-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.
-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.
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.