Postcard from Africa
POSTEDJune 5, 2004
<strong>Editor’s Note: The UTD Mercury is highlighting the adventures of UTD students who travel abroad. In this installment, Sophie Rutenbar, a junior social sciences major, shares her experiences during her travel through The Democratic Republic of the Congo.</strong>
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO – The first thing that hit me when I stepped off the plane was the air, so thick it was almost liquid. It was worse than the worst of Texas summer days. The second thing I noticed was the smell – a spicy wood smoke so overpowering it was almost a tropical incense. Ndjili Airport was as close to pure chaos as I’d ever seen – porters in green scrubs running everywhere, people pressing us to use their cab or buy their papayas or get a shoeshine. What a change from the calm of the Atlanta airport!
I’d heard about the Democratic Republic of the Congo all my life, but this was my first trip there myself. My grandparents were missionaries for 30 years and gave birth to all five of their children there. Whenever my mom and her three sisters got together, they’d talk of people they’d known, places I’d never seen and then one would say something in Tshiluba – one of the regional languages – starting them all off on a tangent completely unintelligible to me. But whether or not I understood it, the Congo was all around me and even in me, percolating through my blood.
I arrived in the Congo May 5 – three years after a peace treaty ended the Congo’s latest war. The signs of this war were not as obvious as buildings pockmarked by bullet holes in Sarajevo or stacks of skulls in Cambodia. Instead, I spoke with Congolese who talked of family members who died of the famine following the “Pillage,” as they’ve named that period. I saw children with the fat stomachs and too-thin legs of malnourishment – products of interruptions in a farming system that was barely subsistence even before the war. I saw the shelves of hospitals in remote villages bare except for a couple bottles of Motrin or a few precious antibiotics. That was particularly heart-wrenching since I was traveling to the Congo with a group of former missionaries and children of missionaries to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Institut Medical Chretien du Kasai, a higher-level hospital outside of the provincial capital of Kananga. This hospital represented to me the other face of the Congo, an institution with its own lab tech and nursing schools, with equipment with which, even if it wasn’t state-of-the-art, I would have been happy being treated, a hospital with its own oxygen-separation plant and water distillation systems and wings for surgery, ophthalmology, and maternity, a hospital with a wonderful, well-trained, all-Congolese staff. Where 50 years before British and American missionaries had built the institute from scratch, now their students – people like my friends, Dr. Badi Banga and Dr. Mukuta – are training the next generation for service.
There are different reactions to travel in third-world countries. Some people are so stunned by the poverty they’re blind to anything else. Some can’t move beyond the lack of basic amenities we’re accustomed to, the lack of control over your environment, while some see only the broken windows and peeling paint and trash in the street. But I gradually learned to see beyond that, to realize that it’s simply not economical to install new glass when it breaks, so you patch the hole with boards or thatch or mud brick. And in a country where it pours torrentially everyday for more than half the year, paint simply doesn’t stick to walls like it does here, nor does a country almost lacking a government have the ability to arrange for regular trash pickups. These are people doing the best they can with what they have, etching out their lives with close to nothing.
What stuck out to me more were the people and, more subtly, the Congo’s faint underlining of hope. I miss the friends I made – the Congolese are more open than us – Michel, Emile, Claudia, Bobette, and many more. I miss the people as a whole, too – cunning, joyful, reserved, sharp as a whip, or cruel – the whole range of humanity intensified and distilled by living in a country where everything teeters on the edge. They are why I have hope, because underneath their personal quirks and tribal differences, they possess an extraordinary measure of resilience. If they can have peace for just a few years, if they can make it through next year’s elections (the perennial African curse), in a few years or a few years more they may rival us for power. Or so I dream.
In the meantime uncertainty looms – the elections, tensions with neighboring Rwanda, the disunity of Congo’s tribes. But the Congo – the largest sub-Saharan nation and the size of the entire U.S. east of the Mississippi – is the lynchpin of Africa, the piece in the center of the puzzle, the country with the most potential for wealth. If you want hope for Africa, keep the Congo in your thoughts, in your letters to Congressmen and close to your checkbook. Let’s hope for the best.