Names were drawn out of a hat, and our family was assigned the Central African Republic. Out with the atlas. North of Zaire and south of Chad. A sparsely populated country about the size of Texas, right in the center of Africa.
Africa. So far from central New York, not just in miles but in consciousness. I had become enchanted with the French language in high school, but I never had the money to travel to a French-speaking country. Will anyone understand my schoolgirl French? Will I catch some weird tropical disease?
I got a telephone call from Steve in Boston, who traveled to the Central African Republic last year. He told me that a group of members live in a village he called Wonju, outside the capital. They have no telephone or street address. Mail rarely gets through, so communication is by telex to someone working at a government office in the capital, Bangui.
Leave without pay has to be arranged at my work, and babysitting organized for the children. It takes a lot of effort to make all the travel arrangements on one's own. At the County Health Department, I get various shots and a supply of malaria pills. I send off for a new passport, get a visa application and express-mail it to Washington, and make airline reservations that will take me through Paris, the city of my dreams. I send a telex to Bangui, advising them of my arrival date.
As my husband John drives me to the Syracuse airport our children, Stacy and Jason, are blowing paper wads through pea shooters. Do they know how very far away I am going?
My bags do not arrive in Paris on the same flight I do; my connecting flight departs while I trying to figure out what to do. It's too late to send a telex advising people not to meet me on today's flight. I book a room at the cheapest hotel near the airport ($80.00 a night), in hopes my bags will arrive tomorrow. My dream of exploring Paris comes true when Air France gives me free bus tickets to the city, where I walk the streets until I cannot lift one foot above the other. The only thing I buy in Paris is a cup of coffee at a sidewalk cafe on the Champs Elysees. At nearly $5.00 a cup, I can't afford to stay in Paris very long. Upon returning to my room I find my lost luggage. I decide to try following Steve's directions for getting to Wonju.
In the morning I turn on the television and see shots of tanks in the streets of Moscow, but I comprehend little of the newscast. On the airplane I search the Herald Tribune for an explanation of current events. Overnight there has been a crackdown in the Soviet Union and hard-line conservatives are taking over the government. Few details are known.
The flight from Paris to Bangui takes six and a half hours. As we reach the shore of Africa. I see patchy vegetation, roads, villages, and eventually only sandy terrain. Buildings and roads are scattered over the landscape. Perhaps fifteen minutes after we cross over into Africa, only rippled sand is visible below.
A movie is shown. By movie's end patterns appear on the ground. Some greenish patches amid the sandy-colored areas. Meandering green strips, like curled ribbons, might be river courses. A muddy river becomes visible. Occasional groups of buildings line its banks. Ahead of us the landscape is clearly green. The river meanders, with various islands and sand bars perched on the curves. Vegetation mixes with reddish-looking soil, and there are some cultivated fields. The landscape resembles a bright green tortoise shell, crisscrossed with darker green lines following the changing contours of the land.
I buy the tourist booklet sold by the airline. On the map of the capital I look for the village of Wonju, but there is nothing by that name. What will I face on the ground? As we descend, clouds filter the rays of the sun. The plane touches down at 4:45 pm.
As the rear exit opens, a wave of humidity hits us. Soldiers line the tarmac leading to the terminal. Porters and taxi drivers pull at my bags and scream at me. I feel like a rabbit with falcons ripping it limb from limb. I say I want to take a bus to the central market and then go to Wonju. From what I can make out, there is no Wonju, there are no buses to downtown, and the market is closed by now. A kind of unreality sets in. There is less sunlight than when we landed. I'm going to have to find some place for the night.
I spot a van with an empty rear seat, pick up my bags and climb in. They all talk at once. I say I'm looking for l'Eglise de l'Unification, Unification Church. They understand the church part. After a few minutes, they pull up in front of an iron gate. Someone puts my bags on the ground. I offer to pay for the ride, but they shake their heads and drive off.
There I find an American couple. I say I am coming to visit Unification Church members somewhere near Bangui, but the directions I was given were unclear, and I need a place for the night. They introduce themselves as the Lindquists and explain that this is a support center for evangelical missionaries and they have rooms to rent. They are dumbfounded, though, that I would travel so far without a precise destination. Rev. Moon teaches us to serve, wherever we go, so I start washing the dishes in the sink. I am urged to stop, because Africans need employment, and they are hired to do the housework. It's not easy to be accepted even as a servant.
Over breakfast we study the map and conclude that Ouango must be my destination. They describe how to reach the downtown market on foot. "But we still don't understand why you came at all," they say. "Didn't you know about the U.S. State Department advisory warning Americans not to travel to the Central African Republic?" They describe recurrent instability, strikes, and riots.
"I came in faith," I respond.
"If you feel anything suspicious, go quickly in the opposite direction," they urge me.
Heading downtown, I spot a sign and recognize part of the telex address. I walk through the door and ask for Noel, the contact person on the telex. A dignified man, perhaps in his 30's, appears. Slowly a smile ripples across his face.
