Monday, January 24, 2011

The Light and Dark of Congo - Part II

In the mud hut all day.

We listen to testimony of survivors. Amy interviews, one of the staff members translates, and when I get permission from the interviewee I film and shoot stills. Most of the interviews are palpable. Since the survivors rarely show emotion you do not want to be the one to grimace or cry. No matter the story or my emotion, I have to contain it. The older women’s stories are sad, but somehow less desperate. Most of them are already married and have children. They are traumatized and need help, but they have a level of emotional maturity from the hard life here that helps them seems to help them move on. The testimony that gets me is the young girls. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.

Not only are they traumatized; many of the hopes for the future have been devastated. They are now stigmatized. ‘Used goods’. They are not eligible for marriage. As an angry 13-year-old put it, “What man would want me?”. In this society marriage does not only mean a life partner (hopefully), it means economic stability, social standing, the ability to buy/sell land, and some level of protection. Women cannot do many things socially and legally without their husband’s permission. Without a husband to serve as the intermediary with society, women have no place, no rights, and no future.

I try not to feel their despair and hold the space for a brighter future, but then my anger seeps in. One careless soldier trying to regain an ounce of his misplaced masculinity in this fractured society just effected the entire course of this young girls future. I want to hug the girls. Tell them it is not their fault and that we will try to catch the man who did this to them. We know the soldiers name and his commander, but I know he will never be caught. The commander will just deny it, even if he was there. He is the supreme authority in the area. Even if the soldier is caught, he won’t get in trouble. And the girls will have to deal with this mostly on their own for the rest of their life. And then I wonder what am I really doing here? It is not like I can give her anything tangible beyond food or take them to the free clinic. What is the point of acting as a voyeur into someone else’s pain?

Always more girls/women waiting to meet us than we have time for, Mama Marie usually walks into an interview and tells us it is time it is time to go because it is getting late or because soldiers are near. Racing against the dark of night. It is usually raining on the way back to Butembo. Sometimes we listen to hip hop music as we bump along the road. Wyclef. Acon. Backstreet Boys. N’sync. We have heard the same tape about 100 times. When we have the energy, I ask questions about observations I have made that always seem to stir a great debate. Kinande , French, and an occasional English translation spewing across the car on the way to Butembo. Everyone has a different opinion as to why all this is happening. Since we cannot stop the war on our own, arm all the women, or get rid of all the soldiers, the only solution that we can immediately come up with is we need more money. How can money help? To send the kids to school to school, give girl mothers vocational training so they do not have to become prostitutes, so the families can buy seeds to cultivate, so they can eat, and replace what the soldiers have looted. Everything seems equally important. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we work daily just to try to meet the bottom rungs. Most of the time we aren’t even able to address those. The thought of being able to work with the survivors’ emotions and personal enlightenment seems an ever evasive glass ceiling.

Once in Butembo we hop on motorbikes and race against the darkness. If we have time we stop at the only “Expatriate” mini-mart in town. Look for something edible and recognizable is my general plan. An apple, a can of tuna, some peanut butter, or a Guinness. As we drive past fruit stands we hunt for a tomato, avocado, or an egg. We pass the soldier barriers before nightfall. Making it home in the nick of time or a little too late…

At the Crossiers we search for cold leftovers white rice, maybe cabbage, and if I am lucky beans, if not some mystery meat. If there is electricity I rush to check my email and connect with another reality before it turns off.

The evenings are precious because it is our only time to try to relax and decompress. If we have the energy, we spend time discussing the traumas of the day.

One fifteen year old just told us today that there are other girls who were captured by soldiers and taken to the bush. She was there for a week and escaped. Right now as you read this the girls are still trapped at the soldiers camp in the bush. Even though we know where they are we can’t get a hold of the UN to report the situation. Even if we can get a hold of the UN, there is no guarantee they will or can go there. Usually full of ideas, I am at a bit of a loss as to a plan that would actually rescue the girls and not put us into serious danger.

We usually end up drinking a beer and singing/playing some music. Voice therapy releases our emotion and lightens our spirits. You have to be able to joke and relax. Being serious about everything would kill you here. It is yet another contradiction of the Congo, laugh in the face of fear.

I fall into bed at night. Waking up intermittently in the night to download and transfer files so my gear will be ready the next morning.

As the day breaks my alarm clock is a mother goat bleating for here babies. Her call sounds like a human woman in the midst of an excruciating birth. Finally the babies answer back. She stops. I check my watch. It is anywhere from 6-7am. I open my cabin window over looking the taro patch. I gaze out on the forest of green trees enveloped in mist as the warm morning light filters past. I take a deep breath inhaling the beauty of the Congo.

It’s time to do it all again. I hope today we can really help.

The Light and Dark of Congo - Part I

The Light and Dark of Congo

For the last few weeks I have been struggling to keep up with all that goes into working and living here. And at the same time, I wrestle on a daily basis with how I can sum the vast light and dark of the DR Congo. Unsure how to capture with words or images all that exists here, I have sat in silence taking it in, hoping it would come to me. In life I guess we would not know good if we did not know bad. It is just that here it exists in the extremes. At times I feel I can make a world of difference here and at others I feel I am contributing nothing.

