Monthly Archives: May 2010

No Fear

In the village of Katoto, two ex-militia groups from opposing tribes meet together to work on forgiveness and reconciliation.

Yesterday, as I was about to leave in a rattle-trap tin can of a car with engine trouble for a village about 20 km outside of Bunia, my brother Jon commented to me, “Well, it’s not a boat in a typhoon.” It took me a moment to get that he was referring to my previous post and was trying to say that this potential adventure was nothing by comparison.

It did, in fact, turn into a bit of an adventure, although not life-threatening. Of course, anything in Congo can turn into something dangerous in the blink of an eye, and apparently, some people were worried.

A woman from the Hema tribe prays for a man representing the Lendu tribe.

I wanted to photograph a seminar by a local Congo group called L’OEIL that brings ex-militia groups from opposing tribes together to teach forgiveness and reconciliation. I’ve been hired by MAF UK to take photos for their monthly magazine. It’s on a per-day basis, and next week I’ll be flying to a town quite a bit west of us to shoot a seminar.  Knowing how things go in Congo, and that anything could happen to disrupt this assignment, I wanted, on my own and without pay, to see the one taking place at a village outside of Bunia…just in case. So a local pastor involved in the seminar said he would arrange a car to take me out if I would pay for petrol.  We were to leave at 1:00 pm.  It was supposed to take about 20-30 minutes to get there (think really bad roads).

By 2 pm, I began to think something had gone wrong.  I finally got a text message from pastor Emanuel saying that the first car had broken down and he was trying to find another.  By 3 pm, I got him on the phone and suggested that we cancel.  It was getting late. “No, No!” He insisted it was going to work out and hung up on me.  Finally around 3:20, he pulled up in front of our gate. The hood was open when we came out and they were trying to put water in the battery. The car, a severely dented green Suzuki, was having trouble with the engine dying. The pastor was genuinely excited that I was coming and that he’d managed to find a car and driver. Jon didn’t want me to go. It was late and he insisted that I must be back by dark.  6 pm at the latest. And so, Jon said his line: “Well…it’s not a boat in a typhoon.”

And here I will digress a bit on the African perception of time.  The pastor said it would take us about 20-30 minutes to get there.  He assured Jon that he could have me back by 4:30.  It was now 3:30.  There and back, without staying to shoot anything, just might get us back by 4:30.  Jon pointed this out to him.  In reality, it took us 50 minutes to get there, and that was after we took 10 minutes to buy petrol. So in fact, we didn’t get there until 4:30.  I shot for an hour, the pastors ate some food quickly, and we left about 5:45. We drove for about 15 minutes when the engine died at a soldier’s checkpoint.

I checked my cell phone, and surprisingly, I had a signal.  I was able to text but not call Jon.  He had already sent me a text asking if everything was OK. It was already nearly dark, on a small dirt road in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I should have been a bit scared, knowing even a tiny bit of the horrifying violence that has happened in Congo, but I wasn’t. The only thing I was worried about was my camera, which I tried to keep hidden in the car under a sarong.

For the next 20 minutes, text messages were flying back and forth. When my cell phone battery started to die, we used the pastor’s.  In the end, it was arranged for a mechanic to come out by motorbike.  Jon insisted, “I am coming anyway!” but he didn’t know how to get there.  So the pastor arranged for another guy to meet Jon at the house and come out together, showing him the way.

When Jon arrived, I asked if he was upset and he replied, “No, no! I love this sort of thing!”  He proceeded to pass out drinks and snacks to all the men (now numbering eight) from a cooler he had thought to bring. Eventually the mechanic managed to get the engine going and we set off back home, this time in Jon’s nice car. We arrived home around 8:30 pm.

So no, it wasn’t even remotely the same kind of adventure as getting caught in a typhoon on the ocean.  But I did think about fear, and how pointless it would be for me to give in to that, even though I had every reason to feel it.  Nothing bad happened, and no energy was wasted on fearing the unknown.

A pastor speaks to a group of ex-militia men from the opposing Hema and Lendu tribes.

Lessons Learned From a Typhoon: write better journals

Once again, I’ve decided to try a blog while I enter a new phase of life. The only way this will work is if I don’t worry about how well I’m writing, but simply write short notes on my observations and thoughts. So bear with me on bad writing and grammar, and consider these the scribbled notes from a journal.

With that said, however, I will try to make my musings better than my journals of the 70s, which read more like telegrams. A few years ago, as I was packing to move to Saudi Arabia, I found the box with all of my old journals, dating as far back as elementary school. The one that most interested me was from a trip I took to visit my brother and sister-in-law, Jon and Cher, in Micronesia in 1979. I decided to take a small inter-island freighter from Palau to Guam – the only girl, and the only “passenger” on the ship (other than crew). I was 21 years old.

On the first night out, we were heading straight into the path of a typhoon crossing between us and Guam. The captain turned slightly off to the east, hoping to miss a direct collision, but it caused the small empty freighter to rock precariously as massive ocean swells hit the ship on its side. Eventually, we turned into the waves, and if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Perfect Storm,” you will know what I saw from the bridge looking out into the darkness: troughs so deep it felt as if we were diving straight into the ocean, and walls of water so massive and steep that I was certain with each one that we would not make it to the top.

I was terrified. I knew I was going to die. I didn’t want to die. I pleaded with God that I was too young, that no one in my family knew where I was (not even Jon & Cher at that point), and it would cause such agony for them. After a short time of stomach-churning terror, I had an epiphany. The fear I felt would not change anything. I was still going to die. So I had a choice. I could continue to give in to the debilitating fear, or I could let it go, sit back, and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was. Nothing man-made could compete with this. I watched in awe and wonder at the fury of nature, the magnitude and power of the Pacific Ocean in a typhoon, and felt that I was getting a glimpse of something incredible before my death. It was thrilling.

Since I didn’t die, it remains for me a powerful lesson on how my attitude can change everything, even in the worst of situations.

And so, when I found the journal with the story of the storm, I read it excitedly, anxious to read my exact thoughts at the time of the epiphany. I don’t have it here to quote exactly, but it went something like this:

“Got into a big typhoon. Very scary. Next day it was sunny. Laid out on the roof to sunbathe.”

All I can say is that I will try to elaborate a bit more this time around.