I have an idea. I go behind the barn and stand on the stone where I get phone service and send a message to Dusan. He recently got back from vacation and my idea won't work without him.
I want to teach anti-sex violence classes to soldiers. I need your connections and protection for that. Keep it in mind, let me know what you think. I send.
It doesn't take him long and he responds exactly how I expected, in that I didn't expect it.
Anti-sex? Or anti-violence? I'll contribute to the latter but not the first one!
Anti-sex VIOLENCE, I write back. I would never ask you to promote anti-sex.
I have to catch a plane in the next couple of days and I want to talk to him before I leave. He seems on-board but I want to pin it down. He tells me he'll be in Butembo the next morning, having drinks at the Hotel Butembo. I'm going back to the U.S. for a few weeks for several Congo and personal related things that require my presence; I need to leave my motorcycle with COPERMA, so I tell Dusan I'll drop in as soon as possible. COPERMA and I have planned to have a little dinner together--that I know I'll be paying for--to say bonne voyage. I'll be back in Congo in the beginning of November, but I'm not really sure they trust that.
In the morning I drive to Hotel Butembo first, so I don't have to hire moto-taxis the rest of the day. When I get to the Hotel I walk through the guarded gate into the compound, under the ivy arch and into a small field with plastic chairs and tables. I haven't been here in a while and the semi-western feel that used to comfort me makes me slightly annoyed now.
Dusan is sitting at one of the flimsy white tables with three other people, which I wasn't expecting. Faustin is here. Faustin is a handsome Congolese man who works for MONUC. About three months ago he told me that he is the ex-dictator Mobutu's nephew. Faustin explained he wanted to reclaim the family's power by running for the Presidency in 2011 and with me, an American, by his side he felt sure we could win. I told him I would think about it but then simply didn't go back to Lubero to see him. I didn't know how to tell him I didn't believe him, was slightly insulted he thought I'd marry for money and power, and was quite positive that even if it was true and I were a gold-digger, we'd both be killed within a month anyway. Now, sitting on the Hotel lawn it's definitely awkward and he's clearly mad at me.
He crosses his arms and glares at me when I sit in between Dusan and him.
-You fled Lubero, he says rigidly.
-I didn't flee, I just had a lot of work to do here in Butembo. You know how it is, you go where work takes you.
This doesn't placate him but thankfully Dusan interrupts.
-How are you? He exclaims.
He looks really refreshed. Every time he goes home for a few weeks he comes back looking around four years younger than before.
-I'm great! How was home?
-Wonderful, of course. I was just sending text message to you. I have idea.
He laughs before he can get it out, in a way that reminds me of a ten year old trying to say the word vagina. I can't help but laugh preemptively with him.
-What is it?
He's still laughing and can't seem to get the idea out.
-I think slogan for teaching soldiers should be Make War Not Love.
He slaps the table and practically falls off of his chair. I join his laughter.
-That's not a bad idea, I say. I mean, that's what we want them to do isn't it? Fight each other and leave the innocent people alone. Not a bad idea.
I can foresee a lot of disagreement with that title but it does make a surprising amount of sense.
-You can get t-shirts and everything, he says still laughing.
-Well, so what I'm thinking, I say, abruptly ending my laughter, is that all of this work with the survivors is so important, but it's not actually getting at the root of the problem. The soldiers, at least in this area, are the root of the problem.
I constantly have the image of chasing an unruly child through a house as he knocks over vases and destroys everything in his path. Everyone here is running around after the child picking up the broken pieces. I want to talk to the kid.
-I think this is great idea, he says.
He is serious again.
-Is great idea, and is possible idea.
-You think so? I need your connections to the Lieutenants, you would have to help me get to them and make their soldiers listen.
-Not any problem. This is easy part. Hard part is getting soldiers to remember morals.
-True. I'm thinking of going from a more self-centered perspective. If we show them educational videos on sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, it won't be completely effective, but it could potentially make them at least hesitate before attacking women. I'm going to find the most graphic, painful looking images of inflamed penises.
-This is good idea. We will have to think more on this.
-Yes, I'm going to contact some people I know in Goma and Bukavu and see if they have any ideas. I think there may be one soldier education initiative around Goma, but I haven't heard much about it and there's obviously nothing up here in the bush.
-True. Well I am very interested, this is good idea. Oh, and I am Dusan, I am rude, yes?
-Um, yes. You are often a bit rude.
-This is my friend Rocky.
He points to a man in a MONUC camouflage uniform sitting next to him. I didn't even notice the man or our lack of social tact.
-Rocky is from Ecuador.
Rocky is a big man with sausage fingers. He smiles kindly at me and gets up a little to shake my hand.
