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!

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