Monday, November 7, 2011


I've written 49 posts since my adventure began over 2 years ago in Rome.  I figured it would be good to end with a nice round number like 50, plus I'm always a little annoyed when people end blogs without clearly ending it, so here is my last post, wrapping it all up and signing off of Mission: Congo.

I have a Word document for my blog where I saved parts of posts I started writing plus all my ideas for future posts.  Sadly, many of them didn't get written, and some that I did start soon became outdated, or talked about something that I didn't find remarkable anymore.  Here are a few subjects that I had hoped to write more about: 
The Bakery
African Communication- Or How Does Everyone in the Entire Village Know About This Except Us?
Chez VOICA Refurbishment (on a side note, does anyone know why we only say REfurbish?  How come you don't say, I'm furbishing my place for the first time?)
The Meat Shack
Goats are Funny
How Green is My Life Here- Or Solar Power Realities and Do I Want to Burn This or Bury It?

Maybe someday I will write a memoir and these topics will help me remember some more of my African experience!

To finish this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to look back on all I had written before.  I enjoyed reading all my old posts and seeing what I had wanted to write about.  Many of my early posts made me laugh a bit because they talked about things that I thought were unusual or funny about Congo, but now it seems so normal.  What used to be so extraordinary became an ordinary part of every day life.  I adapted to a life so totally different to what I had been used to and it became my normal life.  And my life in Africa, is, in fact, much more like the normal life of millions of people around the world than my normal life in America is. Adaptation was very difficult at times, and I am so happy to have hot showers again, but I am also surprised at how non difficult it was and how I became used to so many aspects of daily life that had, in my first few weeks, really astounded me.

Now that I am home, I am beginning to understand how much I changed.  I changed a lot in a small amount of time, but it didn't feel that way until I got home and could compare it to the way I used to be.  Towards the end of my time in Congo, I started thinking about what I wanted to do when I got home, but I quickly realized that it was impossible because I had changed too much to think about home in the old context.  I needed to go home and see how I fit into home as a changed person.  And I also needed to leave Congo to fully understand how much it has changed me and time to process who I am now.  

I feel like I am on a completely different path than I thought I was going to Congo.  I was sure I would return home and attend a graduate school program involving International relations and travel the world working for an NGO of some sort.  But right now, that no longer interests me.  I want to build a community closer to home.  I think the value of community is one of the biggest things I have taken away with me from Congo. Not only did I live in a community of volunteers, but I witnessed the community of Aru, where people live close to their families and generally stay in once place, or near to one place for much of their lives.  The people are settled with a network of family and friends and they can be involved with nurturing and growing their community.  After traveling the world during and after college, I am ready to stay in one place and be a part of my own community, instead of being a temporary visitor of other people's communities.  

The most important thing I learned in Congo was the important of faith in my life.  I choose VOICA because it was faith based and I knew that faith was important to me.  And now I understand that it is not only important, but vital to my life.  God is at the center of my life, and must always be, or I will fall apart.  I do everything with strength from God and I am so much happier to be serving Him.  I could not have survived 2 years in Congo without God, I am not strong enough.  This experience tested my limits, and showed me that I have limits, and the only way to be at or beyond my limit is with Jesus by my side.  But even then, I have learned to respect my limits and not push myself too hard.  

I am still reflecting on the experience and adjusting to life in America.  I am looking forward to...something, the future is still not clear to me, but no matter, because I am enjoying the moment of being with family and friends and just enjoying life in general.

I will leave this blog and Mission: Congo with sunset over the Congo river, remembering that as the sun sets over Congo, it rises somewhere else.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Final Library Thoughts

Since I have been in Italy for one month and now back in Denver for a week, I have noticed people asking the same question: "what was the hi-light or favorite experience in Congo?"  

For me, the most positive experience in Congo was the opening of the library.

First, it was a major personal accomplishment to be a part of opening the first public library in Aru. I was in charge of this project from when I arrived, so I felt a great sense of achievement in seeing it finished after all the hard work that I had put into it. It was scary to be in charge of it and there were several moments when I thought that the sisters were crazy for putting me in charge. It was a huge challenge to build a library almost from scratch when I am not a librarian- I have used a library all my life and my mom is a librarian (which was a BIG help), but there is a big difference in being a library patron and being the sole person responsible for setting it up. But despite all these challenges, the library opened and people came to use it!  

