The Bangui Buzz
On return from Cameroon, we had one day to pack up and hit the road once more. This time to Bayanga, for something we never imagined we would do while within the borders of Central Africa – a bona fide, touristy vacation.
We drove 15 hours to Dzanga-Sangha National Park on the Sangha river and stayed at an old hunting lodge in the middle of pristine rain forest. The roads were brutal but it was totally worth it. We waded through a swamp full of elephant poo and braved swarms of sweat bees to see forest elephants digging for salt. Later, we followed pygmy trackers and spent some time with a gorilla family in the wild. And we ate the best food I’ve had to date in all of Central African Republic. Even got a few good pictures as well.
Love to all,
After 15 flights, five states, and two indulgent months with our families, we’re recharged and ready to take on Africa. The excitement continued after we landed – I had one day to fight for an 11th hour visa from the Cameroonian embassy and then it was off to Bamenda, Cameroon for KM school in English. Cameroon is divided into French in the south and a resistant English speaking contingent in the north. For five days we enjoyed a spiritual feast and extraordinary hospitality from our Cameroonian brothers.
We started the dry season about a month ago. Kids have been running all over the place looking for grasshoppers, and the Maintenance crew gets to start washing everything.
Enjoy the pictures,
Lots of new people have showed up to help with the construction project, which has now moved to the renovation of the old Bethel. We also took a boat ride together, just to get out and get some fresh air.
Enjoy the pics,
Before we arrived in Central Africa, I received over six months of training in various trades: carpentry, electrical, plumbing, refrigeration, roofing, tile, welding; we ran the gamut. For every imaginable building trade and accompanying hand tool, I sat in a shop and listened and fiddled until I had sufficiently connected the two.
But after a year and a half, I can see the course could use a bit of revision, especially for anyone who is Africa bound. I propose that it should include the following three classes: “How to Euthanize a Sick Animal”, “How to Remove a Bloated Carcass from a Crawlspace”, and “How to Dispatch a Rabid Stray without a Firearm”. The first two I pretty much figured out on my own. I do, after all, hail from the hills of Kentucky. The third was harder. You must understand, “Animal Control” in Africa is generally performed by hungry volunteers. As a result, there are very few strays. The few that remain are usually very sick. I love animals, and believe that said love includes responsibly managing your animals, including vagrants, and deciding for the best of all which ones should live and which ones shouldn’t.
We had been having trouble with strays coming on to our property. Our dog Queenie, a pleasant little mutt though she is, has not been fixed. The only doctor in town who could perform the operation was in France convalescing after radiation treatments. His prognosis was dark and stormy, and his assistant said he was unlikely to ever return to Bangui.
Since I am no more qualified to perform a tubal ligation on a canine than a colonoscopy on a pachyderm, I went with the next best option – sealing off the property. This was challenging, since we get lots of rain. Sheets, walls, buckets, call it what you will – copious quantities of water fall so hard and fast it is difficult to determine if one is the recipient of divine blessing or retribution. We don’t get storms; we get airborne tsunamis that are devastating and unpredictable. Putting grates over the canals that discharge rainwater under the fence would be dangerous, since it would only take a tiny bit of blowing vegetation to block the exit and possibly send thousands of cubic feet of water rolling backwards into our buildings. That was not an option.
Instead, I worked out a type of hinged gate on the main canal that could swing out if blocked by leaves or trash, but could not swing in. It worked well. The neighborhood tramps were foiled and forced to sire their flea bitten progeny elsewhere, and our innocent pup has kept her virtue thus far. That’s one point for the maintenance man.
But one remained undaunted and unimpeded by my efforts, a stray cat. For several mornings in a row, Jes and I woke in the wee hours to a cacophonous wailing right outside our window. She was tiny, mangy, dishwater gray, and blazingly in heat. She knew we had the finest tomcat around, and I might add, the prettiest. Sure, he’s a bit thick around the middle from all the pampering, but he’s healthy – a strapping, virile, worm free suitor, what every woman wants. And he always smells like herbal shampoo.
The scrawny libertine continued calling our Fritz, though unbeknownst to her he had been neutered and so was impervious and immune to her feline feminine wiles. We saw proof of this firsthand. One night, we heard the howling as usual, and looked out the window. There she was, prostrate in front of him, singing her bawdy barcarole at full volume. Fritz sat in the grass about three feet away, clueless and confused but mildly interested nonetheless. They actually looked really cute together, like a couple of teenagers from different sides of the track, stealing a forbidden kiss in the silvery moonlight. Twice she nuzzled her skeletal frame up against him in a bony “come hither” manner, and both times he batted the little trollop right across the chops.
The noise was not a problem, and I knew she couldn’t harm Fritz, but I was worried about what she might be carrying that she might decide to leave with us. With great certainty, we have the healthiest and happiest pets in all of equatorial Africa, and I didn’t want a stray to disturb that by leaving any unwanted gifts – be it scabies, rabies, or babies. The only real option was to trap her and give her to the African construction workers. Cat is a delicacy around here, and a gift of meat like that, however meager, is a powerful gesture of good will. Two birds, one stone.
I knew she liked to come and go through the drain pipes on the opposite side of the property. There were three in a row, each about six inches in diameter. I put a grating across two of them so she would be forced to choose the third. I took the only string I had, a few feet of moldering hemp twine, and tied a slip knot at one end. Outside the property, at the end of the pipe where she exits, I cut two notches in the edge of the pipe about half way up, and then I stretched the slip knot through the notches and over the top semicircle of the pipe. The other end I fastened completely around the pipe, so as she walked through and carried the slip knot with her, it would tighten around her neck and hold her fast until I could show up with a bag and some ether.
The next day I heard a ruckus outside the fence. Philip, a herculean Welshman who runs a carpentry crew on the project came looking for me. “Joel, are you looking for a cat?” Wow, that was quick, I thought to myself. “You won’t find her in your trap.”
As it was, she had been there this morning, neck in the knot, caterwauling and tossing herself about. Phil’s guys, marveling at the divine providence that had placed the string in just the right way so as to deliver into their hands this delectable specimen, had surrounded her and, dreaming of grilled kitty, were about to finish the job with a big rock when he stopped them. As he searched for me, the little dynamo twisted and pulled knowing full well that her life depended on it. Finally, the exhausted twine gave out, and with a fuzzy gray flash she bolted into the bush.
“You really should get some better string.” Thanks Philip, duly noted.
What I was more upset about was that she was no doubt wiser and it would be harder to catch her a second time. Though perhaps the lesson alone was enough; in the three months since she hasn’t been back.
Even more interesting was the effect this had on the Africans. As if walking away from my defeated device with the lamentably frayed twine in my hands wasn’t humiliating enough, I looked up to see scores of construction workers, clinging to the scaffold surrounding the renovation of the old building, all staring in my direction with their mouths open. I hung my head expecting a cascade of ridicule. But it never came. Every single one was beside himself in amazement; it wasn’t divine providence at all, the white man had trapped an animal.
The white man is an unusual species of man: lazy, complaining, and always soft to the touch. He is the one who eats pricey food in handsomely wrapped hygienic packages, the one who can’t sleep on the ground or squat in the bush, or carry his own luggage more than ten feet (and certainly not on his head), the one who relies on motor powered vehicles to haul his burgeoning carriage around – this white man – had devised a trap and, in a matter of hours, caught enough food for himself, four children and possibly two wives. Unfazed that his prey had escaped, he walked away confident that he could do it again.
That’s when the muttering began, excited and hushed, “The white man hunts like a pygmy!” I smiled and basked momentarily in my newfound stardom, then returned to the workshop and thought nothing more of it.
About a month later Papa Jean, who does the grounds keeping for the Construction Office, came over to Bethel looking for me. He is a self-effacing and intensely likable older brother, widowed for many years and recently remarried.
“Joel, I need your help.” His face was stricken and serious.
“Sure Jean, any way I can.”
