Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Women of Musienene

          In a tiny mud room with orange coals glowing next to me like Christmas lights, the women file in two or three at a time.  The group of women Maman Marceline told me about is a puddle of humanity outside of the dark cave I am sitting in.
          For a few minutes I sit silently in the room with two very elderly women.  They don’t speak French so we simply flick our eyes back and forth, trying to inspect each other inconspicuously.  Maman Marceline is speaking with one of the women outside trying to organize the little crowd and make sure everyone is present.  When she finishes she enters the womb-like room and sits on a tiny bench next to me; we begin.
          Maman Marceline begins speaking with the two elderly women.  I expect her to ask them politely to step out, but she asks them questions instead.
    -Are these women survivors? I ask.
    -Yes, they are.  They are some of the vieilles who were raped.
           I’m caught off guard and it takes me a moment to collect myself and regain my composure.
    -What is your name? I ask in Kinande.
    -How old are you Maman Jacqueline?
    -Seventy five.
          I thought Maman Marceline might be exaggerating when she indicated previously that there were women this old who had been raped.  Every wrinkle in Jacqueline’s face makes it clear there was no exaggeration.
          Jacqueline was trapped on the road by soldiers, two years ago.  She was 73.  She went to the hospital but she became very weak and sick after the rape. 
    -Do you feel better recently?
          She shakes her head no, immediately.
    -She is still weak, says Maman Marceline, but she has forgotten her anger.
          There is a six year old child on Jacqueline’s back.  She says the child is her granddaughter, and also a child of rape.  Jacqueline’s daughter is outside waiting to come in.
          Jacqueline finishes and I turn to the next woman in the room.  Christine is slightly smaller than Jacqueline, but looks just as old.  She is 78; she was raped by the Interhamwe a few years ago.  They killed her husband with machetes.  Yes, she was there.  Yes, she watched. 
    -At that time, they raped me and left me there. 
          She has sad eyes as she speaks, but she seems confident in her words.  Her voice doesn’t tremble or hesitate. 
          Because of this suffering she has become weak, she says.  She stays in the house, she doesn’t know what she can do. Maybe she can sell something like fish, she says.  If you can find something to help, she will be so happy.  She doesn’t have her own house and she can hardly find food.
          Emilia is 76 years old.  She was trapped by “bandits” while going for water.  It was three years ago, when she was 73.  She’s almost twitchy with enthusiasm and she is the first to laugh, but she shifts uncomfortably when I ask who attacked her.  It was soldiers, but she’s feeling a little better now.  She feels weak, she is a widow, she had to take lots of medicine after the rape.  But emotionally, she is feeling better than before.
          Janette is 40 years old.  She was trapped returning from the field looking for sweet potatoes.  She was raped by two civilians.  It was three years ago.  She gave birth to this child.
          She pats the little bottom sitting on her lap.  His name is Kambale.  After the rapes her bones began to hurt and she feels very weak always.  When she goes to the field alone and sees a man she is very afraid.
          Little Kambale is whispering quiet nothings to himself as his mother speaks above him.
          Aimee is forty years old.  She was looking for sweet potatoes to feed her children.  She was raped by three civilians.  Four years ago.  After the rape she became pregnant with the child in her lap.  He’s a handsome little boy with bright eyes.  Her husband fled the home because he said, “you were taken by the Interhamwe.”
          Arnestina is 55 years old.  She was never raped but she is considered a vulnerable because she was never able to have children and was never married.  Florida is incomprehensibly old, she says she’s 80.  I breathe out a sigh of relief when she says she has never been raped.  She’s too old to cultivate, she suffers a lot because she can’t find food.
          Goretti is 24 years old, the same age as me.  She’s soft-spoken and has soft eyes to match.  She was raped in 2004, she became pregnant. 
    -Ten soldiers. 
    -I’m sorry, two? I ask and hold up two fingers in the air.
    -No, she says.  Ten.
          She holds up both of her hands and extends all fingers to be clear. 
    -You were raped by all ten?
          The question sprouts from pure horror, I don’t mean to ask it.
    -Yes, all ten.
    -I remember when this happened, says Maman Marceline.  Goretti was in the hospital for at least a month.  She was very very sick.
    -How are you feeling now?
    -I am afraid and I have constant pain still in my uterus.  My headaches most days; because I was raped there is no one who will marry me.  They are afraid of us.
    -Do you want to get married? I ask.
    -Yes, unfortunately there will be no candidate.
          Blandine was raped by two soldiers who spoke Kinya Rwandan, her husband fled after she was raped.  He was angry with her.  She has fear in her heart. 
          Devote is 25 years old.  She was trapped in the field and raped by five soldiers who spoke Lingala. 
          Kavira C. is 40 years old, she was raped three years ago by three soldiers.  Her husband fled because of the rape.  He was mad because of the pregnancy so he left.  She suffers a lot. 
          Jeanine was raped in the field when she was 35.  It was four civilians.  She had a man but he fled.  After a pregnancy men always leave.  They don’t want to pay for hospital bills or food so they always leave.  She needs help feeding her kids.  One already died.
          The youngest girls are 15 and 16 years old.  Diana has beautifully smooth skin and a toddler in her arms.  She was raped by one soldier when she was 12.  She became pregnant.  She was in school but she had to leave to take care of the baby.
          Albertine was 14 when she was raped.  Her baby girl’s name is Naema, meaning grace.  It was two Mai-Mai soldiers.  She always has headaches and she had to drop out of school as well.
          The list goes on.  I leave the mud hut in the early afternoon after four hours of speaking with the women.  My notebook is a little staircase of stories extending across the pages.  At the house I smoke a cigarette and contemplate the fact that I’m not processing any of it emotionally anymore.  It’s the first time I’ve heard so consistently about husbands leaving because their wives were raped.  It makes me furious and sad.  But the rest of the stories are just words at this point.  I decide not to delve into it and go any further; I know I want to help them, I know they’re important, I know it hurts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Follow-Up in Isale

          It takes at least four break-downs and several hours, but we finally make it back to Isale with les petites-commerces.  The women are all waiting.  When we pull up even the eldest eagerly jump forward to help us carry the heavy supplies down to the dirt clearing where we now always meet.  As I walk down the thin path covered in rocks and stray roots with a large bag of salt on my head (which, inevitably provides a substantial amount of entertainment), my heart jumps at one of the most shockingly beautiful smiles, directed at me.  The woman's face is glowing and it takes me a few seconds to realize it is Kavira, one of the two eighteen-year-old survivors I spoke with the last time.
          While we were sitting in a dark room the week before, Kavira couldn't look anyone else in the eyes.  Now she is laughing at my apparent surprise and the goofy muzungu smile I give her in return.  There's a flash of neon pink behind her and I see Kahambu, the other eighteen-year-old survivor.  She too is smiling at me, in a pink matching track suit with the word OBAMAA on the front.  Both of them look slightly abashed but are giggling together.  They look like different people.
          When we get down to the clearing, Hangie, a woman who was victimized by rape four years ago, starts singing a prayer.  She seems to be a village pastor of some sort, as she starts off our meetings in this way every time.  The women clap and say Amen! to Hangie's Hallelujahs.  When Hangie finishes, Maman Marie immediately starts handing out the supplies to the various groups.  Kavira and Kahambu are glued together.  If one of them is called forward by Maman Marie, within moments they gravitate back towards each other like giggling magnets.
          I ask Urbain if he can quietly ask all of the survivors who spoke with me previously to come into the little room.  Although I already gave them my speech about the possible consequences of publishing their stories, images and names, I've been worrying all week that I left something out.  I want to reiterate to make sure they understand.  I would never hurt these women again or take the power of choice from them.  All seven quickly file into the room curiously.  Urbain stands in the middle of the room staring at me, with the women behind him.  I reach forward, pinch his shirt in my hand and slowly drag him next to me so he's facing the women.  Everyone laughs.  I go through the speech again, elaborating extensively to make sure that they understand the concepts of publishing.  They don't know what the internet is but they do understand what it means to share their stories with the rest of the world.
          They respond emphatically, making me feel stupid for even bringing it up, but I'm glad that I am.  I want to make sure they understand the distinctions between aid and jorunalism, public exposure and privacy, etc.  After they have said Yes, we know and We agree, several times I stop blabbering.  Sifandiwey looks up at me immediately and says something in Kinande.  She looks straight at me without breaking eye contact at all.  I look back at her as Urbain translates next to me.
    -She says she wants you to release it and share it everywhere, so people will know the level of their suffering.
    -Okay.  I say, still looking at her.  I'll try.
          Sifandiwey breaks our eye contact and gets up to go back outside.  Again we make the transition from thick darkness to blinding sunshine.  I pull aside one of the survivors, who has a familiar little bundle hanging from her back.  It's the little girl we met last time, who looked like she had already moved onto the next adventure; the next life.
    -How is she doing, is she better?  I ask Mom.
