My time in Congo: Mwana expanding its reach

I am approaching the end of my time here in Congo and yet there is still so much we have on the agenda to do. What a whirlwind trip - and an incredible one at that. I try to remind myself that I am actually here, experiencing so much for the first time. But like anything else intense in life, we usually only likely gather the full picture once removed from the environment. Africa is too different from anything I have known to give justice to my experience with words. The smells, the food, the government, the lifestyle, the people, the hardships, the simplicity, the pace - it is all foreign but incredibly special, and certainly sometimes scary. 

 

I am seeing how Mwana's operational model continues to peak interest among many, given there is truly no other refuge like it that exists elsewhere in Congo. With that, we were invited to visit a community, Nkayi, about 4 hours away from Pointe Noire by the local mayor.  Cheryl, myself and a member of the local Mwana team took the road trip and spent a couple intense days visiting several families to confirm a need and viability of Mwana opening a second refuge home. The trip was both sobering and rewarding as I can attest firsthand that the need is certainly strong to establish a local presence in the Nkayi region. Both mayors we met with gave Mwana their blessing and support - a crucial step in the process of expansion. (see picture in this blog of us with the officials after our meeting). We explored several possible locations to rent a house until a more scaled solution of building a permanent Mwana refuge could be financially possible.  To that point, we were invited to view a generous parcel of land in Nkayi that has been donated to Mwana for this purpose from the mayor himself. This was another testament to the growing alliances we are establishing in the country which are essential to securing the vision of Mwana Villages in Africa. That vision has never changed: to provide a holistic, sustainable hope and a future to vulnerable people.

 

Congo isn't easy. Sitting against a back drop of fertile land and lush forest, the Congolese people understand toil and hardship more than I ever could. As my return to Canada is only days away, I continue to soak in as much as I can of this unique place. On a personal note, I am thrilled that I haven't been held back by sickness during my trip. I brought a pharmacy of medicine with me to cover every possible ailment I could think of and haven't used any of it! I'll be wrapping up my work here tomorrow and I continue to post several pics our Facebook page. Make sure you jump over to Facebook to check out some amazing moments we have captured so far.

My first impression: Visiting Mwana in Congo

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The heat presents itself as a wall of welcome upon stepping off the plane into Pointe Noire. Despite the 19 hours of travel and 6-hour time difference from Montréal, I am very alert, albeit nervous, as I drag my luggage with the broken wheel into the airport to be approached by local customs (note to self: replace that wheel or else throw that luggage far, far away).

The air is heavy with humidity, and I quickly scan my surroundings for anything familiar to offset my discomfort of waiting to be accepted into the country. I didn’t know how I would feel coming all this way to visit Mwana Villages' Baby Home and experience the realities of Mwana's vision up close. Having Cheryl with me however gave me the security to finally make the trip that has been in my heart since I was a child. Cheryl is the founder and visionary of Mwana. She lived in Congo for 5 years, a detail that would soon show how it was like she was returning home to family in contrast to the 3 days it took me in our short 2-week trip to merely get my feet beneath me and adjust.

There is so much to say about my impressions so far that I would need more than a post to do it justice. For brevity's sake, I can say that Congo gives you a mixed world of old versus new, with extreme poverty living right across the street from wealth. The smells are unique, the traditional cuisine is a mainstay with the women preparing food as was done a time long ago, slowly and carefully prepared with devotion to every beautiful part of the plate: the palm sauce, fried plantains, salted saffou to name just some.

People are relational, and it’s as if the clock moves slower here.

So many stereotypes have had a chance to show themselves to me, from white vs. black profiling to simply fearing the mosquitos, drinking the water to the local cockroaches who come out at night when imp trying to sleep.

Its been several days now and I’m finding it easier to be in a completely French environment and getting deeper into the daily affairs that make Mwana an incredible beacon of light in this country. The children whom I have only previously known on paper are now real and up close to me. Their little personalities are emerging as I spend time with them. The mamas are dedicated workers who have stories of hardship I have never known. Mwana is now their refuge. The results of our 7 years of fundraising so far are manifested right in front of me. I’m humbled to see what Mwana has achieved and grateful to the team on the ground who tirelessly keep this vision alive. I will be pleased to follow up with profiles on some of our team who have believed in giving a hope and a future to the Congolese in the midst of challenging circumstances. You’ll read about Jean and Madie, Cecile, Maman Rebecca, Frank and Fabrice, and others. I’m excited to share the rest of this incredible trip in the next post.

--Corina Boland, Mwana Canada Board VP

No place like HOME

It still stands out in my mind as one of the most revelatory experiences I’ve had. Driving through a pot-holed dirt road, which would be impassable on any of the 200 days of rain in Congo, we arrived at a small hut. No electricity, no running water, and little French spoken indicated that most of the community members in that neighborhood would not have notable educational or professional achievements. We were driving to visit with Maman Henriette and discuss how we could support her in her determination to care for her five children, one of whom had been in Mwana’s care since she was just two months old.

