After the last week, our Wazungu team takes a break; sort of. One nice thing about having other Americans around is their lack of tunnel vision; or at least, different directions of tunnel vision. They see things I don’t, like people and things that don’t necessarily involve rape.
We spend a day doing Neurolinguistic Programming exercises that Sarah has brought with her. It’s strange focusing on myself and thinking about what negative emotions or limiting beliefs I need to work through, even just for a day. It feels good but odd here; it’s the job I’ve chosen, but it’s also easier to focus on other people’s problems. And other people are easier to help. But the day is enjoyable and I do feel a little bit lighter after imagining people whom I need to forgive for something on a far off hill, mentally bathing them in different colors of light, and letting go of whatever wrong I feel they did.
The next day we follow a focus of Sarah’s. Though it is, in a sense, still a focus on sexual violence, I would never have thought to step out of my routine and seek out the common worldly thread of sex workers in Butembo.
Benoit is a shorter man with dark circles around his eyes that make him look strangely like The Adam’s Family’s Uncle Fester, but a lot darker. He approached me months ago, explaining the Non-Profit Organization he started to help protect sex workers and teach them about safe sex. I brushed him off, not having enough funds, time, or energy to help another NGO. Only when Sarah mentions her interest in the women in this line of work do I remember the Association of Women Living Alone.
We meet with the women in a small concrete room like any other here. They’re sitting in a half circle facing us; it’s like walking into a royal court made up of some of the most strangely beautiful women I’ve ever seen. They’re beauty comes in all sizes. Maman Kaghoma is the heavy-set President of the Association of Women Living Alone; an association that consists of 6,000 women in Butembo alone. Something about all of the women is comforting and I find it much easier to communicate with them. They’ve seen everything, and are slightly wary of our presence but also open to our varying personalities and the possibility of kindness. It’s refreshing; I immediately feel like we are among friends. Sarah sets up her camera and I begin asking questions.
-How did you get into this line of work?
We start with Maman Kaghoma.
-I used to live in Goma, she says, speaking directly to Sarah’s camera with an assertive force that’s empowering and intimidating at the same time.
-I had to flee because of the war. I used to be married, but my husband was killed. You cannot survive here without a husband, not in this place. I didn’t want to start doing this work but I saw that I could not survive without money and this was the best way for me to make money for my family so that I could feed my children and myself. When you need food and you have nothing, and a man says here is this money for this act, what will you do?
After Maman Kaghoma finishes, each of the other women speaks. All of the stories are more or less the same. No work, no husband, hungry children.
-Do you have trouble with men being violent with you?
I may try to shift my focus but it’s difficult to completely remove my blinders.
-Yes, we have problems with that. All the time.
-Do you have problems with rape?
-All the time. Men see us on the route and they think they can just take us. And they do.
The woman speaking currently is a skinny woman with a very bright smile, big white teeth, and a little gap in the middle.
-It needs to be something you decide on and consent to. Both people. A man needs to say I want to have your body in this way, and the woman also needs to say, I want to have your body in this way. And then, okay. But when they come and we refuse and they force us it is not okay.
I’ve always had a soft-spot for women forced to sell their bodies. It’s a complicated profession and problem involving radical power plays and insecurities in the greatest extreme. Insecurity and self-doubt are what bring the devil out of humans. I can’t imagine anyone sees this more than women who sell the physical manifestations of themselves.
-Do you use condoms in your work?
-We used to, we’d like to. But we can’t afford it. One box of three pieces costs $2.00. HealthNetTPO gave us some funding for our own health center, our own Doctor, training classes on safe sex and HIV/AIDS but the contract ran out and there’s nothing anymore.
All of the women are listening attentively, some slightly nodding their heads.
-Are there any women in your Association who are positive for HIV and still work?
-Yes, there are many.
All of the women break into Swahili and Kinande chatter before seemingly coming to a conclusion.
-Probably 20/100 are positive.
A woman on my right cuts in. She’s slightly chubby, beautiful, and angry.
-Some of the women are hidden and some are known. But all of them work. What are we going to do? Do you think I like doing this work? I have three children I can barely feed because I can’t find regular work anywhere. When you have nothing, what can you do?
I nod my head in agreement and tell them I understand. I see their perspective but I’ve never actually known what that’s like. We finish up and the women move outside as Sarah packs up her equipment.
-Would you like to promenade a little with us? Asks one of the more voluptuous women. Anwarite is wearing a bright red, fully sequined skirt-top combo that doesn’t quite zip all the way in the back. She has the popular white powder on her face, making her skin look lighter but in a bizarrely obvious way. I hate the white powder because it’s imitating my skin, when I don’t hold a candle to these women.
-It’s the weekend, she says as she swings her hips around a little. We must dance.
Benoit started working with these women because he is the manager at a popular night club where many of the women work. I set off on the motorcycle and Alana and Sarah walk down the road with the ladies. Inside we sit around several tables, a party of 12. Benoit orders fries with mayonnaise, tilapia and goat meat, and a beer for everyone. Because the women have spent their entire day speaking with us and doing interviews, Sarah has agreed to treat the women to lunch and their choice of a drink.
It’s possibly the most fun I’ve had in Congo. The women ask about our families, where are our boyfriends, what are our lives like? Towards the end of the meal, Alana suggests that the wazungu get up and sing. She has been teaching Sarah and I different songs and harmonies at night when we have to stay on the Crosier grounds to avoid les bandits. The three of us stand up and I explain in French that we would like to share something with them. We start singing a three part harmony and the women smile and listen intently. They clap enthusiastically at the end, ask for an encore, and tell us they think we are kind.
It’s such a slight attempt at a gift, but it feels good to share something of ourselves with these brilliantly vibrant specimens of humanity. It’s humbling. I’ve never been more honored to be in the company of a certain group of people.