I had an interview yesterday that I expect I’ll remember forever.
It wasn’t easy to find. The office, which is a branch of the Archdiocese of Bukavu, is way up on the hill (the Catholics so claimed the best view in town when they picked the spot for the Procure, their University, and various and assorted other bureaux), past the university, and through a rural development institute at the end of the road. It’s not a place you would find by accident.
But I made it, finally, 15 minutes late by taxi, to my meeting at the center, and there I got to listen to Mathilde speak about her life, about Bukavu, and about how things have changed here over the years.
It was such a great interview. Most of the interviews I do are with men, and they all tell more or less the same story about the history of Bukavu’s civil society, about Mobutu’s era, about what happened when the war came. There’s clearly a common narrative here about what happened and why, and it’s the reason so many of my interviews have been somewhat less than exciting these last few days.
Mathilde’s story is different. She told me about two wars in three years, but she wasn’t talking about the most recent wars; these were the early rebellions that set Congo-Zaire on a disastrous course towards dictatorship. She told me about how things in the Congo and in Bukavu used to be so much better, even with Mobutu’s dictatorship. She told me about the center where she’s been working since the 70’s, about all the things they try to do to help mothers and children to be healthier, to have a chance. She talked about the problems of disorder, how people have little respect for even the most basic authority.
For ninety minutes, she told story after story and I wish to all heaven that the IRB didn’t make it so difficult to tape record interviews, because I’d love to have a recording of her story. She finished the main part of her speech and stared into the distance, wondering what on earth can be done to fix this mess.
After we finished the formal interview, Mathilde talked about her life and how it was that she came to work at the center. She told me about her shock as a girl of 15 in learning that 50% of Congolese children were dying before their fifth birthdays (this was in an era when there were no vaccination campaigns, when a polio epidemic struck, when the war in the east caused a famine – “I am one of eleven children,” she said, “but we in the city had no idea that children died.”), about how her family fled the insecurity in Bukavu for the countryside, about a teacher from her old school here who suggested that she work in this area by helping mothers and children. She took that advice, and here she is. “You’ve helped thousands and thousands of mothers and children,” I said. “Yes,” she replied.
Before I left, Mathilde took me on a brief tour of the facilities. I commented on how beautiful her view is, and she said, “I’ve been watching the city for over twenty years, how it was nice, then okay, and then bad.” Bukavu has fallen apart before her eyes, in plain view from a peaceful hilltop.
How sad it must be to watch the decline of a place you know and love. Of your home. But my goodness, what a difference Mathilde has made in this world, in her hometown. I can’t list all the things her program does: they have 7,000 young women and girls in vocational education programs since their families can’t afford their school fees, they run a line of microcredit, they do vaccination campaigns, and on and on and on.
At the end of the interview, I asked Mathilde what Olamé, the name of the center, means. “Vivez!” she replied loudly. “Live!”
“Olamé” is a word in a local language, Mashi, and, according to Mathilde, it connotes the idea of living life to the fullest. “I don’t know if you’re a Christian,” she said, “but Jesus said, ‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.’” It’s that kind of life, an overflowing, full, dynamic life. It’s the kind of life I hope to live. It’s a life that watches the world change from a mountaintop, but that refuses to avoid the pain and suffering in the valley below. It’s the kind of life that Mathilde has given in service, in love, and in hope for the women and children who suffer here so. Olamé!