Dear friends, our last post was on January 6th and today, 58 days later, things are looking up a bit for the UK: increasing rates of vaccination and reducing rates of infection.
Not all is well for Congo, however. We heard yesterday that the young and dynamic Italian ambassador to DRC was killed, together with his Congolese driver and an Italian police man, in an ambush near Goma in North Kivu. Devastating news, but something similar is repeated daily within the indigenous population and those stories do not hit the international press. Pray that effective government and peace keeping may become a reality in the country.
Meanwhile, in Melton, near Woodbridge we are in the final stages of packing for our planned return to Congo.
So much has changed: we were both blessed as NHS bank staff to be vaccinated against Covid and the second dose was agreed by a sympathetic vaccination lead, as long as we could prove we were definitely going to leave the country for DRC.
This we duly did, but then hit the next hurdle: for those of you familiar with Congo nothing new – the visa agreement we had made and paid for with immigration at the Aru border was no longer valid. The official in question had become worried for his job and we had to postpone our travel and make our way to the Congolese consulate in London. We did this on the first slightly warmer day, after a massive week-long snowfall here in Suffolk. Speaking French with an official was definitely to our advantage.
So here we are, nearly ready to return.
It is with many grateful thanks to all our very generous friends, to the hospice that employed Patricia, and to our friends in Congo.
Meanwhile a lovely nurse acquaintance in Aru wrote the following, probably after hearing that the schools and educational institutions were about to re-open their doors on February 22nd: “Déjà ici en RDC on est au point de maitriser le Covid ». Already here in the DRC we are on the point of mastering Covid !
The words above translate as “I am delighted to hear your voice”. It’s a delightful phrase often used by our Congolese friends at the start of a WhatsApp call. Here in the UK we often complain that Zoom is no substitute for meeting people face to face, yet our simple voice calls to our friends and colleagues in Congo have been very precious on both sides. They have helped to keep us motivated and emotionally refreshed during these long months of waiting until we can return.
Dear friends, it is a long time since we last wrote to you and the days have become very short. Most of us do not have that much to cheer us up and we feel ourselves rather caught up in this feeling of doom and gloom: Christmas plans changed last minute, quick access to a vaccine remaining a hope but not a certainty, Patricia testing positive for COVID in December and we trying not to infect each other. Poor communication where one is told cheerfully by email that you are now to self-isolate till after Christmas (this was then changed to December 23rd), with the author seemingly not realising what this may mean for the person receiving this news. On top of that, we face soaring infection rates in the second wave of the pandemic, and the gloom of Brexit.
We probably should echo what our Congolese friends so often say when they do not know what to do: “Dieu va nous aider”, God will help us.
Meanwhile in the UK: Patricia finished a four-month stint of hospice work in Beccles and Peter received his PTO – permission to officiate in the church in the local benefice. Pat enjoyed working with the junior doctors and seeing the patients, much less the IT. In February, she will have a clear idea how much we can gift-aid towards Palliative medicine work in Aru through Congo Church Association. This charity is very well run by people most of whom have spent time in Congo and have a real heart for the work of the church. We are very grateful that we can channel funds through CCA as it allows us to gift-aid and also to control funds to ensure they are received by those intended to receive them. Finance in situations where most people are cash poor and those who have more cash know how to increase theirs is complex and often difficult to understand. Thanks to WhatsApp Patricia has been able to continue her weekly multi-disciplinary meetings.
Peter has been able to officiate a number of times in our local parish. Patricia says that it has been wonderful to hear him use his gifts of preaching and teaching both live and on-line in all the misery of the pandemic.
Patricia, while receiving socially distanced communion from her mask- and visor-wearing husband, and in a very cold church, had to suppress a little giggle. We trust a little giggle is allowed!
Overall, we feel churches have and are doing such a tremendous effort to be Covid secure and one cannot help but feel perplexed, from our point of view, how our leaders have been bumbling along in an unacceptably libertarian way in their policy making. Yes we know that most people are not that ill, but we know that the most vulnerable in our society are and have paid for others’ carelessness with their long term health, or worse with their lives. It is difficult to bring bad news, but we are nevertheless impressed with what New Zealand has achieved.
Peter has started to work on his Christian education programme for the Diocese of Aru. This is difficult from a distance, but he has managed to communicate with the authors and users of several courses that he might use. He is now hoping to make further progress before we return to Congo, but it made him realise he really has to be able to meet people and visit parishes to make this work. This, in turn made us think that, while according to official figures Covid 19 is not that big an issue in Congo (although schools and large gatherings have again been stopped from December 18th) that we really should not return without having received the vaccine. We feel that is the safest and most responsible plan, and it will allow us to live and work in a more relaxed fashion in a place where “la distanciation sociale” is honoured in the breach. And that is where we are at the moment. Some of our blog readers who are over 80 may already have been invited to receive the vaccine but Peter is only in category 5, and Patricia, who is a few years younger (!) only in category 7. Please pray that we find a way forward with the vaccine. We have lobbied, so far unsuccessfully, some leaders of medical organisations and our MP, who has been very responsive! Our current best hope is to get vaccinated through being on the bank of the hospice as medical and spiritual care workers.
We have had great comfort and fellowship from Zoom prayers with fellow missionaries from all over the country and a couple based in South Africa. This has been extremely uplifting and has been mutually very supportive, and it has had the side benefit of helping to develop friendships with people we barely knew before the pandemic.
We have also benefited greatly from our regular walks in the beautiful Suffolk countryside, especially enjoying the tidal rivers (Stour, Orwell and Deben) and the birds. We had a lovely walk one Sunday near Ramsholt, which culminated with a superb view of the great planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Personally, I don’t think it looks anything like the star followed by the magi, as it is so obviously two planets. But it gave us a thrill to see this unusual celestial event so clearly, and to be reminded of the beauty and regularity of the created world.
Like everyone else, we have missed out on a lot of things this Christmas, but we are grateful that we could prepare and decorate our room to help us remember the birth of Christ and to celebrate the festivities with joy. We had our Advent candle, our Advent calendars (of course), and a considerable number of holly branches with fresh green leaves and abundant red berries, which look very beautiful against the white walls. We had gathered so much holly on one of our walks that we were able to make an Advent crown, similar to the one we used to have as a family tradition when the children were growing up.
