Monday, April 19, 2010

"Are we going to Hell?"

This:
Last night K was multitasking. On the one hand, she was uploading photos of us grinning wearing yellow-and-red lifevests in blue kayaks underneath the orange sun beside the green water of the lake. On the other, she was reading the most recent Oxfam report on escalating cases of rape in North Kivu.

Side by side, both things on her computer, she looked at them, and then she looked at me, and she said, “Are we going to hell?”

This:
Yesterday K & J & I had decided we DESERVED a break because we had had HARD weeks and we had EARNED a trip to Gisenyi to rent kayaks and lie on the beach. We went. It was wonderful. We swam. We lay on our backs in freshly mowed grass and blew bubbles that caught in the wind and whipped into the sky. We bitched about life. We rowed. (There was an incident when we were far out in the lake on the kayaks and military police in a full camouflage motorboat zipped up to us and told us coldly to “GO BACK” but – hey – it’s Rwanda. We should have expected it.) On the whole, it was a beautiful day. Even when it started to rain, we grabbed up our junk and raced inside the fancy Serena hotel, giggling, and ordered hot chocolate and fresh French fries.

Also, this:
In South Kivu, sexual violence is pervasive, affecting women of all ages, ethnicities and marital statuses. Women are attacked everywhere, even in the privacy of their own homes. The sexual assaults are ruthless, with horrific reports of gang rape, sexual slavery, genital trauma, forced rape between victims and rape in the presence of family members. Sexual violence survivors often witness the torture and murder of their children and spouses.
...
The rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) killed at least 321 civilians and abducted 250 others, including at least 80 children, during a previously unreported four-day rampage in the Makombo area of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in December 2009.

This:
When I was stuck in Kinshasa last week, thanks to broke-down UNHAS airplanes & bumped MONUC flights, I was feeling very sad and sorry for myself, that I had friends quitting Goma while I was trapped out West, whom I’d not get to bid goodbye. I wrote something of the sort on Facebook whining about MONUC flights and et cetera and a good friend responded “Just be grateful that MONUC is there to protect you at all and that when you eventually travel, you’ll get to do so in an airplane and not on hot dusty roads”. And so I read that, and. I was furious. I wrote back, my fingers so fast that the clicks of the keys swarmed together and the computer was damn near smoking, that I understand that I am crazy privileged but that doesn’t mean I have to wear a hair shirt and beat myself and at the very least it sure doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to feel sad about saying goodbye to people I care about!

It was a snarky comment that she made. But I let it get so far under my skin.

Oh dear.
Because, like K, I do look around at my life here, and look at the stories I hear, and wonder how it could ever be possible to reconcile them.

LRA. FARDC. FDLR. CNDP. Mayi-Mayi. Kimia II. "Amani Leo". PARECO. RDF.

LRAFARDCFDLRCNDPMAYIMAYIKIMIAIIAMANILEOPARECORDFDRCOC.

And in this same area, I enjoy a well-rounded existence consisting of sunbathing, work-work-work, boats, champagne-and-strawberry dinners, gossiping, cappuccinos, more work and more work and more work.

But, hey!
Congolese people who live here also have rounded lives. Anyone who portrays a people as constantly-terrorized caricatures is lying. Like you, like me, also persons born and raised in North Kivu have friends and loved ones and work and fun and gossip and inside jokes and joy and sadness and.

It’s war.

It rips apart families, communities, physical bodies. But human resilience – that remains.

Right?
I’m not trying to justify my choice to spend a Sunday paying to go out into the lake on kayaks but I’m trying to figure out if it’s really despicable in this context or not, OR if it is despicable, on the ruler of despicableness, how despicable it is.

K & J & I could have pooled the money we spent to rent kayaks and paid part of the school fees for an underprivileged kid. But what would that have helped? We believe in aid delivery through systems and professionals, not through money thrown at children. Okay. We could have just sat on the money we have. We could have gone to market and bought a thousand tons of eggplant to invest the money into the local economy, thus depleting the eggplant market and and and. We could have – what?

If we start from the assumption that aid delivery as it is happening in North Kivu is saving lives (it is) and not simply shoring up a corrupt and broken government (um…) then it is justifiable that on our weekend we relax so that during the week we can work even harder alongside our fellow human beings for the greatest common good.

We have to question, always question and question and question and adjust and lobby and advocate and change. But at some point we also have to have faith in our choice to work in aid, in our organizations, and in the collaborative work being done by our colleagues and friends. And that faith allows us to take care of ourselves as well as to immerse ourselves in work.

Right?

12 comments:

fi said...

Right.
What I like about your writing is your willingness to engage with these questions.. although they aren't always comfortable. Having a local life, friends and the odd weekend away makes people better aid workers, I think. Northern Ugandan friends told me how loneliness and overwork made expats irritable and cold, how at the height of the conflict UN and INGO staff would give handouts in IDP camps without talking to people or looking at them. Caroline Lamwaka wrote a poem about it - 'the lutum people.' What seems to be more difficult in the DRC is that the social life is sometimes ex-pat only (I may have this wrong) which creates this disconnect between what people are there to do, and how they live, outside of work. I'm not sure what you can do about this seeing as the security is so restrictive, but maybe talking to your Congolese colleagues or friends about how they see expat aid workers might help you move forward with it. I've always thought that being miserable in a warzone is a bit self-indulgent, and I like the way you see the beauty and resilience in people and your surroundings, and don't martyr yourself.. don't feel guilty for any of that.
Cheers, fi

Rachel said...

