Sunday, October 14, 2012


barrowdanny, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
Here is an all-time classic photo! My brother Dan - relaxing in a wheelbarrow, holding an umbrella to keep off the rain, and reading. I believe he told me that it was either Swiss Family Robinson, or Robinson Crusoe. Either way, I’m sure the story would be even more gripping when read this way.

We read a lot. After all, there was almost no radio, no television, no mall, and very few other kids to play with at Kivuvu. I read anything and everything, whether I was interested in the subject or not. Reading has been a refuge from the world as well as opening up new vistas.

Our bookshelves were full. The ones I remember right now:
  • Encyclopedia Britannica – a whole set! I read from entry to entry in order. I did not get all the way through although that was a goal.
  • Several dictionaries, including the huge heavy one with the most obscure words. We used that one for Scrabble. Dictionaries were frequently consulted in our house, for all kinds of reasons. I also used them as reading material. Whenever there wasn’t anything else to read, there was always the dictionary! I still enjoy entomology and love trying to figure out the roots of words.
  • A set of Fairy books by Andrew Lang, from Dover Children’s Classics.
  • Indaba, my Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. Truly a must-read in African oral history and story.
  • Some classic science fiction paperbacks.
  • A few Cherry Ames stories. I especially remember Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.  
  • Several volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
  • I’m sure there were some Bibles and inspirational works, probably also a history book or two. Dad’s office had quite a few shelves of medical books.
  • There were a couple cookbooks that got regular use – the Joy of Cooking, and Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. We had many difficulties with shortages of one thing or another and the Joy of Cooking always came through. I learned to bake from the Cooky Book (although we always spelled it "cookie"). My specialty? Spritz cookies!
  • One favorite pastime of mine was browsing the most recent Wards and Sears catalogs. I spent many hours furnishing my dream room and outfitting myself with new cool clothes. Those catalogs were really our only contact with fashion.  We did get National Geographic magazine once in a while when it didn't get stolen from the post but that wasn't too helpful for current trends.
Once I got to boarding school in Kinshasa, the library at TASOK opened up a much broader world to me. There were hundreds of books, all of which should be read! The librarian gave me a list of books that should be read before college – I think there were about 400 or so – and I methodically read through the entire list of classics before graduation from high school.

In this library I found a GREAT treasure – J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. I devoured that book and The Lord of the Rings when it came out in paperback a couple years later during our furlough in 1969. Those characters (particularly Frodo) are part of my psyche.

Another favorite pastime in the TASOK library was reading magazines. There were many back issues of various strange subjects (or at least, strange to be at TASOK!). I know more about horse breeds, horse racing, ballet, farming, and fashion because of some kind soul’s donation to the library.

Back to the photo for a moment: check out that wheelbarrow! The steel wheel looks home-made to me. Also, I love the broken rib on the umbrella, carefully placed so that the rain wouldn’t fall on Dan’s book – only his back. In the background, you can see the church, which looks freshly painted. There are young mango and avocado trees planted along the semi-circular drive that passed the church and our “front” door. Actually, we used the door on the other side of the house much more, and considered that our front door.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Bangu and the Vampa

Bangu in early morning mist, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
The missionary houses (and the church) at Kivuvu were, and still are located at the top of a small hill. Our views from the hill were beautiful, and the location was more likely to experience breezes too. We also had many thunderstorms and the hill seemed to attract lightning. (In a later post about storms, I’ll tell the story of the Night the Lightning Bolt Struck the Church.) One of the things that contributed to the view was the silhouette of the Bangu, an uplifted plateau that was just to the southwest of us. 

I don’t think I ever heard another name for the formation. The slopes are very steep, and there are several waterfalls including one we called the Vampa, with pools of beautifully cool water. The photo – taken early in the rainy season I’d say, from the color of the lamb’s tail grass in the foreground – is a somewhat romantic view of the mountain, with fog sliding off the slopes.

The top of the Bangu was much less populated than the area around is, and consequently much more forested. There were rumors of large antelope up there, a lion, perhaps even an elephant. Who knows? I only went to the top twice, once on foot and once by Land Rover. Dad had a survey trip (in which he and several staff members from Kivuvu and IME would go to a village and look over the population for leprosy) and the family went along. What I remember most about that trip was the wonder that the local kids showed when they saw my little sister, blond and pale-skinned as she was. They had never seen a little white kid!

