Democratic Republic of Congo – Andrew Wood, SLM: “What I’ve learnt in the last 365 days”

21 December 2018

(ANS – Lubumbashi) – Andrew Wood is a young American who spent a year volunteering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the "Salesian Lay Missioner" (SLM) program. At the end of this service, he presents 11 lessons he has learned.

By Andrew Wood

Be grateful for American food.

I truly love the food here, actually. It was a process, arriving here and realizing it’s basically the same few things to eat every day, but after many months of adjustment (and stomach problems), I’ve come to quite enjoy the food here. But man, let me tell you—my mouth waters when I think back to American food, and not eating the same thing every single day. If you’re in America: be grateful for hamburgers, pizza, and variation.

Football = the perfect conversation filler.

My literacy on football (soccer) has been a perfect boon. Don’t know what to say? How about a comment on the latest match, a question on what team they’re passionate about, or a joke about Neymar? Almost always works.

Everything is a matter of perspective.

Perspective-shifting has permeated my time here. In the moments when I feel as if my tiny stipend a month is difficult to live on, I look just outside my door at the crippled man who begs for a fraction of a dollar. Or if I am upset that the water or electricity isn’t working (around 50% of the time), I walk down the street to all the houses that don’t even have water or electricity. And holding a child who was found abandoned in the street and may not have long to live—how can one look at the world the same way after that?

Wear reflective sunglasses.

Surprisingly enough, getting constantly yelled at, harassed, or joined by strangers who want to talk or beg in the street is not always my favorite thing. About six months ago, I got some super-cheap, reflective sunglasses. Those things have seriously cut down on overly friendly/bossy/rude people in the street by probably 50%. They also help for negotiating prices at markets. Now I seldom go anywhere without these sunglasses. Plus, if you hide my eyes I’m not QUITE so hideous.

Culture runs so much deeper than we think.

Before I came to Africa, I never realized how much our culture touches every part of our life. Here, I’ve had to relearn so much of the way I interact with others, and I still routinely mess up. For example, here, the way you dress tells the person you’re with what you think of THEM, not what you felt like wearing that morning. Walking past people you know who are deep in a conversation is quite rude, because it’s like you’re avoiding them.

It’s impossible really to convey fully the feelings of finding yourself immersed in a different culture, or the richness and beauty of Congolese culture, but it’s changed the way I look at so many things. To put family first and be totally open and kind to strangers—these are just a few beautiful facets of the culture here.

Bread is a cheap snack.

Honestly, there’s not much to this one. It’s just good, and cheap. I’ve eaten a lot of bread this year.

African clothing is the best thing since sliced bread.

The vivid, many-colored cloths that they sell here have become an addiction, and, well, basically I’m going to be wearing all kinds of brightly colored, African-patterned clothing when I get back stateside. Get excited.

Tell me the real price.

HELLO THERE!!! Tired of going up to a market or taking a taxi, and regularly getting told a price at least twice as high as everyone around you, because of your skin color? Yeah, me too. There’s got to be a better way!

Introducing: JOKING!!! Try responding with: “You’re giving me the white person price. Tell me the real price!” Joking definitely helps them warm up to you and shows them you know the real prices, and they usually lower the price quite a lot.

People are kind.

For all of the problems I’ve had with immature people harassing me, I’ve had just as many wonderful encounters with kind people, like people on taxi-buses who’ve paid for me because I’m a volunteer even when they’re poor; who’ve invited me to their house; who’ve made sure I don’t overpay on things; who’ve asked me to take pictures with them and their baby; who’ve helped guide me somewhere or warned me of thieves. Just this Sunday, I had a young man I hardly knew at my parish introduce me to his wife and new baby girl and tell me: “If it was a boy, I would have named it after you!”

The sun is actually better here.

During late afternoon and evening, you just look around at everything getting painted yellow, and the giant ball of fire hanging in the sky, and you realize one simple truth. The sun here is just better.

I love the Congo.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on life here, and leaving, and what I will be leaving behind. And I don’t feel the least bit ready to leave this life, this place, these people. I’ve rarely been happier than I am here on a daily basis, and without diminishing the excitement I feel to see my family and friends in America again, I feel genuinely sad that I’ll be saying goodbye. I’m already planning my return.

365 days. It at times has seemed so long, and at other times so short. But these 365 days of my life have been a time of untold happiness, a new world that I’ve been immersed in, full of beauty. Strange how 365 days can change everything.


ANS - “Agenzia iNfo Salesiana” is a on-line almost daily publication, the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation enrolled in the Press Register of the Tibunal of Rome as n 153/2007.

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