Tribute to a Friend

Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969
Newly married Thomas with wife Eyenga and sisters after lunching in their home June 1969

Before closing this marathon of blogging begun with my return to Congo in June, 2010, I want to pay tribute to a good man I sorely missed seeing on my return.  Rev. Thomas Bosai was the Director of the Youth Department to which I was assigned as a “Fraternal Worker” – now Global Mission Intern – in 1969. Without his trust and friendship so readily offered on my arrival, this blog writing would not have happened.

Back in the mid-1990’s Thomas wrote the last letter I was to receive from him.  He asked if I could help arrange for support of his son to continue his studies in medicine in the States.  Eric had nearly completed his course in medicine at the University in Lubumbashi by then.  In a time of job transition and divorce, co-parenting two primary school daughters, my response was feeble and discouraging.

Now standing out among my memories of the 2010 summer in Congo visit is lunch in the Mbandaka home of son Dr. Eric Bosai and

Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana
Dr. Eric, wife Nicole and children with Grandmother Eyenga Bekana

family where I was again able to greet Thomas’ widow, Eyenga Bekana.  Eric, now Director of the Disciples hospital/clinic at the old mission post of Monieka, cast no blame in his account of his father’s death.  In his mid 60’s, Thomas was making the long trip by pirogue from the Mbandaka 2003 Disciples’ biannual Asembly when he was hospitalized in Ikela following a severe stroke.  Just before his Eyenga, “Sunday” in English, would arrive from Opala, Thomas died.

Thomas had served the Disciples as a pastor in several settings after his term as Youth Department Director.  Opala, a remote extended village in Orientale Province, was one of the Disciples new posts when Thomas was sent as the “missionary” there. It was the first Disciples post in the province to the east of Equateur. Today there is a growing Disiples presence in Opala, with primary schools and congregations in outlying villages among the fruit of my friend Thomas’ labors.

Those are some of the facts of Thomas’ life but had I been able to give testimony on the occasion of his passing I would have thanked him for taking me under his wing like an older brother in 1969.  In a vastly different culture, with multiple reasons to suspect and distrust this young white man from the States, there was little Thomas did not share with me – about his past, his education in Kinshasa and his joy and hopes in marrying the beautiful, young Ekana. While it was I who had the title of “Counselor” to the Youth Department, Thomas’ earnest advice on maintaining a respected image as a young, single “mondele” male still rings in my ears though it was not entirely heeded.

Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director
Rev. Thomas Bosai next to M. Jean Lompala, r., first Ikengo Farm Director

Thomas’ propulsive energy and faith quickly persuaded me that the vision of a Disciples farm project at Ikengo would become reality.  I hope that if that Projet Agro-Pastoral d’Ikengo continues to expand, the roles of Disciples President Dr. Paul Elonda in shaping the vision and Rev. Thomas in carrying it out will some day be honored and celebrated by the Disciples Communaute in Congo.  In the meantime, Thomas, this blog’s for you!

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How Ikengo Hospitality Saved Henry Morton Stanley

1970 Ikengo villagers with a skinny 23 year old Doug Smith in front of the chicken coop at Disciples' Agricultural Center
1970 Ikengo villagers with a skinny 23 year old Doug Smith in front of the chicken coop at Disciples' Agricultural Center

“The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return” was the beginning of this blog’s “Return to Ikengo” on July 13, 2010.  In that article I described how I had been joyously welcomed  back by the people of Ikengo 39 years after my last visit.  Only this past week did I learn that the great grandparents of Ikengo villagers had saved from starvation Henry Morton Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame) on the first descent of the Congo River by a non African.

Having fought repeated battles with the aggressive, obstreperous Bangala who controlled the river trade, Stanley threw

Stanley with Kalulu
Stanley with Kalulu, the African boy he “adopted” as his gun bearer and servant. In 1877 Stanley christened the site of the boy’s death on the Congo River Kalulu Falls. It remains one of the few Stanley place-names that has not been changed

himself and his men on the mercy of the people of Ikengo, located twenty five kilometers below Mbandaka.   “Since the 10th of February we have been unable to purchase food or even approach a settlement  for any amicable purpose” Stanley wrote in his February 18, 1877 journal entry quoted in Through the Dark Continent .

In the next day’s entry, the bold adventurer overcomes his fear of the local populace by dwelling on a greater fear, “This morning we regarded each other as fated victims of protracted famine, or the rage of savages, like those of Mangala.  But as we feared famine most, we resolved to confront the natives again.”  Reflecting throughout his account the racism characteristic of 19th century Europe and America, Stanley finds his fears unfounded in meeting the inhabitants of Ikengo and nearby villages.

