Congo Lessons: Caught In Between Two Worlds
by Megan Montgomery
I don’t like to live a life governed by fear. When I first booked my plane ticket to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to volunteer with Justice Rising, an organization that builds schools and raises up community leaders with the vision of seeing war affected nations restored to peace, for the most part, I was okay. I was excited to visit the DRC despite the fact that it is ranked the 11th most dangerous country in the world, according to the Global Peace Index, with a lower safety rating than North Korea. And if that wasn’t enough to cause just a little anxiety, there was a message from the U.S. State Department warning me not to travel unnecessarily to the country, and if I ignored their warning and went anyway, I should have an evacuation plan that didn’t depend on them.
Then I realized that my travel insurance wouldn’t cover my travel to what they described as a “known conflict area.” Finally, right before the trip, I decided to purchase kidnapping insurance as the area has had a lot of kidnappings recently but I was denied coverage as the insurance carrier felt it was too risky to cover a US citizen traveling to the DRC on personal travel. Some of the excitement started to shift to “what in the world am I doing?!?” However, I couldn’t picture myself not going. Sometimes you just know that you are supposed to be somewhere and in my heart, I felt like the DRC was where I was meant to be.
While I was there, I felt pretty safe in spite of all of these warnings. I think it was more of a peace of knowing I was meant to be there. When we saw other foreigners, they were often in armored cars, and we rarely saw them very far from the border. One day we had pulled over to the side of the road, and I had my window slightly open, and a man reached in and grabbed me. I hit his hand away and pushed it outside the window and then quickly rolled my window up. He picked up a rock to throw it at the window but ended up not throwing it as we drove away. Even locals reinforced the danger. One village we went to even the chief of the village had moved out and wouldn’t visit the village anymore because he said it is “not safe.”
When we are either driving or walking through the streets and villages, every child we pass yells out “mzungu,” which means white person or foreigner, and tries to get our attention. Most of the kids are just looking for a wave or a thumbs up but in each town at least a few yell out to me in either Swahili or French “White person, give me a cookie!” Some of the villages are far enough apart that I realize it can’t be a coincidence that they all seem to think that I am a cookie fairy. I inquire to see who is managing this mass cookie distribution program and I find out that the UN does food distributions that include nutritional biscuits that they call cookies.
Similarly, you can tell which organizations have been in the area lately based on these assumptions. For example, as I got further away from the city, many called out a term to me that sounded like they were calling for money. I later learned that the term they were using was their word for the military branch of the UN. However, every time I saw the military branch of the UN, they had on bullet proof vests and big guns, but here it is my white skin and not my long skirts and open hands that denote what they assume to be my mission. I hoped to change that perception in the short time that I was there.
There seem to be only three words in English most of the people know. The first two words are “good morning.” They will call it out any time of day and don't feel the need to save it for any particular time. I internally laugh about it for quite a bit until I realize that’s me in any Spanish speaking country, where I use “Buenos Dias” day and night. The other word most know is bye with a long drawn out "eeeee" at the end.
Kids seem to be the same as they are anywhere in the sense that the same silly faces that I use to make a child laugh in America or China or Guatemala also work in the DRC. The same songs that soothe a child in Russia or Ghana, also soothe the kids here. Music transcends any language. The kids also love to run and play. The difference here is that the kids have a lot more responsibilities. The six-year-old in front of me still wants to dance around and play; she just might also have a baby tied to her back and be holding hands with her two-year-old sibling that she is watching for the day.
We go to the school to see what neighborhood kids are around, since it is summer break, to do an art project with them. Next thing you know a cry has gone up and down the street that “the mzungus are here” and there are suddenly 150 kids at the school. We had severely underestimated the art supply that we needed, but there’s enough to give each child just one crayon or marker to color on a piece of paper. After a quick coloring lesson for the kids who haven’t used crayons before, I stand back to watch as them joyfully color on their papers. Some of their bellies are swollen with malnutrition and worms which are a stark contrast to the rest of their skinny bodies. Everything in me wants to hand them some food but there is never an opportunity or enough resources as there are always so many mouths to feed, which makes distribution challenging. We even try to hand out small bags of soap after a hand-washing talk to adults in one village but we end up having to end the distribution early because the adults don’t believe there is enough to go around and are all grabbing for the soap instead of letting us hand it out in a way that would prevent anyone from getting hurt.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is that we spend our days with starving children and our nights going out to eat at restaurants. It’s a stark contrast and hard adjusting back and forth. Our hosts don’t have a fridge or running water so going out to eat does make the most sense to feed the team, and I am used to constantly going out to eat back home but still hard to feel okay eating when I had just been with the kids earlier in the day. I wonder how long that feeling will last upon my return home.
I am caught between two worlds – one where I’ll never have to worry about going hungry and the other where the majority of the people don’t have enough to eat. I think about the excess at home, the clothes that fill my closets, the endless supply of running water, the electricity, the refrigerator full of food…okay, let’s be honest, I am a bachelorette in NYC, so no fridge full of food but you get the picture – and I begin to weep, mainly because I know I will be leaving soon and also because I don’t know what to do. In the face of such overwhelming obstacles, it’s easy to cave to the temptation to let it be someone else’s problem. To not open your heart, because you know there’s heartbreak in allowing yourself to care. All I know though, is that when I close my eyes, I see the children’s faces and I don’t think God opened my eyes to them just for me to be more grateful for what I have. For me, I want to direct this brokenness towards doing something to make their lives even a little bit better. Many of them dream to go to school. As a first step, I am raising funds to build a school to put another ~200 kids in school. I don’t know what step two looks like yet, but I do know that I don’t want the image of the kids to leave me. I don’t want to get back to the place where I am so “comfortable” that I start to slowly forget all that I experienced and get caught up again in mundane issues that have no long-term value.
Our last night, the staff sings us a song in Swahili with a fun little dance. We reciprocate by teaching them the Cupid Shuffle. As we gathered to have a final dinner, one of the staff members mixed up his English and said: “You will miss me.” While he realized his mistake once we all laughed and corrected it to “I will miss you,” but I think he got it right the first time. Yes, Jimmy, we will miss you. We will miss all of you and we will also miss the faces of the children. We will miss the way everyone comes up to shake hands, even strangers. We will miss the people who are always ready to sing and dance. We will miss the red glow of the volcano at night. Most of all, we will miss the bumpy lava rock roads that led us to their hearts.
Megan Montgomery is a marketer by day, writer and avid traveler by night whose home base is NYC. She has a passion for “all things kids” since she is a big kid at heart and has been involved in international missions for 15+ years, travelling to 25 countries both for missions and personal travel. Follow her adventures on Instagram: @shegoingplaces