Democratic Republic of Congo
Lying next to baby, her face inches from its black wet little ball of a head, Sifa screws her mouth up funny, makes funny noises, same as she did when her sister Faida was a baby. But this new baby—her own—is desperate for her in ways Faida never was, hungry, fists bang, bang, bang, and little mouth open. You young girls, Tatie Aziza often says, plenty of milk. Look how fat she is.
What a miserable noise baby makes. When Sifa hears it, she cries, remembering when Faida was an infant herself years ago. Mama was busy, so Sifa whispered, sang, smoothed little Faida's thick, curly hair, made her stop crying, even made her laugh, and everybody said: look what a good little mama you are. Now Sifa's baby is like the church choir mistress, hands swinging out, in, out, in, making everybody sing. Baby cries, Sifa cries, and all this mama-baby hubbub feels good. Sifa weeps, thinking: Tatie's right, baby is a miracle.
Tatie Aziza has gone again to the UNESCO pump for water. It grows dark, and Sifa waits for her aunt to come home. Too quiet, soon dark, so many people in line at the pump, and Tatie walking all the way from town. Alone in Tatie's house, Sifa clutches her baby girl, whispering, not good to go outside, not good, like Mama used to. How long can she hide here before Tatie will say, go fetch water, go to market and trade some nuts? So far, Tatie Aziza hasn't made Sifa work. Ca va, she said at first, before baby came. Ca va, she says still.
It's true; what a good little mama. But, today, baby doesn't want milk. Maybe sick. Sifa rocks back and forth, pressing baby against her chest to keep the noise from escaping. The noise is so terrible that Shomari Adoulas in the house down the road—the only house nearby—can surely hear. Sifa wants Shomari Adoulas and his wife to think it's only bats. If people find her here, living with Mama's sister Aziza, they'll say, witch, whore. They'll run her off, and then where will she go?
Tatie talks foolish talk, says baby comes from Jesus and not from the place she really came from. "Jesus don't judge," she says. "Jesus says, love thine enemy." Tatie and her Jesus are stupid and soft, not tough as the giant iroko tree like Sifa. Mama's tough, too. When Sifa came to Mama's door, almost naked, baby invisible inside her, hands at her belly, Mama screamed and turned away. Not my fault, Sifa screamed back. But Mama didn't change. "I can't help you now, girl. Hafa." Shame, Mama hissed. Baba walked out of the house: no child of mine, where your sister? Sister's the lucky one: the clean girl, everybody sad, everybody praying. Even Tatie can't say "Faida" without crossing herself and whispering ten Tshiluba prayers.
There's Tatie Aziza, standing at the door with the two leaky pots on her head. Her face looks ridged and tired, her yellow lacy blouse, so crisp when she set out this morning, droops off her shoulders. Her face is wet. Behind her is a woman Sifa has never seen before. The woman hands over a basket: ugali and plantain.
"Angelani Lissouba," Tatie says. "From church."
"Bonjour, Mama Angelani," Sifa looks at the floor, her voice tiny. She doesn't want anybody staring at her, especially not somebody whose indigo and white head wrap matches her handsome church dress. Angelani Lissouba takes two long strides into the house, lifts the crying baby from Sifa, and bounces it on her hip.
"A gift," mutters Tatie Aziza, as if Angelani Lissouba doesn't know where the baby came from, as if she isn't an elegant lady, une femme intellectuelle probably.
Angelani Lissouba holds the baby out and inspects her. "Pretty, yes. Has she been to the clinic?"
Tatie Aziza answers for Sifa by shaking her head. The two older women look at each other. They probably rehearsed all this on the walk from town.
"Take her to the clinic in Goma. Have you had medical treatment, Sifa?"
Sifa knows there are shots, but she can't stand in line near the market where everybody can see her. Not good to go outside. Why has Tatie brought this woman?
"You must get tested and have some shots." Angelani Lissouba's neck is long and smooth; her fingers dance in the air and leave patterns of light. "It is best within seventy-two hours, but you can still take the test. The women's organization will pay for it."