-Hi Rocky, I say as my hand disappears into his.
I hold a sharp spike of my irritation out of my voice. I've heard the words Rocky, Ecuador and MONUC soldier in the same sentence before. This is the man who slept with Sonia, my prostitute friend in Beni. Rocky impregnated her and completely deserted her and his own son. Sonia's just happy to have a "muzungu" baby. The baby's lighter skin slides her social status upwards on the scale; although when I was trying to keep her from passing out on the floor of the dark club in Beni, she seemed to be flailing around at the bottom of the barrel.
Most men I know here are incredible people and I have to just let the other ones go. They're not worth my frustration, and it's not my place to be passing judgment. We all chat for a few minutes. Rocky doesn't speak great English and although I used to speak some Spanish I don't even try. All the French words in my head have stormed the castle and kicked the other residents out. Even my English is awkward. Dusan wants me to find a computer for him in the States, since electronics hardly exist here and in his home country they're extremely over-priced. Faustin is still giving me the silent treatment, and Rocky tries to follow the conversation but I can tell most of his laughter is of the I-don't-understand-but-you're-laughing-so-I-will-too kind.
-Well, I have to go, I say getting up from the table. I'll see you in a few weeks, stay safe everyone.
They all wave to me and smile, except for Faustin.
-Enjoy being home, says Dusan as I start walking away. And send message to your parents to warn that you are not pregnant, so when you get off plane they don't ask "who is the father?"
He crumbles into laughter again.
-Ha. Ha. I say not actually laughing.,
-I'm kidding, be safe.
Every Congolese person I know plus Dusan has effectively prepared me for coming back to the States with a few extra pounds on my person. I head back through the haze of dust to COPERMA. The crew is waiting for me and we all leave to go to a "night-club" down the road. A night-club in Butembo has to close at 6:30 p.m. and should really be called a late-afternoon-club, but I don't mention this to anyone. Inside of the dark club, the walls are covered in Christmas lights and there is even a stage for music. There are about eight of us and we order a round of drinks and two rounds of fried fish with frites. That's the only food available at the moment. I order a bottle of nine dollar champagne and when it comes to the table everyone claps. I'm the only one who knows how to open a champagne bottle and everyone laughs and claps again as the cork shoots out and I am covered by the excited bubbles that spill out.
-I've never had this before, Maman Marie exclaims. I am keeping the bottle forever.
She pours a small amount into each person's glass and we all cheers.
-I want someone to take a picture of what's in my stomach, Maman Marie says, happily pointing to her stomach.
I never knew cheap champagne could cause such a spark of happiness. It feels good to watch and feel responsible for. Everyone starts chatting back and forth. It's like a little family, and I'm a part of it. I don't understand them a lot of the time, they rarely get me, but we all care about each other. I look around at each person as they're laughing about the cultural differences that never get old. I love these people. Hangie pulls me out of my head and asks me what happens to women in the States when they get pregnant.
-The same thing as Congolese women, they're human too! Sickness in the morning, and they get kind of irritable at times. And they have really strong urges for specific foods.
This last one confuses him.
-Women here don't really get that. They do eat mud, though.
-Excuse me? Mud? Mud, as in dirt from the road?
-Yeah, he laughs at my surprise.
I don't believe him.
-Maman Marie, Hangie is telling me that women here eat mud when they're pregnant.
-Yes, she says immediately. I don't know if everyone does but most women do.
I make a note of this in my head. If I ever become pregnant, eat mud.
After several rounds of drinks, a lot of laughter and ten fried fish I pay the bill and we trickle out. I tap heads three times in the usual Congolese fashion with everyone except Maman Marie. She and I get in the rickety truck and Fisto, the driver starts towards the Crosier house in Musienene. I enjoy the familiar bouncing of the car and try not to worry about the rapidly diminishing light. Maman Marie and Fisto need to drive back to Butembo and I want the sun to wait for them; a brief pause in the sky, so these beacons of humanity can get safely home.
At the Crosier compound, Maman Marie gives me a hug and we tap heads three times. The hug feels great, because it's my culture not hers, and she knows that. As she drives away I realize I am ready to be back in the States for a brief minute. I miss the Congo and I haven't even left yet; but it will be nice to have a few changes, food being a big one. I like the Congolese food but with the amount of palm oil they eat with everything I can feel my chances of developing heart disease increasing with every meal. I can't wait to see some lettuce on a plate. Not to mention, it'll be pretty nice to not stick out like a sore, swollen, infected thumb for a few weeks.
Later, I recount the evening to a friend in the United States and she tells me that American women eat mud too.