After one full year, my time with the Crosiers is up. I'm grateful for my year with them, but being an outsider in the religious life is no walk in the park, for either sides I'm sure. In the end, I'm ready for a change and the military observers have an open room for a few days. There are three of us living in the house, on a hill, over-looking all of Butembo. I have a perfect view of my favorite stretch of mountains, which looks like a pregnant woman sleeping, or dead, beneath a heavy sheet of land.
Moving only takes a day so the COPERMA team and I are able to stay on schedule. We go back out to Butu. village to follow up with M., N., and K., and hopefully to speak with their parents. When we arrive at the dirt expanse perched atop a table of a mountain, neither of the girls nor their parents are around. Only a few scraggly but energetic children bounce around in the dirt amidst four or five elderly women. The women all smile and shake my hand enthusiastically while the children hide behind their mothers legs, and two babies cry at the sight of my strange skin.
-Here, you can rest in here if you please, says a thin, middle-aged man with yellowing eyes and a kind smile.
He leads us into a small hut made of mud and sticks. There are two small wooden benches inside and the only light enters with us through the small doorway. I sit down next to the man and my colleague Urbain follows us in.
-I'm calling the survivors, says Urbain pulling out his cellphone.
The man with the yellow eyes steps back outside. I sit as Urbain discusses through the phone that the girls will be coming in two hours. School isn't out yet. I lean back against the wooden bench and take out my book. Before I can read even two pages, the man with the yellow eyes steps back in followed by five young girls.
-These are the cousins and daughters of COPERMA members in this community, he says waving at the girls.
I look to Urbain for clarification of why they're here.
-They can't go to their fields in Graben anymore. They know girls who have been raped by the soldiers there and so when their parents ask them to go to their fields now they refuse. They're very afraid.
-Oh, okay... I hesitate. What do you think I should say to them?
The girls have all piled onto the small bench across from me and are staring at me expectantly. I don't like stepping out of the realm of sexual violence or obvious physical illness because I never know what to say or how to help. Everybody needs money, clothing, vocational training, food, cultivation, tools, animals, school fees, and books. You have to focus your efforts here otherwise you'd get caught in the current of needs and never move forward.
-They want to tell you about their needs, cuts in the yellow eyed man.
I sigh, take out my notebook, poise my pen and look to the girls. A tall girl wearing a stained black and white striped shirt begins speaking.
-I don't have a job. None of us are in school. We left in first year because of money. I want to learn sewing.
I write down what she says and feel the weight of their false hope drop down on me. People see white skin and they see hope through money; money that's already been allocated for other survivors or being used to build the tin on the school's roof. All of the girls want a sewing machine and want to learn how to sew, except for the last girl who wants to learn to make bread.
-I can't promise you anything but I will try, I say when each girl has had a turn.
-If you can help us, really, please, says the first girl who spoke. We used to have fields but now we're afraid to go. We need something during the stand-by period.
All of their fields are in graben, where governmental and Ugandan rebel soldiers have been raping women working in their fields.
-I'll try, alongside of COPERMA, I say again. But I can't give you any promises.
The girls all get up quietly and file out of the hut.
-The girls are really afraid, Urbain says next to me.
-I know, and they have reason to be afraid.
Urbain sighs and stands up.
-I'm going to go greet a Maman just outside.
I lean back again and open my book, thankful to be able to wait alone.
-We can share this little nothing we have with you, says the yellow eyed man entering the hut.
He places a silver bowl of passion fruit on the wooden table in front of me.
-Thank you that is very kind.
-A house with no visitors is not blessed, he says as he sits down. We made beans for you last week because we thought you were coming but then you did not come. We regretted it very much. Regretted it very much.
-I'm sorry, I didn't know you did that. Thank you.
-So, what are you going to do about the stress on the educators?
He switches the subject quickly.
-You're a teacher?
-Yes, without anything. I have been working at the school for six months and I have been paid nothing.
-Who is supposed to pay you?
-The parents of the children, but the parents are poor and they are stubborn. But I can't leave because I feel bad for the children. I can't just leave the children. We ask for $3.50 each trimester but then the children will show up with only .50 cents. I have fear for my family too.
