Tshumbe, DRC – A Lesson in Dependence
Written by: John O'Keefe
In January 2013 I traveled with several companions to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We were to be guests of Nicolas Djomo, the Catholic bishop of the diocese of Tshumbe. We were headed to the town of Tshumbe, from which the diocese gets its name. The purpose of our trip was to make a documentary about both his work and that place.
Tshumbe is incredibly remote, and getting there challenges even the most intrepid traveler. It took us five days, although I’m told that if you time everything just right you can do it in three. For us it went like this. Day 1: Omaha to Minneapolis to Amsterdam. Day 2: Amsterdam to Nairobi. Day 3: Nairobi to Kinshasa. Day 4: Kinshasa to Lodja. Day 5: Lodja to Tshumbe.
The airport in Kinshasa has one runway serving a city of 12 million, the largest in Sub-saharan Africa. By all appearances the airport has not been significantly updated since the Belgians left the Congo in the early sixties. Travel to Kinshasa can be booked from abroad, but travel within the DRC can only be booked locally and in cash. The Bishop’s man in Kinshasa bought us our tickets and maneuvered us through the labyrinth of bribes and “fees” so we could board one of two CAA flights that would eventually deposit us in Lodja. CAA has a reputation for not being very safe. The U.S. State Department, which warns travelers not to go to the DRC at all, says that if you must go, don’t travel on the internal airlines. (In fact, a CAA plane crashed in the DRC a few weeks after our return.) Unlike U.S. government folks, however, we did not have access to the United Nations transportation network, so we took CAA to Kananga and then switched planes to a flight bound for Lodja.
The DRC is a country the size of Western Europe but it has no road system. If you want to go anywhere internally you can take a three week boat trip up the Congo river or you can take CAA. Lodja, which is about 500 miles away from Kinshasa, receives two flights each week on a little dirt runway. We were greeted by my friend Raphael Okitafumba and an enthusiastic guy in uniform who took our passports to an undisclosed location for several hours. The passports eventually reappeared while we were sipping whiskey and beer in the office of a parish priest while rain pelted the tin roof above. We spent the night at the local seminary. If you go, bring a flashlight: there is no grid and they turn the generator off pretty early since diesel fuel is $15/gal.
After spending the night in Lodja, we set off for the town of Tshumbe. This trip requires three overland stages.
1: Ride in a Land Rover for 30k until you get to the Lokenyi river.
2: Stare in disbelief that you and all your expensive photo gear needs to cross the river and the only way across is in a dugout canoe.
3: Watch your guide negotiate fiercely with the “ferry” operators for a decent price.
4: Cross the river.
5: Get in the Land Rover that has come to pick you up and drive for four more hours on a dirt road.
6: Arrive in Tshumbe.
Our two weeks in central Congo were really wonderful. The bishop treated us well and we experienced no significant problems with our film project. Tshumbe is also exceptionally beautiful. The town is situated in the middle of a vast savanna that has never been plowed. As a Nebraskan I have always wondered what a vast intact prairie would look like — we turned ours into a giant cornfield long ago. Now I know, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.
Yet this trip was deeply challenging spiritually. The Congo is a tragic place in so many ways. Few Americans know that more than six million Congolese have died in regional conflicts since the late 1990s. Poverty is extreme, especially in Kinshasa. Despite living in an incredibly beautiful and ecologically rich environment, people around Tshumbe suffer from malnutrition. Many of the conditions I encountered were similar to those that I have encountered during previous travels to Uganda, about which I have written on this site. Thus, I was not shocked by what I saw, and, while always difficult, I was not challenged by witnessing these things as forcefully as I had been in the past. Indeed, I prepared hard for this trip and knew about the Congo’s struggles going in.
However, this time I was challenged by something totally unforeseen: for several weeks I felt (and was) totally dependent upon the good will of others. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest international airport in a country with no roads. If the plane in Lodja did not go, neither did we. If they ran out of diesel, there might not be another shipment for months. If I got sick, there was only the local, very inadequate hospital: there were no medevac helicopters. In short, there was no plan “B”. Indeed, the culture was so utterly foreign that if anything had gone wrong, I would not really have known what to do about it. In Tshumbe, as far as I could tell, there were literally no other Americans. In all of my travels, I have never had that experience. American men with type “A” personalities do not often experience feelings of total dependence, but for those days in the DRC, I was totally dependent and I felt it.
If is not uncommon for those wise in the spiritual life to remind us that we are utterly dependent upon God and that that we should live accordingly. However, if we don’t ever experience being dependent, such advice can be hard to follow. I think I get it now, at least I get is better than I did before I went to the Congo.
Photo: “Congo Savanna 1” by jjoiv from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)