Last full day in Congo

It is my last full day in Kinshasa, DR Congo.  I’ve been here for 14 days with Nina and Nancy, visiting various non-government organizations (NGO), many of them church related, around the city and we are visiting one more project. I am tired—physically, mentally, emotionally—and am not interested in learning about one more project.

Our host, Suzanne, drives beyond several cement block buildings surrounded by vegetable gardens. She pulls up to a small building where an older woman is waiting for us. She is wearing a yellow and black cotton wrap skirt with both a matching top and a jauntily tied head scarf. She looks like many of the Congolese women I have met and seen during the trip.

Suzanne Lind and Maman Nzeba at the Disciples Sewing Centre. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Suzanne greets the woman with the air kisses offered three times as the women touch the other’s face with their own face. She introduces Maman Nzeba, the director of the Disciples Sewing Centre, a sewing project raising funds to send to NGOs working in eastern Congo where war between Congo and Rwanda continues. I perk up at hearing “sewing project” and my fatigue lifts.

Maman Nzeba leads us to three rooms where two women are in the middle of sewing tasks: one is at the cutting table with larger scissor shears cutting fabric and the other is at the ironing board pressing fabric. As I enter I recognize this space—not the exact space but the accouterments of a sewing studio. I have my own room with the finished attic dedicated for sewing, including my own cutting table made by my husband and father-in-law, an ironing board and iron, sewing machine, spools of thread in a plethora of colors stacked against the wall, and piles of fabrics in various stages of completed fabrics.

Maman Nzeba in the sewing room with clothing and dolls either made-to-order for clients or for sale. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

I move around the Congolese sewing room noting their sewing tools, finished projects available for sale, and the vibrant, colorful fabric. Finally, for the first time in two weeks I feel at home and at ease in Kinshasa. I feel connected to this space and these women because of our mutual love for sewing.

Maman Nzemba, the seamstresses, Suzanne, Nancy, and me in the sewing room. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

As Suzanne concludes the visit, Pastor Nina offers a blessing for this project. Just as we turn I say, “Wait, please translate my blessing: And may your needles always remain threaded.”  Both Nina and Suzanne quizzically look at me yet Suzanne translates for me. The women listen to her and then start laughing, “Merci, merci, maman” as they hug me good-bye.

In the car Nina turns to me and says, “I had no idea where you were going with that but it worked for them!” I smile and look out the window as Suzanne drives away from the cement buildings.

 

Getting (sewing) schooled in the Congo

The instructor at Bondeko sewing school. Photo by JMD.

On Monday, May 7, Nancy, Nina, and I visit the Bondeko sewing school, sponsored by the Bondeko Mennonite church in Kinshasa.  (I wrote about it before my trip here: http://wp.me/p1DCBi-4Q) I am looking forward to this visit—I know about sewing. Plus, I have the gifts my sister Julie and I made for the school and I am ready to give them to the women.

Nancy and I arrive first (Nina is staying with another family) and we are welcomed into the classroom with two young women students and one instructor. The instructor is wearing a beautiful halter dress with ruffles down the front which she sewed herself. She is a walking advertisement for her sewing skills.

The room is small, with three cement walls and one wall of windows that looks out onto the busy street. Crowded into the room are five hand-cranked sewing machines, tables, and plastic lawn chairs. Most of the tables are pushed aside to make room for us, their visitors and Nancy and I wait for Nina’s arrival.

The professional sewing room with one of the seamstresses. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Next door is a similar room with two sewing machines with fabrics, notions, and pictures of various women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing designs. This space is the professional room where people come to order clothing or to get alterations.

Marie-Jeanne, president of the Bondeko sewing school and one of our hosts.

Marie–Jeanne, president of the sewing school, is adjusting the tension on the machines while the bobbins are acting funky, and it appears that one can only sew one seam at a time then re-thread the machine and fiddle with bobbin before sewing again. The machines are old, black Singer machines with gold lettering and decorations. And, I marvel at Marie-Jeanne’s patience with them because I would’ve been swearing at my machine (and at myself) if I had to fiddle with my sewing machine this much.

