Monday, April 26, 2010

Les filles et les garcons

    These are not women, these are children, young children.  As we walk up to the COPERMA center in Magherya there are at least a hundred young boys and girls milling about, beginning the Mzungu-crawl toward me.
        -Where are the girl-mothers?  I ask Pere Charles in French.
        -They are here, he says.  You will seem them within the groups.
     I look through the children and into the small classroom near us, trying to decipher which are "girl-mothers" and which are "normal" kids.  I catch myself looking for something to stand out, as if they will have scarlet letters attached to their chests, and I feel ashamed of thinking they'll be in anyway different.
    The night before, the famous Maman Marie Nzoli and her assistant of sorts, Bamafay traveled to Mulo to meet me.  In the morning we piled into a broken-down truck and started out for Magherya.  The village of Magherya has the largest of the ten centers that Maman Marie runs.  It is about one hour from Mulo on the same bumpy road that took us last weekend to Kiondo.
    Maman Marie is a formidable woman, in size and in spirit, though her thoughts and emotions are difficult to decipher.  She has two faces, one of consternation, confusion or disgust (I can't tell which) and one of pure enjoyment.  It's as if she's carrying around the two classic masks from the theater way back when; she switches between the masks so quickly I'm constantly confused, wondering if I've said something wrong.
    The assistant is a young girl who looks to be about 28 years old.  She is tall and thin, with a body that American men would die for.  Whether she's sitting or standing she has a perfect, effortless posture.  Her face is soft and round but she eyes that are sharp and have more than a tinge of darkness behind them.  It seems as if she is wearing a thick layer of eyeliner around each eye, but it is simply the coloring of her skin.  She is at ease with herself, and is the kind of person you immediately want to like you without knowing why.  She and Ange would make a great couple, I think to myself as we get in the car.
    She sits in between the large form of Maman Marie and myself in the back of the truck while Father Charles sits in front with the driver.  As we begin to drive I imagine Bamafay and Ange encountering each other on the street, both stopping in their tracks immediately recognizing the glow of the others' skin.  I feel a flicker of female jealousy but quickly get it under control.  I then feel completely ridiculous as Ange is, first of all in no way a romantic interest, and is, most importantly, already married to J.C.
    My thoughts are interrupted by the roaring of the engine.  It's roaring a lot harder than it's working and I can tell already this is going to be a long trip.
        -Je pense que la voiture est fatigue, I say.  I think the car is tired.
    Father Charles laughs and assures me that the car is very strong, much stronger than the Crosier cars.  I may be a woman but I am able to differentiate between the sound of a motor that works and a motor that is suffering a slow and painful death.   I keep this thought to myself.  I've gotten used to Father Charles' situation-padding and have stopped trying to reason with him.  As the car shudders forward I content myself with reading the five year COPERMA plan that Maman Marie has given me.
    The first time we break down, the driver is able to fix the problem in about twenty minutes.  The second time we break down he determines that the car needs water and disappears down the vacant road.  Maman Marie heads off in the opposite direction, towards Magherya, so Bamafay and I chase after her.  Maman Marie is not a small woman and after about ten minutes of walking she is tired.  We sit on the side of the road to rest and wait for the car to pick us up.
    I start asking her questions in French about the center.  How many girls are there?  What do they do during the day?  DO all of them live at the center?  Who watches the babies when the girls can't?  What are the biggest problems at the center?
    My questions are impossibly broad but she begins explaining anyway.  There are about 300 children at the center in Magherya, she explains, and not all are girls.  It is a mix between les filles-meres (girl-mothers) and les garcon-soldiers (boy-soldiers).  Because of the extreme poverty here many young boys are either forced or enticed into a militia group.  Some of them are able to escape, but when they do they have no money, no vocational knowledge and they are nowhere near their families.  The center takes them in along with the girls.
    As she explains, her French gradually picks up speed and it becomes difficult for me to follow.  I ask if any of the girl-mothers have husbands who did not abandon them.  She says something rapidly about "five or six," and it sounds like she is saying there are five or six husbands who live at the center.  It makes me feel a little better to imagine these five or six husbands sticking by their wives, trying to help them find solid ground once again.  But she's speaking very quickly and I don't trust that I've understood correctly.  I ask her to repeat it slowly, and when she does I understand.
    She's not talking about husbands at all.  Maman Marie is explaining that there are five or six soldiers to a girl when they rape her.  She is no longer switching between her theater masks.  She finishes her sentence and she sees that I have understood.  I have no question to follow that image and we sit in silence looking at different sections of ground.  Eventually, we hear the roar of the engine down the road and soon the car is dancing toward us.
    The third time we break down we are in the middle of a village.  This time the car needs a new spark plug.  Once again the driver ambles off into the distance with only a few mumbled words of explanation.  The four of us wait idly around the car as the children trickle in.  Mzungu-crawl.
        -There used to be a small militia group here, says Father Charles as we watch the puddle of children grow.  It is a group called Mai-Mai.
    I resist the urge to punch him in the arm.
        -Yes, of course I know who the Mai-Mai soldiers are.  They are one of the biggest problems in this region, yes?
        -Yes, big problem.  They are big problem because they have many many small groups everywhere.  But they say, this young boy is our leader!
    He points to a boy of about six years old who is looking up at me from beneath tightly furrowed eyebrows as if I am about to shoot into the sky and explode.
        -But how can you say a boy like this is a leader?  He asks.  Ridiculous!
    Again, I have nothing to respond and find myself in a startled, contemplative silence.  I'm staring at the boy imagining him pointing a gun at me.  After about 20 more minutes and the arrival of at least 30 more children, the driver returns with a box of new spark plugs and manages to start teh car once more.
    Four hours after leaving Mulo, we arrive in Magherya and I am searching the crowd of children for the girl-mothers who have sat in my mind for so long.

