Saturday, August 6, 2011

Teaching in Waku Kungo, Angola, part 3 –

This is “part 3” of my report about my trip to Waku Kungo, Angola. I want to share some stories about our time there.

First, it was wonderful to get to worship with the Congregational church in Waku Kungo for four Sundays in a row. I have worshiped in I.E.C.A. churches several times before, but, exactly because of the presence of a guest from the U.S., those were always slightly special, unusual services. This time, I got to experience what a “normal” Sunday felt like. Because the population of Angola as a whole is so young, the church is mostly young people. At least half of the people in worship are under age 25. At one service they recognized the “older” members of the congregation – those over 60 – and only seven or eight people (out of about 400) stood, a reflection of the fact that average life expectancy in Angola is about 45. The services normally last 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours, and yes, the children, the small children, including two and three year olds, remain for the entire service. The great majority of the service is singing – singing by different church choirs (children’s choir, youth choir, young adult choir, married adult choir women’s choir), and by the whole congregation. I think the music is best described as a combination of an “African sound” and contemporary American praise music. Because the pastors serve so many churches (maybe eight on average), the service, including prayers and preaching, is almost always led by members of the church.

As I have described after previous visits to Angola, the real center-piece of the whole worship service is the offering. Each week, every member goes forward to a special box in which they place their offering. The music reaches its most joyous and raucous tone, and the people often do a shuffling dance as they go forward, in effect providing, with their feet, the percussion line of the music. At one service while we were there it took 35 minutes to complete the offering! They truly see it as a great privilege to be able to offer something to God, and thus they give with real joy. It is really quite amazing, emotionally and theologically.

Second, while I was there I asked our class of adult students what they thought about the future of Angola. They are very realistic about the challenges they face. They immediately raise the big issues: lack of education, health care and clean water, government corruption, and over reliance on oil money. But they see the poor condition of their country and economy as primarily due to the 27 year civil war: “We are just nine years away from war.” They understand that progress on the basic issues will take time. I asked if they were hopeful about the future, and every one of them said “yes.” Honestly, and oddly, I truly get the impression that they are more hopeful about the future of their country than many people in our country are about the future of the United States. In a sense, they believe they have no where to go but up, and so are hopeful. We have so much that we often think mainly about what we might lose. I believe there is a connection between this difference, and the difference in our giving in worship. Think about it!

Third, I want to say something about two significant needs I talked about with our church partners while I was there. With six classrooms, the school is able to educate about 500 young people who would otherwise receive little or no education. But there is still great need for more classroom space in Waku Kungo – thousands of children do not have access to school. They have already laid the foundation for two classrooms, which would enable them to education about another 200 students. The cost of those two rooms would be about $25,000.

We also talked about the need for a well that would provide clean water. The church (and school) are located in an area of the town they themselves call “the slum.” This is intentional, as “the poor” are the majority of the church, and they want to serve those in greatest need. People in the neighborhood around the church (the neighborhood is called “Cassinda”) do not have easy access to clean water for drinking and other uses. They regularly drink water that makes them sick, especially the children, who get cholera and deadly diarrhea. I don’t know the rate for Waku Kungo, but nationwide, about 20 out of every 100 children die before age five, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining clean water. The neighborhood around the church needs a well to provide clean water. In areas with access to clean water children are much healthier. Their best estimate seems to be that a well would cost about $15,000.

I am going to be talking to the Mission Board of my congregation and others to see if I can help organize some response to these two serious needs.

In late September or early October, I will be making a presentation to my congregation about our trip, complete with pictures and video. And I’ll be happy to talk about it with anyone. Just ask!

Grace and peace,


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Teaching in Waku Kungo, Part 2

It is hard to know what to make of an experience like living and teaching in Waku Kungo for four weeks. It is such a rich experience, so full of frustration, hope, guilt, inspiration, confusion, and clarity. I know myself well enough to know that it takes me some time to process the experiences of my life, to integrate them into the story of my life and my view of the world. Still, here are some tentative reflections on what this experience meant to me:

First, and perhaps most importantly, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in Angola in one place with one group of people. I know for me (and I think for many of us), Africa is a mysterious place. From childhood we carry exotic images of Africa: “big game” wild animals, people with strange body paint doing dramatic dances, people living in remote jungles cut off from “civilization.” As adults, those (National Geographic type) images of Africa give way to equally exotic, but more tragic images: starving children, mothers too weak to grieve, child soldiers. All of those images may be (or may have been) real, but they reveal African life at the extremes, not the everyday.

