A pot of rice simmers on the coals in the kitchen.
At the sound of gunshots, Davina flings open her front door and rushes out with eight-month-old Fimi in her arms. She bolts into a thorny acacia hedge, squats, and stuffs her nipple into her baby's mouth to stifle her whimpering. The onions and plantains sizzling in a pan turn black.
Screams, smoke, and then silence.
In the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the armed militias annihilate another village.
Davina peers through the scrub, hoping to catch sight of her husband and five-year-old son. But all she can see are flames and the walls of her home collapsing. An eye-watering stench of burning rubber, gunpowder, and charred flesh hovers over the village. Davina's legs cramp. Stones dig into her buttocks. But she doesn't shift her weight from one leg to the other even when her legs cramp and pain sears up her back.
When the sky turns from blue to navy, and tinges of orange and red streak across the horizon, she struggles to her feet and staggers to the smoldering remains of her home. No one is there. Not her husband. Not her son. Not a neighbor. Dead bodies, arms splayed, lie face down on the ground. She shifts Fimi into a sling on her back, turns east, and begins her journey to safety: Uganda.
I wasn't there, but after speaking with her I could build her story from articles and interviews about the plight of the refugees.
I travel to the "Pearl of Africa," as Uganda is known, to escape Seattle's traffic jams, screaming sirens, and droning planes. I'm no stranger to Africa. I was born in Johannesburg and lived there until I was twenty-one. I've visited many towns and cities on the continent and enjoyed many safaris in Tanzania, Botswana, and Namibia in luxurious thatched rondavels with en suite bathrooms, electricity, running water, red-tiled floors, and wooden doors. This time I want to go somewhere remote and hike through the bush, where I can take the time to observe and savor the local flora and fauna. I'm done with spending hours driving around in a Jeep or minivan hoping for animal sightings. I'm neither interested in glamping nor obsessed with ticking the Big Five game sightings off my list.
My travel agent suggests a small lodge at Semliki National Park in northwest Uganda. I'm not expecting to visit a border village on the banks of Lake Albert, but I'm a bit surprised to learn of one where skirmishes between the Ugandan army, Congolese rebels, and bandits regularly erupt; where traders continue to do business with the DRC despite ruthless killings and coldhearted beheadings; where the United Nations has erected a tented refugee camp.
"Hardly any tourists there now. Not in the rainy season," she says. "Although the chimps and the rare forest elephants are still around. None of the big cats, though. Too far north."
"You mentioned the lodge. What is that like?" I ask.
"Really, really nice. Cozy. Not too fancy, not too big, but still elegant in a rugged sort of way. And, what the lodge may lack in amenities, it makes up for in birds. Millions of birds all around, some you can't find anywhere else on earth."
Me. Birds? A rookie ornithologist, I'm surprised that I'm taken by her suggestion. In preparation, I read up about black bee-eaters, bulbuls, shoebills, weavers, yellow-billed oxpeckers, red-faced lovebirds, green-crested pittas, white-faced owls, and several species of kingfishers.
"Can I go by bus from Entebbe?"
"Not really. It's a seven-hour drive if you're lucky. It's best to fly," she says. "The roads are full of potholes, and you could get stuck for days in the middle of nowhere. That's trouble."
Two months later, a six-seater plane doesn't feel much safer than bouncing and sliding along muddy roads. I grip the armrest next to the window as we take off from Entebbe, Uganda's commercial center, and my fingers are still holding on two hours later when we land in Semliki's airfield, a small grassy clearing where acacia bushes bend right and left to fight against the gusts from the propellers. Zebra graze beneath sausage trees burdened by foot-long fruit the size of Italian baloney that swing in the wind. I climb down a diminutive ladder and step into a mound of squishy antelope dung. Damn! I rub the sole of my new leather boot against the long grass to wipe off the muck. Why didn't I wear my old, stained Veldskoens?
A short Jeep ride to the camp, and I'm greeted by the midday hush. The Great Rift Valley and the snowcapped Rwenzori Mountains loom in the west. Camp manager Johan Marais, wearing flip-flops and pressed khaki shorts and shirt, welcomes me with a vigorous handshake, one palm on each side of my right hand.
"We're so happy to host you here." He brushes his blonde curls off his forehead. "So glad you could come. Did you have a good trip?"
What could I say? It could have been worse. I smile just as a toucan flies down from the branch of a flowering tulip tree on the sandy path. Flaming red petals float down after him, and he points his yellow beak up at me, cawing as if questioning my right to be here.
"We call him Pedro," Johan laughs, "He always has something to say. Come, I'll show you your accommodation."
He picks up my purple wheeler luggage and strides down a dirt path to a tent fifty yards from the main building. I traipse after him, my backpack bouncing against my shoulder blades, my camera strap digging into my neck. Johan unzips the tent entrance and opens the flap.
