November 4, 2004

To Congo

It's been an awfully long time since I put up something from Grandpa's memoirs. Since February from the look of it. I've been busy, and I've only just now secured scanner software that works well enough to handle Grandpa's typed and photocopied memoirs.

As readers of the previous instalments know, I am fascinated by travel and by the transitional spaces it opens up. This is Grandpa's second trans-Atlantic crossing, and it is nothing like the first. In 1927, as a seven year old boy, he travelled from Zaporozhe, Ukraine to Winnipeg, Canada in a little under a month. This trip, in 1953, will take him a bit longer - about a month and a half by my count. But the destination is off most people's maps. Africa is a long way away from anywhere, even today. It rarely surfaces in the news, and when it does, it is portrayed as too remote, too troubled, and too strange to fully comprehend.

This trip is a bit more difficult for me to unpack than the first one. Grandpa's brief trip to New York is the first thing in this memoir that I remember my own father describing to me from his memories. He remembered the Automat, the Bronx Zoo and the Empire State building. He even remebered the Vinkt, the ship they took across the ocean. The road from Winnipeg to New York had changed some in the thirty years between Grandpa's trip and when I moved to New Jersey as a teenager. The highway names have changed - there were no Interstates - and the prices are a lot higher. But we used to drive that route twice a year.

This post has a small glimpse of New York at the peak of its powers, when it really could claim the title of the greatest city in the world. Less than a decade after the war, Europe was still rebuilding and Asia was still poor. America, however, represented a larger part of the global economy than ever before or since.

I moved to greater New York in 1983. By then, things were already quite different. Wall Street was no longer a place, it was a metaphor for the global rule of capital. New York under Ed Koch was considered one of the worst places in America to live: full of slums and crime, overrun with grafitti, its traditional industries downsizing. Since then, I understand that it has made something of a come-back, but the glory is gone. Passenger ships no longer form a mainstay in New York, and the less said about JFK airport, the better.

The coming part of Grandpa's memoirs covers life in Africa during that brief moment when the jet age overlapped with the colonial age. The grand colonial empires were not yet wholly gone. France still controlled its colonies through the somewhat looser framework of the French Union, and Britain had not yet relinquished its hold over much of Africa. But time was running out, and only a fool could have missed the signs.

This is also the very end of the days when passengers crossed oceans in boats. Grandpa talks about packing his entire household onto the back of a truck, driving it to New York, loading the whole truck onto the boat, and then driving it off in Africa. That's carry-on luggage.

Grandpa's grand aspiration was to be a missionary. This was his life's work he's was going away to do, and he expected to stay in Africa for the rest of his working life. It didn't turn out that way, but that comes later. First, the trip.

When we came back to Tabor College this time, we came under the auspices of the Mission Board. They provided housing for us. We lived in the house owned by J. B. Toews. Some of the things in the house, like the fridge, belonged to the missionary John A. Wiebe family from India. Several of their children attended Tabor College the first time we were there. Rev. Wiebe had been instructor at Tabor College from 1949-1951, so I take it that the house had been bought for them. While we lived in the house, some of J. L. Toews' things arrived, so they expected to move there. By the time we were at Kipungu, J. B. Toews was the new Executive Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions.

[Kipungu is a missionary station not too far from Kafumba, where the first MB mission in Congo was built. Grandpa was primarily stationed there.]

I don't recall what other subjects I took this time at Tabor (you had to carry a full load to be eligible as a student in the States), but the major one was French taught by Miss Pfrunder, an exchange student from Switzerland. What I remember about Miss Pfrunder was one of her skirts. It was a wrap-around kind and kept from flapping open by a massive safety pin.

[Grandpa a skirt man? I never would've known, except that Dad and I had... similar tastes. Well, just goes to show something, although I'm not sure what.]

The French that we got was sufficient for me to write all my checks in French once we got to the Belgian Congo. Bob Kroeker had no French at all and had to write his checks in English - that was a definite disadvantage.

[Bob Kroeker and his wife Wanda went to Congo at roughly the same time as Grandpa, remaining 21 years before becoming a pastor at an MB church in Dinuba, California. In 1997, aged 67, he and his wife decided to return to missionary work and moved to Lithuania. I don't know what's become of them since. I doubt he ever did learn French.

Such French as Grandpa had, ironically, was distinctly Belgian. He knew that people in Canada, for instance, didn't use words like septante and nonante. Grandpa's French practice in Africa came primarily from writing cheques, so the one thing he had totally mastered was longhand writing Belgian French numerals. I - on the other hand - after three years in Belgium still say that my GSM number starts with quatre cent quatre-vingt-quatorze, which annoys Belgians no end because they've already written 48 when they realise my number starts with 494.]

Some time before the October Mission Board meeting, the wife of Vernon Wiebe, future Mission board Secretary who was working in the Mission office, asked Frieda whether we were the couple that was going to the field immediately. I'm sure she was not to divulge classified information, but I guess curiosity got the better of her. We went to see A. E. Janzen and put the question to him, but he denied any knowledge of anything. However, when the Board met, that is exactly what happened. They were so short of men in the Belgian Congo that we were asked to go without having had much French. Why could Mr. Janzen not have been forthright and told us that the possibility existed; they were considering it. That is another of the things I have never been able to understand.

[Once again, Grandpa's plans are changed secretly without ever consulting him, or even notifying him. Grandpa bore some resentment toward A. E. Janzen for years afterwards for jerking him around. After passing him over to go abroad without having the decency to tell him, then making them come to Tabor, changing their minds and shipping him off to Congo, I can see why.]

From now on French was on the back burner and immunization and shopping had priority. Robert did not appreciate the needles and would clamp himself to the legs of the chair in an effort to escape. Most of the injections caused little discomfort except one, typhoid or typhus. One of them took two injections and the other three. I'm not sure which one bothered us, but when we got that one we came home and went to bed. We got all injections in Hillsboro except for yellow fever, which we got in Winnipeg.