          Mom nods and shifts her bundle so a little face pops out.  The baby girl's eyes are slightly tired, as if she just woke up from a nap, but there is a little piece light and life behind them that wasn't there before.  I touch the girl's cheek with my finger and she smiles at me.  Her name is Mbambu, and she's back.
    -Is she eating and going to the bathroom okay now?
    -Yes, explains Urbain as Mom launches into an explanation.  She's eating very normally and is not having diarrhea anymore.
    -That's absolutely wonderful.  I'm so happy to see her doing better.
          I pat Mbambu's curved little back and for some reason am overwhelmed with a feeling of love, and the thought that this little girl is more special than any other little girl in the world.  I'm just so happy to see a little person behind those eyes again.  I check on Kasuera and Kahambu, the two women who came to Butembo to go to the hospital.  Kasuera's arm still hurts but is feeling much better.  I still can't tell if it will be usable but at least the pain is decreasing.  The infection in Kahambu's finger was excised and is healing very nicely, so she will no longer need to have the digit removed.
          Before we leave I notice little Mbambu again.  Mom has swung the little girl around front so she can breast-feed.  Mbambu is darting in and out of the cloth sling from boob to open air, playing a little game with herself.
          All in all, it cost $112.00 to save an arm, a finger, and potentially, a life.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Another Week

          Maman Marceline cancels at the last minute.  The plump, middle-aged woman who sells me phone units and a beer now and then had been telling me for months about the girls and women in Musienene who have been victims of rape.  I told her I would speak to them, but I've avoided going.  Partly, because Musienene is my home and it frightens me and partly because I have no idea what I can really do to help.  There is no COPERMA center in Musienene and no Maman Marie explaining what to do.
          I made it clear to Maman Marceline that if anyone else is victimized to let me know immediately, so I can help them get to Butembo for free medical care.  After months, we decide to go on Sunday at 2 p.m.  She says, as everyone does here, that even if I can't do anything the girls will be happy just to speak with me.  Being such a rare occurrence in this area, I've begun to see that in a way, maybe I can make the girls feel special and important.
          I drive my motorcycle to the little wooden hut where Maman Marceline conducts her business.  She is waiting in the tiny doorway with her ever present smile.
    -I can't go today, it's Sunday.  And today Johnny Christmas was given his status as an official boy scout, she says as soon as I pull up.
          Johnny Christmas is her oldest son, in his early twenties, with just as big of a grin as his mother.  He told me a while ago about his activities as a boy scout; I didn't quite believe him, so a couple of months ago I went to one of their after-mass meetings.  Johnny was the only one wearing a tattered, old, boy-scout uniform complete with a scarf draped over his shoulders and pinned together in front.  The rest of the scouts were middle-age to elderly men and women.  Another man with a scarf over his shoulders but no uniform began their meeting as soon as I arrived.  With a whistle in his mouth, they rehearsed synchronized marching in three straight lines; two tweets--right turn, three tweets--left turn, single long note--stop.  It was more than a little odd watching sixty year old women in African print marching in a courtyard like untrained soldiers.
    -I'm sorry I wasn't there, I say still straddling my motorcycle in the afternoon sun.  I didn't know about it.
    -Oh, that's too bad.  Johnny must have forgotten.  I know he wanted you to be there.
          It's kind of a good thing that he forgot, I sometimes get the feeling Johnny Christmas is on the verge of asking me to marry him; fortunately, he always seems to chicken out.  He is one of the sweetest people I've ever met but I don't think we'd stand a chance as any sort of couple.
    -How many women are there who were victims that want to speak with me?  I ask, returning to the subject.
    -And how old is the youngest?
    -Eighteen, I think.  But there are old women.
    -Old as in how old?
    -Seventy five is the oldest.
          I slide the motorcycle kick stand into place so I can lean back on the seat.
    -There's a seventy five year old woman who was raped?
    -Yes, there are five vieilles.
          The image of Kyakyimua Wenderaki comes into my mind.  She was only 57 but her body was so tired and depleted she looked twenty years older.  I can't even fathom anything involving a 75 year old woman.  Maman Marceline watches me staring at the ground for a minute before breaking the silence.
    -When they are coming from the source they are attacked on the road.  The source is not close to here, it is very far.
    -The source meaning where they get their water, right?
    -Yes, they walk far to get the water and on the road is where the men attack them.
          If only there were more cars here and drivable roads.  So many women are attacked on the way to or from somewhere; it makes transportation seem more vital than shoes. 
    -When will you be able to go with me to speak with these women? I ask.
    -Whenever is good for you, I am free.  Although, not Sunday.  Sunday is never a good day.
    -I'm going to Kighali tomorrow and Isale on Tuesday, how about Wednesday at 2 p.m.?
    -Nope, Wednesday I have to work at the market.  Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday I cannot go.
    -Okay.  How about Thursday?
    -Thursday is perfect.
          I hoist my bike back up to standing and roar up the engine before driving slowly home.  Yesterday we went back to Isale to bring petite-commerce supplies for the women but when we arrived we were told that four people had died the day before and all of the families were at the funeral.  Cell phones and cars... those will be my new line of work.  Two men passed away who were sick, along with a nurse from the hospital who died alongside her baby during birth.
          We were also informed that there were three new victims who needed help from COPERMA.  They were raped in the valley and fled to a small village called Kighali where COPERMA is trying to start a new center. We have to go in person to check on their medical condition and find housing and food for them.  Tuesday we are returning to Isale to try, once again, to distribute the various supplies.
          It's a full week and although the work is work I wish was never necessary, I find myself looking forward to it.  Each of these women has not only become an inspiration to me, but in some ways, a friend.  I would rather us never meet at all and have them never experience sexual violence, but I guess I'm starting to feel the good of trying to help and the strength that shines through them, rather than simply focusing on the horror of it all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Point

          Dusan, a friend who works for the UN, and I go on a trip for a few days.  He's traveling up to Beni for a night and I want to go over the progress I've made on the soldier sensitization classes with him.  He shows up several hours late, which isn't a surprise in Congo.  When he arrives and unfolds his lanky body from the white UN car the first thing out of his mouth is a question about the twins he's decided I'm carrying.
    -They're good, I say and pat my belly.
          Before I went home Dusan insisted I was pregnant because of the weight I gained from the Congolese food.  Now he looks me up and down and we both laugh.
    -I'm only joking, you know this.  I am impolite.
          He walks over and gives me a hug.
    -Yeah, yeah I know.  I'm used to it by now.
          The Crosiers always seem a little uncomfortable around Dusan, partly because of the language barrier and partly because of his seemingly stern demeanor, so we don't hang around.  When I open the car door at least eight packages of cigarettes fall out; I laugh to myself as I collect them from the ground and toss them into the car.
          Inside, the car is gray with the smell of musty nicotine, but I kind of enjoy it.  It reminds me of this strangely compassionate man who fought in one of the most ruthless wars of the century and now spends his life trying to stop violence.  Dusan only references his role in the war for the former Yugoslavia when explaining weapons or ways to die.  At first, listening to so much talk about death was too heavy for my brain and I could only take an hour or so at a time, now I almost relish it.
          We chat briefly about my trip back to the States before he starts up my regular International Relations class.  The "classes" are always a roundabout diatribe but there are always extremely valuable nuggets of information amidst the rubble.
    -Do you think, when you look in mirror, there is something on other side of mirror from you?  He asks, looking back and forth from the road to me as we hurtle across the potholes.
    -Uh, I'm not really sure what you mean.  Do you mean something tangible that's not just a reflection of myself?
    -Yes, something on other side that is actually existing.
    -I dunno, I've never really thought about that before.
    -Oof, you are never thinking about this because you are not genius like me.  There is something on other side of mirror.  This is International Relations.  You are not believing it is there, but it is there, always something further than you are thinking.  Trust me in this.
    -So how are the International Relations here?
    -Not good but not as terrible as can be.
          He picks up a cigarette and lights it without slowing down.  He briefly explains that Nalu rebels from Uganda are becoming even more prominent but FRDC-governmental soldiers-are also getting worse.  The FRDC have always seemed to me to be one of the biggest problems and this is the first time someone else has really acknowledged it.
    -It is still mostly same people, same problems and same killing of innocents.  Killing is not problem for me, eh?
          He looks at me and waits for me to fight him, I don't.
    -Killing of innocents, this is key thing.  Killing is not always bad.  Killing of innocents, this is what makes me angry.
          I'm not quite ready to go into the philosophical implications of killing so I shift the subject.
    -I've had a few conversations with people about the soldier sensitization project and I've done a bit of research, are you still game?   
    -Yes, yes.  I think this is great idea.  You are here for results, not money, so this is great idea.  I spoke with one of my bosses in UN mission and he is interested in this project.  He wants to hear a presentation on what your plan will be.
    -Really?  That's great, do you think they might give me funding?  It would be so much more effective if I had some support from them, even if it's just security support or even brain-storming.
