Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wednesday Afternoon & Evening -- A Scare

Wednesday afternoon. Oh. Where to begin.

M (a Congolese colleague) and I are being driven to a school on the outskirts of Kitchanga for an assessment interview. Our wonderful driver, E, pulls the Land Cruiser over in order to ask a young man strolling by for directions. (He has done this many times before – sometimes the schools can be hard to find within the cluster and clutter of town and IDP camp congestion.) But the young man is clearly not normal in the head; he’s drunk, maybe, or on drugs. He bounds up to the car, utterly ignoring E’s questions, staring at me and giving slurred greetings in French and in English. E begins driving forward, but unfortunately, it’s rained and the road is bad, bumpy and muddy. We can only go slowly. The young man keeps up with the car, yelling God-knows-what, now in Swahili, now grabbing our bumper, now being pulled off by other passers-by.

The school is on the top of a hill of volcanic rock. I walk over to the latrine while M and the headmaster chat. The latrine is unbelievable clean for one that is used by 600+ students a day. The view out over Kitchanga is spectacular.

I take my time, and then climb back up the little ways to the tiny office-shack of the headmaster. (Our driver has turned the LC around and driven a little ways down the road, which I notice, think is odd, and then forget.) The headmaster, M, and I enter the shack, and sit on thin wooden stools in the shadows. M begins the interview; it’s fast and in French, and because it has already been a long day, I lose the thread of the conversation. My mind starts drifting; I start looking at the posters covering the walls. They are awareness-raising posters from different INGOs and UN agencies.


Directly above the headmaster’s desk is a colorful poster with no words, a drawing of a beaten woman, broken water-jug by her side, one arm outstretched, her face twisted in agony, her breasts defined, and blood on her skirts by her crotch. In any other context, what would this poster be? Mild rape porn? Elsewhere on the opposing wall of the office is another wordless poster showing community members carrying this beaten, bloodied woman to the hospital. Clearly, the two posters are meant to be a pair, to show what Must Be Done to Help a Victim. Apart, they are horribly disturbing.

The headmaster is answering M’s questions in a soft-spoken, conscientious way. He seems lovely, thoughtful, caring. He doesn’t seem the type to indulge in rape porn. Suddenly I am terribly, terribly lonely for my friends back home, to discuss things like this with, to understand. And it is at that moment that into the doorway staggers the young man from before.

The young man wasn’t able to follow our car; he’d been blocked by others on the road. But of course he knew where we were going to – we’d stopped to ask him directions. He had not come directly in our tracks – he’d gone somewhere first to grab a heavy metal hoe.

He holds it above his head. He begins yelling things, mainly in Swahili, I think – it sounds to me like “Blah blah blah Muzungo, yadda yadda yadda Muzungo. Laurance Nkunda. Muzungo. Blah blah yadda.” And it is briefly, honestly, truly frightening.

The headmaster stands up and puts his hands out to entreat the young man to leave and SLAM! goes the hoe into the volcanic rock and CRASH! the rock shatters.

The headmaster scurries back into the office. And swings the door shut. SLAM! SLAM! comes the hoe against the door. It’s like some campy low-budget horror flick. We are stuck in the dark in a tiny shack atop a rock-covered hill while some maniac bangs at the door with a heavy metal hoe. My heart begins racing and I take a deep breath.

The young man begins yelling for money. Specifically, he wants 1000 Congolese Francs, which is about 85 American cents. My reaction is instantly No no no, you don’t negotiate with terrorists; but M’s reaction is Yes yes yes, which is probably lucky for us. M pulls out a 500 Franc note, which he hands over to the headmaster. The headmaster calls out, swings open the door, and steps out, the bank note held up.

There is more yelling, and more CRASH! of hoe-against-rock. And then there isn’t. And then the headmaster is in the doorway, and M and I stand up, peer out, and begin making out way to the Land Cruiser.


It’s not over.

The car is still a little ways down the road (our driver apparently had noticed nothing). We are halfway to it when the young man shows up again. He has stashed the hoe somewhere. Now he seems almost cheerful.

I walk deliberately to the front seat, open the door, climb in, swing the door shut, lock it, and roll up my window. But in the back seat there is more trouble. The young man manages to shove aside the headmaster, to shove his way in. M and the headmaster shove back at first, but it is no use, and down the young man sits in our car. I kid you not. And we begin driving, him now chattering cheerfully about something or other in Swahili.

I swing around, make eye-contact with M, and widen my eyes. He says to me in English, “Don’t worry. This is under control.” Then he grins, shrugs, and says, “If it’s not, we’ll go to Plan B.” (Of course, this means absolutely nothing.) “Okay,” I say.

It’s so absolutely ludicrous that it is halfway funny.


Eventually we come to the headmaster’s house, and he climbs out, straddling and stumbling over the legs of the young man. And then we get back to the field where we first asked the young man for directions, and out he climbs, calling goodbye, and waving. And there is the most terrifying part. It’s not the hoe – it’s the absolute lack of shame, and lack of fear. He climbed into our car. We could have driven to the police station. But of course, we didn’t, as he knew we wouldn’t. He had no shame, and no fear of reprisal.

And there he is now, still, today, living in the middle of men women families these tiny children, needing help, needing to be locked up – and nothing is going to stop him from doing something worse.


Wednesday night, we ate dinner in a one room restaurant. It is me, my American colleague N, M, our Congolese colleague J, and a dozen-some men from the RRM teams of other INGOs. The electricity is out and I am warming my hands on the oil lamp on our table. The lights suddenly buzz back on, and the waiter comes up to remove the lamp. The men – all of them – begin yelling at the waiter that I am clearly cold, and he can’t take my lamp away. I hadn’t even known that I’d been noticed. It was a warm feeling in and of itself, and I grinned around the room.


As the men from the different teams see each other for the first time and greet each other, it’s a tap right-temple to right-temple, left-temple to left-temple, and then lastly center-forehead to center-forehead. It’s such a beautiful greeting.