School on Safari
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN ZAÏRE REPUBLIC
HOW would you like to take a 5,000-mile trip through seven of the eight provinces of the Zaïre Republic? My wife and I completed such a trip. It took a year and five months, and was filled with fascinating experiences.
Ours was a school on safari. “Safari” is the word for “journey” in Swahili, one of Zaïre’s many languages. The school was not for children, but for adult Christian ministers. Its purpose was to equip these men to care more efficiently for the spiritual needs of those in their respective congregations.
The Kingdom Ministry School, as this course of instruction is called, is conducted by Jehovah’s witnesses throughout the world. Usually classes are held in one place in a country, or perhaps in a few permanent locations, and Christian overseers travel there to attend.
However, the Zaïre Republic (formerly the Democratic Republic of Congo) is a vast country where a long trip is prohibitively costly for some. But by means of our “school on safari,” which brought the school nearer to them, it was possible for these ministers to attend without an undue financial burden.
There were, on the average, about twenty ministers in each class. The schooling was of two weeks’ duration. Lessons were taught under four main headings: Overseers, Kingdom Teachings, Meetings, and Field Ministry. The Bible was the main textbook, although other Bible study aids were used. As is true of the Kingdom Ministry School everywhere, no tuition was charged; the training was all free.
Equipment and Obstacles
We traveled by Land Rover. We had our folding bed, cooking utensils, supply of staple foods, lamps, books for the school, blackboard, personal clothing, spare parts for the Land Rover, spade, ax, planks, steel cord, cans for extra gas, and maps. Packing all of this is quite an art, as everything has to be in tight to avoid breakage and wear on the bad roads. On some of the roads one must always be prepared for a possible breakdown, or any other eventuality. The neat red road lines on the maps look so uncomplicated, but traversing them is quite another story!
From one of the longer stages of our safari, Kasai Province to Kinshasa, a distance of 1,000 miles and four days of hard driving, two things stand out in our minds. First, the deep sand on many sections of the road. At times we were in our lowest gear, with four-wheel drive, to grind our way through the long deep patches. And second, the number of rivers, some of which were very wide. Some of the smaller rivers were spanned by bridges, but eleven of the wider ones we crossed by ferry.
The ferries are quite an experience. Usually they consist of only three or four long wooden canoes or simple metal boats lashed together, with a wooden platform on top. Most are now driven by outboard motors. However, a few are still paddled or poled across by local manpower. On one crossing the ferry had a team of ten men. The headman of the team would call out a chant to coordinate the strokes.
Other ferries, however, operate on a cable system. The cable is attached to concrete posts on either bank, and the ferry drifts across the river, pulled by the current and sliding on the cable by means of a moving wheel.
Boarding the ferry is often a tricky business, as one has to drive on over two planks precariously balanced and invariably set at an awkward angle. We always heaved a sigh of relief when each river was safely crossed and the Land Rover was again on firm ground.
The ferries are used by pedestrians too, and there seems to be no limit to their numbers. Quite often the Land Rover was completely surrounded by people. We were packed on like sardines. However, the lack of breathing space did not worry us as much as seeing the water start to creep over the edges of the canoes. But it did not seem to worry anybody else. Somehow the men managed to bail out the water as fast as it flowed in!
Traveling the River
On one stage of our safari, from Kinshasa to Boende in Equateur Province, we traveled by boat for eight days as the roads were especially bad. The riverboats are big motor-driven launches that either push or pull several motorless barges. Our sleeping quarters were on the first deck of the main boat, so we had the advantage of an elevated view of the riverside scenery as well as of the barges. There on one of them we could see our Land Rover, hemmed in by boxes, crates, goods and people. One group decided that the Land Rover made an excellent wall and so attached an improvised lean-to tent arrangement to provide shelter from the sun.
The most striking thing to us was the number of people and goods crammed aboard. The motto on all forms of public transport here seems to be, “Too many is just enough!” There were goats tied up, chickens trussed up, large bowls of water containing live fish that writhed and flopped about, a couple of live crocodiles with mouths and tails tied, a water turtle, wild pigs and cages of parrots and other birds. Also there were numerous baskets of smoked fish, the smell from which rose strongly in the hot sun.
The noise too merits mentioning. In the background was the constant throb of the powerful motors. This encouraged everybody to shout to make himself heard even in ordinary conversation. Children playing, laughing and often crying, plus the goats and chickens, added voices to the chorus. In brief, the boat was an action-packed stage with plenty to absorb the eye and ear.
At every stopping point there was a wave of intensified activity as people left the boat and others boarded. But even before the boat moored, scores of canoes often skimmed out and surrounded us. Usually they had more fish or animals to sell. It fascinated us to watch.
