Unforgettable Journey to Kamina
by Daniel Shungu and Gretchen Boger
The town of Kamina (map 1 ), located in the northwestern region of the Katanga province and with an estimated population of over 300,000 people, is the Episcopal headquarters of the North Katanga Conference of the United Methodist Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) under bishop Nkulu Ntambo's leadership. Back in 2008, we hosted in our homes in New Jersey several delegates to the General Conference convened in the US from this Conference. We now sought to establish stronger bonds between both our congregations, the North Katanga and the Greater New Jersey Conferences of the United Methodist Church, through this return visit with our African brothers and sisters, all for the glory of our Gracious Lord and Savior.
Our original plans when we left the US were to travel to Kamina after our return from visiting UFAR's project in the Kasongo region of Maniema province. With the trip to Kasongo now definitely cancelled, we immediately revised our plans so that we would go to Kamina a week earlier and stay there for only two days instead of the original four days. We contacted Rev. John Maloba, Bishop Nkulu Ntambo's assistant on July 23 by phone to inform him of our desire to visit Kamina on Saturday, July 24 and return to Lubumbashi on Sunday, July 25. He told us that their week-long annual conference was due to end that evening, so he would have to inform the Bishop immediately about our plans. Rev. Maloba called back a few minutes later and informed us that the bishop accepted our plans and was looking forward to meeting us.
The flight and arrival
With a team of ten people, we ended up having to use both 5-passenger Cessna airplanes each belonging to the North and the South Katanga Conferences of the United Methodist Church (Picture 1). It took 1hr and 25 min of flight time to cover the 450 km or 275 miles between Lubumbashi and Kamina, apparently with enough comfortable to put some of us to sleep (Picture 2), arriving at 12:15 PM (Picture 3). The pilots explained during the flight that since goats usually graze along the landing strip in Kamina, they would have to fly low once to scare them off and then circle back and land quickly before they returned, asking us not to be alarmed.
As our planes descended for landing on the small airfield, we were struck not by the goats but by the large crowd in colorful outfits at the hangar. Standing in front of the corrugated tin roof shelter were several dozens of people in formal array (Picture 4). We immediately assumed that they were either expecting or bidding farewell to some local dignitary. But as we landed, then taxied over to the hangar, we saw that the people were looking expectantly at our planes. As soon as the engines and the propellers were turned off, we heard the rich, joyous and vibrant choir harmonizing. The people in yellow shirts were dancing and singing; we didn't understand the words which were in Kiluba, but the joyful ambiance was overwhelming. The choir leader with a horn of tin sung out lines, and the choir repeated them in rich harmonies, drumming and dancing (Picture 5). As we stepped out of the planes and walked toward the crowd, it became quite clear that the celebration was intended for us, a total and huge surprise, a welcome unlike anything in our wildest imagination. A row of pastors in clerical collars and robes lined one side of the tarmac. Ten young women in red dresses stood waiting to give each of us a wreath of croatan leaves (Picture 6). After a couple beautiful songs sung in Kiluba, one of the pastors came forward to extend to us a warm welcome to Kamina and to tell us that the vehicles and the procession party were waiting, ready to take us to the annual conference center. Rev. Tom Lank, our mission team leader responded by expressing how deeply we were touched by such an unexpected welcome and that we were looking forward to what else the Lord has planned for us in Kamina. So we left the airport (Picture 7). Unbeknown to us, the bishop had extended the annual conference by an extra day, so that the delegates would be there to welcome and meet the American visitors and to give us the opportunity to share with them the concluding phase of their annual conference. The bishop was the first to greet us upon our arrival at the conference center (Picture 8).
The special ceremony at the annual conference center which was held under tarps in the open air with hundreds of people s crowding around was only the beginning of our amazing and unforgettable stay in Kamina. For the next 24 hours, we were given special tours of the various truly impressive and inspiring programs of the Methodist church in this region of the country, carried out under very challenging conditions with limited resources.
The bishop invited Daniel Shungu up to the front, embraced him and introduced him (Picture 9) as the son of the late and beloved first Congolese bishop of the United Methodist Church, elected in 1964 to take over the church leadership from a line of several previous American bishops (Picture 10) shortly after the country acquired its independence from Belgium. He reminded the audience that while there are currently three Conferences of the United Methodist Church in the DRC (the North Katanga, the South Katanga and the Central Congo Conferences) led by three bishops, bishop John Wesley Shungu was the only bishop for the entire country from when he took office until his retirement in 1974. Many of the people in the audience remembered bishop Shungu and especially his numerous and impressive accomplishments achieved under a very difficult phase in the history of the country as well as of our church in that country. Daniel thanked the bishop, his staff and the entire congregation for the unexpected warm welcome, and commented that he now understood why his dad always told family members and friends that the people in Katanga loved him much more than the people in his own region of the country, the Kasai province. Other members of our mission team were then introduced one by one. Then, the bishop honored us by asking us to participate in the service by our handing out several very practical gifts (Pictures 11 & 12), including motorcycles, bicycles and Bibles to selected clergy and lay leaders who had distinguished themselves in many ways in their service to the Lord. We learned that many of the delegates had walked for several days in order to attend the annual conference. One could tell watching the faces of the recipients how delighted and blessed they felt to be chosen to receive these wonderful gifts. It was strikingly clear that much of the credit is due to the strong leadership of the dynamic, energetic and bright bishop Ntambo, who has a great vision for his people, and has been able to carry it through in the face of what would seem to most of us to be overwhelming odds.
During the rest of the afternoon on Saturday and most of the Sunday until our scheduled departure at 3 PM, the bishop and his staff showed us the various outstanding projects that the church has been involved in, including digging wells (Picture 13), the orphanage (Picture 13), the nursing school, the new Kamina Methodist University still under construction (Picture 13a), the garden and livestock farms used also for training demobilized rebel soldiers for re-integration into the society, the marketplace (Picture 14), a drainage canal to prevent malaria (Picture 15), and last but not least the Shungu Memorial Health Center (Picture 16), named in honor of bishop Shungu. The tours ended with a wonderful lunch provided by the bishop and his wife at their residence. As a token of our deep gratitude for this wonderful journey in Kamina, we donated a box of children books in French and a couple of soccer balls to the orphanage (Picture 17), a practical solar-powered radio with the shortwave feature to one of the women pastors (Picture 18), a $200 donation for a supply of desperately needed Bibles in Kiluba and a $500 gift for the Shungu Memorial Health Center.
The wonderful hospitality we received in Kamina with less than a 24-hour notice for our visit confirms one of bishop Ntambo's favorite expressions, "In America you keep time, here in Africa we make time." This means that Africans generally don't believe in a rigid and tight schedule. They believe in making room for the unexpected twists each day brings over which they have no control, but which often turn out to be blessings from above.
To Be Continued