When I was asked to travel with One Million Thumbprints to the heart of Africa—the Democratic Republic of the Congo—I had no idea what to expect. Two months before my trip, I had very little detailed knowledge of Africa, and now I was preparing to travel alongside fourteen women into a literal war zone.
Despite reading travel books and missionary blogs, I think my underlying naiveté helped me in many ways. While a few of the women in our team rightly feared for their safety and knew the dangers we were facing, I remained unaware of the extent of hostile activity and lawlessness that defines this region. Initially I viewed this trip as a grand adventure—that was until we had to hire armed guards to escort us through the more dangerous parts of Congo.
The first day we were traveling from Goma, I saw a jeep full of men closely tailing our van, and I began to get very, very nervous. “Why are they following us?” I asked one of the translators.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “They’re with us. They’re our protection.”
It was protection I didn’t know I needed—protection that would keep me safe from the harm I couldn’t see or understand. To me, these men with their guns hoisted on one shoulder and rounds of ammunition strapped across their chests were the enemy, but in reality, they were thwarting the threat.
A few nights later, I truly felt the effects of being in Congo. Three of us were debriefing from the day, sharing our bug bites and woes, when I heard a series of gunshots in quick succession, sounding uncomfortably close.
“That’s nice,” I said as a way to disguise my anxiety. “Someone’s shooting off fireworks.”
We all knew it wasn’t fireworks. And we also knew that if the gated compound we were staying in was raided, we’d be vulnerable to attack. We were essentially defenseless, apart from a few UN officials and a couple of cans of bug repellant.
Despite my words, I couldn’t pretend it was fireworks. I couldn’t close my eyes to the threat around us, and I couldn’t push away the fear and doubt that I had to wrestle with as a result. This was a dangerous place, and I, as a foreigner and especially as a woman, was vulnerable here.