As I said earlier, there were waterfalls to be visited. Getting to the Vampa was quite a hike. First we had to drive to the edge of the river. That took maybe 30-45 minutes. We had to take all food and water with us, as the water was not to be trusted for drinking. The next stage was to cross the river, which was maybe 30 feet across. There was a narrow foot bridge that required climbing up a handmade ladder made from small tree trunks with narrow planks fastened to them at uneven intervals. Once up the ladder, then there was the bridge. About two planks wide, with guide/hand-holds made of vine, it made for an interesting crossing. Sometimes a plank was missing; sometimes the vines were not sturdy. The brown water of the river was only about 10 feet below and looked most uninviting. At the other end of the bridge a similar ladder allowed you back down to the ground, which was best done by “walking” down it like steps, instead of turning around as you might normally expect.

My favorite part of the walk to the Vampa was the mango forest. Someone had planted hundreds of mango trees in a grid – who knows when or why. The project was long abandoned but it made for nice shady walking with a path that rolled up and down the humps made by the tree roots. I think of it as being dark and cool and mysterious, smelling of ripe and rotting mango – and full of snakes.

The Vampa falls were designated as the lower and upper falls. The lower falls were a much shorter trip – maybe an hour walk from the river. Scrambling over the rocks and playing in the clear, cold water was fun. The valley rang with our shouts and laughter as we jumped from the edge of a cascade into the pool below, or slid down the smooth rock slide to the bottom of the upper falls. Swimming here was a relief from the heat and humidity of the rainy season and we relished it!

Once, Garcia (our gardener, previously mentioned here) and Pedro, our houseboy, went with my brother George and I for the strenuous hike to the very top of the plateau. I do not recall who else was with us. What I do remember is the struggle to get up the steep rocky path – I was never the most athletic or fit kid – and even worse, the trip down. My knees were water, my thighs on fire. A brutal hike. On that same trip, I fell on the final ladder, putting my leg between the slats and deeply bruising my shin. Garcia and Pedro started laughing as I started to tear up and though I knew why, it still felt cruel. (One was supposed to laugh at pain or fear, to keep the bad spirits away.) I had a knot on that shin for years afterwards.

On another occasion, I was walking with Dr. and Mrs. Frazier, running up and down the small hummocks in the path. Serious miscalculation caused me to land on my left knee resulting in a deep jagged gash. It took weeks to heal. That scar still reminds me to pay attention on uneven ground!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


This post is mostly about the continuing presence of Congo in our family life.  I spent the most formative years of my childhood in Africa – from age 5 to age 17, with a couple years of furlough back at a place in the States called “home” that never was actually home. Little bits of Congo are scattered all over my life, underpinning my decisions, coloring my outlook.  Surely everyone's childhood stays with them in such ways.  I still carry a  poem in my wallet that I wrote while suffering severe homesickness during a Stateside furlough… “home, I long to go home, back to the Congo”.  Africa truly never leaves the soul. 

So what does all that have to do with hats?  I’ll show you!  We have two very broad-brimmed hats made of some kind of fiber, with a  few purple bands decorating the weave.  These hats were acquired at some point in Kivuvu – possibly brought to the back door by a vendor. There often was someone at the back door, with live mice in woven traps for our pet mongoose, or carvings, or vegetables, a giant stalk of bananas, or… hats.  The hats made for wonderful child portraits.  Here, my little sister Sara gives us such a beautiful smile!

Next, my brother Dan, a bit more thoughtful:

 And finally, my brother George and his fellow adventurer Tommy, determined!  
Note the slingshot around George’s neck, the dirt and scrapes on both boys, the general lack of decent footwear.  These guys were heading out to the wild bush! The big hat was all part of the package.
Forty years later, more or less, our family was together again for a Thanksgiving celebration at my sister’s place.  The Congo hats came out again, to be savored and played with.  I took a deep sniff of the brim, and thought I smelled a bit of Congo still in the fibers.  Those hats traveled with us from Congo to Hawaii to Pennsylvania to Maryland, and are part of our family heritage. They may not last  another forty years, but I’m glad we still have them now. 
Sara is still has her charming smile,

George still has a slingshot at the ready,

Dan is still pensive.
But we still get goofy,

and hide behind the brim,

with smiles all around.

The next generation likes the hats too! 

I'm so glad we have each other to share those memories.  When we get together it is so much fun to tell the stories, to hear new tales, to remember the good times and the bad. Our family was hardly perfect - still isn't - but that shared experience means so much to me.  No one else knows quite what it was like to be us, then. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Flying ants

termites flying, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
The rainy season at Kivuvu was eagerly anticipated, and the annual flight of termites confirmed that the rains had truly come. These termites lived in great colonies underground and in mounds. When a good soaking rain came, the insects would begin to come up out of the ground and begin their mating flight. Our proximity to the cattle ranch probably helped, because there were a great many established termite mounds in the fields behind the house.  Sometimes the flights were just a few insects, sometimes thousands. Although we did try to fool the termites by saturating the ground with the hose, they didn’t fall for the trick very often.

