In terms of hierarchy on a grand scale, urgency is number one, which moves Isale up on my list of scattered priorities, when I receive some money from the States. Maman Marie agrees, and doesn't hesitate when I ask if we should spend the money on the cluster of humanity in the bush. While she wants to develop the COPERMA centers, it's only because the centers are helping people. For Maman Marie, it doesn't matter where you're helping or who, as long as you're trying in some way.
In the office, Urbain, Maman Marie, Hangie and I have the same conversation we had about two weeks ago. How many beans, how much fufu powder, how much porridge powder, how many people? This time we throw in empty jugs to carry water, potato semence- seeds, soap, rabbits and guinea pigs. It takes us a while to figure these things out. We want to help sustainably, but have to keep the soldiers in mind.
-We need to give them the things that were stolen, says Hangie. He's a skinny guy with a stutter and a very direct manner. We've had several brief disagreements because of our different styles, but always in a friendly way. He talks frequently about how much he loves his wife, so it would be difficult for me to not like him.
-We need to buy the things that were stolen, I say, but it won't make sense if we buy things that can be stolen easily again. Then we're worse off than we are now because we've given a bunch of goats and chickens to the soldiers.
-But the people need those things.
-But it doesn't make sense if they're going to be stolen again!
He looks at the desk for a brief moment and then looks back up at me.
-Nous sommes au Congo. We are in Congo.
Everyone laughs at the blunt truthfulness of his statement.
-Ca c'est vrai! I say. That is true!
It's an important thing to remember. With all the planning and trying, there is still a war going on, which means you can have the proverbial rug pulled out at anytime. There's nothing you can do about it and when you start weaving another rug, a soldier will probably swipe it again. You just have to keep weaving.
-It's best if we separate it into two sections, says Maman Marie in her shaky voice. Urgency and development. We can't just give them food we should also try to leave something that will help in the long term.
-I agree, I say. Rabbits and guinea pigs are a good idea, they make babies quickly.
-And it's easy to hide them, says Urbain. He makes a circular shape with his arms. You can keep guinea pigs in an area this big in the bush and they'll be fine.
We decide on the rabbits and guinea pigs as things that will proliferate, and when the beans etc. run out, you can eat the little animals too. We program Isale into our schedules for Tuesday. Urbain and Hangie will start buying the items on Monday, while Maman Marie and I are at the Kavingu girl-mother center.
When I arrive Tuesday morning there are no tires burning in Butembo, even though there was a man killed the night before. Apparently he was a notorious killer in Butembo who was then killed by the soldiers for whatever reason, so they determined he wasn't worth a tire. There are black patches where the tires used to be and clumps of rubber thread scattered throughout the city.
Hangie goes over the things that were bought the day prior. I provided the Presidents, they did all of the work, as always. I couldn't help even if I could speak Kinande, since the prices would double the second a store owner saw me.
Ten empty jugs, 250 kg of beans, 100 kg fufu powder, 100 kg porridge powder, 20 guinea pigs, 100 kg potato root seeds, six empty containers to hold root seeds, four large bags to hold porridge powder, 30 sacs for distribution of food.
-What about the rabbits? I ask Hangie.
-The price was higher than we thought; eight dollars each instead of five.
-Should we buy more guinea pigs? We still have the hundred dollars set aside for the rabbits. We could buy 50 guinea pigs with that!
I would have been giddy about this conversation as a child. Not to mention, the guinea pigs they previously bought are under a wicker basket in the room. Ten or so are under the basket, ten or so are in a large bag. I try not to think of how cruel it feels to be keeping ten guinea pigs in a bag. They're going to be eaten soon anyway. There's already too much cruelty to worry about, I have to let the guinea pigs go. Urbain has walked in during the conversation.
-We have to buy the rabbits, he says.
-Why not more guinea pigs? They're cheaper.
-Because rabbits have more meat. And my friend once started breeding rabbits with ten rabbits. After two years he had 2,000.
-2,000? I guess the saying is true about humping like rabbits.
