“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 think about its application. I agree with Gandhi 100%, but I think he missed another important barometer for the moral evolution of a nation; the treatment of women.
In fact, most nations or societies who demoralize and disempower groups of people viewed as “less than” often coincides with their inhumane treatment of animals. I guess this makes sense…as incomprehensible as it is.
As for the treatment of animals in the DRC? Well, I have officially converted to being a vegetarian-watching so many of goats and pigs dragged around by a short rope tied to their necks or one leg; forced to ride on the back of a moto, legs bound; or tied to some random object for endless hours in the raging sun.
All of the chimps seeking refuge at our sanctuary experienced similar treatment, if not worse. Seventy-five percent of elephants have been slaughtered over the past 15 years in what is considered the “best protected park in the DRC,” and white rhinos no longer exist.
Did you catch that? The Northern White rhino has been completely wiped out in the DRC. Of the estimated 2,000 that roamed the areas of Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1960’s, only 3 remain…in a protected conservancy in Kenya.
“We put millions of dollars into protecting the northern white rhino in Garamba national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Susie Ellis of the International Rhino Foundation. “However, the species was lost there when the park became a conflict zone and we had to pull out to ensure the safety of our staff. If there is no political will, there is only so much that organisations like ours can do.”
Bonobos and Grauer gorillas, endemic to to the DRC, have suffered a similar fate.
But are you married?
When I pass 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. Not cows, though, because cows (a symbol of wealth here) are never used to transport heavy cargo like the wives of their owners. 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 of religion. have more value here than women
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 first question I’m asked by men is if I’m married, the second, how many children I have. When I explain I don’t have chidlren and am not sure if I will, I’m simply dismissed.
One of the guys I work was so convinced I needed to remedy my “childless” issue, he offered to give me one of his. When I asked him how his wife might feel about this, he explained, “No problem, we have 5 others.” Yes, he was joking, I hope. But I opted to change the subject, anyway.
But this is the norm here. In fact, of the dozens of men that I have met, each of them proudly declares how many children they have, beaming, “Yes, here in the Congo, we have lots of children.”
“You have lots of children?” I respond, my tone thick with sarcasm. But it inevitably gets lost in translation. I think we can safely say that my limited capacity to speak the language has kept me in good graces here.
Because yes, the norm here more is good, regardless of the financial strain it puts on their families or the physical risks involved for the women.
And who exactly takes care of these children? The same people I see planting, harvesting and preparing the food, washing the clothes, fetching the water, hauling huge loads of produce to sell at the market. And they are not the “man of the house.”
Because most of the men I see are sitting idly with their neighbors, watching the world go by…and the women.
Out of all of the thirty plus guys that I work with (all of whom are married and have 4-6 children), I have never met any of their wives, except for one woman who comes up to the sanctuary to sell her produce. Women 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.
This passage in Facing the Congo captures the prevailing 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, and cruelty these people 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 guess I would be here if I believed otherwise. 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…
“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.” ~ Jane Goodall