    There are children ranging in age from infant to about sixteen.  Maman Marie leads us into a dark mud house that is the office.  On the walls there are posters of women breast-feeding and children drinking water with messages in French that read, All children need potable water, and Every child deserves a family.  The posters are from UNICEF.  Maman Marie says that every year UNICEF gave the children four notebooks each, although this year the notebooks never came.
    Maman Marie cuts off the conversation.  I confided in her earlier and she is remembering my little secret.  Coffee in the morning plus a bumpy road and a four hour excursion have not left my bladder in a comfortable state, which Maman Marie is well aware of.  I couldn't pop-a-squat on the way to Magherya as I would have had an audience of 20-30 people staring at me, all in the midst of the epiphany that white people pee too.  It's surprisingly dehumanizing, and makes me think of the Us and People magazine pictures of celebrities doing things like biting into hamburgers with captions that read Look! They eat too!
    Luckily, Maman Marie is not the type to be disillusioned by light skin and she abruptly shows me to the toilet.
        -Ca n'est pas moderne, she yells after me as I walk towards a small mud hut halfway down the mountain.  It's not modern.  She fails to mention that it is a twenty foot deep death trap.  Within the small hut are two logs placed three-feet apart over a massive ditch.  I'm more frightened while hovering over that deep lake of feces than I have been since I arrived.  I wonder how these young children are even allowed near such a thing.
        -Where are the filles-meres and the garcon-soldiers?  I ask when I'm beside her once again.
        -Ici, she says.  Here.  She waves her hand at the children in the make-shift classrooms on our left, that have only three walls.
    There are no scarlet letters, just little kids.  We enter the first of four classrooms.  It is filled with the youngest of the children.  The classrooms are divided by age, but even the oldest children are learning elementary school material.  Each classroom is made of long sticks tied together and plastered with walls of mud.  The mud has begun to crumble in many places and the children in the next classroom are crowding around the holes staring at me.  I feel bad for interrupting their lessons, but Maman Marie is pushing forward, leading me to the front of the class.
    At the front of the class I can see all of their faces.  A young girl in the back looks at me with a sad expression on her face, but when I smile at her, she lights up in return.  She's embarrassed by the attention and hides in her neighbors shoulder.  She can't be more than eight years old.
    All of the girls here are victims of at least one rape.  All of the boys have been part of a militia and I can only imagine what things they may have seen and done.  I have no doubt that many of the boys have committed the very crime for which the girls are here.  Yet, each boy watches me eagerly, with a mixture of childish curiosity and awe.  I greet the children in Kinande and they respond in unison before laughing hysterically.  It is the joke that never gets old here.
        -This is Amy, explains Maman Marie.  She is here because she understands children like you.
    I'm uncomfortable with the distinction she makes between these kids and other children, and especially the idea that I understand what they've been through in even the smallest way, but it's not my place to say anything.  The children listen to her eagerly without taking their eyes or their grins off of me.  After a lengthy introduction, largely in Kinande, we move to the next room.
    The children here are slightly older, and now the kids from the room we just left are peering through the holes in the mud-plaster walls.  One of the girls in this room, about twelve years old, is sitting with a tiny baby strapped to her back.  The baby is sleeping quietly behind its mother.  The girl looks at me with the same wide eys and excited curiousity as the others, but when I make eye-contact with her she looks away.  The drop of her glance does not have the usual youthful bashfulness to it.  There is shame in her face and she adjusts the child on her back without looking back at me.  I keep smiling at her, hoping she'll look up and I can show her that I'm not judging her.  I want to show her that I see just a beautiful little girl sitting in a classroom with friends.  Father Charles tells me that normally there are many babies in the classrooms, and I feel bad that I have come on the day that she would be the only one.  I hear Maman Marie's speech coming to a close and step in right on cue.
        -Wuholo!  Goodbye.
    Again the children practically fall off of their chairs clutching their bellies with laughter.
    The third classroom is filled with teenagers.  They are more rambunctious than the others and shout requests for books and desks, as if I might simply reach into my bag and start pulling out supplies like Mary Poppins.  I ask Father Charles to explain that I am here to work with them and to learn from them, but I'm not with an organization, specifically not UNICEF, so I won't be able to buy them those things.  He speaks to them for about ten minutes in Kinande.  I wish I could understand what he is saying, what promises he is making that I won't be able to keep.
    When I enter the fourth classroom I am the last in our group to walk in.  We are now in a building just up the mountain made of bricks rather than mud.  There are three square openings in the brick that allow in the only light.  When I enter, the students are already standing and Maman Marie is stationed at the front preparing to launch into the speech once more.  My eyes take a minute to adjust to the dark room and when they do I see that the children are standing on pieces of broken wood.  In the other classrooms, the children were sitting on wooden benches with wooden-plank desks stretched out in front of them.  In this room, it's as if a storm has knocked the desks down and the pieces are laying scattered on the floor.
    Maman Marie begins to give my introduction, but there's something different about her now.  On the far wall I notice a teenager crouching in the shadows.  The girl is looking down at the ground and when she looks up I can see that she is crying.  I look back to Maman Marie who is still speaking to the class and I recognize the cracking in her voice.  I can see, with the small amount of light coming through the windows that she is crying as well.  She is reciting my introduction but I can hear how hard she is working to hold her voice in a straight line.
    I entered the room late and I feel as if I've missed something vital.  I quietly ask Pere Charles why she is crying but he doesn't understand my question.  He hasn't noticed.  I quickly redirect his attention, without interrupting Maman Marie.
    I wonder if she is crying because of the desk remnants strewn across the floor.  Maybe when she was here a few weeks ago they were functional.  But I have a feeling she is crying because of the girl, and I have a feeling the girl is crying because of me.  I'm the only element in the day that is different.  Every time I ask Pere Charles or Maman Marie what I can actually do at the Center they brush me off as if it's an absurd question.  They tell me that simply being here is the most important thing.  They say that the idea that someone who is not bound by poverty and war knows about the kids and has traveled so far to see them, is like medicine for them.  A small dose of hope that people actually care.
    I don't like that answer though; they see me as the light at the end of a long dark tunnel and I don't even know which direction I'm walking in.  Maybe the girl is crying because she's overjoyed to see Maman Marie.  Either way the childrens' gazes feel heavier and I'm worried I'll need to sit down on the dirt floor if we don't leave the room soon.
    We move back to the office where we are served fufu and potatoes, with a bit of meat sauce.  I dump all of the questions I've been collecting on Maman Marie.
        -What exactly do the children do here?  I ask.  Do all of them live at the center?
    She responds in French and when I can't understand all of it Pere Charles does his best to translate for me.  The majority of the kids are able to either live with their family or with a family that has taken them in.  They travel long distances to go to school here, as other schools won't accept them.  When girls are raped, many families will reject them.  If they are lucky, a foster family will take them in.  Many are not so lucky and those are the children who live at the center with their children.  The goal of all the centers, she explains as we eat, is to help the children move past the trauma and then give them the basics of an education to start their own lives.  Before the children come to the center, they are brought to the Institute in Mulo to have therapy sessions with Sister Celine.  When they arrive at the center they are taught how to read, to write and a vocational skill such as soap making, sewing or baking bread.  The youngest mother at the center right now is twelve.
    One of the biggest problems, is the "temptation."  The center doesn't have enough money to provide food for all of the children much of the time.  So, when men offer even one dollar for sex, with babies on their backs, no family and no education, these children are often forced to accept.  It's also difficult, she says, to keep the boys at the center when the militia groups are
around.  There are several different groups in the area, and all know that the boys are here.
    I think of the boys I saw in the class.  One boy in particular stood out.  He was sitting in the front row by himself.  He looked at me from a nine year old face with the eyes of a 40 year old man.  In the United States he would be in fourth or fifth grade, just beginning to notice that girls have cooties and guppies will eat until they explode if you keep feeding them.  I can't see how a gun wouldn't weigh more than his frame, or how it wouldn't disintegrate next to his smile.
    The rebel groups promise food and money.  The girls are forced to trade sex and the boys are forced to trade a capacity for violence.  All are trading the snippets of innocence they might have left and their hopes for a semi-decent world.
    A little girl in a green velvet dress enters the room as we are finishing our conversation and our meal.  I ask her in Kinande what her name is.
        -Eliza, she says with the voice of a cricket.
        -She is the daughter of Bamafay, says Maman marie.  Bamafay is a child of the center.
    I look to Bamafay for confirmation but she has slipped out of the room.  I find out after we leave that Eliza is six years old and Bamafay is only 22.
    I want the day to be over but we still have the health clinic to see.  We leave the office and walk up the dirt path to the small buildings that make up the "centre de sante."  Most of the buildings are crumbling, but there are patients inside.  Above the door of one of the stronger looking buildings is a sign that says, Maternite.
    Here there is life.  At the end of a long hallway is a room filled with women lying silently on rows of cots.  I don't want to enter the room, afraid of what will be inside, but Bamafay has reappeared at my side and encourages me in with a smile.
    Once inside, the women are delighted to see me.  It's clear they don't have visitors often, especially not strange, pale looking creatures like me.  The Doctor of the clinic joins us and explains that this is where women wait to give birth, sometimes for a month or more.  The women are now chatty and, of course, endlessly amused by my attempts at Kinande.
    Maman Marie asks me something as we walk down another hallway, but I don't catch all of it.  I can pick out the words vitamin, help and pregnancy and I begin to flip through the crinkled notebook pages of college education in my head.  Introduction to Neuroscience --> neuronal development.
        -Folic acid, I say, quite pleased with myself.
    Both Maman Marie and the Doctor's wife, who is walking beside her, look at me with a touch of confusion and pure disappointment.  I look to Father Charles and he translates for me.
        -Do you know the vitamin injection...
    I hear the word injection and immediately blush.  Maman Marie explodes in laughter.  Her happy guffaws release the somber tension that has been building throughout the day and it feels like someone has let the air out of a balloon that was about to explode.  I start laughing too.
    In the next room is a woman holding a new born swaddled in blankets.  I ask the baby's name but she tells me he doesn't have a name yet.  I start to leave the room as she says something else in Kinande but Father Charles nudges me back.
        -She wants you to name the baby, he says.
    I look around the room and laugh uncomfortably.
        -She's joking right?
        -No. Very serious.
    There are five people in the room and all are staring at me as if I'm about to plop out a golden egg.  They're actually serious.  I search my brain for boys' names, all of which seem to be hiding at the moment.  I know I have to pick something in a local language, since nobody here can pronounce my three-letter English name.  I think of the brothers in Mulo and one name that I particularly like pops into my head.
        -Bienfait, I say.
    It feels good, a solid name.  Everyone in the room looks relatively content with my choice; the egg does appear to be gold.  Bienfait in French means either an act of generosity or a person who does many good deeds.  I can't tell what the mother thinks and I don't want to stay to find out.  I feel like I just wrote the boy's entire life but I can't quite make out what I wrote.
    In the next and final room are three more newborns: one with a yellow, balloning infection where the umbilical cord was cut, one breast-feeding under a blanket and a third sleeping peacefully next to her mother on a cot.  I say hello to the sleeping infant with the mother's permission.  The Doctor's wife comes over and begins batting at a purple ball of some sort tied with a string to the baby's pinky.  It looks like a little blueberry.
        -Six fingers! She exclaims happily.
    There's another blueberry stuck to the baby's other pinky.  I didn't even notice them at first but now I can see the strings are cutting off blod flow to the even digits, and they will soon fall off.  Everyone is grinning contentedly, even Maman Marie has settled on her happy-mask.  I'm exhausted.
    We leave a bundle of staggered smiles behind us at the health clinic as we head back to the car.  On the way home the driver flies across the bumpy road in an obvious attempt to restore his battered pride.  I cover my eyes and make loud exclamations as he knocks humans and animals off of the road.  My exclamations of distress seem to balloon his rapidly recovering pride and he drives even faster.  I think how much worse it is to have a driver drunk on his own ego than it would be if he were just plain drunk.
    About twenty minutes from home, when I am about to reach around the seat in front of me and strangle the driver, he blows a tire.  Maman Marie is not happy about walking the rest of the way but I am simply glowing about the predicament.  I trot off with more than a little pep in my step.
    When we finally get home, I'm not sure what to do with myself.  The events of the day feel like chapters in a book and I'm not ready to read them yet.  The evening prayer begins almost immediately after we return and once I'm in the chapel with the men, I'm happy for the chance to reflect.
    I don't start to cry until they start to sing.  It rushes up inside of me quickly and I'm not expecting it at all.  The day has been a flurry of quick emotions and they all now fill me at once.  My cup overfloweth, in every possible direction.
    I see the little girls' faces and the boys' nervous grins.  I feel like each child reached forward as I walked by and attached a small fishing weight to my jacket.  I walked off with their little weights of possibilities clinging to me but I have no idea what to do with them.  I'm the wrong person for the job.  I don't have the immense power they think I do.  And if I do nothing with their little weights, I'm afraid each will grow weary of holding on and sink into the earth, dragging the children behind them.
    I wait inside the chapel until all of the men leave and then walk to my room and go to sleep without changing out of my clothes.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010