"I'll light a lantern outside your tent when it gets dark," he says, pointing to matches, a candle, and two lanterns on top of a small table. "There's a generator at the office. You can charge your phone there anytime."
A mosquito net drapes over a single bed, and a few hangers hook onto a canvas loop stitched to a mesh air hole. A carafe of water and a glass on a small table stand watch over a whistle and a flashlight. The tent smells of freshly laundered sheets even though it's hot and stuffy inside.
"Best to keep the tent door closed so the bugs, mosquitos, and snakes can't get in," Johan says. "If you let us know what time you like to shower, one of our staff will bring you a hot water sack that he'll hang on top of that pole."
I peer into the bathroom, looking for things that aren't there. Johan's blue eyes miss nothing. He frowns, perhaps sensing that I stare a little too long at the small enclosure behind the camp bed.
"All you have to do is pull this handle, and water will sprinkle down. Plenty for a quick shower."
"Thanks." I imagine myself covered in soapsuds and not enough water to rinse off. What then? I try not to hunch my shoulders. "And the toilet?"
"Ja, there's a spade in that bucket full of sand. Just sprinkle it over your business when you're done and keep the lid down when not in use to keep out flies and rodents. "Oh," he adds, reaching for an object on the table. "Here's the whistle. Hang it around your neck and blow hard if you're in danger."
In my imagination, I hear a jackal scratching the side of my tent and a viper hissing in the corner. Jackals, okay. But my fear of snakes, even on TV, is not something I feel able to share with Johan. Not now. My skin prickles down my back to my ankles. I wish I had gone for more sophisticated accommodations with an indoor bathroom and running water, a camp teeming with guests, security guards, and bright lamps. Will I be able to sleep? Or will I be too scared to doze off? Staring up at the tent roof all night waiting for a six-foot mamba to slither down the wall?
The next morning, I enter a thatch-covered rondavel with a kitchen, living area, library, and an oblong teak table large enough to seat ten. The dining chairs with lions' heads carved on the arms and scarlet cushions look as if they belong in a palace. After my first bite of a rolex, a Ugandan pancake filled with fried chopped vegetables, I lean back in my chair and sigh. The air smells of pineapple smoothies, banana fritters, and peace. A haze settles over the valley, and cumulus clouds form on the horizon. Their underbellies turn grey and float lazily toward us. The only sound is my own chewing, swallowing, and sighs of tranquility.
On my first bushwalk, Adroa, my local Ugandan guide, leans down to hand me a pair of gaiters. "Here, wrap these over your ankles to keep off the ticks and leeches." The muscles in his arms ripple. His khaki cap and shirt blend with his skin.
At first, I think he's joking. But his eyes, deep-set like mud pools, show no humor. When I see that his trousers are tucked into his gumboots, my fingers fumble to stretch the elasticized fabric of my gaiters. I take forever before finally pressing studs around my ankles. Adroa, with the bearing of a warrior, takes one stride to my two as we walk out the camp gate into the bush. Thigh-high grass crackles underfoot, and I hold my arms above my head so as not to get scratched. In a cocoa-colored furrow, Adroa bends down to examine deep grooves scraped by warthogs' sharp tusks.
"They dig in these ditches, looking for salt," he says, sticking his forefinger into the sand and sucking it. Copying him, I bend over, scrape the ground, close my eyes, and stick out my tongue to lick a few grains. Adroa spins around and points at the branch of a eucalyptus tree.
"Watch that alpha male colobus monkey. We call him Utukufu Wake—His Majesty. He's about to chase away one of the younger males."
His Majesty cuffs his underling. A twig snaps, followed by a bark, a screech, and a thump. The rest of the troop stop chewing, stop scratching the ground for ants, and stop grooming their infants. The scene reminds me of the time my boss berated one of the team in a meeting, and the rest of us froze, hoping to be invisible.
When the wind unexpectedly whips through the ironwood trees, I squint up at the pile of gloomy clouds. Thunder echoes across the valley, and rain plops against my poncho. We reach the lodge as the sky unleashes its wrath. The sandy path turns as thick and sticky as oatmeal.
Rain stings Davina's cheeks as she forages for berries, nuts, and crickets. She enters an abandoned village and finds a raw chicken egg, cracks it open, and swallows it. She devours a rotten banana. Broken stalks of maize slap her thighs. The sole of one sneaker sinks into the muddy field, ripping her shoe apart. She stumbles, scrapes her left ankle against a rock, and nearly drops Fimi. She manages to scramble to her feet before stooping down to tie a reed around her shoe.
In a hut that escaped the militia bombardment, she lies down on a mat and places Fimi on her chest. Her eyes grow heavy. A cock's crowing wakes her a few hours later. She rushes out to catch it, twists its neck, plucks it, and revives a few glowing embers. An hour later, belly full, Fimi fed, Davina hits the trail again, walking on for what will be two or three more days.
