31 October 2013

Morbid and creepifying

Not so very long ago, some of my team members shared, in a hushed Skype conversation, the conviction that they once heard a demonic voice emanating from the country director’s room in the middle of the night. While a number of questions popped into my mind in response, chief among them just what they were doing listening at her door at 2am, my response was one of muffled skepticism. As the confession continued to unfold, utterly without any prompting on my part, it gave the impression of being reluctantly typed. My housemates seem to fear that even a digital acknowledgement of the occurrence would invite the thing back, but equally honour-bound to alert me to the terror under our roof.

What amazed me is that, a few days after the incident, they apparently confronted our CD about it! What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall when that conversation went down. “Hey, Boss, when you have a minute, can we talk about the finances for the ECHO project, and oh, yeah, I DENOUNCE YOU AS HAVING CONSORTED WITH THE UNCLEAN ONE LAST NIGHT.” To their somewhat dubious credit, the pair actually thought that she was on the receiving end of a curse, not that she was signing her name in the Black Man’s book. At the time she offered the seemingly rational explanation that she had fallen asleep listening to a sermon (a sermon! It’s too perfect. You didn’t mistake 30 Rock or Bones or NCIS for a minion of perdition, some episodes of which might have been understandable. You mistook a sermon. Perhaps it was delivered by Zuul?). The sermon was in Dutch, and so that’s probably why it sounded a bit off to them.

The supernatural sleuths didn’t buy this. The voice they heard, you see, was moving around the room and so could not have been a lackluster Nordic preacher. Ergo, it must have been Old Scratch. Ever since, our house gives them an uncomfortableness. Any bump in the night – which I generally ascribe to the numerous critters that live on or in the roof – has left them quaking under their sheet and clutching the nearest Bible and furiously texting one another to the extent their trembling fingers are able to navigate the keys of our throwback phones (I tease, but the first time I read a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot, as it happened, I was so scared that I had to wear my rosary to bed. Granted, I was 14 at the time, but I wore that sucker to sleep for months afterward). I briefly entertained the notion of suggesting we undertake the Ugandan method for driving out Night Dancers and invite the thing back, if only so we might call upon God to banish it to its face. Everyone knows that only way to bedevil the devil is in the light! I also felt the urge recognize that it was probably the fault of the yoga classes, but managed to hold my tongue on both counts.

Demons are actually a fairly regular topic of conversation for my team, even out of the Halloween season (possibly especially out of the Halloween season. This weekend, we’re hosting a murder mystery party for the team, partly as a fun bonding exercise, but mostly to preempt an actual Halloween party. The Powers that Be are fine with miming a murder, but didn’t think people dressing up as witches would be appropriate at a Christian NGO. The mind, it boggles). Indeed, it was some months ago that an incredibly interesting dinner discussion of psycho-social programming (it turns out that people in chronic conflict environments are actually inured from some of the most injurious effects of PTSD precisely because the violence is so endemic that it becomes their norm. When you delve into all of the horror they have been/are facing, it can actually create more of problem. Instead, you have to just, in effect, do mental triage. Also, humanitarians are horrible with polite dinner conversation) somehow meandered into the topic of assumed demon possession and how it’s often a smokescreen for abuse of the mentally ill (more on this later). It was really fascinating, if depressing, stuff. And, I thought, rather made the ghost mongers feel a bit silly. At first, anyway.

Our CD, a trained psychologist, who just moments before had been having a completely coherent discussion of methodology and treatment, suddenly postulated that, yes, she does think that some instances of psychosis are in fact mis-diagnosed possession. Here’s the kicker – EVERY ONE ELSE AT THE TABLE AGREED WITH HER. Have you all completely lost your minds? Perhaps it is my mind that is pretty nearly gone. Either that or my faith is super weak. That’s what this must be, yes? From there, we went on to discuss voodoo in Congo. I think, technically, it’s witchcraft here., voodoo being a regional phenomenon. At this point, though, I wasn’t going to argue.

