Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Belle and the Beast

     I never expected one of my obstacles here to be happiness. My mind has settled into a comfortable haze and reminders of why I'm here come in spurts if I'm not careful about reminding myself. I wake up each morning on the set of Beauty and the Beast, and somehow I've managed to get the part of Belle. I walk to the Institute in one of the most beautiful places on earth amidst a melodic flow of bonjour. Every morning at some point on my way to the Institute, I have to stop in the middle of the road and can do nothing but stare at the mountains and the sky and try to understand how I could ever forget that the world could be so beautiful.
     When it rains, the fog seeps off of the mountains making it look like the earth is on fire, but nothing is burning. I've imagined capturing the beauty here in a documentary, but it would have to be digitally altered because film would never be able to capture this. It's too thick for a screen.
The Institute where I teach is a small compound of three buildings. The main building is where Sister Celine meets with her patients. Some are rape victims from far away or nearby, some are battling epilepsy and the stigma that comes with, and some are just trying to hold together a crumbling marriage.
     The other buildings are the classrooms. There are five or six classrooms looking out on the mountains, with chalkboards older than me and chalk dust that has been accumulating since they were originally put up. When I reach for a piece of chalk I often have to shake off a thumb sized spider or two, never sure if they are dead. I leave class covered in white dust, fantasizing about dry-erase boards and cursing the person who invented the stupid little white sticks.
     For two weeks I taught an improvised course on English and have now started an Introduction to Neuroscience class. I don't have the necessary teacher-patience to endure my students not grasping the entire English language the second it leaves my mouth. I struggled to contain frustration that quickly melted into anger, and clearly indicated to me that I am not cut out for the job. But the class was always filled with laughter. My status as unmarried and not desiring the life of a nun is confounding to everyone, and my students never tire of probing me for details about why, and how. When I responded with more than a little attitude, “Parceque je n'ai pas besoin d'un homme,” Because I don't need a man, they had to flail their arms around to absorb the overflow of laughter.
     The Neuroscience course I am teaching now is supposed to be in French. I do not speak this type of French. I speak the French of friends and meetings, not the French of neurotransmitters and membrane potential. Papa Kayange is the director of the primary school and has agreed to help me by translating. But his French also stops at spinal cord and I can feel the frustration of the students building as I try to explain what the corticospinal tract is.
     Cultural differences also pose a problem. Science does not care about language or tradition.
         -Here we believe that after a person has died, they can still hear when you speak to them, explained one of my students with a thick streak of combativeness.
         -Well, I explained. That's not exactly possible, as once the brain stops receiving blood and oxygen, it is no longer functioning. What you're saying would be like unplugging a computer from the wall and then trying to type. You can type as much as you want but nothing is going to register on the screen.
     I knew I was walking on delicate territory, and almost edited my response before I said it. But somebody had to represent science. I won't go near Christianity and the existence of God or Christ, but I simply can't lie and say that it's possible the dead can hear what you say. Scientifically speaking, of course. My student wasn't too pleased with my response but I moved on quickly to avoid the start of a cyclical discussion.
     At the end of the first class, the students asked me for the syllabus. Syllabus here means word for word write-up of what you're going to say during the class. Pere Onesfort let me borrow the syllabus from his last biology class and it is at least 100 pages of teacher monologue. I explain that in the United States there would be no point in coming to class if we gave the students a syllabus like that, the idea is simply absurd. Students are expected to take notes in class while the teacher is speaking, and then study the notes that they wrote. The teacher doesn't take notes for you, I explain. I'm almost offended. 
    When I get back to the Crosier compound I explain my predicament to Frere George and try to convey to him how silly it would be. I can't stop myself from thinking of it as an inefficient Congolese thing, that contributes to the Universities here being far below the United States. The week before, my class was pushed back twice and I was never informed. I put the silly syllabus idea in this same category of culturally different inefficiency. Students should take their own notes.
        -That's how the students study, he says. They read what you will talk about and then they come to class so that you can explain to them what they read.
