Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reflection from the Congo: Part 2


As we rode in the taxi on our way home, I shared with Mom the details of my trip, explaining that the last hour of the more than 28-hour-long trip had been the longest, because by then, I had been so ready to see her. I also told her that I had been working on a memoir which tells the story of our family. I chatted excitedly about the project and how much I was looking forward to sharing the manuscript with her. I told her that the memoir’s title was, “Remember for Me,” and how I felt that the project had helped me understand her and the entire family better. Mom smiled and nodded in contentment, happy that I had remembered her request.

The next day, three of my four sisters and I gathered in Mom’s bedroom, forming a circle around Mom as she reclined on the bed. (Mom was often lying down as we spoke as she can no longer sit for long periods of time.) I turned on my iPad, showing Mom the glowing screen that held the manuscript of the memoir, and I began to read aloud as Mom and my sisters listened intently.

As I recounted memories of scenes from my childhood, describing Mom’s words and actions, I saw her spirit come to life. In Mom’s eyes, I saw the energy of the woman I have known all my life return. When I arrived at the chapter where Mom tells a story by the fire, Mom’s smile widened even more.

I started to read Mom’s story of the Eagle, Rabbit and Frog, but before I could finish, my sisters began to jump in, each supplying a different part of the story, emulating the same energy and animation that Mom used when she would tell it. Suddenly, my mother’s bedroom had become a theater and my sisters and I bent over with laughter as we each gave our best imitation of Mom. Mom’s small frame also shook with laughter from her spot on the bed as she watched her daughters become her.

As she laughed, she said, “One day you will miss me, oh you will surely miss me, but don’t forget the message of my stories….always remember the message.”

“We remember Mom, we remember!” my sisters and I cried as we continued to laugh.

Each of us then decided to tell our favorite story from the many that Mom had told us as children. One by one, we shared our stories with much animation and exaggeration as Mom watched us from her bed, laughing hard, her eyes filled with joy.

When Chikombu, the youngest of us girls had finished her story, Mom decided that she would add one more to our repertoire. In her soft, weak voice, hoarse from laughter, she said, “Daughters, I give you this story, hold on to it and remember it always….” Instantly, I was transported back to my childhood. I was once more a little girl, anxious to hear one of Mom’s stories.

“One day, as the dry season was approaching, Turtle overheard the town council planning a seasonal hunting party. The hunters talked about how they would burn part of the forest to trap and catch the animals that would sustain them. Turtle thought to herself, oh no! What will I do? I can’t run fast. Even if I start my journey now, I will never be able to outrun the hunters’ fire. Then turtle noticed, her two friends, the eagles. “Ahh, Eagles! I am so glad to see you! I need to ask you for a favor! The hunters are going to burn the forest. Will you help me escape to the town south of here near the river where I may find refuge?” The eagles felt sorry for Turtle and agreed that they would help her.

Sure enough, when the time came, and Turtle had just begun to smell the smoke, the eagles came for Turtle. Each eagle held the end of a branch in their beaks. “Turtle, you must bite down on the branch and hold on very tightly. We will fly with you away from here and transport you safely from the fire. But we must also warn you, as we fly through the villages, many people will see you flying, and they may ridicule you. They might say things that will provoke you…but under no circumstances, should you open your mouth and let go of the branch. Keep your eyes looking forward and focus on your final destination. Whatever you do, don’t let go of the branch.”

Turtle nodded eagerly. Of course, she wouldn’t let go. She chomped down on hard the branch and resolved not to open her mouth until her journey was over. The eagles took off from the ground then, with Turtle dangling from the branch between them. And sure enough, as they flew from village to village, people pointed, yelling and laughing, ridiculing the flying turtle. Turtle felt hurt and wanted to rebuke the rude audience, but just as she was about to say something, she remembered her friends council to hold on tightly to the branch, ignore all the noise around her, and stay focused on her destination. And, through her resolve, Turtle made it safely to her new home.