When wispy columns wavered in the afternoon light, we would spring into action. Flying ants, as we called them, are very good eating! A large bag or net was placed over the exit hole, and as many as possible were captured.Next, we carefully disengaged them from the netting, and pulled the wings off the ones who had not already shed their wings when caught. Wings are not very tasty. 

The more adventurous among us would eat them raw and alive (my brothers liked to do this) but the rest of us would take the catch to Pedro (our houseboy) to fry them. Hot, salty, crispy, they were deliciously savory!  Our diet was fairly low in protein and fat, which is probably why they tasted so good.  They might compare in flavor to the fattest, crispiest part of bacon. 

I'm so glad that my dad took time to document this annual event.  It looks to me as though these were taken in about 1971 or 1972, since Sara is maybe 5 in the picture.  I don't remember her having braids very often so it's nice to see those! 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

playing in the mud

playing in the mud, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
Entertainment at Kivuvu was generally self-created.  There was no TV, no radio, no telephone. No electricity during daylight hours. One favorite pastime was playing with the water hose. Looks like my brothers and sister made a cool little construction here! Since the surrounding landscape looks rather brown, I conclude that this was the dry season, and probably not the best use of our somewhat limited water.

Behind my brother is a young tree, one of several chaulmoogra trees that my father planted.  I believe he brought the seeds from India. Chaulmoogra oil was one of the pre-sulfone treatments for leprosy, and Dad wanted to test the idea out again.  I wonder if they are still growing? 

In the foreground is a flamboyant tree which was partially caged with chicken wire, and served as a home for one of our pet vervet monkeys. 

The building in the background is the small church we had at Kivuvu. A simple building of concrete block, corrugated roofing, and breeze-block walls.  There is also a small grey construction in between that looks like an outhouse but in fact was the night watchman's station.  We always had a night watchman or sentry while we lived there.  I can remember watching him walk by the house swinging his kerosene lantern and singing softly.  Always made me feel a little safer! 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gardening at Kivuvu

kivuvu garden 3, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
My dad is a talented gardener, and he really got to exercise those talents at Kivuvu. Our garden was the source of most daily vegetables. Grocery stores were non-existent, and although peddlers did bring vegetables to the back door it was on an irregular basis. Here is a shot of our garden, in about 1967, two years after we arrived. It looks to me as though Dad took it by standing on the washblock and putting the camera up over his head.  That's my sister Sara touring the garden with Jeremiah, the black cat. (He was named after the prophet Jeremiah in the Bible, because of his continual lamentations. A very talkative cat! Sometime I’ll have to tell you the story about the end of Jeremiah – it’s not a happy end.)

Our climate in Kivuvu was hot and wet during the rainy season, and dry and cool during shivu, the dry season. This photo was definitely taken during the rainy season, since I see the endive and collards (?) are bolting. The rainy season was slightly longer than the dry season, running from October through May. During that season we could expect daytime temperatures in the upper 90’s and nighttime temperatures in the 70’s. Skies were blue, with lots of puffy white clouds. Rain came in the form of huge thunderstorms. Since the station was on a hill, lightning strikes often accompanied these storms. (A particularly dramatic lightning storm will be written up soon!)

The dry season ran from June through September. Daytime temperatures were in the 70’s, and nighttime temperatures could drop as low as the high 50’s. During the dry season there was no rain whatsoever, although because of the continuous presence of grey, low hanging clouds you would expect rain. As the season advanced, the dust would get thicker and the well-water became muddier.

Gardening was quite different in the two seasons. The rain and heat of the rainy season meant that tomatoes and peppers and eggplant did very well. You can see lettuce and endive in the garden, but those would be hold-overs from the dry season garden, when cool weather crops did better. Late lettuce was always so bitter due to the heat. Pineapples also grew well. In a large field off to the right, we sometimes grew peanuts, sweet potatoes and field corn.

Off in the distance you can see the profile of the Bangu mountain. In between us and the Bangu was a cattle ranch full of half-wild cows with dangerous horns, and other wildlife. Most of the big animals were long gone from this part of Congo – the biggest might be a small antelope. Lots of snakes and mongooses, field rats and pythons, large and small birds of all kinds. The fields were burned off annually to control the regrowth of the forest and promote good grazing for the cattle.

Fortunately for the Meyers table, we had help with our garden. The main gardener was Garcia, an Angolan refugee who was a cool dude as well as a good worker. You can see that he took good care of the garden! Dad and Mom instructed him on how the garden should be maintained, and he did a great job of keeping it up.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Driving to Jacques Foret

driving in the sugar fields, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
For a change of pace, let’s head out to the sugarcane plantation near Lukala, maybe 20-30 miles from Kivuvu. Lukala also had the ONLY cement factory in Bas-Congo, if not in the entire country. And we often got bread from there (leading to the family joke that Lukala bread was hard as a rock). I also remember touring the sugar factory, and seeing the great vats of molasses.

