Kanyi & Kamulombo
Within minutes of arriving in Kamponde, there were a handful of people I immediately asked after. Among those were two of my former students, Kanyi Mushimbi Marceline and Kamulombo Mutongo. They were among my favorite students: smart, hardworking and fun.
Kanyi was a freshman and among the few girls in the high school. She was shy and respectful and would stop by the Peace Corps house for extra help with her homework, determined to graduate alongside the boys. Kamulombo was a year above her and one of the class clowns who had the most amazing smile. His joking aside, he was an excellent student, always first among those raised hands and often walked me home after school.
They were not that much younger than me. I quietly turned 22 during my first year as an English teacher at the high school. I didn't want the rowdy senior boys to know that many of them were my age or older, having had to drop out of school to help their family in the fields or not having the money to go to school.
Today, Kanyi is 50 and had just undergone surgery and was on medical leave from her teaching job in the primary school. Kamulombo is 59 and teaches at the high school. They will have been married for 35 years later this year and have 10 children. I am pleased to learn all their children have survived — save for two lost to miscarriages, she is quick to tell me — as it's common to lose several along the way, to malaria or malnutrition.
When I returned to Kamponde in 2006, Kanyi showed me how rough her hands had become due to working in the fields to supplement their teaching incomes. Though I felt sorry for them at the time, I have come to learn that they have abundant fields, which have nourished their children and given them a relatively stable and happy life. I left them a bunch of vegetable seeds for their fields — which many of you donated — and some flowers to plant around their family compounds.
During that second return to Kamponde in 2006, Kanyi tapped on the door of the guest room in the rectory, where I was staying. She had brought me a chicken — an incredibly generous gift — but I told her a white lie, that I was a vegetarian, and told her to keep the chicken as I knew it was badly needed protein for her family.
Oh, how much we have all changed over these last four decades. Yet we all seemed to have kept our sense of humor, our fond memories of one another and our determination to make sense of and find meaning of our shared journey.
In this video, they joke with me about how old we all are — and how, um, curvy I have become with age — and how all we can really do is laugh.
I wasn't skinny when I was in Kamponde, but by Congolese standards, I was too thin. The senior boys used to always joke with me that I should marry one of them so that they could put some meat on my bones. (I would always just roll my eyes and quickly change the subject.)
I keep reminding myself that it's a compliment in Congo to remark on how "healthy" one appears.
Perhaps my favorite hug of this entire journey. Impromptu and heartfelt.