Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR) – June 1, 2012
I watch a silent concert take place and it takes my breath away. Lightning, without a sound before or after it, dances across the sky, providing us with a glimpse of the depth and width of the surrounding clouds. Sometimes, the flashes happen vertically and sometimes, it seems the lightning dances horizontally through the layers of black, grey and apparently, white clouds that wrap around the bright. It was awesome and I find myself unable to move as I watch the sky in central Africa.
Tandala, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – June 2, 2012
Expecting some sort of rain to take away the oppressive humidity, I am disappointed, but manage to sleep well enough to feel alive. After an amazing breakfast of yogurt, oatmeal, bananas, and apples (what a surprise that was! I have never seen an apple in the African countries I’ve visited), I am closer to crossing the river into DRC.
Gilbert is late.
He will help me with customs on both sides of the border and he is tied up right now - no matter that he knew I was coming over one week ago. I wait. It is too hot to put on my boots. I sit at 6:45am, sweating in my jeans, t-shirt and bare feet. I limit myself to one sip of water every 15-20 minutes, fearing that I’ll need to ask for too many stops if I fill up with liquid.
We are supposed to leave at 8am so that we can cross the river and start the eight hour journey to Tandala. With two border crossings to take care of, we really want to leave on time. Gilbert shows up at 10:45am.
He takes my passport, which at this point in my life is the most important possession I own. I shadow him like a puppy during the entire process of getting out of CAR. We go to a hut on one side of the river and out of nowhere, a chair is brought for me to sit as I wait for my passport to be returned to me. I see money flashing around as my passport changes hands three times and as Gilbert hires two men to carry my bags to the dugout canoe in which we will cross to DRC. As soon as the process is done, we scramble down a little hill to arrive at the canoe landing place and again, money changes hands with the man in charge of the canoes. He refuses to take one of my bags and in the blink of an eye, Gilbert reaches out and retrieves his money. It happens so quickly, not even the man is aware of what happened until he notices his empty hand. Words get a little heated and I hear over and over that “she is a missionary”. I don’t know at this time that my army duffel bag is a problem. They think I am somehow attached to an army and they don’t want to carry me or the bag across the river. This is a serious problem and money isn’t going to buy me a passage, not with that bag. Minutes pass, words are tossed about and I pretend I am not there. I focus on the river, on the people bathing on one side, covered in white soap bubbles. On the men washing clothes, beating them against rocks and laying them on the sand to dry. On children splashing in the water, smiling and waving when our eyes meet.
At last, a head motion indicates that the bag and I can get into the canoe. We move across an almost still river, put-putting across an international boundary where every day live happens.
Yellow-shirted police stand on the other side barely acknowledging our presence as they balance their old Kalashnikovs in their hands. Once again, I follow Gilbert closely as he carries my passport to another hut, but this time in Zongu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). My bags are thrown into the back of a pickup truck full of water jugs which are apparently going to Tandala with me. I notice that the army bag is packed tightly beneath the jugs, which means the border police do not know to check or confiscate it. Without a word to me, officials take notes from my passport. Eyes look at me but no words are spoken. Twenty minutes of pen scratching and casual glances later, I tuck my passport into my bag and climb into the truck.
I cannot believe the truck in which we will be traveling actually works! It is held together by wires and cables and screws and things of that sort. I settle into the front seat by Gilbert and prop my feet up on my backpack, with two bottles of water beside me, one bag of snacks (boiled eggs and bread) and two long baguettes on top of me. Behind me, separated by the window and the end of the cab, on top of suitcases and water jugs, sits Zambe and Solongue. Zambe is the deaf “mechanic” and Sonongue is simply hitching a ride. What a ride it turns out to be!
We bob and weave. Our entire bodies levitate as we get airborne because we don’t see a hole in time. We go through huge holes filled with water. We drive through long tough grass when we need to pass huge trucks broken down by too many craters.