Seriously, though, witchcraft and sorcery are a problem in the Congo. The fear of them and its consequences, that is. I fail to believe that this particular complex crisis is being maintained by the world’s most adept coven or that spurned employees are cursing the expats with malaria, though were that the case…holy cats, my job would become so much more interesting. I would become Grant Writer and Witchfinder Captain. We could use our vaccination campaigns to wage a vicious mystic COIN campaign, build bridges imbued with witch bottles and coloured stones and old shoes, distribute helpful leaflets on witch identification along with our safe delivery kits for new mothers. “They shall speak truths and whisper secrets and you shall know them by their crafts…Also, have a new mosquito net!”

Congo has a strong tradition of witchcraft in its folklore and indigenous religions. But this was a more morally neutral sort of witchcraft that not only followed but defined social mores. If a given witch (generally respected elderly people, often though not always women) wanted to curse someone from another tribe, for example, s/he was expected to first seek permission from that tribe’s witch. It was all a startlingly civilized way of settling debts, really, albeit with a healthy serving of victim-blaming. Unfortunately, the place of witchcraft in society has evolved into something much darker and more twisted. It is increasingly perceived as something malevolent and almost classically vampiric. In the modern practice, when an adult witch determines to curse someone for some perceived wrong or to augment their own power (witches apparently gain strength and longevity by feeding off the life force and successes of others), he or she exercises their craft through a child close to the victim. While the main (adult) target of the curse might lose his/her job or get in a car accident or contract HIV, the child is accepted as having served as a mechanism for the curse. These children are essentially decreed accessories to the crime, orphans by their own hands, witches in their own right, and consequently expelled from the family.

Functionally, of course, this is a child protection issue. Any aberrant or challenging behavior that unnerves or threatens adults (this could take a range of forms from the more predictable - bedwetting, developmental disabilities, mental illness, emotional instability, ugliness, general bad behavior or disobedience – to the head-scratchingly astounding – children who are deemed too nice, too wise, too clever, too imaginative. One of the most common indicators of a child witch is eating too much and not growing strong. How else to explain where all that food is going except to feed burgeoning supernatural powers?), especially if coupled with some crisis in the family or broader community (natural disaster or epidemic, for example), can result in an accusation of witchcraft. This is why it is so often orphans that are targeted by the extended relatives who take them in after the death of a parent. These new families lack the resources to care for an extra child and are mourning for lost family. Blaming the child for the death kills two birds with one stone, serving as an outlet for their grief and eradicating a financial drain. A similar story plays out with step-parents, who might be tempted to find a means of disposing of their predecessor’s offspring.

Suspected witches are often taken to an expert – usually some local pastor who will exorcise demons (usually with a dog, though sometimes a good goat will do) and cleanse witch children, for a modest fee, of course. Though the cleansings, or deliveries, are most often associated with revivalist churches, one can find disreputable men of just about any denomination (Catholic, Pentecostal, African traditional) who are willing to take money from distraught families. Save the Children as a really fantastic, if somewhat dated, report on the issue. They note that “some pastors believe that the problem of bewitchment is poverty-related: because parents do not give their children enough to eat, they wind up accepting food from any old person in the street, giving ill-intentioned people the opportunity to commit their crimes. Another explanation is that the parents are never there, out all day trying to eke out a living, so the children are left to their own devices, opening the door to bad influences. Some people believe that witchcraft is transferred to children because it cannot be transferred to adults, others that children are used by the devil to do evil, the devil’s aim being to destroy a whole generation.” I highly suggest you read the full piece, if not for the depressing information about what amounts to systemic child abuse (it creates some interesting parallels to child soldiers – how that sort of abuse allows them to be seen as dangerous, and therefore adult, and thus able to be blamed for misfortunes. One form of abuse falsely emancipates children as a whole and opens them to more abuse), then for the wacky details about traditional strains of Congolese witchcraft. The witches of yore, for example, were want to transport themselves via foufou spoon (foufou is a delicious, gelatinous substance that is made from cassava and replaces rice in many traditional dishes). In the modern age, they prefer to use planes. According to some, witches can only be caught when their plane runs out of fuel and they are stranded on their rooftops in their PJs. No word on what happens to the planes.

Now and again, the delivered children are welcomed back into their family after days and weeks and months of ‘ritual’ starvation and beatings in what is at best a dubiously happy ending (talk about born again). More often, they are simply cast out to live on the street (assuming village in question is even willing to suffer a witch to live and does not prefer to burn them alive or stone them to death instead). Many make their home in the marché, where they survive on handouts and pilfered scraps. Bunia has its own tribe of marché children who are even dirtier and more malnourished than the standard barefoot urchins one encounters. Most of them are fairly normal, if quite timid, though there are a few who quite clearly suffer from some developmental disabilities. These tend to follow us muzungus around, trying to touch our hair.

