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Ferial: 14 June 2012


Something in the air today…

Yesterday: on the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua: all went well, mostly.

Today, Br. R. had inflammation in his forearm.  He had banged it earlier against a plank or something to that effect, and he asked for something and I shared my anti-inflammatories and explained to rest and to elevate the arm, wrapping it in a cold wet cloth, and to drink lots of water and to eat something with the pills.  He took 600mg, same as I had been.  But he chose not to rest and went out in the sun to work.

I went to work outside the kitchen, separating beans.  I had no continued problems with my knee, despite 11 hours of hiking up and down mountains the day before, and I had no desire to tempt my apparent recovery.

Yesterday was a sunny day.

Br. B. and I climbed the mountain to Kibarizo, where we were greeted once more by André on the way into town.  He was returning to school having walked one of the teachers to the town infirmary.  He said she had taken ill that morning.  We walked to the school.  We had come back to the mountaintop to continue our exploration of the tablet technology.  And we had come to tour the primary school, and to visit with old friends at the independent radio station, Kibarizo F.M.

To be standing in a school yard and to be suddenly surrounded by 300 grade school students, rushing to see the muzungu, rushing to be the first to see the tablet, looking at page after page of the white cow with black spots and the purple serpent, and then to be gob smacked at the tablet turning into a camera, and to see their faces looking at their faces… crazy and joyous.

The director of the École primaire Kibarizo and the director of the secondary school sat in the office and we covered the ability to transfer documents from the external memory card to the internal memory card, and I explained how to make Word documents, and thus reports, and how, by exchanging external cards with the monastery, we all could maintain a method of correspondence.  And how such a presentation of the facility of this type of technology in the context of village education would be valuable in pursuing grants and additional support.

They get it:  they both understand the signified in this singularity.  And they presented me with jpegs to drive this understanding home.  Contained in a collection of images was a recording of aesthetic and documentarian decisions.   Color versus Black-and-White versus Sepia: persons chosen in the fields and at the school and in their homes.  And through this image-collecting shifts in the personality of the picture-taker also captured.  Fossilized moments of contact and creativity.  And all with one week’s introduction: brilliant!

And everything went well.  And as we reviewed an audience grew outside the door.  Scores of students, out of class, came to sit and to watch their director practice with the device.  And he turned to them and he explained that their device had been provided by the generosity of American men in prison, and he showed them photographs of their donors, and explained to them as best he could what the life of a prisoner was about.

And this connection was for me personally terribly profound, simple, but somehow it narrowed in on the crux of everything.  For one group of discounted individuals to find the means of redefining the signified, and banding together, to transcend the physical barriers imposed upon by others, and to connect and to offer means to other discounted people to redefine their place in their world, this is all.  It is infinitesimal and under the radar of the pop media, but it is the same singularity as the mustard seed.  And size is not the condition for cultivation.

Teachers began to discuss the Death Penalty and what my opinion was: here, in a village, in Masisi, in Eastern Congo.

And this is the potentiality of men and women everywhere.  What do I think about the punishment of executing a person?  I say I have my personal feelings against the profit from such attainment, but my time I spend with the prisoners is not political in nature, but simply time spent walking with, and assisting quietly they in their transition.  I say people can do stupid things at any time in life, momentary things, careless things, with permanent suffering outcomes, both for themselves and for others.  Life happens.  But states of being do not freeze up.  And with time, and with travail, a man can change, a heart can grow, a soul can be reclaimed.  And this to me is large.  And this to me is often overlooked in the practical ambitions of the activist and the politically minded.

We begin to walk up the path from the primary school, past the secondary school (which is closed for holiday), and up much higher, to the top of the highest summit, to a grove of trees, and through the grove to an encampment, which is the most famous independent radio station in these parts.  There are eleven persons working at the station, including the guard, who posed as the Chief of Police of Kibarizo, last Thursday, to swindle or to charm me (depending upon how one chooses to review events) out of two rounds of cheese and a t-shirt I brought to Africa from a hamburger joint cum beer garden in East Nashville.

