Tuesday, July 6, 2010

the day after


          The morning after I sit with the blue notebook and read the horrifying little snippets of lives kicked into the gutter I am supposed to travel with Maman Marie to Magherya.  I postpone the trip.  During the night I become disgustingly ill and spend several hours wondering if it's possible to throw-up your own stomach.  I call my parents and ask them to search the internet for the symptoms of cholera.  There's an outbreak in Lubero and over 60 people have died in the last month.
          That night and the next day I work hard to rehydrate, following the in-case-of-Cholera precautions my parents give me over the phone.  Fortunately, my illness passes, along with most of my intestines, and the next-next day I feel immensely better.  I contact Maman Marie who is already on her way to Magherya and is eager to scoop me from Mulo.  She arrives with a young man, a skinny young driver covered in pimples and an extremely large man whom she tells me is a nurse.  When he gets out of the car he unfolds his massive limbs slowly and carefully, like the cartoon of the ten-foot tall man removing himself from a buggy.  The man's body looks like it's made of concrete blocks covered in dark skin.  He reaches out to shake my hand and smiles.  The size of his smile is comparable to the rest of him and I thank the universe he's a nurse and not a soldier.
      -Lorenzo, he says.  I saw you in Butembo before, when you came to FEPSI with a sick woman.
          He's speaking about Kahambu.  The thought of her shoots me with worry and guilt.  I can't think about her right now, with this colossal man waiting for a response.  I'm not sure how I could ever forget him; I must have forgotten him though, because I can't imagine it's possible to have not seen him.  His fingers alone are the length of my entire hand.
      -Oh yeah, I say, feigning remembrance.  It's nice to see you again.
          It's late in the day so we all get immediately back into the car.  Despite the formidable sizes of both Maman Marie and Lorenzo, Maman Marie ignores my protests and forces me to sit in front.  The middle seat is the second highest position of respect for some reason so Lorenzo scrunches himself together and squeezes into the tiny space between the other two.  His knees poke through the two front seats searching for air.  I shake my head and wish they would let us switch.
         We leave Mulo and snake our way further up into the mountains.  I'm still a bit sick, nursing a massive water bottle and wishing I had remembered the emergency roll of toilet paper I normally carry at all times.  I can't tell if people in the villages use leaves, their hands or nothing at all, but I haven't once seen the semblance of toilet paper in one of the local huts-with-a-hole-in-the-ground.  Normally it's not a big problem but probable food poisoning and 6 previous hours in a bathroom make it a rather large concern at the moment.
          When we pull up to the Center there are 20 or so women waiting in front of the mud buildings.  They begin singing and dancing when they see my skin; only partially in jest.  The Center is as I remember it, tiny, crumbling and looking out across several mountains speckled with sculpy huts.  It's one of the most breath-taking views I've seen.  The last time I came men were working on a new building and it has now been finished; two rooms, concrete walls and a wooden chalkboard in each.
          I'm not sure what I'm going to do this first day but Maman Marie leads me, after some humurous attempts at dancing, into one of the finished concrete rooms.  Today is apparently for introductions.  All of the women from outside file in and take seats on the wooden benches, I sit to the side despite their attempts to place me front and center.
      -Say something to them, Maman Marie says to me once she has filed in after them.  She's in good spirits today but still forgets that I have no idea what's going on, most of the time.
     -Say something like what?  You want me to introduce myself?
          She gives me a completely vague and inconclusive look in response.  I'm not sure who these women are, but they're all too old and happy to be girl-mothers so I assume they are the ones who run the Center.  I say some words in Kinande, still my most reliable and immediate bridge with people, then say some vague but true things about wanting to help and being happy to be here with them.
          Maman Marie translates, they clap and I blush furiously.  The positive attention thrown at me constantly is one of the weirdest things to get used to.  Everyone thinks I'm great, but not for reasons I've earned.  I look at Maman Marie when I've said everything I can think of.  She looks back and waits for more.
      -I hope I can do something small and I really respect what you are doing.  I'm very happy to be here and to work with you, I say repetitively.
           Maman marie translates and again looks back at me and waits.
      -I'm finished.  Wasinga- thank you.
          My Kinande ends the speech better than my French.  Maman Marie gets the hint, stands up and begins writing on the chalkboard.  There is the severed behind and lower limbs of a neon red teddy bear resting below the board; it takes me a few minutes to understand it's the eraser.  In the middle of the board she writes my name in block letters.  From my name she draws three arrows leading to les fille-meres, les garcons-soldats and les familles d'acceuilli.  She speaks in Kinande but again I know she's providing hope that I don't ahve the resources to fill.  I sit, pretending to listen and take pictures of a little girl playing in the dirt on the floor and rubbing chalk dust on her face to look like me.
          After the Maman Marie lesson I am ushered into the next concrete room.  I sit behind one of the tables and soon young girls and the same elderly women start coming in two-by-two.  The old women are the mothers who have taken the girls in, les familles d'accueilli; the young girls are also mothers.  I sit with Florence, one of the women my age who speaks French and works for COPERMA.  We speak to the elderly women, while Bamafay and a man who's name I can never remember speak to the young girls across the room.  The women speak, Florence translates, I try to look like I know what I'm doing.
      -The problem this family is having, Florence says pointing to the elderly woman in front of us who has just spoken, is not being able to find food for the kids.
          The elderly woman gets up from the table, leaves the room and the next in line comes in.
      -The problem this family is having is not being able to buy medicine when the children fall ill.
      -The problem this family is having is not being able to find food.
      -The problem this family is having is not being able to find food.
      -The problem this family is having is not being able to find food.
      -I'm going to go sit there, I say, after hearing the same unimaginable problem over and over.  I can eat whenever I want, as much as I want.  I complain about gaining weight while these families have trouble finding enough food for their children once a day.  I move to the table wher Bamafay and the man are listening to the young girls.  After I sit down a frail woman, possibly 23 years old, sits on the other side of the table.  She looks sickly, like she'll crumble onto the floor in a pile of dust if anyone touches her.  In the first room she was nursing an infant who looked worse than her.
      -Her name is Devoté, the man translates for me.  She is 19 years old.
          I've over-estimated her years but not her age.
      -Her mother died when she was 4, he continues.  She was captured when she was 12 years old.  For six years she was held captive and raped regularly.  She had twins but one of them died.  The remaining twin is now six years old.  After 5 years she managed to run away by telling her captor she was going to look for work during one of the many periods of hunger.  When she arrived at home and was reunited with her family, they refused to take her in with a child and no husband--something that is sacrilegious here.  After she was refused by her family she was raped again by a man in the village; now she has a six year old, a very sick infant and of course, herself to take care of.
          With no husband around this is all a death sentence.  During the conversation Devoté hands me the infant to illustrate her explanations of his failing health.  He weighs about the same as a book.  His arms are the width of my thumbs and his skin is slightly green.  He is a baby that is the result of a violent rape, and yet Devoté has named him Wasinga- thank you.  I hand the flickering infant back to his mother and she leaves the room with him loosely attached to her breast.

