Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sand Castles

For centuries, this happened: Monks of the Capuchin religious order buried the bodies of their newly deceased brothers in shallow graves. Waited two or three years. Dug the bodies up.

The still-living men took the bones of the dead men. Cleaned them. Organized them. Bound them together in patterns, creating works of dead art. In this way, the still-living men decorated their chapels. With pelvis chandeliers and arm-bone altars. With spine mosaics and jawbone wallpaper. With vertabrae fleurs-de-lys.

There is a wonderful example in Rome, Italy, created from the remains of 4,000 friars. It includes six chapels and on the wall of the hallway is a sign in six languages:

What you are now, we used to be; what we are now you will be.


This happened: In ancient Rome, as a general was completing his victory parade though streets of cheering women and men, tradition dictated that his slave stand behind him and whisper “Memento mori”.

Remember, you must die.

This guaranteed that that the dictator during the pinnacle of life would not lose himself in the idolatry surrounding him.


This is happening: On 10 January 1977, right outside of Goma, the crater walls of Mount Nyiragongo fractured and lava spewed out, devastating the city, killing between 70 and several thousand people. The government of the DRC asked people not to rebuild the city in the same spot, warning them that, one day, the volcano would erupt again. But they did. And it did. In 2002, 80% of the city was again destroyed.

In 2002, 400,000 people were evacuated. They came back. They rebuilt. But why?

Love for a city. Love for commerce. Love for nightclubs and beautiful beaches. Love for family who live here. Love for friends. Love for money – Goma is place of great wealth.

There is more than that: There is an inability to leave, actual or simply perceived. You flee to the fringes of the city and you are chased back inside, by fiscal and physical violence. In Gisenyi, in 2002, refugees fleeing the streaming lava were not welcomed. They were charged $10 for a small bottle of water and more for food. They returned to Goma to survey the damage when the ground was still hot and steaming. Displaced persons fleeing to Massisi found a different life and a population without enough to share. They returned to Goma.

Today, as I type this, there is no building in the neighborhood I am sitting in that is more than eight years old. How much older will the buildings grow? How many people will cook in our kitchen and sleep in our bedrooms before Nyiragongo explodes again and destroys it all? All the cars in the road – all the TVs hanging on the walls – all the materials goods will be gone. Lives will be lost. Flowers will burn in trees. Everything here is ephemeral.

This Goma is fleeting. Its destruction will happen next year or in two decades. But people still build their sand castles on the shores of the poisonous lake above the rift in the earth below the looming mountains that throw fire.


There is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, my favorite poet during my teenage years:

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand;
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.


Except to Ms. Millay I would say that devastation is too often mistaken for romance. And in the case of Goma, it is the most vulnerable who will suffer. Those who can afford to build shining palaces can afford to rebuild them. But those who can only afford ugly huts will be left with nothing.

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