Up the River and Through the Woods: To the Congo We Go
In Part 2 of our conversation with Merry Fitzpatrick, it’s up the river and through the woods – to an isolated village in the Congo we go!
Check out photos, videos, and behind-the-scenes stories from our guests on the podcast. You won’t want to miss these exclusive extras!
Tag along on a fascinating journey to a place that even hardcore humanitarian Merry Fitzpatrick considers the most remote place she’s ever been. Through her detailed description of the days-long trek to get there, you’ll be transported virtually to an isolated village in the Congo that’s only accessible only by a 7-hour canoe ride. Hear Merry’s heart of humility about being called to serve in places like this, as well as her encouragement to others to serve with this same attitude, wherever God has called you.
Up the River and Through the Woods: To the Congo We Go
Cathy: Welcome to the End of the Road podcast. My name is Cathy, and I'm your host and tour guide as we journey together to some of the most remote, challenging places on the planet. I'm so excited to have you along for the ride. So buckle up. We're going to the end of the road.
Cathy: We're back again with Merry Fitzpatrick for part two of a fascinating journey to what I'd consider probably the most remote place you're going to experience on this podcast. Now, Merry is what I consider a hardcore humanitarian. She served with World Concern from 2006 to 2010 and led a number of crisis responses. Merry is now an assistant research professor at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, but Merry is not only incredibly knowledgeable about global issues. What I love most about talking with Merry is that she really sees into peoples' hearts and wants to step into their experiences. She's a woman of faith, and you're going to hear more about God's call on her life in our conversation today.
Cathy: We want to turn now, take another detour on our trip to the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is an incredible place. First of all, I was really surprised when I asked you about one of the most remote places that you'd ever been. We've talked about some hard places with you, heard about some really, really difficult situations, but I had asked about the most remote place that you had ever been, and you told me about a village in the Congo that took you, I think, six or seven hours in a canoe to get to on a river. I want to have you kind of take us on a visual journey, a virtual journey to that village. But the first thing you told me was that there were two Congos, and I never knew that. So explain that to us.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Okay. Yeah, the place I was talking about was in the Republic of the Congo. So it's the French Congo. They call it Congo Brazzaville because the capital is Brazzaville to distinguish between the two. Then the other one used to be the Belgian Congo. It's big one that you normally hear about. It used to be called Zaire and the capital of Kinshasa. So I've worked in both, and I've spent more of my time in the DRC. So the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but this particular remote place that we were talking about, it was on the border between the two, but it was actually in the Congo Brazzaville. It was definitely out there. Even the Congolese were like, "Dang, we're remote."
Cathy: Okay. So take us there. Where did you leave from? Was it the capital city, or where did you initially depart from, and kind of take us on the three, four or five-legged journey of getting to this village?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Yeah, actually, I don't often keep a journal, but I happened to be keeping a journal during this little period. A few months ago, I came across the journal entries from this time and I had to laugh. So you fly out of Brazzaville, the capital, but the airport is not what you would think of as a capital airport, or at least it wasn't at the time. This was about 20 years ago. You have to take your luggage in the morning, but the flight's not until afternoon. So you go, and you have this whole process, it takes about three hours, check in your luggage, and then you come back afterwards. It's smoking hot, it's jungle, and there's no air conditioning in the airport.
Merry Fitzpatrick: So you check in your bags, eventually you get on the flight and you land at this place called in Impfondo and it's about a two-hour flight, I guess. It's a prop plane, but it's about a two-hour flight. You get off the plane and you're just in this little shell of an airport. At one point I had to go to the bathroom and I asked this woman, "Where's the bathroom?" She said, "Well, I went behind that tree over there. That's a good spot."
Merry Fitzpatrick: But a lot of times we depend on the Catholic Church, the priests. They have these different missions, and to support the mission, they'll have a Traveler's house. So this priest came and picked us up. It was a Congolese priest that came and picked us up in this ratty ramshackle old pickup truck. So we pile in, I put my bag in there, and then half the airport piles in the back. The priest gets out and he's yelling at them, "Get out, get out. You know the tires can't stand this. Get out, get out." So they get out, we drive a little bit and as we're going down the road, the people are jumping back into it. So there was like this whole thing all the way up to the mission.
Merry Fitzpatrick: The mission is, it's pretty basic. It's like, okay, there's a mosquito net on the bed, and I spent half the night sewing up the holes in the mosquito net because it's just so many insects. So then early the next morning, someone from our team came to the mission, and they had come down the river. They had these huge dugout canoes with a, I'm going to put a boat engine on the back of it. So we load up the boat engine, and we have a deal with the priest so we can get fuel. Then for seven hours, you're chugging up the river. It's just jungle on either side. It's just absolute jungle. Every now and then you pass these huge barges, and people have got their cook fires on the deck, just like a wood fire, on the deck of these boats.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Because they'll be weeks on these boats going up and down the river or just weeks to go up the river. There's some movies about that. What is it? There's several movies about going into this and the heart of darkness and all that stuff. But, so it is just broiling hot. So you've got long sleeve shirt on, long sleeve pants, big hat because you're just hiding from the sun because it's just broiling. Right straight overhead. You're chugging up the river, and every now and then you'll pass a little village, and it's like a red spot of clay in all this green lushness. The kids will jump into the river and try to swim out to the canoe. In the canoe, we've got these white plastic chairs just like lawn chairs that just kind of plunk in the canoe. So you're sitting in these white plastic chairs as you're going up the river, but it just goes on and on and on and on.