My morning begins with a forty-five min motor cross ride to town. Then a two-hour drive to whatever village we are visiting that day. Sometimes the ride is fine. Other times, as my rear hits the seat with a “thud” my spine compresses and I crack my head on the top of the 4 Runner I want to yell. There are miles of breathtaking mountains and valleys as far as the eye can see. When you turn the bend in the road the forest that has been slashed and burned for farmland. Around the next bend, a young green eucalyptus forest sprouting from the once clear cut land. In the background, vast lush hillsides that look as if no one has ever set foot on them. On the roadside we meet a kind loving man holding his newborn son. This man is the exception; he stayed with his family even after his wife was raped. He also, stayed through the war even though he has been unable to support them “like a man should”. Driving up the road we hear tales of other men who have abandoned their wives and 12 children. They have taken another wife in hopes of starting a better life. We make appointments to assist their abandoned families who now with no property or rights in society, they fight for themselves. Further down the road we meet a girl mother impregnated by rape who would have taken the morning after pill had she known about it, but greatly love their child. Her beautiful daughter who will never know her rapist father is like a beam of sunshine. With a smile on her glowingly innocent face she proudly tells us she dreams of becoming nurses so they can help others.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Bush

We have visited several villages in the bush. Never knowing who we will meet along the way or what the situation really is until we get there (or sometimes how we will get there), it is always an adventure.

We have gone to one village 3 or 4 times now. It is called Isalie. It is an enchanted place built on the steep hillsides. Most of the homes are $5 mud brick shacks with million dollar views. With a pristine landscape, red mud that has been patted completely flat, and children’s laughter echo's off the terraced hillsides. Many times I have to pinch myself to make sure the idyllic setting it is real. Well until we see the soldiers’ camp that is. You see the FRDC (Congolese government troops) have moved onto the tallest hillside overlooking the village and “Garbin” (the valley) below. From a vista as close as I dare to go, I can see one main brick compound in the middle of the green rolling hill with makeshift A-frame tents big enough for two people dotted across the hillside. The troops are here to keep other rebel factions out of the area, but in the meantime they are raping women, looting the market, beating the husbands when they take everything the family has, and recruiting young boys to fight. The soldiers foot path off the mountain runs right behind some of the COPERMA member’s huts.

Shocked by the proximity these members have daily with the soldiers; I could not help, but remember a line from a bible verse I learned at Lutheran school. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”. It goes on to say, “Thy staff and thy rod comfort thee”. The only problem is that these girls literally live in the shadow of rape and death, but when I meet the 13 year old survivor I see that even God is not able to protect them. They have to go each day to the “source” to get water, to the forest to collect firewood, and walk to their land miles away to cultivate crops always running into soldiers along the way.

We finally made it to the new village only when one of the COPERMA staff takes a personal loan from a friend. More shocking than any village we have visited. The soldiers have been though five times and taken everything. The crops, the firewood, the women, the clothes, and the dignity. As we wait in the most private room we can find, the interviewees come in one after another. It seems each time another walks in the door they are younger and younger. Some able to smile and look at us. Some completely shattered. So angry, embarrassed, or vacant from the experience they physically turn away from us and look at the wall during the interview.

One girl knows the name of the soldier. He kidnapped her back to his camp and made her his “wife”, in his mind this forced marriage is a lesser evil than rape. Two soldiers took turns on her for a week. Another girl in the group was not taken as a wife and raped by 10 soldiers for the week. After about eight days the girls were sent to the market to buy food, but they ran away instead. The soldier that took her, his name is “Justin” (she heard other people talking to him). Some of the other girls and women who were captured that day were still there when she fled and she has not seen them since. We are worried they are still there. Even with the name of the commander, the soldier, and the location we can’t go get the women/girls who are there. Our only hope is to call Amy’s friend at the UN, but we cannot get a hold of him. Even if we could the UN here is so overwhelmed I am not sure they have the willpower to deal with this. I think of the last time we visit the UN headquarters in Lubero and how all the troops were in gym clothes playing volleyball. Everyone needs R&R and the entire Congo is too big for any one organization to police, but I really hope when they hear about something like this they can move through the bureaucracy and act.

Before we leave the village we dine on white rice and some very tasty salty cabbage doused in palm oil. Luckily, it is not a repeat of last time white rice and goat intestines. It is hard to complain when you see that these people have nothing and you cannot refuse a meal, but they really do not have the means to be feeding all of us.

Always racing against the setting sun, while I want to be here these extreme events have become so normal (interviews with survivors, dirt bike rides, meeting demobilized child soldiers, starving children, and families who have nothing) it has almost become monotonous. Or maybe is my soul trying to numb my conscious mind so I will not become completely overwhelmed. Just about the time I feel ready to check out of the Congo, an adorable child’s eyes will light up at the sight of me. His lips move and I hear a barely audible “Muzungu”. He stands reverently on the side of the road. His face look as if has just seen the last golden unicorn on Earth and he is in awe of what he has witnessed. The local women will blush and laugh as I return local greetings. As we pass the market where we buy our fruit, the entire market, all 200-300 vendors, raise their hands and shout greetings as we zoom past on the dirt bike.

With all the hardship and human evil that exists, it is the heart of the Congo’s people that keep drawing me extend my stay here.

Back at the Crossiers Amy, Alanna, and I hang out on the porch. Amy has a cigarette in one hand and a beer in another. Alana is strumming her ukulele and drinking tea. I am downloading files on my computer and having a glass of wine. It is the night before the full moon, the air is damp and misty and we all have on jackets. We talk about how intense the last few days of interviews have been. Amy says she has never head of this before…women who have escaped and knowing the location of the others. She tried to call her friend at the UN again, but to no avail.

Tonight we go to bed knowing there are still some women somewhere out there in the bush that have been captured and serving as concubines for soldiers and there is nothing we can do.

It is truly an awful feeling.

I decide I need to retire early to my room just to relax and veg out. As I say my goodnights, Amy says, “I don’t want to worry you, but you should hide your electronics. A parish about 40km away was pillaged last night”. But don’t worry no one was hurt or raped, just robbed”.

Walking down the hall to my room I grabbed a large can of insecticide, I am sure it can act like mace in a pinch. I lock the door and secure it with a chair. I hide my hard drives and money. I go to be fully clothed in case I have to leave quickly. Thinking of the women I cannot save and the possibility of soldiers visiting my home I listen to every bump in the night. Tossing and turning my sleep is deep and dark.

