Sabbath in Kinshasa

Trip Start Sep 15, 2011
Trip End Oct 21, 2011

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Flag of Congo - The Dem. Repub.  ,
Saturday, September 24, 2011

This morning services were to be at 10:00. Jacob said he would come by at 09:00, so the way African time is calculated I expected him about 09:30. He actually arrived at 09:45 and we started off on foot. We walked several blocks through sandy backstreets full of people walking in different directions, makeshift stands selling all sorts of wares where the sidewalks would be if there were sidewalks, cafes and bars doing a brisk business (yes the bars were doing well before 10:00 in the morning), hair salons, dressmakers, a welders shop, and a host of other activities. The ground is littered with, well, litter, of all kinds but especially the immortal plastic sack that never decomposes and continues blowing around the streets in an ugly carpet for years after its utility has disappeared. If I could change one cosmetic thing about sub-Saharan Africa it would be to banish the plastic sack.

A white guy wearing a tie (in 90 degree tropical humidity), and carrying a camera bag and a 1.5 liter bottle of water, and on foot, is certain to attract some curious attention in these neighborhoods. This was in fact the case as we walked. Expats rarely walk around; they ride in large 4WD vehicles. This is Jacob's old neighborhood and he knew lots of people we passed. Intended or not I was on display in a way that would cause people to ask Jacob later who I was and what was going on. That’s good for his reputation and the church’s here in Kinshasa, so I didn’t mind the curious stares, they weren’t malevolent, just curious.

When we reached the main street, Jacob flagged down a taxi, and ancient Mercedes diesel, probably 30 years old. It had been redecorated in the local style on the inside: red velour seats, decals here and there, and strangely enough, a leafy tree branch was stuck under the passenger side windshield wiper. As we drove away, I ask the driver what that was. He replied obtusely that he’d had to ferry his whole family in the back seat and didn’t want any trouble with the police. So he put the branch there and turned on the headlights. Or course…. I struggled to find a connection in all those disjointed facts, and couldn’t immediately see one.

I inquired further and finally established that he wanted to ferry his rather large family somewhere in his clearly marked taxi. There are laws that prohibit exceeding a certain number of passengers in a taxi. By putting the branch under the wiper, and turning on the headlights, he made it appear he was part of a funeral cortege for which the police will compassionately turn a blind eye to traffic laws. And voilą.

We drove to our regular church hall with me peering over and around the leaves in front of me. I felt I was traveling in a mobile shrubbery.

It wasn’t far to the hall, and we soon arrived. Greeting everyone as I entered, I shook hands all around and we quickly prepared for services which started about 10:15. We sang some of our traditional hymns and, after the opening prayer, Justin gave a sermonette about something God requires of us, faith, confirmed by works. He spoke in Lingala, but would throw in a paragraph header in French once in a while so I could follow, and he read the scriptures in French as well. Many Congolese can understand French pretty well even if they don’t actually speak it, so common communication can contain a mix of both languages.

After another hymn I passed along greetings from various people, gave an overview of my trip, and gave news of the church and its work in various areas of the world. Then I spoke for about an hour, without translation, on the topic of the upcoming annual festivals. There was a funeral or some similar event going on across the street, an event which apparently required loud thumping music. I had to raise my voice at times just to be heard. I remember once in Lagos, Nigeria, I had to compete with a Pentecostal revival in the empty field right next door. I literally had to shout though the whole sermon in order to be heard, it was that or cancel services on one of the rare days I could be with the members there.

After services, I distributed some copies of photos of members that I had taken during my last visit. It's not a common thing here to have a photo or photos of one's self, so pictures are a wonderful and memorable gift.

I then asked everyone to step outside for a new group photo. It’s a smaller group that it was last time I was here. This has been a hard past few months for this group as it has been in other parts of the world. There have been tears shed and it has been discouraging at times. There is still some confusion and misinformation being spread, but things seem to be settling down now, and we hope to move forward in unity, confidence, and trust.

As usual I took the first photo with them looking the normal Congolese way: grim and stoic. Then I asked them to smile for one – which only few actually did, and then asked Jacob to take one with me in it as well.

After some fellowship and conversation it was time to leave so everyone could head home before the worst of the heat came on. Jacob, Justin and Victor accompanied me back to the hotel. We took a table in the back garden and had a coke, mineral water or beer according to taste and talked for several more hours about the needs of individual members, the congregation as a whole, and how they can participate in the work of the Church in their country. We also talked about current events, the challenges facing the Congo, some of which go back to its origins as a colony belonging to Belgian King Leopold II. If you want to understand the tragic beginnings of the Congo colony, I can recommend a book called King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild. It is grim reading, but precise documentation of man’s inhumanity to man. The main plague in Congo is corruption, which is of such a scale that about the only thing one can do is laugh darkly at its outrageous preponderance.

I sometimes fantasize about being able to take all the church members here away to a safer, saner, and kinder place. It is not possible of course, so all we can do is work toward a better world to come.

We finally wrapped up our conversation and passed along some assistance for the members here sent by some church members from Texas. It was most welcome and will be very helpful and useful.

Jacob told me he will come to the hotel at 04:00 tomorrow morning to accompany me to the airport for my 07:30 flight. This flight in on Ethiopian Airlines and they close the check in counter fairly early. If one arrives late, even an hour before the flight, he will not be allowed to check in. So we have to factor in the unexpected, and leave me a very large safety margin.
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Karen Collins on

Thank you so much Mr. Meeker for sharing your travels with us.

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