On Wednesday we boarded a MAF flight bound for Bunia, DRC. It has been our dream to make it to Congo someday, the original destination of our "Africa team" from college. Though we've ventured over our border a couple of times, we have looked for an opportunity to go further. Our former intern Joel knew I always wanted to see the Okapi, so he kept graciously inviting us to Epulu, where he is on assignment with the Wildlife Conservation Society. As a team and now as field director, exploring the mission needs in war-recovering Eastern Congo has also been on our agenda. It was now or never, with Joel easing our way and our path about to take us far from Africa for the rest of the year. So we found ourselves flying a route from Entebbe that was only a slight degree off from our usual route to Bundibugyo. The Rwenzori cluster of sheer rock and snow penetrated the clouds to the south as we passed over Lake Albert and then met the green plateau of Eastern Congo, sliced with ravines and criss-crossed with cow paths, and then suddenly a town many times the size of anything in Bundibugyo or even Fort Portal or Kasese, a town we've lived probably about 50 miles south of for 17 years and never even seen. Bunia has a tarmac international airport, UN helicopters in readiness on the ground, sand-bagged and barb-wired army positions, flood lights and gun-ready defenses. We shouldered our backpacks and followed the handful of aid-NGO-workers chattering in French to the old airport building where there seemed to be a system that everyone was supposed to know, but we didn't. Thankfully we were rescued by Joel and skipped the intensive bag-search to go directly to a visa-purchase room where a woman at a table meticulously copied all the details of our passports onto a blank sheet of paper, stamped our passports, and then charged us $60 per person for a one-week-valid entry permit. Only that took about half an hour, because she wanted to inspect every $100 bill we owned. Scott would pay, she would exit the room, then come back and point out a millimeter tear on one edge of the crisp bill, and demand another. So he'd pull out his wallet, exchange, she'd leave, then come back and show him a stray pen mark, exchange again. I suppose people must get confused if it's done often enough and loose $100 along the way, but we finally emerged into the bright heat of the Bunia afternoon and piled into Joel's Wildlife Conservation Society Landrover with Herman, the driver.
Through the town, past the MONUC headquarters, the blue and white old Greek building with its barbed-wire-rolled walls that looked exactly like the pictures from TIME magazine during the worst of the conflicts there. Past the dukas, the crumbling colonial buildings, the shacks and shops, to Shalom University. This is an old Bible School that has branched out into development studies and graduate work, training pastors and teachers and leaders for the recovering Congo. We had met Dana and Ted W when we were all taking Kijabe respites from war in the late 90's. Ted walked us through the buildings, including a brand new library and lab full of lap-top computers, then past a parade of singing women who were leading the wife of one of the students up to support her husband as he defends his thesis! This family has spent most of their life in Bunia, their children now grown and in the US, they have returned to invest in another generation of students. Dana took us to the hospital where our Congolese MPH colleague Tony U used to work as an ophthalmologist, and where she and another veteran missionary couple whom we meet at most CMDA conferences over the years have worked.
We were a bit rushed to make it to Nyankunde by nightfall, so we pressed on out of town heading slightly south-west, across savannah, wide open spaces, the Blue Mountains which we see to our North in Bundi now forming a ridge to the south that blocked our view of the Rwenzoris. Herman sped along the marrum road, Joel in the front and we four Myhres in the back, all of it looking so much like home. Teeteringly overcrowded trucks, one roadblock where men in fatigues seemed to be extracting money from others, but our WCS status eased us through. After about an hour we saw the village and mission station about a third of the way up an escarpment to the left. After many enquiries we finally found Dr. Ruth and Rich D, the missionaries who had agreed to put us up for the night. We knew their niece in Chicago, and made a connection via our acquaintances in Bunia. We were received with a warmth of hospitality that left us feeling unworthy, here we were an entire group imposing for the evening with nothing but curiosity and respect to offer, and we were enfolded like Kingdom family. More on Nyankunde to follow . .
Hearts of Brightness, we were told, was the interesting play-on-words title given to a nature documentary about this area of Congo. As I reflect on our first 24 hours in the country, that phrase captures the place. Everywhere we were met with openness, kindness, helpfulness (well, except the visa lady, but even that was amicable). people of courage. We struck up conversation in the airport with a missionary lady Tony who had been in Congo since 1981, and exuded a comfortable graciousness as she put everyone in the visa office at ease with her Swahili and French. Eastern Congo from the outside is known for tribalism, pillage, rape, disaster. But it is sprinkled like salt with bright-hearted people, patient and brave to persist against all odds.