Reports on the Summer 2010 trip to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

As will be seen below, the goals of this trip, the size of the travelling team, the frequent unpredicted challenges requiring prompt adjustments to our original plans and the relatively short duration of the mission made the preparation and posting of the kind of trip updates provided on my previous trips very difficult and unpractical. The patience and indulgence of our many faithful friends, supporters and followers for these updates is greatly appreciated.

Goals of the Trip

This year's summer trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was my very first opportunity since the beginning in 2006 of our onchocerciasis (riverblindness) eradication mission in that country to have travelling companions. The trip had three primary goals: 1) learn and determine how strong bonds could be established between the Princeton United Methodist Church (PUMC) community in the Greater New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church and its sister churches in the Northern Katanga Conference of the United Methodist Church, 2) provide an opportunity to members of the PUMC to witness the results of their years of support, and to experience the life-changing energy of putting a face to what has only been in their wide imagination, and 3) to determine how UFAR's mission in the DRC could be expanded to take advantage of a unique, kind and generous proposal made by Sight Savers International (SSI), a United Kingdom-based humanitarian organization with a long history of involvement supporting a variety of programs of blindness control and prevention in many of the former British colonies, a proposed offer to support similar programs in the DRC through a well-defined partnership relationship with UFAR.

The PUMC Congo Mission Team

Since the start in 2006 of UFAR's mission to control and eventually eradicated onchoerciasis in the Kasongo region of the DRC, members of the PUMC have been morally, spiritually and financially very supportive of this mission. In addition, several of the members have voluntarily contributed their energy and special talents serving on UFAR's Board and in fundraising activities. Proper implementation of the community-directed program of mass treatment with Mectizan (ivermectin) to control onchocerciasis (CDTI) and the need to ensure proper use and accountability of funds by the local project coordinator and staff, have necessitated my travelling to our Kasongo region at least twice annually for close monitoring and supervision.

Therefore, it was exciting and pleasing when in May 2009 the idea of a mission trip by several fellow church members was proposed by Rev. Tom Lank, the associate pastor at PUMC. We immediately started planning for the trip. The team was made up of ten volunteers, including our associate minister and his wife and a set teenager twins, with an age range of 17 - 68 years. Several fundraising events were planned, including a Race, Benefit Concerts, an Afternoon tea and an African soiree characterized by authentic African cuisine, music and entertainment. Additional funds were contributed by relatives and friends of the mission team members. By the July departure date, enough money had been raised to cover plane tickets and all our projected common travel expenses for a two-week journey.

The Beginning

This phase of the trip involved an initial domestic flight from Newark (NJ) to Dulles International Airport (Washington, DC), and then from there to Lubumbashi (DRC), with stopovers in Rome (Italy) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). We departed from Dulles on Monday, July 20, 2010 at 10 AM and arrived in Lubumbashi (Fig. 1) the following day at 8:00 PM, with a delay of about 6 hours, the expected arrival time being 2 PM. An example of several unexpected challenges confronted throughout our trip happened while we were still waiting in the lounge at Dulles for our initial flight to Addis Ababa (Slide 1). We learned through a telephone call from an agent of our first in-country air service (ECHOFlight, operated by the European Union) that due to a major maintenance-related issue, the Lubumbashi to Goma flight originally scheduled for Wednesday has been rescheduled for Tuesday, a day earlier which turned out to be the day of our expected arrival in Lubumbashi. This meant that we would certainly miss the only practical connection we had for getting to Goma. All subsequent last minute attempts to find alternative ways to get to Goma and then to Kasongo failed. We were now stranded in Lubumbashi (Slides 2-4), and started wondering whether God had other plans for our mission trip.

Human vs God's Plans

We had planned for this trip for nearly a year and were convinced that we had the best plan in place. We therefore tried to stick to our travel plans, but it became increasingly clear at least for the planned trip to Kasongo, that for each closed door, God seemed to point us to other opportunity.

Somehow in the middle our confusion, frustration and despair due to the now obvious impossibility of continuing on to Goma and Kasongo, we obtained through an amazing set of events, very useful information on the onchocerciasis control project in the Lubumbashi region, the CDTI Katanga-south project, similar to the one UFAR supports in the Kasongo region, and one of a total of 23 such projects currently active in the DRC. We immediately contacted its coordinator, Dr. Alice Mutekwa. Hardly a week after delivering her second child and still on maternity leave, Dr. Mutekwa and her staff enthusiastically offered to have us visit and participate in the door-to-door distribution of Mectizan in at least a couple of villages located within 30 miles from Lubumbashi (Slides 5-14). What a wonderful turn of events and what a warm and exciting experience it turned out to be both for our team members as well as for the people we came to visit, serve and befriend! This was exactly what we had hoped for in our planned trip to the Kasongo region. Perhaps more importantly, we soon learned from Dr. Mutekwa that for yet unexplained reasons, her project has been without NGO support since 2007. Traditionally, each CDTI project receives technical and financial supports from three major sources on an annual basis: 1) the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) - a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), 2) one of the official members of the NGO Coalition Group for onchocerciasis control, including UFAR, and 3) the country's Ministry of Health. The lack of a NGO partner puts a project at a major disadvantage and has been a primary reason for poor performance. We immediately determined that this project would qualify for our support with funding from Sight Savers International, and left us convinced that this outcome was one of the reasons for our being stranded in Lubumbashi. We plan to follow through on this development in the next few weeks. We also found out that Dr. Mutekwa is the only female among the 23 coordinators of CDTI projects in the DRC. The mood of frustration and despair among us was quickly replaced by exciting, renewed hope and jubilation, in realizing that indeed, God had plans for our mission team and the UFAR organization right here in Lubumbashi.

To Be Continued...