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.

 

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!)

“Every Stitch a Prayer”–Congo Cloth Connection, part two

The BOMEN Sewing Training Center and Workshop

Monique Bapa, who started her training at Bomen a few months ago, is working with the new CCC Sewing Machine.

Monique Bapa, who started her training at Bomen a few months ago, is working with the new CCC Sewing Machine.

 

Nancy, Nina, and I will be hosted by the Bondeko Mennonite Church in the Masina area of Kinshasa, DR Congo, during most of our visit in May. We will be staying in African homes for nine of our days and did I mention that French is the language of DR Congo? Did I mention that I know very little French?!

 

We will be meeting with Congolese women theologians and the organizers of the BOMEN Sewing Training Center and Workshop. BOMEN is a project of the Bondeko Mennonite Church to train women heads of households, teenage mothers, and unemployed young women in sewing, dressmaking, and tailoring. It is a microfinance training program but at this point, only a small number of women have participated because they only have two sewing machines are available.

BOMEN seeks help to buy additional sewing machines, tables and chairs, supplies, and rent for a larger building for the center. The leaders hope to train a hundred women in basic sewing skills for an 18-month program. BOMEN will help the trainees find employment and establish a production workshop to start young women in their careers.

Some Congo Cloth Connection (CCC) funds have already purchased on industrial strength sewing machine and sewing supplies. I will be taking additional supplies and sewing notions with me for the sewing center. Also, CCC funds will be used to purchase two long work tables and other supplies for the workshop in Kinshasa where the women will make clothes to sell. The profits from these sales will purchase additional sewing and embroidery machines for other women’s group in other parts of the DR Congo.

 

Marie-Jeanne, the organizer of the BOMEN sewing center

I see some of my “call” for this trip is to sew alongside the women, give ideas for additional sewing projects, and note the additional specific needs of the sewing center. Perhaps, though, on a deeper level, my call is to bear witness to the stories I might hear from the women, especially those who have moved from the dangerous eastern part of Congo to the capital of Kinshasa. I also will carry with me the spirits of my grandmother Lois and great-grandmother Daisy, both seamstresses, who would have enthusiastically supported this trip.