Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Speaking Engagements

          Dear Readers,

    Unfortunately, the United Nations project was extremely time-consuming, thus, I was not able to spend time in the prison or much time with COPERMA.  The trip is not presently something I can post about.  I'm planning another trip to D.R. Congo in a few months but until then, I am speaking about issues in Congo in Baltimore, MD at:

          -Goucher College, March 1st at 7 pm (with a panel discussion)
          -Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, March 6th from noon until around 1:30 p.m.

    If you are in the area and would like to attend, please do so!  For specific information as to location, either ask at any University building or contact me at  I have several scheduled engagements at the end of March in Minneapolis, MN, and I will be posting details as those dates approach.
          Thank you as always for your support and interest in the D.R.C.
               Amy Ernst

Sunday, February 5, 2012

No Place Like Congo

          I hop on the back of a motorcycle in the grey Goma morning.  As the city slowly wakes up alongside the sun, the air is a freshly cut orange, both crisp and soft.  I love this place.  When I left in December I had a knot of frustration in my chest that made it hard to breathe.  Sometimes taking a break is like getting a fresh pair of eyes, a new heart, and wiping the grime of futility off of your brain.  Coming back, it’s nice to remember that it didn’t always feel hopeless.
          Now, as we speed through the yawning city the word “muzungu” feels like a personalized greeting again rather than a targeted attack.  The stares of people turning their heads at the flash of weird looking white skin feel welcoming rather than hateful and heavy.  I chuckle at a man peeing directly into the road, respectfully covering part of his penis with his left hand though for some reason not simply turning away from the road.  Even the FaRDC soldiers who try to pressure me into buying them sodas at the United Nations airport gate make me smile.
          On the small, 1970s style puddle jumper, a large Congolese man across from me starts up a conversation that inevitably leads to the question of me giving him a job.  I’m unemployed too, I explain honestly, so if you find a job let me know maybe they’ll take me too.  He smiles but doesn’t believe me and continues listing off his skills and experience.  He lives in the U.S. but wants to come back to Congo. 
    -In the U.S. I have to work three jobs just to stay afloat it’s too tiring, he explains.  Here, with my experience, if I can get a good job I can work hard and live comfortably.
          The closest I’ve come to hearing a Congolese person say this was when a half-American, half-Congolese friend of mine explained why he moved back to Congo after twenty years in the States.
    -In the United States I was in a cage, he said.  Let me go to the poor country where at least I can feel free.
          Though, freedom inevitably depends on wealth.  In Butembo I retrieve my motorcycle and fly across the potholes, trying not to choke on the gritty dust which is as thick as fog.  The rainy season is over; the daily build-up of suggestion-to-foreboding-to-threatening-to-a-dark-and-forceful-climax seems to have disappeared with the elections.  The elections were simply one day during a rainy season and now that the rain has passed it’s as If it never happened, save for a bit of mud.  As predicted, construction on the roads stopped abruptly after the results.  Kabila’s a manipulative child, behaving only long enough to get what he wants.
          Once I’ve reacquainted myself with the city I pull up to the little cement COPERMA office.  Hangi greets me enthusiastically outside.
    -The chair is there, he says pointing to a chair when we move inside.
          Although it’s a cultural translation, I used to find this statement irksome; alongside the greeting “you are there.”  Now I smile, thank him graciously and sit down. 
    -I sent in the grant proposal, I say with a smile.  Sorry I kind of waited until the last minute.
          COPERMA is constantly working on grants and I help with the English.
    -You were going to kill me!  Hangi exclaims clutching his heart.  My heart was beating so hard thinking that it would not be sent in.
    -Well, Hangi you didn’t give me a whole lot to work with, I say laughing.  I’m sorry but you sent me an annual budget with six lines and a total of 1,483,000 USD!
          Hangi starts laughing.
    -If you guys have a budget of over a million dollars you better start paying me!  I continue.