We suddenly had a new task and that was shopping for clothing that would last for the next five years. At least three times we drove all the way to Wichita. That is where we found Penny's and Montgomery-Ward. We bought quite a bit of cloth that was sewn into clothes. Dan River produced beautiful cotton cloth for Frieda's dresses. Mother helped her with some of the sewing. We also bought some nice nylon cloth for shirts - and that was a mistake. It looked nice enough, but it did not breathe. In the equatorial heat one perspires a lot, but nylon does not soak any of it up, and I found it impossible to wear those shirts. I bought enough Penny's shorts and undershirts to last me our entire stay in the Belgian Congo. They were made of cotton, as were the socks. Those items I have been buying at Penny's ever since.

[J. C. Penny's and Montgomery-Wards were large catalogue retail companies the grew in the wake of Sears-Roebuck's expansion at the end of the 19th century. After WWII, J. C. Penny's - named after its founder James Cash Penny - led the transition of the old catalogue companies into suburban big-surface department stores and staples at the local mall. Montgomery-Wards, the very first mail order retail operation in the Americas, tended to keep its operations in more central urban areas, ignoring the movement of affluent middle class Americans to the suburbs. When they did finally make the shift to the 'burbs in the late 60s and early 70s, it was too late. They managed to survive in the more competitive environment of the mall, but the rise of Wal-Mart finally killed them off. Montgomery-Wards went bankrupt in 2000.

Dan River is still a wholesale fabric brand name. They have a website, but apparently they filed for Chapter 11 reorganisation this spring, which usually only happens when you're broke. Harsh.]

The Mission Board provided us with a list of material that they recommended that missionaries take with them. One of the items on the list was 25 yards of red flannel. We did not see the need for that so we did not buy any - and we never missed it either.

When we arrived at Hillsboro this time, we enrolled Robert in the Kindergarten. He enjoyed the classes and thought very highly of his teacher, a Miss Schellenberg. Along our street he had a young friend where he often went to watch television. He called him Bobby Donkey. It was only much ' later that it dawned on us that what he probably meant to say was Dahlke. Now we had to take Robert away from all this at the beginning of November and go back to Niverville in preparation of departing for Africa.

Upon the urging of the Mission Board, we were to be ordained for missionary service, but the Niverville M.B. Church requested that we be ordained to the ministry. For a complete report of the ordination service see the report in the Mennonitische Rundschau of December 16, 1953, written by Mrs. Luise Dueck.

Mennonitische Rundschau, December 16, 1953.

Niverville, Manitoba.

Sunday the 29th of November was a special day for the M.B. Church of Niverville. Out of our midst the Lord has called Brother and Sister Theodor Martens for service among the heathen in distant Africa. On this day the Church acted according to Acts 13:3, "Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." The choir began the program with the song, "This is the day that the Lord hath made." Br. W. Dyck, leader of the Church, welcomed all those who had come and had them sing the song, "When peace like a river attendeth my way." He read the passage from Isaiah 48:17-18 and several brethren prayed. The choir sang "The service of Jesus true pleasure. affords."

Brother and Sister Martens had the privilege of having both sets of parents present, the D. Dicks, Niverville and the A. Willms, Steinbach. Rev. D. Dick brought a message based on Acts 13:1-3. Then Br. H.H. Janzen spoke as representative of the Board of Foreign Missions. Based on Acts 9:10-22 he answered the question, "What must one have to become a missionary?" 1) Paul became a new creature. He received his sight, both physically and spiritually. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was obedient and he was one who prayed. 2) A missionary must have a definite call from the Lord. 3) He must have the consent of the Church.

The choir sang the song, "O leg aufs Haupt uns deine Segenshände." [O lay on our head your hands of blessing.] Then the Brethren H.H. Janzen, W. Dyck and D. Dick performed the ordination by laying on of hands. It was an uplifting celebration, and certainly every one was thankful for this Brother and Sister who lay themselves on the altar of the Lord and with whom we are most intimately united through this ceremony.

The noon break and a fellowship meal followed.

In the afternoon Br. A.H. Unruh gave with a missionary message based on 1 Samuel 17:22-51. Goliath is a symbol of heathendom. Saul and his actionless army are symbolic of nominal Christianity. David - a picture of one who is willing to take up the battle.

A quartet from the M.B. Bible College sang several songs.

Brother and Sister Martens related when and how the Lord had called them into His service. In closing, Br. H.H. Janzen gave a report of our foreign mission work and prayed. The offering of this day was designated for a mission vehicle. Thus for us a blessed day came to a close.

Mrs. Luise Dueck. [Grandpa's translation]

On Saturday afternoon, January 2, 1954, Mom and Dad celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. They had been married on February 17, 1929, but they celebrated early so that we could participate. AIl my uncles and aunts were there, including the family of Mother's first husband. [His uncle] William Dyck and I brought the messages - both in German. This was in the old church and the reception was down stairs. Robert gave each of them a sucker. We did not get around to doing chores until after 9 that evening. I guess the cows wondered why we had forgotten them.

From now on our place was always in an uproar. We were packing our household, supplemented by what we had already bought in Kansas. In addition, we purchased quite a bit at Eaton's. They allowed us to buy on credit and have the church pay for it. One important thing that we bought was a new axe, but we had to get to Congo to find out just how important. All together we purchased over $1500 worth. The only dishes we left at home were those that had cracks in then. After all, had we not committed ourselves to a lifetime of service for the Lord in his field abroad?

When I look back now, I marvel at the enthusiasm with which Mom and Dad helped us. Mom must have had a heavy heart. After all, I was her only son, the only child of her first marriage and here we were leaving for a lifetime on another continent. Would we ever see each other again? She never uttered a word of complaint. God had called us and that was good enough for her. In her writing in 1957 she said, "How often I have thanked God when I see him standing in the pulpit. God wanted to use him here. His ways are wonderful, and He concludes all things well." To me that says a lot about Mother's submission to God's will. In the end, whether at home or abroad, that was all up to God and she yielded to God's choice.

