Monday, November 2, 2015

Congo Healing Program opens it doors

Teachers and peer counselors from newly founded Congo Healing Program. Mumosho DRC 2015

The purpose of my trip to Bukavu last September was to establish a trauma healing center in the Mumosho area of eastern Congo.  

Working together, Amani Matabaro, director and founder of ABFEK, and I set up the Congo Healing Program (CHP) in a large, private room in the literacy building of the Mumosho Community Center.  

With my psychological expertise and Amani’s translating finesse in Swahili and French, we trained two EFT peer counselors and 12 teachers. In addition to making trauma healing available at no charge to whoever needs it, the CHP is teaching healthy coping skills to primary school children.

Although CHP is a trauma healing program, the name was chosen to reflect a positive future—our focus is as much about moving forward and manifesting dreams as it is about healing past suffering.

The CHP has 3 parts:
1. Public education about trauma, depression, and anxiety: their symptoms and the need for treatment,
  2. Peer counselors trained in EFT (a tapping therapy), breath work, and positive visualization for individuals and groups,
    3.Teacher training for a daily morning healing ritual with primary school children.

I originally went to Congo in 2008 to do trauma therapy. But the differences between western psychology and Congolese culture seemed too wide to bridge at the time, so I focused on vocational training and Centre Ushindi.

It took some years to work out which therapies really help people there. Peacefulheart Network taught how to do tapping with war victims.  From there, I added interventions I found  helpful when treating women survivors of sexual violence, such as breath work, visualization, tapping, song, dance, and group therapy.

Additionally, I confer with Amani about which interventions, language, and imagery are culturally compelling so these folks will integrate the new skills into their everyday lives instead of forgetting them as soon as I leave!

We taught teachers a morning ritual that helps school children forget their difficulties at home (domestic violence, hunger, pain) and make school a safe place for them. When calm and relaxed, they are more open to incorporating positive thinking and proactive behaviors into their lives.

School kids in DR Congo

Being a teacher himself, Amani loved the idea of helping kids get off to a positive start each morning. The teachers we trained love the protocol, especially greeting each student at the door as they entered the classroom. One principal immediately started doing breath work with 5th and 6th graders—no small task, because abdominal breathing is very foreign to them. To get around the strangeness, we have them breathe God in and out, which is relaxing and empowering. 

I want to thank all of you who donated to make this program a reality. YOU are helping war victims you will never meet heal and rebuild their lives. Children are starting off on the right foot because of your generosity. YOU have made a HUGE difference for the good in many lives.

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley
Empower Congo Women - President and founder

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Empower Congo Women
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Nurturing the Smiles of Congo

The Dark Side

By now most of you know that terrible things happen in Democratic Republic of Congo—that it may be the worst place in the world to be a woman or girl.

This description of Congo is used most often by the media to get attention, or by charitable organizations to garner donations, a publicity ploy dubbed “pornography of the poor,” because it exploits the poor by always showing them desperate and suffering. I too have been guilty of perpetuating that impression in my last two fund raising emails. 

Let the Light Shine

So today I want to describe to you the Congo I know and love. This is another version, which may be surprising because we are accustomed to hearing the worst about that country. Yes, terrible things happen there, but there are also kindness and joy wherever you look. Of all the places I’ve traveled, Congo has the most vitality, is the most alive place--its people, animals, forests, and jungles—I’ve ever been.
Contrary to what you may imagine, the Congolese are sociable people, not prone to rape or war. There was no rape to speak of in Congo before 1995 when over one million Rwandan Hutus, perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, relocated to refugee camps in eastern Congo. Eighty percent of them escaped into the surrounding mountains and the reign of terror began. It is said you could identify which terrorist group attacked a village by the type of torture they inflicted on the women.

Against this tableau of suffering, there are many good Congolese people working hard to make their country a better place, safe and peaceful for all who live there. These people are warm, friendly, and gracious. . . and just like my good friends pictured below, they are lots of fun!  

 Amani Matabaro, Director of ABFEK and President of Mwangaza Rotary Club

 Hortense Barholere and adoptees, UN Security Officer

Dominique Bikaba, Conservationist, Executive Director, Strong Roots Congo 

It is said that when two or more Congolese get together, there is a party. They certainly love to gather together in small groups to talk, laugh, sing, and dance.

Mamas at Centre Ushindi, DR Congo
Women and girls who have been violated suffer grievously, but with kids to feed, they must continue on. The strength and resilience of these women is legendary: they carry loads heavy enough for pack animals, yet they can flash smiles of joy that disarm you.

Woman carrying bananas, DR Congo
This is your opportunity to support the joyous spirit of the Congolese people. Instead of focusing on the dark side, let’s encourage their strength, resiliency, courage, and most of all their smiles.

The Congo Trauma Healing Project is being created with the intention of bringing inner peace to the men, women and children who suffer from trauma. It also has the broader intention of reconciling the various tribal groups that live in the Mumosho area.  As daunting as it may sometimes seem, trauma healing is doable in Congo. So let’s make it happen together! 

