U-C: What I See

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Reflections from Bulape

The Mission Aviation Fellowship, (check out their website at www.maf.org) nine passenger plane circled the airfield in the village in Bulape, about 120 kilometers northwest of Kananga and on the southern edge of a Congolese rainforest. The sky was pocked with large rain clouds that Garth, the MAF pilot, had carefully flown through and around on the forty-five minute flight up from the largest of the mission stations and hospitals in the village of Tshikaji. As I looked down on the field, there must have been at least twelve hundred people gathered along the sides of the grass airstrip. Garth put the plane down on the front edge of the runway and used less than half of it to come to a stop in order to reduce the danger of landing with so many children and adults crowding the field.

No matter how long I live, I don’t believe I’ll ever have an experience that tops the welcome we have received here in Bulape. This is an Africa that I didn’t believe still existed in the year 2005 - though I’ve learned is actually fairly common: An Africa far enough removed from the outside world so that junk food and television still haven’t arrived and the visit of outsiders is still a novelty. As we descended the three steps from the rear of the airplane, we were overwhelmed with the crush of people. People everywhere – smiling and wanting to shake our hands. There was one tall village soldier for the king wearing a grass skirt with shells woven into it and two huge gourds that hung around his neck. He was carrying a long spear in one hand, and antelope antlers in the other. He turned out to be our protector and guide, shooing the children away to clear a path for us as we walked up the hill to the mission station.

And there must have been at least a dozen Chiefs dressed much like the soldier, lined up beside the runway to shake our hands and greet us. The women didn’t wait for us to come to them, though. They were singing and dancing as they gathered all around us to hug us and welcome us to Bulape. Many of the men were dressed in suits, many with clerical collars, waiting to greet us along with the village chiefs. The children were everywhere I looked - a massive sea of humanity. I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, truly speechless. I lost sight of most of the others as the crowd accompanied us and we walked up the road toward the station, our protector scattering the children away to clear a path for us as we walked.

For years, I’ve been hearing about the mission stations planted by Presbyterian missionaries here in Africa, but I had no frame of reference to help me picture one in my mind. I’ve now visited four of them, and I’m fascinated by the feeling I get of entering a Congo of fifty to one hundred years ago - mixed together with a sense of what African village life is like today. Each of the stations is planted in or very near a village, In Bulape, the village is less than a ten minute walk down the hill, and it has grown to nearly 20,000 thousand people who have moved here to be closer to good medical care, better schools, and greater economic options that come with a larger population base. There are close to five thousand children in the schools in Bulape and the other villages that closely surround it.

Back on the hill, there are several dozen buildings: a large church, substantial missionary houses from the old days, a hospital and nurses school, and a variety of outbuildings used for education, storage, workshops, and administration. There is even a tiny, now-abandoned hut that once housed the high frequency radio that missionaries used to communicate across the country. It’s no longer needed because one modernity has reached Bulape, a two-bar cellular telephone signal with Vodacom, the largest telephone company in the country. Even here in Bulape, our meetings and worship are occasionally interrupted by the sound of jingles and songs as people’s cell phones ring.

The buildings are built of bricks that were fired here at the direction of the earliest missionaries, and they have tin roofs. Many are now in serious disrepair, as it has been many years since the glory days of half a dozen missionary families that inhabited this place. In 1960, just before the Congolese gained their independence from Belgium, there were close to two-hundred Presbyterian missionaries and their families living and working in the Congo. Now there are fewer than half a dozen. The Congolese have done their best to keep up with maintenance on a few of the houses, but the expense is great and the resources are few. There is no electricity here, of course, though there are several generators in the station, one of which has provided electricity until about nine o’clock in the missionary house where I’ve stayed each of the last two nights. The Congolese call this the “Ross house” after Missionaries Charlie and Nancy, who I understand are working on the U.S./Mexico border in their retirement.

The hospital and nursing school are now entirely staffed by Congolese doctors, nurses and educators, though many of them speak wistfully of a time when they had the assistance, accompaniment and resources of the missionaries here. As I walk around the station, I can feel the spirit and the presence of the dozens of missionaries who have made this place their home and this work their vocation over the years.

Two evenings ago, one of the pastors who grew up here in Bulape took us on a walk through the village at dusk. As we walked, the crowd of children accompanying us grew larger and larger. The village is spread out over the gentle hills below the mission station. There is a wide street through the center of the community that feels almost like a boulevard, and many of the adobe style buildings that line the street have the names of small businesses painted on them. Women sat at small stands selling foods and spices and even New Orleans styles “benes” (small, ball-shaped, fried dough). The dirt yards had all been swept clean with palm branches, and I couldn’t see any garbage anywhere. Some of the lack of garbage is probably due to the fact that few processed, packaged items are sold here, but the pastor also told me that the chief is quite strict in enforcing a standard of cleanliness in each home.

In this village there are large empty spaces left between many houses that the pastor tells me are to leave room for ceremonial dances. There are also a number of churches, simple structures made of bamboo, mud plaster, and grass roofs just like the houses. There are three Presbyterian churches here in addition to the one founded by the missionaries at the top of the hill.

Last night before I went to bed, I stood in front of the house and looked at the Southern Cross. This morning, I awoke at dawn to a red fireball of a sun coming up from the east, right where the cross told me it would be last night. I am changed in ways that it will take some time to fully understand by my awareness of just how big the world is and how great the community of the people of God is all over the world.

Blessings on you from Bulape. Be confident of the prayers for you from your brothers and sisters of the Presbyterian Church of the Congo.