Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tragedy and Community

The message went like this...
"Shemeki wa Mapendo alikufa bila kugonjwa. Tuombeye."

Translated, that is
"Mapendo's brother-in-law died without being sick. Pray for us."

I promised the SHONA ladies that I would pass along to you this request for prayer. So there it is.

Here is the backstory...
Mapendo's brother-in-law died suddenly. He had not been very sick, although he also had not been feeling particularly well as of late. He went into the bedroom to lie down, and when family came in later, he was dead.

He leaves behind his wife (Mapendo's sister) and 10 children (8 of their own and 2 orphans they care for). The oldest child is 20 years old and the youngest is a year and a half old. This is a huge responsibility for Mapendo's sister to bear.

Inevitably, this responsibility will come down not only on Mapendo's sister but on Mapendo as well. One of the children was already living with the SHONA ladies. You may remember that she came to help the ladies around the house. Their sewing has paid for her to go back to school.
Mapendo's sister will struggle to provide for these children. And in one of the great injustices of life in Congo, she will also face attempts to take away her home, or anything else that she might have. When the Bible talks about fighting for the rights of widows, I never really took it literally. I didn't realize precisely how vicitmized widows can be in cultures, even today. But in every death that I have seen in Congo, the widow has faced an onslaught of pressure and the fear of losing the little that she has.

In addition to all of this, this idea of "dying without being sick" has a particular undertone to it. When people die of no clear cause in Congo, they are often assumed to have been poisoned by someone. This is a particular tragedy in Congo, where healthcare is extremely low, and the ability to actually diagnose illnesses is very limited. While there are real incidents of poisoning in Congo (and around the world) there are also many, many incidents where people just die. When you have no medical equipment to diagnose problems, and no investigative police to diagnose crime, the two are often confused. In a world where tragedy hits so often, we grab onto any explanation we can. And unfortunately, the poisoning explanation is often the most readily available. It may be hard to prove, but it is also hard to disprove.

Congo can be a hard place, full of inexplicable tragedy, and uncertain fear.

But it can also be a place of beauty. Where a community comes together to carry burdens. The SHONA ladies have been sleeping at Mapendo's sister's house for days now. Mourning with them. They heard of the tragedy, put down their sewing materials, and went. This is a common Congolese response.

You notice that in their message they say "pray for us." This is not a selfish "us", as though they are the ones who need prayer. It is an inclusive "us", a recognition of their place in a community, a community whose responsibility it is to now carry this family, and bear their burden together.

I rarely say "pray for us". In good American fashion I say "pray for them". As though a person's loss or struggle is somehow separate from my own. I should practice saying "tuombeye"("pray for us"). Perhaps it will serve as a reminder to myself that, in reality, we are all in this life together.

Sharing our burdens and our joys.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A house built on faith

This is Roy's house. A couple weeks ago he had to pick it up. And by that I mean...actually pick it up and carry it somewhere else. His family was forced to leave the land they were living upon. They had to take apart their home and carry it to a new location.

When we talk about insecurity in Goma, we think about war and armed robbery and the general chaos which can overtake the region.

We don't necessarily think about picking up houses.

But this too is part of the insecurity of life in Goma. The vast majority of people in Goma live in this type of perpetual non-permanence. This awareness that at virtually anytime, you may be told to move. Even if that means picking up your house.

Roy built this house about a year and a half ago, on top of this pile of lava rock. He paid about $10 a month to rent the land on which he built his house. That worked out for a while, until the owner of the land decided he wanted to take back the land and build on it himself. And so Roy's family had to move. As in, they had to move the house. So they looked for another piece of land to rent, they dismantled the house, and carried it on their backs to the next location.

So now they are living in the same house, on different land. And you can imagine how long it will last this time. If they are luck another year? People in Goma get used to picking up and moving a lot.

True, there is nothing that shocking about the transitory nature of life in Goma. Goma is a city, largely composed of people who have fled there, from the surrounding areas. It is full of people who have had to pack up and leave, again and again. The city itself has been overtaken by soldiers, rebels, and lava at varying points in the last ten years. In Goma, one most always stand a bit poised on the edge of departure.

What I find most striking is that Roy built the house in the first place. He could have rented a a similar house. But he chose to build a house on land that he did not own. Of course options were limited. If he could afford to buy land, he surely would have.

But think about it for a minute. Imagine renting a plot of land and building your own house. With your materials, your own money, the sweat from your brow.

No one does that in America, because who would take that risk? We build on land that we own, or we rent a house on land that we don't. No one goes through the work of building a house if they can't own the land.

It gives me pause.

Roy knew that building on borrowed land was a risk. But what in Goma isn't a risk? Actually it was more like guaranteed non-permanence. You build knowing that in the not-so-distant-future you will have to take it down again. Or maybe the volcano will erupt again before that happens, and cover your house with lava. Or maybe the war will explode and you will be forced to leave your home and flee. You see, when everything is a risk, it almost becomes beside the point to try and calculate risk at all. What's built today, what stands today, is really all that you have the energy to think about it.

So Roy, picked up his house and moved it to a new plot of land. Let me not understate this. By no means was this an easy process for his family. Yet he will probably face it again next year, and the year after...

It is a living example of the insecurity of Goma. The poor move again and again, as landowners try and turn a profit on their land. Community breaks down when a population is constantly being forced to move from one place to another.

But it is also an example of the extraordinary sense of hope and determination in Goma. Even if you are simply too poor to buy any land, you'll start by buying the materials to build. What greater evidence of hope is there? Maybe you will own a roof and walls, long before you ever own a place to rest them upon. But in that there is a determination to believe in a better future.

In Goma, where the ground is constantly shifting, you learn to build your home on moving ground. It's not blind faith that the ground will stop moving. It's the knowledge that that it never does. And the determination not to lose hope in the midst of it. I suppose, in the end, that is the type of faith we are all called to.

"What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway."
Mother Teresa

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

~ Hebrews Chapter 11 Verse 1

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Conflict minerals debate

Check this post, plus the comments which follow, for a good view on some of the misconceptions involving "conflict minerals" in Congo.