I can't believe I almost let myself forget how beautiful this country is. And how soothing. After 53 hours of traveling, including one night sleeping in baggage claim, I arrive back on the little grass airstrip in Butembo, North Kivu, DRC. I'm frustrated, exhausted and on the verge of strangling someone but I can't help but smile and perk up at the sight of the usual row of children lined up against a make-shift wooden fence staring at the big white monster in the field; and this time the white monster isn't me. I imagine those kids stay there all day, waiting for the strange contraptions to descend from the sky roaring like dragons and then open up their bellies to let human beings descend.
There are communication problems when I land, as expected, and Brother Maurice isn't waiting for me at the airport. I recognize the attire of a nun from Les Petites Soeurs, and ask her if she knows the phone number of one of the Crosier Priests. My phone isn't charged and I don't have any units. She calls Father Jean-Marie who says he'll relay the message but as the nun is leaving she picks up my bags and says she's not leaving me alone.
La Soeur Marie is traveling with a nicely dressed and very enthusiastic priest as well as three muzungu men. The men all seem as surprised to see me as I am to see them. They explain that they work for an insurance company in Belgium and have been working on starting medical insurance plans in Butembo since February. I don't quite understand how that would work, considering the state of the hospitals and people's wallets but it's intriguing nonetheless.
After about twenty minutes of driving in the opposite direction of where I live we pull into a beautiful driveway and enter a courtyard that's too small to be the compound for the nuns but too organized to not be a religious home.
-Come Kavira! You can have a drink with us while you wait for you friend.
Again, I can't help but smile. I know the routine and follow them all inside. We enter a big dining room and I see a six foot tall portrait of Bishop Melchisidek Sikuli on the wall. In the living room the couches are real couches, not the normal wooden chairs that are in all other homes including parishes and monasteries. Something dawns on me.
-Are we in the Bishop's house? I ask Marie.
-Yes we are.
-Is he home?
-No, he gets home on Monday.
Thank God. I think after our last discussion about birth control, which was extremely civil but an agree to disagree situation, I'm not so sure he'd be excited about me popping into his living room unannounced. Everyone chats excitedly, two of the Belgian men have been here before and they're cracking all the appropriate jokes and handing out Belgian chocolate. The third Belgian is the President of the company and has never been to Africa before. He explains as the others roll about in private laughter that the medical insurance plan is that people will pay ten dollars up front, and for one year, anytime they or their children go into the hospital they will only have to pay half of the bill and the company will pick up the rest. It's an interesting concept although I can't imagine anyone forking over ten dollars to a few white men who promise to miraculously appear with money over the next year. But who knows, maybe it'll work out, maybe it'll help.
We move from the living room to the dining room and eat the usual: fufu, potatoes, chicken (a rare treat), and cauliflower soaked in oil. I know I have to eat even though I'll be having dinner with the Crosiers in less than an hour, and I'll have to eat then too. I'm sure I'll change my tune within the week but even this, somehow, is refreshing for the moment.
Maurice picks me up within twenty minutes; he looks great, so familiar. He's growing out a beard which makes him look ten years older and he's as happy and friendly as ever. I lean in for a hug before I remember the three taps on the forehead custom in Congo. Hugging is just weird. Our greeting turns into an awkward triple-hug-tap but Maurice doesn't care.
-You forgot already! He exclaims.
-Yeah, and I forgot my French too!
We both laugh.
-No, you're fine. He says. You'll be as good as ever in less than two weeks.
We hop in the car and head home, bouncing on the roads that have gotten much worse with the continuation of the rainy season. Driving my motorcycle will be interesting. I explain the insurance plan to Maurice and he bobs his head around in skeptic consideration.
-I think that will just mean people with money will benefit and save themselves money. None of the people who actually need help can afford ten dollars upfront.
-Yeah, I kinda agree, but who knows.
The rest of the way home he helps me pick my French back up and I resist the urge to take a picture of every single human and animal I see. It feels so good to be back. When we get back to the compound, dinner is just being served. I drop my things in my room and head to the table. Frere Augustin, Frere Maurice, Pere Olivier and Pere Jon are all there. We pray as always and sit down. They ask me about my family and my friends, I ask them about the Crosier routine and life in general.
-It's good, responds Pere Olivier. Well, it's sort of good.
-Why only sort of?
-Well, you know the insecurity is still here and it is worse now.
-Maurice explained a little bit in the car and Father Charles did send me an e-mail when a Priest was killed a couple weeks ago.
-Yes, a Priest was killed as well as a blue helmet. And at least one person is killed in Butembo every night now.
A blue helmet is what people here call UN soldiers.
-Oh man. The military I assume?
-Yes, of course, he says looking down at the table. It's always the military.
-Have they been coming out here to Musienene at all?
-No, they seem to be staying in Butembo, Beni and Kirumba. They haven't been very active in Mulo either.
-Well, I guess that's one good thing.
These conversations can never go farther than recounting the facts and trying to absorb them. We finish dinner listening to Pere Jon chide Frere Maurice in his usual fashion. I'm too tired for recreation so I go back to my room to get ready for bed. I have to walk across the compound to use the bathroom and brush my teeth. As I get in bed I can't help but feel like I'm back at summer camp; except instead of singing cheesy camp songs at dinner we recount who has been killed and where.
I fall asleep quickly but wake up several times during the night and spend a few minutes determining if the creaking wood is wind or soldiers. I go over my nightly escape plan in my head-- pants on, out the window, sprint through the trees or hide in the barn. I also almost forgot this nightly routine. I have to work to settle into letting unnecessary thoughts go. In Congo, there is so much beauty and so many things that are out of my control. I'm back in Congo in every way.