The most uplifting part of the library project was that so many people worked together to make it happen: from Tricia the first volunteer who started the idea, to Stefano, Clara and the local construction workers who actually built it, to my parish at home who donated generously and prayed fervently for the success of this project, to my mother who gave me so much advice, to Katie, Elena, and Sr. Joy who helped to paint, clean and set up, to Bolingo the local I trained as librarian, plus many, many others who helped in seeing this project to its opening as a library. Well, as they say at the Oscars, the orchestra has started playing, so I need to finish up, but my list of acknowledgements for the library could make its own book. This was not a project for one person over a short time, but it took many years and many people- volunteers, sisters, people in other countries and locals, to make it happen. It is truly a global community project where people from different sides of the world came together to achieve a truly amazing goal. The library could never have opened without such devoted help from so many different people- both far away and close to Aru.  

I am so thankful to be a part of such an important opportunity for the people of Aru and I thank God for  giving me the opportunity to serve in this way.  

Friday, October 21, 2011

People are the Difference

After 2 years I am back at the VOICA house in Rome. Two years ago in September I arrived at VOICA and I had never been in Rome or Africa before (although I had been many places in Europe and the Pacific). It was a new adventure. Now, I am no stranger to Rome, and I have lived for 2 years in Aru, Democratic Republic of Congo. Now I sit once more, overlooking the magnificent view of St. Peter’s Dome, but instead of looking forward to Congo, I look back and reflect on what was most important to my experience in Congo. The answer in clear and immediate: the people. The people that I encountered in Congo are what made the experience so special. Everyone from the other volunteers I lived with, to the sisters, to all the locals I consider to be a part of my community and a very important part of my life.

During my 2 years in Congo, I lived with 9 different volunteers: Lydia, Tomas, Stefano, Clara, Matteo, Maria, Katie, Elena, Dan, and Enzo plus 2 groups from Italy for a short term experience. These people were from Italy, Czech Republic, Romania, Canada, and the United States so each brought a different culture, language, and lifestyle to our community. The challenges were great in harmonizing so many different people, especially as all of these people came and went at intervals over the 2 years. I lived very closely with all of these people (our house is small) and shared the difficulties and joys of life in mission.

The circle of my community widens to include the sisters that I worked with over 2 years. I love dearly Sr. Daniela and then Sr. Joy who were the sisters in charge of VOICA volunteers. I spent so many hours with Sr. Alba in the Cyber café, trying to figure out technology. And so many other sisters with whom I ate, prayed, and worked.

There are also so many local people that have become dear to me. Bolingo, who I trained as a librarian, is such a good young man with a bright future. Orio, our former sentinel, and “fils adoptif” (adopted son) because he spends so much time at our house…he always shows up just in time for meals. Mama Antoinette, who was my first friend at school and always showed great kindness to me. There are so many other important people in Aru, that I could not name them all.

Each of these people added so much to my experience and even gave me the strength to stay in Congo for so long. Without these people, plus so many who supported me from home, my experience in Congo would be nothing. It is each individual that enlightened my day, my work, my prayer, and all that I did in Aru. I am truly grateful for each person in my life that I met in mission- those who were my friends, those who challenged me, and those who I wish I could have know better- each person is what made up my experience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cyber Café: At Long Last, Good News!!

After months of discouragement, the Cyber was finally overwhelmed with good news in August! It all happened at once so that, in just a few short days, Cyber became a completely new Cyber! (If you need a reminder on how Cyber is set up in 2 rooms with laptop/desktops, read my blog on Cyber here).

First, we painted and rearranged the Cyber to be more welcoming. The Cyber was due for a coat of paint not only because it’s been a few years, but especially because it is right on the main road where big trucks come by sending dust flying into every crevice. That is to say, the walls were dirty.

The new colors brightened everything up and, since we used all oil paint, we hope that it will be easier to keep these walls clean. Personally, I think the blue and crème color scheme is tranquil and creates a peaceful Internet surfing atmosphere, and it’s not just because they are my favorite colors. Here we are all painting together:

Katie, Dan, Orio, Me, and Clara (before)

Dan, Orio, and Felix (during, almost after)

We also rearranged all the furniture to include a welcome desk which is much friendlier. We used to stand in the back and wait for people to come in, look around, and be confused. This picture is taken from the door and you can see how far away Sr. Alba is:

Now people walk in and there is a friendly face at the desk, so there is much less confusion:

We also got a new specially made table for our 2 photocopier/printers that includes enough space to put down the papers you are coping and we have plans for a defined waiting area with reading material as well as a work table for stapling, collating, etc. Here is the new Cyber:

All this was enough, but then, when we had just started the work at Cyber we were Italian Surprise Attacked. This turned out to be fantastic not only because the Italians could help us finish painting the Cyber, but because they brought us new laptops! Since the theft in April, we have been limping along with the Cyber’s two computers that were fortuitously at home the night of the theft, plus 2 loaners. All 4 of these computers were temperamental and refused to work entirely as they should (and 2 of them were not ours so we had to be extra careful). Now we have 4, yes FOUR, new laptop computers to use for Cyber- that makes SIX total. Like 3 times as many computers as Cyber owned before.

