"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

6.30.2007

will he? won't he? will he? won't he?

Well, Congolese Independence Day has come and gone, and aside from an unfortuante plane crash at the national celebration, things seem to have gone smoothly. That doesn't mean that the threat of insecurity isn't still looming.

Just how do we know that it's increasingly likely that the president of Congo will order troops to attack Laurent Nkunda's forces in North Kivu? Let's take a look at open sources of information, shall we?
  1. The pro-Kabila news outlet (radio, television, and internet!) is running a series of stories that might as well be titled, "Everything that's wrong with Nkunda."
  2. In his pre-recorded Independence Day address, Kabila said, "No option will be neglected in order to bring peace back to the east of the country."
  3. The governor of North Kivu, issued a statement urging the people of North Kivu to be patient and hope that the authorities will have kept their promises by next year's June 30 celebration. (is currently hosting a hoppin' party with music that is equally split between favorites from Delilah's Loyal Listener Club and Kenny Rogers. The scary part is that there are a couple of songs that overlap.)

It doesn't take an analytical genius to figure out where this might be headed. The real fear here is what a confrontation between Congolese troops and Nkunda's forces could trigger. Would other forces (and there are many operating in the region) come to their aid? Will the enemy of their enemy be their friend? I'm sure that the diplomats are busy trying to talk Kabila out of doing anything that could ignite a third Congo War. Here's hoping that next year's independence day will mark a real peace.

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mzungu mzungu

So I was sitting in the Kigali office of Kenya Airways this afternoon, waiting to get my ticket to Lusaka, and there was some big to-do on the radio. We'd stopped to allow the Rwandan president's motorcade to pass in Ruhengeri, so I figured it was related to that.

On the radio, a woman with an American accent was talking about her two days in Rwanda and how beautiful the birds that woke her up early this morning were. Then she started to talk about some child who'd inspired her, but how she didn't know if it was a boy or a girl. She said this. Out loud. On the platform with the president.

It was all I could do not to put my head in my hands.

Come to find out, that must have been Natalie Portman at today's ceremony to name some baby mountain gorillas. Sigh.

le tronte juin

It's the 30th of June, which means it's Independence Day here in Congo. One of the national news stations (the one that presents itself as hip, young, and pro-Joseph Kabila) has a live remote in Kisangani, where the bulk of today's festivities are occuring. The news setup is one of the funniest things I've ever seen - they're set up like the Today Show at the Macy's parade, and are making gushing comments about independence, the president, and all the events.

I'm laughing at the coverage, but this year's independence day is serious for the Congolese. Not only does it mark the 47th anniversary of Congo's independence from Belgium, it's also the first independence day since Congo became (technically) a democracy. Hopes are high, and disappointment that little has changed is growing. It's sure to be an interesting day.

So naturally, I'm going to Kigali. Today turns out to be the only good day for me to head up there to take care of some errands. Such is life. My dream of being on the Boulevard du 30 Juin on le 30 Juin will have to wait for another year.

6.29.2007

old meets new


I love this fusion of tradition and modernity.

un bel pays

I know I've mentioned my love of Kinshasa-based photographer Lionel Healing's photographs before. He takes pictures for Agence France Presse and whoever else hires him, and he is incredibly talented. Be sure to check out the current front-page picture on his photoblog - and his other incredible shots of Congolese life and train travel in North Katanga. The use of light and shadow is just remarkable.

"our revanchist Supreme Court"

"I start from the premise that racial integration in the schools is a good thing. I think the educational process benefits from diversity, and all students are better served in an integrated classroom. I also believe that in a nation where minorities will someday form the majority, integration is an important civic lesson our schools ought to be teaching. Given those beliefs, it seems to me that allowing local officials in Louisville and Seattle to continue with limited programs to ensure integration in the schools should be a no-brainer.

"But our revanchist Supreme Court obviously doesn't share my belief in diversity. Thomas, the court's only black member, wrote a concurring opinion in which he had the gall to cite
Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that integrated the nation's schools, as precedent for yesterday's ruling -- which will boldly advance the cause of resegregation."

-Eugene Robinson, writing in today's Post about yesterday's Supreme Court decisions concerning the use of race as a factor in ensuring diversity in public schools

killing ourselves

Be sure you take a moment to read today's post, entitled "Killing Ourselves," in the Forty Day Fast. The post's author, a guy named Stephen, writes about the importance of clean water, how something so simple could make such a difference in billions of lives. He points his readers to an organization that helps to address these issues worldwide; give it a look as well.

Here in Goma, it's a cruel irony that we sit on the edge of a massive lake while the vast majority of the city's population has no access to clean drinking water. I'm willing to swim in Lake Kivu, but I won't drink water out of the tap. There are too many parasites and bacteria. I am, by local standards, rich, and so I can afford to buy my water, treated and purified and packed into nice blue bottles by Aquavie ("waterlife"), the local version of Poland Spring. I don't get sick from drinking water, I don't get dehydrated from not drinking water, and if by chance I get an upset stomach, I pop a few pills and go on with life.

Most of the water in Goma used by ordinary people is hauled in huge plastic jugs, either from the lake or from the occasional community water spigot. Most of the hauling is done by little girls, from ages 5-10 or so. There's also a public beach where some people go to wash their clothes, and a tarp shelter is set up for use as a shower. The beach reeks. On the beach, and at most of the other public access points to the lake, there are warnings about cholera and contaminated water. But what choice do you have if your only water supply is tainted wtih cholera? Or if the water you give your child to drink causes her to die from diarrhea?

In his post, Stephen quotes Derek Webb's new song, "This Too Shall Be Made Right." Angela shared this song with me in May:

"there’s a time for peace and there is a time for war
a time to forgive and a time to settle the score
a time for babies to lose their lives
a time for hunger and genocide
and this too shall be made right

"I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door
I join the oppressors of those who i choose to ignore
I’m trading comfort for human life
and that’s not just murder it’s suicide
and this too shall be made right"


It's been haunting me ever since. Because some days it's hard to see how this too shall be made right.

so...

Really. It's fine.

Tomorrow is the 47th anniversary of Congo's independence from Belgium. I may hang around or I may go to Kigali for the day. I keep failing to get there because of appointments and interviews, but I really need to buy a plane ticket to Lusaka, and to get some books to read in Bukavu. AndI'm needing a little bit of time in a place where everything works. Just a little. :)

important stuff

In increasing order of importance:
  1. Gre-at.
  2. No immigration reform this year. This headline would be funny if it weren't so sad.
  3. I just purchased my 2007 Longhorn Football Season Tickets!!!!!!!!!!

6.28.2007

oh boy oh boy oh danny



(Everything you need to know about my sense of humor can be explained by the fact that I was allowed to watch too much of The Muppet Show as a child.)

some days...

Some days, I see a lot of suffering. Those are the difficult, exhausting days. But some days, I see life. Those are the better days.

Today was somewhere in between. Since my hand was so cramped from all of yesterday's interviews (six, two of which consisted of me asking one question and the respondent talking for 1 hour, 45 minutes and 1 hour, 30 minutes, respectively), I decided to take it easy today. I had an interview in the morning, then went out to Buhinga to buy copies of the latest editions of Congo-Afrique.

Congo-Afrique is an academic journal published by Congo's Jesuits. It contains excellent analysis on Congolese politics, culture, and society. And although the folks at ILS in the PCL have repeatedly informed me that Congo-Afrique does not exist, they're wrong. It is regularly cited by people who write about Congo.

This being Congo, however, buying a copy of Congo-Afrique is not as easy as downloading articles off of JSTOR, or going to a bookstore and purchasing them. To buy Congo-Afrique, you have to first get your hands on someone else's copy to check the inside cover for the name and phone number of the local priest, monseignor, or abbe who sells the journal in one of the five cities in which you can purchase Congo-Afrique.

In Goma's case, the point-man for Congo-Afrique is a delightful Abbe who lives at the Grand Seminaire (literally, "The Big Seminary") in Buhimba, about 15 minutes' drive out of Goma. So E organized a taxi for me, I invited along a Wheaton student who's doing his summer internship at Heal Africa, and off we went to Buhimba.

It was really fun. The Abbe couldn't have been nicer, and he managed to find 5 months' worth of journals for me (including one with election data that I really wanted). When he heard that I'm headed to Bukavu next, he gave me several contacts in the Catholic church there, and told me where I can find more issues in the city.

