Wednesday, June 24, 2015


We have arrived in Bouar! Yes, the long way.  I realize, again, how fortunate and privileged I am to had this option. 

First, think of the cost.  I bought diesel fuel for the trip from Garoua Boulai to Yaoundé (and later will pay to go back) not to mention the cost of running the vehicle.  Sure, I could have taken a bus – cheaper and the way most Cameroonians would travel, but I have a car.  And, as we in the USA know well, driving is more convenient, faster, and less crowded!  Privilege. 

The next day Willie and I took the train from Yaoundé to Douala.  Yes, I had to stay overnight in Yaoundé – fortunately at Anne and Willie’s.  Then we had to get dropped off at the train station and there was the expense of the ticket.  We got first class tickets – 9,000 cfa (about $18) instead of 6,000 cfa (about $12).  It was comfortable.  (I didn’t see the second class so I really can’t compare effectively.)  We were served water and a sandwich.  Willie tells me that 1st and 2nd class riders get food.  Ah, to be able to afford a comfortable seat without having to drive.  Privilege.  OK, so we ran about a couple of hours late, but we didn’t have a meeting set or people waiting for us.

We stayed at the 3-start Planet Hotel in Douala – 55,000 cfa/night (about $110).  It was a beautiful place to be.  Very comfortable with free Wifi – like (or better) than many hotels where I have stayed in the USA, but this price is too expensive for most people here.  Privilege.

Both hotels had a Gideon Bible in the rooms.  This made me think of my Uncle Gordon and Aunt Elaine (may she rest in peace) who are/were active in US branch of the Gideons, providing Bibles to travelers and others.

Then we flew from Douala to Bangui and later Bangui to Bouar.  Privilege.  The cost is out of the range of what most Central Africans, or Cameroonians, could pay although both flights were about ¾ full.  I am thankful that we could pay and use this (longer) safe way to travel.  Both flights ran about an hour late.  The flight from Douala to Bangui was with Karinou Airlines (a company from the CAR!)  I had not heard of them before.  We had an interesting snack:  4 pieces of whole wheat bread with no crust and tuna salad between the layers.  Not 2 sandwiches – tuna between 3 layers!  It looked like a brick of bread!  It tasted fine, but looked strange to me.  (It was served with soda and water.)  I enjoyed hearing announcements in Sango, French, and English.

I am grateful to Lutheran World Federation staff in Bangui who helped us in various ways:  their driver picked us up at the airport, had made us reservations at a hotel and for the UN flight to Bouar, and drove us to their office.  Staff also helped us get internet credit, find a place to eat in the evening, and put us in contact with a reputable taxi driver.  Hervé (the LWF driver) also picked us up in the morning (at 6:10!) to take us to the airport and shepherded us through the first part of the check-in process. They will also help us out on the way back.  Many thanks!

We had little time in Bangui, but we did stop to visit St. Timothy Lutheran Church, which is next to the airport.  They have a beautiful church building, parsonage, and a school within in their compound.  Since all of the recent troubles started, they have also been housing internally displaced people.  The structure you see in the picture and the water bladder were provided by UNHCR.  Pastor Paul Denou said that they are now “down to only” 93 adults and children.  Imagine.  How many of our churches could pick up this work and sustain it for more than two years??  It was a privilege seeing Pr. Denou again and seeing a bit of the work – even if it was only for about 10 min.  I like the sign they have next to a huge bladder of water: “Everyone has the right to water, but no one has the right to waste it.”  We should all take this to heart.

The next picture is Willie talking on the phone as he studies the menu in the Balafon Restaurant in Bangui.  We were drinking, Mocaf, the Central African beer!  It was a great place.  We were told later that is very popular with humanitarian aid workers.  They even have karaoke on Friday evenings!  Everyone needs time to relax and get away from strife and work, but how many Central Africans (not working for an NGO) could afford to come often to a place like this? 

It was a first for me to take a flight within CAR.  Currently flights are run by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service.  It is present to assist UN and NGOs personnel get around more easily.  Our flight was to fly to Berberati, Bouar, and Bosangoa.  Another flight went to Kaga Bandoro and Ndele.  A third goes to Bambari and Bangasou.  We were told to report to the airport at 6:30 for an 8:30 a.m. flight.  Airline officials arrived at 6:45… 

I know we talk a lot about White privilege in the US – and probably not enough (nor have we done enough to equalize things).  I know, too, that I benefit from White privilege here as well – and in ways that are even more obvious than at home since I am part of a small minority. 

