Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lessons from the General

          Muhanga is an off button that I have been searching for.  The trees of the forest coating the mountains that line the village are like walls to a room.  My mind turns off and my daily activities become limited to reading, writing, and watching children play.  There is no stress and suffering is somehow hidden.  My heart and mind breathe softly in a way that makes me feel as if I was sprinting before Muhanga.  Everyone avoids the bush; it bears the brunt of stereotypes and sensationalized media, and while the Mai Mai and FDLR pass through non-chalantly, it feels calm and peaceful.
          Dusan does not feel the same way.  General Lafontaine lives in various places in the deeper bush so after our initial meeting, we have to wait two more days before he’ll resurface again.  Dusan’s potty mouth becomes increasingly dirtier as we wait.  The children are too loud, the food is too scarce, and he and Maman Conchetta continue their feud of miscommunication.  We go over the best ways for me to speak with General Lafontaine.  He has sent me permission to stay and spend time with the Mai Mai; Colonel Safari apparently convinced him that I am not a spy. 
          It’s strange to watch the two rebel groups moving through the village with their guns, rubber boots, and green digs.  They are like a dissonant chord; you notice them, but they work well within the village song.  Their presence doesn’t seem to inspire fear as the governmental soldiers do.
          By the time General Lafontaine makes his way back to Muhanga, Dusan is mentioning every other sentence that he will never return to Muhanga ever again.  He arrives towards the evening and waits for me in the NGO room across the children’s courtyard.  He greets me kindly, his smile is so bright it warms the room.  He doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone other than me.  I realize quickly it’s simply because I’m a fresh mind that he sees as ready to mold.  General Lafontain loves to talk.
          We sit in the gloaming, protected by the red bricks of the small room and surrounded by the faint light of an old bulb.   I explain more fully my work in Congo and my ideas about the Mai Mai.
    -For us, this isn’t any problem, he says.  I am very happy to be able to receive you, since you are accepting to stay here for one month or several weeks.  This is an opportunity for me and my men.
          The General reaches into a black computer bag lying on the wooden table and pulls out a stack of papers and magazines.  The lesson begins.
    -Mai Mai originated from colonial times.  We have to protect our communities, if there is no FDLR and no threat menacing our population and our government works to protect the people and the land, will we have any reason to exist?
          He looks at me expectantly but I don’t’ respond.  I hate rhetorical questions.
    -No, of course not, he continues.  What will we do? 
          He pauses again, and again I refuse to respond.
    -And if you have someone who is FDLR who rapes and then flees to another village, we must chase him and punish him.  If while trying to get him we kill him and people are killed around him, are they not too victims of his crime?
          This time I can’t handle the expectant pause, so I nod in agreement. But if I think about it, I don’t fully agree.  People in war always seem to justify the entirety of their actions; the enemy is always the one to blame.  But if a man does flee to a village and while trying to capture him, the untrained, inexperienced, poorly equipped Mai Mai begin shooting in his general direction and kill several people, there is a division of responsibility there.  The General would never agree though so I just keep nodding.
    -Kabila’s mother was married to a man and who was friends with Kabila the father, Lafontaine says.
          I can tell he’s going for the political side of things, so I get my grain of salt ready.  Everything in politics is hearsay or opinion, but a Mai Mai General’s opinion is definitely one I want to hear.
    -When the man died, Kabila the father, who was President of Congo in the late 90s, took the now President, Joseph Kabila, as his son.  But both of Kabila the son’s real parents were Tutsis from Rwanda.  James Kaberebe, the Rwandese secretary of defense is President Kabila’s uncle.  So, now the problem is not who he is or where he’s from. 
          Lafontaine is practically lying on the table, he’s leaning so far forward and staring at me to make sure I’m taking everything in.  He speaks as if he’s revealing the reasons for creation, and the final plans God has for the world. 
    -Okay, President Kabila is Rwandese, he says.  Whatever, that’s fine with us.  The problem is that he himself is now menacing the Congolese people and dealing with President Kagame of Rwanda to massacre our people.
