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: 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:

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


Waving like the Rose Parade Queen at the Funeral

Mourners line up to pay respects. Photo by JMD

Saturday morning Nancy, Nina, and I pack our bags, preparing for our immersion into Kinshasa life. Nancy and I will spend a few days with Gaston and Marie-Jeanne while Nina stay at Pastor Francois and Felly’s home. Then the plan is to switch places.

I am feeling anxious, not knowing what to expect. Francois and our translator, Izir, arrive and we wait for Marie Jeanne and her driver. At last they arrive, we climb into Marie Jeanne’s SUV: me in front, Nina and Nancy and Marie-Jeanne in the middle seat, and Francois and Izir in the very back with our luggage. Suzanne stands outside my window saying good-bye. I am beginning to panic and I don’t want to leave Suzanne and her home. I get teary-eyed and she takes my hand and reassures me that all will be well. She tells me in a quiet voice, “They are not going to let anything happen to you. You are safe—don’t worry about your physical safety. You’ll do fine.” She kisses the back of my hand and says goodbye to me then says good-bye to the others.

I wipe away my tears and feel comforted by her words and kindness. As we drive away I replay her words and pray: “Yes, God, I am safe. Help me to be free and not so fearful.” At this moment I feel my heart open up—my binding fear is loosened and I can breathe again. I feel eager to experience DR Congo.

Originally we were to visit a hospital but plans were changed when the wife of a prominent Mennonite pastor died and the funeral was scheduled for this day. The challenge is that no one is exactly certain where the funeral is located so we spend a lot of time driving down narrow roads, asking for directions, backing up and turning around. (See Nancy’s terrific description here). At last we find the location tucked in the back behind some building. The funeral is in an open area with folding chairs set up for a few hundred people. The funeral has started and we are latecomers creating a distraction as we walk past a group of people in the back. I begin greeting them—they are looking at us anyway. I say, “Bonjour, bonjour” and receive “Bonjour” with smiles in return. I begin waving to people like I’m the Rose Parade queen, loudly whispering, “Bonjour, bonjour.” Thankfully, Izir is behind me and whispers, “We need to keep going” and directs me to the left for us to be seated. I am in the front row between Nancy and Izir, who tells me what is happening as the portable sound system pops and hisses as people speak in either French or Lhingalla, a dialect. I sit back and watch everything, occasionally asking Izir what is happening.

*I see the head usher working hard at directing people, or turning them away, consulting with the pastor, all trying to discreetly keep the funeral moving along. I think of William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”—with apologies to WCW:

So much depends

the head

forehead glistening
with sweat

near the beloved

*I see different families of the deceased wearing clothing from the same fabric as a way to identify themselves.

Members of the same family wear clothing created from the same fabric. Photo by JMD

*I see a group of mourners from the woman’s home village sitting around the coffin but allowing enough space for the guests to walk past to pay their respects.

Mourners from the village. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

*As we pay our respects—trailing behind Pastor Francois—I see the woman’s husband greet Nina in English: “We are so glad you are here. We’ve been waiting a long time for you.” And he embraces her with the traditional pressing one’s check to the other face three times.

After we pay our respects we leave. I wave again as I walk past people saying, “Au revoir!” Izir keeps correcting my pronunciation but I don’t fret—I am feeling safe and free and ready for the next event in our Congo adventure

Congo–Wherever you go, there you are

The next day we return to the Mennonite Central Committee office to spend more time with the other MCC staff and learn about their work. Ben tells us about his work with the health centers around Congo, tells us his story, and his commitment to MCC ideals. Ben tells us that he moved from a major medical non-governmental organization (NGO)—with a big salary—to work for MCC because it pulled together his work with his faith (while touching his heart with his open hand).

Ben at the MCC office. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Our time with Ben is interrupted by news that the Bishop was waiting for us. We drop everything and follow the our escort through the hallways and up and down stairways. We first stop at the office of Pastor Milenge Mwenelwata, the second vice president of the Church of Christ of Congo (ECC), the organization that owns the large building where MCC—DR Congo is housed. Pastor Milenge had visited North America this past April as part of a delegation from ECC to meet with government officials in Canada and the US and officers in the United Nations. When their Canadian visas were delayed, the delegation visited Nina’s congregation, Florence Church of the Brethren-Mennonite, on Maundy Thursday and participated in a footwashing. Pastor Milenge also had dinner at Nancy’s home so he knew both Nancy and Nina. After a few minutes of lingering in Pastor Milenge’s office, we are told the bishop is ready for us. As I leave Pastor Milenge’s office, I move toward the bishop’s office when the translator stopped me and said, “No. Pastor leads the way.” So begins my introduction to Congo protocol and my ongoing bafflement of what is or is not proper protocol.

The bishop’s office is large and very chilly with two sets of sofas facing one another with two glass-topped coffee tables joined together at the middle. On the coffee tables are two wooden candelabra-like shapes filled with a variety of flags from around the world. On top of the bookcase behind the large desk piled high with files and papers is a wooden triangle with an American flag folded into it. I recognize this as a sign of prestige and power, yet I am curious about the story of that flag and why the bishop had it, yet I refrain from asking about it.

I sit next to the first vice president of the ECC and across from the bishop. I have no idea what the purpose is for this meeting, although I am grateful for the air-conditioning. But blended in with my bafflement, my innate resistance of important religious men begins to surface. I observe the deference that Pastor Milenge shows the bishop and the reticence of the first vice president next to me. I recognize this defiance as my own immaturity and I have an inner struggle of wanting to be polite while trying to squish my desire to be impolite. And, I am aware that I am invited to this meeting because I am an American and the bishop is showing deference to me. I also suspect that this meeting is undergirded by a hope for financial support, although nothing is explicitly said.

I spot the bishop’s red socks and immediately think of Kevin and the red socks I gave him for his birthday. I ask Suzanne to take a picture of the bishop’s red socks and explain that my husband loves red socks. The Bishop agrees to the photo which Suzanne takes. I am trying to be playful but not really succeeding. I wonder if my playfulness can cross culturally. Later, Suzanne tells me that it’s inappropriate to talk about bodies or body parts, especially to a bishop. She and I agree that I was probably subconsciously tweaking the bishop. *Sigh* I am reminded that I take all of me—the polite and the impolite parts of me—wherever I go.

The meeting lasts maybe an hour and the four of us leave a little baffled about the purpose of the meeting. It is the first of several cross-cultural moments that we don’t quite understand. Our primary purpose for the trip is to develop and nurture relationships across cultures and we are reminded that all relationships take work—and relating to our new Congolese friends we need to cross languages, cultures, histories, class, and our very selves that we bring with us wherever we go!

*Photo of the bishop by Nina B. Lanctot

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!