On the way to the Institute Saturnin questions me about my classes. I hate talking about the class. Although I have to focus on it, and force the bungee cord back down in order to complete a commitment, everyone here seems to think it's the reason I flew 20 hours and paid $2,000 to get here: a month long Neuroscience class in broken French.
-I'm not here for the class. I say. I am, in the sense that I want to help the Crosiers, and it's the reason I'm with, specifically the Crosiers, but that's not my motivation for being here. After the class is over I'm going to start working in Magherya avec les filles-meres et les enfants-soldats.
I keep expecting people to have the normal response of a pained-expression and a brief conversation about how sad it is. This is the second time that doesn't happen.
-Pour quoi? He asks.
-Pour quoi? Pour quoi? Pour quoi no?
He laughs. I am not laughing. He seems to think this is another conversation with more than a tinge of playful flirting and a lot of evasive language. It's not.
-I think that people here don't think that this is a grave problem, I say.
A few nights prior I spoke at length with one of the Peres about sexual violence. He said he didn't think it was a violation of human rights, and couldn't quite understand why I felt it so important and grave.
-It's not good, but I don't see it as all that bad, he said.
I let the conversation progress without my anger getting in the way, for the sake of conversation and an open mind. Plus it was late enough where my mind wasn’t fully in it.
This time the open mind is injured and vulnerable and temporarily closed.
-No, no it's not. Says Saturnin.
-No it's not? It’s not a big deal?
My building fury is quickly threatening to end this conversation in a way I will regret. I work hard to contain it. I know there's no reason to be mad at Saturnin, he's just the messenger between the culture and me.
-You think it's okay for a man to rape a 12 year old girl and her have a baby as a result?
-Oh. Viole. No, I guess not.
He hasn't quite realized that these children have been raped. That doesn't even really matter.
-Do you think it's okay for a 12 year old girl, even if she's not raped to be having children?
-No, I guess not.
He has picked up on the anger I'm struggling to keep from directing at him and is now serious and practically cowering.
-No it's not. I reaffirm.
I walk to my classroom without saying goodbye, even though I know it's not his fault, I can't help but want to strangle him and remove all of the thoughts in his head. The class goes terribly. Papa Kayangay is no longer translating and so I am reading scripted Neuroscience information in French with a few slides of the brain and other systems. I can provide all the information now, in perfect French, though mispronounced, but the monotone of my own voice makes me want to go to sleep.
After class the students ask me what I'm interested in doing in terms of psychology.
-I'm interested in doing research on sexual violence, traumatization. I'd like to focus my education on trying to help les filles-meres.
They give a more proper response of serious expression. Then Immaculae jumps in with a tinge of laughter in her voice.
-We have a raped old-woman here. Only two weeks ago.
She's smiling. I know she's smiling because she’s uncomfortable. I can't sense that in Dusan, but it's obvious in Immaculae. She's fidgeting with her shawl and even hides her blushing cheeks in it when I adjust myself and look at her with no laughter in my face.
-An old woman? Was raped in Lubero? Two weeks ago?
I know this kind of stuff goes on in Lubero. Immaculée told me this herself. C'est ca. I'm speechless anyway, I hide my pained-expression in my hands. The students laugh. One of the women in my class doesn't laugh and when I persist with the seriousness of my expression the other students cease their laughter as well. If I don't join them in showing their discomfort through unintentional disrespect they get the picture pretty quickly.
-Yes, she is mad-woman too. One of the male students throws in his two cents. He says mad-woman in poorly pronounced English.
Provocation is coming at me from all sides.
-She is not mad-woman, we don't say this in English anymore it's disrespectful. Elle a une maladie psycologique. What about the man? What happened to the violeur?
-He paid the police so now he is free. He's walking around Lubero now, I saw him today.
-He's free? No repercussions? The guys nod their heads in agreement, and the appropriate pained-expressions are now in place. This is at least slightly calming.
-No, he paid the police. He spoke to the Chief of the village, gave him some money, and now everything is fine for him.
-It’s not human, I say. And the woman? How is she?
-She is at home. She hasn't left her bed since it happened.
-She. She hasn't left her bed? Since the viole? Is anybody doing anything to help her?
My speech is stumbling out of me; my French is rapidly deteriorating under the pressure of my frustration.
My speech is stumbling out of me; my French is rapidly deteriorating under the pressure of my frustration.
