WARNING: I try to make my blog entries a mix of happy topics and more challenging ones. After all, life is that way, both here or everywhere else. But for those of you who have been paying careful attention, you will remember that I have one question remaining from the give-away. It has taken me a long time to post an answer to this question, because I keep looking for a way to spin it. Surely there is something happy and sweet that I can include in this entry? But it is a hard-hitting question, and in the end I would not be honest without giving a hard-hitting response. So please tune in tomorrow for a more light-hearted entry. For today, consider yourself warned.
Do I ever feel scared?
Yes. I will never forget what it feels like to fear nightfall. In October fighting reached the edge of Goma and rebel soldiers stood poised to take the city. Government soldiers panicked and ran through the city pillaging and destroying along the way. This opened the door to a state of insecurity and lawlessness which went on for months, in which the average person had no idea what nightfall would bring. At night, you could hear shooting regularly, but had no idea who was shooting or being shot. I never felt very scared for myself, in the scheme of things we were pretty safe. But I felt scared for others, particularly the SHONA women, who were living on their own and had absolutely no means of protection.
The most frightening thing to me was that once it got dark we could do absolutely nothing. Cell phones made it possible for people to call us if they are being attacked. But technology could only carry us so far. What could we do? There are no police to call. And although we would have liked to rush around in the work vehicle, coming to people's rescue, it was too unsafe to be caught driving around in a vehicle at night, especially to a place where a robbery is taking place.
We, like everyone else, were locked into our house once it grew dark. If someone called to say that thieves were banging on their door, what exactly were we going to do?
So you sit in your house and hope the phone doesn't ring. As the sun goes down and evening comes, I remember that inevitable feeling, that feeling of entering a world in which I had absolutely no control.
And we did receive phone calls, from people who were hearing shooting in their neighborhood and who were scared. And from people who had thieves banging on their doors. And from others who had friends who were being attacked. Many of those incidents turned out fine, but not all of them.
The reality is that many people continue to live in this state. In many villages in Eastern Congo, people often do not sleep in their houses, for fear of being attacked. They sleep hidden in the forest, and return home during the daytime to farm, and to look for food or work.
Even in Goma, security is still hard to come by. Shooting and armed robberies are regular occurrences at night even now. And these attacks are often not focused on the wealthy, who can afford to pay private guards and security forces, but on the poor, who have nothing but a wooden door to protect them.
So yes, I have felt scared. Because I have felt powerless.
In my life, I like to help people when I can. I have often thought of helping someone as a responsibility.
But what I didn't realize is that helping people is a privilege. The ability to help another person comes from a position of power; it is the act of someone has some measure of control, some sense of his own ability to affect change. Sitting in my house at night, knowing that there is absolutely nothing I can do to help my friends if they call me, I have only just begun to understand how it feels to be powerless. Unfortunately for many people here, this is a lesson they learned a long time ago.