“We have a fox that’s visiting us at night. He’s tearing up the vegetable gardens and ripping open the garbage bags. Can you stop him?” My reputation was getting around. I nodded smugly and cradled my chin, in a combined gesture that said I understood, commiserated, and he had come to the right man. Even while he was explaining, I was nodding and thinking how a look into my DNA would no doubt uncover genetic traces from another pioneering Kentuckian and able woodsman – the late, legendary Daniel Boone.
While my ego was still effervescing, I began to realize what this meant, and it struck fear into my heart. I had just finished building a raised garden for Jesenia, not just any garden, a square foot garden modeled after my brother’s in the south of France. His was a veritable food producing paradise, a compact cornucopia, and I wanted the same. We haven’t eaten lettuce or watermelon or peppers or even a vine ripened tomato in a year and a half and I couldn’t wait for the broken earth in my backyard to finally give forth its bounty. In the same instant I imagined vegetables exploding from the fertile ground, tilled by my very own lightly callused hands, only to be plundered into the paunch of one beady eyed, wily fox. The vegetable thief had to be stopped.
There was another reason for concern. Some foxes also eat cats. Sure, it’s not often. Mostly they like insects, mice, moles, and as noted, veggies. Maybe this one didn’t like cats. Or maybe he was just waiting for Fritz to gain a little more weight. Foxes don’t habitually eat cats and prefer to look for an easier catch. These were all good points, all supporting the improbability that our kitty would see his end in the clutches of a midnight bandit. We could rest well; he was unlikely to be attacked, I consoled myself.
But here is the most salient point – once would be enough. Given the choice between the skinny, street-savvy strumpet and our flabby, fillet-fed tabby, there’s little doubt he would come after Fritz. Given chase, she could slip into and out of very small spaces; Fritz would simply cork the hole and lay there prone, waiting to be devoured. Foxes are opportunists, and I was sure by now he had noticed our pampered puss. It was time to move.
“Jean, if we catch this animal, what will you do with it? Do people eat foxes here?”
“Absolutely!” was his toothy-grinned reply. His eyes beamed at the thought of meat. “They are delicious!”
I did a quick check online to verify if any indigenous foxes were on the endangered species list, lest our caper transgress an international convention. The endangered list for Central Africa is quite long, but foxes are nowhere to be found. In fact, they are thriving. Notwithstanding, this particular fox’s chances were not looking good.
Together, Jean and I surveyed the crime scene. By the trash cans there were torn garbage bags and litter strewn about in a hasty search for tasty morsels left within. A faint trail of fresh rubbish pointed back to the point of entry and egress. Not far away was a hole in the fence, a gutter, which he had no doubt come through. I found some better string this time and gathered the tools to set the snare. This one would have to be sturdy enough to hold him till the morning, yet sufficiently invisible to fool an experienced prowler.
Before erecting the trap, I thought better to ask Jacky, the Construction Overseer, if it was okay. Construction is based on a separate property, and he alone has the last word as to what happens there. Jean was already salivating and dreaming of rubbing salt into the roasted canid, nevertheless, we had to stop the mission and get permission first.
Jacky’s office door was open, so I gave a quick courtesy knock and strolled in to find him behind his desk.
“You want to do what?”
“Not me. Jean. ” I eat chickens and cows.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not a fox. I get up at night when I hear the noise and it’s always the neighborhood dogs. Seems like they’ve recently been evicted from their favorite nighttime haunt . . .”, his voice drifted off introspectively. “Anyways, just tell Jean to pound a few pieces of re-bar into the ground to cover the hole. That should keep them out.”
I broke the news to him. “Sorry Jean, this one will live to see another day.”
His shoulders drooped and he wandered away deflated, like a flatulent balloon that finally expels the last of its air and plops into a dusty corner. Cheer up, buddy. As a consolation prize, if I ever catch that blasted cat, she’s yours.
Speaking of whom, we’ve begun to hear her again. Slinking about in the predawn silence, the persistent siren calls from behind the bars of the swinging canal gate, beckoning Fritz to leave the safety of our fence for a brief and rapturous interlude. Never brave enough to come inside, she sings to him at a distance, unrequited and alone. Patiently, mournfully, she croons of true love, slow walks in the moonlight, and the litter that might have been.
The latest. Enjoy.
After an exhausting move, we’re finally installed and up and running. The demolition of the old Bethel is fully underway, and the place is hardly recognizable. We’re also enjoying the visit of Nadine and Michelle, bethelites from France, who are training our Kitchen and Housekeeping crews.
Love to all,
We can’t believe its finally here! After two years (nearly to the day) the construction is finished and the new facility is being turned over to the Bethel Family. Here’s a few pictures of the move, African style.
Love to all,
We’ve a had a few delays but finally it looks like the move will happen on August 27th, just two little weeks from today. Enjoy some pictures from the last minute preparations.
Also, to start the new service year off right, we’ll be launching a totally redesigned blog, in a bona fide photoblog format. We hope you’ll like it.
Love to all,
After an unintentional six week sabbatical, we are back online. We were using a free web host, and well, it seems like you have to pay for reliability. Go figure. Thank goodness we had a backup. Hopefully, there are no more bugs in the system.
Enjoy the pictures below. There are a few from our construction cleanup (only three weeks to go before the big move!) and one at the end of a gathering where all the young people in our hall were invited to Bethel to enjoy the Young People Ask video. Also, meet Manley our newest construction volunteer (who by the way sends a big “Hello” to all his friends and family back home).
Here you’ll see we moved out the last container from on site – an interesting experience to say the least.
About 100 miles south of Bangui sit the refugee camps of Zinga and Mongoumba. It is difficult to estimate the numbers of people living in these two camps, but recent reports estimate about 16,000, all of whom took to flight a few months ago when a feud broke out between two tribes over fishing rights to a pond. Outside mediation failed and the situation descended into traditional violence. When reports of the violence reached neighboring villages, they didn’t wait to see what would happen; they have been through this before. Everyone grabbed what they could carry and headed for safety across the Oubangui river, in the Central African Republic.
Among the mass of people are 19 of our brothers at Zinga and 22 in Mongoumba. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
See how the fish is eaten – Jes was a real pro.
Enjoy a few pictures from the construction and a recent Circuit Assembly. We translated the entire assembly into English for the benefit of our 30 or International Construction Workers. There’s also a few pics of the Bethel family touring the construction site during a national holiday.
It was a full house, 315 total, substantially better than last year.
On March 24th, one year and one week after departing the United States, our personal effects arrived in Bangui. It took numerous visits to the Customs Authority, countless pieces of paper, and an immeasurable amount of patience, but it all finally arrived. It was like opening a time capsule.
If I’ve learned one thing in nine years of marriage, it is that I am a thinker inseparably bound to a doer. To say this has been a source of friction would not be incorrect. But it would be more correct to say that it has been a source of strength.
Not long ago I had my own wrangle with African healthcare. I had a spot on the skin behind my knee that was growing in a funny way. It didn’t seem serious to me, just one of those things you pick up with each successive trip around the sun. Jes, however, was determined to have me do something about it and insisted that I see a dermatologist. He recommended a biopsy, and so I got my first ticket into an African hospital.
The day we arrived I must admit I was a little apprehensive. You hear strange stories about what happens inside the hospitals here, that overall, it’s not a very pleasant place to be. Honestly, I think that would be true about any hospital, how much more so in Bangui. Visitors describe the Hôpital Général somewhat like the Bastille, a sprawling gray building with shutters but no glass windows, and lots of howling pouring out of those shutters. I was glad to see that, despite being a little rundown, its reputation as a “place of no return” seemed dubious and exaggerated.
Medical service, like mobile phones, is always prepaid in Africa. That means that when you go for your consult, the doctor gives you an appointment time for your procedure and a list of things to bring if you want everything done. My list had Betadyne, Lidocaine, gloves, gauze, bandages, suture, a scalpel, lots of amoxycillin and some other odds and ends. You take this list to the pharmacy and they put it all in a bag for you. The pharmacies here are pretty well stocked, and you don’t always need a prescription to buy medicine. You just walk in and ask for it. They also stock hydrogen peroxide strong enough to make rocket fuel and pure alcohol that makes a delicious limoncello. You can also buy blood. Twice now, I’ve seen children who couldn’t be any older than seven or eight, walking in the burning sun along the main road outside Bethel with pints of red cells and plasma in their hands, still several miles away from the hospital.
