From 1961-1963, Larry Landis from Lancaster, Pa., served with MCC’s Pax program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). At the age of 21, his assignment was to work with the Congo Protestant Relief Agency (CPRA), MCC’s first project in DR Congo and a partnership with the Congo Protestant Council. CPRA assisted churches and missions in providing relief supplies in various areas where local populations were displaced by political unrest following DR Congo’s independence from Belgian rule in 1960.
With CPRA, Landis divided medicine and food supplies, shipped from Europe and the U.S., and distributed them to mission hospitals, schools, and churches across the county. He also aided in clearing shipments in the different cities’ customs offices. (Top photo: Larry Landis (left), MCC Pax volunteer, checks a shipment of food with MCC’s administrative assistant of the Congo Protestant Relief Agency, Ernest Lehman, at their storeroom in Léopoldville, DR Congo.)
Read a selection from his memoirs below.
It was a nice sunny day in Léopoldville (or “Léo” as we called it), the city I was stationed in for my Pax assignment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). [NOTE: Léo was renamed Kinshasa in 1966.] I was preparing to leave for Vanga, an American Baptist Mission station located on the Kwilu River 340 kilometers (211 miles) east of Léo. Congo Protestant Relief Agency (CPRA)’s eight-ton, red GMC truck was there, and my job was to bring it back to Léopoldville. CPRA would sometimes permit mission workers to use our equipment and this time it was being used to haul some furniture between the two cities.
I was glad for the sunny day as we were getting ready to fly to Vanga, the easiest and fastest way to bring the truck back. Sunny days were quite out of the ordinary in Léo as most dry season days were cloudy and hazy with smoke. The smoke-filled air stemmed from a traditional hunting method where the high grasslands were lit on fire in a circle to drive out the animals. The fires served other purposes as well. While I was glad for the sunny day, I was not a fan of flying.
After arriving in Vanga, we waited until after lunch to finish loading the truck, so I could leave the next morning. I had the truck filled to the gills! In the cab with me were a Congolese student and a Congolese teacher. The teacher was accompanying 14 Congolese students to Léo who wanted to ride in the back of the truck. We also packed in their crates of chickens! However, most of the load was furniture for a missionary in Léo as I had anticipated.
I was a little worried about the river crossings I would have to negotiate. You could always tell when you would have to cross a river as the road descended sharply. The tricky part was getting off the ferry by immediately gunning the motor, so the truck could climb the inevitable hill on the other side.
The ferries had no side rails or motors and a ferry operator poled us across. I remember a story of how one Pax volunteer lost a truck in the river! The only safety feature was a cable stretched across the river to keep the boat from going downstream. Many of the ferries just held our truck with no room to spare! As we crossed three ferries over the Luie, Inzia and Wamba Rivers, my confidence grew with each crossing.
However, at the last ferry, I was told that the next ferry I needed to take was broken-down, so we would have to go south and cross at Popokabaka, extending the trip by 200 kilometers (124 miles). That meant another night and day on the road!
The truck did wonders in the sand. You can’t imagine what the sand is like until you see it. It was powdery and fine, just like snow and with no solid bottom. About 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Popokabaka, I hit one of those sandy stretches. I hit it good and fast in 2nd gear, which is best, but it started to bog down. Then just about the time I thought we would make it, there was a pit in the sand about 3 feet deep. There was nothing I could do but hope I’d get through. Well I didn’t. We started to push the truck and shovel sand, but it only went deeper.
Almost three hours later, we unloaded everything to lighten the truck, but it still would not budge. We got a plank under the wheel but by now the one wheel of the truck was down four feet. I actually gave up. I saw a flat area nearby, so I picked out a place where the mission planes could come and get us out. But the Congolese teacher and his students did not give up.
Another truck passed us on the road where the sand was not as soft. Here, fortunately for us, the truck ran out of diesel fuel. Sadly, we could not help him as we only had gasoline, but he had a jack. With his help, we were able to jack up the truck and with tree limbs we built up the back wheels and we finally got out. It was one of the most frustrating days of my life but I would never have gotten through it without the help of my new Congolese friends.
It was one of the most frustrating days of my life but I would never have gotten through it without the help of my new Congolese friends.
Finally, we were on our way again. But my problems were not over. I was expecting the shorter route and two days of travel, so I was low on gas and water. Here it was the end of the second day, and we were only halfway home.
Ten kilometers (6 miles) outside of Popokabaka, I met the missionaries who helped me learn French. It was an amazing coincidence! They were only the second car I had encountered in two days. You can’t imagine how unbelievably happy I was to meet them. They were on their way to the Congo Inland Mission at Kikwit. I almost cried.
They were able to give me some water, so things were looking up. Remember in DR Congo – with only sand or gravel roads except around Léo – there were no gas stations or roadside rests or conveniences. I carried extra gas in a large drum on the driver’s side of the truck and had to siphon it out when the truck tank was empty.
I was unable to get gas in Popokabaka and the gas was too far down in the drum to siphon it out. I only had one barrel in the back of the truck which was used to fill the tank. With the needle on empty, someone who lived in a local village sold me a drum of gas, so I was able to fill up. That day we traveled only 80 kilometers (50 miles) thanks to the sand.
In the morning, I learned the Popokabaka ferry was broken down, but we might get someone to pole us across. The ferry was small and wooden, not steel like some. Also, most of the others had metal ramps which helped you get on the ferry but were closed behind you to prevent the truck from rolling off. This had none, plus posted beside the ferry was a sign reading, “This ferry is condemned.”
Having no other options, I drove the truck on the condemned ferry. It took one hour to pole us across. To avoid a sandbar, I had to roll the truck back and forth to shift the weight. I knew I had to be careful as there were only inches in front and behind the wheels.
At 9:00 a.m., we still had 200 kilometers (124 miles) to get to Léo and I only hoped we would make it by nightfall.
The road we took was not marked on the map. I followed the road up the side of the mountain and hit a plateau. I stayed on this plateau until we were about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Léo.
It was beautiful. As far as you could see were just rolling hills and grass and almost no trees. Here the sand was as bad as ever. Some places there were five lanes going around a sand hole. As each lane filled up with sand, another one started. I was okay as long as I didn’t get in the wrong lane, like the day before.
From there the trip was good and we got into Léo about 11:00 p.m. – one day late. It was a long, hard trip, but I think I learned much in “roughing it” and about the country I was living in.
As we get older, we think of things that happened in a different light. Things that were not fully understood at the outset have now become fond memories. If I were reliving those times today, would I act differently? Of course. But we can only understand where we are at a given time. We can only work with knowledge at the time it is manifest to us.
While I never returned to DR Congo, I have many times wanted to return to mission-related work. But after getting married and starting a career in music, that never happened. However, the last dozen or so years of teaching at both Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.) and at Harrisburg Area Community College (Harrisburg, Pa.), I included a lot of African music in my curriculum – from DR Congo and the rest of the continent of Africa as well.
Inaugurated in 1951, MCC’s Pax program provided varied service opportunities for hundreds of young men (and some young women) in many contexts around the world, including post-World War II relief and reconstruction projects in Europe, humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, the construction of a highway through Paraguay’s Chaco region and community development work in Greece, Bolivia and DR Congo. The last Pax workers concluded their service in 1976.
For most Pax workers, participation in Pax fulfilled alternative service obligations through the United States’ I-W program. Yet MCC sought for the Pax program to be not only an alternative to military service, a program for “conscripted Christians,” but a proactive form of Christian peace witness staffed by “willing second-milers.”