I wake up at 6am to see the light of day, thankful to have made it through unscathed. As I open my window the morning light reveals the assortment of weapons surrounding my bed, a heavy glass bottle of alter wine (the brothers bottle) that I figured may daze someone if hit on the head, by my pillow my defunct Nicaraguan switchblade that can barely cut an orange, the can of insecticide, the cockeyed chair barricading the door, my headlamp, and gold cell phone by my head. The assortment or blockages and random weapons across my room looks like the aftermath of a day of play in a child’s fort.

Would any of these things really help me if soldiers visit our compound? I am not really sure, but very glad I did not have to find out.



I am not sure I have properly introduced the staff from COPERMA. They are truly an amazing group of dedicated humanitarians, all Congolese. They show up with smiles to work each day. They arrive from their mud brick and stick huts dressed in their immaculately pressed business clothes. Many times the morning is spent in search of gas money in order to fill up the gas tank. Often, they take personal loans from their friends and family to go into the bush to meet new clients, check on projects, and deliver goods such as medicine and plant seeds. Often on the way they have to get out and push the 4 Runner up a particularly steep section of the road, since the bald tires no longer have any tread. If we are in the 4 Runner, we break down at least once on a trip. If we are in the truck, we break down at least 4 times. The driver/mechanic, Fisto, is key to our operation. He always seems to know exactly how to fix the problem and we are usually on our way in 10 minutes. If we get to the field and see that someone has stolen a part of the crops COPERMA uses for members, they grab hoes and in their business clothes (with their laptop case strapped around their neck) everyone works as fast as they can the to harvest the entire field. They work the whole day without a break for lunch or a snack. With no choice, we stay until all of the potatoes are out of the ground. This means we will drive home in the dark. Otherwise, thieves will steal the rest of the crop and all the initial investment, sweat equity, and potential income for members will be lost. Wanting to be safe, I can’t really ask them to leave the potatoes in the field to keep the mzungu safe, so I go along with the plan.

When in Congo [Rome].

So, the team members drive back through the bush on the road where last month the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, was stopped at a roadblock and robbed by his own soldiers. They drop us off at the Crossiers on the way back to Butembo. We ask what time everyone will be in the office in the morning. We assume it will be later since everyone will not get home until 9pm. “Nine in the morning, same as usual”, is the reply. They bump back to Butembo hoping they will make it unscathed through the next two roadblocks. All this and no one is sure how much they will be paid at the end of the month, if anything at all.

I go back an forth between thinking they are the most amazing people on earth and feeling offended a few of them still see any white person (i.e. me) as a money pot who has access to infinite amounts of cash. The other day when Alana (the visitor from Hawaii) asked Mama Marie what project she could work on for the next month, she was handed an itemized list of needs that totaled $30,000. Her job order was, “Find this!”. Alana squirmed. She attempted to explain she was thinking more along the lines of helping COPERMA achieve 501-c3 status, so people could make tax deductible donations. Mama Maire shook her head and said, “No, we need this”. I resent being seen as a money pot, but I do get their point. We are a rare opportunity. A resources to be exploited before it is gone. In America the streets are paved with gold (well ok at least with asphalt) and everyone is a millionaire (well when compared with the earning power of the average Congolese). Even if I am middle class in America I have more earning power and more opportunity than most of them ever will. Hence, I have access to a vast amount of resources they do not. Excellent at making split second decisions that potentially involve life and death, Mama Marie has summed us up and our greatest resource is access to seemingly infinite amounts of cash.

When COPERMA cannot go to a new village for over week to meet 26 new rape survivors because they cannot find the gas money to get there I begin to see that maybe she is right about us.

As we meander into the bush, Mama Marie will sometimes recount stories about near life and death misses. The stories are told with a smile on her face. Jerking along the path in the truck, I asked her what the round shatter pattern is in the windshield. It’s shape and placement looked as if the driver had stopped suddenly and the passenger firmly embedded their forehead into the glass. “Oh that? That is from bullets when we were rescucing three girls from their father”. “So someone shot at your head and it did not make it through the glass?”. “No, no. We had to go into the bush to rescue three girls who had been molested and impregnated by their father. We got caught in a gun battle, me, the girls, and the driver were all naked in the car …strip searched by soldiers”. Stunned silence –a million more questions on my mind-. “Was that your most awkward work moment?”, I had Amy ask. [Mama Marie erupts in laughter unable to speak] “No, no”. “Well what was your most awkward work moment then?”. Mama Marie went on to tell the story of one time when she had been on a bus with a preacher who was preaching hell fire and brimstone to anyone who would listen. “Women should not become prostitutes, even if their children cannot eat”, he proclaimed. God would help them in all situations and would always keep those who were faithful safe. Not that Mama Marie disagreed with him, but she was a bit embarrassed as his endless evangelizing to the entire bus. At a roadblock the bus was stopped by soldiers, the entire bus (including the preacher and Mama Maire) was stripped naked and robbed. Luckily, Mama Marie managed to slip ten dollars into a hiding spot she refuses to mention. In the midst of her story she was unable to speak due to laughter, all she could get out was, “You would not believe where you can hide money. So far away that no one can find it!”. The soldiers cut off all the women’s hair in ensure they had tucked money under their head wraps. After the soldiers left, the entire bus continued to the next village, buck naked. Still laughing so hard she could barely talk, Mama Marie recounted how embarrassed everyone was (especially the pastor) trying to cover their “sexes” with both hands. The preacher was silent. At the next village Mama Marie retrieved the $10 she had stashed and bought sheets for everyone so they would not arrive at in Goma naked. That was her last $10 for her journey and she was a good 6 hours from home with no food, no place to stay, and no clothes! But that is Mama Marie, doing what is needed in the moment trusting it will work out.

Out of necessity that is pretty much how COPERMA is run. By the seat of their pants (or sheets) with whatever they have at the time. With a list of needs that is ever growing and new survivors every week they continue to expand their programming based on need (not resources), because no one else is doing this work.

