One year. One year ago tonight I met my DC friends for one last Tex-Mexish (this is DC we're talking about) dinner, woke up the next morning, took a walk, repacked my backpack for the tenth time so it all fit in and weighed less than 42 pounds, took a shuttle to the airport, flew overnight to London, had lunch with Camilla in the shadow of St. Paul's, flew overnight to Kampala, caught a ten-hour bus to Kigali, took a three-hour taxi to Gisenyi, and crossed the border into Goma on a sunny, unstable Saturday morning on Lake Kivu. And thus the adventure began.
One year later, I am deep into dissertation writing. It is slow going, sometimes only two pages a day. I agonize over sentences, making sure every word is precise. It's just a dissertation, but it's also the first original thing I'll ever put out for the world to judge. So it needs to say exactly what I mean for it to say. Two pages a day isn't really that bad, it comes to 30 or 40 pages a month and more than 700 in a year, which is about 300 pages more than I need. But sometimes I look at the pages and feel like I've done so little. And yet. It's been a year.
Right now I am working on an historical overview of health care provision in Congo-Zaire. So I'm looking back over several histories of the colonial and post-colonial era. It's not very exciting. Lots of crusty old books that no one has checked out in ten years. Long treatises by racist Belgian colonial administrators. That sort of thing. Snooze.
But yesterday I came across a passage that stopped me cold. It was about one of Mobutu's government ministers. Mobutu, you see, was the president of Zaire, and while he wasn't busy stealing between $4-15 billion from the country, he had a habit of moving friends and enemies in and out of political offices. This particular government minister was a friend, then an enemy, then an exile, and then a friend again. It sounds bizarre, but this sort of thing happened to lots of people.
When he was an enemy, Mobutu's security forces tortured him. The book contained a rather graphic explanation of exactly what they did to him. It's horribly unpleasant, and not anything I can put on this blog. It's a wonder they didn't execute him. He came back later and died a free man long after Mobutu was gone.
Here's the thing: this man's daughter is my friend. I knew this, I knew who her dad was, and that he'd been a significant player in Congolese politics.
But I didn't know he'd been tortured. I didn't know her family had endured exile. I didn't know. And I still don't know what that must have done to her, what it made her think about God and the world and how cruel humans can be to one another. My gosh. Torture is something that happens to nameless terror suspects, or to African politicians in obscure books. Not to someone whose child is my friend.
Sometimes I wonder if I should just finish my dissertation, get a job, and start researching politics in some nice, safe place. Australia. Sweden. Vermont. Congo is just too hard sometimes. I'm in the middle of writing an important paragraph and I start crying because my friend had to live with the knowledge that her daddy was tortured in a dark room in a horrible, filthy prison. I'm looking for more recent data on numbers of doctors and nurses in Goma, and I come across a film trailer about rape victims, and I have to stop.
They don't teach you how to deal with this in research methods. Academics are supposed to be impartial observers, unaffected by their subjects and their circumstances. You are Not Supposed to Get Emotionally Involved. Even in the midst of horror.
Clearly I'm not going to make a very good academic. The poet Derek Walcott asked the question that is always, ever on my mind: "How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?"
Academics in my field also aren't supposed to quote poetry, unless you are the eccentric, retired professor in our department who used Yeats' "The Second Coming" last week to explain what he thinks is happening to American politics ("The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / ...The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are filled with pasionate intensity. ."). I'm a good fifty years from being able to get away with that.
But Walcott's question is The Question. I don't have categories for the horrors I saw this year. I don't know how to let go of that and write as a cold, impartial scientific observer. How do you do it? How do I do it? I can't process it, but I can't turn my back on it. What do you do about that?
One year. It's so much time, and sometimes it feels like yesterday. I know a lot more than I knew on that freezing cold night in DC a year ago. I have stacks of data and books and dissertation pages to prove it.
But I also have more questions than I did a year ago, and even fewer answers. How long will it take to figure this out? One year hasn't been anywhere near enough.