By spending time in one place with one group of people, I was able to get to know people and a little of the rhythm of their daily lives. Although I could not speak their language, still through interpreters and in other ways, communication happens. I could begin to see people in Waku Kungo as individuals, rather than as a group, as “Africans” or “Angolans.” Getting beyond the differences between life in the U.S. and life in Angola, I could begin to see the similarities between who I am and who they are – especially as followers of Jesus. Seeing anew in this way is wonderfully enriching – and troubling.

Second, why “enriching” and “troubling?” Well, that is because as you get to know people you learn a little bit about how they understand their own lives. It is inspiring and enriching to see the patience and creativity and determination of the people there – or more accurately, to see Benjamin’s creativity, Julio’s patience, and Josepha’s determination. Although the “human well-being” indicators in Angola are very bad (very high infant mortality rate, very low life-span, very high unemployment, very poor access to clean water, and poor sanitation), the people are not sitting around suffering and defeated. They are not merely acted upon by their difficult circumstances. They, like all of us should be, are the “actors “ in their own lives, the “drivers” in our their lives. I think it is an important transformation for us to see them in this way. It is the only way we can have real (non-condescending) relationships with them – even if we never meet them in person.

Coming to see our partners in Waku Kungo as individuals, however, is also troubling - because then I am changed by not simply having compassion for suffering (in the abstract), but for particular people who suffer, for particular problems. And that type of compassion hurts more. That type of compassion makes one (at least me) feel even more acutely how inconsistent it is with the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the nature of God, that Christians in this country live so comfortably that we are killing ourselves with too much, while Christians in some other countries (like Christians in Waku Kungo, Angola) are dying from too little. That’s the part of my experience that really takes time to process. May God help me integrate that reality into the story of my life and my view of the world in some faithful way, rather than in some way that simply maintains my comfort.

This quote poignantly reveals the struggle I feel after being in Waku Kungo (Stanley Cavell, in Must We Mean What We Say?)

If you would avoid tragedy (and suffering), avoid love;

if you cannot avoid love, avoid integrity;

if you cannot avoid integrity, avoid the world;

if you cannot avoid the world, destroy it.

God help us never so avoid.



(P.S. Part 3 to come next week)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Teaching In Waku Kungo, Part 1

Greetings. Here is part one of a report from Waku Kungo, Angola, where my daughter, Muriel, and I went to teach English from June 17 to July 14, 2011, at "The Reverend Mike Solberg Evangelical School." A few pictures to start off with:

Muriel and kids during a break (above)

One of our classes (above)

Muriel teaching a class (above)

One of our wonderful students! (above)

Muriel at the top of Mount Waku Kungo (above)

Our trip had several purposes:

• Most importantly, we were there to teach English to some of the students of “The Reverend Mike Solberg Evangelical School” (I’m still not used to the fact that they named the school after me).
• We were also there to further the partnership between the Illinois Conference and the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola (IECA), and by extension between Second Congregational Church and the IECA congregation in Waku Kungo.
• Another purpose of our trip was to set a precedent for people from the Illinois Conference, and perhaps others, traveling to IECA for the purpose of service
• And, finally, we were also there to observe the school in its “full functioning” mode, assuring that the school is fulfilling its mission of educating students of the community so that they can flourish individually and contribute to their community and country.

Thankfully, I can say that we accomplished all our goals on this trip!

For months, Muriel and I had been planning on teaching English to two classes of young people. Then about three days before our trip began, the folks in Waku Kungo asked us to teach an additional class for adults. Apparently, the teachers at the school all said “It doesn’t make sense for the kids to learn English and not us – we need to learn too!” So, at the last minute we added a third class, mostly made up of teachers in the school and teachers-in-training, along with a few others. The teaching all went very well. Using recently developed ideas and techniques for teaching English, and using contemporary resources, we were able to teach just fine, in spite of the fact we don’t speak Portuguese. We gave the kids a “pre-test” and a “post-test” to measure their progress, and we found that they were able to learn a helpful amount of English in just the 3 ½ weeks we had with them. The kids ranged from grades 3-9, with most being in grades 5-7. They were a little older than same level students here in the U.S., with most being 15-16 years old. They were very good students: well behaved, cooperative, and eager to learn. All in all, we taught about 50 kids and 15 adults, during six hours of teaching every day. It was pretty tiring, but well worth the effort. English really is a valuable skill for these kids. Most of them will have English in school from 7-9 grades, but this “head start” will give them a greater chance of learning English earlier and more easily.

We also furthered the partnership between the Illinois Conference and IECA. Because of the communications challenges (both in language and technology), and because of Angolan cultural patterns, personal interaction is critical in our church partnership. We spent time in conversation with several leaders in IECA, and I believe these people now understand that we in the Illinois Conference are committed to this partnership and it is not just a short term interest. We are working on developing an official program of congregation-to-congregation partnerships, and this trip helped move that effort forward as well.