“We arrived at Ikengo, and as were almost despairing, we proceeded to a small island opposite this settlement and prepared to encamp.  Soon a canoe with seven men came dashing across, and we prepared our moneys for exhibition.  They unhesitatingly advanced and ran their canoe alongside us.”  After Stanley and crew presented gifts and were rendered “rapturously joyful” by this meeting, the explorers and villagers  “proceeded to seal this incipient friendship with our blood with all due ceremony”.

Stanley titles this section of the book, “Among Friends” and sums up his account of the day with the words, “During the whole of this day life was most enjoyable, intercourse unreservedly friendly and though most of the people were armed with guns there was no manifestation of the least desire to be uncivil, rude, or hostile.”  The explorer characterizes the encounter with the Ikengo villagers as an “act of grace”.

How their hospitality was ultimately received and repaid is a woeful fact of Congo’s history.  As the European/American explorer who contributed the most to knowledge of African geography, Stanley also bears responsibility for opening up Congo to the brutal exploitation of King Leopold’s Congo Free State.  So far as we know, Henry Morton Stanley never returned to Ikengo.

2010 Ikengo villagers in the Disciples parish manioc field. Pastor Luc is third from right.
2010 Ikengo villagers in the Disciples parish manioc field. Pastor Luc is third from right.

That the people of Ikengo have continued to welcome visitors from afar in our times with joyous hospitality is an “act of grace”.  That the Congolese as a whole have held to their traditions of welcome after centuries of foreigners’ abuse of their trust is also a matter of grace.  What a gift to us all.

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

The Two Congos

Politics in Congo Remain as Chaotic as this Polling Place
Politics in Congo Remain as Chaotic as this Polling Place After the Election

It’s a somber beginning to the new year in Congo.  The hope for political change brought on by the nationwide election has been met by the repression and chicanery of the current administration.  Cries of protest against the conduct of the election and the vote count have been muffled if not silenced by brute force.  The leading opposition candidate for the presidency in the 2006 election (Jean Pierre Bemba) remains on trial in the International Criminal Court and the current opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi languishes under virtual arrest in his home in Kinshasa.

Congolese in Washington, D.C. and Other World Capitals Organized Demonstrations Against the Conduct and Results of the Election
Congolese in Washington, D.C. and Other World Capitals Organized Demonstrations Against the Conduct and Results of the Election

What will come out of the vote count, assisted by British and U.S. delegations, to seat the national legislature would seem to promise little for the economic prospects or the civil rights of the Congolese people over the next five years.  Two widely circulated recent studies rank the Congo dead last on important scales of well being.  The U.N. Human Development Index ranks the Congo 183rd among 183 of the world’s nations.  And a grim article in The New York Times of January 2 reports on the International Food Policy Research Institute finding that hunger is widespread in Kinshasa and the country as a whole.

The Institute found that the Congo is the only country where the food situation worsened from “alarming” to “extremely alarming” in the last year.  Half the people in the country are under nourished.  In reading The Times article focusing on hunger in Kinshasa, I kept thinking about Mbandaka Disciples pastor Frederic Lombe (featured in the last blog) telling me his one meal of the day comes in the evening.

Agricultural development is neglected by the Congo’s government concluded the Institute. Its report noted that only one percent of the national budget is devoted to agriculture and the country now imports beans and other food that could be grown in Congo. The government’s priority has long been development of the nation’s minerals’ extraction operations.

The current food shortages throughout Congo, read the entire Times article at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/world/africa/in-congolese-capital-power-cut-applies-to-food.html?_r=2&emc=eta1,

present a stark background to the Disciples and other church bodies’ agricultural development projects.  Projects like the Disciples Ikengo project, started in 1970, the palm oil plantation near Bokungu and the communal fields sponsored

30 Women in Rural Boyeka Brought $117.50 to their First Microcredit Group Meeting with Hopes of Distributing $2100 in Six Months
30 Women in Rural Boyeka Brought $117.50 to their First Microcredit Group Meeting with Hopes of Distributing $2100 in Six Months

by many Disciples parishes are critical sources of food for the population in the surrounding area.  For the parishes, sale of food grown is a leading source of funds for the education and health services of the parish.

In the context of government neglect, the Church’s role in micro-economic development is also highlighted by the contributions of Church microcredit organizing to household budgets.  A recent posting by Disciples Communication Director Nathan Weteto reported that many Church organized microcredit groups distributed earnings in November and December which enabled members’ households to celebrate the new year.  A sum of $18,437 was shared at year’s end by the thirty plus members of the Mbandaka Disciples pastors’ wives group.  This brought joy “in spite of the tumultuous situation in the country” in M. Weteto’s words.