As is true the world over, Congo’s orphan witches are vulnerable to drugs, gangs, insurgencies, and other predators. There is an orphanage not so far from our compound, and our guards shoo the more persistent beggars away from our gate. I’m fairly confident, however, that they also share their lunches with these children that they sometimes find leaning against the gate, stoned out of their minds from drinking petrol. Such acts of pity are sometimes the only thing keeping the street children alive, given the near complete absence of social services provided by the state on every front. Even the bulk of humanitarian actors are focused on other, sexier topics like IDPs and child soldiers and mass rape. We’re all too busy playing the role of big damn heroes to be distracted by a few thousand abused and forgotten witch children.

Unfortunately, the child witch phenomenon is not an issue of lunacy or ignorance (though there is plenty of that). The belief in a powerful, unseen world is deeply held here, and it scares people. Even at our local, terrifically Western hospital, nearly everything is first identified as a curse (well, malaria, and then a curse). A firm and pervasive conviction in the reality of the supernatural likely contributes to the unwillingness of many to help these children. After all, what if they are, in fact, witches?

Such wholly fallacious conclusions, of course, appall my colleagues, as well they should. Unfortunately, it’s a bit difficult for me to reconcile how someone can denounce a people for blaming a death from HIV on witchcraft and then turn right around and in the same conversation warn me that fraud in our staff is the work of the Enemy. I have mental whiplash – who knew (Western) Christians were such a superstitious lot? My atheist friends would probably suggest that the very nature of being people of faith makes us superstitious, and I suppose I see that. Likewise, I imagine that my colleagues would chide me that one cannot have God without the Devil. I would be more will to make an argument against that, but that this point, I’m just beginning to accept that I might well be She of Little Faith.

01 October 2013

Knights in not-so-shining Land Cruisers

Though fighting continues, the situation in Irumu has cooled sufficiently for our security experts to finally give the go-ahead for expats to venture into the field. It’s not that expats are necessary for the field work to continue, or even particularly helpful, at least in this instance. The programme manager is a Congolais doctor who is terrifically proficient when it comes to conducting needs assessments. He also speaks most of the local languages and has been working with some of these communities for years. One might be forgiven for wondering why we would ever dispatch the international staff to these project sites. Frankly, sending expats is more of a PR move. It signals to the IDP and host populations that a) this situation is stabalising, thereby hopefully reassuring them (which might be a complete lie); and b) that the broader INGO community recognizes their situation. We actually are often thanked by the beneficiaries when we go to the field (not thanked for anything in particular, mind you, but just for being there while white. It’s more or less the inverse of DWB and it’s super disconcerting).

We specifically wanted to go to Soke, as it is safe while still being reasonably close to the front line and has a tremendous amount of IDPs. It is about a two hour drive from Bunia with a route that passes through Bogoro That is where, in more peaceful times, we were want to go to the waterfalls for a relaxing weekend picnic. Now, both it and the surrounding villages have been flooded with those fleeing the fighting between the FARDC and FPRI.

The team, which, in addition to the Doctor and myself, included two national and one international staff, made our first attempt early last week. After a series of typical office snafus delayed our departure by nearly two hours, we were set back even further at the military checkpoint newly installed at the southernmost entrance to Bunia. The lengthy detention seemed less rooted in bureaucratic necessity or a specific security concern than in sheer boredom. The soldiers waved motorbikes and less interesting cars through as they inquired about our work with what bordered on genuine curiosity and expounded on the glorious successes of their FARDC brethren against the villainous Cobra Matata. All the time they were speaking to us they were grooming one another. One soldier was almost meditatively combing the bangs of his colleague’s wig. It was sweet, if bizarre.

