I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. Yet it needs to be said.
I will start with the what. The why tends to take some time.
I have just finished working for 2 months as a doctor in the Congo. I was on call to the hospital 24/7 during that stretch, with the exception of a couple day trips. I had never worked in the capacity of a tropical medicine physician before. I was scared before I left but looking forward to the challenge. For around 4 long weeks, I was the only physician serving. For almost 3 of those weeks we had no person capable of performing a surgery at the hospital.
11 people died during my time in Impfondo. Some were old, most were young. Some were expected, most were not. The only constant: wailing. Shouts of grief would fill the air. It was eerie at night. The loudest was after a muscular 29-year-old husband and son could not be resuscitated. The disbelief as I told them quickly turned into screams.
But they were all hard. Hard in their own way. The youngest was 5 days old. 5 days old. I had never seen a child pass before this trip. I hope I won’t see any more.
It was a lot for me. Almost too much. But I don’t want it to sound like it was all misery and death. In spite of all this I still had an amazing experience and loved the people and culture.
This indeed, is the problem. My time in the Congo remains an enigma for me. I can’t make heads or tails of it. It was a time of extremes. There were these moments of pure sorrow but also of pure joy. I witnessed tragedies but also miracles.
There was a beautiful, authentic life to the Congo. An ethereal beauty. It was in the people singing while burdened with massive loads. The feeling of connected-ness and camaraderie was palpable. Everyone took the time to greet you, chat, play or sing.
In many ways, the Congolese were doing things right. Their priorities were the people around them. Relationship is in their marrow. It was in their language. Elders were given the title of mama or papa regardless of parentage. I can still remember the first time a little girl looked up at me and called me papa.
The people were truly beautiful. Their insurance system was family. If someone was sick everyone would pitch in for the bill, knowing their family would do the same for them. The cooks who came to prepare our meals were always smiling and laughing. They made the most amazing food with raw ingredients and only a few pots over the fire.
In these moments the Congo would feel light and comfortable. Many times Steph and I would say how lovely it would be to live there. The Congolese people were often shocked to hear us say this. In many of their minds, Canadians had something so much better. Something unattainable for them and distant. I am not sure if what they would find, should they come to Canada, would be what they expect.
I fear what the Congolese would see (there are many that look but few that see).
Yes, at first, they would see our fancy cities, houses, cars. Our beautiful hospitals, schools and the like. They would see our abundance. But then I would expect the inevitable questions: how can there be so much waste? where does this all come from? does every western country live this way?
They would see our absurd standard of living. The daily excesses. After only 2 months in the Congo I have been struck by these things. It just hit me. It is the way they wash a plastic bag out for reuse over and over again. The way a child will take an old tin can for a toy. The way they ration water and soap when doing dishes. The ingenious way they give hair cuts with a single razor blade. The resourcefulness was astounding. Old cars would be held together by shear will. Once their cars did finally fall apart, they would salvage nearly every piece to be used in some ingenious way.
They are incredibly hard workers and I rarely heard any complaints. Something as simple as cooking requires wood to be gathered (often kilometers away), water to be hauled (there was no running water so they would have to fetch it from a cistern), and then they would prepare it all over a fire!
The next shock for a Congolese visitor would be the way we interact with each other. They would no doubt find us cold by comparison. Rushing from place to place. So focused on doing that we forget about being present. I think about the slow way they would walk from morning chapel to morning meeting. Greeting each other and laughing. The sheer amount of visitors for each patient admitted to hospital was astonishing! I think they would find Canadian hospital rooms gloomy and empty.
So then, when they would imply that things must be so much better in Canada, I can only think of all the ways in which they are not.
It is the combination of these thoughts that make it hard to say what the Congo was for me. Being face to face with poverty and suffering was shocking to say the least, especially in a medical capacity. Yet there was also such amazingly beautiful moments that would draw me in and make me feel like their lifestyle made so much more sense than mine. And then something incredibly frustrating would happen and continue the cycle of highs and lows!
I will leave another to summarize my thoughts in a much more eloquent manner than I could ever hope to…
“…we buy more but enjoy it less; we have bigger houses and smaller families; more medicine, yet less wellness; …We’ve added years to life, not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.”
Dr. Bob Moorehead