Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Catching up with COPERMA

          The second morning after my arrival I have a pleasant lunch with a couple of the Crosiers before heading into Butembo.  The cooks have finally agreed to prepare me vegetables with no oil so there's none of the usual anxiety around the meal or the usual digestive distress for days after.
          It's still the rainy season.  By noon the clouds are already getting darker and the trees blowing gradually more and more but Pere Olivier assures me that the wind is blowing in the wrong direction for the rain to come before evening.  I head into Butembo in the car with one of the field workers, since my motorcycle is still in Butembo with COPERMA.  I admire, once more, the women walking alongside the road carrying loads larger than their husbands.  Kids in school uniforms are on their way home and are prancing alongside the road, darting in and out of traffic.
          When I get to COPERMA Maman Marie greets me with excitement.  She's wearing a light blue Congolese outfit with the normal headscarf and a set of silver, plastic, mardi-gras beads around her neck.  Hangie and Sylvain are the only others there but Sylvain has to leave for Maghery immediately, as the school year is in full swing.  Hangie brings two wooden chairs into the little concrete box of an office and we all exchange the extensive greetings.  Maman Marie politely says nothing has really changed, everything is fine, but I know that's not true.  I can tell she's trying to stay pleasant as long as possible by her wavering smile and the way she looks down at her desk as she responds.
    -I heard that there was another confrontation in Isale, I say.
          I don't have time to beat around the bush if I want to beat the rain.  Maurice told me about the fighting in Isale in the way home from the airport.  Isale is an area of villages where we have been working to help victims of rape and all of the displaced families for months.  Maman Marie looks up quickly and lets the pleasantries go.
    -Yes, there was.  Two weeks ago.
    -One of the men from our group was shot, Hangie cuts in.
    -Is he dead?
    -Yes, he was hit here.
          He points to his chest, a little left of his heart.  People can die here if they're hit in the leg, since there's virtually no medical system to push for recovery.
    -Amy, it was such a big scandal, Hangie exclaims.  It was the market day and the women who were starting the rotational credit program brought the fish and peanuts and oil to the market.  It was going so well.
          He's getting really excited and starts mumbling his words.  I don't understand the next thing he says all I catch is the word women.
    -Wait, did you say one of the women in the group stole the materials? I ask.
          That would be so disappointing.  I imagine Valerie, Esperance, Marcela, Devote, Stella and Isabella happily receiving the supplies a few months ago.  I won't believe it.
    -No, the military came on market day.  It was such a scandal.  Imagine, everyone was there for market and war starts.  Imagine it.  Many people were afraid for their lives. 
          I can imagine it perfectly and I can feel the terror that must have crackled alongside bullets through the air.
    -The military stole the fish and peanuts and they knocked over the containers with the oil.  It all soaked into the ground and is gone.
    -Who was it?  I ask, getting more and more angry.  FRDC and NALU?
    -Yes.  Maman Marie rejoins the conversation.
          We spent months and a significant amount of money getting those materials out to the survivors of the first confrontation.  We were all afraid this would happen but hoped the soldiers had moved on.  I'm now seeing firsthand what Maman Marie has been working against for over a decade.
    -Was anyone raped?  I ask.
    -Yes, Hangie and Maman Marie say at the same time.
    -Of course, continues Hangie.
    -How many?
    -At least seven, that we know of.
    -Was it all different women?  Were any of the victims women who were raped during the last confrontation?
          The faces of Valerie and the others flash through my mind again and my heart drops.
    -No, it was all new women.
          My heart lifts a little and then immediately drops again with guilt and further realization.  More women have now experienced the horror of having a man force himself into her.  In a way that feels somehow wrong, I am happy none of the women who experienced it before had to go through it again.  Not yet, anyway.
    -Are the rabbits still okay?  I ask, trying to cling to something.
    -Yes, they're in Kavingu.  Three of them have already had babies.
           Maman Marie holds her hands together, pretending to cup a tiny animal.
    -Well that's good, I guess.
          Good, but not much.  Rabbits aren't made out of gold, security or justice.  I start looking in my bag for my notebook and the photos I printed for COPERMA fall out.
    -Oooh photos!  Give me them!
          Maman Marie is smiling and bouncing up and down in her chair like a child on Christmas morning.  I hand them over to her and laugh.  She and Hangie go slowly through all of the pictures.
    -I'm going to give some of these to the individuals who are in them, I say, removing a couple of the photos.
    -They're all for the office, Hangie exclaims in a higher pitch than normal.
    -I printed them and I paid for them, so I'm going to decide who gets them!
          We both break into laughter.  Hangie hasn't changed a bit and neither have I.
    -How is Bamafay doing?  I heard she's adapting well to the Institute in Mulo and getting along with the other students.
          Bamafay typically works for COPERMA, but Father Martello, a Crosier in the United States who spent a significant amount of time in Congo, was able to fund-raise enough money to send her to the Crosier Institute to study psychology.  Bamafay has a seven year old daughter named Eliza, who is the result of Bamafay's third rape.
          Both Hangie and Maman Marie look immediately down at the desk.
    -She's adapting well, I guess.  She doesn't have the means to eat.  But whenever we can find some fufu powder or some beans we send them to her.
          I suddenly remember the e-mail Pere Sylvester sent me while I was in the States.  He said exactly that and explained that the other students where chipping in to help her find food.  I've already put my notebook away, so I pick up the pen and start writing a reminder about Bamafay on my hand.
    -You can do that because your skin is so white, Maman Marie says, laughing.
    -Not true!  You can do it too, look.
          I grab Hangie's hand and start writing his name in capital letters.
    -See, you can see that perfectly.
          We all laugh some more.  Maman Marie says they want to take me to a little restaurant nearby to properly welcome me back, but the rain is threatening and I know they'll want me to eat fufu and drink several beers.  Unfortunately, that's not something I want to do at two in the afternoon just before driving my motorcycle for the first time in over a month.  I explain that we can do that another day, but right now I need to beat out the rain.  They look a little disappointed but we all get up and go outside where a couple of apprentice students are standing around taking a break from their studies.  It's drizzling, but not enough to further damage the roads.  Before I'm about to get onto my bike Maman Marie mutters something.
    -I'm sorry?  I couldn't hear you.
    -Maybe we can find something to help the new survivors of viole, she says, softly.
    -Yes, of course.  I'll see what I can find.  Have they been to a hospital?
    -Yes, we brought them in and they've all been to FEPSI and spoken to the psychologist once as well.
    -Oh great.
          In my mind that's the most important thing, especially right after the horror.  The possibilty of emergency contraception, a physical check-up, talking to someone, and feeling in general like there are people who care.
    -We'll see what we can do from here, I say.          
          I put on my brand new American made helmet and get on my bike.  When people say something is "like riding a bike," they mean a motorcycle too.  I quickly ease into dodging potholes, goats and boulders.  I'm surprised how much I missed this silly death mobile.  On the way home my mind wanders and I wonder about the term "third-world country."  Who made that up and why?  If this more "primitive" lifestyle chronologically came first, why isn't it called first-world?  Is there a second-world?  Would second-world be like middle-class world?  And why is it third-world not third-lifestyle or third-culture?  Or third-bank account?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Back to Butembo!

          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.