    -This is not certain because of budget and yuck-n-ya-n-yuck-n-yoo, but UN is needing new approaches.  I am telling my boss that you are junior genius, but not genius yet.  So, you can give presentation and see if this works.  I am going home for holidays so presentation won't be until January or February.
    -That sounds perfect.  That's plenty of time.
          I take one of his cigarettes and light it.
         When we get to Beni, a pack later, I am soothed once again by the asphalt on the main road.  We go directly to the UN Headquarters where I notice the stone wall statue indicating the "alert level" has moved from three up to four out of five.  Dusan walks around and speaks to different people in the various trailers scattered throughout the courtyard.  Lining the courtyard are the usual stations of sandbags, machine guns and camouflaged men wearing baby blue helmets.  I wander around and smile at all of the people peeking their heads out of their offices, wondering who the new person is.
          Once Dusan has finished his work we sit down in the compound cantine to eat fried tilapia fish, vegetables for me, and pasta plus an omelette and fries for Dusan.  Within only a few minutes a man walks up to us to greet Dusan.  He is very dark skinned and a little over weight.  The accent in his English tells me he's probably not Congolese.
     -Dusan, sorry I didn't fix this problem sooner.  I was in a Geneva conference about this problem specifically.  I have it worked out now.
    -Thank you, Dusan shakes the man's hand.  This was big problem, big problem and I couldn't handle this problem, it's not my field of work.  But it is important so thank you.
          The man seems to notice me and reaches out his hand briefly before walking off.
    -What was the problem?
          I can always ask Dusan anything I want because if he doesn't want to tell me he'll just say something like "the things" or "whatever whatever." 
    -I have problem with police captain in Lubero raping his friend's young daughter.  Very young girl.  People in Lubero were angry, as should be, but with political tensions and military around, yuck-n-ya, I need help with this problem.  I am genius, but this problem is too difficult for just one genius.  People were thinking of shotting on him.
    -That's kind of surprising.  All of the rapes I've heard about in Lubero didn't cause even a ripple in the community.
    -Yes, well this is political and more complicated than this and you are still only junior genius.
          He pauses and chuckles to himself; this joke never gets old to him.
    -Police captain is Tutsi, he continues, and people are thinking tribal things.  It is all International Relations, I am telling you.
          When we finish our food we head to Mario's bar where the music is still excruciatingly loud and Mario is incomprehensibly friendly.  He makes me think of a mob underling running the local hang-out spot.  He has to make nice with everyone.  After a few drinks and a greek salad for Dusan, we call it a night.
          We leave Beni the next day after a quick stop at Headquarters.  Dusan decides it is best for me to come with him to Lubero to see the house he has just bought.  Dusan and I met because we were both living in the monastery; community life is a fascinating experience but is not always easy for someone who's not actually a part of the Order.  And Dusan isn't exactly a community kind of guy.  I'm just about ready to go home but I don't feel like arguing and I don't have any commitments planned for the next day.
          Dusan's house is perfectly located in Lubero town and I immediately remember how much I love Lubero.  Lubero is a slightly larger village than most; it's small enough for everyone to know everyone so people are a lot less shocked by the blinding muzungus, and thus a lot friendlier.  I spend the entire day in the UN office watching all three of The Godfather movies while Dusan works at his computer.  Some of the other UN guys join me and Dusan explains to us that these movies will teach us the most important lessons we'll ever learn.
          We end up spending two nights in Lubero as a result of a rain storm and seven broken down trucks in the road.  Even though I know there's nothing we can do, I'm visibly irritated and completely tune Dusan out.  I'm supposed to go to Isale they next day to check on the ladies and although I think the man is a gem, Dusan speaks more than anyone I know and I'm worried I might try to strangle him if the litany continues.  Which, would only be a bad thing because he could kill me with a toothpick.
          When we get back to his house I calm down and remember something I need to do in Lubero.  I head out alone down the main dirt road, without explaining to Dusan where I'm going.  After about five minutes I make it to the hut where Lydie, Lyssie, Sylvie, Naema and their mother Devote live.  They are the family of Kyakyimua "Kahambu" Wenderaki, the first survivor of sexual violence I worked with, who passed away a few months after her rape.  The twins, Lydie and Lyssie, both two years old, are overjoyed to see me.  All of their initial muzungu-terror has worn off and they tug on my pants, check my pockets for sweets or money and insist forcefully to be allowed to sit on my lap.  Before leaving I was able to find funding in the States to pay for Sylvie and Naema's schooling for the year.  Neither of the girls had been enrolled in school for several years and somehow I feel a connection to the little family.  They remind me of why I'm here.
          Through a translator Devote tells me both of the girls are doing well in school.  She pauses periodically to scold one of the twins for pulling my hair or chattering too loudly in Kinande.  The older girls both smile at the scene from a few feet away. 
          Everything about the moment feels perfect; the little firecrackers on my lap, Devote holding my hand with a smile, Sylvie and Naema laughing at the twins' antics.  The sun is high in the sky and there are no clouds to be seen; all of the weight from Isale that was making me feel suffocatingly empty evaporates and all I can do is smile and laugh and feel good about the world.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Amy Goes to Hospital

          As I climb out of bed in the morning something pops and a sharp pain sprouts up in the lower middle of my back.  As a result, everything takes me three times longer than normal, so I don't make it to L'Hopital Katanda until 10:30 a.m.  Urbain, Kasuera and Kahambu have all been there since 9 o'clock.  The first person I see as I wander around looking for my little group is Kasuera.  Today is the fourth day she and Kahambu have been making their way through the various lines at the hospital; the first day Kasuera looked so unhappy and terrified I felt guilty for trying to help her mend her broken arm.  Today she is simply glowing.  She greets me warmly when I arrive and scoots over on the thin wooden bench so there's enough room for me to squeeze in next to her.  She starts speaking rapid fire Kinande to me.  I look helplessly up at Fisto, the driver who is standing next to me; he jumps right in.
    -She got her x-ray done and they're going to be putting her arm in a cast today.
          Kasuera unrolls a piece of brown paper with an x-ray of her arm inside.  I'm not experienced at looking at these things.  Her arm is definitely broken but doesn't look as bad inside her arm as it does outside.
    -That's wonderful, I say, rolling it up and handing the tube back to her.  Urbain eko wapi?  Where is Urbain?
          Kasuera points towards the other end of the dirt courtyard and then immediately begins speaking with the woman on her right as if I interrupted their conversation.  I'm glad to see she's making friends; we'll make a city girl out of her in no time.
         It takes only a few minutes to find Urbain; the hospital compound is not big, although it is filled with people, mostly women.  Yesterday, when I was here, I sat and read my book, keeping a place in line for Kasuera and Kahambu while they went to the car to eat lunch.   After a few moments I heard women begin to howl just across the way.  I heard that type of jarring sound at Pere Erasme's funeral.  I know immediately that it means someone has died.  Two women are carried on other people's shoulders as their bodies sag towards the ground with grief.  They are helped into a red truck and shortly after several men emerge carrying a cot with a body covered in an old blanket.  I wonder who it is, old, young, male, female.  Whoever they are, their feet are covered in a flowered sheet, but poke out from underneath the blanket.  People crowd around.  It's the third person I personally know of who has died in only the last two weeks.  I think of the little girl in Isale and hope she is doing okay.  Today there is no such sadness, only the bustle of women chatting and moving around.
          Urbain and I talk money.  He says the women are happy at the hotel they're staying in and they feel safe.  The hotel is $6.00 a night for a room.  I explain that I'm having a meeting with Maman Marie and Jean-Paul, the COPERMA psychologist, at the office.  He says there's nothing for me to do at the hospital anyway, so it's okay with him if I leave.  He'll wait with the women.  Kahambu, the other woman at Katanda, is a woman from Isale who has the same infection that Kasuera had when they cut off her thumb.  Kahambu's middle finger is swollen like a little balloon, but the Doctors say she only needs a simple incision since she didn't wait until the digit was dead.  That makes me happy.
          Back at the office Maman Marie explains that Jean-Paul can't make it to the office today, so we have to push the meeting back until tomorrow morning.  We're meeting to discuss the finnalities of the psychosocial assistance program we're setting up at each of the centers.  The plan is to have the village mothers elect one mother who will act as an active and objective listener for anyone in need of emotional support, specifically the young rape victims.  Priests are a conflict of interest because of their views on Plan B/The Morning After Pill, but we will still be doing "sensitization" with them to make sure they don't unintentionally make a survivor feel worse.
    -Alright, well I guess my day is done here, I say.  I'll go back out to Musienene and start typing up the general outline to send to Finn Church Aid.
          Finn Church Aid is the one humanitarian organization that has been trying to help COPERMA, through training and small amounts of funding.  I lean over to tie my boots and when I try to get back up something sticks; I don't completely make it.  There is a sharp shooting pain in my back and it takes my breath away.  I haven't been doing any physical labor and I look worse than the 82-year-old priest I live with.
    -Amy, you have to get that fixed, says Maman Marie getting up and looking at me with a worried expression.
