Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Democratic Republic of Congo

Up early the next morning I thought I would have ample time to make it to my meeting across town. However, I had not counted on the extra time it would take to go in a car. It really sucks to show up to a business meeting with what are for all practical purposes temporarily all my worldly possessions (on my back), but I did not have much choice since I was really going to be pushing it to get to the airport on time. Frantically looking for a car a “private hire taxi” said sure I can take you now for $20,000 shilling. You have to be joking me, but yet again I was in a pinch and the classic Mzungu squeeze took a few more dollars from my shrinking coffer. By the time I arrived to the building for my meeting I was officially 20 min late…good think I am in Africa where things seem to run on a much looser timetable. What I did not expect was to get a full bomb check of both of my bags, I guess as a result of the bomb that had gone off the day before on a bus.

Luckily, when I greeted the secretary she let me know the guy I was meeting was still in another meeting. As I put down my enormous bags I tried to somewhat compose myself as I prepared to enter a business meeting in traveling clothes, flip flops, and no makeup. At least I had brushed my hair for the occasion! The meeting went amazingly well, but by the time we were done I was an hour past schedule for being at the airport.

I still had not purchased my ticket because the counter is only open at 10am the day the plane actually fly’s and I still had a minimum 45 min drive in front of me to get there. When we got to the airport I had to get out and be inspected at two check points (the bomb scare again) and then the taxi could only take me to the furthest general parking area because no cars were allowed to drive next to the entrance. After dashing across the parking lot with my pounds of gear and up two flights of stairs I finally spotted the TKM office. As I approached the desk I was scolded for showing up so late as the man (again upset I did not speak French) wrote out my ticket. When the money was due it turned out the ticket price had doubled from what I had been told and it was only ONE WAY! Yikes. No other choice I dolled out some more money and he took and extra $10 for helping me out. But really none of this dampened the high I was on. I have wanted to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo for such a long time and after years of thinking about it I was finally going.

Now I know there are a lot of people who just cannot fathom why I would want to go to such a place. I have thought long and hard about this myself. I guess it comes down to this. I personally cannot fathom what is happening to the women and people for the DRC. Since 1998 an estimated 5.4 million people have died here as a result of war (and the chaos it causes) and over 1,000 women a month are raped (and those are only the ones who actually come forward). On a human level I struggle to understand why this is all happening. Is it just a struggle for power or greed or minerals or total decay of humanity? That said, it is also a bit of a personal challenge. I have journeyed almost to the end of the earth, but never anyplace like the DRC, an active war zone for all practical purposes. The only thing I can compare it to is someone wanting to climb Everest or someone wanting to become a big wave surfer. I would say the only difference is not solely for personal edification; I also want to see firsthand and try to tell the story of what is here. The trick with riding any big wave is to have a plan, be confident, wax your board well, relax, and know that ultimately I am not in control.

To me the challenge of traveling to the DRC and trying to work here is my first attempt at riding a 50-foot wave.

But as I boarded the flight and I watched as we crossed the lake that separates Uganda and the DR Congo I felt like a kid in a candy store. As we flew over the vast green rolling hills and then jungle I saw jagged green mountains and plunging waterfalls. I felt like I have stumbled onto a lost Eden. Pretty soon I could see rural villages connected by a road, but houses separated by miles of fields. I was beginning to get a glimpse at why it is so hard to secure the DRC. Vast swaths of untamed jungle, rural villages dotting the hillside, and everyone in a while a larger “town” with red dirt roads that snaked across the landscape lined by shacks with corrugated tin roofs for miles. This was the Africa I had dreamed of not the tourist lined streets of Zanzibar. I could not believe my fortune that my friend Jamie’s husband’s cousin (still with me?) happened to be working in a remote village in N. Kivu and after several discussions she had agreed to help me get a letter of invitation. This is where I am meant to be I can feel it. And even before the plane landed on the first red dirt runway so we could change to a smaller plane I pondered how I could extend my visa.

At the first stop I had to go through immigration. A small room that had definitely not been updated since the 40’s two workers feverishly hand wrote on printer paper names and passport numbers. Both papers looked illegible. The woman was writing on her paper vertically and the man horizontally. The information was completely disorganized and I would assume useless. I could not help but imagine what the room full with stacks of this paper, that some bureaucratic must have decided was a good idea, must look like. I doled out another passport photo and $20 more dollars hoping I was about done paying for my visa!

