A family with more than 100 years of connections to Congo

HandUp Congo co-founders Anne and Lucy have a connection to Congo that is deeply personal.

In 1912, Lucy and Anne’s grandparents arrived in Congo, then a Belgian colony. American missionaries, HC (Clay) and Tabitha (Toby) Hobgood were assigned to Lotumbe village in Equateur Province. There Clay’s role was as chief of station, and as missionary pastor of the vast Lotumbe region. Toby directed the Women’s School, and homeschooled her six children. The fourth child, Ben, is Anne and Lucy’s father; in 1928, he was born in Lotumbe in the family home.

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Clay and Toby became adept linguists, translating the local Lonkundo language so that – for the first time – church-goers could have Bibles, hymns and educational resources.

Ben happily grew up fishing, hunting and swimming with other village boys, and also maintained the family’s garden plots as well as their chickens and rabbits.

Ben with his playmate, Mbongo, after a successful fishing trip. They caught an 18 kilo ntula (electric eel).
Ben with his playmate, Mbongo, after a successful fishing trip. They caught an 18
kilo ntula (electric eel).

At age 15, Ben returned to the USA where he completed high school, university and graduate theology seminary. In 1955, he returned to Congo with his wife, Betsy, and young daughters Anne and Lucy. Their third daughter, Susan, was born shortly after the family’s return to Congo.

Ben with daughters Lucy (left) and Anne (right) take a ride along the Congo River.
Ben with daughters Lucy (left) and Anne (right) take a ride along the Congo River.
Betsy and Bongonda
Betsy and Bongonda

Betsy organized classes to teach Congolese women reading, writing and cooking. These classes were conducted in the shade of a large mango tree, with the help of the family’s veteran cook, Bongonda. Daughter Anne plays in the background.

Like their father, the Hobgood girls grew up in Congo. While attending school, their missionary parents worked as educators and helped found the Free University of the Congo (now called Congo Protestant University).

Anne, Lucy, Betsy, Susan in front of ULC kombi
Anne, Lucy, Betsy, Susan in front of ULC kombi
Ben (left) supervises the construction of the ULC’s entry sign in Stanleyville (now called Kisangani). The university has grown from three students to more than 8,500. It is now based in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
Ben (left) supervises the construction of the ULC’s entry sign in Stanleyville (now called Kisangani). The university has grown from three students to more than 8,500. It is now based in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. The university is now called Université Protestante au Congo (UPC http://www.upcongo.org).
Campus visit: Ben (left) introduces university staff to Mobutu Sese Seko, then president of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).
Campus visit: Ben (left) introduces university staff to Mobutu Sese Seko, then president of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

The girls had a happy childhood in Congo and after graduating from high school attended American universities, married and began careers.

Ben and Betsy left Congo for the USA in 1970, with Ben working in university administration and Betsy as a high school librarian. Upon retirement, Ben initiated UPC’s North American Liaison Bureau and in a pro bono capacity raised more than $1 million in scholarship funds aimed at helping young Congolese leaders who have gone on to build their nation. Ben’s Congolese friends affectionately said he was “an American with a Congolese heart,” who could make positive things happen with few tools and little money.

In 2004, the family visited Congo together and Anne and Lucy were moved by the challenges facing women in Lotumbe.
In 2004, the family visited Congo together and Anne and Lucy were moved by the challenges facing women in Lotumbe.

“We saw how hard the women of Lotumbe had to work to keep their families fed, clothed and educated,” Anne recalls. Congo ranks at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. “Lotumbe is remote, with no electricity, running water or roads. It is accessible by canoe, or after walking for many miles on paths through the dense Equatorial forest.”

“Seeing Congo through adult eyes, and hearing the stories of hardship from women our age, was an epiphany for us,” says Lucy. “We knew we had to do everything possible to help these women.”

With the help of their friend, Betsy Brill, HandUp Congo was born in 2005. Women friends rallied, and small projects were begun. Today the non-profit remains small by choice, with the sisters and their friends focused on making regular visits with skilled volunteers while raising awareness of Congo’s needs.

“Our goal is to work on projects identified by Congolese communities that our family has connections with,” explains Lucy. “We know and trust one another. The goodwill is tremendous.”

In 2014, Lucy and Anne’s father died and his ashes were returned to Lotumbe for burial.

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The connections continue.