I was in the back seat with papers spread out, one hand sorting memos and letters and the other attached to my cell phone discussing problems with our staff back in Kinshasa. “Hey Cassie,” I yelled above the roar of the engine as my head bumped the roof for the 3rd time spewing papers across the floor. Eventually I lost cell phone coverage as Cassie and Mr. Mayele progressed further along and the weaving back and forth and cloud of dust made it impossible to read or write memos.
Four hours into the trip my mind shifted to the present as we passed village after village and our speed slowed from 50 miles an hour to 20, traversing water, swamps, forest, and plains. “Dad…I forgot how beautiful this place is,” said Cassie, artfully shifting the jeep in and out of 4-wheel-drive while dodging trees and branches and yielding to an occasional pig or goat; and only getting stuck three times during the 10-hour road trip. Though I spend a third of my time on the field, I found myself looking anew at the horizon where still lakes were not breeding grounds for malaria or schistosomiasis but a lucid reflection of the flowers, trees, and hills around them. It was as Cassie noted…beautiful.
We had a full agenda: four villages to visit where we had put in capped springs to lessen outbreaks of dysentery, an elementary school to distribute school materials sent by Cassie’s Hope project, a visit with a handicapped boy (Manwana), and stopover at a hospital, a maternity, and a nursing school.
The culmination of the trip would be spending a day and a night at the Vanga mission where Cassie grew up before abruptly leaving at the age of 6 when rebels entered the area forcing the overnight evacuation of her and her siblings to another country and eventual resettlement in Kinshasa.
Things are safer now and I visit the area frequently but never with Cassie, who longed to visit the home she grew up in, the room where she homeschooled, the trees with ropes and vines that stretched forever, a river full of hippos, and memories from yesterday.
“Dad it is just like I remember,” she said as we opened the gate and walked into our yard extending down to the river.
The grass needed cutting and reeds and palms had overgrown the garden where Ann had planted vegetables and the straw huts where Eli and Joel raised chickens and rabbits. Branches dipped onto the roof and obscured the windows; but the inside was as we left it…and just as Cassie remembered it. She walked from room to room “this is where we would talk on the short-wave radio to other mission stations, this is the hallway we bunkered down when gunshots were all around, this is where you set up a film and we watched Snow White, this is where we played cards, where we kept our toys, the bunk bed that the boys made into a fort, Dad it is all here.” I, too, relived each forgotten moment of what it was like raising four young children as Cassie uttered memories from her early childhood. Then visitors came….by the dozens. A man who baked banana bread for Cassie once a week came to the door and cried when he saw her. “Mampa Monkondo!” Cassie exclaimed (the word for banana bread) as she and Tata Milabu were joined in a long and tender hug. It was a day and a half of precious memories…and Cassie wanted to relive as much of her childhood as possible.
We took a canoe ride along the Kwilu River where the forest meets the river. Cassie insisted on paddling as the boat owner recounted the story of a snake as thick as his thigh and as long as the boat that had pulled someone in the river in that same area a few months ago; an unfortunate passenger never to be seen again. I knew the man must have been pulling my leg but I couldn’t help but tell Cassie to steer clear of the moss-laden branches that overhung the river bank. Later back at home we munched on finger bananas and pineapples as big as melons. I forgot how wonderful cool water tastes on a hot and humid day. We played cards by candlelight that night as we used to years ago and turned in at 9 pm because we were tired (life would just be getting started at 9pm back in Kinshasa).
We awoke at 6 am to the sounds of church bells and someone sweeping mango leaves in the next yard. The sounds of babies crying, mothers singing, sheep baying, and roosters crowing reminded me of life in the middle of an African village.
Cassie spent the day walking around and talking to everyone…practicing her Kituba and wishing she had remembered more of the local dialect which she had just started to speak when we left. She took mental notes of each word and then repeated them to the next person she met upon the path. I have not seen her so animated (especially before 10 in the morning) in a long while. “Dad,” she asked, “why did we have to leave this area when I was young and move to the city? I wish we had spent more time here ….this is the real Congo and I miss it!”
Cassie will travel to the United States in 7 short months to start college; her return to Africa never certain; her path and destiny in Another’s hands. We are so appreciative for your love and support over the years…. but hardly moreso than today watching one of our children relive precious memories almost forgotten….and for me, the chance to remember why we came here in the first place nearly 16 years ago.
Bill & Ann Clemmer