U-C: What I See

Thursday, May 19, 2005

If the Mango Tree Could Speak: Development and the Church in the Congo

Evening – Friday May 13, 2005

Brothers and Sisters,

One evening earlier this week our delegation was invited to share a meal with a group of pastors and lay leaders from the Synod of the East Kasai in the city of Mbuji Mayi. We were seated in the yard in front of the home of Pastor Chibemba and his wife, Mama Rose, who had graciously prepared our meal. The sky was dark, and our gathering was illuminated by the light of a single, naked bulb run on a generator. The twenty-five of us fit easily under the spreading branches of three mango trees planted closely enough together to give the illusion of being one large tree.

Doug Welch is the PC(USA) Regional Area Coordinator for Central West Africa, and he is fluent in both French and Tshiluba. Mbuji Mayi is where Doug began his mission service to our church back in the late 1970’s. He’s bright, dedicated, savvy about the complex dynamics in the DR Congo and our relationship with our Congolese partners, and he obviously cares desperately about these people. He sat with me during our meal and translated a conversation with an old friend of his named Medi Kanda, who is responsible for the development work of the church here in the East Kasai.

Medi’s primary responsibility is food security, and most of his development work is among rural folks who make their living on the land. He and a small group of promoter/organizers resource 82 Associations of ten to fifteen people each – over one thousand participants total. One of their projects is a nascent palm oil project I’ve seen in several different places as I’ve traveled, developed with technical support from our Mission Co-Worker Larry Sthreshley and funding from the Presbyterian Medical Benevolence Foundation and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The numbers seem to be magic. MBF and PDA provide about five thousand dollars toward the seven thousand dollars needed to import seedlings from Costa Rica of a special variety of palm tree that will grow quickly and provide an oil harvest all year long.

Then, partners in Medi’s project help the members of the association to replant and care for the trees. Other plants like cow peas can be grown alongside the trees for the first couple of the years until the trees grow enough to begin to harvest the oil. Within five years, Larry tells me that the seven thousand dollar investment should be returning $40,000 to $60,000 per year after the cost of labor. There are significant local, regional and even international markets for the palm oil, and with a relatively simple production facility, it can even be converted into bio-diesel and double the value of the oil again.

Medi’s organizing also has other implications. As in every other country in which I’ve worked, high taxes on the poorest of the poor in this country cause incredible hardship. For instance, Medi tells me that farmers here are taxed twenty U.S. dollars on every 500 kilos of corn that they sell. There’s even a tax on owning a bicycle that theoretically goes toward road maintenance, though I have yet to drive on any road that has received care in years, and most roads in the rural areas are nothing more than a dirt path. The farmers hope that if they can get organized they will be able to speak with one voice to represent their interests in local and regional governments, and they are particularly interested in protesting the ever-increasing taxes.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve been impressed with these development projects and others. Christians are hard at work trying to make a difference here in the Congo.