Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Following Up

          My house on a little hill is perfect.  During the day I can watch the panoramic of a large other hill that’s far enough away to see the entire thing, but close enough to be able to see the specks of children running home from school and the women carrying bundles up the steep central road.  It’s a sculpy playground with dollhouses scattered among the trees and it’s breath-taking.  At night the sculpy hill becomes a mound of black, dotted for a few hours with pinholes of light as if it’s a piece of black paper and there’s daylight on the other side.
         It takes me a few days to adjust to the new darkness and the sounds that fill it.  I have to learn how to filter out the sounds that are normal in this new place; the dogs that bark all night, the roosters at 4 a.m. that are not the screaming children they sound like.  Whoever came up with the idea of “cock-a-doodle-doo” has never heard a chicken in Congo that’s just waking up. 
And work continues as usual…
    -There were 50 women raped thus far in the month of May in the villages of Katolu, Isale, Bhulambo, and Magherya, says Maman Marie in her small office.
    -In this month alone?  I ask.
    -Well, those are the confirmed cases that came forward and went to the hospital for the PEP Kit.
          PEP kits are Post-Exposure Prophylactic Kits containing STD medications, emergency contraception, and more. 
    -Have we spoken with all of them and identified where they are in their treatment?  I ask.
    -No, but we have to do follow-up right now.  I have to write a report soon on where we are and what we need and I can’t write that without going out to make sure that I’m correct.  So today we’re going out to Kavingu and then tomorrow we will go to Magherya.
          Kavingu and Magherya are the two most developed centers run by COPERMA, and the two being minimally funded by Finn Church Aid.  On the drive to Kavingu I think about the kids at Maison L’Espoire in Kinshasa.  Lawrence is doing wonderfully well; he’s excelling in school and has gained a normal amount of weight.  He’s friends with his brothers and his sister and apparently is quite the joker.  But over the past few weeks I haven’t been able to get the images of Bellevie and the rest of the kids out of my mind; their spindly little legs that looked too weak to hold up their little kid smiles. 
          Papa J submitted a statement and I submitted what I found and what I wrote; the government is doing investigations as we speak but I don't know how long they will take.  Bellevie and her sister were supposed to be adopted by my Congolese friends but apparently are in the process of being adopted by a family in Belgium.  I still don’t know what is true and what is smoke shrouding greed.  And in the meantime, my mind does not fail to present me with the various possibilities of horrors the kids could be living. The world is much harsher than imagination.  I feel terrible for having left them behind, but I still can’t figure out what more I can do without the Congolese government spear-heading the project.  At the same time, if knowledge is power and power brings responsibility, simply knowing about those kids makes them my responsibility.  I just don’t know what to do with it.
          When we arrive in Kavingu there is the normal group of eight to ten raggedy children playing in the sand.  I follow Maman Marie to the room with the sewing machines.  It is dark inside, but I can see the silhouettes of the machines hanging in the air like elegant cameos. 
    -The girls are on their way but the teacher is already here, says Maman Marie before turning around and walking to the next little concrete room. 
          Through the window I can see about 30 children all wearing the navy blue and white uniforms of school kids.  I duck once I realize they’re in class, since I know my white face will interrupt the entire lesson.  Maman Marie and I walk to the mud hut where the rabbits and guinea pigs in the breeding project are kept.  Maman Marie pushes open an old door made of wooden planks practically stapled together and then glued to the mud doorframe.  In the darkness inside, the room is packed with large wooden cages. 
    -Wow, how many rabbits do we have now?
          Jean-Marie, a young and handsome COPERMA worker turns to me from the corner.
    -I counted 29.
          I nod my head approvingly.  We only started this program a few months ago with about seven rabbits.  We started it in order to help the people in Isale who are being terrorized by the FRDC battalion stationed there.  The rabbits had to be kept in Kavingu in order to avoid starting a project that would simply feed the enemy.
    -When are we bringing them to Isale?  I ask Maman Marie through the cool darkness.
    -In about a month, she says immediately, I’m taking all of the rabbits who are pregnant and bringing them to Isale to distribute.  Then we can keep breeding here and they can start breeding on a small scale there and still be able to hide the rabbits from the soldiers.
          I hear chirping and look down.  There are guinea pigs running across the floor under the cages, picking up the food dropped by the rabbits above.  I don’t ask about the guinea pigs; they multiply and die so quickly I’m pretty sure COPERMA has been regularly carting them out to Isale.  I walk back outside into the sandy courtyard where most of the kids in the classroom have now escaped to.  There are boys of about four and five years old building a second sand pile from a first using a shovel twice their size.  All of them are wearing tiny pants that are still too big and that sag as they walk and run, showing tiny little butt cracks. 
          A few feet away from where the boys are playing there is a group of only girls.  They’ve tied what look like pieces of rope together to form a jump rope.  It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone jumping rope in Congo and these girls are professionals.  They’re playing double-dutch and can often get three of their little forms through at the same time.
    -I used to play that when I was little in the States, I say to Laurentine who has just walked up beside me.
    -Really?  With the banana leaves dried and tied together?
