Saturday, August 4, 2007

Don's First Blog -- Pictures and Commentary -- 8-4-07

Marsha's done the first two blogs and it's my turn, on our day off. Since there are some of you who are not members of our church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the LDS Church, or Mormons as we are called), I'm dividing this post into three sections:

1. Life in the Congo -- interesting things about the five countries where we are serving are mission.

2. Events Since the Last Blog -- things of interest that have happened since our last posting.

3. Spiritual and Other Observations -- things that have impressed us as we serve with the missionaries, members and the people of the Congo.

So, here goes:
Here's the building where our apartment and the mission office are located. It's probably one of the nicest in Kinshasa, with a septic system, a separate power generator for when the power goes offs (which is often), and is behind a gate with its own security force who let you in and out. The bottom three floors are offices for Vodacom, one of the big cell phone companies here which was started by a local entrepreneur. Our office is on the other side -- a very small office. Floors 4 to 11 are apartments. Our apartment is on the fourth floor on the left hand side of the picture and is half of the floor. It has about 2,000 sq. ft. and is quite well suited for our needs and the guests that come to stay with us for church or other business.

Unfortunately, our building is also a symbol of what can frustrate others. Vodacom is a very powerful company, and when there is civil unrest, our building is often a target for others. Also, there are some foreigners who live here and from time to time, they have been targets of protestors as well. Last March, there was a large battle when the government tried to disarm the private army of a person who had lost in the presidential contest in the recent free elections (the first free elections in 40 years). The exterior of the building is white tiles, about 1" by 1", like in a shower floor, but the rest of the building is 100% concrete, or cinder block for the interior walls. It made a good target, besides the private army was located just a block away. About 200 people were killed in the fighting for three days, before his army was disarmed and he fled the country. Because he is a member of the Senate and has political immunity, there is word that he may soon return. Fortunately there has been no violence since that time, and there is a great spirit of optimism now. Even the traffic police, who used to try to shake down foreigners for bribes, are being nice. More about that later.

Our apartment took some terrific damage -- all the windows were shot out, and a couple of RPG's hit close to the windows and left their marks. We can see the many places in the walls and woodwork where patches have been made to attempt to cover up the bullet holes.
Here are some of bullet holes in the windows on the ground floor, which still have not been replaced, and the reflection of some tourist taking pictures of them. Hmm -- someone else with white hair -- a rare sighting in the Congo. Most of the people call me "papa" which is either a sign of respect of derision.

Living here -- Some Interesting Things

If you turn your computer on its side, you'll see that I didn't rotate this picture 90 degrees before it got inserted. Two interesting things about this picture:
1. There are some bounteous fruits and vegetables available here.
2. You have to wash them in "bleach water" before you eat them. Just a long squirt of bleach into the dishpan of water from our filtration system, and you rinse them off!! So guys, you can impress your wife twice -- once by doing the dishes, and secondly by doing the fruits and vegetables purchased at the streetside market.

If you think about it, there aren't a lot of hairdressers or barbers here -- they aren't needed with the men. And the women wear some of the most colorful and flambouyant wigs you've ever seen, since their hair gets ready dry and breaks off if they wash it too often. So Marsha and I learned how to cut each other's hair (and I learned how to color her hair before we left, thanks to Patti Budge!!). Here are the results on the floor of last Monday night's haircuts in the dustpan. I took too much off of Marsha's hair, but she's being a good sport and saying, "I kind of like it shorter, now."

Driving in the Congo

It's fun and terrifying at the same time. When the Belgians left, they left a superb infrastructure, but it has decayed for the last 45 years. All of the roads have some terrific potholes in them -- look at this beauty in the top left hand of the picture, which is about 40 feet long and at least 2/3's the width of the road. Driving around and/or into and out of these presents a challenge when there is a lot of traffic, or at night, because there are no street lights that work, except in front of the presidential home. This pothole is about 10 inches deep, and if you hit it at a good speed, you'll break the seal on your tire. Another element of driving are the pedestrians, who jaywalk at every opportunity. It's particularly trying at night, because there are no lights, visibility is poor because of all the smoke and haze, and they are very difficult to see because of their dark clothing and skin. The motto here is, "It's not if you have an accident, but when."

Here's another section of road that we drove on last Saturday. The payment is completely gone from the other side of the road, and the strip down the middle is only about 2 feet wide, with a good stretch of payment missing on our side. You get to be very good judging the width of the space between your tires, and whether you can straddle a pothole, or go through it, or if no one is coming, you just take their side of the road. Beyond the other side of the road is a concrete culvert about 3 feet deep that will carry off the rain water when the rainy season starts in mid-September. Then it's really fun to drive, because you have to judge how deep the pothole is. Needless to say, with all the mud, no one is going to wash their cars during this period. But it rains nearly every day, so Mother Nature does it for you.

