Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pygmy Land Project 2010-2015

                                             Pygmy kids look to the future. DRCongo

In my  9/24/2010 blog, I wrote about my friends Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner who travelled from Rhode Island to Congo to teach sewing and ended up starting a project to secure local pygmy "a home of their own."

So the Pygmy Land Project (PLP) was begun to purchase land near the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, with a fundraising goal of $50,000 to buy about 25 acres. Funds were to be channelled through Empower Congo Women. The land was to be negotiated and secured by Dominique Bikaba, a Congolese conservationist and friend of the pygmy. 

The backstory

The pygmy are the indigenous people of Africa. For millennium the "forest people" lived in symbiotic relationship with nature until the 1970s when the lush forests of DRC were declared National Parks, and the pygmy were evicted.

Since then, the pygmy have suffered much. Living on borrowed land outside the magnificent park that was once their home, they are marginalized, violated, and hunted for sport. They live in extreme poverty with little hope of improvement.

Margaret and Betty were profoundly touched by the beautiful pygmy children, the extreme poverty, and the despair that haunts displaced people. 

Margaret with pygmy child

Mission accomplishedi

After 4 years of fund raising, the PLP realized its goal and 27+ acres of land were purchased and deeded to the Buyungule community as a whole. Ownership is permanent, with stipulations the land will always be theirs. 

The land will be used for both settlement and agriculture. The 150 families in the community have moved from a 3-acre plot to 27 acres, which enables them to farm food crops with the possibility of becoming sustainable. 

I am still amazed two women from the US bought land for a pygmy community half-way around the world! Before the trip, they knew little about Congo and nothing about the pygmy. It is a testament to how much each of us can do when we see the need and take action. 

We believe this may be the first time land was bought for the pygmy in Congo! Congratulations Margaret and Betty!!! Well done!

Next on the agenda

Margaret, Betty and I are returning to Congo this September for a ceremony to dedicate the land. Plans are in the works to build a school on the property, since their last school was destroyed by Rwandan soldiers 5 years ago.

The pygmy are holders of ancient wisdom regarding jungle plants and animals. We need to keep this unique intelligence alive to benefit the entire planet.

Help us help the pygmy survive! Please DONATE generously . . . a little goes a loooong way!

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley
President, Empower Congo Women

Monday, February 23, 2015


 Teen mothers at Safe House, Mumosho Women's Center,  DRC (2014)

Three years have passed since I was last in Congo and that long since I've written this blog. Nevertheless, our non-profit organization, Empower Congo Women (ECW), is going strong!

A number of amazing projects have come to fruition in that time, all made possible by the collaboration of like-minded souls like yourself who share the vision of a peaceful, prospering Congo. 

We deeply appreciate your on-going support for ECW's projects. In doing so, you play a major role in making real, lasting change happen in Congo. Check out what we've been able to accomplish in the last few years working together:
  • Mumosho Women's Center
  • Safe House for Teen Mothers


Women registered to vote.  Mumosho Women's Center, DRCongo (2014)

This beautiful building is our largest project to date and has become the mainstay of community life in Mumosho. A rallying place for community events, workshops, such as family planning, women's rights, and peace negotiations among ex-combatants, are held here.

The center serves many educational needs for the community: as schoolroom for literacy and sewing classes, vocational training site for entrepreneurs, organic agriculture hub, and health center promoting child/maternal health. 

Additionally, the MWC functions as Safe House for Teen Mothers. The center is able to feed and house ten young women (and their babies) at a time. Since 2013, 45 young women have received vocational training here and returned to their villages as valuable members of society instead of outcasts.

Literacy classes are popular with local women, most of whom cannot read or write, because girls are often kept home from school to help with younger children. Young women are especially eager to become literate so they can vote for President in the upcoming Congolese election.                                                                                       
The center was created through the collaboration of many people. The building was designed by Amani Matabaro, director of ABFEK, a Congolese charity, who sketched it on a napkin and then managed its construction.

The project was sponsored by Rotary Club of Montecito in conjunction with 30 other Rotary Clubs and Rotary International. Private donors and fundraising events were invaluable in making this dream become a reality.

In 2014, the center was honored as an exemplary Rotary project in District 5190, which covers 12 countries in central Africa.


"My Goat is Your Goat" Project

Organized by Amani at the Mumosho Women's Center, this project has been a huge success in building community as well as improving food capacity.

Goats are more than just animals to the Congolese. Their value extends far beyond being producers of meat and milk: They are given as dowry presents and land payment, as well as settlement in legal disputes.  When you give someone a goat, it means you are friends for life

"My goat is Your Goat" participants.      Mumosho Women's Center, DRCongo (2013)

This is how it works: MWC gives a woman a pregnant goat that she cares for lovingly so the first kid will be healthy. Instead of being sold, it is given to another woman, who in turn passes her first kid on to another woman. This way women become sisters and community is built between families, with even the poorest women being included.

Amani uses this program to teach ethical leadership, explaining that when people care for another's goat, or receive one from another person, they become participating members of the community instead of looking out only for themselves. 

