It was another lazy Sunday in Bukavu, with not much to do, and even fewer places in which to do it. I’d been invited to church by the Baptists, but as I’m still not 100% healthy, I didn’t feel like making the trek all the way across town, especially knowing that it would probably take 30 minutes to find a taxi. I decided to try to rest instead, and hung out at the house most of the day. Did some laundry, got a text message from my parents from Lubbock, read several chapters of my current book, ran outside to get the laundry in before it rained, and watched 3 episodes of SITC.
In the afternoon, it looked like rain (and there was thunder), but it never really broke, so I decided to walk down to the nicest hotel in town, and maybe sit there and have a soda water on the terrace. It’s about thirty minutes from my house to there on foot, and it’s a nice walk with pretty views of the city and the lake. I’ve done it before with The Dog and figured it would be fine.
I wasn’t 100 yards down the road when a young man stopped me to talk. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and started to speak.
“I left a letter at your house this morning at 9am,” he said, switching between Swahili and French in a nervous voice. It’s 3 now, meaning that, if this was the truth, and if I was the only person for whom he left a letter, he’d been standing in the street there for six hours. “I don’t know if you received it...,” he trailed off.
“I can’t help you,” I said. “Leave me alone.” And I took off walking at top speed down the street, past MONUC, past the ngo’s, past all the guards who know me because I walk by every day. I got to the turnoff for the hotel and realized that the guy was following me. I kept going, stopped to let him pass, but then he stopped to plead his case. “I just want to tell you what the letter said. It’s about my education.”
“I can’t help you,” I said tersely. “I asked you to leave me alone. Now please go away.” And I marched off down the street, stopping to tell two guards that this man was bothering me, and asking them what to do. They shrugged and said that there wasn’t much I could do, but since it appeared that he wasn’t following me anymore, I decided that the safest thing to do was to continue on to the hotel. Which I did, but the restaurant was already closed, so I just headed back home. So much for a relaxing Sunday walk.
There’s a different mentality here about privacy. And money. And strangers. I honestly don’t think this guy meant to scare me. He probably genuinely didn’t understand that for your average American woman, a strange man who waits in the street for six hours then follows you on your Sunday walk is not someone you’d want to talk to. Much less agree to sponsor. What he probably thought was, “Here’s an opportunity that I’d better not miss.” Who knows who he knows, who told him I exist, where he saw me, how he figured out which house is mine. Who knows?
I hate things like this.
N tried to explain the reason everyone in Congo asks every rich person they see for money. The mentality, she said, goes something like this: “You are white, therefore you are rich, therefore you must give me money.”
I get how the logic works on the first two points. It’s the last one I don’t understand. I hate being constantly asked for money by people I don’t know from Adam. Why would I agree to pay for the education of a complete stranger? I don’t him, I don’t know his family, I don’t have any basis by which to verify the truth of his story. It would never occur to me to stalk a foreigner in the street in order to ask a favor.
I passed this guy on my way back home, greeted him semi-appropriately, and continued on my way. I didn’t even ask the guard if a letter had been delivered, because, honestly, I don’t want to know. My guards are smart enough not to let anyone who claims to know me in the compound – they know that I’ll tell them if I’m expecting a visitor.
I leave Bukavu tomorrow morning, so even if he’s still there tomorrow, it’s still something I’ll only have to deal with for one day. If it really gets to be a problem, Uncle Réne will come and deal with it. I’m not concerned about my security or about being able to finish my work here. Everything should be fine.
I still hate this. I hate that it makes me fearful and mistrustful of a place and of people I know and like. I hate that it makes me afraid that my guards or my maid will steal my stuff, even though I’ve no reason to believe they would. I hate that it makes me remember how corrupt and messed-up Congo is.
But more than that, I hate that it hardens me to the very real suffering in this place. Two little kids asked me for money on the way home, a woman walked with me and said she was hungry, but I was so angry and frightened that I told them all no without a second thought. I hate that I have so little compassion for someone who can’t afford the education he needs to succeed in life.
And I hate that I don’t even remember his name.