Saturday, March 26, 2011

The End

          I'm tired of this situation and I'm tired of letting my heart hope beyond reason that good will win over evil. Evil is a much more powerful force; although maybe good in numbers can stand a chance.
Melanie effectively transferred out her daughter, Leslie's brother, and a girl who was potentially being raped, but turns out not to be Leslie's sister. The details wrapped in this crinkled tin foil of a situation change constantly. I can't see from one crinkle to the next. I do know, though, that Melanie got the kids out with leverage I don't have. The problem is that leverage costs a lot of money.
          Melanie also had power. Melanie's friend and translator, Jared, reveals that his father is a rather important man.
    -Here, come with me, Jared says in the living room of his family's apartment.
          I get up, caked in dried, salty sweat and sagging from the weight of defeat. We walk into the hallway with Melanie tailing behind. Jared stops and stands before a large framed photo on the wall.
    -Do you know who that is?
          The picture is an image of Jared's father, Papa J, shaking hands with someone. I laugh.
    -President Kabila, I mutter.
          Melanie hasn't heard me.
    -Who is it?
    -That's the President, Jared states proudly.
    -Of Congo? Asks Melanie.
    -The main man, numero uno, I say still laughing.
    -My dad will help you, says Jared.
    -Really? You think so? I can use all of the help I can get at this point.
    -Yes, he is not happy about this. He is furious with Marie Vuvu.
          When Papa J walks into the living room after a nap, it seems as if he won't fit through the doorway. He's enormous, but not frightening. He commands respect in a way that doesn't require asking. he's forward but not aggressive; slightly intimidating but kind. Papa J used to be government, he has friends in high places and he wants to shut this place down as badly as I do. I go over the things I've been told and the lies I untangled by hanging around Maison L'Espoire for a few days. Every time my words brush over an image of suffering, Papa J's face falls into itself like a falling blanket catching a rock.
          Watching someone with ties in the government respond with anger and pain to the picture I paint is more than comforting, it's exhilarating. Papa J can't force anything, but he insists he will speak with Marie Vuvu. Later, he asszures me he has spoken to his friends in high places. I'll need to give a statement and we're going to figure out what's really going on.
          And, he assures me that if I'm arrested I have his support. I just got a get out of jail free card, but I know it's only effective if I don't do anything stupid.
          Papa J speaks to Marie Vuvu and she agrees to transfer the kids. Then she refuses, then she agrees. She flip-flops like a jellyfish on dry land being poked by a stick. Finally, after days of spineless flopping, Melanie agrees to go with me to Maison L'Espoire. She will use the leverage she has left to try and help Lawrence, Bellevie, and her sister.
          I arrive in Ndjili two hours before Melanie and wait around the corner at the same restaurant I hid in before. When Melanie calls to say she and Jared have arrived I head to the orphanage. At the gate Melanie is walking with Lawrence towards her car.
    -Lock the doors, she says to the driver. Lock the doors and do not open them for anyone.
          She opens the door and Lawrence slides in. I look to my right and see Marie Vuvu standing in the doorway staring at me.
    -Bonjour, I say.
          She doesn't respond. Melanie walks back to the door and we all enter. Marie has set up two tables outside with chairs around them for us to work on. The chairs and tables were unnecessary. Within a minute of my arrival, Marie is screaming at me, Melanie is screaming at Marie and Jared is trying to control the fray.
    -Who do you think you are? Yells Marie, pointing her finger at me and shooting daggers with her eyes. You came here just to hurt me. Do you know how long I have been doing this work? Do you know when I started this orphanage?
          I sit down next to Melanie.
    -Everybody sit down, Melanie screams.
    -Why did you come here, why are you doing this?
          Despite my best efforts to remain quite and seated, I stand up and point my finger back at Marie.
    -There is a fiver year old in the States who sustained anal injuries in your orphanage and you're asking me why I'm doing this?
   -Amy sit down, don't say anything, says Melanie turning and pointing to my chair.
   -Sit DOWN! She screams at Marie turning back to her.
          I sit down, Marie does not. She continues wagging her finger and yelling.
    -Do you see this paperwork?
          Melanie has a signed piece of paper on business letterhead in her hand.
    -Do you want me to adopt you daughter? I am not going to adopt your daughter and you're not going to get the money for Leslie's brother unless you get the transfer ready for Lawrence RIGHT NOW!
Melanie is an older woman who's California thin. The roar that leaves her mouth is unexpected.
          On the other side of the table Jared is interjecting sporadic words and glaring at me when I make any movement that indicates speaking. Marie picks up her phone and calls someone, with Melanie still trying to explain what Marie is giving up if she doesn't help Lawrence. Marie looks straight ahead and speaks in Lingala into the phone.
          Melanie is fed up. She takes the paper in her hands, turns it sideways, and begins ripping. As Marie finishes her phone call Melanie throws the scraps of paper in Marie's lap. Marie glances at the shredded paper and flinches for a second before regaining her now stoic composure. Within a few minutes, we know exactly who she called.
          A man walks in wearing dark blue, oversized boots and carrying an AK-47. Three more police officers enter and stand in a half circle around the table. They speak to Jared and Marie in Lingala. I sit calmly not saying anything. Although my body is fully awake and pumping, I'm not actually worried. I have taken every precaution in the past few weeks. Despite knowing that Lawrence has no file and technically does not exist according to the State, I haven't stolen the boy. I could potentially do so, as Marie is the one who has broken the law by not registering him, and you can't steal someone who doesn't exist. But I didn't want to give her any ammunition.
    -Okay, we need to go with the police, says Jared turning to me.
          Somebody has released Lawrence from the car. Marie is still screaming at me, but flopping her jellyfish head back and forth from the police to me. I leave the compound with a police officer on my left, another on my right, one in front of me and one behind; a Congolese diamond. Marie is walking next to the police officer behind me still yelling in Lingala.
    -Maman! Yells the police officer on my right, turning around. Calm down!
          She is her own worst enemy at this point. I think she realizes that and she stops talking.
    -Don't worry, nothing is going to happen, says Jared on my right.
          He has entered the diamond. Needless to say, people are gathering in the road and peeking through concrete windows to see the police escorting a young, female muzungu to the station. We walk for about five minutes across a sand filled field to what looks like a broken down boxcar. POLICE NATIONAL is written in yellow letters over blue paint on a metal wall. The police usher me into the broken metal box and instruct me to sit on a wooden bench. There's a teenager lying under the table.
          Marie sits next to me and picks up her diatribe immediately, asi f someone simply pressed pause and then play again. I sit quietly. One of the police officers winks at me, suggestively.
    -Here, come sit out here please.
          Another police officer points to a plasticchair just outside the opening to the metal office. I follow his finger and sit down.
    -Do you speak French? The officer asks, in French.
    -French? No I don't understand, I respond in English. Very little.
          Jared has requested I speak in English so he can translate directly into Lingala. French is nobody's mother-tongue here. Pretending not to speak French is surprisingly exhausting but only lasts a little while.
    -Amy come here, Jared says through the opening in the metal.
          Marie is still ranting behind him. A crowd of about 40 people has now gathered around the police office. It seems like there's a soccer game or a party going on. I walk back into the metal microwave and stand next to Melanie, who has now entered.
    -Did you write that Reagan raped the girls? He asks.
          Marie explodes again. The boxcar is filled with police officers at this point and everyone is chatting.
    -Moment, moment! I yell.
          Everyone miraculously stops speaking. I look at the officer who is asking me questions about the article.
    -Do you speak English? I ask in French.
          I turn slightly and look at Marie Vuvu.
    -Do you speak English?
    -Then nobody has any idea what was actually written and it doesn't matter anyway.
          The police officers nod their heads but everyone starts chattering again. Marie makes a call on her phone and hands the phone to the police commander.
   -She called a Priest in the United States, Jared says to me in English.
    -Oh jeez, I say and step back out of the boxcar into the sand.