I say the last part to myself in English.
-Nothing. That's great, let's stick with the rabbits but buy fewer of them.
-We can buy fewer rabbits, says Maman Marie, who has also entered at this point. But we can keep them in Kavingu, we have cages there and we can breed them. In five months we can double the number of rabbits and then distribute them.
I take the old calculator again and figure out the diminished quantity with the now expensive price.
-We can buy twelve rabbits.
-In five months we'll have at least 24, probably more, says Maman Marie.
There's a commotion to my right and a flurry of squealing. One of the many "apprentice" students is bent over chasing a guinea pig across the concrete floor. The ten or so under the wicker basket have all managed to escape. I laugh at the scene as Maman Marie and the rest leave the room to get their things ready for the trip. The male apprentices are outside loading everything into the car.
I watch the girl as she finally catches the squeaking rodent in her hand and sticks it in the bag. She easily catches the other nine and puts them all in the same bag. I should be a rabbit farmer. I could set up shop here and help rabbits proliferate, then distribute relatively sustainable sources of food and income to anybody I wanted. I imagine walking through hundreds of rabbit cages under the Congo sun, all a source of self-multiplying food. Under the wicker basket is a section of moist little brown turds. There are a lot of turds; they cover the entire concrete area where the wicker basked used to be. I wish you could eat turds. Everyone could eat one meal and just keep recycling. In a way you can, I guess, since turds help fertilize plants that we eat and that cows eat etc. Everything feeds everything. I notice how strange my line of thought is and laugh to myself. It's amazing though, how the world is set-up for us to survive, sustainably. We seem to be our own worst problem.
-Urbain! Maman Marie screams from the small office.
-He's not here, I yell back. I pick up my things and walk into the room.
She's inside stapling the receipts from the things we've purchased together.
-We used to have 27 cows, she says without provocation.
I sit down. Twenty-seven cows is a huge source of sustenance.
-We had 27 cows and hundreds of rabbits. That was years ago though. When the war came the soldiers came and everything disappeared. They stole all of the cows, all of the rabbits and now all we have left is the land, which we can't even use. We can't buy new animals to start breeding again because the soldiers will come through and we'll simply be feeding the ranks.
She speaks with a bit of sadness in her voice and keeps her eyes on the stapler and the motion of the receipts. She sounds tired; tired of the ground moving under her feet every time she starts to build something.
-Our specialization is farming and cultivation, she continues. We used to breed rabbits, and families could eat them and the kids could sell them in the market and with the money they could go to school. Now, there are no more rabbits, so the kids don't go to school.
I got this impression from what COPERMA stands for, the equivalent of Community of Planters and Farmers in the Kivu Region. As she speaks it becomes clear that her passion and the organization she started, for herself and for others, was to help through cultivation and farming; how to keep animals well, how to breed them, how to utilize seeds and land. When the war started everyone in the communities became scattered, became victims, became constantly in hiding or on the run. Since then she's been doing damage control. Hangie later tells me they don't want to change the name because they hope one day they can go back to what they originally started out to do.
The apprentice students have finished loading the truck, so Maman Marie and I leave the office. The truck is filled with bags and containers and the two sacks of guinea pigs. A few students climb into the back.
-We can't have too many people, says Maman Marie to the group. And no young girls.
There's another woman coming who speaks French and teaches at the Center in Kavingu. She and I are the only women getting in the truck, aside from Maman Marie.
-If the soldiers see young girls, it won't be good, she says and walks off without another word.
It's only ten a.m. and we're ready to leave, so I feel solid about the trip. The difference between just thirty minutes is amazing. At 5:30 p.m. there won't be a single soldier on the road, but at 6 o'clock the specks of army green start separating themselves from the green of the bush and move onto the brown dirt roads. We climb into the car, four of us in the back and around six in the truck bed.