-No, nobody can help her. I visited her but she was sleeping.
I don't want to imagine what kind of a visit it was. If nobody is trying to help the woman, it could only have been a visit for the spectacle; further humiliation of a woman who has already been ground into the dirt. I'm so angry I can't contain it much longer.
-Okay, so the man has paid the police. But in society? What about in society? Does he just walk around and everyone pretends like it's perfectly fine? Oh, bonjour, ca va?
I imitate a person encountering the man in the street with a lot of sarcasm and anger. I'm quickly becoming offensive, but I don't care.
-No, it's not just okay.
-But, nobody does anything? When he goes to market it's perfectly normal?
-If we do something, the justice system will ask us for money. We can't accuse him because we don't have money.
-I understand this, but I don't mean accuse him with the justice system. I understand you are powerless there. It is terrible. But in society, you don't come together and say to the man this is not right?
I want someone to tell me he is being kicked out of town, left to fend for himself in the bush and will be found years later, dead, devoured slowly by ants.
The conversation can go no further. Immaculée tells me she will find out the information about the woman's name and tell me tomorrow. I start making plans to travel with the woman to Butembo, to the FEPSI institute that has maybe two counselors and three doctors. At least it's an attempt to get her out of bed and maybe her own head.
On the walk back to the Institute my fury builds with every step. I glare at the primary students and can't calm myself enough to say Wahay and hear their laughter. I want to see one of the Crosiers and have them ask me Ca va? So I can tell them, No, ca ne va pas. I want to tell them the story and feel the solidarity of their anger. But the more I think about it the more I know they'll respond like Saturnin, thinking I'm a bit off for being so upset. The thought makes me even angrier.
What do you do here? I want to ask. What do you do besides pray? Can't you see that praying is fog? It doesn't actually do anything? What are words without action? It's a lot of good intention that doesn't ever go anywhere except maybe instigate a slight placebo effect. There is an elderly woman right here in Lubero who has been hiding beneath her sheets for two weeks, afraid of the darkness in front of her. There's no way the Crosiers, at least one, didn't hear about it. And yet, there she is, not moving from her bed because there's no compassion or kindness to help her back up. Life here continues; three masses on Sunday, confirmations this past weekend, at least one mass every day the rest of the week. Ange works at the secondary school, what the hell do the rest of you do besides support your own community and speak empty words to the sky and call it self-sacrifice? Please, tell me. I need to know.
Beneath my anger I know that the Crosiers do everything they can, in action as well as in prayer. They have the Centre d’Ecoute, the maternity ward mid-construction, the center for mothers to learn proper infant care. I know on the periphery of my irrational emotion that they do more than I could ever hope to do. And if they're right about prayer, this crumbling world can use all it can get; if not, there's still a lot to be said for placebo.
Despite knowing this in the back of my mind, right now I'm completely blinded by my fury and fear. The battery is dead at the compound so I can't work on my Neuroscience course. I stomp around a bit, petting the dogs and trying to calm myself down. All of my thinking has simply succeeded in making my emotions spiral out of control. I decide to go back to the Institute and attempt to plan for the next day’s class using the current.
On the way to the Institute I run into Pére Benjamin and Frere Ange. They are two Crosiers I feel very comfortable with and thus will be most tempted by their presence to explode. They ask me ca va. And I say, no, ca ne va pas. I am able to check myself and I respond to their questions about why with a lot of energy resting on controlling my breathing.
-I'm angry, I say.
-Why are you angry? They chuckle. It does not help.
I explain the story about the woman and do my best to control the tone and velocity of my words. I tell Benjamin that I need a car to go to Butembo this weekend, and I will either go with a Crosier car if it's available, or I will search for a driver in Lubero. I'll make damn sure it isn't that insect who's waltzing around. I'm trembling visibly as I touch my hand to my forehead.
Benjamin responds seriously. He is clever and deeply compassionate and he can clearly see I'm upset. Whatever he thinks about the problem, he knows as my friend this is no time to act trivial. But before the conversation is really over, he simply says poli poli –slowly slowly—and he and Ange continue on their way.
They don't see it the way I do and it makes me feel more alone, and more terrified of the problem here than anything else. It makes me realize the problem these women face is so much deeper than I ever thought it was, and I already couldn't see the bottom of the well.
A few minutes after they leave me in the dirt road outside of the Institute the tornado of emotion overwhelms me and I start crying with two chickens, a goat and a couple of children watching me curiously.