Cathy: Is there animals in the river or on the banks?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Not really. I mean, people would've eaten them. So, there are crocodiles, but you don't usually see them so much. The wild animals are usually a little bit farther off, kind of in some more secluded areas. But, there are plenty of animals. We lived on bush meat, mostly bush meat and rice.
Cathy: Now, what is bush meat?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Wild animals that they would hunt. There's these little deer and they, they stand maybe a foot, foot and a half tall. There's river crocodiles. They're not bad actually.
Cathy: What does that taste like?
Merry Fitzpatrick: It tastes a little bit like a cross between a fish and chicken, but I don't know. We ate all sorts of animals and I would come in, we had a cook because you really needed a cook. Because everything was just basic. So, I would come in and the cook would be cooking some kind of meat and I'd be like, what kind of meat is that? She's like, I don't know the skin's out back, and I'd go, I'd go look at the skin. I still couldn't tell.
Cathy: You could open one of those exotic meat restaurants with all your experience eating.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Well, they do have Ebola. So you have to be kind of careful. But, my one rule was like, okay, I'll eat anything. Because when you come, the cook will say, okay ,what are your dietary whatevers? And I'll say I'll eat anything, but not monkey. I really don't want to eat monkey. And she's like, okay, that's that's fine. Because my dad wouldn't let us eat monkey either. But the apes do carry Ebola. So you don't want to really encourage that.
Cathy: Mm. So back on the river, how wide is the river at that point? I'm trying to kind of picture it. So you've got jungle, lush green on the sides, the little spots of red clay where there's a village I imagine. What's the water look like and how, how wide is the river?
Merry Fitzpatrick: I'd say maybe quarter of a mile. It's a big river. Ubangi river. It is, yeah, maybe about a quarter of a mile. It, it's hard to tell sometimes because there'll be islands in the middle. It's about a quarter of a mile and people will cross back and forth in canoes quite a bit. And they'll have like related villages on either side, which becomes complicated then because it's different countries. And so the people we were working with were considered refugees and they're just from their villages across the river, they could see the river, the village across there. But because on this side they're considered refugees. And, if they go back, if they admit to going back, oh, across the river, they lose their refugee status and they can't get it back. So nobody would admit to crossing the river.
Merry Fitzpatrick: We needed to know, did they have access to land to be able to cultivate? If we ask them, do you access your field across the river? Oh no, no, no, never. We never cross the river, but then if you say, okay, well, how do you, your kids are in school. How do you get cash? Well, we sell the Palm nuts. And where do you get the Palm nuts? Oh, in my field, across the river.
Cathy: A lot of sleuthing going on to figure out what people have access to and all of that. How long did it take you to get to the village?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Well, from Imfondo where we had the airport to Batu where the village was, it would really depend on the flow of the river. On average, going up river about seven hours, coming down river, probably four, but it depended really on how high the river was and how much gas we had.
Cathy: Okay. So question, I just have to ask seven hour canoe ride. You have to go to the bathroom. What did you do?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Well, you sweat a lot, so you really don't have to go as often. Okay. But you would just say, dude, can you pull over and he'll pull over and you just kind of go off into the Bush and do your thing.
Cathy: Okay. Wow. All right. Well, describe this village. What was it like when you got there?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Well, Batu was supposedly the biggest in the area, but it had our office, it had a school, it had a clinic that was like one room. The school, I don't know, maybe had three classrooms in it. And then it had sort of the administrator's office, which had like the police and all that in there.
Cathy: How many people live there? Do you think about?
Merry Fitzpatrick: It's hard to say because they kind of lived in little clusters. So it was kind of hard to say. In that one village, maybe a thousand people, if you count all these little clusters, but then we worked in villages all along the river, and so we kind of expanded out. Sometimes, it'd be a couple hours on the river to get some of the villages where we worked, and some of them were along roads, but there was an Italian timber company there. And so, yeah, so they have these huge-
Cathy: What a contrast.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Yeah. They have these huge tea trees that are like seven, eight feet in diameter. And so they had a deal to cut out these huge trees and ship them down the river, export them. So that was kind of foreign exchange for the country. But, these guys were a little sketchy, so we didn't really hang out with them very much. Mostly we hung out with Congolese friends. There was one little restaurant. And so that was the one place to hang out at night. And we actually lived in a disused matchstick factory. So the Soviets, it was during the cold war, there was a competition. We'll build something for you. Oh, the Soviets are going to come build something for influence. And so they built this matchstick factory because there was timber in this area and they figured, well, you just make the timber into matchsticks here. Everybody needs matchsticks. Right. But apparently these matchsticks were very low quality and nobody liked them. So it was just this big empty carcass of a building. So, that's where we lived.