    -Oh, no.  We used a long rope made out of a different material.  I was actually terrible at that game I could never do it. 
          Laurentine chuckles and walks off to help Maman Marie.  I walk over to a group of toddlers sitting in a huddle and sit down next to a little girl with her back to me.  She turns around and immediately shrinks away, her eyes growing from nickels into silver dollars. Within a minute she has scooted a full foot away from me.  When I don’t bark at her or bite she gradually turns back around to watch the giggling girls dodging the swinging banana leaf rope.  There’s a baby sitting in front of the little group of toddlers.  The girl who was next to me, who can’t be more than five years old, reaches forward with a blue piece of cloth and wraps it around the baby to shield him from the sun.  A boy of about six walks by carrying an infant and carefully places the infant on a soft spot of grass.
        The parents are nowhere to be seen, most working in their fields, a few working on manioc root outside of a hut several meters away.  The kids take care of each other and they take care of themselves. And when they leave the dirt courtyard, I’ve no doubt they’ll pick up a bundle that would be heavy for me, sling it over their heads and carry it home.  One thing about the people in and around Butembo is how unfathomably hard they work.  Materially they are poor, but in countless ways they are much wealthier than anyone I know.  I often envy the happiness I see here.  When war isn’t present, happiness thrives in this struggle.  They say idle hands are the devil’s playground; maybe they’re just the breeding ground of discontent.
          The next day when we get to Magherya the room is filled with young-mothers working the black and gold machines.  Magherya is high in the mountains and you can see other mountains covered in fields and huts.  All of the huts are made out of mud, some with straw roofs that make the huts look like little bran muffins.  The rest have tin roofs that toss around the daylight like laughter.  Inside the sewing room, one of the girls I’ve known since my first day at Magherya holds up the little baby shirt she’s working on and laughs.  I sit in the room for a while as the girls chat in Kinande.  Sometimes, I can understand suggestions to add a zipper or to make the bottom of a shirt bigger for a little round belly. 
           After Magherya we go to Butungera, a much less developed COPERMA site.  I’ve promised the kids a soccer ball and its one promise I can finally keep.   Butungera is a small mud school building with one of the walls almost completely ripped off by the wind and another large expanse of sand.  I throw the soccer ball to a group of boys doing half-cartwheels in the sand and they immediately start to play.  The school building, if you can call it that, sits atop a plateau overlooking valleys and other mountains all around.  It’s flat and it feels like I’m standing on the sternum of the earth; if I began digging I would hit the heart of the world.  As Maman Marie speaks to the two school teachers in the mud hut, I sit in a pool of shade under a tree with a group of young-mothers, most of whom are survivors of rape. We sit quietly, watching the boys clumsily chase the soccer ball.  One of the girls spreads her pagne on the ground next to me and places her rolly polly baby on the cloth.  We all laugh as the baby tumbles around, giggling and flailing his chubby little arms.  The heart of the world is not beneath the ground, it’s right here beating on top.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


          Dusan told me a while ago never to let anything here touch me too much, but I don’t think that’s really possible.  The thing is, seeing women with brilliant smiles, laughter and kindnesswho are hurting and unable to look me in the eyes does touch me.  And not being able to really help them touches me more.  There are days when I truly feel like a piece of this quilted country; I’m made more vibrant by the beauty of the pieces around me.  And then there are days when I move through villages, over the patchwork mountains, through people’s homes, and I see and feel nothing.  I interact with people as if there is a foggy window between us.  It  becomes harder to keep my heart open and I become more and more afraid of how it’s going to hurt to keep it open.
          But then I remember that I’m being hurt by stories of things people have actually experienced and the dark, thudding hurt I feel becomes nothing compared to the depth of what they must live with for the rest of their lives.
          There’s an area near Butembo that’s referred to as Graben.  It’s a valley that’s a monster in a closet I can’t open, but one which many Congolese women have seen.  It’s over-run with governmental soldiers and, allegedly, ADF-NALU rebels from Uganda.  In Isale-Bhulambo, a village repeatedly attacked by the governmental battalion stationed there, many of the women and girls have also been attacked in Graben.  It’s an area of fields for cultivation.  Women walk to their fields and stay for several days before bringing their goods home, but recently, the women in the area have had to abandon their fields.
    -There are 27 survivors of rape in Katolu near Graben and we brought in 11 to get treatment at FEPSI, but we haven’t been able to help the others, says my colleague Urbain.  We sent out some supplies for petite-commerce but it wasn’t enough to help all of the women.
          There are two yellow jugs of palm oil, several blocks of hand-made soap, and a sack of salt that still needs to be taken out so we all pile into the car and head out to Katolu.  Katolu is three hours away in a car, plus a 30 minute walk by foot to the top of a plateau.
    -Look, you can see Uganda from here, says Urbain as we get out of the car.  And there is Graben.
          I stare at the valley extending below us and try to imagine how such beauty can contain such horror.  The land is so rich the greens and browns glitter like wet paint in the sun.  Maman Marie and Urbain lead the way through a small village to a thin path.  There are more people floating around in the village than normal, and when we arrive at the end of the path I see why. 