We entered the hospital and asked for directions to the dermatologist – down the hall to the left. On the way we passed an oral surgeon. There we heard some genuine howling, really, guttural moans punctuated with shrieks, coughing and what sounded like pleading. People here try to save a few pennies any way they can, which usually means cutting out the painkillers and anesthesia. One more reason to floss regularly.
He wasn’t in his office yet, and the wait gave me a chance to survey the hospital. The corridors are open to the air, and our seating area overlooked a courtyard with the hillside beyond. All along the hill were little clusters of one room houses with no windows and a door that locks from the outside. I asked a passing orderly what they were – the psych ward, he responded, of course. Down in the courtyard is a waterless toilet and an open shelter, that is, an African kitchen. Bring your pot and firewood and you can cook for your sick relatives. The hospital doesn’t serve food, to discourage vermin. Washed clothing and linens hung over the fence, not a bad idea considering nothing disinfects like UV radiation. Despite being very dusty, everyone else waiting was dressed up, with nice shoes and handsome fabrics.
Finally he called us in. After a few perfunctory questions, he was ready to get down to business. We removed our shoes and entered the operatory. Jes came with me, so did Olivier. It was dim and gray, with flaky paint on the floor and walls. It looked a lot like a garage, with medical supplies and beeping boxes where tool chests might have been. Really, a car on blocks and a big puddle of oil would not have looked out of place. I removed my trousers, jumped on the operating table and gazed about. My eyes followed a matrix of extension cords and plug multipliers around the room that terminated in a single, semi-charred outlet. Under the table was a big basket of everything else that had been cut out of people prior to my visit, plus whatever was used to sop up the mess. I opted to look at the wall.
For all the time it had taken us to get to this point, he couldn’t wait the extra two minutes for the Lidocaine to start working. Lying prone on the table, he laid one arm across my leg, put his weight on it, and started cutting. He worked quickly, with an in-and-out circular path, much like one might core an apple. I must have had a terrible look on my face. I know this because my wife, the one who is always beside me to comfort and support me, put her hand on my shoulder and asked, in all seriousness, and I quote, “Do you need something to bite on?” No thanks honey, just tell him to drill a hole in my head to let the bad man out. By the time he put in the last stitch, the anesthesia had finally kicked in. “Joël” he said, “mo yeke ta koli.” Translation: you’re a real man. Glad I passed, when do I get my feather?
It was a long week waiting for the results, but finally Thursday came around and we headed back to the hospital. We waited for the dermatologist again a full hour, and when he showed up he didn’t have the report. He just said “Hi” and left for the National Laboratory next door. We waited another hour. I had almost forgotten why we were waiting when I saw him coming down the foot path through the courtyard with a smile on his face. “Good news!” he yelled, effusive with the encouraging report as he stumbled down the path. Great, I thought, why even bother meeting to discuss the results? This is so much more efficient, bellowing the important parts of our patient-doctor conference along the hillside for the entertainment of everyone who has already been gawking at the white man with the cane for the last two hours. I can go home now.
If you do come to Africa and get sick, be prepared for people to show an inordinate amount of interest in you as a sick person. Tom often mentions that there are many things in the Bible he never understood until he came here. Take for instance the case of Job – why would anyone sit around simply to commiserate with an ailing person for weeks on end? But that’s what they do here. The traditional prescription for every illness is companionship, not necessarily conversation, just the reassuring presence of another human, even if that means packing a dozen sweaty bodies around your divan of distress. Once I went to the meeting without Jesenia; she stayed home with a cold. Urijah, a friendly eleven year old that comes to the meetings with just his nine year old brother, saw the empty space next to me and sat by my side. He asked about Jesenia, and I told him she was home sick. His face stricken with concern, he asked, “But if you’re here, who’s sitting with her?” While Jesenia was convalescing from typhoid, she heard a brief knock at the door and a half second later the entire housekeeping staff walked through and took their place on the bed with her. Their presence was their gift. It is the African way. And when you step back and look at the interest with the proper attitude, you realize, it truly is a joy to be so loved.
At first though, this is not easy to accept. Like a wounded animal, I like to retreat under the covers when I get sick. I look terrible and prefer not to share my hideous condition with others. Plus, it gives me an excuse not to shave for a day or two. But, as in so many other areas, we’ve had to adjust. Like the time I stubbed my pinky toe so hard I know I broke it. It swelled up like a chubby purple sausage. The only thing dumber than injuring your toe like that is having to explain to all the interested people, and there will be many, how you did it. I wish I could have said, “defending my wife’s honor” or, “lifting a vehicle off of a crippled child” or, “snatching a puppy from the throes of an oncoming train”, but no – I wasn’t watching where I was going and I kicked the bed. In a land of bamboo sleeping mats this sounds hysterically idiotic.
This interest in your infirmity seems to grow exponentially with the lightness of your skin. As one local brother told me, it is both happifying and comforting for Africans to see a white person at a local hospital. They know that westerners are accustomed to a certain standard and typically refuse to accept anything less. They also know most whites are so ridiculously wealthy that they can afford absurdities like refrigerating their water and the rooms they work and sleep in. Wealth brings choice, and when a white person chooses African healthcare, it means it has met some kind of imaginary standard, as if to say, “you’ll be O.K.”
Perhaps with this weight finally off my shoulders, I was free to concentrate on lesser banalities, like the hasty way I had dressed myself that morning. Being thoroughly absorbed in knowing the results of the test, I hadn’t paid much attention and threw on white ankle socks, black shoes and pants that the last wash had made into high-waters. Not shocking, but goofy nonetheless. Jes noticed too. Hobbling back to the car, I asked, “Would you have married me if I dressed like this back when we were dating?” Without missing a beat, she threw a reassuring arm around me and said, “That’s why I married you . . . I needed a project.”
love to all,
Something to keep in mind before you read the following post: what you are about to read is normal for life in this part of the world. All of these events happened one year ago, and everything is fine now.
I looked at the number in my hand – 54. This would not be a short wait. I looked up and out into the parking lot. Jes was waiting in the car, listless with fatigue and Angele waited by her side, hand in hand. A glance around the waiting room of the Institute Pasteur was a look into the face of one of the great equalizers in a country of marked inequality – sickness.
About a week prior Jesenia had developed a sore throat that seemed to get better after a few days, with the exception of the fatigue. Since we both had already had malaria and were familiar with the overwhelming tiredness that it brings, we had a goute epaisse, a blood smear. They can be performed at any pharmacy for about two dollars. The pharmacist pricks your finger and squeezes out a thick drop onto a glass slide. Under a microscope they can count the number of malarial plasmodium and ovum per milliliter. The numbers indicated the beginning of a flare up. As a precaution we both took the three day treatment regimen that normally beats the numbers down to something your body can manage on its own. Mine went away, but her symptoms curiously worsened. Since much of the malaria around here has become drug-resistant, our visiting physician put her on a stronger dose of pure quinine. Quinine in any form is a vile drug. One wonders if the disease itself isn’t a better alternative. It makes your ears ring and everything you put into your mouth tastes like metal. Delirium is a common side effect. It was a difficult week, but the doctor urged us to let the quinine do its job and then make a decision.
After an insufferable seven days of the bitter tonic, her condition still had not improved. In fact, she had developed severe diarrhea, vomiting and painful stomach cramps. She couldn’t keep anything down and hadn’t eaten in days. The mere smell of food brought up bile and nothing else. I found myself waking at night every few hours just to watch the sheets rise and fall. We needed to get to the bottom of this, now.
That bought us to the Institute Pasteur. I was glad Jesenia was waiting in the car. We had come to the finest private clinic in Bangui, just a half mile from Bethel, and yet the waiting room was still a depressing site. This room was full of Bangui’s wealthy, those who could afford the few dollars for an exam or a vaccine. All were nicely dressed and a little plump, despite their illnesses. The room was soon filled, so I stood along the wall to make room for a woman who walked in with her child. He lay in her arms, and his face was covered with perfect little beads of sweat, like the dimples of a golf ball turned inside-out. He shivered with fever, even as the temperature rose in the stuffy room. A French nun fumbled with her rosary and looked at me. She mouthed a silent “bonjour” before looking back at the floor.
