Two Years in the Congo
June 2005. For almost 26 years, I had practiced law with the same firm. I had lived in the same house for more than 20 years. I had been married to the same wonderful wife (Kay) for nearly 30 years. With four terrific children, I was enjoying life and a challenging law practice. By any measure, I was a model of stability.
That was all to change.
Out of the blue, our church asked us to lead one of its French-speaking missions for three years. I obtained a leave of absence from my law practice, we began learning French (I still remembered a little from having served a mission in France and Belgium after my second year in college), and anxiously awaited our geographic assignment.
Then, the letter came: “DR Congo Kinshasa Mission.” With that, Kay’s dreams of Tahiti vanished; her hopes of Paris were dashed. The call was for two years, rather than the traditional three years that typically applies to mission presidents. We began getting 50 zillion shots for every dread disease known to man, started learning about drugs for other diseases (principally malaria) against which there is no vaccination, packed up some belongings, said goodbye to our children (in a great role reversal), and left Atlanta. We spent nearly a week in Utah, almost a week in South Africa (overcoming jet lag), and, on June 30, 2005, flew from Johannesburg, South Africa to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Our mission was created 18 years ago. Geographically, it is composed of six countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo (RC), Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Burundi and Rwanda. The mission is about one-half the size of the continental United States. While the church has members in all of those countries, the church has official church units in only four: DRC, RC, Cameroon and CAR. Our goal was to oversee and improve their proselytizing, service and humanitarian efforts, and to help church members (about 80 congregations located in a dozen cities and towns) grow in faith, family unity, self-sufficiency and leadership.
We received a warm welcome into the mission on June 30, 2005. Large numbers of people turned out in the streets that day for political demonstrations, resulting in the closure of the road between the airport and the mission home. However, the head of airport security for the United Nations mission (the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world is located in the DRC) graciously invited us over to the UN airport terminal (complete with guard towers, lots of soldiers with impressive guns, barbed wire, etc.) About six hours later, a truck from an Air France convoy, carrying two benches of very nice soldiers in the rear, escorted us to the mission home where we settled in nicely. It was the fastest trip that we ever will be likely to make either to or from an airport.
While I may lay claim to stability, the political situation in the DRC was anything but. Before our arrival, the DRC had been embroiled in civil wars that had precipitated the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world and claimed the lives of more than four million people — more than any other war since World War II. When we arrived, an interim government, with various former warlords occupying top civilian posts, was preparing for the first elections in more than 40 years. The former warlords’ militias were theoretically integrated into the national army, but reality played out differently.
Daily Life in Kinshasa
Our daily life in Kinshasa was mostly tranquil. A 12-story building housed our apartment (on the fourth floor) and our mission office (on the ground level). With a high wall surrounding the building and guards tending the gates, the arrangement offered security and convenience. (I did not miss my Atlanta-traffic commute.) Our building was in a very nice area of town, just down the street from the Supreme Court and just a short distance from the homes of the two most powerful political opponents in the DRC (and their entourages of soldiers).
A handful of stores sold western-style goods; Kay got to know them very well. They were very expensive because all such goods are imported. In one store, Kay arrived at the checkout counter with a bag of frozen strawberries, the price of which was not marked on the package. The cashier told her the price: $85. She left them on the counter. In another store, I was going to buy a Scrabble game until I learned that it cost more than $100. Ice cream regularly cost $20 for a half-gallon. On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables from street vendors cost little and tasted great. All had to be soaked in a bleach-detergent solution and rinsed in filtered water to overcome the native bacteria and fungi to which we were not accustomed. We mostly used dollar bills for larger purchases because inflation had reduced the largest local currency bill (500 Congolese francs) to the value of a dollar. The U.S. currency had to have “big heads”; older-style bills with “small heads” were not accepted for some reason that no one could explain. In some areas outside of Kinshasa, we had to take our own food and water; two-bucket showers were the norm. Hot water — delivered to our door in buckets at 5:30 a.m. — was often available for the cost of the charcoal to heat it plus a small tip, the total equivalent of about 30 cents in U.S. currency.
Our single missionaries arose at 5:30 a.m. each morning, undertook rigorous study, and engaged in weekly and daily planning and evaluation, which gave them success in their labors and largely formed their post-mission capabilities. They often used charcoal stoves for their fuel and charcoal irons for their clothing. They walked or rode in vans packed with 20 or more passengers. Because their apartments did not have generators, they often studied by candlelight. Each of them earned a significant amount of money for their mission. For example, one missionary transported crops from interior villages to a market center (several weeks round-trip with the crops “riding” a bicycle). First, he worked as a laborer on an employer’s bicycle. Then, he saved his wages to rent his own bicycles and engage others as laborers. Reinvesting his profits, he eventually was able to buy two bicycles rather than renting. Finally, he sold his bicycles and used the proceeds and his savings to help pay for his mission. The missionaries were not perfect by any means, but they worked hard to make progress and serve others.
