Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mai-Mai General

          I wake up to rapping on my door and Dusan’s morning voice yelling “Baby!  Is timing to working!”  When I gather myself and step outside into the children’s courtyard, Dusan is already puffing on a menthol cigarette.  The Muhanga compound is arranged like an F, with the main living quarters for Conchetta, Giovanni, and their V.I.P. guests located in the bottom and back part of the letter; the longest line.  Between the bottom stick and the first horizontal, is a courtyard reserved for children.  Even though Dusan’s knocking officially woke me up, every day in Muhanga begins with the six a.m. shrieks of happy children outside the window.
          Maman Conchetta is a kind but feisty Italian woman who has lived alongside Father Giovanni for about 40 years.  Father Giovanni is a Catholic priest, Conchetta is simply a woman who wanted a certain kind of life.  She and Dusan have a never-ending battle of miscommunications.  Dusan’s sometimes gruff demeanor and Conchetta’s solid refusal to take crap from anyone, make them constantly at odds.
    -We must to take breakfast, if there is some food, with Colonel Safari and then to waiting the General, Dusan says when I emerge into the sunlight.
          We walk across the children’s courtyard to a small brick building where NGO workers and the UN eat when they visit Muhanga.  Inside there is espresso and a strange coos-coos concoction, supposedly left out from the night before.  I greet Safari and pour espresso for each of us.  Nobody touches the concoction.
    -Bonjour Aime!  Exclaims Safari.
          I greet him and we tap foreheads three times in keeping with custom.  Safari and I have met several times, the first being when he was in hiding near Goma.  Safari had agreed demobilize through the United Nations, but for some political and military games, he ended up returning to the bush.  Safari has a hard-head that looks like a bowling ball and dark eyes that are seated deep in his face.  He’s appearance is frightening at first, but when he speaks he laughs every few words and I immediately enjoyed his company.  I place the book I’m reading, Congo: Plunder and Resistance, on the table and sit next to Colonel Safari.  Safari immediately picks up the book and begins scrutinizing it.
    -I love reading, he says to me in French.  Especially when it helps me learn English. 
    -That’s great.  I love reading too.  I think reading is very important.
          He nods his head in agreement and continues silently flipping through the pages.  Dusan lights another cigarette and pours another espresso.
    -Coffee is not coffee without cigarette, he says and shrugs. 
    -Can I bring up the reason I’m here now?  I ask in English.
          I know Safari speaks some English but I don’t know how strong it is, and I’m sure if I speak quickly he won’t understand.  The problem is, that Dusan doesn’t understand either.
    -What?  Americans speaking too fast.
         I repeat the question more slowly, not really caring if Safari understands.  He clearly does, as he lifts his head from the book and looks at me expectantly.
    -Why not?  Dusan asks, and then leans back to continue with his morning routine.
    -Safari, I’m here because I was hoping to spend some more time with the Mai-Mai, so that I can understand better.  I also want to hopefully help support your soldiers by giving them education they haven’t had access to and sensitization about sexual violence.
          I continue explaining what I’m hoping, in the roundabout way I’ve learned from Dusan and nearly everyone he speaks with.  When I finish, Safari responds immediately.
    -It’s no problem, we’ll have to make sure with the General but I think it will be very good.  You know, there was a Mai-Mai who raped a girl of 18 recently.  And there were two civilians who raped women.  They were all trapped and have already been transported to jail in Beni.
          I can’t hide how incredulous I am, not because of the rapes, but because Safari is telling me about them.  Dusan prepared me for the fact that the Mai-Mai, as with any group, will be putting their best foot forward if I’m allowed to stay.  Then again, the fact that the Mai-Mai was arrested and is in jail is another version of a best foot. 
    -Yes, he continues.  I think the problem is ignorance.  Most of the men don’t have the information or the knowledge to know that it’s not okay.
    -I agree, I think education is very important.  It’s not as simple as that, of course, which I know you know.  And in order to figure out how I can help, in whatever small ways, I need to get a full image of your lives, your ideology, your everyday.
    -Yes, he says nodding enthusiastically.  It’s good to get a full picture.  What we are doing is revolutionary, and people say we are such bad people.  Maybe you can understand more and know that it is not so.  And then you can tell other people this.
