COPERMA has long since focused on the psychosocial aspects of helping survivors of sexual violence and all victims of the war, but Maman Marie has been dreaming of opening a Centre d’Ecoute—listening center—for counseling services in the villages and her dream has finally come true. With Congolese psychologists Jean-Paul and Papa Lemba working as volunteers as often as they can, COPERMA is now opening a very basic, but consistent counseling center in Kavingu.
Jean-Paul, Maman Marie, a new driver, and I all get into the rickety COPERMA truck, with a generator in the trunk, a few liters of fuel, and a mini-DVD player. As we bounce out of Butembo, they all begin chattering away in Kinande and I settle in to watch the country side pass by. Today is surprisingly warm and bright, the usual fog that paints the brilliant greens and browns a faint grey has fled. The fog makes this country ethereal, but without it the colors are crisp and just as inspiring.
I hear the word election in French and tune into the conversation. I don’t know what aspect of the elections they’re talking about but I insert myself anyway.
-Do you think they’ll postpone the elections? I ask the car in general.
The media indicates that voting supplies from Belgium won’t make it to Congo by the 28th, but the word on the street is that the elections will definitely happen on Monday.
-We don’t really know, Maman Marie responds from the front seat.
-The problem is, says Jean-Paul sitting next to me, that they found ballots that were already filled out for Kabila.
-You’d think he’d at least be subtle about it, I say.
-That’s why I’ve decided not to vote for him, Maman Marie adds, it’s not good.
-They also said, continues Jean-Paul, that there are around 500 voting centers in Kinshasa but that only 300 actually exist and the others will produce votes that weren’t made.
There are so many rumors flying around about the elections nobody really knows what’s going on or what will happen, but the Congolese people I’ve spoken to seem engaged and contemplative about the elections, despite the general belief that Kabila’s tagline—Na Rais 100% sure—will be the case no matter who they vote for.
-The other problem, says Jean-Paul, is that people want to vote in a way that won’t escalate into another full civil war, regardless of who’s politics they actually support.
-What do you think about Mbusa Nyamwisi? I ask.
Two nights prior, Mbusa brought his campaign to Butembo. Mbusa Nyamwisi is the Nande candidate, thus his welcome in Butembo was larger and warmer than that of Kabila or Tshisikedi. The main intersection in Butembo began filling with people in the morning. Candidates for delegate stood on a large wooden podium spouting their hopes and dreams for the country all day. Towards the evening, amateur acrobats attempted to entertain the crowd. When Mbusa finally arrived, around 6 p.m. thousands of people filled the streets and younger men climbed onto the rooftops and anything sturdy enough to support the weight of a man. I stood among the crowd, staring expectantly with the rest for hours at the empty podium, as if Mbusa was going to apparate without warning. A large billboard with Mbusa’s fat cat, slightly imposing image was posted on a roof behind the podium. When Nyamwisi caravan arrived, the crowd craned its neck in unison, searching for the man who was a former rebel with the RCD—Rassemblement Cnogolais pour la Democratie—a group that originally fought Laurent-Desire Kabila’s regime. As an RCD leader, Nyamwisi started a “children’s army,” with a median age of thirteen (Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, Gerard Prunier). Now he’s running for President and/or deputy. No. 8 & No. 80.
After hours of waiting, a massive man climbed onto the podium pumping his arms in the air and the crowd cheered. Then the crowd stopped cheering and started mumbling.
-Is that him? It must be him, yeah, I guess it has to be him, the people around me started muttering in Swahili.
A few moments later another man walked up pumping his arms in the air. Mbusa Nyamwisi was more than a full head shorter than the first man, but this time the crowd was sure and went wild. Mbusa spoke mostly in Kinande, despite yells from the crowd to speak in Swahili. People cheered at appropriate moments, and discussed his words amongst themselves.
-He was in charge of the Butembo-Beni territories in 2006, says Maman Marie in the car, after he dropped out of those elections. He did nothing. He doesn’t know how to run a territory, so how can he run the country?
-And Tshisikedi? I ask.
The car pauses for a moment.
-He’s old, Maman Marie says suddenly and laughs.
-He’s around 80 years old, adds Jean-Paul.
-Do you think the election is just a show?
-There are 106 deputy candidates running for only four positions in Butembo alone. Of course it’s a show.
-And for the presidency?
-It’s already arranged, responds Jean-Paul as we pull into the Kavingu center.
It’s been a few months since I’ve been to Kavingu and the center looks great. The metal and stone stove for the patisserie is not only finished but running, and a three room building for classes and training sessions that’s been in construction since I arrived, is finally finished.
-We separated everything, Maman Marie explains as she climbs out of the car. The patisserie - bread-making- is there, sewing is there, soapmaking is here, animal breeding is still there.
She points to the different buildings and doors. There are now two concrete buildings and two mud thatched buildings. I’m suddenly so happy to be here. It feels almost pointless sometimes, like spitting into the wind, but seeing how much the center has improved, how much it’s offering to a village that has almost nothing and is filled with people who’ve suffered greatly from the wars, every cent raised and every frustrating moment feels completely worth it again. Children I recognize all swarm the car, but for the first time, many of them aren’t afraid of me. They pat my hands and jump around me. When I move they don’t flinch or start to cry.