    -It was a misunderstanding, he says.  I thought they wanted to know what our ideal budget would be to fully finance all of our projects.
          I purse my lips and and raise my eyebrows at Hangi.  He laughs.  COPERMA is very serious about their budgets and having transparency but the standards and ideas are different when dealing with western world organizations.  Hangi and I spend a lot of time arguing about the importance of details, accuracy, and what the west wants.  Communication across cultures is still our largest problem. 
    -When will we go to the prison to continue the work?  Hangi asks.
    -Hopefully this week, I say lighting up.
          I can’t wait to get back inside those walls which once terrified me.
    -I’m helping with a United Nations project, I continue.  So we’ll have to schedule it when I have some downtime, but it’s definitely a priority.
          Hangi nods with a big smile on his face.  He loved working in the prison as well.  Something about it makes you feel like you’re in a secret society, even though it’s one neither of us would ever actually want to join.
    -Eh, eh, eh!  I hear to my left.
          Maman Marie struts into the room in all of her glory.  She’s just as stately, goofy, beautiful and kind as ever.  She grasps me in a bear hug and throws me to her left cheek, right cheek, then back to the left.  Thankfully, everyone stopped trying to do the culturally normal forehead taps with me since I normally end up awkwardly bashing into their head or almost kissing them.
    -Comment-ca-va?  She exclaims, separating each syllable for emphasis.
    -Ca va bien!  Ca va ici?
    -Yes, she says.  Things are good.  How are your parents?  Did you greet them for us?
    -I did, I respond.  They send you their greetings as well.
          Even though nobody in Congo knows my parents, everybody I know is extremely diligent about sending their greetings. 
    -So, how is the work and the situation here?  I ask, once we’ve finished our hello.
    -The work is going well, she responds and sits on a bench next to me.  We’re having a play this weekend!  In Kavingu, the girl-mothers have put together a teatre.  It’s part of the psychosocial program to help community integration.
    -Wonderful, I say.  And in terms of rape and banditisme has it diminished at all?
          I had hope that the remnants of Kabila’s electoral manipulations might include a slightly more disciplined army.
    -No, she says immediately letting all light flood out of her face.  In Isale now they’re abducting women.  The ADF-NALU (Ugandan rebel group) take a woman and keep her for four days or so.
          My face drops to match Maman Marie’s and I my shoulders droop.
    -I didn’t want to tell you over internet, Hangi says looking at me sadly.  Our neighbor just down the road went to Isale to check on her field.  The NALU came to her field and took her to one of their camps in graben where they are many.  They said, no,no, if the Maman doesn’t want to be killed she needs to call her family and get 50,000 dollars.
          I snort before I can stop myself.
    -Where on earth do they think she would get that kind of money?  I ask.
    -The NALU think that people who leave Butembo and go to the fields are rich.  The Maman called and then told them, no, no, maybe it’s my time, you must kill me.  But finally, she was able to find 7,000 dollars and then they freed her. 
    -How did she get even that much?
    -She asked many people in Butembo to help.  We helped the little bit that we could.  It’s an old woman of 60 years. 
    -Is she okay?  Did they hurt her?
    -She doesn’t speak about it, Hangi continues.  If you ask her she begins to cry.
    -Did she go to the hospital?  I ask.
    -Yes, she did, Hangi responds.
    -The NALU are trying to finance their group now by taking the local people hostage, Maman Marie cuts in.
          I shake my head.  Aside from rape and pillaging the villages for a few chickens and goats, now the rebels are reaching deeper into pockets that don’t exist.  We all mull over the matter for a few moments, frowning into space until Maman Marie changes the subject.  She has been invited to participate in a gender inequality event in Brasil and is giddy with excitement.  Maman Marie has only been to Uganda.  I imagine her trying to navigate a European airport and tell her to ask people for help anytime she’s confused so she doesn’t miss her plane.
          I need to arrange things for the U.N. project and Hangi is free for the rest of the day so we go on a scavenger hunt around the city for several hours.  I’m greeted in the streets by people I know and people I don’t and by the end of the day my cheek muscles are exhausted from smiling.  There is no place like Congo.