As Mom’s voice dwindled, we knew that she had reached the end of her story. My sisters and I thanked Mom for the new story, each of us quietly reflecting on what message the story held for us. As I looked at my sisters’ thoughtful faces, and my Mom now gently dozing on the bed, I felt so grateful for that afternoon, for the opportunity to have shared such a powerful moment with my siblings, wrapped together in our mother’s love. But even more so, I felt grateful that Mom had had the opportunity to see and hear her story as told by her daughters.

In my search for my mother through the memoir, I am discovering that, by understanding the woman Mom was, the woman she became, and the woman she is today, I am uncovering a reflection of her that lives on in me. I feel so grateful to have rediscovered the beautiful and humble soul of my mother and to know now that it has been set free to live on in the world.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Memoir Update and a Reflection From the Congo: Part 1

Greetings friends!

Spring is upon us, and I am happy to say that we are progressing well with the memoir project. This past winter has held many changes for me including a new job position. In my new role, I am serving as Director of Development for an amazing organization called Digital Divide Data. I will share more about this opportunity in the future.

Although I am still very much involved with First Step Initiative as the organization’s founder, this past year we instigated a new grant-based model, which means more of the donations will go directly to women in the Congo, and additionally, I am no longer serving as Executive Director.

As part of the shift with First Step Initiative, I made a trip to the Congo last September. It has taken me until now to fully process my thoughts, but now as we near completion of the memoir, I wanted to share with you my experience visiting my family. My reflection is lengthy, so I will share it with you in two parts. Here is the first part of my story.

After the long journey from Minnesota, I had finally landed Lubumbashi. Disembarking from the small South African Airways commuter plane, I walked down a concrete path toward the arrival center. I was filled with anticipation and excitement at the thought of seeing my family again, especially my mom and dad. At the time, my dad had been ill while my mom's health remained the same.

Two years earlier, Mom had had a stroke. Although she miraculously recovered, gaining back the majority of her faculties and functions, she has never again been the same woman she once was. Mom’s stroke turned my world upside down; for the first time our roles were reserved. My siblings and I quickly discovered what it meant to become caregivers for our parents—trying to find that delicate balance between honoring their independence and making hard decisions on their behalf.

It was during this time that I started writing what has now become the memoir. Initially, I saw my writing as an escape from the pain and loneliness of losing a part of Mom, but I see now that it was more so a search—a search in which I was trying to find my mother again, the strong and independent woman who filled my earliest memories of childhood, a friend in whom my siblings and I had confided our dreams and hope, and a grandmother whom my nieces and nephews knew simply as "Mom." It was this woman I was searching for as I spent hours revisiting my childhood in the Congo. I could no longer quite find Mom in this world, but I could still find her in my memories as I remembered our lives together.

As I made my way with the other passengers toward the arrival center on that hot, sunny day last September, one hand clutching the luggage handle, the other shading my eyes from the blazing African sun, I searched intently for my mother’s familiar face in a sea of those waiting to greet their loved ones.

As my eyes scanned the crowd, I caught sight of my younger sister Chikombu, carrying her six-month-old daughter, Aminata Kamun, named after my mother. Next to Chikombu, stood Mom. Leaning against my little sister, as if to prop herself up, her frame was small and frail. I looked at Mom, clapping her hands, tears of joy on her sunken cheeks, and I saw for the first time how fragile she had become. In an instant, I was hit with an overwhelming awareness of the fragility of life. And in that moment, as joy and longing and despair bled into one another, I felt a deep desire to cherish every moment I had with my parents.

As my mother reached out to me and held my hands, I leaned in close to hear her soft voice whisper, here you are my daughter, here you are.

To which I responded, I am here Mom, I am here.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wishing you a happy (and memorable) Labor Day!

I hope that this Labor Day finds you well! As I prepare to travel to the Congo again in the near future, the holiday has me thinking about labor in the Congo.