    -Oh no, I say turning to Urbain.
          The path opens into a soccer field  and the field is filled with at least 200 people.   A few meters from our small group is a small black box battery connected to  microphone. 
    -We can’t help all of these people, I say again.  Why are they here? 
          Maman Marie has been doing this a lot longer than I have.  She confidently walks up to the microphone and launches into a speech.
    -Here, we don’t need to stay we can go and speak with the survivors.
          Urbain stands up and starts walking back towards the path.  I shield my eyes from the blinding sun and follow him to a mud hut with a stick cross spreading into the sky.  Inside the air is cool and damp, the room is filled with small wooden benches.  Within a few minutes women start filing into the tiny church.  I count twelve women but they are still filling the room. 
    -All of these women are survivors?  I ask Urbain who has taken a seat on a wooden bench to my left.
    -Yes.  Some of them went to FEPSI already and some of them haven’t though.
   -Okay, let’s try and separate the two groups so we can focus on those who haven’t yet been treated or talked to anyone.
          Urbain speaks to everyone in Kinande and immediately the women stand up and start switching seats and sides of the room. 
    -Everyone on the right has already been to FEPSI and everyone on the left has not received treatment.
          I look at the group and don’t know what to do.  There are too many to speak with individually in one day but I don’t know how to do identification in a group. 
    -Raise your hand if you have been to the hospital, I say in French.
          Everyone on the right and about a third of the group on the left raise their hands.
    -There is a woman who has a baby who is deformed and she wants to show you the child, Urbain says suddenly.
           A woman has already stood up and is moving towards the front of the room.  I brace myself and realize I am afraid of the child.  I’m afraid of how his little face and the nothing I can do will hurt me.  When the woman reaches me she lowers the little bundle and moves a blanket away from the baby’s face.  The baby is only a few weeks old and still not dark enough to match his mother’s skin.  I recognize a bilateral complete cleft lip and palate immediately. 
    -Does he have trouble eating? How old is he?
          I’m amazed the child can eat anything at all and is still alive.  I don’t know much about the condition but it looks incomprehensible to me that the child could be alive.
    -He cannot eat milk from his mother’s nipple but he can drink some milk if they give it to him carefully.  He’s three weeks old.
          I start to tell her to take the child to the hospital, but I doubt there is a Doctor who can do the surgery.
    -We need to research if there is a Doctor in the area who can perform this surgery, I say to Urbain.  I nod to the woman and smile; she walks out the door of the hut into the sunshine.  I look back to the group.
    -Is there anyone who has physical pain in their body?
          Urbain translates and over half of the room raises their hands.  Urbain points to a woman in the front row who is raising a strangely crooked arm.  I stand up and walk over to the woman, my heart beating quickly.  Her arm is broken in the same place that Kasuera from Isale broke her arm, but the break and the swelling look twice as big.  It looks like someone took a golf ball and tucked it under her skin.
    -Can you move your hand at all?
          The woman looks at her hand and a couple of her fingers move about a centimeter.
    -When did this happen?
    -Six months ago, Urbain translates.
   -Oh jeez, okay.  Well she’s an urgent case.  We need to get her to the hospital as soon as possible.
    -Okay, we will ask her.  I think we should speak with them individually, Urbain says. 
    -Yes, I agree.  But only to the women who haven’t been identified yet.  The women who didn’t go to FEPSI already.
          Urbain translates and the women stand to leave.  I point to the woman with the broken arm and ask her to start.  We all move to chairs in a small circle and when the rest of the women are outside and the door is closed, Kavy begins.
          The soldiers came into the field, she explains in Kinande.  A group of them came, they tried to kill her after they raped her but she used her arm to block the blow of the gun to her head.  She doesn’t know how old she is, maybe 37 years old.  She was raped in November during the confrontation in Bhulambo.  The soldiers spoke Lingala and wore uniforms of the governmental soldiers.  She went to find food to eat in the field and when she started to leave with the food three military came and raped her. 
          Kavy has slightly slanted eyes that make her look perpetually sad.
    -After that day, I feel very tired always and I stay in my bed, she says.

          After Kavy, Masika comes in.  She has a round face with a shockingly white smile.  She’s 31 years old and she has a problem with her feet.  She points down to her feet and I see that her skin is peeling off as if it were a thin sock.
          Masika went to the field to work.  A group of military came and trapped her.  One of them raped her but the others saw women working in the fields nearby and one of them said, “we should go to take the others as well.”  The pain in her womb is calm now.
          As Masika I watch Masika speak I feel my heart open up a little bit.  I’ve been focusing so much on the suffering that I’m helpless to fix I’ve been forgetting to focus on the beauty and strength that is pervasive here.  I wish others could see this young woman so they could understand how beautiful she is.  Even though I’ve just met her, kindness emanates from her and I feel comfortable in the softness of her presence; her voice is like wind chimes.
    -There is still fear in my heart when I think of it, she says.

          Kulemba was working in the field when the group of soldiers came.  The leader was a fat military, when the others left, he stayed and said “I am going to sleep with you.”  She refused and so he forced her.  He beat her before he raped her. 