Sifa won't tell the woman she isn't going to marry. Who cares if she is clean? Seventy-two hours it is too late for all that, not good to go to town, soldiers on the road, not good.
"The women have a group." Tatie's voice is high and false. "They sing there and take sewing classes."
"Once they learn to sew," says Angelani Lissouba, "there is work for them."
"There are others like you," says Tatie.
"Worse, much worse. The women tell their stories, you must come." Angelani Lissouba's voice is sweet and calm. Come: yummy soda, a few plantain, some ugali, tell stories
Sifa grabs baby and turns her back.
"She don't want to talk about it," Tatie says. "I'm sorry."
"Of course she doesn't. None of them do at first. But it helps. Come to the sewing class, Sifa."
Sifa hands the baby to her aunt and sits at the back of the house in the shadows. She closes her eyes, flies away, and the two women disappear.
One day when Sifa was little, at the beginning of the war, everybody in the village went out to watch a plane sprinkle the sky with white mushrooms. Baba and his friend, Kobe Mokwege, said the mushrooms were parachutes, sacks of wind big enough to hold up a heavy soldier. Sifa stood beside Faida and the two girls bent their necks so far back they would have fallen over if Baba hadn't put his big hands on their shoulders to hold them up. The white mushrooms came closer until the two girls could see strings attached and then tiny legs and arms and then boots and guns. Faida screamed, "Soldiers! Flying soldiers!" Sifa was ten, but Faida was only seven and twice as terrified. Baba said, don't worry, they are good soldiers qui sautent en parachutes. "They came all the way from Kinshasa to save the rhino."
"Why the rhino?" Faida said.
"Shut up! Just because," Sifa hissed under her breath. She didn't understand, but she didn't want Baba to get mad.
With her spindly braids, Faida looked like a black star against the light. She held tight onto Sifa's hand. Baba explained that the good soldiers were taking the rhino to a country with no fighting. To be safe from bad soldiers, he said. Poachers.
"Cuz of poachers," Sifa repeated to Faida.
"What is poachers?" Faida said.
Sifa didn't know, so she tugged on Mama's yellow and blue wrap, and asked, where is this country with no fighting? Mama stared across the field with her faraway face. She looked at the mountains the way she did when she was praying to her ancestors. "Can we go there, Mama?"
Baba heard. He and Kobe Mokwege and some of the men standing nearby spat, cursed, and kicked the dirt with their rubber sandals. The soldiers were getting closer and Faida pulled at Sifa, but Sifa stood still. She wasn't afraid, not with Baba there. Still, she knew what Faida was thinking: it wasn't a good thing to be standing in a field where the sky was raining soldiers.
Sifa watched the men gently swaying over the trees. They looked like birds. "I want to be a flying soldier," she said to Faida, keeping her voice low so Baba and the men wouldn't hear. "I want to be light as a sunbird. When I grow up, I'll keep a hundred rhino safe. And tigers, too."
"I don't want to ever be no soldier." Faida was very smart and practical. At seven, she already wanted to go to Kinshasa for university and become a doctor when she grew up. Baba always said, you can be whatever you want, mtoto.
"Why are they taking the rhino away?" Faida asked.
"Animal rights," Baba said.
"What's animal rights?" Faida asked.
Kobe Mokwege and the other men laughed. "It's too dangerous here for rhino."
Sifa could tell Baba wasn't going to say more. She never knew why they took the rhino away, but when she was in the camp where the men held her, she would watch the sky, waiting for giant white mushrooms. When they hurt her, she turned into a flying soldier, swinging happily over the fields.
A few days later, Tatie Aziza returns to the house with the same woman. This time Angelani Lissouba brings tomatoes, okra and a whole package of kwanga. She smiles at the baby and the baby smiles back. "Such a little beauty," she says in her musical voice. Sifa is not unhappy to see her. The woman is lovely and calm, like a cool breeze blowing through the house. She wears a pretty green and tan wrap, a pattern of numbers and letters on it, and a matching kerchief. She even wears three necklaces, like for church, and a thick band of pink bracelets. Sifa's T-shirt is filthy and ripped, her wrap worn so thin in places her skin shows through.