I am in awe of their vision and passion. I know few people who in the face of this many years of war and hardship, would have the stamina to work as hard and selflessly for the future of their country as the people of COPERMA.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Obama and a sewing machine - Part II

Ironically, the next group of people we were interviewing were several young girls all of whom had been raped and fled their village within the past month. They had previously received services through COPERMA and had been placed into foster families in the local community. Today was a chance to check on them and see how they were doing. Up until this meeting I do not think I had emotionally processed anything that I was being exposed to in the Congo. But this testimony was different. There were these incredibly sweet, innocent, young, and traumatized girls recounting their stories of being raped by multiple soldiers when their communities were attacked. My instinct was to hug them, but in Congolese culture that was not appropriate. Angered, horrified, and moved I sat there taping and shooting as these girls divulged the specifics of the attacks and how they were now doing. Since I do not speak Kinandie, I peered over Amy’s shoulder as she took notes in English. As I listened to a particularly enduring 14 year old who had been raped along with her two sisters something in me snapped. She continued to express her worry for her family and her village. Her sisters had fled in different directions and she was worried about them. The story was so intense I had to remind myself it was real. I began to wonder if we could figure out a way to get these girls guns to protect themselves. What is their other option? Just wait and get raped again?

During a pause in the conversation, I asked Amy if I could pose a question. “Is there is anything you need that could help you protect yourself?” I asked the girls. There was a brief pause while the translator went from French to Kinandie and back. “Yes”, one girl replied, “a sewing machine”.

Well that was defiantly not the answer I was expecting, but OK. I get it. Mostly, the girls were looking for something to keep them busy to keep their minds off of the trauma. They were also looking for a way to become self-sufficient.

Here I had been thinking about running guns and the girls were thinking to the future. Again amazed by their perseverance, Amy made a note to look into getting a few sewing machines.

Obama and a sewing machine - Part I

sewing machine

This was no ordinary day it was December 31st the last day of 2010. The office was bustling with excitement. Not only was is the last day of the year, but we were also going to a village to meet with some new COPERMA clients recently demobilized child soldiers and to interview some young girls who had to flee their villages after being raped.

When we arrived I was not sure I would be allowed to shoot at all, but hoped that Amy would ask if it was possible. Some of these kids were minors and I wanted to be very sensitive to their traumatized state.

In general there is great debate about photographing rape survivors at all. My feeling is this. Rape is not a comfortable subject. People do not like to talk about it or think about it. It is a subject most people would rather ignore than face. In all honesty it is more comfortable for the general public to not look at images of survivors. Not the other way around. These women have survived one of the most traumatic events you could experience and still physically be alive. If they want to share their story and telling other people will empower them I want to help make their voice heard. If a girl was raped when she was 15 and she is now 17 years old, estranged from her family, and supporting a child alone I feel for all practical purposes she is an adult and has a right to make the decision to speak publicly. That said, I feel very protective of the younger girls who may not be able to fully understand the lasting repercussions of speaking out about being raped.

As we settled in for the interviews a COPERMA community member offered their two-room mud hut for our meetings. This time we sat on a straw bed with a foam mattress in a dank mud brink room. There was one small window that filtered enough light we could just make out each others faces.

First, we interviewed three teenage boys who had recently defected from a paramilitary army. After several years of fighting they had returned to this community to live with their birth families. Today COPERMA wanted to see how they are doing and get a feel for if they were readjusting to life in the village. Kids who reenter their village under COPERMA have to sign a contract that they will not return to the army, but there is little anyone can do to enforce it. Sometimes the kids are recaptured by the military and other times disillusioned with the limited job options they return to fight.

The three teens squeezed onto a small wooden bench and leaned on each other. Four of us sat in a semi circle opposite of them. The first boy about 16 was cocky and it was obvious he had few social skills. His eyes were weary and sad. His grin was more like a mischievous smirk. As he talked, he looked away from us into the corner or covered his face with a red handkerchief. He never made eye contact. It all seemed like a game to him laughing and offering what seemed to be agreed upon answers, it was a frustrating interview because it was apparent he was just handing us BS and though it was funny. The next boy seemed almost angelic. With good manners and a genuine smile he began to answer questions more openly, until the first boy began to continually interrupt and feed him answers. Frustrated we told them we wanted to continue the interviews separately, but they refused and said they wanted to stay together. We told the first boy, who seemed to have some pull over the other two, to stop feeding them answers or go outside.

They all talked about killing people, so many people they could not possibly remember. Old people they thought were sorcerers and anyone else who got in the way. They told us about a tattoo they all had that protected them from bullets. It was a small cross that looked like a brand someone had made with a needle. They also said, “If a soldier rapes his tattoo does not protect him and we kill him”. A few different times we tried to ask if they knew anyone with the tattoo who had ever been killed, but they always said, “No”. Asked point blank if they had ever raped anyone they all point blank denied doing so.

Who knows the power of belief is mighty. Maybe no one with the tattoo has ever been shot or maybe it is because none of the villages they attack have guns. After the interview we asked the teens if I could photograph them as long as I did not show their face. They agreed. As I photographed them I realized that one of them had an Obama belt buckle. Of all things, that was the absolute last article of clothing I had expected to run across that day. Pants so torn the thread was barely holding them together and shoes that looked as if they had been worn for years. Somehow this guy in the middle of the bush had found an Obama belt buckle. Hey do you know where I can get on of those?

PART II - Next Post

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Village Elections

As my alarm went off I drug myself out of bed. Today was my 9th day in the DR Congo and while I still really wanted to be here the novelty was beginning to wear off. Faced with the knowledge that it had been pouring rain most of the night the roads were going to be even worse than normal. Already tired to the bone, the prospect of getting tossed around on a 45-minute moto taxi ride no longer excited me.

