In a place — geographically, mentally, physically — where everything is guided by violence, international humanitarian aid organisations seem to do little more than catalogue, file and ultimately silence the voices of those most affected. Writing with unrestrained anger and deep sadness, Joséphine Imani’s* job application cover letter, addressed to the humanitarian aid industry, challenges this anaesthetisation and delivers a searing critique of how common humanity and revolutionary aspiration are co-opted and ultimately destroyed under the banner of humanitarianism.
The time of brutality is past,
The victim is anonymous, banal
The victim… in all truth… is
Mahmoud Darwish, State of Siege
Excuse, if you will, the style and the form of my letter. I have never written a cover letter before. With the increase of political, military, seismic, social, terrestrial, human and magmatic bombardments of this city, to name a few, the whole world has begun to do humanitarian work, without pausing to question their motivations, without trying to understand the spontaneity of their gestures. This is not about having a heart, not about having a choice. People who remain standing on two legs help those whose legs were blasted by soldiers’ deadly weapons.
In the beginning, that role fell to me, seeing as my legs were still in place, still moved one in front of another. It was an ordinary night, quiet except for the breath of the volcanoes, punctuated with our own soft sighs, when two bombs fell in our neighbourhood. The earth trembled and I said my prayers. At the second tremor, which groaned like thunder, we all left the table and my mother, who understood that our mountains were no match for the cries that rumbled from Rwanda, hid us under our beds, like we had done during each skirmish in the city. Me, I slept, soundly because of the silence that followed. Usually, the bullets didn’t miss their chance to rattle their response to the bombs. That night they were quiet. Maybe they felt the same fear we did. In the morning, when we stepped out, the neighbourhood was demolished. A lot of people, it seemed, had staved off death, waiting for dawn to bring salvation. The Red Cross wasn’t enough. They needed my hands. I still had my legs, so I offered them. Time and time again. I gave both my arms, both my legs and then my whole body. Since I was 16 I have done nothing else.
I got my first official post, dear Sir, a short time after Soni, my lover, died on a humanitarian mission to Somalia. I was still angry with the humanitarian sector, which had taken what I had not yet had a chance to give: love, Sir, love! But even love, in this city, is an act of war. The soldiers plant their seeds in the calabash fields from which this city flows, thick and sweet like banana wine, the very ferment that births this city, its souls, its drunkenness, its trickery, its joys, its kindness, its madness and its hopes. My job was to register the files of women and the young girls that had been so soiled by the lusts of war. It was a mechanical process. I worked with a colleague I couldn’t stand, although I’m not sure why I hated him. Together, we registered them, then booked them to be sewn up by a surgeon, followed by a psychological evaluation and counselling, then finally social reintegration. All day long, I saw them languish on the lawn through a window – a view as perverse as those of all the office windows. I peeped, like a mischievous child, so I could put a face to the records that had brought them to our lawn, where their eyes drooped beneath the ceaseless sun – resistant, and obstinate, pissing and shitting on their foreheads. These women were the papers on my desk, Sir. I could not escape them. I saw them in everything. In the morning, I saw their sundered sexes in the delicate porcelain lips of my tea cup. This gave the beverage a bland taste, like paper one rips out of one’s notebook and then chews on without conviction.
I am a reasonable person. On a day more ordinary than the one before, the radio announced that the combatants were so horny that they unleashed a flood, that soon grew into an immense sperm lagoon, swelling before breaking its banks and raining down on the inhabitants of a backwoods village whose name didn’t ring a bell to those who, like me, only knew the closed-off geography of the Kivu. The soldiers, during those thousand minutes that weren’t minutes, although they had an approximately eternal stench, almost managed to impregnate all the village’s women. Have you, dear Sir, seen the aftermath? The red suns leaking rays of blood on a horizon broken by a torrent of sperm? Or the missing children, those kids we loved and for whom we grieved? Kids who come back, hearts blackened by the residue of gunpowder and minds shattered by the bullets shot from the boiling barrels of their smoking rifles? Like the flowers of black-eyed peas, dear Sir, do you know them? Wild runner-bean flowers, yesterday announcing riches, harvest to come, now rotten with blight, smiting the eyes of their mothers with compost and ejaculate? Your two eyes, the soldiers say with their downcast eyes, your eyes are worth two of my hot bullets… hot like the allure of your heavy thighs – thighs that birthed them and now cradle them, braving the cutting cold of the hills for their comfort. You will hold us in the warm embrace of your legs mama, they say, or we will shoot your eyes out. I have seen it with my own eyes, Sir, it’s in the files, the papers of the women I register every day for humanitarian aid. The hymen, Sir, is also paper. I know, Sir, I file it away. Paper dreams, too easily torn and destroyed. You know it, Sir, the nights when the streets, barely visible, glisten with blood and sperm? Not me. I didn’t see anything, nothing but paper.
