I have been trying to understand the DR Congo through a less “American” framework. The roles of men and women in society and their rights are just drastically different. It is hard not to want to filter them through my western paradigm, but I am trying. The thing it is difficult to ignore here (especially living with priests) is the role that organized religion plays in perpetuating the situation here and at the same time keeps women subordinate. While religious organizations have built schools, hospitals, and unnecessarily elaborate churches, I find little evidence they are involved in helping society address core issues that will allow them to grow into the peaceful and thriving society the DR Congo could be.
Every time I drive past the construction site of 1 of the 5 new cathedrals going up in the area, it is difficult not to think of other (more useful) things that the money could buy. At times I wonder if the church has become such a fixture in the Congolese good old boys network that they have entirely lost their way. Not to mention the general sense of religious fatalism mixed with the disillusion of years of war that has now seeped into the national psyche.
It seems the church has become more of a cultural norm than a religion. You just are Catholic (some Protestant and Anglican). It is definitely not your fathers Catholicism. It is a chaotic collusion of violently clashing cultures and diabolically opposed belief systems that have led to a tangled web of social norms in the DR Congo today. Traditional tribal practices of multiple wives, a culture of war, and a “democracy” run by a military regime sandwiched between hellfire and brimstone Christianity. It is like a peanut butter, sardine, and mud sandwich on rye, an inexplicable combination.
Mentioning to a few local men we know that we had hung out with the prostitutes (Post - When I grow up I want to be _______________.), they began to explain their relationship with their wife's to us. These are two upper middle class well educated Congolese guys. They are Catholic (the norm here), they practice family planning, and they both have daughters they are going to send to university. Their lives and views are quite progressive, yet when we talk about women and men I feel we are back in biblical times.
My friend’s explanation started off something like this, “Let me tell you something. In Africa, in my country, the man is King”. I said, “Yeah I have noticed, the women do all the work here”. Everyday I pass men riding their bicycles loaded with goods and the women with even heavier loads bent at a 90-degree angle walking just as far carrying their goods like a mule. Several times I have wondered aloud why I have never seen a women with a bike. When Alana and I replied in unison, “Do you think that is fair?”, they said, “No of course not, but that is how it is”. They explained, people get engaged and during that time you are not supposed to, but people do have sex. That way if the man thinks it is bad (or that is bride to be is not a virgin) they can leave her (hopefully not pregnant). In an ideal relationship the man always gets his way and the women submits because he is the man.
Our friends estimated that 80% of the men “go outside” (sleep around) on their wife, but of course without protection, as the Pope does not allow it. We asked, what about the women? Do they go “outside”? Our friend raised his voice, “If you are my wife and you go ‘outside’ I kill you”.
Immediately, despair washed over my entire soul and body. If these are the modern educated guys of the Congo, tomorrow’s brighter future, the women of the Congo are seriously screwed.
“So you both go ‘outside’ on your wife?, I replied”. “Yes, when we want”. I could not resist, “Well let me tell you, if you are acting this way I am sure your wife is going ‘outside’ on you!”. Looks of surprise followed by some reassuring glances to each other. In unison they replied, “No, not my wife”.
A few days later when I was teaching a workshop for COPERMA a local male nurse joined us. During a break when no one else was round he asked about my family and I about his. He has a wife and three daughters. He began to ask me why I did not have a baby. After several minutes of very personal questions, he said I should let him give me a Congolese baby. Caught off guard, I was taken aback. I dryly replied, “Besides the fact I don’t want a baby with you, you are married! And aren’t you Catholic?” He replied, “Well yes, but the body has needs and God will forgive me”.
I walked out the room to find Amy. I told her what had just happened. We walked back into the room and she began berating him in French. I only understood a bit of what she said to him, “Aren’t you Catholic and don’t you have a wife? H-A-P-A-N-A (NO)!”. As he insisted, it was OK and not a problem, she came up with the only line she could think of that could usurp his predetermined superiority to us and all the women in Congo,
“You are going to burn in hell if you treat your wife that way”.
I nodded my head in disgust. I could not have put it better myself. Knowing we had no say in what ultimately happened to his soul, it did feel like a momentary victory for all women in Congo to put a brother in his place.