Click on the links for Part 1 and Part 2, if you missed them. And the story continues with Lesson #4 from our time in Africa (mostly in the DRC, but we also traveled through 4 other countries in Eastern Africa).
Lesson #4: Your preconceived ideas about people will affect what you think people are like and how they treat you.
When I first arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the things I had read about and heard about put me completely on my guard towards the people I met. Of course, when I arrived on the CFM campus and was welcomed by the crowd of Adventist Congolese believers singing their welcome song for us, it brought tears to my eyes and I knew even more fully “the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.” These were my brothers and sisters in the Lord, regardless of our different skin colors.
But those people were believers and campus was a safe place–a little haven in a dangerous country. Outside our compound, I was expecting to meet rough, cold, unfriendly people whom I would need to watch out for. People who might mug me, steal from me, or even kidnap me. I was a little bit afraid to make eye contact with people. If we parked by the side of the road, and the curious villagers swarmed around the vehicle, instead of smiling and interacting with them, I was too busy making sure all the doors were lock and keeping an eye on the luggage.
And whenever I had the scary task of trying to dicker for something I was buying, I never could just have fun with the seller, joking and talking. No, I was too busy making sure they didn’t cheat or swindle me. I always hated the dickering. Usually I either left the situation feeling indignant that I had paid too much, or I left the winner of a great bargain, but the loser of a potential friend who I had offended by not giving enough of a profit for his or her wares. And as time went on, I would shake my head at how rough, cold, and unfriendly the people of Congo were.
Then, about a month and a half after I arrive in the DRC, we left the country and traveled to Tanzania. Going to Tanzania, I had heard, was the equivalent of going to paradise! Tanzania was a safe place with lots of friendly, loving people. And it was in Tanzania that I finally began to let my guard down. I realized that you don’t have to watch out for a burglar behind every vegetable stand. You can walk through the streets during the daytime quite safely! I realized that it didn’t hurt to laugh and joke a little with the vendors and give them a little bit of profit instead of scraping by the least amount I could possibly get by paying them. And I was starting to learn the language a little bit, which helped a lot. Little by little my own walls of fear and distrust were being broken down, and I was finding out just how friendly, loving, and giving these people were. Like these two girls whose father owned a hotel we stayed at who spent 3 hours of their time talking with us, teaching us Swahili, taking us to their father’s restaurant, taking us to see the river. So giving!
It was so cute–when the first girl brought my mom and I our breakfast (mom had arrived in Africa and joined us by then) that morning, she set our plates in front of us (complete strangers to her at that point) and said in fairly good English, “Now we will pray.” She then proceeded to bless our food for us with the sweetest prayer. Now, how wonderful is that! What would America be like if the servers at a restaurants brought the customers their food, and then prayed aloud for the meal for them! It was something else, but it actually happened more than once at different restaurants we went to in Africa.
About 3 months later, my mom and I and our host family returned to the Congo. And I couldn’t believe the change that had taken place while we were gone! Suddenly the people of Congo had changed! They were friendly, kind, hospitable, and so willing to forgive and not even notice the way we fumbled and stumbled over our Swahili trying to talk to them. They were just overjoyed that we attempted.
Or maybe the people hadn’t changed at at. Maybe I was the one who had changed. I had stopped being so distrustful and so guarded, and had come to view all the African people as friends.
As my mom put it, “People are people anywhere. Smile and wave, and they will too.”
We also learned to meet people where they were. When we were in Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar during our “exile” from the Congo due to political unrest, we decided to wear headcoverings out of respect for the dominant Muslim population in the city and on the island. And we found that showing this kind of respect and meeting people where they were actually opened up opportunities to witness. We even got to tour the women’s section of a mosque, simply because the ladies at the door who gave us the tour were so honored that we would respect their lifestyle in that way. “Are you Muslims?” they asked, clearly puzzled incongruity of us being white tourists, yet wearing headcoverings. “No, we are Christians,” my mom answered, “But we like Muslim people.” “Ohhhh, that is good,” the lady smiled and relaxed. They were so sweet and hospitable. They even let us take some pictures.
Looking down on the men’s section of the mosque from the women’s section balcony. Women are not allowed in the men’s section.
Looking into the women’s prayer room. Each section of the carpet is an individual prayer mat.
One of our favorite things from our time in Africa was doing our daily Swahili lesson from Simplified Swahili* (I highly recommend it for anyone who is committed to learning the language), and then riding the CFM motorcycle around campus visiting all the Adventist families living there to practice the language.
We would sit around their fire on little hand-made stools with our Swahili dictionary in hand and just talk to them. Most of the time we’d all end up in stitches from our poor pronunciation and our fumbled words and sentence structures, but the people were so patient with us, so overjoyed that we would learn the language and take time to talk to them and get to know them.
A couple times we would make popcorn, and the little grandma next door would make sombe (cassava greens), and we’d go eat together on her porch. Most of the time we could only grunt, and smile, and maybe say, “Very good!” and she would rattle off a string of Swahili that we could only nod and smile at. But there was still the unmistakable bond of friendship that no language is needed for.
If I remember nothing else from Africa, I will never forget the people. Mom and I both fell in love with the Congolese people, and they will be forever imprinted on our hearts.