He and I shake hands, again.  And I announce that I have a favor to ask.

Over the weekend I spoke to my father, and told him I had ransomed by t-shirt to a supposed police chief as a form of “payment” to secure cooperation locally for my pilot project.  My father being true to character asked if I had gotten a photo of the t-shirt being worn.  I had a month earlier made promise to the restaurant to do so.  I said it had not, last Thursday, been a moment appropriate to such an appropriation.

I now rectified that remiss.  And said that I wished a photo for my father of him wearing my gift.  He smiled and ran off to change and to comply.

I then shook hands with the new director, Emmanuel, who gave me news of the old director returning to Goma to seek new employment.  Emmanuel remembered meeting me the summer before.  Emmanuel thanked me for my efforts with the schools in the village, and I said it was not I.  It wasn’t.  I had simply come, conversed, had a look and a listen, and had spoken with others, back home, who had taken it upon themselves to help make things come together.  It was different groups of people merging.  And connecting.  We spoke of the misjudgment of people in the city, and people from far away, about the people from the villages and from the countryside.  We spoke of how people arrive in the city and are quick to fabricate a pretense of separation from their real backstories.  The same in Goma as in New York or L.A.

To listen to a professor in Butare marvel over Baudelaire, or talk to a director about Nietzsche or Descartes or Voltaire, whilst looking out an open window at crops and thatched roofs, is wondrously pregnant and so possibly normal.  Or could conceivably be.  To see a child intuitively “get” the workings of a new device as if such understanding was something in the air or in the drinking water… I marvel.

Synapses fire.  And people are in conversation, from Congo, from America, creatively pondering possible tomorrows.  I am fired up: encouraged.

Simple average people, not rich, are dreaming these pipe dreams not backed by millions.  And the dreams may fall short. And the change is measured in inches and over months, not Concordes travelling twice the speed of sound.  But change is change.  And a friendship is still a gain.

And then I go to show off the device, and I notice a problem…

During the formation, I discovered what appeared to be many seemingly superfluous folders in the internal memory card of the device.  And I thought better to “clean up” the distractions and pare down the excess.  And so I deleted the extras, and now I realized that in doing so I deleted most of the books I had originally downloaded.

Mea culpa…


Atop a mountain in a place with out Internet, I had lost something that I could not get back unless connected not only to Internet, but also to wireless.  No, no, no.

I quickly explained the dilemma.  The directors were fine.  I said I had an idea.  I knew that I had done the same faux pas at the Institut Butare two days before.  I would later double check, and would be staring at the same missing books.  Big problem.  Two of three devices: down.

We began our descent of the mountaintop and back into the village proper.  And an idea clicked: if possible, to get hold of the device at the primary school back in Butare.  I felt that in that device the folders had not been jeopardized, and perhaps, just perhaps, with Grace and a bit of finagling, a transfer of data could be issued, and things brought back in order and operational.  Fingers crossed.  But the sun was low, and time was slipping.

And once in the village, I became apparent we were not going on anytime soon.  This was Congo, and this was a village, and this was our last rendezvous in Kibarizo this trip, and formalities had to be honored.  We went to Augustin’s home, and we were given seats of honor, and introduced to his young children and to his beautiful wife, and Br. B. was given a tour of upstairs whilst I held the fort with others, downstairs, other members of the village, the schools, the radio station, who poured in for a visit, some snippets of conversation, and some beer.

A long back and forth of salutations and blessings and eulogia … a couple poignant pauses for us all to use to reflect on the moment, and again, once more we were off… heading down in the direction of the lake.

After ten minutes: we were turning left away from Butare and the monastery and making our way up and over rises along a ridgeline, through small clusters of homesteads, and into a hamlet of some significance.

I had been there before, a year ago, to pay respect and make niceties with the family of one of the longtime workers with the monastery.  Nice people.

