If you just started reading about our adventure with this post, you might want to start with Lesson #1 & #2, Lesson #3, and Lesson #4 before continuing…. Ok, so here is one of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time in the DRC and other parts of Eastern Africa.
Lesson #5: You can adapt to extremely different living conditions when you are where God has led you.
Going to Africa was, to say the least, culture shock! Think of baggage claim in America for a moment…. The nice carousels that bring your luggage, the big luggage carts, the carpeted and tiled floors…. Now contrast that with baggage claim in the DRC:
Not to mention that us three American girls had just gotten off the plane after a grueling 14 hour flight in a strange airport where hardly any English was spoken, and suddenly the health officials were telling us that we didn’t have the right shots and would have to get new ones in the back office (for a price, of course)!
What?!?! We had made sure to get all the required shots and documentation long before we ever left home! But they were quite adamant that we needed some other important shot that was only required in their town.
We didn’t see the American missionary who was supposed to pick us up yet, and we didn’t have a way to call him without a foreign SIM card or wifi, the health officials were holding our passports, and we were panicking! What else could we do! So we followed the lady as she started leading us to her private office to supposedly give us these shots (as Savannah said, “She’s NOT sticking a needle into me!!!!”). I can’t tell you how relieved we were to see our friend who was picking us up walking up just as we were following the health official out of the building.
He could speak a little French, and he saw through the scheme right away. There wasn’t another shot required at all! It was simply their way of trying to bribe a little extra money. As I said, culture shock!
As we were leaving the airport and driving through town to our hotel, all I could do was stare out of the car window in shock at the dirty, crowded streets. There was trash and rundown buildings and stalls everywhere. It was noisy and just SO DIFFERENT!
The view below was from the window of our hotel that night. There are bars on almost all the windows to prevent theft. I was shocked at the condition of the buildings, and the dusty, rutted, rocky roads.
Speaking of roads, this is one of the best roads we ever saw, the road leading from the airport through the town. Even it had large potholes in places. On each side of the road you can see more examples of the types of houses you find in town. Later I would find out that these are actually quite nice houses for Congo.
I could get over the fact that there was trash EVERYWHERE! Including the riverbank (do NOT go swimming!!!).
I don’t want to give the impression that it was all bad, though. Yes, town was the greatest culture shock of all, with all the people and all the dirtiness and all the noise. However, once we got out into the country I was once again awestruck, but this time by how beautiful Congo is.
It’s definitely jungle! There were times when we would walk to the nearest church about a half a mile through the jungle.
Tall grasses, wild flowers, thick patches of palm trees growing so close together that you can’t see the sky. And bamboo! What an interesting plant! Can you believe it’s actually a grass? And yet it grows taller than some of the trees, and is quite thick and hard… and hollow! I never stopped being fascinated by bamboo.
Towards the end of my time in Congo, I had the privilege of visiting an Adventist school in town. It was one of the best schools in the area–with the students performing the highest compared to all the schools around. I, however, was in for another culture shock.
I was shocked by the conditions of the very best school in the area. If this was the best, I would have hated to see the worst school in the area! The first thing I noticed was how LOUD it was in this schools. The walls were not insulated (you could practically see through the cracks into the surrounding classrooms), and the entire school would all do different verbal recitations at the same time!!!!! The teachers were speaking at the top of their lungs, the 300 or so children in the building were speaking at the top of their lungs, and I thought my eardrums would burst. Not to mention how dirty and rundown the building was.
But what saddened me the most was the lack of materials for the teachers and the students. No libraries of cute, brightly illustrated children’s books. No posters on the walls, no bulletin boards, no fun, hands-on learning materials like math blocks or abacuses. Nothing but bare empty classrooms with benches and blackboards–in fact, the school was quite proud of the fact that they had benches and blackboards. Each student had a backpack, a plain little notebook, and a pencil. That was all. Even the teachers had to share their instructional materials.
The methods of instruction were consequently different. Rote memorization was key. Some of the teachers would get creative and draw on the blackboard for the students to help them learn words or concepts. Other teachers, however, would put students down if they did not get the correct answer or get it quick enough.
And yet, the classrooms were packed. Education, even this kind of education, was considered a great privilege. In Congo, you have to pay to go to school. Those who cannot afford it cannot go. In 2000, 65% ages 10-14 NOT in school. Now there are at least 5.2 million children not in school. It is so sad.
The churches in Africa were also a great culture shock. In America, we complain if the sermon runs longer than an hour while we sit in our nice cushy pews. In Africa, they complain if the service runs any less than 3 hours while they sit on hard bamboo poles under a makeshift tarp to keep back (some of) the rain and sun.