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley
Executive Director – Empower Congo Women

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bringing trauma healing to DR Congo

Teen-agers collecting firewood in Sud Kivu Province, DRC
 In 2011, an estimated 1100 women and girls were being raped every day in DRC, primarily by militia groups. Now four years later, the militias are mostly demobilized, but rape continues to be an epidemic.

Today women and girls are being sexually attacked by teachers, neighbors, police, and members of their own family. Domestic abuse is rampant, and unemployed men target young girls going to collect firewood and working in the fields. There is no fear of punishment, so no woman or girl is safe in DRC.

Charitable organizations provide medical care for a fraction of the women: doctors at Panzi Hospital believe for every woman they treat, thirty go without medical care. Psychological care is almost non-existent in Congo.

“Widows” -- women shunned by their husbands and community in DR Congo
Can you imagine being staked to the ground and brutally gang-raped while your husband, children, and community watch? Raped so viciously you need surgery to repair the wounds. Then shunned by your husband and sent from the community--the only world you’ve ever known--without means of support and small children in tow?

War victims work hard to rebuild their lives in DR Congo

I know these women personally. They filled my vocational center in Bukavu: Justine, who was forced to watch her husband be buried alive, then raped repeatedly and left for dead; Terese, who spent 22 months in hospital, her feet in stirrups hoping to repair the damage that never healed; and Angelique, who listened to the screams of her sister being burned alive while she was raped. This is hard stuff to hear, unimaginable to bear. 

In 2010, Gunilla Hamne and I taught 25 rape survivors like the women described above to be trauma healers using TTT, the Trauma Tapping Technique. They underwent three months training and an exam; all passed and became Certified Trauma Healers

The women loved the tapping technique: They eagerly practiced it on each other, then took it home to their children and out into the community to help others who were suffering. One woman said it felt "like fresh air moving through my body;" others said it made their mind clearer and easier to make decisions. Hortense, a woman who had lost 4 of her 5 children, changed from being hostile and argumentative to being kind and willing to help others in the center. 

Overall, the tapping seemed to lift the despair these women felt and allowed them to be hopeful about the future. Being trauma healers also gave them a meaningful place in the community; once again they were valuable contributors to everyone's well being instead of unwelcome victims. 

TTT Certified Trauma Healers, DR Congo

The psychological wounds these women carry are far worse than the physical torture they endured. The loss is beyond our comprehension, yet the Congolese women I've known have huge recuperative powers. Given healing skills and a supportive environment, they are able to regenerate their aliveness, and they are willing to pass that healthy enthusiasm on to others: Making that happen on a larger scale is my vision for the Congo Trauma Healing Project. 

Please help us help these women recover emotionally from the terrible wounds they suffer. One rape victim's dream is to live a life free of the trauma of her rape and to be able to feed and clothe my children. Working together, we can make that happen.

Show these women that others are sympathetic to their suffering. You have no idea how much it means to them to know that others care what happens to them and their children. 

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley, PsyD
Executive Director - Empower Congo Women

                                          PLEASE DONATE NOW

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Congo Trauma Therapy Project

Congo is the most dangerous place on earth for women and children

Dear Friends, 

Welcome to helping families heal and rebuild their lives in DR Congo! I’m excited about returning to Congo next month and excited as well to tell you what we're planning there. Working with Amani Matabaro of ABFEK Congo, we're going to set up a trauma healing center in Mumosho, the war-torn part of eastern Congo where most of Empower Congo Women projects have taken place.

As you may remember from prior blogs, trauma healing is what originally drew me to Congo in 2008. And although ECW has accomplished many wonderful things since then, the Congo Trauma Healing Project has never come to fruition. 

But it is now! This September, we intend to establish a healing center where anyone who is traumatized can get the help they need-- rape survivors, victims of abuse, families, returning child soldiers, orphaned children, and teen-age mothers.

There is so much need in Congo—just about everyone is traumatized, so this trauma center will be a godsend.

Thousands of traumatized Congolese women and girls need help.

I plan to teach peer counselors a series of effective, simple-to-learn techniques that enable people to manage trauma symptoms. The counselors will be salaried and expected to hold weekly meetings where local folk can learn and practice the healing techniques so they can help themselves. We're going to rent a quiet space where people can come together in peace and safety.

The trauma healing protocol I will be teaching is a combination of breath work, body awareness, tapping (TTT), visualization, and some cognitive therapy.The therapeutic sequence has been designed to be compatible with Congolese culture.

This pilot project is intended to run for one year. At the end of that time, we will apply for a Rotary Global Grant to expand the reach of trauma healing in Congo. Stay tuned for the next email where you will learn the history behind this project and why we know it will succeed. 

Thanks for being part of the continuing efforts to make DRCongo a safer, kinder place for women and children.

With love and appreciation,

Victoria Bentley, PsyD.
Executive Director, Empower Congo Women

Copyright © 2015 Victoria Bentley. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography)
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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