We had planned, and so much looked forward to, a family Christmas after two Christmases in Congo. Sadly, because of the last-minute introduction of Tier 4 in London, Maria and Henry were not able to be with us, but Catherine was able to come, having flown back from Spain, where she and Tim are living now, a week or two earlier (although that nearly didn’t happen either, due to the floods on Christmas Eve – what a year!). It was our first Christmas in the UK without all three of our children. Still, we have a lot to be thankful for, even if we do not feel it.
We end with two verses from Psalm 90 which speak of God as our eternal refuge – a message we need to hear amidst all the change and chance of the COVID pandemic.
When we last wrote we were looking forward to a holiday in Scotland, which we had planned even before the pandemic. We went in the second half of August, and it was a great blessing. We are so grateful to have had this holiday, when COVID had been threatening it to make it impossible. We spent a week in the far north-west on the Assynt peninsula, and a week in Port Appin, on the side of Loch Linnhe. By any standards, the weather was amazing. We had Henry with us all the time, and he did quite a bit of the driving. Fortunately, he could get insurance: the combo of a very old car and being a 21-year-old man had made it very difficult. We were also joined by the girls and Tim at different times. We walked, swam, cycled and kayaked, having transported our two kayaks all the way there, which friends have faithfully stored for us. We saw seals, beautiful birds and had a traditional evening barbecue on a beach. We climbed several good peaks, and cycled to Cape Wrath. We even met the “Baron of Bachuil” on the island of Lismore, who claims to be on a par ecclesiastically with the patriarchs of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, and higher than the Archbishop of Canterbury, because his office (derived from the Irish missionary St. Moluag) is more ancient.
Our now 26-year-old Volvo had another tyre repair in the one and only garage in Lochinver. Shortly afterwards, the car started to make some horrid ‘hole-in-the-exhaust’ type noise. Since then we have had to have a big, expensive repair done to the engine by a garage in Ipswich where we are staying now. We were told by the mechanic that we ‘missed two lethal bullets’, which would have led to far greater expense. We are probably really coming to the end of the life of our dear Volvo and we sincerely hope it will keep out of car hospital now till we finally return from Congo, as it is such a wonderful car to transport and store things in. Thank you to all of you who provide some form of storage and support: at the latest count our stuff is in 8 places, only one of which we pay for.
We have recently submitted our most recent newsletter which has not yet been published and some of what you read here, you may read there as well, if you receive it.
The Scottish holiday was a well-deserved rest for Peter in particular after some intense ‘en ligne’ teaching for Peter, about which we spoke in our last blog.
Since then he had some other good news: the two theology students whom he supported in their work for their TFCs (travails de la fin du cycle) each got a distinction. They deserved it and maybe Peter as well. There had been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of emails with amended texts etc. Both students did some interesting field work: one about the challenges of being a good pastor, and the other exploring the reason why people move from one Christian church to another. Both are very real issues in the daily life of the Christians in our area.
Meanwhile the churches and schools and universities have resumed their activities, with little attention to social distancing and this brings us to what for many of you must be the crucial question about us: when are the Wyards going back to Congo? Well, the answer is we do not know. We had hoped for a vaccine but this looks unlikely to be rolled out to anyone other than key workers until well into 2021. We really want to return and fulfil our mission. A lot of other MPs with CMS are gradually returning to their respective countries, usually countries with better medical facilities and infrastructure. We know and want to trust in God’s grace and protection, but of course He has also given us a brain… So this leads us to the risk assessment process we are starting now. We would value your prayers and guidance as we do this. We want to be both trusting in God and also wise and sensible. We value your prayer for us and please send us your thoughts!
Meanwhile, as we wrote in our previous blog, Patricia started to work part time in Beccles where the local hospice has six beds in the community hospital. She is doing this in order to raise money for the palliative care work in Aru. The clinical side has been relatively easy: what has created a lot of stress is a new computer system and starting electronic prescribing! She thought she had escaped all of that. It reminds us that although the culture and the facilities are so vastly different, that suffering in all its forms is still suffering. It also reminds us that maybe in the West we do not know when to STOP active treatment, whereas, certainly in DRC but we are sure in vast parts of Africa, there is a deplorable lack of active treatment available. Patricia likes her new colleagues, especially the nurses on the ward who work daily with the risk of infection. We feel for the elderly at home, be it their own home or a nursing home, who cannot easily see visitors.
We are really excited about doing a live visit to one of our supporting churches in a couple of weeks. Being back physically in church, which we have done in Oxford and Ipswich, has brought us joy and hope.
We will end this blog with the final words of a Hillsong song Peter played when we had CMS Africa prayers this morning with people in the UK and Africa.
“And this is my prayer in the harvest When favour and providence flow I know I’m filled to be emptied again This seed I’ve received I will sow”
Please keep in touch with us, we really want to hear from you and please continue to pray for wisdom as we discern the right time for our return.
It is six weeks since we last wrote and lots has happened.
Let’s start with our mysterious title: thank you for the electricity and the internet: these were some of the thank-you words of one of Peter’s Licence students at the end of a very intense time delivering his Theology of the New Testament course in French via Skype.
It has been a baptism of fire for ourselves with the variable quality of the internet being responsible for lots of interruptions. Our Congolese friends have no experience of being taught like that. The students were very apprehensive at first and reluctant to come forward with questions. Gradually they got used to seeing Peter on the big screen and gradually they started asking their questions. It required a new approach to learning and taking responsibility in a new way: the students were expected to read the course and watch the video summaries, so that they could submit questions about the lesson to come in advance. This gave Peter the chance to prepare the answers in French of course and it was very interesting to hear the students’ questions. The bonus for them was that by coming to our house , they got tea and coffee during the live sessions which does not usually happen in the USA (not the United States of America but Université Salama d’Aru)!
Coming back to the Thank You words: the end of any course in Congo tends to be very formal and the lead student expressed his sincere thanks for being able to use our solar electricity and internet. It really is humbling to see what sort of things they are so grateful for; it is almost unthinkable that any university student in the UK would express thanks for these things which all of us take completely for granted. Without our dear Robert and Clementine, this would have never materialised.