M. Weteto’s report last month of a new microcredit group in rural Boyeka projecting earnings of $2100 in six months and recent postings on building projects in two Mbandaka parishes remind us that there are in fact two Congos.  There is a Congo struggling with despair and a Congo charged by hope and faith. There is a Congo riven by greed and conflict and a Congo united by a vision of sharing the abundance of a lavishly blessed land.  There is a Congo weighted with doubt and a Congo celebrating the seeding of a new day.

We also are reminded of the importance of our prayers and solidarity with Congo by the Christmas and New Year’s greetings written by Disciples President Rev. Eliki Bonanga.  Rev. Bonanga writes on M. Weteto’s blog:

“We remember with appreciation those of our friends who follow our news reported on the blog www.natana.tumblr.com and are moved by their prayers for our Church and for the nation as a whole.  We cannot forget those who have responded every time we have needed help. Our prayer then is that God who reigns over all might continue to bless them through their compassion.”

Text messaging may be banned today in Congo but there are some important messages that cannot and will not be silenced even in Congo.

Congo Can Grow Much More Without Cutting Rainforest

Malaysia Produces Over 40% of the World's Palm Oil Mostly On Plantations Like This One
Malaysia Produces Over 40% of the World's Palm Oil Mostly On Plantations Like This One

After massive deforestation of the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests due to plantation agriculture, economic growth in Congo is being stymied by some environmental groups’ opposition to any rainforest agriculture there.  Palm oil production in particular has been held back in Congo by the debate now raging over any new large scale projects  for biodiesel or other uses.

 In 2007, soon after the election of President Joseph Kabila in Congo, the Chinese company ZTE announced their investment of $1 billion for the cultivation of palm oil trees on 3 million hectares of Congolese soil.  By 2009, the company had reduced the plan to one million hectares, with 90 % of the palm oil produced slated for biodiesel fuel.  To date ZTE has not explained this considerable scaling back of their plan and has been slow to indicate how they will produce palm oil in Equateur, Orientale, West Kasai and Bandundu provinces.

In the first half of the last century, Unilever pioneered in the production of palm oil with their Belgian Congo processing plants and plantations. They have now pulled out of Congo entirely.  Apparently the largest producer of palm oil in the world plans to rely on its supplies in Malaysia and Indonesia, the two nations with 80 % of the world’s output today. The Cambridge World History of Food pays tribute to Unilever for maintaining its Congo operations through the turbulent post-independence years with the words, “Unilever managers remained in place following nationalization in 1975, and the company was allowed to take back full control of the estates two years later (Fieldhouse 1978: 530—45). But at a national level, the research effort was decimated, and new planting was very limited after 1960, in marked contrast to developments at the same time in Southeast Asia.”

A stark sign of the decline of Congo’s agricultural sector is the fact that the country imported 15,000 metric tons of palm oil in 2007, the year the first ZTE China plan was announced.  Imported, manufactured vegetable oil is now cheaper and more widely used in Congolese cooking than locally produced palm oil.  Myself and others who return to Congo after many years are disappointed by how rare “moussaka”, the palm oil sauce, is now used for flavoring of chicken, fish and manioc leaf dishes.   

Tata et Mama Mbwanga showing off the first fruits of their palm oil trees across the river from the Baptist community's Vanga Mission.
Tata et Mama Mbwanga showing off the first fruits of their palm oil trees across the river from the Baptist community's Vanga Mission.

 All who are concerned about the preservation of the Congo rainforest need to keep in mind two facts about Congo’s palm oil production.  First is the fact that there are thousands of hectares of abandoned palm oil plantations in the country.  No cutting of the rainforest is needed for the revival of the industry in Congo.

The second fact about palm oil cultivation in the country is the contribution of small householder plots to the historic growth of the crop in Congo and elsewhere.  According to the Cambridge World History, at the close of the Belgian colonial era, smallholder plots under palm oil cultivation totaled 98,000 hectares while plantations covered 147,000 hectares.   Today, Indonesia produces one third of the world’s palm oil and half of it comes from farmers cultivating fewer than 5 hectares.  

 Greenpeace International, whose Kinshasa office has led in opposing illegal logging of rainforest timber in the country, backs smallholder and plantation cultivation of palm oil in Congo on land that has already been cleared.  With only 4 per cent of cleared land in Congo now under cultivation, the country has the potential to produce palm oil for foodstuffs and biodiesel as well as preserve the most pristine, least “developed” rainforest in the world.

 We can applaud and should support the Congo Disciples plan to convert its coffee plantation in Bokungu to 20 hectares of palm oil production and the Boyeka post‘s palm oil project which is intended to fund education and health programs of the Church.  For several years now, the Baptist community of the Church of Christ of Congo has been promoting palm oil cultivation with provision of seeds and training near their historic post of Vanga.