          Jean-Claude Atusameso is the Director and Founder of Jatukik Providence Foundation. It's the same organization that connected the four American families with Maison L'Espoire. According to Marie and Reagan, Jean-Claude is the individual who told them about my writing in the first place. I call him to talk about the fact that the kids are being sexual abused and he ignores me three times.  He threatens American Gabe saying he will take back Gabe's adopted son Joshua if we keep looking into the issue. Jean-Claude's organization asks for your kind generosity to help the orphans of Congo. Whether or not he tries to help orphans I don't know, but the fact that he has been telling Marie Vuvu to fight me, rather than asking her about the sexual abuse, makes me wonder.
          The police commander hands the phone back to Marie.
    -What is someone in the United States going to tell me about a problem in Congo? He asks the room.
          After about an hour of more yelling, Melanie stands up in the boxcar and asks if she can speak. Age is a respected thing in Congo and every police officer turns off. Melanie explains slowly and in full detail. She explains the lawyer who robbed her blind, she explains the lies Marie told her, she explains that she is adopting Marie's biological grandchild. She explains a lot. She even tears up towards the end, but I'm almost positive she's acting and she really does act beautifully. Then it's my turn to speak.
I explain everything as well. The police listen, Marie has occasional outbursts but I wait for hter to be silenced by the Commander and I continue. Melanie's speech seems to have been the turning point. THe police shift their accusing gazes in Marie's direction. After I'm done the Commander says he has heard enough.
    -Bring the adoptive mothers tomorrow and we will get the paperwork done and you will leave with the three kids.
          I don't celebrate just yet; this woman is not giving in without a bitter fight and a busted lip.
    -Thank you Commander. I hope that you will also take what's been said here and do what you can to protect the other kids.
          In the United States just mentioning sexual violence would start a chain reaction. Here it's like throwing a tomato on the sidewalk.
    -Yes, of course Maman Amy. We need to protect the kids and Marie shouldn't be blocking the adoptions. Why? Why block?
    -Exactly, I say.
          The next day I arrive with Maman Lydie and Maman Christine. Both women have work, children and lives to lead, and both immediately pressed pause to try and help the kids. Reagan is there this time, along with a man who says he's a lawyer. Marie and Reagan enter the boxcar office quitely and in a controlled manner. They want to play ball but within a few minutes they're preactically kicked out by the umpire. Reagan can yell a lot louder than his Mother.
    -I am here to speak for you, yells the lawyer. We cant arrange this situation without the Priest here, who is the one in charge of the boy.
          I go outside and immediately call Father Roger. He tells me to send the driver so he can finish this business.
Back inside, Marie is quiet but Reagan won't hear of it. He brings a printed copy of my writing and starts speaking about "the article" again. He even says he has a printed copy in French. I almost regret writing the posts, but not quite. This is exactly the kind of furor I needed to bring attention to what's going on and help all of the kids; not just one and not just three.
    -Okay, Maman Amy. I'd like to ask you a question, says the lawyer on my right in the tiny room. Finally the room is quiet.
    -With this article, you have truly hurt Maman Marie. You can see that she is hurt. She is not going to cooperate with you because of what you wrote about her and the hurt that you caused. Now, I personally, because I am representing the orphanage, would like to know what exactly your motivation was for hurting Maman Marie in such a way.
          I wait a moment to make sure Marie won't start screaming at me again.
    -Okay, I say and lean forward on my plastic chair. I will explain to you two things, one of which will be my motivation for writihg the article. First of all, and most importantly...
          I hold a finger in the air for emphasis.
    -This article has nothing to do with the reason we're all here today. If I wrote things that are completely untrue and Marie can prove that, fine. Okay, but that is an issue for the tribunal and you as their lawyer can accuse me in the tribunal court. Anything that I wrote and the emotions and hurt involved have nothing to do with the kids. I have found two families, really great families, who can take care of three of the children. Marie already indicated she has no means and is above her capacity and that the kids are suffering. I have found a simple way to help three of those children not suffer at that level anymore.
          Marie scoffs and shifts her weight dramatically but for the most part the room remains silent.
    -Now, I continue. Keep in mind that the article is not related to the children, that is between Marie and myself. But I would like to explain actually.
          Throughout this entire process, with the ups and downs, lies and stories, I thought that at the end if I got the kids and closed the orphanage, it would feel good. But feeling the heat of Marie's anger and watching her twitch with hatred in front of the police, doesn't feel good at all. I've had to constantly remind myself that none of this is personal, it's children. I don't want revenge; I don't even really care about justice. I just want to help the kids and prevent others from suffering in the same way. I turn to Marie and look her in the eyes. She looks back. I explain exactly what I wrote; the things I saw and the things I was told.
    -I did not come here with the intention of hurting you, Marie. It's really not personal. But when I hear that a child has a tear to his rectum, that is grave to me. I don't know if you know about the abuse, but it's happening. My motivation is to help the kids. And it's not my job to verify who is abusing who or how many or in what way. These kids don't have a way of speaking out and I wrote that stuff to give them a way to do that. I wanted exactly this to happen. I wanted to get the authorities to realize that there is a problem here and it needs to be looked into. I can't do that myself, that's your job.
          I look at the Commander. The room is silent.
    -That's a good reason, says the lawyer.
          His comment takes us both by surprise. He coughs and then quickly launches into a speech with too many words explaining why he needed to know my motivation. Marie gets up suddenly and she and Reagan leave. The attorney follows them out. I look frantically to the Commander but he just shrugs.
    -That *expletive* article! You all are ******************!
          In English, I yell things my Grandmother would slap me for saying. Nobody speaks English here so it's soothing and without consequences. After several hours Father Roger arrives. He leaves with Maman Lydie and two police officers, who now seem to be on our side. Another hour or two later they return.
    -The paperwork is all done, says Father Roger. Only the Governor has to sign but you can pick up the boy tomorrow.
          Police officers clap and shake hands.
    -Why do you look upset Amy? It's done don't you see you need to be happy.
    -What about the two girls? I ask.
          Not to mention, I won't be happy until we have Lawrence in the car and Marie Vuvu is nowhere in sight.
    -Well, I will force Marie to give me the address of whoever brought them to the orphanage. And I will stay in contact with Maman Christine.
          He nods his head respectfully towards Maman Christine, the mother of a friend, who is a nurse and is eager to start getting Bellevie and Ketchia back to health.
    -We'll work it all out, don't you worry, he says.
          I am worried, but I'm also prepared to take a note from the Kinshasa mosquitos and annoy this man until his sanity is gone or the girls are out. The next day I wait again in the little restaurant of my asylum while Maman Lydie goes around the corner to get Lawrence. Three hours later I haven't heard anything and Maman Lydie isn't picking up her phone. Another hour later the car pulls up and there is a beautiful young man sitting in the back. Lydie whoops from the front seat.
          I grab my things quickly and run to the car, over-flowing with something that feels good. I climb in the back seat with Lawrence.
    -Bonjour, Ca va?
          He looks at me timidly.
    -Oui, ca va bien.
          I want to hug him, but he doesn't know me at all. I' mjust some random white lady who visited a few times and then everyone started yelling. I'd like to talk to him but I don't know what to say.
     Welcome to the world?
    What's more "real," the world out here or the one behind those concrete walls?
    Are you excited? Are you Afraid?
    I would be.
    Did they hurt you more because of me?
    I'm sorry.
          All of it passes through my mind but none of it feels appropriate. Finally, something pops out.
    -Joshua says hello.
          Lawrence smiles.
    -Merci, he says.
          At the restaurant where we eat chikwanga and Congo River fish, I'm filled with a consuming sort of joy. It feels like melted butter. Lydie explains that Marie tried to refuse encore, but by this time we had enough people who had decided a child is more important than a dollar bill. Even the lawyer argued against Marie. Maman Lydie's oldest son and her daughter both call to speak with Lawrence and welcome him to the family. He looks at his lap while holding the phone and smiling more brightly than any diamonds in this country. There's still a lot of work to do, making sure he's settled, paying for his school fees, keeping him protected from the evils that exist on this side of those walls. And then of course, there are the others. As good a story as my month in Kinshasa makes, it's still real life. And the thing about real life is, there is no The End, only, where do we go from here?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