The Abbe also told us about his experiences at the seminary, which is really, really close to the site of the biggest refugee camp that was set up after the Rwandan genocide. That particular camp housed about 400,000 Rwandans. When you ask Goma-ites when things changed, almost everyone points to 1994-95 as the pivotal date. The shock of 1 million refugees to the environment and society is something from which Goma in many ways has still yet to recover.

I went home for lunch, helped E with the adorable baby boy (above) whose mother was otherwise occupied, and headed over to see A at her office.

A works at the World Food Program, and she had one of her staff take me on a tour of the warehouse. I don't know if you've ever seen what 250,000 tons of food looks like. Unfortunately, I couldn't take pictures, but, wow. Sack after sack after sack of flour, split peas, and Unimix are piled to about 20 feet high. Grain from Canada, the United States, the UK. I've never seen anything like it.

A has invited me to go out on a food distribution trip next week. I would be in an area north of here that's experienced considerable instability. It's a place I couldn't go on my own, but that's perfectly safe if you're going with the UN. We'd sleep at a church and I would get to talk to people who've been directly impacted by the violence in the region. I'd also get to see firsthand how a major international aid agency does its work, and I'd be able to see more of the Congo.

Because two important contacts are out of town, I was on the verge of deciding to stay in Goma through next weekend anyway. I'm trying to figure out if I can still get all my interviews done and get to Bukavu, but I think I would regret not seizing the opportunity to go. We'll see.

the execulator

Hahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!

back to 1954

Oh, wow. This is huge.

Here's a quote from Slate, written before the decision was handed down:

"Looking at today's cases from the vantage point of the Brown decision, the idea that the Supreme Court would condemn the valiant efforts of the Louisville community is extraordinary. The people of Louisville want a community that is not separated by race, beginning with a school system in which white and black children learn to know one another."

my favorite taxi driver

You know this guy thinks I'm a crazy mzungu. I tried to explain...

6.27.2007

sensitasation

"Sensitisation" is a French word for which there isn't a very good English equivalent. It refers to a public awareness campaign, usually having something to do with health or education or sanitation or democracy. "What we try to do is sensitize the public to the dangers of/need to...," my interview subjects say over and over again. I'd never heard the word until I interned in Cameroon, but it's an aspect of daily life in Goma.

As part of all this sensitisation, most of the decorations on the walls of offices and shops here involve sensitisation campaigns. It's an easy and efficient way to get information out, and all the international aid agencies (and many of the local ngo's as well) print posters, calendars, and booklets to distribute to the population. There are sensitasation posters about marking a ballot in an election, ending sexual violence, only drinking clean water, the importance of using a condom, all kinds of disease prevention efforts, and just about anything else of which you can think.

The above sign encourages parents to have children vaccinated against measles. It reads, "Dear parents: Measles kill. Let's vaccinate all of our children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years to protect them." As you can see, this vaccination/sensitisation campaign was sponsored by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, USAID, Rotary International, Japan, Belgium, Canada, and MONUC. I love the realism of this poster: yes, your child will cry, but it's worth it, because measles kill.

heavy load

This is the one of the main means of transport of most goods that are sold in the markets in Goma and the rest of the region. Men load up bicycles or wooden carts with huge loads of vegetables, maize, beans, charcoal, whatever. Their strength is amazing. Some people actually ride the bicycles with big loads on the back.

There's no telling how far this guy hauled his load. I took this picture on the Sake road, well outside of Goma. He probably walked at least 10 kilometers, maybe more.

General Assembly time

I am not at CBF this week. Obviously. Which is really sad, because this year's meeting in Washington, DC is going to be fantastic. And I've really been missing my DC friends this year since I couldn't visit due to my teaching schedule this year.

Anyway, if you're trying to decide what to do this week, I recommend following Big Daddy Weave's schedule in part or in whole. He's identified most of the great seminars and sessions. Two things in particular stand out:
  • Gregory Stanton's Friday morning panel on A Christian Response to Genocide. Someone please go to this for me and take notes.
  • The 8am Baptist Joint Committee-sponsored Baptist Unity Rally at the capitol on Friday. This will certainly be one of the highlights of this year's General Assembly. BDW has highlights of the historical context from Don Byrd here. Drag yourself out of bed and get over there - you don't want to miss this.

As for me, tomorrow I'm going to see a Catholic abbe about some books, and Friday I'll hopefully be interviewing the Baptists who split from the main branch of Baptists here. Some things are, apparently, universal.

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a mess

Now. I didn't mean to alarm anyone with yesterday's post. But. There's definitely a change in atmosphere going on, and if you were to only read the news about North Kivu from Kinshasa or the New York Times, you'd think that Goma and environs are in total chaos. That couldn't be further from the truth. I came in late last night and there weren't even a large number of soldiers out on the road guarding the house as there were last week when there was an alert. That's a good sign that things are calm.

That said, there are persistent rumors that something will happen soon. What that "something" is, no one knows. Here's the deal: the president's popularity in the east is waning, because it's been nearly a year since the election campaign, and almost nothing has changed. He took this region with 97-98% of the vote (really), but since that time, security in the Kivus has gotten worse, not better. This is due partly to the FDLR, who are the remnants of the people who committed the Rwandan genocide (and their large pack of child soldiers), and partly to the role of Laurent Nkunda, a former army general who is now a warlord who presents himself as a freedom fighter and man of the people. His reasons for being a warlord are many, but he's proven his ability to create chaos when it's convenient. He took the city of Bukavu for about a week in 2004, meaning that even MONUC didn't hold him off. He was able to do this because he's been able to persuade many regular army troops to be loyal to him and not to the government.

They're swearing that won't happen with Goma.

The president needs to stop this for political reasons, and because, well, it's generally a bad thing to have a warlord who commands loyalty from a significant number of your national army troops. Parliament apparently debated a war spending bill to address this issue. I don't know what happened with that. The big question now is who will act first. Will the army go after Nkunda, or will Nkunda attack pre-emptively? Nobody knows. He won't be able to attack Goma proper unless he goes through several other areas first, which is why I'm not terribly worried about our safety.

Saturday, June 30, is Congo's national independence day. It is hugely symbolic as the first independence celebration since Congo (technically) became a democracy. I don't think anything will happen before then. Unless Nkunda picks that day to be the one he liberates Congo from what he sees as a new tyranny.

That's all to say, don't worry. I'll be out of Goma in a week or so, and whatever happens will probably not happen in Goma. I wouldn't stay if I didn't think it was okay. My Congolese friends are much less alarmed than my expat friends, and the expats here aren't nearly as worried as those expats in Kinshasa. Everyone in Goma is just living life normally, remembering that rumors are so persistent, and hoping for the best. I have six interviews lined up for today, so I've got to run. Don't worry. Really.

6.26.2007

thanks!

Ethics Daily picked up my post from Thursday about reconciliation and the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. Thanks for all the kind feedback on the piece.

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starting to get a little concerned

What we're hearing:
  • a friend in Kinshasa says that the diplomatic community hears that the government has given Nkunda an ultimatum to get out of Goma. We here in Goma didn't know he was here.
  • MONUC tells us not to go out at night this weekend.

The helicopters are still circling. I'm not worried, but I'm not totally at ease either.

6.25.2007

democracy, simplified

This is part of a storyboard about how democratic elections work. If you think about how hard it is to pull off an election in a place where the vast majority of adults have no experience whatsoever with a democratic election, then add in an illiteracy rate that's too high, you can see the need to explain democracy in 20 or so easy-to-understand cartoons.

It's too bad that the reality of democratic consolidation is considerably more complicated. This is one of the reasons I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. My study of Congo and other African states had made it clear to me that even when everyone involved has the best of intentions, creating a democracy from scratch is terribly difficult.

As in Iraq, Congo's issue is that, while democratic elections are good and necessary, elections do not a democracy make. Especially if the central government can't secure its territory. So here in Goma we have the ever-present rumored threat of an invasion by warlord Laurent Nkunda. And people in the countryside of North and South Kivu really suffer, as Nick Kristof has been pointing out in his columns this week.