The sellers would precariously balance while standing up in their canoes, and haggle with passengers over a price for their fish or meat. Those on the boat would crowd against the rail, and in the heated bargaining it was hard to tell which passenger was dealing with which seller. Everyone seemed to try to drown out his neighbor. With expressive arm gestures of disgust at the low offers, or resigned agreement to a deal, sales were finally made. Then the boat’s hooter would blow a deafening call, which never failed to take us by surprise and make us jump. The canoes paddled out of the way, and our boat pulled away from another port of call, with all inhabitants waving and shouting their farewells.
En route we passed numerous picturesque villages with huts built on stilts. Life has hardly changed for these people in thousands of years. They fish from their canoes, hunt in the forests and cultivate land along the banks of the river. Any surplus food they trade for the few clothes and other things they need. It is a peaceful and uncomplicated life.
The river sunsets were outstandingly beautiful, with the red glow of the descending sun silhouetting the huts and trees on the bank and making their reflection on the water. At night it was especially peaceful to move along under the moon and stars, with a cooling breeze refreshing everything after the fierce heat of the equatorial sun.
Along the Road
Most of our journey, however, was along the road. We traveled through every type of scenery imaginable—dense forests, woods, mountains, by lakes, across rivers, marshes and savanna. Each region had its own distinctive features and its own beauty. One might also add, its own problems due to the varied road surfaces.
A few roads were good, most were not, and some were really bad. During one three-day drive we slipped into a ditch, stuck fast in three holes, and were stranded in a sea of mud and had to be dragged out by a bulldozer. The reason for all these mishaps was heavy rain, which made the clay surface like soap. It takes only a second to become stuck, but it can require hours to get out.
Fortunately there were usually villages nearby and the inhabitants were more than glad to lend a hand for a small consideration. In fact, one truck driver informed us that many times the villagers are happy to have a bad piece of road nearby as it is a source of income! Some bad sections he knew even had a fixed price to be paid if one had the misfortune to get stuck.
As we approached one bad stretch of mud and holes, the villagers came running out at the sound of the vehicle and stood, arms folded, to watch the drama. I put the Land Rover into the lowest gear. We rolled and lurched and plunged and almost made it, but then the chassis stuck on a ridge between two deep ruts and the wheels spun helplessly inches off the ground. There was a great shout of joy from the observers as they rushed forward to debate the price of helping to get us out. To set the price took all of fifteen minutes.
In Kivu Province we passed through “the Switzerland of the Zaïre Republic.” It was truly breathtaking driving in the mountains, with views over Lakes Albert, Kivu and Tanganyika. One section of the road passed through the Albert National Park and we had glimpses of impalas, buffalo and elephants.
An African Welcome
The most heartwarming experience we enjoyed was definitely the welcome we received at every place of destination. The local congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses would arrive in force to greet us, crowding round us, beaming from ear to ear and just about shaking our hands off. At the same time they would repeat over and over again expressions such as, “wako wako,” “jambo yenu” or “moyo wenu,” which mean “hello” and “welcome” in their various languages. To those of us used to the dignified formalities or coldly polite greetings of some nations, an uninhibited African welcome can be absolutely overwhelming. There was just no doubt that everybody was delighted to have us come.
In every place, everything had been prepared in advance for our stay. Somebody had invariably moved out of his house for us. The roof had usually been rethatched, holes in the walls repaired and shutters put up at the window holes. The floors had been swept clean and a table and two chairs found for us. A new toilet had been dug and a place enclosed to take a shower.
No sooner would we be settled than we would receive a stream of visitors with gifts. The traditional gift is a chicken, and at one place we ended up with ten, clucking and squawking all around the house. Once in a while we received a duck, and twice, small deer were given to us. Others brought fruit, vegetables, rice or eggs. The generosity of these humble people never failed to move us. They have so little materially and yet they give with a generous heart.
The school was always conducted in the Kingdom Hall, the local meeting place of Jehovah’s witnesses. Usually this was a fairly large mud-brick structure with open sides and a thatched roof. This makes for a lovely cool interior.
Those invited to attend came by boat, a few by train, but the most common form of transport was bicycle. Some, though, walked as far as two hundred miles! Everybody received the same warm welcome, and there was never any problem finding sleeping accommodations with members of the local congregation. Hospitality is second nature to Africans.
Classes were conducted mostly in French and translated into six of the local languages: Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, Kiluba, Cibemba and Tshiluba. The ministers attending came from different tribes and backgrounds, but they lived and studied together in perfect harmony at the school. They varied-in age from twenty years to over sixty, and had varying scholastic abilities.
For those who were used to cultivating the ground and working with their hands, studying constantly for two weeks was indeed hard work. However, they manifested a willing spirit. Attending school filled all with a desire to improve their own learning ability and to encourage those in their local congregations to do the same. One of the most common expressions at the end of each two-week course was that it had not been long enough.
These expressions of appreciation and the genuine hospitality we received made all the inconveniences of traveling pale into insignificance. We indeed consider it a privilege to have been a part of this “school on safari.”