A story of learning about construction materials when our family lived in the village of Bili, Democratic Republic of Congo.
The church is redoing the roof of its building. That means taking off the old thatch and putting on new. I decided to help by going to cut some uwu batima. Uwu is a general term for rope, twine, string, vine or anything to tie things together. uwu batima is the vine used to tie thatch to a roof.
I went with Vele (Vay-lay). Vele is 5’ 6”, weighs about 110 pounds, 74 years old, and hard as iron. When you shake hands with him you immediately know that he’s not an accountant. It’s like shaking hands with a teak tree.
Vele was one of the first Mono Christians, deciding to follow Christ over 30 years ago. For the last 10 years he’s been a night guard for church and mission houses. He came with the house we first lived in, and he’s become part of our family. He’s our night guard now.
So at 6:45 Saturday morning, we set out. I moved in a half run to keep up with Vele. Whenever we passed someone on the path, they’d ask, “Gyaragbo [my name]! Where are you going?” “We’re going to cut uwu batima.” The response was always the same: a sharp intake of breath, a hand to the forehead, and an expression that means something like, “What in the world . . .?” I took this to be a remark on my wonderfulness as a cross-cultural worker. Not every missionary would give up a morning to get vines for a new church building. What I realized later was that these people knew something I didn’t.
Vele used our interactions with people on the path to share his aged wisdom: “Most people think that their work for God ends when they get baptized. But that’s not true, is it? God’s work is hard. We keep working until we die. God’s work is very hard.” A warning light flicked on in my brain’s Posterior Warning Lobe. Something’s not quite right.
I ran after Vele for an hour and a half. As we approached a deeply wooded area, Vele stopped and said, “Let’s pray.” (To myself, “Why?”) “O.K.” “Take off your hat.” (“Why are we praying just now?”) “O.K.” So Vele thanked God for bringing us here and for sending me to Bili and would he watch over us now. (“Why did we just pray?”)
We put our hats back on and entered the forest. The ground began to gain moisture. Pretty soon we were trudging through calf deep mud. We reached a big tree, and Vele stopped. He went behind the tree, took off his hat, and handed me a five-foot stick. “Take off your pants.” “What?” “You have underwear on, don’t you?” Normally, when a man hands me a stick and tells me to take off my pants I feel it’s wise to question him. But with Vele . . . “O.K.” The warning in the back of my head struggled to break into my consciousness, but it was too late to go back now. I took the stick, and gave Vele my shorts and flip-flops.
Vele was walking more slowly now. Maybe it was because there was no path anymore. Maybe it was because we couldn’t see the gnarled roots, fallen branches, dead leaves, mud, and . . . (the warning light was now flashing in all my brain lobes) whatever else might lurk beneath the water we were wading through. The third leg our walking sticks provided was now essential. Every once in a while we’d step in a muck hole that brought the water up to our chests.
As we glurched through the rain forest (why is it we want to save these things?), two images came to mind. The first was from the Lewis Carroll poem I memorized for a play try-out in 9th grade:
‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son . . .”
Am I walking through slithy toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe right now? What really is a Jabberwock, anyway? And why is its name capitalized?
The second was the scene from one of the Star Wars movies when Princess Leah and Luke and Chewbaka were trapped in the Death Star garbage compactor. “There’s something under there . . .”
Well, we moved slowly along, until Vele finally spotted some uwu batima. It’s a creeping vine that winds itself around tree trunks and other plants on the ground. Vele showed me how to take hold of it, find the root end, cut it off , pull until you can find the other end where it’s attached to some other growing thing, cut it there and then throw the 8 to 15 foot vine into the water behind you where you’ll pick it up on the way back. Then start looking for some more. Easy. I started looking for my own.
Nobody told me that these vines were a direct result of The Fall. Not only were they all connected to each other in fiendish Mobius strip patterns of never ending complexity, but they were covered with thorns. These were not normal thorns like on rose plants where you see them and they prick you once and you bleed and then it’s over. No. These thorns were cunningly devised to be just long enough to tear a hole in your outer layer of skin, to the very tip of your nerve endings, WITHOUT DRAWING BLOOD. I would grab the vine and pull, notice the excruciating pain caused by the ripping of my outer flesh, look down and see no blood on my hands, and assume I must be fine. I proceeded this way until the silt had filled the crevices and my hands looked like miniature street maps of Newark, New Jersey.
I described my problem to Vele–whose hands red-hot razor blades could not puncture–and he said, “Those thorns are sharp. Scrape them off with the edge of your knife.”
So I did. But by that time, it didn’t help.
We kept moving deeper into the jungle swamp, throwing the devilishly-thorned uwu over our shoulders like road signs to Sanity. Water dripped from the leaves above. Insects hummed. Only an occasional “Whooooa!” followed by a plunging sound made by one of us discovering a deep hole in the muck below broke the reverie of our steady search and cut mission.
Finally, my energy spent, I asked Vele if we could go home. He agreed, and I love him for it. We started back, picking up the vines as we went along. Aside from an uncomfortable, giggling encounter with some barely clad women searching for fish in the muck (remember - I was in my underwear), our return was uneventful. Vele tied up two bundles of the uwu batima with another kind of vine, and we started back. As we left the swamp, Vele said, “Pray to God.” I took off my hat (I had learned), and thanked God for taking care of us. Vele walked a few yards into a nearby garden and came back with a four foot long, two foot thick log tied to his bundle of vines to take back for firewood. I asked, “Aren’t you tired?” He just grinned, put the log on his shoulder, and ran off down the path.