"On Common Ground"
Chapter One

The End of March
Eastern Congo

The drums set a steady beat, and the village women stomped their bare feet. Their soles kicked up the dirt, and it collected on the hems of their long cotton dresses, an earthen border of red clay. Their bandanas matched their dresses--the wild colors, the bold patterns, as bright as the plumage of parrots.

Swaying their hips and waving their arms, the village women ululated a song of celebration. "Ah, ye, ye, ye! Oo-oo-ooh!"

To say the least, Lilah Evans was a long way from home.

You didn't get much farther from Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington State, than the remote jungle of Democratic Republic of Congo. But whatever the distance-indeed, whatever the differences--the primal African beat had a universal appeal. And a special one for Lilah.

Because the women who sang and danced? They were singing and dancing for her.

It was a gift from the heart from women who owned almost nothing and had lost so much--husbands and children and homes in the ongoing civil war. Women who had been brutalized by marauding militias, who had been maimed and raped by the soldiers.

Growing up on an idyllic island, surrounded by fishermen, artists, and executive escapees from Seattle, Lilah wouldn't have been able to imagine that people were capable of such cruelty. After her school teacher mother had read her Grimm's fairy tales, she'd had nightmares for weeks. To this day, she never looked at gingerbread quite the same way.

So when Esther, her good friend among the Congolese women, had told her what had happened, her soft voice mingling with the smoke from the kitchen fire in her small hut, Lilah had cringed even though the events were months old.

"Lilah, mon amie, they came one day-this was after they had raided the village and killed my husband and the other men. And taken my oldest son," Esther had explained in French. Her tone was flat, but raw emotion cut the sentences into staccato clips. "They were crazy. The militiamen-crazy on drugs. They went from hut to hut. They raped the women, young daughters no more than children, grandmothers--toothless grandmothers. Then they came to me." Her voice faltered for a moment. "They took me, too, in ways not normal. They made sure that my children were watching. It was a game, a sport, n'est-ce pas? When they were done, they laughed. Then they started to talk among themselves. I knew there was more to come. I tried not to show any fear. That was what they wanted of course."

"You don't have to say anymore," Lilah remembered saying. She was too old to hide under the covers anymore, but that was what she wished to do. Barring that, cover her ears with her hands. But she didn't. She owed it to her friend to be strong.

And her friend finished the story, a story so horrific that now, after the fact, Lilah still blotted out the details of how Ester came to lose her leg and what had happened to the rest of the family. What she did remember vividly was her own reaction--crying and reaching out to her friend. Her own words, that in retrospect, seemed so self-centered. "I don't think I would have been able to withstand that. I don't know if I am strong enough," she had said.

Esther had placed her thin hand, the bones light as a bird's, on her arm and replied, "You do it because you have to. There is no choice. Besides, you have to think of tomorrow."

When Lilah had started her organization Sisters for Sisters, she had naively thought that she could change the world, or at least one corner of it, through the sheer force of willpower. She had hatched her plan her senior year in college. Suffering from the flu, she'd wrapped herself in a quilt on her couch, sipped so much hot tea she'd scalded her tongue, and killed off two boxes of Kleenex. Feeling miserable and sorry for herself, she'd been flipping through the channels on the T.V. when she landed on this daytime talk show, the sort that she would have never admitted to watching. She saw a report on the plight of Congolese women. By the time the program broke away for a commercial for a new women's deodorant, she had found a cause.

But it was one thing to find a cause. It was another to carry it out. Ten years later, despite the ups and downs-plenty of downs--she wasn't willing to give up-not when there were good people like Esther who didn't deserve to suffer. But there were times when Lilah found it almost impossible to follow Esther's credo and "think of tomorrow."

Whatever. Lilah shook her head. Tomorrow was another day, right? And today was perfect. Today Esther was dancing joyfully with a prosthetic leg thanks to Lilah's efforts.

The music ended. The performers and villagers erupted in a chorus of cheers.

Esther approached Lilah, her gait awkward but confident. She hugged her. "C'est pour toi." "It's for you."

"C'est fantastique!" Lilah exclaimed in French. The language was a vestige of colonialism, but it was still the common language spoken in Congo. "Tu m'as donnˇ un cadeau ˇnorme! Merci bien." "You've given me a wonderful gift. Thank you so much," she said in her less than fluent French.

"Merci," Esther said. "But it is we who are thanking you, ma petite soeur, my little sister. We are all sisters helping each other, mais non?" She smiled and her voice held a hint of teasing.

That had been Lilah's idea.

What started her senior year as a 5K run fund-raiser had morphed into a non-profit organization where each member or "sister" sponsored a "sister" in Congo, and it was an idea that seemed to have legs-literally. Now it had more than twenty local affiliates that sponsored fun runs and road races almost every month, all across America. Plans were already set to branch out to Europe and Australia. The money went directly to the women and their children to help with providing food, basic medical supplies and educational materials.

