Sam Duncan, volunteer and AV tech expert, shares his experiences teaching in the congo with ashby villagers
Story by Robert Waxman
For over a century, the Congo has been synonymous with colonial predation, rampant violence, unchecked political corruption and a moral vacuum that obliterates conscience and plunges those who cross its boundaries into a “Heart of Darkness.” Who could hope to heal this place, much less make it a place to raise young children born and bred in the middle class comforts of the United States? Sam Duncan, well known to Ashley Villagers as a Volunteer expert in high technology came to our headquarters on Friday, October 5th to share his story and answer these and many more questions about he and his family’s life in the Congo.
The origins of his story may come as no surprise. It was 1970. The country was still in the turmoil of Vietnam and, for many in Sam's generation, staying home and conducting business as usual was not an option. He was a well educated engineer, raised in Arkansas and Missouri, and working at General Dynamics in Southern California designing missiles. He decided there had to be a better way to live than building weapons. Doubtless, the same thoughts crossed the minds of many of his colleagues. But Sam did something about it. Gravitating towards teaching, Sam wanted to go where there was a need and learned the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo) was actively recruiting people like himself to teach Math and Science.
Of course, teaching these subjects is no simple matter for an engineer accustomed to life in the United States. As if adjusting to a very different climate and culture were not difficult enough, the DRC has 240 different languages. The common language then and now is French. Before Sam and his family could begin work, they had to spend a year in Belgium and master “passable” French. They did this and also spent six months of that time just preparing for their new home. As it turns out, virtually everything we purchase in the States as part of our daily life, whether food, clothing, first aid or, for that matter, just about anything else that momentarily takes our fancy, is impossible to purchase in the Congo. And everything purchased had to be documented for customs before entry was permitted.
Once there, after the requisite vaccinations (about ten to fifteen), the Duncan family, Sam and his wife , Beverly Nagel and their daughter, Jennifer, at the time one year and five months old, had to adjust to the constraints of life in Kimpese, a town in the western end of the country almost 100 kilometers from the capital of Kinshasa. No TV. No movies. No recreation to speak of other than going to the local waterfall. Lots of rice, and beans, and cassava (very edible after washing out the cyanide) and, despite the proximity the river, very little fish. In fact, the Duncan family learned to grow most of their own food. Fortunately, they were assisted in that by a local resident trained in agriculture, a young man named Alfred Moaka. The Duncan family also grew more than vegetables. Sam and Beverly's son, Craig, was born a year after they arrived, and daughter, Heather, was born four years after arrival.
While the challenges of life in the Congo, especially for a Westerner, might seem formidable, Sam and family were able to enjoy unique experiences too rare among most Americans. His colleagues at the university where he taught included people from all the over world, dedicated teachers committed to teaching in a country struggling to emerge from a brutal colonial past, only 10 years since independence. Moreover, the Duncan children could actually enjoy life outside a society awash in television, Hollywood films, fast food, suburbia, cars and a culture inundated by consumption of material goods. Moreover, his children, like all the other children in their Congolese community, were educated in a one room schoolhouse and received an education as good as any in the best communities here in the States. As Sam said, his children treated their experiences as normal; and the remarkable thing is that for a family with such an extraordinary experience, the Duncan family enjoyed an enviable “normality.” Another bonus were the students themselves that Sam taught. For the Congolese, education was no mean feat. At the National University students came from far away to enjoy its benefits and were the fortunate few from a very competitive process. They were “the cream of the crop,” determined to maximize their education in what was admittedly a very poor marketplace for jobs. Is it any wonder the Duncans spent ten years in Kimpese? (It probably didn’t hurt that they could visit friends and family back in the States nearly every year, courtesy of the Congolese government.)
Given the time constraints of the presentation, Sam referred his audience to the The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver as an excellent book providing insight into the perceptions and thinking of the Congolese. And of course, he also referred people to King Leopold’s Ghost, which documented what is generally considered the single most horrific period of the Congo’s history, when the country, not a colony, was literally owned by the Belgian King and the country and its population lived and worked soley for his personal benefit, a period of unspeakable cruelty, violence and exploitation. Sam admitted that had he read that book before going to the Congo, he seriously questions he would have made the decision to take the teaching job that he did. He also doubts if he would go to the Congo now if he had the chance. “It's more dangerous than it used to be, and it requires a lot of stamina to even get around to Kimpese. You need lots of shots. Just getting through the airport is extremely difficult.”
Before concluding, let’s make make a few things perfectly clear. Sam Duncan is a humble man, who wears his humility like a well worn suit of old clothes (remember, Sam hails from the Ozarks). Nonetheless, the facts are undeniable: those of us fortunate enough to learn about his experience and see his presentation were rewarded by the story of a man and his family who followed their “bliss” and their conscience. The world is a better place because of it. And so are we.