I glanced at the people behind the window and, for just a moment, allowed myself to be angry with them. Couldn’t they see the people suffering here? Didn’t they know my wife was one of them? If they didn’t quicken the pace I would probably have to carry her in here. I wanted desperately to force my way to the window and appeal to their sense of mercy – we were visitors, missionaries, unfamiliar with the endemic diseases and badly in need of an answer. But I held back. I could see everyone else was in the same predicament. Besides, we’ve noticed how people here tend to notice our skin color before they notice us. Whites are always given preferential treatment, so to counteract this trend, Jes and I do our best to be self-effacing and patient. Though we probably could have charged ahead and demanded service, she wanted to wait.
Were they counting backwards now? No, it was a different window. The window adjacent to the one I was waiting for had been reading off names all morning – the individuals concerned would approach, provide proof of identification, and receive a sealed envelope with the results of tests done in the days before. Every third or fourth person was called by a number instead of a name. Later, I inquired as to why. The number preserves the anonymity of those who are retrieving the results of an HIV test. AIDS is racing across Africa like a savanna fire. Reportedly, one town north of here has tested 50% positive. In Bangui, the number is around 18%, one in five, but this number doesn’t include children or the elderly, so likely the percentage is much higher.
Finally! I approached the window and called Angele on her cellphone. As we led Jes into the exam room the doctor looked at her, then at me. With a calm yet stern voice, he said, “When someone is this weak you skip the line.” Yes sir. He palpated her abdomen and she winced. One word came from his mouth. “Typhoid.”
The typhi bacterium is a relative of salmonella. More accurately, it is its big brother, all grown up, with tattoos and lots of pent up anger. Supposedly, the body can fight the disease on its own, but it is a painful, five week process. If the bacteria migrate into the bone, it can take even longer. The intestinal cramping can be so severe that it risks twisting and perforating your bowel.
Typhoid (not to be confused with typhus) is endemic in Central Africa and epidemic since the coup. A diagnosis carries with it the disturbing revelation that at some point previous to the ten day incubation period, you ate or drank something contaminated with someone else’s poo. Africans are very friendly and love to shake hands, another common vector of the disease. Until now, I hadn’t thought that it could even be a possibility. We are extra careful with everything we eat and drink. We had received a battery of vaccinations before leaving, and had been washing our hands nonstop since we arrived. Typhoid? Really?
The doctor made up his mind. They would give her a blood test, a Widal. It tests for salmonella antigens in the blood, which indicates a typhoid infection. The Widal would take 24 hours. A stool test would determine what drugs the bacteria were resistant to. In the mean time, we had to get some electrolytes and sugar into her blood. We left the Institute for another private clinic where she could get an IV drip and start a steady diet of antibiotics to start working against the typhoid until we had confirmation. The clinic is owned by Suzanne, a gregarious Nigerian, and her husband Paul, the resident physician. It is clean by African standards and they always give us good service.
Suzanne put us in a room by ourselves with a private bathroom. It had a little bistro table outside and a window that opened into a yard where men were repairing motorcycles – not good for sleeping but entertaining nonetheless. The mattresses sagged, but the mosquito nets were clean and so were the sheets. The nurse came in quickly and began mixing all the components of the drip: ampoules of glucose, vitamins, salts, antibiotics. And just for good measure, quinine. I left Jesenia with Angele and went home to pack a suitcase, since we would probably stay the night.
As I pulled out of the clinic I saw a familiar site, the furniture store across the street. Bangui is peppered with carpenters, all nailing together the same rough sawn wood into the same furniture. A few finished pieces sat out front showcasing his talents, a bed, a bookcase, a sofa with upholstered cushions. Inside the shop sat a large stack of coffins, a result of the collision of two undeniable truths in the developing world. First, death is all around you. Second, people make a dollar any way they can. Fifteen years ago, no one bought a coffin until it was actually needed by a member of the family. To do otherwise was asking for misfortune. Now, making the ornamental boxes is big business and embellishing them is an even bigger one. You can rent the flowers and even the mourners. According to the latest census, the average lifespan of men in this country hovers around 39; women add two more years. You see this when you walk into a Kingdom Hall in Bangui. At first, you are pleasantly overcome with the amount of children. Our meetings effervesce youth and vitality. Slowly though, you begin to see the lack of elderly – perhaps only two or three have actually reached gray-headedness.
Back at the clinic, the antibiotic was injected directly into the bloodstream, via the veins on the back of her hand. It is not a pleasant process; there are two injections a day for ten days. After a week, her hands and forearms were covered with the tiny scabs and blue blotches characteristic of typhoid treatment. I must have made a funny face, because one of the nurses asked me if this was how we treated typhoid in the United States. How do you even answer that question?
Slowly, the fever was coming down and the cramping waned. But salmonella typhi is a clever bug. The whole time it’s mobilizing its attack on your liver, gall bladder, bowel and bones, it carries a secret weapon, and waits until you start treatment to use it. It can actually sense the antibiotics in the blood and defend itself by secreting a neutralizing enzyme that, as the bacteria’s thuggish lackey, latches onto the antibiotic and rides with it down to the kidneys where it’s mistaken for waste and eliminated. By this time, you’ve killed the weaker bacteria and the stronger are free to continue the forward assault. Jes’s fever had started to rise again, so they began mixing her injections with another compound, one that would put the defensive enzyme thugs in a full-nelson and take them to the mat.
Finally, we started to see some sustained improvement. I no longer had to carry her to the bathroom and the heaving had stopped. She got up to take a shower and I knew it was my moment. I had to act quickly and decisively to make this work. A man who loves his wife and suffers when she suffers knows that the time will eventually come when he must put aside his masculine routines and preconceptions and do what must be done, regardless of his habits. He must summon from deep within himself all of his knowledge, strength, leadership and love, and channel them into the task at hand. My baby needed me, and there was no way around it – I would have to cook.
She hadn’t had any real food, at least that didn’t come in a dripping tube, for two weeks and since I hadn’t left her side that whole time, neither had I. We both looked pretty slim. I figured she could tolerate some rice. Just in case, I would fry up some beef medallions in olive oil and throw some sautéed onions on top. It was quick, easy and savory. One pan, no mess. The problem was the rice. Remember, Jes is Puerto Rican – it had to be perfect. Thank goodness for YouTube.
She got out of the shower and her look said it all. Beneath her wet curls her big dark eyes opened and I could see she was hungry and ready for a meal, even one cooked by an amateur. We said a prayer, thankful for so many things, and scarfed the food down, barely coming up for air. I could see the color coming back into her skin and her energy level rising. It looked like we were finally winning the battle and it would be smooth sailing from here. She even said the rice was perfect.
I won’t bore you with the details surrounding my attempt at housekeeping. Suffice to say, it was much more difficult than I had imagined, despite having watched it for so many years.
This incident was really very minor in comparison with what many of our brothers are dealing with here. We are fortunate enough to be in the city where health care, though primitive, is at least available and competent to a certain degree. They are very good with tropical diseases and since most doctors have studied in France or Russia or Japan they can identify kidney or coronary problems or even cancer. The problem is that they can do little for you. Not long ago, a brother brought his newborn baby in from one of the provinces. He had ridden in the back of trucks and bush taxis for hundreds of kilometers to seek help for his son who was born with his heart outside his chest cavity. The doctor refused to operate until payment was collected in full and all of the surgical tools had been purchased by the patient’s father (more about this practice in the next post). By the time the brother had collected the $72 in surgical fees and medical supplies, the surgeon fessed up that he was not equipped to do such a complicated surgery on a tiny heart. Without losing any more time, Bethel did all they could to arrange for transport to France. Unfortunately, the visa was refused. India was pursued as an option and it looked like the paperwork would go through. But before the visa was approved, the child succumbed to infection. C’est l’Afrique. That’s Africa.