    -No, don't worry, it will pass.  It's just a muscle strain or something.
    -Urbain had that before, exactly the same.  He bent over and then it hurt hard and he couldn't get up.  He went to handicap and got a pomade and a massage and he was all better.
          I start to protest and then stop.  A massage sounds kind of nice.
    -Do you mean Handicap International?  I ask.
          I know for sure the French humanitarian organization doesn't give out massages.
    -No, it's a local place for handicaps.  They'll massage you and you'll feel better.
          It has taken me a solid minute to fully straighten so I reluctantly agree.
    -It's not going to hurt is it?  I ask.
          I have no idea what a Congolese massage entails.
    -No, it will feel very good.  You should go.
          Maman Marie and I climb into the car.  I didn't know you could get a massage in Congo.  It sounds fantastic right about now, maybe I should have given more credit to the idea of a massage from an elder when Kasuera mentioned it.  Granted, my back isn't broken.
          After about ten minutes of painful bouncing we pull up to a courtyard and I recognize the set-up immediately.
    -Maman Marie this is a hospital!
    -Yes, of course.
    -I don't need to go to the hospital, I thought we were just going to take me to get a massage of some sort.
    -We are.  We'll talk to our friend who will give you a massage and pomade and make it feel much better.
          This is starting to make me nervous.
    -If you don't get treatment, you will eventually look like that man.
          She points out the window to a very old man hunched over at a 90 degree angle.  There's no arguing with her so I simply sigh and follow her out of the car.  After speaking briefly with the intake person a male nurse ushers me into a dark little room with two wooden chairs, a wooden desk and a bench that's slightly higher than the rest of the furniture.
    -When did it start?
          The nurse gets started right away.
    -This morning; I just want some pomade to help the muscles relax, that will be plenty.
    -What were you doing when it started?  Were you doing hard labor?
          I hate admitting this because it adds to the fragile-muzungu image, but there's no way around it.
    -No, I mutter.  I just got out of bed and it started hurting.
          Maman Marie is standing in the room and she cuts in.
    -Give her a massage, that helped our other co-worker before.
          The guy looks at her skeptically, I can tell he's not used to giving people muscle massages.
    -It's okay, just the pomade and I'm happy, I say.
          He stands up and reaches out for Maman Marie's shawl.  She hands it to him and he lays it across the high bench.  I nervously climb onto the bench and lay down on my stomach.  The nurse pulls my shirt up halfway and my pants down enough to make me feel slightly uncomfortable.  I'm not exactly a modest person, but I've also never shown Maman Marie my butt-crack before.  The nurse rubs something on his hands and starts pressing into the muscles that I indicated were hurting.  It feels nice.  Suddenly, he starts digging his thumbs into my spine as hard as he can.  It feels like someone is grinding the handles of two screwdrivers up and down my back.
    -Aaagggghhhhh.  Oh. Jeez.  Strong. Thumbs.
          I'm normally quite good at keeping a poker face when something hurts.  I was an avid athlete growing up and I have three older brothers, so I'm used to being knocked around a bit.   I can't even begin to control it this time.  He lets up a little and I can breath again.
    -Oof, that was highly unpleasaaaaaaaaccckkk.
          He grinds his screwdriver thumbs into the most painful spots for about two minutes while I flail around on the table.  Finally, he stops.  I flop my head around to look at Maman Marie; she is smiling at me as if she just watched a great new film.  I'm breathing heavily and can't even speak.
    -You can get up, the nurse says briskly.  I'm going to give you some anti-inflammatory medication and the pomade, it will cost $5.00.
          I work on climbing off of the table and getting my muscles to listen again.  We walk into the next room where a short little woman in another white coat is fiddling with various pill bottles.  I do not need medication; I've had muscle strains before and I know it will pass in a few days if I stretch and don't do anything too strenuous.
    -Don't worry about giving me the pills, I say to the squat little woman who looks like a plump apple.
    -Take the medication, Maman Marie says.  It's not really pills anyway, it's suppository.
          I'm sure I've misheard or the word means something different in French.  Before I can ask further, Maman Marie sticks one finger in the air and then makes the motion of bringing it behind her back; the message is quite clear.  She's still smiling at me.
    -What?!  I am not taking anal suppositories for lower back-pain!
          I get out of my chair as quickly as my back will allow and get ready for a fast exit.
    -Don't worry, the little apple woman adds.  Nobody else is going to do it for you, you can put them in yourself.
          She pulls out a package of what look like bullets wrapped in plastic.
    -You stick this part into your anus first.  It makes it so there is friction in the body when your rub the pomade on you back.
    -Friction? What are you talking about?  I am sorry, but there is no way I am using suppositories for mild muscle pain.  Keep them, it will be a waste if you give them to me.
    -You will take them, the little apple says sternly.  Take one every day for seven days.
          I look back at Maman Marie, half worried the two women are going to wrestle me to the floor and make me take the medication; they're both looking at me like an angry mob that's just located a traitor in the ranks.
    -Here are some other medications too, she says.
          Little Apple hands me plastic bags with various white pills in them.
    -What are they?
          She rolls her eyes and laughs as if my question is a preposterous suggestion that I might actually know what the medical words mean, but I can also tell she doesn't know the names right off the bat.
    -These ones are anti-inflammatory and these are antibiotics.
          Antibiotics and anal suppositories for back pain?  No wonder people prefer traditional healing.
    -Okay.  Give me the medication.
          I throw the $5.00 on the table and stuff the various things into my bag.  I leave the room immediately and walk quickly back to the car.  After a moment Maman Marie climbs into the front seat.
    -Maman Marie, I'll use the pomade but I am not taking the rest of that medication.
    -Then give it to me!  I have lots of sick people I can give it to.
    -But you're not a Doctor.  You should not be handing out antibiotics in unknown doses, or anything at all when you have no medical training.
    -But they're sick people.  They need medicine.
          I am baffled by this entire conversation and experience.
    -No.  I'm not giving you the medication.
    -Fine.  Well, you should take all of it anyway.
          I don't argue anymore.  I let Fisto drive me home in the car, per Maman Marie's insistence that the motorcycle will be too painful.  On the ride home I contemplate how one gets rid of anal suppositories in Congo.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Isale lines

    -She was running from the soldiers in the field when she tripped and fell.
          Urbain shifts his glance from me to the thin woman with the strong cheekbones and sad eyes sitting next to me.  We are sitting in a dark mud room in Isale talking to the most recent victims of rape, or at least, the ones who chose to come forward.
    -She hurt her wrist.
          The woman lifts her left arm from her lap and pulls the blue nylon of her jacket up towards her elbow.  I suck in my breath.  Her arm is not just hurt it's unmistakably broken.  Just below her wrist, bone is pressing against the skin wanting to break through.  It extends almost an inch off of the straight path a bone should take.
    -Shit, I mutter to myself in English.
    -Did she see a Doctor? I ask, switching back to French.
          Urbain calmly translates.
    -She is getting treated.  One of the village elders is massaging the fracture.
          Without meaning to I reach out and gingerly place my fingers on the unnatural bend.  Kasuera Vunyatsi doesn't flinch.  If my arm looked like this I would be on the floor in the fetal position, crying and cradling my arm.
    -Does it hurt when it is touched?
    -Yes.  She says it hurts very much and she can no longer use this hand.
          I pull my fingers away.
    -Please tell her that it is her choice, but that there is a chance she may be able to use her hand again if she comes to the hospital. 
          Urbain translates.  Kasuera looks at her wrist as she contemplates.  There is a lot of faith in traditional healing practices such as the touch of an elder.  I would never question that faith or push her to seek treatment she doesn't want but I know the only shot she has at being able to use her hand again is if she goes to a hospital.  Her arm has been broken for almost three weeks now, so it is an extremely small shot.  The words "maybe use your hand again" seem to have an effect and she nods once.
    -What happened to her thumb? I ask.
          Urbain looks over in surprise and then asks.  On the same hand, just above the break, Kasuera's thumb is missing.  The wound is healed, the skin has already covered the bone like light brown saran wrap so I know it's not from the recent attack.
    -She had an infection in her thumb and they had to cut if off.
         He makes the motion of snipping something with scissors.
    -Oh jeez, did she at least get it done in the hospital?
    -Yes, she did.
          I have no idea if that means they actually used scissors or not, or if it means she had any anesthetic.  I let it go and continue with our previous conversation.
    -How many soldiers?
          I still feel uncomfortable asking this question.  Sometimes it seems like it's not necessary, like I'm only asking because of some sick, morbid curiosity.  Yet, at the same time, it feels necessary to me in terms of the hierarchy of need.
          Kasuera is the last woman in the room to tell her story.  At first I was worried that the women would be uncomfortable speaking in front of the others but I realized after the first time I spoke with a group together that there is strength and courage to be gained by speaking with people who know something small about what you've been through.