We did not experience any opposition from Frieda's parents either. Her Father was in poor health by that time. I am sure it must have pulled at his heartstrings as well to see us go, but he uttered no complaint. Because our house was on our parents' yard and we were busy packing, it was natural that we spent a lot more time with them than with Frieda's parents. We really did not realize just how poor her Father's health was. Had we known that we would never meet him again on this side of eternity, the farewell would have been more difficult. It is a good thing that God keeps the future hidden from us.

"Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matt. 6:34. That was Jesus' advice in the Sermon on the Mount, and I'm sure we cannot improve on it.

The last days before our departure are best described by entries from Wanda's diary. [Wanda - Grandpa's oldest sister. Hers are the entries marked "W" - the other entries are from Grandpa's diary.] Notice how busy we were.

Monday, Jan. 4: Took D. Stoesz to Brodeur Brothers in St. Adolphe. Still did not have serial number of truck. Took Hedy and Wanda to Winnipeg. Did a little shopping. Had promised to visit Susie, but went to Uncle David Martens in the evening. Their son Pete and wife Magdalene were there. Later we visited Uncle Abram and Aunt Liese Peters where we met Erna Reimer. Frieda had been at the dentist during the day.

Tuesday, Jan. 5: Dave Stoesz flew to Oshsawa to get truck. Otto and Elfrieda Dick helped us sew sheets and tea towels and pack fruit jars until after six. The folks went to College with Wanda to decide whether she would teach piano at College and what to do about her students at Niverville.

Wednesday, Jan. 6: Were invited to John Stoeszes for dinner, but had to go once more to dentist. Were through early up town. Visited Mary and her sister Annie for a while, but Frieda's brother Frank was not at home. Were an hour at Susie's but left -met her on the street and visited for half an hour in the cold car. Spent evening at Aunt Erna Plenert's with Aunts Neta and Njuta there. Since Aunt Lena Braun could not come, we also went there. Left at 11.

Saturday, Jan. 9: Dave Stoesz returned this afternoon. Took truck to Steinbach for Albert Loewen to put in windows and seat.

(W) Carol got into the apple pudding.

Sunday, Jan. 10: (W) Theodor's last sermon on Acts 4:13. Carol had on a pretty plaid skirt and a blouse and primped in the mirror.

Monday, Jan.11. Picked up our watches at Independent Jewellers. [Grandpa's note: The owner, Mr. John Epp, gave us a 40% discount. My Rolex had a price tag marked $95 and cents. Frieda's was in the $60.]

Tuesday, Jan.12; (W) Visas came.

Wednesday, Jan. 13: Truck ready in Steinbach.

Friday, Jan. 15. Went to city for B13 papers at Cave Peebles and Porter. [Grandpa's note: They must have been customs brokers since we needed to take all our things through the U.S. to board the ship in New York.]

(W) Everybody home in the evening. Irene gave Frieda a Toni. Theodor gave Dad the last haircut.

[Toni: A brand of perm, I think.]

Saturday, Jan. 16: Continued packing. Finally used old black fiber suitcase for toys. Tied old blue one with rope and even packed Dad's locker. Went to Steinbach at 3 and spent evening there.

Sunday, Jan. 17: (W) Abschiedsfest [Grandpa's note: Farewell service in the church. The panel truck was parked in front of the church.]

Monday, Jan. 18: Expected to leave for New York, but export permit [for the truck] did not arrive.

Tuesday, Jan. 19. Jake and Irene went to Winnipeg in the morning. Phoned that telegram had arrived. Waited with dinner till they came back. Left at 2 p.m. Stopped at Morris to exchange money but didn't. Buttons of coat popped off when I entered truck. No trouble at border. Drove as far as Crookston. Robert very cold. Stayed at hotel. It was -23F (-30C) when we left.

(W) 2 p.m. they left.

Wednesday, Jan. 20: Very cold. Robert froze nearly all day although he was all wrapped up in blankets. Drove as far as Dresbach, Minnesota. Stayed at "Once the Ship Motel" - very nice place. When we drove into a motel that was closed, the right rear tire struck the ditch rather sharply.

Thursday, Jan. 21: Drove on ice for over 100 miles until noon. Stopped at Evansville truck stop for dinner. Tire low - returned five minutes later - tire flat - cut previous night. Patched tire and tube. Took wrong turn in Chicago and went back 10 miles before we noticed it. Stayed in a little cabin at the corner of #45 and #30. No cooking facilities. Motels in vicinity asked 12 or 13 dollars. Weather considerably milder but damper.

Friday, Jan. 22. Out as far as Norwalk, Ohio. Stayed in Norwalk Motel. Had a suite of two big rooms with all cooking facilities and two double beds for only $7.00.

Saturday, Jan. 23: Drove on Pennsylvania Turnpike right from where it begins. Stopped off at Blue Mountain. Cabin without cooking facilities. Was too low on oil so drove 11 miles to Shippenburg for two quarts of Havoline oil. Sorry I couldn't see the mountains through which the road went because of the darkness. Train track went down center of street.

[Grandpa notes: The Pennsylvania Turnpike was our first experience with a toll road. Speed limit for trucks was 45 m.p.h. so we had fun playing tag with semi-trailers. We were not that heavily loaded that we could not maintain a constant speed whether we went up hill or down. The semis would lose speeding going up and se we would pass them. Going down they would let their rigs roll and pass us.]

Sunday, Jan. 24. Drove to end of Turnpike. At Valley Forge took #202 and #22 into New York. Via Holland Tunnel to Manhattan Island. Found Prince George Hotel without much trouble just before 5 o'clock. Put our truck into a garage at $2 a day - only place you can park. Had supper at a drug store.

[Grandpa notes: Considering the place, traffic was relatively light. There were a few street corners where the people standing there made me feel that it would not be advisable to have your vehicle stall there. The Mission Board instructed us to stay at the Prince George Hotel so that is where we headed. I don't think we really fit in with the rest of their clientele. I was wearing my old overcoat. I think I got it before I turned 20 - the only one I had ever had up to that time. But then we were headed for the tropics -why invest in something new that you would use for only a limited period of time?]