Through my mother's efforts, I was exposed at a young age to the power of women coming together and joining forces to redefine the realities of what it meant to be a working mother in the Congo. The magic of their unified strength was truly revolutionary. As a wise woman once said, "when spiderwebs unite, they can stop a lion."

As we are working on the final chapters of the memoir (we plan to finish the manuscript by late fall/ early winter), I am pulling on my earliest memories of these scenes, remembering back to the way it all began....

Chapter 9 - Spiderwebs

The fervent buzz of conversation dwindled as one by one the women’s eyes turned to a single corner of the room. They were waiting for Nzol Akayimb to speak.

But makw Nzol sat silent, legs crossed in her faded, neatly tied makwemb. Her eyes shone out from the soft papery folds of her skin. The silence silence spread as she steadily met the eyes of each woman in turn. When her eyes rested for a moment on my own, I could see that they were deep midnight pools in which the reflection of the moon danced and played with a shimmering brightness. Her gaze held all and yet revealed nothing.

Finally Makw Nzol spoke.

“When one falls down, will we leave her behind? Will she stay on the ground when we have so many hands to help her back up, and so many arms to lean on? No, we are together in this. We are one. Where one falls, none can continue on the path.”


As the meeting dispersed, Mom and makw Nzol lingered at the entrance after the others had gone. Then, deep in conversation, they began the journey home in the darkness together, with only the moon to light their way. Quietly, I followed behind.

“We must help one another in this as in all things.” I heard makw Nzol tell Mom before patting her chest lightly once with her open palm. It was a quick and subtle gesture, but my eyes never left her diminutive frame. When the path parted, Nzol stopped and turned toward Mom again. “We will visit him tomorrow, in the evening. It will be better.” Mom nodded in agreement and the two women said their goodbyes.

I watched as Nzol turned onto the path and slowly made her way down the road, her bare feet sounding solid, reassuring thwaps against the clay road as she made her way slowly down the shadowy path, leaning on her gnarled old kashi stick.

Trailing Mom home that night after the meeting, I wondered at the strange turn of events that had taken place. And I remembered back to the day that had started this course in motion....


Stay tuned to read the next installment of this chapter--coming soon!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

In light of tomorrow's Mother's Day celebration here in the U.S., I thought I would give a quick update on our progress with Remember for Me and also share a brief excerpt with you in honor of my mother.

We are currently on track to have a finished manuscript by October of this year. I have been truly amazed by the support that has already begun to transform this dream into reality. I'm reaching out to ask you to join this team of contributors by considering making a small donation to help us cover some of our pre-production costs. You can do this by clicking on the donation box on the right side of this page, or contact me at chingwell@comcast.net for more information.

It's important to note, that I am attempting to tell both my own story, the story of my mother and my family, and also the story of the community of Musumba where I grew up. My goal is to be true to the voice of the local people. Accordingly, all proceeds from the sales of this book will go back to support the people of Musumba. Please help us share this story with the world.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Remember for Me that is dedicated to my mom and to the determination, spirit, and ingenuity of all the mothers in Musumba.

“Mom is back! Mom is back!” As we heard the joyful shout, Kasua and I looked up. We locked eyes for no longer than a second before leaping from our seats and racing outside. As we ran toward the main road and along it to the entrance to our village, we caught up with my brother, Mutombu, and the throng of neighborhood children who had alerted us to Mom’s return. We ran together, arms flailing, our bare feet slapping the red clay road still damp from that morning’s rain. As we ran, hope and anticipation rose in my throat—and I could also see it on my siblings’ faces. Eyes wide, lips parted, eyebrows raised, but not yet smiling. We had to see for ourselves that it was true. Had Mom really returned? 

As we approached the village entrance, the scene before my eyes was so vivid that I knew in that moment that I would never stop seeing it. The wet earth spread in front of us, like a red carpet that had been rolled out for the occasion; the road lined on either side of us with towering mango and flamboyant trees—a canopy of green, heavy with bright fruit, and dotted with red and yellow flowers; and straight ahead—cows! Huge brown cows occupied the entire width of the corridor. Slowly making their grand entrance into town, they meandered over the red carpet, moving casually towards us.

