It took us quite a long time to get back to Mulongo, much longer than I expected. It was almost 3 full days by boat. Yesterday when we arrived here, I was sooooo tired, which seems to be a growing theme of mine throughout this trip. But on our way back, we made a brief stop at a village which is well-known around here for being inhabited by the war-lord Vendi, who received Bob the last time he was here. This war-lord is distinguished, as I was told by DS Mulongo, by the fact that “this one… he did not eat people.” Which sounds almost comical in its absurdity, but it remains staunch fact around here that most of the war-lords were known not only for their violence, but for their cannibalism. (As an aside, I’ve read in many historical accounts that as recently as 5 years ago, even the local Congolese shuddered at the prospect of entering the neighboring province of Maniema due to the reports of the cannibalism therein, though again, I do not claim to know whether these reports were true.) So anyway, as I am told, Vendi started our more or less honorably, attempting to protect his village from rebels and soldiers, but as it so often happens, things went somewhat south. The details from then on are foggy to me, though DS Mulongo promised to tell me the whole story later, but it is evident by the demeanor of those who surround him that great atrocities were committed in his name. I was told that nearly everyone (including children) in that village were conscribed into service.
The experience of being there was so surreal. Even not having to see anything horrific (it really resembled most of the other near-by villages that we visited, belying little of the violence that was committed there) it seemed to be that walking through this village in the seven-am Congolese mist had a certain surreal quality, I’m reminded of the title of a Chuck Klosterman essay entitled “Where crazy things seem normal, and normal things seem crazy” (which, if you’re a Klosterman-fan, no doubt you’ll call me out on the fact that this story was about interviewing Val Kilmer, which clearly has no relevance, so yes, I’m taking the title ridiculously out of context), it felt very much like that. As I heard the somewhat-broken story about everyone in this village being conscribed to commit violent acts, and as I sat before the war-lord watching the growing crowd around him, seeing the hardness of the dozens of pairs of glittering stones watching me, the realization hit me: more-than likely, everyone here standing before me older than about the age of 15, has killed someone. Because if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be standing here looking at me. That realization is deeply humbling, surreal, and even, yes, a bit alarming.
What struck me most, though, was not the horror, but the fact that they were just like me. There is no discernable difference in our genetic code. Indeed, while there, I met the chief’s daughter, Cecille, who is a woman about my age who attends the nursing school in Mulongo. DS Mulongo told me that they had huge difficulties in the beginning integrating her, because she was so used to violence, being the one yielding the gun, literally, that she was extremely reactive and abrasive to all classmates. And there’s really no different between her and I, except that fate cast me forth on a different continent, and I received all the relevant benefits. As I thought about the killing, I thought, it’s so strange that Westerners so often conceive of killing in this type of context as a choice… but if the choice is kill or be killed, what would you have done? What would I have done? (The fact that I’m such a weakling that I’m sure I would have been one of the first to perish, if I was lucky enough to make it out of the womb, is irrelevant to this hypothetical.) And then I realized that it’s not really a choice at all. Because it struck me as similar to trying to drown oneself—without using external force, you simply can’t do it. At a certain point, your “survival instincts” take over, and you no longer really have a choice in the matter. (Even biologically speaking, your frontal lobe pretty much defects once your amygdala is calling the shots.) It’s a Stanley-Milgram-esque revelation, but there’s always something within us that wants to believe we’re somehow “better” than others in situations like this, that we would have made a “different” choice by sheer will, and chosen not to take people’s lives. But I guess I just don’t believe anymore that that’s really the case.
And that, to me, is what’s so tragic about Congo, not that “pity” is really helpful to anyone, but I confess that I find myself unable to separate myself from the people here—I am unable to place myself in any sort of superior “helper” roll. And sometimes I confess I get overwhelmed by a terrible sadness when I think about leaving here, and knowing that things will be the “same” for the villages I visited long after I’m gone. I want to be able to been enthusiastic and hopeful ALL the time—to be the stalwartly faithful missionary trekking into the deeper-reaches of the Congo, but the truth is, that’s just not me. I would be lying if I said that this trip wasn’t incredibly hard on me, emotionally, intellectually, and yes, even physically. I get overwhelmed by my smallness. My human-ness. The only thing that helps is a “knowledge” (for lack of a better word) of God’s big-ness… the knowledge that God is so much more than we can ever conceive of. He does not “fit” into the human brackets we have created for Him. This always was and always will be, from the beginning to the end.
So I confess that my musing have gotten more than a little “heavy-handed” but it’s an artifact of the fact that “Congo” as a place, and “Congo” as a symbol, is so vast and is and represents so many things. Coming here has caused me to struggle with my very humanity, just as it did for Conrad all those years ago, prompting him to write “Heart of Darkness”. I confess that in the end, I think my perspective on the country is a little less, well, fatalistic or dire, but it is no less nuanced.