"Will you come to the sewing class, Sifa?"
Sifa says nothing.
"Are you going to stay in this house the rest of your life?"
Sifa's hand goes to her belly, she blinks back tears. She's not supposed to go outside.
"You cannot believe the strength of the women," Tatie says, slow and distant, looking at Madame Lissouba for approval. "The women even though they have been hurt "
"Raped," snaps Angelani Lissouba. "They have been raped. Uporaji."
Tatie sucks in a huge breath, shakes her head and crosses herself again and again.
"Uporaji," Angelani Lissouba insists. "Brutal. Some have had sticks and knives and guns shoved into them. Is that what they did to you, Sifa?" She stares at Sifa, but Sifa, on the bed, only looks at the floor. "Many can't walk. Many need an operation."
Sifa hangs her head, elbows on her knees. The air between her legs fills with tiny explosions of light, and Angelani Lissouba's voice grows dim. If Sifa raises her head, she will faint. They didn't put their bayonets inside her. She worked very hard; she made them need her work. But she saw them do it to other girls. To Faida.
"Telling your story will make it better, Sifa. I promise. It will help others."
"Yes," Tatie says. "You must tell your story, Sifa."
Sifa watches as the graceful visitor bounces baby high, up and down, making a shimmer across the air. Her eyes narrowed and wet, Sifa focuses on the pretty streak of baby. She rides the streak, and she is flying. Nothing touches her, nothing at all.
Sifa holds the infant out to her aunt. "Does baby look sick?"
Tatie tosses the child over her shoulder, patting it on the back. "Baby fine, just fine. The women's group is helping many girls like you. They sing and dance, Sifa, come see." Tatie rocks the baby, a little dance. "You can help others. Madame Lissouba says so."
What a stupid conversation, same every night, all the time the sewing classes.
"Singing make you strong. In church we sing. It's good, good."
Sifa doesn't deserve to feel good or to go to church.
"Madame Lissouba says it is good to talk. Maybe we go there together, Sifa."
"No, we stay here." Sifa's voice is strange to her, high like a hyena from outside. "Is something wrong with the baby, Tatie?"
"Nothing wrong. She a miracle from Jesus."
"Something is." Sifa grabs the baby from Tatie, lifts her T-shirt, and pushes the soft head to her breast. The baby makes tiny sucking noises.
"See, mtoto, she fine. God watches for her."
"God not watching " Sifa feels drowsy, her mind disconnecting from her tongue. Tatie's so ridiculous. Tatie's God is nothing but big man standing at the corner of the room, big man banging his walking stick on the floor, cheering his soldiers. The baby squirms, and Sifa yanks her away from the breast. Before she can flip her to the other side, baby yowls like a cat. Sifa yowls, too. "Did God watch them with dada Faida?"
Tatie crosses herself, "Baba yetu uliye mbinguni " Sifa knows the prayer. Let the old lady pray. Gripping baby tight, she swings her back and forth, a violent rocking that makes the crying louder. Stupid Tatie, stupid prayer. "The soldiers had big machetes, Tatie. They cut "
"Stop that now!" Tatie crosses and crosses herself.
"The soldiers came for Faida "
"Sh-h-h," says Tatie, "stop. Baba yetu "
Sifa lifts baby high, talks nonsense words to her. Big now and powerful, she is pleased to start the old woman's hysterical praying, to make the baby scream.
Tatie picks up her knitting, still mumbling prayers and calling to her dead husband. Sifa puts the baby down on the bed and sits. She coughs, once, twice, the old pain starting up. Baby cries, Sifa cries louder.
"Sh-h-h, girl. Shomari Adoulas can hear you." Tatie's rapid knitting makes a huge noise, clack, clack.
Sifa shakes herself like a wet goat. She is going to be sick. Quietly, she gets up, leaving baby on the bed and moving toward the door.
"Where you going?" Tatie's clacking stops.