It takes twice as long as the last time to get to Isale. The truck is carrying a huge amount of weight and it creaks as we lurch over the bumps in the road. I wonder for a while if a car can split. In Isale, it's early enough in the day that the recently displaced group is wandering in the road. They are still mostly in the expanse of bush where we left them the last time. Maman Marie gets straight to work. She marches down the dirt path to the spot where the majority of the people are milling about. I follow.
-We're going to take down all of their information so we can see who needs help the most.
We've already decided to give the food to the families with the most young children, and mothers who are still "on the tit." Which is almost everyone. I'm ready to help but there's not much I can do without Kinande as a tool on my belt. I'm deaf and mute and can only make faces at the children. I stand just off the dirt path watching Maman Marie start to talk to the mass of people surrounding her. I understand now why so many of the students came. They are separating themselves from the mass with clipboards, paper and pens. Gradually, Maman Marie gets the people around her to disperse and form four smaller globs around the students.
Urbain taps me on the shoulder from the path.
-I need to speak with you.
He doesn't smile, which is unusual for him.
-Is everything okay?
-There are the two girls we spoke to before who were raped, and another girl who was still in the bush at the time. They are waiting to speak with you. Should we go now or wait until the food is distributed?
-Let's go now.
Urbain leads the way up the path.
-Did all of the six women who were raped get to the hospital?
-I believe so, that's what Marcela and Devote say.
-Well that's good.
At the top of the path we are back on the dirt road and Urbain leads me to one of the mud houses. Just inside the darkness of the hut, where the light from the doorway still illuminates faces, Marcela and Devote are sitting on small wooden stools. There is a third young woman on the floor next to Devote with a child of about five years lounging on her lap. The lounging little girl has eyebrows that would make Frida Kahlo blush. The young woman, who is clearly the child's mother, is tiny. Her hair is corn-rowed with the ends sticking up in the back, making her look a bit like small bird. Her eyes are huge and her cheekbones are beautifully square. She looks at me with the same sadness and pain that Marcela and Devote are still wearing. There are two other wooden chairs in the little entry room, Urbain and each I take a seat.
Urbain immediately starts speaking to her in Kinande. I understand Iwende- What is your name, and she says Kavira Esperance. Urbain asks another question and the girl starts speaking rapidly.
-She says she was raped in the field in Kisangani. It was one soldier.
-Did she go to the hospital?
-She says yes, she was in the hospital for one day, she spoke with the Doctor.
-Did she take the medication to prevent the pregnancy?
He asks my questions. The girl says something that clearly indicates confusion.
-She says she doesn't know.
I'm worried about this.
-Did she take a little pill, one sole pill?
-She says the Doctor did give her some medication but she doesn't know what it was for.
I sigh and write in my notebook. This is the opposite end of the spectrum and both extremes aren't good. I hoped the Doctors would know enough to explain the idea of the morning after pill and get informed consent. Despite my personal views, I don't want people to be taking it without knowing what they're taking and making a conscious decision to do so. I don't want Doctors to give it out just because it's available, if miraculously so. I want it to be available so women have the option if they understand what it is and make the informed decision themselves. It's too late now, though.
-She's 19, continues Urbain. She's married, her husband is the one who encouraged her to go the the hospital.
-He was calm about it? He didn't react negatively?
-No, he was sad for what happened to her but he just wants her to feel better.
I smile at her and she smiles back but sinks shyly into the wall behind her.
-And how are the other girls evolving?
I look to Devote and Marcela who are sitting silently, listening to Esperance's story with solemn faces.
-They say they are evolving well. Devote has pain still, she took medication and it went away for a while but now it is back. It hurts her to urinate and even just walking is painful.
Devote is the woman who is four months pregnant, and has already had 3 miscarriages.
-She should go back to the hospital and talk to the Doctor, especially because of the baby.
Urbain translates this.
-She says she is ready to go and will go when she can.
