Monday, December 1, 2008
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love cooking with my family, eating yummy food, and being grateful for all we have.
So instead of sitting around dreaming about turkey and pumpkin pie and missing my family, I asked my African friends out to dinner to celebrate with me. Victor and Nellie and their children Nadege and Cedric are my African family, so they of course were invited. They have opened their home to me and fed me more times than I can count, making Bukavu a warm, friendly place for me. Victor is working on his English, which is getting much better, and Nellie speaks none, but we communicate well nonetheless . . the details aren't all that important, anyway.
Roland, who often translates for me and is a family friend as well, also came along. And my friend Morag from Canada joined the party to celebrate vicariously since she missed her Thanksgiving Day, too.
We dined at La Rouche, a beautiful restaurant on Lake Kivu. No turkey but the fish, Capitan from Uganda, was great. I even got mashed potatoes.
When all is said and done, life is all about family and friends for me. To love and be loved is to be blessed. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday weekend.
With love and gratitude,
Thursday, November 27, 2008
People ask me why I choose to help women in a country so far away with so many problems when I could be helping women at home in the US.
My response is that Congolese women need more help than other women. They have experienced atrocities so horrendous they are difficult to speak of or even comprehend. Worse yet, they have been cast out of their communities to fend for themselves, along with their children, with no means of support. It is said it is more dangerous to be a woman in Congo than it is to be a soldier there. Their losses are enormous, and I often wonder how they have survived until now, when so many others died because their lives are so difficult.
So here I am on Thanksgiving Day, back in Bukavu for several weeks, counting my blessings. I spent the morning interviewing women survivors, listening to the stories of their lives, moved to tears by the depth of their suffering. And yet, they continue to amaze and inspire me with their courage and capacity to hope.
The women I help here are still full of life; they laugh, argue, and break into song and dance when they are happy. They're fun, and I always enjoy being with them. The latest plan is that from donations they will buy food in bulk, 100 kilo sacks of cassava and corn flour, rice, beans and cooking oil. They will divide the large bags equally, using the food to feed their children, or sell if there is any left.
With love and gratitude,
Friday, October 31, 2008
Empower Congo Women
The beauty of giving in Africa is that you can do so much with very little.
Unfinished schoolhouse with teacher third from left, Senator far right.
The people of Mushenyi need your help to finishing building their schoolhouse. Without an education, their boy children have no future and a high probability of becoming child soldiers.
This mountain village was building a school when they were attacked by rebel forces. Children now attend school in a shack that is open to torrential rains with only rickety benches for seats. They have no chairs, tables, books, paper, or even a blackboard.
Robbed repeatedly over the past decade, this village has lost everything of value: its animals, tools, money, and tragically, its young men and women. There are only elders and children left in Mushenyi now. This community desperately wants to educate its children, so they can learn how to survive and then thrive in the modern world.
This resilient village wants to get back on its feet. Let’s help them do that!
Mushenyi school children.
Fund Drive Goal for 2009 - Mushenyi - $2890
$ 1000 Finish construction of school roof - Completed
$1500 windows, doors, rebuild far brick wall
$720 School teacher salary – one year
$340 School benches, blackboards, chalk
$330 School supplies for 110 children
DONATE NOW. Make checks payable to: Empower Congo Women
PO Box 60940
Santa Barbara, CA 93111
Empower Congo Women 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to helping Congolese women war victims heal and prosper. Your donations will be fully tax exempt.
Thank you for your contribution to this very worthy cause.
With love and gratitude,
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Everything of value has been taken from these people. Their most precious resource, their young men and women, are gone, too, conscripted as children into a merciless war. Now there are only young children and older adults.
The village is asking for help to finish its schoolhouse, which has brick walls but no roof, windows, doors or floors. The community wants to educate the children, so they have a future beyond war, rape, and looting.
Empty animal shed.
Many women from here were taken into the bush to become victims of sexual violence; more than half did not return.
I stand facing 200 people who want me to fix their schoolhouse--who essentially want me to save their community. Not wanting to promise anything I cannot deliver, I tell them I will bring goats the next time I come . . . and they are delighted, or at least they appear so, too polite to show disappointment.
Working together, you and I can make a big difference in the lives of these people. We can finish the school, pay the teacher for one year, and buy animals and tools so the village can become self-sustaining once more. Won't you please donate something, large or small--everything helps.
Friday, October 24, 2008
Our route takes us south through Nyangezi, then another hour and a half into the interior. Having travelled this road before, I am prepared for tilled fields, stands of banana, and eucalyptus farms that stretch like variegated carpet to the ring of mountains surrounding this rich valley.
I am horrified, first for the people who crashed to the bottom, then for us, realizing that their fate could be ours. . . and I’m not all that religious. Of course, as things have it, just at that moment, a transport truck loaded with passengers suddenly roars into view, heading straight toward us at high speed, enveloped in an ominous cloud of dust.
Soon we are stopped, nose to nose with the truck, the drivers eyeing each other coldly. Negotiations begin, and it is decided that since the SUV is smaller, it will hug the cliff while the transport squeezes by. To my eyes, there is no pull-out space, so I watch fascinated from a safe distance.
The Senator, who grew up here in the high country, is undaunted, happily shaking hands with the people riding on top of the load. Roland eats a banana, then throws the peel over the edge, watching it fall like a pebble into a deep well. Victor stands, hands jammed into jean pockets, his back glued to the cliff, watching his feet.