What we experienced this morning was privilege, but not just for Whites – of the 75 or so people travelling only 5-6 were White, but humanitarian aid privilege.  So, here’s the dilemma:  when a country is in crisis, NGOs and others come to help.  They need to be able to move around the country, but sometimes roads are not safe or are in very poor condition and sometimes people want to take less time traveling between places.  The UN has a Humanitarian Air Service to help out.  To use their service, one must be a humanitarian aid worker, have an “Ordre de Mission” (official letter stating where, when, how long, and why one is traveling) and a badge (or passport).  This is not a commercial airline; they can’t take anyone who wants (and can afford to) go.  But that sets up another inequity among those who come to help and those who live in the country where there is not commercial airline that operates within the country.  I am sure good work is being done, but how much say does the population have?  Are the “saviors” again coming with the answers to problems or are local people being empowered, trained, and supported?  This one example certainly lends credence to the tendency of aid workers to bring the plan, what they need for their comfort and work, and “do for” the “poor, suffering” people.  There were Central Africans who took the flights – those working for NGOs, but I was uncomfortable “qualifying” for the flight (since EELRCA is a member of LWF) while at the same time I appreciated the safe way to get to Bouar.

Much of the flight we couldn’t see much of the ground – no surprise since it is the rainy season with lots of clouds.  In fact, we were to stop in Berberati before Bouar, but couldn’t because of heavy rain there.  As we approached Bouar and came below the clouds, most of what we could see was green – forest, bush.  There were a few houses and buildings.  It was an interesting phenomenon to approach the airport and run way seeing nothing by green!  I never really paid attention to other cities where you see airport buildings and buildings of the city as you approach.  I had confidence that the pilot could see more than I could (like the runway…) and he could, but it was a bit disconcerting and felt like we were setting down in the middle of nowhere. This feeling was increased when I saw that the first half of the runway was dirt!  It was wide and flat and clear, but not paved.  Closer to the airport there was paving.  It was no surprise that the airport was a sign saying “Aerodrome de Bouar” and one building.  Lots of NGO cars were there to meet the travelers.  (We were met by Antoine and out-going President Goliké.)  The drive is about 12 km. on an unpaved but leveled road (no doubt done by the UN). 

It is good to be in Bouar and among colleagues.  As one person said, if there weren’t so many trees, we could see Garoua Boulai from here – too bad I had to come by way of New York!  It was the long way, but it worked.

Note:  UN troops are now stationed in a couple of villages between GB and Baboua.  They have also gone into the bush to disarm some people.  Some bandits have been killed or arrested.  The road is safe again, they say.  (Great, but we’ll go home the same privileged way we can – we have tickets after all!) 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Long Way

This week the new leadership team of EELRCA was to meet in Garoua Boulai with Willie Langdji, ELCA’s Regional Representative, and Thore Ekland, Representative from Mission Afrika (Denmark), and me.  That didn’t happen.  Road bandits.  Again.

You may remember that the partners’ consultation was cancelled in November for the same reason.  Still, we were so hopeful because from December 2014 through early May 2015 there were no problems on the road.  Small business people, travelers and large trucks passed with no problem.  It is true that the large trucks generally went in a convoy with some troops from the UN, but no sight of the bandits. 

The second week in May there was a forum in Bangui to try to resolve differences, encourage disarmament, etc.  Representatives from 10 “rebel” groups were there.  They agreed to a cease-fire and agreed to release child soldiers (and some were, in fact, released).  It is true that elections were pushed back again (until the end of 2015), but I was hopeful when I heard reports of the forum.

It seems that the road bandits were not happy with the outcome of the forum.  They are again stopping cars and motorcycles to rob them.  They have also shot at cars and burned a few.  Are these the same bandits?  Probably.  Are there some from Bangui who were not happy with having to disarm? Maybe.

The result is that although some cars and trucks are passing on the road, there are many fewer.  It maybe be that there is a problem only 15-20% of the time, but no one knows when the bandits will attack.  So, I won’t be taking that main, paved road anytime soon and neither are the Central Africans with whom we work.  Sigh. 

The good news is that Baboua, Gallo, Bouar, and Bohong, the main towns were EELRCA works are safe and calm.  Bangui and most other towns are as well.  The problem is mainly on the road between Baboua and Garoua Boulai.  (Roads in other areas may also be affected as with some other towns in the north and east.)

Here’s a calm, pastoral scene from Baboua (at the Theological School in April 2015).  And, a scene from Bouar of a bridge that is being rebuilt (also April 2015).  (There is a lot of construction and improvements in Bouar, Bohong and the villages in that area.)  Progress! 

Willie and I would still like to participate in the transition retreat with the new EELRCA officers.  (Unfortunately, Thore has to go back to Denmark.)  How do we do it?  Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  (Where does that gruesome phrase come from???)  We take the long way.  I will drive to Yaoundé.  Then Willie and I will take the train to Douala and catch a flight to Bangui.  From there we’ll catch a UN flight to Bouar.  All safe!  But, instead of a 3-hour drive, it will take me 3 days.  I am willing to sacrifice the time for the safety!