I largely quit reading the New York Times a couple of years ago out of a sense that the Post was just better (the CPP mocks me for being a snob about this to no end.). Once they instituted Times Select, which requires you to pay for access to their opinion columns, it became virtually irrelevant (Why would I pay for someone else's opinion when I wouldn't pay for my own?) But I learned this weekend that you can access Times Select for free if you have a ".edu" address, and since I wanted to read what Kristof had to say about Congo, I signed up, even though, as I've mentioned before, I really don't like Kristof's reporting.

I'm still annoyed. His columns contain blatantly untrue statements, such as his claim that there aren't very many humanitarian aid groups working in North Kivu. (For fun, I posted a comment listing about 15 of the many, many aid groups that are based in Goma, a list of which can easily be found here. My comment was not posted by the moderators. :) Sorry I can't get the link to that article - the connection just won't work.)

The column today is accurate (and it features A!), but I can't shake the sense that it's not the whole story. Kristof specializes in these doom and gloom stories all over the world (indeed, if you read the blog his win-a-trip protegees are keeping, you'll note that one of the winners says Kristof wanted to find a story that was even worse, when they'd already heard something awful.).

Maybe part of the reason Kristof's reporting bugs me so much is that his is the kind that relies on pictures of starving children and stories of misery to guilt you into doing something about it. There's a term for this kind of reporting on Africa's tragedies and other humanitarian tragedies: disaster porn. The analogy is a little silly. But. You see a picture of a dying child, it breaks your heart (as it should), you feel guilty, maybe you write a check to the people who are saving orphans in Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, or wherever the international humanitarian aid traveling circus is this year. Rinse, repeat.

The problem is: that's not even close to the whole story. Kristof's trip winners were apparently so scared of Goma that they wouldn't go outside at night and thought that Goma is about to blow up. That's ridiculous. Despite how it sounds on paper, and despite all the rumors, Goma is perfectly safe. No one with access to any reliable information here would suggest otherwise. As a new friend and I discussed this afternoon, all the new construction and businesses are a sure sign that things are improving. The change from last year is obvious. Goma even has a legitimate bookstore now. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is.

As Kate points out, Congo is a crazy place, where you just never know what's going to happen, where you see the extremes of life. It's not stable, people suffer terribly. But it's also a place where you can't feel sorry for everyone forever, where you see life and death and wealth and poverty and heat and rain and mourning and dancing every day. Speaking of an article in the Africa issue of Vanity Fair, she puts it this way:

"The sense of complete freedom that only comes with the absence of government mixed with the destruction that decades without governance has intertwined itself with each story told."

I don't know why I feel a need to complain about Kristof's Congo reporting. Usually I just ignore him, but this incomplete story has hit too close to home. I want the truth told about this contradictoraly complete freedom and complete bondage, in all its complexity and confusion. I want the world to understand that this place I've come to love is home to people who are not all starving to death, not all hacking one another to death with machetes in the forest, and not all trying to scam away millions of dollars into Swiss bank accounts. I want the world to know that outsiders are not going to save the Congo from itself. I want our leaders to recognize that it takes more than an election to make a democracy.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is arguably neither fully democratic nor fully a republic (yet), but it is undeniably the Congo. It can't be explained in a cartoon, but in the end, that's what's going to save this place.

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provide the poor wanderer with shelter

Suzii gets the headline in the Statesman concerning the effort that will be launched today by the BGCT and Buckner. ISAAC, the Immigration Service and Aid Center, will help any church that's interested in having a ministry to help immigrants become American citizens.

Suzii and her staff and her volunteers and so many Texas Baptist pastors have been working on this issue for years. It's great to see something good come out of that effort. Even better is the fact that it will help churches fulfill God's command to show hospitality to those who are strangers in our land.

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we knew ye not

Hahahahahahaaa!!!!

FYI, Texas in Africa is rated G.

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ahhhhh!

So a new thing (for me) in Goma this year is the Attack of the Ginormous Grasshoppers and/or Praying Mantises (Mantisi?). I have to close my bedroom window/door every evening at sunset to keep them from invading my room. I am planning to conduct an experiment in whether they are afraid of the Wonder Chalk of Death, which I purchased from my Goma pharmacist last week (4 pieces for $1!) Yikes!

In other news, I spent the morning with the local equivalent of The Advisor. This professor is very nice and is getting me access to some great contacts. But. Within ten minutes, the professor directed me to change all my research questions and write up an introductory document by tomorrow. Which, of course, is Not Allowed - I have to stick to a set of questions that The Advisor and I agreed upon in order to have anything to show for all this research. I'm going to have to be clever to get my real questions in with her questions so I can actually have something to show for it.

There are soldiers like crazy all over Goma today, and MONUC has a helicopter circling pretty consistently. Today was the day that Nkunda was supposedly going to attack Goma. I'd imagine that 1) those were just rumors and 2) this is just a show of force coordinated by MONUC and the army to assure the population that Goma would be stable in the event of an attack. I'll write more later.

6.24.2007

seeing clearly

from last weekend's International Day of the African Child celebration at Heal Africa

what makes a life

An amazing post from Amy Butler.

and...

Also, I want one of these.

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perfect day

Question: Could I possibly have had a better afternoon?

Answer: No.

This was probably one of my favorite days ever in Congo. Church this morning was good, we went to the lunch buffet at Karibu (which was so crazy to be back where I lived last year), lunch led to two interviews for later this week, then T and I went over to her friend A's house. After what is a longer story than would be appropriate to share here, A's ex-boyfriend Christophe came over in his 15-foot American speedboat complete with an awesome sound system and took us all out on the water.

Lake Kivu is a lake, but it's one of Africa's Great Lakes and is more like an inland sea than your average lake at home (think Lake Erie, not Lake Travis). It's about 100 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, so there are plenty of places to go. Christophe said, "where to?" and A said, "Away from Goma!," so off we went, way out on the northwestern shoreline of the lake, with amused and astounded people waving to us the whole way. Christophe took us out to see the lava flow from a couple of hundred years ago - it basically created a huge, 150-foot tall peninsula that juts out into the lake. It's been so long that the rocks are completely covered in vegetation now. I wish I'd had my camera along, because it was spectacular. Then we turned back and headed way out into the lake to stop to swim.

It was sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo nice. It felt like being home for the summer, only instead of bathtub-temperature water like we usually have in Texas lakes this time of year, the water was perfectly cool. We swam a little then slowly cruised back to Goma, watching the late afternoon sun glisten over the lake as the fishermen headed out for their evening catches. Christophe dropped us off, we scrambled over the rocks up to A's dock, and sat on her upstairs porch and watched the sun go down.

It was a perfect afternoon. And that's all I really have to say about that. :)

6.23.2007

the worst place in the world


Please take a moment to read today's haunting post in the 40 Day Fast effort. It's entitled "The Worst Place in the World."

There's a thin wall between hope and despair here as well. I think about it every time I pass by this lot of abandoned cars just beyond the back wall at Heal Africa. Before the war, before the volcano, this was a mechanic's garage. Now it's a lot of rock-encased, rusted cars. In which people live. On one side of the wall, there's a place of hope and redemption for women and girls whose lives have been destroyed. On the other, there's decay. There's life among these rocks, to be sure. But it's not the kind of life anyone should have to live.

sportsman

This seems like a good picture for the weekend.
Unless you know that "Sportsman" is a cigarette company. Oh, well.

6.22.2007

an open letter

Dear person in Austin who accessed my blog by Googling "does the southern baptist convention support rick warren's apostacy,"

I don't know.
I don't care.
Also, it's "apostasy," not "apostacy." And "Rick Warren" and "Southern Baptist Convention" are proper nouns and should therefore be capitalized.

showing hospitality

Well, after two weeks in Goma this time around, it's probably time for a report on the actual reason I'm here. My research is going really well. Ridiculously well, actually. I've been getting great access this time around and am getting enough information that I can actually see where this dissertation is going. In 2 weeks, I've interviewed 24 subjects, and I have 8 more lined up for next week, in addition to the 15 or so others I still need to track down.

What amazes me about the Congo, and about Goma in particular, is how incredibly welcoming and helpful people are. Yesterday, I needed to visit two church associational offices. No one seemed to know where they were. I stuck my head in at the gate of a place that I knew was the wrong office (but that I'd been told to go to nonetheless). The guard sent me to an office, and there I met Pascale, who said, "I'll take you." And for the rest of his morning, Pascale drove me on a motorbike to two church offices I never would have found on my own. He dropped everything just to help, and didn't expect anything in return.

