How do you describe Bukavu and Panzi District to someone who has never seen it?
I often think about how to do this as I am always asked this question. Like all places in this world it is many avenues of life and culture and society trying to mix into a single functioning space. The media tend to give us a headline and a color and a theme and a singular picture of what any given place represents, often trying to put a box around a city or a country for simplicity's sake. But like all localities there are no boundaries that contain the essence of what a city represents and certainly no distinct edges of the culture.
Like all places we call home in this world it simply continues in all directions changing as it expands and layers across the land. Yet in most ways that matter the world looks remarkably the same when you stop and look around. Despite the colors and codes, the fabrics and languages, the faces and music and weather, it reminds you of everyplace you have ever been because it is really just that - someone's hometown - just as you always knew it might be.
Perhaps more than most places, Bukavu and Panzi district are an astounding mix of eons. There are women beside the E5 (the national southern highway - a dirt road) burning wood to make charcoal for sale. They pull the charcoal out of the small fires by hand and separate it into various sizes for the braziers and brick ovens that have produced food for thousands of years. They do this as large tall trucks full of laborers and materials rumble by on the road only a few feet away, and while women with unimaginable loads on their heads weave around the people and traffic, never stopping and walking with a grace that is unfathomable in the dirt and mud and endless mass of humanity.
Hundreds of motorcycles taxis weave in and out of the ceaseless congestion of vehicles and people. Without touching anything they stop for only a few seconds to let someone off and pick someone else up. As much as anything they fashion a statement about Congo in their perpetual movement and their alarming capacity for near-misses and ingenuity in transporting life to and fro. There is something both unnerving and wonderful about three or four children in white shirts and plaid skirts or blue pants on a single motorcycle headed for school. They cling to the pilot and each other and are laughing and charming as children everywhere are. These are the yellow school buses of Bukavu in its maroon GLX motorcycle costume. It is the same and it is remarkably different, just like Congo itself.
Eastern Congo is a timeline of life in Africa, well, everywhere really. The timeliness of activity set against a city that was built by the Belgians and then abandoned to Africa in the 60s can be jarring, but also produces a rhythm of activity that is so basic to our development as a species that is simply fits into your consciousness when there is no apparent reason it should do so. Simply put, time is not linear here. It is woven together in a quilt of many layers of civilization that is far more three-dimensional than the two-dimensional timelines that Western society is built upon. You don't so much as walk in Congo as float through its existence looking for a frame of reference.
I am proud of our efforts and successes at Panzi. Our programs at Maison Dorcas help the women make a new life for themselves and their children. Their fortitude in seeking a new life each day is an example of an inner strength that is sometimes hard to comprehend. When we look for hope in ourselves and for others we should think of the women and children at the many hospitals in the many lands who never, ever give up. Can we do less than that?