Saturday, December 19, 2015

We rounded a corner and I looked through the mud splattered windshield. I squinted my eyes to peer through the haze and my heart sank. Seconds before, I had been sure that it couldn't get worse than the foot deep, rain filled potholes we had navigated. But what lay in front of us made the previous trek look like a walk in the park. In the middle of the road, a car stuck fast. Thick mud sucked the sedan down, covering the wheels.  A little further down, another vehicle, stripped down to the frame after it met the same fate. During the dry season the mud hardened and the car was stuck fast. Hundreds of people navigated the banks of the river that used to be a road. Islands of mud weaved through the waters, evidence of tire tracks threatened to push them back down. I would hardly call it a road. Yet our truck had food that needed to go to an orphanage. And I had asked to visit.

I looked to Pascal's face, he looked to Mara. I lowered my sunglasses and glanced into the rearview mirror, sure he would be scanning behind to flip a u-turn. Instead, I saw the grit and determination that made Mara Mara. His jaw set, not even a whisker of his handlebar mustache twitching. His hands tightened on the wheel and he stepped on the gas. 

The next half hour was a bit like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Without seat belts, we flew back and forth across the back seat, gripping to what we could and gasping as the truck hurled to and fro, splashing through the rainwater.  He spun the truck around one last time and started backing up into a fruit stand. I was sure this man had lost his mind. He rolled down the window, stuck an arm out and started hollering. The owners of the stand scrambled to move their bowls of produce and caterpillars. He continued spinning the wheel, easing between the gas and the clutch. Behind that stand was an alley with only a few feet to spare on either side. To the left, a wall, to the right a sewer ditch. I knew better than to think this would deter Mara, and I sheepishly asked Pascal how much further we had to go. "Oh, maybe a half a mile." 

I don't think Mara understood much English, but I don't think he needed words to translate my incredulity at the situation. He weaved back and forth using nothing but his side mirrors for that last half mile, stomped on the brake, flipped the key, and grinned. We had arrived. 

I think that's how Mara rolled in life. Every day was an adventure and he would find a way to get to where he needed to go. Nothing seemed to faze him. He would drive us to the orphanage or to a store. He would take us to all the different offices and wait patiently until we were done. He would make parking spots and magically find you in the chaos. 

One morning I had an appointment at the immigration office. By this point I had come to understand African time. But they were late picking me up, really late. I called Pascal and he told me they had some trouble. The keys to the truck had been hidden by one of the foster kids. I also knew Pascal well enough by this time to know the difference in his laughter. There's the chuckle, when he finds something outright amusing. There's the belly laugh, when he tells the story of going to Six Flags in America. Then there's the "haha" laugh when he's trying to lighten a situation. This was the last kind. The keys were nowhere to be found and I was waiting. 

A short while later there was a honk at the gate and Jephté and I ran out to hop in the truck. I asked where they had found the keys. They hadn't. Mara had managed to start the truck with a paper clip! He knew how important this meeting was to me and he found a way to get me there. 

Another day we visited the orphanage, after driving backward down that same narrow alley. During our hour long visit, someone had decided to dig a hold in the middle of the road. In fact, it was a lot of someones. The hole was already deep and the dirt was piled up high to the side. What was once a tricky stretch to navigate was now straight up impassable. I'm pretty sure I started laughing. This had to be a joke. I was looking for Ashton Kutcher, or at least his Congolese twin with a video camera. But Mara hollered again and people cleared out of the way. We scaled the soft pile of dirt, the truck tipping precariously into the wall as the wheels skidded and spun through the narrow passage. In a few minutes we were bouncing down the road again. 

In a way, my experiences with Mara at the wheel summarized my time in Congo. Tumultuous, seemingly out of control, but exhilarating and faith building all at the same time. He was a man of few words, but I learned he had a family. He drove for Pascal to care for his own family, but it was clear he was part of Pascal's family as well. He was persistent and trustworthy, creative and calm. I admired him, we all did. 

This morning I learned that Mara passed away. From TB. You know that little skin test you have to get everytime you start a new job? The one that always come back negative and you wonder why you even have to do it because you live in America? Tuberculosis. A disease that is both preventable and treatable. 

Today, on the other side of the world, a family of children will wake up fatherless. Not just statistics, but people that are connected to me. To my family. Mara played with my Jephté. He patted him on the head as if he was his own son. The day we got our exit letter he cheered, he honked his horn triumphantly as we rolled into the hotel compound. He celebrated with us. 

Today, I mourn for him. With his family. With my friends. And I long for the day when death is more. When disease is defeated. When justice and peace reign. When all things will be made new. 

Mara - Jephté - Olivier

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