INTRODUCTION & EXPERIENCES
Richard is a 47-year-old father very involved with his community and heavily invested in the well-being of his family. He has been in Kirksville for 5 years, and says he chose this town specifically because he wanted a safe place to raise his kids.
While living in Kinshasa and working as an international diplomat was “not too bad” (1:33), he became increasingly concerned about his kid’s lack of access to a good education, coupled with economic and governmental problems in the DRC. He noted to me that the Congo government rarely pays its works in full.
“People are not paid as they should be paid. We work hard, but at the end of the month, they pay you like, at this time, I can say I was paid like $150 per month. So, can you believe that? How can you take care of your family with $150?” (See 1:50 in the audio file attached at the bottom of this page.)
But “[l]ife was good,” he is quick to add, because of the family-centered structure of Congolese society. “You can see your family… but when you don’t have money, everything becomes really hard.” He praises the virtue of living in large families, “because you can see everybody.” (2:20)
“Each one can help each one. Those who don’t have money can receive something from those who work. In Africa we live in solidarity, and that is, I can say, the meaning of life there.” (3:37)
Listen to Richard speak on family life:
Richard is the founder of a group called Chain of Christian Solidarity, which both does integration work in Kirksville. Through the cooperation between Congolese and native residents, he says, they can “make this town the best place to live in the USA” (13:13). The group also does work back in the Congo, such as sending school supplies and shoes to underfunded children.
He now lives in a house in Kirksville with his wife and many of his sons and daughters, as two of his adopted children prepare to soon make the move to the USA, hopefully next year.
Richard’s life in the States has centered around his family—and in particular his children, who attend local Kirksville public schools. He emphasizes the importance of education to them, which in the Congo was not free as in the States.
“One thing I always tell them is to understand that education is really important,” he said (40:15), expressing hope that they would not work at the factory, except perhaps in a managerial position (41:45).
“After university, they can get good job,” he expressed (41:26).
Richard himself hopes to return to school, in order to better used the skills of someone with diplomatic training.
“I feel like I have never used my skill. In Congo, I was like expert at the foreign ministry, but when I have to compare what I am doing here, there is a big gap. So, I feel like I don’t do anything according to my education, according to my background. So, I feel like I have to go back to school to improve my education.” (38:17)
He attended MU (in Columbia, 90 minutes south of Kirksville) last year to better his English.
“Here, you have to improve English, not only speaking, you have to improve writing, which is really important,” he said (39:13).
He takes inspiration from the work ethic he sees in American society.
“To succeed in the USA, people work very hard. So, I can say this is something we learn here.” (39:45)
Coming into an area which was, according to him 98% white before the influx of Congolese, Richard cites adjustment to the new form of diversity as a major challenge faced in the local area.
“Sometimes, it seems like it is hard for some residents to understand that we have to live together,” he said. “Each one has to make some effort to improve the life, to be connected with other group. It is only by this way that you can live together safely, by understanding each other.” (30:31)
However, Richard is active in combating the problems which arise from this attitude. He and his non-profit Chain of Christian Solidarity have provided an active force to help the Congolese.
Richard and his organization are involved with many local educational and advocacy efforts for the local community, largely focusing on assisting new arrivals to integrate into American culture. His non-profit works with other local organizations to bring them together in a concerted effort to help the immigrant populations.
“We make this town the best place to live in the USA.” (13:13)
The Congolese population can face numerous cultural challenges upon arrival which groups like Richard’s assist them with. The public education system is one of these.
“As you know, the education is really different from Congo,” he said (11:50). Many Congolese, he said, do not become involved as they must in helping with schooling because it is free. “We try to explain people how the system works, and then to help them avoid mistakes.”
He also mentioned that it is important for Congolese to place their children in school immediately, according to American law; as it is free, this does not require parents to find work first, which he explained is a common misguided attitude.
The importance Americans give rule of law is another adjustment many Congolese must make, according to Richard.
“Sometimes, in Congo, it is different. People there sometimes don’t respect laws. But this is very important.” (16:59) As an example, he notes that in Congo, police often allow fights to break out and be resolved by others, where, according to him, that would get people arrested in the US.
Cultural homogeneity is also a hurdle they encounter.
“Diversity is the foundation of our country,” Richard told me in reference to the Congo (13:51), which he describes as a very open society. “At the beginning, everyone was so surprised to see people from Africa moving here.” (14:13)
“One thing we do to make this town a great place to live, we try to learn from each other. We try to adapt our culture to this new culture. And also, we try to learn more about what the majority of people from this town like.” (14:34)
“Sometimes people can be together, but not really connected. They don’t understand each other, and this can lead to bad things,” he said (15:20).
In response to this oft-encountered attitude is where Richard’s group, Chain of Christian Solidarity, comes in. They are presently planning a large celebration for July to be held in a local park. The title is “Bolingo,” which is Lingala for “love.” That afternoon and evening is to be a way of sharing Congolese culture and history, as well as why they are moving there.
The event will also include a movie about life in the Congo and Africa.
“Here, it seems like people think Africa is a big forest,” he said (34:41), the both of us breaking into laughter, “where people live with animals.” Congolese children in the schools, he says, particularly have to combat this image when talking about Africa with their American peers.
Richard lays emphasis on the name of bolingo and its meaning for their community.
“The best way to understand each other is to know and learn from each other,” he said (32:15).
“When you love each other, you can work together. That can lead to solidarity. We can support each other.” (33:43)
Listen to Richard describe the event fully here:
This brief quasi-journalistic summary does not due justice to the full depth of Richard’s thoughts and experiences. Listen to his full interview below:
*All photos on this page courtesy of Richard Yampanya.*