Bondeko sewing classroom Photo by JMD

The two students are working on assignments from the instructor. When they finished one part of the assignment—sewing a collar—they gave it to the instructor, she looked at it, and without feedback, give them the next assignment. It’s very different from my grandmother and great-grandmother teaching me to sew.

After Nina and Izir (our translator) arrives, we receive a history of the school, a demonstration by the students, and then they offer us an opportunity to sew on the machines. I volunteer, thinking this will be easy, but I am quickly disabused of this idea! It is tough to crank the side wheel to get the machine going, get the fabric under the needle and sew a straight seam. The women had a good laugh at my clumsiness and the instructor helped me with the wheel. Both Nancy and Nina took turns and each did fine—I’m assuming they learned from my awkwardness (and not, perhaps, that they are more coordinated than me!).

Here I am getting (sewing) schooled. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Nina offered a blessing for the school, the instructors, and the students. Then I talked and this is what I said:

“It is traditional for the older women to teach the younger women to sew and my grandmother and great-grandmother taught my sister Julie and me to sew. They showed us how to thread a needle, tie a knot at the end of the thread, and how to take out my stitches when I made a mistake, which was a lot! (The women laugh at this).

My great-grandmother and grandmother died many years ago and I miss them a lot. Yet, sometimes, I can hear their instructions when I sew, like, “Don’t leave that mistake in—re-sew that seam.” (The women nod their heads in understanding). Sometimes my sister and I sew together although she lives far away and we consult with one another by phone when we have a sewing problem.

My sister Julie and I made these sewing kits for you in memory of our grandmother and great-grandmother. I know they would’ve loved to meet you and visit this sewing center!”

I distribute the sewing kits and pin cushions and the women are delighted and touched that we had made these gifts for them. The instructor immediately understands how the wrist pincushions worked and asked me to put around her wrist and wore it the rest of the day.

The women holding their sewing kits in the classroom. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

In each kit is a seam ripper, measuring tape, tailors chalk, needles, and a seam gauge.

Bondeko sewing kits made by Julie. Photo by Julie-Ann McFann

The pin cushions are filled with straight pins (after this photo was taken).

(Julie wrote about the designing and sewing of the kits and pin cushions on her blog: http://grandmassewingcabinet.com/2012/05/22/every-stitch-a-prayer-mostly/).

Marie-Jeanne formally thanks Julie and me for the gifts and says, “We look forward to your sister visiting us.”

Then Nina, Nancy, and I took many photos of the group with the sewing kits.

Holding the sewing kits in the classroom. Photo by JMD

And outside of the sewing center, I try to get them to say “Cheese” for the photo. I think they oblige me to be polite!

Outside the Bondeko sewing school (with Izir, our translator). Photo by JMD

 

Mango sampling in Kinshasa

Maman Lucrece and I at the produce stand. Photo by Nancy Myers

Day 4

I wake up feeling much better and eager to face the day—and to face Kinshasa. Mixed in with my eagerness are droplets of anxiety: anxiety of culture shock, anxiety of getting sick again, anxiety of new experiences. But I am ready to be brave.

Suzanne drives us to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) office located near her home. It is a large cement building that houses offices for many Protestant groups and mission organizations. As we enter the building, the lobby is an open space with a guard/receptionist behind a glass enclosure. Suzanne calls out, “Bonjour” to the man who returns her greeting. He greets us with “Bonjour” as well.

We walk up the three flights of concrete steps—without hand rails—turn right, and at the end of the hallway we see the large sign with MCC logo. As we enter the offices, we are greeted by a lovely young woman with chin-length hair. She introduces herself as Maman Bea (short for Beatrice). Nina immediately hugs Maman Bea and says in Frenglish, “I’m so pleased to meet you!” As I meet Maman Bea and do the cheek-to-cheek greeting three times, I begin to speak Spanish to her. I catch myself but end up speaking a hybrid of Spanish, English, and French. She corrects my French pronunciation (this is the first of scores of corrections I receive during the next two weeks).

