Yesterday I had to fill out a form to start scheduling my flights home. In only four weeks I leave here – and the sudden realization made me quite sad. As challenging as my time here has been, it has also been so valuable. I have made more mistakes here than I have probably ever made in my life, but I have also learned more in the last six months than I have in a long time. In knowing that I am leaving soon, even the chaotic moments seem precious.
The other day our cook, a wonderful man who always seems so worldly to me despite the fact that he has never left little Dingila, asked me, with wild eyes, if there is such a thing as a million-dollar US bill. I told him that I had no idea and that even if there was, I would never have the occasion of seeing such a thing in my life.
He told me, with the excitement of a child at Christmas, that he bought a pair of used pants the other day and there was a million-dollar US bill in the pocket. He unfolded many pieces of precious cloth, and there, carefully folded and guarded within was a million-dollar bill from an American children’s game. To me it was so clear that it was a toy bill, that some child had been playing a game, shoved the money in his pocket – and then at some point the pants were given to an organization that sends used clothes to Africa. But to our cook, the million dollar bill had meant a world of dreams. At first I wanted to ask him what he had dreamt of, but then I stopped. The answer seemed too impossible and too painful to face.
Two days later I asked him what he had done with the money, and he pulled it out of his pocket, still very carefully folded and protected. He said, “I keep it in my pocket to remind me of what could be.” And now, every time I see him, knowing that the bill is so neatly folded in his pocket, I am also reminded of what could be.
So there is what could be, and what is.
Today I was at the hospital, and I ran into a man who had been a driver for MSF during the vaccination campaign. I had not seen him in a while, so I asked where he had been. He told me that he had just come back from driving his dirtbike the 300 kilometres to a village where his sister had been kidnapped by the LRA a year ago.
While she was with the Lord’s Resistance Army, she had fallen seriously ill, had been severely beaten and had been left for the dead. She managed to finally make her way out of the jungle to find someone to help her, and the person took her to a nearby village. For a number of months the driver had wanted to retrieve his sister from the village, but the ‘road’ to the village had not been safe enough for travel.
The driver said that the road still wasn’t very safe, and along the road they encountered numerous stories of people who had been attacked. I looked at the young woman – 20 years old at the most – and this young man willing to risk his life to find his sister. The priorities in life seemed so clear, and I thought of our cook. The fake million-dollar bill with so many dreams attached will never bring to life the priceless dream of most people here: safety and the end of fear.
Tricia Newport is a nurse who lives in Whitehorse. This is the fifth in a series of dispatches from Congo.