Saved By a Name Badge
At one point of unrest, we found ourselves in need of moving to a more secure area. The UN and EUFOR troops had temporarily entered our compound and encouraged the then-occupying local troops to leave. I visited with the UN commander and requested that he provide us safe passage to a more secure area. He said that his responsibility did not extend to assisting civilians in that way and declined to assist. As he and his group were departing, one soldier lingered behind, a soldier from Uruguay. He told me that he had noticed my badge (which bore the name of our church), and that while he was not a member of our church, his wife was a member of our church in Uruguay. He offered to assist and instructed us how to proceed. With that, he arranged for two cars bearing us and other missionaries to enter a UN convoy heading toward a secure area. I do not know his name, but I will be forever grateful for his kindness, the vicarious intervention of his wife, and my name badge.
Recently, Forbes magazine ranked the countries of the world by the degree of corruption. The DRC ranked as sixth most corrupt among 163 countries. There is not a great tradition there for honesty and integrity. The rule of law that underpins our society is sketchy there. Thus, teaching values of truth, honesty and integrity was a major focus of our work. As people learned, gradually they changed. For example, we encouraged honesty in admitting to errors and taking responsibility for misdeeds. We noticed that missionaries and church leaders began to admit to faults and misdeeds in a way that permitted us to assist them in overcoming difficulties and problems, repenting and rectifying their circumstances. For many, the concept of admitting fault and pledging to do better was a novel practice. Of course, not everyone was truly affected, but we felt that the church’s influence had significant and profound effects in the lives of many.
Our humanitarian efforts focused on five principles. First, we should complement existing aid organizations and institutions rather than add a new organization. For example, we made roof repairs, added latrines, etc., to existing schools owned by other organizations rather than establishing competing schools.
Second, we focused on sustainable long-term effects. For example, our drinking water projects require the community to establish and maintain a community water committee that oversees the operation and maintenance of the facility. The community agrees in advance that community members will contribute to a repair fund through nominal payments for water. Thus, missionaries oversee the drilling for the wells, construction of the storage tanks, and installation of piping and distribution points, and work with the community to assure longevity and sustainability, which in turn help in community building. Humanitarian projects and church buildings were constructed with quality materials for the long term.
Third, we focused on small projects with significant impact. Our humanitarian missionaries worked directly with all of the involved parties; we did not operate through middlemen.
Fourth, our full-time humanitarian missionaries teamed as needed with short-term specialists to accomplish technically challenging goals. Volunteer specialists from the church — water engineers, ophthalmologists, surgeons and neonatal resuscitation specialists — came from the United States for stays varying from a few days to four weeks. As an exception, we had one husband-wife missionary team who provided their own expertise (ophthalmology) in Cameroon examining eyes and dispensing thousands of pairs of eyeglasses donated by church members in France.
Unity and Support
One of our primary focus areas was to teach unity and that church members should support one another. We found ourselves unified and supported by friends, family and business associates.
The Best Things About the Congo
The best part of the Congo is the Congolese. Their faith, spirituality, radiant faces and hope for the future embraced all that was good about the Congo. They sing vibrantly. They are overcoming severe challenges. In often-austere circumstances, they embrace life with enthusiasm and tenacity. With improved political stability and a newly formed democracy, there has never been a better recent time to be in the Congo. There are challenges to be sure — corruption, AIDS, continued fighting in the Great Lakes area, an average age of 16 in a population of 65 million with few paved roads and little other infrastructure — but there are many willing to try to improve. With ample natural resources, the Congo has the potential to flourish.
The best, unexpected benefit of my mission was growing closer to my terrific wife, Kay. Our mission added a new dimension to our marriage. Shared difficult experiences forged improved bonds. Together, we traveled, took anti-malaria drugs, worked on our French and experienced miracles. In no other time in our marriage have we have embarked on such a joint effort.
No Dread Diseases
One of our major accomplishments was our good health and safety. We contracted no dread diseases and had no major injuries. We attribute that to good fortune and divine intervention. Of the hundreds of persons reported killed in the March 2007 violence following the DRC elections, the bulk died within a half-mile of our apartment. We are so grateful for our preservation.
I had read the Forbes 2005 ranking of the Congo as one of the most dangerous destinations on earth, had read Poisonwood Bible (about a missionary couple from Georgia whose family fell apart while serving in the Congo) and had seen Hotel Rwanda (Kay refused to go). My life-insurance broker had told me that it was impossible to obtain additional life insurance to cover my stay there. Nevertheless, I did not fully appreciate the danger of living in the Congo until we were already there. Yet, even had I known in advance the full scope of danger, I still would have gone.
Before living there, I also did not fully envision the opportunities to help, and the gratitude of those whom we would meet and with whom we would serve.
The mission was not something we sought out. When we were requested by church headquarters to preside over a mission in a French-speaking part of the world, we accepted. When we afterward received our assignment to the Congo, we did not appreciate the rich blessings that would flow into our lives. Looking back, we would do it all again in a heartbeat.
We returned to the United States in July of this year. Our home had been well-tended by our children. Back in my former office, my days are filled with a challenging practice working with great clients and the fine people of our firm, including my assistant of the past 14 years. The return to normal life is so intense that I spend little time remembering my life in the Congo. For me, I have returned to a life of stability. But I will never be the same.
Bill and Kay Maycock presided over the DR Congo Kinshasa Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.