Question: What’s the second-largest nation in Africa? Answer: The Democratic Republic of Congo, once the property of a Belgian king. Its turbulent history and current challenges are the subject of a fall OLLI course, “In the Heart of Africa: The Congo.” The instructor, Roland Menestres, is well qualified to guide us through this heart of darkness. (Yes, Joseph Conrad’s classic is recommended reading.)
Roland is one of OLLI’s most cosmopolitan members. He was born at the end of World War II in war-torn Belgium, near the borders of Holland and Germany. He studied Latin with a teacher who described excavating Etruscan ruins, and Greek with a teacher “who, after school, introduced us to Japanese, Russian and Scandinavian films we could never see in a regular theater.” By age 18 he was fluent in seven languages. After serving in Belgium’s Airborne Regiment, he spent the next decade hitch-hiking across Europe, the Middle East (learning Hebrew in Israel), Asia and Australia. In 1976 he “met a pair of blue eyes in a banana field in the Galilee.” Those were American eyes, and soon he came to the U.S. to visit the lady. They were married a year later.
Roland worked for 25 years in the printing industry before deciding to complete his formal education at NC State. He earned a B.A. in French Language and Literature and became an ESL teacher in Wake County high schools, where he also taught French. “I pushed as many students as I could to learn more than one language,” he said, “since they might have to compete for jobs on an international level. It worked out for several of them.”
So where does his interest in the Congo come from? “I grew up with it,” he said. “The Congo was like my sister from a different father. I was in ninth grade when it reached independence, and I’d been exposed to it all my life, including through school notebooks with covers adorned with people, animals and heroes from the Congo. The Airborne Regiment I served in was involved with freeing hostages or re-establishing order a number of times before and after my service.”
One of the richest countries in mineral wealth, he said, the Congo “is also blessed with tremendous amounts of fresh water on a continent rapidly destroyed by droughts, and potential hydro power sufficient to electrify the whole continent. And yet it’s bleeding to death through millions of paper cuts named individual greed, political corruption, and outsiders’ hunger for rare metals at any cost, a country where blessings are matched by man’s weakness — but that could rebuild itself with a little good will and some effort.
“There’s so much we Americans don’t know about Africa in general and the Congo specifically. Is it lack of interest or self-centeredness? The reality is that our media, with few exceptions, spend more time on entertainment than real information. I keep digging through the international press to keep halfway abreast of what goes on in the rest of the world. That’s also the main reason for sharing this course with fellow OLLI members.”
Barbara Haddad Ryan