The reason we were driving through these tall canes was to get to a wonderful place called Jacques Foret, a spring-fed pond with incredibly clear water and a spooky cave. I only made it out there a couple times, since this qualified as both a big time commitment for my parents as well as a hassle to get permission to cross the fields. The road wasn’t bad as I recall, but obviously the view was restricted and those sharp-edges leaves cut the arms of the unwary who left the windows open.

But Jacques Foret was well worth the effort, as you can see. The water was crystal clear, cold, and deep. A few fallen trees floating in the water provided a place to hang on. The cave (no photos, unfortunately) was flooded most of the way in, and did have bones in it. I can’t quite trust my memory on if they were human but they may have been. Certainly this area would have been well-known to the local folks for its wonderful water.

Dad had fewer reservations about us swimming in this water since it was fast-flowing.  In stagnant water there was always the risk of schistosomiasis (sleeping sickness or bilharzia).  Oddly, I don't remember any mosquito population here, but I'm sure there were some.

My predominant memories of this oasis are coolness, and peace, and a bit of edginess about the cave.  I'd love to go back and see if it has changed in the last 40 years! 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Schoolhouse at IME, Kimpese

Schoolhouse at IME, originally uploaded by AmyEmilia.
This schoolhouse was at the nearby “big” mission, Institut Médical Evangélique. A large teaching hospital, the mission was then staffed by many different groups, as well as local folks. (It still functions today! Here is one link.) Our mission, Kivuvu, was located about 20 minutes away. The ride to school was often courtesy of Jean, who drove what she called a “dustbin” – a Citroën 2CV “Deux-Chaveaux”. The dustbin was a fun car to travel in since it bounced and jounced mightily over the dirt roads.

Many of the mission families had little kids, and so there was a tiny little school for mission kids established. The school taught grades K-5 in English and we had several different nationalities there. I only went for one year (1965-66) before I was sent up to Kinshasa to the American School, to begin 6th grade, although my younger brothers were able to stay. My teacher for that one year was Elizabeth Frazier, wife of one of the staff doctors. Her sons Tim (my age) and Tom (younger) were also in the school. I don’t remember that we had the grades segregated, so it probably functioned the same way as the traditional one-room schoolhouse in the States functioned. While one grade was taught, the rest either worked on their studies or if caught up, listened to the lesson.

I remember NOTHING of the lessons except confusion during math. I skipped over 4th grade and never properly learned my times tables. To this day, my math skills are more intuitive than literal!

As I recall the building consisted of two rooms, with concrete block walls, corrugated tin roof, and mahogany desks, chairs, and doors. Mahogany was the furniture wood of choice, and all the furniture was made right there at IME. Those chairs were heavy! Note also the papaya tree (we called them pie-pies) growing by the side of the building. 

Once the school put on a show for the parents, and one of the spectacles was a rendition of St. George and the Dragon. What remains in my mind is the wonderful green dragon costume that my mother made for me, as well as the applause when my dragon head was cut off (it was attached by snaps) by St. George. There is a delightful photo somewhere in the archives that shows my brother reciting the poem “They That Go Down To the Sea in Ships” by Sir Walter Scott, as his part of the show.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Welcome to Kivuvu - September 1965

"Soyez les bien venus". Roughly translated by my now very rusty French, this sign reads: "They are the welcome ones". This sign was erected to celebrate and welcome the Meyers family to Kivuvu. Kivuvu means "place of hope" in Kikongo, as I recall. My father is a doctor, and this little mission station housed the leprosarium. Fortunately for the patients, my dad's specialty is leprosy and tropical disease.

We would live here at Kivuvu until 1973, with a furlough back to the States in 1969 (just in time to watch the moon landing!). Looking at the photo, I remember how desolate and bleak Kivuvu looked when we got there. Of course it was the very end of dry season, which didn't help. By the time we left in June of 1973 there would be rows of mango and oil palm trees lining the roads, and flowers too.

The house behind us was for Edna and Jean, two single missionaries from England. Edna was a nurse, and Jean a teacher. I learned a lot from both of them, and especially enjoyed their holiday celebrations. Edna's marzipan Christmas cake was wonderful! You can see that Edna and Jean were newly arrived as well, although I don't remember when they came. There are packing crates to the left, and those wouldn't have stayed out for long. Further to the left is their rabbit house. The rabbits were an experiment doomed to fail. Once the python population discovered these bite-sized snacks, they were constantly stopping by.

Our house was of similar concrete block and corrugated tin roof construction, and is located off-screen and to the right. I'll post another photo later.


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