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The Friendly FolkDancers Tour the Congo: Along the western edge of Lake Tanganyika

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The Congo (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC) is known to Westerners mostly as a “failed state,” and it is certainly not on many tourists’ lists of favorite destinations. It wasn’t on my list, either, even though there are more than 3,000 Quakers there.

In my nearly 20 years of service with the Friends World Committee on Consultation (FWCC), I had the opportunity to meet Friends from all over the world at frequent international gatherings. Many of these encounters led to opportunities for visits by the Friendly FolkDancers (FFD), a group of folk‐dancing Quakers who have ministered through dance in such countries as Kenya, Cuba, Ireland, Australia, and Rwanda. The subject came up again at the Sixth World Conference of Friends in Nakuru, Kenya, in 2012, where I found myself co‐facilitating a group of French‐speaking Africans from Cameroon, Madagascar, Burundi, and the DRC, with Mkoko Boseka, clerk of the Evangelical Yearly Meeting of Friends in the Congo (CEEACO).

When I mentioned the African countries visited by the Friendly FolkDancers, Mkoko immediately asked us to disregard the Congo’s reputation for violence and ineffective government and come to visit as a troupe. I referred him to Antoine Samvura, clerk of Rwanda Yearly Meeting, to learn more about what hosting us really involved, hoping that Antoine might discourage him, but no such luck: Mkoko came back to me more enthusiastic than ever. When I next encountered Antoine, I asked if he’d be interested in touring with us, as he had already danced with us—in Indiana, of all places!—but he just smiled and shook his head. That was hardly a good sign.

A couple of years of planning passed, as Mkoko Boseka worked out the details of hosting, and I explored the interest among American and European Friends in participating in such a tour: there was, understandably, very little. By August 2014, there were only four Americans who were ready to go: Peter and Lynne D’Angelo of California, Mark Helpsmeet of Wisconsin, and myself from Pennsylvania. Fortunately, we also had four Africans willing to join us: Antoine Samvura from Rwanda (yes!), along with a young woman dancer named Aline Dusabe; Sara Anusu from Kenya (who had danced with us in Rwanda in 2008); and another Kenyan Friend named Hudson Omenda, who had seen an FFD program at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania.

Three of us flew from Dulles Airport, near Washington, D.C., to Addis Ababa, where Mark, who had flown via Toronto, met us. The Kenyans also joined us there for the short flight via Kigali, Rwanda, to Bujumbura, Burundi. The Rwandans, who had come by bus, were waiting for us, when Mkoko, who had met our plane, directed us to our lodging. The eight of us met together for the first time at lunch, promptly deciding that naps were the order of the day. We would start practicing the dances after dinner at 7:00 p.m. and then hold our first formal meeting. We would need to use at least two languages all the time, selected from English, French, and Swahili.

The following afternoon, Mkoko returned to fetch us for our move to the Congo itself. We set out in a Toyota Land Cruiser, with luggage piled on top and between our legs, and headed to the top edge of Lake Tanganyika, which separates Burundi from the Congo toward the west. At the border, we switched Land Cruisers to one supplied by Congolese Friends. On getting into the new van, Lynne slipped and deeply gashed her shin. Fortunately, at the same time, we were joined by Dr. Guillaume Marume, head of the hospital in Abeka, and his wife Rose Mbaji, who we later learned was one of Mkoko’s daughters. Dr. Guillaume guided us through the hospital at Uvira, where Lynne’s cut was sewn up with numerous stitches; he also provided subsequent care at the hospital in Abeka, where we stayed for about half of our tour.

 

The addition of Guillaume and Rose, along with Mkoko and his wife Chantal, meant that there were now ten of us in the back of the van, crammed into seats clearly meant for no more than eight. The roads in the Congo turned out to vary from good dirt to some of the rockiest and hilliest we had ever driven on; moreover, occasionally a bridge was out, requiring us to ford a local river or two. One lucky outcome for Lynne was that she and her husband, Peter, rode in the front of the van for the rest of the tour instead of being squeezed into the back.

Both Guillaume and Rose learned most of our dances in the course of our visit, performing with us as Way opened. In fact, Rose took Lynne’s place in the livelier dances, although Lynne was able, later in the tour, to rejoin us in the quieter ones. The plan was that these two young people would later teach the dances to local youth of different ethnicities, using dance —even as we did—as a way of making peace.

We presented nine programs in nine days, five from a home base in Uvira and the rest from Abeka. All of them took place on dirt surfaces marked by roots and rocks and circumscribed by a symbolic string‐made fence. We ended up presenting just two sets: a Middle Eastern compilation of dances from Iraq, Palestine, Israel, and the United States, and a “wedding suite” of dances from Romania, Hungary, Croatia, and Switzerland. (Our original plan to perform also a Hindu‐Muslim pair that we called “In Gandhi’s footsteps” proved impractical, as there really was nowhere to change out of our saris into our white dresses and black shoes.) We estimated 400‐450 in every audience, most of them small children, sitting or standing on all four sides. It wasn’t easy persuading some of them to join us in some simple dances at the end, but ultimately we succeeded. The local pastors who wrote evaluations were consistently surprised that we were not youngsters in our teens or twenties! (Our actual ages ranged from 37 to 77.) We had to show them that even older folks could indeed dance and entertain them.

A sample evaluation read, in part, as follows:

As they descended from the van, the people waiting for them asked themselves, “How will this intergenerational group, coming from different countries with different cultures, manage to dance well together?” As they came out in their blue and white costumes, we saw directly that they were well‐organized artisans of peace and people of prayer. The introductory words were constructive and edifying, calling on the Congolese to accept living in unity in diversity. It’s not that easy for people who come from different countries to dance together. We offer flowers to our brothers and sisters of the group of dancers for peace.

