Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Congolese Democracy

         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.

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?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congo vs. Zaire

   -Tshisikedi is arriving this morning and President Kabila is arriving this afternoon, says Maman Marie in the front COPERMA office. 
          For the first time in a long time, Maman Marie and I are the only ones in the office and can speak a little more openly and without Hangie forcefully throwing in his two cents.
    -Who are you going to vote for?  I ask.
    -I don’t know.  You know who you’ll vote for when you arrive at the voting booth.
    -Really?  Don’t you think you need to prepare and have at least an idea?
    -It doesn’t really matter anyway, she responds.  There are 11 candidates, including Kabila, but all of them are basically the same.  They all have the same politics and reasons for wanting power.  Since we know Kabila at least a little, maybe it’s best if he stays.
    -You said last year that in Congo you don’t have a government.
    -We don’t have a government, she says chuckling.  But there’s no opposition either.  If there was a real opponent maybe the elections would mean something.
    -That’s true, I say.  Where will Kabila and Tshisikedi be going ?
    -Tshisikedi will be at one end of Butembo and Kabila will probably go over by the cathedral, but he’s leaving directly afterwards.
          The metal gate creaks open and Maman Jose walks into the office.  Her hair is short today and she’s covered in a shawl.
    -Are you going to go and listen to what he’s going to say?  I ask. 
          Maman Marie laughs.
    -He’s going to say the same thing he’s said in all the other cities. 
    -One hundred percent sure!  I say and punch my fist in the air.
          Maman Jose and Maman Marie both laugh.  President Kabila’s tagline for the election is Na Rais 100% sure!  -- Presidency 100% sure.  Apparently the U.S. State Department considers claiming success before elections to be non-democratic, but the phrase, with Kabila’s face next to it, is written all over Butembo and half the city is wearing hats and shirts that proclaim the victory.
          The door creaks open again and Urbain walks in and places a plastic bag on the table in front of me.  Inside there are boxes of medication: paracetamol, antibiotics, anti-diarrhea, and aspirin.
    -Are you ready to go?  I ask.
          I hand my motorcycle key to Urbain and grab a plastic container of fuel and the medication and we leave for the prison.  When we arrive, my heart sinks when I see Maman Vee sitting at the top of the stairs.  Fortunately, Eliza, who’s much less difficult to deal with, is also there.
    -We brought a few films, I say to Maman Vee and sit down on a small wooden bench across from her.
          Their outdoor office must be near the latrine, the smell of feces hangs sweetly in the air.  Urbain hands the DVDs to Maman Vee, and I hand her the medication.
    -I need to watch these first, she says without smiling, to make sure they’re fit to be shown in the prison.
    -They’re videos about HIV/AIDS and STIs, I respond.
    -I still need to verify them.  You can show them tomorrow.
   -Okay, I understand that, I say.  But also, I brought some pamphlets about sexual violence and medical care in Butembo.  I’d like to hand them out to the female prisoners, is that okay?
          I hand a pamphlet to Maman Vee.
    -Yeah, that’s not a problem, she says.
          Urbain, Eliza and I walk over to the metal entrance.  Eliza lets us inside immediately.  I feel the same rush of fear when the door closes behind us, but this time it dissipates quickly.  The prison is a strange phenomenon.  I spoke with a young Congolese businessman who was falsely imprisoned for several days and he explained that what I first saw as pure chaos is actually more structured than society outside of the prison walls.
          Over an evening beer, J.P. explained that when you enter the prison you are immediately given 50 strokes with a stick.  Every prisoner is required to pay $20.00 to gain access to food and security, and $5.00 to be given a bed.  Those who can’t pay are labeled as “slaves,” and anyone can force them to do any work and they aren’t guaranteed food.  Then there’s a tribunal, in which the prison President, or “Kapita,”—the sleeping Shrek I saw before—and the other prisoners listen to the accusation, hear the side of the accused, and decide if they’re guilty or innocent.  The Kapita and his “cabinet” are elected through vote by all of the prisoners.  Each cell has a smaller government and the Kapita is called in to settle disputes only when the government of the cell can’t reach a solution.  Each time the metal door closes behind Urbain and me, we are no longer in Congo, as J.P. explained.  All prisoners are told that within the brick walls, Congo doesn’t exist and they are now living in Zaire.