          Beautiful smile, red shirt, green head-scarf, I don't catch her name:
    18 years old.  Two children; she was working with a man on the farm when she was 14.  He raped her in the field.  After she had the child she had no income, no hope and a dying infant in her arms.  The same man said he would make her his wife and provide for her.  He slept with her again and then left immediately after.  She became pregnant, of course, and now has two.

          Kavira comes in next.  In the Nande tribe names are determined based on the birth order of each child.  Kavira indicates the second daughter in the family.  In Kinande, my name is also Kavira and many people her call me simply Kavi.  Each girl could be, and is just like me; a little darker, a lot wiser and with a lot less naive hope. 

    20 years old.  She was 14 when she was first raped.  Two children from rape.

          Clarice has kind eyes and a smile that comes on slowly but is big and comforting once it arrives:
    25 years old; two children; raped the first time at 19.  She was raped by a Ugandan military officer.  He attacked her while she was working on the farm.  She fought but it did no good.

          Each time one of the young women answers a question too shortly, with just a yes or a no and a down-cast gaze, Bamafay steps in and softly repeats the question.  Pain and fear speak only compassion.  Bamafay was one of the children in the blue notebook, raped in the field with her Aunt.  Eliza is the bright little product of that horror and she is playing outside as we speak.  Each young woman knows that Bamafay understands.  They lift their eyes from the ground and extend their responses, but only for Bamafay.
          As I watch each heart-broken girl speak and timidly avoid my eyes, I think of the Priest who didn't see how rape is a violation of human rights.  It's not uncommon in the eastern Congo to lose a limb or two to the war.  It seems to me that rape is a similar form amputation, separating someone from their soul.  They lose a different type of limb, one more vital than anything else.  I don't know if it can ever be fully re-attached.  I think maybe it can, but with a lot more work and faith than a prosthetic arm or leg.
          I don't know any of this for sure, because I've never experienced it.  But I see it in the dark emptiness each of these girls carries behind her eyes.
          After an hour or so of listening to stories I'm not entitled to hear Maman Marie enters and explains that we must eat and leave so we're not on the road after dark.  More fufu, more goat-meat and a bumpy ride ensue.  The monstrous Lorenzo turns out to be the complete opposite of what his appearance implies.  He's kind, soft-hearted and never without a joke.  The fufu and goat are the first things I've eaten and not expelled in two days.  I spend the ride home laughing at Lorenzo's stories and focusing intently on the noises my insides.

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