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.
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.