         Right now there are nine women in the room, seven of whom were raped during this last outbreak of pointless fighting.  Two of the women in the room came because they were able to hide in the bush but they wanted to share that they saw mothers being raped in the fields all around them.  A lot more mothers than the seven in this room.
          Sifandiwey, who is sitting on my left, was the first woman to speak.  She looks a bit like Kasuera, with a long thin frame and strong bone structure.  She has a baby hanging from a sling around her neck.  The baby was in the field with her when she was raped.  The soldier tossed the baby to the ground while he raped her mother a foot away.
    -We were in the field when the bullets started and the bomb went.
          Urbain explains the bomb.
    -The FRDC used an RPG--rocket propelled grenade--to kill all of the people in a bus traveling by.  That is how the fighting started.
          I've seen soldiers with the long snouted RPGs sitting next to huts only slightly higher than the propped up barrels.  I couldn't imagine what anyone would do with one of those out here in the middle of nowhere.  Now I know, I guess.
          Sifandiwey is forty years old.  Her father was killed by the military.  Was it the first time you were raped?  Yes.  How many soldiers?  One.
          It's strange feeling better because someone says the word one.  One is just as far on the other side of devastation as any other number besides zero.
          Kavira Musafiri and Kahambu Tsimbula are the youngest survivors in the room, both eighteen years old.   Both are beautiful and shy.  Kahambu smiles at me a lot more than Kavira.  Kavira doesn't look at anyone else at all.  She looks at the table, the ground, the ceiling, anywhere but at another pair of eyes.
     -How many soldiers, Kavira?
    -How are you feeling? I ask softly.
         Kavira doesn't respond right away so Sifandiwey chimes in.
   -She doesn't speak much anymore. 
          Kavira suddenly whispers something in the direction of the floor.
   -She says she feels shame and fear.       
          I can see it in every movement she makes.  She seems uncomfortable within a dejected sadness.  I try and smile at her with kindness but can't hold her eyes.  I want to get up and give her a hug and say or do something to make her laugh.  She's already been to FEPSI, the free medical clinic in Butembo, to get immediate care after the rapes.  I can try and help her find a new way of supporting herself, since she can no longer return to her field.  That's all I can do.
          When everyone has had a turn to speak I tell them things I've said to others before; things that I believe but am never sure if they do.  This isn't your fault, these were the actions of another individual and you are not responsible for this.  It doesn't change how wonderful you are.  It's really the only thing I can say but doesn't go very far, if anywhere at all.  We all get up and step outside into the small clearing where Maman Marie has distributed the emergency food care-packages in a square.  This is the second time I've seen this square of food bubbles in this village, though now we are in a different hiding spot in the bush.
          Doing it a second time makes it feel hopeless.  How to help is a hard line to draw, since the soldiers are still around.  These families need help more than ever; without their homes and fields, once again their children will have no food, and may starve.  Starting with the youngest.  If we bring more supplies to help start small-commerce and the soldiers come back in two months, we're feeding the devil.  If we bring nothing, it seems even worse.  The amount of food we have brought is not sustainable but it will allow the families to feed their children for about a week.  Anything can help someone get their feet back on the ground; I have to hold onto that.
          While watching Maman Marie and Helen hand out the food to the various women who are exploding with color, I notice a little foot poking off of a mother's lap and tickle it.  The foot shrinks away slowly and the mother says something to me.  Urbain is watching and steps in.
    -This child is very sick, he says.
          I look at the little girl as the mother draws a blanket away so I can see her.  Her face is puffy, her eyes are glossy and her mouth is hanging open.  She looks like she's already dead.  Mom is trying to entice the baby to breast-feed but nothing in the girl's face responds.
    -Do you know what she is sick with? What are her symptoms?
    -She has been tired and not eating for two days with bad diarrhea and vomiting everything.
          The little girl looks like she has putty behind her eyes.
    -Please tell the mother she should take the baby to the hospital, as soon as possible.
          I don't ask this time, I try to insist.  This girl is going to die if the only thing helping her is an elder and a massage.
    -She says she cannot pay the hospital receipt.
    -I'll pay the receipt, just tell her the girl absolutely needs to go to the hospital tomorrow, early in the morning.
          The woman looks at me as if for a second she doesn't trust me.  My whiteness and the bag of food at her feet convinces her and she nods.
    -She accepts.
          When the food is all passed out the COPERMA crew climbs back into the car.  The sun is starting to go down but is still above the horizon and the air is heavier and hotter than normal.  Laurentine, the newest addition to the COPERMA team, is sitting next to me.  She has a build like Maman Marie, not small but very beautiful and her smile is arresting.
    -It's hot today, she says, turning to me.  Do you have the sun where you live?
          I laugh and look at her for a second to see if she's serious.
    -The sun? As in does it exist? I ask, taken aback.
          She's looking at me as if she has just asked if I have love in my life.  There's a tinge of pity in her gaze.
    -The sun exists everywhere.  You can't live without the sun.
    -Really?  She looks back towards the front of the car, smiling slightly.  I thought you didn't have the sun chez vous. 
          I watch her for a moment before looking out my window, smiling next to her.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Catching up with COPERMA

          The second morning after my arrival I have a pleasant lunch with a couple of the Crosiers before heading into Butembo.  The cooks have finally agreed to prepare me vegetables with no oil so there's none of the usual anxiety around the meal or the usual digestive distress for days after.
          It's still the rainy season.  By noon the clouds are already getting darker and the trees blowing gradually more and more but Pere Olivier assures me that the wind is blowing in the wrong direction for the rain to come before evening.  I head into Butembo in the car with one of the field workers, since my motorcycle is still in Butembo with COPERMA.  I admire, once more, the women walking alongside the road carrying loads larger than their husbands.  Kids in school uniforms are on their way home and are prancing alongside the road, darting in and out of traffic.
          When I get to COPERMA Maman Marie greets me with excitement.  She's wearing a light blue Congolese outfit with the normal headscarf and a set of silver, plastic, mardi-gras beads around her neck.  Hangie and Sylvain are the only others there but Sylvain has to leave for Maghery immediately, as the school year is in full swing.  Hangie brings two wooden chairs into the little concrete box of an office and we all exchange the extensive greetings.  Maman Marie politely says nothing has really changed, everything is fine, but I know that's not true.  I can tell she's trying to stay pleasant as long as possible by her wavering smile and the way she looks down at her desk as she responds.
    -I heard that there was another confrontation in Isale, I say.
          I don't have time to beat around the bush if I want to beat the rain.  Maurice told me about the fighting in Isale in the way home from the airport.  Isale is an area of villages where we have been working to help victims of rape and all of the displaced families for months.  Maman Marie looks up quickly and lets the pleasantries go.
    -Yes, there was.  Two weeks ago.
    -One of the men from our group was shot, Hangie cuts in.
    -Is he dead?
    -Yes, he was hit here.
          He points to his chest, a little left of his heart.  People can die here if they're hit in the leg, since there's virtually no medical system to push for recovery.
    -Amy, it was such a big scandal, Hangie exclaims.  It was the market day and the women who were starting the rotational credit program brought the fish and peanuts and oil to the market.  It was going so well.
          He's getting really excited and starts mumbling his words.  I don't understand the next thing he says all I catch is the word women.
    -Wait, did you say one of the women in the group stole the materials? I ask.
          That would be so disappointing.  I imagine Valerie, Esperance, Marcela, Devote, Stella and Isabella happily receiving the supplies a few months ago.  I won't believe it.
    -No, the military came on market day.  It was such a scandal.  Imagine, everyone was there for market and war starts.  Imagine it.  Many people were afraid for their lives. 
          I can imagine it perfectly and I can feel the terror that must have crackled alongside bullets through the air.
    -The military stole the fish and peanuts and they knocked over the containers with the oil.  It all soaked into the ground and is gone.
    -Who was it?  I ask, getting more and more angry.  FRDC and NALU?
    -Yes.  Maman Marie rejoins the conversation.
          We spent months and a significant amount of money getting those materials out to the survivors of the first confrontation.  We were all afraid this would happen but hoped the soldiers had moved on.  I'm now seeing firsthand what Maman Marie has been working against for over a decade.
    -Was anyone raped?  I ask.
    -Yes, Hangie and Maman Marie say at the same time.
    -Of course, continues Hangie.
    -How many?
    -At least seven, that we know of.
    -Was it all different women?  Were any of the victims women who were raped during the last confrontation?
          The faces of Valerie and the others flash through my mind again and my heart drops.
    -No, it was all new women.
          My heart lifts a little and then immediately drops again with guilt and further realization.  More women have now experienced the horror of having a man force himself into her.  In a way that feels somehow wrong, I am happy none of the women who experienced it before had to go through it again.  Not yet, anyway.
    -Are the rabbits still okay?  I ask, trying to cling to something.
    -Yes, they're in Kavingu.  Three of them have already had babies.
           Maman Marie holds her hands together, pretending to cup a tiny animal.
    -Well that's good, I guess.