          On the day that everything is supposed to come to gether, everything falls apart.  I wake up on Monday morning, the day that all three of the kids should be out, as eager as a kid on Christmas morning.  I check my phone as always and my heart drops.  Santa left me coal this year.  I have a text message from Reagan of Maison L'Espoire.
    You say I rape little girls.  Get your proof ready.  i am going to get justice.  Prepare for the consequences.  Thank you.
          It's almost illegible.  If I didn't know Reagan I'd think he couldn't speak French.  I pace around my room for a few minutes contemplating the implications.  I haven't told the workers at Maison L'Espoire that I know about the sexual abuse.  Who told Reagan?  Could he have possibly read my blog?  Did I write that Reagan raped the girls?  No, because nobody indicated that to me.  I wrote that Reagan whips the palms of their hands with electrical cables.  I wrote that one of the kids told me Christian has pulled at least one of the orphaned girls into his room without a chaperone.  I wrote that the same child told me someone named Victoire is sexually molesting the kids.  So, whoever told him I suspect sexual violence didn't accurately portray what I know.  Is his threat only judicial or would he physically hurt me?  Either way, this couldn't have arrived at a worse time.
          I send a text message to Jared and Melanie.
    Did you tell Reagan that we know about the sexual abuse?
         They respond immediately.
    No, the lawyer received calls this morning from Dubai, USA, England.... about an article on the internet.
          I was hoping that would happen I jjust didn't expect it so early.  Organizations need to know what kind of a game they're supporting.  They should be the ones investigating and auditing their partners, but I guess that's too much to expect from bureaucracy.
         The show must go on.  Father Roger, Maman Lydi--Lawrence's potential adoptive mother--and I make our way through the Kinshasa traffic to Ndjili.  It takes over an hour to drive about 20 miles.  There is no logic to the roads, no right of way, no yielding, and the winner takes all style of driving makes everything worse.  In the car I tell Father Roger and Lydie about the threat from Reagan.  We decide it will be best for me to wait somewhere else.  Reagan's anger, even if misinformed, will be blinding.
         The driver drops me at a roadside stand where I sit under a plastic tent and drink a warm Coca-Cola out of a bottle that could be decades old.  The day is as hot and bright as always; I'm slowly getting accustomed to constantly sweating and having to wade through the air.  I try and think through what happened and what the consequences could be.  I doubt we'll get Lawrence out today and I doubt Sister June will be able to get Bellevie and her sister, Ketchia, out.  I watch everyone walk by and turn their heads to look at me.  I feel like I'm in The Matrix movie and everyone is a potential agent.  Is the man with the wrench Reagan's friend?  Is the woman glaring at me from behind a beer his girlfriend?  What is Reagan going to do?
          As if in response to my current line of thought, my phone vibrates in my hand with another message from Reagan.
    You have one hour to send me everything you wrote, I have the accusation in hand.
          So, he's going to keep it judicial.  Did I do anything illegal?  He must be referring to my blog and everything I've written can be verified.  In fact, I hope someone tries to verify it.  Maman Lydie is a journalist and she has assured me that the Congolese constitution includes freedom of speech.  That doesn't mean much, though.  The problem isn't the law, it's the corruption.  I don't know how high Reagan's connections go, nor how deep his pocket.  It's no secret that a little bit of money can buy you absolutely anything in Congo, even a false prison sentence.  The government is fueled by a panicky sort of money.  I imagine the Congolese government as a man on a game show in a windowed box with bills blowing around, except the box is packed with people.
          I walk to the car and lean in the open window.
    -Do you know where the American embassy is?  I ask the driver.
          Jean-Louise has been driving me around for three weeks now.  He's an elderly gentleman with a pudgy, round face.  He constantly gives me advice on how we can help the kids and I think he is sort of enjoying the show.  For him it's like watching television and getting to put in his two cents.
    -Yes, of course.  It's in the center of the city.
    -Okay, good.  That's where we're going after here, unless they're able to get Lawrence.
          Within a few moments, Father Roger and Lydie return without Lawrence.
    -They're not there, says Father Roger.  We'll have to come back tomorrow.
    -Where did they go?
    -They say they went to the tribunal to accuse you.
    -Of what?
    -I don't know.  Reagan says you wrote something saying he raped the girls.
    -First of all, I never wrote that and if he accuses me of writing that he's going to look like an idiot.  He doesn't even speak English and can barely write or read French.  He hasn't even read what I wrote, all of which, by the way is true.
          Father Roger shrugs his shoulders and we all get back in the car.  He doesn't seem worried about the fact that he didn't get Lawrence out, and it's irritating me.  He's definitely not part of thsi complex scam though, he does actually want to help the kids. 
    -What are you going to do about Lawrence?  I ask.
    -We'll come back when Marie is there.  I can't just leave with the kid when she's not there, it's not right.
    -Right?  It's not right?
          I raise my voice but work hard not to yell.
    -I don't understand this tip-toeing around a woman who is refusing to give you your legal kid, is potentially running a serious scam and abusing orphans while she's at it.
          He shrugs his shoulders again.  I want to slam my head, or his, against the window.  Sister June calls with expected information.  Marie wouldn't let her take the girls.  We drop off Lydie and Father Roger and head to the embassy.  I can't help but smile as I flash my passport and walk through the front door.  on the wall are framed images of Obama's deushenne smile and Hilary's sculpted blonde bob.  I've never been happier to see two faces in my life.  The air itself feels more structured and less chaotic than the explosion going on outside.  I put my bag through a scanner and walk through the metal detector.  I chuckle to myself when I receive my bag on the other end.  I have a two inch switch blade in my front pocket.  It gets through security every time.
    -I'm sorry, you want to speak with the Consul, says a white skinned American lady just past security.  Go back outside, down the street, turn left and you'll se the Consul office.  Go through security and then wait in the designated area.
          Ah yes, home sweet home.  Out the doors, down the street, to the left and through security, the Consul is a young blonde woman.  Upon entering I had to fill out a form stating my reasons for requesting to speak with her:
    I may potentially have some problems with the law due to a corrupt orphanage and I would like some advice on how not to go to jail in Congo.
          I shake my head as I hand it to the man behind the glass window.  When the blonde Consul is able to speak with me, she simply fuels the problem.
   -We can't help you. -Can we have copies of the pictures of Marie's biological grandkids so we don't adopt them out?  -We work sometimes with Maison L'Espoire.  -My colleague knows Reagan.
          When the colleague appears and mentions Reagan's name I start backing out the door.  What is going on?  I'm sure the embassy had no idea, but they say they do "investigations" into the orphanages when there are adoptions.  I can only imagine what those investigations entail.
     Embassy:  Is this kid an orphan?
    Orphanage worker:  Yup.
    Embassy:  Cool.  It's hotter n' hell, grab a beer?
    Orphanage worker:  Yup.
          I'm furious at this point, confused, and slightly frightened.  The embassy is supposed to be giving me information and help not the other way around.  Note to self:  Embassy does not grant asylum on foreign soil, take issue up with Hollywood film producers.  The embassy is not going to do anything to help the kids and I do understand why they can't.  Bureaucracy has many rules but I'm furious all the same.  On the way home the consequences and questions tumble around in my mind like a load of laundry.  I can't think through the heat.  If anything, in three weeks, I've gone backwards.
          Suddenly, a man is standing by my window with both hands on the open sill.  His eyes are blood shot and wild and in his right hand he's holding a softball sized piece of granite.  He says something quickly but all I hear is the movement of his eyes darting to the backpack under my legs.  I lean forward and start rolling up the window.  As the grass crawls upwards the man's hand darts through the window and the granite slams into my shoulder.  He hits me hard enough to wake the rock if it were sleeping, but not hard enough to do serious damage.  The crackling in my shoulder is nothing compared to what it does to the knot in my chest.  I snap and start crying.
    -I hate this city!  I yell to every car and person on the other side of the windshield.
          Jean-Louise keeps driving and allows me my childish outburst.  This place is turning me into a distrustful wimp.  As I calm down and finish wiping the anger from my eyes, the words the man spoke filter through.
    100 francs to not get hit.
          An interesting profession; at least he didn't crack me in the face and steal my bag.  I need to go back to the East.  I feel like I'll become a snake in the pit if I stay in this god forsaken city any longer.  And the work continues in the East.  Last week I received a text message from the head of the Association of Women Livign Alone:
    Two daughters of Association members were raped last night.  One is 23 and one is 12.
          Shortly after that, on the same day, a text from COPERMA:
    A four year old girl was raped last night the rapist is 24, thank you.
           What is with everyone saying thank you when they send miserable information?  Immediately after COPERMA's text Hangie called and gave me details I didn't need to hear and now wish I never had.  The image he painted made me shiver and remember that I can't fighting this pit forever.  I wish I believed in hell, at least then there would be some solace in divine retribution.  Right now I'm not even succeeding at helping the three kids and what's three out of 25?  Three out of 25 is such a tiny number it almost seems not worth the trouble.
          But three lives is monumental.  Three lives is a boy on the brink of manhood who is currently headed for the life of a shegue--street kid; a life of stealing and violence and solidarity through crime rather than love.  Three lives is a six year old girl who could be abused today and safe tomorrow.  Three lives is a three year old girl who weighs eight kilograms and has milk crawling out of her ear; a life that could evaporate tomorrow like the morning dew we forget was ever there by afternoon.
          Three lives is no small thing and is definitely worth working for.
          That evening I speak to American Gabe and he gives me all the information I need to know.
    -There were four children adopted to the States through Jatukik Providence Foundation, he says six hours behind me through the phone.  Jatukik Providence Foundation seems to be complicit and they're obviously not doing anything to stop or investigate the sexual abuse.  Three of those four children were sexually abused.  One of the children arrived with tears to his rectum.
    -How old was the child?
    -Five years old.

