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.