I don't need to see it to believe it, but when Baloti, the head of the Association of Women Living Alone asked me to come to his club to see the work of sex workers, I hoped it would at least help me understand. COPERMA has been in a psychosocial training session for the past week, so I've spent my days wandering around Musienene reacquainting myself with the place. And reacquainting myself with myself.
Anytime I'm around people I care about, people whose presence allows me to relax for a moment in who I am, the adjustment back to being alone is a sharp one. In a way it's like being pushed off of a cliff into freezing ocean. I have to adjust and remind myself that I'm a good swimmer. Being alone isn't the problem. In fact, once I'm used to the boundaries around me once again it feels good. It becomes cool, slow and soft-spoken, like the first day of fall over and over again. But at first it's sharp and disarming.
After a week of readjusting, I go to Butembo in the evening to meet up with Baloti. It's my first time moving around Butembo at night without Dusan's protective presence but security has been surprisingly good lately. Kabila has dispatched supplies, support, and Chinese managers to start building the roads. Inspire confidence just before the election, and hopefully people will forget about all your other years of failure.
Baloti meets me ouside of the club. Outside, the neon lights make the dirt road and the night metallic.
-Amy, bienvenue, he says and reaches out to shake my hand. I'm so glad you could make it come on in.
Baloti leads me to a blue metal gate with a crowd of teenagers and motortaxi drivers hovering outide.
-Look, here is our security man.
He points to a dirty looking man in a tattered FaRDC uniform, holding an AK-47 across his lap. I nod to the man and follow Baloti through the metal doors. Inside, the club is outside. There are no ceilings only walls and a large gazebo in the center of a concrete courtyard. African music is pumping with the metallic lights and people inside the gazebo. Baloti leads me to the back of the courtyard where a very average looking man stands up and greets me.
-This is a major in the FaRDC, he also provides security.
-I am so happy to see you here and do not worry I will ensure that you will be kept safe all night long.
The man continues shaking my hand eagerly and says the
words with an over-zealous seriousness clearly fueled by one too many.
-Thank you sir, I really appreciate that.
It used to bother me, making nice with people I perceive to be the devil, but my anger at individuals won't accomplish anything. Baloti and I walk to the other side of the gazebo and sit down at a plastic table.
-Let me get you a beer, Baloti shouts above the music.
-Sure thanks, let me get you one too.
Baloti laughs and wanders off to find a server. From my chair I can just see over a low wall separating the gazebo dance floor from the rest of the courtyard. Everyone looks normal to me. Young men and women dancing and periodically reaching behind them to take a swig of liquid courage, distraction, not caring.
-Hi I am so happy to see you here this makes me so happy.
I turn around in my seat and see a puffy faced man with hazy eyes and a brilliant smile reaching his hand out to me.
-This is my friend Chester, says Baloti coming up behind him. He has been here everynight to have drinks since the first day we opened.
-It's nice to meet you, I yell and shake his pudgy hand.
-But you are not nice to me, Chester says sitting down at our table. You only came as one. I want to see two muzungus.
Baloti laughs and points out that Chester is highly intoxicated. Chester leans back and wags his finger at me.
-So, every woman in here is a prostitute, says Baloti cutting to the chase.
-All of them? Are you sure?
-Yes I'm sure. Look, do you see those two girls by the door?
I follow his finger to two chubby girls standing with a couple of tall John Does. They're on their way out.
-Those girls are almost definitely minors, but they don't look young enough for us to actually refuse them. They came here about an hour ago alone to look for men for the night, and now they've found them and so they're leaving.
-And they're doing it for money? Not just dating or something?
-No, these girls are all a part of the Association. They have kids to feed or they don't have parents so they have to do it themselves. Look, all of those girls dancing are simply trying to find some money tonight.
I look back into the gazebo. I watch girls no older than me pairing off with dancing partners, sometimes getting close sometimes not. There's a beautiful girl standing in the center of the gazebo dancing in a haph-hazard way. Her hair is pulled into a small pony-tail but the front pieces are shooting into the air like the top of a pineapple. Her face is beautiful, Rwandan, and familiar.
