Monday, February 23, 2015


 Teen mothers at Safe House, Mumosho Women's Center DRC

It's been three years since I was last in Congo, and that long since I've written in this blog. Nonetheless, a number of projects initiated and facilitated by Empower Congo Women have ripened and come to fruition. ECW is going strong!

These projects were a collaboration of like-minded souls who together share the vision of a peaceful, prospering Congo. Many thanks to you folks who have supported ECW in so many ways—you are playing a major role in making real, lasting change happen in Congo—no small feat.
  • Pygmy Land Project (PLP)
  • Mumosho Women's Center (MWC)
  • Safe House for teen mothers
  • Ushindi Center becomes Mamafrica Congo
  • Ntaboba's surgery

The Pygmy Land Project (PLP)

When Margaret Johnson and Better Merner traveled from Rhode Island to DRC to teach sewing at Ushindi Center, little did they imagine they would be the first people to buy pygmies their own land in Congo, or anywhere else in the world, as far as we know.

Pygmy children near Kahuzi Biega National Park, DRC

Pygmies were the first people of Africa, but today they are marginalized and impoverished, living outside the forests that were once their home. Dominic Bikaba of  Strong Roots Congo  grew up with pygmy families before their land became a world heritage site. It was he who took us to visit the pygmy tribe outside the Kahuzi Biega National Park in April 2009.

After visiting the needy Buyungule village, Margaret and Betty decided to help this tribe have “a place to call home.” So began four years of fundraising that ended this January when the land deed was finalized. Now the tribe--150 families, roughly 600 people-- owns 10 hectares (25 acres) of agricultural land abutting the forest. Planting of crops and trees will begin when the rains subside. The next phase is to build a school house. We're looking for donors who are interested in protecting the ecology of the area (home of the lowland silver back gorilla) and want to see the tangible results of their support

Betty, Margaret, and Dominic Bikaba envision the PLP

If you are interested in preserving the ecology of this biologically diverse land and the people who have inhabited it for millenniums, you can donate please contact me or Dominic. There are many ways you can get involved with on-going projects that not only help the pygmies survive but allow you the satisfaction of knowing your time and money are well spent.

Mumosho Women's Center                                                                                           

Since 2008, ECW has collaborated with Amani Matabaro on various projects in the Mumosho area of eastern Congo: Burhembo School project, organic demonstration farm, small animal husbandry project, parent/child goat project, women’s sewing center, school fees for orphans and girls, and the Mumosho Peace Market.

All but two of these projects were sponsored by Rotary Club of Montecito, in conjunction with 30 other clubs and Rotary International.  Private donors and fundraising events have been invaluable in making this project happen.

Mumosho Women's Center, DRC

The Mumosho Women’s Center (MWC) is our largest project to date. Singled out in 2014 as an exemplary Rotary project in a district composed of 12 countries, the MWC has become the mainstay of community life in Mumosho. It functions as school, vocational training and health center, rallying place of community events, and Safe House for teen mothers.   

This beautiful building was designed by Amani Matabaro, who drew it on a napkin and gave it to his builder to complete. The upstairs is one large room capable of holding over 100 people. Community meetings are often held upstairs as are the sewing classes.

The MWC offers literacy classes to women in the community, because girls often stay home to care for younger children and never learn to read and write. At last count, there were 3 on-going literacy classes with 80 students. Young women especially are eager to become literate so they can vote for the leader of their choice in the next election. 

" Your goat is my goat"  Mumosho Women's Center, DRC
The community goat project initiated by Amani has been a huge success. Goats are more than animals in Congo. Not only do they produce milk and meat, but they are given as a dowry and as payment in land transactions. If you give someone a goat, it means you are friends for life. This is how it works:  MWC gives a woman a goat, which she keeps but it's first kid is given back to MWC, who in turn passes it on to another woman. In this way, the women become sisters, so the poorest women can make a contribution to the community. 

Amani has been using the goat program to teach ethical leadership to the community. He explains that people in the community need each other, and if you sell your baby goat instead of giving it back, you are the same as the dishonest politicians who put greed for themselves above the well-being of others. Amani is a great community builder.

Amani also initiated two family planning workshops, the first for women, the second for men. There was a huge turnout, almost everyone wanting some form of birth control. To date, there are no clinics in the area dispensing free birth control because Congo is a predominately Catholic country. The upside was that both men and women learned about the high mortality rate among women who have more than 5 births. Until recently, even educated Congolese believed that families with as many as 12 children are desirable. 