Sifa holds her belly, the pain is getting bigger, maybe she will die from it. Branches of the ebony tree make evil shapes in the twilight. Tatie is at the door, calling softly so nobody but Sifa will hear. Her hand against the trunk of the ebony tree, Sifa retches in the dirt. Telling stories makes her sick. She must leave soon, the baby is sick, they bring sickness and danger to Tatie Aziza's house. The soldiers will come back to find her and when they do they'll kill Tatie. Sifa and baby must cross the lake to the city.
She slides down against the trunk of the tree, her face covered in tears and snot. She tries to calm her breathing, make it quieter. The pain hasn't gone away and she grips her stomach and tries to keep all the sound and pain inside. The night is black, just like the night she escaped from the camp. Here's a story dada Faida would love: Sifa was brave in the forest, eating mushrooms and berries and, at the sound of soldiers, flying up and out of danger. (She pictures Faida smiling, proud of her courageous sister.) They took all her clothes away and all she had were some raggedy underpants. Many women could only crouch against the sandbags. But Sifa could walk, and she could work, and because of her work the men came to her less. She cooked and swept up and didn't look at them. She made herself invisible. When they did come—and, of course they did—she closed her eyes and pretended to be a flying soldier. She hung over the forest supported by a huge floating mushroom. She could see everything beneath her, including herself, a speck no bigger than a mosquito. What could a mosquito suffer? It was easy, flying. Remembering it makes her safe and peaceful against the ebony tree, the night air cool now.
A breeze stirs and with it a bitter mix of sweat, infection, and the smell of rotting grass. Khat.
Sifa smells it before she hears them. Tatie Aziza is inside knitting. The stupid woman won't know this smell. A surge of red hot pain flares inside Sifa, wave of hate, foolish old woman clackety, clacking, and Sifa all alone with the sickening stink of danger and death.
Automatically her body moves. They are coming for her again. Hide! Nose up like an animal, she senses how close they are. She finds a switch of raffia and, making light half-circles in the dirt, sweeps away her footprints, sliding back and back, away from the house. Like the night she left the camp, the world opens a zone of safety, a big black possibility, nobody stopping her. Black night is the path of freedom. She slides her foot onto the place she's found, the knob on the tree trunk where she can stand to pull herself. Then up and up she climbs until she is invisible.
Dim sounds come from the house. Like a bird, she melts into the tree and, below, the house is small as a pot, a tiny thing without meaning, with other tiny things inside.
For a long time she swings over the miniature world. From some distant place, she hears a sound like a baby crying, screams, the pop of gunfire, and she is high above it all, a good soldier fluttering like a feather in the black night sky.
Mama's calling, angry, Sifa should be working. She looks down from the tree, at a woman in the yard. Not Mama. It is Angelani Lissouba, her face slanted into the sunlight. Her green patterned kerchief is like a blossom, her eyes two snake-like slits, her mouth twisted into an ugly mask.
"Come down, you. We thought they took you."
Once Sifa is coaxed out of the tree, she stands beside it, afraid to move any closer to the house.
"All night and half the day in a tree. Like a cat." Madame Lissouba, angry, marches into the house.
Sifa hangs back. As long as she doesn't go into the house, nothing in there can be real. Standing on the ground, with the ebony tree stretching toward the heavens behind her, her stomach is full of rocks, too heavy to move. Tears start. Shame. She needs to do something brave now. Her T-shirt is wet. Could it be right that Sifa has been in the tree for so many hours? She has only now noticed the burning in her breasts, as if baby awakened her from an easy death.
Baby! Sifa's breasts are on fire. The baby must be frantic. What a terrible mother!
She rushes back into the house. "I was at the sewing class," she tells Mama Angelani. There is baby, whimpering on the bed, as if she has given up. "I was sewing with the other women. I was at the sewing class. Where is Tatie?"
Sifa grabs baby and sinks to the floor, pinching the soft flesh all over as the baby nestles to the breast. Heavy now with sleepiness, Sifa can hardly see and only knows the familiar drug that is baby. Just before falling asleep, she unwraps the thin cloth and pulls baby's fat legs apart like chicken wings. First one leg, then the other. She is magic, untouched, her female parts smooth and pure.
