Wednesday, November 23, 2011


          Out in the sunshine, Maman Vee is talking to a United Nations observer so Urbain and I lean against the brick building with pleading arms reaching once more through the bars at us.  I hate ignoring humans but with all the requests and hellos here, I’d never get anything done if I didn’t use selective listening.  Hangie appears from behind the building and hands a box of condoms and something wooden to Urbain.
    -I brought the preservatives and the stick, Hangie says quickly.  She knows it’s a lesson now so I think she’ll let you enter.
          Hangie walks away before I get a chance to ask him what he means.
    -Do you think they’re telling the truth?  I ask Urbain about the women inside.
          Urbain looks at me uncertainly and then tells me what he thinks I want him to say rather than what he thinks.  It’s out of kindness, but no matter how well I know Nande people I still have trouble getting them to speak frankly with me.
    -Why not?  I ask.  They’re saying the girl who went to the hospital wasn’t raped.
    -That woman, he says after a few minutes, talks a lot.
    -Yeah, I sigh.  She does.
          I walk over to the outdoor court proceedings and sit down on a low bench next to one of the magistrate officials.  The judge calls out a name, someone inside the prison comes to the window, then the judge spends about five minutes pedantically dictating a letter to “Monsieur President,” mostly about the work they’re doing rather than prisoners case.  I notice that the black robe sitting next to me has three buttons on each shoulder of his robe, all of which are covered in leopard print cloth.  There’s a book on the bench between us called The Congolese Penal Code.  It’s refreshing to know they at least have one.
    -Amy, Urbain says shortly.
          I look over and see Maman Vee finishing up her meeting.  I leave the court proceedings and walk back to Urbain.
    -You can show the films today, Maman Vee says.
    -Thank you.
    -I’m leaving now so leave the films with the overseer so I can benefit from them as well.
          Maman Vee begins chatting with the prisoners.  She low fives several of them and they all talk as if they’ve been friends since high school.  Eliza opens the metal door and Urbain and I cross international borders back into Zaire.  In the outdoor living space, the television from the Kapita’s room has already been moved against the front wall and benches neatly fill the space in rows.  The benches are already almost full, with the prisoners sitting and looking patiently at the television.  The prison “secretary” leads Urbain and me to the front and I’m asked to sit on a small bench just in front of the television.  The prisoners look to Urbain, sitting calmly beneath a cat’s cradle of hanging clothes.
          I hear the generator roar to life and several telephones immediately appear.  Someone places an extension cord on the table and the phones are all plugged in.  Urbain hands the DVD to one of the prisoners, who immediately begins fiddling with the DVD player.  A couple other prisoners crouch in front of the T.V. and help.  When the film finally flashes onto the screen, Urbain stands up and translates the French into Swahili.  He goes slowly through the film, explaining gonorrhea, genital fungi, syphilis, herpes zoster, chlamydia, and SIDA—HIV/AIDS—as the prisoners crane their necks to see the images of ailing genitalia.  The screen suddenly fills with a basic drawing of fallopian tubes.
    -Eh!  I hear several people exclaim behind me.
    -It’s a vagina!  Someone yells in a serious tone and nobody laughs.
          The outdoor space is now completely full and everyone is watching Urbain and the images attentively.  Slender, the beautiful female prisoner with pink and black braids shooting off of her head comes and squeezes next to me on my tiny bench.  She leans towards the television and reads the words on the screen out loud when they appear.  Another prisoner appears behind Urbain and hands something to him as the screen is showing an painful looking case of gonorrhea.  It’s the stick Hangie mentioned.  Urbain takes the stick and without flinching holds up a smoothly carved, detailed, wooden penis.  He points to the tip of the penis, further illustrating the images on the screen.
    -Yoooo yooooh! Slender exclaims next to me with her hand over her mouth when an extremely painful looking set of genitalia flash on the screen.
          A man who looks like he has chalk smeared across his body stumbles through the crowd and sits down next to me.  I recognize him as the sleeping Shrek, the Kapita.  His face looks like Shrek’s but his body is wiry and thin.
    -Hello, he says and sticks his hand out.
          He pulls his posture into a straight line but has trouble holding himself still.  The smell of alcohol explodes from his pores; it’s so strong I wish I could scoot my little bench and Slender a few feet farther away.
    -I’m the Kpidah, he slurs and falls forward towards my face.
    -Pleasure to meet you, I say. 
          I respectfully shake his hand and lean away from him as inconspicuously as possible.  He looks up at the screen then back at me, bobbing his head on his gangly body like a bobble head doll.  He leans against my ear and tries to whisper to me.
    -We have woman here with SIDA.
          He nods over his shoulder at the pregnant prisoner and lightly slaps my face.
    -I love you, he says in a too-close-for-comfort whisper.
    -Thanks, I say and lean away again.
          I look up to Urbain pleadingly.  He’s still holding the idealistically sized wooden penis in his hand and gesticulating with it as he speaks to the crowd.  I tap his leg with my foot and he looks down at me.  He stops his translation for a minute and introduces himself to the Kapita, who swivels on the bucket he’s sitting on to talk to Urbain.  Slender elbows me in the side and starts laughing.  Urbain’s able to convince the Kapita that he wants to go back to his room just as the film is moving to prevention.
