King Leopold of Belgium, an insane man who never should have been free in a society much less allowed to “rule” one, kept this unimaginably fertile area (equal in size to everything east of the Mississippi) for his personal exploitation and whim. During his lust for its minerals, gems, trees, its everything, he had 10,000,000 native people murdered. What an achievement, in one short life time!
When men would not work franticly enough to suit Leopold the Lunatic’s ever expanding need for Africa’s natural resources, he would have families kidnapped and tortured as incentive for the men to run deeper into the forests and bring out her treasures faster.
The country was raped and pillaged, ancient cultures and social systems were decimated, and the people were utterly lost. They were ill-prepared for self rule, their own historical ways and any self efficacy they had ever had dismantled. In 1960 as self rule began, there were only 17 college graduates in this vast country equal to everything east of the Mississippi.
At present, in a nation of 2.34 million sq kilometers, there are a mere 2,794 sq km of paved roads. I am lurching spastically along a typically rutted and pot holed road right now, oy vey! Papa Jack describes the roads as ravines.
Destroyed by the Belge then kept down by their first native ruler in the 20th century, Mobutu Sese Seko, who has the unenviable distinction of a type of rule being named after him, kleptocracy, the Congo, formerly known as Zaire and a lot of other things, has not known peace and stability since before the blood sucking Europeans arrived. This country, the 3rd largest in Africa and heaving with a massive population growing at catastrophic rate, is chaos.
Thanks, Belguim! Hope you’re proud! You built on the Germans nice work on the Herero in South West Africa, out did them, even!
(And for the record, the U.S.A. commited genocide against the Native Americans, plain and simple. We have our shame, too.)
Right now, after having taken an hour to pass through a simple looking border that resembles our farm gate, which involved Papa Jack reaching into this pocket for a steady presentation of $20 bills (we joked he should be used to it as the parent of a teen age daughter), we’ve been stopped by “police” in uniform with heave weaponry. No traffic violations, just a simple and typical moment of attempted extortion. James our driver spoke Ngali and said we didn’t have any. I am surprised the police believed him; I have binoculars around my neck and am working on this computer. (Binocs were a fantasy, there is no wildlife here compared to Rwanda; the habitat has been destroyed.)
I am here to visit our partner clinics that specialize in family planning, maternal and child health, and the treatment and prevention of malaria. (We also do safe water and HIV prevention in this area of the DRC). I also hope to visit with women who are rape victims. Rape is an epidemic here. It is an emergency. It is everywhere, on a massive scale. It is not altogether unreported in the western media, but it is grossly under reported. An ancient and common tool of warfare, this area’s female population has been hostage to gender based violence for decades.
What a shocking difference a few feet makes. On the Rwanda side of the crossing, the roads are tidy, neat, maintained. The earth is red and the wind through the trees, the lapping of the shores of Lake Kivu are serene. There is a sense of orderliness and even within the clear poverty, I feel the purposeful attempt at self improvement, through agriculture and the tiny, colorful flower gardens.
Passing into the DRC, however….Oh my God. After a few villas a relentless, vast dusty slum opens up. There is rubble, garbage, filth, people covered in muck and grime, buildings that are nothing more than lean-to shanties. The earth is grey, drab, choking with dust, visibility limited by dust.
In our clinic, the back wall is thin and see through, made of mismatched boards roughly nailed together. The padlock surely indicates someone’s sense of humor. The director of the clinic does a good job of keeping the space tidy, but it’s hard. Even here where women gather for family planning and materal/child care, to give birth and for gynecological care, there are patches of rubbish.
I sat with the director and we talked shop. He has a routine of in-home visits to generate interest in family planning (birth control, birth spacing, pre and post-natal care). He has office hours Monday-Saturday, which are painted in a sweet shade of blue paint on a rough white stucco wall.
He reports that 20-25 new women present themselves each month to access services. Though this number sounds small, he says it represents significant cultural change; men want their women to produce as many babies as possible. Women are for breeding. For them to begin seeking to regulate their fertility is big news.
In terms of options, injectable birth control is most in demand. There is a misconception that IUD’s make one sick, so he is dealing with that, one woman at a time. The pill, he said, is terrible, as compliance is very erratic and the water they take it with is usually unsafe (infested with parasites, fecal matter, etc….that is what we mean we talk about “unsafe water”).
