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.


  1. Once again, a fascinating account, Emily. I look forward to reading more and more of 'Digesting Africa'!!!

  2. Thank you for your link to the book "Blood River" by Tim Butcher, about his travels in the steps of Stanley through the Congo in 2000 - where he was afraid for his life, he says, every single day. After seeing the photos, with his comments, & watching the videos I am determined to read this thoughtful book. He calls the Congo "the most compelling country on the planet".


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