     On Friday morning Ange taught me how to drive the motorcycle.  Ange is almost a Pere, which means he has been studying and training for the priesthood for about seven years, and will soon take his final vows.  He's like all of the men that I call boys here, a normal kid, his devotion to religion completely unapparent until standing before a meal or inside a house of God.  The door to the chapel is like a somber waterfall and when they  walk through they emerge on the other side soaked in sobriety.  I learned quickly not to try smiling at people in the chapel.
     Ange is one of the more brilliant lights around here, when not in the shadow of Christ.  When he smiles or tells a story you could attach him to a cord and light the village for a week.  He is tall and thin, but not clumsy or lanky.  his body and his face are elegant in an almost effeminate way.     When he laughs it feels like something is crackling through the air, separating the molecules and making room for even more.  There's a happiness that clings to him and people seem to breathe easier when he's around.
     In the mornings, he teaches the secondary school and I've started teaching an English class at the college.  After class, he took me to a stretch of road that was somewhat flat and devoid of boulders bigger than a beagle.  He drew the gears in the dirt and patiently showed me the necessary motions.  He let me start the bike, then put it in gear, then move forward on it slowly.  Then we flew down the road, with him sitting behind me shouting instructions and "exercises" into the wind.
     Then he let me do it on my own.  He told me to drive down the road and then come back, and told me not to tip over.  I did tip over but I kept that bit to myself.  It's quite freeing to streak across the land on a motorcycle.  I finally understand why people put their lives on the line to ride a hunk of ego-booster.  I wanted everyone in the villages to see me.  I wanted them to see the mzungu doing something tangible and dangerous and difficult.  I wanted the people to see that I wasn't a delicate skin that some reptile had shed and left to blow apart in the wind.
     When I got off to turn the bike around I forgot that it wasn't just a bicycle and it fell over with me under it.  I rolled a few turns down the hill before jumping up frantically, terrified someone had seen me and would shout, "aha! I knew you were a spoiled and weak little mzungu!"  Thankfully, nobody saw me. Ange was ecstatic that I had returned in one piece. 

