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.