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Lifting up lives in Africa

St. Cloud man spent several years of his life helping the young, the poor, and the sick in Africa


Peter Lodoen of St. Cloud said he has spent four lifetimes in Africa, each phase very different from the others. It all began when Peter was in the Army serving in Germany in the 1970s. He discovered that he liked to travel and enjoyed living in other countries. So after the service he applied to the Peace Corps.

“I was intrigued by life overseas, so I decided to travel in another capacity. The Peace Corps gave me possibilities,” he said.

Peter Lodoen of St. Cloud holds up one of his paintings of an African woman he met during his time in the Central African Republic in the mid 1980s. Lodoen served in various capacities four different times in Africa. Contributed photo

One was in Africa. “I was qualified as a science teacher, and wanted to learn French or Spanish. However, I was offered Botswana, a country I had never heard of. A mere half page existed in World Book Encyclopedia, so the only way to find out anything about it was to go and see what it was like.”

Lifetime No. 1: Botswana

Peter taught in Botswana for two years, and worked evenings as a laboratory assistant doing blood tests at the Scottish Livingstone Hospital.

“There I got to know missionaries from the U.K. and was very impressed by their work. I gained a positive impression of the missionaries and mission work,” he said.

After attending Luther Seminary back in the U.S., he asked for a mission assignment in Africa.

Lifetime No. 2: Central African Republic

“I was told that every village in the Central African Republic had a church, brought by Lutheran missionaries, so that’s where I went,” he said.

There he worked for three years, eventually ministering to 20 churches over a 112 mile stretch.

“I visited them on motorbike, the only way possible because of poor muddy roads, bumpy as a crocodile’s back, with trails through the bush, along green forest streams, sometimes with magnificent African longhorn cattle blocking the way, egrets at their feet and tick-picker birds on their backs, so I had to wait. I went into the bush for days at a time on my own, suffered from the heat, malaria and dysentery. Yet I was the only one willing to go.”

His moped, or Mobylette, got 177 miles per gallon. He never ran out of gas, which was good, as gas stations did not exist.

“Almost nobody had a vehicle,” he said. “So I had to cross the Cameroon border 180 kilometers (112 miles) twice a month to buy food, supplies, and gasoline.”

That often meant traveling by bus. “The lettering on the side of green-and-white six-wheel Mercedes bus said, ‘Super Boeing 747.’ I gritted my teeth as I boarded. Inside the bus was stacked sky-high with bags of millet and cassava root, and super packed from window to window, from floor to ceiling, with traveling Africans. The smell, overwhelming in the afternoon heat, forewarned of a long, unsavory and rigorous journey: chicken droppings, smoke-drenched clothing, urine -soaked babies’ diapers, leaking gasoline cans and all-pervasive red dust. No more disgusting experience exists than to ride the African bus.”

Midway through the trip a young African girl boarded. “Her face absolutely radiated excitement as she waved goodbye to her friends in her hometown. She was filled with wonder and immense pride, queen for the day. She carefully inspected every person on board and was the living picture of adventure. Believe me, for her this was the adventure of a lifetime. This is the same bus I regarded with so much disgust. No difference, except in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

Making matters worse, crossing the Cameroon border can often take most of an entire day.

“If it had rained, a rain barrier was erected, and we had to wait until the road dried, sometimes hours. Then we had to pass through the CAR border station, then customs, and the Cameroon border station and customs. And pay bribes. When we were through I could buy supplies, and gasoline from people on street corners selling it from glass jars. That was an experience.”

“The worst part of living in CAR was the daily corruption, which included the police, government officials and soldiers. You couldn’t cross town without paying a bribe. I knew important people, so after a while I didn’t have to pay bribes, but people traveling through, or members of different ethnic groups would be harassed without fail.”

Big Travel

“I had not originally planned to travel so far into the African hinterland where leopards hunted baboons, where splendid white egrets filled the skies, and where puff adders and mambas lurked in the elephant grass. My first trip was 80 kilometers (50 miles) which I considered a safe and easy trip to Kolo. Once there, church members said, ‘Pastor, the people at Ndongue have not had communion for six months. You must go there.’”

Peter with his Toyota Hilux and his dog Bones in Takatokwane, Botswana. Contributed photos

Peter made excuses. “I have no more wine for communion. Besides, I have never been to Ndongue. I do not know the way.”

“We will go with you, Pastor.”

