Congo Reflections Part 2: Hope

Congo doesn’t lack for spaces to grow food, catch fish; nor does it lack the natural resources needed for cottage industries. I’m not saying it’s not poor — I’m just saying it doesn’t need to be.

When I was in Thailand a few months ago talking with a couple missionaries, one said

–you will always have the poor with you,

and the other said

–yes, but that doesn’t mean they have to be hungry.

The idea to teach coaching principles in Congo is fraught with a variety of cultural pitfalls. One of the biggest challenges is translating a skill set for use by peers or equals into a society steeped in a tradition of hierarchical social structures. From the chief down; from the dictator down, from the bishop down, everyone has to be very careful what they say to those above them, and to preserve their status, also to those below. Creating an atmosphere of authentic sharing among brothers is a cultural challenge. Still, we hope that the ideas we can share in Kinshasa will give pastors a new paradigm, which leads to a new kind of accountability — one the leaders seek eagerly, rather than avoiding.

Yet even to say “This is what we think you need” has an air of arrogance about it. I know Africa in general and Congo in particular needs leadership. But I approach the gift of training pastors there with a great deal of fear and trembling. It’s humbling to be invited to provide something that holds out hope to such a hopeless place.

As we plan and prepare, I reflect more and more on the first experiences in Africa. I find my year in Zaire (Congo) 27 years ago the most difficult year of my life to write about. It’s not that I’m shy about the psychological and social challenges I faced as a boy, the culture shock that was the bedrock of forming my identity in adolescence, it’s just that this particular experience was so powerful. Perhaps it is the hopelessness that permeated it. I am not by nature hopeless. I will rise above, and so will Africa, one day.

What hope did a man have that he would journey 50 miles on foot with a silver French coin minted in 1853, saved who knows how many years in a secret place, to bring this anachronistic remnant of colonialism to try to sell it at our house? Hope that it may be worth some sort of fortune? And what happened to his hope when my father sent away to determine an appropriate value, and the man waited three months, only to find out that the coin might retail at $10 in the States, and was generously offered the equivalent in rapidly devaluing Zaires? To wonder if he was being robbed, as is practically traditional in an exchange. A large sum in a country where people earned a dollar or two a month on average, but certainly no great fortune. A disappointment, that European cash.

What hope drove people to journey from the forest, knowing there were “whites” in Wembo Nyama, hoping we might buy monkey meat captured three days before and dangling in the 88-degree heat and 95% humidity from the back of their bicycle, an entourage of flies, what disappointment when we didn’t take the microbiological risk on their delicacy?

And I will be delicate with you about the hopes of those with open wounds who traveled to our stoop hoping for a miracle cure. Some medicine or perhaps a treatment. Even a prayer.

There’s the thing. There are no miracle cures today for Congo. There is not enough wealth we can offer for antiques or delicacies that could heal this nation from the many ways it has been wronged, by Belgium, by the United States, by the United Kingdom, by Big Corporations, and even the leadership training we might provide this fall contains no miracle cure in itself. So how do we hold out hope that this thing is the thing? This Leadership, the idea of coaching? But I am not by nature hopeless.

When I think of Lumumba and two others executed with him, I wonder what America might have been if Washington, Jefferson and Franklin had been abducted and executed in 1778. But rewriting history in such a fantastic way is the stuff of novels. Rewriting the future is something we can still hope to do. Dream of a future with me where Congo leads central African nations to a new way of doing leadership that takes Africa back for the people. And when it happens, expect your cell phone to cost more because someone digging near Lubumbashi is getting paid a living wage. Dream of leadership and fair-trade electronics.

As of this writing, I still need $4,000 by August 1 so I can go to Kinshasa and offer hope, however small. That is a fortune in Congo, but it’s doable here. It’s a small amount, much smaller than the hope it offers; at least, the hope in my heart. Reach out to me at to know more about how to give.


Congo Reflections Part 1

You may need Google Earth handy…

Charles Buller, my former pastor, now with Africa Inter Mennonite Missions (AIMM) asked me to go to Kinshasa with him in August. Or September. Maybe October. “I can’t do November,” I said. The idea is to do some very basic coach training for Congolese Mennonite pastors.

I began reflecting on Congo (formerly Zaire) seriously when I went to hear Charles talk about his last trip to Congo, when he and a Congolese pastor rode motorcycles 1000 km from Tshikapa on the Kasai River, through Kikwit and back to Kinshasa. Do you have any idea how dangerous this was? Charles went thousands of miles from decent medical care, and no such thing as a med-evac even if anybody knows where you are, if you wreck, which they don’t. Charles talked about frequent incidents of getting lost like he made a wrong turn going to Kroger’s for some avocados. (But he did get some avocados.)

When I left Zaire in 1988 I thought “I may never see this place again.” Now the opportunity presents itself, I have to ask this question first: “Am I really needed?” Charles says yes, so I am in. And second, “If I got the chance, would I also take a motorcycle trip through the bush?” I say no.

What does a leadership coach trainer have of value to take to the slums of Kinshasa? If I had kept up with my nursing career (LPN from 1994 to 1996) I might be able to bandage wounds, give some shots, save some lives. But if Congo needs anything, long-term, it is leadership. Coaching is a key to options. Options are a key to infrastructure and an economic middle-class. An empowered middle class is a key to balanced leadership. Leadership is a key to the sustainable liberty of a people. And if anyone needs liberty:

King Leopold II’s personal exploitation project (and by extension, all Belgians, and everyone who used rubber tyres in the early days of automobiles) pillaged Congo for somewhere around 80 years from the 1880s to the 1960s. One of my literary heroes, Mark Twain, spoke out against it in his pamphlet “King Leopold’s Soliloquy”, a piece of political satire that set the stage for American comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This pocket-lining set the example for Mobutu, Congo’s .

Maybe you’ve heard of Leopold, and Mobutu. But do you know the name Patrice Lumumba? Lumumba was (perhaps) Congo’s greatest hope for quality leadership. I won’t say that power wouldn’t or couldn’t have corrupted him, but it’s hard to say when the CIA makes you poisoned toothpaste. It appears that Larry Devlin, the CIA operative in Kinshasa at the time stalled. Perhaps he knew that Lumumba’s days were numbered. Lumumba, an African for Africa, was dangerous. It is said that when the USA ignored his pleas for help, he went to the USSR. He didn’t really care who helped him: he cared about Congo.

Lumumba met his end by firing squad in Katanga, that ever-dangerous provincial center of raw wealth in the southeast.

In my boyhood, I visited Lumumba’s birthplace with my brother. We went by bicycles because it wasn’t more than 6 or 8 miles from where we lived. I cannot find it on Google Earth: Onalua, near Wembo Nyama, in Katako-Kombe province. In today’s ultra-connected world, Onalua is still the middle of nowhere. It’s like it doesn’t exist. I doubt very much whether more than a dozen living Americans have been there. After all, Charles recently went through villages where they haven’t seen an American missionary for two decades.

–To be continued June 9.