I haven't been to the Kavingu Girl-Mother center in a while, and I miss the girls. Things have been a bit hectic the past few days. I spent an entire day searching for cartons of notebooks for the kids. The school year has begun and the streets and villages are once again flooded with little nuggets in blue pants and white shirts.
Last week, at the end of the Crosier driveway, a young boy was riding a motorcycle too fast and without a helmet on, when he nicked the back of a large truck and disappeared. Brother Maurice told me in the morning.
-I didn't go close enough to see the body on the road, he said. I didn't want that image in front of my eyes.
When I left the house later that day, men from the village were covering the blood with shovels and sand. I stood there and imagined the boys youthful recklessness, ending in nothing. Motorcycles are the cheapest and most viable transportation here, but nobody wears helmets, everyone drives too fast and every ten feet is another blind turn. Younger boys typically drive the fastest, and often with three or four friends crammed onto the seat behind them. At least this boy was driving alone. As I leave the house for Butembo and drive past the spot where the boy disappeared, I realize how strange it is to start every day thinking about death.
At the COPERMA office, Urbain and an apprentice student named Pascal are inside reading through several documents. Pascal is very handsome and always extremely well dressed. He's currently reading about how to most effectively breed rabbits. The twelve that we bought for the people in Isale are all currently pregnant.
We all start chatting about nothing at all. Urbain starts in on me again about having babies. I've explained I'm not even close to ready for that, and am not sure if I want kids at all, unless they're adopted.
-You have to have kids! He says with his usual devilish smirk. For every four kids I have, you have to have one.
-I don't know, just because.
-Okay, well you have two kids right now, so when you make it to four, you let me know and I"ll re-evaluate.
Pascal is laughing at us, still pretending to be reading about rabbits.
-Oh, Urbain, I met Hangie's family yesterday. We were talking about Gladys.
Gladys is Urbain's oldest daughter. She's a three-year-old firecracker. When Urbain and his wife invited me over for dinner, Gladys spent the entire two hours running in and out of the house, eagerly reporting on the bad deeds of all the children outside.
-Daddy, the kids are getting in the back of the car! But I can't kick them out because I'm not big enough. Why can't I be big like you right now? She yelled and stomped around the house, occasionally dropping to the floor in a mini-tantrum.
-She is a little character, I say to Urbain.
His face explodes into a smile.
-Yeah, she's a good one, he says, laughing.
I can't help smiling too; I love fatherly love. Especially here, where the evil in some men is beautifully balanced by the strength and love of the rest.
-I think I'm going to name my next daughter Gladay, he says.
-Gladay? Gladys and Gladay? Why do you want to name your kids practically the same thing?
-It's not the same. And I like the gluh, gluh, gluh sound. I don't know why.
We're all laughing now, even Urbain.
-You are ridiculous.
Suddenly, Hangie bursts in through the front door. He greets me quickly and sits down in a huff. All of us are looking at him.
-How would you describe the security here? If you needed to explain it, what would you say? He asks, looking at me.
-I would say, it's safe during the day but as soon as evening comes it flits out the window. Wooop! Like that. Soldiers turn into monsters and everything goes to hell.
They all laugh at my animations.
-Well said, says Urbain. Very direct.
-Although, I guess I would add, during the daytime it's only safe if you can avoid soldiers, there is no active confrontation, and nobody important was murdered the night before.
The group nods in more solemn agreement.
-Why do you ask?
-Someone from Germany was asking me about it and I couldn't figure out how to explain it.
The security here is like an adolescent going through an identity crisis. We're not laughing anymore. Maman Marie walks in right on cue. She hasn't been feeling well for a few days but has been driving out to Kavingu and Magherya with the potato root seeds that we bought. She even went to Magherya on a Sunday, which is unheard of in Catholic territory.
-We need to get going, I say. It's already 2 p.m. and we'll only have an hour in Kavingu if we don't leave right away.