Gilbert and I manage to practice my Lingala and I teach him some English words before we break down for the first time. Zambe and Gilbert speak with their hands in a language that is their own. I get out of the truck to take some photos and Zambe removes the cover of my seat, where he reaches to find some cables tied together with a plastic bag. Apparently, we have a short circuit and the bags are not doing their job well enough, so he grabs some handy electric tape and in no time, has the cable securely taped up. This process is repeated three times at different parts of the cable. The cables are crammed back down into the seat and the battery is jumped. The battery is behind my chair because they don’t want it stolen at night.
We rattle on for a while and I notice that with quite some frequency, the rattle becomes a loud thunk, thunk, thunk. When Gilbert notices the sound, he quickly turns the wheel to the right and the sound stops. Sometimes, he gets engrossed in his thoughts and I, in my mind, say “turn the wheel, turn the wheel”. When he does, we are left with only the regular rattle of a car held together with spit and glue.
The second time we break down, it is simply a matter of adding water to the truck. I decide to take a potty break so I step into the tall grass that edges the road. It is thick and hard on my arms, but I push through. Two steps in and I can’t see the road at all. Making sure no one sees me, I take four steps. When I emerge, I almost get bowled over by a cyclist who is so surprised to see a white person coming out of the grass, he almost falls.
We start our journey again.
A new noise is heard above the rattling and the thunk, thunk, thunk. It is the sound of something dragging and then, there is no more new sound. We stop to see what happened and hear a far-away shout. Through my camera lens, I see a man running towards us, carrying a large curved piece of metal. Gilbert meets him half way and accepts the piece of the car which has fallen. He can’t be bothered to reattach it because we are behind schedule, so he crams it in between the water jugs. While he pays the man for his trouble, Zambe is happily and lustily whacking the bottom of the truck with a heavy hammer. What he is trying to accomplish is impossible to determine, but after five or six minutes of intense pounding, he emerges with a large smile and pronounces us ready to resume the trip.
The sky turns dark in front of us and I learn the words for rain (bula), lightning (kake) and thunder (ebeti). I worry about Solonge, Zambe and the bags in the back of the truck, as there is no covering. I pray for the air to cool down but for the rain to be kept at bay. I should have been praying for the car because at that moment, we get our first flat tire. Because I have a flashlight, I am able to assist Gilbert while Zambe takes care of other parts of the car that need attention. We are on our way soon enough, but the sky is dark.
The rain is holding off.
They air is not as muggy.
I crack a hard-boiled egg and peel it outside the window. We hit a large puddle and my hand and egg are covered in mud. I imagine my egg turned red because my hand was red when I wash it hours later. I consider the consequences and decide that since it rained recently, since no humans bathe in the mud, and since I am hungry, the egg is edible. I allow it to dry, brush off the mud and two of us share an egg.
The villages we pass are now shadows broken by tiny fires built inside the round huts. I hear children and adults singing at a distance and soon, then, the sound of a guitar. Village to village, music is sung and the evening is magical. I am glad we are breaking down because I am seeing Congo as it is in the dark. The simple pleasure of singing together – 30-40 voices at a time – is shared by many here and I am enchanted. I want the evening to continue, for the peace I feel to not end. I want my family to enjoy this time with me and I keep them in mind as each village passes by us as we make our way.
After leaning animal names, I am now learning the words for big (monene) and small (moke).
I hear a strange sound, like the sound of a lot of air rushing out of something. I practice my lingala and ask Gilbert if the problem this time is monene. He smiles and says “yes, it is, monene – it is big”. He keeps driving, trying to find a village where we can stop. When we arrive, I get out of the truck once more, but he insists that I stay put and eat some dinner. He scrounges in the back of the truck and produces a pan of fish, giving it to me with instructions to eat well. It is dark and I can’t see what I am eating, but it is delicious. We all eat as some village magician sets to work on our tire. Since we have no working replacement, they somehow conjure a way to fix the least damaged tire. Tomorrow, in the light, I will see if duct tape is part of the solution. Between the village man, our deaf mechanic and Gilbert, they communicate in the dark and the fixed tire is put in place. We share our fish and bread. At 11:34pm I recognize the next village and feel at home. I make out Tandala Hospital in the dark.