What has happened with the Palliative Care team? We have quite a few patients I have never met and quite a number of those who I have known are now dying. It makes me Patricia sad not to be there but also glad I can still be so involved. Some very good things have happened: we finally got the second half of our grant deposited in the bank account of the Service Medical in Arua and the Service Medical Team managed to receive the money at the Uganda border from a bank employee. Great rejoicing! We still have some activities to plan to fulfil the grant requirements and whether I will be able to be there in person remains to be seen. Anyhow the grant was meant to pay for a new motorbike, a Honda sports model, to manage the difficult terrain.
One day, before I even knew that the grant was credited, I got a message that the motorbike was in Arua with the vendor. How did all this happen? Who knows. The motorbike and its vendor (who is vaguely related to someone in the service medical) had made a remarkable journey from its point of sale to Aru. It was sold in Juba, over 300 km away in war torn South Sudan. All the borders were closed but somehow the vendor got this motorbike all the way from Juba to Aru, across two closed borders.
I hope we paid the right price but in any case the motorbike has been blessed by Venerable Georgine, the secretary of our bishop, and is now kept in the hospital under lock and key, and a logbook is to be kept. I am really pleased that the hospital director insisted on these rules: if you have a motorbike at home, even a work one, it is nearly impossible not to lend this out to a friend who asks you to borrow it with all the consequences … I am anxious as this motorbike is expensive and I heard of at least a couple of them being broken down and not being repaired in the diocese.
We still hold our MDT meetings, the team has been able to pay its debts and we have even succeeded in paying the team half the planned wages, which is better than nothing, which it has been for months. That is another story…
What has happened with the pandemic? Just as Congo is about to return to normal activities, our province is now starting to see a number of cases, still very low, compared to the UK, but still they are creeping up. Churches and educational institutions will open their doors soon and how to behave responsibly for health professionals is being discussed during my team meetings. We know of at least two cases in the Aru territory.
In normal circumstances, Peter and I would just be returning today August 1st via Entebbe to the UK with a few days in Belgium. It makes us sad to think about it all.
The violence a bit further up the road on the way to Bunia in a place called Djugu goes on unabated, with a large number of killings. We mentioned this to you before and ask you to keep our Congolese friends in your prayers: it is unsafe now to travel to Bunia. The provincial capital is about 235 km away by road, but it takes a whole day, because of the conditions of the roads. The journey can only be done now by MAF flights which are expensive.
We heard some very sad news, which may be related to COVID-19, although we do not know for certain: the bishop of Goma, Bishop Desiré whom we met in person at the beginning of April when we were in Goma during our repatriation to the UK, died in a local hospital. He had been ill for a couple of weeks and did at some stage receive oxygen. This is a devastating blow for the Goma diocese: it is a new diocese and we heard he had made a real difference. We found him extremely likeable and jovial. May he rest in peace and rise in glory and may the Goma Diocese do its best to follow in the footsteps of its leader.
What about us? We are about to move to our fourth destination since we arrived back in England. We have spent just over three weeks in Oxford after a long spell in Herefordshire. Again, a kind friend has allowed us to stay in his house. We will then move to other friends in Ipswich where I am about to start a part time job. I will lose my CMS stipend for now and the rest I hope to use to support my team in Aru long term.
While not being in Congo we have felt very connected with our work and our friends there. We have been busy trying to keep all the plates spinning. We are very grateful to the churches and friends who support us in any way they can. We even zoomed and live streamed with a few of our supporting churches.
Now we both feel we need a break and we are looking forward to a holiday in the far NW of Scotland with our children.
‘Bonjour docteur, comment ça va, est-ce-que vous pouvez voir une malade avec moi svp?’ (Hello doctor, how are you, could you see a patient with me?) This was our dear friend Venerable Madhira, intelligent qualified nurse, dean of the cathedral as well as one of Peter’s licence students.
This was an amazing experience for me, Patricia, to see a patient on live camera. Fortunately, WhatsApp is encrypted. We managed together to tease out this lady’s problems and I am pleased to say that her pain got sorted out satisfactorily. This was telemedicine taken to a new level! I have to add here that I am amazed at the pain levels my Congolese patients seem to tolerate and it makes me wonder why this may be. From a holistic perspective, most people get an enormous amount of psycho-social care, but only if they have a loving family which is not always the case, and their expectations from pain relief medicine are very low indeed. Without morphine which we import from Arua from our Ugandan colleagues, the strongest pain relief our patients would have is Tramadol, at max dose about 20mg of morphine daily which is not very much. Nearly all patients, even nurses and doctors will also consult traditional practitioners. We have already mentioned earlier there is a difference between witchcraft and traditional practitioners. This was an area we had been talking about as a team: whether we could engage more with the traditional practitioners, so we can work together. It is, in my view, a bit like the Congolese ‘complementary medicine’ which is widely practiced in the UK and often not or poorly evidence based, while seen as beneficial by the patients. I hear from my colleagues that sometimes people will disappear if they find their suffering is unbearable and kill themselves, usually by hanging.
Peter has been given the ‘feu vert’ by our bishop, to deliver his course. How? you may ask. He will be emailing the fully written out French language course (which every teacher is expected to make available) which he could not teach in person, and he is making videos summaries, each lasting about 8 minutes, of sections of the chapters.
Writing ‘making a short video’ sounds like nothing very much. But it is a very time -consuming challenge. Firstly, the language: doing a summary in French is harder than in English. Next recording yourself in the right light, height etc. Then this video needs editing, inserting a few slides to make the presentation visually attractive and reducing its size, so it is easily downloadable and transferrable on a memory stick.
We are glad we had some training by CMS. In fact we had to make a short video for our supporters which took us the best part of 2 ½ days! The positive side is that it also becomes clear that even while away, there are many ways of communicating with our teams which are maybe also ways we can use in the future, after we ‘finish’ our 3-year mission with CMS.
The trial video was well received by our friend the beforementioned Venerable Madhira, and not only by him, but also by our dear cook, Clementine!
Why Clementine? She and Robert are still employed by us and they make our home a real ‘internet café’ where Patricia’s team and Peter’s students get a welcome cup of tea/coffee and sugar and milk. Before we left, we arranged that we would keep paying for internet access to our house so that these people would be able to enjoy using the internet for free.
