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.