Then, last spring after a particularly scorching run in Reno, Nevada, a retired internet executive had approached Lilah with a new idea-to provide cell phones to the women to allow them to obtain long-distance medical help, something essential since local medical care for families was almost completely absent. They had started a pilot program in a few villages, including Esther's, but if they were going to expand, they'd need more money. Lilah wasn't sure fun runs were going to be enough.

That wasn't the only thing to worry about. After a race two months ago in Poughkeepsie, New York, a woman had approached her who was a senior VP at a large investment house. She wanted to help set up a local banking system so that women could establish savings accounts to better the lives of their children.

Lilah felt overwhelmed. What did she know about banking? Micro-financing sounded like a good idea, but was it something Sisters for Sisters should be affiliated with? But if she said no, would she be turning down an opportunity too good to miss?

All these questions would simply have to wait. Now she reveled in the warmth radiating from Esther's skin as Lilah embraced her "sister." A late afternoon shower started to fall, heightening the smells of the village and the jungle.

Esther broke away from their hug and looked to the skies. "Tiens. It's time for the feast. It is good we have the school to keep us dry." That was something of an exaggeration. Made of sticks, the school consisted of a thatched roof and dirt floor.

Esther clapped for her three remaining children to come, and with her head held high she clumped along on her artificial leg. She nodded for Lilah to follow.

Lilah joined the procession, smiling with the thought that she resembled one of the baby ducks following their mother in the children's book Make Way for Ducklings.

A cell phone rang.

All the women reached into the deep folds of their dresses. Lilah had to laugh. A sign of progress. But given the loudness of the ring tone, she knew it was for her. She held her phone aloft to let the other women know, then rushed through the raindrops into Esther's mud hut. "Hello," she answered. Very few people outside her organization and her family had her number.

"Lilah, it's Mimi." The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Mimi Lodge, Lilah's roommate from college. Always outspoken and very smart-some might say too smart for her own good--Mimi had gone on to be a television news correspondent.

"Talk about a voice out of the blue. Where are you calling from this time? Chechnya? Afghanistan?" Lilah asked. If there was a hot spot in the world, chances were that Mimi was there.

"Close. Waziristan."

Lilah cringed. People sometimes questioned her sanity about traveling to Congo, but Waziristan? The northwest region of Pakistan was a known stronghold of terrorists. "Promise me you're calling to tell me you're safe," Lilah implored.

"Not to worry about me. I'm in my element. It's you I'm calling about-with news."

"Don't tell me-actually do tell me--that someone has decided to give Sisters for Sisters millions of dollars after seeing your piece on TV?" she asked.

"No, but there's the possibility."

"I'm always open to possibilities, longshots, even highly unlikely probabilities."

"It's like this. Seeing as you're such a hard woman to track down, the alumni office of our illustrious alma mater, Grantham University, contacted me through my television network. They were hoping I could hunt you down directly."

"Oh, please, there is no way I'm making a contribution to Annual Giving. I barely make enough money to pay the rent on my hovel of an apartment-and I use the term 'hovel' generously," Lilah decried. After college, she'd landed in Brooklyn, and for some mysterious reason that only the gods of real estate understood, her block had defiantly escaped the rampant gentrification that had swept the rest of the outer borough.

"Actually, it's the other way around. They want to give you something."

"You're kidding me, right?" Lilah ran her hand through her chestnut-brown hair, which despite the practical clip holding it back in a ponytail, was frizzing madly in the rain and humidity.

"I kid you not. Apparently, the feature I did on you actually penetrated the mostly deaf ears of the ivory tower powers-that-be. Now the university wants to honor you with a big alumni award at Reunions this June. Who'd a thunk it, heh?"

Lilah knew that Mimi didn't harbor any great fondness for Grantham despite her family's long history of involvement and support for the Ivy League institution. Nor was Lilah particularly the Reunions "type." What was the point of rehashing your college days? Or seeing people from your past you really could do without? She could think of one in particular-boy, could she ever. Then there was the more fundamental anxiety. Ten years out-had she measured up to her own expectations? Did she still think it was possible to end world poverty? Do I even have the energy to contemplate ending world poverty? she wondered wearily. And even more troubling, If I accept the award, will they figure out I'm no longer some sterling idealist and peg me for a phony?

But those doubts were for her ears alone-something she'd have to work out. So Lilah retorted with the slick sarcasm that so often substituted for wit and intelligence among her Grantham alumni.

"So why exactly would I want to wax poetic about my time at that dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist bastion?" she asked, using Mimi's withering expression for Grantham. "I mean, can't I just accept the award without showing up to Reunions? 'Cause I'm not totally convinced I can stand there with a straight face, listening to the university president give some rah-rah speech about all my good works somehow being an outgrowth of that special Grantham spirit. And the thought of rubber chicken served under a tent by the boathouse? Please. Is there anything worse? Oh, right--sleeping in a dorm room all over again."

Truth was, she'd die for a dorm room right now. Tonight Lilah would be sleeping on the dirt floor on a thin straw mat. Not that she was complaining, mind you, when she had so much compared to the villagers around her.

Speaking of which, Lilah angled to the side to let one of Esther's daughters carry an earthen platter of baton di manioc, boiled palm leaves filled with a paste made from starchy manioc tubers.