This was the first time we received approval for a “service” based trip to IECA. All the previous trips have been as “delegations,” which include mostly learning and talking and celebrating. Those were important trips, but our Illinois Conference Angola Partnership Team always hoped we could add other types of trips as well. Now we have done that, and with the success of our trip, we are hopeful that other service trips will be possible in the future. The type of service is important. Angolans are smart and creative in solving problems and accomplishing work, and they can easily do all the basic labor needed themselves. But they are seriously “under-resourced” in just about every area: education, health care, public health, skilled technical work, etc. So in future trips we (the Angola Partnership Team) will be focused on service that can “resource” the Angolans. Some examples are specialized health care, teacher training, and motorcycle repair.

And, finally, it was wonderful to see the school in full operational mode. Their school year started in February, and the school is now effectively educating 478 children who would otherwise have had limited access to education. One set of kids, grades 1-6, attend school from 8:00 – 12:00 and another set from 1:00 – 5:00. All the rooms have desks! (The government actually followed through on that promise!) The leadership of IECA tells me that the school is held up as an example all over the province, and throughout all of IECA. The denomination operates 70 or so schools, but this is among the best, in physical quality and in operation. They always offer me profound thanks, but I always tell them that the school would never have been built without hundreds of people here who gave to support the project, nor without the wonderful dedication and talent of the people in Waku Kungo.

Muriel gives special thanks to David Workman and Deerfield Academy (Deerfield, MA). Muriel received a David Workman Community Service Grant to help make this project possible. And we both thank Second Congregational United Church of Christ (Rockford, IL) and the Illinois Conference - Angola Partnership Team, who each funded the purchase of the educational materials we used for our teaching.

Soon I will write a little more about our personal experience of living in Waku Kungo for four weeks. It really does make one “think” – in the sense of soul searching, of course. And I will also write about how you might be able to benefit the school in the future! Here's a hint...behold the foundation of two more classrooms!

Anyone have an extra $25,000 to do something great for kids who want a chance in life??

As always, many thanks for all of you who helped make this school a reality!


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Here We Go!

Muriel and I leave for Waku Kungo tomorrow! We will be teaching English to 40 young people (ages 12-16), and now they have added a third class of pastors from IECA and government officials from around Waku Kungo. Three classes, two hours a day, for 3 1/2 weeks. This will be challenging! Speaking English really is a valuable skill, especially as people get internet and email access (still very rare in Angola, especially in rural areas like Waku Kungo), so we are very happy to be able to contribute to the Waku Kungo school this way.

I think we are all set - lots of books, lots of plans, lots of ideas, and Muriel has even learned a little Portuguese. Here's hoping we don't get sick! But this time, I am going with Cipro in hand, so I am much better prepared, and will be much more cautious about eating local food.

I will not have internet access while there, so no updates (as if I am a real regular!) during the month, but I will write a post trip report, hopefully by the end of July.

Keep us in your prayers!


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Another Trip?

I don't seem to be able to stay away! For the past couple of months I have been working on plans to return to Waku Kungo, Angola. If we are able to get visas (by no means a sure thing), my daughter, Muriel (age 17), and I will travel to Waku Kungo to lead a four week intensive English course.

This will be a very different trip than I have had in the past. My previous two trips were official "delegation" visits from the Illinois Conference to I.E.C.A. This time I have the support and blessing of the Angola Partnership Team of the Illinois Conference, but it is more properly called a "project" visit than a delegation visit. I hope that by going on this type of trip, especially for a full month, I can develop the kind of experience and relationships that will allow others from the Illinois Conference to visit for specific projects in the future. While going to Angola is probably an "extreme mission trip," the need for various skilled services is great, especially in education and health care, and it would wonderful to further the possibility of such trips in the future.

This will also be a different type of trip because we plan on staying for four weeks, and will be staying in one place. I hope we are able to get to know people better than I have in the past. Our lack of ability in Portuguese will be a limitation, but we will both work on learning a little before we go, and some of the students there speak a little English, so we will manage.

Living in Waku Kungo for a month will present certain challenges, that's for sure. Staying healthy will be a top priority. Yes, we will have to have bottled water the whole time, and take lots of peanut butter with us! There is minimal health care available in Waku Kungo, but we will have a car with us the whole time, and should anything serious arise, we will be about five hours away from Luanda and quality health care.

