Monthly Archives: October 2010

Ben’s Thesis

Ben gives a speech to three professors acting as judges, and an audience of about 30 family and friends.

It seems unusual in Congo to find a common worker who is simultaneously attending university, but such is the case with Benjamin who works for Jon and Cher as their night guard. It’s a cushy job for him as he mostly sleeps the night away (to Jon and Cher’s chagrin).  Still, I’m happy that he is trying to better himself and I’ve tried to be supportive, showing interest in his classes while trying to understand the stories told in his meager English.

After finishing his lab tech courses in early summer, he spent the months of July, August, and September working on his big thesis paper, 28 pages of research on Bilharzia, which culminated in a presentation before three professors, with family and friends as spectators. Ben invited me.

The judges read through the thesis paper while Ben presents it in a speech.

The surprisingly well-organized presentation lasted for one hour and consisted of Ben giving a short speech about his topic in front of the audience of approximately 30, the judges publicly critiquing the paper, the judges conferring together on whether he passed or not while we waited outside, and finally announcing the results. No secrets here. No being nice and giving only positive feedback in front of the family.

Ben's professors go over the thesis page by page, highly critical of the writing mistakes/grammar, but conclude that the research is sound.

While Ben gave his speech sitting at a small table decorated with a yellow table cloth and white artificial flowers, a friend walked around the front of the room taking pictures, often standing right in front of Ben or the judges without the slightest embarrassment, which seems to be the Congolese style. Ben spoke carefully, clearly, and smiled a lot. The family applauded. The judges ripped him to shreds. His smiling face fell into a frozen grin. For at least 20 minutes, they seemed to tell him nothing nice about his paper, but according to a friend, they were criticizing the written mistakes throughout, not the actual research. Ben doesn’t type or own a computer, so he is forced to hire someone to type the paper and pay to have five copies printed and bound. Since French is his 2nd language, it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made.  As I watched this scene, I couldn’t imagine anything resembling this taking place in America. As my brother says, we Americans are thin-skinned and don’t take criticism well, especially not publicly.

Ben listens to the criticism of the judges, along with more than 30 of his family, friends, and fellow students who will go through the same exercise when they finish their thesis papers.

Although I couldn't understand everything, it was clear that it was not positive feedback. A few times a judge asked Ben a question and his reply sent the audience into cheers and applause. Later I was told he had responded well to the question.

Following the onslaught, we all stepped outside to wait for the results: pass or fail. Someone gave Ben a bouquet of artificial orange and yellow flowers. We took a few family photos. When the judges were ready, we gathered back in the room. They quickly announced that Ben had passed although he would be required to make corrections and print up five new bound copies of the thesis, at a cost of approximately $40 – an enormous sum for a guy who makes about $3 a day, the normal pay for a 12-hour/day guard. The next time you feel poor, think about that. Also consider that this schooling and degree will probably never result in a job as a lab tech for Ben, and even if he got a job in a government funded hospital, he would rarely get paid by the government. Even so, Ben and his family seemed genuinely proud at his accomplishment, and so was I.

Ben is presented with a bouquet of artificial flowers and congratulated while everyone waits outside the room where the judges decide if Ben should pass or fail.

When the judges make their decision, everyone is ushered back into the room for the announcement. A nervous Ben is told that he has passed but must re-write the paper to correct the mistakes. Everyone cheers and applauds, someone throws a Christmas-style lei around Ben's neck, and photos are taken with his mother.

Ben's family gathers for a photo following the announcement that he has passed.

Colorful Congo

The colors of Congo captivate me, from the brilliant green hills contrasted with latte-colored rivers, to the bright colored cloth and blue doors against brown mud huts. Even the dark-chocolate skin and warm earth reds make for rich visuals. Here are some photos from in and around Bunia.

Nyankunde, south of Bunia

Jon waits his turn to buy beef at a local meat shop.

A mother prepares to tie her baby on her back.

The Men's Choir from our church rehearses at 6 am in a small mud house on a Tuesday morning.

A village scene: a man pushes his bicycle loaded down with charcoal; women wait outside a hut to grind their cassava.

Good Hair and Clothes

I know I’ve posted hair photos before (on Facebook), but I’ve seen a few new ones this week and it has inspired me to post the Good Hair photos and Good Clothes photos again. Chris Rock, who made the documentary about African American hair (called “Good Hair”), should come to Congo for new inspiration. It’s clever, funky, wild, and sometimes scary. Our favorite, for it’s uniqueness, is the “satellite” hairstyle (the name I picked up in a BBC quote by a Congolese woman). Jon and Cher always comment, “She’s getting good reception!” when they see a nice one. Enjoy. Again.

The Rubberband hairstyle - front view

The Rubberband Hairstyle - back view









Look closely to see the red-girls satellite ball hairstyle.

Peach Suit

This couple attended church decked out in their finest matching clothes. The woman wore matching yellow shoes, purse, hair clip, and earrings. Her husband and child also matched her. The only thing "off" is the umbrella.

Purple Suit











Many women wear headscarves for special occasions in the most elaborate styles.

A variation on the satellite theme.

A variation on the satellite theme.

Epulu Girl

This is starting to look like "bad hair."

Definitely moving into the "scary hair" category.