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United Methodism flourishes in Tunda

By Kathy L. Gilbert
Feb. 5, 2016 | TUNDA, Democratic Republic of Congo

The first Methodist missionaries arrived in Tunda in 1922. Today, 72 United Methodist pastors serve at 68 churches in the Tunda District.
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In 1922, Chief Tunda Kasongo Luhahi welcomed the first white Methodist missionaries to his village of Tunda. In 2015, his grandson, Prosper Tunda, warmly welcomed another group of visiting United Methodists to the same spot.

Those first missionaries, Ansil Lynn and his wife, with their young child, arrived on March 10, 1922, and got right to work. They held the first worship service on a dirt path that they helped hack through the vegetation to create.

The Catholic Church was already established in the area, said the Rev. Kalema Tambwe, pastor of Kasuku United Methodist Church in Kindu. However, United Methodism has flourished since then, and today’s chief, Prosper Tunda, is so loyal to The United Methodist Church he declares he will not let another denomination open a church in his district.

The United Methodist Tunda District in the East Congo conference includes 68 local churches served by 72 United Methodist pastors.

The district covers a lot of ground, most of it inaccessible by automobiles.

In a grey pickup truck owned by the East Congo Conference and driven by Seraphim Mungomba, Tambwe kept up a running history lesson on the church. Crowded inside were Alfred Zigbuo, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries missionary from Liberia assigned to East Congo; Lokale Senga, public relations officer for the conference, and the news team from United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.

The back of the truck was filled with a generator, suitcases, water and gear plus a tiny 4-year-old girl hitching a ride to Tunda with her grandfather, Mungomba. Keeping her company were various people who hopped on along the way. With each mile, the back of the truck filled with gifts — pineapples, bananas, rice, eggs and live chickens — from the churches scattered among the forest and savannahs.

The East Congo Conference is the denomination’s newest episcopal area, established in 2012. Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda and his staff are located in Kindu, approximately 164 kilometers (101 miles) away. It is not easy to get from Kindu to Tunda.

On the way to Tunda

The paved sections of the road are rare; the best sections are only wide enough for one vehicle. Men and boys dig roads out of the soft, sandy dirt or hard-packed red clay and hack down vegetation with machetes, shovels, hoes and hard labor.

The roads were better in 1940 when the Rev. Bill Lovell and his parents arrived as missionaries. Lovell, a retired pastor in the United Methodist Tennessee Conference and editor of “100th Anniversary of The Methodist Church in Central Congo 1912-2013,” spend his childhood in the Kasai Oriental Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lovell recalls the infrastructure of the country working well then. Mail was delivered weekly, roads were regularly maintained and daily shortwave radio connections kept the mission stations in communication with one another.

“Hospitals were serving the needs of people and offering good medical care with pharmacies stocked with essential medications, and dental care,” Lovell writes in a reflection of his early days as child of missionaries in the Belgian Congo.

Years of war have destroyed much of the infrastructure. Water comes in buckets instead of through the now rusty faucets and pipes. The big water tank that once pumped water is a ghostly reminder of bygone times.

Lining the path from Kindu to Tunda are many United Methodist churches and United Methodists eager to welcome visitors.
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Arches of welcome

Thin, reedy arches braided with green leaves and vines appear out of nowhere, signaling a nearby United Methodist church. The sound is another clue. Singing and shouting start when word reaches the village the truck is close.

Ululating women throw down yards of brightly colored cloth for the visitors to walk on. Men play large percussion instruments made of tin and beaten with gusto using wooden sticks.

Wearing a motorcycle helmet, a dark suit, a bright blue shirt sporting a white clerical collar, red sneakers and a big smile, the Rev. Nyenda Okoko, superintendent of the Tunda District, is the first to arrive on his little red motorcycle.

The motorcycle was a much-needed gift from the bishop.

Unda has said one of the biggest challenges to his episcopal area is the impassable roads. The East Congo Episcopal Area spans five provinces — a broad region of activity that needs supervision but lacks roads and reliable public transportation. Travel by air is expensive and not always on a reliable schedule.

“I have a call from God, and that call cannot leave me free,” said Okoko.

Village of Methodists

Chief Tunda Prosper was actively involved in getting the East Congo Conference created.

“God loves us,” Prosper said.  

Chief Tunda, also a deputy provincial director in Maniema, chairs the United Methodist health board. A foundation that he established helps many United Methodist projects, including the Tunda Hospital.

He is the third in his family to be chief of the region. His full name and title is Honorable Tunda Kasongo Lukali Prosper. Behind his house is a small mausoleum that contains the tombs of his grandfather, who received the first Methodist missionaries, and his father, Tunda Kalufando Omesumbu.

Tunda Hospital

At first glance, Tunda Hospital looks impressive. The gray, stucco walls tower above the other structures in the United Methodist Tunda Mission.

But if you go inside, or walk around back, things are not so pretty. The gray mortar, only a few inches thick, appears barely to cover the crumbling bricks.

Decades of war badly damaged the hospital, built in 1934. It reopened in 1994 with one doctor. So many employees died of malaria it closed in 1995, Tambwe said.

How you can help

Donate to UMCOR Global Health, Advance #3021770, to make a difference in the lives of children and families seeking healthcare from United Methodist facilities in the Congo.

Donate to Imagine No Malaria 

It is open again and filled with workers and patients.

People walk inside the dusty entrance and register with a man sitting at a small wooden desk stacked high with large ledgers. His desk gets daylight from the front and side doors that stand open. He carefully uses a ruler to record each patient who enters the hospital for treatment. The lines he fills are neat and orderly.

Dr. Lindile Kibonge leads the visiting group of United Methodists through the children’s ward.

Tiny Okondji, 2 1/2 years old, is trying to squirm out of the arms of her parents as a doctor struggles to get an IV started in her small vein. She is here with her first case of malaria.

Nearby, a 4-year-old is already hooked to an IV pole. This is her fourth bout with malaria.

Malaria is the most common reason people seek medical attention. “We receive many cases, most under 5 years old,” Kibonge said.

The hospital is full of old, outdated equipment. Rickety, rusty IV poles balance on the uneven concrete floors with the help of wads of paper and rocks.

In a holding area for patients needing surgery, Powell Wawo is curled in pain on his narrow hospital bed. The doctor said he has a hole in his abdomen from chronic typhoid.

Things do not get any better in the operating room.

The surgical light above the operating table is missing one of four bulbs. Kibonge said replacement bulbs are hard to find for lights built in 1955.

Surgery patients lie on a leather bed, their arms strapped to a wooden board. A ragged towel is the pillow. A generator supplies power, but there is no climate control, no hot water. Surgical tools are sterilized in a charcoal autoclave in the corner.

One of the newer pieces of equipment is an ultrasound unit donated by the Tunda Foundation, Chief Tunda’s organization.

“Money is major challenge; money can do everything,” said Thomas Ndjate Tshonga, head contractor. He said it would take an additional $410,000 to finish the building correctly. It would cost $5 million for a completely new structure.

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.