"I feel your pain, really I do," Mimi responded from thousands of miles away. She, too, had mastered the glib speak. "But look at it this way. Does Miss America get her cr--own in absen--tia?" The satellite line had a slight delay, and the transmission sputtered.

"I get your point. I get your point," Lilah replied. "But aren't Reunions in June? That's...that's not going to work out. Our first major fund-raising race in Europe is at the beginning of that month--in Barcelona. I couldn't possibly miss that."

"I'm pretty sure they're at the end of June, but, c'mon. This is Mimi here. Your bosom buddy? You and I both know you're just manufacturing excuses. The real reason you don't want to go back to Reunions and accept this award is Stephen."

Lilah hadn't spoken her ex-fiancˇ's name in almost ten years. And she wasn't about to start now. And why bother to rail against the cruelty of love when her friend flat out didn't believe in love? Or so she had claimed many a time over. Too many times over, Lilah sometimes thought.

"From your silence, I presume I hit the nail on the head. Well, let me tell you. I have just one thing to say in response."

"Grin and bear it?" Lilah offered.

"Oh, please. What do you take me for? A leader of a Girl Scout troop? My kind of pep talk is...." She proceeded to string together several swear words in a highly creative and visually interesting fashion.

Crude, but effective, Lilah couldn't help thinking. "So you really think I should go then?" she asked.

"Yes, of course I think you should go. Not only do you deserve all the praise in the world for what you're doing, you'll have those old coots eating out of your hand. They'll see this cute little young woman, and they'll immediately feel the need to help. The next thing you know, they'll be writing monster-sized checks to support your work. You might even think about upping your own salary from near poverty line to something where you could afford to go to a decent hair salon."

"Hair salons? They still have them?" Lilah asked facetiously. Reflexively she fingered her bangs, slowly growing out from her last feeble attempt at giving herself a cut.

The light shower turned into a thick curtain of rain, and the sound of drops hitting against the thatched roof formed a steady rumble. The red dirt on the floor was already transforming into a rusty-colored slime, the same mud that coated the soles of her hiking boots.

From her position in the doorway of the hut she turned and saw Esther, along with two other women from the village, finish cooking rice, beans, bananas, and more manioc. Through the haze of smoke she noticed two large cauldrons cooking meat-probably chicken and goat. Today had to be special if meat was on the menu.

These women who had next to nothing who had suffered so much were unfailingly generous. Who was she to balk at attending some awkward ceremony and meeting a few strangers at Reunions if it meant helping them out?

Lilah rubbed her sticky palm down her sundress. The outfit was a concession to the festivities, but she'd paired it with her usual hiking boots because there were too many poisonous snakes for her to consider wearing sandals. Not a great look but always practical.

She exhaled through her mouth with resignation. "All right. I hear the wisdom of your words. Just tell me whom to contact about setting up my triumphal return to our beloved alma mater. And in the name of a good cause- and good people--I promise to show the proper humility and speak about the urgency of the problem." She paused, her mind working on overdrive. "But I have one condition."

"Hey, I gave you prime time network exposure. Don't expect me to open my meager checkbook, as well," Mimi protested.

"I wouldn't think of it. I know the prices at the salon you frequent. No, my request-no, my ultimatum is this. I'll go provided you come, too. If I'm going to give a convincing performance for a day-"

"We're talking days, bubby," Mimi interrupted.

Lilah groaned. That was right. Grantham University never did anything by half-measures. Their Reunions lasted three days and were scheduled immediately before commencement ceremonies, thus cementing a life-long hold on graduating students.

Lilah cleared her throat. She could do this, but it might require heavy amounts of alcohol, even though she wasn't much of a drinker. "Okay, but if I am going through with this charade, I think it's only right and proper that I have moral support. And nothing says moral support like a forceful female friend close at hand."

The metaphorical clock ticked away in silence until Lilah heard a sigh. "All right," Mimi agreed. "Only for you will I step foot on Grantham, New Jersey soil. I suppose that also means I won't be able to avoid putting in an appearance at the family manse, will it?"

"I'll make it up to you. I promise. Besides, once my parents get wind of the award, I'm sure at least one of them will insist on making an appearance, and then you'll have a parental buffer."

"If you mean that having a critical mass of people will in any way be enough to preserve my sani--."

Mimi's voice was drowned out by a decisive rat-tat-tat. It had to be the sound of gunfire.

"Mimi? Mimi? Are you all right?" Lilah asked.

"Never better. This is what I live for, right?" Her words were upbeat, but they couldn't camouflage the underlying edge. "Listen. Gotta go. I'll text you the contact numbers at Grantham. Promise." The call ended abruptly.

Lilah held the phone away from her ear. Her concern didn't stop just because the conversation was cut short. She shifted her gaze toward the encroaching jungle. Danger from natural predators and roaming militias was never far away here either. For now, at least, there didn't appear to be any imminent threats to be fearful of.

But sometimes the bigger fears came from within one's own soul.

(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2012)