Nearly a hundred miles from where her journey began, mother and baby join a throng of refugees fleeing the DRC. Onward to Uganda.
The following evening, forty miles from where Davina suffers hunger cramps, I feast on local grilled tilapia, breathing in the butter, parsley, and garlic. Invisible hands top up my wine glass with South African shiraz. Antelope carpaccio melts in my mouth. My waiter, Johnnie, wearing a starched white shirt and perfectly creased black slacks, clears my plate as soon as I take my last bite. Hyenas cackle in the distance as I scoop curried goat stew into a fresh roti. The sauce has just enough chili to bring out the flavors of bay leaves, oregano, and green peppercorns. Homemade mango sorbet cools my palate.
A chorus of chirping crickets and whining insects follows Johan and me to my tent. He points up at the Milky Way—a swath of light spiraling across the black sky. In bed, I make sure the mosquito netting is in place, and I fall asleep seconds after I blow out the candle, oblivious to the calls of night apes, owls, and nightjars. And to images of rattlesnakes slithering across my bed.
At sunrise, an explosion of nature's songs wakes me. This is the prime time for male birds to fight for females, food, and territory. I unzip the tent to find a pot of coffee and a platter of warm coconut muffins on a covered tray. Thankfully, no snakes.
On day two, I video a flock of chattering weavers pulling and pushing stalks of grass with their beaks until their new watertight, snake-savvy nests hang from a branch. The next day, we find a troop of chimpanzees taking a siesta. An infant only a few weeks old romps over his dozing mother's belly as if she were a pillow, reminding me of a time when my own two babies crawled over me to snuggle in bed.
By day four, Adroa takes a detour from animal life to politics.
"With Amin, we had trouble in this country, and many of us fled persecution. Sudan and the Congo took us in," Adroa says, bending over to pick up a millipede about eight inches long. It immediately curls into a tight ball. "Now, we help our neighbors."
"That's amazing," I say, thinking of our anti-immigration policies in the States. "Where do they mostly come from these days?"
I nod, feeling uncomfortable at my ignorance. I know so little about the conflicts in the region. All I do know are stories about Ebola, poachers, elephants killed for their tusks, and rhinos slaughtered for their horns. I even know that a horn can sell for as much as $65,000. But refugees? People?
Rubbing my sweaty palms on the sides of my trousers, I stare at the sky, hoping to ground myself. I'd spent hours reading up on kingfishers, flamingos, and marabou storks. Not about Uganda's neighbors. All I know about the country's recent history was Idi Amin's persecution of ethnic minorities. I don't know what to say.
"That's so sad for the Congolese," I mumble.
Adroa holds out the millipede he's been cradling these last few minutes. "These arthropods are what bustards like to eat. He pretends he's a stone, so they won't recognize him." Gently, he lays the seemingly dead worm-like coil back on the ground, and I, cocooned in nature's beauty bubble, think no more about refugees.
In the evenings, Adroa parks the Jeep at different viewpoints over the valley. He lifts the lid off an icebox, opens two bottles of chilled lager on the vehicle's door handle, and hands one to me.
"Maisha marefumm—cheers," he says, spreading a white cloth on a small folding table. We scoop guacamole and mango salsa with plantain chips as pastel shades melt into far-off mountain peaks. Birdsong stops abruptly as if a conductor has waved his baton for silence. An owl perches on a branch of a yellowwood tree, swaying left and right as he settles. He cocks his head to one side and stares down at us.
This is the idyllic Chapter One for which I'd been hoping. I'm totally unprepared for the next opus.
On the shores of Lake Albert, Davina lurches through hyacinth weeds to reach the fishing boat heading for Uganda. Her skirt is soaked. She clambers in, and a young girl, Bissette, barely into puberty, reaches her arms out and takes Fimi until the mother is settled.
On the boat's bow, a man wields a machete through the invasive weeds that infest the lake. The hull sinks low, too low, only inches above the waves. Thigh to thigh, women and children and a few older men squeeze together. Strangers link arms. Some close their eyes and mumble prayers. Children slide onto the floor, crouching between feet and knees. They do not chatter, ask questions, or cry; they've learned to be silent. Like most of her fellow travelers, Davina has never learned to swim. She doesn't know there should be life jackets on board or that the day before, six people drowned when high winds hit and capsized their boat. But if she did, she probably would've crawled onto the boat anyway. The risk is worth it. For the first time in weeks, her chest doesn't ache. For the first time in days, she feels safe. Her baby is safe. They have water, snacks, and somewhere to go. "Nous arriverons," she whispers."We will get there."
"How about we take a break from birdwatching and visit Ntoroko, a border town on Lake Albert?" Adroa asks unexpectedly one morning. "I know the manager of the UN refugee camp."