    -How do you know this stuff about Kabila’s family?  I mean, I’ve heard rumors about that but nobody seems to be sure.
    -I used to be in the government army with Kabila the son when his father Laurent Kabila was rebelling and then when he was in power.  We worked together, in the same room.  But now he is like a stranger because he is harming the Congolese people.  With the Rwandese, the problem is not who they are, it’s that when they came during World War I during a famine, we received them and accepted them into our homes.  If someone is starving you have to feed them do you not?  And then the Second World War came, and again the famine.  Again they fled to Congo and again we helped them.  So now, we accepted strangers into our country and our homes but they have turned around and decided to take up arms.  If they didn’t take up arms we would have no problem with them being in our country.  But because of that decision, the decision to fight those who took them in when they were hungry or persecuted, what else are we to do?  They are threatening our security and menacing our people.  So we must fight.  If it’s the Congolese government or strangers in our country, if they are menacing and massacring our people we must rebel.
     -Yes, I say.  I have heard a lot of things about the FaRDC—governmental troops—being the biggest problem.  When I am in the rural villages, it is all FaRDC out there, and when women and men are raped or robbed or killed, it is the governmental army.  Of course, they aren’t the only ones but the worst areas for the local population, in my experience, are the areas where the FaRDC are deployed.
    -Yes, he responds.  First, when you have an army that is supposed to be a fully integrated army, but you simply put Tutsis from Rwanda with Congolese who were always governmental military and then put them all with Mai-Mai, how will you succeed?  If they are told to attack the FDLR, what will the Rwandans who used to be FDLR think and do?  If they are told to attack Mai-Mai, or me, what will the previous Mai-Mai do?  You have Rwandans who have their own ideology, Mai-Mai with another ideology, CNDP with another ideology and they are asked to fight the same battle on the same side.  Is that going to succeed?  No, the government has failed terribly.  But how do you explain that where there are FDLR, who are strangers, there is no raping and no stealing, but in Kirumba where there are FaRDC these things happen always.  We, the Mai Mai, have lived peacefully with the FDLR even though they are our enemies.  And where the government has failed, we have succeeded, so of course they will demonize us.
    -How exactly have you succeeded?  I ask.
    -We have had meetings.  We have sat and spoken with the other rebel leaders and we have told them that it is not good to rape the people who are allowing you to stay in their homes.  They are your brothers and sisters to and it is not good to harm them.
    -And it worked, just like that?
    -No, it was a process but we have made much progress and now when there is no fighting and the FaRDC are not attacking the FDLR they live normally within the Congolese communities.  You see, here, you are safe.  You should feel safe; other muzungus who are here or who come they will be safe.  This area has many rebels but we don’t cause visitors problems.  Why would we cause them problems if they are not a threat to our people? 
         A guy with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder walks into the room.  He reaches into the back of his pants and pulls out a pistol.  The guy hands it to Lafontaine who similarly tucks it into his pants.  Lafontaine notices my eyes following the weapon change hands.
    -Don’t worry, he laughs.  It’s not for you.  If you have no gun am I going to try to kill you?  No.
          He glances at my body as if suddenly realizing he didn’t check me for guns.
    -I don’t have any weapons, I say laughing and patting my pocket less pants. 
          I laugh a little too forcefully and quickly diminish to a smile.  I feel like I’m lying, like I’m hiding a glock in my bra, even though I’m definitely not.  This is the strangest social encounter.  The General doesn’t seem to notice my awkwardness, he smiles and continues.
    -Why kill you?  If you have a gun I’m going to look at you and think, what is that person trying to do with that gun?  If you try to use it, then of course, I will defend myself.
          He opens one of the magazines lying on the table; it’s from 2002.  He quickly flips to a certain page that’s been highlighted and underlined many times.  In the article, images of Kagame and Kabila are embedded in the text and there’s a scanned image of what looks like a constitution.
