Urbain and I go to the procureur’s office at the allotted time. The procurer is sort of like the head, and only, prosecutor (and in many ways judge), in Butembo. He’s in charge of the civilian prisons and his is the permission we need to obtain. Luckily, he and I have chatted several times at a hotel where I often use internet. Unluckily, I often cross the line with him by criticizing the impunity in Congo in over generalized ways. We seem to have still retained a sort of friendship though.
When Urbain and I arrive, the procureur is not there, so we take a seat on a wooden bench outside of the thatched mud police station next to the procureur’s office. Only a few minutes later, an elderly man with all the markings of a fou—mentally ill person, walks up. Fou technically means crazy, which I originally thought was disrespectful and ignorant. But I’ve come to realize it’s more of a term of excuse and kindness. It’s a way of saying, without knowing details, that a person may act a little strange. And society reacts with forgiveness and patience, rather than ridicule as I’d first expected.
The man points to me and says something in Swahili. I look to Urbain but he bursts out laughing and it takes a moment before he can translate.
-He says you were well birthed, Urbain translates still laughing.
-Asante, I say to the man and bow my head a little.
The man then launches into a happy litany in Swahili. His face is perfectly crinkled with age and although his smile is missing a few pieces, the crow's feet around his eyes fill in the blanks.
-He’s explaining to you that in Congo people farm. He thinks that where white people come from there is no farming.
I smile at the common misconception and the man nods at me and wanders off.
-Do you have pigs in the States? Urbain asks.
-Yes, of course we have pigs.
I love shocking Urbain and I get an idea.
-We actually have some pigs, I say, that were bred so they got smaller and smaller and smaller until they’re only the size of a cat. They cost about 10,000 dollars.
Urbain looks at me in disbelief then laughs.
-Why? He asks.
-Because really rich people want them as pets. To be kept like cats. Animal friends.
Urbain doubles over with laughter.
-What phenomenon is this? He exclaims. Pigs should be kept for meat to eat or to sell to make money for food and living. They pay thousands of dollars for a pig to keep like a cat?
I nod at him through my laughter.
-What could one possibly gain from that? He asks.
A blue clad police officer wakes up from a nap inside the office behind us. He moves as if he received orders in his dreams, and goes to a locked holding cell next to our bench. He opens it and two young boys walk out, both barefoot. Neither are in handcuffs. A heavy, middle-aged woman walks to our bench and sits down. The old fou notices that both Urbain and I are watching the two boys; he ambles back over to us.
-He wants to know, Urbain says, what the punishment is in your country for a woman who kills her own baby. This woman is here for that.
Urbain points into the open mud room behind us at a timid looking young girl.
-Do you mean after the baby is born she killed it?
-The woman was pregnant and then she wasn’t anymore. The community accused her and said she had killed the baby. She says she was never pregnant at all.
-If she were pregnant, how could they know it wasn’t a miscarriage?
-They can tell at the hospital,Urbain continues. There’s a pill women can take here that immediately ends the pregnancy. Even if the baby has been eight months in the womb.
This information is all too difficult for me to break down. I can’t imagine such a pill, and even if the girl had aborted the baby, medicine and obstetrics in Congo are so basic I can’t imagine they’d be able to separate miscarriage from abortion. There's definitely a reasonable doubt in her case; several, in fact. It’s a horrifying thought, if a village can call a miscarriage an abortion and put a woman in prison.
The old man starts rambling again. Three or four police officers move in and out of the mud office, mostly taking turns napping or chatting with the old man. Although he talks constantly, most of what he's rambling about seems to be making sense. AK-47s swing in the air like metal monkeys; the men pay no attention to where the barrels point. Someone sneezes from the mud office and I say my nonsensical translation of “bless you.” Urbain looks at me, as if waiting for me to continue. I remember that there is no blessing or wish of health given after a sneeze in Congo.
-In the U.S. it’s very important to wish someone good health after they sneeze, I say. If you don’t, it opens up an opportunity in the world for evil spirits to get through.
-Oh, Urbain says nodding his head.
-The evil spirits are little men, this big.
I lean over and hold my palm about 4 inches off the ground.
-Sorcerer children, he responds knowingly.
-No, full grown men but tiny men with evil faces and smiles.
-Is that real? He asks and pushes me in the arm.
-Yes, in English they’re called Leprechauns. At the end of a rainbow there is a large pot of gold and the leprechauns guard it. But if someone sneezes they leave their posts and come to kill the person in their sleep.
-Is that really real? Urbain asks. He laughs but he sounds nervous.
-No, I say and burst into laughter. It’s a story for children.
He punches me in the arm and we both crack up for several minutes. I forgot how fun it is working with Urbain. The old man has been listening to my story and he picks up where I left off.