On this map, Garoua Boulai is not marked but it is south-east of Meiganga just at the bump where CAR meets Cameroon.  Yaoundé is south-west and Douala along the coast.  Can you also find Bangui and Bouar on the Central African part of the map?  Yep, surely the long way…

And, while we are in Bouar, we will be able to attend the installation of the new officers and meet with the Conseil d’Administration (National Church Council).  Should be fun.  As will be the return trip which will reverse the steps listed above. 

So, the long (safe) way to Bouar.  And, it seems, the long (frustrating) way to peace and stability in the Central African Republic.

Monday, June 1, 2015

First Mbaka Catechist

The Mbaka are the forest people of Cameroon – those we used to call pygmies, but since they don’t like that name, we give them the courtesy of calling them the name they use, the Mbaka.  There has been a Lutheran mission to these people for some time, and, recently, Rev. Jack and Mrs. Valerie Frederick of Canada helped sponsor MEDAKALA Leonel as a student at the Lutheran Institute for Bible and Theological Studies in Garaou Boulai.  (What I generally just refer to as the Bible School).  He has completed his two years of study!  Yesterday, during the French service of the Central Church he received his certificate.  Then, in the afternoon the Bible School had a reception for him.  Here are some details.
Just after the confession of faith (Apostle’s Creed), the Director of the Bible School, Rev. Enoch Garga-Zizi presented the certificate.  Leonel also received gifts from EELC (sent through Dr Koulagna, Director the Theological School in Meiganga) and the Bible School.  The two books about the Bible will help him as he starts work. 

As catechist, he will lead worship services, preach, teach or organize the teaching of Sunday school classes, and generally assist the congregation where he will be placed.  He is not a pastor so he will not preside over sacraments of communion or baptism.  Earlier, Jack and Val told me that Leonel will stay with the regional bishop for a while to get oriented and have some additional practical training. 

Several people from his area came to support him: the wife of the regional bishop, the first Christian Mbaka (man on the right in this picture), and two others from his parish.  After these formalities, the Mbaka sang a song for us in celebration. 
Then, the congregation came up to congratulate Leonel and those who could, offered a small offering to help defray the cost of his moving back home.  Rev. Garga-Zizi presided over communion during the service and Leonel was asked to assist in the distribution of the wine.  It was a joyous service. 

Later in the afternoon, the Bible School organized a reception for Leonel with the professors of the Bible School and the students themselves.  This involved preparing and eating food: meat in a sauce,

fish in a sauce, and manioc, sharing a drink (beer, soda, or a punch), talking, and dancing.

A couple of notes about this day: first, during the announcements of the closing meditation for the Bible School Friday, the director asked that all students dress alike for the Sunday Service; this is a usual act of solidarity.  They agreed to wear what they had worn for the recent Unity Day parade – black pants, white shirt, white socks, black shoes, and black ties.  Next, the director asked that they all shave their heads, to be neat and presentable for the occasion!  He spoke specifically to one student whose “long” hair must have been ¼ inch in length.  Personally, I thought it was neat and clean, but Michel came Sunday with his head shaved as requested, as did most of the students.  If you look closely in the picture, you can see that one student still has hair – about ½ as long as Michel’s had been.

Traditionally, people eat with their hands from a common bowl.  For a reception, each person gets a separate bowl, but people still use their hands.  I am very happy to see that hand washing has become the norm for such occasions.  One person pours water for another who washes with soap.  Then, after eating, people wash their hands again.  (It used to be people washed only after eating when their hands were “dirty.”)  Although there were no children at this reception, I have recently attended meals where the young also wash their hands – it is clear that it is a common practice and they know what to do!  Hurray for good hygiene! 

After eating, the music started.  There was some in Gbaya, Sango, French, and English (and maybe other languages I didn’t recognize).  With music came dancing; I danced, too.  Not only do I like to dance, but it provided some extra entertainment for the students.  They got a kick out of the fact that I could dance so “African.”  Women danced with men, women, or just as a group.  Men danced with men, women, or just as a group.  I did the same.  In this picture, I am dancing with Suzanne, the wife

of one of the Bible School students – everyone commented on the fact that Susan (pronounced Suzanne in French) was dancing with Suzanne! 

Traditionally, when someone sings or dances well, people listening/watching will put a coin on his/her forehead.  I am happy to report that five times I got a 100 cfa (10 cent) coin put on my forehead!  (Several others got coins, too, usually when they were dancing with me...)  What fun. 

Today, Leonel leaves for his home village to start work.  We wish him every success!  Here’s a final picture of Leonel as he was dancing at the reception.