[My note: The Prince George Hotel was, according to the New York Times, built in 1905 and has been an eyesore for many years. In more recent years, it has been the largest welfare hotel in the city. I imagine it must have already been in pretty shabby condition in the early 50s to get that fate. The Times article claims that some refurbishing work and a listing as a historic place were in the works in the late 90s.

Drug Store: Most of my readers probably know all this, but I get a surprising number of hits from people who discover odd facts in Grandpa's memoirs, so here goes. In the days before malls, food courts, and McDonald's, drug stores were primarily urban small restaurants - sort of the American equivalent of a café. Nowadays, a drug store is a small retail establishment, selling pharmaceuticals and usually some groceries and odd household items, overlapping with department and grocery stores.]

Prince George Hotel at 14 East 28th St, New York

Monday, Jan. 25: Tended to a lot of business. Belgian Lines, Keating Co. and EFMA. No fridge or washing machine available, rest doubtful. No trace of freight from Winnipeg or Hillsboro. Had already wired Winnipeg for tracer on freight. Children were so noisy at Drug Store that we decided to change. Had supper at Automat - ate cheaper and desired quantity.

[Grandpa notes: Having to eat all our meals out was a new experience for us on this trip. In New York the most economical place to eat was at the Automat. Most of the food was available behind little doors that would open if you inserted the correct amount of change. Four different hot vegetables were dished out for you and cost 40 cents. Some of the food behind the doors was hot too. We took most of our meals there except on the weekend when they were closed. I assume they catered on the office people that worked from Monday to Friday. I don't recall where we ate the rest of the time. Frieda remembers that we entered one establishment to have supper, but they were just closing so we had to go elsewhere. These walking excursions to get food gave us some exercise.]

[EFMA: Short for Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, now called the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies. Founded in 1947 to foster cooperation and mutual support for evangelical missionary activities, primarily by Americans and Canadians in developing countries.

Automat: The Automat was something of a New York historical icon. Before fast food, there was the Automat - a restaurant where you could eat hot food à la carte. Continuously prepared in a kitchen behind the vending machines, dishes would be stored under heat lamps behind glass doors that would open if you inserted correct change. The first Automat was built in 1902. By the 1930s, they were so widespread in New York that Irving Berlin actually memorialised them in a show tune: "Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee". At one point, there were over three dozen of them in greater New York.

Edward Hopper's 1927 painting, Automat

The rise of fast food did in the old Automats, and in the 70s the whole chain was converted into Burger Kings. In the late 80s, only one was still operating in New York, and it closed in 1991.]

Tuesday, Jan. 26: Took truck out of storage. Went to Chevrolet garage to fix tail light switch, which wouldn't switch off unless pedal was pulled. Took tire to Firestone - sent to factory for vulcanizing - ordered extra tire and tube. Brought truck to Pier 14 at foot of Fulton Street. Margaret Dyck, Katherine Willems and Katie Siemens arrived. They waited until I showed up at five.

[Margaret Dyck, Katherine Willems and Katie Siemens were also headed to Congo with Mennonite missions.]

Wednesday, Jan. 27: Went for sailing permit in the morning, then to Belgian Line office. Couldn't get Frieda's permit because she was not there. Returned in the afternoon and went on to Evangelical Foreign Missions Association. Also bought flannelgraph lessons at Carol Goode. Frieda did not feel well all day.

[Flannelgraph lessons: In many Protestant churches, Sunday school for very young children uses a visual aid called a "flannelgraph". It is essentially a flannel covered board to which cloth items can be affixed by the same principle as velcro. Prepackaged Sunday school lesson materials made for the flannelgraph can be purchased from a number of suppliers. Thus, "flannelgraph lessons."

Belgian Line: I'm pretty sure Grandpa's talking about the Compagnie Maritime Belge / Belgische Scheepvaartmaatschappij. Originally formed as the Compagnie Belge Maritime du Congo in 1895, its original function was handling the trade of the Congo Free State. After 1930, its business expanded beyond the African trade through the acquisition of the Belgian shipper Lloyd Royal Belge. Its business grew rapidly in the post-WWII boom and over the years it has acquired a number of smaller shipping firms. It is still based in Antwerp, but has renamed itself the CMB Group. A more complete history is at their company website.

Carol Goode: I assume some sort of church supplies store in New York, but I haven't been able to find out anything about it.]

Thursday, Jan. 28: Shopped at Gimbels during the day, and had supper with Miss Stoesz. [Katherine Willems, Margaret Dyck and Katie Siemens stayed with her.]

[Gimbels: A big East Coast downtown department store chain, usually spoken of in sentences that mentioned Macy's and Bloomingdales - one of the royalty of the New York retail millieu. It went under around the same time I left New Jersey, circa 1987.]

Friday, Jan. 29: The ship was scheduled to sail, but was postponed. Freight to arrive Thursday and Friday; put on board Monday. Picked up vulcanized spare tire and extra tire and took them to the pier by taxi.

[Grandpa notes: Through the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association we attempted to buy the larger items that we still needed. Kerosene fridge and gasoline washing machine were not available. We asked for one double bed and two single beds as well as a cast iron wood stove. They did not give us much hope on these, but as it turned out, they made it in time for the Vinkt (Grandpa's ship). Our freight was late arriving from Winnipeg, but fortunately the sailing date was delayed so that we had everything with us.]

Saturday, Jan. 30: Went to Bronx Zoo in the morning. It rained for a while but then it cleared up. Ate a little food for a lot of money. Watched them feed the seals. Attended Mennonite meeting in the evening.

[Grandpa notes: With our departure postponed, we were able to do a few extra things. We went to the Bronx Zoo. Here riding the Elevated Railway was a new experience for us again. We saw them feed the seals, which the children found interesting. This is the only place we have ever seen the platypus and the big boxes of earth where they raise earthworms to keep them fed. In the evening we attended a Mennonite meeting where we met Clarence Hiebert whom we knew from Tabor College, and Peter and Mary Derksen whom we knew from M.B.B.C.]