Family Planning Workshops

Two workshops were given--one for men, the other for women. There was a huge turnout, both sexes wanting some form of birth control. Unfortunately, there are few clinics offering birth control, because Congo is a predominately Catholic country. However, everyone learned about women's high mortality rate after the 5th child. Until recently, even educated Congolese believed that families with 12 children was desirable. 

The MWC is working toward becoming sustainable by selling its sewing projects, organic produce, baskets, and small animals at local markets. It is not sustainable yet; there are ongoing expenses for teachers, food for the teen mothers and their children, and center upkeep. Please consider donating to keep our programs going. DONATE NOW

Proud sewing teacher with teen mothers. DRCongo (2014)
Rape is still epidemic in Congo, and young girls are frequently rape victims. A pregnant teenager with no husband is at risk, because she is often shunned by the community and has no job skills to support herself or the child. This is especially true when she is a rape survivor (sad but true). 

The Safe House was created to give pregnant teen agers and their babies shelter and vocational training until they can support themselves. The Safe House is located within the Mumosho Women's Center and houses 10 girls and their babies at all times. 

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

Safe House Curriculum

All the teen moms take literacy classes and learn how to sew. They are taught hygiene and expected to come to class clean, which builds pride. They take classes on child health, nutrition, and cooking. 

The young women generate income for themselves and the center by selling school uniforms to local children. Some learn small animal husbandry. . . how to raise healthy chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs for sale at the Mumosho Peace Market. They also learn how to manage money in weekly entrepreneurial classes.

Young mother learns to write in Congo

Recently, 10 young mothers graduates were given sewing machines and fabric to start their own businesses. With a vocation and new-found pride, they are able to rejoin their community on good terms.

MWC programs have literally saved their lives and the lives of their children. No longer cast out, they are respected members of the community whose children go to school. Please DONATE NOW to keep the Safe House and its life-saving programs open!


#1 reason: Democratic Republic of Congo is ranked the No. 1 poorest country in the world. Despite its enormous mineral wealth, the majority of Congolese live in extreme poverty. Rape continues to be epidemic with an estimated 1150 women being raped there every day.

Your donation makes it possible for Congolese women to become financially self-sufficient and stand up against this terrible violence toward women. Donors 
also support programs that build community, provide literacy and health education, and promote peace and reconciliation in eastern Congo.

#2 reason: You can be confident that your donations go to support projects, not administrative costs. I am available to answer any questions, and will be sending project reports from Congo in September.

If there is a program you wish to support or create, please contact me directly to discuss how we can do this.  ECW's mission is to turn visions into reality.

  • Bakery project - provide ingredients for baking bread 
  • Fish pond project - stock pond with fish fed with organic waste from garden
  • Water project - bring water to over 20,000 people in Mumosho area
  • Kitchen garden project - with water taps working, women grow produce near home
My pledge is to keep sending updates about Empower Congo Women's projects so you can track the progress of what your donations are providing.
Again, my heart is filled with gratitude to you all.

Think about GETTING INVOLVED and developing projects with us! 
WE NEED YOU!!! and it's really, really FUN!

With love and appreciation,

 Victoria Bentley

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.
Change.orgSign the petition »
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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, 


Sunday, May 27, 2012


Women of Ushindi Center!

Jambo! Habari ya leo? For anyone who knows me well, slowing down and relaxing is not in my nature. Since I arrived in the Congo two and a half weeks ago, I have been working long hours at Ushinidi Center followed by Swahili classes at night. Needless to say, I am exhausted but energized by the women’s spirit and resilience. 

Last weekend I traveled to Rwanda for a day to meet with the staff members who run a trauma-healing center. Since then I have been meeting with various colleagues to start a conversation addressing the extreme need for a healing center in Bukavu. It has come to knowledge that such a center does not currently exist in Bukavu, a city which is flooded with internally displaced refugees from the villages in Congo. These women were forced to flee their villages due to war and violence in Congo. Many of these women were raped, while their children were forced to watch, they lost their husbands to the war or were abandoned, and their children often succumbed to various illnesses and malnutrition along the journey. These women that I am working with are survivors in every sense of the word.

This week started off on Monday with a new group of 20 participants.  The first day is always the toughest because I am using screening tools to request information on the women’s stories and symptoms to determine a baseline score before the groups begin. Because of confidentiality I am not allowed to tell their stories, but I can say that the things I hear are far removed from our reality living in the United States. I came home on Monday just as I did when I ran screening assessments on the last group, emotionally exhausted yet inspired and motivated to provide these women with the tools to heal. Contrary to my former beliefs, the women find telling their story and opening up about their past to be therapeutic. I have the feeling that these women have never been in a space to openly discuss what happened to them without social repercussions and embarrassment.

On Tuesday I was able to continue working with a different group of women at the center who are learning to sew for a vocational training program. I have been asked to partner with Victoria to start a sewing collective for women living in the poorest area in Bukavu known as Asants. We have been working hard to develop a product line and figure out all the intricacies of running a co-op sewing collective here in Congo. We have decided to call it MamAfrica and these women will be directly paid for their work. 