My daughter is spending a weekend with my parents. She is four years old, a child I had with my lover, who was sent by the humanitarians to put his life and our dreams in the blades of the Shebabs. I called her Paris, after placing the magic of my memories in her eyes and the fervour of my warped illusions in the tears I shed on the crumbling stones, the wounded parents of the sand where Soni’s heart rid itself of me. I, in turn, was rid of this child. At birth, she had cried her first cries, and I had not smiled. Well, I eventually smiled, but it was through tears for Soni, my lover, who died while planting a smile in the blind presence of desert hurricanes.
Soni had a Canadian passport. But he called himself a “citizen of nowhere” so that, he argued, the world, wet and drowning in the sweat of fear of the other, could come to recognise the illusion of borders. He was African, Asian, European. He was a son of the oceans, so much so that people reached out to ask him to live there or to live where they nested their fears of being found alone, to be everything, to be nothing, to not be… He was from Kinshasa, but I found the climate too horribly humid. There, the sun poured hot rays on the land and boiled the water that rose into the air like tears.
I didn’t love Soni’s tears for his country of birth. To me, he was Parisian. He always recalled being happy in Paris, in love and madness. We had the ambition to save more lives out in the world, in so doing to save the world itself, before taking the escape chute to the Paris lights, “because Paris,” Soni whispered to me, “is humid. Steamy, too, on the joyful lips where lovers inked their poets’ quills throughout the centuries.” When she was born, I called my daughter Paris, so as to light in her expression that same gleam, the same candour that made Soni an exceptional man. My parents were very happy, as if they were always going to be happy all along, following the tornado of the first months of a pregnancy that they found indecent. One can’t predict life. When it blooms, we dance, that’s all.
During the night that I spent all alone, the papers, Sir, twisted my sleep with awful origami that clumsily imitated the women seated on an ochre lawn, with a contemptible sun leaking heavy, syphilitic rays of light on their foreheads. I startled awake, cutting off the tail of my dream, and I thought of the insomniac papers that grew agitated in the blackness of my drawers. The papers themselves slept feverishly, dreaming of a new abdomen, of a sex which doesn’t weep, a sex washed with a douche powerful enough to exorcise the demons who came from the dark depth, sombre and rotten, from the canyons and the coltan mines. The papers, dear Sir, were people, women of flesh, of biology and rumpled dignity, and dreams of convalescence, and of an always standing heart beyond our invention.
My second evening without Paris, I was in the office with my colleague, the one that shares the chaos of the papers screaming their multiple desires or their resignation on my desk. The one I detest, for no reason: he isn’t disgusting, he isn’t unpleasant, or sycophantic. He is a brilliant boy whose smell permeates the fiction of the papers. During the day, he was too nice for my taste, too gallant with the papers. The one woman authorised to come back into the office (who represents a group of ten others who waited on the lawn) found me deep in conversation, instant messaging on Facebook. I chatted for a moment. I smiled at the responses of my girlfriends or the jokes of an idiot trying to flirt with me online. The woman, face hidden by the screen in the manner of one of Picasso’s playful brushstrokes, caused each of my smiles. She reacted to the slightest grin. I decided to make her really smile, without doubt for the sake of protocol, without doubt for feminine solidarity, without doubt to break the discomfort, to fill the time that I was wasting. My colleague arrived, bringing his masculine halo and his gallantry – or rightly, his acute sense of protocol and duty – right at this smiling moment. The woman continued to smile, embarrassed as well, not knowing in which of us two to confide her life and the dreams of nine others who offended the sun on the lawn. I had had enough. I put the forms that I had filled out into my bag and stood to exit with such hysteria that the woman, like my colleague, grew afraid. I thought about leaving for good, because the Somalian desert was, at all times, blowing its sands across my heart.
My colleague accompanied me out of the door. We ended up in a café where the music first irritated, then finally angered me. A singer with a voice like a poorly tuned instrument responded to what might have been a guitar. It was demeaning, immersing my love’s sorrows in the tuneless music that accompanied the drunkenness of the boozers, whose heads swayed and who poured frothy beer on their clothes.