How many of us treat strangers that way? How many of us would leave our jobs for the morning to drive down unbelievably bad roads (that weren't under the direct flow of the lava), then sit through what I'm sure are very boring interviews to an outsider, then ask where else this stranger needed to go? The amazing thing is that Pascale isn't the only person who's done this for me. The Congolese have so many troubles to deal with, yet they go out of their way to serve others who are in need, even of something as simple as directions.

What I've experienced the last two weeks is a spirit of hospitality, service, and community that is rare in the West. We could learn a lot from the Congolese.

turn and open hands


Yesterday I learned about a grassroots effort to raise awareness about hunger and poverty worldwide. It seems a mom who blogs saw a devastating picture of a child in Sudan, and, long story short, organized a 40-day fast among a group of bloggers. Beginning today and lasting for the next 40 days, each blogger will fast for a day, and donate the money they would have spent on food to an organization that helps the poor in this world. On their day of fasting, each person will post a story about their experience and their cause. You can access each day's post by clicking on the icon above, which will also be a sidebar on my blog for the next 40 days. Here's a list of suggestions for how you can pray and what you can do to be part of the fast.

What good does this really do? Maybe not much in terms of tangible benefits, but anything that draws attention to the absolute poverty in which billions of people live helps. My hope is that this effort would draw Christians' attention to consider whether the ways we use our money and energy, both in our own lives and in the church, is really reflecting that which God would have us do. My hope is that the words of the prophet Isaiah would come true, that we would bring justice to the oppressed and food to those who don't have any to eat.

oh, yeah

So my least-favorite New York Times columnist was in Goma this week.

I should probably explain. On Tuesday, the good Professor sent me a Times Select column by Nick Kristof. It was about his visit with Laurent Nkunda, our local warlord/freedom fighter/rebel leader (depending on whom you ask). I got mad when I read the piece, because it contained a blatantly false statement: that there isn't a national health care or education system in the remote parts of the Eastern Congo.

This just isn't true. What's so bizarre - what's making me spend all this time writing a dissertation on the topic - is that there are vestiges of the national social service systems even in the middle of nowhere rebel-controlled territory. They aren't really financed by the state, and they aren't always regularly inspected for compliance with regulations, but they are still, in some sense, part of the system.


For example, Kristof talks about a school he visited, how the conditions there were just terrible. I'm sure that's true. But I'd also be willing to bet that that school is still following a national curriculum, and that students still attempt to take the national exams in order to earn a state diploma.


I've never really liked Kristof's writings about Africa, and now I think I know why. He tells important stories, and he has the best of intentions. But I don't think he gets the whole story. It's much easier to tell a story about a place where everything has fallen apart. It's a lot harder to explain a complex system of authority that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, and that doesn't fit in the categories we Westerners are good at delimiting.

It also makes me wonder how many reporters ever get the whole story in places like this. I've been studying Congo on and off for eleven years now, and I've been doing intensive dissertation research for three, and I only feel as though I am just beginning to understand some things. A weeklong reporting trip is great for raising awareness, but it doesn't get the full story.

Anyway, I saw Kristof hanging around at Heal Africa the other day and decided to introduce myself. I didn't have the nerve to tell him he was wrong, but I told him I was writing a dissertation about how the national health and education systems work in the east. I also said that I appreciated his efforts to focus attention on the situation in this corner of the world. What I should've said, what I wish I'd said, is that the world doesn't need another story about what a mess the eastern Congo is. This place sometimes seems beyond hope, but it isn't. People are creative, and they try their best to get their children educated, to keep health clinics running, to stay secure in the midst of an impossible situation. It's not the kind of authority we expect, but there is authority here. And it's not just authority at gun-point.

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6.21.2007

the furniture store


Just like in Austin, there's a neighborhood in Goma where you go to buy furniture. The difference between Goma and Burnet Road, however, is that when you buy furniture in Goma, you don't go to a big showroom where a salesperson follows you around like a puppy dog. Instead, the furniture stores are outdoors. This one has the advantage of being under a roof, kindof like a picnic shelter. (I think I'd rather buy there than from the place right by the dusty main road.) They can construct just about anything you can think of for a reasonable price. Kitchen tables, chairs, coffee tables, whatever. E is having a massage table built.

The furniture artisans also make coffins, which are stacked up in one corner of the "showroom." I wonder if Goma is the only place in the world where you can get a red velvet-covered casket?




You can also see the stack of children's coffins at the back of this shot (the plain coffin and the yellow/green one). It's a sad reminder that 1 of every 5 children here dies before reaching age 5. One in five. Given that the birth rate here is around 6 children per woman, that means that many, many mothers know the tragedy of losing a child. Most of those children die of preventable and treatable diseases, things like diarrhea and malaria, which could be prevented with access to a $5 mosquito net to cover the baby's cradle. One in five.


We are basically free to ignore that fact back home. But what would we do if one of every five babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers died in the United States? Would we sit by while the furniture makers displayed coffins for children as though the need for such were a regular occurance? I doubt it. So why does it make a difference that these are not our children?

first be reconciled

“…first, be reconciled to your brother or sister...” Matthew 5:24

Breaking up is hard to do, but we Baptists seem to be pretty good at it, at least when it comes to our preferences about with whom and how we worship. We find points on which to disagree with an alarming regularity, define reasons to refer to one another as “wrong” almost every day, and frequently create excuses to leave and join ever more narrow groups with whom we can agree on everything … at least until we find another question over which to divide again.

The history of Baptists in the United States is a history of division. We’re divided by race, divided by region, divided by doctrine. The most important split in Baptist history in the United States, of course, took place not over the question of the inerrancy of scripture or the priesthood of the believer, but rather because Baptists in the south wanted to keep their slaves. Splits within and between churches have occurred over everything from five-point Calvinism to open communion tables to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. Disagreeing is what we do.

Why do we split? Because we feel we must. We are driven by conscience, conviction, preference, and occasionally economics to take a stand, to find a hill on which to die, to refuse to lose our seminaries and state conventions to those people. I can’t in good conscience attend a Baptist church that won’t acknowledge that God might call women to ministry. He is deeply convicted that any church that would ordain homosexual individuals as deacons isn’t a Bible-believing community. She can’t imagine attending a church that doesn’t use the same Baptist Hymnal from which her mother and grandmother sang. No one but Jesus will tell us how to believe. And on and on it goes.

Yet here is a savior who tells us that, before we can make a sacrifice in the temple, before we can rightly go to worship God, we must reconcile. Jesus doesn’t say, work out your differences to the last detail, figure out who’s right, punish the one who’s wrong, agree to disagree. He says, look, if you remember that there’s a problem between you and someone else, you need to go and reconcile. Before worship.

I grew up watching Baptists fight one another, and I’ve long wondered how it could possibly be pleasing to God for us to hate each other. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but the rancor I have observed between the types of Baptists I know best suggests that we are anything but reconciled to one another. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike throw around pejorative terms like “fundamentalist” or “liberal” or “fascist” as though we were speaking of evil personified. Meanwhile, our relationships with our brothers and sisters of other races and socioeconomic backgrounds are all too often shamefully nonexistent. We all go to worship quite regularly, I’m sure. But we are not reconciled.

I don’t fully understand what reconciliation means. It’s a theme I hope to explore in future posts. But I can tell you that the primary reason I am so excited about January’s Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is that it provides an incredible opportunity for us to practice doing that which God has called us to do. This gathering of Baptists from more than thirty different groups and from thousands of different backgrounds gives us the chance, in some small way, to reconcile. For two days next winter, we can set aside some of our past conflicts - about race, about doctrine, about selfish ambition - to work together, learn together, and stand in worship together. We have a chance to reconcile. Will you join us?

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6.20.2007

rescue the suffering

Today is World Refugee Day. I went to visit some displaced people in Sake today and was reminded of how difficult life is for those who must leave their homes behind. More on that in a few days. In the meantime, Professor Deutsch offers a beautiful prayer for this world's refugees.

the intrepid travelers


These are my friends Christine (l) and Francina (r). They are about nine years old. They came from a village that is about 200 - 300 kilometers from Goma, all by themselves, to have surgery to fix their club feet. They are at Heal Africa alone for 3 months to recovery from the surgery. They have about a month to go before they can go home. We've gotten to be friends and they say hello every day. They looked at all of my pictures from America and decided they needed a picture of their own.

oh. my.

