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MURAL 36 in Kamina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo
This mural was sponsored by the West Ohio Conference, United Methodist Church.

I should know all about NEVER by now. I've said NEVER before. I vowed for years that I'd NEVER live in Ohio again. Well, we know what happened to that NEVER. And then, I was absolutely certain that I'd NEVER return to Haiti after my prison experience. And, I went there too. The universe has a tendency to bite me in the . . . well, you know where, every time I say NEVER. I should learn. I don't.

Much farther down the list, there was another NEVER. This time, the universe didn't bite me "you know where". It is a near miss though. I think it is safe to say it was a bite in the upper thigh. When I left Zambia so long ago, I knew I would NEVER return. NEVER. Absolutely NEVER! I lived in Zambia previous to my mural experiences. I imagine my time there would have been totally different if I "muraled" my way around the country. But, this was pre-muraling. I lived on the school grounds, six miles outside of Lusaka, in total isolation. I started counting the months of my two year contract after just six weeks. It never got any better. So, I think my NEVER was very well justified in this case.

I was so happy to finally leave that place. I know all about not letting the door hit you where the universe usually bites you on your way out. But, (butt?) the universe didn't bite me one more time on the way out of Zambia. Instead, the old universe turned around and did something that I really wish would happen in a lot more of my travels. A stewardess came for me, crammed deep into the back of the economy section of the plane, and directed me to business class. Somehow, miraculously, I received a well-deserved free upgrade.

Thank you, universe.

Now, about that bite on the thigh. The neighbor just to the north of Zambia is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It wasn't on my bucket list. It didn't even make my radar as a possibility. But, when an opportunity comes my way, my philosophy is to say yes as often as possible. And, the opportunity came my way over food. Can it get any better than that?

My friend Bill works for the Methodist Church. He said that there were people that I needed to know at their offices and suggested we do lunch. I love to do lunch. And, I really love to do lunch when people want to meet me. So, we did do lunch with Dee. She already knew all about me. Bill told her a lot and any gaps were filled in by my pastor John. So, her first question was the most important one. What would it take to get you to paint a mural in Africa?

I said a ticket.

Dee said done.

However, getting to Africa was a whole lot easier said than done. It started with a 3:00 AM alarm to get me to the airport on time and ended after four flights, three days and twenty-five hours of travel with very little to no sleep. But, as I already knew, it was worth it.

The age old question - Why did the chicken cross the road in Kamina?

The final destination of our three day tour (I wish it was hours, Gilliagan.) was Kamina. Although I heard the population was 200,000, I've never seen a city like it. There were hardly any cars. Wide dusty streets filled the neighborhood where I painted. There were a few motorcycles, some bicycles but they were mostly used to move heavy loads and a whole lot of pedestrians. I spent most of my time in the DCR at one intersection in Kamina. On three of those corners were the Methodist Church, the Methodist Guest House and the Kamina Children's Home.

Sebastien, an administrator at the orphanage, gave me a tour. We were on the lookout for the correct wall to paint and then we needed to decide on a possible theme. Sebastien's English was good, but perfect communication was a challenge at moments. When I said I wanted to paint a mural on a wall, he understood the word "paint". He couldn't understand why I didn't want to paint all the walls. When communication was achieved, Sebastien said we had to locate the bishop. The bishop, and only the bishop, could choose the wall to paint and decide upon a theme. And, it was an excellent decision. The cafeteria was selected and the bishop oozed with suggestions. I instantly knew how my design would take form.

"Mungu Ana Ni Penda" is Swahili for "God Loves You". Bishop Ntambo suggested the mural show the orphans, and everyone else who sees it, just how the people at Kamina Children's Home shows the love of God to the orphans. The ideas flowed. The finished design featured kids of all ages nurtured by adults, with medical care, education, cooking and an African favorite - an old man sharing oral traditions with the young ones.

The Kamina Children's Home and some of the children with a new soccer ball

As always, I try to include things specifically for the local country in the mural. For this one, the teacher has a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a teaching aid. I went to the orphanage kitchen to copy the exact mortar and pestle used to prepare some of the local dishes. However, my favorite unique addition was one of the local hair styles seen on a few girls. I was told it was a method to straighten hair. I never would have guessed that, but I loved the look. The hair was tied to the base of the skull and then pulled straight up. It's my guess that the hair was tied up at the top, too, and then frizzed out. I'd never seen anything like it anywhere else in Africa.

Delightful, Daring, Delicate and Darling Dos in the DRC

Volunteers for painting were no problem. School was out and there were more than thirty children at the orphanage (as well as a lot of their friends outside those walls) anxious to grab brushes. But, since the mural was two yards by twenty-seven yards, I needed all of the volunteers I could get.

I try to focus on the positive, but to be honest, there are occasionally three things that go wrong in the mural process. The mural in Kamina was the first one to have all three of those problems. I admit it; I was frustrated. With the triple whammy, at times I was at my wit's end. But, I live and learn. If I return to the Congo, and I certainly hope I do, I will buy the proper paint supplies in assorted colors at Lubumbashi before heading further into the interior. Now, if you really want the details of those inconveniences, read on. If not, skip the next three paragraphs.

Inconvenience number one is no running water. There was no running water at the orphanage unless you count the kids who ran across the road to a neighbor's well and then ran back splashing water the whole way. I learned to ask teenagers. Although littler boys were willing to help, they showed up drenched. Don't judge me as an art snob. If you don't have running water at a sink, it is extremely difficult to clean the brushes. Using a bucket of water doesn't work as well. You can't fully clean brushes in dirty water. And, you get dirty water after washing the first brush.

Inconvenience number two is the need to mix colors. It happens and I can usually mix colors I need except for purple. That is a color challenge that I never mastered even with a decade of teaching art classes. I had to create orange, grey and two shades of brown. On top of that, I had to use color stains with white paint to create green, blue, yellow and pink. So, I can mix paint, but it is an inconvenience. If you mix paint and then run out of it, you will never make exactly the same color. You will have to paint the entire area all over again. Yep, a bit of a frustration. Very fortunately, I had sealed containers for all my paint and didn't run out. It really helps to have a little experience at this.

And then, there is inconvenience number three. In communication prior to the arrival, twice, I said I had to have water based paint. Oil based paint that needs turpentine is a cleaning disaster for both hands and brushes anytime and even worse without a sink and running water. Again, don't judge me as a spoiled artist. The smell of turpentine makes me sick and the actual liquid irritates my skin.

Bicycles were mostly used for transporting heavy goods instead of people.

Okay, if you read those three previous paragraphs, you know some of the inconveniences. But, they aren't close to the memories that I will carry away with me from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My very best moment happened one afternoon when I asked the kids surrounding the project if they could sing for me. From biggest to smallest, both painters and spectators belted out songs without any foolish need for instruments. And, they were good! Although I had to be informed because I honestly didn't realize it, one of the songs was even in English. If I had my rattle with me, I would have joined in the celebration. As it was, it was impossible not to shake a few things as I painted even without the rattle. Painting the mural was a celebration with my singers, dancers and painters.

In the end, and I really mean the end, the universe was not satisfied with my upper thigh. When I say NEVER, it is just too irresistible I guess. So, it came around to bite me you know where. What am I talking about? On the way home from the mural in Kamina, my flight had a layover in Zambia.


Copyright 2014 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.