Colette - The making of REVE my Dream

Kandale Trip with Enoch Kashitu as a baby - 1995

Kandale Trip with Enoch Kashitu as a baby - 1995

In 1995, I traveled back to Kandale, seven years after Greg and I went there with his parents for our wedding in the church in which I grew-up.

The trip was prompted by the outbreak of the Ebola virus in my hometown of Kikwit, where my mother and some of my “long-sleeve” relatives resided. At the time, there were no phones, and getting news from my mother in Kikwit was like waiting for the results of a blood test where you never knew what the news would be. So, when I managed to travel home and saw my mother again, it was like the return of the prodigal son, except that no fattened calf was slaughtered.

I taught fifth grade in Kandale, after graduating from high school. This is where I met my husband Greg, a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Kandale. We had been living in the United States, and this was my first trip back since our church wedding in 1988.  So, I was anxious to see everyone.

The day we arrived, it poured all night as though God had forgotten to turn off some faucets in heaven. The power of the rain, heavy wind, and lightning made every soul jump out of bed.  

Children playing on the destroyed HS building

Children playing on the destroyed HS building

When dawn broke the destruction was shocking.  Both the entire Kandale primary school and one of the main high school buildings built with twigs and dirt were flattened to the ground like hair in a storm. The beautiful mangoes that hung low on trees growing around the mission -- daring children to touch them -- had been ripped apart and lay on the ground.

I snapped some photos of a group of children in the distance cheerfully collecting as many mangoes as their little hands could hold.

Before I could take another shot of the kids, a loud cry from Kandale hospital stabbed my heart, and my mind wandered away from the happy scene of children playing. A young girl of 11 from a faraway village had just lost her mother in childbirth. The sight of the girl crying, her mother lying lifeless on the ground, was heartbreaking.

I walked away from there with my heart still sobbing and proceeded to the school parent-teachers meeting, which was to decide how to fix the classrooms destroyed by the storm. I had barely taken my seat, when one of the teachers shared his bright idea. We should not hire women teachers, he shouted. Why not? I screamed breaking all protocols as observer in the meeting.  They cannot climb on the roof to fix their own classrooms; male teachers must do it for them, he answered gently. Despite his gentle answer, it was quite upsetting that he would advise such extreme measures against the three female teachers.  Then, I realized that female or not, these were mostly teachers in their retiring age who had no business contemplating climbing anything, especially wet roofs. But in Congo, the government had no retirement plans for teachers.

I left a couple of days later as my vacation came to an end. It felt as though my memories of Kandale, and the challenges people faced to access basic education and healthcare, were diluted by my life in the United States.

The trip back to Kandale was an eye opener. It changed my life, almost like the burning bush that turned Moses into the man who would lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan. For the next few years my mind became preoccupied with the plight of the people of Kandale. I began to rally the entire Kandale community at home and in the diaspora. The people of Kandale were clear what they needed: better classrooms for their children and tree planting to bring the forest closer to home.

In 2010, we created the Réhabilitation de l'Espace Vert et des Ecoles Kandale (REVE Kandale), a charitable organization working in the Democratic Republic of Congo to promote education, environment and empowerment of girls and women. In English, it translates into Rehabilitation of Green Spaces and Schools. And “reve” translates into “dream.”

We have made a lot of progress over the past few years, and I am confident that in the years to come we will make that dream a reality.

Teaching first grade since 1952

Papa Kayembe Pierre in his class - 2013

Papa Kayembe Pierre in his class - 2013

The man in this photo is called Papa Kayembe Pierre.

He is well known in Kandale and beyond. He has been teaching first grade at Kandale primary school since 1952. The last time I caught up with him we had a chat about children who are nowadays graduating from school and yet they cannot write with proper grammar and spelling. I teach them alphabet, as always, but I am not sure if they are learning much after that, he said, his body language signaling this was a much bigger problem than mastering the alphabet.

Papa Kayembe must be in his mid-80s now. He has become frail and forgetful. Age is catching up fast with his mind and poverty doing the rest. He seemed to remember me when I last saw him. However, his mind won’t let him do that for long, so he wandered away from our conversation as though he was never present to begin with. It broke my heart to see him like that.

There’s no pension in the Democratic Republic of  Congo for teachers like Papa Kayembe. The government allows elderly teachers to arrange for their own substitute teacher so they can share in the one meager salary. This is usually a family member,  and in the case of Papa Kayembe, it is his granddaughter who agreed to bail him out. She now teaches class on his behalf. God willing she will teach 70 more years like Papa Kayembe and enable generation after generation in Kandale to learn their alphabet.

I am proud to have learned my alphabet with you, Papa Kayembe. It has served me well, and I salute you for a job well done!!

A Kandale Reunion

Four years ago, I began to reach out to people I had worked with in Zaire when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, after a 35-year communications gap.

Doug and Greg with former Headmaster, Faso

Doug and Greg with former Headmaster, Faso

I was eager to get in touch with Greg Ramm, as he was someone who I enjoyed working with, and in many respects, I owe him my life. I was able to find him through a Google search, and two summers ago we were able to meet face to face in his home outside Washington, D.C.  Greg’s wife, Colette, prepared a traditional and delicious Congolese meal. I can still taste the saka saka and Primus we shared.

It would be extremely difficult to condense into a short blog post my Peace Corps experience in Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of Congo was called at the time, but when I arrived in country I had just turned 22 and knew very little about the world.  After eight weeks of language preparation in eastern Zaire, and eight weeks of fish culture training in Oklahoma, I arrived in the small village of Kandale, on the Kwilu River south of Kikwit, the capital city of Bandundu region and some 150 miles north of the Angolan border.  

Peter, Greg, Colette, Doug in Maryland, USA

Peter, Greg, Colette, Doug in Maryland, USA

The Pende people are the dominant Bantu group in the area and I found them to be incredibly generous, patient, and tolerant of my cultural faux pas and limited knowledge of Kikongo, the local language.   They have an impressive heritage, with a culture rich in dance, music, and sculpture. Prior to Greg’s arrival I was the only mundeli, or foreigner, within 50 miles, and at times it was a very isolating experience.  I lived on the opposite side of the Kwilu from Greg, maybe four miles away, and I would often visit him.  One of my great memories was playing cribbage with him in the late afternoons and evenings.

About a year-and-a-half into my stay, I became ill and had difficulty with the most basic tasks.  I sent him a letter, and he came with a group of people to carry me back to his house. As I couldn’t walk, they carried me on a stretcher singing songs along the journey up the hill back to Greg’s house.  After two days with the pain in my joints getting worse, Greg was able to coordinate, a small plane to Kikwit. From Kikwit it was on to Kinshasa, and then to Pretoria, South Africa, where I stayed for five weeks while they tested me for a host of exotic and deadly tropical illnesses.  My symptoms subsided quickly with a solid regimen of penicillin and afternoon tea and cookies.

I returned briefly to Kandale and the community was very glad to see that stories of my demise had been greatly exaggerated.  Upon returning to Washington, the doctors did further tests on me and determined that it was in fact rheumatic fever. All is well at this point, and now that I am back in touch with Greg, Colette, and a host of other volunteers, I look forward to contributing to the development projects started by the REVE Kandale Foundation.