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Saturday, February 9, 2013

2013 #2 -- Returning to the Congo and City of Joy

Finally it comes.  I was walking down the dark path tonight to my room in the Orchids Hotel, perched on the shore of Lake Kivu, with my friend Joe, and I said, “Let me give you something.”  When we reached our quarters, four rooms next to each other, I stepped off the stone walkway and onto the grass and looked up in the sky.  There, straight above us bright as can be, was the Southern Cross.  One, two, three, four.  A gift.  

I arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi two days ago, flying through a thick layer of clouds and then on the ground just before the rains arrived.  It is nearly two years to the day from when I took the same route to come to the DRC for the first time.  This makes visit #3.  It is never easy getting here.  Flying into the DRC is almost impossible, and the only planes one would even feel safe enough to board would be UN planes.  So you go through either Burundi or Rwanda and then transit in by car (4-wheel drive SUV to be more specific).  The roads in Burundi were much better than I remembered from the last visit, and of course Rwanda, rich with foreign aid, has roads that are simply a thing of beauty in this part of the world.

I arrived in Bukavu late afternoon on Friday, still under cloudy skies.  We were checked into our rooms with impeccable efficiency (room keys on the counter at reception with your name attached in big black Sharpie letters).  Grab your key and go.  The Orchids Hotel is a jewel.  The magenta bougainvillea has grown massively; it must climb almost 100 feet into the sky, attached to a tree that is difficult to identify as it is nearly completely coated in purple petals.  I have had the pleasure of staying here on each visit to Bukavu, and it reminds me of how incredibly privileged I am.  

I wasn't in my room ten minutes when I heard the crash of raindrops coming down, as if the sky had a full belly of water and just burst.  It was the heaviest rain I have ever witnessed in all my years.  It lasted about a half an hour, and I was in awe of the power of it.  I stood outside with several other fellow travelers, under the porch of our rooms, looking out watching it pound on the lake in front of our eyes.  You could hardly see anything clearly; the rain was so heavy it seemed to change the appearance of everything.  Welcome back to the Congo.  It's always one experience after the other for the first time.  Always surprised and so hard to look away.  

What a treat it was tonight at the end of an incredibly rich day to realize suddenly the night sky was clear as a bell.  And the Southern Cross was bigger and brighter than I ever remembered.

I started my day early, as the time change never seems to matter.  You want to rise with the sun here.  There is too much to see and to learn and to share not to try to give yourself every waking minute you can manage.  So I was up early this morning with the sun and a breakfast of passion fruits and toast and tea with powdered milk.  I was put in charge last night by Eve, who is staying with Christine and Pat and Paula at the Co-Co Lodge, of only one thing: I was to get all 24 of us in the cars (we are traveling in a caravan of nine Toyota Land Cruisers) and on the road for a 10 am pickup at Co-Co.  Well, fire me now - I left one of my fellow travelers behind this morning.  Thank goodness Co-Co is only ten minutes away, as the moment we arrived we had to turn a car back to go pick up the missing person.  Passenger collected and now the trip begins.

Our day was spent at the City of Joy in Bukavu.  But first we must absorb all the life and the happenings and the faces and the sites on Essence Road.   The City of Joy sits at the end of Essence Road, and as we make our way, bumpity bump, and stare out the windows, we have little conversation in the vehicles.  The scenes of life happening around us take all one's attention.  As we get closer to the City of Joy, the foot traffic becomes heavier, the poverty level becomes more obvious, the road narrows.  The final leg of the drive to the City is a tent camp, which must resemble an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp left to survive with no more aid.  Our windows are up on the vehicles, but now we have left much of the crowd behind us and we begin to hear singing.  Loud, joyful singing.

I knew what to expect because I have done this before, but what a moment to share and one for which I am endlessly grateful.  The 90 women at the City of Joy are singing and dancing and welcoming us all in through the gates with mad joy.  We file out of our cars and stream in slowly, as each one of us is first greeted by one of the ADORABLE 21 toddlers living there at the moment, each dressed in bright Congolese dress - fuchsia, yellow, and deep blue.  15 little girls and six little boys.  What a sweet sight!  The women are lined up behind all the babies in two lines, so that each of us one by one can dance our way through them out to the big center field of grass.  The singing is so loud and SO beautiful, and a trio of men is beating away on drums.  Has anyone ever been so happy to see us?  

I can't remember at this point how long the music lasted or how long we danced, but it was more joyful than I can ever remember.  

We finally made our way into the office at City of Joy and crowded around a big table.  We are a big group.  Christine, the leader extraordinaire who runs this center of transformation, gave an overview of how she runs the "ship."  I won't go into this, as I know I have written about it in the past, but let's just leave it that no pencil goes unaccounted for.  I don't know of anyone who can stretch a household dollar like Christine.   Mama Baccu, who makes me think of something sweet as she is traditionally built and always wearing some beautiful African print with a big dollop of matching fabric spun on her head like icing from a pastry bag, goes over all of the programs being taught at the City – trauma-tapping therapy to animal husbandry, French and English, computers, public speaking, human rights, sewing, and the list goes on.  Each visit the programming has become broader, the teachers better, the results more impressive.

As we sit in the office, the windows open with a light warm breeze coming through, you can hear the girls singing and drums beating, and the energy just flows and flows.  As Eve points out, one of the secrets to City of Joy is to keep the energy moving, unabated, no place for the energy to jam up.  All the classes and all the staff are focused on helping each one of these girls turn the page on their life.  Everyday, as Mama Baccu says, they must turn the page again.  I have come to realize now after three visits that this is the real miracle of City of Joy.  You see, if you are here, if you are a girl in this program, you have a story.  You have a horrible story.  I have heard the stories.  I can't seem to write one tonight.  It will come.  But you have to keep the energy of life flowing.

We had a feast with all the women - cassava greens cooked up like sauteed spinach, and amaranth greens, long and stringy, cooked with onions, fish and chicken charcoaled crisp, cassava starch and maybe the sweetest sweet potato I have ever had.  Peli peli that set my mouth on fire.  And fresh pineapple that we bought from a beautiful fruit stand just before leaving Burundi - run by women of course!

One of the best moments at lunch was taking my friend Jesse Cool, a fabulous chef, in to see the kitchen.  Or out actually, as it is an outdoor kitchen.  She met all the cooks, one by one, three kisses to the cheeks, kiss cheek, turn again repeat, turn again repeat.  This is how the Congolese greet one another; it's always three.  The women had just finished cooking enough food to feed about 140 of us – WOW, that's a lot.  They made so many dishes, and I promise I will get a full list.  Jesse praised the women for how neatly organized and how clean their kitchen was, and they smiled with these proud grins.  She will be cooking with them later this week.  I think that 500 of our 9,500 pounds of cargo were Jesse's pots, pans and cooking tongs.  What a site their cooking together will be to watch.

After the feast we started dancing again.  We have all learned the One Billion Rising song, Break the Chain! (  What an experience to do a flash mob with these women.  I will be sharing the photos.  But what was the most unexpected moment of the day?  The tune that followed Break the Chain! was Gangnam Style, and boy did they rock the house on that one!  Here we are in the true heart of Africa, the heart of darkness, the heart of the world, and that YouTube sensation is here too. How could we not have predicted this!

I have much more to tell about today, but it's quite late so I'll try to write the next post in the morning.

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