U-C: What I See

Monday, May 16, 2005

To Teo, from Africa

Dear Teo, (an open letter to my nine-year old son)

I hope you are doing well. I know that today is the start of your last full week of school, which is very exciting. I hope that you have a great week. Maybe you could take my email to Senora Valencia this week and share it with the other kids in the class. It’s a pretty long letter, so I was thinking that if you have time, you and Senora Valencia could cut up this letter into pieces and give it to the different kids in your class to read, and then you could tell each other about what you’ve learned about life in Africa. I’ll try to describe where I am so that you all can find it on a map.

I’ve been here in Africa for a week now, and I have lots of stories to share. Africa is a wonderful place, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a beautiful country. The roads here can barely be described as roads; they are mostly just tracks through the rolling hills and grasslands of the countryside. I’ve been traveling through the areas of West and East Kasai. The Kasai is a big river that runs into the Congo, which eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean. They say that the Congo has more water in it than any other river in the world except the Amazon, which I believe. When we arrived, we flew into Kinshasa, which is located on the Congo, and it was so wide that it looked like a lake.

I’ve been staying at a mission hospital called Tshikaji (you pronounce it “cheekahjee”) that is about twelve kilometers from the town of Kananga in the West Kasai. Even though twelve kilometers is only about seven miles, the roads are so bad that it takes about forty-five minutes to drive here. All the roads outside of Kananga are unpaved (except the ones on a big military base), and they seem like they are more potholes than road. I’ll attach a photo to this email that tries to show you a picture of the road, although the vehicle bounces around so much that it’s very difficult to get a picture. We drive around in Toyota Land Cruiser, which are kind of like high jeeps. We haven’t gotten stuck or had a flat tire yet.

There are very few cars here. When we drive along these roads in the countryside, the are full of people walking or pushing bicycles that are loaded high with things to take to market. Sometimes I see people riding bikes, too, but outside the city of Kananga it seems like most people use them as wheelbarrows. They tie a stick to the handlebars so they can push the overloaded bike from behind and still steer it. The women carry huge loads of things on their heads; yesterday I saw a woman carrying one of those big, fifty-five gallon, steel drums on its side, balanced on her head, and when we drove past her I realized it was about half full of some kind of leafy green plant she was taking to the market in her village.

There are kids EVERYWHERE. When we drive into a village, they come running toward the car and they wave and shout “Mouyo!” which means “hello” in their language – Tshiluba (Cheelooba). Before I left, Tracy Carroll gave me an article to read about a disease that many children in Africa have called “Kwashiorkor.” It’s an extreme form of malnutrition, which is what happens when you don’t get enough protein in your diet. Many, many children here suffer from malnutrition of one kind or another, which you can see because their bellies are round and extended, some of them have a kind of an orange tint to their hair, and when I ask them how old they are, kids who like they are about Jakelyn’s age (four years old) turn out to be seven or eight years old.

All of the kids are always smiling and laughing and glad to see us, though. They wear all different kinds of clothes. Many of the boys wear just a pair of shorts, and lots of the girls wear dresses. A couple of days ago, I saw a little boy in one of the villages who was dressed in a full suit: long black pants, white shirt, and a black suit coat. The kids don’t have many toys – not even soccer balls. I played soccer in the front yard of a mission hospital in the city of Mbuji Mayi (emboojee mahyee) with some boys who had a beat up old soccer ball that wasn’t fully inflated, and that was one of the first real balls that I’ve seen, at least among the younger kids. Other toys I see a lot are old, rubber bike tires or wheels with the spokes all out. The kids roll them down the street using a stick inside the tire to keep it rolling.

Most people make their money by growing food to eat and to sell to others. Lot’s of the men are pushing huge sacks of charcoal on their bicycles to sell to others at market. The charcoal is what most people use to cook over a fire, and a big bag of it in Mbuji Mayi costs about twelve dollars (people here use Francs and U.S. dollars – one dollar equals about 500 Francs).

Just like in Mexico and Guatemala, it’s hard to figure out how people can make enough money to survive. For instance, I talked to one woman who had eight children and a total of fifteen people living in her house. She said that they use a full bag of charcoal every week! Her family spends six dollars each week on water, and they have to use some of the charcoal to boil the water in order to make it safe to drink.

She said that she also spends about forty to sixty dollars per week on food for her family. The diet here doesn’t change much. Everyone eats “bidia” (beadeeah), which kind of reminds me of a corn tamale in Mexico. It’s served in a big lump (bigger than my fist), and it’s kind of the consistency of silly putty – but it tastes better. They break off pieces of it and roll it in their hands, and then use it to soak up any oil on their plates. Lot’s of people also eat rice, sometimes served with oil on it made from the palm trees here. There’s also usually a really, really spicy chili sauce (spicier than the hottest salsa), and leaves from a plant called “Manioc” that look like spinach when they are cooked. They also eat the root of the manioc plant, (which I think is also called “cassava”), and it kind of reminds me of potato – but only kind of.

The thing is, most people can only make about five to ten dollars A MONTH here. A teacher gets paid about ten dollars a month, and a doctor in one of the hospitals that I visited gets paid about twenty dollars a month. So think about how much money I said it costs for a family to survive. It doesn’t add up, huh?

It seems like most people make most of their money by selling something else. For instance, one woman might go to market and buy enough sugar or flour not just for her family, but for other people too. Then, she puts a little stand on the road in front of her house and sells the extra to other people for a little more money than she paid for it. Everyone picks a different product like that and does the same. Another way they do it is by growing more than they need of a particular food, and then taking that food to market to sell. The other day, I saw a woman sitting in her yard in a village in front of an old-fashioned, pedal sewing machine. I think she was probably sewing things for other people to make a little bit of money.

I think that’s all I have time to write today. Later today we will be flying in a small, single-propeller plane to another village that has a mission hospital, called “Bulape” (Boolapey). We have to fly, because even though it is only about seventy miles away (like the distance from Tucson to Nogales), it would take nine or ten hours to drive that far on these roads. Someday, I want to travel here in Africa with you so you can see all the things I’m seeing.

I love you very much,