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OICHA, CONGO – Dr. David Livingstone, celebrated explorer and missionary to Africa, was once asked by a group back in England, “Have you found a good road to where you are? We want to send others to join you.”
“If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them,” he replied. “I want men who will come even if there is no road at all.”
Livingstone, who was found in Congo in 1866 by New York Herald reporter Sir Henry Stanley and asked the well-known question, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” was recently described in The New Yorker as “a morally righteous man of God and a man of science.”
His comment about roads was vintage Livingstone. He didn’t take life’s easy street. Neither have doctors Philip and Nancy Wood, Aberdeen Avenue residents in Hamilton when home, which hasn’t been much these past 30 years, as they have made Africa their main address.
After landing with a single engine plane on a rough patch of earth, narrowly missing a goat, Jean and I spent time with them recently at the Christian medical compound where they care for Congolese refugees.
One barely knows where to begin. Almost 150 years after Livingstone, there are still no roads linking most of immense Congo to its capital Kinshasa. No national airline.
Heck, often no phones. Little wonder the government can’t handle out-of-control tribes. Philip and Nancy got a taste of tribal violence when their longtime Congolese home of Nyakunde, population 18,000, was wiped off the map last fall. Dozens of patients and staff at Nyakunde mission hospital were hacked to death. Incredibly, hundreds of others escaped by walking through the forest for 10 days to Oicha.
Indeed, Congo makes a place like Yemen look like a five-star hotel. Months before Congo’s most recent mass killings, 90,000 refugees had already poured into the greater region of Oicha, a town originally the size of Ancaster.
Many are professionals. Now they have thatched homes with simple, blue tarps. Food is a pasty millet cooked on an open fire. A kid is lucky to have a rubber tire for a toy. Malaria, malnutrition and anemia visit often.
Philip and Nancy have a small, Spartan, red brick house where Philip enjoys Brahm’s symphonies over BBC satellite, often in the dark. When you generate your own electricity, it’s rationed. And for $200 US a month, you can get e-mail. Just travel 27 kilometres to the nearest phone line.
I dryly call the place Camp Paradise. And yet, these refugees, having lost everything, often have big smiles and friendly dispositions. Philip and Nancy also exude satisfaction all too rare in Canadian culture.
“You put down tent pegs wherever the Lord puts you,” says Nancy. That’s perspective.
Congo’s problems are caused in part by outsiders. African neighbours supply rebels with weapons. That makes it easier for foreigners to pilfer Congo’s resources like timber and gold. Even al- Qaeda has been found to be involved with Congo’s $1 million-a-day, blood diamond trade, selling to European merchants to bankroll terrorist hits.
But ordinary North Americans also use Congo’s resources, such as coltan, a key raw material needed for computer chips and cellphones. Congo may also have significant oil, and one international relief worker told me she believes evidence already shows North American interests are ready to exploit that, saying, “It’s the same issues as in Sudan.”
It’s food for thought. It’s especially interesting, considering revisionist historians like to blame Christian figures like Livingstone for the evils of colonialism. Similarly, modern missionaries, like Philip and Nancy, are often wrongly accused of being narrowly Western-centric. In truth, these brave souls are keeping desperate people in places like Congo from falling completely into disarray. They work under pressures from all directions, including from their home culture, one that promotes the silly notion that flashy things like diamonds last forever.
Sorry, only divine love lasts that long. And peace can only be found when we take our own road less travelled, as Philip and Nancy Wood have.