    -I had been working very hard and I was tired.  That’s why he succeeded.
          I tell her it’s not her fault.  Since then she doesn’t work.  When she tries to go to the field or do hard work her back begins hurting and she has pain in her abdomen still.

    Kyakyimua is 34 years old.  In March she was in the field alone.  The 3 military came and she tried to flee but they caught her.  They said, “since you wanted to flee we’re going to do what you were afraid of.”  She went to the hospital afterwards but she was too ashamed to tell the Doctor she was raped.   She feels weak.

          Wena is 39 years old.  She smiles at me shyly before looking down at her feet.  Her husband is dead.  Three months after he died one soldier raped her.  She went to the hospital and they told her she contracted an infection; gonorrhea and syphilis.
    -You have syphilis?  I interrupt her.
    -Yes, that’s what they said at the hospital.
    -Did you receive treatment there?
    -No, I couldn’t afford the medications so they would not let me take it.
          I make a note in my notebook.
    -She also needs to get treatment, if she wants.
          Urbain asks her in Kinande and she shakes her head.
    -She refuses, he says.
          Urbain asks her and her response is soft and deflated.
    -Because she says she can never feel better.
    -Explain that physically, syphilis can be treated.  But if she doesn’t treat it, it can be fatal. 
          Wena smiles again and then nods her head.
    -She accepts?
    -Yes, she accepts.
          Wena looks at the ground again but there’s still a trace of a smile on her face.  I wonder as I have many times, how anyone can hurt these women?  I just don’t understand it and I can feel the tightening around my heart; frustration and anger wrap like rubber bands around my throat and it's difficult to breathe. But their strength is inspiring and their kindness is this world's salvation.  I watch Wena, smiling shyly, and the rubber bands loosen and I can feel why this is all so important once again.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


          Kily leads me to a white room with white linoleum floors and white curtains.  It’s expansive and seems as if the white coloring was chosen to cover something up.  Kily is friends with one of the military observers.  I met him briefly at a hotel on a Sunday over a lukewarm beer in the afternoon.  He’s studying geology, as many people in Congo do, but it’s not the geology of Colorado mountains and geodes in the Arizona desert. 
    -This man is the biggest mineral salesman in Butembo, says Kily as we take a seat on two white plastic chairs.  But it’s completely legalized, he has permission from the government.
    -What kinds of minerals does he sell?
    -Mostly gold, but coltan as well.
          Kily is from Kinshasa so his speech is fast and he seems to always be in a hurry with his words so they tumble over themselves.  Kily brought me to the house so I could ask some questions about mines.  I’ve heard so much about coltan and conflict minerals, and I’ve watched the men sift through the river in Musienene looking for, and finding, diamonds.  But I’ve never seen the mines that supposedly fuel everything in Congo. 
    -So where is the mine?  I ask.
    -Well, there is one in Mangurajipa it’s not very far from here but the roads are very bad.  On a motorcycle you can make it in about eight hours.
    -Is there security?
    -Yes, there is security I have been myself.  But there are Mai-Mai and FDLR in most of the areas with the mines.  One time when I went I met with the head of the FDLR here and we stayed in his camp.
    -And it was safe enough?
          We’re alone in the room but there are men chatting in a room behind us and Kily drops his voice down to a whisper.
    -Yes, you see the men who sell the minerals need to have security so they pay off the FDLR and the Mai-Mai.
    -So this guy pays off the FDLR?
    -No, he pays the Mai-Mai but you can not ask them about this.
    -Of course not.
    -But anyways, they make a very good business here.  This man is tres tres rich.  He has several private planes, I mean he is a millionaire.  But he is a very simple man, he is a very good man.   He takes care of many orphans.
    -Really?  That’s rare.
    -Yes, he is very simple and very normal.  Not like most very rich men. 
    -So how much do they sell the gold for?
    -Very much.  You know kilogram?  One kilogram of gold, about this big..
          He makes his thumb and index finger into a small circle.
    -The weight is most important but it will be about this big.  One kilogram is sold for 42,000 American dollars.  This business sells about 50 kilograms each week.  There was a man recently from Senegal who came and paid for 300 kilograms and he took it to Senegal.  You can figure that out, it is so much money.
    -42 thousand dollars a kilogram?  Jeez, that’s insane.
    -Yes, but it’s a good investment.  They take the gold to Senegal and the United States and they sell it for much more.
          A well-dressed man in a pink button up shirt and pressed khaki slacks walks in.
    -Bonjour, how are you doing today?  I’m Germaine.
          The man reaches out and shakes both of our hands.
    -Come upstairs where we can talk.
          He leaves the room.  Kily and I follow him around the house and up to the second level to an office.
    -Is this the man we are waiting for?  I ask quietly on the way up the stairs.
    -Yes and no.  I was telling you about the main boss, this is his younger brother but he does the same business.
          Germaine leads us into a large office with a massive wooden desk and three large black swivel chairs.
    -Here take a seat, I will be right back.
          The desk has nothing on it except for a phone, a plastic plate that says “Be Peaceful in your Heart,” and a large framed image of about 50 children.  I pick up the picture of the kids.