Ben Munongo, MCC-DRC. Photo by Nancy Myers

We also meet Ben Munongo, Suzanne’s assistant who jokingly (and perhaps, proudly) shows us his “domain” in the office, comparing his three desks to Suzanne’s one desk. The three MCC offices are interconnected with Suzanne and Ben’s office the furthest from Bea. In one of these other offices are Francois, Mimi, and Jean Felix, waiting to be interviewed by Nancy and digitally recorded by Nina. Nancy has edited a book of stories from Congolese Mennonites in preparation for the upcoming centennial celebration of the Mennonite Church in DR Congo in July. These interviews will be part of the celebration.

Mimi and Jean Felix. Photo by Nina Lanctot

Suzanne and I leave the others to run errands to the bank and the water store to purchase bottled water. There are stores dedicated to selling bottled water throughout Kinshasa. Suzanne replaces large empty water jugs with filled ones.

Nancy and Pastor Francois Tshidimu in the MCC offices. Photo by Nina Lanctot.

After the interviews are done, the four of us visit a grocery store with a fruit and vegetable stand across the street. The store is small and crowded and stocked with imported foods and beverages. After we finish in the store we cross the street to the produce stand where we meet the gregarious Maman Lucrece. She is a savvy and shrewd saleswoman who engages all of her expat customers in her form of Frenglish.

Maman Lucrece’s produce stand. Photo by Nancy Myers

As we look at the lush and beautiful produce, Maman Lucrece decides to give us a taste test of a variety of mangoes. With her very large knife—the blade looks about twelve inches long—she slices into the mangoes, makes 1/8” slices and gives each of us a slice off the edge of that knife. As I bite into the sweet, juicy slice I think: “I am standing on a street in the Congo eating sliced mangoes from Maman Lucrece.” It is another “But I’m just a girl from the Valley” moment that I occasionally experience—when I was in jail in Santo Domingo, D.R., and when I was at the outdoor butcher market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. These moments always feel incongruous from my Valley upbringing!

After our lunch of bread, crackers, and fresh salad, we head to the market district in downtown Kinshasa in search of Congo cloth. We park across the street from a high-end fabric store which is wonderfully air-conditioned and the fabric is shrewdly displayed to cause serious fabric lust. But the prices discourage us from purchasing fabric plus Suzanne tells us we can get it for less money at another store.

We walk into the market district which is dusty, dirty, with garbage piled up on the corners, the sidewalks dilapidated and packed with street vendors selling things from old books, sunglasses, electronic equipment, plumbing parts, and clothing. As we walk past the vendors call out to us. I am last in line, trying to avoid both people and merchandise while mindful of my weak and wonky left ankle. And because I am the slowest I become the most vulnerable which brings unsavory attention with men literally getting in my face or purposefully blocking my way. Also, frankly, because of the size of my breasts men have grabbed at them in the past so I am scared this will happen again (although it doesn’t, thankfully). At this point Nancy walks back to me, grabs my hand and holds on tight as she leads me through the street. I feel relief and gratitude for her wisdom and generosity.

At last! The fabric store with fabric bundles piled high along the walls to the ceiling. But wait—am I reading the sign correctly? Six yards for $12.56 FR—six yards of 100 percent cotton for $10.00 US? Unbelievable. I purchase four bundles of six yards each. Yet, despite finding such bargains and being surrounded by fabric, I am unsettled by the market experience and am fearful of walking through the streets again back to the car.

Suzanne is feeling unsettled as well and hires one of the store clerks to escort us back through the streets. I take Nancy’s hand as we leave and Suzanne is behind me as we maneuver around cars and men to follow our guide. One man intentionally blocks me and refuses to move so I plow into him with my left shoulder (and I think how my brother would be proud of this move) and Suzanne yells at him, “Get away!” and elbows him. The man begins parroting her as we continue across the street. We begin to giggle at the parroting which diffuses some of my fear as our escort leads us into calmer streets.

