Yesterday I went out on the food distribution, our first. We got lost, somehow, driving the minivan over the rough farm paths of Lac Vert. Other NGOs have Land Cruisers and Range Rovers with flags and big radio antennas; we creep along in our minivan, a piece of paper with the logo printed on it taped to the window. We are the soccer moms of Goma. But (and donors, please pay attention) the minivan rents for a third less, holds more people and burns less fuel.
Caritas and WFP were in charge of the distribution, and they are delighted to see us. The site is roped off with the thinnest of twine. On the other side are thousands of people, looking in grim-faced, waiting for their turn to enter the distribution zone, for their chance to eat. Just inside the twine was a mid-sized truck; workers carried 50 kilo sacks of wheat flour and stacked them next to the wall of a school — three high, five deep and 15 across. The workers are already covered in flour dust and look like bakers coming from a chaotic kitchen. I snap pictures and soon I have flour on my pants, shirt, face. I'm a baker, too, perhaps.
There are smaller sacks of beans — lentils, I think. And white plastic jugs of cooking oil. Each person receives 20 kilos of flour, 6 kilos of beans, a third of a jug of cooking oil and 5 grams of salt. To speed the activity inside the distribution zone, people are formed into groups of 15. Each group carts 6 bags of flour, two bags of beans, five jugs of oil, and then they leave the exit point and divide the goods. Most do so methodically, peacefully. But, inevitably, a few groups break into arguments. My share is short! You're cheating me! You bastard!! I saw a man in a wheelchair flailing with his arms at another man, and the man striking back. Another group was squared off, two men chest to chest, two woman gesturing wildly, screaming. But these are the exceptions. Some 2,500 families received 10 days of food rations — that's about 167 groups of 15 — and I saw two arguments. Statistically, not too bad.
Inevitably, human dramas come our way. An old woman has lost her food coupon, which you get when you register as an IDP. She kept trying to talk to each of us in succession, looking at us helplessly, hoping someone would give her a better answer. She was 70 or so, my mom's age. She seemed utterly alone.
A few minutes later a woman of 30, tall and dressed sharply in a colorful dress and matching head scarf, came to us, in tears, literally shaking. She's lost her baby. Cannot find him anywhere. I call Fernand over, ask him to translate French into Swahili.
Boy or girl? Boy.
Age? Less than one.
Wearing? A black t-shirt?
Last seen where, when? Right there, just out side the exit point. 15 minutes ago.
How did he disappear? I was dividing my food. He disappeared.
Where was he when you were dividing? I handed him to a boy.
Describe him? About 9, wearing a beige t-shirt.
Do you know him? No, I had never seen him before.
Your boy's name? Espoir — Hope.
I ask Fernand to get one of the Caritas bullhorns. We leave the distribution zone and walk around — me, Fernand and the woman, now more hysterical, beside herself with grief. For 15 minutes we walk through the IDP site, Fernand explaining the situation, asking if anyone has seen the baby. I think about all the police dramas I've watched — the first few hours are the most critical. Does that even matter here? Who would steal a baby in a IDP camp? Who would want one more mouth to feed? But then, if you've lost a baby … maybe you want one back.
It's hot, and getting hotter. We walk up to the road, past the UNICEF tent. The tanker for the water distribution is pulling in off the main road. We jump out of the way. Kids trail after us, some wanting to help, some seeming to laugh at the woman. Other women shout out advice, look concerned, shake their heads solemnly. I wonder if my presence will help or hurt? Do I project some authority that will aid in the return? Or will people think, hey, this baby might be worth something. The foreigner will surely pay for its return!
I start to wonder, just a bit, if the woman is slightly mad. Perhaps there is no baby. Finally, Fernand suggests that we go back where the boy disappeared and wait. Surely, the other boy will return the child there. We head back, slipping inside the twine barrier, and immediately the woman gives a cry of joy and relief. A sheepish boy in a beige t-shirt holding a smiling baby in a black t-shirt. She runs and takes the baby, hugs him close, cries some more, and says something that might be thanks or might be an admonishment to the boy in the beige shirt. Then she hands him a cookie.
Fernand smiles and laughs. We both do. We have done our good deed.
"You are the hero of the day," I tell him. Fernand explains that, in fact, his family name — Bingwa — means "hero" in Swahili.
"You see, he is a hero everyday," Christophe says, and slaps his friend on the back.
The woman, still crying, turns and thanks us, takes her child, holding him very closely, very carefully, and walks down the hill into the camp.