There's noise from outside the hut. Urbain stops talking and motions to a woman standing about thirty feet away. She seems to be beckoning him outside. He gets up and walks out to speak with her. I'm left in the hut with the three young women. It's a bit bigger than most of the houses in that it has three closet-sized rooms rather than two, plus the small entry way that we are sitting in. The walls are made out of criss-crossing sticks with mud plastered in between. The roof is made out of tin, but I can see that where the tin meets at the peak of the roof there is a gap. I wonder if the rain affects the mud walls. The houses are small and bare but formidable. I'm in awe of the woven structures. Nothing is bought, except the tin in some instances, some houses have only straw roofs. Everything is found, cut, carried and constructed from the bush and by hand. I may know how to use a computer but I could never build a house.
I smile at the women but I can't cross the divide of language drawing a curtain between us. Urbain seems to be arguing outside. I leave the hut and walk across the small dirt expanse to where he's standing. He is arguing feverishly about something with a woman, going back and forth in loud Kinande.
-What's the problem? I ask.
-This woman is one of the familles d'accueil. She wants to know why they aren't getting food too. She thinks they should get some food since they receive the displaced families.
-Oh jeez, I was worried this would happen.
I speak directly to the woman. Urbain translates as I go.
-We brought the food for the families with the greatest need. Everyone here has need, we know that, but we can't help everyone. So we are trying to figure out who are the people who have the greatest need. Who has many young children, who has malnutrition, who is ill, who is still nursing, for example. This will be out of the people who are displaced because they no longer have their fields at all or their homes. It is wonderful that you are helping them, but you know as well as I do that there are people here with greater need than you.
When I finish the woman glares at me with anger but also understanding. She agrees with me, but still badly wants that food. She picks up yelling at Urbain again. I look back around to the hut with girls waiting inside. There is now another woman in the darkness of the doorway peering out at me. I don't remember seeing anyone else in the hut and I didn't see anyone go in.
-I'm going to check on Maman Marie, I say, turning back to Urbain.
I head back across the road and down the dirt pathway. As I pass the truck, I see that all of the food has been separated into tens of little green bags. They're organized by content and arranged in an almost perfect larger square. It looks like a square of little water bubbles, or green squirts of frosting. Each of the largest bags has a bar of soap on top. Take-away kits. I peek into the back of the truck bed as one of the apprentice students is dumping guinea pigs out of the bags. Three fall out, stiff and plastered with feces.
-Damn, three are dead, someone says. They can't even eat them.
I wonder why it is that humans can only eat animals we kill. The guinea pigs died in the last few minutes, yet everyone knows they're no longer edible. At $2.00 a-pop I make a mental note to buy three more, even though realistically I will have no idea who to give them to. I'll have a rabbit farm and a guinea pig farm. I'll walk around with a basket of both on my back, handing them out to random people in the road. I can wear a sign that says Edible and Sustainable!
-Amy! Urbain comes jogging after me. He seems to have finally been able to extricate himself from the discussion.
-There is another woman who was raped, he says. She is waiting to speak with you.
This must be the face peering out at me that seemed to materialize out of the darkness. I walk back with him to the house. Inside I see only the three girls who were already there, and the little Frida Kahlo. I sit down on the chair. When I sit, I face into another room of the hut and there is a striking woman sitting across from me, just inside the room. She is sitting sideways, so as not to look at us, but her eyes flick up towards me when I enter. Her eyes are quick, deep and defined. I want to stare at them, but they frighten me. She seems older than the three girls seated near me, and somehow a lot more affected.
-Wahay, I say. Iwende?
She looks up at my Kinande. Her eyes are going to push me backwards off of my chair; they are so sharp and angry. They shift quickly back down to her skirt.
-Valerie, she says. Kavira Valerie.
Urbain picks up the questioning. Urbain is so soft-spoken and kind when he talks to the women. I don't speak Kinande but there are certain words I pick up and whatever direct questions I ask, I can hear the round-about format of respect with which he frames them.
-She is fifty-five years old. She was walking in the field with her friend and they were leading one of the goats home when they saw three soldiers. When they tried to run, one soldier chased after the goat and the other two ran after the women. The soldiers raped them. One soldier to each woman.
