Two ladies

As soon as my friend said I was a Mormon, the two ladies wanted to know more. In unison they asked:
– What’s a Mormon?
– It’s a member of the Mormon Church. A religion from America.
– Are you from America?
– No, I’m Belgian.
– How come then you are a Mormon?
– The Mormon Church sends out missionaries. I met two of them in Belgium.
– Are there also missionaries here?
– No, not yet.

Indeed, this was Kinshasa, Congo, the centre of Black Africa. In 1971.

They continued to ask questions. Do Mormons have schools? Do missionaries live in a monastery? Can they marry? What’s different from Catholics? Are there many Mormons?

I answered briefly, trying to shorten the conversation. Their interest did not subside. Do Mormons have a pope? What do Mormons do when they meet? How do Mormons pray?

Squeezed between the two ladies in the back of the VW-bug, I answered, while watching the road ahead. The drive from Kinshasa’s center to my room on a side alley in Limete would take about half an hour. My two European friends, international aid workers and bachelors like me, sat in the front. We were driving amidst the flow of cars, scooters, decrepit busses, trucks packed to the top and rolling like ships, all speeding over the crumbling asphalt. On the wide sandy sides of the road crowds were walking. Workmen, jobseekers, loiterers, children. Women wrapped in colorful pagnes, toddlers tied on backs, loaded basins on heads. For miles and miles they walked along the acacias and emaciated palm trees, past corrugated car wrecks, past vendors and hair dressers at tiny tables, shoe shiners next to their boxes. They walked between roaming dogs and begging boys, through the red dust tossed up from their feet, through the smoke of small fires kept burning by old men huddled in fetal positions.

How do Mormons pray?

– We pray to our Heavenly Father, we thank him, ask for blessings.
– Does God listen to Mormons?
– Yes, we believe he does.
– Does God listen to us?

My two friends, on the front seats, were silent now. They had lost the merriment with which they had entered the car.

I was twenty-five. My job was teaching in a small school at the border of a shantytown. In Africa, aid workers, bachelors, find each other. My two friends and I did things together after work, playing sports, boating on the river, traveling inland. On Saturday at noon, we sometimes drove to Kinshasa’s center to have lunch at the Memling, the only hotel of the capital still displaying the colonial arrogance of quality. One of us would pick up the others and then drive them back afterwards.

This particular Saturday, we had finished dessert and paid the waiter. The Memling was quiet. My friends were looking towards the bar, a few yards from our table. The ladies had caught their attention. Tight vinyl miniskirts, one bright green, one orange. Tops hardly covering their push-up bras. Their black skin bleached to beige, their frizzy hair straightened into Western smoothness. They were leaning on their bar stool, in a sassy posture, each clutching a small plastic purse, ready to go. My two friends nodded. Agreements of this kind take only a few glances.

– We’ll first take you home, Wilfried.

With five of us to take place in the VW, I ended in the back between the ladies. Their naked arms, gleaming with fragrant oil, pressed against my sleeves. The hoop earring of the lady on my left dangled against my shoulder.

As we left the parking, one of my friends looked backwards, gently mocking at the sight:
– You won’t get anything from him. He’s a Mormon.
– What’s a Mormon? they asked.

Driving to Limete, all windows open in the humid heat. We were talking Mormonism, through traffic noise, honkings, tattered blarings of music bars. The ladies queried, queried, from a perplexing desire to know, unaware of my uneasiness, oblivious of their clients in the front.

– Does God listen to us? the other lady repeated.

I looked at her. Intensity spoke from her eyes, not so much a cry for acceptance, but a yearning for reassurance. I nodded.

The sideroads we passed kept plunging into the infinite slums, labyrinths of muddy alleys lined with shags. The smell of scorched earth. Kinshasa, already then a city of millions.

I was dropped off where I lived. As the VW drove away, both ladies waved at me. They seemed around twenty, maybe less. Make-up belies age.

Tomorrow their earnings will feed parents, relatives, a baby born from rape, and siblings with haggard faces and swollen bellies.

Where would those ladies be now? The situation is worse than ever.

But also, there are now Mormon wards and branches in Kinshasa. Who knows, perhaps …

17 comments for “Two ladies

  1. November 14, 2006 at 8:48 am

    Possibly the single finest experience I had on my mission, the time I felt most like I was really following the Spirit and doing God’s work, was a time when I was a district leader, interviewing a prospective member for baptism in the city of Osan, South Korea. She had been a prostitute, servicing mainly American soldiers (Osan is near a military base). She confessed her actions, saddened by her choices; I spoke back to her about forgiveness, and how only those who know and accept God’s laws will be judged by them. It was a pretty basic, even primitive discussion, now that I recollect it; but I think we fully understood each other (pretty remarkable, considering my poor language skills), and there was a feeling of peace and learning in our meeting. And one wonders–what if the lure of easy money hadn’t brought her to Osan in the first place, what if her familiarity with Americans hadn’t made her desire to take the English class the missionaries offered, what if her actions hadn’t created questions and guilt in her heart which made her want to know more about the church….?