 

It was at that moment that I realized how easily it happens. Trafficking. The promise of a few hundred dollars in exchange for the last child who is too difficult to feed; the near-irresistible draw that that child could be offered a better life; the lie that this child could be educated and return to her family. With these lies, vulnerable families are exploited daily in neighborhoods like Henriette’s. Children whose right and proper place is with their families instead end up elsewhere. Some may go to institutions who receive a steady stream of pocket-padding income; some may go to adoptive families who never received an accurate social history of their adopted child, and some may end up in situations far worse…

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even the poorest of families are dignified when we believe in and act in ways that promote family preservation and reunification whenever possible.

 

It was, then, a full circle moment for me when—nearly two years later—I returned to Henriette’s home. The same broad smiles of her children and neighbors, now a few years older, were instantly recognizable. Celia had in the past few months been reunified with her siblings and mother, and I was eager to see how she was doing. Within the first ten seconds of seeing her, it was clear that she was HOME. Frankly, she wanted nothing to do with Mama Madie, one of the caregivers who had lovingly cared for her in the Mwana Refuge since she was a newborn. She far preferred the loving arms of her big sisters and wanted instead to play with the 15 other children (both siblings and neighbors) who were doing everything from dances to soccer to hair braiding.

 

Isn’t that exactly how it should be? A child who knows that her true place is with her family. For this family, it was a preservation of something sacred and beautiful…a preservation of the family and a preservation of their dignity. For in spite of the poverty that surrounded them, there was great joy, great sense of belonging, and great beauty.

To learn more about Mwana Village’s ongoing support for Henriette and other vulnerable mothers like her, please read more here. Consider sponsoring a vulnerable mother through our sponsorship program.

Arrivée au Congo!

After 20 hours of traveling, we arrived in Congo.  We knew we were back in Africa when the windows of the plane fogged immediately upon landing, and my heart skipped a beat to be back in the place I love so dearly.

 

The familiar face and wide grin of our local coordinator, Jean, was a wonderful sight at the airport. With 6 out of 7 bags in tow (and hoping the last will be here Tuesday!) we loaded up in the van to trek our way through the city of Pointe-Noire to the nighttime sights of barbecuing and after-dark gatherings.

 

Coming into the walls and door of Mwana in some ways was like coming back home. The welcoming arms and beautiful smile of Madie; the happy faces of two “mamas” (caregivers) who had so dearly loved my own two children from the day they arrived to the day they left Mwana…these were sights that made my heart swell.

 

The children were asleep by the time we arrived, and truly the sense of peace walking down the hall and peeping into each bedroom was overwhelming. Each baby and child, clad in his or her footed pjs, was sleeping deeply and quietly, just as any child does at the end of another happy, playful day at home.

 

After a wonderful meal and a long dredge of the quietness in the home—a calm that would surely be lost to the songs, laughter, chaos and joy of the children’s busy playing the next day, we called in a night. Congo, it’s good to be back, and we can’t wait to see what you have in store in the next week.

Congo-Bound from Alabama

In three weeks, I’ll be returning for the third time to the place I first saw our youngest two children— the place they called “Home” for over a year until they joined our family. The memories of those days are warm and dear in my heart. I think of the first kiss my new son gave me; the joy of seeing him bond instantly with my husband. I think of my new daughter asleep on my back while I painted at a benefit event. I think of the first time I heard their laughter. I think of their tears when we left. I think of the joy of returning four months later, never to say goodbye to them again. I think of the way The Archibald Project wove our story into a beautiful documentary that still makes me cry every time I see it.

 

But this time, I’m returning not as an adoptive mother, but as an advocate. I’m now returning to the place of dear friends—partners in ministry who--while they live on another continent, with a different language and with quite different life experiences--have become as near as family. They have taught me more than I could imagine since I first came to learn about this little organization called “Mwana Villages” two and a half years ago…

 

As I reflect upon the experiences that now shape my role as a Mwana advocate, I think of the bumpy drive through Henriette’s neighborhood and the stark realization of how easily child trafficking and family exploitation can take place. I think of the warm welcome by a Congolese adoptive mother and seeing the love for her new 12-year-old daughter. I think of learning the Congolese word for “mother to twins” (“Mangoudi!” which is a name of honor and always said with much gusto) and how one of the poorest families I’ve ever met bears that name with the same pride and joy as I do. I think of the meticulously made bed and swept floor in Jarel’s 8x10 hut (which he shares with two sisters). I think of the heaps and heaps of trash, and marvel at all I take advantage of when I look out my door in Alabama. I think of the women I shared conversations with, women who have themselves been orphaned, have been entrenched in prostitution, have fought for their children, and who continue to seek any means they can to provide. And I think...those women love their babies fiercely, just like me.

 

Honestly, I can’t wait to be back. I want to soak it all in, learning how I can advocate more effectively for these people and this place I love so dearly. I want to share their stories well. I want others to see and know and love and be moved to action. So I invite you to join the journey as we will soon be Congo-bound.