Monday, January 17, 2011

Martyrs' Day

I am trying to connect to the Congolese more.

In the often overwhelming haze of my first few months here, I felt like I was constantly scrambling to stay afloat. Though in theory I would have loved to, the idea of sitting down and devoting the time and energy to learning Swahili was simply not an option. Delving into the details of personal experiences during the post-Rwandan genocide chaos seemed daunting, and at times I even had trouble distinguishing one guard or driver's face from the others. Simply accomplishing all of my weekly tasks before the next Monday morning rolled around was enough of a challenge.

Now, three-and-a-half months in, and after a much-needed vacation that reminded me that there is, in fact, a whole other world out there, I am finding a bit more time to breathe. Though I have certainly not mastered my role, I feel comfortable enough now to step away from it from time to time, and focus on other things.

This afternoon, with an hour of daylight to spare, I hiked up to a nearby village, perched on the broad, flat summit of a foothill. After 15 minutes of slogging uphill on a pitted, mud-slick trail, I entered a humid banana "forest," in which a maze of narrow trails led off to dozens of partially concealed huts.

A family called out to me, no doubt quite surprised to have a lone muzungu appear out of the banana thicket. The daughters offered to show me around. Their clean, crisply painted school, surprisingly large for the village. A telecommunications antenna, from which the high western mountains loomed temptingly close. The miniscule "market," where a not particularly tiny and impressively persistent pygmy man tried to convince me to hand over my cell phone.

When I got back to the base, I sat down with the night watchmen for a spell. They had heard about Martin Luther King on the radio, but didn't know anything about him. So I explained the history of post-slavery racism in the States, and King's role in bringing about an end to segregation. It's a holiday here, too, to commerate the life of another great orator, the independent Congo's first president, Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination at the age of 35 was condoned, if not directly caused by, the Cold War-crazed US.

And so we spoke of the war in Iraq, and my country's dubious motives there, and then radical Islam, and then the Holocaust, and then, naturally, the Rwandan genocide, after which headless and otherwise butchered bodies apparently cluttered up this lake for weeks. Which was nothing compared to what the genocidaires and refugees that fled into the Kivus in the aftermath would bring.

But that's another story, for another night.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep - leave it any way except a slow way - leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it.
-Beryl Markham, West With The Night

Two days ago I was perched on an open slope spread with a thin layer of icy snow, gazing out at Germany's cloud-covered Black Forest, and cursing my lack of finesse on skis. Now, back in the Congo for just half a day, I feel restless already. My chin is chapped and peeling from the winds of a Vosgien winter, here in this never-cold, never-hot Equatorial land where snow is a thing of mystery and the average yearly income wouldn't buy a decent pair of skis.

I am stuck between worlds at the moment, clinging to my would-be life in France, not quite mentally ready to return to my current reality.

I have, by anybody's definition, I think, become a nomad. Since leaving home for college 13 years ago, I have lived in five foreign countries and seven US states, never staying put in any of them for more than a year. I have spread my life as thin as the snow on that French mountain, to the point that it is difficult to say where I come from or where I might logically go next.

There is a great beauty in movement, in flexibility, in the art of adapting. If I have not planted myself firmly enough to master any one skill or subject, this is perhaps my one trump - the ability to grow into the space I am placed in, foreign though it may be.

But the repeated departures are beginning to take their toll. I live and love and then find my yesterdays more and more wrenching to leave behind. I would like, for once, to plant my feet on the soil of a place and call it my own.

Northeastern France was my home, for 10 months, four years ago. I taught English and unexpectedly discovered a group of kindred spirits, alpine types who welcomed me into their circle and fortified my vocabulary, my climbing skills, and my tolerance of potent cheese, in the mountains of eastern France. After a slow and lonely first few months, I found a community in these people, one that I left behind in order to put the fortified French to use, in grad school in California, and now in Africa. And these were the people that I returned to last week, for a mere seven days, enough to understand that their life as I knew it continues, that strong homemade liqueurs still take off the chill after a day of skiing, that four hour dinners endure, that every vacation properly filled means the exploration of a new alpine destination, that houses are built and refurbished and warmed with wood fires.

I have tasted this life, but it is not mine, which seems to require some level of upset and exoticism to be sated. Exactly what level, and taken in what intervals, I am still trying to determine. The Congo is my present, and the future remains hazy, shrouded. But there is surely ground beneath those clouds, and only I can decide where to place these feet.
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