It's not easy to see a person shattered and sprinkled carelessly on the ground. It takes a day and a half to arrange a car to go to Lubero to speak with the woman. Immaculée says she will show me to the woman's hut but will not stay to translate. I arrange for one of my other students, Léocadie to accompany us as well. Léocadie worked with Sister Celine in the Centre d'Ecoute for a month so she has some experience with the gravity of sexual violence. Not that it helps much, experience only helps you get used to discomfort and pain. It helps you not laugh when you don’t know what else to do. Léocadie is the one student who didn't participate in the uncomfortable giggle when Immaculée first told me about the woman. I noticed her, not smiling but watching me, mirroring my own expression from the back of the class.
When we get there I'm worried there will be formalities of giving and taking, but we enter the low entrance to the hut immediately. Poverty trumps social etiquette. It's a two room hut, each room no larger than my closet at home, made of sticks and crumbling mud. The roof is a low teepee made of straw and a few small sheets of tin. We enter so quickly I don't quite prepare myself, and for an instant I forget why I'm there. I look around realizing it's the first time I've entered one of the normal homes here; one not owned by a religious person or someone related to that trickle of so-called wealth. There are the omnipresent children, standing in the doorway peering into the darkness. They are not nervous here, it is their home and they seep into the hut towards me without fear. A third of the room is partitioned off with several sticks in the ground. Behind the partition is a woman, frail and crumpled in a heap on a bed. She looks like a broken toothpick. The bed is hardly a bed, a piece of wood just off of the ground with a few sheets and a blanket on top. She is lying on her side and doesn't move when we enter.
Immaculée walks into the small room immediately and begins urging the woman into consciousness. Her forcefulness makes me nervous. It goes against everything I learned during my Rape Crisis Counselor training. I don't speak the language, and I'm not quite sure what to do, so I allow her to continue in her own way.
-She is not sleeping, says Immaculée but she cannot speak.
-Traumatizée, says Léocadie.
I want to tell the woman all of the things I know are true. This is not your fault, I believe you, we’re going to get you help and maybe someday, today will be yesterday for you. It’s difficult to make someone believe these things in English. I don’t attempt to change the words into French and have Immaculée further filter them through her own interpretation and then Kinande.
On the other side of the hut I hear chittering. I turn around and see about eight guinea pigs crowded around a plate of some type of food in the dark corner. I’m not even paying attention to what Immaculée is doing. I switch my brain into a more professional mode and try to move into the tiny room. It’s tiny and with Léocadie and Immaculée already crowded around the small platform I feel like we’re using up the woman’s resources. It seems like there’s a hazy bubble of light around her and if we touch it too hard or move too quickly it’ll pop silently and disappear.
-You are afraid, says Immaculée.
-No, I'm not afraid. I don't want to be impolite.
It's the best way I can articulate how delicate the situation is.
-Can you please ask her if she would like to go to Butembo in order to get help at the FEPSI center.
I ask in French and Immaculée takes it the one step farther so the woman can understand. She can barely lift her head, but I see her nod slightly, yes. This is now the third week she hasn't moved from the tiny wooden platform. Her tiny arms are folded beneath the black and silver forest of hair on her head. Her eyes don't look at any of us; they're completely devoid of the spark I know was once there. There's no fear in her face, only sadness and resignation.
-Please tell her that we will try and help her feel better.
Immaculée speaks rapidly in Kinande. Léocadie is standing silently next to me. She was supposed to be the translator. I can see the eagerness in Immaculée, to be present and important, but in Léocadie I can see the knowledge that this is bigger than that. That’s what experience gives you, I guess.
-Does she have any, I hesitate. I don't know how to ask if she has physical injuries from the rape. Is she bleeding still? Is there any sort of infection? Can she go to the bathroom without pain? I need to understand the extent of treatment I need to locate in Butembo. I finally settle for the basic words, physical injury.
-No, says Leocadie. Only pain.
She points to her head and her heart.
-Will she be able to move from the bed and travel the route to Butembo?
-The woman who is her guardian is coming now from the market, says Immaculée, we must wait for her in order to ask.
-Okay, let's wait outside.
We're only causing this woman more distress by being inside the hut drawing attention and curious children towards her sunken frame. I kneel down and look her in the eyes. She makes a small movement so that she can look at me.
