By Arnaud Bertina
Congo- Pointe-Noire – AIS
French Newspaper l’Humanité, 11/16/2015
A referendum against which people had protested on Thursday, October 22, took place in the Republic of Congo on Sunday 25. The official assessment of the governmental repression (3 deaths in Brazzaville, only one in Pointe Noire) differed, as usual, from what was said in the streets. In the plane, I mentally explored that gap. In Europe, we are no longer used to this kind of violence. Everything is under control. We seldom die for having decided to take to the streets, in protest.
This was what occupied my mind while in a plane to Pointe Noire where I was going to spend two weeks, invited by an NGO that rescued “vulnerable adolescent girls”. Though I had a more or less a good understanding of the rules governing male-female relationships in France; though I knew more or less how amorous desire flowed, and the status of women in French society; though I also knew its fringes (violence, processes of domination, the role of prostitution), I was far from being able to draw from this knowledge what ruled male-female interactions in Congo. My previous stays in Africa only enabled me to appreciate one thing: my ignorance.
Actions for International Solidarity (AIS) is a small NGO founded in 1986. These “vulnerable adolescent girls” are minors who were approached by AIS mobile teams, persuaded to attend its daycare center in the Tié-Tié neighborhood, with their children (all ranging in age from 6 months to 4 years), in order to enroll in literacy classes or forums on health topics. The most determined among them can enter a program of professional development: after defining a project with the help of Center team members, they join various workshops (mechanics, welding, sewing, childcare, etc.).
It is one of them, Jeanne, who will meet with me when I go to Pointe Noire, at the other center managed by AIS. Under the leadership of Bernadette, five adolescent girls are learning to become self sufficient. Although they do not have to pay rent to be housed at the shelter, these five single mothers must prepare their meals and do the cleaning of the facility. Jeanne and I are leaning over a bowl in which we wash sorrel leaves, one by one, and subsequently boil them. The work is tedious, produces a meager output, but, by God, it is delicious! Jeanne is very happy to work in a welding workshop located within a part of the harbor managed by Bolloré. This trade, which employs so few women in Europe, is favored here by AIS because automobile repair shops and cars junk yards are legions in sub-Saharan Africa, where a car can always be fixed and almost never dies. By encouraging them to enter male-dominated professions, AIS distances these adolescent girls from the ultra violent domination rapport that prostitution induces. It leads them to a point of male-female equality that could be seen as the beginning of a revenge. According to Guy Obel Ahoue, the one in charge of the follow up on the girls who have been trained, the owners of these workshops do not seem unduly bothered by the feminization of their profession. (On the eve of my departure, I would find two hens attached by the kitchen brazier. A farewell dinner for me? “It is a gift to be given to the owner of the workshop where Reine Makaya will start her training tomorrow. Her dowery, in a way!”).
On that Saturday, I am to photograph Ordanie, one of the five young women living at the Shelter. Her beautiful face has eyes that stay focus on an imaginary point. This obliviousness to the meal being prepared and to the children laughing around, is too tempting to interpret when one knows that this NGO works to distance these young single mothers from “prostitution as a mean of survival” which leads them to loose themselves in bars without alcoves or bedrooms where they are exposed to the men who molest them; and leads them to endure it, hoping to escape their misery when, in fact, it ensures its perennity.
But, on Monday morning, suddenly the air becomes charged: Ordanie approaches, she clears the gate, a scarf covering part of her face, hiding very loosely what the other girls have already guessed: her lover’s beating – he is also her child’s father. Her right eye is so swollen that she can no longer open it. As a result, the other eye flies from one face to the next, displaying an uncertainty that resembles the fragile equilibrium of those who walk on one leg. This shaking increases the laugh of the other girls and, for awhile, as she is coming into the small courtyard faking having something urgent justifying her crossing it, she looks like a hunted animal – that “from underneath” glance of beaten dogs – beaten not with sticks but with insults. The lack of compassion chills me: “he is just being jealous; he didn’t want another man admiring you”, that from another beneficiary, Nancy, who springs out from under the awning. But Ordanie would not let herself be photographed – however, she does not protest, she does not collapse, weighed down by the “banderillas”; she could even give the impression that she could laugh, her lips quiver. A few hours later, I grilled Nancy: Ordanie is arguably the greatest teaser and they were just paying her back. But it is also that it is better to joke around that be crushed by sadness, and Ordanie comes first – “we must help her not to sink”. It is also that they are used to this kind of treatments. The streets are violent, they have a “lover” to protect them but, often, he is the one who beats them up; they hesitate to denounce them because they do not have the 10,000 Francs CFA to give to corrupt cops to file their complaints. Also, sending your lover to jail means no longer being protected, and, when he is your child’s father, no more financial help, even if it is a little nothing. Often, those who do file complaints withdraw them even faster – out of the thirteen cases of violence filed by AIS in 2015, not one guilty party went to prison.
Ordanie did go to the police station. With her parents. Among AIS beneficiaries, some of the girls do keep loose ties with their parents. But most of them are orphaned or have been shunned by their families. Taliane, for instance, had to drop out of school during her last year of high school, having been kicked out by her parents. Taliane told me a horrible story: how her father raped her repeatedly for three years; how, when she turned 15, she found a way to flee and seek shelter at her mother’s, but the new husband ended kicking her out because of the incest (see insert below).
[“I always thought that I was cursed after what happened a few years ago. The thought blackens my heart and weakens me sometimes. Flashing back on all these memories makes me faint. Should I talk about it? Maybe, but I don’t think it would lead to much since it is so rooted within me. Some things can be trivialized by the heart but not by your conscience. The heart is like a sieve, the most painful things stay put while the lesser ones filter through as if they had never existed. I can think that I will no longer think about it, but just thinking about not to think about it anymore makes me think about it. Difficult, perhaps impossible not to want to think about something that controls your being. I would love not to feel guilty and cursed by something I did not even understand, but that is slowly gnawing at me.” Taliane]