After thirty minutes: I had found myself inside a family dwelling, on a bench, next to members of the family and Br. B.  The longtime worker, who had been with family members at the monastery on Pentecost for the celebration, was dead.  He had been dead for much of the week.  Br. B. had received the news on the trail up to Kibarizo from a passerby.  We were now in the home, witnessing the same nice welcoming people from the summer before, now weighed down upon heavily with grief, with an unexpected all-encompassing emptiness, the head of the family gone, buried under a mound, out back behind the home.

After sixty minutes: we were standing and praying and witnessing the ebb and flow of healing in a homestead, in a hamlet, on a ridge, above the lake, above the monastery, above the rest of the world, with twilight and soft shapes all around.

After two hours: in the fading light, fading fast under the high bank of hilltops, we were snaking our way down and over a tributary, and up the other side, through the tall grasses that lined small paths between the vast fields.  The paths would climb into and through people’s front yards, with children out playing as children right round the world do, as mothers and older daughter make the evening meal, and men come in from the fields and from visiting with the neighbors.

After three hours: in the blackness of a day ended, we were picking our ways over the ruts and the exposed roots that crisscrossed the main road.  Erosion had ripped open the route, stopping virtually all motorized traffic.  And in the black night of the mountain, travel had slowed to a creep.

We entered Butare.  We had sent the Amani, our armed guard ahead into the village to find the director of the primary school, and to get him to give up the device for the time being.  The street was filled with people shopping and socializing.  Cell phones were used to shine down on transactions, proving the money count and giving light into a world kept by poverty and access in the dark.

In the valley below, the monastery washed in electric light.  Between the two worlds: privilege and disparity despite professions and despite the noblest of intentions.

We wiggled our way down to the crossroads that headed down to the monastery.  And there, we waited.

And we waited.

After three hours and twenty minutes: Amani returned, with him, the director.  We explained the problem; he obliged us with the device; and the three of us, complete with an AK-47 and a cell phone with a penlight flashlight feature, headed down into the ravine and through the tall trees and up the rise to the gates of the monastery.  Three bumbling fumbling “bandits” in the middle of the night, in the dark, with a sky filled with an impossible number of stars.

The next day, after the trip to Kibarizo, I was up at 3:30 a.m., for Vigils, and then to Lauds and Mass and breakfast and Tierce and work.  Often this trip, I have worked outside the kitchen when my knee has acted up or after much trekking to guard against the knee acting up.  And so I worked my way through a fifty-pound bag of dried beans, one handful at a time, picking out those not suitable for use, and killing weevils.

And the novice who takes care of the hens came up to me and asked me to follow him.  And we walked across the cloister and out onto the lawn overlooking the flower garden and the fields and the lake below.

It was warm and sunny and there was not even a breeze.  And he said: Listen!  Listen.  And after a few breaths, a boom and another boom sound.  And he said: Bombs! The war is coming back this way!  Can you here it?  And I thought to myself there is no way to hear bombs exploding over beyond Rutshuru in the mountains along the border with Rwanda.  And I said: are you sure it is not thunder?  And he said: it is war.

I said not to panic.  I said I would text my former students in Goma to find out what was up.  I said I would speak later with Br. O., who usually knows what’s about.

After the beans: just after Br. R. had taken the 600mg of ibuprofen: I had gone to wash the clothes from the trek the day before.  Washing in Congo consists of cold water, soap, and bristle brush, and elbow grease: a return to a simpler time.  I have had much practice.  I worked my way through the larger items, ending up with two pairs of sock left.

Suddenly: panic: a frantic brother begging me to hurry.

Something had happened to Br. R.

I left everything and ran.

The brother took me in the room designated as the infirmary, and I opened the door.

Br. B, the older French monk, was sitting facing Br. R.  Br. R.’s face had swollen round like a ball, his eyes deformed, each swollen but into a different configuration.

Br. B. said Br. R. was having an allergic reaction to the dosage of ibuprofen that I had told him to take.  My heart sank.

Br. R. was in tears and was mumbling that it was hard for him to breathe.  His nose was clogged and his throat had swollen.

I told him it would be okay but he needed to slow down his breathing.  And I told him we would both breathe together taking long breaths of a count of 5 in and a count of 5 out.  And I asked the other panicked brother to fetch lots of water and a glass.