    -The best way to treat these diseases is to not get them at all so use condoms, Urbain says to the crowd.  Additionally, it’s very likely to get these illnesses if you rape.
          Someone behind me asks Urbain a question. 
    -He wants to know if white people can get AIDS, Urbain says looking down at me.
    -Yes, absolutely, I respond.
          Next to me, Slender wraps her hand around an imaginary stick and makes a very graphic motion in front of her mouth.
    -Of course they can, she says laughing and still moving the invisible stick towards and away from her open mouth.  White people are the ones who taught us to have sex like this!
   -Learn something new every day, I say to myself in English.
          Urbain hands another DVD to the prisoners.  This one is more for entertainment and creating a rapport, but it gives information on mental illnesses and accepting les fous through the medium of dance and song in Swahili.  Someone taps Urbain through the crowd and he pulls me back into the women’s cell with him.
    -I’m the nurse, says a tall thin man whom I recognize.
    -Yes, I remember, I say.
          Little Lauren is sitting on one of the floor mattresses playing with the sexual violence pamphlet I handed out.
    -I want to show you our infirmary, he responds.
          About a quarter of the women’s cell is boxed off with makeshift wooden walls.  The Nurse leads us through the wooden doorway.  In the small enclosure is a hospital bed, a cabinet with various medications, a scale, and what look like records on a small wooden table.
    -We need medication badly, says the imprisoned nurse.
    -You treat the patients yourself?  I ask.
    -Yes, I’m a nurse.  There’s a doctor who comes sometimes and she does the more complex things, but I treat things like cholera and injuries.
          A tiny little man, older and more wrinkled than time walks slowly into the wooden enclosure.
    -Why is he in here?  I ask.
          The nurse speaks kindly in Kinande to the old man.
    -Conflict of land, he translates.  His brother’s in here too but he is recovering from the diarrhea—cholera—so he is laying down.
          The nurse tells me the tiny old man is 75, but he looks 103.  The man, Alphonse, moves shakily to the hospital bed and sits down.  With great effort, he pulls up his pant leg and holds his foot forward to reveal an open cut on the bottom.
    -Why doesn’t he have any shoes?  I ask.
    -When you enter the prison you have to pay the fee.  20 dollars for protection of your life and 5 dollars for a bed.  If you can’t pay they take away your shoes to signify that you are a slave.
    -Even with a man this old?  I ask appalled.
    -Yes.  He and his brother both sleep on the ground, outside, even in the rain.  But every Monday they beat those who can’t pay 50 times.
    -Do they beat this man?  I ask almost in a panic.
          Just looking at the little elderly man makes me feel like something is pulling on my arteries, trying to separate the ventricles of my heart.
    -No, they spare the elders the beating.
    -Can I meet his brother?
    -Sure, responds the nurse and walks out.
          I start to follow him but Urbain stops me.  A few minutes later the nurse walks back in with another tiny man.  This man’s ears poke out and his face is so wrinkled he looks like Yoda with glaucoma.  The two little men both smile at me with stained teeth and so many wrinkles they don’t have to actually smile to seem like they’re smiling.  The Yoda like one, Thomas, is 78 going on 110.
    -How is your diarrhea improving?  I ask the older man.
    -He says it’s getting much better.  He only had diarrhea two times last night, translates Urbain.
          I point to a box of Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS), the simple and fast cure for cholera.
    -Make sure you keep treating him with these, I say to the nurse.  I’ll try to bring more next time.
          After the nurse swabs Alphonse’s wounded foot, the two anciens move shakily back into the main room.  At the door, Alphonse tries to lift his foot over the small wooden step but his body doesn’t fully respond and his wounded foot slams into the stair.  He almost falls, but manages to grab the wall for support just in time.
    -I can’t leave this like it is, I mutter to Urbain.  Old men like that?  I’ll pay their prison fee myself they should not be sleeping outside in the rain.
          When the film finishes Urbain and I go back outside.  On the motorcycle Urbain and I arrange for him to return with the money.  He’ll have to meet with the Secretary and emphasize that COPERMA is donating the money but the muzungu refused to help.  White people leaving money around only causes problems.  As we drive the gates open and children flood across the roads.  I look up at the sky and see a blue and white helicopter directly above us.
    -Hello, Kabila!  I say and wave.
          Kabila only stays for a few hours.  A massive crowd fills the streets that he’ll pass through.  Most people are chanting happily; a few throw stones and tear Kabila t-shirts into shreds but everything goes surprisingly smoothly.  Even Hangie changes his mind about voting for Kabila.
    -His way of convincing us to vote for him is by saying ‘if you don’t vote right there will be war,’ Hangie explains the next day.  How can I vote for a president who threatens his people to gain the vote?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting (and sad) dynamics in the prison. I hope they took something positive away from the videos. Thank you for making the donation and helping the two older men. That was very nice of you, and it will surely make a difference in their daily lives. Very anxious to see what happens with the elections. The blogosphere is full of colliding opinions. Here's hoping that things go smoothly and peacefully.