     The idea is still laughable to me, and I think about how things worked for me in College. I went home each day after class, studied my notes and read my textbook to prepare for the following day. I transcribe that scenario into this setting and it finally dawns on me. My students don't have books.
         -You don't have books here, I say to George. So you want me to write the book.
         -Yes. No books.
     I blanch at the thought. Textbooks are like fingernails for American college students, always there. I've never even considered the possibility of not having them. The class on a subject I love, which I was previously excited about, now seems impossible. Not only am I to write-up 45 hours of Neuroscience information, but somehow I'm supposed to transform it into French.
     I felt sorry for Papa Kayanga, thinking the largest part of the task would fall on him, until he told me that he couldn't help me for more than a few days and definitely couldn't help me translate a syllabus. For those few days of expertise, I'm paying his asking price of $3 an hour and helping him with the English classes he teaches to the secondary students. I laugh to myself as I correct sentences like “A watch band is made of leather, plastic or a metal chair,” and “a breast ends in a nipple.” Yes, a breast does end in a nipple, but something about that isn't quite right. Of course, this nuance is almost impossible to explain to Papa Kayange and talking about breasts ending in nipples with a religious man over 80 is not exactly my ideal afternoon.
     Culture reveals itself through these lessons in funny, sometimes frightening ways.
-Pain made him piss.
-I spit on my enemy.
-Thieves walk on tip-toe.
-Ow! You tread on my feet! You hurt my boil!
-Pupils are clad in uniforms. So are soldiers.
-He choked his rival.
-He threatens(ed) to beat me.
There's nothing to correct, even though the students learning these phrases are still children.

When leaves fall, they leave scars on the branch.

     When I'm not teaching, learning, preparing, correcting or practicing my motorcycle skills, I'm typically trying to stop my mind from falling madly in love with every person here. Girlish fantasies are a staple in any situation; they follow me everywhere I go, as they do with all unattached humans not desiring the life of a priest or nun (and even those who do, I surmise). When I first got here I thought it was almost cruel to set a zebra free amongst a group of vegetarian lions. Now I've come to realize these are strong, healthy lions that are quite accustomed to being vegetarian.
    Poor zebra.

     Although happiness is a distraction, the duality of the world is particularly sharp here. There's no real middle-ground. It's either beauty or horror, joy or misery, full or starving, safe or in the midst of being destroyed. I'm reminded of this once again when I meet Dusan.  Dusan very effectively pulls me out of my own happiness. He is exactly what I would imagine a Croat to be, except a bit kinder, slightly gentler and sporadically more vulnerable.
         -Why the internet is not working? He asks as he barges into the Secretariat.
     I am working on the Neuroscience course in the small room with a couple of wooden desks and old desktop computers when he explodes into the room.
         -It hasn't worked for several days, I respond.
     He looks at the box as if he's going to rip it off of the wall, tear it apart and then put it perfectly back together. He wreaks of cigarettes in a way I've never experienced before. The smell is amplified by the fact that I haven't smelled the waft of nicotine on a person since I left the guesthouse in Uganda. The manager there was somewhat similar to Dusan, strangely tall, constantly red and weathered in a way that exceeded his years.
     Dusan is much taller than the manager of the guesthouse; he's at least 6 feet 3 inches tall with not a lot of padding around the pole. I've seen him a few times in the compound, stalking around with no apparent schedule or destination. A white skin walking by is not something anybody misses here, even me.
         -They do not call the provider! He exclaims.
     I've forgotten that providers even exist. The internet depends on the amount of rain, the functioning of the electric generator and a million other factors I don't even try to visualize. It's not something within my control and I've accepted that. Considering our location, it's amazing we have internet at all.
       As he stalks around the room I notice the cigarette clinging to his fingers, providing the strong stench. He doesn't seem to notice he's indoors, more likely he doesn't care. A cigarette is a death-stick, but it can also be a bridge. I ask him if he has an extra. Immediately the separation between us of culture, language and unknown purpose disappears. He's shocked for a second, but then I can see the excitement ripple through his body. People only need an ounce of similarity to cross a large expanse of insecurity
        -Yes, yes of course.  He smiles at me for the first time.  