Some of the Adventist churches are quite blessed by the 1-day Church project. A nice, tin roof is provided, and then the local people put up bamboo walls as they can.
And, oh, the singing that is heard from these churches! That was the highlight of each week–getting to hear the church choirs and even just the church people sing. They didn’t have any instrumental accompaniment, but they didn’t need it. People actually sing 4-6 part harmony in Africa, a talent which is being lost in congregations in America. It is so beautiful! I could have listened to it all day!
And in African churches, everyone is welcome! Sometimes even dogs or chickens wander in!
One of the biggest things that churches are lacking, however, is Bible programs for the children. Each Sabbath many children come to church, but there is hardly ever anything geared towards them. Think of all the Bible songs and Bible story books and little props like rainbow sticks, stuffed animals, and felts that Adventist children in American are blessed to grow up with each week at Sabbath School.
In Congo, a church lady might take the children out under and tree and sing with them for a while, but usually they just sit in on the adult lesson on the sidelines, where they are told to hush and sit still.
That is why we are so glad that my mom was able to come. While she was in Congo, she had the privilege of creating an entire 3-year children’s Sabbath School curriculum, complete with memory verse cards, song sheets, and a corresponding Bible Story and Storytime in Africa story. It is now being translated into the local languages for implementation in the churches.
Don’t ever take the fact that you can just run to Walmart or the supermarket when you need some nice fresh, canned, or boxed food for granted! Here is a meat shop in Congo. The meat is hanging exposed and open to flies and dirt… and you wonder why disease is so easily spread? Don’t worry–we did NOT shop at this store!!!!!
Here is the grocery store, which also doubled as a money exchange. Again, all I could say was, “Wow! It’s so. different.!!!!! It was tiny, crowded, and the food was stacked up vertically instead of horizontally. The store itself was maybe 10 x 20 feet. That was it. This is where we would buy dry/canned products. We went to the outdoor vendors for fresh produce like tomatoes, potatoes, fruit, et
The fabric shops were quite pretty, with all the varieties of fabrics. We went shopping for dress material at this fabric shop, and then took the material to the tailor shop. This turned out to be an little ramshackle building build out of a hodge-podge of boards and tarp. They were even using the old-fashioned, treadle sewing machines!
For grains and legumes, we went to the covered markets. Enter one of these, and you just might get lost in the maze of little “streets” and the dozens of corn, beans, and flour vendors. And, being that the entire thing is covered over with tarp, it’s a little dark and eerie inside, not to mention noisy–especially when white people step inside looking to buy something. Suddenly everyone is crowding around you, calling out to you, hawking their wares…. What an experience!
Then you run across shops like this shoe store, and you think, “Wow… and here in America we’re not happy unless we have nice mirrors and benches to sit down on, and attendants, and nicely boxed pairs of shoes.
- Or this furniture store, where all the furniture sits out in the open…. I will always get a kick out of the zaney fabric choices for their furniture.
Below is a medicine store–pharmacy. While it is quite nice to be able to go anytime and buy the malaria medicine or antibiotic that you need–no prescription necessary–it’s also a bit disconcerting to know that poison is also readily available, no questions asked. And, if you aren’t liked by someone, there is a chance that you could be poisoned. Potlucks are not a common occurrence in the Congo!
Then of course you have your roadside vendors–African Fast Food, I always said. Out walking and get hungry? You can always buy bananas, boiled peanuts, avacados, or other treats from people carrying them on their heads down the streets.
It was a common site to see mothers with a baby on their back and bananas on their head and buckets in their hands walking down the street looking for someone to sell to.
I think one of the hardest things to adjust to was the corruption, though. From airport officials who would lie to try to get more money to police officers would bring up erroneous charges at police stops when traveling. Once they even told Keith from our host family that they were going to take him to jail–thankfully he talks the language fluently, and was soon able to make friends with them and all “charges” were “dropped.”
And yet, despite all these culture shocks, by the time we left, we felt right at home! We would go zipping in and out of traffic in a taxi with a driver who can’t speak English, none of the vehicles staying in any one lane—and we loved it! We got so used to life in Congo that, if we were to go back, the airport there wouldn’t even faze us! We adapted!
(Take a look at airport check-in. Out in the parking lot, with hanging scales to weigh your luggage!)
I think that’s the way it is in all of life. It doesn’t matter what kind of crazy circumstances or new ways of life the Lord is leading you into–if He has led you there, you will adapt, and you will learn to find the joy and meaning in the new things, as much as you miss the old.