Why She Couldn't Go
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
I hadn’t been in Kamponde more than 10 minutes when one of my students from long ago approached, welcomed me back with a double-fisted handshake, then looked over my shoulder and asked: “Where is Caitlin?”
One by one, over those first few hours back in my Peace Corps village in the heart of Congo, people approached me and asked to meet my daughter. I was hoping they had forgotten.
I had pledged during my last visit in 2006 to bring Caitlin back with me 10 years later, once she had turned 18, so that they could bless her, like they had blessed me so many years before.
As I write in the draft of my memoir about that second trip back:
This village was where I had come into my own. It's where I felt that first heady rush that comes from teaching a great class. It's where I overcame aching isolation and discovered the simple pleasure of just sitting alone.
Kamponde is where I prayed for rain so I could wash my long hair; where I danced around fires, learned to play a better guitar with a boyfriend who visited from time to time; where I walked behind mothers carrying precious babies to their early graves.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo — known then as Zaire — was where I wrote for an hour every night for two years by kerosene lantern, preparing me to go on to write as a foreign correspondent from points around the globe.
I was the last volunteer in Kamponde; the Peace Corps pulled out as corruption overran the school where I taught English with the conviction that I was truly doing something good.
My job with The Associated Press allowed me to return to Kamponde in 1996, to renew my ties with the villagers and write about who we had all become over the years. They had been sad that Chris and I had yet to have a child, so they held a ceremony with prayers and songs, calling on their gods to bring us the baby we had wanted for years.
I learned I was pregnant a few short months after that. I knew it was unlikely that my thank-you letter filled with photos of the blue-eyed baby girl would arrive by Congo's pitiful postal system. Now here I was, in 2006, to thank them in person for those prophetic prayers.
They made me promise to return again with Caitlin one day, so that she, too, could be blessed.
* * * * *
And they had not forgotten. One village patriarch I had now known for nearly four decades marched into the hard-packed red dirt courtyard outside the church rectory and scolded me: “You broke your promise, Miss Elizabeth. What do you have to say?”
What did I have to say? That it was too dangerous and too difficult.
They of all Congolese should know: The people of Kamponde had been forced to flee into the bush for three months, sneaking back to their fields every few days to harvest food, fending off malaria and malnutrition. They were hiding as a newly formed anti-government militia from the Kamwina Nsapu ethnic tribe marched hundreds of kilometers up the main dirt road through the province, burning things up, tearing people down.
When then-President Joseph Kabila sent in security forces, the fighting escalated into what U.N. officials worried would be an outright genocide. Both sides were accused of mass rape, the murder of innocents, beheadings and the recruitment of children to take up arms.
And now, the PTSD was palpable, the side-eye suspicion seemed to follow us as we slowly made our way to them. As an outsider with the benefit of a long-range, bird’s-eye view, I could actually feel that much of the joy and innocence I had once known was now gone.
Truth be told, I was relieved that Caitlin had stayed behind. Not only was the trip incredibly hard, the security was still too precarious. My friend Jim Mukenge — a member of the provincial parliament who had traveled with me in 2006 and again on this trip — insisted we take two 4x4s in case one broke down, and three sweet-natured tough guys who watched my every move.
When the regional police chief learned I would be staying in Kamponde, he dispatched an armed officer to sleep on the ground in front of my rectory room door.
Much of the sweet serendipity I had promised Caitlin now appeared suffocated by strife.
First Trip Canceled
Caitlin, Nick and I had our visas and were getting ready to go in 2016, just as Caitlin turned 18 and could make up her own mind about making such a trip. As I wrote in this September 2016 Kickstarter update, things were looking good for a Christmas trip. But then Kabila postponed elections and riots broke out in Kinshasa; I didn’t want to bring Caitlin into that environment. We postponed for the first time until the spring of 2017.
At the same time, Kasai Central — the province where Kamponde resides — was hit with the first real violence since independence from Belgium in 1962. Kasai had even managed to mostly skirt the civil war of the late 1990s — but was also largely neglected by Kinshasa. The province has always been seen by the ruling class as an opposition stronghold. Étienne Tshisekedi, the longtime opponent of the three-decade dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, hailed from the Kasai.
His son, Félix Tshisekedi, was elected president in January after his father died. Nearly a year later, however, he’s yet to visit the province.
The ugly provincial saga started in August of 2016, unbeknownst to much of the world. Security forces are believed to have killed the royal chief of the Kamwina Nsapu, Jean-Prince Mpandi, head of the people in the Dibaya region of the Kasai. He had been calling on his followers to rise up and demand more from their government: better infrastructure, education and public health.
Mpandi’s murder provoked a heady revolution taken up by neighboring chiefs espousing the cultural conviction that the collateral damage of bystander deaths was justified. The recruitment of children to fight alongside them was all for the greater good.