          Good, but not much.  Rabbits aren't made out of gold, security or justice.  I start looking in my bag for my notebook and the photos I printed for COPERMA fall out.
    -Oooh photos!  Give me them!
          Maman Marie is smiling and bouncing up and down in her chair like a child on Christmas morning.  I hand them over to her and laugh.  She and Hangie go slowly through all of the pictures.
    -I'm going to give some of these to the individuals who are in them, I say, removing a couple of the photos.
    -They're all for the office, Hangie exclaims in a higher pitch than normal.
    -I printed them and I paid for them, so I'm going to decide who gets them!
          We both break into laughter.  Hangie hasn't changed a bit and neither have I.
    -How is Bamafay doing?  I heard she's adapting well to the Institute in Mulo and getting along with the other students.
          Bamafay typically works for COPERMA, but Father Martello, a Crosier in the United States who spent a significant amount of time in Congo, was able to fund-raise enough money to send her to the Crosier Institute to study psychology.  Bamafay has a seven year old daughter named Eliza, who is the result of Bamafay's third rape.
          Both Hangie and Maman Marie look immediately down at the desk.
    -She's adapting well, I guess.  She doesn't have the means to eat.  But whenever we can find some fufu powder or some beans we send them to her.
          I suddenly remember the e-mail Pere Sylvester sent me while I was in the States.  He said exactly that and explained that the other students where chipping in to help her find food.  I've already put my notebook away, so I pick up the pen and start writing a reminder about Bamafay on my hand.
    -You can do that because your skin is so white, Maman Marie says, laughing.
    -Not true!  You can do it too, look.
          I grab Hangie's hand and start writing his name in capital letters.
    -See, you can see that perfectly.
          We all laugh some more.  Maman Marie says they want to take me to a little restaurant nearby to properly welcome me back, but the rain is threatening and I know they'll want me to eat fufu and drink several beers.  Unfortunately, that's not something I want to do at two in the afternoon just before driving my motorcycle for the first time in over a month.  I explain that we can do that another day, but right now I need to beat out the rain.  They look a little disappointed but we all get up and go outside where a couple of apprentice students are standing around taking a break from their studies.  It's drizzling, but not enough to further damage the roads.  Before I'm about to get onto my bike Maman Marie mutters something.
    -I'm sorry?  I couldn't hear you.
    -Maybe we can find something to help the new survivors of viole, she says, softly.
    -Yes, of course.  I'll see what I can find.  Have they been to a hospital?
    -Yes, we brought them in and they've all been to FEPSI and spoken to the psychologist once as well.
    -Oh great.
          In my mind that's the most important thing, especially right after the horror.  The possibilty of emergency contraception, a physical check-up, talking to someone, and feeling in general like there are people who care.
    -We'll see what we can do from here, I say.          
          I put on my brand new American made helmet and get on my bike.  When people say something is "like riding a bike," they mean a motorcycle too.  I quickly ease into dodging potholes, goats and boulders.  I'm surprised how much I missed this silly death mobile.  On the way home my mind wanders and I wonder about the term "third-world country."  Who made that up and why?  If this more "primitive" lifestyle chronologically came first, why isn't it called first-world?  Is there a second-world?  Would second-world be like middle-class world?  And why is it third-world not third-lifestyle or third-culture?  Or third-bank account?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Back to Butembo!

          I can't believe I almost let myself forget how beautiful this country is.  And how soothing.  After 53 hours of traveling, including one night sleeping in baggage claim, I arrive back on the little grass airstrip in Butembo, North Kivu, DRC.  I'm frustrated, exhausted and on the verge of strangling someone but I can't help but smile and perk up at the sight of the usual row of children lined up against a make-shift wooden fence staring at the big white monster in the field; and this time the white monster isn't me.  I imagine those kids stay there all day, waiting for the strange contraptions to descend from the sky roaring like dragons and then open up their bellies to let human beings descend.
          There are communication problems when I land, as expected, and Brother Maurice isn't waiting for me at the airport.  I recognize the attire of a nun from Les Petites Soeurs, and ask her if she knows the phone number of one of the Crosier Priests.  My phone isn't charged and I don't have any units.  She calls Father Jean-Marie who says he'll relay the message but as the nun is leaving she picks up my bags and says she's not leaving me alone.
          La Soeur Marie is traveling with a nicely dressed and very enthusiastic priest as well as three muzungu men.  The men all seem as surprised to see me as I am to see them.  They explain that they work for an insurance company in Belgium and have been working on starting medical insurance plans in Butembo since February.  I don't quite understand how that would work, considering the state of the hospitals and people's wallets but it's intriguing nonetheless.
          After about twenty minutes of driving in the opposite direction of where I live we pull into a beautiful driveway and enter a courtyard that's too small to be the compound for the nuns but too organized to not be a religious home.
    -Come Kavira!  You can have a drink with us while you wait for you friend.
          Again, I can't help but smile.  I know the routine and follow them all inside.  We enter a big dining room and I see a six foot tall portrait of Bishop Melchisidek Sikuli on the wall.  In the living room the couches are real couches, not the normal wooden chairs that are in all other homes including parishes and monasteries.  Something dawns on me.
    -Are we in the Bishop's house? I ask Marie.
    -Yes we are.
    -Is he home?
    -No, he gets home on Monday.
          Thank God.  I think after our last discussion about birth control, which was extremely civil but an agree to disagree situation, I'm not so sure he'd be excited about me popping into his living room unannounced.  Everyone chats excitedly, two of the Belgian men have been here before and they're cracking all the appropriate jokes and handing out Belgian chocolate.  The third Belgian is the President of the company and has never been to Africa before.  He explains as the others roll about in private laughter that the medical insurance plan is that people will pay ten dollars up front, and for one year, anytime they or their children go into the hospital they will only have to pay half of the bill and the company will pick up the rest.  It's an interesting concept although I can't imagine anyone forking over ten dollars to a few white men who promise to miraculously appear with money over the next year.  But who knows, maybe it'll work out, maybe it'll help.
          We move from the living room to the dining room and eat the usual: fufu, potatoes, chicken (a rare treat), and cauliflower soaked in oil.  I know I have to eat even though I'll be having dinner with the Crosiers in less than an hour, and I'll have to eat then too.  I'm sure I'll change my tune within the week but even this, somehow, is refreshing for the moment. 
          Maurice picks me up within twenty minutes; he looks great, so familiar.  He's growing out a beard which makes him look ten years older and he's as happy and friendly as ever.  I lean in for a hug before I remember the three taps on the forehead custom in Congo.  Hugging is just weird.  Our greeting turns into an awkward triple-hug-tap but Maurice doesn't care.
    -You forgot already!  He exclaims.
    -Yeah, and I forgot my French too!
          We both laugh.
    -No, you're fine.  He says. You'll be as good as ever in less than two weeks.
          We hop in the car and head home, bouncing on the roads that have gotten much worse with the continuation of the rainy season.  Driving my motorcycle will be interesting.  I explain the insurance plan to Maurice and he bobs his head around in skeptic consideration.
    -I think that will just mean people with money will benefit and save themselves money.  None of the people who actually need help can afford ten dollars upfront.
    -Yeah, I kinda agree, but who knows.
          The rest of the way home he helps me pick my French back up and I resist the urge to take a picture of every single human and animal I see.  It feels so good to be back.  When we get back to the compound, dinner is just being served.  I drop my things in my room and head to the table.  Frere Augustin, Frere Maurice, Pere Olivier and Pere Jon are all there.  We pray as always and sit down.  They ask me about my family and my friends, I ask them about the Crosier routine and life in general.
    -It's good, responds Pere Olivier.  Well, it's sort of good.
    -Why only sort of?
    -Well, you know the insecurity is still here and it is worse now.
    -Maurice explained a little bit in the car and Father Charles did send me an e-mail when a Priest was killed a couple weeks ago.
    -Yes, a Priest was killed as well as a blue helmet.  And at least one person is killed in Butembo every night now.
          A blue helmet is what people here call UN soldiers.
    -Oh man.  The military I assume?
    -Yes, of course, he says looking down at the table.  It's always the military.
    -Have they been coming out here to Musienene at all?
    -No, they seem to be staying in Butembo, Beni and Kirumba.  They haven't been very active in Mulo either.
    -Well, I guess that's one good thing.
          These conversations can never go farther than recounting the facts and trying to absorb them.  We finish dinner listening to Pere Jon chide Frere Maurice in his usual fashion.  I'm too tired for recreation so I go back to my room to get ready for bed.  I have to walk across the compound to use the bathroom and brush my teeth.  As I get in bed I can't help but feel like I'm back at summer camp; except instead of singing cheesy camp songs at dinner we recount who has been killed and where.
          I fall asleep quickly but wake up several times during the night and spend a few minutes determining if the creaking wood is wind or soldiers.  I go over my nightly escape plan in my head-- pants on, out the window, sprint through the trees or hide in the barn.  I also almost forgot this nightly routine.  I have to work to settle into letting unnecessary thoughts go.  In Congo, there is so much beauty and so many things that are out of my control.  I'm back in Congo in every way.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Make War Not Love

          I have an idea.  I go behind the barn and stand on the stone where I get phone service and send a message to Dusan.  He recently got back from vacation and my idea won't work without him.