-When did this happen? I ask, expecting her to say around a month ago.
-July 13th, she fires back immediately.
-Did she go to the hospital?
-Yes, on July 14th.
-How has her husband reacted?
I want to make sure the women aren't being also shunned by their husbands after an already traumatizing experience. I've heard of this happening. Urbain poses the question. When the woman hears it, the lines in her face relax and so does her posture. She stops fidgeting with her skirt for a moment and looks at us.
-He went with her to the hospital. He's calm, he's sad but he is calm about it. He asked if he too can participate in the counseling or if there's anything he can do to help her with medication or anything else.
I smile at her. She smiles back briefly, but only a flicker, before she looks back down at her skirt. Urbain asks another question.
-I asked her about stigma, he says after she has finished her response. She says that in the village people started pointing at her and calling her "the victim." She went to the Doctor and asked him, "why are you publicizing my private information?" But the Doctor didn't give her a response and denied telling anyone.
Valerie suddenly picks up speaking again without a question to prompt it. Urbain listens patiently.
-She says, you think you're alone.
She motions towards the other girls with her hand.
-But then you see, no I'm not alone, there are others.
Her tone moves from angry to soft. She knows this is a bad thing, as much as it helps.
-If you would like to come to Butembo, the services at FEPSI are free. You can speak to a psychologist there who might be able to help in some small way, I say.
I'm starting to doubt the power of psychology. I can't see how talking to a random man in a white coat in Butembo could possibly help these women, but I know I'm simply feeling overwhelmed by their pain and their strength.
-They say they are all ready to go to FEPSI, but they have no transport. It's very difficult to get to Butembo.
-I will arrange to bring a car to pick them up and bring them back.
Valerie stands up abruptly after Urbain translates and yells to someone outside. I'm worried she'll leave before I can find some small way to help her, but she sits back down. A skinny woman with blood-shot eyes and hair frizzing out of her head scarf walks over to the hut carrying a mail purse. She pulls out a letter, hands it to Urbain and sits on the chair next to Valerie. I don't want extra people in the hut, but the woman seems to be Valerie's friend and we're no long er talking about the personal details.
The letter doesn't say much. It's a referral letter from the hospital for Valerie if she goes to FEPSI. The Doctor heard that we were trying to get the women to FEPSI and wrote referral letters for all of them. There is no information on the letter other than her name, the Doctor's name and the name of the hospital.
-This woman is one of the group, Urbain says, pointing to the skinny woman with the fiery eyes.
The woman is sitting straight up in the chair staring directly at me. Valerie however, leans forward and puts her face in her hands and stays there. I don't understand for a moment, but then realize what group we're sitting in.
-Oh. I take out my notebook again.
The woman speaks before I get a chance to ask her any questions. She speaks with an assertiveness and anger that the others didn't have.
-Her name is Kahambu Hangie. She was also in the field, four years ago now.
I imagine the four years might contribute to the anger over-powering the sadness.
-She had a sugar cane field. One day, two soldiers found her where she was working, they said, "here is a woman," and they both raped her. She had her farm, she had the sugar cane field. The field helped a lot because she could pay for the kids to study. Once the soldiers came she couldn't go to the field anymore, so now the kids don't go to school. There are seventy, he adds.
-Seventy who? She has seventy kids? Not possible. I look at her skeptically.
-Seventy women in these villages who have been raped since 2005.
I soften my look and feel like an ass.
-It was really bad between 2005-2008. They thought it had moved on but now it is back.
Hangie lifts her hands and head in the air and begins speaking to the roof of the hut.
-She wants to know what grace of God is sending this horror back to them.
Valerie is shaking her head back and forth slowly, not lifting her hand from her eyes. I need a magic word to make these women stop hurting so much. I never see Congolese women lean forward in this way. They have impeccable strength in their backs; beautiful posture. I'm like an ape compared to them. The simple slant of Valerie's back further illuminates her pain.
-Did Hangie go to the hospital?