-Wahay, I say in her native tongue. I smile at her with as much kindness and support as I can show with my lips and my eyes.
-Iyahay, she says in a whisper. It's the first word she's spoken since we arrived. I find out later it’s the first word she’s spoken since the rape.
I stand up again and we move outside. The 'guardian,' who turns out to be the woman's daughter, arrives only a few minutes after we step back into the fading sunshine. She looks like a darker version of a cousin of mine. She's beautiful and confident, with her hair wrapped tightly in a scarf and a belly that's known the passage of many children.
Immaculée continues to translate as I ask her about her mother's health; is she strong enough to make it to Butembo? Will you be able to accompany us and stay with her? When will you be able to go? Don't worry, I'll make sure everything is paid for.
I know the woman can't even consider paying for a trip to Butembo plus treatment, and time to recuperate at a sexual violence center. I know it'll probably cost about $80 total. One of the toddlers has been circling my legs and fanning my pants for several minutes. I haven't really noticed her, except for the initial surprise at her infant courage. Her mother shoos her away and we all laugh about her sparkly little innocence.
-This is the woman who was here when it happened, says Immaculée, bringing us back to the unfortunate task. She's pointing to a small woman standing next to me. She’s small enough to be part of the pygmy population that lives near here.
-Can you ask her what she saw?
I don’t know if I want to know. I don’t know if I need to know, but I ask anyway.
Immaculée translates as the woman starts telling the story with her body. I can follow almost all of it. I can hear the solidity of her voice quickly crumble as the story progresses. She makes the motion of pulling up pants and zipping the zipper; she laughs as she does this and the others follow suit. Beneath the laughter I can hear that her voice is barely holding itself together. I'm no longer upset by this reaction. Slowly I’m seeing that it is simply the overflow of the pain and fear inside.
-This woman lives there, Immaculée points across the small dirt road, when the woman is finished acting out the story. There are children here, and they come to her and say there is a nurse who has come to check on la mere. She had some mental difficulties before the rape, but she functioned fine, she just disappeared sometimes to wander through the fields. This neighbor knows it is strange for a nurse to come and so she goes to the hut and she finds a man in the hut. He is not finished yet and he pulls up his pants and then runs when she comes in.
-Please tell them that we will come on Sunday morning and go to Butembo. If there is a problem, with the car or anything else, I will still come and speak with the daughter to let her know and arrange another time that we can go.
The woman says thank you. I say good bye in Kinande, everyone breathes out and laughs.
Immaculée, Léocadie and I drive to the market in Lubero so that I can buy a case of beer for les Peres. Beer is expensive, and I've seen the stress accumulating in their faces all week; I'd like to do something nice to help them relieve it. On the way we pass several soldiers. Léocadie and Immaculée both tell me the same story of safety during the day and terror at night. The soldiers do whatever they want, as do the rest of the men, it seems. I'm angry and make some grand statements that don't translate well into French and simply confuse both of the girls.
I change the topic. We've done what we can for the moment and we have a Saturday to enjoy before we leave.
The evening prayer has just started when I get home. I sneak quietly into the warm chapel and take my place on one of the wooden benches next to Pere Sylvestre. Les freres et les peres are already in the thick of song and I let my mind fall into the cloth of their voices. The panic from the other day wasn't present at all today. It felt like business and I feel strange for not being upset or sad. Throughout the prayer I force myself to remember the details of the woman, her eyes, her family, the children, the damp blackness of the hut.
I try and separate the crevices in my brain to let the images fall out again and filter down to my heart. I need to feel what it means. I need it to hurt me. I have to fight the protective walls being put up. If it doesn't hurt me I'm afraid I'll forget how important it is. How important she is.
As the night progresses I become more and more solemn. I no longer need to remind myself of the woman's face, she feels like my own mother. I remember that there is a balance here too. If I feel it too much, I'll lose myself, which would be almost as bad as forgetting, and equally as ineffective.
Meanwhile, she is drowning.
On Sunday we arrive two hours late. The car has a flat tire that must be changed, there isn’t enough gas and the gas is hand fed to the car once it’s found. When we carry her stiff, plastic-like body out of the hut she weighs less than the piece of wood she was lying on. Her eyes are sharp. She is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. She knows that there are people lifting her. She knows that she's being placed in the back of a car between two strangers. Her eyes show knowledge without emotion. We struggle getting her into the car, not because of her weight; the rigidity of her fused joints makes it feel like we're breaking her with every turn. As I carry her I feel her shoulder crack and I’m terrified I have actually broken her more but she doesn’t move or make a sound.