All is well.
June 3, 2012 – Tandala Hospital
Today is a lazy day and I sleep until 7:30 because I am tired. Of course, there is company waiting to say hello before I ever open my eyes and I feel lazy when I finally appear. After a breakfast of coffee and cookies, Rachel and I ponder if we want to attend an ordination celebration, which I know will take at least four hours and will be totally in Lingala. While I am not crazy about the idea, I am willing to go. At the last minute, a government person shows up, asking for my passport. He states I must pay some money, now that I am in Tandala. I have paid for a visa. I have paid two villages back. I am forced to pay again. The decision is made for us that we are to stay at the guesthouse because it is too late to go to church.
I catch up on my water drinking.
I hold a meeting with doctors and PEASIT (social workers who work with HIV+ children) to determine the division of labor, how best to communicate with everyone here and to determine tomorrow and Tuesday’s activities.
Walk away not knowing if the meeting is successful.
June 4, 2012 – Tandala Hospital, Tandala Health Zone and road to Gemena
The morning starts at 4:00am with a thunder and lightning storm like no other. It is gorgeous and the sight beyond my window is a blur. The pounding of the rain on the roof is deafening and the hot earth gives up its steam as it inhales the wet. I lay in bed listening and feeling the rain as the wind shifts and bit of it comes through the net that keeps mosquitos out in the open and away from me. These droplets startle me from time to time, but feel good. I wonder how this storm will affect our travels to Gemena later on as I time seconds between thunder and lightning.
Rachel and I make our way to Dentist Bofio’s home, as he’s invited us to breakfast. He announces that he has tuna to celebrate my arrival and with a flourish, produces a packet of tuna a friend of his left behind many days ago. Rachel produces McDonald’s packets of mayonnaise from her purse and I prepare the tuna salad for a breakfast sandwich. This, with tea, officially starts our day.
I meet with doctors and discuss plans. Dreams. Thoughts. Ideas. At noon I am ready to leave. My stomach lets me know I must eat soon. By 1:00pm, I am not concentrating well on a story told by someone, but try to focus. Soon enough, Frank walks me to the guesthouse where I whip up a strange lunch of macaroni and cheese, a white garlic/tuna sauce, leftover rice with beans and eggs, and pineapple. People always drop by for lunch, breakfast, dinner. We share this wild lunch and laugh.
I sit behind Bamusa on a motorcycle and we follow Deolo and Filo to community gardens boasting beautiful corn. The wind whips us as we ride and people stare at the white woman on the back of the bike. They smile and wave and I wave back. It is funny to see them take a second glance once they realize the second rider is not black.
Children come out of the woodwork when my camera makes its appearance and soon, the space in front of a hut is crowded. I am surrounded by smiling, touching children. I take photos and show them. They squeal with laughter and mamas come out to see what the commotion is about. Without a word, the mamas step into a hut and return with a sleeping baby and they, too, want a photo. I look at these moms and see myself – I want my children to be remembered. I like a swept home. I want my children to be fed, to be happy, to be alive.
The gardens are gorgeous and I am so happy we visited. I want to do more.
Walking from a garden to the motorcycles, we hear that Rachel is on her way in a truck, ready to pick me up and take me to Gemena. We meet her part way and I scrunch into the front seat with Gilbert and Rachel. We laugh and laugh the four hours from Tandala to Gemena. Last year, it took one and a half hours. This year four hours. The rains have destroyed the road and it is hard to go anywhere fast. I try to imagine how trucks will bring the labor beds to Tandala, but I leave that to God because the problem is that big.
Rachel tells Gilbert “whenever Tanya is around, I laugh the most”. This makes me happy.
One thing I know: if we can’t laugh while in the middle of terrible poverty, absolute hopelessness, and hunger, we will cry. We find reasons to laugh and we hold on to them, making the kilometers pass more quickly.
The moon is high and perfectly round. I ask questions. Rachel translates and Gilbert answers. I learn so much tonight.
June 5, 2012 – Gemena and Elykia Center