    -It says here, he begins reading, that the peace agreement between Rwanda and DRC signed on the 30th of July said that Kabila would stop the acceptance and arming of Interhamwe who had fled Rwanda.  Which means that Kabila was originally arming strangers in our country, and for what? 
          Lafontaine turns the page and points to a box of text.
    -And you see, Nkunda, you know him?
    -Yes, he was the one who led the CNDP and was very violent but also said he was a Christian minister.
    -You see, Nkunda himself is Tutsi and he calls North Kivu, notre petit etas.  As if it belongs to Rwanda.  Our country is like a beautiful woman who walks by, and she will have one man looking at her as she walks.  If there is one man looking at her of course there will be another.  Then you have three or four men following her and then when she disappears what do you think they will talk about?  They’ll talk about her.  They’ll talk about her beautiful nose, her eyes, the shape of her body, the earrings she was wearing.  It is like this with Congo. 
    -You are a very beautiful woman I say.
          Lafontaine pauses and furrows his eyebrows.
    -CONGO!  Congo is a beautiful woman, I add quickly.
          He laughs, and his is the kind of laugh you want to partake in whether something is funny or not.  Joining his laughter is not difficult since I’m already so unsure of myself.  I feel like I’m trying to lay flat on a telephone wire.
    -Yes, he says.  And she has beautiful jewelry.  Diamond earrings, golden necklace, everything else.
          A wiry old man enters the room.  He’s clearly from the village.  His missing teeth and leather-like skin reveal the type of life he has lived.  Even though his body looks completely used up, he’s almost bouncing he’s so excited to see the General.  They speak in Kinande and I can pick up enough to understand the man is telling Lafontaine about a problem he had.  Lafontaine looks at the ground and shakes his head and then imparts advice to the old man. 
          I think about the image the General just made, of the Congo as a beautiful woman decorated with sparkling accents.  I remember his comment about the United States, Europe, and Rwanda raping Congo and it suddenly makes so much more sense.  The international companies that buy minerals and supplies through Rwanda or illegally through Congolese merchants have finished discussing the beautiful woman and are rapidly trying to strip her of her beauty and wealth. 
          The old man and the General speak for about ten minutes before the man leaves and LaFontaine turns back to me.
    -Maybe you can find me a muzungu wife!  He says and bursts into his typical, unexpected laughter.  Why not?  But it will be hard to find someone who will accept to marry a rebel!
    -I’ll look for you and ask around, I say laughing as well.
          A young Congolese girl walks in and quietly places several pots of food on the table.
    -And an American especially, Lafontaine adds.  I think nobody would touch me or hurt me if I married an American woman.  It would become much more political and difficult.
          I quickly steer the conversation away from marrying American women. 
    -Are you going to eat with us?
    -No, I can’t.  The villagers have prepared a meal for me and I will eat there.
    -Eating with your brothers?  I ask.
    -Yes, that’s about it.  And I need to leave soon.  I never sleep in the villages.  I never know if someone will be upset with me or some enemy will find out where I am and come to kill me.  So I sleep in the bush and I move around always.
    -A difficult life, I say.
    -Yes, a difficult life.
          Lafontaine smiles some more and then goes outside to say good bye to Dusan and the team.  He says he’ll come by again while I’m in Muhanga so we can speak some more, and I find myself wanting him to drop by not just for a political science lesson, but because he’s kind of nice to have around. 


  1. Amy!!

    First, really love the blog. As a Baptist missionary who has traveled to the Congo every year since 1999, you do a fantastic job blogging on this beautiful, painful, and often violent nation and its remarkable people.

    Wanted to highlight a new USAID grant program to help those affected by the minerals ban, Dodd-Frank, and sexual violence:

    I am not entirely sure if COPERMA falls into the grant category but thought you should check it out.

    All the best,

  2. Hi!

    I've just discovered this blog (via Nicholas D. Kristof in NY Times), and am planning to read the whole thing. Really fascinating to read about such a conflicted yet colourful country. It's relieving to read "eye-witness" observations rather than the adjusted truths of popular media.

    Keep up the good work! (Also, I love the photos, being a photo blogger myself - please keep them coming!)

    - marimari

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