(Comments prior to temporary removal)  1 COMMENT:

Tom Bosch said...

Amy- Each time I read one of your postings, I respect what you are doing even more.  I featured your work, once again, on  Hopefully, students will become more aware of the atrocities you face daily, and are moved to take action.  Hang in there... Best, Tom Boshe.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


          Working to shut down Maison L'Espoire is kind of like living with the electricity in Kinshasa.  City generators can only support sections of city at a time so the current roams through the various neighborhoods, a welcome poltergeist.  At night I grope around in the darkness, and then suddenly and without warning, there's light.
          Lawyer Julie and I managed to find the priest who brought Lawrence to Maison L'Espoire.
    -I can take the child back whenever I want, he said.  It's no problem for me.  Technically, I'm the boy's parent so Marie Vuvu cannot refuse me if I want to remove the child.
          I clapped my hands and resisted the urge to hug him.  Father Roger is a handsome man, about 55 years old.  He has a gruff voice and an aggressive demeanor; resisting the urge to hug him was not that hard.  Something about him puts me on edge.  But he says he wants to help Lawrence and he says he has the power to do it.  I tell him about Maman Lydie, the adoptive mother I found for Lawrence.  He nods his head in approval and explains that we need to leave a gift to thank Marie for taking care of Lawrence.  I don't understand the concept of thanking a woman for exposing teh boy to sexual and physical abuse while exploiting his suffering but at this point I just want to get the kid out.  I refuse to leave money but agree to buy rice, beans, soap and detergent for the other kids.
          Back at the house Julie wants to sit down and have a chat.
    -This is going to be extremely complicated and in order to move forward effectively you're going to have to go through all of the correct processes involving the State.
    -I know, I respond.  But with Father Roger it shouldn't be that complicated.  He said himself all he has to do is fill out a form and get Lawrence's file from the commune.
          There was no file for Lawrence in the commune when we went, but by this point I'm sure they've concocted something.
    -Yes, but you see Amy, we are in Congo.  We have so many things here that go on and you are at risk for being called a child trafficker.  You don't understand our laws and you need to go through all of the appropriate processes and that will take a long time, I am telling you.
           I stop arguing with her.  I don't know what it is but something has changed.  Julie has not been the easiest person to work with.  I get the distinct impression she comes from a very wealthy family and is used to getting her own way.  Her controlling manner didn't bother me as long as she was trying to help the kids.  But now she's doing what Marie Vuvu and Reagan do; there are a lot of words coming out of her mouth but only a few of them actually have meaning.  Blowing smoke, is what I think it's called.
    -Here's how I see it, I interrupt her.  The priest indicated he can get the boy out without too much hassle.  Maman Lydie is prepared to receive Lawrence.  The only thing necessary to do at the present time is buy the supplies and food for the kids and bring it to Father Roger.  How much of each thing do you think we need to buy?
          She sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes.  This is much more aggressive than normal.  Something is definitely wrong.
    -You're going to need to think more about the paperwork and the judicial aspect of the transfer.  It's not an easy process, there are various levels within the State that need to be dealt with and informed.
    -Right now I'm worried about how many beans I need to buy so we can get the boy out as soon as possible.  I can only spend about 100 dollars on that.
          She chuckles at me; it's short and icy.
    -You're going to need to buy at least 200 dollars worth of supplies and then leave 200 dollars for Marie.
    -Excuse me?  Are you insane, I'm not giving that woman any more money!  There is no way I'm giving her 200 dollars.  I think we both need to take a rest or something.  Why don't we finish talking about this tomorrow?
          We both get up and Julie walks off without a word.  I'm seriously confused.  I read my book in a restaurant nearby for a few hours, watching people move around, honking, yelling, sweating.  This city is a man being murdered but the killer doesn't have the courage to finish the job.  For days, the city is throttled by the heat.  It gasps, sanguinates, and pulses with a growing loss of control that peaks into panic.  Then there is rain.  For a brief moment the city can breathe and the panic releases until the hand of heat descends again and the murder continues.
          I miss the mountains.  One can breathe in the mountains.
          When I get back Julie has left a note for me that clarifies our earlier conversation.  Printed on business letterhead it reads:
          For the work that has already been done, the office of STUPID LAWYERS requests $1,000.00 in the case of the boy, Lawrence.
           Beneath this there are two lines, one with Julie's signature and one left empty for my wallet to sign.  I rip the paper into pieces.  Hasn't anyone heard of pro-bono?  Julie has sacrificed her personal time though, since I made it clear from the start that I couldn't pay her.  Later that night, I get another blow.  During a conversation with American Gabe, I find out that a Congolese man in the States, who's part of this game knows about Father Roger helping us.  Only myself, my driver, Julie, and Father Roger knew about that plan, which could mean Father Roger may be part of this scam too.  The electricity is definitely not in my neighborhood.  I feel like I'm in the twilight zone.  I'd take soldiers and rebels in the East of these serpents any day.  At least in the East I can distinguish between decent and evil.
          The next day I check in with American Melanie.  After Melanie's new daughter, Leslie, told us she had a brother and a sister and that her sister was potentially being abused by Marie's eldest son, Melanie flew into an inner rage.  I could see it in the effort it took her to hold herself still and keep her face in a normal position.  I often forget these stories are not normal for everyone.  I told Melanie that I would make the brother, and especially the sister, priorities.
          Melanie and her translator, Jared, have relocated to Jared's family home.  It turns out the "translator" is actually a Congolese man Melanie met on the flight from the States.  He's the one who realized the lawyer had robbed Melanie blind.  Jared has been helping Melanie for several weeks. 
          I call Melanie on the way to the center of the city.
    -I have the kids!  She exclaims, immediately.  Leslie's brother and sister!
    -You what?
    -I have the kids!
    -How? What did you do?
    -I'll explain it when you get here.
          When I walk into the massive apartment and the beautiful sharpness of air conditioning, all three of the kids are at the table.
    -You shoulda seen me girl!  Melanie exclaims after giving me a hug.
    -I was great, wasn't I?
          She looks over at Jared who laughs and nods his head.
    -She was fantastic.  I've never seen anything like it.
    -What did you do?  I ask, not sure I want to know the answer.
          I specifically asked Melanie not to do anything rash because there could be consequences for her, but more importantly, for the kids.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  In Congo actions and reactions can destroy peoples' lives.  Melanie is almost 65 years old, an older mom in her words.
    -I've been around a lot longer than you have sweety, so I've learned a few more things than you, she says in response to the nervous doubt on my face.
    -I'm sure that's true, but what did you do to get them out?
   -Well, I went there and I played the role.  Hi my sister!  Oh I love you my sister, Melanie starts shouting.  I am so happy to seee you!  Mind you...
          Melanie points her finger at me and drops her volume to normal.
    -I wanted to slap her in the face right there and then!  But I needed to get thsoe kids out.
          She pounds her fist on the desk.
    -Anyway, she continues.  I told her that I had spoken to people in the States and we had decided to pool our money together to buy her a bigger compound and keep her well supplied with money for the rest of her life!  But, I said, I realized that Leslie had a brother and a sister, and I couldn't give her the money unless I could take both of them out.
    -And she just agreed.  Like that?
    -Yes, she just agreed. 
          Melanie pauses.
    -But then she changed her mind.  But the kids were already in the car.  I told them, you stay in this car with the doors locked and you don't leave for anything.  I don't care if you pee in the car you do not leave.  And that filthy pig, Christian, was standing right there next to the car.
          She spits out the name of Marie's eldest child, a.k.a., African Homer Simpson.  He is the one who was allegedly violating Leslie's sister.
    -I started screaming and telling Marie that I was not leaving those kids there for anything and that she liked to me.
          Melanie is waving her arms around at this point.
    -I said, I don't care if I go to jail I am not leaving these kids here.
    -What about the file?  I ask.  Did you get the file from the commune and get the transfer papers to go through?
    -Marie is going to do that tomorrow.
    -She's going to arrange the transfer after you took the kids?
    -Well, I'm going to adopt Darcy.  Darcy is Marie's daughter.  She's a sweet, sweet girl and she is driven and she wants to be a lawyer and she is kind.  She was raised by nuns from the time she was four until she was 10 and she knows that her mother is a liar.
    -That's your leverage.  That's why she let you leave with the kids.
    -Yes, that's my leverage.
    -Wow, you came to the Congo to adopt one child and now you're trying to adopt four.
          I lean back in my chair and let out a sigh.  It's wonderful Melanie got two other kids out, and I understand trying to adopt them.  Adopting Darcy as well, even if that can be used as leverage, seems unnecessary to me.  Not to mention the United States authorities aren't goign to let her just waltz across the border with four kids in tow and adoption papers that say one.  But I'm sure she knows all of that and it's not really any of my business, so I don't go into it with her.
          I ask Melanie to keep me updated and I leave.  I'm happy for Melanie and Leslie's siblings, but now Marie is aware that we know about her scam and I'm sure she's getting her chess pieces prepared.  I'm at a loss of what to do.  I haven't succeeded in getting even Lawrence out, and now without Julie and her friend the Minister, a potentially corrupt priest, and Marie in the know, I have no idea what to do.
          I spend a day checkign my e-mail in the city center and hitting my head against a metaphorical wall.  I can't visualize a path.  Maybe Melanie's strategy was best and I'm just too chicken to do it.  But Melanie doesn't have the file or the transfer yet, and she was getting out two kids not helping 25.  Lawrence is the first priority alongside Bellevie.  Four year old, tinker toy Joseph is also on my urgent list and Bellevie has an older sister who is stronger because of age but equally as malnourished.  All, potentially, have been molested.  I need to at least get those four out before I leave, and then find a way to start working towards closing the center.
          The electricity comes on.  I realize I don't care if the priest is corrupt; I'm not giving them any money and at this point he has still indicated he'll help me.  I have no solid reason not to trust him, only speculation.  And he can steal money from his grandmother for all I care, as long as he puts his signature on a transfer document.  And I remember that I haven't lost all of my allies.  Sister June and her fury are still on my side.  I go out to Saint Theresa first thing the next day and call Father Roger on the way.  Father Roger says he has spoken with Marie and already told her he will be taking Lawrence on Monday.  I arrive at the nuns' house just as June is getting back from an errand.
    -You told me last time that you already tried to close Maison L'Espoire, but the Minister was either implicated or didn't care enough or have enough time to close her down.  What exactly did you do?
    -We had the paperwork filled out and everything.  All of it was ready and we sent it to the Minister and nothing happened.  Who knows if he even looked at it.
          She's already begun vibrating with anger like a tuning fork.
    -The Minister now is different from the Minister five years ago,correct?
    -Yes, we change them.
          Suddenly, the electricity arrives in her neighborhood too.
    -Lenny!  You need to speak with Father Lenny.  He's the head of this organization that regulates the NGOs in all of Kinshasa.  He filled out the paperwork last time and he gathered all of the evidence.  He is the one you need to speak with.  Is your driver here?
    -Yes, he's outside.
    -Let's go.
          She gets up immediately and I follow her out of the gate.  We drive for about ten minutes to yet another church.  A tall, handsome priest walks out.  His mannerisms are similar to Father Roger, but his forcefulness is somehow calming.  Father Lenny knows about everything but he didn't know about the sexual abuse.  He clicks into motion.
    -We'll have to get the paperwork going and if you're going to go back to the East next Friday, we can get it started now and then stay in touch when you're gone.  Previously, the request for closure of the orphanage was ignored.  That woman, Marie, sells those kids for 10,000 Euros.  I knew they needed to be closed down but I didn't realize it was at the level of sexual abuse.
    -Oh, this is great.  I don't have funds to pay legal fees or anything like that, but I want to help the kids and stop that woman from replacing them with more.
          A Congolese friend of mine is a nurse in one of the Ndjili hospitals.  She knows of Marie Vuvu.  One day a woman with psychological problems gave birth in my friend's hospital.  Marie Vuvu left with the baby while the mother was still unconscious.  My friend knows it was Marie Vuvu but I didn't get a chance to ask why Marie wasn't stopped or arrested.  I'm sure the answer would have been money.  I can't verify this, but the possibility doesn't surprise me.
    -No, don't worry about money.  It shouldn't cost any money and if it does we'll figure something out.
    -You are amazing.
    -Sister June and I, if you're available Sister, he nods at her.  We can go to Maison L'Espoire on Monday and I will begin to collect evidence that will be necessary for the Minister.  And I will speak with the kids one on one.  I have jurisdiction here in terms of monitoring NGOs so she can't refuse me that.
    -This is the man with the power, says Sister June, brimming with satisfaction.  If anyone can help, he can.
          I hop up and down a few times.  Father Lenny says good bye and see you Monday; God keeps him busy.  On the way back to the car I tell June how excited I am and how great this possibility is.
    -But, do you remember that three year old girl I told you about who is really sick?  I ask.
    -Yes, of course I remember.  Agh, that woman deserves the wrath of God.
    -Well, I consider her to be a very urgent case because of how sick she is.  I'm worried if we don't get her out of there until the paperwork and everything is through, she could be dead.
          I don't think my heart could handle that.  Just saying the words makes me panicky.
    -I want to get her out as soon as possible, I continue.  She and another boy who is very malnourished.  Bellevie also has a sister who is fairly malnourished and I don't want to separate the two.  I found a family for Bellevie and her sister and I'm sure I can find a family to take Joseph.
    -I'll get them out.
          She looks straight at me; not a muscle in her face moves.
    -You can do that?  How?
    -That woman owes me so much.  I always bring by things for the kids when I find something.  A bag of rice, a bar of soap, anything.  And I've helped her out of sticky situations, before I realized what kind of a game she was playing.  I own that woman.  If I ask to transfer a few kids she won't refuse.  She can't. 
          Sister June turns her eyes into slits and glares at me.  I take a step backwards.  I don't ever want to be on a nun's bad side.
    -Would you do that?
    -I'll do it on Monday.  You have pictures of the children right?
    -Yes, printed pictures.
    -Give me the pictures and I'll get them out.  With their files and a transfer.
          When we get back to the nun's house, Sister June shakes my hand.
    -Courage, she says.  Have courage.
          I look back at her and smile.
    -Thank you Sister, you too.