With well-wishes still on the lips of the troops, we took off down the dusty path, our logo pennant proudly flapping in the wind like the standard of some knight errant. Almost all the NGO land cruisers fly them. I keep waiting for us to joust along the main street. Instead of the favours of fair maidens, we would be trying to win funds from the UN, EU, and USAID. And, after the tourney, we would sally forth, not to do battle, but to deliver mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and NFIs. Given this level of absurd whimsy, you might expect me to love the pennants, but I might actually hate them. They’re dingy and self-serving and obscure the view of the journey. MSF vehicles tend to have two or three, which seems about right.

At any rate, we had been traveling merrily along, singing along with a tape of Congolais worship songs. I can only join in when they invariably come to a repeated series of Alleluias, but then I do so with gusto. This is partly why I, along with most of the team, failed to notice when our driver began to express some unease. The fact that he did so in Hemma, which is only comprehensible to the project manager, certainly didn’t help. He was unnerved by the sheer volume of motorbikes coming towards us (they’re like rats on a sinking ship - good indicators of militia activity, given that many of them are more or less militia reservists). When we were finally passed by a truck stuffed to the gills with people all waving at shouting at us urgently, barreling so fast down the road that we had to drive partway into the ditch to make room for it, India (the expats all use his call sign, India Zulu, as his given name is a humdinger) didn’t even wait for input from the PM before K-turning out of there. The PM made a few calls and we stopped to chat with some of the motos who had been fleeing. Early reports were that the militia had just begun shelling UN and FARCD positions in and around the town. Just, as in ten minutes before. That was when reinforcements from the military checkpoint we had passed less than an hour before went thundering down toward our former destination. The only IDPs I would talk to, then, were the ones who prevented us from waltzing into a fire fight (or so we thought). Even so, the morning wasn’t complete loss – the team shared road-bought bananas and sugar cane and mango Tang on the return trip, and I made it back in time for my French lesson. As the PM said, c’est ça le Congo!

With time and a little more intelligence, however, turns out that no one was shelling Bogoro. They were shelling Kasawara, which is a bit farther afield and where the ‘war’ is raging in earnest. What sparked the panic in Bogoro was that MONUSCO deployed a tank unit to go assist the beleaguered FARDC forces (as they’re supposed to be working together and whatnot) and for reasons unknown to just about everyone but the Congolais troops themselves, the checkpoint guards outside of Lagabo turned them back. Yes, the FARDC dismissed a UN tank. When the good people of Bogoro saw the UN troops coming back their way, they assumed that they had been recalled for military reasons and split. Though making for a rather anti-climatic end to my mission, it does give a decent idea of how jumpy everyone around here has gotten (even so, I’m not entirely certain what one mistakes for the sound of mortar fire).

The following day dawned with a heavy feeling in the air. Undaunted by the sultry weather and armed with the knowledge that we would be at least 10km away from the active frontline, we opted to try for Soke again. We somewhat sheepishly passed through the same checkpoints, but the soldiers that were still awake were too lethargic to do much more than muster a listless salute. Under the cloud-heavy sky, even the pennant was subdued. India navigated up through the handful of villages betwixt Bunia and Bogoro, passing the usual motley collection of children, goats, road-side vendors, and even a few hand-cranked wooden bikes ridden by double amputees.

The talk in the car was astoundingly wide-ranging. What began with the expats asking after our co-workers kids somehow transitioned to the subject of canine exorcisms (using the dog to trap the demon once it’s been exorcised from a person, that is. Not exorcising demons out of dogs, though that might have been even more intriguing. Don’t ask what happens to the demon-infested dog post-exorcism) which then lead to a discussion of social security. I have no idea how that happened. It was fascinating though, to hear a Dutch women (whose home country has one of the most advanced social safety nets in the world) discuss welfare with a Congolais man on our way to a camp for displaced persons. All the talk about the value of money (it can’t buy you happiness, my Dutch colleague opined. No, but it can buy you food, shot back our logistician) and handouts vs. earned income and saving vs spending habits was a bit surreal.

