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Making the most of it: meet the Australian couple stranded in the Congo

The couple plan to marry in the Congo in a few weeks, and Ms Bagala is already using her married name. Meanwhile, they have been embraced by the locals for their charitable work, with Mr Bagala even being made a chieftain and granted land.

Melissa Finlayson in the local market.

Melissa Finlayson in the local market.Credit:Fiston Wasanga 

Mr Bagala, who runs a construction business back in Sydney, went to the Congo in February to visit a friend. He wanted a change of scene after being haunted as the sole survivor of a horrific car crash in 2017, the same year his mother and father both died and he went through a divorce.

In a case that grabbed headlines, Mr Bagala was a passenger in a $200,000 supercar that flipped and caught on fire near the Novotel in Darling Harbour. He was pulled from the flames minutes before the car exploded but his friends, Jeff and Steve Nasr, and Bree Keller, died.

Joseph Bagala has been made a chief and given land for mining and agriculture.

Joseph Bagala has been made a chief and given land for mining and agriculture. Credit:

“The car was on fire for eight minutes and everyone was screaming alive in the car and I remember it very vividly,” he said. “I needed to heal and seeing people who are worse off than me helps me psychologically. It’s like God gave me another chance of life and I want to give something back.”

His fiance Melissa, the director of an au pair agency in Sydney, joined him in March and the couple planned to travel to Italy and Malta for work and a holiday.

Melissa Finlayson in Kisangani.

Melissa Finlayson in Kisangani.Credit:Fiston Wasanga 

Instead, they are living in a two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Kisangani in the north of the Congo. They have a housekeeper but no hot water and only intermittent electricity.

The couple decided early on in the pandemic to make the most of the situation and founded a not-government organisation, called Un Mondi Uni RDC or One World United.

The Congo is one of the world’s poorest countries despite its natural resources because of its brutal history, first under the rapacious Belgian colonial regime and then under the corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, when the country was known as Zaire.

Melissa Finlayson in Kisangani.

Melissa Finlayson in Kisangani.Credit: Fiston Wasanga 

Mr Bagala is dividing his time between Kisangani and the remote forested Opala province. He says he has been made joint-chieftain of Bokuma village and granted land: an old coffee, rubber and honey plantation and gold mine left behind by the Belgians.

Melissa Finlayson in Kisangani.

Melissa Finlayson in Kisangani.Credit:Fiston Wasanga 

Mr Bagala has a family background in agriculture and the couple is using the farming and mining proceeds to live on and to fund their humanitarian work.

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The NGO is now official and they are seeking donations for projects including rebuilding and repairing bridges, roads and schools, helping orphanages and establishing a flying doctors service.

Ms Bagala said the Congo would be permanently a part of their lives.

“We’ll be going back to Australia as soon as we can but we’ll be coming back and forth to the Congo now that we’ve built what we’ve done,” she said.

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