When I walk into the COPERMA office, the team is inspecting bracelets hand-made by the survivors in Kavingu and discussing the elections. There are hundreds of people running for delegate. I don’t know how anyone keeps them straight or decides on whom to vote for. Almost every day in Butembo there is a different colored van blasting music that could make you deaf. One of the delegates rallied people to vote for him by placing a scantily clad woman on top of a truck and having her dance for an hour or so. Everyone seems to avoid the topic of President. Congo isn’t like Rwanda, where people are allegedly imprisoned and even killed for speaking out against Kagame’s regime, but I can still feel that the topic is delicate. I pick up a pile of bracelets and start measuring them around my wrist and checking the buttons.
-So, are you going to vote for Kabila? I ask the general room.
Everyone pauses for a second, seeming to size up everyone else in the room, then they fill the room with chatter once again.
-Yes! Exclaims Hangie. Of course I’m going to vote for Kabila.
-Really? I ask in surprise. Why?
-Because we have peace now. Amy, before, you can’t understand how bad the wars were. Now we have peace.
-But you’re entire job involves helping IDPs, survivors of sexual violence, and children orphaned by the war. That’s not exactly peace.
-It’s much better than it was before! All those times I would spend days under my bed because of the shooting. Now you don’t hear any bullets.
-But there was shooting almost every night last year. It’s only been calm for the past eight months or so, probably because the governmental army is trying to pretend they’re legitimate.
-Hangie doesn’t know what he’s saying, Urbain says from behind me. I’m not voting for Kabila.
-Neither am I, asserts Coco, one of the new members to the team.
The COPERMA office has a fairly high turn-over rate in terms of female employees. Laurentine was the third employee to leave because of marriage and a husband who wanted her at home popping out babies. Coco and Jose are the new females who took Laurentine’s place. Both Coco and Jose are very beautiful. Coco is young and petite and always wearing exquisite pagne, while Jose is a little older with a wide smile and an obviously high intelligence.
I like Coco and Jose, partly because they’re not intimidated by me. Even though I worked with Laurentine for several months and have worked with Maman Helen for over a year, both of them always giggled at me and watched me from afar as if I was going to sprout another head at any minute and start speaking in tongues. Coco and Jose treat me like I’m one of them and it’s refreshing; they give me attitude when they disagree with me and it couldn’t make me happier. It’s exhausting to constantly feel like an alien.
Despite spending lots of time with Congolese women and having many Congolese “friends,” I don’t have any close female friends. While men are able to socialize in the evenings, most women are working constantly: in the fields or market during the day, then taking care of their children at night. Only sex workers are really able to socialize. On the last night of my trip to Goma I went out dancing with the Queen Bee of the sex workers in Goma. She looks like Whitney Houston pre-crack. If I were a man who paid women for sex, I would marry Mamisa in a second. “Life is nice,” she says every thirty minutes or so in a thick Congolese accent. “And then it’s shit. So let’s dance!”
-Why aren’t you voting for Kabila? I ask Coco as she picks up another bundle of bracelets.
-Because we need a change. He doesn’t look out for the Congolese people, takes care of Rwanda and himself.
-He’s paving the roads, Hangie exclaims. And he’s using his own money to do that.
-Hangie, I say, are you serious? He only started paving the roads a few months ago and they’ll probably stop construction after the election is over. The roads have been partially paved in Kinshasa since Mobutu.
-And he’s not using his own money, Coco adds indignantly. How many teachers do you know who don’t receive their salaries promised by the government? Parents pay the school fees and the fees are sent to Kinshasa, then the teachers don’t even get paid.
-He’s probably using that money for the roads, I say smiling at Coco. That and a contract with China.
-You will all vote for Kabila, Hangie says ignoring our points.
-You can vote for Kabila, I say. Everyone can vote for whomever they choose.
Hangie starts muttering to himself. I want to say that if I were Congolese I wouldn’t vote for Kabila, but at this point I’m not sure. If he doesn’t win, there is a definite chance for another full scale civil war. Congo needs change in order to have progress but with the current infrastructure and international tug of war maybe now isn’t the time. I finish inspecting the last bundle of bracelets and sit down next to Jose. With the bracelets finished, Urbain and Coco move into another room to work on something else, leaving Hange, Jose and me alone in the front office.
-I have a question for you Maman Jose, I say.
Hangie perks up. He leans forward with a grin on his face waiting for another chance to disagree with me.
-You’re from Bukavu right? I ask.