As we leave the area I try to regain some inner equilibrium: I am angry with myself for being so fearful and causing such problems for the others, especially Suzanne, yet I am grateful for their compassion. I want very much to appear competent to my friends like I can handle any situation but the truth is, I am not and I cannot. I remember how traveling can cause us to confront our selves. I try to hold my fearful self with the same compassion extended to me by Suzanne, Nancy, and Nina. This is not an easy thing for me to do.

By evening we are laughing about Suzanne, the committed pacifist, elbowing the fellow in the marketplace. She is generous in her laughter and a lightness returns to us at end the day. Nancy writes a funny and beautiful blog post about the day. I send Kevin a quick message telling him that I had a hard day but am feeling better. He quickly responds his empathy about the day but assures me of his love. I head to bed surrounded by compassion, love, and laughter. It helps redeem the day.

Congo Cloth Connection Days 2-3

Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo from Wikipedia

*In addition to my reports, please be sure to read Nancy Myers blog–she is a wonderful writer! Also, if you are on Facebook you can see additional pictures and notes on the Congo Cloth Connection Facebook page.*

Day 2

We arrive in Brussels around 9:30 am and depart the plane with that glassy-eyed, post-slumber party look on our faces. The airport is confusing (especially since we are sleep-deprived) and the personnel aren’t very helpful. We find our way to the next flight and we sit in the same row this time with an empty seat so we can stretch out some.

Again I am curious about the people around me. Directly across from me is a youngish white woman reading a stack of documents with titles like, “Detangling the Congo,” etc. She alternates reading these papers with a novel with a Flemish title. I am intrigued with her as I continue to have idealistic (and somewhat sentimental) images of people doing international relief and development and expats in general: “Who are they? Why did they choose to dedicate their life to relief and development? What motivates them? Is it challenging for them to travel so much and to be separated from their families and friends?”  I project onto them noble motivations and categorize them as both exotic and persons of the world.

We arrive in Kinshasa late in the afternoon and disembark via the stairs pushed up to the plane. As I exit I am hit with a blast of heat and humidity plus the acrid smell of fire and smoke which reminds me of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The airport is small with a few aging buildings colored with dingy yellow paint. Adjacent to the buildings are dozens of aging planes that look like they were left there “to die”—rusty, without names or logos, and decrepit.  It’s like a junkyard but for airplanes.

We are herded into a large cement room for immigration. There are signs proclaiming “Diplomats, expats, nationality” and we queue up according to the sign and ropes indicating lines—although we are not certain we are in the right aisle. On the other side of the ropes are dignified-looking African men wearing suits arguing with the policemen about their own line and insist they should be in the more prestigious lines to go through immigration. These men look like what I imagine African intellectuals look like—somber, glasses, suits, and leather valises. Of course, this is a romantic notion—I truly know nothing about these men. But again, I project onto them noble motivations.

There are policemen everywhere and, in my opinion, very officious. They don’t seem very effective and will randomly direct people in one direction only for another policeman to direct the same people in another direction. I watch these machinations as I melt in the heat and humidity and begin using my passport as a fan. At one point, my eyes meet one of the immigration officials and I make a facial gesture of “heat” with my tongue then smile. He looks quickly away and I realize that my attempt at friendliness was received as an inappropriate sexual gesture. “Great,” I think, “I haven’t been in the country for more than a half-hour and I’m already making culture faux pas.”

We are directed to the luggage claim which is another cement-block room with five carousels for luggage. There are no signs identifying the flight number with the luggage heading onto the carousels. But there were a number of flat screen televisions on cement columns advertising high-end hotels and Hollywood films.