Obscured by the half-light of corrupted bulbs, everyone looked like lizards. Two men, one neat in a vest of raucous colour, the other bothersome, who had to be a warehouse unpacker, made mean comments about the village women’s new hairdos. They laughed heartily at the supposed tortures that women inflict on themselves to be beautiful; were indignant at what they qualified as the “white people’s monkeying around”. A third man, with a huge pair of lips chapped and whitened around the edges, said that our hair extensions were torn away from young women in India, so that we would be beautiful. In a voice that betrayed a respiratory illness, he added that in two shops out of three, it was plastic that we bought rather than hair, and that made us sick. I wanted to laugh at their obstinacy – not smelling the stifling odour of putrefaction that flagrantly emanated from their armpits.
My colleague and I sat in silence and ate the grilled breast of a goat. He said, while chewing, that it was sobering. I think I drank a lot because of the pili-pili pepper. He was the one that sobered up. That night, I wanted to completely immerse myself, to drown my sorrows in the sands of Somalia that, with thunderstorms and hurricanes, drew Soni’s torment close to my heart, paralysing my life. I had cried my eyes out by the end of the kwanga I was eating. Soon, the voices of other singers bellowed in my ears. Their breathing stamped itself on my face, forced my eyes closed. Although they all sang of love, their voices were strained, strangled like our city, our whole society choking, so I felt as if I had been turned inside out. I continued to cry behind my kwanga.
My colleague wanted to change bars, so we walked until we found more agreeable music. I poured the freshness of a beer over the heat of my humiliating grief. My colleague said nothing about my sudden weakness. He saw it as an opportunity. It’s what all boys do, when they have a twisted idea in their heads. I opened myself up to his tricks. It was the time of night when I wanted to be crazy.
The papers stayed silent, while I got more and more agitated. I dropped my bag on the edge of a dance floor where I arrived without the slightest awareness. Had I danced from the bar to its swarming edge? My bag tipped over. The papers ran in every direction. The women I had brought with me spread across the lacquered floor. There were two little girls. One of four years, the other of seven. They had been registered in school at the same time as an old woman whose paper came back for the third time in a little under two years. They tried to escape from the numerous partying feet that trampled them. I dropped to the floor, whacking the shoes of those that danced on them. The barman and all the revellers, scared or angry, claimed that I was babbling, drunk and delirious. We were shown the door. My colleague asked if I was okay. He asked why I had the records of the raped women on me so late, on me at all. Conquered by the night that promised to let him follow through on his twisted little idea, he wanted to know if I wanted another beer. This night in particular, I wanted nothing but madness.
The laugh that finally woke me up the next morning was a lash for my frivolities of the previous evening. Paris had come back. I was hung over. My mother still slept, having found me, as she would say later, in a dirty state. Paris played. Paris had cut up the papers. Paris had made dolls. I believe that I hit her immediately. I had recognised the record of the little four-year-old girl whom I had started to think about, Sir, that she must be operated on as early in the week as possible. Paris cried. All the records were there. They were little gentlemen with open arms. Paris had given them eyes, a nose, hair, and a smiling mouth with my lipstick on their lips. I yelled, Sir. I believe that I yelled. Louder than the protests of my mother. I thought of the office, Sir, not of the people for whom it coordinated dreams and refurbished the future. I reproached my daughter for the same weakness that had inspired the gravelly voices of the singers behind my piece of kwanga. I hit her. The papers died, Sir. Under my daughter’s little hands, painted poorly with my lipstick. I hit her. I didn’t see anything but my lipstick.
The papers are people, Sir. Paris played with the little four-year-old girl, who was just like her, and that, I didn’t understand. She gave her smile to all the papers and that, too, I don’t understand. My daughter is dead, Sir. I have never told that to anyone. Never to myself. After her burial, I burned her birthday photos, her dresses, her games, her dolls, her teddy bears, her access card for the cafeteria, her death certificate, her birth certificate. I have nothing left of her save the gentlemen with their open arms, the gentlemen too small to be able to hold me in their arms, the gentlemen whose smiling faces she smudged, preserving my lipstick.
What have I given since then, dear Sir, but given to the papers? I don’t give myself anymore. I give something more than myself: love, Sir… love!
*translated by Emma Fredgant
This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.
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