Democratic Republic of Congo: Mission in the Forest

Mexican Comboni Brother Juan Carlos Salgado is a doctor and has been working in Africa for the past 16 years. We ask him to share his experiences with us.

I am working at the mission hospital in Mungbere in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Lots of people come to us from far off places – even though Mungbere can only be reached by motorcycle, bicycle, or small plane. Most patients arrive on motorcycle. The most common medical problems are malaria, dysentery, fractures, AIDS, and respiratory problems. We have a total of five doctors: two Comboni Missionaries, two local Congolese, and a volunteer from Italy – all working together with the help of 30 nurses. Besides taking care of the hospital, our team also teaches at the nursing school.

Part of my work consists in supervising five health centres within a 30-mile radius. Back home in Mexico this doesn’t sound like much, but covering 30 miles in the DRC takes me about three hours of travelling through the forest, the tall grass, mud, and army roadblocks. The soldiers know I am a doctor so they usually let me pass, but sometimes they ask for money.

To reach one of the centres I have to cross a river, which is not always easy. But the journey is rewarding because there are a lot of good fish in the area. Not too far away, there is a national park and people hunt all kinds of wildlife. Generally, however, people are subsistence farmers.

I am constantly amazed by the generosity of the people I meet. They open their humble homes to me; they feed me and make me feel like part of the family. If I have to spend the night anywhere, people get together around the fire. We talk to each other, pray together, and someone watches over me all night long.

There was a time, though, when things around here were much better. There were plantations, and progress seemed to be just around the corner. Then the Congo, formerly called Zaire, fell apart due to wars, political corruption, and foreign business interests. But by God’s grace the soil is very fertile, so that people can still make a living by farming.

Not far from our mission there are several Pygmy villages. The Pygmies live deep in the forest, are hunters and gatherers, and have an intimate connection with nature. Since time immemorial, Pygmies have been looked down upon by neighbouring tribes and by the colonisers. But the Pygmies are modest and friendly. We have always tried to protect them and suggested ways to build on what they have, for example by providing advice about farming. Several families are now sending their children to school, and some of them have already completed high school. Some of the girls have become midwives and work in health centres, others are learning dressmaking from the Comboni Sisters. We hope that their deep spirituality, love of nature, and simple lifestyle will inspire others.

After 16 years of ministry as a missionary doctor, I still look forward every day to what God has in store for me. It gives me great satisfaction to have the opportunity to foster the gift of life at all levels, spiritual and material. The gratitude of the people I live with is my reward on earth.