    -Those are the orphans that he takes care of.
          I hear Germaine’s footsteps coming back.  Kily quickly motions for me to put the photo back on the desk.
    -So, what exactly can we do for you?
          Germaine walks around to the other side of the desk.  The desk is almost up to my chin but it doesn’t seem to be too high for Germaine.  I wonder if it’s an intimidation technique.  I lean forward and put my elbows on the desk.
    -First, I want to be very clear that I am not here to buy anything.  I have no interest in buy minerals nor do I have any money to do so.  I’m absolutely not here to buy anything.
    -Okay, well then what do you want?
    -I was speaking with Kily and he was telling me about the mines.  For curiosity only, I was wondering if there is a mine I can go to that will be safe enough.
    -In order to go to a mine there will be several things necessary.  First, you need to go to the Mayor’s office to get a letter of approval which will also help with security.  Then you need to go to the office of mining here in Butembo. 
          He motions in the general direction of the city behind him.
    -You need to make it clear exactly why you are wanting to go.  And I would recommend you hire one or two police officers to go with you for protection.
    -So there isn’t security there?
    -No, I mean there is a chance you can be fine, you arrive, you leave, but there are these bandits there who will think you have lots of money.  And you are a woman so they can rape you.  There were three whites like you who went to one of the mines in the park.  They were trapped by the Mai-Mai and the Mai-Mai liberated one to go and get money and they kept the other two.  The Internationals paid ten thousand dollars in order to get free.
          My parents have made it very clear to me they won’t pay my ransom if I’m kidnapped, so I start to let go of the idea.
    -And you are a woman, he continues.  They know that they can get a lot more money for a woman and they know that they can do a lot more to a woman.  You really will risk  being raped, so my advice will be to hire at least one police officer with a gun to go with you.
    -Okay, well I don’t want to put myself in unnecessary danger, I don’t really need to go to a mine.  It’s not a big thing I was just curious if it’s possible.
    -Yes, yes it’s possible, but it is a big risk.
     -Thanks for the information.  I’ll ask at the Mayor’s office but I think I’m going to let the idea go.
    -So do you know gold?
    -Yes, but not very well.  I only know what they sell in stores in the United States.  Jewelry and such.
    -You have never seen gold before it is turned into jewelry?
    -No, and I don’t need to see it.
    -Well you are already here why not buy some.  You can take it back to your country. 
    -No, I really don’t know anything about selling gold it’s not my work at all.
    -But you can make it your work.  It is easy, you just pay me some money I give you some gold and in your country you sell it for more.
    -That is why I told you the first thing that I am not here to buy.  I don’t have money for that and it’s not my work.  But if I meet an international who is looking to traffic minerals I will send them to this house to speak with you.
          Germaine leans back and nods.  I’ve used this line on numerous people trying to turn me into a mule.  You have to promise them something, but I have no intention of becoming a mineral trafficker.
    -Thank you for your time and for the information, I really appreciate it. 
          I say goodbye in Kinande, purely for schmoozing purposes, and Germaine laughs.  I imagine it’s like speaking to a mob boss.  You can’t offend them but you also can’t be too friendly or interested or they’ll think you want to get involved. 
    Outside Kily and I get on my motorcycle and head back to the city center.
    -I have one question for you, and I mean it completely with respect, I say.
    -Yes, of course what is it.
    -You said that all of this is legalized by the Congolese government.  But Kabila put a statewide ban on all mining and mineral trafficking until after the elections, from what I hear.  So how is it "legal?"
          Kily chuckles.
    -You just need special permission.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


          After one full year, my time with the Crosiers is up.  I'm grateful for my year with them, but being an outsider in the religious life is no walk in the park, for either sides I'm sure. In the end, I'm ready for a change and the military observers have an open room for a few days.  There are three of us living in the house, on a hill, over-looking all of Butembo.  I have a perfect view of my favorite stretch of mountains, which looks like a pregnant woman sleeping, or dead, beneath a heavy sheet of land. 
          Moving only takes a day so the COPERMA team and I are able to stay on schedule.  We go back out to Butu. village to follow up with M., N., and K., and hopefully to speak with their parents.  When we arrive at the dirt expanse perched atop a table of a mountain, neither of the girls nor their parents are around.  Only a few scraggly but energetic children bounce around in the dirt amidst four or five elderly women.  The women all smile and shake my hand enthusiastically while the children hide behind their mothers legs, and two babies cry at the sight of my strange skin.
    -Here, you can rest in here if you please, says a thin, middle-aged man with yellowing eyes and a kind smile.
          He leads us into a small hut made of mud and sticks.  There are two small wooden benches inside and the only light enters with us through the small doorway.  I sit down next to the man and my colleague Urbain follows us in.
    -I'm calling the survivors, says Urbain pulling out his cellphone.
          The man with the yellow eyes steps back outside.  I sit as Urbain discusses through the phone that the girls will be coming in two hours.  School isn't out yet.  I lean back against the wooden bench and take out my book.  Before I can read even two pages, the man with the yellow eyes steps back in followed by five young girls.