I am feeling overwhelmed by the disorganization and chaos—the noise is high with people yelling, jostling, and pushing one another while trying to grab suitcases. We take turns watching our carry-on luggage while grabbing our checked luggage. At last we exit the building to more officious police officers creating more confusion rather than creating some order.

We are greeted by Monsieur Apollo who leads us to Suzanne Lind who leaps and jumps when she sees us. Suzanne, Mennonite Central Committee country co-director and one of our hosts, has been waiting for more than two hours for us! We are all happy to be together and to begin our journey “in-country.”

We climb into Suzanne’s SUV, leave the airport, and travel to the capital. And, we experience the first of many Kinshasa traffic jams! The road into Kinshasa can have four, five, or six “lanes” of vehicles heading the same direction with a constant cacophony of tinny car horns. Additionally, people are streaming alongside the ride or in the road itself with small fires burning to illuminate the way as there are no street lights. The road has potholes and the cars and trucks stir up dust which mingles with diesel exhaust. I cover my mouth with my tee-shirt to help me breathe.

As we enter downtown the roads become asphalt with street lamps. Suzanne tells us that the Chines government is creating roads—providing the supplies and labor—in exchange for land and mineral rights. So many countries and international corporations want land and mineral rights in DR Congo, especially in the eastern part of the country. (A mineral used for our electronics is mined in DR Congo . . . what makes my life easier creates turmoil in Congo. Am I willing to give up all of my personal electronics? Not today, I confess.)

Nancy Meyer and Suzanne Lind on the balcony at Suzanne’s home with papaya trees in the back. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

After our very loooong day of travel, we arrive at Suzanne’s home where we stay for the next few days. After talking with Kevin via Skype, I go to bed weary and ready for sleep.

Day 3

I wake up sick with nausea and diarrhea and I nibble on pepto-bismo tablets all day. I decide to not attend the gathering of Congolese women theologians—an event I’ve been anticipating for several weeks. I am annoyed and frustrated with myself for getting sick on our first full day in DR Congo. I hope to be better by tomorrow!

The women theologians who met with Nina, Nancy, and Suzanne. Photo by Nancy Meyers (I think–maybe it was Nina!)

Congo Cloth Connection–Day One

Monday, April 30

I finish packing my bags, check my emails and FB several times, and dawdle, waiting until 12:15 pm when I pick up Kevin at work to drive me to the South Bend, Indiana airport. I feel present yet not-present as I wonder if I can still back out of this trip even though I’ve done everything I need to do to prepare for it. Despite my hesitation, I can only move forward, to a place I’ve never seen, to stay in home of people I don’t know, and to be away from Kevin for 16 days. I feel anxious, nervous and excited.  I can only move forward as planned and leave for Africa.

I meet Nina and Nancy at the airport and say good-bye to Kevin. I know Nancy slightly—two face-to-face meetings and a series of emails. Nina I know and trust. She was my pastoral mentor in the late 1990s and she organized a small group comprised of women pastors and their spouses which Kevin and I were in when we lived in Goshen, Indiana. But my friend Eric’s question lingers: “Have you ever traveled together before?”

“No,” I said.

He nods at me and says, “I hope it goes well then.”

I think of Eric’s question as we pass through security with the friendly TSA agents. I think again of how much nicer the TSA agents are at regional airports rather than major airports. Their friendliness makes the entire awkward ordeal of forced intimacy with other travelers easier. Only at airport security checkpoints do I see men re-belt their pants and adjust their flies except in my bedroom. I’m always embarrassed when I witness this re-dressing by strangers and our eyes meet. I feel vaguely like a voyeur.

In Chicago we sit near the gate for our overnight flight to Brussels, Belgium and only see a small group of people for the large plane sitting outside the window. Nina says, “Maybe the flight will be empty and we can get a good sleep.” I cross my fingers, hoping this will be true.

Then I move beyond the large column that has blocked our view of the scores of other people also waiting for the flight. My hopefulness dissipates. The flight is packed. As I watch all these people—the variety of people—I wonder: where are they going? What is their story? Who might be waiting for them at the end of the flight?

