Our Research Camp as a Mission Station

A couple of "missionary" posts back, I intimated that we got to stay at the missionary stations while visiting various cities or en route between points in return for our work giving out medicine and such at our research camp. In truth, the arrangement was a bit more complex and subtle than this, and in fact, I think the arrangement and its nature changed over time. The various missionary entities that existed in the Ituri Forest and nearby cites that would be used as jumping off points were actually hospitable to us for three reasons. 1) Almost everybody is almost always hospitable to everybody else in this region. This is how things must be for anything to work. The only non-hospitable units are official governmental agencies of Zaire, or where they exist, embassies or consulates of the United States. 2) We did fill in a blank space on the map where essential medical services were not available to local people because the missions did not operate that far into the bush. Our research station was beyond the Blender Line and even beyond the Beer Line. 3) We paid. For the most part, mission stations had guest rooms and other facilities for use by passers by, but there was a charge (though very inexpensive) to cover costs. Flying on their planes cost as well.

For completeness, I should also mention this: Most of my own time in the cities of Zaire while doing research was spent in the protective and welcoming bosom of the Bwana Ndege household. Bwana Ndege, a European ex-pat with an African name with a story all its own, would prove to be a valuable supporter of the research and a good friend. Indeed, I would end up staying in mission houses only if Bwana Ndege did not have the room; If he knew we were coming and could not accommodate us he'd arrange for the guest room at a mission station for us, and just tell us where to go when we arrived. I've written about Bwana Ndege's household before (here and here).

Our research camp (named "Ngodingodi"1) did become a bit of a secular mission station because we provided medicines and some other basic services that might have been available if a mission was nearby. But of course, we were secular.

I should also mention, for completeness, that I felt two distinct pressures related to the missionaries. First, although we filled in this gap in services, we were instructed by the project directors, who had made some deal with somebody some time some where, to not go out of our way to appear to be providing medicine to Africans beyond a certain distance outward from our facility. Second, when I was discussing my own research, I was not to mention the word Evolution to the missionaries. It was not hard to follow the first rule because this distance was very far out from where I worked. I ignored the second rule, naturally .

But getting back to the main point: I have often been asked: Don't the missionaries essentially trade their medicine for the soul of the needy? The answer is ... it's complicated.

As I've stated before
, there are different kinds of missionaries. As far as I could tell, the Catholics were not exchanging medicine for religious commitment. Any local person could get medical help at the Catholic mission, if they paid. The payment could be as simple and inexpensive as a hand made object of traditional design, such as a piece of bark cloth or a hand made likembe (a thumb piano). The object didn't have to be well made, it didn't have to work but it did have to be handed over to the sisters.

The sisters would then put the object, with all the other objects they received as payment, in a building called the Kenge. I'm not sure of the origin of the word Kenge, but it happens to also be the name of the famous Mbuti (Pygmy) informant of anthropologist Colin Turnbull ("The Forest People"), and Colin and Kenge lived about 100 km or so to the south of the mission station to which I refer here.

Anyway, these objects would be put in the Kenge (pronounced "ken-gay") and sold to tourists who passed through the area. So, how many tourists passed through this area? In the entire time I was there from the mid 1980s through the early 1990s, I counted one, and that was a person disguised as a missionary and really into his trip for the purposes of a kind of religious sex trade, as far as I could tell (I'll tell you about that later). So maybe the actual number is zero.

So the Kenge would get more and more and more full of totally bogus "traditional crafts" that had been hastily botched together so someone could get antibiotics or perhaps treatment for malaria or a nasty infection. I thought this was nice of the sisters ... demanding payment had its positive benefits, but actually requiring payment would deter people getting help. So this pretend payment system worked, and every ten years or so they could have a massive, utterly ridiculous garage sale.

But that was the Catholics. The Evangelicals did it differently. Their medical facilities were available for those people who lived in their built communities, and their communities were essentially giant walled villages full of converts. Although it was not overt, it was clear nonetheless: Medicine for your soul.

I spent a fair amount of time passing among these communities because they were one of the places we would get our pharmaceuticals. Also, some had air strips so they became important points of arrival or departure for the region. One time I was visiting one of these places and decided to see what life was like outside the community, in the nearby village, to see if they were really separate entities and if the medicine and other good stuff inside the community was really off limits. So I took a walk down the road, slipped through the gate, and stopped at the nearest rest stop.

Naturally, the nearest rest stop was a house of prostitution. .. the first little whorehouse after the mission gates. I spent an hour or so having tea, then beer, and a couple of mangoes, with the main prostitute and her husband. Without leading the witnesses, I was able to satisfy myself that indeed you were either in or out, in these parts, of the mission station. If you were in, you had access to the doctor and the medicine, if not, you did not have such access.

Of course, down the road was a private doctor and a pharmacy. The real difference here was not access to goods and services, but how they were paid for. In the community it was more of a collective economy with oppressive social and religious overtones, and in the villages it was more of a cash economy and traditional free market trade.

So our research facility, Ngodingodi, filled a gap in that we provided medicine for those who needed it, to the extent that we could. Eventually, we (and when I say "we" I mean many other people who were there after me) managed to build a small medical facility with trained medical people working in it who could provide what the missions provided but in an entirely secular way. Was there resistance from the missionaries to the development of this non-religious alternative? I'm told that no, there was not from the Catholics, but yes, there was a little from the Evangelicals. We were clearly cutting into their market. But since we existed far beyond the blender line, we were of little consequence.

Then, of course, the war broke out and as usual, the missionaries ran away. As they have always done.

1Ngodingodi is the local name of a particular bird common in the area.

More like this

Greg -
I've found this series of posts to be very interesting and informative. You've at least partially confirmed something that I'd suspected for a while.

I attend a fairly casual Catholic church, and occasionally we have sisters come in from places in South America, Africa, or India to discuss their work and ask for financial support. As far as I can recall, every one of them has made some sort of distinction between the aid aspects of their work (hospitals and clinics, for example) and the religious aspects of their work (churches, evangelical centers, and suchlike). It seems to me that if you're going to have religious organizations working in the area, maintaining some separation between the relief work and the religious activities should be mandatory.

On the other side of the matter, I'm aware of a number of conservative Protestant missionary activities that echo the theme you pointed out - aid in exchange for soul-saving. The one that immediately springs to mind is a group that provides water filters to villages in exchange for being allowed to plant a church. This seems to be nothing so much as self-righteous extortion.

Did you ever have occasion to ask the missionaries you encountered what they believed would be the fate of people they didn't reach? I've seen statements to the effect that "God would take care of the un-churched", implying that people who had never been evangelized would get some sort of voucher to the great beyond. A logical consequence (that never gets acknowledged) of this would be that anyone who had been evangelized but didn't convert would go into the fire, and a logical consequence of that would be that the missionaries themselves would be directly responsible for the condemnation of those non-converting evangelized folks.

Thanks for the posts!

Jay, I did not ask that question, but I know the answer. That is another catholic evangelical difference . Catholics have an unchurched clause. But the whole point of evangelical work is that if you do not accept Jesus in to you heart, you are toast. If you do, you might still be toast.

Thanks Greg.

Perhaps you covered this more in the radio segment that I haven't had a chance to listen to yet, but how did the local people tend to react to the more aggressive missionaries? In my narrow view of things, it seems like that would be perceived as an attack on their culture that wouldn't be particularly welcome.