Later, I got my own special opportunity to commiserate with Jes. Just this week, I’m finishing up a series of injections for typhoid fever, including the IV’s, or as I like to call them, “breakfast in bed”. This immersion into African health care has been a learning and growing experience. It has helped us to appreciate just how much we have in the developed world and how vast a divide separates the haves and have-nots. Connecting the two sides requires a bridge that can be engineered by no man, only God’s Kingdom.
It took about a month for Jes to fully recuperate; you have to slowly ease your stomach back into digesting heavy food. Everyone was thrilled to see her return to the Bethel dining room and the laundry. We settled back into our routine, comfortable and relieved, not knowing that within a few months I would have my own run-in with Bangui’s hospital system . . .
Just what it says.
From February 4th to the 9th we enjoyed a visit from Richard and Peggy, branch coordinator from Germany. A zone overseer is basically a circuit overseer but for branches. He visits with the bethel family, gives encouraging talks and a general check up on our operations. The week before and during their visit bethel became a frenzy of activity, here are just some of the highlights. . .
After a whirlwind week we received a last minute surprise, our new Sango song books arrived the last day of the zone visit! That same night was also our Monday evening Watchtower study. We wanted to waste no time in singing the new songs so, before the study we all went home to practice. Brother Richard said it sounded like we’d already been singing them for ever. We were so enthused that we sang another new one after his closing talk to the bethel family. It was like the he’d planned a going away gift for us, especially when we found out they’d been printed in Germany!
We’ve already memorized are first new song in Sango, which wasn’t hard considering that the family sings them while they work all day long. Being far far away sometimes means we’re not in the loop as much as we’d like to be but, we know it doesn’t mean we’re forgotten. The brothers here have learned to have lots and lots of patience and because of it, they have lots and lots of joy.
Love to all,
J & j
At some point in my theocratic career I had failed to see it. I had never noticed how happy the sight of a convention badge can make someone, really, everyone. As we walked into the Bethel dining room the Friday morning of our convention, every face that saw us lit up like the dawn itself. We were the first in the family to go to the biggest event of the year, and everyone knew it.
I had been so busy with work that the day seemed to sneak up on me. Jes was ready though, and had all of our books and lunch ready to go out the door the night before. She never forgets anything.
Despite my absentmindedness, I had been looking forward to this convention for a long time. We had listened to a recording but it just wasn’t the same. All of the other internationals had gone home this year to enjoy the convention with their families. They came back with lots of good news, new publications and a few extra pounds. Frisco, our resident Spaniard, even brought back a 15 lb. Serrano ham – yum! Now there’s a man with priorities.
Additionally, Jes and I have found that in a place with no discernible change in seasons, it’s good to have things to look forward to, to mark the passage of time. On the world’s waistline, sunrise and sunset move by only a few minutes through the year. We have a dry season and a rainy season, but nothing really changes except the amount of rain; both are incredibly humid. We left the United States when spring was waking up and winter was putting on its pajamas, so the last nine months have felt like one long, bland summer. The constant sweat and grime and the feeling that you’re camping all the time begins to wear on you. I miss the changing leaves and the return to cool weather. I miss hot chocolate and fireplaces, but most of all, I miss snow. I miss the feeling of it on my face and catching it on my tongue. I miss the way it humbles New York City and glistens in Jesenia’s hair when we walk on the Heights Promenade. Maybe that’s why they are called “seasons”, because they give life such delicious flavor.
Conventions here are held in December. By then the torrential rains have stopped, and it’s a little cooler in the morning. Cooler is a relative term; it was already very muggy, and the sun was hot. We had taken measures to deal with the heat and the mosquitoes: neem oil and lots of powder and cologne. I never used to wear cologne before I came here, but heaven knows – I do now.
To enter the property, you must first pass through the neighborhood market. When we arrived, it was just waking up. Women were placing their vegetables and hand-made soap in neat rows. Others were tying up bundles of manioc leaves, sweet carrots and bunches of garlic. The market generates a lot of trash, and much of it gets piled in front of our property. Brothers are constantly out there to collect it and dispose of it properly. The market is loud and disorderly; in contrast, you feel like you’ve entered paradise when you pass through the gates. The lawn is full of hibiscus and perfumed roses and plenty of palms. There’s no shortage of shade and a steady stream of butterflies, hummingbirds and egrets visit through the day. The atmosphere is truly family-like; everyone greeted us with smiles of cheer and blessing and the typical Central African snapping handshake and headbutt. Yes, you read that correctly. Watch and see.
Our Assembly Hall is typical of what you’ll find in many tropical countries with limited resources. Since its only purpose is to keep the sun and rain out while letting the light and breeze in, it is an open-air structure. There is no auditorium lighting. It seats about 2,000 on long wooden benches. The Hall makes no apologies for a lack of amenities. If it’s too hot, drink more. If the bench it too hard, eat more. Note – the latter solution will make the first problem worse. There is also a Kingdom Hall and a few offices that are mainly used for storage. An area up front is set aside for signing ASL, and the nursing mothers’ section is the whole auditorium.
The sanitary block is waterless. All of the toilets are squat type, with raised blocks for your feet and a hole in the middle. Below is a large room where the waste disposal is done entirely by bacteria. Behind each stall is a tall vent pipe that is painted black and heats in the sun. This solar powered ventilation creates an upward draft through the pipe and pulls air in through the squat holes. En principe, you should never “get wind” of the process going on below. There is an access door in case you drop your sunglasses.
Sinks are mounted on the wall outside. The spigot handles are used primarily for holding little plastic cups, since city water is very irregular out here. Two barrels provide water for washing and drinking. The local soap is made from fatty tallow and requires some skill to rinse it off and juggle the cup at the same time. Dry your hands with the sun and the wind. Mercifully, there are no mirrors.
The hall has a metal roof that heats and radiates downward, like a broiler. By 8:00 a.m. the heat was stifling. I felt like I was wearing a polyester cap and mittens and sitting in a vat of hot, melted cheese. By 8:30 I felt like I was trying to breathe the hot melted cheese. I tried to maintain an appreciative attitude. All around the world, people are paying money to sit in saunas to enjoy heat like this. No doubt few of them are dressed in their Sunday best.
The Sango badge cards have an interesting translation. It says “Ala lango pëpe!” which literally means “Don’t you sleep!” and sounds like it should be followed by a rap on the forehead. In the somnolent warmth it was good to see this reminder on every person we met.
Over the fence lives a poulterer. Mid-afternoon he burns a big pile of chicken feathers. You know he’s started when a giant plume of acrid smoke rolls over the wall and through the crowd. That has got to be one of the worst smells ever imagined. As usual it was Jes to the rescue. She had brought a pack of watermelon bubblegum, sent in a care package by my mother. I don’t normally recommend chewing gum during a District Convention, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It wasn’t all bad, though. Every cloud has a silver lining, even the smelly ones. The mosquitoes didn’t like the smoke either. Later, the Catholic Church down the road fired up a calliope and a thunderous bass and played carousel music all afternoon. Through the vehicle entrance, I could see a group of teenage girls practicing a traditional dance with the typical elbow-flapping, chest-thrusting, and pelvic gyrations. Later I inquired as to what they were rehearsing. Of course, I should have known – it was a dance for Sunday Mass.
Africa is a continent of superlatives and Africans like to do things large and loud. Backstage, we only had one speaker to listen to the program, but it was enough. All three days it blasted the talks and music at an ear-shattering volume; the auditorium was no different. I thought about going to the sound booth to help the brother adjust it, but no doubt he was very proud that everyone, perhaps even a few miles away, could hear the program clearly. And why diminish his joy over a job well done? In any case, after a few minutes I had lost enough hearing to make the volume almost comfortable. In Bangui, problems just seem to fix themselves.