Sunday, Jan. 31: Attended service at Pete Derkson's Italian Baptist Church - very Catholic form. An ex-priest was the speaker. We spent the afternoon with them. They took us home in their car. It had a dead battery and stalled twice. They expected to go to Japan in the fall under the General Conference Mennonite Church.

[Grandpa notes: Peter Derksen was studying at a seminary and served an Italian Baptist Church to help pay his way. They expected to leave for Japan under the General Conference in fall. We attended their church on Sunday. The service was very Catholic and the speaker was an ex-priest.]

Monday, Feb. 1: Went up Empire State Building after we finished packing. Had dinner and left for the Vinkt.

[Grandpa notes: The observation deck (on the Empire State building) is on the 82nd floor. We had to change elevators on the way up because no single elevator system can go that high. The high retaining wall was about four feet high, but above that they had bars for another eight feet. These bars curved inward and had eight pointed ends. They reminded me of the bars around the polar bear enclosure at the zoo. Their purpose was the same. These were to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping off the building. There would be quite a mess to clean up if someone did. Unfortunately it was foggy, and we did not get good pictures of New York. After we came down, we had dinner, checked out of the hotel and boarded the Vinkt.]

Tuesday, Feb. 2: Went for a walk in Lower Manhattan: on Wall Street we saw the Lincoln Memorial and then went on to Battery Park. Returned to ship for dinner, then did a little shopping yet. The others boarded in the afternoon. The ship left the harbour at 11p.m. It was too dark to see anything except the lights on the shore.

[Grandpa notes: We saw Wall Street with its Lincoln Memorial and then went on to Battery Park from where we could see the Statue of Liberty. We returned to the boat for dinner, and then went to do a bit more shopping. The other passengers boarded in the afternoon. The Vinkt pulled away from the pier at 11 p.m. and with that our trip across the Atlantic was under way. It was a very dark night. All we could see were the lights on the Vinkt and the lights on the shore. We even missed seeing the Statue of Liberty.]

[From here, Grandpa stops using the diary entries directly and goes back to his usual format.]

We woke up on Wednesday morning, the 3rd of February. We could not see land any more. Frieda, Robert and Carol felt awful. They were seasick, but brought no offerings to the gods of the sea. I was so busy looking after them, that I did not have time to be sick. We had some medication with us that was to prevent seasickness, but it did not help. Had we taken it before we hit the ocean, it might have been more effective. Days later when we sat on deck, we became aware of the ship's motion. From end to end the stern would rise and the bow would sink. As the latter rose, the former would go down. At the same time the same thing happened from side to side so there was a constant contortion that our anatomy had to put up with -and it certainly was not used to it.

By Thursday, the 4th, Frieda and Robert were still sick. It took all our energy just to keep our balance.

The Vinkt was a freighter of the Belgian Lines. It was a Liberty freighter of 10,000 tons built during the war. Freight was its major business, but it had a number of cabins for passengers. There were two Belgian men on their way to the Congo on business, but they did not associate with all the rest that were missionaries. We got along fine with the other three ladies that were returning to the Belgian Congo under the different missions. Miss Pitman was a Baptist from Quebec; Miss Parham was a Presbyterian from Georgia, U.S.A. and Mrs. Anderson from the Swedish Free Church, Nebraska U.S.A. Mrs. Anderson and her husband had been missionaries in the past until his death. Now that their children were grown, she returned to be housemother at their missionary children's school. The group of Mennonite Brethren missionaries was the largest. Katherine Willems from Hillsboro, Kansas, was returning for the third time. Margaret Dyck from Winkler, Manitoba, was going out for the second time. And then there were those greenhorns from Niverville with their two children that were going out for the first time. [Grandpa, of course, means him.]

[The Presbyterians and Swedish Free Church had a long established presence in Congo - for the Presbyterians, dating back to the Free State period. Because of the general hostility of the Belgians to Protestant missions, the various mission organisations tended to stick together.

Liberty freighter: At the beginning of WWII, the US, not entirely unaware of the risk that they soon would be involved in an overseas war, subsidised a large scale build-up of the US merchant shipping fleet. Under the management of Henry J Kaiser - founder of Kaiser Permanente, the archetype HMO - shipbuilding became like automobile manufacture. Once the system was up and running, large numbers of identical ships came out of the shipyards. In 1943, they were averaging three new ships every day. Each ship had a capacity of roughly 10,000 tons and was named after an American, starting with the first: the Patrick Henry. After the war, this enormous commercial fleet was mostly sold off and renamed. They became the backbone of many shipping firms all over the world.]

The trip across the Atlantic was rather uneventful. A lot of time was spent in the dining room, and all meals were rather leisurely. They began with cold cuts or cheese followed by soup. The main course was followed by desert, which usually consisted of fruit. Coffee was served last. Captain Lefevre, the first mate and the engineer ate with the passengers. As the ship took us farther south, the weather became warmer and we spent more time on deck. The captain was concerned about our children's safety because the railing at the edge consisted of only two rods - one knee high and the other waist high. One of the cabin boys tied some heavy string across the opening, but if one of our children had started to roll, it would not have kept them from going overboard. We kept Carol in a leather harness with long straps so we would have her under control. Robert took great care for Carol's safety. He felt very responsible as older brother even though she did not always appreciate it and voiced her objections loudly.

There were only two bunks in each cabin, one above the other. Frieda and Carol slept in one cabin; Robert and I in the other. My five-year diary is blank from the 5th on except for Sunday. On the 7th we had a service that was attended by Mr. Wauters, a businessman, the captain, and the first officer as well as all the missionaries. On the 14th the service was attended by Mr. Michotte, a painter. He had not come the first time because for some reason we had failed to personally invite him.

About the only distraction we had during those days at sea was to see the sailors up in the rigging as they lubricated the pulleys in anticipation of their next use. One day we found a flying fish on deck. It really went flying to get that high. During one night we went through a bit of a storm. Robert had some crayons on the footlocker in our cabin. They fell off and acted as roller bearings as the locker slid from one side of the cabin to the other. That was the only rough weather we had, and we missed it because we were asleep. Had it been during the day we might have had to resort to our seasickness pills. As it was we used them only to keep the tasty but very greasy Belgian food down. There was one dish that we did not go for: filet américaine. That was hamburger in next to raw condition.