“One of them did. Until the chain of his bicycle broke. Then I went on alone through dark rain forests, through deep-shadowed valleys, along paths not wide enough for a weasel. Finally I arrived at Ndongue, and gave them the Lord’s supper. Do not ask what I used for wine.”

At Ndongue he heard the same refrain, for Bessane, and there, for Dole. “Pastor, you must go to them.”

“I had no more excuses. I packed my bag, tied my bedroll, and went. The Dole church people had never seen a missionary, not even in pictures. They welcomed me as though I was Charles Lindbergh returning from France. Men, women, and children met me marching, singing, and rejoicing.”

Peter usually spent the night in a mud hut in the village. “One time a flock of young African girls came into the hut where I sat writing letters.”

“We have come to see you,” said the eldest.

“Oh,” I replied, “What about?”

“To look at you,” she said.

“They watched me as though I was television, a man from a different world. They were fascinated by my pale face, sharp nose, wavy brown hair, and bushy mustache. They could not take their eyes off me.”

Villagers always gave him a kapok mattress, usually full of bedbugs. “I soon brought a sleeping mat and slept right on the dirt.”

The next day he held a worship service in a church with thatched-grass roof and earthen floor with 25 to 200 people. “Debarked tree trunks served as pews, but the mud-brick churches were often decorated with brilliant red hibiscus, intense magenta bougainvillea and delicate white columbine flowers.“

Attendance was poor when Peter wasn’t there. “But when I came to minister many people attended church. They were curious, and there was nothing else to do.”

Men and women sat on separate sides. “Mothers and daughters wore African-manufactured wrap-around cotton, and the men and boys sported western apparel, from Penn State University T-shirts to Levi Strauss blue jeans.”

Worship lasted two to three hours.

“Mangy dogs and fat-bellied goats wandered in and out. Children’s choirs with tom-tom drums, tambourines, and tin-can shakers added life to the liturgy. Seeing a white person like me was a big thrill for the little ones. Afterwards, a Sunday dinner was prepared lovingly by African hands.”

The same afternoon he would move to another village in the bush. “I would spend a hundred days a year away from home.”

One day Peter stopped to celebrate reaching 10,000 km (6,200 miles) on his motorbike. “I coasted to a stop in the middle of the rocky red laterite road. To my left lay a beautiful verdant valley, and to my right was a sweeping escarpment covered with rich, green-leafed acacias. I sat atop the divide of waters which flowed south to the great Congo River, and north to the vast salt lake in the desert -- Lake Chad. The sky was crystal blue, and the woods around me were alive with the sound of weaver birds, turtledoves, Bell shrikes, and Senegal coucals. They seemed to share my joy of the moment.”

Doctor Peter

More than a minister, Peter had to be something of a doctor to these impoverished people. “When I visited small Lutheran churches deep in the African bush, I sold simple medicines. People came in great numbers: ‘My tooth pains me,’ or ‘My legs are tired from much work,’ or ‘My stomach is swelling and painful. Do you have yoro? (medicine)’ each would ask. ‘Yes, I have aspirin,’ I replied.’ Yoro could be ingested to help with pain. However, instead, Africans could be advised by a medicine man or woman to place it under their beds, or in a juju pot in front of their house, or to wear it as an amulet, believing magical properties would bring them good luck and ward off evil spirits. Of course it did no good.

“CAR was equatorial, very humid and pestilential, and filled with disease. Malaria, worm diseases, dysentery, and AIDS were common. So many diseases, and no hospital nearby, so people lived with discomfort and disease.”

Peter also sold malaria medicine.

“I said malaria was caused by mosquitoes, and that they should avoid being bitten. Nonetheless, many people used the malaria medicine for headaches or stomach aches; they got the concept, but not the specifics. To them, medicine was medicine.”

Or Africans might be told to draw evil sickness from their diseased bodies using implements like calves’ horns at the side of the neck, and white-hot cinders on the chest. They caused infection and disfigurement, and cured absolutely nothing. Though seeming barbaric, remember that not that long ago barber-surgeons in the U.S. attached swamp leeches to withdraw evil-infected blood.” He said it was difficult to get people to understand that these methods didn‘t work.”

Banker Lodoen

For the most part, money was not useful, Peter said. “Other than food, there was not much else to buy. No entertainment, no sports events, no big stores, no TV or video, or telephones.”

People thought the missionaries were rich, and came to him for money. For cataract surgery, Vermox for stomach worms. Or to buy beer. An elderly church deacon said he wanted money to travel to his daughter’s funeral. He didn’t say his daughter died a year earlier.