Well, ‘enjoy’ is maybe not quite the right word. In a previous blog post, we mentioned that a mast transmitting the Vodacom signal had been destroyed by rebels ‘up the road’ from Aru and that had worsened the quality of the signal.
Then we had our friendly Anselme from Vodacom in Aru, whom we pay to set it up. He is a kind young man who (we think) is under the grip of some profiteer from Vodacom.
We use an internet plan, with the very amusing and very Congolese name of ‘Papa Bonheur’ (daddy happy) What this means is that a ‘papa’ buys 100 Gigas for a month for himself and up to 4 other people in his ‘family’, costing $125. Because virtually no one in Aru could afford this, Vodacom i.e. Anselme plays ‘super papa’ and makes groups of up to 5 people who each have to pay $25 for their 20 Giga. He then tries to monitor the usage from his office, so that no one of the 5 users uses more than 20 giga per month. We monitor our usage directly with the help of Robert. Dear Anselme was unlucky with his sudden plan to double our internet fee: first we could prove we had not used 20 Giga in one month and … I found Anselme on my phone as a WhatsApp contact, which helped me to communicate with him and ‘not leave him alone’ till he reinstated the internet at the usual price, while still being ‘bons amis’ (good friends) of course.
We started this blog with: meanwhile in deepest Herefordshire … and that is where we have been since the end of April, thanks to our very kind friends Sandra and Andrew. We love the cycle rides, the walks, seeing Offa’s Dyke, the Malverns and the South Wales hills. We are so grateful to so many of you who sent us kind messages, who have helped us practically in this Covid 19 pandemic. Our children who we finally saw over two occasions have been really wonderful, and their lives have been significantly affected, like so many. Thankfully none of us have become ill …
What about Covid-19 in DRC and Aru in particular? The Congolese government took very early on a very strict attitude of social distancing (well before the UK!) and closed Kinshasa where the pandemic got hold, but not at the same scale of Europe. The rest of the country is largely spared. How and when we can return remains unclear and the evolution of the ‘curve’ (do you remember in early March when all the talk was about ‘flattening the curve’?)
We will do our best to keep you informed about our activities. We hope to visit the churches which we are booked to visit before we return to Aru and we will keep you informed of the life and activities of our Congolese friends. We do want to go back!
Having decided on Wednesday (April 1) to repatriate, we packed our cases quickly and made essential arrangements for our staff and house while we were away. Sadly, we could only say good-bye to a few close friends, our neighbours and the bishop.
Final banana with Madhira and Anguyi
Goodbye to Robert (socially distanced)
On Thursday morning (April 2), we took off from our little Aru airstrip in a MAF Cessna Caravan. This was the start of an epic journey back to the UK. It was an exciting adventure, a wonderful provision from God, and a great example of Anglo-British collaboration, and the blessing of having governments like ours that really try to look after their citizens!
COVID temperature testing at Aru airstrip
In front of the Cessna caravan
In front of the Congolese flag
Pointing to the future
Wendy, Graham and the MAF pilot
This journey was a real treat as we saw a bit more of Congo, saw Lake Kivu and a little bit of Rwanda; without mentioning the kindness off all embassy and consulate staff we met over those few hectic days.
We made a short landing in Nyakunde, famous in mission circles for its hospital and many heroic missionaries who have served there. It has a grass airstrip, and is the base for MAF in DRC, located in a verdant spot nestling on the side of a hill, adjacent to the great Ituri jungle. It is close to Boga, the seat of the diocese from which Aru was split off.
We had a nice chat with MAF’s head of operations while more cargo was loaded, and then flew on past the western flank of the beautiful Rwenzori mountains. It was a glorious day, visibility wise, and the peaks looked magnificent, partly shrouded in white clouds, but peeking through from time to time. It was very strange to see the Rwenzoris from the Congolese side (we cannot travel by road to Goma because there are too many rebels everywhere, people who travel by road can get abducted, killed, etc.)
We then descended towards the big city of Goma ahead of us, stretched out beside Lake Kivu, and touched down. Although there is at least some tarmac in Goma (none in Aru), and a certain amount of the international city feel, it is also very poor overall. The dominating influence of the nearby volcano is everywhere apparent: dark soil, and piles of volcanic rocks, which make it look so different from Aru where the soil is red.
Our hotel (Centre Caritas) was very close to the Rwandan border crossing ‘La grande barrière’ and therefore a very suitable place to stay. The views onto the lake were stunning, the rooms very Congolese but clean. There we met a Kenyan lady who is stuck in Congo because the borders closed while she was in Goma. She explained to us that, if she asked her government for help all the people she knows would have to help pay to get her out. It made us realise how fortunate we are in the UK with good government.
We had to wait for a day in Goma, so we took the opportunity to visit Bishop Désiré, the Anglican bishop of Goma. Goma sits at the border with Rwanda and we understand from Désiré that many Rwandans bring their produce and skills over the border into Congo. Now that the border with Rwanda is closed, there is immediately a lot of hardship with food prices going up and for the Rwandans loss of a market to sell goods and skills.
On Saturday morning (April 4) it was time to move on. The crossing into Rwanda, about which both CMS and the Aru Diocese had been very worried, was a doddle, thanks to the letters of approval written by our embassies, a British Consulate official (a very able Congolese man) on the Congolese side and some very helpful Kigali Belgian embassy staff, and of course, God’s providential overruling. After passing through the immigration halls on both sides of the border (large buildings in which we were almost the only travellers) we were escorted to a nice bus for the 15 of us who were making the journey to Kigali.
La Grande Barriere
COVID precautions were far more in evidence in Rwanda than they had been in Congo. Everyone had to wear face masks, and the driver was separated from us by several rows of empty seats. We had a police escort all the way to Kigali, along a winding road through many beautiful hills and tea plantations. Rwanda seems a very different country: a tarmac road all the way to Kigali, cleaner and better ordered (I believe Paul Kagame is a bit of an effective dictator and everyone who has been there will tell how clean Kigali is.)
On the bus from Goma to Kigali
View from the bus
Police escort ahead of the bus
Peter socially distant from Patricia
At Kigali airport we were welcomed by the Belgian embassy with sandwiches on a table draped with the Belgian flag. We were supervised by a mix of Belgian officials and military in high-vis jackets, and Rwandan staff. When you have felt quite vulnerable, you find all these details reassuring.