[Considering that most traditional Mennonite food seems greasy to me, I find myself somewhat amused by Grandpa's complaint. Besides, I like américaine with some ketchup and pickles. I imagine most meals on the ship consisted of meat and overcooked vegetables drowned in sauce with some form of fried potato. This was the traditional meal of commercial sailors until Asians and Latin Americans started to dominate commercial shipping crews.]

On the 16th we celebrated Robert's birthday. The steward spent hours making six candles and even baked a cake for the occasion. Robert received presents from everyone including the captain. This was also the day we crossed the equator. It is customary to initiate those who are crossing for the first time. The other missionaries were veterans. Fortunately for us the threat of raw eggs on our heads did not materialize. This was also the day we saw an island before noon - the first sign of land after two weeks at sea.

[The island they saw was probably São Tomé - at the time part of Portugal.]

When we woke up the next morning, we were surrounded by the dirty water of the Congo River. There is such a volume of water coming out of that river that it displaces the ocean water many miles out to sea. At three in the afternoon we anchored opposite Banana. Here two Belgian Congo officials came on board: one was a doctor and the other a pilot. The doctor checked our papers, and I know we had to fill in some forms. My birthday is on the seventh, so I filled out the form with our usual American-shaped numbers. For Europeans, however, a seven is not a seven unless it has a bar half way up the stem. In their records I was born on the first. When the doctor was satisfied that everything was in order, he went back with the launch and the pilot took charge of the ship. We continued up river until dark and anchored at the swampy section. Our portholes were built to keep out the waves in a storm, but not the mosquitoes. In that tropical heat we had to have the portholes open for ventilation. I'm sure plenty of mosquitoes found their way in. The anopheles mosquito that carries malaria makes no sound, so we were quite unaware of their presence. I don't recall when we started taking Aralen but I'm sure it was not early enough. Aralen was the only product available in Canada for preventing malaria attacks and it had an awful taste.

[Aralen: A trade name for chloroquine, which is still a very common prophylactic treatment for malaria. It has a number of odious side effects, but it works much better than the traditional anti-malarial treatment: quinine, usually in the form of gin and tonic. Malaria sucks, so if you visit a country where it's a problem, you take it or something comparable in effect. If you're a local, you use mosquito netting and hope for the best.]

At daybreak on the 18th of February we proceeded up river again.

Banana, at the mouth of the Congo River, and the river up to Boma

I remember my first impression of the native houses along the bank. I asked our returning missionaries whether those were full-sized houses. For them the grass-roofed huts were old hat and nothing to get excited about.

At Boma we stopped from 2 until 11 o'clock while captain, pilot and steward went ashore. Between Boma and Matati (in Kituba "boma" means fear and "matadi" means rocks), there is a dangerous spot in the river, called the "Cauldron". This is a giant whirlpool that is strong enough to suck down a ship even the size of ours. To get around it the pilot kept as far away to the left as possible, straight towards a huge rock wall ahead. At the last minute he made a sharp right-hand turn, avoiding both the rock and the cauldron.

[Boma and Matadi - both cities are in areas where the Kikongo language is spoken. The two words were adopted into Kituba, which was originally a Kikongo creole spoken by the railway builders in the Free State period. Boma is close enough to the ocean to act as an seafreight terminal. Under Belgian rule, the river was dredged up to Matadi so that ships could stop there. In the Mobutu years, the river was neglected and is no longer passable to large ocean freight. So today, ships only go as far as Boma. Cargo then gets moved to smaller boats and ferried inland to the rail terminal at Matadi. There is current panorama photo of Matadi here.

Cauldron: In French, it's le Chaudron d'enfer - Hell's Cauldron.]

Hell's Cauldron, from Pierre Favre's Journal

At two o'clock we reached Matadi. When we saw the place we knew why it was given that name - it was all solid rock. However, the harbour was full so the boat went back down stream as far as Petro Congo. By that time they must have made arrangements. They returned to the harbour and tied up alongside another ship. The formalities were over by 5. The Swedish Mission kindly invited all of us to stay with them so at 5:30 we left the ship to pass through customs. My diary says we paid no duty and opened only the blue suitcase and the camera bag. Here we experienced the disadvantage of not being able to speak French. We were in a strange land and did not know the official language - that gives you a very embarrassing feeling that makes you think you are inferior. After 16 days and nights on the ocean, it was sure nice to be on solid ground again.

[Petro Congo: As far as I can tell, Petro Congo was a local fuel company. Grandpa refers to it as a place, so I suspect he means the docks on the Congo River where Petro Congo unloaded tankers.]

The folks at the Swedish Mission Fellowship took us in because Mrs. Anderson was one of their workers. Mrs. Anderson had been in the Congo 18 years ago. Her husband died when they were married 3 1/2 years. She stayed until her children were 4 and 5 years old. By then replacement arrived and she came back home. Now one daughter was married and the other in Bible School. She was returning to the Congo to be matron at their missionary children's school. They were very nice to us and went out of their way to help us.

On the 19th we went to Otraco to get the customs papers started, and the next day we checked with them again. Otraco is the company that transports freight throughout the river system of the Congo. From Matati to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) all freight goes by train because of the rapids in the river, but from Leo transport is by barge along the mighty Congo and its tributaries.

[Otraco: Short for Office d'exploitation des transports coloniaux. State-managed river transportation.]

On Sunday, February 21, 1954, we had a new experience - our first service in a native church. Katherine and Margaret may have understood some of it because Kituba uses some of the language from the Lower Congo. [This service was in Kikongo.] On Monday our papers were ready at Otraco, but they were busy loading a ship and did not have time for us. To pass the time, the Swedish Missionaries took us around to their schools. Here everything was new. Katherine and Margaret could compare with their work at Kafumba.

