For eleven years, I have been inspired by my Congolese friend, Etienne Ngandu Wembolenga. Etienne, which is Stephen in French, is pronounced “A-tee-EHN.” We met when my daughter and I traveled to Kinshasa in 2005, for a reunion of the American School, and we also represented churches in Michigan on a mission trip.
Because of the church and school connections, many people wanted to exchange email addresses, including many people in the Congo. My French had grown very rusty, but the trip called forth every memory possible of words and phrases I had ever heard in French. I had also put a lot of work into the trip, raising, funds and donated items for church-based schools and hospitals in the Congo. I couldn’t imagine the work needed to continue to communicate with Congolese people in French when I returned; all I could think was that it sounded like so much work to do the translations both ways!
The group of about 40 people who gathered in Kinshasa for the TASOK* reunion stayed in the Methodist-Presbyterian guest hostel, where some artists displayed their wares at the front entrance. There, I met Etienne, one of the artists, along with some other artists, all of whose work I admired.
I purchased about $200 worth of art from Etienne and the other artists, primarily because I felt a strong motivation to take the art back to show Americans how wonderful Congolese art really is. Etienne asked to exchange email addresses. At first, I hesitated, thinking about how much work it would be to communicate with him, but then, we did exchange email addresses.
Etienne emailed me not long after I returned to the U.S. His spelling and grammar tend to lack precision at some points, and my vocabulary and conjugation abilities have been limited, so I haven’t always understood what he wrote, but he wrote something like: “Thank you so much for buying so many things from me. I bought food, soap, and paid a bill.”
When I showed many of the objects that I had purchased to a group of clergy in Michigan, their response was to buy a lot of it from me. My daughter and I therefore decided that, if Etienne could somehow send us more art and jewelry, we would sell it so that he could keep eating. The fair trade business Congo Art & Jewelry was born.
From 2005 to 2007, we sold fair trade art in Lansing, and in churches. We showed a powerpoint presentation and collected donations to fund a women’s literacy program, feed widows, help orphans, and generally help starving artists.
On his end, Etienne formed a cooperative of artists called OCIJAM, a French acronym, which, when roughly translated means, “Christian Organization for Empowering Young Artists,” and Etienne mostly empowered those who had been orphaned as youth, as he himself had been.
What amazed and inspired me initially was that, when I would send over as much money as I could for the art and in donations, Etienne would just take that money and share it among the artists, evenly distributing it so that everyone received something. He never kept more than he gave away.
One time, we sent only $20 in donations, so Etienne bought a huge bag of rice and several fish, and invited 10 widows to share the rice and fishes. (That’s my favorite personal “loaves and fishes” story! … for those of you who know the Biblical allusion there.)
One year, at Christmas, Etienne took $20 and bought loaves of bread to share with a blind man, a man who had lost his leg, and others who were even more desperate than the 8-10 million people of Kinshasa, who mostly live in poverty.
One time I received donation money of only $45, and Etienne used it to pay for one trimester of school for three children whose father had been killed in the conflict in Eastern Congo (along with 6-8 million other people who lost their lives in the world’s biggest holocaust since WWII.) You have to pay to get to go to school in Kinshasa.
When the three children’s mother found out that she had HIV, she asked Etienne, who then emailed me, “Papa Etienne, would you and Mama Carol take care of my children when I die?” What are you going to reply to a poor woman dying of HIV in the Congo? Well, yes, of course!
Etienne visited her on her deathbed, and she repeated, “Papa Etienne, would you and Mama Carol take care of my children when I die?” I believe this was in 2006, and Etienne and I have been taking care of these three orphans ever since. Well, the daughter is grown and has a daughter of her own.
My holiday discounted distance and in-person healings this year go to raise money for the family for Christmas, and for the two boys to continue in school. One client has so far paid the discounted rate of only $80 for two one-hour sessions, and gave me an extra $10.
Before Christmas, I sent $300, so here’s what the client’s $90 helped Etienne do: the two boys were able to purchase some clothes, their aunt was able to purchase rice and chicken for their Christmas meal, their sister received $10, which was kind because she just gave birth to a stillborn baby. Then Etienne, to whom I designated only $50 of that total, gave $5 each to a few artists who were in the hospital,** and helped a widow buy some food.
Etienne gave away much of the little bit that I sent him, even though he also wrote to ask me to help him find someone here to sell his art again, because he has had no work lately. Can you imagine giving away much of the little bit of money that someone gave you, even if you had no job and no income? Many people in Kinshasa live that way; sharing the little bit that they have, even though they do not know when they will receive more.
Etienne is my inspiration this holiday season. I do not have the qualifications to speak to the true essence of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Divali, but I do know that the true essence of Christmas is giving, sharing, and living in such a way that the world becomes a better place for others. So, this Christmas, I honor my friend Etienne, for giving of his meagre resources to others, and I thank my daughter, my client, and any and all who help me to help Etienne help poor people in the Congo.
May your holidays be blessed, as you are a blessing to others!
Love and Light,
Here is my friend Etienne and the orphans, Caleb, Moise, and their aunt Solange:
Voici mon ami Etienne et les orphelins, Caleb, Moise, et leur tante Solange:
*TASOK: the American School of Kinshasa
** Many people in Kinshasa get sick fairly often from malaria, typhoid, and other preventable diseases.