Congo native and Airman inspired by the ‘Tree of Life’

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- A canvas painting of a baobab tree dominates the small hallway in the Air Force Culture and Language Center. Hanging on a wall, the red and orange water colors slowly blend to form a breathtaking African sunset overlooking vast grassland. Frayed at the ends, the artwork pays homage to the ancient African “Tree of Life”. The tree is a cultural and national symbol in Africa, known for its healing power, and has been a source of inspiration for Air Force Technical Sergeant Alain Mukendi.

“The baobab is a symbol of wisdom and longevity. It is used as the logo for the police department and is used frequently in everyday situations,” TSgt Mukendi said. “Although most baobabs in Africa are located in Madagascar, it reigns supreme in Senegal”. While conducting his cultural immersion at the Baobab Language Center in Dakar, a worker named Ibou presented TSgt Mukendi with the beautiful painting. The worker mentioned that the tree was a representation of the relationship that Mukendi had built with the locals. 

Born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, TSgt Mukendi says that the painting reminds him of home. He grew up in Kinshasa, Congo and speaks French and several African dialects including Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili. In 1999, his life completely changed. That year, TSgt Mukendi’s father won the Diversity Visa Lottery and his family moved to the United States. 

At the time, TSgt Mukendi didn’t speak any English.

"I hated it at first,” TSgt Mukendi said. “It was extremely difficult, because it was a complete 180-degree change. From the culture to the language, everything was different. I was afraid to speak, because I did not want to be made fun of."

Eventually, he enrolled into school and improved his English language skills and a few months later, he enlisted in the Air Force. Through basic training, he learned how to communicate, he picked up tactical terminology, and he used his diverse language abilities to help the Air Force. TSgt Mukendi was able to build upon these skills when he discovered LEAP.

“This is a great opportunity, as I am able to give back to the Air Force through my cultural experience,” TSgt Mukendi said. 

The Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Language Enabled Airman Program helps Airmen sustain their language skills using a two-part education method: online eMentor language courses and Learning Intensive Training Events or immersions. For TSgt Mukendi his LITEs gave him the opportunity to return to Africa twice. On his first LITE, he traveled to Togo and his second was in Senegal.

“When I was in Senegal, I personally had a stomach bug and drank some baobab juice that the host lady ordered for me and it didn't take long before I felt better,” TSgt Mukendi said. “The baobab tree can live for hundreds of years and is known for its fruit and healing. For the Serè people, they use the trees as cemeteries to bury their Griots or storytellers. The tree is also used to make rope and milk, and the leaves are used in traditional couscous meals. The fruit is also used to make monkey bread, juice, and jam. It can fall over, and continue growing with just one root in the ground and when dead, is used as firewood. Nothing is ever wasted”. 

Inspired after his second LITE, TSgt Mukendi brought the painting back with him to share. He wanted to thank everyone who made this journey possible. 

“I thought that portrait would be a good way to show some appreciation for what the AFCLC members do for LEAP scholars. I know that many scholars wish they could bring something meaningful back, but don't have the convenience of being stationed here like me,” TSgt Mukendi said.

Currently, TSgt Mukendi uses his language skills to mentor, supervise, and counsel more than 184 students a year. He works at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex as an instructor for the Enlisted Professional Military Education (PME) Instructor Course. TSgt Mukendi maintains his language skills by speaking to his family members in the different dialects daily and going on LITEs with LEAP. Along with his immersion in Senegal, he recently traveled to Joint Base McGuire-Dix Lakehurst for the African Partnership Flight.

“Seeing all these African countries (13) working and learning together was inspirational,” TSgt Mukendi said, “I could see that the purpose of the APF, which is to strengthen US strategic partnerships with key countries in Africa, share ideas on aviation related topics, and enhance regional cooperation and interoperability will be met. It was also great to learn about how their Air Forces operate and why they do things a certain way. It has been a humbling and wonderful gift to be able to experience new things and share my experiences”.