     Later that day Pere Jean-Marie, Pere Bob and Brother Ngazi and I traveled to Kiondo for the weekend.  Kiondo is about 2 hours away on a road that creeps into the mountains through tiny villages the whole way.  The road is so bad you have to drive under 20 mph and when we arrived in Kiondo I had pulled most muscles in my body including several in my forearms.
     As we rattled through the villages Jean-Marie provided a running dialogue of which village belonged to which group of Christians.  This one was Catholic and we could stop and say hello, the next one was a Protestant village and we drove 25 mph.  We peaked at 30 once, when we drove through the Seventh Day Adventists, and I couldn't help feeling like I was driving through a game of Christian monopoly.  In the middle of each village I imagined a towering medal playing piece.  A silver Pope's hat here, a bronze number 7 over there.
     As he continued his dialogue and his tone rose and fell in parallel with the group of the moment, I wondered why there were divisions at all within Christianity.  Each village, whether presided over by Anglicans, Adventists or Catholics was simply a group of people trying to live a good life, raise a few happy children and keep an ounce of hope stored away for the next day.  The details of how seemed quite irrelevant to me.  But Jean -Marie and the other two were quite wrapped up in the details and spoke about it in rapid French most of the way.
     When we arrived in Kiondo it was precisely dinnertime.  Les Soeurs had prepared a meal of chicken, french-fries, potatoes, fufu, meat sauce and cabbage.  Meals for me have become a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.  The people here think that by not taking two heaping servings or sucking the brains through the eye sockets of the fish, I will shrivel up and die before my next meal.  They insist I need lots of food so I can work hard during the day.  It's difficult and embarrassing trying to explain that I don't actually do manual labor, ever.  Manual labor here is akin to breathing.  The heaping portions they consume are quickly distributed to muscles and efficiently siphoned off, while mine lounge around clinging fervently and quite happily to my spare tire.
     In the morning the Fathers and I left for Ishangu at six.  Ishangu is the place where the river, the lake and the equator collide.  It is also the location of some of the oldest human fossils ever found.  There is a line of current where the hippos congregate and you can see it stretching down the beach for miles.  People call it the back of the dragon, and legend has it that our earliest ancestors followed it across the lake to Ishangu.  The dragon's spine travels a straight line across the entire lake and points, like an arrow on a treasure map, directly to where the bones were found.
     In order to get to the "center of the world," a look-out point where you can sit with a friend, a beer and several deadly wasps, watching the river and the lake wiggle their fingers, we had to cross the back of the dragon.  We rode across in a large wooden canoe, with a man older than the dragon itself pushing us forward with a long pole.  The hippos came up to yawn and wiggle their ears, but stayed a nice distance away and thankfully the crocodiles were nowhere to be seen.
     We sat on the look-out point with the Conservationist, a thick-skinned man named Godfriede, talking about the equilibrium of man and nature and the constant torment of poachers.  He spends his days attempting to educate the local villagers about the importance of conserving natural resources, including animals.  But when hyenas tear through the season's crops Godfriede doesn't have much hope of inspiring mercy.
     He looks physically pained when he talks about people cutting down his trees.  Everything around us is like one of his children.  I have to watch what I say so I don't demean any of his kids.  He's so worried about this land being torn down, but everywhere you look there are green wooly trees or the purple hides of hippos.  From our vantage point we even see a log-like crocodile floating nonchalantly by.  I think of New York City and imagine him arriving at the land of opportunity and promptly keeling over dead at the feet of the Statue of Liberty.
     On the way back I walk with Godfriede, asking him about where the Mai-Mai soldiers are and how the war has affected the land.  He swiftly evades the subject, telling me that the war is nowhere near here and not to worry, I'm safe.  Asking men about what's going on with the war always ends abruptly.  They see a little girl with pig-tails and a high voice asking of there are monsters in the closet.  Only when I speak to the women is there an understanding that I'm asking because I need to know; that I need to know everything.  Godfriede has already put on the father cloak so I don't press him further.  There are butterflies in hundreds of shades flitting around us; you can feel the fertility of the land rising off of it like heat, so I continue chatting with him about his various charges.
     In the canoe on the way back a man with a rifle joins us as protection against crocodiles.  The rifle looks like he found it in an old cracker-jack box and I have to prance around to keep it from pointing directly at my feet.  He is helping the men lift the boat back into the water and seems to have completely forgotten the thing is swinging around at his side.  When we get to the other side, I pull my  bandana over my face to keep the swarm of insects from clambering into my eyes and throat.  When we first arrived I wasn't prepared, and found out quickly that I am in fact claustrophobic when hundreds of tiny corpses are stuck to the insides of my nostrils.  I had to concentrate diligently to avoid getting sick on the path as I snorted them down my throat and spit them out in order to breathe.  Veil over my face I know Godfriede would have been happy to know I was saving his pig-head friends from their doom.
    After spending several hours entertaining the flocks of children who surround me like wide skirt that never comes off, we headed home.  In the car ride on the way back we were surprised by a quick thunderstorm after dark.  The dirt road turned quickly into a slip-n-slide and the "escarpment" between us and the swift drop of the mountain didn't provide much consolation.  Jean-Marie made continual jokes in an attempt to alleviate his own fear, and I kept my fingers on the door handle and rehearsed the steps I would take as the car slid sideways and over the cliff.  Pull handle, push door, lean in opposite direction of car tilt with equal and increasing force, attempt to hold car down with weight, let go, allow to plummet. 
     I jumped out of a moving car once before, when I was about 12 years old and thinking about it made me feel more confident about my plan.  My brother was about to hock a loogey on me so I stepped out of the car.  Luckily, we were only going about ten miles per hour.  I rolled a few times on the pavement, feeling like a spy in a movie, and walked away without a scrape.  My father was livid, in a you could have died but you're alive and well and now I'm so terrified and overjoyed at the same time I'm not sure what to do with myself so I might just kill you anyway kind of way.  If my brother's spit could spark the necessary panic to jump out of a moving car, surely tipping over the edge of a cliff would have a similar effect.
     Despite the rain and the dark we got home safely.  When we arrived I was happy to be back, surrounded once again by the soft feeling of the Crosiers.  After dinner that night one of the brothers announced the news of the day.  In the North Kivu province three people were killed by the Mai-Mai soldiers.  One was a young girl.  Before they killed her the soldiers cut off her lips and her ears.  In retaliation the people in her village killed ten Mai-Mai family members.
     The stories of our vacation fall to the floor and the world comes rushing back.  I feel guilty for laughing with Godfriede and for feeling safe and content with the Sisters.  I feel guilty for forgetting about the people who are swimming in horror all of the time.  If you're lucky, you can get out of the water and breathe for a while, but then the world reminds you that it's 70% ocean, and most people can't even see the land.



Monday, April 12, 2010

C'est ca.

     And then you come to remember that every garden is riddled with snakes.

     Yesterday I went to Lubero with Pere Charles and his brother who is in town for a few days on business.  They asked me to drive with them into the village.  Lubero is in a sense, the city to the suburb of Mulo.  This means there are a few stores that sell beer and a few different types of cloth.  Ther are, maybe 5 cars in Lubero, and trucks twice the size of houses that roll through overburdened with goods and people.  The goods are tied down, but the people are not.  Pere Bob told me that those trucks crash often, and it's a sight that will tattoo your brain.
     We stop at the place where Pere Charles' brohter will be staying for the next few days.  It is an empty concrete room, as most houses are here, with a few wooden charis set-up around a footstool.  In the corner there are several empty gas containers.  It is a beautiful day and I request to sit outside.  Pere Charles waves his hand and several chairs and beers are pulled out of people's pockets.  We sit in a circle discussing whatever comes to mind, creating a melting pot of English, French, Swahili and Kinande.  I am trying to learn all three so I force people to repeat themselves constantly when I hear a new word.  Wasinga- thank you (Kinande); Ningapenda...- I would like (Swahili); Haricout- beans (French).  They don't mind.  They think it's hilarious to hear their words leaving my mouth.
     After a few minutes a young girl comes to sit with us.  She used to be Pere Charles' student.  Her name is Immaculae and she will be in the class I am teaching at the college.  Pere Charles insists she speaks English, but she is too shy to speak with me.  She laughs and hides her face anytime I try.  I move my chair to sit closer to her so we can talk about Psychology and what it's like in America.  She has a soft face and looks like she is only 15 years old, but I found out later that she is a year older than me.  We are sitting on a slab of concrete with the mountains rising up around us and pockets of children stopping by to stare at me.  The mountains are pure beauty.  They are like pages from a pop-up book or a magic eye scene once your eyes have picked up the magic.  Each one is broken up into squares of different colors.  Despite the incline the people here have cultivated the mountains and turned them into vertical fields.
     On the street I see a man in army green with high boots that suck his pants in just below the knee.  I noticed him when we first arrived, and I notice now that the place is quiet when he moves.  I hear a chink in the conversation; Pere Charles continues but I can tell he is uncomfortable.  Another man approaches in the road wearing a similar uniform but in navy blue.  Pere Charles says that when you are in this area, you cannot arrive or leave after six o'clock pm.  It is only 4:39 pm and they are already creeping in.
  -Do the soldiers give the people any trouble here? I ask.
  -No, not in the city.  Sometimes they steal but it is not a big problem here.
     I keep probing because Pere Charles has a tendency to tell me what I want to hear rather than what is true.
  -Are these soldiers who are causing le violence sexuale?
  -Oh no.  Not here.  Not in the city.
  -But they are ones who do?
  -Yes, maybe, outside of the city.  But there is nothing to worry about here. 
     I don't believe him.  Their presence is like humidity and it weighs everything down.  Even the buildings seem to sag.  When I am sitting with IMmaculae and PEre Charles is engrossed in a conversation with his brother I ask about the soldiers.  I ask if they cause problems.  Her English is limited, as is my French, but we both do our best.
     She tells me that the soldiers go to houses every night.  If they think you have money, they will come at night and ask for it.  They will take food and money and anything else you own that they want.  If you don't give it to them, or you don't have it, "they take you," she says.  I know she doesn't mean kidnap.  We are speaking quietly, I don't want the men to hear the topic.  It seems to bother many of the men here to acknowledge the sexual violence.  Saying the word "viole" is like saying Voldemort in the land of Harry Potter.  Men say it's terrible and tsk a few times before quickly changing the subject.
     Immaculae says that she has a friend who is fourteen now and has a child because she was raped.  She can't support the child because she isn't married, and the system of support here is dependent on marriage.  Women cultivate the fields but men are supposed to handle the bigger things like acquiring a house.  Being fourteen and not having a husband, the girl has dropped out of school, has no way to support the child and no hope of marrying in the future.
  -What do you think about all of it?  I ask, not quite sure what I'm asking.
  -C'est ca, she says.  That's how it is.
      The problem, she says, is that there is no way to say who committed the crime.  When a woman points out a soldier who has raped her, he is immediately moved to Beni and new soldiers are brought in.  When new soldiers are brought in, she says, there is no way to know what they've done or what they will do.  And the one who hurt you is now gone and there's no way to find him.  The soldiers are not only committing the crimes but are being protected and thus encouraged by the higher-ups in the system.  So, she explains, there's no point in even trying to get somebody to hold them accountable.  They'll be shipped out the next day, onto another city where they can rape more women and never receive even a slap on the wrist.
     I'm watching the two soldiers from my seat.  They are standing about 20 feet away from us, watching me out of the corner of their eyes but also waiting for the "bar" to open.  My anger fills me again and I can't help but glare at them.  I have images of weapons aimed their way, and wonder if that's something I could actually bring myself to do.  But I can also see that they are just boys, maybe 34 years between the two of them.  They are swimming in their boots and the stern faces they wear are pure bravado.  They are boys who think they are becoming men; they don't realize they're not even growing up human.
     The boys are wearing different colors because they are part of different militias.  But as, Pere Charles explains, they come together to drink beer.  They are in the middle of a war against each other and yet each night they drink and make merry.  The concept of war seems to be a facade they're all in on, an excuse to rip holes in the world.