A hornbill's staccato song remains unanswered. I stare at the red ball slowly rising above the distant mountain peaks. All I know about the recent conflict in the DRC is that it's been going on for years. I should've at least skimmed the travel books or a current edition of Uganda's Independent. Perhaps I hoped the topic of refugees would go away. Talking about conflict is easier than being physically close to refugees. Embarrassed by my privilege, naïve as to what to expect, I'm too tongue-tied to ask. In the affluent white suburb in Johannesburg where I grew up, I saw little poverty until I was in high school. When I was seventeen, I volunteered to teach English to Black kids in Sophia Town, a segregated apartheid slum. For the very first time, I saw children with spindly limbs and bloated bellies and women standing in long lines to fill plastic bottles with water.
My plan for a walk along the banks of Uganda's Lamia River to spot the elusive Grauer's broadbill evaporates.
"I'd love that," I say, poking my head out of my five-star bubble, realizing that I know almost nothing about the refugees. I didn't want to think of myself as another tourist going to look at poverty like the 'township' bus tours around Soweto near Johannesburg. God knows I didn't want that.
As the scattering of stars fades in the dawn sky, the boat picks up speed. Spray shoots into the air, slapping Davina's cheeks. The wind tugs at her blouse as she tries to protect Fimi by twisting her back to face the gale. The rubber soles of her sneakers have disintegrated. She takes her shoes off and throws them overboard. Bissette sits squashed next to Davina—staring at nothing, saying nothing. But Davina knows—she saw the boatman take the girl by the arm and push her behind a palm tree. Her ticket for the ride. She strokes Bissette's hair until the young girl stops trembling.
While I finish my breakfast of sliced fruit, scrambled eggs with bacon, warm rolls, homemade pineapple jam, and freshly roasted Ugandan coffee, Adroa pulls out his flip phone.
"We leave in half an hour," he says, rubbing his hands together. "Just bring yourself—no phone, no purse, backpack, camera, or notebook."
"Can I take photos if I ask people's permission?"
"No. Please, no cameras. No phones."
His eyes locked onto mine tell me there is no negotiating. My fingers close around the strands of the lion's mane carved on the armchair. I'm stepping into new territory.
"We don't want to offend the locals or cause any unpleasantness in Ntoroko." His voice low, he looks down at me like a parent instructing a child. "It's a very poor fishing village, where people struggle to find all sorts of ways to make money: Men catch the fish. Women sell the fish. And shopkeepers hawk matches, soap, and cooking oil. There are people runners, too, sex traffickers. And, of course, lots of bars. Poachers smuggle lizards, snakes, monkeys, parrots, elephant tusks, rhino horns, and chimps."
Several months would pass, and my cheeks would still flush at the thought of how little I knew about Ugandans and their neighbors at the time. About militias, human trafficking, and the struggle and sacrifices people make to feed a family. About my naivety.
But, until then, I sit placidly and sip on my second cup of freshly brewed French-press coffee. And I wait.
The boat carrying Davina, Fimi, Bissette, and thirty other refugees thumps against a strip of sand on Uganda's shore. Bissette jumps out first, followed by Davina, with Fimi asleep on her back. The mother swings her legs off the side of the boat, scraping her calves against the rough wood. A splinter shoots into the back of her right thigh. She gasps but keeps moving. Just to feel the damp sand between her toes is enough to make her smile. Ntoroko.
At the entrance to our lodge, Adroa climbs into the driver's seat of the open-roofed Land Rover. A security guard carries a walkie-talkie and an AK-47 and clambers up into the seat next to him. Maybe my theory that we might be attacked isn't so far-fetched after all. I grab onto a sidebar. Determined not to change my mind, I quickly heave myself up onto the back bench and begin to pick at a piece of loose skin on my right thumb. A bloody rivulet stains my light grey safari trousers. There's still time to change my mind.
I stick with the plan.
Adroa revs the Land Rover's engine and slowly eases the clutch as the vehicle lurches forward. The tires slush through water-filled potholes, and mud spatters up the side of the vehicle. A black Abyssinian hornbill the size of a large turkey swoops down from the branch of a dead tree and pokes at the ground. A lizard wriggles at the tip of the bird's long orange beak, its tail whipping from side to side before the animal disappears down the bird's bulging gullet.
The road is slick, and every now and again the vehicle slides sideways. My butt bounces on the bench, and my knuckles turn white as I grip the back of the seat in front of me. We turn a corner, and Adroa brakes sharply, barely missing a jackknifed truck. Thrown off my seat, my shoulder slams into the door handle. I gasp, screech, and laugh. A nervous laugh as if to reassure myself that this is exciting. An adventure. Adroa navigates through the narrow space between the overturned truck's wheels and a ditch. The security guard picks up his weapon and curls his index finger around the trigger.
