After I left Congo for the second time and returned to Rwanda, the hours, days, months seemed to slide like water through my hands. Every day was the same - blue sky, brilliant sun, rain in the afternoon. Eternal summer, slow, unrelenting and intrepid, without the breath of autumn chasing at its heels. Somewhere in those lost summer days, I stopped paying attention. I began to let things happen as if they were happening to someone else. Memories are a gray river with small glimpses of color tumbling past, around a bend and out of sight. Standing on someone’s crowded porch listening to a former army soldier who lost a friend in Iraq tell me how he was certain that American marines were training the Rwandan army on the border of DRC so that they could take over the mines. A weekend trip into Mount Mikeno with friends and Congolese rangers, walking through a vicious ant mound by mistake, our guides telling us to run and everyone tearing off their clothes afterwards trying to get the biting things off. The gorillas were beautiful and majestic and as a fine mist poured down through the trees, the light was gray and green filtered through thick leaves and I was in awe. A large silverback grunted and indicated for the group to move out, away, and we didn’t follow anymore. The rain poured down and I ran and slid my way back down the mountain on trails that were really just muddy paths over piles of thick vines and branches. We weren’t walking on the ground at all. That night I fell asleep in my tent to the sound of people laughing and talking around a fire nearby, at the base of the mountain. One of the few nights when sleep came easy.
There are darker pieces of memory that float up from that time. Arguments, usually long-distance by phone with the man I was in a relationship with. I broke up with him often and then days later, would recant. Those things are easy to forget because they seemed melodramatic, even at the time. A way of feeling something when the days were running together, crowding each other, making it difficult to tell them apart. At the end of that gray river all of the water rushed out and I was standing at the edge of the falls and I could follow that water down or I could walk away. I never thought that I would walk away. My whole life, the big dream was to travel, do something that would make a difference, and write. From the time that I was in college and had my first opportunity to cross the ocean, until this point, I had always said yes to opportunities like this. I was offered a job as the Programs Director for the non-profit I worked for in Goma. This position would have given me the chance to mold and shape programs in eastern DRC for the organization. By then we had a 10 year Title II USAID project starting in South Kivu and programs in the north as well. It would have been the kind of work that mattered to me and I am still stunned that I said no. I have left behind family, friends, boyfriends, dogs, and trucks in order to travel. There has never been a single thing that could keep me from getting on a plane, anytime I had the chance. But suddenly and unexpectedly, the idea of a home and quiet and the smell of rain became the thing I wanted more. Touching down in DC that time, for what I thought might be the last time, there was a new and strange sense of relief.
Driving from the airport through eastern Maryland along Route 40 I came across a small valley. It was intensely green against the gray sky and a white blanket of fog hung several feet off the ground in mid-air. As I drove through it, the car was shrouded in soft layers. They say that ghosts inhabit such places. Rolling down the window, I breathed in the smell of her. The smell of earth and smoke and rain. Celeste. In the quiet places where I would try to make a home, I would think of her often. I would tell myself that I had an obligation to do something now. I had to try to find redemption if possible.
In the months that followed, I spent time in West Virginia and then in New Mexico. The feeling of relief that accompanied my first weeks at home gradually wore off and I began to miss my work, the chaos and my friends. It was only a few months before I was back on a plane crossing the ocean again. In the interim I got married. Then he got a job in Uganda and I began to travel back and forth, many times alone, five weeks there, five weeks at home. It was a strange feeling. Having one foot on each continent. I didn't like it. I felt divided because I had a job with a nonprofit at home, but I was also trying to find something useful to do in Uganda. By the time I would have started to adjust and get to know people, I would have to leave. The gap made me feel as if I was always starting over. In Kampala I spent time talking to local artists, digging through artwork, finding out who local painters were and wondering how I could connect them with the art world in New Mexico. One artist took me all over the city in an afternoon, down sidewalks, behind buildings, into places I wouldn't have found on my own. Meanwhile he told me how he discovered art as therapy, how it filled that space that otherwise would have been filled with darkness. I met a taxi driver who told me that he was putting his sister through school with the money he made. Talking in English without a translator, I could ask so many more questions than I could have in Congo and even Rwanda. He told me that people could tell what tribe he was from just from the way that he spoke Luganda – that even if you wanted to, you couldn't pretend to be anything other than what you are. He told me that he fed a stray cat every night outside of the room he rented, that he saved small pieces of meat for her.
