In August, out of the blue, Aimé’s family was evicted from the parcel of land where they lived. Just as they were becoming desperate, one of Aimé’s extended family members offered them a parcel he owned on the outskirts of Goma. Other family members chipped in for the cost of transporting their shack on a flatbed truck and for wood to reinforce it on the new lot.
This new lot was large—several acres—and it had fertile soil, so Aimé’s mother immediately started to plant vegetables. The lot had no water; indeed, the whole semi-rural area had no water, so Aimé and a younger brother had to get up every morning at 4 a.m. to collect lake water, which they carried in heavy pails by hand because they didn’t have a cart or bicycle to make the job easier. Aimé was now 10 miles from his school, and he walked two hours there and back each day, wearing his pink furry backpack. He begged me for a bicycle to ride to school and to carry heavy pails of lake water.
My first thought was that he should transfer to a closer school, but he refused, because he found all the local schools low-class. So I bought him a bicycle. He used it to fetch water in the mornings, and once a week, after school let out, he rode over to see me at my office.
Aimé had tried to sell gasoline in his new neighborhood, but he had gotten lost walking through the woods in the dark. No one had electricity, so everyone relied on gas lanterns to light the nights. Any gas dealer who could find their way through the woods would do well. I suggested that Aimé take some time to complete a reconnaissance mission before he started selling. After a few weeks, he began again.
With the money his relatives had donated for wood, Aimé’s parents were able to extend their home. Aimé demanded that they build him his own cabin, so he could read the Bible in peace. They obliged. With some money of mysterious origin, he bought a puppy that he named after one of the expats who worked for my old NGO. She arrived after I left, and I had never talked about her with Aimé, so I had no idea how he knew her name. But he knew all kinds of things.
Thus began the idyllic boy’s life Aimé had never had—he rode his bike to school, hiked with his dog through the woods, hunted fowl with a sling shot, and filled his imagination with biblical tales that he read by lantern-light in his cabin each night. I’m sure he would have preferred The Hardy Boys, but there were no titles like that among the few books sold in Goma.
Aimé’s parents were surprisingly happy, he reported, although they still couldn’t afford to buy food staples like starch and meat much of the time. His mother spent her days farming. They had moved at the beginning of the planting season, so they were soon able to eat the fruits of her labor.
And then Faustin came home. Faustin was Aimé’s older brother. Aimé was not the oldest, as he had always told me. There was Faustin and an even older child, a girl who had run away long ago to marry a man in distant Kasai-Oriental province. Aimé didn’t explain why he had misled me; I just assumed it was something cultural that I didn’t understand.
Faustin was 19, and he had been living in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, for the last five years, playing soccer and trying to make the Rwandan national team. He finally failed, and, defeated, he came home. His mother put him into the cabin with Aimé. Faustin raised hell, getting drunk every night, bringing home girls, and talking constantly about romance. Aimé hated it. He complained about the sex, the drinking, and that he couldn’t read in peace.
Faustin didn’t respect his parents, who told him to work. He mooched off them instead of hustling to find money. When they reproached him, he told them he wouldn’t stop playing soccer until he became a professional, because he wanted to be someone, not like them.
“My brother keeps telling me I should get a girlfriend,” Aimé told me. “But I don’t want a girlfriend! Did you have a boyfriend when you were 15?” I told him I hadn’t, which was true. “I’m not an adventurer,” he responded. The term aventure is used in French to mean a fling. An adventurer is one who had lots of flings.
One week, Aimé’s grandmother visited from the fertile island of Idjwi in the middle of Lake Kivu. It was a happy occasion for the family. Faustin stopped carousing, and Aimé’s parents stopped fighting about money. Aimé loved his grandmother, because she gave him “beautiful advice.” I asked him what kind. “She tells me not to be a brutal man, to be kind with everyone in the world,” he said.
So life went on peacefully, and Aimé didn’t need me anymore, except in emergencies, like when he crashed into a motorcycle and broke his bike, or school fees, which I had stopped refusing to pay. It didn’t seem possible for him to make enough money to pay the fees himself and satisfy his parents’ demands for money. I wondered whether I would pay Aimé’s school fees forever via Western Union transfers from abroad, as a colleague did. My latest contract was up, and I was leaving Goma.
In my recent job as a press officer I had introduced journalists and donors to child soldiers, displaced people, and raped women. I also helped the journalists get press credentials, which meant being asked for bribes by officials in offices with broken windows and, in one case, mouse droppings on the desk.