I carry her with Immaculée and the neighbor who stopped the violeur mid-act. There are 2 strong Freres and one very strong Pere waiting by the car but their fear is naked next to their hesitation. I don't blame them. I often forget that most people aren't used to seeing this kind of thing, or thinking about it. I feel almost guilty opening Pandora's Box for them. I know they won't be able to forget, but I know that's important too. I notice that I’m not as afraid as they are and it makes me nervous. But being around this kind of pain is a bit like hot pepper, you have to habituate. The more you do, the more you can take.
Her name is Kahambu. When I look away from her and try to remember her face, her eyes are turquoise. I cannot hold onto their real color, even if I stare into them for several minutes. They match the head scarf wrapped around her black and silver hair. Her body, her face, her skin, all look like they belong to someone a century old, but Kahambu is only 57. It's hot and dry, but we cover her in blankets and large faux-fur coats. Her daughter gets in the back of the truck along with her four children, a lawn mower, four other women traveling to Butembo and one Frere. Even with a father at home, the children must stay with their mother. Although, I'm not sure there is a father at home.
-Are you okay sitting there? I ask le Frere Faustin, who is one of the strangers next to Kahambu. Immaculée is on the other side, I'm sitting up front.
-I can switch with you if you would like, I offer.
-No, I want to stay here.
He reminds me of a frightened but determined child.
I wanted Kahambu's daughter to sit with her but it's not possible with the four kids in the back on such a long journey. We leave Lubero. The trip is normal, bumpy and dusty. I worry about Kahambu's frail skeleton absorbing the rocky road but there's nothing to be done. At least she's no longer lying on that piece of wood staring into her own fear. On the way we are able to drop off les Freres Faustin and Tuzo and Kahambu's daughter leaves the little girls in the care of the other women in the back and replaces Faustin as Kahambu’s other side.
When we are almost to Musienene, the shock-absorbers under the right front wheel shift and it becomes extremely dangerous to drive. Dieu Donnée is the driver and he is worried about continuing but the Crosier house is only about five minutes away. My biggest fear is breaking down and having Kahambu fading in the back. I urge him to continue.
We make it safely to the Crosier compound and when we do Dieu Donnée is able to call a mechanic. I'm panicking a bit. I lent $100 to Dusan a week ago and have since run out of other money. They say the FEPSI clinic is free but I want to have the money available in case. This is Congo, after all, and Kahambu can't afford the kind of chances that inevitably present themselves here.
I go inside the Crosier house to talk to Pere John, an 81 year old man who smiles with no teeth and speaks in jokes. He's working his way through a 1,000 page Sudoku book, and Frere Maurice is putting lunch on the table.
-Do you have any water or something small to eat for all the people who are with us? I ask after the traditional hellos.
Kahambu doesn't eat unless you force her and I haven’t inquired about the definition of force, but it's worth a shot and the little girls are no doubt starving. Frere Anjeluse procures a jug of water, a loaf of bread and a jar of nutella-marshmallow swirl paste. It's not the healthiest lunch in the world but again, there's nothing more I can do.
I sit down and eat a quick lunch with Pere John, Frere Anjeluse, Frere Maurice and Die Donné. I'm anxious and don't like the idea of Kahambu, the four little girls and their mother sitting outside in the hot sun with only sugar paste and white bread. I need the money, and I need to get Kahambu to FEPSI.
-How long do you think it will take to fix the car? I ask Dieu Donnée
He looks anxious as well. Pere Onesphort called the FEPSI director the night before and found out that there are no spaces at FEPSI, but at another center that works with FEPSI there is a space. The second center doesn't have much funding however, and thus can't afford to feed the patients. I don't even want to think about the quality and quantity of medicine. If we get to FEPSI and there are no spaces available at all, I'll have to come up with something drastic. My back-up plan is offering the entire $100, which is a fortune here, to simply keep Kahambu in a back room where there are nurses who can monitor her until a legitimate space opens up. And we have to return to Mulo by 6 p.m. I know that Dieu Donné is worrying about all of this.
-Once the mechanic gets here, it will be probably about an hour.
I look at my watch, it's already 1 p.m.