     The next day, Pere Charles and I walk to the Institute.  When there are no classes there, Sister Celine uses it as the base for the Listening Center.  In French there isn't a word for counseling, so "listening" serves in its place.  Women come from all over the area to speak with Celine.  She is the only person here with training in psychology, and when the people hear about what she is doing they will walk the distance of several days to see her.  When I walk into the waiting room there are about eight women, two men, and one young girl of about seven years old sitting quietly against the walls.  I say hello in the local language and their faces light up for a moment in response before they remember why they are there and their eyes drop back to the ground.
     I run to the restroom and when I come out a woman is just leaving the room where Sister Celine is counseling.  The woman is at least 70 years old.  Another woman of about the same age stands up to help her down the stairs.  I follow them out and watch as they walk away from the Institute.  The woman who was with Celine is moving her feet slowly, one inch at a time.  Each step is delicately placed, protecting something broken in the middle.  Her friend holds her elbow lightly and walks just as slowly beside her.  I wonder how far they have to go.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The beginning of life in Mulo

    I have arrived at my final destination of Mulo in the North Kivu province.  It's a paradise here.  I believe I've stumbled on the Garden of Eden; somehow the people in Mulo found a way to get back in.  Inside the walls of the Crosier compound there are brick buildings surrounding several courtyards.  The main courtyard is surrounded by the rooms for les Peres (the older priests who have undergone at least 9 years of schooling and have taken their final vows as Crosiers) and myself.
    Right now I am sitting in the courtyard surrounded by flowers and covered by a large umbrella.  Les Freres (the brothers, who are still in their schooling and training to become priests) set up a table with coffee in the courtyard and I'm sitting with Citi, one of the dogs, at my feet.  Pia is the other dog, both are females, but Pia needs to stay chained during the day because she has the libido of a college girl and Luke is tied-up on the other side of the wall during the day.  The dogs love me and Pere Bob, the other American here, because Westerners are the only ones who view them as pets and give them affection.  The Crosiers all think I'm very strange for petting the dogs and talking to them like they're babies.  And when I start complaining about having fleas, "I-told-ya-so" will be ready and waiting.
    Outside of the courtyard is the local parish church, several school buildings and a soccer field.  As you move away from the Crosier compound you move farther into the village.  Life in the village is largely centered around the Crosiers and the Companie de Marie, a group of nuns who live next door.  The Crosiers and the Companie run all of the school activities and masses.  People flow through the school buildings and the church during the day, and then trickle down the road as night falls.
    I haven't gone outside of the compound much, as my French and Swahili are still too basic to hold a decent conversation.  But the people know I'm here.  When I do venture outside the compound, to read or play soccer with les Freres, I'm like the magnet in one of those drag-the-magnetic-hair-onto-the-bald-man's head games.  Children and adults form a tail behind me like the bald man's changing hair.  If I stop moving, they stop too.  When I first ventured outside alone I sat in front to read my book and watch the people milling around at work and at play.  Within about three minutes six young boys spotted me and ambled up towards me.  None older than about seven, they stood within a few feet of me and simply stared, open-mouthed.  When I spoke to them they giggled and hid behind the columns, before gradually creeping out again.  Once the boys had come within five feet of me and I hadn't started kicking or screaming, everyone who could see the sun reflecting off of my skin moved towards me in hoards.  Within a couple more minutes, about 30 people, mostly women, were standing half-circle in front of me simply looking.  When I changed positions slightly everyone scattered for a second as if I was a wild beast that was agitated and about to begin attacking.
    I said hi to everyone, in French and Swahili, and told them I was going to be here for several months.  They thought that was hilarious.  When I introduced myself they quickly repeated back in unison, "EHMY" and then broke down laughing once more.  It's quite difficult to focus when 30 plus people are silently watching you read, so I retreated to the enclosed courtyard.
    There is a solid schedule here and I'm like another dog roaming the compound, popping in and out of events and meals.  The day begins at 6:15 for the morning prayer.  I wake up to the sound of women singing hymns in Kinande and one of the parrots outside my room whistling and speaking Dutch.  I shower while the men are in prayer, since I don't have my own bathroom.  The Crosiers have been incredibly open to my religion, or lack thereof.  Though the subject has not actually been breached with the Fathers, I'm sure they've concluded that I'm not necessarily a Christian.  I am welcome to attend all prayer sessions and masses, but I am not obligated.  Needless to say, I don't make it to the 6:15 prayer.  Breakfast is at 7:15 and consists of maize-wheat porridge, coffee and omelets for me since I'm still a bit of a novelty and they are extremely kind.
    Congolese culture is unfathomably welcoming and generous.  Everywhere I have been people have treated me with the utmost kindness and respect.  They've shared their food and drinks with me, and when I couldn't quite bring myself to eat the chicken gizzard saved for the honored guest ,they simply laughed and passed it down to Father Charles.
    Before lunch, an afternoon prayer session and one again at night before dinner.  I have been attending the evening and afternoon prayer sessions.  Les peres et les freres put on their robes, white underneath with strips of black and the symbol of the Crosiers in the middle, and sit and sing together in harmony.  Their voices are strong instruments and when parts of the group move their notes around and the harmonies change it has a delicately ethereal sound.
    Dinner consists of some combination of fufu, rice, potatoes, spinach, cassava, goat, beef, chicken, fish (heads) or all of the above.  Salad here is shredded carrot with mayonnaise dressing.  For many people here, salad is a ball of mayonnaise with a sprinkling of shredded carrot on top.  After dinner there is "recreation" at 21:00.  Recreation consists of sitting together, drinking some aperitifs made by one of the younger Brothers, and watching Tanzanian movies translated into Kinande.  Electricity goes out shortly after ten.  I thought I would be anxious and afraid at night for at least the first few weeks, but the past couple of nights I've slept better than I have in a long time. Like a baby, if you will.

