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.

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