That day in mid-August in the Congo was late in the dry season— the sun a seared-copper disc, a cigarette burn on the sky’s perfect palate of skin. I stepped off the boat at the “port” into the sucking, ankle-deep grey mud. I lost a sandal. The water was the color and temperature of lukewarm tea, the sticky lumps of flotsam resting on the surface with disturbingly little motion. The river’s edge in these African villages was as much alive as any bustling city-centre. Partially nude women standing in the murky water, bathing themselves and their children with the lackluster energy of the late afternoon. Fishermen dragging thick, torpid Congolese Tilapia out of pirogues. Children splashing about in the shallows catching inch-long minnows in their tiny brown hands, to be salted and dried for later consumption.
This was Mulongo, nestled deep in the Congolese bush, two-days’ drive from the nearest city via Land Rover (the roads are not passable otherwise, and not passable at all during the rainy season). It took me two days of air travel and 19 hours on the ground to get this deep into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and when I passed a UNICEF truck on the road at hour 14, the thought that popped unbidden into my head was, “What in the hell are they doing all the way out here?” Mulongo has the biggest and best hospital in the area, where children languished on reed-mats on the concrete floors, rather than out-of-doors in that filmy, tan-red Congolese dust. It also has the logistical advantage of river access. As a result, the town and the port are both teeming with fishermen, merchants, the sick and the dying.
I spent the summer between my second and third year of graduate school traveling up and down the Congo River, with Mulongo as my “home base”. I was there ostensibly to “do-good” and “develop communities” while using my burgeoning therapy skills to counsel women who had been gang-raped and children who had been abandoned. Ostensibly. Really, I was there to see the hardness that was in the world, all that I had been shielded from growing up as an upper-class suburban white girl in Middle America. I did not know it yet, but I was there to see the hardness that was in me as well.
That particular day was near the end of my journey. It was the last week I was in the country. I was exhausted and weakened from weeks of trundling up and down the Congo River, battling the insipid and often-lethal mosquitoes and the toxic river water that sluiced along the bottom of our small motorboat. I was two weeks away from starting school again in Indiana, from sitting through dense lectures with really smart people and starting an internship at one of the country’s most prestigious children’s hospitals, something that had once seemed very important to me. I was trying to figure out who and how I was going to be when I got home, without really knowing. I was trying to figure out how I would hide the now-constantly-playing movie projector reel of African images just behind my eyes from all of my peers and colleagues. I never wanted to be “that girl” who always talks about Africa and starving children.
It was then, on that bone-dry late August day, with the acrid-sweet scent of burning charcoal fresh in my nostrils that I saw a young man die from malaria. It was not “planned” that I should see this—this was not part of our “tour” of Central Africa. He was just there—his limp body slumped on the back of a bicycle—and he did not make it to the hospital on time. His glassy eyes were still open. Knobby joints, chin dipped forward to rest limply on his chest. He died and he did not change—no gasp, no movement, just a body—before death and after death. There I was, watching the life go out of him, and everyone around was watching me, the only white person for miles and miles (a spectacle in any situation), watching this man die. It was not dramatic. It was not horrific. The only thing horrific about it was that it wasn’t horrific at all.
Once, when I was in college, I had a friend who set off to hike the Appalachian Trail after graduation, which I think is pretty demanding if you endeavor to do the whole thing. He was soft-spoken and kind. He had bright, soft brown eyes and he looked down when he smiled. He was in my poetry workshop for two years, but the thing is, we didn’t know each other that well, really. But when he left in May for the mountains, we somehow traded contact information and wrote each other a few times when he was on the trail. I don’t know why we did—we’d barely spoken outside of class for two years. Maybe it was because we’d read each other’s work for so long that we felt closer than we really were. Maybe I was just so captured by his kindness that I wanted to maintain some tie with him. I remember that he was so genuine—that he was thoughtful and intelligent and respectful; you could tell that when he wrote about a woman it was because he had loved her, not merely because he had fucked her or wanted to.