    I say it's like the Garden of Eden here not just because of the paradise inside, but because outside of the metaphorical walls of Mulo there is chaos.  George Lerner, the cousin of a friend, was in Butembo several years ago.  He described the area as an "island of tranquility within an active war zone."  That remains entirely true today.
    North of Butembo, a mass grave of about 300 people was found a few months ago.  According to the Brothers the people were killed by the Ugandan militia.  To the south and west are some of the most volatile and impassable regions in Congo.  As we flew over some of these areas from Bunia to Butembo, Father Charles pointed down into the bush.  From a plane, the bush looks like the hair of an African woman, full and thick.  "The rebels are down there," he said.  "When Indonesia and America send troops to fight, what are they going to do with that?" 
    It made me think of Vietnam and what I learned about the napalm bombs that covered the enemy, the land and the people.  The problems go deeper and deeper and the solutions are still so shallow.  My first night here I was invited to dinner by the Brothers staying in a building down the road, called Katuwa.  After dinner they talked about the situation in Congo.  Pere Bob translated some for me.
    The Crosiers have a location west of Mulo that they've had to abandon completely.  Women are being raped constantly.  I asked why the women remain in the region, though I already knew the answer.  Their livelihood is in the land they own, and the houses they've built.  It's not a livelihood that's transportable.  If they left their homes they would place themselves and their children in an even more dangerous and uncertain reality.  The Pere who was explaining the situation west of here made a circle around his mouth and then circles around his eyes, and every gaze in the room dropped to the floor.  No translation needed.
    The next day I went with Pere Jean-Marie and Pere Bob to meet les Seours de Companie de Marie.  There are 12 nuns who live in a small compound adjacent to the Crosiers.  One of these women, Sister Celine, travels about 20 minutes several times a week to work in the camps with the young-mothers.  She is the one I will be working with.  I told Sister Henrietta that the main reason I am here is to work with those women.  Henrietta said that there is so much to be done in the camps, but only Sister Celine works there because the other nuns have many responsibilities in the Mulo community.  Running a village takes a lot of women and a lot of heart.
    The camps are run by Maman Marie.  I hear she runs a big operation and she takes her work very seriously.  I can't wait to meet her.  Because of the vast need, the ball is in my court, and it's my choice when to get it rolling.  I know that if I begin working there too quickly without a handshake of French to extend, I'll simply flounder around and get in the way.  So for now, I'm settling in, trying to get to know the boys here and expand my French and Swahili.  In a couple of weeks, hopefully they will be stronger.  I will seek out Sister Celine and move forward from there.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lions and tigers and bears... Congo-style

  -Can I show you the concession? Brother Maurice asks me.  He gestures to the general grounds so I understand what he means.  He has a round face, and a smile that takes over everything.  His eyes don't stand a chance when he smiles, which he does almost all the time.
  -Oui!  S'il vous plait.  And we begin.

We start at the pen where the monkey stays.  Frere Maurice has a puppy named Kirikou who follows him everywhere.  She runs up to the fence and starts poking her nose in through the wire.   The monkey is black and silver with perfectly round orange eyes.
Last night I was woken by the sound of something pounding on the wall of my room.  I thought I was going to die; any minute men would break down my door flood my room, and that's be it.  I wasn't even going to make it to Mulo.  After a few minutes of deep breathing, I explored the source of the sounds only to discover the dratted monkey was throwing baseball sized seeds at the house.
  -The monkey likes very much les legumes, he says and picks some green stalks from the ground that look like weeds.
  He holds them 6 inches from the fence and the monkey glares at Maurice and thrusts his tiny arms through the wires.  He can't reach the weeds and angrily begins to bark.  Frere Maurice doesn't want to give him the "vegetables" yet, so the monkey drops from the fence and reaches through at Kirikou.  She isn't paying attention and the monkey grabs her tail and pulls her towards the fence.
  Frere Maurice is laughing, Kirikou is yapping and the monkey is throwing loud, short barks at both of them.  Kirikou gets free and starts sprinting around the wire pen with the monkey circling after her.
  -To her it is a game, exclaims Frere Maurice.  But to the monkey, it is not.
I look back at the monkey and the dog.  The monkey is barking furiously at Kirikou, still chasing the tiny pup around the pen.  Frere Maurice drops the weeds on the ground by the cage when the monkey manages to grab Kirikou's tail once more.  He's nervous.  Kirikou could easily be hurt by the monkey, despite the wire between them.
I feel bad for the monkey, of course, so I pick up the weeds and stick them into the pen.  The monkey quickly snatches them out of my hands and starts munching away, giving our trio an unrelenting death stare.  I wonder if the monkey is even remotely happy in there.
  -Let us continue, says Maurice.
We walk down the path to another small building that is dark inside.  There is a worker in a blue jumpsuit sweeping the floor in the dark.
  -Habari mzungu! he says to me.  How are you, white person? 
  -Nzuri sana.  Very well.
The room is filled with hanging cages of bunnies.  The monkey is being kept for fun, and they say Kirikou is for security even though she's practically the size of a chihuahua.
  -These are beautiful bunnies, I say.  Why do you have so many?
They are large and have long silky fur.  Each rabbit is of a different coloring, and each rabbit reminds me of the two I had as a child and the many my friends went through as we all grew up.
  -We eat them! he says smiling.
  -Oh, who kills them?  Do you?
  -Yes, I kill them sometimes.  We let them grow big and many, and then we eat them.  But only a couple at a time.
I always thought that bunnies for consumption would look like ugly ragged beasts, not these fuzzy things.  Actually, I tried not to think about it.  I have an image of eating Cody, my first pet rabbit, and I start walking towards the door as if something just bit me on the ass.
Outside Maurice leads me down a path in the trees.
  -Here we have lots of snakes, so we must be a bit careful.  He picks up a branch from the ground and starts hitting the ground with it as he walks.  If we make noise, he says, the snakes are scared and they do not come out!
I'm not afraid of snakes, but I pick up a twig anyway and start sweeping it through the branches around me.  The forest is thick and it is soaked in green.  The green overtakes the brown and it looks like there are leaves hanging from leaves with no bark in between.
Brother Maurice is wearing boots and thick khaki pants.  I am walking through the brush wearing sandals and capris pants.
  -Are the snakes dangerous? I ask.  I might as well know what to look out for, I think.
  -Oh yes, they are dangerous.
  -Are they deadly?
  -Oh yes, very deadly.
I stop walking and look at the ground around me, but Brother Maurice keeps moving.  He doesn't seem to think there's a problem with me walking near-barefoot when there are deadly snakes about.
I've been in areas with snakes that bite before.  It's a good thing I'm not a girl who's scared of snakes. I slap the ground with my stick.
  -How deadly?
  -If you don't make it to hospital, in fifteen minutes you die.
  -But don't worry.  I am in front, so they will bite me.
He's walking about ten feet in front of me at this point, with Kirikou dashing between us and nipping at my legs.
  -What types of snakes are there? 
He stops and turns around, trying to figure out the words in English.
  -Do you know, Mamba?
  -Mamba?  Black Mamba?  Yes. I know Mamba.
  -Oh good.  Yes, black and green Mamba, we have.  But green Mamba is not so dangerous.
Oh, well. Hopefully, if I get bitten by a Mamba right now it'll be green.  That way I'll have 40 minutes to get to the hospital instead of five. 
  -Et, le bittent?  Do you know the word?
  -Le bittent?  No, je ne connais pas le mot.
 He stops again and has about 30 seconds of "umming" before he settles on the correct English.
  -Anaconda? Oh, fantastic.
His limited English doesn't pick up on my sarcasm and he looks at me as if he's not sure whether I am joking or just really stupid.
  -Don't Anacondas live in water? I ask.
I'm imagining the Jurassic-size snake in the movie Anaconda that, thankfully, killed everyone in the middle of some river that humans shouldn't have been in in the first place.  I'm okay with that Anaconda; I'm not going in any rivers.
  -No, they are in the jungle, he says pointing to the trees on either side of us.  He lifts his twig and hits it against a branch above his head.  They are in the trees and on the ground.
I stop walking.  There are thousands of tree branches on either side of me and plenty of ground space around me.  He doesn't seem worried at all.  I glance around a bit, force the images of basketball-sized snake heads out of my mind, and follow.  We passed the hospital on the way to the house.  It's only about 10 minutes away, and I trust Maurice would get me there in six.