She nods slowly and waits for more.
-Since you’re not of the Nande tribe, I was wondering if you’ve had any problems with people ostracizing you or treating you differently because of tribalism.
Jose looks nervously at Hangie, who is Nande, but he loves a good argument so he tells her he’s interested as well.
-Yes, absolutely, she says finally. When we first moved here the people at the airport caused us so many problems and wouldn’t let us register in Butembo. They made jokes about my husband and I not being Nande and it took us months to get registered even though our paperwork was in order. And then in the community, it was so hard to find a neighbor who would welcome us. Everyone stayed away from us and when my children tried to play with Nande children, my kids would come home crying because the Nande kids refused to play with them. They would say, ‘you can’t play with us, you’re Tutsis.’
-You are Tutsi, Hangie interjects playfully, but with a tinge of animosity.
Jose and I both glare at him.
-I’m not Tutsi but that doesn’t matter, Jose responds squinting at him. I told my children, it doesn’t matter if you’re Tutsi or Nande or Kinnois or Kikongo. As the bible says, God made us all in his image and it doesn’t matter what tribe you are from we are all the same as children of God.
-Well said! I say and raise a fist in the air.
Hangie starts to say something but my patience for his purely provocative input is dwindling and I keep looking at Jose, clearly cutting him out of the conversation.
-The thing about it is, Jose continues, is that children that age do not come up with those ideas on their own. Those words come from the mouths of their parents. I studied psychology and I realized that I would have to go out and show my neighbors that I wasn’t a bad person, not an animal. Little by little I began to greet them and talk to them and slowly they warmed up to me. But it is still every day that people insult me or my children.
-That’s because Nande people are very proud and very good people, Hangie says finally getting a word in. We aren’t thieves or murderers or rapists and if you are an outsider we don’t know if you will be one of those things.
-Last time I was at the prison it looked pretty full to me, I say.
Hangie glowers at me.
-I ask, I continue, because when I was in Goma I met my first ex-CNDP officer in the governmental army. He was Congolese Tutsi and when I told him that I lived in Butembo he sneered at me and started mocking the Nande people. It was the most intense tribal based hatred I’ve ever seen.
Anton, the CNDP officer, perfectly lived up to the reputation that former CNDP elements are haughty, disrespectful, and think they rule the world. Mamisa warned me about the man but before we could move away he walked up to us, placed his hand on my chest and moved it down so quickly he was groping my derrier before I could forcefully step away. I’ve now been groped in Congo by a waiter, a prostitute, a priest, and an officer in the army. Due to Anton’s power and impunity in Congo, Mamisa and I both had to sit and chat with him at his invitation, in order for us to remain safe. He seethed with animosity towards all Congolese and bossed Mamisa around like she was a dog. I intervened when I could but I also had to ward off his wandering hands without pissing him off. When he smiled there was no crescent moon shape, just an oval of teeth.
-It’s not good, Jose adds in the office. Why do we all think we can judge each other based on little differences? God is the only one with the power to judge when we die.
-We should judge each other! Hangie exclaims. It’s not only God who can judge.
-Hangie, I say shaking my head, I swear we’ve had an argument about this before when I was not on the side of God and you were arguing exactly the opposite of what you’re saying now. You never tell your honest opinion you just take the most absurd side.
Jose laughs and gives me a high-five. Hangie sits down and crosses his arms in a pout.
-It’s true you can judge me. But I’m not going to listen! I say with over-exaggerated attitude as I swagger out. Jose laughs and cheers for me.
-Bye! I say with a wave.
On my way home I run into Dusan walking down the street. The main road is blocked by a crowd of people waiting to see another candidate running for delegate.
-Hey! Where are you going? I ask, after I pull my motorcycle over.
-I’m needing to buying plane ticket for someone he says. Then I am going to Beni.
-Paperwork? I ask.
-No, he says. My friend was killed last night. He was FaRDC and they killed him because he is being to capable and competent and he is not Tutsi. He even studied in United States, and not Tutsi like this is threat in army.
-I met him briefly the first time we went to Goma, I say. I’m so sorry.
-This is how it is going, he adds staring straight ahead. They will either to say he was killed by ADF-NALU (Ugandan rebel) supporters, or to say he was supporter of ADF-NALU and traitor.
We’re both silent for a moment.
-This is beautiful, he says in a monotone voice. This is life. This is what is happening always. Beautiful.
He doesn’t look at me, he just stares ahead into the distance.