        -I'm Amy.  I extend my hand and he reaches forward as well.
     I follow him next door to his room. It is a small square space just like mine, with a bed, a desk, a small table, several books and a few pieces of clothing crumpled in small heaps. The remains of his dinner sit on his desk, half of a can of spam, a piece of cheese and a bit of this-morning's bread.
         -I cannot invite you in, he says. It is too messy. I am bachelor, yes? This is man's room, I cannot help it.
     This is a museum compared to what my room in the States was like. And I enter anyway.
         -It's not a problem. I understand, this is nothing.
     I cross through the room to the door on the opposite end of the square that leads to a very small porch at the front of the building. There is a small bench that he picks-up like it's a piece of paper and turns it to face the dark outline of the mountains against the sky.
     I have seen his truck in the compound so I know he works for the UN, which is called MONUC in French. As we sit outside of his room on the small cement porch he tells me scattered bits of his story in mumbled, often incomprehensible English. He is a “demobilizer” for MONUC. He travels every few days by car into the bush to “demobilize” the soldiers.
         -What exactly do you do to demobilize them?
         -I do this and that and this and that, he says. He uses strange English fillers constantly, leaving pot-holes in his explanations and making it difficult to follow his path. He speaks as if he hasn't talked to a human in six years, quickly, with excitement and no provocation necessary.
         -I build relationships, he continues. I extract people from the bush, I keep people safe, or at least try to. It takes a lot of time, yes? When you like or dislike someone, you cannot simply grab them and say 'I like you!'
     He grabs my shoulders and shakes me as he says this. I feel like I'm supposed to have known him for years, but I have no recollection of meeting.
         -You have to slowly show them this and that, whatever, whatever, and then they will slowly like you back. This is how it works. They are not idiots, but they are not clever.
He laughs at this. His laugh is brief, but not harsh and not memorable. It disappears as unexpectedly as it arrived.
         -When I was in the war, former Yugoslavia, now Croatia, I did similar thing. And when it finished, I said, there is nothing to do here! What am I doing here in this office sitting around doing nothing. So I leave. And now I am here four years. You know, I have been to Washington, D.C. I love that city. It has my favorite club, Havana Village. The music is perfect. Absolutely perfect, you must believe me in this.
         -Yes, I've heard Cuban music before, it's very good.
         -No, it is perfect. You must just believe me in this.
    He jumps from war to nightclubs with no transition. I'm taken back by the contradiction of his harsh manners with his kind and open dialogue. He is not what I expected at all.
        -But, he pauses for a minute. This place will touch you. You cannot let it touch you! When it begins to touch you, you must take a time-out, take a break. You cannot become too much a part of it.
         -Do you mean it will touch my heart in a good way? Or it will just break it?
     He laughs when I say this.
         -This is how it is, he continues. Let me give you example. When I extract people, I am talking to many different people at the same time. And they are all trusting me. This is how it must be. If I do my job well, they think I am not on their side but I will not misuse their trust. If I do my job really really well, they think I am on their side but I am also helping others, and they are okay with this. This is how it is. Why are you here?
     I'm not expecting the question, and I still can't tell what exactly he's trying to tell me about living here, and I want to know.
         -Um. I'm teaching a course at the Institute for the Crosiers.
         -To pay for your room here?
         -Yes, I guess so, and to help them out. But the main reason I'm here is to work with the victims of sexual violence, specifically the kids. I'm going to start going to Magherya when my class finishes in two weeks to work at les filles-meres center.
         -Yes, yes. This is good, he responds as if the continuation of my trip hangs on his approval.
         -What exactly did you mean by don't let it touch you?
         -I was giving you an example. The example is this, in the bush, the women are the bottom of everything. A man who I extracted asks me to go and retrieve his wife from the bush. I say, okay. If she is there, maybe I can get her, this is my business. So I go and I ask her, 'Do you want to leave the bush' She says no. She is seventeen years, and has a baby with him that is four years. He took her from her home and raped her when she was just thirteen. And now, since he has been extracted, she is being raped by someone else, regularly. She says she wants to stay, because now she has someone else who is raping her but who might, might, he stresses the word, take care of the two children she already has with the first man.