-The man says that at the end of the rainbow there is a right side and a left side. On both sides, where the colored light reaches the ground there is a field of sheep. He says he’s seen it before.
-Wow, that’s much better than evil leprechauns, I tell the man.
The heavy set woman who sat down next to us begins speaking rapidly to Urbain. By the immediacy of how she began speaking, I know she’s explaining her situation in the hopes that the immeasurable wealth speciously conveyed by my white skin will be able to help her. I brace myself to wish I could help her, and then know that I can’t.
-A man burned down her house while she was out of town, Urbain translates. She and her husband are both handicapped. He had both of his legs amputated and she has problems in her knees. Some people started saying that she’s a sorcerer and with no proof a man burned down her house.
-I’m so sorry, I say to the woman.
She switches into French.
-The man is here, they arrested him. But we lost everything. The clothes I’m wearing were given by a friend and we are staying in the house of a friend. We have nothing left.
-What did the man who burnt down the house say? He should have to pay you back for the damage he caused.
-He asked for pardon. He said he drank a lot of liquor and smoked chanvre.
I consider mentioning again that the perpetrator of the crime should have to pay, but I highly doubt that’s even a possibility in Butembo. Even if the man miraculously had money, I don’t think there’s a civil court.
-If you give peanuts to children to be nice, says the old man now speaking in French, and the child goes home and says, ‘my stomach hurts,’ and then he dies. You will be the responsible one and you will be accused as a sorcerer.
The woman accused of sorcery nods her head saddly as the old man speaks. The two boys who were led out of the holding room return, still barefoot and uncuffed. Rather than going back to the holding room, which is locked, the enter the little office and sit down. Urbain turns around and starts talking to them. Both of them have baby faces and can’t be older than 17.
-Are they not wearing handcuffs because of the guns? I ask.
-Yes, Urbian says nodding. The police here kill very easily. If they think you are going to run they will shoot you on the spot without any problem.
-Do you know why those boys are here? I ask, since everyone is conversing on and off but the Kinande leaves me as the only uninvited party.
-This boy got really drunk last night, he says pointing to the taller, skinnier, and more tired looking of the two boys. And this morning his parents brought him to the police to discipline the boy.
-Oof, that’s unfortunate, I mumble. Strict parents.
-This boy is here for the accusation of rape.
I turn around and look at the boy fully. He looks nervous and sad. His skin is smooth and he has the face of a 6 year old on the body of an adolescent.
-Did he do it? I ask.
-He says no, he didn’t do it.
The boy launches into an explanation from the bench; neither of the armed police officers seems to notice or care.
-The girl was 17, he is 16. He spoke to the girl and they hung out during the evening. The girl went home later than normal and so when the boy arrived at home his uncle said, ‘you raped her.’
-Did the girl accuse him of raping her?
-No, he says she went back to her village immediately in the morning so she can’t even be asked to say if he did or did not rape her.
I’ve always known a primary problem in Congo is impunity. Criminals are almost never caught or incarcerated. And although I don’t necessarily believe the boy, I suddenly realize how devastating it can also be if it goes in the other direction.
One of the unidentifiable police officers walks to the holding room, with a long brown rope in his hands. He opens the door and one man steps out. The officer ties the rope around the man’s wrists and then motions into the invisible room for the next person. After 10 minutes, the man has a circle of 8 men, including the two original boys. All of them are barefoot. As they stumble away up a dirt path one of the men yells to me.
-When I fracture a bone, will you bring pomade and medicine to help me heal?
-That's a weird question. Why would he ask that if he’s not fractured yet? I ask Urbain.
-He knows he will be injured in the prison, he has been in the prison before. They were saying he escaped with all the prisoners in one of the smaller prisons here when the guard was drunk. That man's the only one they've caught so far.
Another police officer leaves the office with the young girl who has a potentially aborted or naturally halted, but missing fetus. They don’t tie ropes around her wrist, but the officer clings to his weapon as they follow the men up the path.
-She’s going to prison for 5 years, Urbain says.
I watch her disappear up the hill.
-That’s so sad, is the only thing I can think to say.
We sit in silence for a while. Shortly after the new prisoners leave, the procureur arrives. He is a startlingly handsome man, always dressed in perfectly pressed suits. He’s impossible to read, always seeming discontent and then recounting a story that makes him laugh at the end. His voice is low and scratchy, as if he’s been a smoker for years, but he insists he doesn't smoke.
In his office he explains that rape in Congo wasn’t a big problem before. The problem only really escalated because of the wars. He gives us permission to speak and work with willing prisoners. I’m excited to start working but can’t even begin dissecting the brief interactions we had while waiting. This is going to be a much more complicated world of problems than I’d expected. But what else could ever be the case in Congo?