Our front bumper scrapes the truck with a deep grating sound like a jackal's howl. Adroa continues on until the security guard taps him on the shoulder. He leans his chest over the steering wheel and mumbles in Swahili, "Jumani"—damn. Worry washes over me like a toxic fog. What have I gotten myself into? It's only been half an hour since we left the lodge, and I'm already in another world. This trip is arduous and mystifying, yet I'm sucked into the drama. I sink low in the back seat, wishing I could turn into stone just like that millipede.
The security guard stays with me in the vehicle as Adroa jumps out and walks over to a man standing, legs astride, hands on hips, in the middle of the road. I imagine the bushes exploding with machine gunfire.
A few men gather around Adroa. They shout and jab fingers, but soon the tones turn soft. The security guard lowers his rifle, unscrews his flask, and takes a swig of water. The armpits of his camouflage jacket show circular sweat stains among swirls of olive green, grey, and khaki.
Adroa returns, steps up to the driver's seat, and looks back at me. "You okay?"
Even though I feel a heavy brew of fear and adrenaline raging within me, I force myself to nod. The key grinds in the ignition, the gears grate, and Adroa continues the journey. Longing for the safety of the lodge, I wish I had the courage to ask him to turn around. Instead, I continue picking at the skin around my cuticle.
On the lake's Ugandan shores, Bissette takes Davina's forearm and leans on her shoulder as they trundle on. She straightens up as if she were a soldier on parade, raises her eyes to the heavens, and shouts out, "Nous sommes arrivés!" —We have arrived!
Davina and Fimi, whimpering softly, trail a few yards behind the others. The journey across the water has taken ten hours, and Davina feels light-headed. Not far to go now. The group reaches the wire enclosure surrounding a scattering of tents and a red brick building with a sloping roof. A cross stands guard at the church's front entrance. Davina bows her head and crosses herself. Bissette prostrates herself on the ground.
We drive on from the altercation. Vegetation thins. Mud huts with thatched roofs fringe the roadside, and laundry hangs on lines strung from stinkwood tree to acacia tree. Barefoot children carry backpacks with the "Save the Children" logo on them. I sense we're close to Ntoroko, far from the Africa I know. It's different from other towns and villages I've visited in the Transkei Region—Swakopmund and Zanzibar with their heaving streets, bougainvillea hedges, and laughter. Here, there are no brick houses, corrugated tin shacks, or lean-tos made of wooden pallets. No street stalls filled with colorful fabrics, piles of tomatoes, plantains, onions, and sacks of charcoal. Here, the smell of decay swims over me. This neglected village sits in a marshy basin, filled with polluted water, foul air, and bandits. A strong fishy smell permeates the thick damp air. I pinch my nose between thumb and forefinger to stall gagging. Saliva curdles in my mouth.
At the entrance to the UNICEF refugee camp, someone opens the gate and beckons. The hot sand burns the soles of Davina's feet as she walks toward a small water tank. She balances Fimi on one hip and holds a plastic cup of water to the child's lips. The baby sips, splutters, and gulps as if she'll never get enough. Davina swallows the rest slowly. Her skin is dry and flaky, and her legs are covered with scratches. Her stomach cramps. She nearly dozes off. It's been more than twenty hours since she's slept. She adjusts her skirt, hoping to make herself more presentable. "Nous sommes arrivés," she whispers.
Later that day, I pass through the same gate where Davina told me she put the first phase of her journey to rest. Mine has just begun. One journey done; another one begun.
Adroa stops near the sign reading "United Nations High Commission for Refugees" and lifts the latch. The click of steel against steel echoes across the camp, the size of two football fields. The ground is reddish-brown, bald, littered with a few dead pods and wrinkled eucalyptus leaves.
A baby cries, and a mother croons. A few pairs of flip-flops lie at the entrance to one of the tents. The only other sounds are spades digging into the clay earth, a chicken pecking at the hard ground, and my breathing. The predatory midday sun, an angry god, pierces my T-shirt, roasting the skin on my back. I shift my cap so the peak covers my neck, and step into a sliver of shade cast by a stringy banyan tree.
A man in a crisp white shirt and pressed khaki trousers walks toward us. His black sneakers kick up a haze of dust. "Manager" is written in English on a badge pinned to his shirt pocket. He stops in front of Adroa and extends his hand.
"Nice to see you, my friend. It's been a while." He looks at me and smiles. "Thank you for coming to see our camp. My name is William." We are about to shake hands when a tsetse fly lands on his forearm. He slaps it with his free palm, and it falls to the sand. "You're the only tourist we've had for ages. Usually, it's politicians and UN people. Visitors prefer to catch a glimpse of the forest elephants and the chimps."
