Tuesday, 4 March 2014

eMi Canada DR Congo Trip - February 2014

Kevin, Chelsea (architecture intern), Wes (engineering intern)
and myself before 24+ hours of planes and airports
I have to admit something - I was unsure about my feelings regarding this trip at first.

Shortly after finding out I would be joining another eMi Canada trip, this time to DRC, I read as much as I could (most information being in French) about the organization we were partnering with.

I was impressed with what I found.  The Shalom University of Bunia is a well established school in eastern Congo.  It began as a theological school in 1961 and has existed on its current campus since 1967.  Recently, in the span of just five years, the number of students at Shalom grew from 60-some to over 800!

As I read this, I couldn't help but wonder why we were venturing to this area of Africa - known in the past for war and violence - to work with a fairly large, established University.  On the surface, this didn't seem to have the same appeal or immediate impact as many of the orphanages, hospitals, churches or missionary bases we often design.  I discovered how wrong my attitude was on our first day in Bunia.  I'll come back to that later.

Driving through Entebbe, Uganda

We flew for 4 hours from Calgary to Toronto, 6 hours to Amsterdam and 10 hours to Entebbe, Uganda (with a technical stop in Kigali, Rwanda), arriving late at night.  We drove for around 20 minutes to where we would stay the night.  Our first bit of culture shock occurred as soon as we drove off the main road from the airport, onto the dusty dirt side streets, passing simple houses and small-shack stores.  Many on the team commented on the level of poverty.  Little did we know that, after a week in the Congo, Entebbe would feel extremely developed by comparison.

After the first night of battling jet lag, we drove back to the airport and prepared to board our "private jet" to Bunia, compliments of MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship):

Boarding our MAF plane before a rather bumpy ride to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Driving through Bunia

The difference between Entebbe and Bunia was evident as soon as we arrived at the tiny airport (at the airport and most public areas, taking pictures is usually not a good idea so I apologize for the lack of visuals).  We proceeded to have our bags "checked" (rooted through quickly by airport security), fill out some customs forms and pay $20 to get into the country.  Driving through Bunia, even though it didn't look completely different, certainly had a different feel.  It was clearly not an area frequented by "tourists", and was definitely the furthest I've ever felt from home.

A Shalom van on the new campus

Ted Witmer showing Kevin and the rest of the team the new
west campus

We met our host Ted Witmer for the first time.  Ted has been with the University since the 80s and is one of the staff members leading the continuing development of the school.  He is one of very few non-Congolese faculty and staff.  His first order of business after welcoming us was to drive us to tour the new, mostly empty west campus near the airport.  After a quick visit, we drove through town to the main Shalom University campus.

After arriving and settling in, we had our first team meeting with Ted.  He proceeded to completely change my view on the significance of this project.

Ted reminded us of some of the things we had heard about eastern Congo, with some new facts thrown in:

- the violence before, during and after the Second Congo War
- the all too common abuse of women and spread of disease
- the overwhelming poverty in the second largest country in Africa
- the lack of development (last on the HDI list, only 250 miles of paved road in the ENTIRE country)
- the abuse, slavery and health issues experienced by the Pygmies

Ted then proceeded to tell us the part of Shalom's story that I hadn't heard.

Over 50,000 people died in the violence of the war in the Bunia area alone (not including deaths related to starvation and curable disease that were amplified by the war).  Towards the end of the fighting, two warring factions came to opposite sides of the University Campus, which was to be the "final battlefield".  Many of the fighters, however, had strong ties to the University.  It was decided that the campus needed to remain unharmed, and the two sides eventually began the process of reconciliation on University ground.  It was at this point that the school was renamed "Shalom" as it was a place of God's peace (I encourage you to listen to the full story by clicking here to watch the University's video).

God used the University to begin bringing peace and love to this area of the Congo.  But, according to Ted, God wasn't stopping there.

In 2010, The Shalom University of Bunia was approved by the Minister of Education to include a doctoral theology program, becoming one of only three schools in French-speaking Africa to offer this.  Within the Theology department, they offer programs in practical theology, biblical theology, missiology and bible translation.

2010 was also the first graduating year for students in the University's new faculties outside of Theology: Administration and Management, Development, Science, and Agriculture.

Shalom is also, contrary to the average across much of Africa, split almost evenly between male and female students.

