Sunday morning I’m rocked into the world by the smooth sounds of an Italian symphony orchestra. I can’t separate myself from dreaming for a while; the sounds of string harmonies tie my dreams to reality and the two worlds are able to communicate with the music acting as translator. I wake up when a male’s voice becomes another layer over the smooth water sounds of the strings and I realize that the music is in fact real. On Sunday mornings, Conchetta and Father Giovani play opera music or soft symphonies from large black loud-speakers. Starting at 6 a.m., the music floats over the village to help ease everyone through the transition from dreaming to life.
In the dining room, most everyone is already awake. A thermos of golden espresso is waiting alongside the remaining Kit-Kats, some handmade cheese, and gradually aging bread.
-Chief, says Dusan walking in from the front porch. Good morning.
-Good morning, I respond as I pour Conchetta’s magical, smooth black coffee into a mug.
There is nothing like fresh Italian espresso in the morning in the middle of Congo.
-Are C—and the others already setting up? I ask.
-I don’t know. I am thinking yes but I cannot think too early in the morning. You know this.
C—and his team are going to have a photo shoot in front of a green screen all day.
-I think I’m going to go check out the church for a little, I say.
I finish my coffee and then walk down the dirt road to a small brick building with colorfully dressed people covering the grass outside. I sit down next to an elderly woman who smiles at me. Nobody can hear anything that’s happening inside the church, yet everyone is sitting quietly as if receiving their own private mass and I’m the only one who can’t hear it.
-Maman ,says the woman turning to me. Give me money.
The woman puts the back of her left hand in the palm of her right and slides her fingers towards me repeatedly. It’s a common gesture and one that’s necessary to ignore unless I want to go broke or murder someone.
-No, I’m sorry, I say in French.
I stand up and leave the church, since I’m not included in the sermon anyway. Back at the house the music is still blasting but it has switched from soft symphony to children’s music. In front of my room there are about 20 children dancing around to the music. It’s quickly apparent which song is their favorite, and I think Conchetta must be watching since the song plays three times more often than the others. As soon as the first notes start to play all of the kids jump into action; right hand to forehead and left hand to back, then switch, shake booty and shuffle around. They look like rhythmic, and happy little worms.
In the jungle the miiiiighty jungle, the liooon sleeps toniiiight. In the jungle the mighty jungle the lion sleeps toniiiiiight.
During the chorus all of the children start howling along with the song. I let one of them show me how to do the hand-to-forehead-rump-and-shake-then-switch dance and all of the kids laugh but keep dancing.
Hush my darling, be still my darling the lion sleeps tonight.
I look past the little crowd of laughter and movement and notice someone leaning against a banana tree on the far right side of the compound. He is wearing army green, black boots, and has an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He’s leaning with one arm up against the banana tree, watching the children without seeming to really see them. I look on the other side of the compound and notice another AK-47 in green. The children either haven’t noticed or simply don’t care.
-The Mai-Mai have started to arrive, says Aubrey walking up from behind me.
-Yes, I was just noticing. Are you guys ready to get started?
-Almost. I think C—still has some stuff to do.
-Has he already set up the photo area?
-He’s working on it right now on the porch.
I say good bye to the kids with a quick worm gyration and walk around the house where there is a fairly large wooden porch jutting off of the house. C—has spread a green cloth on the far end of the porch and is arranging different sized lights that look like fancy umbrellas. I look towards the church and notice people starting to flow out.
-It looks like church is finished C---.
-Okay, thanks, I’m almost ready. Nelson and Aubrey will be selecting people as they come out.
C—has a cigarette hanging from his lips that wobbles as he speaks. Within only a few minutes the grass area around the porch is cluttered with human beings. As the number of people increases, so does the number of Mai-Mai. They stand mostly in a clump around the two Colonels who are sitting in wicker chairs. A few stick their fingers in the monkey cage, with their machine guns swinging in the air behind them. A young guy with short braids and colorful beads throughout is carrying a large rocket-propelled grenaden(RPG). Except for the Colonels, all of the young men are carrying at least one weapon.
I smile at the braided young man carrying the RPG and he nods at me and smiles back. Two of the young men carrying AK-47s turn and laugh at each other as one of the monkeys in the cage munches on some green weeds. Even though their carelessly held weapons often point at my chest and face, I feel completely at ease with them. I realize now why seeing the boys the other day seemed so normal; because they are normal. Army clothes and deadly weapons don’t make a boy a man or a monster. They are people, and once again, all of my preconceived judgments and ideas about things in Congo deflate completely. No, there shouldn’t be boys taught to kill but the reality of everything is much more complex than a simple right or wrong judgment.
C—invites some of the Mai-Mai onto the porch and begins arranging them; he molds their weapons and body positions as the villagers look on.
-There are two FDLR here, mutters Jay from behind Dusan.
He says it quietly and makes sure not to move his lips.
FDLR are a Rwandan rebel group that originated after the Rwandan genocide. They are composed primarily of ex-genocidaires and Rwandan refugees.