    God moves in mysterious ways, I guess. Or rather, He’s just there wherever we move. As you were there in Kinshasa, Wilfried. Thanks for another moving post.

  2. November 14, 2006 at 10:07 am

    I was re-introduced to the Church via a Congolese member when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of attending church services in many countries in Africa. I haven’t had a chance to visit DRC though.

  3. bbell
    November 14, 2006 at 11:37 am

    This is a great post.

    Jesus loves all of us. There is a way back to him no matter to what depths we have plunged.

  4. Kevin Barney
    November 14, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Wonderful, as per usual, Wilfried. Thank you.

  5. Lisa F.
    November 14, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Thanks, Wilfried. And wow. I have been hoping that you would give us another story.

  6. November 14, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    Yes, wow. You’ve managed to convey a sense of these two young women as innocent, almost childlike — “sinned against than sinning.” Wish I could put an arm around them.

  7. November 14, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    As always, Wilfried, your post brings back memories. You manage always to touch my heart in a way that causes similar spots, previously touched, to stir again. Thank you very much for these stories.

  8. November 14, 2006 at 11:54 pm


    I always enjoy your stories, Wilfried, I’ve been missing them of late.

  9. Wilfried
    November 15, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Thank you all for the kind comments. I have been a little reluctant to tell a lot about my experiences in Africa because they are difficult to grasp without the broader human context. Stories about Africa tend to focus superficially on primitive conditions and related anecdotes as if the continent is a source to contrast our modern facilities with a still backward entity. By so doing we often reinforce stereotypes. But the core of our humanity is the same all over the world. That’s what I hope to convey from my experiences. I only told one of my African experiences previously, but I’ll try to bring some more.

  10. ifly4fun
    November 15, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    this is my first time visiting this site. I love the experiences shared. May I add my testimony that no matter how far you have gone, or what you have done there is a loving Father in Heaven waiting for you with open arms.

    I was molested when I was young, and was the victim of physical and emotional abuse also. For many years I lived with the memories and problems associated with that past. The Lord kept on protecting me from my own foolish choices. Even when I was at my lowest point, he was still there for me. When I finally was able to humble myself, and let go of the past, he was there to heal my heart and soul.
    He loves us no matter what. It is we that distance ourselves from Him.

  11. Lawrence
    November 15, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks Wilfried, I too have missed your insightful and well written stories. I have shared The Flute with others because it is so typical of your experiences. It tells so much more than just a story about familiar music wafting through an open window. In many ways we identify with the doubts and anguish of the older girl. The same is true for the women in this post. Sometimes there are good reasons (mostly lost on most of us) for aberrant behavior. Please give us more.

  12. Kevin Barney
    November 15, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    If anyone hasn’t yet read the story Wilfried links to in his #10, I just now read it and highly recommend that you click on that link and give it a read. Very touching.

  13. Wilfried
    November 15, 2006 at 4:55 pm

    ifly4fun (10), welcome! Great to have you around. And thanks for sharing some of your background. Many of us carry dark pages in our memories, but how redeeming are the Lord’s ways.

    Thank you, Lawrence (11). Appreciate your referring to The Flute and seeing it as having a larger dimension applicable to all of us.

  14. Ben H
    November 15, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Thank you Wilfried for portraying so well the awe-fulness of both our mortal predicament and, by implication, of the power of the Redeemer who raises us out of it! and raises out of it those who we are impotent to help by ourselves.

  15. Barb
    November 17, 2006 at 5:52 am

    I too have been hoping for more stories. I understand not wanting to reinforce stereotypes. Our minds like to put things in little boxes so neatly. Someone I work with pointed out how we often have an image of India when in reality it is a huge country that is like countries within a country.

    I am glad you were able to give a little hope to those who so badly needed it. I vaguely remember when I was a troubled teen hearing something that struck a chord with me and wanting some day to let young prostitutes know that God loves them. That was something I knew even then, that God loved them and I wanted them to have that same knowledge. I have never made good on this desire in any real way. I would love to reach them with the message that through repentance that they can be white as snow.

  16. November 18, 2006 at 1:07 am

    Lovely, Thank you so much.

  17. Jenny W
    November 20, 2006 at 7:30 pm

    Thank you Wilfried—I needed to read this today. I love the image of your friends sitting silently in the front seat, essentially ignoring the humanity of the women they preferred to see as means to an end, and you sitting between the women, reaching out to that humanity, however uncomfortable the circumstances. I’d bet your friends have forgotten these women; I love that you have not.

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