Congo: A Story


I know. Congo. I haven’t said much yet. So different from last time, when I wouldn’t shut up about it. When I think of telling you about it, I can’t think of how to explain it, how to summarize it, how to put what I’m feeling and thinking into words and sentences. Or, maybe I’m just afraid of what those words and sentences would say, and maybe I’m not ready to read them.

All I can do is tell you a story. It was a Wednesday and we spent the morning at the church, running the seminar, playing games and talking about Jesus, or trying to anyway—we were never really certain what our translators were saying for us. But that’s another story. That afternoon, we piled into the van and drove to a feeding center. The road wound around the edges of Lake Kivu, so impossibly big, so impossibly blue, and as the city blurred behind us we looked at the lake, and I thought about the methane building beneath the surface. If it ever escapes, like it did in a lake in Uganda, it could explode above the lake and spread across the city and kill a million people. I turned my head from the lake and watched banana trees and mountains speed past the other windows. So much beauty here. I almost asked, how can you stand it? How can you stand to live someplace so beautiful?

We pulled into a village and stopped and we hiked past all these little falling-apart houses, we walked along narrow mud pathways, and I cursed the fact that I was wearing a skirt, that blasted skirt, and I wished for my hiking boots, but then someone would pause and help me cross a difficult part. We had a little band of children in hot pursuit, we were stared at by adults and teenagers, by girls who spoke to one another about us, not bothering to whisper because they knew we didn’t understand them, but you could look at their faces and understand enough. You could understand whatever it was, it wasn’t all that nice.

We got to the feeding center, a little wooden church building, and waiting for us were a group of kids, all chosen for the program because they were in various states of malnourishment. They each held a plate, and at the front of the dirt-floored room was a table with three large buckets of food: one of rice, one of beans, and one of cabbage. It smelled good. We took their plates, one in each hand, walked to the food table, had the plates filled, and returned them to the children. And then we watched them eat. I don’t want to describe it, watching a starving kid eat, because it feels like a violation somehow, it feels too intimate. I felt almost embarrassed.

What happens, we asked Papa Jean, once the children are healthy enough to graduate from the program? They stay healthy for about two months, he said, and then they’re usually back. There was a little girl at one of the feeding centers whose parents refused to feed her because they thought she had an evil spirit. A kid like that, she’ll always be back.

Near the other feeding center, they’re finding parents in the village who won’t feed their kids because there’s a feeding center nearby to do it for them. And so there’s talk about shutting them down, the centers, because you can’t destroy a village like that, you have to think about fifty years from now, you can’t handicap these people with your attempts at generosity.

But, that girl whose family thinks is evil—what do you do about that?

How do you not feed a starving child? But how do you do it knowing you’re causing more harm than you are doing good? And is it good that you’re really doing? When they’re just going to be back in two months?

We went outside the feeding center and stared at the mountains. We could see the lake from a clearing, between grassy hills dotted with banana trees. There were clouds building over the lake, and we hurried away, knowing what the little mud path would become if it rained. My calves were burning by the time we got back to the van. My stomach ached, and I was trying to wrap my head around my own thoughts.

We drove toward Mudaka, the little village where last year we’d seen someone Bishop said looked like interahamwe. On the way, we turned off the road onto a gravel driveway next to a little thicket of bougainvillea, and Christie asked Bishop where we were going. I looked out the window and saw the trees, recognized the road, and my eyes lit up.

Bishop looked at my smile and said, “Do you know where we are?”

I said, “Yes, I think so. Are we at the nun’s place?”

He grinned.

“And ice cream?”

He laughed that quiet chuckle of his.

We all got out of the van and the sky was cloudy and the air was warm but not too hot and we ate ice cream out of Styrofoam cups, surrounded by gardens, by cacti and birds of paradise, in the hush of the convent, the peace an actual physical presence.

Then we piled back in the van and bumped over a torn-up road to a tiny one-room church. And later, as we left the church, the sun was setting and we were told that Fiston’s aunt had died and we drove back to Bukavu in near silence, Fiston nearly motionless in his bright yellow shirt, sitting in front of me like a tall skinny lantern, a faint glow as the lake darkened.

I was glad it was dark, so no one could see the tears in my eyes as I watched the lake again, as I watched the dark shapes of trees, as I thought about two months and the death of a mother’s sister and how the ice cream tasted so much better than it actually was because of the place where it was. How can you stand it, how can you stand it.

That’s why I haven’t found the words for Congo yet.

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