Hi! Thank you so much for the comment and for it's being a kind & thoughtful response. I'm going to go look up Caroline Lamwaka's poem --

And I really like your idea about my talking further with Congolese colleagues about how ex-pats are seen -- and even how they themselves are seen by their neighbors, working as they do for an international aid organization... I talked a little about it with some people when I first arrived, but that was before I had my own life and experiences, and you're right, it's a fascinating conversation to revisit...

:o) Thanks

Rachel said...

Hi, Fi? Do you know where I can find a copy of that poem? Google-searching isn't turning up anything, other than a few of her articles & her Mango Tree poem in Sverker Finnstrom's wonderful book...

fi said...

Oh Dear. This is what happens when I dash off comments without thinking. I meant to say Christine Oryema Lalobo, not really sure how I did that, I'm well ashamed :) Coincidentally the poem's also reprinted in Sverker Finnstrom's book, so you may have read it already. Here it is anyway...

Crowded in camps
Herded like cows
In a huge kraal
Cramped all together
In a foreign fashion
Not of their choice

The Lutum people
Have no gardens
Have no granaries
Eat from charity
Handed out by white men
In deep silence

The Lutum people
Are weary and tired

And you're right, there is unlikely to be any one 'local' position on ex-pat life, I think all anyone can do is be open to all the diverse messy contradictory stories there are in a place. The DRC is not one thing, and even during a war people still live and fall in love and have parties, and in this line of work time is often short but while you're there you become part of it.
good luck, fi :)

fi said...

Oh Dear. This is what happens when I dash off comments without thinking. I meant to say Christine Oryema Lalobo, not really sure how I did that, I'm well ashamed :) Coincidentally the poem's also reprinted in Sverker Finnstrom's book, so you may have read it already. Here it is anyway...

Crowded in camps
Herded like cows
In a huge kraal
Cramped all together
In a foreign fashion
Not of their choice

The Lutum people
Have no gardens
Have no granaries
Eat from charity
Handed out by white men
In deep silence

The Lutum people
Are weary and tired

And you're right, there is unlikely to be any one 'local' position on ex-pat life, I think all anyone can do is be open to all the diverse messy contradictory stories there are in a place. The DRC is not one thing, and even during a war people still live and fall in love and have parties, and in this line of work time is often short but while you're there you become part of it.
good luck, fi :)

D. Watson said...

1 - Is the requirement for not going to Hell that we spend ALL our time and ALL our emotional resources and ALL of everything we have working on one problem (rape, poverty, violence, illiteracy, hunger....)? That's a pretty harsh line to draw. I chose my occupation (and I daresay you chose yours) in part so that the work I do every day would do more than earn some money (someday), but do some good. I can't do everything, but I can do something. That desire to do something is worth a lot, I think.

2 - What kind of life do you want them to be able to live? Living that life yourself may not provide it for them, but denying yourself the life you want everyone to live may not either. (Ignoring the pizza at the conference table doesn't feed anyone in North Korea.)

I believe God takes into account our knowledge, our abilities and circumstances, and what we could have done. I believe He also takes into account our weakness - weakness in the results we can't bring about, weakness in the fact that our capacity is lower than we think our immediate "potential" is, weakness in our frustration and ... yeah.

Yes, the command is "be ye therefore perfect," but He isn't holding His breath because it is only through and with Him we can get closer.

Besides, eternity isn't about getting a good grade on a test, but becoming a kind of person who would be happy to care and love and live the kind of life God has in store for us. I tend to feel that life involves enjoying Being Alive as well as service.

For what it's worth.

Rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel said...

Fi -- Oh, thank you so much for posting that!!! That's lovely (and horrible), thanks. I don't remember reading it in the book, though I must have -- I'm so glad to read it now. I really valued your two comments today... I told my friends about them, too... :D


D -- As always, thank you very much for your comment. To be honest, I don't actually believe in hell at all, so I was speaking more metaphorically. I agree that martyring oneself is no good to anyone, but living in such luxury in someone else's homeland while a horrific war continues... sometimes I do question the ethicalness (ethicallity? what on earth is the word?!?!) of that. Not for long, because in the end I revert to my faith in the strength of my organization and colleagues... but sometimes. Thanks for commenting, though, and I appreciate your support! :)

s said...

we are here only for a year and that seems eternity.Being away from near and dear ones is difficult and more so in a foreign country.It really hurts to see children in tatters in villages in the interior.being involved in peace keeping exposes you to immense misery the people are going through here.Some times you want to help but hold back in fear of untruthful allegations by host of people.but i feel happy that our presence in interiors have helped in reviving the local economy ,children attending schools and normalcy returning to all these remote places.

Rachel said...

Hi S, thank you for your comment. I really appreciate how much you clearly care for the people around you and believe in your job. I like having you as an internet friend :o)

s said...

I wish many a times to have a blog like you,but always stop short of it.off course I am not so good at writing long and artistic post like you,but may be when I am freed from regulations and rules,i will do that.As most of the activities and experiences come during discharge of official duties,one is constrained not to talk about it in public domain

Rachel said...

You should, S!

I have to restrain myself too, from saying everything... At least I try to restrain myself...