We walk into one of the rooms in the newly finished concrete building. There are already several rows of villagers waiting patiently for us to arrive. Papa Lemba is already there, seated at the front of the room and Jean-Paul joins him. The driver begins setting up the generator and Maman Marie moves immediately to the front of the classroom. There’s even a real chalkboard on the wall. I sit down next to some of the brightly colored women. The pagne in the villages are always faded and tattered but clean. The room smells of hard-work; sweet sweat balanced by the smell of fresh earth. I forgot how stunning these women are. Not just in terms of physical features; they emanate kindness and wisdom.
-Amy! Exclaims one of the women sitting down the row from me.
I look at the woman but she’s staring at Maman Marie.
-Yes, Maman Marie says and smiles at me.
I realize that Maman Marie just asked if anybody remembers my name, and the woman down the row from me did. It’s a simple, almost childish pleasure, but a woman whose beauty and strength I could never touch, remembering my name after several months makes me want to cry. My cup overfloweth. After Maman Marie finishes, Jean-Paul and Papa Lemba take up the formation session, as these are the village “listeners.” They then explain the schedule, purpose, and objectives of the listening center, and show a sensitization video on psychological illnesses.
After a few hours I go outside and play around with the children who jump around excitedly in front of my camera. Inside the thatched hut next to the outdoor ovens, there are several girl-mothers kneading bread with a young man correcting small mistakes and explaining the best methods. There is a group of men nearby using leg-sized wooden spoons to mash several vats of fufu for the small celebration after the formation. Maman Helen proudly shows me the listening center. Inside one of the concrete rooms is simply a couple chairs, a desk, a shelf for records, and a bed behind a curtain. When the session finishes, everyone sits in small circles around a large pot of fufu, a few pieces of meat in palm oil, and a small amount of lengalenga.
After we eat, while the driver is preparing the car and Maman Marie is wrapping a few things up, I take the opportunity to explore something I’ve been wondering about. I grab Jean-Marie, one of the younger COPERMA workers, and we walk up to group of three women.
-Is it alright if I ask you a question? I ask and Jean-Marie translates.
The women all nod and wait.
-Are you planning on voting in the elections?
The women all nod in agreement.
-Where is the voting booth near here?
-In Khighali, the more out-spoken woman responds in French.
-Can I ask you who you’re going to vote for?
The women don’t hesitate and respond, almost in unison, Mbusa Nyamwisi.
-Because he’s Nande like us, Jean-Marie translates after all three of the women respond.
A few men wander up to our group to listen.
-Do you like the current government? I ask.
One of the men listens to Jean-Marie’s translation and then steps forward and responds.
-No, because Kabila lied. He said that our children would be able to go to school for free and that has never happened.
-Does it seem like most of the village will vote? I ask.
The group has now expanded to about ten people, mostly men, and everyone nods yes.
-Do you think it will be democratic?
A weathered looking man with his hands in his pockets responds.
-He says he doesn’t know what democratic means, exactly, so he can’t say if he thinks it will be so.
-Oh, I say and hesitate. Democratic means, on a basic level, that the people choose the government. That when there is a vote, the results are respected.
-We don’t know if that will happen, the man responds.
-And how do you receive information about the candidates? The politics of Kabila, Tshisikedi, Mbusa, all of them.
-We have the papers, one of the women responds immediately.
The papers she’s referring to are posters and cards that show only a candidates image, name, and his number on the ballot.
-So you don’t know the politics of the candidates? I ask. For example, Mbusa, he is Nande but do you know what he wants to change, how he wants to lead the country?
The woman says something quickly and then walks away.
-She said no? I ask.
-She said no, Jean-Marie verifies.
-He was a rebel leader here before, says one of the men. At that moment everyone had their land and could build a house on it.
-So he was a nice rebel? I respond. He helped the people?
-There are some people, I add, who don’t think that Mbusa was capable of governing the territory.
-People who say he wasn’t good at governing say that because they are his enemies, responds the man in Kinande. Mbusa is a strong man.
The car is finally ready, so I thank everyone and we say good bye. In the car, Jean-Paul and Jean-Marie explain that another problem with the elections is that delegates utilize tribalism in order to gain the vote. The delegate who can most effectively convince the Nande, for example, that he will promote them and marginalize neighboring tribes, is often the one who wins the vote, which obviously serves to solidify rifts within the Congolese population. Additionally, Mbusa Nyamwisa is running for President and deputy, but he only hopes to win as a deputy. According to Jean-Paul, Nyamwisi is encouragin people to vote for either Tshisikedi or Kamerhe. Since Kabila changed the law to eliminate the equivalent of primary elections, Nyamwisi may be using his presidential candidacy solely as a support mechanism. Ah, democracy at its best…
As we drive away from Kavingu, I watch three of the women, standing on a small ridge with the setting sun behind them. Their patterned pagne are draped across their shoulders, giving them an elegantly regal look. It’s the kind of beauty that almost hurts to look at because no matter how long or hard you look, you can’t comprehend that it exists and at the same time can’t drink in enough of it.