(Comments posted prior to temporary removal):

Sweetness said...

Thank you Amy, you are an inspiration to me.  I don't have money to contribute, but I can send love, compassion, and courage.  All this week during my morning meditation, I will spend some time focusing on the kids; sending love and compassion to them, and your efforts to get them into a safe home.  It sounds silly but it is what I have to give and I believe it helps.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Plan of Action

          Melanie is not what I was expecting. When Julie and I leave Maison L’Espoire we go straight to the Hotel Dalia. On the third floor, a young Congolese girl opens the door. She looks at me warily before disappearing behind a large laptop on the other side of the room.

    -Hi! You must be Amy.
          Melanie appears from behind a linoleum wall. The entire room is made out of linoleum. Melanie has frizzy red hair, a thin frame, and a slight waver in her voice. It makes me think of a squiggly line. She walks up to me and gives me a big American hug. It catches me off guard since Congolese culture doesn’t hug, but it’s refreshing. I do love Americans, if for no other reason than the fact that we hug.
    -Come in, come in. Make yourself at home.
          Melanie motions to two large leather couches. Julie and I each take a seat.
    -This is my beeeautiful daughter Leslie, she says pointing to the computer with a child’s body.
          Leslie is eight years old and doesn’t speak English or much French, so when Melanie introduces us Leslie is unaware.
    -And this is Jared my translator.
          I shake hands with the large Congolese man Melanie has now switched her hand motions to.
    -I believe you left this note for me, I say, pulling out the scrap of white paper. I’m eager to speak with you about what you implied in the note.
    -Yes, she suddenly gets serious and sits down on a chair next to me and opens one of several black binders on the table.
    -In February 2010 I gave $1,500.00 to pay for food and clothing for Leslie. In March 2010 I gave $4,300.00 to pay for her to attend a good school and have an English tutor. In May 2010 I gave $2,000.00 for all the kids to have tennis lessons. I’m a big tennis fan.
          She smiles at me. I have to hold back a chuckle. I can’t imagine where or how anyone would find a tennis instructor let alone a court, racquets, and balls in the Ndjili district of Kinshasa. Melanie looks back at the paper and continues.
    -In June 2010 I gave $1,350.00 for clothes for all of the children. In July 2010 I gave $820.00 for a guitar and guitar lessons.
          The list goes on. In total Ellie paid $22,000.00 to an advocate in Kinshasa to help the kids at Maison L’Espoire, outside of adoption fees.
    -None of it made it to the orphanage. Now, I am going to get this man kicked out of the profession. He is stealing money and I am going to make sure he cannot continue. And Marie Vuvu is a wonderful, wonderful woman.
          My eyebrows reach for the ceiling but I keep listening.
    -She is wonderful, she works for free and she takes care of all of those kids. I mean she is just, incredible. But this guy is a criminal.
          Melanie bobs her head around in a way that’s reminiscent of the squiggly line. She moves and speaks like a television with bad reception; a very kind and enthusiastic television.
    -You indicated that Reagan and a few others were also criminals, I say.
    -Yes. Reagan is in on it and Dido is also in on it.
    -I don’t know who Dido is, but I do know Reagan.
    -Good. You don’t need to know who Dido is, just know that he is a crook. They are crooks!
          She leans back in her chair and looks at me, waiting to see the revelation sweep across my face. It doesn’t surprise me that the advocate is a crook, what surprises me is that Marie Vuvu’s diatribe of her own good deeds and needs actually works.
    -Okay, I start slowly. I find it interesting that you say that Marie Vuvu is a wonderful person. I have found her to be quite the opposite.
          I explain that I came to help the boy, Lawrence, but that when I arrived at the orphanage I saw that the other children were suffering greatly. I explain that from what I’ve heard and seen, it appears that Marie Vuvu is receiving at least some quantity of money and is putting it in her own pocket rather than feeding the kids. I explain Bellevie.
          Melanie’s face contorts as I explain the details of Marie’s scam and that there is at least some level of sexual abuse in the orphanage.
    -Oh no. Oh no. That’s just terrible. What are you going to do?
          I laugh.
    -That’s quite a question.
          I take a deep breath before launching into my ideas.
    -The problem right now is that the Congolese system is horrendously corrupt, but they want me to follow the laws. If it were up to me I’d storm the place, threaten Marie and her family with something extremely painful, and leave with all of the kids. Unfortunately, as Julie here who is a lawyer, continuously warns me, I would be posted all over the Congolese television and radio as a child trafficker and arrested. Julie knows the Minister of Social Affairs, and if we speak with him hopefully he can look into the situation and force Marie to let the kids go and prevent her from taking in more kids. Once out, I’m certain I can find better centers for the kids, and I’ve already found adoptive families for a couple of them.
          A Congolese family I know well has agreed to adopt Bellevie. I trust these people with my life and wouldn't entrust her to anyone else. They heard about her tiny frame and asked me if they could help. The mom is a nurse and she’s eager to start caring for the little bird. Maybe one day Bellevie can experience the meaning of her own name.
          Although I was hoping to place Lawrence in the Crosier’s center, the Superior of the Order has not enjoyed my presence in his community, to say the least. He is the same individual who caused the death of the baby monkey, as a way of exerting control over me. It seems, having someone in a community of followers who doesn’t have to act like a sheep, is a bit much for him to handle. His grudge against me apparently extends to anyone associated with me, and the Crosiers refused to accept the boy. It’s funny how people can hide behind the word Christian. Marie Vuvu isn’t the only one. Luckily, I was able to find Lawrence an adoptive family in decent economic standing. The mother of this household is a journalist, nurse and Captain in the military. Her three boys are all in University, the oldest studying to be a doctor, the second—an electrician, the third—a construction engineer. She says she’s pregnant with a twelve year old child at the moment.
          Melanie fully supports my mission and wants to help in whatever way she can, but Julie and I leave the hotel with no new information. The next day we return to Maison L’Espoire for our meeting with Reagan. Reagan, of course, is not there when we arrive. Julie asked that Lawrence’s file be ready; it’s nowhere to be found.
    -You can’t just transfer the child, says Marie in the reception office. She’s wearing a yellow polo shirt with the same blue print skirt she’s worn everyday I’ve seen her.
    -Reagan indicated that transferring an orphan to a Congolese adoptive family is a simple process, and it’s free, I say.
    -No, no. He couldn’t have said that, why would he say that? The orphanage has to decide to transfer the boy, not you. You can’t just transfer the boy the orphanage has to want to transfer the child.
    -Marie, you told me that your capacity here is 30 children. Right now you have 33 which is not only three above your capacity, but you’ve indicated yourself that you don’t have the means to feed or educate all of the kids. I have found a good family for Lawrence and he will be able to go to school, even University maybe. It seems to me you should want to transfer him, if your true objective is to help the kids.
          She scoffs at me.
    -Well, it’s not even the orphanage who can decide. It’s the commune. The commune has the boy’s file and they need to say it’s okay to transfer him.
    -Okay, well ask the commune. They should want the best for the boy as well. They can visit the home he will be transferred to and speak with the Mother of the house.
          Marie gets up and walks out in a huff. Julie sighs. Within a few moments Marie returns with a middle-aged man.
    -Here, this is the head of Social Affairs for the commune. He can explain it to you.
          The commune is like the local governor’s office. It’s the mini-government that supposedly regulates the community. She could have pulled this guy in off the street. Reagan enters immediately behind them.
    -Are you Reagan? Julie asks, ignoring the “social affairs” guy.
    -Yes, I am.
          Reagan is wiry with light, almost yellow skin. He looks jaundiced and talks as if he’s always speaking with a child; a very wealthy child.
    -We would like to see the file for Lawrence so that we can follow the proper process and transfer the boy to a home we have found for him. I can see no reason why there would be any problems.
    -That’s impossible, Reagan responds immediately.
          He puts his fingers together as if he’s praying.
    -You see, officially speaking the child cannot be transferred to a Congolese family because of regulations with the commune.
    -But you told me it was one piece of paper to fill out and that it was free, I practically yell at him.
          I would love to put an elbow in his face.
    -No, I did not say exactly that. The process is very complicated.
    -Maybe, the “social affairs” guy cuts in. Maybe what we can do is Madame Amy can regularly adopt the child as if she is going to take him to the United States and then she can do whatever she wants with the boy and give him to the family.
          That would cost thousands of dollars. It’s pathetic how obvious these gold-diggers are.
          Everyone in the room is simply equivocating. Julie has realized the same thing and gets up.
    -Okay, well, we are going to go meet with the Minister of Social Affairs.
    -For this one boy? Marie shrieks.
          Julie and I leave the office. Our appointment with the Minister is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow, but at least Marie’s nervous now. We go straight to the commune. When we get there we’re informed that there is no file for the boy Lawrence. Only a few minutes after our arrival, the “social affairs” guy walks in. He’s not somebody she pulled in off of the street; he actually works for the government, which means the local government could also be eating off of the backs of children.
          On the way home, Melanie calls me. Her daughter Leslie has opened up a bit about the orphanage. Marie Vuvu has about eight grandchildren amidst the orphans, which I already knew. Her grandchildren eat their own full meals and then eat again from the little that is given to the orphans. When International’s come to adopt Marie offers up her own blood first. Marie’s son Christian, the African Homer Simpson, has forced Leslie’s ten year old sister into his bedroom several times, though Leslie doesn't know more than that. Leslie has a sister and a brother. Victoire, a character I don’t know yet, is allegedly abusing the kids. Petit Papa also used to sexually abuse them but he left a little while ago. A woman named Tshango said she received a message from the Holy Spirit that all of the kids should fast for 21 days. The kids fasted for seven days but were given a meal when potential adopters showed up. When the children do anything wrong, Reagan forces them to kneel on the ground with their palms facing the sky. He then whips the softness of their hands with a metal rod or electrical cables.
          The next day, the Minister is not available. I continue finding homes for the kids. I speak to a group of nuns who are willing to receive ten girls in their center. I’ve been to the center and it’s an expansive location where girls were jumping rope and learning how to sew. The nuns know Marie and a simple mention of Maison L’Espoire has Sister June twitching with fury.
    -That woman needs to be stopped! She yells on the front porch of their house. She has no soul left and everyone is complicit. Everyone is involved. We already tried to denounce her but she was protected by the local government. They’re all being paid and those poor kids are suffering. A woman brought us a child from that orphanage that was three years old who was literally dying because of that woman. Children have already died in that place. Several!
          I show them an image of Bellevie and explain that Bellevie weighs eight kilograms. The nuns grasp for their hearts and shake their heads.
    -She needs to be stopped. The three year old girl that came to us weighed six kilograms.
          At this point I can’t even think about Marie Vuvu & Family without wanting to punch a wall and cry at the same time. She’s like a fast acting panic attack. I have definitively established that she needs to be stopped. I still have to figure out how to do it.
          Current plan: Work more with nuns, appeal to the Minister and hope he’s not as corrupt as the rest of them, find some sort of leverage to use in the very plausible chance that the Minister won’t give a damn.