"Where is Tatie?"
With the miracle baby for protection, Sifa boards a truck going into Goma. Walking is too dangerous. In the truck bed are a woman, three men, and several sacks of millet. A rush of hot air pushes into her face. The baby falls asleep with the motion of the truck, but sharp currents of pain radiate in Sifa's waist during the rough ride. Since yesterday when she came out of the ebony tree and found Tatie gone, the pain has been there all the time. They took Tatie to hospital in town, and now Sifa has to find her.
She has seen the hospital before. She and Mama passed it on the way to the market long ago before everything happened. Mama said, "sickness," to explain the horrible smell, and Sifa held her breath until they crossed the road and got away from the snaking line of smelly women. Witches, Mama said, and Sifa believed her. Then, at the camp, in the foul pen where she slept with other women, she smelled it again: rotting meat, goat dung, and the bloody vomit the girl next to her drooled onto the dirt. The witch smell waits for her at the hospital, and she dreads it, but this is all her fault. She should have left Aziza's house sooner. The soldiers came for her, she hid, and so they hurt Tatie, who has been so kind, who took Sifa in when her own parents wouldn't. She feels everything now: terror, pain, guilt.
The hospital is two stories high, with tall windows. A line of women molds itself around the building, extending as far as Sifa can see. Some of the women lean on canes or sticks. A few cry and wail, clutching their bellies or rolling forward, hunched like crones. Many of their faces are blank, the eyes unblinking and dead. They wait outside a closed door at the side of the building. Sifa stares. The women make her afraid of what is inside her own body, what sickness or even death waiting to catch her. As a visitor—not a patient—she is allowed to enter through a different door in front where there is no line.
She has never seen inside a hospital before. In the lobby are women crowding around a desk. She inches forward behind a young girl, her denim jumper stained near the hemline. It reminds her of the floor at Tatie's house: blood in the shape of a giant parrot, a wide spray of black dots on the wall. Angelani Lissouba was full of horrible details about what the men did to Tatie. "Disgusting," she said, her long fingers woven together in front of her face. "They are animals." Sifa didn't have to listen, she knew what the soldiers did. Then, later, Angelani Lissouba told Sifa she was not to blame. "Nobody blames you for hiding in the tree. It is natural." Nobody blames Sifa for leaving baby and Tatie to the mercy of soldiers: that's what Madame Lissouba had to say. But, Sifa knows she brought the soldiers there by trying to tell her stories.
She must find Tatie. Following instructions given her by a man at the front desk, she looks for signs to "D" Ward. At the doorway, she sees a huge room, very quiet and orderly: a neat row of beds lined on both sides of the room, and, in each bed, a still form. A few women wear clean T-shirts over their long skirts and sit like statues, their knees rising from the bed frames. Other beds contain mysterious white shapes, like giant plantains under sheets. Above each bed, a white mosquito net is drawn up toward the ceiling by pulleys, puffy clouds, making the room look bright and cheerful.
Sifa walks down the center aisle between the two rows of beds, peering from side to side for Tatie Aziza. Beside some of the beds, tall metal saplings drip fluids into the still patients, while below, clear plastic sacks fill with yellow liquid, draining the women of evil. Except for the smell, it seems clean here: the white sheets, the nets like clouds, a few nurses leaning over patients, one or two visitors holding a hand and whispering.
There is no sign of her aunt. She is about to leave the ward when a nurse passes, her head cloth a beautiful white like the nets over the beds. "Aziza Alubi," Sifa says, too shy to look at the nurse's face.
"Over there." The nurse balances a tray of vials on her shoulder, steadying it with one hand and pointing with the other to a bed midway down the room.
"Not her." Sifa shakes her head.
"That is her. I take care of her myself. She been shot apart, all apart." The nurse shakes her head slowly, looks at the floor, then gives Sifa a gentle push in the direction of her aunt.