          Urbain and I are greeted inside by a large, light-skinned woman with red cheeks, indicating that at some point she used the popular skin lightening paste that burns the skin.  She leads us to the right side of the prison, into a high ceiling room with several mattresses on the floor.  She’s the President of the women’s cell.  Inside there are several men crouched over a small coal burning stove.  The air is filled with smoke.  A tall, slender woman is smoking a joint but she quickly hides it when she sees me.  The President, Esther, shooes most of the men out of the room.
    -She’s pregnant, Esther says immediately and points to a woman sitting on one of the mattresses.
          There are four women sitting or lying on the beds.
    -It was rape, says the pregnant woman.
    -Inside prison or outside?  Urbain asks.
    -Outside, she says.
    -And she’s sick, Esther says and points to a lump of blankets.
          The blankets move and a young woman pops out her head.
    -What is she sick with?  I ask.
          Several people died last week from cholera.
    -A head ache, says the young woman.
    -Is rape a problem in the prison?  I ask.  Do the men ever force you to have sexual relations with them?
    -No, says the tall slender woman.  Our problems are medication.  There are many microbes and insects that bite, eating, finding soap to wash.
    -When prisoners are sick they aren’t even taken to the hospital, says a man I hadn’t noticed before.
          The man’s clothes are clean and he’s wearing a rosary around his neck.
    -Those who kill or steal, they leave the prison, continues the slender woman.  But those who did nothing stay, like this Maman.  She’s been here for five years.
          Slender points to Esther who nods her head.
    -There was a Belgian who lived in Beni, he worked at the airport, Slender continues.  There was a day when they said, the Belgian is dead and they said she did it.  Her telephone number was saved in his phone, so they said she killed him.
          The little two or three year old with round eyes who previously popped up next to the sleeping Shrek, patters into the room.
    -Does she live here?  I ask.
    -Yes, says Slender.  Her mother is in here.
    -Do the prisoners bother her? 
    -No, they don’t touch her and they don’t touch us.
    -I was told that a fourteen year old girl was kept here overnight and raped, I respond.
    -No, Slender responds waving her hand in the air as if to clear the smoke of a lie.  That girl came and they were all drinking.  She started drinking, maybe she couldn’t hold her liquor.  She was drunk and they closed the door at 5 p.m.  She slept in this room with us and in the morning her family came and she left.  We lock the door to our cell at 4 p.m.
    -She went to the hospital for treatment, I say.  She says she was raped.
    -No.  I’m 23 years old today.  If a man approaches me and we have sex and if he doesn’t give me some money I’ll go to the police and say he raped me.  I’m a grown woman I won’t let a man rape me.  To do that you must bring four or ten.  There are 20 year old boys in here and they say he raped a 40 year old woman.
           The little girl, Lauren, sits down on a bed next to a man who’s ironing clothes.  She sits quietly with a plate of steaming eggs on her lap and calmly begins eating.  The door to the cell bangs open and a small, light-skinned woman stumbles in.  She picks up a huge wooden spoon and starts yelling sloppily.
    -That’s Lauren’s mother, Slender says chuckling.  She’s drunk.
          Lauren’s mother wields the spoon like a weapon and tries to stumble back into the main living space but several men block her and guide her into what looks like another small cell.  She fights them but they don’t use violence and are clearly trying to calm her down.  The man with the rosary leaves our group and squeezes past the quarreling clump by the door.
    -Who was he?  I ask Slender.
    -He’s a prisoner!  She exclaims.
    -Oh, I thought he was a priest.
    -He is, she says and bursts out laughing.
    -Why is he in here?
    -Rape! She yells and laughs harder.  Always rape.
          I turn back towards the ruckus by the door at the sound of crying.  Little Lauren is standing by her swaying mother with tears streaming down from her little round eyes.  Slender walks over, picks her up and walks back to us.  Lauren stops crying but sniffles and wipes her nose on a chubby little arm.  The smoke from the mini-stove turns sharp and bites my throat.  I try to ask a question but can’t stop coughing.  Nobody else seems bothered by the smoke.
    -I was married with five kids, says the woman with the headache.  My husband hung himself from the ceiling and they said, since you were there, you killed him.
    -Were you in the house? I barely choke out.
    -Yes, I was in the house and he went outside.  Then we found him hanging near the house.  I’ve been here for two years!
          I nod at her and try to rein in the fit of coughing. 
    -They want you outside, says the priest reappearing in our group.  They say you can show the films today.
          I graciously move towards the door of the cell.  Outside in the crowded outdoor space the coughing immediately subsides.  Urbain and I knock on the metal door and Eliza immediately opens it.  Outside, there are several people dressed in black robes with white bibs setting up a table next to one of the barred windows.  The Congolese judicial system at work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