Of utmost importance in Central African culture is how you appear when you dress up. Poverty is no excuse for looking dirty, disheveled, or undignified. Everyone makes new garments for the occasion. The more colors, sequins and beads you can combine, the better; there’s no such thing as too much color or embellishment. Everything is scrubbed spotless and immaculately pressed. Then there’s the hair – O, the hair! It’s braided, beaded, straightened, colored, ironed and woven into astonishingly elaborate creations. For some this process might take an entire day and can be quite painful. Others take a shortcut and buy a ready-made coif and pin it in place. Why all the fuss? It’s not to attract attention, but to tell everyone you meet “I’m so happy that I’m here.”
Central Africans use the word “sape” (sah-pay) like we would say “decked-out” and it literally means “complete”. This does not necessarily mean that brothers must wear a full suit. Few have the means, so a sport coat is acceptable for talks. I even saw a tuxedo, a velvet smoking jacket, and some checkered double-knit over the course of the program. It does however include shoes that shine brilliantly, no easy task in a country where you walk ankle deep in mud seven months out of the year and ankle deep in dust the other five months. The backstage area may be sparingly furnished and dimly lit, but it has a bench with several colors of shoe polish on it – including white! It also has a foot level mirror, the only mirror on the whole property. This had me a little worried. Since we came with just a few suitcases and our effects have not yet arrived, all I had were the two pairs of shoes I brought that favored field service and were barely passable for the meetings. Neither pair would shine, and they looked more like tennis shoes than dress shoes. Not to worry. This was one place where the humidity really helped me out. Before I went on stage, I glanced down one last time at my dowdy, unshiny shoes, only to discover that they were completely enshrouded. My pants legs had grown a few inches and were now piled in concertina-like folds about my ankles. I waddled out on stage, and the talk went fine.
We had a wonderful surprise the last day of the convention. Saturday night, I called one of my studies, De Rossi, to remind him that I would be at the convention and we would have to wait until next week to continue the study. I had also promised him a Bible which would have to wait as well. I had invited him to the convention before, but he was noncommittal. This time his interested piqued. He asked the time and place again and assured me he would come. Sunday morning, while waiting for Jesenia outside the bathrooms, I felt a hand on my arm and turned around to see De Rossi’s broad smile. He sat with us the whole day and looked up every scripture in his new Bible. It both pleased and surprised him to discover that several of his friends from the university are studying the Bible as well. He paid rapt attention to the talks on prophecy, and the drama was a home run. Play the video to hear how the audience gets into it.
Afterward, I mused over our first District Convention on the equator. Through the dust and the sweat, I think I enjoyed this assembly as much or more than any other. The drama was a tremendous success, and in spite of the boiler room weather, I think all 2,528 had goosebumps when the new songs were sung. Thirty-two were baptized at this convention and two at the French convention. The figures are encouraging from Chad as well. The season has come and gone and we have more big things to anticipate. We have three more couples and two single brothers coming in January to help with the construction. All are Aussies, so you know they’ll be fun. Another bethelite-in-foreign-service will come from France as well. After that, a sister will visit from Sweden who is a hairstylist – the sisters are beside themselves with this news! February brings the Zone Visit; in March we have the Project Overseer visit and finally our Circuit Assembly, when the weather will be twenty degrees hotter. Big things are on the horizon. Life is beginning to feel “seasoned”.
Later in the week, as I mentally thumbed the pages of our calendar, I looked up and caught sight of a few small white butterflies. Then another appeared, and another, until there were probably ten thousand in the air all at once. It was their migration and they were headed south to the top of the mountain to mate. Someone had told me we were entering the butterfly season, but I didn’t know what that meant until this very moment. I couldn’t pull myself away from the phenomena to get my camera so I just stood there dumbstruck and drank it up. It was absolutely beautiful and lasted only about twenty minutes. It may not have been a blizzard and there was no fireplace or hot chocolate, but in my heart, it was snow.
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Seven thousand francs. That was 16 dollars for 6 pounds of nails, much cheaper than the stores in town. We had come to Cinq Kilo (sank-key-low) for materials to make tables we could disassemble and stow between events. Another Family Night was coming up in February, but it would be a much larger affair. On the guest list were all of the bethelites, constructors and missionaries from Central Africa and Chad – and the zone overseer from Germany. It would be a grand event with over 100 for the meal.
Claver and Patrick had gotten a design for the tables from one of the IS’s and modified it to fit eight people. The legs were made of square tubing welded together to form an H for each side; braces connected the two H’s and a big square of wood fit over the top. The legs fit neatly inside when they were broken down and stacked.
Earlier, whenever we would do little projects like this, I used to ask why the brothers didn’t want to buy screws instead of nails. Screws always seemed like a faster, sturdier way to put just about anything together. But Africa does a fantastic job of proving us know-it-all westerners wrong. Screws are easy enough to find, but where would you plug in the screw gun? Have a rechargeable? – it’s probably no good. The batteries refuse to charge after a few months in the heat and the dust will kill the bearings after a year or so. Hammers, on the other hand, just seem to work. So I don’t ask anymore.
I read once that a city can only be known through its market. That makes Cinq Kilo the true face of Bangui. Watch a two minute drive through the main road. Though five kilometers out from the city center as its name suggests, it is a journey into the heart of this place, and like a heart it never stops pumping. The market doesn’t stop for siesta or Sundays or holidays and doesn’t respect normal working hours. The streets pulsate with life as money and just about anything else changes hands. Nothing you see is without a price. The shops are filled with Cameroonians, Nigerians, Sudanese, Lebanese, showing just what a crossroads this place has become.
We bought the nails from a Sudanese gentleman. He wore the long flowing garment and lacy skullcap of a Muslim, and his wrinkled face was decorated with a big white mustache that drooped at the corners. I asked him for a receipt. He pulled out a dusty old book and gestured for me to write it out for him.
Next we needed welding rods and anti-rust paint. The welding rods we found a few kiosks down. Shopping areas seem to be arranged loosely by the type of goods you need. All of the bicycle parts are in one section, shoes and sandals, hardware, paints and glues likewise. Booth after booth will have the same materials at similar prices. Grouping like this lets everyone know where to come to buy what they need. No one here is really competing; the village mentality lives even through commerce.
But mind you, this is no North American shopping mall. It’s dusty in the dry season and muddy in the wet season. Whatever you buy will have to be scrubbed thoroughly when you get home. The booths are tightly packed and their wares are crammed into every corner. Areas between shops have been covered, further subdivided and stocked so it’s difficult to tell where one seller ends and another begins. Some eager entrepreneurs have just a vertical surface on which to hang their goods. There are thousands of people, perhaps an equal number of rats, and millions of cockroaches making a living in this labyrinthine sprawl. It is a hot, dank place, and the aromas are anything but inviting. The smells excite the senses like a heavyweight prizefighter excites an opponent. One hit and your olfactory sense is down for the count. I always look forward to visiting the Muslims, whose pungent incense stops the odoriferous street at the door.
Once inside, your requests will always be met with a frantic search, with the shopkeeper emerging from the dust with whatever you ask for. If he doesn’t have it, he likely knows who does. But instead of sending you there, your demand will travel word of mouth from booth to booth in all directions until, a few minutes later, a young child will come running in your direction with whatever you need, or the closest approximation in hopes that you will buy anyway. It’s almost as convenient as shopping on the Internet. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is where they got the idea. Jes and I bought some shoes here after we first arrived. She got a nice pair of lightly worn Ecco boots for $3, straight from Europe.
What’s really amazing is that change is made the same way. If you hand over a large bill, the shopkeeper will grimace and sigh and holler over both shoulders. A few seconds later your change arrives, carried in small hands a few francs at a time, until you have the total. Always count it twice.
How they remember what merchandise comes from where and who provided what change is beyond me. It’s a terrific testimony to the fact that, unlike most westerners, Africans have amazing memories. Many children here learn a half-dozen languages without ever setting foot in a school or opening a book. They learn entirely by observing and copying – survival may well depend on it. Once you meet someone, they will remember your name and every detail they have observed about you. After a few meetings they’ll know what clothing you have in your wardrobe and how you like to combine it. Africans are entirely people-centric people.
