Sandlines: Beauty broken

Edward B. Rackley

Now back in Goma to continue work on these peace talks after a refreshing week in Dakar, on the other side of the continent. Marathon return journey via Bamako, Nairobi, Kigali, then Goma. I’m still in a zombie state—just like the Congolese who are forced to put up with this ni paix ni guerre situation as it drags on and on.

During the three years before national elections in 2006, we used to call Congo’s transitional government an Etat fantome because there was no administrative presence anywhere in the country outside the capital. Things haven’t changed much. Governance is deliberately centralized, with no devolution of power to the provinces—the Mobutu bras de fer model all over again. Yesterday in a closed door session with our group of international representatives to the peace talks, the Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping mission referred to us collectively as ‘a bunch of zombies’.

Whoa_2We march obediently to negotiation sessions, listen to infinite grievances and push for reasoned compromise, visit sulking rebel leaders when they storm out after some minor slight or infantile malentendu. All this zombie-like to and fro in the service of a consensus that no one—particularly the government—has the remotest intention of seriously entertaining or accepting. I had to laugh at the Force Commander’s exasperation: here we are, zombies controlled by phantoms. Hard to get less visceral than that.

But it’s true, we wander from one event to the next, trying to move molehills that the belligerents perceive as mountains. There’s little political will on any side of the conflict, meanwhile money is flowing hand over fist to keep the twenty-two armed groups at the negotiating table. Last night, a visiting ICC representative here to pressure rebel leaders under investigation (or already indicted but not yet arrested) mocked me, saying: “The peace talks are already over, didn’t they tell you?”

An email from home this morning put the dilemma simply: what if western powers just got out and let the cards fall where they may? Well, western powers did not start the war, nor does their departure figure among belligerent demands (contrary to, say, Iraq). But the spirit of the question merits response: why do international efforts to broker peace seem to fail in so many situations? ‘Seem to fail’ is the operative phrase here: the track record for African conflict over the last twenty years shows that perseverance pays a tidy dividend. Sudan, Angola, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, even the Congo itself have experienced peace after years of fitful negotiations supported and prodded by the international community. Congo’s eastern provinces will get there one day, I’m certain. The timeline is just longer, a lot longer, than western taxpayers or casual Africa observers are used to.

Stand proud

A colleague who’s been in the region since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide (he is now responsible for rounding up militant Hutu extremists and shipping them back to Rwanda) described the current situation with an historical anecdote from Herodotus. The story goes something like this: Representatives from an occupying power (Athens?) visit a newly conquered but recalcitrant state that refuses to pay tribute. The messengers say, “We are here with the most awesome of gods, ‘power’ and ‘force’, so you must obey and pay us tribute.” Receiving officials in the occupied land respond, “Oh, that’s nice, lucky you. We here are under two other gods, ‘poverty’ and ‘incapacity’.”

The vignette captures how rule of law and military might can be impotent before the inertia of destitution, dysfunction and incapacity. It also captures the inability of the international community to get anything done in Congo, particularly on this peace process. A toxic cynicism is always in the back of my mind; resistance strategies are required. I console myself with minor victories of a different sort.

Most progress here is so slow and glacially incremental, it is wholly impalpable to the short-term visitor. Having been involved with the place for twenty years, I’ve learned where to find signs of hope, of change. It is definitely not in the political realm, in deliberate freefall since I first arrived in 1988. But there is powerful transformation on the personal scale, in the rebuilding of individual broken lives, one by one, one day at a time.

I recently visited a rehabilitation center for child polio victims founded by another American, a long-time ‘Congomani’ a few years older than me, whom I’ve known for some time. Called ‘Debout et Fier’ (‘Stand Proud’), there are about ten such centers around the country. Polio continues to afflict children here because vaccination coverage is so poor. Handicapped children are usually kicked out of the house and become street urchins, and must beg to survive. The Debout et Fier center here in Goma houses about 45 kids from around the region who are either waiting for an operation or recovering from one, and learning to walk with braces and crutches instead of dragging themselves around on the ground ‘like a snake’, as they always describe it. Snakes are particularly despised, because feared, in Congolese culture.

Picture_003_2Because they’re Congolese kids, they are amazingly resilient, physically and psychologically. With proper meals, decent sleeping conditions and medical care, their recovery is quick. Also, because they are among equals, there is no shame or stigma, and learning erect mobility becomes child’s play, literally. Even before their surgical wounds heal, kids are struggling to stand in their new braces (made on site), hopping when stepping or walking doesn’t work. There are always makeshift footballs lying around the dusty compound, and whenever I visit the entire group is hopping around madly, chasing the football at which they swing their metal crutch poles. Laughing and sweating, entirely unconscious of their handicap, they’re regaining the mobility they’ve lacked all their lives.

Watching such a match at dusk the other day, the sun’s fading red light caught the dust thrown up by the footballers in front of me. I thought: if the price for this moment is all my personal frustration and anger at Congo’s political mess and its enormous cost to human development here, I am happy to pay.

What’s broken can’t be bought

Even out here in forsaken Goma, images from the Olympics can be had. Coverage is spotty and one cannot actually sit down and watch the Olympics, but visual impressions and reports are getting through in drips and drabs. Watching synchronized diving, or gymnastics, it’s obvious that the Olympic ideal is perfection of form as the pinnacle of beauty. Very few can achieve this ideal, hence the rarefied competition among elite athletes. Echoes of classical Greece are obvious, a vertical society despite its democratic pretensions. Cosmology can do that to a people.

The Olympics are tailored to this particular ideal of beauty as the rarefied perfection of form. No room for fractured beauty, obviously, as that would disqualify. Although pristine beauty is by definition more rare than fractured beauty, I tend to champion the latter because it’s more pedestrian, more democratic because accessible to all of us, if we open our eyes wide enough. I love cosmologies, but only for their literary value. It’s too late to actually believe in one. Fractured, democratic, horizontal: that’s where I’m most comfortable. Zeitgeist I guess.

Of course, fractured beauty abounds here in Goma. As my boss and I bounced along these terrible roads the other day, inhaling pounds of volcanic dust (always in the air) and diesel fumes blasting into the car from all the trucks lumbering by in the other direction, the boss mused that he felt like he was on a merry-go-round. Everybody’s on the narrow road at once, navigating enormous potholes as dozens of moto taxis blur past, honking constantly (think rickshaw madness in Delhi). The 360 degree view is just heads bobbing up and down, some buzzing past, others slow or stationary–pedestrians lost in the melee.

So instead of being overwhelmed by the oozing human morass of it all and thinking cynical thoughts about Congo’s prospects for progress, my boss slips into childhood reverie and comes up with the merry-go-round comment. A kindred soul, I thought: he appreciates fractured beauty too. Goma’s inexhaustible abundance: broken beauty, and the possibilities of redemption. While I appreciate the objective criteria that allow for judgments of Olympian beauty and that raise it above mere opinion or taste, I’ll defend ‘spurious’ or broken beauty any day. First, it’s often accidental, and thus available to everyone. It generally has little or no economic value, and so resists commoditization and the clutches of elitists (notice how contemporary art is the new ‘hedge’?). The human pathos contained in a football match between recuperating polio victims is the perfect antithesis of a Jeff Koons poodle, brilliant critic of the art world though he is.

So the first thing I’ll do when I get off this merry-go-round and make it home: ride my beloved bikes, then open a book of Borges stories and sit by the sea. Nothing could be more pristine … or fleetingly beautiful.