Our lunch above the Belgian flag
Belgian adn Rwandese staff at Kigali airport
After a few hours, we boarded an unmarked white plane for the journey back to Europe. The flight was manned by doctors and nurses in full white hazmat suits and Belgian air force staff in military jumpsuits acting as the air stewards and stewardesses. Everyone had to wear a mask all the way back and we were only allowed to take our mask off all at once to eat a bread roll when the signal was given!
The Belgian military man stationed near our seat turned out to come from St. Truiden, the town where Patricia had first worked in gastro-enterology after leaving medical school. His wife was a nurse who works in the same team as our friend Joke Bossers, and she had been present when Peter conducted the wedding of Jan and Joke. After establishing this link, we got on very well with this friendly man, who took great delight in relaying to us in a stage whisper various bits of information from the cockpit. In particular, he explained why we had to spend an unexpectedly long time at Bujumbura airport in Burundi. It turned out that there had been a “diplomatic incident” caused by fifteen passengers getting themselves on multiple repatriation lists, but only wanting to pay for one flight ticket each. None of the foreign embassies were at all happy with this situation, and to compound the problem, the Burundians demanded that the Belgians should donate PPE and COVID tests as a price for resolving the matter. After more than an hour, no solution had been found, and the pilot warned that if he did not take off very soon the opportunity to return that day would be lost, and the entire schedule of the airline completely mucked up. There was nothing for it but to remove the baggage of the offending passengers from the plane, who were left in Bujumbura for their trouble (but the spouse of one of them had already boarded the plane, and she was not allowed to disembark).
After a smooth flight (apart from Patricia being reprimanded when she tried to lie down on some empty seats too close to the suspected COVID cases at the back of the plane!), we landed at the military airport in Brussels (Melsbroek) just as day was breaking. Here we were, once more, checked for temperature etc. but fortunately not sent for 14 days quarantine in the Melsbroek military hospital, as somebody had warned us might happen!
We had been unable to establish beforehand what would happen after arrival in Brussels, but we had booked a Eurostar ticket on the assumption that we would be allowed to catch it back to London (one Eurostar a day was still scheduled). Fortunately, as UK citizens, we were directed to a specially provided bus which bus brought us directly to Brussels Midi station, through empty Brussels streets on a beautiful spring Palm Sunday morning.
A grand total of 15 passengers boarded the long Eurostar train for the journey through the lovely countryside of Belgium and Kent, and we soon arrived in a very empty London.
As soon as we were in the UK, the level of COVID protection measures fell dramatically. No health checks at the border, no questions about our country of origin or our journey. A black cab driver looking well into his seventies and completely unconcerned about his own health took us to Paddington along the Euston and Marylebone Roads, past familiar buildings looking glorious in the late afternoon sunlight. There we took a train to Bristol, again virtually empty, and again travelling down a familiar section of rail track through beautiful golden countryside. It felt as though we were royalty with a series of royal trains having been put on specially for us. Another taxi ride took us to the house of a retired GP from one of our supporting churches, who kindly keeps our cars. We only saw her and her husband from a distance as she just had a knee replacement, but they gave us a welcome cup of coffee before we set off in our trusty Volvo back to Surrey (it was now 8 pm – and we finally arrived at 10.30 pm).
A colleague of Maria’s had offered us a garden house to stay in for a while until we found our feet and that is where we were headed. It was in Effingham, near Leatherhead, and we were blessed with many options for beautiful walks (once a day of course).
Where we are going to stay next, and how long for, are all unanswered questions. Very unsettling, but so much to be grateful for.
We can’t totally shake off the feeling that we have abandoned our Congolese friends, but the DRC and Uganda, by shutting borders early, have so far avoided the mistakes made in the UK and the USA. Corona may not become a big problem in Africa but we do not know right now.
Even if African countries manage to avoid the high death tolls from COVID experienced in the West (which our Congolese friends incidentally find shocking) there may well be other side effects, such as economic hardships which they have much less capacity to meet, and a negative impact on the fight against other dangers such as malaria and the swarms of locusts currently menacing Africa in Ethiopia and Eastern Kenya.
As it is a month now since we were repatriated to the UK, we thought it was time to tell you all about it.
How we came to the decision to leave was complex.
On March 15th, we made a visit to Adja parish. That was a good visit, and the furthest so far from Aru, but we will have to tell you about it in the next blog entry, because after that visit everything changed very fast.
Patricia had led two journal clubs in the Hospital, one on February 4th about a new zoonotic infection originating in China which had already arrived in 23 countries, and one on March 13th, a couple of days after the WHO announced a pandemic. Her main message was that the hospital drastically needed to improve its infection control and that this disease, if it really spread, would be a huge problem for Africa.
We remember vividly when a Congo style lockdown was announced: on Thursday March 19th President Tshisekedi announced that schools, universities and churches would close from the 20th. At that stage, there had been only one death from COVID in DRC.
Monday March 23rd was meant to be the first day of Peter’s teaching on his new “Licence” (MA) course and it was extremely disappointing for Peter, after all his hard work, not to be able to start teaching.
The change was immediate and overwhelming: suddenly there seemed to be hardly any people on the roads and it was extremely quiet around us. The first Sunday without a service in the cathedral, which is only 150 metres from our house, was strange. That same day we heard that Uganda had introduced a strict curfew and had closed its borders.
Aru Cathedral with its new towers
Cathedral door locked
Cathedral empty inside
Robert was away in the village on the border between Congo and Uganda and after Peter and our neighbour had unsuccessfully tried to cross to go into Arua, we told Robert to be careful in returning via Arua In Uganda, where he was due to pick up a full gas cylinder (one cannot get gas cylinders in our side of the border in Congo) before returning to Aru. This proved to be useful advice: normally the illegal border crossings do not pose problems for our African friends but Robert told us afterwards that every illegal road in/out Uganda was heavily guarded by military vehicles and in the end, he had to hide behind a hut till the soldiers had just moved away to quickly cross back into Congo with a full gas cylinder: this was a bit the stuff of movies.