In the row in front of Nina and I (Nancy is several rows ahead of us) is a beautiful young mother wearing a gorgeous scarf as her hijab. She is friendly with me as she tries to manage her two young children: Dana, a five-year old girl with her hair in braids and beads, and her two-year old son (I never got his name), who likes to scream. During the flight I try to play with the children as a way to distract the boy from screaming but I end up winding the children up more. (Nina whispers to me, “Way to go June.”)

The mother tells me they are moving back to Mali so her son can run around. She asks me where I am going and I tell her DR Congo. Her eyes grow big and she says, “Really?”

“Not in the eastern part of Congo—the dangerous part of Congo—just in Kinshasa,”
I respond.

She nods in understanding but still looks worried for me.

Sleep is elusive for me on this flight and I watch a few movies on the small screen attached to the seat in front of me as a way to pass the time. I forget the titles and plot of the movies as soon as they are over. Somehow I manage a few hours of sleep before we land.

Ten Days Until the Congo!

“Pause. Deep Breath. Slow Exhale. Another Deep Breath. Slow Exhale. One more Breath. Slow Exhale. Just remember this is really a pilgrimage. Be present in the moment, knowing that these little detours in your preparation time are also part of the whole experience. The bigger question is “What is God’s invitation at this stage in your pilgrimage?” Blessings to the three of you on the rest of your pilgrimage! : )”

My wise friend Deanna posted these words on FB in response to both Nancy Meyers and me as we shared our frantic feelings in these few days left to prepare for our trip. Nancy has edited a book about the history and contemporary history of the Congo Mennonite Church—she just finished it. I have the fall issue of Leader magazine to get to the designer before I leave plus a three-day Leader editorial committee meeting in Leamington, Ontario next week. I feel frantic and overwhelmed by all that I need to do in the next ten days. So, Deanna’s good words to BREATHE very wise. And I am trying to breathe.

(Our other traveling companion, Nina Lanctot, has already packed two suitcases and is being present to the moment. Power to you Nina!)

I am taking a banner that Pastor Francois asked to be created and delivered on this trip to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Congo Mennonite Church. A group of woman at Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana wanted to make the banner but didn’t have a design in mind. I had a flash of an idea which I quickly sketched out for them. I’ve never come up with a sketch or design for a quilt that someone else made so this was a new experience for me. I wasn’t quite sure how this would turn out.

Here’s the sketch I did—scanned and sent via email to Jeanne Heyerly, who shepherded the entire project.Here’s the sketch I did—scanned and sent via email to Jeanne Heyerly, who shepherded the entire project.

And here’s the final product! I love the smaller triangles that they added!

I will add a description of the symbols in the left-hand corner which will say: “Les trois cotés des triangles représentent à la fois la Trinité et les trois communautés mennonites de la RD Congo. Les triangles “volant” vers le cercle symbolisent les Mennonites Congolais et Nord Américains qui se déplacent pour se réunir et sont intégrés dans le cercle, symbole d’unité. La croix est notre centre, au coeur de notre unité.

Fait par les mamans de la paroisse Silverwood Mennonite à Goshen, Indiana sous les auspices de Congo Cloth Connection.”  (translated by Nancy Meyers)

And in English: “For the triangles: the three sides of the triangles represent both the Trinity and the three Mennonite “conferences/groups” in the DR Congo. The triangles “flying” toward the circle symbolize the Congolese and North American Mennonites traveling to meet and are integrated into the circle, the symbol of unity. And the cross, of course, is at the heart of our unity, our center.

The women of Silverwood Mennonite in Goshen, Indiana on behalf of Congo Cloth Connection”

And here are the “Mamans de la paroisse Silverwood Mennonite Church”:

My request of you: please pray for me or sending positive energy my way to remember to breathe in the next ten days, to do what needs to be done and to let go of what doesn’t get done, and for inner soul preparation, not just external preparation.

Thanks much!