-How much is it? Maman Marie yells at me from the car.
-Two dollars! I yell back from the doorway of the store.
She gives me a look like I just said 100, but she decides quickly.
-I want to try it too, buy me one.
-Are you sure? It's really strong! And it tastes terrible.
I'm holding an ice cold sugar-free Red Bull, standing in the doorway of one of the two stores in Butembo that sell the caffeine syrup.
-Yes! I want to taste it!
I grab another and tell the girl at the counter I'll pay later. She knows me well enough to know I can't resist the American and European products for long, so I'll be back.
-It's got a lot of caffeine in it, I say. If you're not used to coffee it's going to affect you a lot.
Maman Marie pops open the can slowly. Her hesitant movements make me wonder if she's opened a can before. Granted, I am talking about the Red Bull in a way that makes it seem like it will explode upon opening.
-Is it beer? She asks before putting the can to her mouth.
-No! There is no alcohol in it.
I've had to explain this several times. The first time I walked into the COPERMA office sipping on a Red Bull the looks I got were pure confusion with a touch of disdain. I suddenly remembered drinking a beer a week prior while watching a World Cup game with a couple guys from Butembo.
-This will get you so drunk! One of the men said, holding up a can of Red Bull.
-It'll sure make you stay up all night but I wouldn't call it drunk, I said, before realizing he didn't speak the English written on the can.
-There's no alcohol in that.
-What? He said, looking completely crushed.
Now I have to preface my red bull sips with, there's no alcohol in this, don't worry. The people I don't say it to think I'm getting drunk at 8 in the morning. Maman Marie sips the light blue and silver can and makes a choking sound.
-It's terrible! She says.
The whole car laughs.
-I told you! I say, still laughing.
-But I like it anyway.
I don't know if it's a cultural thing or her trying to be nice, but I know there's no way she likes that drink.
-You're going to have heart palpitations, laughs Urbain.
-You drink that everyday? For two dollars? He says leaning forward in his seat and looking accusingly at me. That's expensive!
-I do not drink it everyday; this is probably my fifth one since I got here. You just happen to have seen me all five of those times.
-Still, two dollars is a lot. It's not easy to find two dollars for us.
-Yes, I know.
I hate this conversation. I have to have it practically every time I buy something.
-Listen Urbain, I say. I didn't sleep well last night, and ideally, I would be drinking a triple latte with soy milk and 1.5 sweet & low packets.
He has no idea what a triple latte is but I keep going.
-Since I cannot have that lovely drink in a beautifully portable cup, I am going to treat myself to this shiny can of two dollar caffeine.
He laughs and looks at me like I'm completely insane.
-Okay, he says and leaves it at that.
The Red Bull is as terrible tasting as Maman Marie's reaction implied, but I slept horribly last night. I had perfectly entertaining dreams but kept waking up abruptly to images of the little girl from the bus with the massive hole in her braids that said, "point-blank." It was like watching a good sitcom and being constantly interrupted by the same disturbing news flash over and over.
I also just drove the 2 hours straight from Mulo on the motorcycle, after having several rather loud and slightly heated discussions with various Crosiers about birth control. My thoughts on Catholicism holding the country back stem primarily from the Church's views on birth-control.
-Pere Jean-Louis, I ask, when I am about to get on my motorcycle to make the trip to Butembo. It's early in the morning so it's still chilly and the air is damp from the fog that hasn't yet lifted from the mountains. The fog is not like smoke, it's like children. Lonely children.
Pere Jean-Louis is carrying a small bowl of goat intestines with pieces of it stuck to his right hand. The bowl is for Niwande, the kitten-in-a-plastic-bag that I bought in Butembo and have since handed over to him. I travel too much and he seemed eager for a little friend.
-It's for Niwande! He exclaims, holding up the bowl that looks like it's full of worms. The excitement in his voice makes me glad I gave him the kitten, he's definitely been glowing ever since. He carries the cat with him everywhere but the parish, cradling it in the crook of his right arm.
-Wonderful, she'll be so happy.
-Off to Butembo?
-Yeah, and then to Kavingu to work at the girl-mother center. But I have a question for you.
The younger brothers already answered my question and it was a devastating response, but I want to hear it from the mouth of a Priest.
-Okay, he puts the bowl of innards on one of the other motorcycles and looks at me expectantly.
-What does the Church say about condoms? Between a married couple, of course.
-Forbidden, he says without hesitation and chops the air with his slimy hand. Completely forbidden, in all situations, no exceptions.
I put my face in my hands and make the false motion of crumpling to the floor.
-Terrible! I say. Jean-Louis, that is terrible.
-Terrible? Why? He laughs at my dramatics.
Jean-Louis is a very interesting character. He's very committed to the religion, yet has managed to maintain his individuality and personality in an impressive way. He serves Christ but is in no way over-shadowed by him. And he shows animals an amount of affection that's rare to the point of being looked down upon in Congo culture, so I think he's great.
-Don't you see how that holds back development? If women can't control how many babies they have or when, not only will it ravage their bodies, since they're having 10 to 12 babies with less than ideal prenatal care, but they won't be able to go to University, they won't be able to get jobs. Not to mention every family having 10 children when they're already in a state of extreme poverty just fuels the problem.
I've lost track of how many times I've tried to get this thought across. My tone and volume are already escalating but Jean-Louis knows me well enough to know it's simply how I express my frustration. He stays calm.
