Saturday, 10 August 2013

To know it's heart

Today I wondered how it felt for the local people of Pointe Noire, Congo, as the M/V Africa Mercy put down its gangway and let loose 310 crew members who have just spent the last 14 days at sea. We will be docked here for the next 10 months and today was the first day of exploring this new city that, in the next few months, will become comfortable under our feet.
We sailed into the port of Pointe Noire yesterday morning, around 10am and were met by a large party of people on the dock. There was a tent, the colours of the Congo flag, stretching halfway down the dock and entertaining tables set up and people waving us in. Unlike the other countries we have been to in the last years, this time, the welcome party was thrown by the government officials and within minutes of us mooring our lines and letting down our gangway, the president of Congo arrived. After the official proceedings, he came on board for a quick tour with his entourage.

The President arrives

This country is so excited to have us that they are paying our fuel costs for the entire 10 months that we are here. Now, I hardly understand or know myself how much this ship costs to run, but I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that the fuel alone costs about $200 per hour! This country wants us here so badly that they are willing to pay thousands of dollars for us to be here.

Today was the first time to walk around and explore and see what it is that the Mercy Ships Advance Team have been talking about. I sat with a group of friends this morning, discussing the history of Congo’s politics and wondering how they have managed, unlike so many other African nations, to stay on top of issues that sink other nations, even after a year of civil war (1997). We don’t know what it is but today we saw a difference. The main streets are paved, the traffic system works (one set of working traffic lights and we crossed the road when the man turned from red to green! I’ve never seen that before), the taxis and taxi vans are all painted a certain colour to distinguish them from other vehicles and there are many shops, restaurants, supermarkets, ice-creameries and patisseries, leaving nothing wanting for a price if you are willing to pay.

We walked and we walked and we walked, further and further from the port and into the city. The more roundabouts we passed, the more roads seem to come off the roundabout as options to walk and explore. Finally we took a left turn and eventually found ourselves in a quiet, sandy street. We continued wandering, thinking that eventually someone local was going to think this group of 5 white foreigners are completely lost. We certainly weren’t lost, just exploring. I wanted to see what kind of people made up this city, for so far we had only walked past shop fronts and concrete buildings, telling me nothing about the heart of the city at all. The heart of the city to me are its’ people. So where were they living?
Soon enough a man called to us and then walked through the sandy street to us. Sadly to say, our French language skills are poorly lacking (something to work on) but we managed to communicate enough and he introduced himself to us and we to him. He was happy to meet us, very welcoming and friendly. He showed us his hardware ‘store’ (different from the picture in your mind, I am certain to say, unless you have been here) and introduced us to his friends (including one who spoke English). Immediately, through his generous heart, he handed us some packaged sweet and salty rice snacks and his English speaking friend told us, he knew Mercy Ships had arrived yesterday and that he saw an advertisement on the TV yesterday. They were very happy that we were here and we, more than happy to be here and tickled at this little gathering. We were also excited to hear that word had gotten out and in this back road in a little shop, they already knew who Mercy Ships was.
After a little chat, we asked for directions to the beach and without hesitation the man we first met said he would show us. We bid farewell and enchantè to his friends and walked with our new friend to the main road before he stopped and pointed out the direction for us to walk. This is a perfect example of what it is what makes my heart sing. This is the heart of the African nations that I love.

We stood in a supermarket today, waiting for a friend and while we were standing there a very familiar song began playing over the radio and a smile spread from one ear to the other. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard, sung and danced to ‘Chop My Money’ over the last 2 ½ years but today it fit in just perfectly. I am in a country I have never been to, a place that is unfamiliar in location, dirty, sandy streets that I have never walked, but I already know the song on it’s radio and that it’s people are welcoming and friendly. I can’t wait to know it’s heart.

dirty feet are back!

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