In the course of my dissertation research in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over the last couple of years, I have endured a lot in the name of political science. I have been detained at a border, attacked by an unruly mob, experienced my first earthquake, breathed the methane gas of a smoking volcano, gotten altitude sickness, involuntarily danced with smelly eastern European mineral pilots, and ridden in overcrowded minibuses with mediocre brakes on incredibly bumpy and hilly roads. I have deflected hundreds of marriage proposals, been bitten by bugs I don't have names for, eaten unidentifiable meats, had my bags searched by angry customs officials, been eyed by soldiers and accused of being a CIA agent, and flown on planes that aren't allowed to operate in Europe.

That's not to complain. It's just to point out that I have been through a lot for this task.

I have not, however, been chased by a pack of wolves. Please say a prayer for my friend Samuel, a new Peace Corps Volunteer. He's stationed in a remote area and is facing the inevitable challenges of life in a difficult place with humor and grace. Hang in there!

a thumpin'

Seems Warren Chisum is none-too-happy with his designation as one of Texas Monthly's 10 Worst Legislators for the 2007 session. Burka does a great job of explaining precisely why Chisum did a bad job this session. It had very little to do with his social conservatism.

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l'insecurite

We are hearing that men dressed as soldiers were in the Birere neighborhood of Goma last night executing people with machetes. This comes from the head housekeeper, who lives there. Apparently, the residents of Birere stayed up in the night to guard their homes and families. No official word on this yet, but E heard screaming close to us during the night. She was surprised that I didn't hear it. She said it was really strong for a few minutes, then went away. I don't even want to say what that sounds like.

Again, rumors are currency here, so you never know what to believe and what to ignore. There are a lot of soldiers out, though, and the helicopter traffic seems higher than normal.

I am headed to do an interview, then P and I are going to Sake to visit the pygmy families my church helped last year. Sake was attacked by Nkunda's troops last August and there has been further instability in the town. I am interested to see how things have changed in these families' lives, and what's still difficult.

6.19.2007

c and e kids


This is maybe one of my favorite pictures I've ever taken in Congo. C and E are followed by a tidal wave of children wherever they go. Because E helped to identify a problem, these children who used to spend their days on the streets now have an early childhood education center to attend. And clothes. And lunch. They adore her, they follow her down the street until she tells them to go home. I can't imagine what life would be like for these kids and their families without E.

crazytown

What a bizarre day.

It started off way, way too early, but my excellent health field contact wanted to meet at 8, so 8 it was. I was out the door before anyone else sat down to breakfast, which confused the new cook and gave the housekeeper (who gets to go fetch my taxis-motos) a headache in the middle of his daily washing of the car.

But we were on the way to what's essentially the equivalent of the local health department by 8:45, and had a good meeting with an administrator there. Then, much to my surprise, we went to see the military hospital. I don't know how to describe this place, except to say that it's in the middle of the main Goma military camp, which looks like a pretty awful place. Most people are living in tents made of plastic sheeting, and there's likely not much in the way of a good sanitation system. I have no idea where they get their water.

But the hospital was interesting, and once the commandant decided that I wasn't a spy, he and his colleagues answered all my questions and more. The only bad part of the visit was the charming invitation to join a soldier who was sitting on top of a cannon holding an Uzi. (I'm sure he was confused by my refusal to come and talk. Nothing says, "Let's hang out" like light weaponry in front of an HIV testing facility.) Well, that and seeing how sad life is for military families here. Soldiers are supposed to get a salary of about $12/month, but they very frequently don't get paid at all, usually because someone along the way steals the money. There's a reason that human rights monitors say that most of the looting in the eastern Congo is now apparently committed by the national army.

After that early morning adventure, I headed back to another office which had promised me some statistics, then over to the Pentecostal church's office. Since churches are responsible for most of the education system and a good chunk of the health system, I'm trying to visit as many of their offices as possible. I'd been to their hospital yesterday (and got great information there), and had a very pleasant experience talking with one of their schools people. But another employee stopped by the office, asked several questions about my research, and then said I should stop by his office after I was done because he's a Civil Society leader.

(I should explain here that the Congo actually has an organization called "The Civil Society." When social scientists talk about "civil society," we're referring to leaders and institutions that are not part of the government, but that have an effect on political life. Everything from a group that forms to oppose a school board policy to a trade union to a gardening club can be considered "civil society." But in Congo, saying you want to talk to "civil society leaders" can cause some confusion, because you mean "elites" and they mean "someone who is a member of this organization called the Civil Society.")

What followed was one of the most bizarre interviews I've ever conducted. "Interview" is not the correct word, really, because that implies that I asked questions. "Being forced to take notes on a long rant" would be more accurate.

But before we got to the rant, the guy started by asking what my true motivation for asking these questions was. It's impossible to prove that you aren't a spy, but why one would be asking questions about health and education is beyond me. He told me his position, and added, "And I am also a pastor." I said, "My father is also a minister," and he said, "Okay, you're from a minister's family, you won't lie to me."

From that impeccable logic, he launched into a long rant on the West, the misery in the Congo, how David Livingstone was the best Westerner who ever helped the Congo, and the necessity of me telling this story. He made me write down every single word he said (Really. If I didn't write something, he'd say, "Write this!"), and he said a lot. (Email me if you're interested and I'll send you the transcript. I'm sure not going to be able to use it in my dissertation.)

I hate this. I hate being blamed for every bad thing every white man has done to Africa, and I hate being asked to fix it all. And I hate being stuck in a situation from which a polite escape is nearly impossible.

I also hate being told what to do by a pushy man who thinks I'm engaged in espionage. He finally finished his rant, and then asked if I had any questions. It's possible that this could have been a valuable interview, but I needed to get out of there and fast, so I said, "No," gave him an email address I maintain for these sorts of things, made up a local phone number, and hightailed it back home.

(What's ironic is that I agree with many of his points. The West has destroyed things for the Congo, time and time again. And of course I feel obliged to tell the stories of the misery here. That's a large part of why I have a blog, why I write about Congo, why I speak to groups at home.)

I came home, took a nap, had lunch, went to the local research institute, read a very interesting article on the Congolese elections, stopped by to see Mama Helene, who has invited me to her home after church on Sunday, and came home just in time to go with C & E and N to a service for a friend of theirs whose daughter died last month. The friend works here for an NGO; she is from Cameroon; her daughter was a university student in Kansas who died in a car accident just after finishing her final exams. It was very sad, but the pastor of the church organized a time for mourning and for her to share her grief, at his home, and it was a good thing for her.

We came home a few minutes ago (around 8pm local time) to find soldiers everywhere, coming out of the bushes as we drove down the hill towards the gate of the house. After some exchanges in Lingala that I didn't understand, we learned that there's an alert out tonight that Nkunda's guys are planning to attack. "What do we do if that happens?" I asked E. "Pray," she replied.

It's possible that Nkunda will try, although I doubt it will be tonight. He won't make it to Goma, and even if he does, MONUC will stop him before he gets this far. If something does happen, of course we will pray. But I will also be calling my friends at the embassy, and a guy I know at the UN. Otherwise, we'll have to swim.

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acl = lame scheduling. Again.

So the ACL Festival schedule is out this morning, and once again, they've done a terrible job of scheduling acts. I know that ACL does this on purpose to deal with crowd control, but they're crazy for thinking that it's a good idea to anger their fans by putting the White Stripes up against Arcade Fire. You're also going to have to choose between Spoon and Queens of the Stone Age, between Steve Earle and Andrew Bird (this isn't really a choice), between Reverend Horton Heat and the Decemberists, and THEY PUT WILCO UP AGAINST MY MORNING JACKET. Ugh!!!!! This is why I threaten to swear off ACL every year. (Dear ACL, did it occur to you that the people who like MMJ are probably also the people who like Wilco?)

Anyway, here's how it looks from my vantage point: the Friday schedule is okay (eh, Bjork.), the Saturday schedule is good, and Sunday is fantastic, but you're only going to be able to see half of it.

In other news, they are allowing a 65,000 persons/day capacity this year. I still think they should cap it at 60,000, but they don't care what I think.