So this is the new Cyber. I was very happy to see these changes implemented before I left because I put so much of my time and heart into working at Cyber and I wanted to see it grow during my time. There is still lots of room for more improvement at Cyber, but I have to leave something for future volunteers!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Good-bye Congo

All of a sudden, I find myself at the end of my time in Congo.  It really snuck up on me.  Part of that is my fault though, as I was originally scheduled to leave on October 11th.  However, after a very difficult few weeks, I decided to leave earlier than planned.  My rescheduled flight leaves on September 11th.  So now, I have just a few more days left in Congo before going to Rome for a month of reflection.  Finally, on October 17th I will fly home and be back in Denver!

I am ready to leave.  I am very tired and each day wears on me, so going to Rome early is a relief.  I wanted to keep going another month to finish up my commitment, but I keep crashing and having to spend more time in bed recovering from work than actually working, so I am now at peace to leave here.  I also have a wonderful opportunity to stay in Rome for a few weeks to reflect on my experience and think about the next steps in my life.  I can start to see how Congo has changed me and my future and prepare for whatever I will be doing next…and do all this while taking hot showers and eating gelato.

The library is in good hands with Bolingo who I’ve worked with for several months now and Sr. Esperance, who I have had only a week with, but I have great confidence in her.  The Cyber is doing well and will survive, but might have some technical difficulties- but I’m sure someone will arrive to help them; probably someone much more qualified to work on computers than me!  I hope to write a few more blogs from Rome on the last updates of my project and life here, so check in again soon for some final reflections on my Congo life.

In closing, I’ll mention a few things that I will and will not miss about Congo.

What I will miss:

  1. Music at church- even daily mass has a fantastic choir, and Sunday mass is alive with joyful music and church dancing- how many times have you hopped up on the pews and danced for joy?  I’m afraid I might find myself out of line come Christmas…
  2. Cheap avocados- O to be able to make guacamole, curry, soup, egg salad, pie, and so much more for a mere 5 cents per avocado (or FREE from our trees).  I will die when I see the prices of avocados in America. 
  3. Fashion- I love pagnes.  My suitcase is bursting with African cloth that I’ve made into skirts, and some that I have yet to make into skirts.  I hope I don’t find a pattern that is relatively dull here to be too brilliant for the American fashion scene.
  4. Zooming around town on the back of a motorcycle.  It’s terrifying, and yet fun. 
  5. The friendliness, kindness, and generosity of the people.  Life is difficult here, and Aru is a very poor place materially, but the joy, patience, and love that people live with had been remarkable to watch and I hope that I can incorporate that attitude into my life in America. 

What I will not miss:

  1. Burning my trash- I have a vague guilty feeling that burning all that plastic is bad for the environment…and what about batteries?
  2. Cold showers- not even a little bit, not even nostalgically, not at all, will I miss cold showers, in fact I might just not shower until I reach Rome, it’s only 5 days away.
  3. The rainy season for all the mud…and the dry season for all the dust
  4. Being followed down the street by children yelling “mondele” (white person).   I mean really, you’ve seen white people before…get over it.
  5. Giant rats in the bakery, cockroaches popping out of shower drains, and un-dead spiders!  And termites- giant, flying, termites!!  And of course, those pesky mosquitoes that sent me to the hospital for a week.

On that note, I sign off from Congo…but I hope to sign on agian in Rome very soon!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Visiting the Heart of Africa

Promenade to Ofa

Every now and then we all feel the need to get out of Aru and see something else. Sometimes this ends with a trip to Arua, or Ariwara, or another promenade. This time, we went to visit our friend Orio’s village. Orio works on a variety of projects in construction, painting, chicken feeding, and he was also our sentinel for a few months. During the last few months he has become a very good friend and spends many evenings at our house (he always shows up just in time for dinner) eating, drinking, watching movies, and playing games. He has even lent his voice to our attempts at karaoke. Orio lives nearby in Aru, but he often visits his village, 4 km away to visit his 2 daughters, mother, and other relatives. One Sunday he invited us along to visit his village and meet some of his family.

After an almost pleasant bike ride (I’m trying to be positive, but it was really a mostly not pleasant bike ride with lots of hauling the bike up and down hills) we arrived in Ofa to a grand welcome. Many of Orio’s brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and who knows who else came by to welcome us to their village. There are TONS of kids who live around his house- most of which were happy to see us. A few, including Orio’s 2 year old daughter Mara, cried and ran away when confronted with so many white people. Some of the kids were even courageous enough to come near us and say a few works, but most just watched us from a distance.

