The past two days have been national holidays and so the staff at the sanctuary is at a minimum. For the initial week, the sanctuary had many people: Board members from the U.S. based Friends of Bonobos, a Belgian woman working with homeless children and of course Fanny, Raphael and Claudine. After the bonobos go to sleep, there has been so much to do in the evenings, quite the party. Now it is just Gaspard and I and the sanctuary seems very quiet. We make plans to do a couple day trips outside the sanctuary, as we’ve pretty much just been in our own little world here.
Lac de Ma Valle
Claudine had suggested we go see the Lac De Ma Ville, a nearby lake with a walking path around it and a small restaurant. Papa Jean, who is in charge of the kitchen, is going into the nearby village to shop at the market, we tag along with him so he can show us the way.
I’m really excited and a little nervous. Everything I read about the DRC before coming here was largely negative. When I spoke to people who had already been here, they reassured me current conflict was in the eastern part of this huge country. It would be like worrying about going to California because of conflict in New York. However, if you look at travel warnings posted by the United States’ government, it basically tells you not to go to DRC. Everywhere you look in the Kinshasa area, you see armed guards, who are well-known for making up “fees” to pass certain places. I feel like I have no sense of what it is
really going to be like, with so much conflicting information. We have Papa Jean with us for the beginning part, so that’s good enough for me.
The First Black President of The United States of America
There is a fee to enter the lake area, 1,000 Congolese Francs, which is a little over one U.S. dollar. Gaspard and I take a $20 bill to exchange at the market, as that is the only size currency either of us have. Papa Jean goes to his usual market stand and after a lot of discussion, the woman exchanges the money for us. We also buy 5 mangostains from her (a tasty Congolese fruit) and she puts them in a plastic bag for us. I look at the picture on the bag and am surprised to see a familiar face: President Barack Obama. Underneath his picture and title, it reads, “The First Black USA President!!! Priemier Naicra USA President!!” I recall when I was in Uganda a few years back, there was also Obama merchandise everywhere. The woman selling us the fruit sees my reaction and laughs, saying, “Oui, Obama.”
There is a road that leads to the entry of the park, Papa Jean is going to walk that part with us as well. I’m really glad he does, as I look over under a tree and meet eyes with an armed guard who says sternly to me, “Vous-allez vous?” He wants to know where we are going. When Papa Jean intercedes and explains, the guard says in English, “It’s okay.” We continue to the entrance to the lake area and say goodbye to Papa Jean.
Vital’o, a Soda Bottled
After walking another long, winding road, we come to the lake. It is beautiful and twisted, with lots of break-off points. We learn later it is an artificial lake, created by missionaries for whatever reason. We’ve already walked quite a long ways by the time we get down to the lake and we come to the restaurant. A woman appears and quickly ushers us to sit down. We weren’t planning on it, but decide to anyways and each order a Vital’o, a soda bottled in Kinshasa. It’s neon pink and tastes like artificial strawberry with a lot of sugar. In the scorching heat and after such a long walk, it’s delicious.
We’ve already walked a decent amount and it is 6km to walk around the entire lake. Not that bad, except it is so hot and muggy. Along the shoreline at the restaurant, there are some of the ricketiest looking pedal boats I’ve ever seen. They appear to be completely made of metal. They float? After some quick discussion, we opt to rent a boat instead of doing the walk. With each turn of the foot pedals, the boat makes a rusty metal noise that sounds like a dying animal, begging to be put out of its misery. It’s a blast and also somewhat cooler to be out on the water.
After the lake, we walk back down the road to the village. Instead of walking the rest of the way back to the sanctuary, we decide to buy a ride on a motorbike. I have reservations about this. I took a couple in Uganda and I know how fast the drivers can go. The roads here are so bad, I’m amazed anyone drives a motorbike on them at all. We face huge puddles and potholes, as well as broken debris on a muddy, slick road for the whole route. I decide to view it as an adventure and go for it. Also, I don’t feel like walking anymore that day.
We make it back safely to the sanctuary and the ride is actually quite pleasant, as the driver goes slow. Maybe it’s because of the dangerous condition of the road. Or maybe it is because my fingernails are digging into his side the whole way.
Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.
The next day, Gaspard and I attend church with Didier’s daughters. His job is assistant cook and commissary manager, so he gets in early everyday to get a head start. He walks us to his home, which is probably about two miles away. When little kids see us, they shout, “Mndele!” This is Lingala for “white person.” There is a different Lingala word for a person of Chinese descent and that is because there is a large Chinese presence in the Congo.
When we reach his home, it is sort of crazy. A woman is raking their dirt yard, while two little kids run around. One of them is only wearing a pink reflective vest, like something you would wear in America to be seen at night. Many adults come out of Didier’s home to see us, then disappear back inside. The home is cement and the same size as my studio apartment back home. How many people live there?
Two young women, teenagers, come out. Like most Congolese, they are dressed very well. One girl is all in white and is spotless. How on Earth does she do that? It is very humid here, but still. Everywhere you walk is a reddish clay-like dirt. I step outside and I’m instantly dirty and sweaty, but personal appearance is highly valued in the Congo. Everywhere you go, in the poorest areas (which is most areas), people are still wearing clean, well-fitted clothing. The women have the most colorful garments, either traditional or Western-style.
Didier had assured us his daughters go to church every Sunday, but that is not the vibe I am getting from them. Gaspard tries to converse with them in French, but they give short answers and seem a little annoyed. He translates to me only that they said, “It’s a really long walk.”
An hour and a half later, we have covered a lot of distance, all uphill. I feel like I am going to pass-out. It definitely was worth it though. The whole walk was well away from the main road, we follow small footpaths through many rural villages. Chickens and cats run freely everywhere, every so often someone has a stand out with goods to sell. Everything is so busy and alive, I wonder where everyone is going. A couple people ask Gaspard who we are and what we are doing. When they ask me, I just look to Gaspard as a way to ask for help. We later joke that people probably assumed we are a couple and come from a country where the woman isn’t allowed to talk to strangers.
along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.
By the time we are nearing the top of the hill, I feel so miserable that I’m no longer paying attention to saying “M’bote!” to those we pass. Gaspard nudges me and points up. A giant church steeple is coming out from the trees ahead. Thank.. Goodness.
On the way, we had passed several churches with people singing. They were all built like Didier’s home, looking more like a cement shack than anything else. I had secretly yearned to just attend that church. Why did we have to walk so far?? Now I see why. The church is huge and beautiful, clearly coming from missionary funding. It is a Christian Catholic church. Being from Minnesota, I was raised Lutheran, but I have attended a few Catholic masses before and this one is very similar to those. The big difference is the dancing and color, a definite African flare on a Western tradition. Multiple pastors an altar boys come down the aisle at the start of the ceremony. A huge choir sings and sways in place, while the altar boys dance in a way that reminds me of my favorite 90’s boy bands. Any misery I was feeling is swept away in awe.
Another difference is audience participation in the songs. In the West, the congregation all firmly clutches their hymnals and follows along with the song. Here, everyone knows the words to all the songs and they clap along. I try to follow along, but it is more complicated than clapping on the beat.
One of Didier’s daughters taps me and makes a motion that says I can take pictures. Cool! We had been warned not to take pictures of anyone we saw in the village. I think the majority of Westerners that come to Congo are journalists, seeking a story that is probably too elaborate or complicated to make a 3 minute news clip. Probably because of this, most of the locals think foreigners who take their picture will sell them for thousands of dollars back home and so they get really mad if they see someone taking their picture. Apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to the church. When I glance around and see other congregation members taking pictures, I go for it.
The church we attended.
When the service ends two hours later, we head back home. I can really tell the girls are eager to be rid of us. They walk in front of us and gossip in quiet Lingala. The journey back is much more pleasant, as it is all downhill. It only takes us about an hour to get back to the sanctuary. The girls walk in with us, looking to say hello to their father. Gaspard and I sit down and guzzle water. He offers them some and they take it, but neither drink . Hoooow are they not dying of thirst?
All in all, it is a trip that is definitely worth the effort, but maybe just one time. I in fake seriousness ask Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.
sk Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.