We walk toward a canvas tent with "Clinic" written on the side in large navy letters. Pinned onto the door flap, a faded plastic poster the size of a computer screen illustrates Ebola symptoms: caricatures of a man defecating a liquid brown mush; another whose face is covered with scarlet spots; a third with small lines in the shape of lightning bolts stuck to his forehead; and a fourth spewing a mustard-yellow liquid. English words describe these symptoms: diarrhea, fever, headache, vomiting. William opens the flap.
"Please," he says, motioning me to walk in. I expect to see the Ebola medical supplies I'd seen in the media: blood pressure cuffs, infrared thermometers, stethoscopes, disposable syringes, protective gowns and overalls, goggles, latex gloves, boot covers, medical face masks, buckets for stools and vomit, and a bed with a rubber mattress for easy disinfection. I don't. Here, only a stainless-steel tray, a bottle of bleach, a cake of carbolic soap, and a few pairs of rubber gloves lie on a trestle table. These seem inadequate for treating chronic illnesses such as diarrhea, hepatitis, and bilharzia—a parasitic worm that affects intestines—not to mention the life-threatening Ebola, yellow fever, typhoid, malaria, and measles.
In the corner of the clinic tent, Sarah, a volunteer nurse, checks Fimi's swollen, yellow-encrusted eyes. Then she places a wooden tongue depressor in the baby's mouth and shines a small flashlight down her throat. Her tonsils are covered with spots of pus. She shows Davina, who nods. Sarah gently pinches Fimi's upper arm to find some flesh before giving her a shot of antibiotics to kick start her treatment. I'm not aware that I'm holding my breath until my lungs threaten to revolt.
"Is this what you have to work with?" I ask above the baby's screams. I reach into my trouser pocket, take out a small bottle of hand sanitizer, and squeeze a large blob into my palm. I smear the sticky liquid over my arms and face, hoping it will protect me from any deadly Ebola bacteria.
Sarah turns around. Her blonde hair caught up in a ponytail peeks out from under a medical cap. She places the stethoscope on the table, folds her arms, and looks squarely at me.
"I'm Sarah. And, to answer your question, yes. It's quite different from the well-equipped pediatric center in Manchester where I normally work," she says.
My cheeks sting. There is so much I don't understand. I wish I hadn't spoken.
"But this is what we have, and we do our best," she continues. "I volunteer with MSF—Médecins Sans Frontières—for a couple of months every year. This is Davina. She's just walked for weeks to catch a boat to get here."
I smile at the skinny woman with hollow eyes, cracked fingernails, and feet covered with blisters and scratches. "Ma bébé," Davina says in a rasping voice, holding Fimi against her chest.
"Belle. Très belle," I say as Fimi reaches out and clasps my index finger. "Beautiful. Very beautiful." She smells salty, sharp, and sweet.
I'm tempted to volunteer on the spot, but as an older woman who's always worked in an office, I don't have the physical stamina to stand on my feet for hours at a time. I'd only get in the way. I have no cash on me; all I can do is observe and listen. I wave to the baby as William takes my elbow and steers me to the tent next door.
"No. Don't kill my brother!" Bissette shouts as she slips in and out of consciousness. Her breathing is jagged, as if she has hiccups. Davina follows us and strokes her forehead with a hand that only a few weeks ago planted yams, harvested cassava, and milked a goat. Blood leaks onto the fabric of Bissette's dress. The price she paid for a boat ticket to this sanctuary.
Sarah follows with half a bucket of water and a sponge. She motions for us to leave.
"Some girls have to sell themselves to get here," William reminds me. "There are many children here, some five or six years old, without their parents. They watched their mothers raped, fathers beheaded, and their houses torched. We take in people who suffered terrible trauma and try to provide therapy." William stops and turns to look at me. He swallows and pushes his black-rimmed glasses up his nose. "The big problem is language. Congolese speak French and multiple dialects. We speak English, Swahili, and some Ugandan dialects." He sighs as he shakes his head.
Benches and tables fill another tent. In this hot, slow time of day, rice bubbles in a pot on a paraffin burner, and the smell of stewed beans and fried fish hangs in the air. Kids with mucous-encrusted noses peer inside. They whisper and chatter but don't jostle or push one another to get to the front of the line. A few women dressed in faded, torn fabrics squat in the tent's narrow shadow.
We continue walking around the camp past the kitchen area where a team of men armed with shovels work at digging a hole in the hard ground.
"They're building a new latrine," William says. "The other two are almost full."
I wonder how long it will take to build the cesspits. This time I keep my mouth shut.
A short while later, Davina shouts something unintelligible. Her voice echoes across the camp as she rushes out of the tent and runs toward a boy. A boy she hasn't seen for weeks.
"Luc, my son, come to Mama," she cries in French. She kneels before him, wraps her arms around his ankles, and kisses his feet.