Out the corner of my eye I caught something interesting. Through a cascade of shouting and emphatic gesturing, I could see two men arguing over the price of a toilet. I thought for sure the police would have to be called, but an officer was only a few feet away and simply watched the proceedings with dismissive apathy. Without warning, the shouting stopped, the men shook hands, money changed pockets, and the toilet tank, bowl and various plumbing accessories were loaded onto to the heads of porters and slinked through the crowd in single file.
I turned back to the vendor in front of me and continued to haggle the price of the rods, when a few minutes later I caught site of a big porcelain caterpillar, slinking its way back above the crowd. The traveling toilet had returned. What was wrong? He had forgotten the seat. One of the porters hung it around his neck, and the happy bunch set off again in search of a taxi.
In a place like this you might fear for your safety, or at least for the contents of your pockets. But in reality, it’s much better than it used to be. To buy the things we need, I often have to carry more than a half-million francs, over ten years wages for most people here. According to Claver, five years ago you couldn’t do that at Cinq Kilo. But knowing how important the zone was to the city economy, the government decided to clean it up. In a few short days, they sent the police in and, no questions asked, executed everyone who was a known thief, so the story goes. That sent a message. Now the only thieves you have to worry about are the ones trying to sell you stuff.
Another interesting change in the market has to do with the trouble in Sudan, just over the northern border. Small arms are trickling through and can be purchased if you know the right people. A handgun costs only $14, and bullets are a mere $0.25 each. One of our constructors was offered a fully functional AK-47 assault rifle for only $75, gently used. Thankfully those prices, while cheap for Americans, represent a fortune for most Africans and the city continues to be very safe and have a very low, almost non-existent, crime rate.
In the paint section, we discovered that the whole market was out of black anti-rust paint. Hopeful sellers sent every variety in our direction except the one we needed. We would have to look for it in town.
On the way back to the car, I remembered I needed one more thing – a foam rubber mat for Jes to stand on while she irons. Leaving our other purchases with the guys, I ran along the booths that line the main road until I found an opening and dove into the warren that lay behind them. Some of the passages here are so small I have to turn sideways to cut through. I knew the rubber guy was nearby. I always get lots of curious stares here, since white people are rarely ever seen in this part of town, much less in this part of the market. On the way, I saw a familiar site, children promenading with small items for sale in trays on their head. One girl had a tray full of chewing gum, prophylactics and flip-flops. Curiously, she was walking barefoot. I asked her name.
“Bisous” (Bee-sue). Aside from her name she didn’t speak a word of French, which meant she had never been to school. She was about nine or ten years old.
“How much are your sandals?”
“1,200.” Ouch, a little steep.
“I think I would like to buy a pair. Would you take a 1000 francs?”, about two dollars.
“It’s good.” She pulled the tray off her head to show me the flip-flops, though I could see them right where they were. I selected some pink ones with a plastic yellow daisy between the toes.
“Do you live here in Bangui?”
“No, Guerengou.” Later I found it on the map, over ten miles away.
“How many days a week do you walk to the market?”
“I come everyday. I buy the sandals here and sell them in town.”
“Bisous, did you know that God promises a time when we won’t have to work that hard to live.” She said nothing but nodded in agreement.
I gave her back the sandals and told her she could put them on. She smiled and thanked me. Through her braids I could see two big coffee-colored eyes that radiated gratitude. I thanked her for her time and she disappeared into the crowd.
Our conversation made me think. How many of these humble people would accept the good news if they were not pinned under the crushing weight of poverty, illiteracy and sickness? How many millions who live deep inside this vast continent have yet to hear even the first words of bible truth? How would their lives be changed if they had hope and the sustaining power of holy spirit? When Jesus told his disciples to drop their nets into the deeper waters, he must have been thinking of places like Central Africa. It’s not just deep; it’s fundamentally isolated from the rest of the world. The amount of work left to pull up the nets in these deep waters is truly staggering.
I met my guys back at the car after a few unsuccessful minutes looking for the rubber guy. The heat was making me dizzy and I was ready for some fresh air. Besides, my small act of kindness had been noticed by at least fifty people I had seen and perhaps hundreds I had not. I would definitely be remembered here and would probably be mobbed by a throng of needy the next time I showed my face in this section.
In the relative peace of the van, we inched our way through the crush of pedestrians and jockeyed around a long of line of taxis. Mentally, I began to fill out the expense report for all of the items.
I also reflected on my transaction with Bisous. She didn’t complain, but in my heart I knew it was hardly a fair trade. I had given her a pair of sandals that, with the distance she was walking, would be consumed in a matter of weeks. She had given me a smile that would last a lifetime.
PS: There’s a new page this month. Check out the Visitor Map to see who is reading the blog.
Our Saturday morning field service group had swelled to about 30, just beyond what Augustín could comfortably manage. Being the former air traffic controller for Bangui meant he was no stranger to organization or directing a group. To simplify matters, he sent those with studies on their way so the rest of us could be paired to preach in the business territory in town.
“Who has arrangements to work with who?” Augustin asked.
“Frère Joel and I have arrangements” came from the bench next to me. In the shuffle of the dismissal, Cheik had risen from his seat and come to sit next to me. I was completely surprised but not at all unhappy. Cheik is a tall, lanky, mild mannered brother with a quiet, smiley disposition who passed 50 a few years ago. He speaks softly, but preaches fiercely when the occasion calls for it. We had preached together before on numerous occasions, and I always felt like we were a team when went into the territory. Since he was moving to Cameroon the following week, I was glad to have this opportunity to spend some time with him. I thanked him for the “invitation” and he said “I couldn’t leave my brother without preaching together one last time.”
Cheik has a fascinating story. He is from Niger, the son of a Senegalese father and Djerma mother. He speaks Wolof, Hausa, and Djerma and was raised as a Muslim. At about the age of thirty (he’s not sure when) a missionary in Niger first shared the good news with him and he knew it was the truth. His family pressured him to leave it, but they did not take his new-found interest seriously until he told them he wanted to get baptized. He dearly loved his mother and feared displeasing her, but in the end reasoned with her, “you gave me life, for which I will always be grateful, but only Jehovah can give me eternal life. I must make my choice.” After his father’s death, he was denied his portion of the inheritance and effectively cut off from the family. Pressure boiled over into persecution and he began to fear for his life. So in 2001 he fled to Bangui, where he was granted religious asylum. The same year he was baptized. During the coup in 2004, he fled again, this time to Cameroon, where he stayed for a year. He returned to Bangui where he was able to regular pioneer for three years. All along, he said the words of Mark 10:29,30 proved true to the word. Jehovah never failed him and he was never alone.
I enjoyed his informal autobiography as we made our way from one business to another. The end of the rainy season is a very pleasant time in the city. Shopkeepers repaint the façades of their stores and the city had hired extra men to trim the vegetation along the road.
We passed a group of men were busy cleaning out a drainage canal that had filled with soil, ten feet deep, full of roots and vegetation. All of it had accumulated in the last six months. Passing a photo lab, we caught sight of a young woman perched on a stool awash in the morning sun. Two men walked around her – one stopped in front and pulled a camera out of one pocket and two batteries out of the other. The other stopped behind her and unfolded a piece of fabric which he held up as a background. The first inserted the batteries, the young lady flashed a smile, and he took the shot even as the low battery indicator flashed red. The fabric came down and the batteries came out, to be preserved for one more shot. Five minutes later she had a photo in her hand, probably for a student identity card. African economy and efficiency at its best.
Cheik and I finished our section of the block and the sun was starting to intensify. He invited me to go with him on a bible study. It was about two miles away. With a few long strides we left the noisy city center behind.
The road was long and dusty but breezy and cool, probably around 85 degrees, cool for the equator. We arrived at the house about 30 minutes later. We were met by De Rossi, a university student with a broad smile. He was friendly and eager to start his study. He brought three chairs and a table outside, then ran back in to get his books. Cheik turned to me and asked in his calm, sonorous voice, “would you mind continuing the study after I leave? Maybe you could conduct today to see how he does.” I accepted and De Rossi returned. The study started well, but abruptly halted after the first paragraph. All I had done was ask Cheik to continue reading paragraph two and they both looked at me with a serious stare. De Rossi broke the silence with his big smile and said “please, I believe this is the truth and want to learn it well. May I please read all of the paragraphs?” Not a problem. This was only his third study, but seeing that his Catholic bible had deleted God’s name, he asked if we could bring him a New World Translation. It would be a pleasure.
