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.

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