We get to the end of the path and the forest disappears, revealing a small man-made lake with a stream running beside it.  We cross over the stream.  For some reason Kirikou decides to attempt to climb down to the stream and Maurice has to call her back.
  -Maybe, if you are lucky, he says.  You finadeement.
He mumbles the last bit.
  -I'm sorry?
He points to the muddy stream.
  -Maybe, if you are lucky, you find diamond!
  -Yes, only by the water.  There are many diamonds here.  But you cannot export them, he adds.  I can't tell if he says that for the benefit of my knowledge, or because he thinks I'm going to start shoving diamonds into my pockets and catch the next plane out.

The road between Butembo and Mutinga is lined with a small river.  Coming out of the river are mounds of rocks, and coming out of the rocks are men.  They stay all day sifting through what the river brings, looking for diamonds and gold.  From the road each man looks like his body is growing from whatever pile he has chosen for that day.
The city of Butembo is a smattering of wealth.  Next to 4 mud huts is a mansion mid-construction.  There is one mansion being built that is the size of a Beverly Hills-Angelina-and-Brad style house.  I ask Father Charles who lives there as we drive by it.
  -A man, he says.  A man with only five children.  What five children will do in all of those rooms, I don't know.
  -How does he get his money?
  -I explained to you earlier, he says.  Diamonds and gold.
Even though the men combing rocks for treasure don't seem to be under Blood Diamond style duress, and there are no sentries that I can see carrying AK-47s, all of it has a very bad feel to it.  Butembo is the second richest city in the Congo, according to Father Charles, because of the conflict minerals trade.  Father Charles says you can tell almost any person in the street that you are looking to buy diamonds, and you will soon be led to a room in the back of the back of a store where you can take your pick from rows and rows of glitter.
It is the second richest city, yet money is evident only in the monstrous houses that are resurrected next to huts half the size of a bathroom.  The city is made of dirt roads rife with boulders, cauldron-sized potholes, and in most of North Kivu, rebels.  It takes an hour and a half to drive the equivalent of about 30 miles, and North or West of Butembo and South of Mulo, you don't drive at all.

  -This is where we get our fish!
I've been staring at the stream.  Maurice has moved on to a square hole in the ground next to the lake.  There is a gate separating the empty concrete hole from the water of the lake.
  -When we want to catch the fish, we lift up the gate and the water pulls the fish into here, he says.  Then we open the back--there is a tiny hole in the back of the concrete enclosure that leads to an empty pond--the water goes out and the fish stay in!
Genius! I think to myself but I don't say out loud.  This is probably a very common contraption and if the snake comment didn't do it, I'm sure exclaiming about this would seal the deal on my idiocy.
  -Mm hmmm... I nod and do my best to look appreciative but also fully aware of contraptions like this.
We continue walking.  We re-enter the forest as we move away from the lake, and Kirikou is still bounding back and forth between us, trying to bite the ends of our noise-making twigs.
  -Do you worry about Kirikou being out here with us?  I ask.
  -Kirkou!?  No, Kirikou is fine.  Kirkou has to worry only about, do you know, viper?
  -Viper?  Do you mean those huge shiny black snakes that are extremely aggressive and as poisonous, if not more so, then the Mamba?  Yes.  Yes, I know viper.
  -Vipers do not like the dogs.  They kill the dogs often.
Often.  There are enough vipers around here, to kill the dogs often.  But Maurice still doesn't seem phased.  I'm sure he walks this path frequently.  He's been fine walking it for several years, so why shouldn't I.  I keep following him, but become more thorough about where and when I swish my stick.
  -I killed one in the garden only last week, he says.
  -You killed a viper?  With what?
  -A stick!  He holds up his twig and beams at me.
  -You killed a viper with a stick?
I don't even ask how that scenario went down.  We are now standing by a basin of water, with a concrete river leading into it.  The Fathers and the Brothers--les peres et les freres--have set up a small hydroelectric system.  Using the current of the water coming down from the mountain, they generate the electricity that we used at night.  We walk along the edge of the basin talking about how the hydroelectric system works, and the many difficulties they've encountered with it.  Suddenly, Frere Maurice stops and points his stick into the water.
  -Look!  Black Mamba!
I look into the water where he is pointing and sure enough, there is a small black mamba snake slithering across the brown water.  And Frere Maurice is poking it with his stick.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Wolf at Ssese Beach

  In front of everyone, right there in front of the concession stand, right there in front of her mother.  The man swayed over and started pawing at the girl's neck.  She shrugged him off and the mother smiled.  Maybe he knows her, maybe he's her Father, I thought.  The thought of it made me sick.  There's no mistaking that look, that sick hunger.
  His eyes saw only the girl and his teeth came out in anticipation of consumption.  The girl, only seven or eight, sipped happily from her Fanta.  He swayed like a sapling rotting from the inside out.  His eyes were blurry but their intention and desire were sharp enough.  I wanted to spit on him.
  The girl and her mother walked away oblivious.  With my eyes, I shot him in the gut with every bullet I had but he didn't even notice.  Shit of a man.  He stood for a second, swaying, and made a "fuck it" look with his face.  His eyelids shut with the weight of the alcohol and when they opened he had forgotten the girl and staggered off.
  I tried to memorize his face and his sway as he stumbled off but he disappeared into the crowd.  I imagined him passed out in a filthy gutter, hoping the alcohol would overtake his consciousness before he crossed paths with anyone else.
  And here is my dilemma, my contradiction, my hypocrisy: if I saw him so much as look at any girl like that again, if I saw the extension of a single claw, I really would kill him.  And I would not have one problem with doing so.
  So much for relentless faith in humanity.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Oh, Christ...