In the Distance

          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.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Recent NYT Post

          Please check out my most recent post, Notes from a Young American: A Rebel Speaks, for Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


          As is his style, Dusan appears with no warning, practically popping up in a bowl of fufu I’m about to eat.  We must to go to Goma, please, really baby I need favor.  I would not be asking if I am not really needing you, I know you have job to do in Butembo but really, please baby.
          I arrange for Urbain to keep looking for a projector in Butembo and I give Baloti $100.00 donated to buy condoms for the Association of Women Living Alone, and we head to Goma.  I wonder, during the bumpy ride, if there is a Guinness World Record for the longest amount of time a person can talk in a stream.  I count the seconds that Dusan does not speak and add them up when we reach Goma.  The grand total at the end of the nine and a half hour trip is: 12 seconds.  He really could acquire a world record.
    -Everything is hypocrisy, he says during one of the few times I’m actually listening.  You must to have hope that you’ll find otherwise but know that you won’t finding it.
    -Are you a hypocrite? I ask, considering the ways in which I’m one.
    -Is that yes or no question?
    -I guess I should rephrase, how are you a hypocrite?
         He ignores the revision of my question but answers the general thought just the same.
    -I think I’m less of hypocrite than is normal.  But everyone is hypocrite.  If you are lamb in pack of wolves, you won’t be lamb.  You can’t be lamb.  You must to survive.  To survive is first.  About these elections.
          As usual, he changes the subject with no transition between thoughts.
    -I’m needing you to always have your passport ready.  And if there are some problems, you will nto have choice, I will pick you in Lubero.  You will be in Lubero and you will leave.
    -Don’t worry, I respond, I’m definitely going to take your advice and leave if you think I need to.
          With the elections only a month away, the country is finally starting to buzz.  Governmental forces have more than tripled in number and the ratty uniforms have been switched with crisp new camouflage.  In the cities, people are starting to discuss the various people running for “delegate,” though nobody seems to need to discuss Kabila. 
    -I’m thinking, continues Dusan, I am almost sure in this.   That there will be no problems but if there are problems. 
    -I need to  be prepared, I mutter and he nods.
    -Yes this is it.  You know, it’s like rain.  You’ve been in Congo long enough now to seeing that when the rain will come you can smell it in the air.  Even if you do not going outside, you can smell this rain.  There is something not able to touching in the air but you can feeling this.
    -Yes, I add, realizing that now that the rainy season has started again, I have been noticing myself reading the signs.  The wind often blows and the skies are often dark, but there is a subtle threshold and a certain something else that lets you know that rain will actually fall, not just threaten.
    -This is how I’m feeling about elections.  I do not think there will being problems but there is something in the air.  And situation is not good in Rwanda right now, I am not happy about this.
    -What do you mean?
    - America shifted support to Uganda, France is miniscule in terms of support even though they are still with Rwanda.  Kagame knows this is problem.  Rwanda is not a good investment.  It is now 17 years since genocide, and when Rwanda loses int’l support they have nothing.  They have no sustainable economy.  This is very bad.  There will be civil war but not yet.  Sarkozy went to speak with Kabila’s government in Kinshasa to ask them to give Rwanda open access to some of minerals Congo has here.  And he survived, amazing.  If someone is coming to Croatia and asking us to give our resources for free to neighboring country he will be killed, immediately.
    -When do you think there will be war in Rwanda?
    -I do not knowing but there will to be more problems still.  You hear this that Obama has sent 100 American soldiers to Uganda.
    -Yeah, to search for the FDLR and LRA except those groups are both in Congo not Uganda.
          Dusan chuckles at this blatant deception.
    -They are, I am telling you, he says.  Listening to everything is happening in Eastern Congo.  Right now they are listening to this what we’re speaking, I am telling you.  They are going to wait to see how things are going to happen with elections.  If things do not going their way they will to cause instability.
    -What will happen with CNDP (Congolese Tutsi forces who are integrated into the governmental army but are thought to be the connection between Kabila and Kagame)?  Will Kabila be kicked out?
    -I don’t know.  America is to decide.  They will listen and see what is to happen and they will to decide with not anybody knowing, what is to happen in entire region.
          Normally, I’d shake my head at this as a conspiracy theory in which the United States is always the devil.  But he’s almost definitely correct.  It’s well known that when Lumumba became the first Prime Minister the CIA ousted him to install Mobutu.  By this time, probably, the U.S. will be a bit more practiced at hiding their involvement.  We pass through a village that’s covered in FaRDC—governmental soldiers. 
    -They’re really rolling out the troops, I say.
    -Yes, they are needing to protecting the voting booths.  They do not wanting the rebels to attacking the voting booths, this is sure.  But how many people they will forcing to vote for Kabila, we’ll see.
          Dusan veers the conversation again to talk  about politics and homosexuality in Croatia, so I tune him out again.  We arrive in Goma at night; Mount Nyragongo sits against a starry sky like a black cauldron, its top simmering with fire like the country it is rooted to.