"My name is André," the boy says, stepping back and clasping a nurse's hand. "I'm not your son."
Davina screams, "Where is my son? Where is my husband?" The nurse pauses for only a second before tightening her hold on the boy.
"Je suis désolé"—I'm sorry, the nurse whispers. "I'm ... I'm really sorry." I see the sudden rush of anguish on Davina's face as she falls to the ground, sobbing. I rush to her and look down just as she looks up, imploring me to help. I know what I need to say; I just don't know how to say it. I hold out my hand, and she clasps it gently as she struggles to rise from the dusty earth. I drape my free arm over her shoulders and slowly walk with her back to the tent where another nurse takes her arm and leads her back to bed. I marvel at what kind of courage, what depth of strength such a woman had to endure all she did—all the while, her young daughter at her breast.
We walk over to the entrance of the country church. We pause. The wooden door creaks as William nudges it open. The sound echoes up to the corrugated metal roof. Shafts of rainbow-colored sunlight shimmer through stained glass windows onto the sand floor. A stack of cardboard boxes fills one corner. The room has no benches, no statues of Jesus or Mary, and no podium. In this space large enough to house fifty people standing shoulder-to-shoulder, local villagers come to pray among strangers who might bring disease and trouble to their village.
"Many families up and down the lake share what little food they have with the refugees," William says. "They even let them rest on the floor of their huts."
"Extraordinary," I say more to myself than to him. Back home near the U.S.-Mexican border, people grow nervous about refugee camps springing up near their towns, let alone hosting the refugees in their homes.
"No refugee is ever turned away," William adds. "After intake and initial treatment at the camp, they move to resettlement centers near Kampala to begin a new life."
When I leave the church and walk back to the camp entrance, all I can think about is the sacrifices people make to help one another: Pierre, a volunteer cardiologist, who left his home near the Eiffel Tower and the Hospital Saint-Antoine, equipped with pacemakers, stents, catheters, and intravascular ultrasound units. Sarah, who works with incubators, x-ray and MRI machines, and sterilization units in a modern clinic in England. And William, who left his wife and two kids and a cushy office job in Kampala to live here in a tent, doing what he can with limited funds, minimal medical personnel, and only the most rudimentary supplies.
As I shake William's hand, our palms swap sweat, slip slightly, and re-clutch. I wish I could press a couple of hundred-dollar bills into his palm. Wishing it would make a difference. I promise myself I will do more when I get home.
More than just write a check? But what?
I climb back into our Land Rover, and my stomach begins to cramp. I bend forward and dig my fists into my belly. The pain is all in my mind and eases. The vehicle jerks forward. The engine sounds louder than before. I push my sweat-wet hair under my cap. My elbow rests a little too far outside of the Land Rover, and mud spits brown spots onto my arm. While I tie my kerchief around my nose, trying to keep out the fishy smell, I realize that, for refugees, this stench signals hope and survival. Here fishermen net shoals of tilapia and catfish. Kids go to school. Chickens roam free, laying eggs on the sandy ground. For refugees, the smell of fish is a relief from the smell of blood, smoke, and rotting corpses. Fish are life.
Adroa coaxes the vehicle through a narrow, winding lane barely wide enough for one car. When we reach the center of Ntoroko, we're greeted by a woman's voice, blaring over a loudspeaker. I've no clue where it's coming from until Adroa points out a podium in the middle of the street. A woman, dressed in a khaki pantsuit and wearing a black beret, stands in front of a microphone.
"She's one of our police force here," Adroa says. "She is my cousin."
"What is she shouting?"
"She's reciting the latest news from the paper, so even those who can't read will know what's happening." With one hand clutching the wheel, he rises and waves. She smiles and waves back.
We continue on, circling her soapbox. When she sees a white-faced foreigner in the Jeep next to her cousin, she stops mid-sentence and calls out in singsong English, "Hello, I love you!" As the protective shield I've wrapped around myself begins to crack, I force a laugh and wave, shouting back to her, "Hello!" I add, "I love you, too!" I throw kisses to the kids and adults encircling her. Most of the locals are busy sorting fish, fixing nets, rolling chapattis, and sweeping their yards with brooms made from the broomstick tree. A few wave back. Others gawk.
We drive past chickens pecking at tiny fish the size of matchsticks spread out on the ground. Small wooden shacks and tables display a few onions, potatoes, single cigarettes, individual candies, and plantains. Children wear shocking pink and orange T-shirts, dresses, and pants—either two sizes too small or too large. I'm embarrassed to think of all the jeans and blouses in my closet, some barely worn.
We park near the shore of Lake Albert, Africa's seventh-largest lake. The endless expanse is flat as a mirror, and gentle waves lap at the shore. The same two noxious and invasive weeds, water hyacinth and karibe, that wrapped themselves around Davina's legs on the other side of the lake flourish here, too, smothering aquatic life by sucking oxygen from the water. Green debris and empty coke bottles litter the beach. A four-foot marabou stork on a dead white star apple tree spreads dark wings as broad as our Jeep. The crimson sack on its neck puffs up as if to challenge our unwelcomed appearance.
