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.