-Okay, here's what I'm thinking. I'll hire a car while you get the Crosier car fixed. I'll take Kahambu and her daughter to the FEPSI center, you can do what you need to do here. Then we'll meet up and head home.
-It's not possible to hire a car here. Motorbike yes, but hiring a car is not possible.
-Motorbike? I can't take Kahambu on a motorbike.
-Yes, this is the problem.
I have to think quickly. Dusan is only going to be in Butembo for half an hour or so and I desperately need that bill.
-Okay, next plan. I'll hire a motorbike and go to meet Dusan in Butembo. By the time the car is fixed I will have gotten the money. You can pick me up and we'll go immediately to FEPSI.
Dieu Donnée does not look happy with this. I asked before we left if he would be willing to translate in the off-chance that Kahambu tried to speak to us—she hasn't spoken more than “iyahay” since the rape. Dieu Donnée looked like he was going to faint and said that it would be best for Immaculée to come as translator. I feel bad leaving Kahambu as his charge but I am out of options.
-I know this isn’t the best option, Dieu Donnée but it will only be for about thirty minutes. She is completely my responsibility and I’ll join you again as soon as I can.
-Okay, it's fine. He looks worried but I can see him building up his resolve. Almost immediately he smiles and looks eager for the day.
-It's not a problem at all, let's get you a motorbike.
I run outside to let Immaculée know that I'll be leaving. I find her in an odd make shift trailer in the backyard of the house where there is a computer and apparently internet. She seems happy so I’m happy. I explain the situation. She doesn't like the idea of me riding on the motorbike in my jupe,-skirt- that has an absurdly small circumference and is difficult to walk in, but I'm not worried about modesty. I can hike it up.
-Where is Kahambu? I ask her.
-She is on the other side in another room, she is eating.
-She's eating? That's wonderful!
-Yes! It's good.
-Please explain to la fille that I am leaving but I will be joining you very shortly.
-Okay, no problem.
I walk to a little patio just behind the house where the four little girls are sucking on lemons and picking up beer caps from the ground. The youngest are about three and four years old, and the two oldest are possibly eight and ten. The ten year old is clearly in charge and she looks like she knows exactly what she's doing.
-Iwende? What’s your name? I ask the littlest one and pull her onto my lap.
She's too shy to respond, and is concentrating on keeping ten or more bottle caps in her chubby little hands. The four year old jumps in.
-Lissa. She points to the one in my lap. Ingye Aliza. -I'm Aliza.
I suddenly notice that the pile of clothing on the ground beside us is Kahambu. The black hairs of the faux-fur coat peeking out from under an African print blanket and the knowledge that there’s a human underneath make me nauseous. I can see the frail outline of her ossified, folded legs under the blankets. Again, I want to pull a bed out of the air, an air-conditioner, an IV, a new life. At least she's in the shade and maybe ate something small. Maybe.
Pere John ambles out with his gums in full view carrying a bowl of bananas. Lissa leaps off of my lap and waddles over to him. I doubt they've had breakfast, but I'm quite certain they're used to being hungry. Pere John notices the crumpled heap of Kuhambu and starts walking over slowly. He thinks it's a child or an animal and I can see the formation of a joke in his face as he approaches her.
-That's a woman, I say desperately. She's very sick. That's a sick woman, Pere John.
I will do anything to stop him from making a joke unknowingly at her expense. My exclamations and the panic in my voice are effective. He takes a step backwards.
-That's not her hair is it? He asks pointing to the dirty faux-fur.
It's a joke, but he's saying it with kindness and resignation and I smile.
-No, John, not her hair.
The motorbike pulls up.
-Wait, stay here so he doesn't charge you mzungu price, says Dieu Donné.
He goes over and starts bargaining with the guy, leaning on the motorbike as if he's about to get on it. After a few minutes I leave the girls and walk over to them.
-Listen, we're pressed for time, I can just pay him the $5 to take me to Butembo. I'd rather pay the extra dollar or two than wait another ten minutes for him to give in.
Dieu Donné is perfectly happy with this. I leap onto the moto, hiking up my skirt inappropriately high and almost knocking the driver off of the bike.
-Call me on the phone when you get there, and I'll come and pick you up.
-See you soon!