On the road home, I asked Cheik why he was leaving Bangui this time. He said he hadn’t been paid in four months. If he waits for his boss to pay him, he will only continue to eat away at the little money he has left, effectively going into debt to wait for a check that might never arrive. He had a point. “And there’s another reason too,” he continued. “Back in Cameroon, I’ve asked a sister to marry me. It hurts me to be away from her. The sooner I get back, the sooner I can start saving for the dowry.” How happy he must have been to have not given up. When he made the choice that severed the ties with his fleshly family, he must have weighed the decision carefully, painfully. And now, almost a decade after standing up for his faith, he would have a family of his own.
This month we’ve been enjoying the visit of John and Rebecca Aston, bethelites from Malta who work with Translation Services. We had the chance to take them with us to our isolated territory so they could get a taste of the “real Africa”. Enjoy the pictures below.
In this video you can hear a little Sango, American style. See us reading Mat 19:13,14 from the New World Translation to some of the village children.
“All ten please”.
I sighed and submitted my digits to the clerk. One at a time, she pressed my fingers into the musty blue sponge and then rolled them in the little squares on my residency application. It seemed overkill for a place 2000 miles from a machine that could read the tiny loops and spirals. Levi, one of the missionaries who has been called to serve in Bethel, was helping us navigate the labyrinth of Central African immigration. He thanked the young lady and left for the office next door. There he would get the application signed and exchange money for us to enjoy the privilege of living here.
Simon and Joakin, tile setters from Sweden who had arrived to help with the construction, were also there. They had arrived last night after a grueling five leg, four day trip that took them by train from Stockholm to Copenhagen then by plane to London to Nairobi to Douala and finally to Bangui. It wasn’t just hard to get materials here, it was hard to get people here too.
We sat placidly together on a bench in the stark concrete room and watched two women type on old mechanical machines. They were hunting and pecking their way through piles of applications, with carbons, in triplicate. The wait might not have been so bad had we not already spent an hour in a clinic getting a Certificate of Medical Fitness. This procedure requires not that a doctor examine you but that he merely look at you and type something on a paper – in exchange for a few bills. But since there was no electricity, typing these few words required firing up the generator which is normally only done at night. No one had the authority to turn it on and maybe it didn’t work, they weren’t sure. Finally we had to search for the clinic owner. His answer was not encouraging. We would have to wait until until the power ration came back. Sorry buddy, not if you want repeat business from us. Vrrrroooom! Behold, the generator works! We had our certificates within minutes and were out the door.
Jes had the foresight to bring a little hand wiping cloth to remove the ink. I, on the other hand, was kind of proud of my little badge of bureaucracy, and opted to wear it openly, at least until we could get home and take a picture of it. As my hands were perspiring in the heat, I was careful not to touch anything that would not look good in blue. Levi popped back in the door. “The director and secretary general are out exercising, we’ll have to finalize the papers at one p.m.” Levi had heard many excuses for bureaucratic inefficiency, but this was a first. For want of one signature, my residency would be delayed until this afternoon. No worries, at least he and his secretary would be physically fit for the signing, assuming they still had some energy left.
On our way out of the immigration office, Joakin spotted a sign from home. Hanging on the wall outside a nearby building was the Swedish national coat of arms and a prominent sign that said “Swedish Consulate”. Thoroughly surprised, he asked to stop and register. We asked several people who appeared to work there where exactly the embassy was located, but no one could remember. After a lengthy conversation with a security guard, we were issued impressive looking visitor badges and ushered up two flights of stairs (that’s a long way here) and brought to an imposing door with lots of well dressed people milling about in the passageway. It looked every bit like a consulate. A woman looked us over with an anxious face, then bolted through the door. She spoke rapidly with the man inside, all the while gesturing urgently in our direction. Through the hubbub, I caught sight him and could see that he was definitely not Swedish. He was Central African, and he came out to meet us.
“The embassy is next door, in the old bank building,” he said. He shook all of our hands, presumably to thank us for climbing the stairs, and gave me an odd look when he saw I kept my inky fingers nearly hyper-extended to avoid marking his nice french cuffs. Back down the steps, we slipped the visitor badges back to the guard and made our way down the block.
This next building was undoubtedly one of the nicest in Bangui. Marble floors, glass walls, air conditioning. Still no elevator, though. We were greeted, again, then seated, again, and then swept down another long hall to another waiting room to be greeted, again, and seated, again.
It was small, with glass walls and felt a lot like a fish bowl with the five of us in there. I thumbed through all four pages of an older copy of one of Bangui’s newspapers until another man and his administrative assistant rushed in to meet us. The anticipation was unbearable. I simply had to see an embassy that could only be reached via cloak-and-dagger zigzag through town. The man explained awkwardly that the Swedes up and left immediately after the coup in 2004 and had not been back since. I wanted to finish his sentence – and since the sign is made of ceramic, we were just waiting for a pair of tile setters to help us remove it. He shook hands with all of us, and as he firmly grasped my hand, I reciprocated, leaving five little blue copies of my fingerprints on his fair brown skin.
The drive home took us past the Hôtel de Ville, City Hall. It looks like it dropped straight out of a fairytale, not unlike a large bluegray wedding cake with many gilded accents. Several hundred men had found their way onto the grass. All were engaged in the Central African national pastime, sitting and chatting in the shade. Levi pulled over to ask one of the men about the status of the sanitation workers’ strike, the reason for their presence.
“We haven’t been paid in two months and the government doesn’t know when they will have the money,” the man barked.
The last sanitation strike lasted six weeks; this one had the potential to go longer. We would have to continue doing as we had the past week, hauling our garbage out of Bethel in one of the LandCruisers, driving fast with the windows down to keep the air moving in one direction. Emptying the garbage without getting your jack or spare tire stollen by the homeless children that live at the dump is another adventure for another post. Like Levi says, it may be a small country, but it’s never boring.
I can see now why so many foreigners who live in Bangui wear a look of perpetual frustration on their faces. If you are here strictly for business, you will find yourself smacking into endless obstacles. Inefficiency, instability, incompetence and the never-ending outstretched palms wanting to be greased make turning a profit elusive for many.
Thankfully, we have a different purpose for being here with very different rewards.
Normally, after our Sunday meeting, Jes and I do a few studies, among them Lambert, whom you have read about before. But today I was suffering with a painful sore throat and simply wanted to go straight home, with a brief stop at the market to buy some oranges for a little vitamin C. Maybe we could just call and reschedule for the following week. There was just one problem. Lambert didn’t have a phone, and we had promised to be there at ten. We had to go.
We found him at home, where he had just finished a morning bath and he told us to go in and be seated. He lives in one room with a bed, two chairs and a table (Africans always cook and bathe outside). His bible was open on his bed. Last week we discussed the goal of reading the entire Bible in one year. He had taken the suggestion to heart and had finished Genesis the first week by reading a few chapters in the morning and before bed. We commended him for his efforts and enjoyed another delightful study just like the week before, in spite of my swollen adenoids.
After we finished with prayer, he asked me, “Do you have a bag with you?” I said no, so he rifled through his things until he found one. Then he unfolded a cloth that was sitting on the table, uncovering eight freshly picked oranges. He dropped all eight into the bag and said, “I want you to have these. I really appreciate you coming to teach me.” It was such a small gesture, but it meant so much. Jes and I had to hide the tears as we left. We told him about how we almost didn’t come and why, and he just smiled and nodded, happy to give his gift. We returned home, beaming with satisfaction that Jehovah had blessed us with such an appreciative bible student.
It took Levi two more days and three more trips to get our residency, but it finally came through. The little square paper has my name, the fact that I am American, a quivering and sweaty signature and, ironically enough, a big blue stamp. We are now legal inhabitants of the R.C.A. Still I couldn’t help but think – even though the law requires it, we don’t need a piece of paper to tell us where home is.