-Welcome back! Everyone yells in unison when I walk into the COPERMA office.
Hangie, Urbain, Maman Helen, and Jean-Marie are all sitting around a pile of papers discussing something. The excitement in their faces makes me happy to be home. Dusan is on leave, and I’m exhausted from so much traveling. I’m excited to be back with the team and start a new project.
-You’ve been gone so long, Hangie says accusingly as everyone shakes my hand.
I can always see the inkling to lean in for the three head-taps, but I never was able to get used to that. To me, it feels like we’re leaning in for an eskimo kiss. It’s interesting that hugging is considered too intimate in Nande culture, but I’m completely uncomfortable pressing my forehead into someone else’s three times.
-I know, but now I’m staying in Butembo for a while. I’m tired from traveling and I miss COPERMA. Is Maman Marie here?
-She’s in the office, Urbain says still smiling.
I spin around and knock on the wooden door to her little concrete office. When I enter, Maman Marie responds with similar enthusiasm, though there’s a wooden desk between us so she doesn’t even try to tap my forehead.
-How’s the work going? I ask and take a seat.
-It’s good, it’s good.
Then I remember the message Hangie sent me a few weeks ago.
-Maman Marie, your father passed away, I add. I’m so sorry. Mes condoleances, vraiment.
Maman Marie nods perfunctorily but emotion floods her face.
-Yes, you remember he had one leg already amputated. Well, the gangrene spread to his other leg. We took him to the hospital and the Doctors did everything they could for him. They amputated part of his good leg, but he was truly sick, Amy. And then he passed. I guess, everyone has their time to die.
I met Simone Nzoli once, during a visit to Maman Marie’s house. He was a skinny man with a wide smile and glasses that made him look like a bug. He told me about how important it was for him to educate his children, both the boys and the girls. Simone was a teacher his entire life; education was the most important thing in life, he told me.
-I’m very truly sorry, Maman Marie.
We both stare at the desk in silence for a moment before she starts up enthusiastically.
-Victorine is better! She exclaims. You know, the woman who had the badly broken arm. She underwent the surgery and she recovered in the hospital and at my house. I even passed the night next to her in the hospital.
She shook with laughter.
-I was truly her guardian.
-Merci, that’s wonderful. Can she use her hand at all?
-Yes, she has started using it slowly and she is able to cultivate again.
-How much did the surgery cost?
-500 dollars. The United Nations was supposed to provide the free transport to the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma where it would have been free. But they were taking so long after we had all of the paperwork, and her arm was getting much worse. It hurt her very bad so I decided to pay for the surgery, and get it done immediately so she wouldn’t lose the arm.
-I’m glad you did that. That’s really frustrating that the U.N. didn’t follow through.
-It was 500 dollars, Maman Marie adds. But now she is healing. When she arrived she even weighed only 30 kg (approx. 66 lbs). But she ate well when she was staying with me and in six weeks she moved up to 40 kg (approx. 88 lbs). Now she has become so pretty.
I add some more positive exclamations before Maman Marie continues.
-There were 14 new cases of rape just past Isale.
-By the FaRDC?
-No, we think it was ADF-NALU.
The ADF-NALU is a phantom-like rebel group from Uganda. There are rumors about how well they’re trained, and how dangerous they are, yet they’re extremely hard to pin down. They reportedly have a fairly high presence in this area, yet I’ve never seen one.
-Why do you think it was the ADF?
-Because the survivors all said that the men were speaking a language that was not one of our own.
Language is typically the best, though still inefficient, way of attempting to identify perpetrators of rape. Lingala indicates FaRDC; Kinande- Mayi-Mayi or civilian; Unknown sounds- ADF-NALU.
-One woman, who came in with Victorine has persistent infections on her body. We told her to separate from her husband while we discover if she has HIV/AIDS.
-Did she take an HIV test? I ask.
-Yes, she took two we are waiting for the third one. The first test was positive and the second test was negative.
-That’s strange, I respond.
-Yes, very. That’s why I say it is suspect for HIV/AIDS.
We sit in silence again for a moment.
-Maman Marie, I say suddenly. I have a new personal side-project. I’m still going to try to work with the Mayi Mayi and maybe the FDLR, but I’ve realized they can’t give me the perspectives I’m looking for, and that I don’t currently have the funding or man-power necessary to institute an effective sensitization program. Also, HEAL Africa is currently working with the Mayi-Mayi, which is wonderful. I’m most interested understanding the mechanisms behind perpetration of rape, so I want to get permission from the Mayor to speak to accused rapists in the prisons here.
-There is one rapist whom we trapped in Maseni who is in the prison here. And the rapist from Vutondi whom I saw and trapped myself.
-Yes, I’d like to hear what they have to say.
-Okay, you can go to the Mayor’s office tomorrow with some food to bring to the prisoners. That will help you gain access. And many people are dying.
-In the prisons, from starvation. They are not fed there and if nobody brings them food then they starve quickly, and then become sick, and they are taken to the hospital too late and so they die.
A non-selective death penalty.
-Is it okay if Urbain goes with me? I’m not sure how the Mayor conducts business, and the prisoners probably won’t speak French.
-Of course, she exclaims laughing. Oh, and there is a lot of killing between here and Beni.
-Really? I say tilting my head in disbelief.
I just drove the Beni-Butembo road and it was all sunshine and prancing goats.
-You can ask even the driver, she says. We were driving back from Beni and there were bandits on the road that stopped us.
At that moment the driver, who I’ve never met before, walks in. He must have heard her mention him.
-Tell her, Paluku, she says and nods to him.
-Because of the elections, I think there are more bandits now, he says nervously. The bandits who stopped our car stole everything from our passengers.
-We hid our phones though, Maman Marie chimes in with a smile.
-Well done, I mutter and then look back to the chubby little driver.
-I think the bandits were put there by Mbusa Nyamwisi, the driver continues. He’s running against Kabila for the Presidency. The bandits said, why did you vote for Kabila in the last election? You are the reason we are suffering so much because you voted for Kabila. You are forbidden from voting for Kabila, if you vote for him this is what will happen. You must vote for Mbusa. That’s when they made everyone take off even their shoes and the stole everything.
-Except our phones! Maman Marie chimes again.
-When did this happen? I ask.
Maman Marie waves the driver out.
-About two weeks ago, I think on…. September 18th.
-Did they hurt anyone?
-Not in our car, but the car behind us one woman was shot. She died. The driver wasn’t going to stop for the barrier so the bandits shot at the car and a woman was hit and killed.
-And you watched this happen?
-Yes, it happened just behind us.
-Oh my God, that’s all horrible.
We finish going through our update and I hand some more donated funds to Hangie. It’s raining, so I stand outside for a while, joking with Urbain about his fear of the prisons, and explaining the concept of bungee jumping. As we all giggle with each other, I realize how much Maman Marie’s experience elucidates about the upcoming elections. If Mbusa whomever really did station bandits on the road to intimidate people, he clearly isn’t a hopeful option for progress. I would have expected that type of force and intimidation from Kabila, not from an underdog. The story is sad because of the woman who needlessly lost her life, and it’s extremely disheartening, because it shows that this country probably won’t be going forward or upward anytime soon.