Br. R. was breathing terrifically shallow.  And he was in a frantic state and not following suggestions.

The French monk excused himself.  I was left along with R., whom I had given the medication to, the same I had been told to take for my knee, and the same dosage, which had been such the saving grace for my ailment.

And I thought to myself: I have done this, whether by commission or omission or negligence or oversight, despite the best of healing intentions, and this poor man, who had just professed his final vows, and he cannot breathe, and he cannot see, and he is frightened and crying, and it is from my pills.

The water came.  And I made R. drink.  And then I asked for a piece of cloth and I soaked it and put it across his forehead.  And together we slowed our breathing.  And we sat in the quiet room.

Time slowed way down.

What to do?  Stuck on a mountain with the Landcruiser in Goma, with this man treating the ibuprofen as a poison.

Br. O. arrived with a group.  All of them in a state of animated concern, hurling questions and making harsh criticisms of R. and his apparent frailty.  Machismo amongst monks.  I asked everyone to take it down.  I reminded R. to breathe.  Br. O. sat beside me and we spoke in English.  He then spoke to R. in Swahili, and turned to me and said that he would walk R. up to Butare to the infirmary there to see the male nurse.  I said I would go along.  R. had, in the time I sat with him, started to “deflate” in the face.  His breathing had measured, and he had drunk much water.

We walked.

And we joked.

And reached the top.

And the caretaker went to fetch the nurse who was eating his lunch.

And the nurse told R. that he would be fine and back to normal by supper.  And he gave him an alternative anti-inflammatory, and some additional pills to help with the throat swelling, just in case.

And we walked back down in time for Vespers.

And on the way back, Br. O. had mentioned hearing the bombardments.  And in my room, I grabbed my cell phone and texted to Goma, asking about the state of the fighting that day.  I said it had been the first time, this visit, that the fighting could be heard.

And I went to prayer and to supper and received no response.  And R. mended.  And Br. B., the French monk, invited me to speak on the French New Wave and Godard after the monks and novices concluded watching A Band of Outsiders.  And after lecturing on the film, in particular, and cross-cultural synaesthetic extrapolations, I returned to my room, to a litany of texts, waiting to be read and interpreted:

17: 19   “Hey Dad, the real fight is in Runyonyi between FARDC and M23…”

            17: 24   “Runyonyi is in Rutshuru territory”

            17: 26   “Pls Dad you need to leave those parts ‘cause the war can start whenever…”

            17: 43   “I don’t know but it’s a little far from where you are…”


And, from another:

19: 27    “I don’t have any information now about let me do a little research and I will

                contact you.”

19: 39   “The information is that one fardc officer joined m23 movment with his soldiers.

              There are fighting at rutshiro a village between Mweso and Kibirizi.”

I had been to Mweso and to Kibirizi.  Kibirizi is not Kibarizo.  Very different, very different place on the map.  But the fighting was maybe 40 miles away, tops.  In Rutshuru territory.  But not near the town of Rutshuru, not near Runyonyi and Rwanda.  This breakaway developing situation was a new front: much closer.  This made sense, given the audible nature of the event, even up at the monastery far above the plain between Mweso and Kibirizi.  I forwarded the last text to Br. O.’s cell phone, and a half an hour later, I got this reply:

“Yes it may be true.  But don’t worry Masisi is a beautiful place that everybody want to

  occupate it.  Ok nice sleep”


And that rang so true and wise.

And I went to bed marveling at the resolute warmth and well wishes a friend came to offer in such a place under such uncertainty.

And the storms hung up against the mountain, and the thunder began to sound too much like booms off in the distance but every moment getting seemingly closer and clearer.  And Kibirizi might have been Kibarizo (I had left the phone across a dark bedroom).  And my mind began to get very aware of the presence of the moment and the next and the next and I wondered if I should hide my valuables somehow or pack as if for expected flight without a warning or…

It is funny how things play out and compare and contrast with each other all along a day.