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.
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.