I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Democratic Republic of Congo — back when it was still known as Zaire — teaching English at a high school in a small village that would come to change my life. At night, I would write by kerosene lantern about life in Kamponde: the weddings and funerals, the gossip and politics; the joys and frustrations of teaching; the attempted diamond bribes by some students, the marinating python dances and the freshly fermented calabashes of palm wine.
I wrote about the unrelenting kindness shown a young woman so far from home who really had no idea where she belonged in the world. It was in this village that I found my voice, one that would lead me to become a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. When my two-year Peace Corps tour came to an end, I had promised to return and write about them one day.
I did. Twice. The first time was 15 years later and that story was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But readers were not privy to the greater personal impact of that trip. When the village women learned my husband and I had failed for years to conceive, they prayed and chanted to their gods to bring us a child, as we danced beneath the stars, shuffling and sashaying around a bonfire to the beat of the bamboo xylophones.
Six months later I was pregnant. I realized this as I was covering the downfall of the Congo's 32-year dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko. Chris and I escaped the rebel forces approaching Kinshasa by crossing the Congo River in a dugout canoe. I could no longer continue to cover the civil wars that plagued West Africa throughout the 1990s and would move to Asia to work there for another decade.
I went back to Congo 10 years later in 2006 to write yet another story about how the village had survived the civil war, the deadliest global conflict since World War II. But it was also to take them photos of the daughter they would believe had come from their prayers. I knew the letters and photos that I had sent likely had not arrived due to the broken postal service.
They were all there once again: the cook who had fed a generation of Peace Corps Volunteers; my former students now working in the fields; one of the village prostitutes with whom I sat as she nursed her daughter dying of AIDS. The old chief had died, but now there was a new one who gave me the gift of Katanga cross to thank me for teaching their children.
More than anything the people of Kamponde wanted to know about the 11-year-old daughter whose roots were tied to theirs. I showed them photos and told them how she loved to sing and dance, how she was born in Malaysia and grew up in India and Thailand. They pleaded with me to come back once last time with Caitlin. I told them I would try, once she was old enough to make the difficult journey.
Now, 10 years later, I am planning to return to Kamponde, with Caitlin. She doesn’t necessarily believe the villagers brought her to me, but likes her own unique story and wants to meet the people who played such a significant role in my life. I want to thank them again for taking care of me when I was just a girl, for giving me a voice and bringing me my daughter. And I would like to say a final farewell.
I am writing a memoir about this connection to Kamponde, and you can read a draft of the first chapter at my website here. Caitlin and I hope to travel together to Kamponde later this year to discover the final chapter in this lifelong journey. We are also working with a documentary film crew; our expenses will also include traveling with a cameraman for that potential documentary. We will be blogging along the way at Storify.com.
Risks and challenges
In an effort to be fully transparent, I want to share a few concerns with those of you who may be considering a donation.
This is an expensive trip. When I made these trips in the past, my expenses were covered by my news agency and I would hitch rides and play things by ear. But this is a personal trip and traveling with a teenager and a cameraman requires more equipment and security.
Here is a rough breakdown of expenses:
3 international airline tickets: $7,500
Hotels rooms in Kinshasa: $1,500
Domestic airline tickets for 3 of us & Congolese journalist $1,500
Staying with nuns in Kananga $500
Rental of jeep & driver & gasoline for five days $2,000
Generator for camera & sat phone (to be donated to school) $600
Food & Incidentals for entire trip $750
Translation fee for local translator traveling to Kamponde $500
Cameraman fee for filming $5,000
Technical supplies for cameraman $1,000
School books & supplies for the school $1,000
Kickstarter fees & taxes $3,000
APPROX TOTAL $24,850
One of the many challenges of this project is the difficulty of making this trip. There could be health or personal issues or delays due to the political climate in the Congo. If this happens, then Caitlin and I will endeavor to push our travel from later this year until 2017. As it stands now, we hope to make the journey this summer or fall.
There is no guarantee this memoir will be published, though I know literary agents who would like to represent me and I fully intend to complete it. If my memoir is not published in the traditional fashion, I will release it as an e-book or through an innovative publishing platform.
But first — I need to know how the story ends.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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