Cathy: Wow. I want to just pause for a moment and thank our listeners for joining us today. If you're just hearing about World Concern for the first time, and you're curious to learn a little bit more out who we are, and what sets us apart from other organizations you might be familiar with, please visit worldconcern.org/podcast, and learn a little bit more about what we do. And now let's get back to our conversation. Were you ever scared out there? Did you ever think about your safety? What if you got sick, and you're a seven hour canoe ride from, from anything that could even get you to a hospital? So, did you ever feel scared.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Well, Doctors Without Borders was there. They were the only other group that was there. They ran the little clinic or whatever. So I did get malaria when I was there, and they treated me. Everybody had this book, every office had this book Where There Is No Doctor, there was a class that I think some missionaries put it together in the seventies or something. So everybody had this book Where There Is No Doctor, so you'd get some weird rash or something and you'd look it up in there.
Cathy: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Some parasite or something. I don't know that I was ever scared. There was sometimes when I wouldn't do something, because I'd be like, oh, okay, now there's no backup here. But at the same time, I was, I was 35 or whatever. And I was immortal, and we rode around on motorcycles. There was a little airstrip and once a month a plane would come through. And so we'd go down to this airstrip and we'd run our motorbikes real fast up and down the airstrip.
Cathy: Oh my goodness.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Just for something to do.
Cathy: Wow. Do you consider yourself a brave person?
Merry Fitzpatrick: I don't know. I guess, no. I take calculated risks. I'm not going to do something stupid just to do it. I don't do bungee jumping or, or things like that. I don't like to be scared. So I'll do things I'll take measures to reduce my risk. If I think there's a purpose in something, if I think there's value in it, if it's going to help someone, I'll take a risk, and I'll do what I can to reduce those risks. I guess I'm not afraid to take a risk, but at the same time, yeah. I'm not going to take silly risks just to be scared.
Cathy: Do you ever ask yourself why you, why did God call you to this line of work to go to these crazy far away places?
Merry Fitzpatrick: Yeah. And sometimes I ask that question in awe, and sometimes I ask that question, like, why on earth me? You know, if my siblings can all be content staying in one place, why can't I? Why do I have to be the one to go off? And other times, I'm just in awe of all the experiences that God's given me, all the different people, the types of people that I've been able to meet. There's just such a gift to give so many perspectives on life. And there's so much to learn from each different place and each different crisis. And, seeing people in these extreme circumstances that are extreme even to them, and to see how people perform in these situations. And some shine. Some people really come into their own, and others, it lays bare the worst aspects of their personalities.
Cathy: I love how you said sometimes it's awe. Why me, how did I get to do this amazing work and go to these incredible places, places on the planet that most of us will never go, never even get close to. And, so you hold that as a privilege. It sounds like that you've and been able to meet the people that you've met and see these places. And so I want to thank you for taking us on a little journey to some of these places, to give us a glimpse into this world, this globe that we all share and allowing us to see what life is like in some of these places and what God is doing there. So, through your incredible experiences through your work and your life, we're able to see places in our world that we'd never otherwise get to see. So thank you for taking us there.
Merry Fitzpatrick: Well, thanks for taking me back there.
Cathy: Yeah. I hope it was good for you to reflect on some of those.
Merry Fitzpatrick: It is. It's good to remember. It is such a privilege, as you say, such a privilege to be used by God, and to be used by God, in such a way. When I was debating whether or not to take a job with World Concern, I was praying and I was thinking to God, you know, I really want to be in your plan. I want to do what you knew I want to do what you need and all this stuff. And then it was kind of like God said, no, this is also about you. My plan is my plan. And, my plan also has to do with you bringing you closer to me. And I'll do that. Whether you're working for World Concern, or if you're working for the local gas station. This is the way God chose to form me. And I'm so grateful.
Cathy: Hmm. I love that, I think that's encouraging to other people who might be listening and thinking, wow, she's really doing the work of God, or she's really doing something amazing. The truth of the matter is that God uses each one of us wherever we are, wherever he has us at whatever time. And so, like you said, whether we're working as a teacher in a school, or a stay-at-home mom, or working at the local gas station, God has us there in that place, on this planet for this season, for a reason.
Cathy: And so I love that you were able to kind of bring that back so that the listeners can really relate to that aspect of it. And that said, I'm really thankful that people like you will go to these places. I've been to. A lot of the places where World Concern works and been on some really hard trips, been really hot and sweaty, eaten some strange food, been really homesick it's at those times that I often thank God for people like you that are willing to not just go to these places, but stay there for extended periods of time until your assignment is complete in that place. And so thank you also for serving in some really, really hard place.
Merry Fitzpatrick: My pleasure.
Cathy: I want to thank our listeners for joining us today. I hope that your mind has been opened up a little bit. Your heart has been touched through some of the stories that you have heard today, as I mentioned earlier, if you're curious about learning a little bit more about World Concern about our work beyond the end of the road, you can visit world concern.org/podcast to learn more. I want to thank Crista ministries, World Concern’s parent organization for making this podcast possible. And I also want to thank Casey Helmick and the whole team at Terra Firma for their production and editing and consulting expertise. For helping us for bring these stories to life and bring them to you. Thanks again for joining us today, we look forward to more stories at the end of the road. Next time.