My house on a little hill is perfect. During the day I can watch the panoramic of a large other hill that’s far enough away to see the entire thing, but close enough to be able to see the specks of children running home from school and the women carrying bundles up the steep central road. It’s a sculpy playground with dollhouses scattered among the trees and it’s breath-taking. At night the sculpy hill becomes a mound of black, dotted for a few hours with pinholes of light as if it’s a piece of black paper and there’s daylight on the other side.
It takes me a few days to adjust to the new darkness and the sounds that fill it. I have to learn how to filter out the sounds that are normal in this new place; the dogs that bark all night, the roosters at 4 a.m. that are not the screaming children they sound like. Whoever came up with the idea of “cock-a-doodle-doo” has never heard a chicken in Congo that’s just waking up.
And work continues as usual…
-There were 50 women raped thus far in the month of May in the villages of Katolu, Isale, Bhulambo, and Magherya, says Maman Marie in her small office.
-In this month alone? I ask.
-Well, those are the confirmed cases that came forward and went to the hospital for the PEP Kit.
PEP kits are Post-Exposure Prophylactic Kits containing STD medications, emergency contraception, and more.
-Have we spoken with all of them and identified where they are in their treatment? I ask.
-No, but we have to do follow-up right now. I have to write a report soon on where we are and what we need and I can’t write that without going out to make sure that I’m correct. So today we’re going out to Kavingu and then tomorrow we will go to Magherya.
Kavingu and Magherya are the two most developed centers run by COPERMA, and the two being minimally funded by Finn Church Aid. On the drive to Kavingu I think about the kids at Maison L’Espoire in Kinshasa. Lawrence is doing wonderfully well; he’s excelling in school and has gained a normal amount of weight. He’s friends with his brothers and his sister and apparently is quite the joker. But over the past few weeks I haven’t been able to get the images of Bellevie and the rest of the kids out of my mind; their spindly little legs that looked too weak to hold up their little kid smiles.
Papa J submitted a statement and I submitted what I found and what I wrote; the government is doing investigations as we speak but I don't know how long they will take. Bellevie and her sister were supposed to be adopted by my Congolese friends but apparently are in the process of being adopted by a family in Belgium. I still don’t know what is true and what is smoke shrouding greed. And in the meantime, my mind does not fail to present me with the various possibilities of horrors the kids could be living. The world is much harsher than imagination. I feel terrible for having left them behind, but I still can’t figure out what more I can do without the Congolese government spear-heading the project. At the same time, if knowledge is power and power brings responsibility, simply knowing about those kids makes them my responsibility. I just don’t know what to do with it.
When we arrive in Kavingu there is the normal group of eight to ten raggedy children playing in the sand. I follow Maman Marie to the room with the sewing machines. It is dark inside, but I can see the silhouettes of the machines hanging in the air like elegant cameos.
-The girls are on their way but the teacher is already here, says Maman Marie before turning around and walking to the next little concrete room.
Through the window I can see about 30 children all wearing the navy blue and white uniforms of school kids. I duck once I realize they’re in class, since I know my white face will interrupt the entire lesson. Maman Marie and I walk to the mud hut where the rabbits and guinea pigs in the breeding project are kept. Maman Marie pushes open an old door made of wooden planks practically stapled together and then glued to the mud doorframe. In the darkness inside, the room is packed with large wooden cages.
-Wow, how many rabbits do we have now?
Jean-Marie, a young and handsome COPERMA worker turns to me from the corner.
-I counted 29.
I nod my head approvingly. We only started this program a few months ago with about seven rabbits. We started it in order to help the people in Isale who are being terrorized by the FRDC battalion stationed there. The rabbits had to be kept in Kavingu in order to avoid starting a project that would simply feed the enemy.
-When are we bringing them to Isale? I ask Maman Marie through the cool darkness.