Amy let me know that she had stuff she needed to work on that day so she was not going into town. It would just be me with COPERMA. As I packed my gear for the day I ate some bland cassava porridge and drank some muddy instant “Coffee”. I thought to myself, “Does this stuff even have caffeine in it?” Truly, it makes Nescafe instant coffee seem like the best cup of your life. I just wanted something anything to make me feel a little less tired and miserable!

My moto taxi arrived and as an afterthought I grabbed my ipod. At least I could check out and blast some music for a while. Driving down the road I cranked some old school Pearl Jam. As Eddie laid it down, I also belted out the lyrics at the top of my lungs. It just made me feel better. Not sure if I was trying to talk to him or what the heck I was doing, the moto taxi kept turning his head to see if I was up to. Tired of being on display I only waved to a few kids along the way. By the time we reached town and Eddie crooned “I knew that I would not ever touch, you hold you fell you in my arms. Never again, again, again…” The voice therapy had worked and I felt much better.

Arriving at COPERMA, they were worried that I was ½ hour late. “Yes, sorry it was a long morning. So are we ready to go?”. They told me come inside we are almost ready. Once inside I realized that since Amy was not going to be there to translate they had requested that their “English teacher” stay with us for the day so he could translate for me. Having heard their English classes the day before I was pretty sure that he was going to benefit more from practicing English with me, than I was going to glean from him being my translator. I greeted him. We quickly established he was eager to speak non-stop the entire day. At first I had no desire to try to make incessant small talk, but as he charmed me with his desire to practice English I realized now had a personal translator / assistant. Hey maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

We waited for over two hours while Mother Marie went to find some money and some gas to put in the car. Good thing I had not come at 9am! Once we were set 7 of us piled into the 4 Runner, which had grown progressively dirtier from the combination of mud puddles from rain and the red dry dust that engulfed us everywhere we went. As, we drove out of town I looked in my French dictionary to try to explain to my “translator” the events that had transpired the previous day. It turns out that the word for “ransom” in French is pretty similar to English. As I pointed at out team member and explained they were going to hold him for “ransom”, everyone in the car (including the driver) erupted in laughter. It seems the Congolese way overcome trauma and near disaster is with laughter. They prodded my why Amy had not come that day. I said, “…well she has to work on her article and…I don’t know maybe she is stressed”. Mama Marie who barely speaks English replied in plain as day English, “Stress? I am the one who is stressed!”. Again the car erupted in laughter. With everyone’s mood lightened we bounced down the track further into the bush than I had ever been.

We arrived at a stunningly picturesque little village. Situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking miles of bananas, a tree studded valley, and another mountain range in the distance. This was our outdoor classroom for the day. As the COPERMA team members pulled a full size school blackboard out of nowhere the local community assembled around us. Men, women, children, and babies today was going to be the COPERMA elections where they would select a president, vice president, secretary, and discipline committee. The committee would work to help run the COPERMA programs for the child soldiers attempting to reintegrate to normal life, the girl mothers, and the petite finance. As Mama Marie introduced me and got permission for me to photograph and film the women gathered around and greeted me with a song. Partially in Swahili, the song repeated over and over, “… Karibu, Karibu (welcome, welcome) come into us”.

As the names of candidates were written on the blackboard in white chalk, Mama Marie explained how the elections would work and what duty each candidate would need to perform. With out much input in life outside of their family the process of having this “democratic election” empowered the women and men. They suddenly had a voice in what was happening around them and what they said was going to matter. The atmosphere was bustling with excitement. The process seemed like maybe an election you would have in high school for your student council where each candidate spoke about why they would be a good fit for the job, but it was one of the most transformative moments I have seen so far. This symbolic gesture of an election among multiple villages that had come together to form this collective was giving people back their voice. Retuning “power” from the corrupt government and defunct police force back the community. How things were before the first war (minus the colonists). The atmosphere was one of excitement and serious debate. The elderly and the young wanted to be heard.

As the sky darkened with the threat of a storm in the distance the final elected members stepped forward to except words of wisdom from Mama Marie. They publicly made their promise to be faithful to their office and the duties bestowed on them. As the afternoon light filtered through the green of the banana leaves I snapped photos of the new community council.

Walking towards the car the village followed us. Once we were securely inside the 4 Runner they waived us off. The elderly and children a like squealed in delight as I used the few words of Kinandie I know, “Thank you” and “Go well”. As we pulled away, the tropical rain began to cover the windshield.

Elated and still exhausted to the bone we lurched and wheezed down the road. It was ironic that I could barely get out of bed this morning because in a lot of ways this had been my best day in the Congo. It had all been so real, the village so beautiful, the project so symbolically powerful, and the people so genuinely welcoming.

Detained (A.K.A Mom and Dad do not read this until I get home J)

The next day we headed to Isalie. A bit nervous to go there as I had heard attacks had just happened the week before. Every time we left Butemebo (where the COPERMA offices is located) we would drive 40-60km on the pothole ridden red dirt road alternately splashing through large mud puddles or becoming engulfed in a cloud of red dust depending on if it had just rained or not. About 15 minutes outside of town in any direction we eventually pass a “checkpoint”.

The checkpoints look like the cross arm from a parking garage but these cross bars are made from tree branches and it is FDRC soldiers and police who raise the bar as they feel. Many times we are waived through, but today we were stopped. They told us they had no money and that they needed some. The guy was in plain clothes, but was obvious by his dark aura and pushy demeanor he was a soldier used to doing what he wanted. We apologized that he was out of money, but told him that we had none. He pressed his face against my window. There was a scar like massive road rash on the left side of his face and eye. He said, “Why do Americans never have any money”. I replied in English, “…Because I knew that you were going to be here”. Luckily, no one translated my response. Surprisingly, he suddenly said OK and let us drive on.