From Coffee to Corn to Palm Oil

For the rebirth of the Disciples' coffee plantation, Rev. Regine Boole, unloads supplies
For the rebirth of the Disciples' coffee plantation, Rev. Regine Boole, unloads supplies

Even the remote Tshuapa district of the Equateur Province is not immune to the effects of the pricing of agricultural products in the global economy.  In 1970 I visited the Disciples coffee plantation in the Bokungu area of the Tshuapa.  By the late 1990’s the plantation had been abandoned as coffee prices began their fall to unprecedented lows.  The restoration of Vietnamese coffee plantations after the Vietnam War contributed to an over supply of coffee and the drop in prices.  Farmers from Nicaragua to Congo couldn’t afford to grow coffee any longer.

Today, the need for increased food supplies and the leadership of a dynamic recently ordained woman minister have led to the recovery of the Disciples Bokungu plantation.  The only female theology graduate to serve a rural parish, Revde. Regine Boole, has helped the parish of Lotakemela organize a team of 15 workers to clear the overgrown fields and begin new plantings.  The team is assisted by Revde. Boole’s husband and plans an initial planting of 5 hectares of corn.

Profits from the sale of an estimated 5 tons of corn will, it is projected, enable purchase

The main boiler at the Wendji Secli Palm Oil Plantation abandoned in the 1970's
The main boiler at the Wendji Secli Palm Oil Plantation abandoned in the 1970's

of supplies for the cultivation of the remaining 20 hectares and rebirth of the initial project as a palm oil plantation.  Expanding use of palm oil as a fuel alternative to petroleum means this crop, so widely grown in Equateur in the past, now promises price increases and viable profits for visionary growers.

In addition to the Bokungu plantation, the post of Boyeka has already begun planting of palm trees for oil production.  As used palm oil can be processed for fuel, “oil palm planting and palm oil consumption

Housing at the Wendji Secli plantation occupied by former employees and/or descendants
Housing at the Wendji Secli plantation occupied by former employees and/or descendants

circumvents the food vs. fuel debate because it has the capacity to fulfill both demands simultaneously” in the words of Wikpedia.  It does not, however respond to the concern stemming from deforestation wrought by vast palm oil plantations as in Malaysia and Indonesia.  What the effects of the demand for palm oil will be on the Congolese rain forest remains to be seen.

Bikes for the Tshuapa Region

Disciples President Rev. Eliki BONANGA checks one of the bikes destined for a Tshuapa region church leader
Disciples President Rev. Eliki BONANGA checks one of the bikes destined for a Tshuapa region church leader. Paul Williams is in the blue shirt.

Today we celebrate the imminent delivery of over twenty bicycles to the Regional Ministers and other leaders of Disciples parishes along the Tshuapa River.  The aid and counsel of the PSP (“Pasteur Surveillant Principal” or Regional Minister) for the villagers and their parish catechist in this vast territory has been severely handicapped by the lack of transportation.  Now, it is likely that the silvery tinkle of the bicycle bell will soon become a familiar sound in even the more remote villages.

 It is appropriate that the bicycles will be distributed by Paul Williams, son of Disciple missionaries who served in the Tshuapa in the 1950’s.  Church leaders continue to be inspired by the example of missionary church administrators who spent multiple days in the “bush” on tours of the fledgling village parishes.  Williams’ son Paul, who is writing the history of the Disciples in Congo from the 1898 arrival to the present, reports from Mbandaka that he left June 24 on a journey that will take him to all the Disciple “posts” – Boende, Wema, Bokungu, Mondombe and Ikela – on the Tshuapa.

The Tshuapa River region presents a dramatic example of the Disciples’ critical role in providing health and education services.  Go to the map found at the address below

http://www.un.org/Depts/Cartographic/map/profile/drcongo.pdf

 and consider that between the towns of Boende and Ikela on the map, the Disciples headquarters in Mbandaka is solely responsible for overseeing and resourcing schools, hospitals and health clinics.  There is a government sponsored hospital in Boende but no other government run health service for the Tshuapa’s people and the Roman Catholics, the dominant form of Christianity in Congo, are not present in this Region.

 Paul Williams will celebrate his birthday in Mondombe perhaps with a visit to the hospital where he was born 58 years ago.  No doubt his joy on the occasion will be immeasurably increased by his success in fund raising for the purchase of the bicycles.  A Korean Presbyterian Church in Omaha, where Paul teaches at the University of Nebraska, gave the largest amount.  Among the contributors was Paul’s office assistant who chipped in funds for one bicycle.