“The Greatest of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
I saw this quote when I first arrived and have had some time to ponder its application. And, although I believe Gandhi was correct, I think that that he missed another important barometer for the moral evolution of a nation- the treatment of women. Is it not often the case that a society’s need to exert power of those deemed less valuable, worthy, strong, etc. often correlates with a lack of compassion for or value of animals?
Unfortunately, I cannot help but see such a correlation here in the DRC, especially in the more isolated, rural area where I live. I simply refuse to consume goat or pig (or cows for that matter), as I see too many of them tied by their neck with a short rope to whatever can hold them down, carried around with their legs bound, forced to ride on the back of a moto and dragged behind their master by a rope tied to one leg. All of the chimps seeking refuge at the sanctuary experienced similar treatment, if not worse, and rhinos and elephants have been slaughtered to near extinction. Only 4 white rhinos remain in the wild here and an estimated 5,100 (or 75 percent) of elephants have been killed over the last 15 years in what is considered the ‘best protected park in the DRC’. (see reference link below). The gorillas have suffered a similar fate.
When I pass all the women on the way to the fields, hauling 3 times their weight in wood, sugarcane, potatoes or bananas, I can’t help but think of the goats. Although the ‘proverbial rope’ that keeps them bound and subjugated is not motivated by hunger or survival, but by over a century of oppression, fear, stupidity and a distorted interpretation and influence of religion. I can’t help but wonder if animals actually have more value here than women, as I often see small herds of cows (a symbol of wealth here) and they are never used to transport heavy cargo like the wives of their owners.
Every women here in Lwiro is addressed as “Mama”. Why? Because that is her identity. In fact, after a woman has her first baby, her name forever changes to the name of that baby, such as “Mama Patrick”. (this made me laugh out loud when I realized that my name would forever be “Mama Biscuit”) The second question I am asked by men, after, “Are you married?”, is “How many children do you have?” I am simply dismissed when I explain that I am not sure if I will have any. One man I spoke with last week was so concerned about my fate that he offered to give me one of his children. When I asked him how his wife might feel about this, he explained, “No problem, I have 5 others”. I opted to change the subject.
But this is the norm here. In fact, of the dozens of men that I have met, each of them proudly declares that he has an average of 5 children. When I respond with “wow, that’s a lot”, the typical response is, “Yes, here in the Congo, we have lots of children”. When I dare to ask why, the normal response is a shrug and, “that is just what we do here”. I refrain from questioning their involvement in the “have’ part and complementing them on how good they look for someone who has given birth to 6 children.
I think we can safely say that in the present context my limited capacity to speak the language has kept me in good graces here.
And who exactly takes care of these children? The same person who I see planting, harvesting and preparing the food, washing the clothes, fetching the water, hauling the huge loads of produce to sell at the market… and it is not the ‘man of the house’ (who I often see sitting idly with his neighbors, watching the world…and women go by.) Out of all of the 30 guys that I work with (all of whom are married and have 4-6 children), I have never met any of their wives, except one woman who came up to the sanctuary to sell her produce. They are not invited to any gatherings and most likely have no say in whether or not their husbands decide to go hang out with the “muzungo” instead of coming home to help with the chores.
I actually think this passage in Facing the Congo best sums up the antiquated philosophy here concerning women:
Congolese: “Your woman don’t know the meaning of respect…they don’t even want to have babies.”
American visiting Congo: “Not all women want to have babies.”
Congolese: Then why in God’s name are they on this earth? God put them here to multiply. Here we have a lot of children. Some are weak and will die, others are strong and will live. But it’s God’s will that women have a lot of babies, as many babies as possible.”
American: “Why not have one or two children and try to give them everything, instead of having seven or eight and hoping the strong will make it?”
Congolese: “Because we are on this earth to have children, I’m telling you! It’s God command!”
I certainly do not claim to have an in-depth understanding of this country and the origins of male chauvinism that prevails here. I also recognize that mine is a culturally biased perspective based on a very limited understanding of the inconceivable suffering, oppression, poverty, cruelty and devastation that the people here have endured. Such relentless violence, poverty and injustice is bound to manifest itself in a vicious fight for power, exploiting the most vulnerable and stripping life of its value and humanity. Ben Rawlence spoke to this in his book, Radio Congo:
“The residue of colonialism has engendered cruelty, brutality and a lack of confidence in any African achievement or even any African idea of humanity. What is it to be a man? Only money?” If there is no money, then the next mechanism for control on the food chain is power- dominion over those deemed less powerful- which from what I have seen is women, children and animals.
Be very clear, I am holding on to my stones very tightly. The glass house that is my birthplace has yet to demonstrate equality on multiple fronts; education, wealth and privilege, even democratic values does not an equal and just society make. As for our treatment of animals; The U.S. is the last remaining country (besides the African country of Gabon) to use chimpanzees for biomedical research on a large-scale- nearly 1,000 of them are still being imprisoned in biomedical facilities throughout our country (see link below for reference). The inhumane industrial-style animal raising used by most American farmers completely violates any thought of respect for animal welfare- pumping any animal fit for mass consumption with hormones, steroids and whatever other chemicals necessary to speed up production, add unnatural girth and counter the sickness and disease resulting from horrific living conditions. Slowly, progress is being made, but just like in the Congo, economic gain still reigns king.
Is there hope? I suppose if I didn’t believe so, I wouldn’t be here. I think it all comes down to cultivating, one by one, our collective humanity and taking action. So, I will leave you with one last quote from perhaps the best source of inspiration for both women and those advocating for the rights and protection of animals- Jane Goodall.
“Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins…if only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic-one that would respect all living beings. We should be at the threshold of a new era in human evolution-the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.”