We eventually reached Lagabo, a tiny village of less than 500. It’s actually too small for even the INGOs to put it on our maps. It was in this blip of a village that the FARDC suggested we stop for the day (it’s also where they stopped the tank. The Lagabo unit is tough). Accordingly, we disembarked from the Land Cruiser and asked around until we identified the village chief. It didn’t take long. Walking up to his hut, our PM shot an appraising look at the camera in my hand and suggested that I store it for the interview. The chief was reclining on a bench outside his house in black loafers, green track suit, and a houndstooth newsboy cap stitched with shimmering silver thread. He was holding court with his brain trust, a handful of FARDC soldiers (presumably these soldiers outranked those that stopped us), and a gaggle of dirty children with beautiful eyes. The site overlooked Lac Albert, so I was at least able to enjoy the view as the PM chatted with the chief and a black rooster kept pecking at my feet. The chief was not in the least pleased about the IDPs, though he was tolerant. There were just too many for his village, he explained. Lagabo doesn’t have enough resources to share.

If at first I found his sentiments uncharitable, that changed when our interview ended and India eased the Land Cruiser through the tall grasses in the direction indicated by the chief. We came over a rise, parked under a tree, and were immediately surrounded by some of the 23,000 IDPs that have invaded Lagabo. Small wonder the chief was piqued – how was this village of a few hundred, with only one potable water point and two latrines, supposed to absorb that many people? Lagabo doesn’t even have a functioning health center; residents have to hoof it down the hill to Bogoro for anything beyond bush treatments.

By and large, the IDPs hailed from Kaguma and Soke. There were so very many because, as the fighting neared these larger, more established towns, people from satellite villages fled there. When the fighting engulfed them in turn, those who were once hosts turned IDP along with everyone else and they all absconded to wherever they could (for what it’s worth, Lagabo was a terrible choice. It’s an area that is contested between two tribes who were openly fighting less than a decade ago, it’s windy, it’s cold, it’s in the middle of nowhere…). Some had walked as many as 50km in the past weeks. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like such a great distance (hardly more than a marathon in two weeks? I hear you ask. Pfft), and in the strictest sense, it isn’t. But when you’re traveling with a passel of little kids, all your worldly possessions, insufficient food and water, and in constant fear? It’s herculean.
We tend to talk about numbers of displaced in terms of households rather than persons because there are always so many children.  Parents send them away with relatives and neighbors, often with nothing more than the cloathes and possibly a younger sibling on their back.
The entirety of the staff from the Kaguma health centre was now residing within eyesight of our tree in Lagabo. All 28 personnel (nurses, midwives, technicians, etc) were still performing consultations under its generous shade. We arrived during a distribution of medicines, including antimalarials and treatments for ARI and diarrhea. The drugs might have been coming out of a cardboard box someone carried to Lagabo on her head, but the whole thing was meticulously recorded in the logs they had salvaged from the clinic before they abandoned Kaguma and duly resented to our PM for approval and reimbursement (we subsidize treatments for IDPs). The head nurse described the entire process in a shirt emblazoned with George W. Bush’s face and the words ‘Somewhere a Village Is Missing its Idiot’.
As the PM peppered the staff with questions about the morbidity and mortality statistics (which we refer to as M&Ms, rendering me both depressed and peckish), demographics, latrines, and supplies, I tried to make myself useful by taking photos. I couldn’t have felt more useless. Here I am, the intrepid NGO worker, coming to meet with the great displaced masses and…photograph their destitution. I am an inspiration. My aimlessness was all the more manifest when compared to the ceaseless activity of the impromptu camp. During the entirety of our visit, lines of women and older girls snaked through the throng, carrying messy bales of thrushes to the various buildings sites or drying racks. The temporary shelters can be erected in a matter of days and the grasses are woven so tightly that rain cannot penetrate (the thrushes have to be dry before they start for this to work, though. Which is tricky, given that this is the rainy season), but I can’t imagine it’s terribly comfortable. The peaks of the roofs only reach to my chest. Admittedly, most Congolais aren’t tall, but still.
When we finally set back out for Bunia, the IDP children chased after our truck, waving and cheering, like we were the solitary float in a pathetic parade.
For what it’s worth, the team (sans me) finally made it all the way to Soke two days later. I’m not certain if it was because they finally wore down the Lagabo guards or they were just in a good mood (one of my colleagues opined it was because none of the expats on this trip were women). The photos they took were of a ghost town. The population is a fragment of what it was a month ago and surrounding villages are utterly empty. The health post still running, though. A skeleton crew is treating all IDPs that stumble into town, late for the great flight (which is now being arrested by the FARDC with violent measures. As if these people didn’t have enough to contend with). One assumes they must be new to the area. Next time, they’ll be ready.