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beside the point

There was an excellent interview with Julie Pennington-Russell in yesterday's Waco Trib. Here's my favorite part:

"Politics for me is just always besides the point. The mission of my life is not political, its about the Gospel, which is political. The gospel is political, but it is not partisan.

"So as a pastor, I work very hard to create and embrace a big tent philosophy in the churches where I serve. And its very important for me not to be a partisan person. I am not apolitical, but the Gospel always comes first. And I don’t put my hope for the world in the political system."


Baylor Professor Dr. Doug Weaver joins the blogosphere this week with a reflection on Julie's leadership of Calvary in Waco, and on the role she will play in the celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, coming up this winter in Atlanta. More on that from me on Thursday.

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6.18.2007

music monday

I downloaded Jimmy LaFave's latest album, Cimarron Manifesto, right before leaving Austin. I'd heard and enjoyed a couple of singles on the radio and am happy to report that the album does not disappoint. The second track is especially beautiful. It's a cover of Donovan's cheesy mid-60's hit, "Catch the Wind" that drops the schlock of the original to create something haunting and sad:

"When rain has hung the leaves with tears,
I want you near, to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind.

For standin' in your heart,
Is where I want to be, and I long to be,
Ah, but I may as well, try and catch the wind."
Give the album a listen and see if you agree.

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look out over there

So yesterday I looked out my window, and what did my eyes see but a group of gendarmes (sort of a cross between police and soldiers), posing (with weapons) for a group picture. The RPG launchers are a nice touch, n'est pas? Photographs with only Kalashnakovs are so 2004, and this is the Third Republic, baby!

Please don't be alarmed by this photograph; despite the fact that these guys are less than a hundred yards from my bedroom window, I couldn't be in a safer part of town. Really. C & E live next door to the governor, so this is his security detail. They provide us with security as well, so C & E don't have to worry so much about theft at night, even though they still have a night watchman.
Congo traffics in rumors, and the rumors are strong that the main rebel in the countryside, a guy named Nkunda, now has considerably better access to weapons and delivery systems than has been the case in the past. Goma is secure, but if he made an assault on the city, it's not the least bit clear that the bulk of the soldiers posted here would be loyal to the government. Some of them are certainly loyal to Nkunda. The question is how many brigades and soldiers would follow him, and whether they would actually come to his aid if it came to that. On the off chance that that happened, I think MONUC would eventually prevail, but Goma would be a mess for awhile.
As for the neighbors, they couldn't be more friendly. They are probably paid and fed well enough that they would protect the governor. Nkunda has the capacity to cause lots of problems in the countryside, but I really don't believe he'll make it to Goma. Here's hoping.

6.17.2007

far, far away

So I am now officially missing the BGCT Christian Life Commission's Summer Public Policy Institute for Texas Baptist high school students.

Sigh. Knowing I would have to miss this week was one of the hardest parts about making the decision to spend the whole summer in the Congo. The SPPI is one of my favorite weeks of the year. I love getting to know students from all kinds of different backgrounds, and getting to watch as they explore the tough questions we find at the intersection of politics and faith. I wrote about how remarkable this program is last year in Ethics Daily. There's just something that happens when you gather a group of bright, talented, thoughtful students with a group of young adults who understand both youth ministry and public affairs, and introduce them to a bunch of cool speakers (and Suzii!), and, well, it's remarkable.

It never ceases to amaze me that we pulled it off. One spring day, Suzii had an idea, I wrote a proposal, and less than four months later, we found ourselves on the ranch with a bunch of kids, reflecting on applied ethics and the Christian faith and marvelling at what God can do.

I am sad about missing this year's institute for the above-named reasons, and because Favorite Kid #1 is participating, and because, darn it, I created this thing from scratch. It's my baby. And I know I have to let it go. I am certainly not indispensible, and the week will be just as good as it always is. But I'm sad to not get to watch another amazing group of kids come together for a remarkable week in Austin. Next year.

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church

I wish I had a boat. Today was a perfect day to be out on Lake Kivu. It's sunny, but not too hot, and the water is just choppy enough to keep things interesting. I haven't seen the guy with the jet ski this year; maybe he packed up and moved to Darfur like most of the other expats.

Despite my longing to be out on the lake, I wasn't about to miss church in Goma again, especially after last week's jet lag-induced sleep-in. We all woke up and got ready this morning, but had a tiny problem when C couldn't find the car key. We turned the house upside down for 1 1/2 hours. That's not a big deal (the service lasts 3 hours), so we kept looking. Still no key. So we started to walk to church (nearly 2 hours late at this point), but a friend drove by, picked us up, and took us over to the airport, which was where we were supposed to go after church.

Here is how it works in a country with no postal system (I don't mean, "a country with an unreliable postal system." I mean, "a country with no postal system whatsoever."): when you need to get something to Kinshasa (hypothetically speaking (natually), let's say a passport that needs to be renewed, or a CD of lessons about The Purpose-Driven Life en francais that will be broadcast on a national radio station each morning), you can either 1) go yourself, or 2) find someone to take it there for you. Hence, the airport, where we quickly found a friend of a friend who, yes of course, would carry an envelope on the noon flight to Kin, and call N's sister to drop it off when he arrives.

Then we went to church, where they were just finishing up the benediction. There was still a good 15 minutes of announcements and the closing song, so we got a little "church" today, but the morning's series of events made us all a little grumpy. We ate lunch mostly in silence.

I spent the afternoon trying to figure out plans for my end-of-summer week in Zambia (which may ultimately include a day in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe - yes!). I was out in the hall looking for bug spray to fight the ants who find their way into my room every few days when E asked if I would come and take some pictures. So then I met this family.

A mother, two daughters who are about 7 and 9, and another one-year-old daughter. E had gifts for them, necklaces and bracelets, and notes from someone in America who wants to help their mama rebuild her life. She nearly cried when she saw 6 ten-dollar bills tucked inside one of the cards. Her daughters were excited about their gifts, and about the cookies E gave them to eat.

We talked briefly about diabetes, because on top of worrying about how to pay the rent on her home, how to make an income, how to pay her daughters' school fees, this mom of three also has to deal with monitoring her blood sugar levels, taking insulin, and eating a balanced diet.

After they left, E told me their story. The mother was raped. In Goma. In front of her girls. Her rapist left her with the baby. He left her with HIV, too. The baby isn't old enough to be tested yet (they have to be 18 months old for the results to be reliable). The odds aren't great.

"When I met her a year ago," said E, "she was getting treatment for the HIV, but not for her diabetes." So E got her a meter, and she has been paying their rent, but they have nothing in their home. No beds, no chairs, no nothing. The $60 is a gift from an American churchgoer to buy the basic necessities for their home. E also has money from a few churches in the states to loan to women to help them start businesses. This mama will get a loan to buy a sewing machine so she can make clothes, and make a gift of some fabric and thread so she can get started. And she will pay back her loan, $1-2 dollars every two weeks, so that E can give a loan to another woman whose life has been destroyed. E has made a difference to this family, so much so that the mother named her baby for E.

I didn't go to church this morning, but I saw what church is meant to be this afternoon.

Church is not supposed to be about doctrinal fights or the color of the carpet in the new ministry center. I don't even believe that it is ultimately to be about what gets said in the sermon, or the music, or what the pastor prays. Church is more than a building, more than a service. Church is God's people in the world, doing the work of justice and mercy in humility and gratefulness. Church is sharing our lives, our possessions, our money, our access to medication and expensive machines and people for whom $60 means skipping a night or two of eating out and seeing a movie. Church is giving a mother and her three little girls a chance at redemption.

And if the church is doing what the church ought to do, we don't even need car keys to get there.

6.16.2007

c'est pas facile

I cried twice today.

It was just another Goma day. I stayed out way too late last night with Anna and her friends, who are now my friends, too. We had pizza at Doga, then went to Coco Jambo to dance. There were too many drunk mineral pilots (the eastern Europeans who fly old aircraft from here to Dubai or Hong Kong or wherever without asking too many questions) bothering us, so we left and went to T's house to talk. We said good-bye to Anna and I got home about 2, which was unfortunate, since I was supposed to meet someone who would take me to meet an interview subject at 10. Did that, wandered all over the place as he tried to find the guy (this is why I don't pay people to "help" me with my research in Congo), but ended up getting a really helpful interview with a civil society leader who understood exactly what kind of information I needed.