          I agree emphatically to everything he says as I finish my espresso.  Even though I poured Safari some coffee, he doesn’t drink caffeine so he sips on a glass of water.  When Safari and I have finished our discussion, Dusan launches into a history of Italian politics, always connecting things to the situations in the ever changing Croatia.  He stands up for about twenty minutes pointing to different spots on a map pasted on the wall that still references the Russian Federation as the U.S.S.R.  Right when he’s really getting into it Father Giovanni walks in.
          Giovanni is a kind man with a perfectly crinkled face.  He’s lived most of his life in North Kivu.  He’s soft-spoken but direct, and lets Conchetta handle everything involving the house.  Giovanni, however, handles security.
    -You are meeting with the General today?  He asks after we finish greeting each other.
          Giovanni doesn’t speak English, so I act as translator.
    -Yes, says Dusan.  You know, they have to making very good and intelligent decisions now.  With pre-elections processes it’s very important that they are not playing the games they are normally playing and they are very careful and intelligent.
          Giovanni nods at the beat-around-the-bush words.  Giovanni brings up some names of various Officers in different groups who have been around, and rumors he has heard.  Dusan is interested in everything but can confirm nothing.  I feel like a child listening to adults, but am even more uncomfortable since they’re relying on me to communicate with each other; I can’t just listen passively and pretend not to.
          When breakfast finishes, we all disburse.  I go back to my room to read, Dusan disappears with a cigarette clinging frantically to his lips, and Giovanni disappears into the house to entertain four Italian guests.  After a few hours, Dusan raps on the door again.
    -Okay, let us go, he says with no further explanation.
          I understand Dusan-speak better than anyone in Congo, and I realize immediately that the General has arrived.  I follow Dusan around the house to the other side of the F where there is a long porch looking out on banana trees and hanging laundry, both waving nonchalantly in the wind.  Father Giovanni is already sitting in a wooden chair, Colonel Safari is standing next to him, and a man who’s short and wide is standing against the railing.  I walk straight up to the man against the railing.
    -General  LaFontaine, he whispers leaning his head towards me.  His hand is pudgy and warm.
    -It’s an honor to meet you, I whisper back not knowing why we’re whispering but feeling the importance of the meeting.  I’m Amy.
          LaFontaine leans back, still holding my hand, and emits a roar of laughter.  The crackling coals of his whisper evaporate immediately as if they never existed.  I laugh as well, though I also don’t really know why we’re laughing.  I’ve heard stories about LaFontaine’s decisive violence.  Whether or not it has been the “valid” violence of war, or cruelty I don’t know.  But it’s well-known that he’s capable of it.  I take a seat next to Giovanni, Dusan sits on my other side.  The Mai-Mai sit across from us in a row.  Two other men who are clearly Mai-Mai, join their row. 
          One of the new men is Colonel Vincent.  Vincent and I met briefly the last time I was in Muhanga.  He looks strikingly similar to comedian Dave Chappele and is quite handsome.  The whites of his eyes don’t have the same stained tint as Colonel Safari’s do.  The fourth man in the row is another Colonel I’ve never met and nothing in his features or demeanor stand out.  He’s a phantom taking up space on the bench.  I’m expecting Dusan to talk about UN business and Congo politics, but he begins immediately with me. 
    -I think it is very good for you to meeting Amy, she is doing very good work here in Congo.  Very serious girl from United States, she will explain.
          I’m speechless for a moment, shocked by the brevity of our introduction.
    -Well, I’m here in Congo working with sexual violence, but I’m not here in Muhanga to accuse anyone.  I’m trying to understand other perspectives and hopefully I can find a way that I can also help the Mai-Mai.  I’d like to understand how the Mai-Mai live and what they think about, really everything.  And then I’d like to show them some information and some films that can help with basic education and sensitization.
    -So, General Lafontaine responds laughing inexplicably again.  Will they get a diplomat of some sort if they speak to you?  After they see your films and read your material will they graduate and have a certificate?
          I’m thrown off by the question but quickly try to recover.
    -Well, no.  I don’t work for the government, or anything like that, so I can’t give Congolese certificates or diplomas. 
    -Who do you work for?  LaFontaine asks.  He’s not laughing anymore.
    -I’m kind of an independent here, working with sexual violence.     
        Dusan understand the basic French in the sentenceand shoots me a look.
    -I’m also attached to DDR/RR and the UN, I add quickly.