-Oh my god, I know that woman.
-The one right there, I point into the crowd. The skinny one who's very beautiful, wearing the blue gown with no back to it. Where do I know her from?
The woman's face reminds me of the prostitute I met in Beni who copped a feel and passed out on a couch curled around me. She looked Rwandan too, but it's not quite right. Suddenly, it hits me and it hurts.
-I know her from CEPIMA. Do you know what CEPIMA is?
-Yeah, I know.
Baloti looks down at the table. The young woman in the sparkling gown is Tatu, a girl I met when I was following up on a woman staying at the mental health center, CEPIMA. Tatu was almost entirely wiped out on thorazine and several other psychotropics but her personality battled the medication bravely. She would jump from staring blankly at a cardboard soap box with her mouth hanging open, to slowly but forcefully challenging me to a fight.
-She's in here often. She has many men who pay for her.
I watch her dance in the center of the metallic lights. Her dress is sequined and catches the different colored lights before throwing them back at the room. In another lifetime, I think we would have been great friends, I remember thinking when I first met Tatu.
-I'm going to buy you a beer too! Exclaims Chester suddenly. But only on the one condition that the next time you come you will bring me another muzungu.
-Alright fine Chester, I'll bring you another muzungu, I exclaim laughing.
-Does he ever go home with prostitutes? I ask Baloti when Chester is gazing into the dancing crowd.
-No, never. He just comes in here and drinks and looks for company. He's really a good guy. But look, do you see that girl? She found a customer and now she's leaving. And those three girls just got here and they'll leave as soon as they find customers.
He points around the room at various women of various ages. I follow his finger around the room before settling once again on Tatu. She's dancing with a man. He is running his hands up and down her bare shoulder blades and she's swaying next to his body but looking off at some spot on the floor. She's not smiling or laughing. She doesn't even seem to notice the man stroking her skin and watching her body sway.
-Amy I also sent you an email today with a picture of the Association woman who was killed recently.
-You already sent me that photo.
-No this is a picture of her after she was dead. With all of her injuries.
I snap from Tatu to Baloti.
-You sent me a picture of that? Why?
-Because I thought you would want to see it so you can understand what happened.
-Oh, okay well, thanks I guess.
I've seen those kinds of pictures before in Congo. There's no censoring or individual privacy here. But maybe Baloti's right, maybe seeing it will help me understand. Tatu suddenly walks around the outside of the gazebo in the direction of the bathroom. I stand up and start moving into her path but she doesn't seem to notice me. She walks and stares a little in front of herself as if she's blind but knows the route.
-Tatu, hi. Do you remember me?
My voice brings her back from whatever thought she was or wasn't having.
-Yes, I remember you. From CEPIMA.
Her voice is soft and sad and heart-breaking.
-Are you still staying at CEPIMA?
-No, I'm not anymore.
-How is everything?
-It's good. I'm good.
She moves her gaze around as she says it and I feel like I'm making her uncomfortable. I hope she knows I'm not judging her, or pitying her. I just hope she has happiness in her life.
-Do you know COPERMA? They have an office near here.
-Yeah, I do know COPERMA.
Her eyes focus a little and compete with her dress for a brief moment.
-Well, I work with them. If you ever need anything, go there and ask for me and I'll see if I can help.
-Okay. I will.
I want to do more but I don't even know where to start.
She effortlessly slides her hand from mine and disappears into the darkness of one of the bathrooms. I stay and chat with Chester and Baloti about nothing at all for another 40 minutes or so. Tatu resurfaces in the gazebo and sways around throwing metallic lights around the room. When I get home the next day I check my e-mail and see the picture. The woman is helpless; her eyes are open but she's no longer behind them. Only the cruelty of the jealous boyfriends who killed her is present, it soaks the photo. I realize that Baloti wasn't right and neither was I; seeing only takes me farther away from understanding.