Visiting Panzi Hospital with CNN, I had assisted with interviews of three women who had each been gang-raped twice by rebels or Congolese soldiers so violently that their insides had been torn up, leaving the women with fistulas. While hosting Al Jazeera, I met a boy who said he had killed after voluntarily joining a rebel group. Another child had become a painter to recover from the trauma of being kidnapped by rebels while walking to school one morning. All his paintings depicted the road to school, and he had never learned to read.
I was depressed about Congo, so I was glad to be leaving.
On the last Saturday of my 10-month stint in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I took Aimé to lunch at the Ihusi Hotel. Peacocks with clipped wings teetered across a beautiful patio looking out onto Lake Kivu. We mainly talked about music, since Aimé had stopped needing so much advice, and I played him some tunes. He especially liked the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes.” He told me he had written a rap song and recited it for his classmates, who loved it. The lyrics went something like, “Don’t sit around being unemployed, and don’t just wait for your relatives to die so you can inherit their money. You’re lazy, start your own business, work.”
At the end of the meeting, I gave him enough money to pay for the next two terms of school and to buy a new can of gasoline to sell. This was $120, the most money I had ever given him. I trusted him, because he had bought a school uniform, shoes, a bike, the bag, all of which I had seen for myself. I assumed he had paid his school fees, because I saw him at the school, and I saw his homework. I had never seen the gas can he told me he had bought, but I believed him. It followed, then, that he could handle the money. It was only $20 more than the last amount I had given him. If he couldn’t handle it, I wouldn’t be able to trust him to use money I wired through Western Union for his school tuition. And if I couldn’t trust him, I wouldn’t send the money. But I was planning on it.
I was leaving in two days, on Monday afternoon. I said goodbye to Aimé and gave him money to ride home on a motorcycle taxi, but first we stopped at my house, and I gave him my radio so he could listen to the news. In this last meeting, he had asked me how to be a journalist. I told him he already knew how to gather the news by talking to people, listening, and watching very carefully. He waved rather dispassionately as the motorcycle rode away. That’s a guy who doesn’t need a big sister anymore, I thought.
On Monday morning, I was packing when the gatekeeper came to tell me Aimé was outside. I was surprised, and I went downstairs to greet him. He looked disheveled, in a T-shirt and the pants from his school uniform. We sat on lawn chairs, and I waited for him to tell me why he had come.
“Did you go to the expo at Yole!Africa?” he asked, referring to the wrap party for Goma’s annual film festival. I hadn’t. “It was great!” said Aimé excitedly. “They had all sorts of contests, and I entered the songwriting contest. I didn’t win though.” That was great, I said.
“And they stole my money,” said Aimé quietly, smiling and looking at the ground.
“What money?” I asked.
“All the money you gave me,” he said, still looking at the ground and smiling. My little brother used to smile when he lied.
“Who’s they?” I asked, in shock.
“I don’t know,” Aimé replied.
After thinking for a minute, I told him I didn’t believe him.
“You think I would trick you?” said Aimé.
“I don’t know, it sounds like you’re lying. Either that, or you lost $120, which is idiotic,” I said.
“Why would I trick you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I got up and gestured for Aimé to leave. I was upset.
“But please give me an MP3 player with that song I love so much, the one by the small girl who sings about her suffering,” said Aimé, referring to the M.I.A. song.
I went inside the house and got a broken MP3 player that I didn’t know how to fix, as I had already explained to Aimé. I also burned a CD with one song on it, “Paper Planes.” I gave it to Aimé and made a distracted gesture as he left.
I was confused and upset. I realized that I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know whether Aimé was tricking me. I didn’t know why he would trick me. I didn’t know if anything I have told you about his life was true, and I didn’t know if foreign aid works.
But I was pretty sure about one thing. Aimé once told me that you can’t trust Congolese people. Now, I agreed with him. From the parents who wouldn’t let their children go to school, to the soldiers who raped women they were supposed to have been defending from rebels, to the rebels who killed for mining profits, to the witch doctors who sold phony cures, and the deacons who accused children of sorcery, and the government that didn’t pay its officials, and the officials who bribed, and the culture that taught corruption as a means of progress, I was sick of this Hobbesian place, and I didn’t feel guilty about their suffering anymore.
Click here to launch a slide show on the humanitarian’s dilemma.