The notes I write on my hand over the course of the week give a strangely complete image of what there is to be done here. A couple of weeks ago, Maman Marie wrote up a budget for me, so I could check in on the various projects they need money for. My contribution through donors in the States, is still rather minimal, but it’s a lot more than what they’re currently working with; that being nothing. Gas seems to eat up the most money, unfortunately and seems to be the largest point of contention among us. Gas and worker’s salaries. The COPERMA team hasn’t been paid in a while. They’re humanitarian workers, and the work they do takes courage, spirit and self-sacrifice; but they too have bellies to feed and school fees to pay.
When Maman Marie hands me the budget, I overlook all of these things that are just as necessary as sewing machines and petite-commerce supplies. I see only the 28 new cases of sexual violence listed among the numbers. Ten of the new cases are in a location called Vutondi and it’s the first place we are able to go. Vutondi is only about 45 minutes away, which makes the day feel less stressful from the start. A third American has now joined Sarah and me; Alana Yurkanin is a potential donor. She has come to learn about the Congo and see how exactly she might be able to help. When we arrive in Vutondi there is a mass of people standing outside of a few huts. They sing and dance and laugh when they see three young muzungu women trickle out of the car.
Alana is from Hawaii, and has brought a ukulele and a beautiful voice with her. She jumps right into the crowd and begins singing and strumming the tiny guitar, as everyone watches happily and the children creep closer. For the most part, I leave Alana and Sarah to figure out their agenda. Sarah often joins me in the “identification” of survivors, taking photos and film of those who want her to. This is a new village for me, but the process is the same. After introductions and many hellos, I enter a large mud hut with a chalk board at the front and a few wooden benches in the middle. Urbain has a list of the ten new survivors and he immediately begins calling out names. The villagers don’t know the reason for the selection of who speaks to the muzungu, and Alana’s music helps distract those who aren’t.
One of the first women to enter is a short girl with a wide face, eyes shaped like elegant fish, and a brown hat that says FIFA on the front. She comes in slowly, as she is using heavy wooden crutches to support her body and a twisted foot that didn’t finish forming in her mother’s womb. Kavugho lives with her older brother. Their mother died and dad abandoned the family prior to that. Dad is in Oicha with another woman. Kavugho hasn’t seen him in years.
Kavugho was walking home one night at around eight after buying gas. She was attacked by one Mai-Mai soldier in November, 2010. He raped her. Kavugho’s brother brought her to the hospital three days after the rape and he willingly paid the hospital bill. Her eyes tear up and she stops speaking.
-She’s going to cry, whispers Urbain to me.
I wait a moment as her eyes flit around the room trying to command the tears.
-I’m noticeable in the village, she says. My heart is tired.
-Why is your heart tired? I ask, even though the words in my notebook should have given me that answer already.
-I’m an orphan, my dad abandoned us, I don’t have work, they make fun of me in the village. After this event, I feel so tired in my heart.
She really wants to start a small business, she says. Her foot and the heavy crutches make it impossible for her to work a field, and though her brother takes care of her, he has a wife and three children to feed as well. She’s fidgeting with her clothing and avoiding eye contact.
-A pair of plastic crutches would really help, she practically whispers.
I look at her restless fingers and the thick, brown crutches laying across her lap. There is no padding anywhere, and the wood is not a light timber. It’s thicker than the sticks most of the houses are built out of. I move my pen from my notebook to the back of my hand.
Plastic crutches, I write, in blue ink.
After Kavugho, many others stick out. Thirteen year olds who are seeping anger.
-I was a virgin. I received my period only after this happened.
Anita is 14 years old. Her mother died when she was an infant. She has never seen her father before, as he abandoned them before she was born. She’s wearing an orange shirt with a pink, square cloth draped across her shoulder. She was in the field with her Grandmother. On their way home they encountered soldiers who spoke Lingala and wore the uniforms of governmental soldiers. The soldiers told her to carry their bags back to their camp. Anita’s Grandmother tried to intervene, so the soldiers took the Grandmother to another place and tortured her.
After two of the soldiers raped her in the road, Anita was taken back to their camp. There she was held, and the two soldiers “took turns” with her for seven days. There were other women there, and there still are. She was able to escape with a few of the women and girls, but not everyone escaped.
Vighumba, I write on my hand. It is the area where Anita and the others were held, and where an unknpwn number of women may still be. Dusan should be home soon, and regardless of whether or not he can help me find these women, I’m going to try. Sarah and Alana agree with me, it becomes a top priority for all of us. But none of us know quite how to storm a soldier’s camp and liberate women being held as sexual slaves.
