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November 19, 2008
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As a baggage handler tossed a suitcase on the plane, another passenger threw it off again to make room for his piece of luggage. With tensions rising, the crowd around the small plane pushed and shoved, shouting in French and Swahili. Finally, the fighting ended as every possible piece of luggage was crammed in the interior of the plane. It was time to board.

My family and I had arrived at the airport, called Kavumu, early in the morning, not knowing when our plane would be ready to fly. Kavumu had one runway, about six small commercial planes, a few UN helicopters, and a lot of Congolese soldiers. The airplanes were two-ton Russian Antonovs, piloted by Russian pilots on six-month shifts to Congo. Speaking only Russian, the pilots could not communicate with anyone at the airport. There was no waiting room, so my family and I sat outside on our luggage, shielding our faces from the dust that each plane raised as it taxied onto the runway. We waited five or six hours for our airplane to come in from another village.

Once our plane had been loaded and the crowd around it subsided, I looked up into the plane. Baggage reached the ceiling of the small plane, not secured in any way. The loaders had left a space the size of a small closet for my family and two other passengers to sit, not on seats with safety belts, but on boxes and luggage. We hoped the unsecured luggage wouldn't come crashing down on us.

An hour later we landed in the village of Kipaka and felt a blast of jungle heat. Workers tossed our luggage out onto the grass airstrip. I stepped out of the plane to witness a crowd waving in welcome. Our church choir stood in the grass singing a welcome song in Swahili, accompanied by a wooden drum. A line of church elders stood waiting to shake our hands, beaming through the rivulets of sweat dripping down their faces. Jumping and exclaiming, village children gawked at us and the plane that had brought us.

Incongruous to most of the world, the air service fit right in with Congo and the people it connected. The Western idea of “safety first” is far away in Congo, a place where most parents lose at least two of their children at a young age. Death is imminent, and dangers in the air do not seem significant because all of life is risky. A Westerner might wonder at the lack of seats or a waiting room, but a Congolese would not think twice. With survival as the focus, comfort is unlooked for and falls low on the priority list for people who struggle for daily food.

The pushing and shoving seem bewildering until one considers the personal nature of the Congolese world compared to the Western world. The West follows the absolute law of the airport. Baggage allowances are final, and no amount of pleading changes that for anyone. In Congo, no rule is absolute, and exceptions are made on an individual basis. Each passenger tries until the very last moment, hoping someone might allow his luggage on board on a whim.

My life leads me to stand in the middle, understanding both worlds but belonging to neither. I am neither Congolese nor Western, but standing on that airstrip, I was home





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