As for the intensive English class, we have had discussions with the Director of Education for I.E.C.A., Felisberta Cassinda, and Julio Ulundo, the Pastor in Waku Kungo. They have spoken with the head of the school. The current plan is for us to teach two groups of 20 children (40 total), ages 12-16, with a couple of adults thrown in. We will work with each group for 2-3 hours a day. We will focus on spoken English skills. Of course, it would be better if we could speak Portuguese, but we can accomplish a lot by combining visuals and spoken English (in the style of Rosetta Stone). We will have to take a lot of materials with us, and go on "field trips" around town to learn vocabulary. Education in Angola is quite traditional (i.e. teacher at front of room imparting information, not much creativity), so it will be interesting to see how it goes. We plan on doing some sort of "before and after" assessment, in case a similar course is possible in the future.

Well, more as it develops. And here's hoping we get visas!


Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Adventure Continues

October 31, 2010, was an amazing day. I was able to be in Waku Kungo, Angola, for the dedication of the "Escola Evangelica Reverendo Mike Solberg" (i.e. "The Reverend Mike Solberg Evangelical School"). And here it is!

Beautiful, yes?

It was truly wonderful to see this part of my dream become a reality. The people in Waku Kungo were so proud of their school, as well they should be. They easily put as much work into the whole project as I did. As I have said, many of them face English Channel size challenges every day of their lives, and yet they still (or, perhaps, because of that) are committed to building a better future.

As of today, March 23, 2011, about 550 students are enrolled in the school, which means that around 400 students are getting an education that would otherwise not be available to them. There are also adult literacy and skills development classes in the evening. The school covers the first few years of education, but often boys and girls don't start school until age eight or nine, so they there are plenty of sixth graders who are fifteen. Over time, this school building should help lower the age at which many kids are able to start school in Waku Kungo.

This school has a special concern for kids with physical disabilities. Sometimes they are not sent to school by their families, because the investment of time and effort (and small amounts of money) does not pay off, as people with disabilities are not likely to get jobs. But this school works to accommodate them, and was even built entirely wheel chair accessible, even though wheel chairs are an uncommon "luxury" in more rural Angola.

One of the important elements of the school's success so far has been good cooperation with the municipal authorities (pictured above, with the obligatory photo of 30 year "President" Dos Santos). With the limited resources of the people, even the local church in Waku Kungo, it is important for the school to have the support of the local administrators. They can provide desks and blackboards and other types of basic teaching necessities. And they can guarantee the consistent placement of teachers in the school. Without the support of the local authorities, the school would certainly face more challenges. Thankfully, and because of great work by the church leaders in Waku Kungo, the municipal authorities feel some "ownership" of the school, and are very proud that it is in their town. The Deputy Mayor was an important presence at the dedication ceremony.

(click to enlarge)
I am not an expert to be sure, but Waku Kungo seems like a promising place. It is located on the main road between Angola's two largest towns, Luanda (about six million) and Huambo (about 250,000?), and is in a very fertile agricultural area. There is an agriculture school there, and an extensive Israeli training farm. It is also a beautiful area, with hills and even some remaining forest, although the forest was much more extensive before the civil war. Development people say that agriculture is going to be a very important part of Angola's future, offering the economic stability that oil and diamonds do not provide. Angola should be a "bread basket" of Africa, because it does not suffer from the cyclical drought patterns typical of northern and eastern Africa. The rains are reliable from October - March/April. They need a great deal of investment in agriculture though, as most farming is still done in individual family plots, by hand and hoe. They need to find a way to increase productivity, while not dislocating these subsistence farmers.

The I.E.C.A. (Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola) congregation in Waku Kungo is a wonderful bunch of people. They gather in their hundreds every Sunday morning for joyful worship and fellowship. The Sunday I was there, there were about 1000 in worship. Their music is inspiring (especially when they back off from the Western electronic instruments they are so taken with!). If you didn't click on the video above, please do: I think you will enjoy it. And note, this was during the offering! They give with joy!

Most people in Waku Kungo struggle financially. In the "barrio" (it is hard to know what word to use for the poor part of town - in English in Luanda they say "the slum," - but in Waku Kungo it is really just what the town is, so no special name for it, it seems) - in the "barrio" there is no running water and no electricity (except by private generators), and few people have jobs, other than what I call "subsistence retail" (they buy a few things more or less wholesale, and try to sell them on the street). What health care there is, is of low quality. The Angolan Civil War (1975-2002) raged fiercely in this area, and the physical and social destruction was extensive.

And still, the people are hopeful about the future, they value education, they have a strong sense of community, and they are willing to work hard and take small steps to make life better for themselves and others. They are truly inspiring in so many ways!

So, thus goes my reflection on my trip to Angola to open the "Escola Evangelica Reverendo Mike Solberg." If you read this far, you probably had a hand in making this possible, so thank you!

By the way, the school could still use two more classrooms, like the one above! If you want to contribute again, or for the first time, just go to and hit the "donate now" button. Thanks!

God bless you!