And then I came home for lunch. A woman was here to visit E. She's an interior decorator and landscaper - can you imagine, in a place like Goma? But she has books full of pictures of her work, and she makes all kinds of creative furniture for private homes and hotels and such. She runs a successful business that does all that and much more.

And then E asked her about her family, and she told her story. And it was a hard one to hear. Her mother was raped by Tutsi soldiers. She died a week later. Her sister sits most days and stares. "She can't even find the strength to move her eyes," she said. She said, "You have to forgive so you can live." And she began to cry, and to say over and over again, "Mais c'est pas facile. C'est pas facile." It's not easy.

Later, after she'd stopped crying, after we'd all stopped crying, after C and E told her that they believe God is a God of justice, after C said that it's so important to tell these stories, after C prayed, N asked her age. She's 30. A year older than me. She looks much older.

We went over to Heal Africa after that so E could visit the children at the early childhood development program she helped to start. Those children adore her. I have great pictures of the tidal wave of children that hit her when they realized she had returned, but they won't upload on this connection. Maybe Monday. I played with kids, tried to get them to go home as their teacher had told them to do, and got in the car to leave. We took the visitor back to her office and went to get gas. A man came up to the window to sell us something, and E didn't want to buy anything, but heard about his church and his studies in Nigeria. He went and stood in front of the car and I watched him count his money. He was so thin. So was his cash. He had a $5 bill, maybe another $2, and some Congolese francs. Maybe, MAYBE $8-10 in total.

The realization that that is probably all this man has in the world hit me so hard. Here's someone who's traveled, who's educated, and whose only hope is to stand in the streets with a bag full of cheap perfume and Christian music cassettes, hoping someone will buy something that will add a few dollars to the little he has.

It's overwhelming. Everyone needs something, everyone is suffering, and everything is broken. The other night I had dinner at the Lusi's with their current crop of students, several of whom are in training to be doctors and nurses. "I envy you," I told them, "because you get to see that you made a real difference in someone's life." "Yeah," replied a sweet college student from Minnesota, "but it's really frustrating. We treat the wound, but we're not doing anything to solve the problem."

You can't fix it. Wilco Ben said he'd seen my letter to the editor about Congo in a back issue of Time. I'd forgotten about it. It was a response to an article that basically said that the world community needs to fix Congo. One of the things I wrote was that the responsibility for "fixing" Congo must ultimately be up to the Congolese themselves. I still think that's true. We have to help, but we can't fix it.

I had a conversation with a Canadian medical student on Thursday in which I told him that I think that Congo is beyond fixing, that it's such a mess that it won't get better. He grew up partly in Congo, partly elsewhere in Africa, and couldn't disagree more.

I don't want to believe this place is beyond hope. But when you look into the eyes of a woman whose family has been traumatized by violence, when you see a too-thin man counting his money over and over again, it's hard to see how any of this will be made right.

6.15.2007

that's me in the corner

Two interesting studies from people I know at UT:
  • It's not college that makes the kids lose their religion, it's the sex, drugs, and rock & roll. And kids who go to college are more likely to remain religious. As Mark Regnerus points out, most professors aren't hell-bent on destroying the religious views of students. Academics are there to teach our students the subject. Period. (HT: Melissa Rogers)
  • A few Texans like Hillary. I wouldn't read too much into this, although I know the professor who was involved in this poll. The methodology will certainly be sound, but Hillary is unelectable nationally.

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vraiement?

Another assassination in Bukavu last night, this time of a medical student.

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aujourd'hui

It was a cold and rainy day in Goma. It feels like February in Austin. I forgot my long-sleeved t-shirt and would be freezing were it not for my fleece. I didn't have any interviews scheduled, my alarm didn't go off at the right time, and C & E came back from Kinshasa. In other words, it was one of those days where you know you aren't going to get much done. Oh, well. It was fun to catch up with C & E, and to get some rest.

I went to the weekly meeting of all the humanitarian aid agencies this afternoon. The program there hasn't changed much; it's still a long weekly list of who was pillaged, raped, murdered, or displaced by various rebel groups in the countryside. After awhile, you get a little desensitized to it. I did line up a couple of interviews for tomorrow, and another for Monday, and C & E are going to introduce me to lots of people. At this point, I'm mostly worried about volume of interviews, not quality. I already know the answers to my questions and can usually predict what respondents are going to say. But the powers that be must be made happy, and if this is what it takes, fine.

Tonight I am going out with Anna and her friends for dinner and dancing. It's her last night in Goma for awhile, so it should be a good time. Most of the expats I knew before are gone (few people stay here longer than 1-2 years), so it will be fun to meet new people and hopefully catch up with some old ones. I hear there are even some Texans around...

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super

Great. The suspects arrested in the murder of the Radio Okapi journalist in Bukavu are active soldiers. It's unclear whether this was personal or journalism-related. 1,000 people showed up for the arraignment yesterday. I'm sure glad I'm not in Bukavu at the moment.

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at a seminary?

Oh, good land.

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viva democracy!

Ha!

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6.14.2007

leave it there

Seems Baylor is having a hard time letting go of the idea of the Bush Library, which will almost certainly be located at SMU.

I, for one alumna, am so glad Baylor won't be saddled with this. Despite all the rhetoric, I think the idea that a George W. Bush School of Public Policy would have matched well with Baylor's Christian mission was wishful thinking at best. In the long run, the Bush administration will likely be remembered most for starting a questionably just war, and the school would likely have been in tension with the J.M. Dawson Institute's historic strong support for church-state separation. It's better for Baylor to not be saddled with such a burden.

To learn more about someone who truly exemplified Baylor's spirit and mission, read these tributes to Dr. Herbert Reynolds.

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sigh

In other news, the head of the Bukavu bureau of Radio Okapi, which is the best source of news in the Congo, was assassinated last night. Radio Okapi is run by the UN peacekeeping mission. It models what a free and fair press looks like, and provides reliable information in many of Congo's languages. It's unclear whether the murder was "simply criminal" or related to his job, or the death threats he had received.

Guess whose advisor continues to insist she should go to Bukavu?

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un autre monde

If there's one thing I've learned about life in Goma, it's that you just never know what to expect. Today I did five interviews (five!), including two at at certain international Christian NGO with which I'm sure you're familiar. (For those of you who weren't following this journey last year, that particular charity has just about driven me crazy. The people I need to talk to are NEVER THERE. But finally, on what was at least my 10th visit (not to mention the 5th this week), I got to talk to a couple of people. Plus a doctor, and a civil society leader, and a medical coordinator for some of the churches here. Congolese churches run much of the country's medical infrastructure.

While waiting for the medical coordinator to receive me, I got to chat with two of the most interesting individuals: the military and police chaplains for the protestant churches' coalition in North Kivu. The Protestants here joined forces long ago to be able to compete with the Catholics. We could learn something from their spirit of cooperation under the umbrella of l'Eglise du Christ au Congo ("the Church of Christ in Congo"). They sponsor two chaplains, who run nondenominational Protestant churches specifically for the police and military forces.

The chaplains were really nice guys, and once I told them where my daddy works, they were all about hearing about life in America, the weather in Texas, and whether I teach Sunday School. (Of course, one of them wasted no time in asking me to find funding for musical equipment for his church. If anyone out there wants to fund this, shoot me an email.) You just never know.

Yesterday, I stopped by to see Mama Helene (above). Mama Helene claims me as her own here, and the feeling is mutual. She's invited me over for dinner before I leave Goma, because I have to meet her four sons. We had a wonderful time catching up, and were only interrupted when my friend Kat walked in! Things here just keep getting less and less believable. Kat is a Kenyan friend who was posted here for a few months last year. She just returned last week. The last time we'd seen each other was last spring in Nairobi. Hopefully we'll have time to catch up soon.

Mama Helene's younger brother walked by while we were talking and determined that if I am Mama Helene's child, then he is my uncle. "I'll get a goat when you get married," he said. I had to explain to Mama Helene that there's no dowry system for getting married in America. Her disbelief was palpable. "What do you give instead?" she asked, and when I told her it was only a matter of love, and of choice, she just couldn't comprehend it.

As I sat in the internet room at Heal Africa this morning, a young doctor sitting next to me said, "It's a different world from your country, n'est pas?" It is, in so, so many ways.

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and lucy lius

These are for the attorney:



Sorry they aren't better pics. But they are pics, nonetheless.