    I want to teach anti-sex violence classes to soldiers.  I need your connections and protection for that.  Keep it in mind, let me know what you think.  I send.
          It doesn't take him long and he responds exactly how I expected, in that I didn't expect it.
    Anti-sex?  Or anti-violence?  I'll contribute to the latter but not the first one!
   Anti-sex VIOLENCE, I write back.  I would never ask you to promote anti-sex.
          I have to catch a plane in the next couple of days and I want to talk to him before I leave.  He seems on-board but I want to pin it down.  He tells me he'll be in Butembo the next morning, having drinks at the Hotel Butembo.  I'm going back to the U.S. for a few weeks for several Congo and personal related things that require my presence; I need to leave my motorcycle with COPERMA, so I tell Dusan I'll drop in as soon as possible.  COPERMA and I have planned to have a little dinner together--that I know I'll be paying for--to say bonne voyage.  I'll be back in Congo in the beginning of November, but I'm not really sure they trust that.
          In the morning I drive to Hotel Butembo first, so I don't have to hire moto-taxis the rest of the day.  When I get to the Hotel I walk through the guarded gate into the compound, under the ivy arch and into a small field with plastic chairs and tables.  I haven't been here in a while and the semi-western feel that used to comfort me makes me slightly annoyed now.
          Dusan is sitting at one of the flimsy white tables with three other people, which I wasn't expecting.  Faustin is here.  Faustin is a handsome Congolese man who works for MONUC.  About three months ago he told me that he is the ex-dictator Mobutu's nephew.  Faustin explained he wanted to reclaim the family's power by running for the Presidency in 2011 and with me, an American, by his side he felt sure we could win.  I told him I would think about it but then simply didn't go back to Lubero to see him.  I didn't know how to tell him I didn't believe him, was slightly insulted he thought I'd marry for money and power, and was quite positive that even if it was true and I were a gold-digger, we'd both be killed within a month anyway.  Now, sitting on the Hotel lawn it's definitely awkward and he's clearly mad at me.
          He crosses his arms and glares at me when I sit in between Dusan and him.
    -You fled Lubero, he says rigidly.
    -I didn't flee, I just had a lot of work to do here in Butembo.  You know how it is, you go where work takes you.
          This doesn't placate him but thankfully Dusan interrupts.
    -How are you?  He exclaims.
          He looks really refreshed.  Every time he goes home for a few weeks he comes back looking around four years younger than before.
    -I'm great!  How was home?
    -Wonderful, of course.  I was just sending text message to you.  I have idea.
          He laughs before he can get it out, in a way that reminds me of a ten year old trying to say the word vagina.  I can't help but laugh preemptively with him.
    -What is it?
          He's still laughing and can't seem to get the idea out.
    -I think slogan for teaching soldiers should be Make War Not Love.
          He slaps the table and practically falls off of his chair.  I join his laughter.
    -That's not a bad idea, I say.  I mean, that's what we want them to do isn't it?  Fight each other and leave the innocent people alone.  Not a bad idea.
          I can foresee a lot of disagreement with that title but it does make a surprising amount of sense.
    -You can get t-shirts and everything, he says still laughing.
    -Well, so what I'm thinking, I say, abruptly ending my laughter, is that all of this work with the survivors is so important, but it's not actually getting at the root of the problem.  The soldiers, at least in this area, are the root of the problem.
          I constantly have the image of chasing an unruly child through a house as he knocks over vases and destroys everything in his path.  Everyone here is running around after the child picking up the broken pieces.  I want to talk to the kid.
    -I think this is great idea, he says.
          He is serious again.
    -Is great idea, and is possible idea.
    -You think so?  I need your connections to the Lieutenants, you would have to help me get to them and make their soldiers listen.
    -Not any problem.  This is easy part.  Hard part is getting soldiers to remember morals.
    -True.  I'm thinking of going from a more self-centered perspective.  If we show them educational videos on sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, it won't be completely effective, but it could potentially make them at least hesitate before attacking women.  I'm going to find the most graphic, painful looking images of inflamed penises.
    -This is good idea.  We will have to think more on this.
    -Yes, I'm going to contact some people I know in Goma and Bukavu and see if they have any ideas.  I think there may be one soldier education initiative around Goma, but I haven't heard much about it and there's obviously nothing up here in the bush.
    -True.  Well I am very interested, this is good idea.  Oh, and I am Dusan, I am rude, yes?
    -Um, yes.  You are often a bit rude.
    -This is my friend Rocky.
          He points to a man in a MONUC camouflage uniform sitting next to him.  I didn't even notice the man or our lack of social tact.
    -Rocky is from Ecuador.
          Rocky is a big man with sausage fingers.  He smiles kindly at me and gets up a little to shake my hand.
    -Hi Rocky, I say as my hand disappears into his.
          I hold a sharp spike of my irritation out of my voice.  I've heard the words Rocky, Ecuador and MONUC soldier in the same sentence before.  This is the man who slept with Sonia, my prostitute friend in Beni.  Rocky impregnated her and completely deserted her and his own son.  Sonia's just happy to have a "muzungu" baby.  The baby's lighter skin slides her social status upwards on the scale; although when I was trying to keep her from passing out on the floor of the dark club in Beni, she seemed to be flailing around at the bottom of the barrel.
          Most men I know here are incredible people and I have to just let the other ones go.  They're not worth my frustration, and it's not my place to be passing judgment.  We all chat for a few minutes.  Rocky doesn't speak great English and although I used to speak some Spanish I don't even try.  All the French words in my head have stormed the castle and kicked the other residents out.  Even my English is awkward.  Dusan wants me to find a computer for him in the States, since electronics hardly exist here and in his home country they're extremely over-priced.  Faustin is still giving me the silent treatment, and Rocky tries to follow the conversation but I can tell most of his laughter is of the I-don't-understand-but-you're-laughing-so-I-will-too kind.
    -Well, I have to go, I say getting up from the table.  I'll see you in a few weeks, stay safe everyone.
          They all wave to me and smile, except for Faustin.
    -Enjoy being home, says Dusan as I start walking away.  And send message to your parents to warn that you are not pregnant, so when you get off plane they don't ask "who is the father?"
          He crumbles into laughter again.
    -Ha. Ha. I say not actually laughing.,
    -I'm kidding, be safe.
          Every Congolese person I know plus Dusan has effectively prepared me for coming back to the States with a few extra pounds on my person.  I head back through the haze of dust to COPERMA.  The crew is waiting for me and we all leave to go to a "night-club" down the road.  A night-club in Butembo has to close at 6:30 p.m. and should really be called a late-afternoon-club, but I don't mention this to anyone.  Inside of the dark club, the walls are covered in Christmas lights and there is even a stage for music.  There are about eight of us and we order a round of drinks and two rounds of fried fish with frites.  That's the only food available at the moment.  I order a bottle of nine dollar champagne and when it comes to the table everyone claps.  I'm the only one who knows how to open a champagne bottle and everyone laughs and claps again as the cork shoots out and I am covered by the excited bubbles that spill out.
    -I've never had this before, Maman Marie exclaims.  I am keeping the bottle forever.
          She pours a small amount into each person's glass and we all cheers.
    -I want someone to take a picture of what's in my stomach, Maman Marie says, happily pointing to her stomach.
          I never knew cheap champagne could cause such a spark of happiness.  It feels good to watch and feel responsible for.  Everyone starts chatting back and forth.  It's like a little family, and I'm a part of it.  I don't understand them a lot of the time, they rarely get me, but we all care about each other.  I look around at each person as they're laughing about the cultural differences that never get old.  I love these people.  Hangie pulls me out of my head and asks me what happens to women in the States when they get pregnant.
    -The same thing as Congolese women, they're human too!  Sickness in the morning, and they get kind of irritable at times.  And they have really strong urges for specific foods.
          This last one confuses him.
    -Women here don't really get that.  They do eat mud, though.
    -Excuse me?  Mud?  Mud, as in dirt from the road?
    -Yeah, he laughs at my surprise.
          I don't believe him.
    -Maman Marie, Hangie is telling me that women here eat mud when they're pregnant.
    -Yes, she says immediately.  I don't know if everyone does but most women do.
          I make a note of this in my head.  If I ever become pregnant, eat mud.
          After several rounds of drinks, a lot of laughter and ten fried fish I pay the bill and we trickle out.  I tap heads three times in the usual Congolese fashion with everyone except Maman Marie.  She and I get in the rickety truck and Fisto, the driver starts towards the Crosier house in Musienene.  I enjoy the familiar bouncing of the car and try not to worry about the rapidly diminishing light.  Maman Marie and Fisto need to drive back to Butembo and I want the sun to wait for them; a brief pause in the sky, so these beacons of humanity can get safely home.