The driver starts up the engine and we head towards Butembo. Riding the motorcycle in Butembo is completely different than riding in Mulo. The potholes are now the size of Lissa and there are monstrously overburdened trucks called camions and other motorbikes stirring up blinding amounts of dust. I think of all the things Dusan has told me and have images of my ankles mangled and separated from my feet. I wish I had those boots right about now, not to mention a helmet. The driver doesn't know where he's going, doesn't speak French, and is much more conscious about saving gas by turning off the engine every ten seconds than he is about getting me to my destination. I'm getting a lot of practice controlling my impatience and my temper.
Finally we make it to Hotel Butembo where Dusan is waiting with his translator and his cigarettes. Hotel Butembo is the most westernized place North of Goma, and the only restaurant Dusan eats in when he's here. You can buy french fries and whisky, even if they’re still served next to a dead goat.
He gives me the $100 bill and I feel infused with power and a lot less anxious about the day. As shallow as it feels, money gives me immeasurable power here. It's the only reason mzungu's have celebrity status, because we're known to have more money. As long as I'm using it to get Kahambu to the center, I don't care about loving the power. Nothing can go wrong now, because if I flash the right number, it'll all be worked out. To a very limited extent, of course.
-Have a soda, says Dusan. He begins to launch into a story about being in the bush and why his car is completely covered in mud.
-I can only sit for a second, I interrupt him without guilt. Once my ride comes I have to leave immediately.
-You will stay and have a soda! He says jovially.
I have no problem be rigid.
-No, I have to go as soon as my ride is here.
-Okay, okay. He succumbs quicker than I was expecting. I was ready for a fight.
Dieu Donnée calls and arrives almost immediately. I hop in the car feeling in control again.
-To FEPSI? Asks Dieu Donnée.
Kahambu is still in the back, supported on either side by her daughter and Immaculée. The four little ones are riding solo in the truck bed. Thankfully, the center is only a few minutes away. It’s already 4:30 p.m. We still have to speak to the people at FEPSI, find the other center, gain access on a Sunday and make sure Kahambu, her daughter and the little nuggets are safely settled. I doubt the center will accept the little family but I’m not ready to worry about them yet. Kahambu first.
The FEPSI center has beautiful, solid walls and an intact front gate. I approach the gate with Immaculée next to me and my entire visceral cavity lodged in my throat. Through the red front gate the building opens into a light-filled center with rooms rising up on three sides; from the balconies women peer down at us with sombre curiosity. Almost every woman has a child strapped to some portion of her body. I’m too worried about what will follow to pay close attention to them, but in their gazes I can sense that they know why I’m here. They’re waiting to see who it is this time. What size, what age, what flickering state of existing.
We enter a small room on the left side of the enclosure. I’m walking blindly, I don’t read any of the signs and simply follow Immaculée. Inside the small room there is a woman in a white coat behind a desk.
-We’re here with a woman who is very ill. She was raped, she’s 57 but she is very sick now and seems much older. She hasn’t moved from her bed in three weeks, doesn’t speak, doesn’t eat.
The basics pour out of me without hello and my voice is trembling audibly.
-Where is she now? The woman asks.
She doesn’t laugh. She’s wearing a white coat. She looks worried and sad. I want to kiss her.
-She’s in the car. She can’t move; she’s very ill.
Immaculée jumps in and explains the story with more details and better French. By now another woman and a man have joined us, both wearing white coats.
-I spoke with Joelle the Director, I say when Immaculée finishes. He said there are no spaces here, but at another center that works with you they can take her?
I might pass out, or fall off of my chair since I’m sitting so far forward on the seat and leaning towards them like a hungry child.
-No, says the man. The two women disappear into an adjacent room.
-We have a place here.
-You do? Really?
The women return carrying an army green cot.
-They have a place here! I yell at Immaculée.
-Yes, I heard, she says, laughing.
-They have a place here! I explain again to Dieu Donnée when we approach the car with the three beautiful white coats and that gorgeous cot. I stop myself just before leaping into Dieu Donnée’s arms and creating a very culturally awkward situation. The three nurses, or Doctors-it doesn’t matter at this point- lift her slowly from the car and onto the cot. Her expression is the same and her body is stiffer than ever. I try to place my sweater under her head but it doesn’t help much. Dieu Donnée stands at a distance watching us through the spaces separating the children standing in the truck bed. The two older girls jump down and attempt to help the little ones out but can’t reach. I almost skip over to lift them down to the ground.