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6.13.2007

"clearly and inerrantly"

Don't miss Joel Gregory's reflections on "The Castle and the Wall" sermon he preached 19 years ago this summer at the Southern Baptist Convention, in Ethics Daily today.

an abomination!

The president in crocs. And a skirt.

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grace and peace

They are burying Norma in Austin today. Sunday morning my email inbox was full of notes that she passed away on Saturday.

Norma was one of the pillars of our church, a prayer warrior, a sweet spirit who cared for everyone as though they were her own children. Four generations of her family are members of our congregation. Her legacy won't soon be forgotten.

The first time I heard of Norma was maybe a year or so after I moved to Austin. She was ill, seriously ill, and the doctors had apparently told the family to prepare to let her go. But she didn't. They asked us to pray, and we did, and against all logic and reason, she made it. I have never known someone to come back from the edge of death like Norma did. Her family prayed for -- and got -- a miracle. I didn't know her then, but I saw her stand up that first Sunday she was back in church and marvelled at a faith that could move mountains.

My relationship with Norma really began after my first trip to the Congo two years ago. She called while I was walking up 18th Street in Washington, DC and asked if I would speak to her WMU circle. I was so hesitant - I came to Congo as a student, not a missionary - but she assurred me that it would be fine. What came out of that experience was a relationship with Norma (and with the rest of the women of the WMU) that I cherish. They pray for me, ask about what I have seen and learned, and take up offerings to help people here. Norma led the group in even knowing who I was, and in their decision to give me those offerings. Thanks to their efforts, a dozen children got to go to school last year. Thanks to their efforts, ten pregnant mothers with HIV got treatment so that they didn't pass the disease on to their children at birth, and several other women who were raped were able to get drugs that prevented their contracting HIV. Thanks to their efforts, so many neglected people have been prayed for, cared about, and loved. There are dozens of people in the Congo whose lives would not have been the same were it not for Norma, myself included.

Every single time I saw Norma at church, on Wednesday nights or Sunday mornings, every single time, she always asked about my research and my life, and told me that she would pray for me, that she'd be thinking of me. I saw in Norma a spirit that cared deeply for people on the other side of the world she knew she would never meet. I saw in her someone who was faithful to family and friends, who loved her church, who listened to God with all her heart. Rest in peace, Norma. You will be very, very much missed.

donde esta?

I am officially totally obsessed with Strange Maps. I love maps; I've loved them my whole life. My sister can tell you about our long family drives halfway across the country during which I needed to always have a map close by so I could know where we were at any given time. One of the most frustrating things about my first trip to the Congo was the fact that I couldn't find a good map in the States (I've since learned where to look, but it's still frustrating that the only decent city maps of Goma and Bukavu are hand-colored architectural-style plans. Not that this keeps me from staring at these maps all the time.).

Anyway, Strange Maps is super cool. Where else could you learn that the names of subway stops in Stockholm mean things like "Awful Village Hospital" and "Pigeon Nest"? Or vintage maps of real places torn apart and made into maps of nonexistent places? This is the coolest site ever!

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and jersey is "russia"

This is so stinkin' cool. I will henceforth be referring to that state to our north as "The Philippines." It's like the third world up there anyhow.

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baptists on the riverwalk

Michael Ruffin has an insightful piece on the SBC's return to San Antonio in Ethics Daily today.


I remember the 1988 convention as well, primarily because Daddy and his pastor friend left us with our mothers in Austin to play for a few days while they went to San Antonio. We swam at Barton Springs, visited the Capitol, and went to Aquarina Springs in San Marcos. I think we probably had the better end of that deal.

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6.12.2007

the value of a life

Two thoughts that get to the heart of the matter of two controversial issues:

1. What is the value of an illegal immigrant's life?
"In other words, to justify keeping the immigrant out, you'd have to say he's worth less than one-fifth of an American citizen."

2. On homosexuality, wholeness, and the scriptures.

Both of these pose the question: is this the best that God wants from us and for us? I'm going to let the analyses speak for themselves.

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hapana

No. I say no all day long here. No, I can't buy you $.50 worth of airtime for your cellphone. No, I can't give you money just because. No, I can't buy the toys or men's shoes or whatever else it is you're selling today. No, I can't organize a scholarship for you to study in the United States. No, I cannot give money to every small child alone on the street, although I hear Jesus saying something about not seeing him in his most distressing disguise every time I say, "no."

N has just helped me to craft a particularly eloquent and very definite "no" to a gentleman (I use the term loosely) who emailed this evening (after meeting me for two minutes earlier today) to suggest that we should marry.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No in English, non in French, hapana in Kiswahili. I get so tired of saying no. Partly because it is in my nature to try to help people, to find a way to say yes, or at least a maybe. I don't like to let people down.

But mostly, the no's disturb me because it's so contrary to the theology by which I profess to live. Here I am, fists clenched tightly around my money, my safety, my preferences, my space. Saying no. And here is a God whose hands are always open, always saying yes.

Because my life is nothing but one long series of yeses these days. Not only am I getting to spend time with dear friends, and living in a place where all my needs are taken care of before I ask, it's costing me next-to-nothing to do so. My research is going ridiculously well. I've only been here for two business days and already I've got a meeting with the most important health official in the city. I met the provincial minister of education this afternoon, thanks to the incredibly helpful vice-bishop who has taken an interest in my project. I'm nowhere close to being finished, but interviews are coming easily and smoothly, and I'm having no trouble communicating.

And I'm having fun while doing all this work. Today was another day of reunions with acquaintances from last year, and meeting the two dozen expat students and young adults who are spending part or all of their summers at Heal Africa, trying to learn how to do medicine in the third world, or how to serve the poor, or how to be a professional development worker. In what is certainly one of the more random experiences I'm likely to have over the course of the next nine weeks (one week of the trip is already over), Lucy Liu showed up at Heal Africa today. Yes, that Lucy Liu. She is, apparently, a UNICEF ambassador of some sort, here to shed light on the problems facing children in this miserable corner of planet earth. It just goes to show that you never know whom you'll see in Goma. (For those of you who are wondering, she looks exactly the same in person. I have pictures, maybe this weekend.)

I laugh and laugh and laugh, at the police who want to marry, at the astonished faces of children when they meet a mzungu who knows Kiswahili. I marvel at the vice-bishop's explanation of his own dissertation (in theology, concerning the role of African culture in the wisdom of God expressed through Christ). I wonder at the fact that I'm freezing at night when I'm in the heart of Africa.

So many people have prayed for me, for this trip, this dissertation, these interviews, this advisor situation. I'm more thankful for those prayers than you can possibly know. And I just keep wondering, how can I keep saying "no" in the face of all this "yes"?

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who does this?

Could there possibly be anything more boring in this world than watching the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention online?

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6.11.2007

baptist watch

Ethics Daily has a story today about Chuck Colson's speech to the SBC's Pastors' Conference yesterday. What is rightfully getting the most attention is his thoughts on Islam, which involve the words "Islamofascism" and "a vicious evil." I have nothing to say about that except that I, for one, am glad that all Christians are not judged by all others on the basis of the behavior of our extremists.

What I find much more deeply disturbing, however, are Colson's statements that seem to allude to a belief in dominionism:

"What is our purpose in life?" Colson asked Southern Baptist pastors. "It is to restore the fallen culture to the glory of God. It's to take command and dominion over every aspect of life, whether it's music, science, law, politics, communities, families, to bring Christianity to bear in every single area of life. And that's exactly what Rick and I teach in that series. That's what I have been teaching."

The "Rick" there is Rick Warren, with whom Colson has been promoting a DVD study course on a Christian worldview.

Does Chuck Colson really believe that Christians are to have "command" and "dominion" over every aspect of life? He doesn't go so far as to say that we ought have a theocracy in the United States (which is essentially what true dominionists want), but I don't imagine he used that word by accident. More importantly, do many influential members of the Southern Baptist Convention?

I am not a dominionist. Certainly, we are called as Christians to influence our world. But I don't believe that we are called to take control of the government or other systems of culture. It's just not Biblical! Jesus never took political power, nor did he try to change music or science or the law. He lived a life of self-sacrifice and of servanthood, he told us to leave our ambitions and lust for power behind. Here's hoping Colson's remarks were an anomaly. I can't stand to think about the alternative.

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