Urgency. Urgency is the word that she felt as they said a final farewell to their hostess and climbed into the rented car that would take them to the airport. Now that their personal belongings were distributed to shippers, friends and family, and Goodwill; now that their cars were sold; now that good-byes were said, tears were shed, hugs were given and promises made all she felt was an urgent need to go before there could be any more interruptions.
Though the trip to the airport only took three and a half hours they decided to go the day before, share dinner with family in DC, then spend a restful night in a motel. From experience they knew that there were any number of things that could cause an interruption in their plans—they could have a flat tire, or the car could break down, or they could be involved in an accident, or become ill. She is not a pessimist, but in her 59 years of life she had few significant events go smoothly, and this one was too important to take chances. They planned to be at the airport six hours before take-off. What if there was a problem with our luggage, or passports, or the tickets? Rest would come after they boarded the plane and were on their way.
Thankfully, the glitches were small and manageable. Before they knew it, they were aboard the flight that would take them first to Paris, then after a short layover, to their destination—the Democratic Republic of Congo. For her husband it was a migration back to the country of his birth. For her it was a complete change of everything—continent, country, house, language, culture, job, family proximity, friends—everything down to the clothes she would wear and the food she would eat. It was the culmination of a lifelong calling and dream: the opportunity to live and work on the African continent!
That the opportunity had arrived at this rather late point in her life was quite amazing; but then many of the major events of her life had occurred later than expected. Marriage and children had happened very early, so a college education was postponed until the age of 45. This disruption in family life precipitated a divorce, to be followed by several happy years of personal discovery. Undergrad classes in Sociology, Gender Studies, African American Art, Evolutionary Psychology, Conflict Transformation and Human Development helped to unlock her mind to unimaginable opportunities. An opening in a position in the Gambia brought back to remembrance the dream of Africa. Unfortunately, her daughter’s life-threatening peanut allergy halted the move only weeks before departure. An interruption in plans that prompted a move in another direction.
Soon after completing a Masters’ of Social Work degree she met and married Jacob. Common interests and like core values drew them together. They lived and worked for a time in Washington DC with no intention of moving to Congo. After a few years career opportunities and the chance for a less hectic lifestyle drew them to small city living in Central Pennsylvania. The slower pace of life provided more time to relax, think, and dream of their future together. The pull of an unfulfilled dream to live in Africa was shared and a plan began to formulate. Three years later they were on our way!
They were met by several family members upon arrival in Kinshasa. After warm welcomes and a delicious meal they were delivered to a new apartment located within sight of the magnificent Congo River! The family had furnished the home with essentials. The refrigerator was stocked with staples, a bed was covered in fresh sheets, a large table with matching chairs invited pleasant dining, and comfortable furniture filled the living room. Their few valued personal belongings had been shipped, but would not arrive for 2-3 months. Until then they would make do with the items supplied in addition to those brought in their suitcases. There was no allowance for frills. The budget was sufficient to sustain them for 6-9 months. Establishing funding sources for their non- profit organization was vital.
The weeks that followed were a flurry of activity. There were meetings to attend, presentations to make, and projects to write. Thanks to family connections, and other people of influence both in the government and in civil society, doors opened with seeming ease. The Congo Ubuntu Peacebuilding Center was established on the campus of the University of Missiology and Technology, and a class in Conflict Transformation was set to begin the next semester. An introduction to the Minister of International Corporation led to plans for a partnership, as lawyers on both sides started the exercise of drafting a Memorandum of Understanding. Once completed Jacob and Maggie would influence the trend of peace programs throughout Congo by providing assessments, training, and monitoring.
The development portion of the NGO was also going well. Within a month of hitting the ground agricultural projects were started. A combined 26 hectares of land spread across four farms (obtained the year before) were cleared and prepared for planting. One hundred sixty young men and women were hired for the work. Though the farms were located in Kikwit--the birthplace of Jacob--a 12-hour drive from Kinshasa, the couple had been able to make the trip twice—first, just before years end 2019, and second, the last week of January 2020. With each trip Jacob’s childhood relationships were renewed and strengthened. Long diminished dreams of sustainable agricultural programs were revitalized. Many men and women volunteered their expertise in order to launch the agribusiness project.
It was in late January 2020 that the news of a possible pandemic was brought to the forefront of attention. The people of DRC are no stranger to disease; they were just on the brink of eradicating the most recent outbreak of Ebola. Malaria, measles, cholera, and yellow fever are common and take the lives of many. The thought of a new virus was a cause of concern but—perhaps due to the recent development of a vaccine and treatment for Ebola--confidence in the ability of the World Health Organization to stop the virus before it got to the African continent was high.
By mid-February, the news of the new virus had worsened. It now had a name with which all were familiar—Covid-19. The impact that such a virus could have on a developing country like Congo was described by scientists as catastrophic. In Congo, where the average income is $2.00 per day, there is no back-up plan. People work hard in order to sustain life for each day. Though modern hospitals can be found in many areas, and medical clinics occupy space in nearly every neighborhood, very few people can afford even the most minuscule fee. Transportation is another barrier. Walking is often the only means people have to get from one area to another; serious illness eliminates that possibility. WHO made recommendations impossible for ninety percent of the inhabitants. In Kinshasa, with a population of over thirteen million, people do not have consistent, clean water. Washing hands with soap and water several times a day is not possible. Alcohol based hand sanitizers are expensive. Social distancing is impossible.
With the possibility of calamity looming like a black cloud, work moved forward uninterrupted--until it didn’t. On Thursday, March 12, 2020, President Félix Tshisekedi closed all government buildings and activities, all schools and universities, all transportation in and out of the county as well as all within—between provinces. Everyone was told to remain in their home. The confinement had begun.