MamAfrica is a woman’s cooperative made up of 3 sewing collectives: Centre Ushindi, ABFEK and Action Kivu. The majority of women working at MamAfrica come from rural easterm Congo, where violence and terrorism have forced them to flee their homes.

In addition to vocational training, women at MamAfrica receive classes in financial management, holistic healing, literacy, and maternal/child health. Through the creative art of sewing, MamAfrica provides a safe haven where women come together to collaborate in creating their new community. Each MamAfrica purchase goes directly to the women who made the item.

Buying their product not only helps the Mamas but it supports the next generation of leaders in DRC. In Swahili, the name Mama is the respectful word used to address a Mother. MamaAfrica symbolizes all the Mamas coming together to create unity and self-empowerment through the arts in DRC.

Today was quiet special and I will not soon forget the impact that the women had on me. We started off the day running the groups and in morning and finished with a group exercise known as “step into the circle”. I explained to the women, through my lovely interpreter who has been with me from the beginning, that I was going to make statements such as, “If you are a women, step into the circle”. I first made some statements to show the women that even though we are all different we have many things that bring us together. I asked the women to come up with some phrases for the exercise. It is hard to convey the energy that was present in the room, but these beautiful women who I met 2 weeks ago who barley spoke, were full of courage and compassion for one another. One woman started off by saying, “If you are a strong powerful women, step into the circle”. Every single one of them stepped into the circle and starting cheering and greeting one another. Seeing this transformation in these women was incredible. We continued this exercise for 15 minutes and it truly was astonishing how the women came out of their shells and worked together.

I am proud of all the women I have been blessed to work with. They honestly have touched my heart. I am grateful everyday for this experience and I thankful that these women have chosen to take the difficult steps to move closer to healing.

Much love and gratitude!

Written by Ashley Nemiro 

MamAfria 13" computer case

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back in Bukavu again . . .

Congolese woman looks to the future

Dear Friends of Empower Congo Women!

I have returned to Congo after nine months and have many good things to report! Although you may have read of rebel outbreaks to the north and south, Bukavu remains secure and our projects are going well.

Research. This year I am accompanied by Ashley Nemiro, a doctoral candidate in psychology from North Carolina State University.  Together we're studying the positive effects of trauma therapy on women war survivors in eastern Congo.  We began our research last week by enlisting and interviewing 24 women; all have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and all are eager to learn how to manage them.

We will be comparing the effectiveness of EFT (energy psychology) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) in reducing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms; additionally, all the women will receive group therapy. We are training four Congolese caregivers, as well, who will continue the work after we leave.  Our research is being financed by ACEP, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology.

Ushindi Center. Our women's center is going strong, gearing up to send new products to the USA. After graduating 30 women last July and encouraging self reliance by gifting each with a sewing machine and fabric, the center has embarked on a program of self-reliance.  Ushindi’s staff, headed by Administrator Chantal Kikuni, retained 10 graduates and has recruited 10 new young women to help them build the business of selling hand sewn items abroad.  
Ushindi Center staff (L to R) Verdiane, Denyse, Chantal

Since September, the women at Ushindi Center have sewn 150 aprons and sent them to the USA for sale. We are delighted to report that all are sold and that Ushindi aprons are spread across the US! Many thanks for supporting our efforts!

Right now, we are busy designing items for our new line.  By partnering with two other women’s sewing collectives, we will be able to produce a large number of high quality items. Stay tuned to upcoming blogs to check out our gorgeous tablecloths, napkins, purses, and headbands, all made by Congolese women with colorful African fabric!
Young woman sewing a purse from Ushindi's new line

Mumosho. As many of you know, Rotary International is the source of an upcoming grant to furnish a large vocational school in Mumosho, a war-torn area one hour south of Bukavu. Over the last six months, a number of wonderful women friends contributed their time and fund raising efforts to provide a building to house this project. I cannot thank you all enough for your support!

I am happy to tell you that I visited Mumosho on Saturday, where we looked at available buildings to house the vocational center. Nothing to report yet, but the Rotary Club of Bukavu is on board, ready to finance the project, so the vocational school is fast on its way to becoming reality!

The vocational school is part of a larger project, the Mumosho Peace School, which will house primary and secondary schools, a safe house for young women, and workshop space for community education classes, such as conservation, sanitation  and peaceful negotiation.  Empower Congo Women is working on this project in conjunction with ABFEK, a local charity run by Amani Matabaro, and Action Kivu, a grassroots non-profit based in Los Angeles.
Amani in front of the market we built last summer - 2011

We also visited the Mumosho Peace Market that Amani and Empower Congo Women built last year with the help of several international Rotary clubs. It was early when we arrived, so the vendors were just setting up, but we had the good fortune to meet one of the women farmers who was trained at the Demonstration Farm established by Amani and financed by Rotary Club of Montecito. Look at the pride as she holds up the biggest cabbage I've ever seen!

With love and appreciation,

Mama Vicki