A clear plastic cup covers the patient's face, its yellowed elastic bands hooked over the ears. The arms are puffy, and blood stains the white sheet near a bloated hand. Hair is slicked back against the head. A tube emerges from beneath the sheet and Sifa follows it down to the bag of thick yellow fluid dangling near the floor. Moving closer, she sees Tatie's familiar gold cross, the one she wears proudly as a necklace. The chain is twisted so the cross is upside-down and flat against her neck like a tiny spear about to puncture her chin. This brings tears to Sifa's eyes, and she frees the cross from Tatie's clammy skin, untangles the chain, and sets it against her chest in its proper position.
"Bonjour." The sound, barely audible, makes Sifa turn around. On the bed next to Tatie's a girl is curled like a cat, hands between her legs, eyes wide and staring. "Sifa?" the girl whispers. "You Sifa?"
Sifa scrunches onto the edge of Tatie's bed, careful not to touch her aunt. The girl is so still she could be dead, only her mouth moves. "Elle vous a demande."
The girl's polite French reminds Sifa of Faida, of Mama and Baba, a sound from years ago. Tatie called for her, and here she is, all Tatie has now. Sifa leans over and lets baby's face brush the side of her aunt's in the only tiny patch of skin not covered by the mask. She moves baby's hand to Tatie's and baby grips the bloated finger. Then Sifa curls into the crook of her aunt's arm, head on her breast where, as she expected, she feels no heartbeat. All is so peaceful, she falls asleep.
Two nurses stand over the bed. One holds the plastic mask as the other detaches the needle and its tube from the old woman's swollen arm.
Sifa sits up and adjusts the baby in her sling.
"I'm sorry," the nurse says. "Would you like some water? You been here a long time."
Sifa nods and follows the nurse down the long center aisle to a table where there is water. The nurse is sweet. Sifa will drink her water and bring some for Tatie. She will crawl back onto the bed and sleep.
Then she sees two men standing at the foot of Tatie's bed holding an empty gurney.
"You have to leave now," the nurse says in her kind voice. She is hurried, but trying to be nice.
Leave? Where will she go? The men move toward her, their long white burden stretched between them. Where will they take Tatie? Sifa has no place to live except here in the foaming sea of white beds. She wants to take Tatie's empty bed, to live here next to the girl she spoke with earlier, like a school dormitory.
The men disappear into the black hall outside the ward.
The nurse has resumed her duties. Sifa slips back down the long ward until she reaches the girl's bed. The girl doesn't seem to recognize her, and Sifa thinks: her mind is floating up with the puffy white mosquito nets. She unties the sling and lowers baby onto the bed, sharing her one comfort.
"Have you told your story?" she asks the girl, who stares, her face frozen. "You need to tell your story. You'll feel better then."
The girl's hand emerges from between her knees. She pulls baby closer and wiggles back to make more room for Sifa. Now that Sifa has succeeded in bringing the girl's mind out of the sky, she tells her the story of what happened to Faida. She tells the girl, her voice strong like Angelani Lissouba's, how the soldiers yanked her sister away from the crying women and girls, how Sifa tried to pull her back, but the soldier waved his machete and forced her into the beehive of terrified women. The soldiers commanded her to watch and listen. They wanted the women to see how powerful they were and all the things they knew how to do, but the older women covered Sifa's eyes. Some of the girls got sick and others screamed, and later they all talked about how it smelled when one of the soldiers forced a hunk of smoking meat at them. Sifa refused to smell a thing.
The girl nods.
"Then one soldier comes to me with a stick. He's just a boy my age, black rubber boots three sizes too big for him." The girl smiles and pats baby. She may be listening, maybe not, but Sifa tells her story anyway, tells how the boy poked his stick at her, tried to force her to eat, how the soldiers all laughed, and how Sifa spat and turned away. "That boy's eyes were giant circles." Sifa brags. "I scared him."
"Quels stupides," the girl says, lazy and slow.
"Then I ran away from them. They couldn't catch me."
The girl's eyes are closed.
"There are sewing classes, you know," Sifa whispers. "When you finish with this place, we'll go. There is work if you can sew. The women's organization will help us."
Title graphic: "Sasha" Copyright © Julien Harneis 2009. Used by permission of the artist.