While we were at the Swedish Mission we received a phone call from Leopoldville. All our barrels and things were addressed to Kafumba via Kikwit on the Kwilu River. Now they told us we would be going to Djongo Sanga on the Sankuru River and instructed us to change the address on everything at Otraco. On Tuesday we were at the customs at 10 and were though by 12. We loaded as much on the truck as we could to save freight charges and changed the address on all the rest. We were glad to exchange our winter clothing for summer wear. Then we had the oil changed in the truck and the chasis lubricated in anticipation of the trip inland.

On Wednesday, the 24th, we were up at 4 to finish packing. By 6 we were on the road to Leopoldville, accompanied by Katherine Willems and Margaret Dyck. Because we were travelling in a generally eastern direction, we were driving into the rising sun, which came up shortly after we left. We found our way out of Matadi without difficulty.

Matadi to Kinshasa (at the time, Leopoldville) The river is impassible, so Grandpa must drive the truck there.

The sign, as I recall, said somewhat less than 400 kilometres to Leopoldville. Beyond that point all similarity between our road system and theirs comes to an end. All roads follow the path of least resistance. There may have been two or three straight sections that were a mile in length. The road did not took bumpy, but still we kept bumping up and down on our seats, By the time we reached Leo, my back was worn raw from the rubbing of my belt. From that time on my back toughened up - it had no choice.

You must not think of the road as a well-defined route with road signs at strategic intersections. We stopped many times to ask for directions. If it had not been for our fellow missionaries' knowledge of African languages, we might never have made it. Margaret knew Kituba. Katherine spoke Kituba as well as Kipende, which is a tribal language. While we were far removed from that tribal area, Katherine had a distinct advantage in asking and understanding the response that was given. When we approached Leopoldville, we saw one motorized grader. It was the only one we ever saw in the Belgian Congo. Normally all roads are built and maintained exclusively by means of the shovel. The last 15 miles or so we drove on pavement, but it was after dark already. We arrived at the Union Mission Home at 7 p.m. after 13 hours on the road.

[Kipende: Language of the Bapende, a quarter million strong ethnic group living at the western edge of Bandundu province. Originally a member of the pre-colonial Kongo federation, they covered an area primarily in what is now Angola. However, a series of wars of expansion by the Lunda people of Angola in the early 17th century forced them north into the area around the Kasaï River in Congo. The Chokwe people forced them west from these new territories in the 1880s, ending only with the arrival of the Congo Free State.

Grader: A machine for flattening road surfaces. In the old days, surfacing was done with a shovel-wielding road crew. But 20th century roads in the developed world were much more mechanized in their construction.]

Thursday and Friday we spent in Leo. We did not have all that much to do during those days, other than to identify our presence to the Canadian Trade Commissioner and look around the city. What we saw were well-built European style buildings constructed of durable material, nothing like the huts we saw as we came up the Congo River.

On Saturday, February 27, Frieda, Robert and Carol, Katherine and Margaret left for Kikwit by plane at 7:30 a.m. The planes they used were DC-3s or DC-4s. They arrived at 10. The distance they covered in 2 1/2 hours would take us two days and most of the night with the panel truck.

Henry Brucks and Arnie Prieb from Kifumba were in Leopoldville attending a mission conference. On Sunday, Feb. 23, we decided to go sightseeing instead of attending a native service. Together with another missionary we took a ferry across the Congo River to Brazzaville in French Equatorial Africa. We hired a native chauffeur who took us to see the power plant and the rapids. Somewhere on that hike we crossed a hanging bridge. Sure gives you a queer feeling when you cross and everything below you shakes. In the evening we participated in the communion that concluded the CPC conference. [Conseil Protestant du Congo - the Protestant Council of the Congo.]

The following week, Henry Brucks also returned to Kikwit by plane, while Arnie Prieb came with me to bring the truck. Monday morning, March 1, we loaded all our things on the truck. Arnie purchased another 8,000 francs worth of groceries ($160) and a drum of gasoline. We finished loading after dark. The truck was so full that there was hardly room to put ourselves into the vehicle.

Tuesday, March 2, we were up at 3 a.m. We left at 3:30. The road sign pointed the wrong way, causing us to make a complete circle before we arrived back at the city. In Canada I had purchased a spotlight that plugged into the cigarette lighter. I had to get a special permit to carry it with me. Now we used it to read road signs. Some time between 10 and 11 in the morning we stopped in a village and took off the overload springs, because they contributed to a rougher ride. At 7 p.m. we crossed the bac (ferry) at Popocabaca. We continued to drive until 10 and then tried to sleep. Sitting up was the only posture possible. This was before we reached Bopo. About 2 a.m. we drove another 50 miles and then tried to sleep again. We resumed our journey in time to be at the next ferry by 5 a.m.

Wednesday, March 3, we crossed the ferry at Masi-Manimba. The native chauffeur of the Baptist Mission had failed to stop his vehicle on this ferry. It landed in the river and he drowned. The road took us within a few miles of the Kipungu station, but we did not turn in. We arrived in Kikwit at about 5 and stayed for the night. At about 2 o'clock that afternoon we had had a flat on a hot sandy stretch of road.

Thursday, March 4, Arnie Prieb did his shopping in Kikwit the morning and at about 11 we started off for Kafumba. We arrived before people had finished eating dinner. We ate at the Bob Kroekers' and unloaded the truck that afternoon.

Like Grandpa's trip from Russia, this voyage ends in the menial labour of arrival - housing, unpacking, setting up. Trips usually have anti-climactic ends. That's just the way they are.

Posted 2004/11/04 14:04 (Thu) | TrackBack
... drug stores were primarily urban small restaurants

Cool, I didn't know that. I suppose that underscores how recent US cultural hegemony is in Europe.

Mehr Missionare gehen ins Feld, indeed--excellent post!