From the Tuesday onwards, our Robert was ill in hospital with suspected malaria. Fortunately, we could help him, and Patricia was already familiar enough with the local market and the ‘mamas’ selling their goods where, at that moment in time at least, social distancing was still the stuff of dreams …
During this week, Patricia was carrying on with her medical work, although all of Peter’s work had been stopped. Peter felt that we had to make some changes to our manner of living and working to reduce our risk of infection, so we began to work on an action plan to this end. Patricia admits that she was in a bit of “denial” that something really big had happened as far as our life in Aru was concerned, because everything appeared to be much as before, so we were struggling to come to a common mind.
We were thinking about our age (Peter in particular is more at risk from Corona virus because of his age and gender), all the advice we heard coming from the UK, and how and whether that was even practical in our situation. Contemplating the healthcare locally available both for ourselves but also for our Congolese colleagues, especially now that the border was closed, was sobering. There are two oxygen concentrators in our local hospital, dependent on electricity from the generator, but no oxygen cylinders, and only about seven ventilators in the whole of Congo we have been told.
At this stage, we were not at all thinking of leaving, although we did make some enquiries to the British embassy, and got ourselves registered as potentially being interested in repatriation.
In the second week, beginning Thursday March 26, things started to move faster. We started to write the action plan in earnest, although it was not finished until the following Tuesday. It involved much reduced patient contact for Patricia, much more careful behaviour on her part at the hospital, more precautions at home, etc. But we knew it would be difficult to keep really safe if COVID arrived in Aru, because the hospital is very primitive indeed, facilities are extremely limited, and the practice of hygiene is not good. Further, unlike many missionary situations in Africa of friends we know, Patricia is not in charge of the hospital.
Things changed again when we heard that, through no fault of their own, but rather due to international restrictions, it would be impossible for our insurance company to repatriate us if we became ill: definitely not for COVID-19 related sickness but highly unlikely even if we were suffering from ANY significant illness. The closed borders also meant that we would not be able to return to the UK in the foreseeable future if one of our children became ill.
Anyone who has lived and worked in a low-income country knows the tension between what your own health expectations are versus what is available (usually of a much inferior standard) for your local friends, and the feelings of guilt this brings along.
The idea of repatriation then came up very fast in the outside lane and overtook the action plan for continued life in Aru, just as we had finally agreed it. From having merely registered an interest in possible repatriation the week before, on Tuesday evening (March 31) we were presented with a practical possibility of repatriation, courtesy of the British embassy working in conjunction with the Belgians. The agent for the British embassy was an ex-paratrooper called Tom who turned up at our house with his silent colleague Fraser. They themselves were repatriating with a third colleague because of the pandemic, after working as security trainers at the Garamba Forest Park in DRC. They had heard from the British Embassy that we lived in Aru. Like us, these guards usually travel to Congo via Entebbe in Uganda, but because of closed borders they would not be able to return to the UK by that route.
Tom told us in a very brisk fashion, using army jargon such as ‘extracting us from the field’ and ‘civil unrest’ (we had had a couple of people shouting to us something about Corona virus on our bike rides lately) that they were leaving on Thursday or Friday for Goma, 800 km to the south, and if we joined them we might then be in a position to get a repatriation flight, if one was arranged.
Meanwhile the Belgian embassy told Patricia that, if we wanted to be repatriated, we needed to make our way to Goma if we wanted to be able to leave, as the airspace out of Goma might soon be closed.
The British young men called us shortly afterward to say that their African Parks employer had told them that they should charter a MAF flight (MAF, by the way, is a favourite charity of Patricia’s and was one of those supported by our church while Peter was still a vicar in Datchet).
On Wednesday they told us they were leaving the next day (Thursday) and did we want to come along in which case African Parks wanted us to pay our share … We consulted with Steve Burgess who gave the go-ahead. Meanwhile Patricia found an e-mail from the Belgian embassy that had gone into her spam folder that said we could take advantage of a Belgian repatriation flight from Kigali as long as we could be at the Rwandan border crossing between Congo and Rwanda on Saturday April 4th early in the morning. We had to make our own way to Goma (and had just seemingly been handed a solution to that journey by our friends of the Garamba park).
Shortly after that, after phone calls with CMS, of course thinking, especially Patricia, that we would soon be back, we decided that we would take up the offer of repatriation, as it had become clear that there might not be any more such opportunities, and on balance, we thought it was the right thing to do. It was a very difficult decision to take, and perhaps to help us as much as you, we will list the pros and cons of repatriation as we saw them:
Reducing the risk of death or serious harm if COVID spread to Aru and one of us became infected, or we had some other serious health problem.
Being responsible to our three children, and not subjecting then to unnecessary worry.
Not becoming a burden to the Diocese as seriously ill missionary patients whom they could not help.
Peter could do his work just as well in the UK, and Pat could also help the medical service at a distance, to some extent.
A sense of deserting our friends and colleagues in time of need.
A sense of deserting our call from God to serve Him in Aru.
The two “cons” weighed heavily on us, especially as the other missionaries were staying in Aru, but the fact that we are fully intending to return to complete our mission service, and the fact that we were not in charge of anything that would collapse without us, were mitigating factors.
Obviously, we did not! Since we last wrote on March 18th our life, all our readers’ lives, and the world, have changed in a way entirely unforeseen. We are no longer in Aru, but back in the UK – more about that in the next blog post, after three important, sad stories we need to tell you this time.
Let us start with the situation in Aru as we heard about it this morning from our dear Robert.
Corona virus: up until very recently, there were only two known cases in Ituri province, both in Bunia. It is absolutely necessary that Corona related illness is kept to a minimum. Patricia knows full well the lack of adequate PPE, hand sanitiser and available oxygen (only oxygen concentrators, when the generator is on) in Aru.
We heard from Robert that on Thursday 23rd April, two lorry drivers coming from Uganda into Congo to deliver goods for the Durba mine, close to Aru, were tested at the Ugandan border. They were allowed to proceed by the Congolese border officials into Congo without their results being known. Their tests (sent off from the Ugandan border to Entebbe 500 km away) returned positive, but by then they had made it well into Congo through Aru. They had multiple local contacts and had spent two nights in DRC, possibly also seeing local sex workers, before they were finally tracked down. But what about all the people they had been in contact with? We understand the problems of contact tracing very well in the UK, so in Congo this will be even more difficult …
This is a grave situation. DRC was quick to order a ‘lockdown’ for its own population, in particular in Kinshasa. As a result, the number of Corona cases has very, very slowly crawled up. But freight is allowed to cross borders and these lorries may come from a very long way away – Kenya, Tanzania etc., and their monitoring and follow-up is essential. That may be the weakest link in Africa: the detection and follow-up of the positive cases in traders and drivers. Speedy diagnosis is very important as it is difficult to keep those lorry drivers at the borders.