     He looks at me and sees the shock and anger in my expression. I wear my heart on my sleeve.
         -Yes, this is how it is, he continues. I'm telling you. The women do not marry, they are taken and they are raped and they are children. They are girls, not women. If someone might take care of them, maybe they have a chance of surviving. So, next example, I am working on extracting fifteen people, whatever, whatever. There are two groups of Indians –these men who think they are soldiers but they are not soldiers, they are idiots, the worst—that I am needing to work with. A man comes to me and says, this is my daughter, she is 12. Can you please, make it so that she is raped by only one group of soldiers rather than both. If she is raped by both, neither who rapes her will take responsibility for the child.
     Listen to me, he stands up and faces me. In the dark his long body looks like one of the pillars connecting the roof to the floor. I am not soft man. He laughs his short laugh and then transforms his face back to something more appropriate for the topic. 
    Believe me. I am not soft man. But when you have a father asking you to make it so that this one group rapes his daughter but not the other group, it touches you. You feel that there is nothing you can do. And there is nothing you can do. Let me tell you this now. You must know this somewhat, because you are here. You see that there is too much to do. When it is like this, and it is like this often, then you have to step out and you cannot let it touch you too much.  This is how it is. 
    He finishes and lights another cigarette in the dark. His loneliness exposes him, making it easy for me to see the caring and the coping battling inside.  A South African woman I met in Uganda, named MJ, had never been to the Congo but told me the same thing in different way.
         -You have to focus on the little things, she said. It will feel like you are spitting into the wind. When you stop being able to see the little successes you have, you must come and stay with us. When your heart breaks, and it will break many many times, when you need a beer, a cigarette, a shoulder to cry on, take a break with us for a week, two weeks a day. Whatever you need to pull it back together.
     I think of her and want to tell Dusan the phrase of spitting into the wind, I love the imagery, it's perfect. But I don't have the energy to explain the nuances of the metaphor in roundabout English.
     I have a question, but just the thought of asking it makes my adrenaline spike. I only wait a few seconds and he jumps back into his monologue.
         -The situation is this, he says. Everything is connected, and all goes back to World War I. Yes, this is true. But basic information you need to know. And you need to know, okay? Believe me in this. Rwanda, when this so called genocide happened, whatever whatever, this was a lot of killing. But it was more killing than anyone admits to, and it was less killing than has happened here in the past few years. Okay? So, killing yes, genocide, who knows. Rwanda is a country with nothing.
He laughs again. It's uncomfortable for me to smile in response when we are talking about the murder of millions of people with dull machetes and old rifles.
     I am telling you, they have absolutely nothing! And here we are, in richest part of Congo, no, richest part of Africa. Rwanda needs Congo. Without Congo, without exploitation of the resources here, Rwanda stops to exist, immediately. And this is how it is. So, Rwanda is not going to have elections in August, but they are saying there will be elections. This will not happen, I can promise you. This cannot happen, because here you are either President or prisoner. Kigame does not want to be a prisoner, he wants to be President, of course. It was like this in my country with Miloshevic. President or prisoner. So, they will push back the elections. But when that happens, there will be chaos. This is already starting. I know this. And if you will be here, you will come with me or you will stay absolutely here in this building, yes? This is how it is. You are my responsibility, that is just how it is, okay?
         -Okay. I'm too intimidated to put up a fight, and despite my stubborn streak I allow myself to be comforted by this hardened man taking me under his protective wing.
         -So, there will be chaos. Yes. He takes a drag on his cigarette and stares off as if he's imagining exactly what type of chaos.
             -It is already happening, I can tell you this. I know this, because I speak directly with the people who are planning this chaos. I speak with them about intentions, I know their intentions, so I know what they will do. Many, many people will die. Many people will be killed, and they will be mostly refugees. This is simply how it is.
     He continues explaining that the forces in this region are primarily the FDLR, Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda. He laughs about the fact that all of these “Indian” rebel groups that are raping women left and right and leaving a population of babies made in fear behind, all have words like Democratic or Freedom in their name.
