I’ve felt a bit like a celebrity before, but mostly I was the tag-along to my parent’s celebrity status. Last week, however, I was adorned with attention and fanfare, without parents or siblings stealing all the glory. It was all for me. Just me. The only problem was that it appeared to be mistaken identity. But I’ll start from the beginning…
I’ve been shooting photos for several stories that MAF International plan to print in their tri-monthly magazine. It’s actually a paid job, which according to my brother, turns me into a different person when I’m shooting for money. I become quite serious about the job, knowing that there’s someone out there I now have to please with my photos – who is paying me to make them happy. Last week, a MAF flight was arranged to fly me to four places over a period of three days to shoot two stories. We were on a schedule that was somewhat tight in order to get everything I needed. Joey Martin, a MAF-East Congo pilot (who is 29 but looks 15) speaks French and so acted as interpreter when needed.
Our first stop on Tuesday was Lubutu, a town about two hours from Bunia, and southeast of Kisangani. It is the farthest west I’ve been in Congo. The airstrip is called Tingi Tingi (I love this name), and was a section of paved road with the brush cut back to allow space for the wings. A pastor picked us up in a van and took us to a seminar at a local church. A Congolese organization, called OEIL (which I wrote about in the previous post), believes that the Congolese people will continue to suffer from violence and pain without the healing power of God to bring forgiveness and reconciliation among the tribes. Since 2004, after the terrible violence in places like Nyankunde and Ituri, OEIL has taken their message throughout east Congo, even bringing together chiefs of opposing tribes who committed atrocities against one another, and witnessed amazing healing.
I had about five hours to take photos at the seminar, which may seem like a lot, but it was a three-day event, and I needed to see some emotion, some drama, rather than just someone speaking to a group. Joey and I arrived at the large brick church and were led to the front side row, facing the audience of 140 or so people. The speaker stopped, practically mid-sentence, to introduce us and say that I would be taking photos and everyone should try to ignore me and not look at the camera. The church had holes for windows, but no window panes, and the corrugated tin roof allowed for some sunshine (and rain, no doubt) through its huge gaping holes where the tin peeled back, like multiple skylights. The participants were separated by rank and gender, it seemed: pastors in traditional white and black collars on the front row with padded chairs, men behind them, women across the isle on wood benches, children and teenagers at the back on bamboo poles balanced on logs at either end. For two and a half hours in the melting heat, the pastor passionately delivered his message while the participants eagerly took notes. I was quite pleased that after an hour or so, most everyone seemed to be ignoring me…that is until I tripped over a speaker wire on the stage, ripping the cord out and nearly falling on my face. I frantically tried to put the cord back while the pastor smiled and kept saying, “it’s OK, it’s OK.”
After lunch, the good stuff began. Pastor Jérémie led the group in an exercise that included writing down the great pain that “haunted their hearts.” They found a partner and shared it, prayed with each other, and then nailed the paper to a 6-foot wooden cross on the floor of the church. It was a bit frenzied with at least ten people at a time surrounding the cross, nearly obliterating it from my view. At one point I got on my stomach on the floor to try to get a shot. I have no shame. The cross was then carried outside, the papers removed and piled in front of the cross and set on fire. Great stuff for a seminar!
We were behind schedule at this point and so raced back to the airstrip and took off for Mulita, a missionary bush station, southwest of Lubutu. This next story would be the difficult one. An older Irish missionary named Maud Kells had worked off and on at this station for years. Everyone who meets her says she is a character and the heart of the place. Unfortunately, she is in Ireland, so my job was to photograph the work “through her eyes” (whatever that means in terms of photographs). MAF had paid a lot of money to fly me there and I had one shot at getting everything. I would have about two hours when we arrived before it got dark, and the next day I would have about four hours (if I started early) before we had to leave by 11 am. In addition to the photographs, I had to interview a number of key people, and some beneficiaries of the work. There was a hospital, a Bible School, a primary school, a pharmacy, etc. Maud had emailed them to say we were coming and make arrangements for staying overnight.
We radioed the station as we were about 10 minutes away to check on the weather as it looked like rain, but were told that everything looked good. As we landed and taxied toward the end of the strip, Joey commented that it looked like we had a welcoming committee. As we got closer, I said, it’s a big welcome! I think there’s a choir. Oh dear. There’s a band too. Joey pulled the plane around so that my side faced the enormous crowd. There must have been at least 600 people filling the end of the strip. A small band of three trumpets and one trombone played loudly and enthusiastically. A teenage choir behind them sang. Joey said, rather smugly, “This is all for you, LuAnne!” I informed him that he was not going to get off that easily. He was in on this too.