(Comments posted prior to removal) 2 COMMENTS:

Jennifer said...


I just read about you on HuffPost's Impact section. I think your advocacy in the DRC is amazing. I've been following the awful rape epidemic there for a few years now. I volunteer and work with rape /sexual violence survivors here in New York. It's challenging and rewarding. Please keep up the good work-you are inspiring!

MARCH 10, 2011 4:40 PM

Tashmica said...

I'm praying for you Amy! I am glad to see that there are people willing to care for the children who are being used for money. God bless them. I am praying for them too.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Orphans and the Octopus

          Everything starts to move and the situation quickly becomes clear. Marie, of Maison L'Espoire, is a crook and it’s a family affair. I go back to Maison L’Espoire again the day after the hospital to check on Bellevie. This time Brother Ange accompanies me. Ange is a tall, thin, monk who was in Mulo with me when I first arrived. He was one of my better friends in Congo before he was moved across the country to Kinshasa. The greatest thing about good friends is that distance in time and space don’t seem to change much.
          When we arrive at the orphanage Mama Marie Vuvu is not there. Two of Marie’s adult children are there, one daughter and one son. Marie has six grown children, all of whom live in the tiny orphanage, three of whom are men. Although her “secretary,” Reagan initially told me he’s not related to Marie, he later revealed he is her nephew and when I asked a Marie daughter, the daughter said Reagan is her brother. The lies are like phyllo dough, layered but flaky as hell. I realize quickly that the only way to find some truths is to divide and repeat. I spend several days asking the same questions over and over, to as many different family members as possible.
    -Marie, is this child an orphan? I asked at one point.
          I looked down at a little girl hugging my legs. She had braids, clean clothes and a normal amount of meat on her bones.
    -Yes, she says shaking her head. She is an orphan of mother and father but I was moved by the love of God to take her in.
          When Ange and I arrive the day Marie isn’t there, I walk immediately through the front part of the compound into the back. I arrive as unexpectedly as possible. There are always men sitting in the front part of the compound, who they are I have no idea, what they do to these children I can only imagine. Once through the second opening in the concrete wall I spot Bellevie. She’s standing alone in the corner sobbing. I walk across the compound, ducking beneath the hanging baby clothes and pick up the little girl. She stops crying immediately and rests her head on my shoulder with a few sniffles.
          All of a sudden there are children’s voices shouting next to me. I’m standing outside the boys’ bedroom and they are yelling at me through small holes in the concrete that comprise more of a ventilation system than a window.
    -It’s their rest time, says one of the men who is always guarding the front gate. He’s a short little man with tufts of hair on his face. He smiles a lot and says he’s not in Marie’s family. I don’t believe him for a second.
    -The kids have to have a rest time, don’t they? He shrugs his shoulders.
    -Yes they do.
          I think about it for a second and then push on the blue door to the room. It doesn’t budge.
    -Why is the door locked?
    -It’s not locked, he chuckles. The children put something there to block it so we can’t get in.
    -But you need to be able to check on them. Make them move whatever they put there.
    -Well...hold on.
          He walks off for a moment. I can clearly hear at least ten children in the room and through the ventilation holes I could see that they were not all the same age. American Gabe, initiator of this mission, indicated solidly that the children are sexually abusing each other. I haven’t yet gotten an idea of where they’re learning this behavior, but Marie’s various sons make my skin crawl and the cycle of violence rarely begins of its own accord. Marie's eldest son, a dark man with a Homer Simpson beer belly, walks around amidst the children in a stretched ribbed tank top, black jeans and leather sandals. He smirks at me, he doesn’t smile. He smirks at the children. Another son is tall and scrawny. He watches me from the window of a pink painted room that the many adults often disappear into. He never speaks to me, just watches.
    -One of the kids walked off with the key, says the short doorman who has reappeared on my left.
    -You mean you locked the children in the room?
    -No, it was an accident.
    -You need to open this door.
          He looks around before spotting Marie’s daughter and walks off in her direction. Within a few moments the daughter, a pretty but slightly hunched thirty-something year old walks up to the door and puts a key in the lock. I want to chastise her for locking children in a tiny concrete room with no supervision but I highly doubt it will get through to any part of her that cares; if any such part still exists. I look down at the ground and see the little girl with braids and so much more energy than the others. She’s hugging my legs again and smiling up at me.
    -She’s cute, I say and smile at Marie’s Daughter. Is she your niece?
    -Yes, she is.
          I shake my head; they’re terrible at maintaining their lies. Brother Ange has appeared beside me.
    -How old is your niece? I ask Marie’s Daughter.
    -She’s two and a half.
          I take Bellevie from my arms and lower her to the ground next to Marie’s grand-daughter. Bellevie is about four inches shorter than the granddaughter and half as thick.
    -Bellevie is three years old, I say looking up at Ange from the ground. This girl is two and a half.
          I don’t need to elaborate. Ange shakes his head as well. I pick Bellevie up again just as the door opens and about 14 children spill out. Boys and girls of all ages fall out of the room like toys stuffed into a closet. Marie’s Daughter walks off. She walks past Lawrence, the twelve year old orphan I’m here to help. There are no care-takers in the courtyard. I quickly pull Ange by the shirt sleeve over to Lawrence. Ange is also holding a tinker toy toddler at this point.
    -Please translate for me, I say.
          He nods at me and then looks at Lawrence.
    -Lawrence, I have found a foster family for you and a center with the Catholic monks and priests. You can go to school there and will have a family to spend time with on your holidays, if you would like to go. If you want to stay here that’s your choice I can’t force you to do anything. Would you like to stay here or go?
          He looks down at the ground.
    -Go, he whispers in French.
    -I can’t speak too much, but there’s something I need to know. Joshua and the others, in the States, indicated that they were being abused here. I need to know if that abuse was only among the children, or if the care-takers are also abusive.
          Lawrence looks at me and then to Ange. Ange translates quietly. Again, Lawrence looks at the ground and kicks a rock with his foot.
          There are other boys around who are about Lawrence’s age, 12 maybe older. They haven’t heard what we’re talking about but I have no intention of continuing and getting Lawrence in trouble.
    -Merci, I say.
          I put Bellevie back on the ground. Ange does the same with the diminishing sparkle in his arms and we both walk towards the exit.
    -I’m going to come back again tomorrow, I say to the doorman. It’s important that Marie be here.
    -What time are you coming?
    -I’ll be here at eleven.
          I don’t need to show up unannounced anymore; I’ve seen what I need to see. The next day I show up with an unexpected secret weapon. Julie is a woman from Butembo who prays regularly at the Crosier house. Julie is a lawyer. I explained to her what I saw at Maison L’Espoire and she agreed to come with me to help liberate Lawrence, and hopefully give me some advice as to how I can help the rest of them.
          Julie seems annoyed with my muzungu presence, but when I tell her there is a three year old who weighs 17 pounds she agrees to help. When we arrive at the orphanage I take Julie into the second part of the compound so she can see the living conditions. As we walk in there is an emaciated two year old lying on the concrete floor. Just past the two year old, Joseph, my four year old friend who looks like he’s two, is sitting on the ground. I reach down to pick him up but stop. He has what looks like food on his face, but his shirt is covered in white paste.
    -This child threw-up, I say to Marie as she walks by.
    -Oh, that’s too bad.
          She barks something at one of her children in Lingala. We enter the reception room and I let Julie take over. She’s beautifully evasive and Marie can’t keep up. -I am here on behalf of Madame Amy, she says in the small reception office of Maison L’Espoire. Amy is here on behalf of a family that would like to take Lawrence as their dependent. He will stay in a center for boys his age where there is excellent education and will be received by a foster family during school vacations.
          After coming to the orphanage everyday for a week, my mission is finally out in the open; or at least part of it is. Marie looks immediately uncomfortable. Julie asks questions, Marie answers, and I keep my mouth shut.
    -How old is Lawrence?
          He’s twelve.