In Isalei it was the “market day” and we were going to check on some women who had been given “petite finance” (micro loans) to start small businesses like selling peanut oil, fish, and some clothing. On the way there we slowed as we came to a hillside lined with tents and a building on top of a hill. This was where the soldier stayed overlooking their layer, the entire valley. It was a chilling feeling knowing that we really were on their turf…even if it was daylight. As we arrived at the market we were the talk of the town and there was no way to blend in.

With people everywhere I lost sight of Amy and just followed some of the other COPERMA team members through some alleyways to the back of the market. After looking around I asked them if it was OK to shoot? They looked for any sign of green uniforms. The coast was clear and I was given the go a head.

I set up my tripod and camera on the stairs overlooking the market. The difficult thing about shooting here that too many people want their photo taken. I can hardly complain as I thought it was the opposite problem I was going to have. But the thing is I have to be quick on my toes if I do not want every shot to be about 200 kids crowed around me grabbing the lens with their hands and dancing! As quickly as I could I set up and began to film. After about 5 minutes I could no longer see the stairs or the market and the crowd of children had amassed in front of me.

Just as I was going to ask them to move one of the COPERMA team members gently said, “…we need to leave. NOW!”. I took my camera he grabbed my tripod and not sure where we were heading. I followed him. Back to the car? But I still want to shoot and where is Amy? In the car was Mama Marie and Fisto the driver neither of whom speaks English. Used to not having a clue what is going on I stood by the door waiting, but they made me get inside. I asked if I could go shoot and they said, “No”.

I began to ask where Amy was and at the same time one of the team members came over to get me. Trying to convince me to leave my camera gear in the car I refused and they reluctantly said, “O.K. follow us”. I was told we were going to an office and by the way they were acting I assumed I needed to be off the main road.

We approached a small building. Amy was sitting inside with four men and one of the COPERMA team members. On the way to Isalie she had mentioned to me that she was going to interview some of the husbands of rape survivors. I assumed these were the guys she was interviewing. With my bag strapped to my back I sat down next to here on a wooden bench. I waited a few minutes for a pause in the conversation and asked, “Are these the guys you were talking about? Is it cool if I shoot?”. Dumbstruck by what I had just asked. She replied, “No these are the police and soldiers. I just got caught taking a photo with out permission and there was a soldier in it”.

Oh crap!

I looked around the wooden room. I guess I should have guessed from the old calendar of Saddam Hussein and all of his sons dressed in Camo gear proclaiming “Saddam Hussein the greatest President of Iraq”, that this was not just another interview. She explained they had brought me into the room so she would feel more comfortable. There were three men behind a desk and one very serious looking man smoking. As I looked around and there was also a poster of Obama with his family and Oprah. Next to that was an anti child soldier poster.

Now I was not exactly worried, I felt like this was a manageable situation, but Amy the focus of the investigation was visibly shaken. The funny thing is that morning I had a feeling we should buy some cigarettes in case we ran into any soldiers. Having mentioned that to Amy she has bought some moments before they brought her into the “”station”.

The room was filled with testosterone. Amy and I cracked a few jokes in English about what we could do to get out of this. I threw in a sarcastic comment about pulling out my camera. Amy did not see the humor. We talked and thought it prudent for her to pull out the smokes and ask for a light. That would throw them. Women do not smoke here. As she raised her cigarette and asked for a light, the look of surprise on their faces was priceless! The entire tone of the room changed and they were suddenly at her beck and call. I am not sure exactly what they said, but it was something along the lines of, “… get this girl a lighter, pronto! “.

As a few people scattered to find a light, one man sitting looking at a book got this kind of smirk on his face. As he leaned over the desk towards us, his tone of voice changed. No translation necessary I knew what he was saying. He told Amy, “ You are asking for us to pardon you…but the wrong has to be righted…so maybe you will give us something (a bribe)?” Playing the meek dumb American she pretended to by miffed at what he was asking and raised her pack of smokes to offer to the room. Everyone laughed like you have to be kidding. And as they lit her cigarette I could see her hand shaking.

She let me know they were asking for $200 USD. Now that is a lot of money in the Congo and there was no way in hell we wanted to pay it. All I could think was good thing they have no idea I have almost $10,000 USD worth of camera gear strapped to my back! They explained, they are a professional army and they needed the money for the police chief and the community. At this point, they walked Irvine, one of the male COPERMA team members outside. They basically told him if we don’t get the money you are spending the night. Translation, if you don’t come up with the money you are going to stay and we are going to torture you.

Somehow Amy settled on $120 and her cell phone number for the captain who was sure to let her know he was a single father of four. Mama Marie could barely contain her disgust at a man with four children bragging that he was separated from his wife, but she tried.

As we left the station Amy and I assumed we would be leaving immediately. The COPERMA people were like are you kidding we have work to do. And on second thought we did just pay $120 to be here and take photos. With that in mind we headed of to the pharmacy to interview the husband of one of the rape survivors as originally planned.

Shifting gears we were suddenly in the middle of a very serious interview. It is rare for men to speak out about rape in the Congo and this was Amy’s first chance to speak with one of the husbands. Worried he may be nervous he actually offered way more detail than the women ever do. He was a handsome man with a kind smile and sincere eyes. The father of 15 children, he was proud to have stood by his wife. Unfortunately due to the social stigma many men leave their wife (and children) after she is raped.

He described watching and listening as his wife screamed, but being able to do nothing to help her because the soldiers had guns. How months later they both cried when they tried to make love for the first time since the attack. As sobering as it sounds, he said it all with a smile very open to sharing his story with us. He said during the attack, “I was with God and I knew that [the rape] was from Satan” and that is how he has rationalized the situation. I listened amazed at the lack of resentment and desire to move forward. He smiled and continued to discuss how he and his wife were doing. Life was still not back to normal. She was not sleeping well and had bad dreams sometimes. But he had hope that things would continue to get better. The perseverance and eye to the future of the people of the DRC continues to amaze me. (To read at length about this interview visit Amy Ernst Blog hosted by NY Times - ).