Maman Marie agrees with me and we get into the truck with Urbain. Urbain often comes along to help Maman Marie, but also to translate the Kinande for me. As we're leaving the semi-smooth streets of Butembo, Maman Marie turns to me from the front seat.
-I have a good story to tell you! She's a bit ill, but looks as strong and eager as ever. When President Kabila was here last week, he drove down this road. He left Luotu at 6 p.m., so obviously the soldiers had already set up their barriers to steal from people. When he got to the first barrier, the soldiers threatened the car and tried to rob him!
-What? I say, laughing. FRDC soldiers tried to rob their own President? I love it.
-But he has a group of body guards, of course, so they chased the soldiers. There were three and they only caught one, but he's in prison now.
We're all laughing at the absurdity of it all.
-That is a great story. I love that. I'm sure he already knows, but now he can't deny how lawless his stupid soldiers are.
President Joseph Kabila Kabange came to Butembo last week to see the condition of the roads and supposedly lay the first stone of pavement. That wouldn't only help commerce and help ease the extreme poverty, but also make it more possible for people to get to the hospitals. I was pretty excited about it, until I heard that the road will stretch only 15 km, starting from the front door of his estate in Musienene and ending just inside the limits of Butembo; a Presidential drive-way.
When we get to Kavingu, the kids immediately swarm the car and fill the truck bed. I get out a little group of them follows me and stands in a circle of confusion, staring, from a distance, at my skin. I notice a little boy, maybe two years old standing off on his own crying. He's holding a wire attached to a toy car made out of dirty Styrofoam. The wheels don't exactly turn, but it follows him around nicely. He is crying pretty hard and I take a step towards the little nugget to pick him up. Immediately, his cries click up a few notches into terrified screams. I step back again, but the damage is already done. A monster in white is not easy for a two year old to understand. One of the other children walks over to him and with the touch of a single comforting hand the boy stops crying.
I turn back towards the small concrete buildings. One of the buildings is the classroom. It's made out of the usual horizontal carpet of sticks and mud, but there are already several holes in the walls. School has only been back in session a week, and the walls are already starting to crumble. I enter the concrete room where the girl-mothers are sewing. Inside the dark room there are about 6 black and silver sewing machines. There are two or three girls stationed at each sewing machine, working on various colors of cloth. The two formateurs are here as well, walking through, chatting with the girls and pointing out mistakes. The girls all look so happy.
We came out today mostly so that Maman Marie could show a video to the girls on the existence and effects of STDs/HIV. She immediately opens the little portable DVD player we just bought in Butembo and gets things going. The girls leave their sewing stations, chattering to each other and Maman Marie in Kinande. The door opens behind me and a flood of children sweeps into the room. In less than four seconds the number of people crowded around the tiny player has quadrupled. I'm not sure what language the DVD is in, everyone is chatting to loudly to hear it, but Maman Marie shouts memorized lines over the crowd as scenes flash through images and statistics of sexually transmitted diseases.
It doesn't seem the most effective way of doing this, but Maman Marie tells me that at the end of the film she asks the girls and boys if they will try to go to the hospital to get tested and treated; they always say yes. I go back outside and watch Urbain play around with the kids. He patiently lifts them into and out of the truck bed. I wish I could do that, it looks fun, but everyone would simply scatter and the fun would be over.
When Maman Marie has finished in the room with the girl-mothers, we all get immediately into the car. It's only four p.m but it takes an hour to get back to Butembo, and then 30 minutes for me to return to Musienene, which leaves a 30 minute cushion before the soldiers start really getting ready for the night. We get back to Butembo without any problems, the car doesn't even break down once, which is a treat. I immediately get on my motorcycle and chase the sun to the horizon.
When I pull up to the house, I approach the spot with fresh dirt, and remember the boy who's head was opened on the road. Occupying the same space where someone has lost their life is a strange thing.
At dinner, Brother Anselme says that an over-burdened truck tipped over just outside of Butembo, 10 people were killed. I'm getting used to this feeling of having death around all the time. It's like having another person sitting at the dinner table, by now.