-In about a month, she says immediately, I’m taking all of the rabbits who are pregnant and bringing them to Isale to distribute. Then we can keep breeding here and they can start breeding on a small scale there and still be able to hide the rabbits from the soldiers.
I hear chirping and look down. There are guinea pigs running across the floor under the cages, picking up the food dropped by the rabbits above. I don’t ask about the guinea pigs; they multiply and die so quickly I’m pretty sure COPERMA has been regularly carting them out to Isale. I walk back outside into the sandy courtyard where most of the kids in the classroom have now escaped to. There are boys of about four and five years old building a second sand pile from a first using a shovel twice their size. All of them are wearing tiny pants that are still too big and that sag as they walk and run, showing tiny little butt cracks.
A few feet away from where the boys are playing there is a group of only girls. They’ve tied what look like pieces of rope together to form a jump rope. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone jumping rope in Congo and these girls are professionals. They’re playing double-dutch and can often get three of their little forms through at the same time.
-I used to play that when I was little in the States, I say to Laurentine who has just walked up beside me.
-Really? With the banana leaves dried and tied together?
-Oh, no. We used a long rope made out of a different material. I was actually terrible at that game I could never do it.
Laurentine chuckles and walks off to help Maman Marie. I walk over to a group of toddlers sitting in a huddle and sit down next to a little girl with her back to me. She turns around and immediately shrinks away, her eyes growing from nickels into silver dollars. Within a minute she has scooted a full foot away from me. When I don’t bark at her or bite she gradually turns back around to watch the giggling girls dodging the swinging banana leaf rope. There’s a baby sitting in front of the little group of toddlers. The girl who was next to me, who can’t be more than five years old, reaches forward with a blue piece of cloth and wraps it around the baby to shield him from the sun. A boy of about six walks by carrying an infant and carefully places the infant on a soft spot of grass.
The parents are nowhere to be seen, most working in their fields, a few working on manioc root outside of a hut several meters away. The kids take care of each other and they take care of themselves. And when they leave the dirt courtyard, I’ve no doubt they’ll pick up a bundle that would be heavy for me, sling it over their heads and carry it home. One thing about the people in and around Butembo is how unfathomably hard they work. Materially they are poor, but in countless ways they are much wealthier than anyone I know. I often envy the happiness I see here. When war isn’t present, happiness thrives in this struggle. They say idle hands are the devil’s playground; maybe they’re just the breeding ground of discontent.
The next day when we get to Magherya the room is filled with young-mothers working the black and gold machines. Magherya is high in the mountains and you can see other mountains covered in fields and huts. All of the huts are made out of mud, some with straw roofs that make the huts look like little bran muffins. The rest have tin roofs that toss around the daylight like laughter. Inside the sewing room, one of the girls I’ve known since my first day at Magherya holds up the little baby shirt she’s working on and laughs. I sit in the room for a while as the girls chat in Kinande. Sometimes, I can understand suggestions to add a zipper or to make the bottom of a shirt bigger for a little round belly.
After Magherya we go to Butungera, a much less developed COPERMA site. I’ve promised the kids a soccer ball and its one promise I can finally keep. Butungera is a small mud school building with one of the walls almost completely ripped off by the wind and another large expanse of sand. I throw the soccer ball to a group of boys doing half-cartwheels in the sand and they immediately start to play. The school building, if you can call it that, sits atop a plateau overlooking valleys and other mountains all around. It’s flat and it feels like I’m standing on the sternum of the earth; if I began digging I would hit the heart of the world. As Maman Marie speaks to the two school teachers in the mud hut, I sit in a pool of shade under a tree with a group of young-mothers, most of whom are survivors of rape. We sit quietly, watching the boys clumsily chase the soccer ball. One of the girls spreads her pagne on the ground next to me and places her rolly polly baby on the cloth. We all laugh as the baby tumbles around, giggling and flailing his chubby little arms. The heart of the world is not beneath the ground, it’s right here beating on top.