We climbed out of the plane, greeted by an entourage of about 15 people, many in suits and ties. They welcomed us and prayed, handed us a printed program in French, and escorted us to a path through the crowd. It was here that it suddenly occurred to me that I felt like Princess Diana. I was led through the crowd, introduced to and shook hands with at least 40 people along the path.
A man in a bright yellow and green striped shirt, with a hand-made “official photographer” ID around his neck, took photos of me. I was in shock initially, not knowing exactly what to do. Princess Diana didn’t have the problem of needing to take photographs while doing her duty of shaking everyone’s hand. I had my one camera around my neck, but Joey had said to leave everything in the plane and we’d come back later for it. At one point I finally shook myself out of the shock of the unexpected welcome to realize I needed a photo of this, but the crowd had closed in behind us and I was swept along the path of never-ending intros.
We finally came to the real action – two rows of chairs and a podium with a plastic covering where we were seated and the crowd gathered in a full circle around us. The program began with speakers, choirs, the band playing, more speakers, and the crazy woman of the village dancing around the middle (every village seems to have a crazy woman). Joey and I speculated on who they might think we are. Half-way through, he leaned over to me and whispered, “You’re on the program. It says, ‘the family of Maud Kells.’ That must be you.” Oh dear Lord. I had to give a speech? I told Joey he needed to do it since he spoke French. He graciously declined but said he’d interpret for me. When my turn came, about an hour later, I gave a pathetic little “thank you” speech.
I really don’t like being Princess Diana. All I wanted was to take my photos, but it was not to be so. After the program we were led to the house (followed by the entourage of 15-20 people, with the band close behind playing earnestly), shown our rooms, then taken to the guesthouse for a meal with about 25 people. Joey had a clear bottle of cold water placed in front of him at the table. I was given a bottle as well, although mine was white with red lettering that said “Battery Acid”. I didn’t drink it.
Whatever you do, wherever you go in Congo, authorities will try to get as much money as they can possibly squeeze out of you. In the flying world, that means that you pay taxes to leave an airport, and taxes to land. When you land at even a private airstrip, such as Mulita, the authorities are waiting, notebooks in hand, ready to see just how much money they can get out of you. There are no official fees, so it’s each man for himself to come up with the most creative, or ridiculous excuses to charge. After our dinner, we were told that the “tax people” needed to see us, so we went outside the house to a round hut with a bench circling the entire inside. 21 people plus Joey and me filled every space. There was one tax guy who spoke seriously to Joey in French for at least 20 minutes while everyone listened. When it was over, I asked Joey to translate. The tax man had said there wasn’t enough time now, so they would come back at 8 pm. At the appointed time, they returned, only to say that it was too late and they would come back in the morning at 7 am. This was the time I had arranged to get started on the photography, so they changed my departure to 7:30 am.
The tax people showed up at the appointed time the next morning, and proceeded, over the course of two hours, to try to charge us $150 for each of three supposed penalties of not having copies of our visas and yellow-fever cards. Joey pointed out that we were in the middle of nowhere, and we had already passed legally into the country in Bunia, and we didn’t have to show them anything. By 8 am I was feeling panicky. I had lost my precious 2 hours of shooting the day before, and now I had lost another hour, and was down to three total, including interviews. I started to become the pushy American, as nicely pushy as I could be. I pointed at a guy in a white jacket and red tie sitting on the couch watching the tax discussion. “Are you a doctor with the hospital?” I asked.
He nodded. “Come with me, then, and show me around.” As I walked through the hospital grounds, we collected another entourage of people who followed us into every room, no matter how small, and tried to get into every picture. The red-tie guy, as I called him, managed to get into most of my shots, claiming he was the doctor for everything. I finally started to shoo the crowd out of the room when I shot, and set up nearly every picture in order to get what I needed. I just hoped that they didn’t look too posed.
Joey acted as my interpreter (when he wasn’t fighting to keep his money from the hands of the tax people). His style is what I’d call telegram interpreting. Example… Me: “Where do they get their water?” Them: Three people answer, talking for several minutes. Joey: “From the river.”
Although the people in charge were incredibly warm and welcoming, it will go in my top 10 weirdest, most humorous, and most frustrating shoots. I’ve decided that I never want to be a celebrity. There’s something intensely claustrophobic about it. However, when I returned from the trip, my brother Jon greeted me with “Hello princess,” which I didn’t mind at all.