As our departure nears, my anticipation rises for our trip to Congo. I spent the weekend reading a few short books on Congo, mostly by missionaries who’d been there prior to 1963: Congo Wayside Reflections, An Unfinished Revolution*, and some others. I have more on my short list. I’m reading about a place I have not been and have yet to see. Reading others’ accounts has helped nurture the excitement in me.
I’ve been wanting to record what expectations I have of what it will be like. Until I truly experience Congo first hand, articulating my own preconceived ideas is like telling a story based on the title of a novel I haven’t read. My expectations will be held in sharp relief against the story Congo has to tell.
Nonetheless, I wanted to try, like a child, my hand at telling the story as best I know. Once I’m there I know, in the same moment that my misconceptions are most clear before me, Congo will be shattering and replacing them. It’s the curse of knowledge: We forget what it’s like not to know the story. We can’t even remember the story we’d believed before, and some of us fool ourselves into believing that we’d always known this.
So, this is my attempt to articulate my foolishness so that I may later laugh at my confident naïveté. When I started to write this, I had listed a few categories in which I wanted to record some expectations, but I find those categories inadequate. I had written out, “economic,” “political,” “infrastructure,” and “spiritual.” Those categories could outline some thoughts and perhaps might still be useful, but they wouldn’t be sufficient. I could list some second-hand facts I have, but they wouldn’t capture the meaning. I could wrack my brain looking for a way to articulate ideas and beliefs. Instead I find myself retelling the stories I've heard and approximating experiences. So, here are two stories.
Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I drove to Mississippi and then Louisiana to serve the evacuees and victims of the disaster there. Everything I saw there was simply in the wrong order. Where you expected cars to be parked along the roadside, you saw boats leaning over on one side. When you looked in the front window expecting to see a chandelier, you instead saw the blue sky. There was dried mud and garbage that only weeks before were living rooms and playgrounds. I kept asking myself, “What was it like before?” and “How was this supposed to be?” I couldn’t really tell. I’d never seen it the way it was supposed to be.
I expect Congo to be a bit like that. I expect to see things out of order. And grasping the depth of disorder will mean first imagining how it was meant to be. Then, after that, the depth will go deeper than I thought. I will look again and understand.
I asked my dad this weekend, “How can we, as over-fed U.S. citizens, accept food prepared by people who have barely enough to eat themselves?” My dad recounted a meal he’d had last year: chicken prepared and presented by his host. When it was served, he looked at it. There was no meat.