Trying to Matter
This is where I learned to swim:
The pool is filled with algae because it was abandoned; it was abandoned because of war.
I didn’t experience this war; when my family moved to Nyankunde, Zaire (now DR Congo), it was 1987, and I was four years old. My parents had a teaching assignment, and we stayed for 10 months.
I was nineteen when the email arrived: “Wearing crowns of leaves and screaming war cries… tribal fighters overran a mission hospital in Nyankunde, killing patients as they lay in their beds.” I had spent the rest of my childhood in a small, quiet town in rural Saskatchewan.
It feels strange to have a connection, however tenuous, to such unspeakable horrors. “During the massacre, militiamen would open up the belly of their victims and eat something directly from within the body.” It’s not something one forgets.
In Nyankunde we had a black cat, Rascal Snoopy Jack Huebert. (My brother and sister and I each got to pick one name; mine was Jack.) When he got scared, he’d race into the fireplace and up to a hidden ledge inside the chimney. Sometimes we chased him there on purpose. He could stay up there for hours. “Through an open window, he saw dozens of women and children running toward the Congo mission compound from fields where they had been working since daybreak. Behind them were about 7,000 soldiers. Kakani closed windows and barricaded the intensive-care ward. Patients who could move were hidden under beds and in rafters… Hospital staff laid many on the floor to keep them safely away from stray bullets that peppered walls and windows.”
I remember my first baseball game. I hit the ball, and forgot what to do. People were shouting directions but I couldn’t understand and then suddenly I was already out, someone had thrown the ball to first base. I had to walk off the field. I was crying and felt stupid. “Despite their efforts, the Ngiti went through the 250-bed hospital, killing in their beds all patients who resembled Hemas. The dead included ‘elderly, disabled, adults, and even a baby strapped to his mother’s back.’”
One time, our night watchman killed a snake outside the house in the middle of the night. He pounded it into the ground with a big stick. I was asleep. The rest of my family talked about the snake at breakfast. They had woken up and got to see it. I was disappointed I’d missed something so exciting. “After the massacre at the hospital, soldiers then went from house to house looking for anyone of Hema descent; often slitting their throats and throwing their bodies outside on the ground.”
At night it was pitch black, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The insects were loud. I don’t remember being scared though. My parents were there and I felt safe with them. “Any remaining Hema man, woman or child, found hiding in houses or in the hospital were rounded up. They were stripped of their clothes, had their elbows tied behind their back and marched to a large house in the middle of the compound and then shut in.”
Sometimes a man would come by to sell warm goat’s milk from a rusty pot attached to his bicycle. But we ate porridge for breakfast, with powdered milk. I didn’t like milk anymore after living in Africa. “Soldiers would enter and mock the crowd who were pleading for water. They were given empty cups to drink their own urine. The soldiers told the imprisoned that ‘this was their death chamber and they were to suffer a slow and agonizing death, but surely all would die.’”
My best friend was Rachael. We played together all the time. We were the same age and my mom taught us kindergarten together. One day my brother teased me about her. I got mad at him. I thought he was the one who invented making fun of boys for being friends with girls. Before that we didn’t care, we just played together. We pretended that broomsticks were horses and galloped across the yard with them between our legs. “Survivors said the attackers were from the Ngiti and Lendu tribes, along with other allies. They killed people from the Bira, Hema and 16 other tribes living in Nyankunde.”
There was a big coconut tree on the yard and sometimes you could watch men climb it. We had a servant who would cut the grass by hand, swinging a machete. The grass made you itchy if you rolled in it. I wanted my own machete. “The attackers used rifles, machetes, knives, spears and arrows, said Kakani, head nurse in the intensive care ward… The modern, well-equipped hospital was left a burned-out shell, stripped of everything.”
I remember climbing up the big hill that overlooks Nyankunde, watching tall elephant grass for snakes. On the way down, I tripped and fell into a green and mushy cowpie. It made me cry. My mom and dad helped wipe it off, and we kept walking. “Their houses were emptied of belongings which were carried on the heads of Ngiti militiamen, across the hills to their distant villages… the line of people carrying away their belongings was like ‘a stream of ants going across the valley and over the hill.’”
I remember stepping on snails to hear the crushing sound of the shell and the squishing of the insides. I remember when I tried to climb a tree and a branch snapped, and white milky stuff oozed out, and I felt bad. I remember one time, I found a penny on a dirt road. “Among the dead was the mother of little Baraka Safari. She was killed two days after giving birth to the boy, who was found crying beside his mother’s body, survivors said. He was given a Kiswahili name that means ‘fortunate journey’ by those who carried him the 93 miles to Oicha.”
We visited Europe for three weeks on our way back to Canada. I remember sleeping in a chalet in the Swiss Alps and hearing cowbells and watching a hang-glider in the sky. There were yellow flowers in the meadow. The ceiling in the chalet was slanted. I had a featherbed blanket, it felt like four feet thick. Cozy. “Hospital workers and patients fled into the jungle, eventually making their way through a rainforest to a sister hospital in Oicha over 100 miles away. They lived off rainwater and sugarcane during a trek that took nearly two weeks.”
Twenty-three years since I learned how to swim in that pool, nine since the massacre. It hasn’t been obvious what to learn from it all. I am a tiny sliver of a whole that I cannot comprehend, one seven-billionth of humanity, sharing with Nyankunde a delicate slice of history. The Nyankunde massacre was a small blip in a war which has killed over five million people. It’s disorienting to think about and usually I don’t. Usually, if it occurs to me at all, I just stare at myself in the mirror and don’t know what to say.
But even when thoughts remain silent or confused, I’m still left with a persistent inner tug.
It isn’t verbal, and it doesn’t come with instructions, but all the same, it’s a hard feeling to ignore. When I’m reading the news, or fixing a software bug, or designing a logo, or writing an email, the questions return…
Does this really matter?
I rarely have answers. I try to make sense of my actions, to visualize their consequence in the world, but paths of cause and effect are complex, my vision is limited, and no matter how much any of us learn, much of the world is inherently unpredictable.
So the most I can ever really say I’m doing, is trying.