He leans back and focuses his yellowed eyes on the floor. He looks so sad, so tired, so completely used up.
-I'm sorry. I can talk with Maman Marie to see if we can try and help you too, but I can't promise you anything. President Kabila said he would pay part of the school fees for all of the children, have you not received that money?
-No, nothing, he says looking back at me.
He looks at me as if I've promised him something monumental and then showed up empty handed. They should change humanitarian to never-ending disappointment.
-And we also need a cellphone. We could communicate with COPERMA if we could have a cellphone and then we could have everything ready for you when you get here. And we also need a ball for the kids to play with. There is an inter-school football tournament but none of the kids can play because we don't even have a ball.
I look down at my notebook and recognize a rare opportunity.
-I can promise you a ball! That, at least, I can get.
The teacher stands up so suddenly I almost drop my notebook.
-Thank you! Thank you! Aiiiyyyyy!!!
He runs outside and speaks in Kinande to the small clump of children and women sitting outside. Through the mud walls I hear the children start shrieking and the man and the women clapping. He runs back into the hut and yells thank you at me several more times.
-Okay! There are others who want to speak with you, let me go and get them!
He runs out of the hut again before I can stop him.
-This is the head of the girl-mothers, he says returning with a young woman. I'll leave you alone so you can speak with her.
The young woman is wearing a pink dress and carrying a sleeping baby on her back.
-Hi, what's your name?
-And you are a girl-mother? What does that mean?
COPERMA typically uses girl-mother to refer to young victims of sexual violence, but it's often used for any young mother.
-It's someone who has a baby without a husband, she says.
She speaks French fluently and confidently.
-So it was consensual sex yes?
-Yes, it was consensual.
She smiles a little but doesn't blush as much as most girls at the words consensual or sex.
-He said he would marry me in order to profit in that way. When I realized I was pregnant he fled immediately. Even now he doesn't know the figure of his child.
-How old are you?
-I'm 23 years old.
-I'm 24! I exclaim and smile at her.
-You're still very young.
-Yes, you are too!
-No, her smile drops from her face. I've already become old because of difficulties.
I stop smiling as well. I can't think of anything to say in response. She looks young, but somehow I realize I feel like a child in the presence of a wise adult.
-I'm a teacher at another school in Butu. she continues.
-Do you make enough to support the baby?
-No, she snorts. I want to leave but I feel bad for the kids. I can't leave the students. I don't get paid anything, I sacrifice myself. And the other teacher already fled because there is no payment.
We talk about birth control and the importance of family planning. She laughs with a tinge of cynicism when I reference how expensive a baby is. She knows much better than I do. She says there are condoms you can buy in the village but there aren't any men you can trust. She wants to learn how to sew as well.
After Masika leaves the hut I try to follow her out but an elderly woman herds me back into the hut with surprising force. Five other women flow in behind her. They don't speak French so after a few greetings in Kinande they call Urbain back into the hut. They represent the female cultivators in Butu. They need hoes and seeds so they can cultivate enough to pay school fees. Somehow my feeling of being a false promise has disappeared. Simply having someone listen to their grievances seems to be helping.
The women finish and a man older than the land itself walks in. His feet look like the stone we're sitting on; his irises are light brown and distinctly different from the black of his pupils. Many people here have irises that blend in a hazy darkness into their pupils, making eyes that can sometimes look dead. The sun and vitamin deficiencies also turn the whites of people's eyes into the color of coffee spilled and dried on paper. But this man's eyes are somehow sharp and clear.
-He needs tomato seeds, Urbain translates. He is representing male cultivators here.
The man's voice is low and smooth like it is the wind itself and has always been a part of this world.
He finishes quickly, his words are to the point. Finally, the three survivors arrive but their parents are still working in the field. They're the first ones who don't really want to talk to me. They remind me that their parents aren't paying their school fees anymore and I add it to the list of needs from the day. After over two hours of talking to the various villagers, I only spend about four minutes with M., N., and K even though they emenate the most sadness.
But when they're walking away from the hut, all three turn to say good bye and the beauty of their smiles is what leaves Butu. with me at the end of the day; alongside one definite promise, and a lot of "i'll try."