We pray for this Corona virus not to become too overwhelming in Africa, maybe not till after an effective virus is found, given that all the aid organisations warn already of famines on a biblical scale.
We have to put our trust in God, but remain very active and engaged, and comply with guidance.
Our second, equally unsettling story is about the ongoing unrest in Ituri province by a rebel group called CODECO (Coalition des Démocrates Congolais) a tribal group which is not supported by all the members of that tribe but nevertheless strong enough to cause real havoc in the region.
Djugu is a town on the road between Aru and Bunia to the south. This road is an important route for transport of people and goods. It’s a dirt road which makes driving to Bunia an affair lasting the best part of a day on a good day. This of course means cars cannot necessarily speed away from a road block or anything like that. To give you an example: our passports, returning from Kinshasa were ‘taxied’ across that road back to Aru, but only when the road was deemed safe enough. Flying, for example with MAF, is possible but extremely expensive and in reality, impossible for the ordinary person.
CODECO is one of the many groups that causes unrest and real danger to the population. Little is known (but we suspect minerals) about how all these groups get funded, but their presence causes such terrible hardship. In the latest attack on Thursday, 13 people, including three children, lost their lives through gun shots or machete attacks. It is very much a tit-for-tat struggle, with the aim of CODECO, to our western minds, unclear. The Congolese army is not particularly present in the East of this vast country and is maybe not as effective as it could be after years of poor governance.
Finally, Patricia heard that one of the orphans the Palliative Medicine team looked after died, when he was taken back ‘to the village’ for traditional treatment after months of ill health and malnutrition, after his mother died when he was still being breast fed and he ended up being looked after by his 13-year-old sister. Patricia feels quite devastated about it all, and the cultural differences play a major part which she does not understand. Families tend to have a large decision role in health management, disproportionally so, and in the villages a lot of beliefs are against common medical sense. We followed this boy a long time in his struggle from red on the malnutrition screen to nearly green, when he got yet another infection which set him back into the red. Patricia never saw this boy smile: he had a serious little face and a moan she will never forget. Rest in peace, little one.
The three situations in different forms are being repeated all over DRC and need our prayer and divine intervention and courageous leaders.
We will tell you a bit about our own story, how we came to the decision to leave and how it actually happened, in another post.
We can as well end this blog post with a quote from the CMS Lent resource, aptly and prophetically called ‘Lament for Lent’ which are the words from the late Oscar Romero (archbishop of El Salvador): “There are some things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
PS: It is our hope and full intention to return to Aru when the situation allows, God willing.
This is what we saw on some curtain print recently and what a philosophical question this is! As Christians, we should sometimes be able to put that question aside and instead focus on putting our trust in God. Our Congolese friends tend to be good examples of that!
We are very conscious of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK and all over the world at the moment. So far, it has not spread much in Africa, and we pray that may continue, as it could be devastating if it got a foothold here. But we stand in solidarity with you all in the West, and pray for God’s presence and peace. The rest of this post is mostly a bit light-hearted and amusing – we hope it might bring a smile to your lips.
We recently met ‘Tout-Puissant’ (the Almighty). Fancy having a name like that! As it turned out, our earthly ‘Tout-Puissant’ was quite an ordinary chap, but his name alone brought a smile to our face.
When you then go on a home visit and stop in a petrol station called ‘les dix commandements’ (the Ten Commandments), one may even wonder if Peter could have done his teaching of OT theology last year while walking the streets of Aru with his students. Right now, he is preparing and enjoying his NT theology course despite the intense heat and dryness we are experiencing right now.
Life has been tough for one reason or another recently but, here in the hospital we continue with vaccinating our staff against Hepatitis B thanks to generous UK friends and everyone is very grateful for that.
Papa Komoti – responsible for all vaccinations
A nurse receiving Hep B Vaccination
Saturday 8 March was World Women’s day. We were both ready for the big day, with matching outfits featuring the slogan ‘Une femme Congolaise est un trésor’ (‘A Congolese woman is a treasure’); this is overall very true and they do do a massive amount of work fetching water daily or several times per day…) The material was chosen by the hospital staff 8 March Committee and Patricia did not want to be left out. Last year, however, there was, what Dr David called a ‘prêchement kilométrique’ by a lady pastor, i.e. the sermon lasted 1 hr 10 minutes (in Lingala. Patricia left before the end, and she did not ask for a translation either! When we saw that the same preacher was on this year, our hearts sank, but somebody may have had a word, as she was much shorter and quite feisty.
Work in the palliative care team goes on and, although sitting with three people on a motorbike is forbidden, especially for whites! Patricia was twice forced to be sandwiched between two Congolese while we were ‘in the middle of nowhere’. Our Congolese friends found this highly amusing but it could be difficult if we were stopped on the main roads. My colleagues tell me that most Congolese police locally are illiterate and they can be quite intimidating. Our chaplain Canon Agupio who has been around a bit, stands up to them firmly and will make some of them really scared. He tells us that women police officers are always worse in their approach than the men. One lady officer who had stopped him randomly, after having been brought down a peg or two by him, begged for forgiveness and assured Canon that he really was her ‘papa’ after he told her he knows her boss! He threatened her that she might get ‘undressed’ on the spot’! Apparently, police officers, if found to be badly behaved by someone in authority, may have their uniform removed on the spot. Of course, one feels also sorry for those people who get poorly or not paid and who have not got any decent training. Canon himself felt rather guilty after his (justified) outburst and told us he was pleased he wasn’t wearing his dog collar!