At one of our stops, a woman presented a chicken in a basket to Mark, expressing her thanks for our visit on behalf of the USFW (United Society of Friends Women). She asked that we tell others about the local peace center and its needs. Mark responded, and the basket was brought over and placed on the bench near us. The chicken eventually made it back to our base camp in Abeka, where in due course it was allowed to join its fellows in the yard.

We had plenty to eat throughout, including lots of rice and beans and fish from Lake Tanganyika, but with all the dancing and rehearsing I don’t think any of us gained any weight! Our main impression of eastern Congo, however, was one of extreme poverty. The little kids were mostly in rags, numbers of them with the protruding bellies and patches of light‐colored hair that speak of kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition caused by insufficient protein. Many of the youngsters had infant siblings clamped to their bodies, front or back. Everywhere we went we saw needs: for books and laptops in the local Quaker school, for wheelbarrows to move bricks around in the brick‐making project, for a reliable source of electricity, for replacement of disposable materiel at the hospital (so they won’t have to keep washing the gloves for re‐use!), for support of a project aimed at allowing young people from different tribes to get to know each other by forming an orchestra and learning each other’s dances, and more. The Kenyans were moved as well, with Sarah making a list of needed supplies for the hospital and Hudson promising to find wheelchairs for four disabled Congolese whom he met during our tour.

I think it’s important to note that Americans were responsible for introducing the Religious Society of Friends into most of Africa: Friends United Meeting in Kenya and the neighboring countries of Uganda and Tanzania, and Evangelical Friends International in Rwanda and Burundi. In Congo, however, it was Mkoko Boseka himself—a Congolese native who grew up in Burundi—who brought the Friends Church to his home country when he moved back there and saw the need for peacemaking and trauma healing. This means that there is no automatic source of support or renewal in the United States or Europe, as the FFD observed, for example, when we toured Rwanda in 2008 (see FJ Jan. 2009). Friends in the Congo are on their own.

 

At this point, therefore, I had hoped to share with Friends around the U.S. information about opportunities and procedures to support some of these projects. It was clear that Congolese Friends were counting on those of us who are more fortunate to help them improve their lives and cement the currently precarious peace in their country. However, two email messages from Mkoko brought this expectation to a temporary halt:

(1) Dr. Guillaume and his wife Rose (a nurse) were attacked by five armed men at the hospital in Abeka during the night of November 16. They were beaten to the point where Rose sustained a fractured forearm. The invaders made off with two laptops, a digital camera, cash, clothes, medical supplies, and the registration papers for the local ambulance. They also threatened Dr. Guillaume that they would return unless he closed the hospital, which he has refused to do. That same night other unidentified armed men stole a number of electronic items from the local Friends radio station, including the “mixer” and several microphones.

(2) The subject line read “Yumima is dead.” The attached medical report noted that Yumima Nasende, age 64, had come to the hospital in Abeka one night in December in a state of unconsciousness after having been shot in the head at home by three unknown armed men. Surgery was performed to remove the bullet, but she died some hours later. Yumima, one of those who had introduced Quakerism into the Congo, had been the local cashier at the hospital for more than 15 years. Stolen by the bandits were the entire cashbox for the hospital workers, money from donors for social relief, Yumima’s personal savings which she had intended to pay her son’s school fees, and her identity cards and clothes. Yumima had been active in the yearly meeting, worked at the hospital also as a midwife, and was a former clerk of the Women Friends of CEEACO.

As for why all that cash is kept in people’s homes, I surmise that there are no banks in the area or none that are any more secure. Mkoko has, therefore, opened an account in a Burundian bank to receive wire transfer contributions from U.S. donors; the idea is that, as funds are needed, they can be transferred to a bank in Uvira, a much larger town north of Abeka where the recent violence has occurred. When I asked him how there could be any security in a land where disaffected and unemployed youth were a constant threat, here is part of what he wrote:

We agree with your concern. But hope is still there, if and only if the youth receive adequate rehabilitation and strong leadership that will enable them to change their behavior and their mentality. That is why we have decided to set up a non‐governmental organization called New Generation for Peace and Development in Africa (NGPDA). Only if the youth are re‐educated and re‐directed will we be able to bring an end to the insecurity with which we live and of which we are victims today. We are confident that the rehabilitation and coaching we aim to give to the youth in the region of Makobola will have a positive impact. We chose this area as our pilot project based on the conviction that, after the massacres there beginning in 1999, the youth know well enough the bad effects of war and have broken away from groups carrying weapons for any reason.

We have to show the youth in Makobola that any indications of bad behavior would slow the momentum of the programs we are planning to launch with the support of American Friends. These young people have reassured us that there will be no disturbances, asking us to remove this concern from our minds.

I have in hand a list of ten major projects that Congolese Friends are hoping to have funded. If you would like to help, please email me at [email protected]​aol.​com and I will let you know the nature of the projects, the kind of monetary support needed, and the safest possible way to send funds to Congo. In the meantime, please also hold our Congolese Friends in the Light, as they struggle to cope with the terrible risks of their daily lives and the spirit‐numbing uncertainty of their futures.

Rosemary Coffey, a member of Pittsburgh (Pa.) Meeting, is a former teacher and current freelance editor. She has been touring with the Friendly FolkDancers since 1992.

Posted in: Features, March 2015

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