-In the Catholic Church, contraception is a sin, he says matter-of-factly. Men and women, even in marriage should sleep together in the aims of creating life. Using a condom is stopping a life that God intended from having the opportunity to begin.
This is so far from anything that makes sense to me I'm practically sputtering out my point of view.
-What about for HIV? Condoms help prevent the spread of HIV, and in that case you're saving a life not preventing one from starting. What about then?
-No, it should be body on body, as God intended. And even if you're protecting against HIV you're still preventing a possible life from starting.
-Jean-Louis! I want to shake him. Don't you see how horrible this is? Catholicism is completely ingrained in the culture here, it practically is the culture, and just that one view is devastating in so many directions!
I would not have had this conversation the first month I was here, especially since I am flailing my arms around and speaking at a very loud volume. One passing brother has already stopped and is listening from about ten feet away. At this point, all of the Crosiers are my friends and they're used to me. It's wonderful to be able to have discussions about these things and they never get offended. They've learned to take me lightly.
-When women come to me in the Church and say, I've already had 6 children in 7 years, I don't think I can have anymore but my husband wants to sleep with me every night, I want to say it's okay, don't worry, use contraception. But the Church says no, so I say no.
-You tell those women not to use contraception because it's a sin?
-I'm a Catholic and it's against the religion. So, yes. We teach them about family planning; a woman can know where she is in her cycle and avoid getting pregnant that way. We teach them about using thermometers and keeping track of her cycle.
-Jean-Louis, I pause for emphasis. Do you really, honestly think, that here in Congo, I point to the ground. A woman who can barely feed her children is going to have a thermometer, let alone use it, then tell her husband what 5 days out of the month he can sleep with her, and that he'll actually listen? It's ridiculous, you know it's not realistic.
He shrugs his shoulders.
-The Church doesn't change with the times, especially here, I continue. And it doesn't change with culture. Maybe in a developed country like Italy or the States a woman can use family planning strategies, but even then it's still difficult. It's absurd to think a woman in Congo, living in a mud hut and trying to feed the 7 children she's already had, is going to keep track of her temperature and where she is in her cycle and then also regulate how much her husband sleeps with her.
-Well, he says, that's what the Catholic Church says.
-In the States there are tons of Catholics who use contraception and it's not a problem, and the Churches there don't have a problem with it.
I'm not actually certain of this, but I'm pretty sure we have some sort of liberal Catholic wing.
-Then they're not Catholic, he says.
-What? Of course they are. We have liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, and it's the same with the Churches.
-Catholicism is a following of Christ in connection with Rome, the Vatican, the Pope. If the Vatican says something then that's it. If you don't follow it, you're not within the Catholic religion.
Even though I was raised Catholic I don't know enough about it to know if the things he's saying are accurate. In a way though, it doesn't matter, because all of the Catholics here follow these regulations with strict rigidity. This is how Catholicism is instituted here, so whether or not he's correct is irrelevant.
What's frightening for me is how omnipresent it is. One of my friends at the Institute is getting married next year. She's my age, eager to learn, lots of ambition. She begged me to go to the hospital for her to get her condoms or le pillule--birth control. She said if she did it herself the entire community would immediately know and since the community is Catholic she would be shunned as a sinner. She wanted the contraception so she could have a physical relationship with her husband and still go to school.
-I want to wait maybe two years before having a baby so I can keep going to school. But I don't want to put off getting married because of that! She said frantically. I haven't made the trip for the contraception and she has asked me eagerly every time I've seen her if I'm still going to do it. If I don't get her condoms, she won't be able to continue her education.
-And what about a girl who is raped? I ask Jean-Louis. If a fourteen year old girl is raped, it's a sin for her to take the medication within 72 hours that prevents the pregnancy?
-EH! That's even worse, he exclaims. That's a whole other level. Absolutely not allowed.
We stop and stare at each other. There's no way to progress on this from either side. It infuriates and terrifies me. It is the reason I see Catholicism as one of the biggest problems in Congo. None of it makes even a little bit of sense to me.
-Well, I'm going to specifically tell the survivors I work with not to talk to Priests.
I can't actually do this since Priests are like counselors and everybody uses them, but I need to find a way around this problem.
-What? He laughs.
-If a twelve year old girl is raped and she takes the pill, and then she talks to you, you'll make her feel guilty about it and feel like she's sinned when she's already going through a lot of confusing mental guilt and fear about the fact that she was just raped! If she talks to you before she has the chance to take the medication, you'll tell her it's a sin, a 12 year old will get pregnant, she may be too small to give birth, she may die in the process, she definitely won't be able to raise the child on her own, poverty continues, the twelve year old is pushed to the side of the road and the situation in general just keeps rolling downhill.
From my perspective, there are so many things that come into play with this problem. Christians like Jean-Louis are awe-inspiring and do what they can to help the country. But I am rapidly becoming disdainful of the Catholic Church. I've been warned against separating the institution from the people, but my image of the fat man sitting around and not moving is becoming more and more distinct; I am really starting to hate that fat man. He's sitting on the country and squishing all of the people, especially the women.
-That's how it is, he says, summing up the conversation.
-Argg, I growl at him and shake my fist. He laughs and heads into his room carrying the bowl of intestines for Niwande.
-Bon voyage! He yells over his shoulder as he disappears through the door.
I'm extremely late now. The COPERMA crew is waiting for me in Butembo. I get on my motorcycle and head out of the compound. I'm already tired and looking forward to the prospect of the silver and blue can of two dollar Red Bull.