Since much of our time had been taken by the police incident, after the interview and a few photos we had to leave so we would have a cushion of time in case anything happened to the car on the way back to town.

As nine of us piled into the back of the 4 Runner we were all exhausted from the events of the day. And luckily we were ALL headed back to Butermbo.

As we drove home everyone in the car seemed exhausted from the events of the day. Not necessarily down, the car was not as filled with lighthearted conversation as normal. The further away we got from Isalie the more the severity of the situation and what could have happened set in. Good thing Amy’s Godmother had wired her a few hindered dollars for Christmas and she had picked it up that morning otherwise our COPERMA friend would be in a very dark place right about now.

Once back in Butembo we had to jump on the dirt bike exhausted from the last few days. As we raced against the darkness I thought two more rules I had forgotten for the bush (see previous post).

Rule #8 - Always stash extra cash in your bra to pay a bribe.

Rule #9 - Always carry cigarettes on you for the soldiers and if it seem like it will lighten the situation smoke one too…

Girl Mother

Today was my first village visit with COPERMA. Basically going outside of Butembo means that we are entering soldier territory, which is fine during the day if you follow some basic rules.

Rules for the Bush:

  1. Leave with ample time to get there and back should you have any car problems or get stuck in the mud.
  2. Your driver should also be a very resourceful mechanic.
  3. Spare tire.
  4. Call a head to see what the situation in the village is.
  5. Try not to interact with any soldiers or police.
  6. Make if past all roadblocks before dark
  7. If you do interact with police/soldiers or you are detained be respectful.

As we climbed into the very old Toyota 4 Runner there was not enough room for everyone so two of the COPERMA team members climbed into the back. There were seven of us. As we drove to the village Amy explained where were going and who was there. This was the primary center for “Girl Mothers”, girls who had been raped and had children as a result. The center was a place for school and meetings. Today they were going to train the foster community that had taken them in on counseling techniques and how to help care for the girls.

As we drove I posed several questions to the team. They told me that most girls/women in the Congo who are raped never make it to a hospital. Even if they do make it there is no guarantee they will be tested for STD’s / HIV. Most do not even know that there is something called “The morning after pill”. Many who now have children (and love them) said they would have taken it if they had known about it. Others are given the pill without even telling them what it does. And even if the girls receive treatment there is no guarantee that medical records are closed so a blabbing doctor or nurse could potentially release details and stigmatize a girl/women further.

As we got to a very steep muddy section of the track the car sputtered and slid backwards down the hill. There was no choice everyone had to get out in push. All of the team members including the women in their immaculate dresses and dress shoes stood behind the car in the mud. It was all in a days work for the COPERMA team and we were just getting started.

A few minutes later we arrived at our destination. Asking where the toilet was I lead down a path in the banana grove and was shown to a mud brick outhouse. Amy said, “Don’t look down”. Inside the rugged outhouse is usually a hole in the mud or if it is a deluxe a piece of wood lines the hole. Of course after being told not to I could not resist looking down. At first I though it was just the stench and reflection of liquid, but the liquid was moving. It was millions of maggots. I thought well at least I won’t be hungry for lunch.

Walking back to the two room building I entered the room on the left. Mama Marie was inside with adults from the community giving them a training on how to work as a counselor for the foster children (girl mothers and child soldiers). Shooting and filming as they role played I felt like I was making them nervous about role playing so I went next door.

In the other room were about 6 black sewing machines that looked ancient compared to my grandmothers. The machines were powered by a wide push pedal the girls would rest both feet on. Up, down, up, down the machines chugged along. The girls were taking a sewing class form a tailor. They were making clothes for themselves, their children, and making school uniforms to sell at the market. They were quite accomplished seamstresses and the clothing they were creating quite well sewn.

Everywhere I went there were COPERMA team members interviewing people and taking notes checking on all of their programs in the filed. With nothing else to do I set up to do some filming outside. I was paying with kids and just goofing off when Amy approached me and said, “Are you almost done?”. I said, “ Sure I am just goofing off. Why are we going somewhere else?’. Someone told us there are soldiers in the area and we need to leave now. A bit taken a back they would wait for me to film when they knew there were soldiers close by, I gathered my things as quickly as possible.

We piled into the car and waived our goodbyes to the people at the center. It is strange to me that I have the fortune…the means to insert myself into their lives and leave at will. The soldiers are there and they have to stay, there is no other choice.

As we sputtered along I let Amy know, “Anytime there are soldiers, no matter what I am shooting, I am ready to go!”.

Motorcycle Meditation

On Saturday Amy asked if I would like to go see the other Crosiers in a place called Mulo. She warned it is an hour on the motorbike on really bumpy roads, but that the drive was beautiful and Mulo itself was a stunning town higher up in the hills. We agreed to leave early the next morning, but when we pulled out the dirt bike the back tire was going flat. Slightly delayed we set off 2 hours later on what we thought would be an all day adventure.

As we lurched down the path on the motorbike we finally came to a new section of road that we had not yet been on. Thrilled to be headed in a new direction so I could see more of the glorious countryside, I had this realization that the “roads” are more like a series of motor cross tracks that wind around the country side. The “roads” offer an array of driving pleasure with massive pot holes that can launch you 5 feet in the air, large water obstacles, gravel the size of baseballs, and washboard tracks that will loosen even the best dental work. The ride is never relaxed and you continually readjust your weight as you bounce along so you do not fall off on the next bump.

As we crawled along the hillside I struggled with how I could possibly describe the natural beauty that exists here. The earth is rich red dirt that only gets more red with rain. The green hills have every shade of green that exists in the “Jurassic Park” cliffs of Kauai. The terraced maize filled hillsides cultivated at precariously steep angles are reminiscent of the hills of Guatemala. The homes and lifestyle remind me of walking past the doorsteps of the families that live in the Everest region of Nepal, except the huts here are made of mud and sticks and everyone was yelling “Mzungu”.