         -How will you go to Magherya? You can hire a translator and start now.
     Again he makes a complete turn around from talk of chaos and genocide to light conversation.
         -I'm going to go by motorbike. I don't want a translator, I want to talk to the children myself. A lot is lost when you use a translator, and I want to get to know the kids so I can understand better.
         -Ah, yes I see. This is good. But the motorbike is not good. Do you have a helmet?
         -No, but I...
         -You must buy helmet. And you must buy big boots like these.
     He goes into his room and comes out with a monstrous pair of workman's boots.
         -You will buy them in Butembo when we go to Beni, maybe this weekend.
     He has not asked me if I want to go to Beni with him, but apparently it's already on my schedule.  I haven't spoken hardly at all, but I feel completely drained. The question that has been festering inside of me pops out unexpectedly.
         -So, when can I go with you into the bush?
     I wait for him to shut me down, tell me no, never, it's too dangerous.
         -Maybe, next week, he says and throws his twentieth cigarette butt into the dark grass.
         -Next week? Will I be able to speak with a soldier?
     The thought is terrifying but the opportunity is too much to let slip because of fear.
         -No! You will ruin my business. You will have to pretend to be part of my team. I am going on an operation in the next couple of days, but it is too dangerous, you cannot come. After that, I have another operation with FDLR, I am working on extracting forty people. You can come then.
         -But I can't speak to the soldiers?
         -Of course you can speak to them. 
     I'm totally confused again, but I'm starting understand the patience needed to understand the pictures he's painting, so I wait.
        -You must use the translators. They will know how far you can go and when you must stop. If you speak any French or Swahili, it will ruin my business. These soldiers are not very clever. Not stupid, but not clever! They see white and they think, yes, this is good. They like to see that we are wearing things from the Western world, and they must hear only English. This sounds simple, but this is it. Believe me, this is it.
    I can ask my questions.  I don't know what I will ask these soldiers who are living in the forest, raping children and calling it freedom fighting. I have no doubt the questions will come to me in the moment, will jump out of my mouth without even glancing at the invisible line of proper conduct. I'm glad there will be translators to act as my brakes.
         -Have you ever killed anyone?
     Just the thought of my inability to censor my curiosity causes an example to pop out. I'm worried I've crossed a line. I wish I was able to stay on one side of that line.
         -No. Never.
         -Never? Even though you were in the war and you were a Colonel?
         -I do not kill anyone. It is not killing if you are fighting a respectable enemy, or if you are doing this for your own survival.
         -I would call that a distinction between killing and murder, but if you've taken a human life then you've definitely killed someone.  That's definitional.
     I wish someone would tape my mouth shut.
         -No, this is not how it is.  What is this on your arm?
    He changes the subject but I can tell he's not offended, simply following his usual round-a-bout route.
         -It's a tattoo.
     I lift my right forearm in a practiced way and hold it out for him to read my tattoo. He doesn't move towards me, even though the small amount of light coming through the window behind us makes it possible to read.
         -I believe you that it is there. You can stop holding up your arm.
     I feel ridiculously stupid but am not quite sure why, and lower my arm.
         -What does it say?
         -With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. I recite from the Desiderata poem written into my skin.
         -So you are the one who saw the light at the end of the tunnel?
         -I guess so. I don't know, I try to keep it in mind.
         -Do you know the story of the four men in the tunnel?
     I can't tell if I'm not understand his swiss cheese English, or there's some news story I haven't heard..
         -There are four men in a tunnel. The first man looks ahead and sees the light at the end. They are calling him optimist. The second looks at the wall and sees only the blackness, they are calling him pessimist. The third sees the lights of the train coming towards them on the tracks, they are calling him realist. And the fourth sees three idiots standing on the tracks, from the front of the train.
     He laughs quickly again and I follow suit happy for a joke.
         -And the fourth one is what? I ask. Soldier?
     He stops laughing, flicks his latest cigarette into the night and contemplates for a second.
         -I guess, maybe.

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