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!
-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.
-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.
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):
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.