The MWC is working toward sustainability through its sewing projects, organic produce, basket weaving, and small animal husbandry. It's not there yet, and expenses for teachers, food for the women, and upkeep still need to be subsidized. Please consider donating if you believe these projects are worthwhile. DONATE here.

Safe House for Teen Mothers

Rape is still epidemic in Congo, and young girls are frequently victims. A pregnant teenager without a husband is at risk, because she is often shunned by family and community, especially when she is a rape victim (sad but true). The Safe House was created to give these girls and their babies shelter and vocational training until they can support themselves. The Safe House houses 10 girls and their children at all times.

Proud sewing teacher with teenage students at MWC

"Here there are people who care for me and love me. 
Being in the program makes me come back to life again."

All the teen moms take literacy classes and learn how to sew. They learn hygiene and are expected to come to class clean, which builds pride. There are classes on raising healthy children, nutrition, and cooking. They women generate income for themselves and for the center by selling school uniforms to local children. Some are taught small animal husbandry, raising chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs for slaughter and sale at the Mumosho Peace Market. They are taught how to make and manage money in weekly entrepreneurial classes.

In a recent graduation from sewing class, 10 women were given sewing machines and notions so they could become self-supporting. With a trade and continuing classes at MWC, they are part of a community that has literally saved their lives and the lives of their children. No longer looked down on, they are respected members of the community, and their children will go to school. Please DONATE NOW to send girls to school.

Ushindi Center becomes Mamafrica 

In May 2012, a young woman named Ashley Nemiro accompanied me to Bukavu. She had contacted me earlier in the year saying she wanted to meet the women at Ushindi Center to further her doctoral studies at University of North Caroline. We arranged to conduct mental health research on the efficacy of energy psychology (tapping) with women victims of sexual violence. 

Although most of the women, all graduates of Ushindi Center's sewing programs, were accomplished seamstresses, they needed a way to to increase their income by selling to western markets. I have no experience in merchandising, and Rotary funding for Ushindi Center had come to an end. But fortunately for the women, Ashley does have marketing and design experience, and she was enthusiastic to put her ideas into action. 

At the end of our two months together, we agreed that Ashley would take over the center, inheriting the 12 treadle sewing machines, 2 embroidery machines, furniture, rented space, and sewing teachers. It was now hers to run, and together we agreed the center's new name would be Mamafrica. I left knowing the "mamas" were in good hands with Ashley.

Ashley Nemiro and friend in Mamafrica designs

Ashley has worked hard and done well for MamafricaCongo in the past 3 years.  The first Fair Trade Certified company in eastern Congo, 100% of the proceeds are invested in the center, the women, and their families. 

In addition to healing arts, trauma therapy, literacy, and sewing lessons, the center offers a full-day nursery program.  Dedicated to investing in the future,  Mamafrica matches school fee payments for all families served there. Currently 318 children attend school with direct support from the center, an extraordinary number of children for a small organization. Bravo, Ashley!

Last April, MamafricaCongo partnered with Kahindo Mateene of MODAHNIK in a fundraiser to benefit the women at MamafricaCongo. Kahindo, who is Congolese herself, wanted to do something to help her countrywomen, so she donated scraps of stunning fabric from her MODAHNIK line to the women of Mamafrica to make clutch purses. The hand-sewn clutches were fabulous, the fundraiser a great success.

MamAfrica Clutches
Mamafrica and MODAHNIK clutches

Check out the latest in the Mamafrica or visit them on Facebook. Their creations are gorgeous-- you might want to buy something hand-sewn by the "mamas," and in so doing send their children to school. How easy is that!!!

Ntaboba's surgery

You may remember Ntaboba, the 12-year old boy who was featured in my June 10, 2010 blog.  At age 6, he stepped on a live grenade in the jungle near his home, mangling his right leg and forcing him to walk with a metal pole for support, which further twisted his spine as he grew.  As he matured, his disability worsened and he often missed class, eventually having to quit school altogether.

Ntaboba pre-surgery with mother and auntie

When Margaret and Betty met Ntaboba, they quickly connected to his strong spirit and were determined to help him. Thanks to their compassionate support and contributions from school kids in Rhode Island, Ntaboba received the surgery he needed in 2012 from Heal Africa in Goma, one of the three renowned hospitals in DRC, and only 5 hours from home by boat, so his family was able to be with him.

