Mennonite Health Journal

Articles on the intersection of faith and health








Hanging on for Dear Life

Murray Nickel

from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4 – November 2013

While waiting for the plane in Kikwit to take me off to Kinshasa, my friend Dr. Emery Bewa mused, “You know, I feel like I’m in a boat in a lake of drowning people.  But I’m tired of diving in trying to save people who have their hands folded across their chests refusing to be saved.  I’m sticking to the people struggling on the surface.  The people who grip my hand tight when I reach out to them.”

As a follower of Christ, I have little difficulty justifying his statement.  An alcoholic can’t recover from his disease without wanting to.  He has to take the first steps.  Didn’t Jesus say that his disciples should dust off their sandals and go onto the next town when their message was poorly received?  Why waste time with those who don’t want to help themselves?

Last time in Kinshasa I spent a good deal of time with my management consultant friend Toss Mukwa.  He was leading a conference we had sponsored on “asset-based community development.”  During a break he said, “Murray, the problem here in Congo is deeper than people just being poor.  People are mentally traumatized by war, violence and poverty.  They fold their hands and refuse to come out of hiding, distrustful and afraid.  We need to gently help people think differently about themselves.”

Suddenly, Emery’s metaphor evolved in my head.  Instead of a lake of drowning people, I pictured a person hanging off the edge of a cliff, clinging for dear life to a tiny branch, a branch that is slowly breaking.  I reach out to him from a solid ledge but I notice that the only way he’ll be able to grip my hand is by letting go of the branch he’s hanging on to.

I spent the last day of my trip to Congo with Dr. Delphin Kapasa who runs a clinic in Camp Luka, a poor neighborhood of Kinshasa.  He told me that things have gotten more violent lately.  People are afraid to go out at night lest they get killed by one of the roving gangs.  In general, the gangs respect the clinic knowing the care they get there.

The staff feels safe most of the time, until last week when a higher ranking military man was brought in.  He had sustained a fatal machete wound to the head.  The staff was more than a little anxious that this might bring the fighting to their doorstep.  It didn’t.  In fact, the police moved in and cracked down on the violence as a result.  Presently, there is a small sigh of relief in the neighborhood.

But Delphin says that this is only temporary.  People have been traumatized repeatedly in this area.  Physical and sexual abuse run rampant.  People are powerless.  Justice is only available to the highest bidder.  Unemployment is over 90%.  There is no work in a ghetto where the average age is under eighteen.

“We need to provide alternatives.  Teach young people marketable skills.  Spend time counseling the family unit which is dysfunctional.  We need to stop the cycle of poverty,” he says.  For him, dusting off his sandals and moving to the next town is farthest from his thoughts.

I don’t know if there is a right answer.  Do you stick with those who want to help themselves or do you plunge into a potentially fruitless endeavor of trying to convince people that they need help?  There are no simple solutions on the front lines of poverty but it’s an honor for me to have been embedded with frontline strikers like Emery, Delphin and Toss.

About the author

Murray NickelMurray Nickel, MD, is President of International Mennonite Health Association (IMHA) and an emergency physician living in Abbotsford, British Columbia, just outside of Vancouver. He spent six years in Congo in association with Mennonite Brethren Mission and now travels back and forth between Congo and Canada two or three times a year.  He has a special interest in human development and transformation in the context of the poverty.