         Dusan introduces me to a friend of his, Lia, from Serbia and we all go out for dinner.  After dinner Lia comes back to our house to smoke some more cigarettes and talk politics and history with Dusan.  I guess the topic changes to something I might be interested in and the men switch into rusty English. 
    -My friend, says Lia standing against the porch railing, used to say that he would go around and ask every woman in place to fuck him.  He would get 49 slaps but always he found one woman to go home with.
    -That’s ridiculous, I say cringing.  I don’t get how anyone can be so non-selective.
    -It’s just for a fuck, Lia says laughing. 
    -You can to be horny! Dusan adds happily.
          Lia laughs.
    - I’m not proud of this, Lia says suddenly.  But when I was kid I was drunk I was in car situation and she didn’t want to but she couldn’t get out of car. 
    -Wait, I say quickly, but you stopped right you didn’t continue?
    -I was young and drunk kid.  She cried, he says chuckling.  I stare at him not sure what to do, how to move or what to think, so I just kind of stare.
          My world fades away and only Lia and I are left in it.  Dusan sees the potential fury building up inside of me and he changes the subject, but I just sit there staring at Lia.  This man who I sat next to at dinner.  Dusan sees I’m stuck so he returns to the general subject.
    -I do not to understand how anyone can to have erection when woman says no, he says in a non-accusatory way.  If woman says no, is no.  I do not understand brain that can to have erection when woman says no.
          My whole body is screaming fuck this country!  But it’s not this country.  This happened in Serbia, in an everyday, non-conflict zone situation.  It was probably a date that the girl was enjoying until that moment in a car.  I wonder how her life changed.  I don’t know what to do.  Lia has a wife and kids and is one of the few men here who doesn’t bounce around cheating on his wife.  He’s respectful and kind and I can’t mesh the images together.  It’s like oil and water.  Two years ago I would have responded to this with indignation.  But now indignation feels useless.  What does it accomplish?  How can I tell this man who’s 10 years older than me, that’s horrible.  He already seems to know it but still… he should be in jail.  My brain is a train wreck of confusion so I excuse myself from the men and go to bed.
          Dusan and I spend the next day at the MONUSCO offices, Arranging The Things.  When we’re about to leave, a tall dark man who speaks perfect English wanders into the office where I’m sitting.  He has an IPad and doesn’t know how to connect to the internet, so I agree to help him. 
    -What do you do here?  I ask, after we’ve left his office and are standing outside in the cold night air.
    -I’m in charge of corrections in North and South Kivu.  Prisons.
    -Wonderful!  I respond.  I just started working in the prison in Butembo.
    -Good, he says.  They need all the help they can get.  I feel so bad, I’m trying to help those women in the prison but if we lock their section of the prison all the time they will never have access to sunlight or open air. 
    -Yes, I’ve only been a few times but I can already see it’s a horribly complicated situation.
    -It is.  You know, there was a fourteen year old girl who was raped just last week.
    -Was she a prisoner?
    -No, she was visiting someone but she was kidnapped and hidden.  From Thursday until Monday she was hidden and kept as a sexual slave.
          I shiver, despite the sweater I’m wearing.
    -Is she okay?
    -I don’t know.  I don’t know how they could have hidden her for that long.
          Was I there when she was?  The thought brings ants to my skin.
    -Help them as much as you can, he says.
          We shake hands and he walks back to his office.  Dusan and I leave to meet up with Lia for dinner.  I still don’t know how to react or feel.  We sit at a table facing the lake and both of the men immediately commence chain-smoking.  I sit silently, not sure how to act.  As always, the conversation turns to prostitution.
    -How long did you make it before giving in to sleep with these local girls?  Lia asks.
    -Six months, says Dusan.
    -Because I am here only four months, responds Lia, and I am already fucked up in the head.  This is why I’m avoiding alcohol because I don’t want to sleep with these local girls.
          I can’t take it anymore, I know I need to say something or leave Congo because I won’t deserve to be here.
    -Even if you were drunk would you ever force a woman like you did in the car?  I ask.
    -No!  Never, Lia says emphatically.  That wasn’t because I was drunk it was because I was young and stupid.  I had nothing in my head.  Thinking only with the dick.  Now, I know who I am and what is okay to do to another human and what is not. I am sorry about that hundreds of times over.  It’s not human.  You know, my mother says that you can see a girl’s tears written in night sky.
          I nod, not knowing what else to do.  His indignation against himself is the only thing that could allow me to keep speaking with him, though I still feel strange about it.  What I’m trying to do in the prisons and with soldiers is to help educate them so they can move forward from a harmful mentality; to find humanity in people who seem to be monsters and hope that their humanity provides a road to progress. Maybe Lia is an example of that hope or that road.  But now that the situation of honesty, confession, has presented itself I don’t know the difference between justice and justified forgiveness and acceptance.  Everything feels grey.
          When I was a child, I found out that someone I cared about and respected had sexually molested someone else I care about.  I dismissed the man from my life but my pre-established love and respect for him fiercely battled the hatred that arose.  Forgiveness and justice are undefined and can’t be pinned down.  All I know is that Lia’s mother was probably right about tears, and there are a lot of stars in the sky.