    -When did he come here?
    -He was only eight years old.
          He was ten.

    -Is he in school right now?
    -Yes, he is by the grace of God.
          No, he i s not.

    -What grade is he in?
          You pulled him out in fifth.

    -How did he come here?
    -A priest brought him here. Lawrence was abandoned in the Church. Can you imagine? Abandoned in a Church.
          You told me the priest was friends with Lawrence's father and both parents died.

    -The thing is, Marie says, cutting off the questions, Lawrence is already being taken care of by two people and I don’t know if he’ll want to leave. He’s being taken care of by a French woman and an American woman, already.
          Marie is either really frazzled or thinks I’m really dumb. She just handed me her scam. She doesn't want to let Lawrence go because he's a money magnet. His gentle demeanor and situation of suffering make him a prime rib dinner for the Vuvu family. The first day I was able to speak privately with Lawrence, he told me that he used to be in school but no longer is. He has two International people paying his schooling fees; paying for food, paying for clothes, and not a cent actually makes it to Lawrence, or any of the kids that aren't related to Marie, for that matter. All of the orphaned children are a meal ticket as long as they're here and as long as they're suffering. The more they suffer, the more they bring in.
    -Lawrence! Marie suddenly yells out the window into the courtyard. Lawrence come here!
          She turns back to us and smiles.
    -We can ask the child.
          Lawrence walks into the room, shakes my hand and greets Julie.
    -Lawrence, Madame Amy would like to take you on as her charge. Who would you rather be the one responsible for you.
          She holds up a hand and begins ticking off names on her fingers.
    -Madame Somebody –the French woman I presume--, Madame Elena—the other American--, or Madame Amy.
          She holds the three fingers in the air and stares unflinchingly at Lawrence. I look over at Lawrence and he looks terrified and confused. We sit there silently for a few moments, but of course Lawrence can’t respond. This is all such a ridiculous show, it’s infuriating.
    -We can work this out ourselves, I say.
          Marie puts her hand back on the table and then shoos Lawrence out of the room. He leaves quickly without saying a word.
          Marie picks up her broken record again. I watch her squinch her face and wave her hands pleadingly as she talks about how God called her to protect children but she doesn’t have the means and she works for free and the children are so desperate. I can see purple arms like Octopus tentacles, rising up around her reaching into the blind pockets of International do-gooders. I’ve been struggling to find a way to get all of the kids out and also prevent her from simply replacing them with more. With almost no judicial system and an extremely corrupt police force, getting justice has seemed impossible. As I watch her slimy tentacles wiggling and swinging in the air, my plan of action becomes clear and I smile to myself.
          I am going to ruin this woman.
    -The parents of the kids who were adopted promised they would still help us and send money, but there is nothing. You see how we are all suffering here.
          Marie is still blabbering on. I can’t imagine people actually fall for this act.
    -You should talk to Maman Melanie, she’s American like you and she helps us. She just adopted one of our orphans and she’s still here in Kinshasa.
    -Can I have her contact information?
          I need to warn this woman, and convince her to stop supplying money to Marie. I might as well get started with Project Destroy Marie Vuvu & Family. Marie gets up after some roundabout blabbering and leaves the room. She comes back a minute later with a piece of paper in her hand. -Here, this is her address and information.
          She hands the paper to me and I have to hide a gasp. In less than a second my body is filled with adrenaline.

Melanie D. 1344 Lakebane Drive, Anneheim, CA.

Panit, Dido are crooks. I have a great Congolese attorney, he’s honest. He is doing class action/individual lawsuit against same. Orphanage has received nothing. Panit will lose license. Say nothing to Panit, Dido, or Reagan.

Beneath this there is a phone number.
    -Did she leave this paper for me? I ask Marie.
    -Yes, I told you that I told her about you and she wants to meet you.
          I don’t recognize all of the names mentioned, but at least this Melanie woman knows there’s something fishy going on here. It seems it may go deeper than I originally thought. I look around at Marie who is standing behind me. She's chattering away to Julie. I feel like I’m getting caught stealing, but nobody in this orphanage speaks a word of English. They have no idea what the note says.
          I’m slightly relieved by the written words. Marie’s initial resistance at transferring only Lawrence worries me, mainly because it reveals what a big task it will be to transfer all 25 of the kids and shut Marie down. I have one week left and a lot more detective work to do. After Julie tries to see Lawrence’s file and is shut down by Marie, we make a meeting for the next day. Julie indicates that Reagan must be here and the file must be here as well.
          I call the number on the paper as soon as we leave the orphanage. Melanie’s translator picks up and we arrange to meet at their hotel in one hour. I hope she has funding, more information, a team of lawyers, and maybe an honest policeman friend; or ten.

(Comments prior to removal) 6 COMMENTS:

Tashmica said...


MARCH 5, 2011 3:32 PM

calafia said...

so horrifying. Thank God you are there. I hope Kristoff links to your page again. Is Bellevie going to be ok? Did she get medicine?

MARCH 5, 2011 7:10 PM

Hanne said...

Amy you are amazing. I'm a friend of Sarah's and have been following your blog for quite a while. I want to help you shut down this horrible women. Please email me at if you have time

MARCH 5, 2011 8:09 PM

Ivana said...

This post is refreshing! I hate the way this Marie Vuvu uses religion to justify why she's 'helping' those children. I know, religion being used as a way to make money is not new, but then, again, they're not only taking away the donations made for the children, they're also sexually abusing them. I know there is no hell, but boy I wish there was one just for her to rot in! You go, Amy!

MARCH 6, 2011 3:31 PM

Sarah Fretwell Photography said...

This post has been removed by the author.

MARCH 8, 2011 4:17 PM

Sarah Fretwell Photography said...