Everywhere we go here it is like we are some sort of celebrity. When we drive in a car or on Amy’s dirt bike everyone gives a second look, most people stare in a mixture of shock and amazement, and most children shout greetings raising both hands in the air and waving frantically. As times the celebrity of white skin is fun. Everyone is excited to see you and we shout back greetings in the local language, which always elicits a laugh of surprise back. At times however, we have become more like exotic animals on display in a human zoo. Once we reached Mulo we were surrounded by 100’s of children just staring. After a while I felt a pinch, some hands begin to poke at me, and then curiously stroked the blonde hair on my arm. Then before I knew what was happening about 50 hands were reaching out to pet my hair that has been taken out the ponytail. It is hilarious and humbling that these children would be so curious. I guess it is like me wanting to see the Apes in the mountain jungle. I wonder if the apes are worried about me giving them lice and worms too?

Once in Mulo we met the priests and brothers there. They were very happy to see Amy as they consider her their sister since she stayed with them for four months when she first arrived. We had not eaten we were invited to stay for lunch, but before lunch “recreation” which loosely translated means drinking. So we drank with the brothers and priests and I practiced my French by osmosis. Pretty soon they started saying you need to stay and have dinner and attend chapel tonight. Since we had gotten a late start and now had “recreation” for 2 hrs they did have a point. Unless we wanted to turn around in about an hour and drive back before dark we should stay. We briefly discussed and decided to spend the night so we could just relax and check out the town. The brothers ecstatic to have company showed us our rooms where we could put our bags. Our bags consisted of our motorcycle helmets, our jackets, and my camera gear. Other than that we just had the dirty stinky clothes we were wearing.

We let the brothers know we would be back for the evening prayer and set off on foot over the hill to Lubero where one of the UN headquarters is located. A much different feeling than the area we were staying, Lubero is in a valley. The landscape is less alpine dotted with maize fields and banana trees. As we walked along the path a train of children began to follow. After a few minutes of staring a game of Aerobie ensued as we rambled along the dirt road. After a while we ran into a beautiful women who was thrilled to see Amy. Amy later explained that the woman’s mother had been severely raped and later died. COPERMA had helped transfer her mother to a local hospital, but she was so traumatized she had to go to the miserable facility we had visited the week before and she died. Warned by locals that the family would try to ask for all sorts of resources from COPERMA. Amy pointed out that the family eternally grateful for the support and help they did receive has never asked for anything else.

After an hour of walking we reached the small market in the center of town where Amy wanted to buy some local sandals, which pleased everyone in the market greatly. They are plastic flip flops reminiscent of a cross between “crocks” and the soccer sandals everyone used to wear when I was in 8th grade. They are the shoes of the poor peasants and hers were bright coral. The really funny thing I have noticed about the markets here are that a lot of them sell fake fur coats. Now it does get a little chilly maybe the high 40’s some nights, but never cold enough for a fur coat. We are talking full on leopard print cloaks and panther fur jackets. You name it people wear it in the middle of the day because it is a sign of wealth possibly left over or perpetuated by the Mobutu era. It is still surprising to me to see poor peasants, but when they dress up they put on their best fake fur regardless of how warm it is outside.

It was getting late and we needed to get back before dark. We decided to jump onto some moto taxis stop by the UN and have them take us back to the Crosiers place.

Unfortunately, I got a dare devil moto driver who wanted to show me how fast he could drive dodging the pot holes with one hand as he talked on his cell phone. As he tore down the street we hit a man walking down the road. The moto driver adjusted his mirror with out stopping and then narrowly missed hitting a baby’s head with his review mirror. I used the few words of Swahili that I knew. “Polie, Polie!” , I shouted and then out of pure terror and exacerbation just started cussing him out. The he sped up. We arrived at the heavily armed UN compound a top a hill outside of town and just glimpsed across the razor wire. So these are the guys that are protecting the village? Looks like they are in a fortress and how would they hear is something is going on …the base is pretty far away from the town.

I relayed to Amy the problems I had been having with my driver and she relayed a message, “If you keep driving that way you are not going to get paid”. Thinking the message was clear we headed down the hill back toward the other side of town and over the hill to the Crosiers. After the first down hill my moto driver was up to his old antics…I think showing off because he had a Mzungu on his bike. After some more Swahili and cursing I gave up. I had no choice we had to make it back before dark and this guy was not going to listen to me…talking to him seemed to make him go faster. Afraid for my life I closed my eyes to meditate. Now I have always tried meditate in quite peaceful places, but I suddenly realized the power of being able to just check out of a situation you don’t want to be in. As we whipped around potholes, caught five feet of air a pothole, and landed with a reverberating thud I did my best to called on my angles for protection.

Just before dark we arrived relatively unscathed to the gate of the Crosiers.

A heated conversation ensued. Amy told my driver that he was a bad driver because he did not respect his passengers, he did not deserve to get paid, and that he should take some lessons from his friend. Totally lost on a girl telling him how to drive he kind of rolled his eyes and we left.

That night exhausted, dirty, and quite smelly from the day I curled up in bed. How do the people here do it? I am tired and I rode a motorbike here. Most locals would have to walk the 40km and while they walk the women carry 100 lbs of firewood on their head with a baby on top. And I had two meals today and they were lucky if they probably had one. I was beginning to understand why so often people from Africa are such successful elite runners. Life here is demanding and if you don’t walk to five hours to your farm to tend you crops and carry the 100lbs of firewood home on your head, you don’t eat. Running a marathon must be a piece of cake!

As I pulled the sheets over my head to escape the buzzing mosquitoes, I thought of the peasant women of the Congo lying down to sleep in their mud huts wondering if soldiers would come in the night….