Maman Marceline cancels at the last minute. The plump, middle-aged woman who sells me phone units and a beer now and then had been telling me for months about the girls and women in Musienene who have been victims of rape. I told her I would speak to them, but I've avoided going. Partly, because Musienene is my home and it frightens me and partly because I have no idea what I can really do to help. There is no COPERMA center in Musienene and no Maman Marie explaining what to do.
I made it clear to Maman Marceline that if anyone else is victimized to let me know immediately, so I can help them get to Butembo for free medical care. After months, we decide to go on Sunday at 2 p.m. She says, as everyone does here, that even if I can't do anything the girls will be happy just to speak with me. Being such a rare occurrence in this area, I've begun to see that in a way, maybe I can make the girls feel special and important.
I drive my motorcycle to the little wooden hut where Maman Marceline conducts her business. She is waiting in the tiny doorway with her ever present smile.
-I can't go today, it's Sunday. And today Johnny Christmas was given his status as an official boy scout, she says as soon as I pull up.
Johnny Christmas is her oldest son, in his early twenties, with just as big of a grin as his mother. He told me a while ago about his activities as a boy scout; I didn't quite believe him, so a couple of months ago I went to one of their after-mass meetings. Johnny was the only one wearing a tattered, old, boy-scout uniform complete with a scarf draped over his shoulders and pinned together in front. The rest of the scouts were middle-age to elderly men and women. Another man with a scarf over his shoulders but no uniform began their meeting as soon as I arrived. With a whistle in his mouth, they rehearsed synchronized marching in three straight lines; two tweets--right turn, three tweets--left turn, single long note--stop. It was more than a little odd watching sixty year old women in African print marching in a courtyard like untrained soldiers.
-I'm sorry I wasn't there, I say still straddling my motorcycle in the afternoon sun. I didn't know about it.
-Oh, that's too bad. Johnny must have forgotten. I know he wanted you to be there.
It's kind of a good thing that he forgot, I sometimes get the feeling Johnny Christmas is on the verge of asking me to marry him; fortunately, he always seems to chicken out. He is one of the sweetest people I've ever met but I don't think we'd stand a chance as any sort of couple.
-How many women are there who were victims that want to speak with me? I ask, returning to the subject.
-And how old is the youngest?
-Eighteen, I think. But there are old women.
-Old as in how old?
-Seventy five is the oldest.
I slide the motorcycle kick stand into place so I can lean back on the seat.
-There's a seventy five year old woman who was raped?
-Yes, there are five vieilles.
The image of Kyakyimua Wenderaki comes into my mind. She was only 57 but her body was so tired and depleted she looked twenty years older. I can't even fathom anything involving a 75 year old woman. Maman Marceline watches me staring at the ground for a minute before breaking the silence.
-When they are coming from the source they are attacked on the road. The source is not close to here, it is very far.
-The source meaning where they get their water, right?
-Yes, they walk far to get the water and on the road is where the men attack them.
If only there were more cars here and drivable roads. So many women are attacked on the way to or from somewhere; it makes transportation seem more vital than shoes.
-When will you be able to go with me to speak with these women? I ask.
-Whenever is good for you, I am free. Although, not Sunday. Sunday is never a good day.
-I'm going to Kighali tomorrow and Isale on Tuesday, how about Wednesday at 2 p.m.?
-Nope, Wednesday I have to work at the market. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday I cannot go.
-Okay. How about Thursday?
-Thursday is perfect.
I hoist my bike back up to standing and roar up the engine before driving slowly home. Yesterday we went back to Isale to bring petite-commerce supplies for the women but when we arrived we were told that four people had died the day before and all of the families were at the funeral. Cell phones and cars... those will be my new line of work. Two men passed away who were sick, along with a nurse from the hospital who died alongside her baby during birth.
We were also informed that there were three new victims who needed help from COPERMA. They were raped in the valley and fled to a small village called Kighali where COPERMA is trying to start a new center. We have to go in person to check on their medical condition and find housing and food for them. Tuesday we are returning to Isale to try, once again, to distribute the various supplies.
It's a full week and although the work is work I wish was never necessary, I find myself looking forward to it. Each of these women has not only become an inspiration to me, but in some ways, a friend. I would rather us never meet at all and have them never experience sexual violence, but I guess I'm starting to feel the good of trying to help and the strength that shines through them, rather than simply focusing on the horror of it all.