A Healthcare Training Initiative in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Saturday, 23 July 2011
So... this is it! Finally the time has come for me to fly back to my childhood home - Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. I'm going there for just a few weeks to establish The Mafunzo Project ('mafunzo' means 'training' in Swahili).
I'll start from the beginning. As you may know, last year I was awarded a $10,000 grant from Mission Travel Group (in Victoria), to establish a dream of mine. My idea was to start a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (where I grew up as a missionary kid), whereby Australians can sponsor local Congolese medical and nursing students through university - paying tuition fees, textbooks and resources, accommodation and food whilst living away from home. This idea was borne of frustrations with my own inability to subsidise my Congolese friends' university costs, during my uni student days, to afford them the career possibilities that I could so easily access.
I'm planning to set this project up jointly through Panzi Hospital (in Bukavu) and their attached medical and nursing schools at the Evangelical University of Africa nearby. I've been working on this for about a year, put all the plans into place, and I fly out of Melbourne this coming Tuesday (the 26th).
The purpose of my trip is to meet medical and nursing students at the university, identify areas of deficient funds, get to know the hospital staff, meet with the hospital's Medical Director, Nursing Director and the Head of the University, as well as identifying trustworthy people who can continue liaising with me when I'm back in Australia. I also plan to scope out the actual physical needs within the hospital itself, and work out where resources and equipment are needed.
Over the last few months, I (and my poor family) have ridden a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Even though my flights have been booked for a while, as of today, I have only just confirmed that I AM actually going... a decision that has taken a lot of thought and prayer, particularly in the last week, due to our concerns about my safety. This is all because of a recent upgrade (last week) of the DFAT travel advice for Eastern DR Congo - from "Reconsider travel" (level 4) to "DO NOT travel" (level 5 of 5). This affects my travel insurance cover for medical expenses pertaining to injuries related to being in a 'war zone'. DFAT advised that there was increasing political instability, violence and borders (with other countries) closing sporadically, due to the upcoming election in November this year. They also advised Australians against travel in Eastern DRC because the only Australian representation in Congo was across the other side of the country, at the Canadian Embassy in Kinshasa (the capital).
This has all come after nearly a year of project and trip planning that was fraught with challenges and seeming obstacles the whole way - from difficulty acquiring visas (still not completely resolved), to health and emotional issues, to possible travel companions falling through, to not potentially being allowed leave from work, to accommodation difficulties, to communication-with-Congo issues, to money-transaction complications... and so on. Seth and I have been praying praying praying about this all the way... and at every obstacle, I've come through the tough emotional challenge and decided that it is God's will for me to go, despite being occasionally more at ease with the prospect of staying at home in my 'comfort zone' with my family.
This last week has probably been God's most confronting challenge, coming so near to my departure date, during a week where I was already exhausted from the hours and overtime I've had to work at the hospital. It would've been a much easier decision were it only me, without a husband or a dependent child.
When Seth and I received the DFAT email with the upgraded travel advice at the end of last week, we were thrown. After all the decisions we'd had to make till now, thinking it was God's will for me to go, suddenly it seemed that He was closing a door... again. I really did NOT want to cancel the trip - I was feeling absolutely awful about possibly being yet another 'white person' bailing on Congo again... it's such a beautiful country, with so many faithful Christians, yet no peace or freedom... and they all live in constant fear.
So, over the last week, although swamped by emotion, we've been making phone calls, talking to people, writing emails, and trying to glean as much accurate information as possible, as well as trying to identify what our actual fears were, bringing them all before God, praying constantly and trying to really seek and follow His will.
My decision to go (which both Seth and I are now comfortable with) is based on new information we've managed to gather:
1. Dad was able to call his dear longtime friend, a pastor in Bukavu, a couple of times, and talk to him extensively about the situation. He has assured and re-assured Dad that NOTHING whatsoever has changed in recent months, let alone the last few weeks, with regards to safety in Bukavu. He couldn't work out why the warnings would have changed. He says the country's borders are constantly open, with no threat of closing. He has offered to catch a taxi across the Rwandan border, come and pick me up from the airport, and accompany me back across the border and into Bukavu.
2. I emailed an old friend of the family - a Belgian lady who lives in Bukavu, and has been living there since we were missionaries there. She replied saying it was safe within the town of Bukavu, and there was nothing to worry about. In fact, she travels the road out to Panzi Hospital every day and hasn't had any problems.
3. We FINALLY managed to talk to someone at DFAT yesterday (after many unsuccessful phone calls), who told us that the travel advice for DR Congo is relayed to them from affiliates in Zimbabwe. The woman we talked to was herself responsible for upgrading the warning from the advice given. It turns out that DFAT only upgrades their travel advice twice a year. It is coincidental that the advice for DRC was re-issued just last week. This wasn't based on any facts or recent change in the situation there. It was based on knowing the election was in November, and issuing advice that will be relevant for the next 6 months and take that into consideration.
This has made us both feel much more at ease with the whole thing. And it has not been an easy road to get to this point - my mind has been changing, almost by the hour, for the last 4 days. Neither of us have taken this decision lightly, but we had to come to a conclusion, to the best of our ability, taking everything into consideration... and it seems like the best choice at this point is for me to go ahead with the trip, bearing in mind that there are people counting on me to come and this is possibly our only option (in terms of timing) for the next few years. It's a short trip, I've planned out my meetings in advance, and I'm staying in a secure location (the Swedish Mission Guesthouse in Bukavu).
Seth and I both agree that although the recent setbacks have given us pause to reconsider this project and the motives behind it, ultimately, these have strengthened our confidence in this decision, our resolve to keep working at this Project, and our faith that God will guide and protect me. I'm not going out of guilt, and I'm not going simply to fulfil my adventure-seeking, ambitious self. I believe this is what's right and this is His will.
On a personal level, I am looking forward to it, despite acknowledging that I will miss Seth and Lucy dearly. I'm excited about seeing my old friends and exploring my old stomping ground for the first time since 2001.
That's the story till now - I will continue to update you. We're still praying about it... but we'd also appreciate your ongoing support through prayer, for my travel and safety, for Seth and Lucy back home, and for the Project itself - that the money would be used wisely, all for the glory of God. Please also let me know if you want to become involved at all. I'm not business- or technology-minded, so there's lots of room for assistance if finances don't allow! I intend to get a website up and running to allow people to donate online.