It’s difficult to know where to begin when talking about DR Congo and Panzi hospital. I have been here 3 days now but this place is always such a mixture of contrasts.
Despite some anticipatory apprehension, it’s great to be back!!! This is my fourth visit but this time I will stay until November (sabbatical is a beautiful thing). Few of my Congolese friends knew that I was returning. The look on their faces when they recognize it’s “Mama Lillian” (Lee Ann is difficult to pronounce) is priceless! So many big hugs and questions about mutual friends and my daughter Arianna who worked with the children at Aire de Jeux in 2010 (the equivalent of a nursery school for children who come to Panzi with their mothers).
This time I am renting a room from a Congolese family on the east side of Bukavu, close to the border. The house is in a walled compound on Lake Kivu. Needlesstosay, I have a spectacular view! The second story of the house is not finished, such is the life for many Congolese in this city where unemployment is high and daily life is a struggle for most. When extra money exists, building continues. There’s virtually no water pressure so buckets of water for bathing are the norm. I have a shower but that means that someone brings me a bucket of hot water each morning for me to use in the shower with a handy cup for dipping out what I need. Bottled water of course, for brushing teeth. We “muzungus” (white people) from the West are so privileged, most of us have little experience with how the rest of the world lives.
My new Congolese family consists of Odette, Moses, Prince, and Fiston. No one is over the age of 28! All are family in one way or another and related to the couple who owns the home but now live in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. When not at Panzi, I spend the most time with Odette who is 28 and Moses who is 16 (and without parents). Our nightly entertainment is figuring out how to say things in English and French. It’s the perfect language class with much hysterical laughter – usually at my expense as I attempt Français! They love when I call them “professeur” or mwalimu (Swahili for teacher) and they enjoy quizzing me, taking their roles quite seriously.
Odette’s talent and source of joy is singing. As I write, she is sitting in the living room across from me, practicing for the small choir she sings in at her church. I had the pleasure of hearing them the first night I arrived as they sat outside of a friend’s home, in a circle, and sang a cappella. The harmonies were tight and in that setting by the lake, it was particularly moving. It was the perfect introduction to this trip.
Moses is a soft-spoken, sweet young man who attends a local school and is quite the accomplished cook! I’ve hired him to fix meals and he works very hard to make sure I am pleased. A proper table setting is important and presentation is paramount. Everything is just so. I can’t help but compare him to the “typical” 16-year-old in the US.
They take very good care of me!
It’s the start of the rainy season so imagine dirt roads where instead of 2-3 inches of snow, you are slipping and sliding through that much mud! On our drive to Panzi, we pass on a main road through some of the major market areas. Clogged with streams of people picking their way through the mud and vehicles sliding in every direction, it’s a remarkable scene of daily life. There was a man in a red suit, a pregnant woman in yellow shoes carrying what must have been 50 large serving spoons for sale. There were children in blue school uniforms clearly enjoying the feel of mud on their feet as they walked to school. There were young men covered in cassava flour who worked at the mill, women sitting on tarps in the mud on the edge of the road with their fried food or fruit for sale, negotiating prices and chatting with each other.
The most startling moment came when we ran smack into a funeral procession. Leading the way was a young man carrying a small wooden cross with the name of the deceased. Expecting a large coffin to follow, there was instead a single man carrying a very small wooden box on his shoulder. The procession of people that followed sang and clapped as they trudged through the mud. Trying to process the many sights from my car window, I was slow to recognize what I had just witnessed. My heart ached for the parents and it made me wonder about the child mortality rate in the DRC. According to the UN, the DRC is ranked 210 out of 222 countries for infant mortality with an average of 77 deaths per 1, 000 live births. The question is, why?
Soon we pulled through the guarded gate at Panzi. It was a relief to be out of the chaos on the streets and into a place of healing and refuge. More on Panzi Hospital in the next blogs.