I boarded a smaller “bush plane” with a pretty salty Canadian pilot and a young American co-pilot. After they made a few jokes about how I will not need my motorcycle helmet for the flight the older pilot handed his business card. He was sure to let me know he was going to be visiting Butterbur within the next few weeks and that I should call him. Quite sure I was not going to take him up on his offer to have a drink, I did stash his business card in a safe place. I figure it cannot hurt to have the direct email to a bush pilot in the DR Congo.

As the plane hit the ground in Butterbur animals and I am sure people had to clear the path. Surprisingly the runway was lined with a series of lean-to houses and people were laying on the grass outside of their homes 10 feet from the runway. As I disembarked the cool air filled my lungs and a man ran to greet me. He had a sign that said, “Sarah Fretwell Bon Vien COPERMA”. Apparently a foreigner at this airport is quite a rare site and the entire airport was waiting for me asking if I was the American coming to work. I was escorted to immigration (again) and after the gruff man scolded me for coming to his country and not speaking French he stamped my passport and bid me a good stay.

The young very excited and friendly man who greeted me was named, “Hagni”. Immediately inundating me with questions French, he seemed downtrodden when I told him I did not understand. He changed to English and told me this was a big problem I needed to learn French pronto and that he would teach me. As we walked to the COPERMA car he began spouting multiple line sentences in very fast French and then would stop and stare waiting for me to repeat them. This went on for 5 minutes before he got the drift that he may need to use shorter sentences. Wanting to take in the scene around me it was all I could do to grasp what he was saying and attempt to repeat it since he was so eager to teach. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the red dirt roads, burned tires, cement buildings and corrugated tin shacks, garbage filled gutters, and people everywhere.

By the time we made it to the COPERMA office he was determined to help me learn the entire French language that day. And then about an hour before I was able to convince him to write down a few words and only speak in phrases. And so my French lessons continued for a few hours. Just about fried from the language lesson I pulled out a photo from SB of Michael and myself and my Godchildren. Now I am sure that people here have Godchildren, but attempting to explain in English that no I am not married and I did not actually give birth to these kids and the guy in the photo is my boyfriend not my husband seemed to baffle Hangi.

The young woman I was meeting in the DR Congo, Amy Ernst, was still at a village taking supplies to a group of women who had recently been raped. As I checked the time and noticed the sun going down her words from a recent email rang in my ears,
“promise we will never be in Butterbur or anywhere close after 6pm”. The thing about the DR Congo is that during the day it seems like a typical third world town. People hawking their goods, tending to their fields, and cars running pedestrians off the pothole laden road. But from dusk till the early morning hours when it is dark outside, that is when the DRC becomes dangerous. Totally off the grid with only some generators soldiers and armed militias are able to move easily under the cover of night. When they have not been paid or when they are drunken robbing houses, raping women, and killing whoever gets in their way. Not really sure how far away we were staying from Butterbur or how late it was safe to stay I felt calm, but hoped that Amy was back in cell reception soon so we could figure out a plan.

With 15 min to spare the entire COPERMA team that had been in the village entered the room and jubilantly greeted me. Amy had given me the heads up that they were so excited to have a visitor they had been taking about my arrival for weeks and practicing their English greetings in the car. Finally at 6:15pm we headed out of town and bumped down the red dirt road into the forest. Amy lives with the Crosiers (Priests and Brothers from the Catholic Church) in a smaller village ½ hour up the road. Quite a lucky and somewhat exclusive location they have their own property with three night watchmen and the protection of being with the Catholic Church. As we drove down the pine tree lined driveway and over a small rock bridge I felt more like I was going to a summer camp in the hills of Holland than the Congo. Complete with three meals a day, hot running water, a cabin like wood lined room with a desk, and an excellent wireless internet connection (thanks to the electricity from a private hydroelectric plant) this was the most koosh place I have stayed yet! All in the Jungle of the DRC for only $7 a day. Maybe this will help make up for all those bribes I had to pay.