-Don’t look, he barks as Dusan begins to turn around.
-There is one next to the empty chair behind me, and one by the monkey cage, Jay continues as if practicing ventriloquism.
Everybody within hearing distance slowly scratches their cheek with their shoulder or stretches inconspicuously. The two men Jay is referencing look exactly like the other armed men in the yard.
-How can you tell? I ask.
-FDLR always carry two weapons. And I spoke with them and if you talk to someone you can know immediately.
-Why are they here? Is that a problem?
-No, it is not problem. Colonel S. invited them. FDLR gave warning that if we extracted anyone they would retaliate. Colonel S. told them to send people to make sure that we are not doing anything funny just taking pictures.
-Small chief, says Dusan. I think you must to arrange the things with Colonel S. for your dick-cutting project.
-Okay, I’m ready, I say.
Dusan motions to Colonel S. who quickly walks over to me. We step off the porch and walk a few feet away from the crowd.
-So, I was thinking I can just talk to your guys as they finish taking their pictures, I say in French.
-Okay. That sounds like a good idea, he says.
-Also, you told me you wanted me to speak with the head of some civilian council, correct?
-Yes, the Mwami-King. I think it is important you speak with him. The civilians need to be educated as well and they often are doing this raping and blaming it on Mai-Mai. The Mwami, for example, he will take a wife as young as this girl. He will take several wives of that age.
Colonel S. points to a little girl of about five years old hugging my leg.
-Really? I didn’t know that.
-Yes. It’s not good. You need to speak also with them so that they can know that this is not okay.
-Okay, I’m not sure when we’ll be able to but I will make-sure to make that part of my plan.
I’m also not sure how I’m going to combat culturally ingrained values and convince a village King that he shouldn’t marry a five year old. We finish speaking and Colonel S. walks onto the porch where he is similarly molded and posed. I grab my pamphlets. There are three pages, two with basic information about various sexually transmitted infections/HIV/AIDS and the Geneva Conventions. One page has an image of a very ill man and an image of infected genitalia. As these men have been living in the bush with almost no access to anything, the information I’m giving is basic but most likely new. It’s a bit crude, but still informative and just the beginning.
I walk over to the monkey cage when C—finishes taking their pictures. Rather than just one at a time coming, all 14 of the Mayi-Mayi and both of the FDLR soldiers follow me. Jay has agreed to translate for me and he and I stand in the middle of a messy half-circle. I hand out the papers to each person, and every individual reaches forward eagerly. One of the FDLR rebels reaches over the shoulder of a Mai-Mai a bit over-zealously and knocks the Mai-Mai guy forward a little. Neither seems to notice.
-Hello, my name is Amy, I begin. I’m here to talk to you about sexual violence, but also to just give you information related to this. I know that many times you are accused for things that you do not do, and by speaking with me you can show to others that you are not the ones doing this and that you want to suppress this type of behavior.
Jay translates and the rebels all watch me silently.
-This information is just basic information about sexually transmitted infections as well as the Geneva conventions, to show you what the consequences can be from sexual violence, on the part of the man.
One of the soldiers says something in rapid Swahili.
-He says they are not allowed to do this raping thing.
-Yes, I know this. I am not saying they are doing this or not, I’m simply trying to give them information about it. And I know that the purpose of Mai-Mai is to protect the communities. So if you will be open to working with me more, you can not only show that it is not you who are doing these things, but you can even become like teachers in your communities. That way if you know civilians who are confused about this or thinking it is okay to rape, then you can act as teachers and show them that it is very bad to rape. And as Mayi-Mayi, you are particularly good for this because women are such an important part of the community and you can further help protect your communities by learning about this and teaching others that sexual violence is very bad.
I speak some more about the information on the papers and the Mai-Mai stand patiently, listening and looking at the pages.
-I look forward to working with you more in the future, and thank you for speaking with me today.
I nod at them and smile and Jay and I turn to walk away.
-Merci, I hear several voices say behind me.
I’m exhilarated. They listened, they were interested. They even said thank you. And I have the go-ahead to keep working with them, which was the primary purpose of this initial visit. And even FDLR elements now have some of the papers and will no doubt bring them back to their camps. The papers do not accuse anyone, they simply include information. Education is a tool, and hopefully I’ll soon be standing in a crowd of FDLR with a Mai-Mai monitor or two.
The rest of the day consists of posing. The Mai-Mai, FDLR, and villagers all watch with the same interest and amusement. I’m even asked to step in for a few photos wearing head to toe African pagne. After a few hours the Mai-Mai’s patience is clearly starting to run out and Dusan has to inform C—that they need to leave. C— waves them off and keeps taking pictures of the villagers. He asks each one what their dreams are: a radio, cars, an education, a husband, hair like a muzungu girl, an angel as a wife. For dinner we eat Mediterranean salad complete with a type of coos-coos and olives.
Of all of the things I imagined about the bush, not one single thing was correct.