Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do I ever feel scared

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.


kristine said...

that is very thought provoking - and very well said.

shona congo said...

Thanks Kristine. It was a hard question to answer. And thanks for your faithful reading and commenting. It really makes a difference to know that people are actually reading my blog!

But what happened to your comment on the international NGOs versus grassroots organizations? Did you erase it? Why? I thought it was an excellent continuation of the discussion, with some very important points, and was so happy to have such a thoughtful discussion on my blog. You are absolutely right that international NGOs usually try to work through local organizations, and this is an important part of the equation in understanding how both types of organizations operate. I'd love to continue the discussion and was slow to respond only because I was thinking to use the discussion as a jumping off point for a new entry (and because my internet connection is from another century, so it takes me a while to do anything online). I do think it is an important topic, and I really appreciated your thoughts.

Lynn said...

Ok, now you're amazing AND brave! :) Thank you for sharing your thoughts so honestly with us, your readers and long distance friends.

Anonymous said...

Dawn, I hope this doesn't sound bad, but it's nice to find someone who understands...who knows. Feels so much less alone in these memories and feelings. Do you ever feel a bit of PTSD?


shona congo said...

Hi Heidi, Sorry I didn't see this comment earlier, as I haven't been keeping up much with my blog these days :( I have to get back to it sometime, as I do find it helpful in thinking out some things. Glad that you found some of my thoughts helpful as well. I definitely do think that it is helpful to me when I find other people who have been in similar situations, and particularly people who have lived in Congo. So glad to know you! :)

In this latest escalation of the war, I was safely tucked away here in New York, as you know, but I have definitely found it stressful. Getting calls in the middle of the night from the ladies as they fled Goma, and then returned, and then left again has been hard. And I think something about it being the holiday season here, right before Thanksgiving, and the disconnection of that, has been hard. On one hand there are things I can do, primarily making sure that the SHONA women have some money to buy food and shelter along the way, but there are also a lot of limits to that and I think of that prayer
"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."