Tired from the few days of travel, but happy to be here Amy gave me the lay of the land and introduced me to all of the Brothers. They live a quiet life teaching classes in the community, preaching, and a lot of time praying. While they have welcomed us to their house nothing is expected of us we do not have to wake up to pray at 6am and joining the family style dinners is optional. I could go on about the combination of brothers for a few pages. Old ones, young ones, tall, short, pudgy, black, and white. Let’s just say they are a mishmash of cultures and personalities all living in one small community. The two find the most humorous is Father Jon. He is 82 and from Holland. He has quite a sense of humor and always pretends to trip whenever he serves me at dinner like he is going to spill it on me. He also forgets mid sentence that I do not speak French and will switch from telling me a story in English and end it in French. I think I catch the drift most of the time. The other is a very sweet Congolese brother from Kinshasa. He is just good natured and easy to talk to. The first dinner with them was quite entertaining and by the time I had a beer I was ready to retire for the evening. Now you may think that I would be nervous my first night in the DR Congo, but knowing that there were two guard dogs, three night watchmen, and the power of the pope on our side I slept like a baby. Until the sheep started bleeding for its babies outside of my window at 4am!

The first morning in the crisp mountain air was a refreshing change from sweating my everything off in Tanzania. At 10am we set off for our first of may motorbike rides on the bumpy red dirt roads and headed to Butterbur ½ hour away. It was a market day and the road was lined with hundreds upon hundreds of people carrying their goods and pushing heavily burdened bicycles loaded with every from a stack of plantains 12 feet tall to goats strapped to the tops of bundles of firewood. Amy was the lead motorcycle on her dirt bike and I followed behind with my trusty moto driver and helmet! The hands down best part of the ride was watching people reactions when they saw Amy a white woman with blonde hair zoom past on her dirt bike. Needless to say women do not drive bikes here and as you have guessed by now we are the only Americans for miles. Talk about rubbernecking. Adults and children caught off guard at the site of a Mzungu speeding past and driving her own bike was enough to turn some peoples heads 180 degrees. The look of shock and the stares were priceless. Pretty soon we began to pass school children in uniforms and in unison little voices would give a cheer. I wanted to keep the red dirt out of my mouth, but the whole scene was so funny I could not help but laugh out loud for most of the trip.

Watching Amy bounce down the road on her motorbike made me realize what a stunningly humble one woman power house she is. After seeing Eve Ensler’s Virginia Monologues and seeing a piece on the Congo she decided she wanted to work in the DR Congo. Her godmother connected her to the Crosiers, she found a place to stay, quite her job, and came to the Congo. She learned French, some of the local dialects, she listens to stories of Rape for hour on end and in all of her interactions greetings people with sincere friendship, humor, a listening ear, and compassion. For her it is all just a typical day.

At COPERMA they had a business day of catching up and taking notes. Amy took me on a tour of the town. She showed me the medical facility where they take survivors for exams, blood testing, the morning after pill, and whatever else they need. As we entered it was obvious that some of the girls in the waiting area were survivors. There is this look on their face and in their eyes that is quite haunting. Their eyes have such depth, but the look is quite hollow like things are too painful so they have checked out. We gave a local greeting to them which made them laugh and we headed up to meet the psychologist who works at the hospital.

Back outside the streets were bustling with vendors selling everything form plastic toys made in china, to your dads ski jacket that he donated to goodwill in the 80’s. People were surprised to see up walking around what when we yelled “Wahey” the local what’s up they would erupt with laughter and see us as a little more legit. After getting lost for a bit Amy took me to another medical facility that was the opposite end of the spectrum. A treatment facility for the mentally ill which is sometime the only option for women who are so traumatized from the rape that they cannot return home and function in everyday life.

The cement building looked as if it had been painted once years ago and never cleaned. There were people everywhere crowded into miserable rooms with people on beds close enough that if you rolled over you would hit the other person. People so Thorzined out that they could barely speak or were just rocking in place. It was a tragic place that you can only take for a few minutes because every ounce of you being just wants to leave. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to live there. We went back to COPERMA to discuss what projects I could see and help work on while I am here. We agree that I should see all of the project sites: Child soldier rehabilitation, the girl mothers (girls who have been raped and have a child), survivors of sexual violence, and the communities that are serving as their foster communities. They think it is important for me to see everything and photograph it all. “We want you to take pictures and show people in your country so they will know the problems and great need we have here”.

This small organization is made up of such amazing local people spearheaded by Mama Marie. Most of the people there have already told me they love their job. They are the bright and driven younger generation who want to effect the future of their country. Every time I walk in the room they like to practice the bit of English they know and then erupt in laughter at each other. Everyone keeps saying I am so happy to meet you I am so happy you are here.

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