Congo Free State
The Belgian Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
(not the Republic of the Congo – this is a different nation)
These are all names of one of the largest nations in the continent of Africa and the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. This nation’s history is filled with strife, from the days of exploitation under King Leopold of Begium through modern day. There are over 75 million people in this country that is known for the massive river from which it derived its name. Yet, it is among the poorest nations of the world. While the government has remained relatively stable for over a decade, the presence of rebel groups, across border raids, and ethnic massacres continues. Disease and famine claim massive numbers of lives each year.
Despite hardships the people who live in Congo are among the most resilient as well. When fighting breaks out whole villages disappear and people take to the jungle. Once violence wanes they return to rebuild what they can and replant, starting over from where they were. Christianity has taken hold in many parts of this country, though the Muslim religion, which was outlawed for years under President Mobutu (ruling from 1966 through 1997) has made major inroads, especially in the northern reaches of the nation.
In 1988, when my family and I were in northern Zaire working as short term missionaries, Mobutu was the president. People in the rural area where I served in a hospital, felt relatively safe. There had not been any rebellions and people could focus upon their livelihood trying to eke out a living from their gardens and whatever they could sell. Travel was hampered by poor roads, but there was no restriction of movement within the country. Rains hampered travel in many areas and roads were poorly maintained. Here and there would be seen piles of stones and dirt that local men would shovel into potholes to try to keep the roads passable.
Many of the diseases were similar to those we see in the U.S., but poor nutrition causes devastating consequences to even the most minor of illnesses. Lack of medicines and clean water were constant roadblocks. Malaria, the ever-present scourge, especially affected the children. AIDs was just beginning to be recognized and tuberculosis was endemic. A nationwide vaccination campaign provided relief from some major maladies, but these could only be taken to clinics with functional solar refrigerators that were few and far between.
Government run hospitals often lacked even basic medical supplies so mission hospitals, like ours, played a major role in caring for the ill in large tracts of the country. At that time it was difficult to find enough Zairian doctors to fill the positions where they were needed. Missionaries from all walks of life continually manned hospitals, clinics, schools, to try to provide expertise and training to local people, to help them, ultimately, to manage the facilities on their own. At that time missions were owned and run by “western” organizations. However, war did break out. Foreigners became targets, though so did many, many people. Some were targeted because of their location, some because of their ethnic origin. Most of the missionaries were forced to leave and seek shelter outside of the country. Many returned home. Nonetheless, the result was that the missions had to learn to function on their own.
Today, many of the missions in Congo remain open. The hospital, where I worked, is run by local men and women and the doctors are graduates of the medical school in Kinshasa (the capital). It is true that a great deal of support, both monetary and in the form supplies, still comes from western countries, but the work goes on.
Little has changed, save the introduction of cell phone technology and the internet. Homes are made from mud and grass, the roads continue to be hand –repaired, and disease and famine have not been conquered. But neither has the attitude of the people changed. They still love life and pursue it wholeheartedly.by