Noel finds a vehicle to take me to Ouango. Large trees line the roads. We head east along the Ubangui River, the green hills of Zaire rising on the other bank, passing hotels, embassy residences, a military camp, and a village. In about 15 minutes we reach Ouango. We wind our way between houses for about a kilometer and stop in front of a cinder block building. Rather than formal church structures, our movement often chooses a building that can serve as a residence as well as a center for worship, education and outreach.
Someone is sent to locate Lenga, the pastor. There is warmth and intensity in his eyes and handshake. He is 37 and has worked in several countries, in addition to his native Zaire. He speaks good English.
Just yesterday, Lenga explains, the military government promised to allow general elections; the riots have been called off. He gives me more background. Nine years ago, our movement here was disbanded, due to pressure from the French government officials and some missionaries. A large pilot project was going to provide agricultural and technical education as well as moral guidance, to young Africans. However, all the equipment was confiscated and nationals from other countries were expelled. Many members became discouraged. The nation has experienced severe economic difficulties, and its large external debt translates into no salaries for government workers. "Your arrival is concrete testimony to our members that we are not forgotten," Lenga says.
Various members are trying to generate income through sausage production, a small restaurant, and butterfly artwork. Even in the worst of times, at least people have to eat. Christine, an energetic, young Central African woman, experiments with menu ideas for the restaurant. On the porch she mixes sweet yeast dough. I am thirsty and ask for boiled water. For three weeks, I am always thirsty.
Our mid-afternoon dinner is rice, fish, cabbage, bread, and bananas. We do dishes on the front porch, using water from the open tap between our house and the next one. In this tropical climate, many daily activities are open-air and visible to everyone, since there are no barriers between yards. Children stop and stare on the way to or from the faucet.
On a tiny black and white television, we listen to news of events in the Soviet Union. Here in a humble African village there is a world consciousness. We pray in tears for true freedom in the Soviet Union. How small the world is!
After dark, fires are built on top and bottom of an oil drum that serves as an oven. An opening was cut halfway down the drum and ledges welded onto the inside of the drum. One dray at a time, rolls are thrust into the drum for baking, and a stick props a sheet of metal over the opening. Periodically Christine adjusts the fire and uses her intuition to know when the rolls are finished. Each roll is almost exactly the same size and each pan baked to the same degree of doneness.
At 11:00 we turn on the television and learn that Gorbachev has returned to Moscow. We end what seems like an awfully long day with a short prayer.
It becomes light around 5:30, and we rise for morning prayer. I am asked to speak each morning, and I use as inspiration the book of Joshua.
Everyone helps clean or prepare breakfast. Afterwards Lenga and I go by jitney cab to Bangui. Several blind or crippled beggars approach disembarking passengers. Muslims in distinctive dress give alms. There are dry goods stores, specialty shops, and a covered food market. Manioc, millet and corn are staples, along with bread, rice, tomatoes, beans, onions, peppers and various greens.
Lenga wants to take me to see a house they are hoping to rent in the capital. We walk about a mile in a steady rain.
Back in the village, Christine is baking another batch of rolls. I give her a shoulder massage when she dozes off. Children bring a coin to buy a roll. I search a song book for translations of familiar tunes. Shy Gilberte and several neighbor children join in the singing.
In the village people greet each other in passing. One person says "Bonjour," [hello] and the other replies, "Merci," [thank you] in gratitude for the greeting. Village children stare at me as I pass, and sometimes they come running up to me with hand outstretched. When I say "Bonjour" they giggle or run away. In the urban environment of the capital, people do not interact much with passersby.
The task of the next morning is to shell a vast quantity of squash seeds for the restaurant. Children are promised some of Christine's sweet rolls in return for helping, and the porch has a festive atmosphere. Some children amuse themselves by moving seeds from one person's dish to another, to change the appearance of the comparative amount of work done. Two aggressive boys pester the older girls, who defend themselves quite well.
Clothes are placed to soak in basins and washed when there is time and when the weather is favorable. Generally each person does his or her own wash, but when someone leaves things to soak, another person may take the opportunity to serve. I scrub and scrub someone's clothes and hang them up to dry. However, Christine tells me later that the socks weren't cleaned well enough, and she redid them. It is not easy to be a good servant.
Around noon a car pulls up. One of the sausage customers is looking for meat. He and his friend complain how hard it was to find the place. They ask about Rev. Moon's teachings. One man describes how his mother has a book of Rev. Moon's thought, and every time she reads it she becomes a better person. This country needs spiritual values and moral guidance, he says.