Notice the fronts of the Mercedes and VW bus diving into this pothole. I drove through this intersection last night in the dark. There are a bunch of streets that intersect here, and there were at least 4 lanes of traffic in each direction on a two lane road -- most of them were driving in the dirt alongside the road until they had to squeeze down to get around the two trees on the left. There were cars on each side with about 6 inches of clearance between us, fighting to squeeze down from 4 or 5 abreast to just two. And all of these cars have old age right of way -- they have many dents and dings, and don't mind picking up another.

This picture is in Douala, Cameroon, a city of about 1.5 million people about 700 miles north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cameroon is much more prosperous -- note the conditions of the road, and while most people don't have cars, taxis are abundant and relatively cheap. Still, note the traffic which takes whatever side of the road. The taxis are three abreadst here, and notice the big semitrailer truck clearly on our side of the road. That's because he is king of the hill and goes wherever he wants to!!!

Your Heart Just Breaks...
This picture is of a valley as you enter Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon. There are some very nice sections of town, but here you see a village of perhaps 1,000 people in their shanties on each side of the swamp, which is infested with mosquitos. Once malaria season really goes going, there will be many casualties among the very young children in this area. Almost no one has shoes in situations like this, and they are reduced to begging or working for incredibly low incomes in day-t0-day jobs, trying to eake out an existence.

We drive by this area 3 or 4 times a week. When we first arrived, there was one story of what used to be a multi-story building still standing. Day by day, people break it down using hand tools, and put the chunks by the side of the road where they will be hauled away to be used in some other building. We often see women and children sitting by the side of the road with hammers and steel tools, splitting large rocks into smaller and smaller pieces until it resembles gravel. There must be a high degree of honesty here, because their piles are just by the side of the road and they seem to not be disturbed during the evening.
Events Since the Last Posting -- It's been pretty routine. We finished our first tour of the mission, which stretches for almost 2,000 miles, visiting the missionaries and the congregations of the church. Marsha has spoken up to four times on a Sunday, and her French is getting better by the day. When she occasionally stumbles on a pronounciation or struggles to find a work, the members all softly speak the word -- they love her and her efforts to speak their language. My French still isn't what I would like it to be, but it gets better each day.
We love the civility of the people here. Many nights about 5 pm, we leave the office to spend an hour walking with two other senior couples here in Kinshasa along a street that runs alongside the Congo River. It is the street with most of the embassies of foreign countries, and so isn't heavily traveled. Each embassy has several Congolese guards in front of the gates, and we love to greet them with a jaunty "Bonjour". They answer back and ask how we are doing and love to kid us a little. Marsha kids them back and has made great friends with many of them. Even the soldiers that guard the entrance to the presidential compound are her friends, and ask questions as we pass.
We are accustomed to the many facets of living in the Congo. People here put up with conditions and challenges that would drive many of us to distraction in the States, and yet they are patient and for the most part, very soft spoken. When you are in a meeting and someone asks a question, before the person conducting the meeting starts to answer, he or she first says, "Merci beaucoup pour votre question" -- a sincere acknowledgment of the interest of the person asking the question. Our guards in the lobby of the building always jump to their feet to open the elevator doors for us, and as we drive out the gates to the compound, they always smile. We wave to them and they wave back. We were warned about how the traffic police were always trying to single out foreign drivers and stop them and try to extract a bribe of some sort. The chief of police recently announced a new policy for the next six months that the traffic police will be nice, and we've taken to waving to them, who smile and wave back.
Food is incredibly expensive, and sometimes not available. A pint of cream cost $ 7, a tube of toothpaste is $ 6, and 18 rolls of toilet paper were $ 19. A single can of soda costs $ 1.50 -- no six or twelve packs, and we saw a pint of Haagen-Daaz for $ 17!! After a week or so, you don't even notice the cost -- you're just glad that it is there and available to buy. For about $ 90, we are able to fill two or three plastic bags with what we've purchase. But we shudder to think what the average Congolese family eats, compared to what we do. Our eating is becoming much more simple, and we are enjoying eating this way and even losing a few pounds.
Next Thursday, we will make a 6 day trip to a city called Luputa, where the church has 6 congregations, and another large city and two smaller ones. We will fly to an intermediate city, rent a SUV and driver from Catholic Charities, and drive down a road for two hours, and then a jungle trail for the last 30 miles. In Luputa, we will stay in a Catholic monastery which has no power except for a portable electric generator, which we can rent for several hours each night. We're taking bottled water, an electric hot pot, and a bunch of freeze-dried meals from REI to eat during this time. Their language is Tschibulu, and our talks will be translated by some of the young returned missionaries into their language. But it will be a spiritual highlight to visit these sweet humble people. Stay tuned for the report on our trip to Luputa, Mbuji-Mayi, Mwene-Ditu and Ngandajika.