Ntaboba post-surgery in 2012

Ntaboba, whose name means "no fear", now attends school with a single-minded intention of becoming a doctor.  

Ntaboba's school fees are paid by Action Kivu, a non-profit that works in conjunction with Amani Matabaro's Congolese charity ABFEK. Like ECW, Action Kivu is dedicated to helping war survivors in DRC rebuild their lives with dignity and focuses their attention on women's entrepreneurial empowerment and educational assistance. Jewish World Watch (JWW) has also been a major contributor to sustaining these projects, coming through when funded were needed most. And the Mumosho Peace Market is indebted to Robin Wright for her contribution of much needed latrines!

Pygmy children among tea plants
The last 3 years have taught me that we must all work together to make lasting change a working reality. I knew that before but only intellectually. Looking at the success of these projects, seeing how they have taken on a life of their own, many becoming sustainable beyond our prior expectations, I can only marvel at how much can be accomplished when people cooperate to make the world a better place.

In short, the projects described above are successful primarily because they are a collaboration of organizations, donors from all over the world, and people who share a common vision of Congo as a land of peace and safety for women and children. 

I invite you to join our community. DONATE HERE! Even better, Get Involved! Sponsor an orchard, send a woman to college, buy organic seeds, pay school fees for orphans and disadvantaged children, BUY AMANI A VEHICLE -- he still makes the 2 hour ride to Mumosho by taxi!--- there are so many ways you can really make a difference. 

And my pledge to you is keep sending updates about what is happening in Mumosho-- where your contributions are going and what projects are planned for the future.

Projects in the making for 2015:
  • Bakery project - bring bread to Mumosho and employ women
  • Increase western markets for women's sewing products
  • Peace school - grammar school with modern technology & current curriculum 
  • Water project - bring water to over 20,000 people in Mumosho groupment
  • BUY AMANI A VEHICLE  (see next blog)
Again, my heart overflows with gratitude to you all.

PS-- Did I say GET INVOLVED? We need YOU! and it's really, really FUN!


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Friday, November 30, 2012

Stand Up for our Sisters in Congo

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World Pulse

URGENT ACTION: Stand Up for Our Sisters in the Congo

"We have had enough. We call upon our global sisterhood to take action. We will not be quiet until REAL Peace is upon us."----Neema Namadamu, DRC
On November 20th M23 rebels seized Goma, a major city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, reigniting a war that has ravaged the region for 16 years. World Pulse Correspondent Neema Namadamu and our community of 200 Congolese women who call themselves the Mama Shujaa ('Hero Women' in Swahili) are calling on you and women leaders at the White House----Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett, and Michelle Obama----to take immediate action in solidarity with the women of the Congo.
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(it takes just a minute of your time)

Dear Friends of Empower Congo Women,

It has been many months since I last wrote you about the Congo. I've been remiss not telling you of the wonderful projects that took place this year, and are continuing to do so, through the efforts of Empower Congo Women and its offshoot  A 2012 wrap-up is soon to follow.

But what's happening in eastern DRC right now takes precedence over my little blog. As I write today, my heart aches to tell you that Congo is at war once again

Rebel militias, who call themselves M23 and are surreptitiously supported by Rwanda and its western backers, have seized Goma, one of the major cities in eastern DRC. Once again, it's all about money-- about who will control the lucrative regional mines that fuel our modern technology. The rebels are reportedly on the march toward Bukavu, where most of you know I have been working.

The tragedy is that hundreds of thousands (yes, that many!) of people have been displaced by this latest aggression. And as always, the women and children suffer the most. Right now, torrential rains pound the area and will do so for the next 4-5 months; it is cold and wet, and the poor refugees have nowhere to go... and the outrageous rape of women and children will continue until peace is restored.

I am not writing you for donations. I am writing to ask for your signature. Please take a few moments to sign the above petition to move our government into action to stop the aggression against the beleaguered people of eastern Congo. Please do this one small thing that has the potential to help thousands of families. Things will only get worse if we don't make our position clear NOW!

On a more personal note, those of you who met Amani Matabaro when he visited the USA last February will be relieved to know that he and his family have been evacuated to another country until the rebels have been turned back and are no longer a threat to Bukavu.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and sign the petition!

With love and appreciation,