One reader asked to hear a bit more about these motor bike journeys: they used to be great fun, even now they are, but they are extremely exhausting because the dirt roads are so uneven. Nearly all Congolese women sit Amazon on motorbikes which I, Patricia cannot and will not do which means I nearly always wear Pakistani trousers and tops so I can sit astride on a motorbike. Now in the dry season, motorbiking is unpleasant and dangerous: firstly, the dust from passing cars and lorries on the lager roads. This dust gets everywhere, even in your helmet and on longer journeys my colleagues wear a surgical mask underneath the helmets. This dust can also make the visibility nearly nil and quite a few bikers have killed themselves trying to overtake a lorry in a dust cloud only to be hit by an oncoming vehicle they had not spotted. Secondly, the sand on the roads: the dirt roads vary between sand as fine and deep as on a beach and a rock-hard bumpy surface: the hard surface is unbearable at speed. The sand can easily cause motorbikes and bikes (like on our cycle rides) to slip and slide, and that is really dangerous as the driver can lose control. One of our local priests only last week slipped in sand and his motorbike fell on him and he cracked a few ribs. The poor man is now in hospital in great pain. But overall, travelling on difficult roads is a lot quicker on motorbikes than in a car.
One more amusing story to end this blog post: the Sunday service from our cathedral is always broadcast live on the diocesan Radio Salama, and listeners can phone in to the radio station to encourage their friends to come to church. My colleague Anguyi’s son Timothée, aged 9, phoned in to ask for a call-out to two priests he knows, one an uncle and the other his godfather, to come to church. Very public and rather amusing, as they are both well-known clergy: his godfather is the Ven. Madhira, the Dean of the cathedral … fancy ringing in to local radio in the UK to invite someone to come to church!
Meanwhile, our regular cycle rides keep us fit in body and mind.
“Ee -o”, they reply. We are back on our cycle rides in the countryside, and this is the cheerful response we get when we pass the ladies going to the market with their loads on their heads, and we call out “CiCi-O!” (‘tsitsi-o’= hello).
We love cycling in the countryside, much more than in the town where you get many more call-outs from drunk/drugged young men: “Eh Mundu/Mundele, donne-moi le vélo” (white person, give me the bike). In the countryside, the people are invariably very friendly, want to know where we are going, and whether we need any help. Only a tiny minority ask for money.
Recently we have made some lovely cycle trips, in particular one around Leri near the Ugandan border, and another in the region of Buranga, our bishop’s village. These bicycle trips are genuinely the highlight of our week. People think Peter’s bike looks really funny, with its very high saddle and its motorbike handlebars welded on. You just have to accept the laughter, which is never badly meant, and laugh along. Our part of Congo is the last place to feel embarrassed by one’s looks or attire as the local appearances are extremely diverse!
Our work: Palliative Care is going well, and improving quality in the hospital at the moment is threefold:
Using the fundraised money in the UK to protect our staff by offering Hepatitis B vaccinations to staff who have not been exposed to the virus.
Using the fundraised money to buy new mattresses and mattress covers which make them impermeable. Our fund will be helping to clean the beds.
Our little hospital took out a loan to redecorate, starting with the maternity ward. Once the new mattresses and covers are in place, and the beds cleaned and painted, it should look so much better. There is a long way to go and keeping everything clean will yet be another matter. Our DN (Directeur de Nursing) is keen to have a local committee to supervise standards.
Patricia’s other task: improving the quality of care in the diocesan health centres may remain difficult since the relatively sudden death of the leader of the Service Medical has brought this supervisory work to a stop. Overall, I really like the palliative work and working with the ITs = Infirmier(e) Titulaires in the peripheral health centres and visiting people at home. The motorbike journeys are really tiring, but when you then see the state of people’s dwellings, clothing and needs, I always feel humbled when they express such gratitude for so little.
Peter has a bunch of very lively students, the majority still very young, with a few older students. We had them all round to our house in three groups and like last year, we enjoyed their very diverse stories. One student told us about his family’s remarkable journey of travel to Aru taking three weeks: from somewhere several hundred km west of Kisangani, they cycled, five of them on 3 bikes, to a river port where they took a dugout canoe to go up the Congo river for several days to Kisangani. This mode of travel is very dangerous at night. There, they took a bus to Bunia, and from Bunia another bus to Aru. The bus journey from Bunia to Aru takes the best part of a day due to those untarmac-ed roads being in such a dreadful state. The challenges of trying to set up a meaningful and durable Christian Education program fills him with some dread, but he is encouraged by the real desire amongst the congregations within the parishes. Finding the right level, language and course is difficult, not to mention how to fund the program into the future.
Another student told us of his calling to come to Aru to study to be a pastor. He was very reluctant, and like Jonah, tried to escape the Lord’s calling, by joining the police as an alternative career. However, he then found himself becoming a police chaplain, and from that position was selected to receive a bursary to come to study theology in Aru (as he said, the big fish had spewed him out on the dry land of Aru).
We joined in the Diocesan Christmas celebrations again, wearing our newly bought Congolese outfits, in matching material. This time we were alert to the fact that we would have to dance up in front of everyone else to receive our token Christmas present – a large mug with a Diocesan logo. We entered into this enthusiastically, and received a great cheer of approval (although afterwards people told Peter that he wasn’t dancing in a Congolese style – he thought he was!)
We have spent a lot of money and a lot of time on the construction of a new bamboo fence around our property. It was a major project, involving two “trips” (a unit of measurement) of bamboo from the village of Erekele 40 km away, a team of somewhat unreliable workmen, and the purchase of many other items, including a large weight of very expensive nails. Our Robert did a great job of managing this project, and we are extremely pleased with the result, as are the Congolese, who think that it has greatly improved our parcelle.
Patricia’s colleague nurse Anguyi and cannon Agupio, took us recently to ‘Mont Awa’, a small mountain we can see from our home. We could not visit without first visiting the local Chef de collectivité in Yuku, nearby the above-mentioned ‘Mont Awa’. He walked with us to the top of the hill from where we could see Aru and the mountains along the border with Uganda. It was an enjoyable trip. Before the walk we were also greeted by the wife of the same chef who approached us on her knees (a local custom we feel quite awkward about). We handed over a kilo of sugar, which is an accepted standard of present. The chef told us during the walk that his grandfather had been king of a whole area which goes up to Pakwach in Uganda, which is 140 km away.
Finally, we end this posting with a prayer often prayed at the morning prayers in the hospital: “If we are not cadavers this morning it is only thanks to Your grace”. We find this in many ways amusing, but of course it is true: it is only by God’s grace we wake up every morning … we just wouldn’t put it like that!