These facts about the University were great to hear, but that's not what struck me the most about Ted's description of the school's vision.  He spoke passionately about the development team's intent to change their country through these programs, through the country's own citizens.  Each faculty is designed to train students in areas in which DRC desperately needs expertise - not western expertise but local, educated expertise.  This ranged from farming and raising fish to management of resources and populations.  This was already proving valuable as an entire graduating class from the fisheries program (10 students) were hired by the government upon program completion.

All this to say: we were there to work with a ministry with an extremely important mission.  I think post-secondary education in Canada is sometimes seen as almost recreational - a place to study, follow your dreams, hang out and maybe and start a career.  Many people here don't see education as a means to change their country, culture and world in addition to providing for their family and achieving their dreams.  In contrast, this was the unapologetic focus of Shalom University.

With this in mind, our team was excited to begin the design process the next day.  Before bed, we were treated to the first of many beautiful Congolese sunsets.

Sunset in Bunia.  The sun isn't particularly close to the horizon, but would disappear behind the dust (we were there during dry season) shortly after the point pictured above

The next day (Saturday, though it was hard to keep track) involved our first walk-through of the main campus.  We saw in detail the existing classrooms, offices and student housing.  It was also our first look at the water and electrical systems as well as some areas with drainage issues.  It was a thorough tour as we walked around (in the heat) for over two hours.  Along the way, we met some of the students and their families (with lots of kids) and began to get a feel of student life, which appeared much different than Canadian or American student life.

One of the largest classrooms on campus.  Overcrowded by our standards, we were told that this was actually set up for exams and would normally hold even more desks filled with students

Seeing the Theological students' housing units for the first time.  I wish I had brought some soccer balls and a pump, as the kids were playing with what appeared to be clothing balled up and tied with string
By the end of the tour, something besides the vastly different culture had me overwhelmed - the size of the job.  While two team members had surveyed the other new campus before we arrived, the main campus still needed to be surveyed.  That afternoon I walked the site again, sketching all the buildings roughly on my note paper, discovering more than 150 buildings, big and small.  We (mainly two of us) needed to measure all of these buildings and survey as many as possible to create an accurate site plan, with only around 4 days to do so.

Dinner! (one of my favourites)

This overwhelmed feeling was tough to shake as we sat down for our second dinner in Bunia.  The food was generally pretty good, though usually somewhat mysterious (from what we could tell, we had a selection of meats throughout the week - fish, chicken, beef, beef liver, pork and goat) along with a few sides each meal (two or three of the following - rice, beans, coleslaw, plantains, bananas, bread, mixed "greens" (mushed veggies), potatoes).  While the lunches and dinners provided variety, breakfast was almost always an omelette with a slice of bread and jam.

At dinner, we met our new friend Justin...

Justin (Efeosa) preparing his instant coffee after dinner.
The Brett Keisel beard made him extra lovable.
Justin "Efeosa" Wren is a former UFC fighter with an amazing story (it's too good to over-simplify here.  I would encourage anyone to look up his story on youtube and check out his organization Fight For the Forgotten).  In short, he is fighting to free Mbuti Pygmies from slavery and help them develop sustainable housing and water sources.  He has become part of their family (Efeosa means "the man who loves us" in Swahili) and is also working with the University training students to find water and dig wells, both for their own communities and for Pygmy communities.  We had the privilege of spending the week with him.

At church!
On Sunday morning we went to church.  While there, and throughout the week, I fell in love with the music of the African church.  It seemed like the worst singer in church would be one of the best in our churches.  Many of the songs were fairly repetitive, but I could have listened and watched for hours.  Fortunately for our schedule, the French service (including a communion service before the Swahili service) only lasted a couple of hours.

Me and Ben setting up the GPS

That afternoon, we continued to survey the property while the rest of the team continued their parts of the project.  The other surveyor, Ben, continued working with the GPS while I measured as many buildings as I could by myself.

This little guy followed me for a few minutes
while I was measuring the student houses
Throughout the week, I would find myself surveying (measuring or using the GPS) by myself frequently as Ben and I would work in different areas.  This led to a lot of interesting "conversations".  A few of the doctoral students spoke some english, and were happy to practice by conversing with me (asking where I was from, what we were doing and pointing out things needing fixing).

The large amounts of small children would laugh and yell "Mzungu!" (Swahili for foreigner or white person) as I walked by.  They would also yell the few english words they knew - "Hi!" or "Bye!" or "Good morning!" (even in the afternoon) or, on rare occasion "what is your name?".  While measuring their homes, I'd often have kids followings me curiously.  They would usually scatter quickly when I walked towards them, laughing and running away yelling "Mzungu! Mzungu!".  The brave ones would crouch in front of my face and try see through my sunglasses (or amusingly see their reflection in them).