          At the Crosier compound, Maman Marie gives me a hug and we tap heads three times.  The hug feels great, because it's my culture not hers, and she knows that.  As she drives away I realize I am ready to be back in the States for a brief minute. I miss the Congo and I haven't even left yet; but it will be nice to have a few changes, food being a big one.  I like the Congolese food but with the amount of palm oil they eat with everything I can feel my chances of developing heart disease increasing with every meal.  I can't wait to see some lettuce on a plate.  Not to mention, it'll be pretty nice to not stick out like a sore, swollen, infected thumb for a few weeks.
          Later, I recount the evening to a friend in the United States and she tells me that American women eat mud too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hangie on Children and the Church

          Driving a motorcycle is like driving a car and riding a horse at the same time, temperament and personality included.  After only four months, the chain on my motorcycle pops off while I'm driving it;  I find myself walking the monstrous thing back to the Crosier house, in heavy boots and no socks.  Four months is pretty good, considering it was made in China with less than quality parts, dissembled, sent to Congo and then put back together again.  I have nothing against Chinese production, but people here often refuse to buy things with the MADE IN CHINA stamp, so the motorcycle break-down doesn't surprise me.
         After making it back to the house I am able to get a moto-taxi.  Maman Marie went to the Girl-Mother center in Magherya yesterday and we are supposed to head out to Isale today, in order to follow-up with the Rotational Credit.  By the time I get to the office, I have open blisters on the backs of my heels.  My socks disappear here faster than I can realize they existed in the first place.  Hangie is sitting in the main room when I enter, and he laughs at me as I carefully pull off the heavy boots and start walking around barefoot.
    -Where is la Maman? I ask.  We're supposed to be going to Isale today.
    -She's still in Magherya, they spent the night there.
          He sounds a little worried and he's looking at his phone every three seconds.
    -Have you not heard from her?  Do you think she's okay?
    -Yeah, I'm sure it's okay.  She was supposed to come back last night though.
         There is never service up in the mountains where the girl-mother center is located, so there's no way to check on her safety.  She's been through a lot, though, she's one strong lady.  We both dismiss the soldier-images in our minds and try to have faith in the world.
    -Hangie, can I ask you a question?
    -Yeah, of course, what is it?
         He stutters a bit when he speaks, which used to confuse the French for me, but now I find it rather endearing.
    -We've already talked about this a bit, but can you explain more why you want to have eight children?  If you could sum it up in one or two sentences, what would you say?
         Hangie has one child right now, a bouncing baby boy named Gabriel.  Hangie considers himself relatively well off because he has a job and an education.  We've discussed the idea of having a baseball team of children several times, but the massive families still frighten and frustrate me.  I can't wrap my head around it.
         Hangie looks at the floor and starts tapping his finger on his chin.
    -There are so many reasons, it's hard to sum it up in one or two sentences.
    -Just give me the first couple of reasons.
    -Well, the first reason is, in the African culture, especially here in Congo.  Socially, chez les Wanande, to have eight or more children is a richesse.  Children in general are a richesse.
          He always gives me this answer, but I see children as money munching monsters, especially when they exceed the level of two or three.  Coming from a culture where having only a few children, depending on the size of your bank-account, is seen as responsible, I just can't understand the word richesse in connection to 10 mouths to feed and educate.
    -The second thing follows the first, he continues.  Many people love a lot of children because we love to see them around.  We love children!
          He looks up and smiles at me.
    -Hangie, I love children too, but I'm not going to start birthing ten of them as soon as I get married.  Okay, I've explained to you that I think it contributes to poverty, because the more children you have the more mouths to feed, the more school fees to pay.  You never really give me a straight response to that.  What do you think about it, honestly?
    -It's true, first of all.  We've already accepted that, but people aren't informed that having lots of children brings poverty.
    -But you're informed and you still want eight children.  I don't get it.
          I'm kind of attacking him, but he's a pretty good friend at this point and we often have open discussions like this.  I know he won't take it personally.  He makes fun of my weird American ways and I sputter about not understanding the cultural subject of the day.
     -You don't consider yourself poor right now, but if you have eight children you will be poor!
          He laughs.
    -Let me explain a little more.  I want to have eight children, but right now, I know that I can't afford to have even one more.  When we had Gabriel, my wife was in the hospital for two months and it cost 600 dollars.
    -600 times eight is...
          He rightfully ignores me.
    -I want to have another child, but in my heart, I know I can't afford even that one hospital visit.  I may not tell my wife this yet, but I don't have the means right now, so we won't have another child.  Yet.
    -Another thing I find conflicting, for me personally, is that the Church forbids the use of condoms and la pillule.  I understand family planning can be plausible in some situations, but it doesn't seem that way to me, in this context.  What do you think about that?
    -About the Church?
         He pauses and taps his chin again.  Baseme has entered at this point and is sitting on the couch behind Hangie, silently listening.
   -The Church sees the sperm as already human.  They do contribute to the poverty, because the Church does the opposite of sensibilisation.  They don't teach about effective family planning.  And family planning is so important.  Family planning is smart.
          He draws out the last word, and even says it in terribly pronounced English.
    -Do you know what smart is? He asks.
    -Yes, Hangie.  I know what smart means.  I speak English.
    -No, SMART.  S-M-A-R-T.  Specifique, Mesirable, Acceptable, Realizable dans les Temps. 
          He stands up and writes it on the piece of paper in front of me.
    -Ooh, I like that.  I'm guessing you learned that in a formation session?
    -Yeah, and the Church doesn't say it's smart.  They say it's not smart.  The Church says, when a man needs a woman, the woman should always come to him, with no discussion.  And when the woman needs her husband the man does not have to come to her, he can refuse.
    -What? That's ridiculous and extremely sexist.
         I'm not sure where he's going with this.
    -If I say, I need you physically, the Church says you can't say 'I'm not available,' you have to just say yes.
    -Not possible.  That's absurd!
          I'm getting fired up.  But I know Hangie doesn't actually believe that.  I've met his wife, and eaten lunch at their home.  He's kind and patient and doting. 
    -The Virgin Mary accepted to carry Jesus in her womb.  When God asked her to carry his child, she accepted.  She set the example and all women must follow her lead.  That's what the Church teaches.
         I'm almost positive the general Catholic Church does not say that, if they do I'm never looking at a Priest again.  Despite knowing this, I take the bait like it's my last meal.  Also, it's entirely possible that the Church Hangie attends in Butembo preaches this.
    -I hate that Hangie!  If what you're saying is true that is horrible.  The Church is hurting the people!  That's the opposite of holy, that's evil, pure evil!
    -How so?
    -What you're saying is rape.  I don't care if it's a married couple or what.  If a woman, or a man for that matter, doesn't want to have sex, it is entirely their right to choose and act on that choice.  There's such a thing as marital rape.  What you're saying puts men up here--I lift my left hand in the air--and women down here.
         I throw my pen on the ground, grab my boot that's lying on the floor and start pounding the pen with it.  Hangie and Baseme are both laughing.
    -The woman has to obey her husband, he says when I sit back down on my chair.  The Church says the woman must be ready at all times.
          I have nothing left to say.  I tell Hangie he's crazy and the Church is as crazy as him if what he's saying is correct; we all laugh about our opposing sides.  It's like standing on two sides of a brick wall; I can hear him talking but can't visualize a damn thing he's saying.
          I ask if he would mind buying me some jyoro-jyoros, sandals a bit like Crocks, but more attractive and a lot less expensive.  Everyone in the rural areas wears them and when I wore mine in Goma I realized they are actually a symbol of being from the country and thus being poor.  People in Goma thought my shoes were more funny than my skin.  My blisters are too gaping to stick my feet back in the boots, that are now scattered across the floor.  Hangie is more than happy to help and bounces out of the office.
         Baseme is still in the room and hasn't said a word.
    -Do you agree with what he was saying?
    -No! Of course not.
    -So you don't agree with what he says the Church says?
    -No, I don't agree at all.
          Baseme is a woman of few words.  She's 25 years old and has a seven year old daughter named Eliza.  Baseme was the first victim of rape I met when I moved here. She has been raped three times, all by civilians. starting when she was 16 years old.  Any time I ask how she is doing, her response always redirects the conversation to the needs of Eliza.  If Eliza is fed and in school, Baseme is happy.  That's all there is to it, no matter the past.  Her strength amazes me.
         Hangie gets back with the jyoro-jyoros and I leave on a moto-taxi.  Back at the Crosier house I ask the two brothers currently around what they think about Hangie's words.  They say that none of that follows with Catholic ideals.  The Crosier brothers tell me the Catholic Church teaches that in all situations it has to be a mutual, consensual act within a marriage.  For both the man and the woman.
        That puts me at ease again, I let the bait go and calm down.  Yet, the frightening thing for me isn't just the Church ideals, but how people interpret them, priests and congregants alike, and how far backwards that can take us.