The babies he delivers are often premature and the infant mortality is the highest in the world. He treats women who are victims of sexual violence daily. Children are common, little girls 4, 6 years old. Normal, every day occurrences, including gang rape. They suffer traumatic fistula rupture and more. They become HIV+. They become outcasts.
When I asked about where this pervasive practice of rape comes from, and was it cultural, he said it was not cultural to begin with. He repeatedly said it is a weapon of war and armed conflict, and that there has been violence and instability for so very long, it has become the cultural norm, the way poverty, lack of services, hardship is the norm. Now, it is as all generations know.
I asked him whether he believes the Congo is fit to receive international aid; can donors trust the money gets to his clinic and others like this, will the products and services reach the people? He said if money can come to “la base,” (the base), then it will benefit the base. We discussed at length accountability and transparency, and some good movement on the government’s part in creating a Parliament and other bodies that will get the money to neediest quickest. They need the money as sorely as anywhere I ever visited. I am straining to convey the urgency of the need here, the level of horror of daily life.
The stench of Goma is putrid. There is no sanitation. The water is unsafe. The rooms of the next two clinics I visited were stuffed with people who were malarial; although children under 5 (undeveloped immune systems) and pregnant women (taxed immunity) are most at risk, here in Goma there were patients of all ages. They looked miserable, their bodies sagging, their eyelids heavy.
I sat on a few beds, making small talk about future prevention and in my own way hopefully introducing the possibility of each individual making a commitment to sleep under a “mousquitaire” when they go home. We also talked about the treatment, the artemenisin based meds that are working well (there is 60% resistance to the most commonly used treatment).
It was a visiting day, so most patients had family in, grandmothers, other children, and siblings. One had a transistor radio. One man was feeding his small son, an iv pick awkwardly taped to his hand, which it dwarfed. The boy was lethargic and mute, his nose ran. The man fed him black beans from a tin plate, around which gnats flew. The man was a very hard person, as were the other men with whom I spoke. He raged at pregnant women to whom we give nets for no charge when they come to the clinic: Am I not a man? Should I not be given a net?
I asked him if nets were available in the private sector and he said yes, but that he has no money. I said, “Oh, come on, I bet you have a little money from time to time for a smoke!” “No!” he exclaimed. “Beer, what about a glass of beer?” Again, “No!” he declared. “Ah, you have so much virtue! Such a clean life! But….I bet from time to time you have a little money to spend on a woman!” The room erupted into roar of laughter. (It is very well documented, through micro financing organizations, that men in the developing world waste money at shocking rates, where as women save and invest every pittance.)
We debated the value of investing in prevention by spending .50 on a net. “Wouldn’t it be wise,” I said, trying again, “to spend a little money for a net, so as to save all it costs when you’re sick? When the children are sick?” I gestured to the tiny, stifling room, loaded with prone bodies. He had no response to that.
I don’t think he has anything against buying products. For example, he had a high end mobile phone with incredible features and decent clothes. His grudge against buying a net is that some women get them for free.
A lovely little girl was eyeing me cautiously. She began to stare at me more openly, and I thought to take her picture and show her the image. Perhaps it would please her. Instead, the man leapt up in between my camera and the room, blocking me from not just his boy but everyone in the room. I explained what I had meant to do, and that it was a means of reaching out to a new friend, and he began to mock me. He got his phone out, scrolled through its zillion features, found the camera, and ran all over room as if taking my picture with it. I hammed it up, posing from each angle to which he darted. Everyone giggled, the tension slightly contravened. Voguing in the DRC.
It was time to go. I thanked everyone for the visit, wished them a good afternoon, a speedy recovery, and good health. I walked to the car wondering not if, but how many, has that man has raped.
Day one — arrival
Day two — genocide memorial
Day three — the countryside
Day three — the PSI.org offices
Day three — malaria nets
Day four — you go, global girl
Day four — water purification
Day five — world malaria day
Day six — Women for Women International
Day six — Democratic Republic of Congo
Day six — heal Africa
Day seven — Sonrise
Day seven — Dushishoze
Day seven — reflections