Gabriele Orlini

Soeur Maria was not of an age

And Soeur Maria, an Austrian from Kapanga, 80 years old one day only to lose count, was there. She was always there.
Dispensary in Ntita, Kapanga (DRC) | © Gabriele Orlini, 2012

Gabriel! …Gabriel! …sortir du lit!

This post is also available in: Italiano

The firm, peremptory voice, accompanied by the fists on the battered wooden door of the shack where I slept, echoed, without the possibility of replication, on a June night in the forest of Kapanga, Congo.
A night lit by a moon as large as it is bright. It seemed designed for the occasion.

Soeur Maria, an Austrian, had decided at age 80 that she had lived long enough and had stopped keeping track of her years.
I met her, for the first time, 14 months earlier and she told me that nothing would change knowing her age, and in any case, her petite body would wear out in Africa. One day, but not that night.

Facing the bed was a small window, so small that it could not contain the amazing moon that night.
It was just after 2 am and my shadow, stark, defined, sleepy, faithfully followed my unsteady steps along the red earth path leading to the small dispensary in Ntita village inside the forest.

On full moon nights, time went by fast, too fast.
On full-moon nights things happened: goats would stand restlessly; dogs would howl — though oblivious to the reason; termites would come out of their nests and flood every possible space — and it was a feast for the children to pick them up in the morning and toast them, it felt like eating popcorn.
And men abused women.

Soer Maria
Soeur Maria, Kapanga (DRC) | Gabriele Orlini, ©2011

The birthing women – many of them already victims of the same abuse nine months earlier – hearing the full moon call, would set out barefoot, travelling up to 40km to reach the village of Ntita.
The following day or night, they would give birth to the fruit of their womanhood.

And Soeur Maria, an Austrian from Kapanga, 80 years old one day only to lose count, was there. She was always there.
Every night, even on those where the moon was not showing. Even in those where goats, dogs, and termites, following the other side of their nature, were holed up. Where even men stopped, for a moment, considering themselves the center of the world.

That night Soeur Maria awaited my arrival at the dispensary in Ntita.
A few minutes earlier, her firm but gentle voice snatched me from the bunk placed in front of a small window unable to contain such a large moon.

Soer Maria
Dispensary in Ntita, Kapanga (DRC) | Gabriele Orlini, ©2012

And so I found myself, too, unable to contain my wonder at the sight of all the babies who would soon be bowing for the first time to that world and to that stepmotherly moon that still did not want them.
The pungent smell of phenol seemed to adorn the walls of the small entrance hall, and the choked groans of women too tired and weak even to rail furnished an empty room.
And there, in a corner, dark, where even that moon kept its distance, in a silent line lingered the dark shadows in composed anticipation of the women who would return home with nothing in their arms.
That June night a few years ago was a full moon night in the forest of Kapanga, Congo.
And that night eight children shouted to the world for the first time. Some without a mother.

Soeur Maria, an Austrian from Kapanga, a year later became part of that magnificent and brilliant moon that only in Africa seems to speak. That same moon that had seen her wear herself out and stop keeping track of her age.
And he had lived for more than 90 years.

Kapanga (DRC) | © Gabriele Orlini, 2012
Kapanga (DRC) | Gabriele Orlini, ©2012
Text & Photos: Gabriele Orlini 
Original text in Italian - In house translation
RD Congo
Kapanga, Congo-Kinshasa
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