A day or two later, when we are in Isale, E-mail Makeba, becomes necessary. Makeba is a counselor and close friend in the States, and I hope she may be able to help me figure out how to help a woman who’s heart and mind were broken when her husband left and took their children with him. For two years the woman has been a rambling spiral of excitement and confusion.
-What is your name? I ask.
-You will have to ask my teeth, she says. My name is kept in my teeth.
She speaks rapidly, when no one is speaking to her or listening.
-This is where I keep my children, she says, pointing down to her left big toe.
She has not hurt anyone or herself, but her mother is exhausted. Mom has other children to feed and watch, and is at her wit’s end. She doesn’t know what she can do to help her daughter, but if I have any way of helping, she is prepared to do anything. I don’t think I can help. The mental health centers here are like thorazine warehouses, where patients look through you and have trouble forming words.
There is a man in Isale who is physically ill. Isale man, remains written on my hand for several days. When we came upon him, he was an empty cardboard box. His walls were so thin I’m sure they would crease if you pushed on them hard enough. His mouth is coated with the layers of many nights without exposure to outside air. He looks like a 90 year-old man but Kasereka is only 32. We take him immediately to the hospital, but I don’t have much hope. As I help him into the back seat of the car, guiding his feet, something cold and wet brushes against my arm.
-What happened to his foot? I ask, pointing to the white cloth, soaked in some natural fluid.
-He was delirious one night and his foot was cold, so he put it in the fire, says Urbain after asking Kasereka’s wife. She doesn’t know how long his foot was in the fire.
A few days after meeting the whirlpool woman, Sarah, Alana and I arrive at the office, laughing about fitting three people on a motorcycle.
-I brought the medication out for Kasereka on Saturday, says Urbain as soon as we walk in. He was doing well. Yesterday, I received a call that he was in the midst of losing his life. And now, the man is dead.
I sit down and translate the words for Sarah and Alana. Our laughing immediately disappears and the room is silent. The silence only lasts a few moments, as life picks up again; Kasereka was a foregone conclusion. On the ride back to Vutondi, I try and imagine the flimsy man I only met twice. I didn’t truly know him, but it’s frighteningly important for me to think about what his death means, and thus, what his life was. It’s easier to simply let the thoughts go and keep moving forward. In many situations it’s necessary here. But with death, I feel like it’s a responsibility and it would hurt me more to not show the man that respect. I may not have known him, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.
I wonder what he was like as a four year old child, playing in the dirt, chasing an old tire with a stick. I wonder what his engagement was like with his still young and beautiful bride. I wonder if she was nervous and shaky around him when she didn’t yet know the intimacy of their shared vulnerability. I wonder if he was scared to ask her to marry him, or if shared vulnerability came first. I wonder what his kids thought of their dad when he was still himself. I wonder if they got the approval all children look for from the two pieces that put them together.
I wonder if he was happy. I wonder what his children thought of the skeleton he became. How frightened were they, by the stagnant animalism exposed by imminent death? What is more frightening for them, having that animalism around or not having anything of him at all?
In Vutondi I watch the people move around, laughing and singing along with Alana’s voice, once again. I think about suffering and pain and life. I can’t force the familiar and cliché thought of, what is the point? Out of my mind. When you ask, what’s the point of suffering, don’t you also have to ask, well then, what’s the point of living at all? Suffering and life seem to be like Siamese twins. In order to get rid of one, you’d have to get rid of both. Would it be better if we just get rid of both?
That night when I get home, I find out a baby monkey who I was trying to nurse into adulthood died during the day. In Congolese culture, animals are not seen as children of God, simply creations like any object to be used and disposed of; even in a religious community, if not more so. The monkey died because the head priest didn’t think it fit for a human to feed an animal too young to eat on his own. Somehow, at the end of each day filled with suffering I couldn’t solve, the little needy form brought my heart back towards my middle like a breathing magnet. Whether it’s a culmination of the week, or the personal connection I had to the little being, a monkey the size of my hand seems to hurt the most.
I think about religion, and that Christianity, at least in this community, doesn’t include animals. Why was I always told animals aren’t allowed into heaven when I was a child in Sunday school? Any religion that doesn’t include animals as children equal to humans doesn’t work for me. If anything, humans are less of God’s children than animals are; at least animals follow the laws of nature.
They’re not the ones destroying the world.
I cross off the words Isale man and Vet on my hand.
I cross off the words Isale man and Vet on my hand.