I had a lot of free time in Uganda. In that space of time, I read. I was obsessed for a time, with reading about war and how different people react to it. How we participate or ignore, how far removed we are from it in the US. I read The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, War by Sebastian Junger, Where Men Win Glory about Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer. I watched The Hurt Locker. I've always thought that humanitarian workers and soldiers were at opposite ends of the spectrum. I never understood what would motivate someone to enlist to kill people. Reading these books made me see things very differently. I saw that many people who enlist are trying to escape poverty, crime-filled neighborhoods, a bad family life. Many aren't thinking about the people they might have to kill. When they are taken into places like Afghanistan and Iraq, into surreal situations that pit people who have more in common with each other than they would ever imagine, against each other, the result is death, loss, suffering. War makes no sense at all. The way things are on the ground and the way that it is interpreted by the media and politicians is completely different. I read how conflicted many soldiers were about what their mission was, and what they had to do. Some were horrified when they found out that their fellow soldiers had ransacked Iraqi homes and left children’s clothing, books and food items strewn on the floor after home searches. Others were angry because they had lost friends and wanted revenge on anyone they perceived to be on the other side. Just like humanitarian workers some started out on one side of things and ended up on the other. Some started out super-patriotic only to realize that they had been sold a pack of lies by their government. Some humanitarians start out believing they genuinely care for the people they are serving only to find out later that they actually don’t. This is all human nature, the good and the evil ways of reacting to stressful situations.
Perhaps what fascinated me most were the accounts of a few soldiers who said that they only felt truly alive when they were out there, with a gun, in the middle of a firefight, laying down next to a fellow soldier, not sure if they would live or die. Adrenaline of a kind much more intense then rock climbing, running marathons or sky diving. These men wrote that coming back home was impossible. Everything here was monochromatic and only when they were a thousand miles away and in mortal danger, did the world grow brighter. There is some small part of this that resonates for me. The most dangerous place in the world that I have ever lived in was Goma and it is also the place I felt most intensely alive. When I think of Goma I think of color and music and energy and survival and it is not because this is the only place where these things exist, it is simply the only place that made me pay such close attention. There is something about knowing on a gut level that each day could be your last, that lends weight to moments you might have overlooked otherwise, that makes every interaction more significant. Now that I am back at home, in a quiet place, I often feel as if I am only half-alive and half-awake. I try focus on the moment, to really see the beauty in this place but it is sometimes a struggle. I came back from Congo so used to listening for the sound gunfire at night, shots ricocheting off rock walls, that I would practically dive under a table when the neighbors set off fireworks. When I spent months alone in my new home in New Mexico, I would sometimes drive to the parking lot of the hospital down the road in the middle of the night, park near the emergency room, and just sit for hours because the house, the street, was all too quiet and the sound of the house settling, or tree branches scraping the side of house was completely unnerving. Still, I know that if I had the chance, I would go back, commit to another year or two, to be in that insane stressful place, working with people who are so incredibly brave that I just want everyone in this country to have the honor of seeing their faces and hearing their stories so that we will all know what true courage is. But then the lights come on and I remember my responsibilities here. I remember that leaving has always been the easiest thing and staying in one place the hardest. So I close the pages of job searches in central Africa. I tell myself that the restlessness will pass, that there is such a thing as home and that most people find it comforting. That every time I hear about the fighting in Congo, I don’t have to be the one to go there, that I can do my part here. That my mother needs me to visit her more. That I would have been miserable if I had chosen to stay alone over there. That I will eventually find people here that I can actually have a conversation with. That I should make an effort to get to know the neighbors. That the best most inspiring people I have known in my life are not just the ones I met over there. And I half believe these things.