These were the experiences I'll remember especially well.  I'd walk by a group of kids and say "Bonjour, comment ça va?" (hello, how's it going?).  As they are trained in school, they almost always respond in perfect unison "ça va bien" (it's going well).

As with many trips, these experiences sometimes come at the expense of productivity.  While measuring buildings in the primary/secondary school complex, a high school student approached me to speak to me.

The primary/secondary school complex
He had heard a few Canadians (who they assume all speak French) were staying on campus.  He proceeded (in, from what I could tell, extremely good French with less Swahili accent than many others) to explain something to me for a solid couple of minutes as I stood helplessly, only able to pick out the occasional word or phrase.  Eventually, through the translation app on my phone and his friend who spoke a bit of english, I found out he was explaining his desire to go to University in Canada after high school and was asking how to do so.  I explain that I didn't know, but would try to find out.  This all took over half an hour, but I believe was worth the time and lag in productivity.

One other fun experience while surveying came as Ben and I were surveying together.  While surveying the "soccer" field, a few young boys became curious about what we were doing.  They followed me at a distance at first.
Surveying with the GPS, boys starting to follow

As they worked up their courage, they came up to us to figure it all out.  Ben took some pictures with them and I showed them the data collector on the GPS.  We may have even found a future Congolese surveyor or two!

Posing for a picture (they were always excited to see the pictures of themselves)

Showing off the data collector

Future surveyor?

After a lot of sweat (and thinking we were "done" three or four times), we finally completed the survey of the campus, just in time for the final presentation of our master plan.

This presentation was different than any of the others I've been a part of.  We were expecting up to 80 people!  This included staff, a few students and even some members of the "media".

Kevin (eMi staff and trip leader) presenting

There were times during the presentation when those in attendance could ask questions or make suggestions.  As we discussed as a team later on, we were all very impressed with the staff and students.  They had such a passion for seeing their school and their country develop and grow.  Many spoke up with intelligent questions and suggestions, and left us with no doubt that our design work was being given to a group of people who were able to follow through.

After the presentation, the school presented us all with "Universite Shalom de Bunia" (USB) custom shirts (and were preparing a dress for our intern Chelsea as well)!

Architect Ken receiving his USB shirt

The team with our USB shirts!
Intern Wes chatting with locals after the presentation

After the presentation, we were able to spend some time talking with some of those who attended.  Earlier, a couple of team members had picked up 72 coke's, fanta's, sprite's and ginger beers to share with everyone.  It was nice having some time to come together and share with each other, despite language barriers and cultural differences.

I could go on for a lot longer.  There's a lot more I could tell stories about, like our Canadian friend Abbie (who was on the development team at the University, living in Bunia with her husband).  She helped us understand USB's vision (sometimes very literally as she also helped translate French)...

Abbie showing designs to USB students

...Or our friend Albert, a visiting Congolese professor (and a semi-roomate also staying in the guest house) who was extremely kind and welcoming, especially when we looked overwhelmed or lost.  He spoke some English and was gracious as a few of us attempted to use our minimal French...

Albert.  Locals rarely actually smiled in photos.  After taking this one, I showed it to Albert and he thought it was a good picture.  You'll just have to trust me when I say he was a cheerful person.

...but I'll have to save those for later.

After the presentation, we definitely felt more relaxed.  The rush of designing and preparing was over, and we could begin to debrief.  A few of us went to play Ultimate Frisbee at the UN compound a few minutes away, while others relaxed for the evening. The next day, we said our goodbyes and flew back to Entebbe for one more night before flying home.

I learned a lot from this trip.  I think it will take some more time reflecting and getting back to life here in Canada to really understand all of it.  I'll post that, along with more about the design, in future blogs.

For now, I am just encouraged to see the passion of these Congolese men and women to change their world for Christ.  Many here at home were surprised that we were travelling to an area with such dangerous history.  However, the overall feeling in Bunia seems to include optimism and motivation.  Men AND women are becoming more educated, harder working and willing to use those values to change their country rather than accepting the violence they've witnessed in the past.

While we were there, workers began paving the main road through Bunia (the only paved road in the city).  This seemed to be a good metaphor for what the University is trying to do with their new development, and the timing (it starting while we were there) seemed all too fitting.

I look forward to sharing more with you later (and kudos if you've read this far!).  Thank you all for your support and prayers throughout this trip!

God bless,