I just met Allan Weatherall.  About 50 years old; a big Australian man, tan and kind in the face.
We started chatting and the inevitable question of why I was here came up.  Then the inevitable questions about why I was going, and the inevitable and dreaded question about my faith.  It seems wanting to help people without a Christian motivation is simply incomprehensible.
Once the cat is out of the bag that Christ isn't my one true savior either a disgruntled judgment or a forgiving and intrigued delve into religion ensues.
Allan, to say the least, was a Christian... 
For a little while I almost understood what he was saying.  He was confused about spirituality as a teenager, and he was getting into Eastern religions; Buddhism in fact led him to Christ, he said.  He sat down by his bedside one day with a book on eastern meditations in his hands.  He said to God, "There are things in this book which I agree with and make sense to me, and there are things that completely confuse me.  If there is more to what I'm reading here, I need you to make it known."
He said he got up from his knees, knowing that something big was going to come.  He felt he needed a spirtual guide, someone to help him unravel his confusions.  A few weeks later his brother's friend visited.  His brother said, "let me warn you, he's very religious and very adamant about his religion."
The man, Joshua, was from Malaysia.  He had been a committed Buddhist, and then had come to follow Christ.  He didn't believe in Christianity as a religion, but he believed in following Christ.
I told Allan that I think believing in Christ, this figment of a man, who probably existed and probably was great, takes the power out of your hands.  It gives you a sense of control, but it's a false sense of control.  And believing in God, especially a just god, who will make everything all right, disempowers you even more.
I told him of friends I had made at NYU, one of whom was in an abusive relationship.  She said, "I know that God will take care of me, and God will make it all okay."  To me that is religion working deftly against her, I explained.  If she had taken stopped thinking about God as controlling her life for just a moment, she would have had a much greater chance at extricating herself from the situation.  Putting it in gods hands made her feel more okay with remaining in the situation, but also prevented her from beginning the process of getting out of it.
He told me he believes the bible is infallible.  I asked him, what about Solomon who pulled down the temple killing himself and hundreds of people?  Solomon was exalted and revered in heaven.  For killing hundreds of people (not to mention himself, in a religion where suicide is no menial sin).
Allan said, would it change if I told you that the people Solomon killed-- No it wouldn't, I said.  But continue.
Would it change if I told you that the people Solomon killed, in their religion which was very prominent at the time, sacrificed children and spread STDS with their animals, and perpetrated all sorts of human rights violations, and would have been doing so for generations to come?
Think of it like surgery, he continued.  Surgery is very violent; it's bloody and traumatic and painful.  But if you eradicate a cancer, and allow the person to live much longer, it can be justified. 
I liked the cancer analogy. 
But, I said, to me that is a lack of faith.  That is a God who separates people and puts some above others, and doesn't have patience or forgiveness.  I see it more as a body riddled with cancer, and that would be simply allowing one cancer to overtake another. 
The surgery analogy becomes complicated here, and we left it.
It's the contradiction that gets me, I told Allan.  That this is an all forgiving god, and we are ALL of us his children.  And yet, here he is exalting one child for killing several others.  And the justification, is that those children were bad children.  So then where did forgiveness go?
When Moses tried to free his people, God killed the first born of all the families under Pharaoh's rule.  But those babies were victims, they weren't the ones preventing the Jews from being set free.
But, said Allan, that is a just God.  And God started out small.  Killing the first borns was the last thing he did in the plagues.  When Pharaoh continued to refuse God's requests, God was just.
And yet, I said, Pharaoh was the one making the refusal.  Not his people, and certainly not their children.
Here we came to an impass.  And Allan correctly pointed out that we don't know historically what actually happened.  So we moved on.
I think it's apparent that you are very specifically not objective about God.
No, I'm not I responded.  In fact I definitely work to resist it.
That seems against the way of an intellectual.  Have you unpacked that and tried to figure out why that is? he asked.
In some sense, I responded.  I brought up again the instance of my friend in the abusive relationship that was in the "hands of God."  Things go awry when people put all their eggs in the God basket, I said.  And I never want to do that.  I believe I have to be cautious about it.  Christianity is one of the most prominent religions, especially here.  But to me that doesn't necessarily mean that it is the right thing or the one truth.  In fact the idea of one truth also goes against everything I believe in. 
I believe Christianity is the easy way out, so it's easy to be convinced to take that road.  It's easier to put your faith in someone who is supposed to make everything okay, and smite down the evil when they're evil, and give you a feeling of control.  It's much harder to own the fact that we don't have control.  And it takes a lot more work to try to maintain our faith in ourselves and in each other.
My thing, I continued, is that I think back in the day, someone made a very unfortunate spelling mistake.  They meant to write GOOD and they accidentally wrote GOD.  But what we need to have faith in, is the goodness between us and all living things. 
I can understand where you're coming from, again, he said.  But, as you believe you would be committing intellectual suicide by ascribing to this religion, I would be committing intellecutal suicide by NOT believing in it, after the miracles I have seen and the ways in which Christ has revealed himself to me.
That makes sense to me, I said.  And I will try to be more objective about it.  I'm still going to be cautious, but I'll try and keep an open mind.
In that case, this conversation has been completely worthwhile, he said.  His taxi had arrived to take him to Kampala.
I'll pray for you and your safety, he said turning around on the way out.
I thought you would, I responded and smiled.
He smiled back at me and chuckled, then walked out.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fevah and Joy

  Yesterday I took a "taxi" into Kampala for 2,000 Ugandan Shillings (equivalent of $1).  The lanky young man in the driver's seat yelled at me through the window of the 20 plus year old van as I walked from the supermarket.  He was eager for me to go to Kampala and I hadn't yet ventured into the city so I hopped in the van and handed over my money.
  Taxis in Uganda are like tro-tros in Ghana, minibus taxis in South Africa and dallah-dallahs in Tanzania.  They are broken vans with 4 rows of seats or benches, that are packed from bumper to steering wheel with as many human and animal forms as can squeeze..  They take a two-man team to operate.  Driver in front; a young boy in back leaning out of the van door, yelling people down, jumping out, jumping in, taking money, sitting on laps to make room for more forms.
  After about ten minutes in the taxi, a young woman and her two little girls got into the taxi beside me.  Both girls had brilliant smiles and short snakes wrapped in green yard spiking from their heads.  The younger one stood between her mother and me; the older girl sat on her mother's lap.  When they got settled, the older nugget immediately reached out and latched onto my arm.  Her mother pulled it away, but as soon as it was free again the arm darted back like a chubby magnet.  I smiled at Mom and told her it was alright.  I didn't say that the tiny arm clinging to me made my day.  There wasn't enough room with 6 people in a 3 person row, so I pulled the smaller nugget onto my lap.  Mom didn't flinch, or size me up to see how I had the gall to pick-up her child, she just smiled at me again with a huge row of perfectly straight teeth.
      -What are their names?  I asked.
      -Ask them, she said looking to the girls, they'll tell you if you ask.
   Neither of the nuggets were quite bold enough to answer my question, though they were bold enough to latch onto my arms and use me as a chair.
      -She's Fevah, said Mom, motioning to the little one on my lap.
      -And what's you're name? I asked the older girl again.
  After hearing her mother speak a familiar name, she was released of her bashfulness and shouted "JOY!"        -Hi Joy! I said.  How old are they?
      -Fevah is two and Joy is four.
     Hearing the word "two" spoken aloud Fevah turned away from the rushing window.
     -Five! she chirped.
     -Oh you're five now? Mom said laughing.
     -No! Six!
     -Wow! You grow really really fast, I said.
  Fevah smiled triumphantly and turned back towards the window clearly very pleased with herself.  My arms were wrapped around her warm little water balloon belly and she gripped onto my hands without a fear in the world.  Holding her made me feel completely content with everything that could possibly exist.  The power of children, I suppose.  They make you feel like a part of the family by completely trusting.  You don't have to win them over, you simply have to be kind and they love you automatically.
     -Say thank you to Auntie, said Mom.
  Fevah refused, probably about 9 years old by that point. I smiled at Mom and had to reign in the glow in me that wanted to say thank you to her over and over.  Thank you, for trusting me with your little water balloon.  Thank you for calling me Auntie and asking them to tell me their names, thank you for making me feel welcome.  Thank you for not pointing out that the only reason Joy wanted to hold onto my arm was because of my white skin.  Thank you for not resenting me for that.  Thank you Fevah, for liking me immediately; thank you for being so beautifully oblivious to the concept of not trusting.
   Mom pulled Joy's chubby little magnet off of my arm and stepped out of the van.  I helped Fevah into her mother's arms and smiled even more as the two little girls waved at me and shouted, "Good bye Auntie!"