    -You are from the United States, LaFontaine says putting his elbows on his knees and staring directly at me.  You know, when we are raped in Congo it is the U.S. that is raping us.  It is the U.S. and Rwanda who are raping the Congo.  So maybe you should start with your own country.
          Again, I’m thrown off balance.  He makes a good point.
    -Yes, I agree, I respond.  I understand the U.S. is heavily involved and Rwanda as well.  But my work is more on an individual basis and in areas that have less access to information and support.
          Thankfully, Dusan cuts in.  He seems to have understood the dialogue is moving towards discussion or argument.  He starts explaining the “situation,” still equivocating and not actually asserting or denying anything.  The elections are coming and things will be bad, everyone must to be careful, etc.  He actually says, “I can’t confirming or denying anything,” several times.  Maybe there is some esoteric meaning in the words, though I doubt it.  Again, I am a child, nervous about participating but employed to transfer the meanings of their words.  I translate.
         Giovanni sits quietly next to me.  He insists on being present when meetings are held in his parish, but he just listens.  Giovanni is perpetually caught in the middle of a real life game of tug-of-war.  He has to play the game, or at least monitor, otherwise he’ll be trampled after ever game. 
          Soon after Dusan begins talking business, his team members, Jay and Kensey, arrive.  They pick up the job of translating.  I’ve heard most of the information before so I mostly tune out the conversation and study the General.  Despite his power and status as a rebel, the General makes me think of Santa Clause.  He has a round belly and face with soft eyes and a smile like a fireplace in winter.  As I watch him, the General stares directly at me and speaks in Swahili.
    -Yes, I respond in Kinande as a sort of joking way of indicating I don’t understand.
    -Did you understand, asks Jay.
    -No, I say laughing.
    -He says he is fine with what Dusan is saying but you, Jay raises a finger and points it at me.  He says you could infiltrate them from here because probably you are FBI.
          I laugh but the General clearly isn’t joking. 
    -Okay, with this maybe you should leave, says Dusan.
    -I’m not FBI, I say in French, but I will leave.
          I stand up and bow slightly to the General and the other Mai-Mai, then walk off the porch cussing to myself.  On the other side of the F, in the children’s compound I pull out a cigarette I’ve been avoiding.  Kensey quickly joins me.
    -He thinks I’m FBI, now they’ll never let me stay, I say.
    -It is because you are saying you are Independent, he responds laughing.  There were people here a while ago saying Independent and they were investigators from America.  Did you tell him you’re American?
    -Dusan did, I say after thinking for a moment.
          He throws his hands in the air and laughs.
    -Now you’re FBI!
    -No!  That’s not good.  I’m not FBI!
          Kensey keeps laughing and I can’t help but join him.  I like to think I’m relatively hardened and capable, but apparently even if someone tries to steal my phone and I skin my knee I’m going to cry about it.  If the FBI were in Muhanga they’d be laughing with us.  Kensey goes back around to join the conversation, but I’ve been condemned as a spy so I sit in a wicker chair and watch the kids.  A little girl comes up to me and places herself on my lap. 
          One great thing about Muhanga is that the children are all accustomed to muzungus, though not just any muzungus.  The internationals who thread through Muhanga stay for a month and go home.  They don’t drive around in locked Land Rovers and aren’t fatigued by the constant presence of children, they relish it.  Whether or not Big Brother in Congo is watching, the children always are; typically between eight and 40 of them.  After a month the many eyes staring at you become heavy and exhausting.  Mostly, the kids just watch and often cry if a muzungu gets too close; but in Muhanga they’re not afraid and it’s nice to be able to interact with them rather than simply exist as a perpetually entertaining alien.
    -Are you okay?
          I look up and see Colonel Safari standing next to me.
   -Yes, I’m fine, thank you, I say once again confused.
    -I hope you’re not uncomfortable, he continues.  The General can’t trust anyone, you must understand that.  He doesn’t mean to offend you.  It’s like me when I first met you.  Trust is always a process, but he’ll get to know you.
    -No, I’m not offended at all, I say.  I completely understand.
          The fact that Safari is worried that I’m hurt by my excommunication from the group clearly signifies that he, at least, doesn’t think I’m a spy.
    -Don’t worry, I’ll speak to him and explain more, he says.
          He pats the little girl sitting with me on the head and then walks off with a wink.

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