The Missionary Work and Spiritual Things...
We are incredibly impressed by the dedication of the Congolese members of the church. Often when we arrive at a chapel for church services on Sunday, our Toyota diesel SUV will be the only car in the small parking lot. Everyone either walks to church, or rides these decrepit VW vans where the seats have been taken out and 6 rows of wooden benches inserted More about these the next post. But they are there on Sunday in their clean clothes, ready to worship and to sing. It's not unusual for there to be no water or power in an entire section of the city, and so they worship in these conditions and never complain. I have never seen a people so willing to endure difficult conditions with a smile on their face and a cheery, "Bonjour". It makes me almost ashamed to think how willing we are to complain in the U.S. at the least little thing. And amongst the church members, there is an amazing civility compared to the rest of the country.

Our missionaries in the DRC and Republic of Congo -- a separate country on the other side of the river, are almost totally from these two countries. We have a couple from Uganda and Ivory Coast, but by and large, missionaries from other African countries aren't assigned to work in our mission because of the difficult living conditions. Here are 15 of our wonderful missionaries at a recent conference. We love them with all our hearts -- they are great young people who are serving at a great sacrifice. In the back row, second from the left, is one of the two missionaries who serve as my Assistants. Elder Kalala had finished medical school here (only 4 years) and served as a doctor for a year before he decided to come on his mission. The doctor whose practice he was working in told him that there may not be a position for him when he is finished with his mission this December, but that didn't defer him from wanting to leave his profession and serve. He is so soft spoken, and yet such a terrific leader. Because of the unsafe conditions later in the evening, we ask them to finish their proselyting by 7 pm and return to their apartments (most are without electricity), and so to make sure that they are getting in a good day's effort, they get up at 5:30 and are out on the street by 8:30. I love to visit with them and as much as I try to teach them from the scriptures and words of the prophets, I find that they teach me as much as I can teach them.

Besides the young African missionaries, we also have some wonderful North American couples who serve in cities that are far from Kinshasa. Several weeks ago, a couple from our congregation in Provo, UT, Gary and Karen Henderson, finished their mission. In 15 months in a city called Lubumbashi, about 1,000 miles south of Kinshasa, they taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ to many people, and saw 132 people receive testimonies of its truthfulness and become members of the church. This is a picture of the Hendersons and many of the people they taught, just a week before they were to come home to provo. We attended a meeting where the Hendersons shared their love with these people and gave them a special church book with the admonition that they remain "true to the faith" and continue to grow and serve each other. What a wonderful memory to have of something that you did to enrich the lives of others.

In the Cameroon, we have two wonderful couples,
Bill and Janine Hanks from Salt Lake City who serve in Douala, and Steve and JoAnn Hanks from Las Vegas, who serve in Yaounde. Each of them have four young American elders who serve with them in these cities (Cameroon is judged safe enough for young North American elders to serve). Both the Coles had very successful careers in retailing and then real estate, while Steve Hanks was a very successful orthodontist in Las Vegas. Yet they left all this behind to come serve. Here, Bill Coles and Elder Wilde are with three people just before they are baptized (the baptismal font is an outdoor font -- the blue tiled font just behind them). The person in the middle is a strikingly beautiful young woman about 25, who was a model in Europe but returned home to help her parents.
This is the joy of serving on a mission -- teaching others the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and trying to make a difference in the world. Besides proselyting, we have couples here who supervise humanitarian work -- next time, we will show some of their work -- a water well which now provides fresh clean water for a neighborhood, and a neo-natal recessitation clinic which shows the doctors and nurses here how to improve the mortality rate of new infants. Tonight, ten volunteer doctors and nurses are arriving from Utah to spend a week doing the neo-natal recessitation conference here in Kinshasa and across the river in Brazzaville. We're grateful for these people who come to serve.
Blessings on all of you -- we love and miss you, but wouldn't miss doing this work. We love those with whom we serve, and those whom we serve. God lives, Jesus is his Son, our Redeemer and Savior. They love each of us, and desire that we live so we can return home to their presence. We hope to be with you for the eternities in their presence.
Don and Marsha Livingstone