On Sunday we rise early for prayer. The night heat is always oppressive, especially since windows are shut tight to keep out insects. After prayer I go outside to breathe in the fresh dawn air. Feeling drained by the cumulative lack of sleep, I return to bed. Christine and Gilberte stop in to announce breakfast, but my body protests. At 8:30 Lenga sends word that I really need to get ready to make it to 9:30 Sunday service. A cup of coffee helps, but I am still in a fog as we take a taxi to Noel's home on the far side of Bangui, where a couple of dozen members living nearby are gathered. The familiar hymns uplift my spirit and slowly energy fills me. I am introduced as the guest speaker. I'm surprised to discsover my French flows somewhat naturally. Noel and his wife invite us to stay for a chicken dinner, a traditional meal for honored guests. A pitcher of Tang is set under the table, and I can't resist refilling my glass twice.
On Monday we wake up to a hard rain. There is a timelessness to the downpour. The year could be 1891. Or 2091. Water assembles in reddish-orange rivulets. None of the usual scavenger pigs, goats, chickens or dogs appear. Ducks claim exclusive rights to the breakfast crumbs. To stand in shelter and watch the downpour is so peaceful, so healing.
A young girl from next door comes over. She often goes on errands for whoever is cooking here. I get out pencils and paper and offer her a pencil if she would make a drawing for me. She begins eagerly, but if I look in her direction she hides her paper. There has been no school since last October, the teachers having gone on strike because there is no money to pay their salary. Two more children come and work a long time on drawings. They compete for space on the only chair. The children communicate in the local language, rather than French, and we don't totally understand each other. As the neighborhood telepathy spreads the word about free pencils in return for a drawing, more and more children come, and when the pencils are gone they get upset.
After supper, Lenga talks to me about his family, his experiences with God, his longing to bring God's heart to the people of Central Africa. The next morning I wake up to see light coming in the window. I must have slept. The delight of at last being able to sleep remains with me all morning, and I begin to feel at home.
I accompany Tshimpsa, a Zairian expert in sausage production, to the city to deliver the sausages he made yesterday and visit some members. After a lunch of chicken, potatoes, manioc and papaya, I wash dishes and enjoy a leisurely bucket bath in the enclosed stall behind the house. But first I had to shoo off some nosey boys. The simple joys of life--a bath, some papaya.
The next day it is late afternoon when we return to the village. I sit on the porch drinking boiled water, while dinner is being prepared. A young girl arrives to remind us of the Wednesday prayer service. Tshimpsa and other members leisurely discuss how exhausted I must be. "Maybe yes, maybe no," I reply. I rise to follow the girl. "No, wait. You haven't eaten," the others protest.
It is farther away than I had supposed, but I focus on moving one foot in front of the other. Singing has begun when we arrive at a humble house. One person reads from Rev. Moon's words, translating the French into the local language. I am asked to speak. I had forgotten that as a visiting elder, I would be expected to offer words of inspiration and guidance wherever I go. As I open my mouth, French words and phrases come to mind. I talk about raising children with a spiritual foundation and developing a supportive spiritual community among the church families.
We head back in the dark and sit down to a combination of dinner and supper. I want to visit local families, and Tshimpsa takes me to the home of Papa and Mama Tomas. We are shown to an immaculate living room. Behind the couch is a large blackboard with notes from a lecture.
I ask what had attracted them to the Unification movement and where they found the greatest difficulty. The wife was contacted first. Her husband, a Catholic, didn't want to hear about anything new. But bit by bit the members visiting their home caught his interest and he began to study the Principle, Rev. Moon's teaching. Still he always had questions, long series of questions which would severely try the patience of our members. When he finally became convinced of the significance of the Principle, he outstripped his wife in devotion. To her consternation, he quit his job to devote full time to church work for three years. How did they survive financially, I ask. The wife's answer chokes in her throat.
Their seven-year-old daughter has missed a year of school, due to the strikes. Yet she knows how to read even complex words. They explain that their children join them in daily family prayer and study. Then Papa Tomas has questions for me. His pointed questions require thoughtful response, and like his wife, I find myself choking on memories.
Eventually arrangements are made to move to a house in the city, and we go to clean it. I pull weeds from around the flowers, check the walls for cobwebs, and sweep loose sand from the floors. I see a young man scrubbing an armoire with water that appears like thick mud. I try to tell him he should get fresh water, but his face has a blank look. I call over Lenga and protest that to clean this way only makes things dirtier.
As I listen to myself I hear a critical tone and bite my lips. I didn't come here to complain, an inner voice says. Biblical stories of how people recognized their wrongdoing come to mind. I get a scrub brush and work on the kitchen; then I do the bathroom. For some reason, during these twenty-one days I get the message that I am suppose to serve, without criticizing or complaining. Rain begins. We haven't eaten anything since our morning bread and coffee. Finally back in Ouango, a cold supper and a warm bath bucket awaits us.
Gertrude comes over from the Zairian village across the river to be with me, and I talk to her about what I learned while cleaning, that when I begin to criticize and complain I leave a position which God could bless. I give my last morning service in Ouango on that theme.
Before returning to America I stop to say goodbye to the Lindquists. They ask for my impressions of my visit. I reply that I met God in a deeper way. I came here to give, but my conclusion is that I have received far more than I have given. They remark that everyone who has stayed with them has the same report.