-Yes, says Urbain as she speaks. She went to the hospital, and a little while after the rapes she got a microbe.
Hangie points to some spots on her skin where she seems to have little rash outbreaks.
-She had an abscess as well but they excised it.
I'm trying to imagine what sort of sexually-transmitted disease she could be referring to but my brain can't focus on anything but the words HIV/AIDS. I don't know the symptoms well, but I will make sure she makes it to FEPSI with the others to have an HIV test performed. The purpose of knowing is that FEPSI provides ARV medication for free.
-Aside from food, please ask them what they need. I can't promise anything but I will promise to try and help them in some way.
Valerie sits up at my question and speaks at length in response. After she is finished each girl says a few words to Urbain.
-Their work was in the field and now they've lost that. Physical rape and material rape, he adds. They can't go back, but they need to have work. They say maybe you could help them start small businesses so they can support their families.He moves from left to right:
-Hangie would like to sell peanuts, Valerie would like to sell clothing, Marcela and Devote want to be seamstresses, Esperance wants to sell fish.
Sewing machines are expensive and pointless if the girls don't already know how to sew, but I can definitely help the others start up their small road-side businesses. There are seventy, though.
-Please let them know I am going to try to help them. If they give me a day that works for them, I will come back with a car and bring them all to FEPSI. We can look for ways to help them start their businesses then. But for now, it needs to remain private, because I can't help all seventy of the survivors at this point. The four women here who have just recently gone through this are my priority, but I will also do my best to help Hangie, I finish.
Honestly, these five are my priority simply because they're sitting in front of me. If all seventy of the women suddenly flooded the hut I'd probably black-out, and wake up with seventy women selling peanuts and no money left in my bank-account. I don't want to meet any other survivors today. I need to figure out a system that's effective and doesn't involve simply handing over cash. In the hierarchy, dying is most important, but for me survivor of rape is next on the list.
-They will speak amongst themselves after we leave the hut and figure out a day that works best, says Urbain. They will tell us the day, before we leave.
We both get up and I say good bye to the women in Kinande. They laugh, I love it. Back across the dirt road, down the dirt path, into the banana trees flapping their green fingers in the wind; Maman Marie and the apprentice students are calling out names one by one and handing the green bags to the women. Almost every woman who comes forward has a baby on her breast or swinging from her shoulders. A bag of food, a bar of soap, a guinea pig, and an empty water jug. The students are standing at different points around the bags keeping the children a few inches away. Urbain jumps into the mix immediately. At my request, Maman Marie has set aside five care-packages for the survivors in the hut. I carry them back up to the hut with one of the students along with three water jugs. We've run out of guinea pigs, but the women smile and say thank you as we hand over the packages. They have decided on Monday, and I tell them I will return as close to eight a.m as possible to pick them up.
Back at the truck again, Maman Marie yells a name, a woman yells in response, a bag is handed over, Urbain yells "cobay!" A student passes a squealing guinea pig down the line and the woman walks off carrying her care-package through the crowd. I stay out of the mix, taking a few pictures and enjoying the general positive energy of the crowd. Although everyone isn't getting food, Maman Marie has also found a way of creating six groups to receive the potato root seeds. Each group has a "president," who will organize the group to plant the seeds in order to multiply them, and then all will be distributed to a larger group of people. The chatter in general is a light one.
As I watch from a little ways away my skirt of children grows, as usual. I start making faces at them and after their initial shock they laugh and start imitating my motions. The alien goggles take a little practice, but within a few minutes a several kids have their hands upside down on their faces, with circles around their eyes and three fingers sprouting down their cheeks. This is my contribution for the day, I think as I watch them trying to turn their palms upside-down against their faces. It's not sustainable, but I still feel pretty good about it. A little boy named Alexi who has been bouncing around me all day tugs lightly at my pants. I look down and he points to the camera then to himself. He looks terrified that I'll say no. I gladly point the camera down at his dragonfly eyes and then show him what he looks like, frozen in the little screen.