Sunday, August 24, 2008

The race, part 2

Earlier today I wrote about the women's marathon, but the men's marathon was on this evening, and once again it was a powerful event to watch.

While the marathon was in progress, the commentators recalled the story of Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, who ran in the Athens Olympics. He had been in first place until a man in costume jumped out and grabbed him, pulling him into the crowd of spectators. Imagine how traumatic that must have been! De Lima lost his lead because of it, but went on to win the bronze. Talk about throwing off what entangles!

This time, a young man from Kenya ran a beautiful race and won the gold, breaking the Olympic record as he did so. It was the first time a Kenyan had won.

They come from all nations!

1 comment:

  1. Aloha dear niece Elizabeth,

    Below is an article I wrote for "The Maile Wreath," the newsletter of the Hawaiian Mission Children's Society, about our trip to Kinshasa. The HMCS is a 150 year old society of the descendants of the Protestant missionaries who came to Hawaii between 1820 and 1850; it's main program now is running the Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu, preserving the original houses lived in by the missionaries as well as their letters and journals. I'm currently president of the Society. You and I and our family are descended from three of the missionary couples, as you know.

    Nate and Hortense are now here on Oahu for their honeymoon -- hitting the beach, the sites and getting some rest! -- which inspired me to write.

    Love, Uncle R

    ***********

    In May I spent ten days in Kinshasa, Congo with my sister Anne Hulley and her family on the occasion of her son Nathan's wedding. Nate moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo four years ago to run the branch office of Hope International, a microfinance institution that makes small loans to entrepreneurs in "underserved nations." (The creator of the microfinance template, Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.) Nate married Hortense Tshela Mpunga, whom he met at his church where she sings in the choir. But he didn't marry her just once, he married her three times during that ten days! First in a traditional Congolese wedding at her family's house, the second, a civil ceremony in a town hall, and the third was a ceremony at the International Church of Kinshasa and was officiated in Lingala, French and English. I am happy to report that uncles are highly honored members of Congolese families so I was given excellent seats at all three ceremonies. I wish I had room in this letter to tell you about the extraordinary rituals and settings, and the tremendous aloha we all received in Congo. To Hortense I'd like to say "Aloha!" and welcome you as one of the Society's newest consorts.


    I'd planned to visit my nephew for a number of years but my schedule and the political violence in the DRC kept me away. Primarily traveling to see Nate, I also wanted to sample a place and culture thoroughly unalike our own. For nearly a decade I've been researching and writing a book about our missionary ancestors. Much of what I know about them and their lives here in Hawaii comes from reading their accounts in the Society's library and elsewhere. The missionaries stepped right off the edge of the world when they moved from eastern North America to Hawaii; for my research I've wondered how I might do the same, even if it was just for a short while. I had a roundtrip air ticket rather than a one-way ship's passage, and my journey across two great oceans and a dozen or so time zones took about two days instead of 160.

    Nevertheless when our plane landed in Kinshasa I learned firsthand some of the trepidation and awe my great-great-great grandparents reported when they touched here. "It is a revelatory moment," wrote the BBC journalist Michela Wrong of her arrival in Kinshasa, "when Westerners finally understand that there are places in this world where the right accent, education, health insurance and foreign passport no longer apply, and their well-being depends on the condescension of strangers." The 19th century missionaries to Hawaii possessed their extraordinary faith of course, so it wasn't just on strangers they depended. They found themselves, however, on a high wire without a safety net. In seeing the faces, behavior, dress, demeanor and a setting so utterly antipodal to what they'd left behind, they experienced the shock of having a heretofore sound footing nearly disintegrate underneath them. Nothing they'd read or heard fully prepared them.

    For me, almost two centuries later, it was the general chaos of this African airport, the dozens of people in myriad "official" uniforms signaling us this way and that while they separated our family and sent us to different lines and rooms; and it was in the dark, filthy airport parking lot where the child-soldier in army fatigues tapped the car window next to me with the barrel of his Kalashnikov and asked for a bribe in his French-Lingala patois, when that same sense of powerlessness occurred to me. I'm not comparing Congo to Hawaii, nor the contemporary Congolese to the early 19th century Hawaiians, for indeed these two moments in history and these two cultures are worlds and years apart; what I was and remain interested in is the fear (and delight) I found in stepping away from everything I know (for a moment) as our ancestors did (for a lifetime).

    We weren't quite tourists in Kinshasa. Kept from walking alone outside our guest house confines and warned not to take any photographs as we passed through the city in our two-car convoy -- along badly pocked roadways lined with razor wire wreathed compounds and mile after mile of concrete and wood shanties -- there were no museums or architectural wonders to visit. We did wade through the Grand Marche in search of fabrics for shirts and dresses, and shopped at an artists' co-op for Congolese crafts and artifacts. We accompanied Nate to a suburban site where Hope International loans were distributed to a group of forty or fifty recipients inside a tin-roofed church. My sister Anne and nieces Emily and Elizabeth taught print making to a group of children one afternoon. The classroom was a stone's throw from the first protestant church in Kinshasa (then Leopoldville), built on a bluff above the Congo River by missionaries. There were full days without water or electricity at our guest house, but we understood that the Congolese people suffered from the deprivations every day of their lives, while for us it was a momentary inconvenience. Not entirely without familiar comforts, we found that Le Chantilly in downtown Kinshasa served delicious chocolate milk shakes. But most of our time in Kinshasa -- when not at a wedding! -- was spent meeting an array of welcoming in-laws and colleagues, and being caught in horrendous traffic jams.

    Missionaries make up part of my nephew's expatriate circle and were present at the services and various wedding parties. This was the unexpected dividend of my trip. I cornered and questioned Walt Shepherd, the minister of Nate's church, at the reception for wedding number three; Walt and his wife had not only lived as missionaries in the Congolese countryside themselves, but were children of two missionary couples. (Walt's wife is Valerie Elliot Shepherd, whose father Jim Elliot was killed while attempting to evangelize Ecuador's Quichua Indians in 1956.) The stories he told me were uncannily similar to what I've come to learn about our ancestors: the problems, the motivation, the isolation, the joys. And I spent a quiet afternoon on the sultry lanai of Mike Lowry's house on the campus of the American School of Kinshasa, a school founded for American missionary children just as Punahou School was here. A generous, candid man (who looked a bit tired in the way contemporaries described Hawaii missionaries), he and his wife Jill spent years in some of the most remote parts of Congo, doing very much what our ancestors did: teaching, preaching, building and agonizing over how to raise their own children. The American School (TASOK) was probably the most serene place we visited while in the DRC, with it's park-like acres and tall shade trees hidden behind a twelve foot wall. Even the air seemed better there. TASOK would have been our evacuation site had the need arisen, as it is relatively protected and had room for helicopters to land.

    Leaving Kinshasa proved more challenging for me than entering, with various desks to visit and officials to get stamps from, not to mention my bags were overweight. Bribes untie many knots there though, and my nephew Nate had arranged for a "protocol," a very clever expediter, to get his wide-eyed uncle on the plane and out of the country. I admit I was relieved when the South African Airways flight attendant asked me what I would like to drink in English, but I also found myself nostalgic for all of the people I'd met and the camaraderie created in our family by this trip. I was, and remain, very proud of Nate, and impressed at how he navigates such a complex and frustrating society; though his driving is terrifying! I would imagine his missionary ancestors -- the Cookes, Baldwins and Alexanders -- would recognize in Nate a true kindred spirit.

    -Robert L. Becker III

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