After we had settled in and been greeted by half the village, Orio’s sister served us and amazing feast- meat, chicken, eggs, fufu, rice, French fries, salad, pineapple, passion fruit, bananas, and maybe a few other things I’m forgetting. We all ate until we were stuffed.

After lunch we went for a walk around the village. We climbed a few hills and enjoyed the woods and the beautiful views of Aru. We could see the library, convent, church, and many other familiar places from on high. I had seen these hills in the distant almost every day, and it was fantastic to be there looking back at the normal view.

Once our digestion walk was complete we headed back to give out candy to the children (although Mara was still crying at the sight of us), thank everyone- especially Orio’s sister- for welcoming us, and say good-bye. The ride (okay, I walked half way pushing the bike) was a lovely way to end our day.

This visit to the village showed me a different side of Congolese life. Orio’s family lives so simply, there is no technology up there. They live in traditional huts made without modern building materials, and eat food from the land. Even though they do not have much, they shared everything with us, giving us a huge feast and making us feel truly welcome in their home. They actually thanked us for coming to see them, when it is they who gave so much. Orio’s mother doesn’t speak any French, but I could see in her face and in her words that I didn’t understand how happy she was for us to visit. I was so moved to see such simple and real hospitality that truly came from the heart.

In the City

A few weeks after our visit to Ofa, we were invited to celebrate the First Communion of a Parishoner on a Sunday afternoon. Elena, me and two sisters went to their house in the city of Aru, not too far from where we live. This family was different from Orio’s simple village family in many ways, but the culture of welcoming and generosity shone through the same. This family lives in a modern house in the city and is very well off as the mother is director of a local primary school and the father is a government official. But just like Orio’s village, the house is full of children running around so that it is hard to identify brothers, sisters, or cousins- it’s all just one big family living together and sharing everything. We were most sincerely welcomed by everyone. These city children were much more used to seeing white people, so we had a very nice time playing with them. After visiting for a bit, we were served a lovely feast of many dishes.

I have seen through both of these villages how the importance of hospitality for the Congolese. This type of hospitality truly comes from the heart. We were made welcome in these homes not only because we were invited, but because our hosts truly wanted us to be welcome and to enjoy our time with them. I am so grateful for these opportunities to visit my friends and to meet new people and see the hearts of the Congolese people.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Italian Invasion: Surprise Attack!!

Every year in August, Italy descends upon a small town in Congo called Aru.  They come bearing gifts of cheese, olive oil, and meats and with good intentions to serve the people for a few weeks.  When they are here, they eat copious amounts of cheese, olive oil, and meats as well as pasta and drink even more copious amount of coffee.  They fill the air with their chattering in Italian and their hand gestures.  They talk late into the night (drinking coffee of course) and work all day.  They leave joy in their wake with their laughter, singing, and generous donations of candy.  The month of August is really like being in Italy, but Africa, and it can be a little overwhelming at times, but mostly it is fun. 

Usually us long termers have warning of when this Italian invasion occurs; we have time to plan our defensives and hunker down before they arrive in full Italian force.  We also know the names and how long they are staying for before retreating back to Italy.  This year we were informed that 4 volunteers were coming on August 3.  But wait, August 3rd is still days away…how can I already be writing about this year’s Italian Invasion? 


In an inexplicable communication error from Rome, the Italians arrived on July 29, 5 days before their originally scheduled arrival.  Imagine my surprise when I innocently opening my email on July 28th and found a message from Rome mentioning that the volunteers were leaving Rome today and would be in Congo…tomorrow.  “Tomorrow!  But we’re not ready,” thought I.  But there was nothing to do about it, the Italian invasion was starting.

 Now that the original shock has worn off, the Italy invasion is quite pleasant.  There are 5 people (4 volunteers and a sister from Italy to lead them) willing to do any work that we tell them to do.  They brought whole suitcases full of nothing but cheese, meat, and other delicious Italian foods.  There are some communication difficulties, but mosty we are getting along very well and I am looking forward to getting to know the new volunteers more.  A quick introduction:

Oswaldo, a librarian at the Vatican whom I am hoping can shape up my library a bit,

Valentina, from Rome who will be teaching the sisters a bit of Excel,

Lia, who works for Chanel and speaks excellent French,

Chiara, a nursing student who hopes to spend her life serving after getting her nursing degree,

And Sr. Tina from Como who only speaks Italian thus, I do not know much about her. 

Chiara and Sr. Tina will stay for one month and the rest will leave after only 2 weeks.  We set them to work right away by painting the Cyber (stay tuned for a Cyber update).  Other work on their list after the Cyber is finished is helping in the library, at the farm, and painting any other things that we feel need to be painted.  

That’s all for now from Little Italy: Congo addition!