Amy! Thanks so much for your last two posts. I so wish I could go with you in person to shut this woman down. Thanks for sharing you passion and your heart!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


             There’s nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit.
                                        -Scent of a Woman

          I fly to Kinshasa in order to help a man help a boy. Gabe recently adopted a four year old boy from Congo named Joshua. When Joshua arrived in the States he was severely underweight, suffering from a variety of illnesses, and indicated that he was sexually abused. Joshua lived in an orphanage called Maison L’Espoire under the direction of one Mama Marie, not to be confused with the larger and less difficult Maman Marie Nzoli of COPERMA. Others were adopted from Maison L’Espoire by families in the United States. Several of the children expressed an extreme dislike for Mama Marie and all of the children reported being sexually abused.
          Gabe has asked me to find and help a boy who tried to protect Joshua when he was still at the orphanage; a boy who was vulnerable, but saw that another was more vulnerable than he and tried to protect rather than use like the rest of humanity seems to do. I’m kind of like a mercenary, except I’m trying to save a life rather than erase it. Gabe doesn’t know the boy’s name and he doesn’t know where the orphanage is other than the Ndjili district of Kinshasa.
          Kinshasa is a city like Washington D.C. except that there are no lane markers on the eight lane highways, police can stop you at any time and ask for money, and plump women sit on the sidewalk making omelets all day. The humidity is a jacket you can’t take off; it’s a cage, an overbearing lover. I don’t understand how people get anything done when the air itself is bearing down on them.
          It takes my taxi driver and me about one hour to find the orphanage following a map of pointed fingers. We know our living spaces better than we know ourselves. The taxi pulls up to a grey concrete wall and building in an alley filled with sand. On the side of the house MAISON L’ESPOIRE is written in large block letters with the address and telephone numbers painted beneath it. I walk through the small metal door next to the monstrous letters on a tiny house. Just as I walk in a woman with an infant propped on her left hip walks up to me.
    -Who are you? She asks right away in a slightly hoarse voice. She looks confused at the random appearance of a muzungu in her doorway.
          The woman is Mama Marie, the head of the orphanage. She is a little shorter than me, wearing a blue African print dress and suffering from Harry Potter syndrome. Most of her relaxed, chin-length hair is brushed and calm but there are several distinct pieces that clearly won’t be tamed. They shoot off in different directions making her look more frazzled than the rest of her implies.
    -Hi, I’m Amy. I’m here to visit the orphanage.
          I reach out my hand to shake hers and she warily reaches out in return.
    -Are you the one Reagan said would be coming?
          I need to be vague so that the boy I’m here to help doesn’t get bullied by the others being jealous of muzungu attention. I need to be vague because I need Mama Marie on my side but I don’t trust her yet.
    -I’m here on behalf of a family in the States. They can’t adopt now but they asked me to look into the possibilities.
          It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not a lie.
    -Who sent you? She asks.
          Although my friends in the UN joke that I am a C.I.A. agent since I don’t technically have a job in Congo and I flit around like a wannabe Fairy Godmother, I’m not used to answering this sort of question.
    -Uhh.. Jatukik Providence foundation, I say listing off the name of an organization I know works with Maison L’Espoire.
          Mama Marie’s face lights up and all of the skepticism falls from her face.
    -Jatukik! She exclaims as she takes her hand off of the child again and slaps me on the arm. They adopted out five of our orphans recently.
    -Really? That’s great, I say smiling and acting impressed.
          I know this fact well; three of the four who were adopted out indicated sexual and physical abuse.
    -Where are the other children?
    -Through here.
          She turns around and walks towards the back of the small entryway where there is another concrete wall with a space in the stone. I follow her into a compound made of sand and children.
    -There are 31 orphans here who we take care of, she says starting the relative tour. This is the boys' room.
          She peeks in one of 5 doors attached to 3 small block buildings. Inside are seven or eight cots, all covered with clean white sheets. I find the cleanliness confusing. In the courtyard there is a web of string covered in drying baby clothes and a woman hunched over a bucket and a pile of clothes in the corner. I look down at the moving beings beneath me. Some are bouncing around grabbing my hands and plucking at their belly buttons. Their bowling ball tummies make outtie belly buttons even easier targets.
          But amidst the prancing children there are also dolls; they are children but the life they exhibit is so slight it could be in my imagination. Mama Marie keeps talking about needs and how Jatukik hasn’t helped them as much as promised. At first she says the kids are all in school, but when I subtly indicate my connections to potential funding she changes her tune and says the orphanage can’t afford the school fees. She’s predictable in a money-seeking kind of way but I can’t figure out if she actually wants to help the kids or simply turn them into the equivalent of welfare checks.
          For about an hour Mama Marie speaks to me, with interspersed demands for money. I look at the doll children sitting listlessly in this monstrous sandbox. They look like tinker toys with massive joints connected by straws. I pick up a little boy named Joseph who pokes at my leg without seeming to realize it’s human. When I lift him up he opens his limbs like wings and then snaps closed against me.
    -I do have news of one of the boys who was adopted, I say cutting off Mama Marie. Let me speak more openly with you. I’m here on behalf of the family who adopted Joshua. They wanted me to come to tell you how well he is doing in the United States.
    -Oh, that’s wonderful!
    -I’m also here to check on one of Joshua’s friends because Joshua has been asking about him.
          I take out a picture Gabe sent me of the boy and we determine the boy’s name is Lawrence. Lawrence is at church for the whole day, but I can come back tomorrow. I place Joseph back on the ground and help him sink to the floor since he doesn’t have the energy to stand on his own, and I leave. I’m in On-Off mode; my body moves around, my mind asks questions, I weigh options, I see things, I make decisions, but the emotional component is off. It’s something I’ve gotten quite good at switching into but never notice until after I’ve switched back to human.
          The next day I return and I meet Lawrence. He is twelve years old, they think, and he is timid, intelligent and kind. To be kind when you’ve known kindness your whole life is one thing. Finding let alone maintaining kindness when all you see is cruelty is a level of courage I can’t begin to understand. I take him out to lunch but one of Mama Marie’s many adult children joins us so I can’t speak openly with him. Afterwards, I sit on a plastic chair with Joseph clasped to my body once again. Another little doll, just as high as my knees, walks up to us and positions herself between my legs. She has the same straw limbs and zombie gaze as Joseph. I watch her pour water from one plastic cup into another with her mouth hanging slightly open. She moves slowly as if the air is made of Jello.
          This is what it looks like when a human is separated from their soul.
   -What’s this little girl’s name? I ask Mama Marie across the courtyard.
          She looks at the little girl, squinches her face and tilts her head like a dog trying to hear.
    -Bellevie, she says suddenly.
          Bellevie--Beautiful life.
          Bellevie turns her head to look at Mama Marie and I cringe. A stream of milky pus is dripping out of Bellevie’s right ear. It looks as if her nose is running from her ear and the flies are doing their best to turn it into a meal. It takes me a moment before I am able to wipe the goo from the little girl’s ear.
          I come back again the next day, this time with a Crosier brother. The Crosier’s have a small orphanage of sorts that I would like to at least temporarily transfer Lawrence to, but they respond to my questions with doubt and fear of a boy brought up in cruelty. They don’t seem to believe that kindness in cruelty can survive. When we arrive there is a young woman lying on a bed who Mama Marie tells me is very sick. I insist we go to the hospital, on the condition that Bellevie come as well. Mama Marie jumps at the chance. I still can’t tell if she actually cares. I pick up Bellevie and we all climb into the taxi. Bellevie doesn’t snap closed and cling to me like Joseph. She simply goes limp and lets my body catch her. She’s so tiny I feel like I’m trying to hold a bird as if it’s a baby.
    -Give me the baby, says Mama Marie across the young woman who is sitting in between us. The woman smiles to herself randomly but doesn’t say anything.
    -Do you mind if I hold her? I ask.
    -Of course you can hold her but I want to change her clothes for going out clothes.
          I carefully hand Bellevie over to Mama Marie. Mama Marie rapidly pulls the girl’s arms out of one shirt and sticks them into another. She puts Bellevie into an Easter pink cotton shirt and pink plaid baby shorts with the Arizona Inc. tag still attached to them. I wonder if one of the adopting parents brought a bag of clothes when they came to pick up their new family member. Mama Marie gives Bellevie back to me with one hand. Bellevie collapses against my chest once again. She hasn’t made a single sound.
          There’s a broken starling wearing pink plaid in my lap.
          At the hospital the pediatrician weighs Bellevie. Eight kilograms = 17.6 pounds. A chart on the wall shows that Bellevie is a healthy 5-8 month old baby, if you leave out the fact that she is three years old. She cries softly when the Doctor listens to her heart and sticks a tongue depressor in her mouth. I try to console her but nothing can until her shirt is back on and she is once again limp against my torso. I wonder if she’s been sexually abused. Considering the circumstances, I wouldn't be surprised if she has. I went into this originally joking with friends about playing Detective for a week but this is no game.
          Bellevie, Joseph, and the rest of them weigh almost nothing, but these little birds are the ones carrying the weight of the world. I’ve figured out how to help Lawrence but I can’t just leave the rest of them. One of these days their little tinker toy limbs won’t be able to bear the burden anymore and they’ll break. I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do, but as we leave the hospital I make a plan to extend my stay in Kinshasa.

(Comments posted prior to removal) 2 COMMENTS:

Annalise said...

you go girl. keep it up. your posts have a way of creating motivation and compassion in so many different aspects of my life. the work you're doing transcends the boundaries of the progress and kindness you're contributing in the Congo in so many different ways. AMY ERNST-you are an incredibly special person in my life. Your work, your passion and your dedication are constant affirmations for me of how powerful a compassionate attitude in this world can be.

MARCH 2, 2011 10:05 AM

Ivana said...

We know women victims of rape isn't something new, (still horrible and tragic, but not new), but when I think of the idea of children, young children being sexually abused, my stomach turns and my hands make fists as if they had any way to reach out and hit the monsters who are doing that in the face. I cannot begin to comprehend how it feels to actually SEE these poor children, their blank gaze, their underweight bodies. I think I would just break down crying. Who could possibly be in the orphanage doing that? that maman Marie (a woman sexually abusing children? not impossible but uncommon); is she selling the orphans for sex? are the older children abusing the younger? Please tell us more. And I will definitely be donating to COPERMA so that you can find a way to help those children too.