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at November 4, 2004 22:34

Thanks. Glad to be of service. The drugstore thing is a very Normal Rockwell kind of image of America. It was the norm in the 40s and 50s and even the early 60s, but the drugstore as a place where you could buy a milkshake - drugstores were most associated with milkshakes - or a light meal was gone by the time I was old enough to notice such things. I don't know if it was a legal change, new competition or simply a change in fashion towards the coffeeshop (a stereotypically hippie institution) that made the difference.

The Drugstore Publicis in Paris is a sort of French reinvention of the American concept, but it is unique as far as I know, and has evolved in different directions than the American drugstore ever went.

Posted by: Scott Martens at November 5, 2004 10:16

Dear Scott,

Please get in touch with me directly through my e-mail. I am perhaps the most knowledgeable of the historians of the Dick-Schmidt-Willms-Schroeder clan and would like to offer comments on some of your family history blogs.

David P. Sudermann

Posted by: David P Sudsermann at November 9, 2004 15:08

Hi Scott:
I follow Pedantry not only for your Mennonite stuff, which is fascinating, but also for your comments on other issues, particularly linguistics, which touch on some of my training, and politics, which resonate with my sensitivities. David Sudermann is what he says he is--a real expert on the clans that he mentions. I would appreciate that any comments he make be shared with all of us, because I think his information could be of interest to all of your dedicated readers.

Posted by: Leona Gislason at November 9, 2004 23:25

I emailed David Suderman last night. I'm certainly willing to publish anything interesting about my clan. I only really have this one text to work with, and whatever general references I can find and, of course, the 'Net. I do appreciate that this provides a somewhat narrow perspective.

Posted by: Scott Martens at November 10, 2004 10:33

(W) Everybody home in the evening. Irene gave Frieda a Toni. Theodor gave Dad the last haircut.

[Toni: A brand of perm, I think.]

A Toni *is* a brand of perm. My grandma always used to give herself when I was a little kid. In fact, they still make them. I found them just now at for US$6.99 each. ;-)

Here a few interesting links I found about Toni perms.

Posted by: Kiera Martens at November 10, 2004 20:03

I was interested in the story of your grandfather that I discovered when checking things of our family history. My parents, Abe and Mary Kroeker were missionaries in Congo from 1930 to 1952. Apparently they left just before your grandfather arrived. I lived in Congo for 15 years and left in August 1950. My wife Charlotte and I have been missionaries in Belgium since 1959 with Biblical Literature Fellowship and we started the publishing house Editeurs de Litt?rature Biblique, now in Braine-l'Alleud.
In Congo, our missionary friends the Grings family are making a trip to Yassa and Djongo-Sanga this week, the first time for 6 years or more because of hostilities.
Where do you live now?
We would be interested in knowing more about your family with more complete dates.
We knew all the missionarie you mentioned. We are not related to Bob Kroekers as far as we know. My grandmother was a Martens. The family came from Russia in 1900.
My sister has published the story in two very interesting books of my father's biography: Shiny Shoes on Dusty Paths, vol. 1 and 2.
Bud Kroeker

Posted by: Clement Kroeker "Bud" at November 11, 2004 10:21

Clement, Grandpa was in Congo from 1954 to 1958, so from your dates, I'm guessing you didn't know Grandpa. Let me know what dates you're interested in and I'll see if I can help. Grandpa - as the first instalment notes - passed away shortly before Christmas 2002, but I can contact Grandma or other family (who sometimes read this blog too) for specific information.

I live in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre with my wife. We're probably related if you have a Martens ancestor for the Old Colony.

Posted by: Scott Martens at November 15, 2004 15:50

Thanks for your response Scott. We were in church this morning in Stockel not far from where you live. Can we get together sometime. We live in Clabecq TUBIZE and are officially retired so our schedule is not too crowded. 02 355 99 06.
Bud Kroeker

Posted by: Clement Kroeker "Bud" at November 28, 2004 16:26

Scott, what a wonderful read - both yours and your grandfather's. My brother Phil Googled "Kipungu", found your site and referred me to it. Our family must have been on "furlough" when your grandparents first arrived in Congo but I remember them well. I also remember the vehicle they brought with them. We called it "the blue panel" The Friesens later brought a red and white Chevrolet which we called "the red panel". Your father Robert was a 4th grader while I was a 3rd grader at Ecole Belle Vue. My father, John Kliewer "passulad" (literally translated from Kituba "cracked open") Kipungu as he secured the land from the Belgians, supervised the building of the road up the hill and built the first residence there. From my life as a professional pilot in Congo during the 70's and 80's I have an aerial photograph of the station which I would be happy to send to you via email. Also, I could share a juicy tidbit or 2 about my boyhood friend Robert which I know you would enjoy. - John (Mark) Kliewer

Posted by: John Kliewer at March 8, 2005 15:27

You knew Dad as a 4th grader? Do tell!

As for the rest - I'm glad to see reactions from some of the other people who were there. You and Clement Kroeker, and there have been a few people interested in earlier Mennonite history who've commented on some of the previous posts.

I think I have a letter Grandpa sent to someone in Kipungu where he tries to find out just what happened to his old truck. It seems to me it turned out badly for the Chevy.

Posted by: Scott Martens at March 9, 2005 14:32

I fell into a sea of nostalgia while reading your article. I arrived in Congo in 1952 at the age of four with my Canadian missionary parents after crossing the Atlantic in the Lundi, another recommissioned Liberty ship. I went to school with John Mark Kliewer at Ecole Belle Vue. I left the Congo for the last time in 1973 and haven't been back since although my parents, brothers and sisters have been. Things seem to have gone to hell in a handcart there even since '73. Recently it seems that events are as bad or worse than conditions under King Leopold. It only makes me sad.

Posted by: Larry Janz at December 31, 2005 6:51

I was awake at night, remembered a song "O Leg Aufs Haupt" which our choir in Black Creek B.C. sang when I was a little boy, looked for it by Google, and thereby discovered this rich story, which mentioned names of people somewhat familiar to me from a lifetime in our denominatiomal circle.
Neil Klassen
Retired Pastor, now in Abbotsford

Posted by: Neil Klassen at September 24, 2006 15:10
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