My eyes skimmed the lush and beautiful scenery with a sole agenda—Mom. Where was Mom? Our noisy gang descended on the herd of cows, children buzzing, searching and calling for Mom. The cows, tired from their long journey, and perhaps offended by our less-than-decorous reception, began to protest. Loud moos drowned out our calls, and as we rushed among them, the cows’ discomfort turned to fear. They began to clumsily pivot and shuffle in all different directions. One by one they started to move in short, powerful bolts, attempting to distance themselves from the chaotic throng of children. The herdsmen began to shout and then calmly cajole the cows, attempting to corral them back onto the road facing the right direction. Hanging back, I observed as the other children continued to weave amongst the cows, in very real danger of being crushed, searching and calling for Mom. Amidst this furious commotion, Mom finally emerged from the back of the herd, stepping out from behind the huge creatures.

She quieted the children and gently herded us out of the way. Once both cows and children alike had been soothed and corralled, the group continued the final leg of its journey into town.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Beauty of Collaboration

Even the most intimate of stories is not told in a vacuum. Storytelling by its very nature is born of collaboration—a connection between the storyteller and the audience. As the storyteller, I feel very fortunate to have a group of committed friends who have shown interest in my story and have encouraged me to share this story with a wider audience. To me, my story is just an ordinary story and for a very long time, I did not see why anyone would be interested in reading about it. But the more I shared the rough drafts of my life’s journey with my colleagues, the more they encouraged me to pursue a formal path of literary publication. And I am glad they were very persistent and convinced me to pursue this path.

The process of working on this memoir has been a journey of self-discovery. And one of the best decisions that I made as I decided to embark on this path was to enlist the help of my colleague Elysia Kotke. With her expertise as an editor and writer, Elysia has been able to go through and make sense of my mountains of story drafts and information about my life experiences, and she has provided the guidance for me to tell my story in a more powerful way.

It is my hope that throughout the course of 2013 you will get to meet some of my colleagues who have been very supportive with this project. And today, I would like to introduce you to one of them: Elysia Kotke. I will let her tell you about herself. Elysia, the stage is now yours…

“Words form a tender bridge extending across distances of time and space to create a place where author and audience can connect.”                       - Anonymous

I can remember clearly the day that I met Chingwell. As an introverted writer born and raised in the Midwest, I’m more comfortable behind the scenes; I often feel shy meeting people for the first time, but Chingwell’s genuine warmth and gentle spirit put me at ease. When I listened to her talk about her work in the DR Congo, her passion inspired me to believe again that maybe I too could make a difference in the world.

Now, having worked with Chingwell for the past three years, I feel that we have formed a unique bond. Although, we have grown up in different cultures and lived different lives, we seem to intuitively understand one another. And we are united by a mutual desire to uncover the commonalities of our experiences.

When Chingwell approached me with the idea of Remember for Me, I was thrilled by the possibility. But the reality of the project has surpassed my expectations. Through written drafts and interviews, Chingwell has shared with me the raw material of her story—her memories and experiences. And with careful hands I have worked to gently shape these stories while always striving to preserve the natural beauty of her voice and the powerful authenticity of her memories.

In this way, I have been blessed with the opportunity to stand quietly over her shoulder, to witness and connect with her stories—and to discover the universal truths and experiences that unite our different lives and cultures. I have laughed and cried; I have learned so much.

Last week, I attended a local school with Chingwell as she read a few excerpts from the chapters we have worked on together so far. As Chingwell read a passage from Remember for Me in which she visits her favorite river stream at five years old, the 12th grade students leaned forward to catch her soft words. When she finished, the class was silent. Then, one by one the students began to share their thoughts. One girl said “I remembered what it felt like to be five again. I felt like I was with you, but I also felt like I was myself as a child. As you were running through the jungle, I was running through my woods.”

