I met the boy on the streets of Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. I was there because I wanted to learn about poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, that thing we are supposed to feel guilty about and don’t really understand. I did feel guilty about it, but I don’t anymore.
After an earlier period of working in Africa, I had found the story “Thieving” in the short story collection Whites, by Norman Rush, a Peace Corps veteran. “Thieving” is told from the perspective of an orphaned child in Botswana who can’t resist stealing, even when he’s provided with jobs and housing by kindly white folks. “As from 1978, God chose me for a thief,” says the character, Paul Ojang. “Could I, as a boy, withstand Him? If God marks you, you must fall, always.” Despite the efforts of his benefactors, Paul remains a fatalist; he steals from them and winds up homeless.
The story made me as skeptical about humanitarian aid as it did about Norman Rush, and since I felt underutilized in my American life, I left New York and returned to Africa to see for myself if people from the West can improve the lot of impoverished Africans.
In November 2008, I started working as a communications manager for an American aid agency in eastern DRC, the most volatile part of the enormous central African nation. My job was to find and tell stories that would prove that aid is needed. I also collected my own stories on my days off.
On a Sunday morning walk along Lake Kivu, the African great lake that Congo shares with Rwanda, I found Aimé and several smaller children stringing sardine-size fish that they had caught with homemade fishing rods onto reeds to carry home. (Aimé is a pseudonym that I am using to protect the child’s privacy.) The boys looked depressed and traumatized. They wore ratty clothes, and Aimé had a jagged scar running across his forehead.
I offered them triangular hunks of local goat cheese, which they ate hungrily, shrinking back like shy cats. I asked them about their fishing enterprise, but only Aimé answered. He was the oldest of the boys by five or six years. He spoke French fluently, which is unusual for a poor child in the DRC, because only educated people speak the official language. The rest speak one of four regional African languages; in Goma, most people speak Swahili.
I asked if I could see his home, thinking that perhaps I could get Aimé to write a story about his life and why his family is poor, which I could share with the world. He agreed to show me his home, and we continued down the rutted dirt road of the Quartier des Volcans (the Volcano District) to the part of the neighborhood that was burned by lava when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002. There are no trees here, and black lava rock covers the ground. In some places, the lava is smooth, but mostly it has broken up into jagged black boulders that residents use to build walls and homes and which they must sometimes navigate barefoot. Many people here don’t have shoes.
On the walk, Aimé told me that he needed money to pay his school fees. He was 14 and, in American terms, a freshman in high school. In Congo, public school costs about $20 per trimester. The fees can be blamed on government budget shortfalls and administrative failings.
We turned down a little alley and arrived at Aimé’s family home, a shack of corrugated metal and wood that housed five children and two parents in about 100 square feet on the lot of a large, half-built turquoise house reminiscent of a home in a Las Vegas housing tract. The neighborhood had developed in fits and starts after it was burned by the volcanic eruption, and landlords charged rent to hundreds of families who built shacks on the lots or squatted inside half-built homes. A baby boy and a little girl in a tattered wedding-type dress stood on the lava rock outside Aimé’s home. They seemed afraid.
Aimé’s father did not look well. He was a short man, waifishly thin, and his eyes were wide and full of horror. Trembling, he invited me into the house and offered me a seat on a damp, blackish sofa. It was colder and damper in the house than it was outdoors. Goma does not have a tropical climate.
“Many of the children have malaria,” Aimé’s father told me franticly. “I can’t find work. No one will give me a job around here. I have to pay $6 a month to send each of the boys to school. I find the money where I can. We don’t have enough to eat. Please help us, give us a little something.” Aimé had a sister and three brothers, one of them just a baby; only the boys were sent to school.
I later learned that Aimé’s family had lived in the Rwandan capital of Kigali until 1994. Aimé’s father worked as a welder and had settled there with his father, Aimé’s grandfather.
But when Rwandan dictator Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash and the Rwandan genocide began, Aimé’s parents fled for their native Congo. They ended up in Goma, just across the Rwandan border, and eked out an existence with the support of extended family members.
Now it was 14 years later, and the family’s situation had scarcely changed. Aimé’s father had never put together enough money to replace his welding equipment, and he never found work. The couple had Aimé and four more children.
Aimé’s mother found odd jobs here and there selling vegetables or braiding hair. The family ate one meal a day and paid their rent with donations from friends and family. That day, Aimé’s mother was visiting her own parents on an island in Lake Kivu; someone had malaria.
Aimé’s situation didn’t warrant the kind of foreign aid that my employer and most large relief agencies provided. The family was squatting in a city that doesn’t get the support its poor and displaced need in terms of shelter materials, water and sanitation infrastructure, or mosquito nets to prevent malaria. In 2008 and 2009, foreign donors provided those amenities to people who had recently been displaced by rebels in the surrounding hills. But the “emergency” that had displaced Aimé’s parents was more than a decade in the past, and only those still living as official refugees received aid. With primary-school needs unmet for DRC’s children, the country’s government and international donors have tended to see secondary school as a luxury they can’t afford. So Aimé had slipped through the cracks.
I left the house, and Aimé walked me home. In a dejected voice, he repeated his desire to study and his need for money to pay his school fees. He was asking me to pay, but I wasn’t prepared to do that. I had been in Congo a week, and it seemed rash to start subsidizing a child. Nonetheless, I was impressed by his evident intellect, which came, it seemed, from nowhere.
I suggested that Aimé become an autodidact. “I love reading,” he replied. “But I can’t buy any books.” He didn’t know what a library was. Period. I hadn’t realized that Congo—a nation of almost 70 million people—has none. “Well,” I finally said, “you’re 14. Why not get job, pay for school that way?” I worked at a delicatessen when I was 15. I told Aimé this to show that work was not an unusual tyranny.
“I don’t want to work!” he said. “I want to go to school!”
I told him it didn’t seem like he had much of a choice.
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