gear. We fairly flew by children and adults, some of them waving and calling “mondele” (white man), and I couldn’t keep from smiling. It had been a great day.

 

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.