Today I spent my first day in India, eating very spicy things that I now regret, while writing about Cote d'Ivoire. Be prepared. I am about to tell you about the time I traveled with my sorority sister through a rebel-held territory. I know what you’re thinking. Yes. That sounds exactly like Legally Blonde.
As strange as it sounds, I reconnected with Kendra two years ago in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. I was scouting water programs with my colleague and friend, Carrie, and Kendra was managing grants for the International Rescue Committee.
Cote d’Ivoire has a terrible water situation – in part because of a bitter civil war between the north and south, which led to a breakdown in services. Cote d’Ivoire is a beautiful country. It’s also where we get most of our chocolate. The situation is complex, but like most wars, it can be rooted back to the same common theme – you and I are different. So I’m right and your wrong.
We arrived to find a rebel-held north, a political south, and a ten-mile strip of land cutting the entire country in half, called “The Zone Of Confidence.” If you happen to be living in the zone, neither side will help you. So that’s where IRC went. And inevitably, where we were headed.
After several days of visiting villages and listening to local Chiefs, we befriended Daniel, our driver, translator, well rehab specialist, and all-around great guy.
Driving home from dinner one night we asked him about the war. He began by answering our questions politely, but nothing more.
“Do you remember when the rebels came?”
“Yes,” he respond.
“Were you scared?”
“Yes,” his eyes focused on the road.
“What did you do?”
“What everyone else did. I ran.”
But soon, through our endless curiosity and Daniel’s polite responses, we inadvertently unleashed a waterfall. A cascade of words came tumbling out of his mouth – so quickly that Kendra had to keep asking him to pause, so she could translate his rapid-fire French. Carrie and I sat in the back of the car, wide-eyed and spellbound. We were witnessing the release of a man who had spent years holding it in.
Daniel told us he was in the street when the rebels came. Terror took over. Everyone ran scrambling into “the bush.” And in the chaos and confusion he and his wife lost something. Their seven-year-old son. And that’s where they spent the next two months. Living among snakes and hiding in trees. Praying their son was still alive. Hoping a drug-fueled rebel with a machine gun didn't find them. Living a nightmare.
We had long arrived at our destination by the time Daniel finished his story. But no one moved. He took a deep breath and said, “Thank you for letting me share….Thank you for listening.” I don’t think he realized how much he carried with him.
I lay my forehead against the cool windowpane into a sea of black. I imagined what this unlit city might look like from space. Utter darkness except for one overhead halo of light spilling out from our car. It was as if his story was finally bringing light from a deeper darkness. Daniel was able to share. And let it go.
After two months, Daniel and his family thought it safe to return. The rebels had overtaken the north and assumed the power they desired. They returned to find their house raided and everything stolen. Including hinges of doors and glass from windows. His car had most likely been driven to Liberia, he thought.
“They took everything but the clothes on my back.” Daniel chuckled, trying to diffuse the heaviness, “Literally. All I had left was the clothes I was wearing.”
“What did you do?” One of us asked.
“I sat on my cement floor of my house, my empty house, and cried.”
The IRC soon came to the rescue, as they do in so many countries, and Daniel was hired as a driver. And after observing how to repair wells, he learned how to fix them too. Soon after, Daniel became the well repair supervisor and community mobilizer.
I have been thinking of him a lot lately. Mainly when things are hard. Sometimes I’m angry and feel like I’m starting over. So I remind myself about his resiliency and perseverance. Usually while I’m cursing at accounting software.
Unfortunately things in Cote d’Ivoire have heated up again, and it pains me to no end. Recent elections left the old president refusing to step down, and the elected president trying to run the country out of a barricaded hotel room. Violence has resumed, and there are reports of kidnappings and mass graves.
Carrie and I are no longer at charity: water, and Kendra now works in the Congo. I recently got a call from an old colleague, and she mentioned that the political situation has made it tough for donors to get reports on their wells. But traveling around taking pictures of wells amid violent unrest wouldn’t be wise.
I can empathize with those donors. Isn't it hard to believe in things we can’t see? But I’m lucky. I have seen the proof firsthand. And I know Daniel’s still out there. Driving around with the interior light on, fixing wells. And reminding me that this world is very small, so its best to keep helping strangers. Because you never know where your light can shine. Until you try.
Sidenotes: I changed Daniel’s name. And Daniel’s seven-year-old son returned unharmed. His neighbors grabbed him before the rebels could, and hid him in the bush with their family. He returned three months later with only nightmares and stomach worms.
If interested in learning more about the situation in Cote d’Ivoire, here’s an article from today’s NYT: Mobs in Ivory Coast Attack United Nations Vehicles - http://nyti.ms/fyNJZa