Adroa whispers, "The bird looks beautiful, but it's a pest—it eats their fish."
Fishermen pull in their nets and tip their catch— tilapia and Nile perch—into plastic tubs. Women push the tiny fish to one side. The ones as long as a table knife will be sold, and the smaller ones will be cooked or dried for the locals' consumption. Girls as young as five scrub pots with sand in bilharzia-infested water. Others fill plastic bottles with the same lake water, bending sideways under their weight as they lumber home. There is no fooling around, no laughter, no childhood jabber.
We drive past several small shacks, each with a curtain and a bed. In groups of twos and threes, women wearing high-heeled shoes, scarlet lipstick, gypsy hoop earrings, and tight-fitting floral dresses with long skirts and puffy sleeves hover in the shade. Hips and shoulders shimmy. This is no tourist village. There are no woven baskets, straw hats, beaded jewelry, or wooden carvings of animals and birds for sale. This is something different.
We set off on the road back to camp. The dust sprays up from under the wheels. Adroa, his shirt stuck to the sweat on his back, remains silent. The guard slouches down in the front seat and plonks his army boots on the dashboard. My world changes color as I take off my sunglasses, blow on them, and try to clean the lenses on the bottom of my shirt. In the smudges are images of Bissette's limp body, nurse Sarah's weathered face, and Davina's scream when she realizes the boy is not her son. I can see the fishermen, housewives, and children getting on with their daily lives—catching, cleaning, selling, buying, drying, cooking. Fish. Always fish. I adjust my kerchief over my nose and mouth to stop the sneezing and coughing.
A stone cracks against the chassis. Adroa curses, and a vervet monkey howls. More jackknifed trucks have spilled onto their sides and onto the roadside. The smell of cigarette smoke and stale beer permeates the air. I don't ask Adroa to stop to look at the colorful Doherty's bush shrike, the rare chocolate-backed kingfisher fluttering around a jackfruit, and the pair of francolins with white stripes above their eyes. All I can see is the anguish on Davina's face.
Back at the lodge, the first thing I do is request an extra bucket of water for my shower. For the first few seconds, I pull the lever on the pole and splash the manna over my head. Then, I rub a cake of lavender-scented soap against my cheeks, temples, lips, the sides of my nose, and under my chin. Using my forefingers, I rub the foam into the whorls on my earlobes in a circular motion. I scour the back of my neck and scrub my scalp until it tingles. Soapsuds smother armpits and toes, but the smell of fish lingers in my nostrils. When I close my eyes, all I can picture is Davina kneeling on the ground so desperate to find her son, Luc.
The water stops flowing just as I rinse off the last suds. The taste of rotten fish still clings to my tongue even after brushing my teeth until my arm tires. When I rinse my mouth, blood streaks the bathroom sink.
That evening, hyenas' high-pitched laughter drowns out the sounds of a night owl and chimps barking and fighting over a branch on which to sleep. A full moon the color of a blood orange rises above the escarpment. At the campfire, twigs crackle, and sparks shoot up into a navy sky. But all I can see in the crumbling logs are shattered lives. I worry that despite my best intentions, I'll get sucked back into a busy schedule once I'm back home. And all my revelations will be for nothing.
Loud vibrating frogs croon their way through the heaviness of night. Whether to signal their territory or call for a mate or simply because it's second nature for them, something they have to do, I don't know. I think about the risks they take and wonder if they realize how foolish they are. In silence, they are invisible. In full voice, they open themselves to every predator within a country mile. Still, they continue, regardless of risk.
But, what about me? Will I take the easy way out and remain silent? That's the safest thing for me to do, after all. Or will I break that silence and sing out loud to anyone who will listen?
I ask myself that, although I already know the answer. Yes, I am resolved: I must find somewhere to volunteer on the ground rather than in the boardroom. I must find a way to act for the sake of all the Davinas of the world. To cry out and to spur the world into action.
There are no signs of violence abating in the DRC. Girls are still being raped, women left destitute, and children orphaned. Measles kills more than three thousand victims every year. The COVID-19 epidemic and war in Ukraine dominate the headlines back home, with little mention of militia attacks or the sporadic outbreaks of Ebola in North Kivu.
I'm now part of a group that adopts refugee families from the DRC, helping to organize food, clothing, housing, and schooling for their children.
In my own way, I'm working to make it possible for many others to say, "Nous sommes arrivés."
Will it be enough? I wonder.
I doubt it.
Should I continue trying?
The answer urges me on: Can I do anything else?
Images provided courtesy of Susan Bloch.