    -These are the cousins and daughters of COPERMA members in this community, he says waving at the girls.
          I look to Urbain for clarification of why they're here.
    -They can't go to their fields in Graben anymore.  They know girls who have been raped by the soldiers there and so when their parents ask them to go to their fields now they refuse.  They're very afraid.
    -Oh, okay...  I hesitate.  What do you think I should say to them?
          The girls have all piled onto the small bench across from me and are staring at me expectantly.  I don't like stepping out of the realm of sexual violence or obvious physical illness because I never know what to say or how to help.  Everybody needs money, clothing, vocational training, food, cultivation, tools, animals, school fees, and books.  You have to focus your efforts here otherwise you'd get caught in the current of needs and never move forward.
    -They want to tell you about their needs, cuts in the yellow eyed man.
          I sigh, take out my notebook, poise my pen and look to the girls.  A tall girl wearing a stained black and white striped shirt begins speaking.
    -I don't have a job.  None of us are in school.  We left in first year because of money.  I want to learn sewing.
          I write down what she says and feel the weight of their false hope drop down on me.  People see white skin and they see hope through money; money that's already been allocated for other survivors or being used to build the tin on the school's roof.  All of the girls want a sewing machine and want to learn how to sew, except for the last girl who wants to learn to make bread.
    -I can't promise you anything but I will try, I say when each girl has had a turn.
    -If you can help us, really, please, says the first girl who spoke.  We used to have fields but now we're afraid to go.  We need something during the stand-by period.
         All of their fields are in graben, where governmental and Ugandan rebel soldiers have been raping women working in their fields.
    -I'll try, alongside of COPERMA, I say again.  But I can't give you any promises.
          The girls all get up quietly and file out of the hut.
    -The girls are really afraid, Urbain says next to me.
    -I know, and they have reason to be afraid.
          Urbain sighs and stands up.
    -I'm going to go greet a Maman just outside.
         I lean back again and open my book, thankful to be able to wait alone.
    -We can share this little nothing we have with you, says the yellow eyed man entering the hut.
          He places a silver bowl of passion fruit on the wooden table in front of me.
    -Thank you that is very kind.
    -A house with no visitors is not blessed, he says as he sits down.  We made beans for you last week because we thought you were coming but then you did not come.  We regretted it very much.  Regretted it very much.
    -I'm sorry, I didn't know you did that.  Thank you.
    -So, what are you going to do about the stress on the educators?
          He switches the subject quickly.
    -You're a teacher?
    -Yes, without anything.  I have been working at the school for six months and I have been paid nothing.
    -Who is supposed to pay you?
    -The parents of the children, but the parents are poor and they are stubborn.  But I can't leave because I feel bad for the children.  I can't just leave the children.  We ask for $3.50 each trimester but then the children will show up with only .50 cents.  I have fear for my family too.
          He leans back and focuses his yellowed eyes on the floor.  He looks so sad, so tired, so completely used up.
    -I'm sorry.  I can talk with Maman Marie to see if we can try and help you too, but I can't promise you anything.  President Kabila said he would pay part of the school fees for all of the children, have you not received that money?
    -No, nothing, he says looking back at me.
          He looks at me as if I've promised him something monumental and then showed up empty handed.  They should change humanitarian to never-ending disappointment
    -And we also need a cellphone.  We could communicate with COPERMA if we could have a cellphone and then we could have everything ready for you when you get here.  And we also need a ball for the kids to play with.  There is an inter-school football tournament but none of the kids can play because we don't even have a ball.
          I look down at my notebook and recognize a rare opportunity.
    -I can promise you a ball!  That, at least, I can get.
          The teacher stands up so suddenly I almost drop my notebook.
    -Thank you!  Thank you!  Aiiiyyyyy!!!
           He runs outside and speaks in Kinande to the small clump of children and women sitting outside.  Through the mud walls I hear the children start shrieking and the man and the women clapping.  He runs back into the hut and yells thank you at me several more times.
    -Okay!  There are others who want to speak with you, let me go and get them!
          He runs out of the hut again before I can stop him.
    -This is the head of the girl-mothers, he says returning with a young woman.  I'll leave you alone so you can speak with her.
          The young woman is wearing a pink dress and carrying a sleeping baby on her back.
    -Hi, what's your name?
    -And you are a girl-mother?  What does that mean?
          COPERMA typically uses girl-mother to refer to young victims of sexual violence, but it's often used for any young mother.
    -It's someone who has a baby without a husband, she says.
          She speaks French fluently and confidently.
    -So it was consensual sex yes?
    -Yes, it was consensual.
          She smiles a little but doesn't blush as much as most girls at the words consensual or sex.
    -He said he would marry me in order to profit in that way.  When I realized I was pregnant he fled immediately.  Even now he doesn't know the figure of his child.
    -How old are you?
    -I'm 23 years old.
    -I'm 24!  I exclaim and smile at her.
    -You're still very young.
    -Yes, you are too!
    -No, her smile drops from her face.  I've already become old because of difficulties.
          I stop smiling as well.  I can't think of anything to say in response.  She looks young, but somehow I realize I feel like a child in the presence of a wise adult.