“Sometimes I felt very worn, because of the never-ending hard-luck stories that came to my door. Often the requests were bona fide. But just as often, they were not honest. To them I appeared to be an inextinguishable source of wealth.”

Not hard to see why, Peter says, as every day he ate meat or fish, vegetables, cheese, fruit and sweets, and had running water, electricity, soft beds, and screened windows, all of which Africans lacked.

“My work in CAR brought me tribulation and grief, and physical suffering. But it also gave me cause for laughter, and episodes worth writing home about,” which he did monthly.

Lifetime No. 3: Nigeria

“Nigeria was by the far the most difficult of my time in Africa by nine miles. So hot and crowded and so pestilential. Electricity, running water, and sewage had been installed, but broke down and often remained unfixed. Just 90 percent humidity and 90 degree heat all the time. Or it might cool about 10 or 11 at night. And you could hardly believe how crowded it was. Not a place I would ever want to go back to. ”

He said in December wind poured out of the north like hot air from a blast furnace. “It gusted and swirled and carried Sahara desert sand that stuck in your nose and mouth, and the corners of your eyes. You did not live in the Sahara; you breathed it.”

Lifetime No. 4: A return to Botswana

“Botswana did not have a Lutheran missionary, so I applied. The Botswana Lutheran Church said it couldn’t pay me, and I said I would get by. Nobody could survive on the offerings the 25-50 attendees gave on any Sunday.”

So Peter offered transportation for people. “I bought a Toyota Hilux there, needing to travel 200 km (160 miles) to Gaborone for supplies. The white Hilux was the only vehicle to be found, so at a funeral, you’d see fifteen white Toyota Hiluxes. Gasoline was not a problem as there were gas stations.”

This painting by Peter Lodoen of a Central African mother and her two daughters was based off a photo Peter took while serving in Africa in the 1980s. Contributed photos

Since Peter had been painting for a few years, he also sold paintings to make ends meet. “Wherever I was, tired, or frustrated, been lied to or stolen from, or felt I did not have a friend in the world, during hot weather, howling winds or pouring rain, I sat in front of a big white bolt of stretched canvas, mixed colors, and painted. And then, all my worries, all the pain in my heart, all the weariness in my bones went away.”

Or he listened to radio. “My entertainment was the Voice of America, BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and Radio France. I listened every waking minute. In the bush I lay awake listening to baseball games. No reception interference, so stations were like next door.”

The Good Parts of Africa

Most enjoyable in Africa was seeing sunrises and sunsets. The morning was beautiful and delicious, and the night too. “Most people never have that privilege during their whole lifetime. I could look up at night and see the Milky Way and all the constellations. I liked living in the village, with no TVs.

“What I liked the least about Africa was the heat, more than anything. It was hot every afternoon, bloody hot. Every afternoon I took a nap on the cool cement floor.”

But the hardest part (of living in Africa) was being surrounded by hungry people. “There was never enough money and never enough food, so they always lived with hunger. I was one among those thousands, and couldn’t do much about it.”

Because he’d grown up in St. Cloud, Peter said, “I never knew what it was like to get water and firewood, or keep a vehicle running, and repair everything I needed, by myself. If something needed fixing, I did it. No mechanic to come do it. That was a life I never knew. Like going back 200 years in Minnesota.”

Other Experiences

One time while baptizing babies in Guesse, Central Africa, he called the participants forward. “A man and a woman, and their infant daughter. Next to them stood another woman with her baby. ‘And where is your husband?’” I asked. “That man is my husband,” she replied, pointing to the man who stood with his wife and daughter. That brought pause to Peter. “How could I deny God’s baptism to a precious, innocent, blameless baby? A baby which, in all truth, might die within a month of malaria or dysentery. But how could I baptize the children of the bigamist? They never taught me about this at Luther Seminary.”

Once he got the father to go leave the church, Peter baptized both children.

Another time after returning from preaching in three bush villages, he woke the next morning and could not move. “I could no more get out of bed than I could throw a cow over the moon. My head spun like a carousel filled with painted ponies. I lay near death with malaria.”

Peter eventually dragged himself to find a bottle of white quinine tablets, and took three. Later, two more. “The next day I was teaching at the high school, visiting patients at the hospital, and playing tennis. I was 100 percent healed. The quinine had worked a miracle.” It and other medicines for worms or TB helped the African people greatly.

“Missionary work is hard and wearying, but it is good work,” Peter says. It’s the adventure of a lifetime, and sleep comes easy at the end of the day.“

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