We enter the gate with Kahambu and all eyes are on us. The two women carry the cot with Kahambu to the stairs, which are thin and turn sharply. When they lift the cot to keep Kahambu horizontal they’re frighteningly shaky. I try to spot them but am very conscious of how useless it is in my long skirt with no give and three people plus a metal cot threatening to come down. If they fell we’d all be badly hurt and Kahambu would probably not make it. Somehow the white-coated women manage to make it to the top of the stairs. They take Kahambu behind a wooden partition where there is a cot with a large, thick mattress. I help them move her onto the softness and step out quickly.
The other women of the center have lined up outside of the room against the walls and each one stares silently at the closed wooden door. They have seen the state of the woman and they know the reason she’s here. The nurse-doctors move in and out bringing trays of needles, gauze and an IV. Each time I see the silver glint of a medical tray I have to stop myself from interrupting their work by grabbing them and kissing them.
The oldest granddaughter has picked up one of the younger ones and the four wait patiently with the rest of us women. The white-coats are speaking Kinande behind the door. Each time Immaculée shakes her head with emotion I make a mental note to ask her why.
I’m worried about the money. After a few minutes I follow one of the women downstairs into the office.
-I’m not sure how the system works here, but I’m willing to pay for her care.
-You don’t have to pay. Any treatment related to le viole is free.
I’ve heard FEPSI is completely funded by an anonymous Spaniard in Barcelona. I’m very grateful to that mysterious benefactor right now.
-If she has need for anything more, I don’t want her to not get proper care because of money. I’ll pay.
I’ve instigated this entire thing, she’s my responsibility now. They’re satisfied with this and take down my contact information. When I go back upstairs the women have mostly dispersed. Immaculée is sitting on a bench with a young woman she seems to know.
-What were the Doctors saying?
-They were saying she is very weak; and they were talking about putting in the IV. Then they helped change her clothes and there was semen all over here.
She rubs her inner thighs. I feel sick. I can’t just sit there anymore watching and imagining. It’s after 5 p.m., we have to leave in half an hour. Dieu Donnée has gone to pick something up from the Assumptionists- a different group of Christian devotees. One of the little girls, possibly Lissa wanders over to me sucking on a lemon. I realize they’ve eaten only lemons, scraps of bread and chocolate paste all day.
-I’m going to take the girls to get some food. Will you ask their mother if that’s okay? I ask Immaculée.
-Yes. She speaks Kinande through the door for a few seconds then turns back to me.
-She says thank you.
The five of us leave the FEPSI clinic holding hands. Our shadow makes an odd little chain on the dirt road. We encounter Dieu Donnée just outside of the center and he is not happy with my decision to seek out a restaurant so close to our planned time of departure. But these little girls have waited patiently all day, never complaining or even asking for food. I know that if I don’t get them food now they won’t eat for several more hours. When I asked Immaculée about lodging for the family, she told me Kahambu has another daughter who lives in Butembo and will be taking them in. I wanted to melt into a little puddle of relief on the floor.
I feel bad for Dieu Donnée but I care more at this point about filling the little bellies than leaving for home on time. Today is a holiday and we wanted to make it home for the small Crosier celebration, but that isn’t even half of a priority for me at this point.
After thirty minutes of wandering through the dusty roads we find a small living room that they call a restaurant. I let the girls play with my camera and watch the littlest ones clamber and roll across the puffy couches while we wait for the food to arrive. When it does, their faces light up in front of the monstrous portion of fufu and steaming bowl of goat innards. The oldest two situate the two younger ones and their short little arms directly in front of the food and place themselves on the outside of the row. The very oldest then makes four little piles, distributing the goat between them, giving the best pieces to the two smallest bellies. It makes me want to cry.
There is truly no better way to end a long journey than watching four hungry enfants slurp goat intestines like candy-straws.
On the way home we blow another tire when we're only twenty minutes away. I've let go of all of my impatience, I feel completely content. I lay down on the road in the dark and look at the unobstructed stars. The entire crew laughs heartily at my odd mzungu antics. I explain that in Chicago you can't see stars like this, they're swallowed by city lights. They find the concept unbelievable and continue to chuckle while screwing on the spare tire. When we get home the celebration is almost over, but there is some fufu and goat left over for us. The younger brothers are all slightly tipsy, dancing around, joking and telling me that they always wanted to marry an mzungu and I seem like just the one. I chide them back about their previous engagement to God, and the bungee cord glides back down.