    -I'm a teacher at another school in Butu. she continues.
    -Do you make enough to support the baby?
    -No, she snorts.  I want to leave but I feel bad for the kids.  I can't leave the students.  I don't get paid anything, I sacrifice myself.  And the other teacher already fled because there is no payment.
           We talk about birth control and the importance of family planning.  She laughs with a tinge of cynicism when I reference how expensive a baby is.  She knows much better than I do.  She says there are condoms you can buy in the village but there aren't any men you can trust.  She wants to learn how to sew as well.
          After Masika leaves the hut I try to follow her out but an elderly woman herds me back into the hut with surprising force.  Five other women flow in behind her.  They don't speak French so after a few greetings in Kinande they call Urbain back into the hut.  They represent the female cultivators in Butu.  They need hoes and seeds so they can cultivate enough to pay school fees.  Somehow my feeling of being a false promise has disappeared.  Simply having someone listen to their grievances seems to be helping.
          The women finish and a man older than the land itself walks in.  His feet look like the stone we're sitting on; his irises are light brown and distinctly different from the black of his pupils.  Many people here have irises that blend in a hazy darkness into their pupils, making eyes that can sometimes look dead.  The sun and vitamin deficiencies also turn the whites of people's eyes into the color of coffee spilled and dried on paper.  But this man's eyes are somehow sharp and clear.
    -He needs tomato seeds, Urbain translates.  He is representing male cultivators here.
          The man's voice is low and smooth like it is the wind itself and has always been a part of this world.
          He finishes quickly, his words are to the point.  Finally, the three survivors arrive but their parents are still working in the field.  They're the first ones who don't really want to talk to me.  They remind me that their parents aren't paying their school fees anymore and I add it to the list of needs from the day.  After over two hours of talking to the various villagers, I only spend about four minutes with M., N., and K even though they emenate the most sadness.
          But when they're walking away from the hut, all three turn to say good bye and the beauty of their smiles is what leaves Butu. with me at the end of the day; alongside one definite promise, and a lot of "i'll try."


Sunday, May 1, 2011


          I don't need to see it to believe it, but when Baloti, the head of the Association of Women Living Alone asked me to come to his club to see the work of sex workers, I hoped it would at least help me understand. COPERMA has been in a psychosocial training session for the past week, so I've spent my days wandering around Musienene reacquainting myself with the place. And reacquainting myself with myself.
          Anytime I'm around people I care about, people whose presence allows me to relax for a moment in who I am, the adjustment back to being alone is a sharp one. In a way it's like being pushed off of a cliff into freezing ocean. I have to adjust and remind myself that I'm a good swimmer. Being alone isn't the problem. In fact, once I'm used to the boundaries around me once again it feels good. It becomes cool, slow and soft-spoken, like the first day of fall over and over again. But at first it's sharp and disarming.
          After a week of readjusting, I go to Butembo in the evening to meet up with Baloti. It's my first time moving around Butembo at night without Dusan's protective presence but security has been surprisingly good lately. Kabila has dispatched supplies, support, and Chinese managers to start building the roads. Inspire confidence just before the election, and hopefully people will forget about all your other years of failure.
          Baloti meets me ouside of the club. Outside, the neon lights make the dirt road and the night metallic.
    -Amy, bienvenue, he says and reaches out to shake my hand. I'm so glad you could make it come on in.
          Baloti leads me to a blue metal gate with a crowd of teenagers and motortaxi drivers hovering outide.
    -Look, here is our security man.
          He points to a dirty looking man in a tattered FaRDC uniform, holding an AK-47 across his lap. I nod to the man and follow Baloti through the metal doors. Inside, the club is outside. There are no ceilings only walls and a large gazebo in the center of a concrete courtyard. African music is pumping with the metallic lights and people inside the gazebo. Baloti leads me to the back of the courtyard where a very average looking man stands up and greets me.
    -This is a major in the FaRDC, he also provides security.
    -I am so happy to see you here and do not worry I will ensure that you will be kept safe all night long.
          The man continues shaking my hand eagerly and says the
words with an over-zealous seriousness clearly fueled by one too many.
    -Thank you sir, I really appreciate that.
          It used to bother me, making nice with people I perceive to be the devil, but my anger at individuals won't accomplish anything. Baloti and I walk to the other side of the gazebo and sit down at a plastic table.
    -Let me get you a beer, Baloti shouts above the music.
    -Sure thanks, let me get you one too.
          Baloti laughs and wanders off to find a server. From my chair I can just see over a low wall separating the gazebo dance floor from the rest of the courtyard. Everyone looks normal to me. Young men and women dancing and periodically reaching behind them to take a swig of liquid courage, distraction, not caring.
    -Hi I am so happy to see you here this makes me so happy.
          I turn around in my seat and see a puffy faced man with hazy eyes and a brilliant smile reaching his hand out to me.
    -This is my friend Chester, says Baloti coming up behind him. He has been here everynight to have drinks since the first day we opened.
    -It's nice to meet you, I yell and shake his pudgy hand.
