"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

9.26.2006

living is sighing; dying says nothing at all

"I'm sorry I went on for so long; I get upset," I said.

"I don't see how you can talk about these things and do anything but weep," he said.

In the end, that was the only thing to say.

I spoke to a group about Congo on Friday night. It was the first time. It won't be the last. I'm supposed to speak to the WMU in November, and then at a conference in San Francisco a couple of days later. So I guess I should get used to it.

But telling the story of Congo is hard. It hurts to talk about four million people's deaths. It hurts to explain to your friends that there are innocent little girls who've been raped by horrible men. It hurts to watch children die. It hurts to tell a story that is not about you, but that has changed you to the depths of your being.

The setting on Friday was hard, too. Here was the request: "Could you talk about how you ended up there, what you gained as an academic, and what you gained as a Christian?"

It's going to take a lifetime to figure those things out, much less figure out how to explain it in twenty minutes.

I've written about some of the things I saw in Congo. But speaking and writing are two different things. I am much more comfortable with writing. When you write, you control the process. I can walk away from the words when it hurts too much. I can weep - and I always do - when writing about atrocity and suffering and hope in the face of it all. I can decide what shape the narrative should take, where it should start and where it has to end, and what to leave out. Speeches aren't like that, exactly, especially when you're answering a set of very broad questions.

It's not that I mind speaking in front of a crowd of people; I've spoken in church, at conferences, and to an audience of 4,000. Every week I stand up in front of twenty college students, who stare at me for three hours. I'm comfortable with public speaking, but I don't like doing it. I get nervous, almost sick sometimes, especially when I'm sharing something from my deepest heart. Which, really, is the only way I'm capable of talking about DRC. You can't cry when you stand up to give a talk that results in people asking how they can help. You can't lose your composure when getting the story told could be the difference between life and death for some of the poorest of the poor.

And I haven't processed my experiences there. It's too hard, too painful, too much. If I think about Congo too much, I can't get any work done, so I read the news from there each morning and work on my dissertation and try not to think too much about what it means, day-to-day. It doesn't work. I find myself thinking about it at the strangest times, in class or church or on the subway or talking to friends or at a show or, most especially, in dreams.

So I'm carrying a bit of a burden, deep inside, about things that happened and people I met and conversations with strangers and places you'll never see that won't ever make it onto a page or into a speech. It's just too much to comprehend, to hard to put into words, to private to share. I can't, for example, really write about the eyes of the three-year-old boy who begged by the buses leaving for Kigali, and who would run to buy food as soon as you gave him a 50-franc note. Fifty francs being about 10 cents. I don't have the words to describe the moneychangers in the market who insisted that I bring them American wives, and how wide their eyes got when Suzy and I showed up to shop one Monday.

I don't know how to share how funny my friend Rob was when he explained, in a very matter-of-fact way, why a conservationist also happens to oversee a rapid response commando force of park rangers. I'm incapable of explaining what the stars looked like on a cold, late, moonless night at Coco Jambo where Ben and I sat in a corner and talked while everyone else danced. I'll never be able to get into words what the red lava of the volcano looked like reflecting off the smoke and clouds, leaving this red glow hovering in the black sky on the way home at three o'clock on Sunday morning, laughing about the madness of it all with Anna and Junior and Aaron.

I doubt I'll ever even try to share it all. One of the cards on PostSecret the other day said, "I'm sick of hearing about your experiences in Africa." I just laughed, but I worry about that - about boring my friends with stories of Congo, about talking about horror so much that it becomes routine. People ask, at work and church and on the phone and over email, "How was it?" and I say, "Crazy" or "Great" and leave it at that, because most of my friends, even close ones, don't want to know, really.

Our sermon yesterday was about taking up your cross and following Jesus, and that all of us don't have the same crosses to pick up. Oh, and that some of us might have more than one cross to bear. "What's your cross?" said Roger, and that was so much a better question than the standard "following Jesus is costly" generic Sunday-school answer.

Sharing Congo is a cross to bear. It is not my story, not really, but it is the story I have to pick up, wrestle with, carry, search for words about, try to talk about, and weep over. It was crazy, it was great, it changed me as an academic, as a Christian, and as a person. And deep down, I know at least some of what I need to say next.

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