So we traded contact information and I can’t remember how, but I managed to send him some letters when he was on the trail. Once, he wrote me a letter, and I remember where I was when I read it—I was in the warm, wood-paneled office of my ex-boyfriend’s house. It was our “writing room,” where we wrote when things were good, and fought when things were bad, and then wrote about the fighting. I sat, reading his letter in that emotionally charged room, a mug of coffee cooling in my hands. The letter I received from him was so ordinary; he wrote about his days on the trail, the rigor, the exhaustion. He wrote that just that very day he and his hiking partner had stepped over a body on the trail— another hiker who had died of exhaustion and exposure.
I wondered then, reading those scrawled words on jagged-edged notebook paper, how death could be like that—a mere footnote, a passing observation of the day, something you have to “step over” to get on with the trail. There I was, living in the sterile world known as “America,” in a room where I taught myself to capitalize on suffering. I was living in a land so adept at putting off anything to do with death that any death is always an event. And I wrote about it. I did not know then how it would be possible to see someone die and not feel shock or alarm, or fear or sadness, or any sort of strong emotion. I did not know then the ugliness of feeling oneself watch someone die, numbly, without emotion—the ironic guilt of feeling nothing.
But there, standing on the banks of the Congo River, I knew. I watched the family remove the not-yet-stiff body of their brother or son or husband from the back of the bike, where he had undoubtedly been for days. The man with him, the “driver” of the bike, set to work arranging his body while three women, one with a baby to her breast, gathered around weeping and keening. He spread out a tan, canvas sheet on the ground, and laid the body gently on it, as if tucking a sleeping child into bed. His face was expressionless. He turned the body over and over, wrapping it in the canvas, as if rolling up a rug. I could see the gritty, calloused bottoms of his bare feet protruding slightly from the end. The women wailed gutturally—the kind of crying that seems to sap all of the liquid from inside you and expel it through your eyes and nose and mouth, until your face is a slick mess of tears and saliva and mucous and you wonder, where in God’s name does it all come from?
Before I went to the Congo, I wanted to believe that seeing something like that would evoke those same kinds of tears from within me, that watching someone die from a disease that can be treated for four dollars would have turned me inside out. And that feeling that somehow made me a better person. I wish I could say under the microscopic scrutiny of all of those Africans watching to see what I was going to do, that I did something, anything. But I didn’t—I was frozen, I was empty, I was exhausted. In that moment, I felt the comfortable weight of the two shoulder straps from my green nylon rucksack, which had nearly melded to the curves of my shoulders in five weeks. The two-inch-wide dirty tracts of sweat underneath. A small comfort. I knew that in that military-strength pack was a zippered first-aid pouch with a cache of medications, all of which could be purchased over the counter in the Congo. I had three courses of malaria treatment. I bought them for a total of $12 before I left the big southern city of Lubumbashi, “just in case.”
I know now that I could not have helped that man, even if I had gotten there an hour earlier and had given him my medication. He was too ill from days of travel and probably months of fighting off the malaria that he would have needed a blood transfusion, maybe more than one. I know that. Maybe I even knew that then. But when I stepped off that boat, I was coming back from my own two days on the river. Coming back from visiting a village with a population of 200 where 60 children die each year from dirty-water diseases. I no longer felt certain of my own humanity, of my own ability to “do good.” I was afraid that I would never know anything for sure ever again. And my mind could not wrap itself around that packet of images—the gritty feet, the wailing women, the pale yellow crosshatched tablets in my backpack. When I looked at that man, wrapping up his loved one like a discarded carpet, his expressionless face was like a mirror. Everyone looked to me to see what I would say or do, and my face was a blank reflection of his.
I don’t know what happened to the women, to the man, or to the body in the end. By then, we had loaded up our own vehicles, and I hopped into the front seat of the land cruiser, tossing my sack in the back. I peered out the dirt-encrusted back window from where I could watch the family, gluttonously, voyeuristically, shielded from hundreds of probing eyes. The man picked up the package that used to be a human life from the ground. He nestled it amongst the other baggage on the back of his bike, the customary place for carrying charcoal, sacks of flour, livestock, or any other goods or belongings. Then he mounted, as he had done every day for perhaps his entire life, the pedals pressing up against the soles of his feet. The locals would have considered him “lucky” for owning a bike, or for knowing someone well enough who would lend it to him. I watched as he pedaled off on his laden bicycle, slowly, purposefully, until he faded away into the crowd, and his package became indistinguishable among the others. A sea of African men on bicycles, toting packages of various shapes and sizes, all of them tan, all of them bodies.