In the last year, since I’ve known Caitlin could not travel with us, I have wondered how I would structure the final chapters of my memoir. I decided to wait until after this trip to see what would unfold: Would some central characters be missing or killed during the uprising? Thankfully, no.
Would I finally up throw up my hands and say the trip was too hard for this old gal with the bad back, a journey that appeared fraught with bad omens and political roadblocks?
Again, no. I was determined to go this year or likely never go at all.
Once I got to Kananga in early September, I learned that many of the estimated 5,000 people who were killed between 2016 through 2018 had been slaughtered right outside of the provincial capital, their bodies buried in shallow graves. I learned that a lone priest was brave enough to go door to door, offering prayers at makeshift burials, even as the government forces continued to gun down anyone whom they believed might have been part of the KS militia.
“So many innocent people were killed; everyone knows someone who died,” Jim said, adding that both sides were to blame. The Kanwina Nsapu would put drugged-up children at the front lines — telling them the magical powder that laced their alcohol drinks would protect them from the bullets. Fake wooden guns became talismans that would carry them safely to the afterlife.
An interview with Basile Kupa, one of the chiefs who joined the Kamwina Nsapu militia:
Now I understood that the “why” behind “she could not go” would become my final focus. I mean, when 5,000 people are slaughtered and some 1.4 million people have to leave their homes — and the world barely blinks — the journalist in me just knew. I began to concentrate on the reporting as much as the personal narrative behind my return to this village.
The most intriguing interview was with one of the Kamwina Nsapu chiefs, Basile Kupa, who was oddly open about why he took up arms. He showed me the powder he used to drug up the children who fought alongside him. He acknowledged some regret for the lives lost, but said the government was to blame for most of the killings in their counterattacks.
As we spoke, the python he believes gives him power slowly slithered around his neck. Basile said his name was Matata.I knew hakuna-matata means “no troubles” in Swahili — yes, like the song of “Lion King” fame — so I asked if he didn’t mean Hakuna-matata?
He laughed and said, no, just Matata, because the 6-foot snake is a real troublemaker.
I also spoke to two social workers who are helping the child soldiers get their lives back on track. A well-placed farmer who has turned his family compound outside of Kananga into an agriculture school for some of those children is helping me interview several of those young men and women who are not only traumatized, but also ostracized from their families.
Jim even got us an invite to Sunday-after-church drinks with a dozen of the chiefs of the Lulua, the largest and most powerful ethnic group in the western part of the Kasai. Among them was the relatively new chief of the Kamwina Nsapu, Jacques Kabeya Ntumba.
They all sat there drinking, laughing and carrying on, these men of rival families who had been pitted against one another during the uprising. The new KS chief (the one on the left in the flowered shirt in the video) insisted that the Peace Corps was actually just a cover for the CIA — that old trope! — and we had a good-humored debate about why that was not true.
Jim told me the best reporting on the uprising was by the French journalist Sonia Rolley.
Her on-the-ground investigative reporting during the uprising was remarkable. She put herself at great risk to tell the story: what provoked the uprising; who the players were; the consequences and aftermath of all that fruitless fighting.
If you want to learn more, I encourage you to read these two incredible pieces of reporting, though I also must warn you that they contain videos with extreme violence.
Kamwina Nsapu Violence: Chapter One (The Death of a Chief)
Kamwina Nsapu Violence: Chapter Two (The Army’s Response)
And here is an open-source Kamwina Nsapu Primer composed by Rolley.
Two Young UN Investigators Killed
So, back to why Caitlin could not go.
As Nick, Caitlin and I were now preparing for our second attempt to get to Congo with new airline tickets in hand in the spring of 2017, we learned two young UN investigators — American Michael Sharp and Swede Zaida Catalan — along with their Congolese interpreter had been killed.
The two were investigating the atrocities and had disappeared outside of Kananga on the same road that we take down to Kamponde. While it was initially reported that they drove into an ambush ordered by one of the militia chiefs, an investigation last year by Foreign Policy and other journalism outfits suggested Congolese authorities may have been involved in their murders in an attempt to prevent them from reporting on their misdeeds in the region.
I wrote about their murders in this Kickstarter update.
Second Trip Postponed
And that’s when I knew Caitlin would not accompany us on this journey.
As we were heading back from Kamponde to Kananga — now we’re in mid-September — our driver pointed to the area where Michael and Zaida’s bodies had been found, just on the southern side of the Moyo River bridge. I asked the driver to stop so that I could pay my respects.
Jim reminded me that moyo in the Tshiluba language not only means “hello,” but also “life.”
It was remarkable how many people asked me if I knew Michael and Zaida — they called them by their first names as if they knew them well. There was profound sadness that these young idealists who were trying to help them had been killed on their land.
One teacher from the area told me she prays for Michael and Zaida every day — and hopes they are resting in peace. She comes from the same village where the uprising first began.