    -But you are not nice to me, Chester says sitting down at our table. You only came as one. I want to see two muzungus.
          Baloti laughs and points out that Chester is highly intoxicated. Chester leans back and wags his finger at me.
    -So, every woman in here is a prostitute, says Baloti cutting to the chase.
    -All of them? Are you sure?
    -Yes I'm sure. Look, do you see those two girls by the door?
          I follow his finger to two chubby girls standing with a couple of tall John Does. They're on their way out.
    -Those girls are almost definitely minors, but they don't look young enough for us to actually refuse them. They came here about an hour ago alone to look for men for the night, and now they've found them and so they're leaving.
    -And they're doing it for money? Not just dating or something?
    -No, these girls are all a part of the Association. They have kids to feed or they don't have parents so they have to do it themselves. Look, all of those girls dancing are simply trying to find some money tonight.
I look back into the gazebo. I watch girls no older than me pairing off with dancing partners, sometimes getting close sometimes not. There's a beautiful girl standing in the center of the gazebo dancing in a haph-hazard way. Her hair is pulled into a small pony-tail but the front pieces are shooting into the air like the top of a pineapple. Her face is beautiful, Rwandan, and familiar.
    -Oh my god, I know that woman.
    -The one right there, I point into the crowd. The skinny one who's very beautiful, wearing the blue gown with no back to it. Where do I know her from?
          The woman's face reminds me of the prostitute I met in Beni who copped a feel and passed out on a couch curled around me. She looked Rwandan too, but it's not quite right. Suddenly, it hits me and it hurts.
    -I know her from CEPIMA. Do you know what CEPIMA is?
    -Yeah, I know.
          Baloti looks down at the table. The young woman in the sparkling gown is Tatu, a girl I met when I was following up on a woman staying at the mental health center, CEPIMA. Tatu was almost entirely wiped out on thorazine and several other psychotropics but her personality battled the medication bravely. She would jump from staring blankly at a cardboard soap box with her mouth hanging open, to slowly but forcefully challenging me to a fight.
    -She's in here often. She has many men who pay for her.
          I watch her dance in the center of the metallic lights. Her dress is sequined and catches the different colored lights before throwing them back at the room. In another lifetime, I think we would have been great friends, I remember thinking when I first met Tatu.
    -I'm going to buy you a beer too! Exclaims Chester suddenly. But only on the one condition that the next time you come you will bring me another muzungu.
    -Alright fine Chester, I'll bring you another muzungu, I exclaim laughing.
    -Does he ever go home with prostitutes? I ask Baloti when Chester is gazing into the dancing crowd.
    -No, never. He just comes in here and drinks and looks for company. He's really a good guy. But look, do you see that girl? She found a customer and now she's leaving. And those three girls just got here and they'll leave as soon as they find customers.
          He points around the room at various women of various ages. I follow his finger around the room before settling once again on Tatu. She's dancing with a man. He is running his hands up and down her bare shoulder blades and she's swaying next to his body but looking off at some spot on the floor. She's not smiling or laughing. She doesn't even seem to notice the man stroking her skin and watching her body sway.
    -Amy I also sent you an email today with a picture of the Association woman who was killed recently.
    -You already sent me that photo.
    -No this is a picture of her after she was dead. With all of her injuries.
          I snap from Tatu to Baloti.
    -You sent me a picture of that? Why?
    -Because I thought you would want to see it so you can understand what happened.
    -Oh, okay well, thanks I guess.
          I've seen those kinds of pictures before in Congo. There's no censoring or individual privacy here. But maybe Baloti's right, maybe seeing it will help me understand. Tatu suddenly walks around the outside of the gazebo in the direction of the bathroom. I stand up and start moving into her path but she doesn't seem to notice me. She walks and stares a little in front of herself as if she's blind but knows the route.
    -Tatu, hi. Do you remember me?
          My voice brings her back from whatever thought she was or wasn't having.
    -Yes, I remember you. From CEPIMA.
          Her voice is soft and sad and heart-breaking.
    -Are you still staying at CEPIMA?
    -No, I'm not anymore.
    -How is everything?
    -It's good. I'm good.
          She moves her gaze around as she says it and I feel like I'm making her uncomfortable. I hope she knows I'm not judging her, or pitying her. I just hope she has happiness in her life.
    -Do you know COPERMA? They have an office near here.
    -Yeah, I do know COPERMA.
          Her eyes focus a little and compete with her dress for a brief moment.
    -Well, I work with them. If you ever need anything, go there and ask for me and I'll see if I can help.
    -Okay. I will.
    -Take care.
          I want to do more but I don't even know where to start.
          She effortlessly slides her hand from mine and disappears into the darkness of one of the bathrooms. I stay and chat with Chester and Baloti about nothing at all for another 40 minutes or so. Tatu resurfaces in the gazebo and sways around throwing metallic lights around the room. When I get home the next day I check my e-mail and see the picture. The woman is helpless; her eyes are open but she's no longer behind them. Only the cruelty of the jealous boyfriends who killed her is present, it soaks the photo. I realize that Baloti wasn't right and neither was I; seeing only takes me farther away from understanding.