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.
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.
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.