Chingwell’s story is powerful and universal. It is the story of children everywhere—their curiosity and joy, but it is also the story of a very specific place and time, the story of what it was like to grow up as a child in a village in the DR Congo at that time. My role in this project is to edit and guide this story, to represent the audience, and to continue supporting the tender bridge of words which will one day allow many other readers to cross over and meet Chingwell as well.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magic of Storytelling

Growing up in the DR Congo, we did not entertain ourselves with television, movies, or even radio. We owned few books and toys. Instead, we played outside, and on dark nights when the moonlight was too faint to play our games, we gathered around the fire to listen to the stories told by our parents, relatives, and neighbors.

Many of these fables and folktales had powerful morals, but a few seemed to exist for simply the pure joy of igniting the imagination. One of my favorites was the story of the monkey and the crocodile.

The story inspired illustrator Nick Rebman
to create this humorous drawing.
One day a monkey found himself facing a problem. He needed to cross a huge river, but he didn’t know how to swim. As he paced the bank of the river trying to figure out how he would get across, suddenly, a crocodile appeared. The crocodile was very hungry and seeing the monkey, he happily thought to himself “Ah, I have found my lunch!”

But as the crocodile prepared to attack and eat the monkey up, the monkey pleaded, “Dear crocodile, I know that you are very hungry, and that you are going to eat me no matter what, but please I have one wish to ask you still. I don’t want to die on this side of the river. I would much rather die on the other side. Please dear crocodile, I would very much appreciate if you would help me cross the river. And when we get to the shore on the other side, you are welcome to eat me, and I will die happy.”

The crocodile thought for a minute and then agreed to the monkey’s request. He thought to himself “What do I have to lose? I will have my lunch, what do I care which side of the river I eat it on?” So the crocodile, picked up the monkey, tossed him on his back, and the unlikely pair began to make their way across the river.

But as they neared the far shore, the monkey jumped from the crocodile’s back, and ran as fast as he could until he reached the high lands where the crocodile could not follow. The monkey looked back, yelling at the crocodile, “how stupid you are crocodile! Did you think I would sit quietly and let you eat me? You must be nuts crocodile!” And the monkey ran off, leaving the crocodile helpless at the shore of the river. The crocodile was very hungry and angry indeed!

I loved this story as a child and asked to hear it over and over again. I loved imagining the huge crocodile carrying the monkey on his back—a small passenger who had just tricked him in order to get across the lake. Even at the end, I always felt scared for the monkey, and hoped that he would never return to the same river.

The world is changing very quickly, but the magic of stories and the power of storytelling lives on. Even in the rural communities of the DRC, such as the one that I grew up in, technology, climate change, and the progression of time are altering the traditional ways of life. I feel it is more important now than ever to remember and record our stories and our shared history.

By sharing my story in this memoir, I invite you to join the circle around the fire—and share your own story as well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Remember for Me

You may have noticed a recent update to the working title of my memoir. As this memoir has progressed and the story has unfolded, “Remember for Me” has emerged as the title that best fits this story. Throughout the writing and editing process, I constantly find myself thinking back to the words my mom spoke to me on a phone call from the Congo in March 2012.

“As I am starting to forget and may not always remember what I say or tell you, I want you to remember for me. Write it down so that you will remember and remind me.”

With this request, my mom was asking me to remember for her in a literal sense. In the past few years her health has become more of a concern. And a recent stroke has sometimes made it difficult for her to remember details of her past.

But in this request, she was also asking me to remember figuratively. To remember not just for her, but also for my grandmother, for all of the people I grew up with, for our small village community, for my nieces and nephews, and to remember a way of life that is connected to the dreams of our ancestors.

Faced with our own mortality, we begin to ask ourselves: how will we be remembered? What is worth remembering? As I write this story, I realize that the true purpose of this story is to remember our mothers. We remember the women they were, the women they became and honor the women, we as their daughters, have become today—our lives intertwined, can never be completely separated.

By remembering where we come from, we are remembering who we are.

Remember for Me!