Soon we arrive in Mushenyi, where it seems the whole town has come out to greet us.
To be continued. . .
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
It gets worse: They have lost their husbands and been forced to leave their homes and villages. Without skills to make a living, they are the sole of support of their children. They are alone and without resources; there is no one to help them.
How this can happen is unfathomable to us in the west. But this nightmare continues to be reality for hundreds of thousands of women in DR Congo.
Donations to this cause can be made to Empower Conogo Women, a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to healing trauma around the world. Your donations will be tax-exempt.
PO Box 60940
Saturday, September 20, 2008
As I mentioned before, my translator Hortense Barholere works for Women for Women International. Familiar with the program schedule, she knew they were offering one last training in Bukavu before they moved their focus to the country. She thought the AVDC women survivors might be interested and passed the information along to me. Only caveat was the deadline for signing up was fast approaching.
Were they interested? Oh, yes, were they ever! So Yves, the AVDC President, and I gathered their relevant information, delivered it to the Women for Women office, and arranged for the women to meet the enrollment staff on the last day before cut-off. Whew!
What a great opportunity! Thank you, Hortense for the heads up!
My friend and translator, Hortense.
Women for Women International is a wonderful program that educates and vocationally trains women affected by war in 9 locations around the globe: Bosnia, Kosovo, Herzegovia, Afganistan, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda, and DR Congo.
The program is one year long, with 20 women forming each group that participates. Twenty-three of the AVDC women applied, but not all were accepted: three did not meet the age requirements, and another three had participated previously so were ineligible.
The vocational skills taught are: soap-making, tye-dye, food processing, tailoring, knitting, embroidery, juice making, and business management. These are very real ways women can make a living in this culture.
The program also pays a small stipend: $10 each month plus $60 for those who finish the program.
The AVDC group of women began first week in September. Sticking to this program will not always be easy for them: the training center is several hours walk from their homes, they have to continue working during this time, and both they and their children are sometimes sick.
With love and gratitude,
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
After the women and machines were relocated, I spoke with Yves who told me something very interesting: He and the women survivors have been working privately for over two years to obtain NGO status. This is not an easy achievement, and they have done everything but finish paying the attorney. That is very impressive.
The Friday following the move, I met with the women as a group at the OCET building to discuss their options.
They began by voting Yves their President, as he has been their counselor for over 3 years and they trust him to act in their best interests. They voted Pasqualine to be their Representative and Spokesperson, as she has already taken a leadership role with the group and is literate. They chose not to include other committee members at this time. I am to act as Consultant who helps them finance their projects.
The women discuss their options.
After more discussion, they decided to return to the space they previously occupied for the following reasons:
- their prior location has better foot traffic for a store,
- it doesn't make sense to pay double rent,
- the OCET building is a long way from where most of them live, so it will be costly and difficult for them to get there, and
- they are already a well-known sewing center in that location.
They voted to hire the OCET sewing teacher, who was at the meeting and fixed the machines while we talked. She is a dedicated teacher, a woman who takes her job seriously. Unlike the previous sewing teachers, she has a diploma in teaching dressmaking. The women were delighted by her expertise and excited for classed to begin. She said many of the women will be at Beginning Dressmaker Level in six months with lessons 3x per week.
AVDC women members surround me with new sewing teacher at far left.
While the women continue their sewing classes, they plan to generate income by renting the sewing machines to other dressmakers. They can take lessons in the morning and rent the machines in the afternoon. It turns out that fourteen sewing machines in a building with cement floor and intact roof is a luxury in Bukavu, so this passive income could be lucrative.
Income generated this way will be recorded by an accountant of their choosing and split equally among the women survivors, after expenses such as electricity and machine up-keep are deducted. A sign will be made to advertise this service.
No more will donations from abroad be sent directly to any one person. All contributions and income will be recorded and deposited in their NGO account by an accountant in Bukavu. Accounts payable will be logged in and backed up by receipts, so that all disbursements will be accounted for and transparent.
Disbursements will be made through group decision.
I am delighted how well this group of women survivors is evolving. Despite set-backs, they are becoming more self-confident, working together as a cohesive group, and taking responsibility for their future.
My interpreter for this meeting was Roland, a 21-year old Congolese kid with wisdom beyond his years. After listening to the women for some time, he turned to me and said, "These women are really tough." And, yes, it is true: they are tough . . . that is why they are still alive.Roland, my translator, and Honorable Mubalama
The next day, Honorable David Mubalama, Senator for the Province of South Kivu, stopped by to lend his support to the re-opening of the women's center. It is now an NGO of its own, doing business as Action des Voluntaires Developement Communciutaire (AVDC).
Congratulations Yves and the women of AVDC! You are doing a great job!
With love and gratitude,
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Well, folks, I haven't written for a while, because I've been submerged in the dark side of doing business in Africa: misappropriation of funds, exploitation of women, collusion, and theft. Not much fun, but inevitable if one is going to help women in DR Congo. . . I am learning.
When I returned to Bukavu in mid-June, I realized things were amiss when I was suddenly left out of committee meetings at the Bukavu Women's Center. Then funds sent to a director went missing and the staff went unpaid. I further realized that over $10,000 had been donated to the Center since it opened a year ago last August, and the women were still struggling with homelessness, malnutrition, and unresolved medical issues.
Women survivors demand a new sewing teacher.
The following week, I met with the women, who were outraged that the sewing teacher
After much circuitous talk and no resolution, I rented a truck and moved the sewing machines, tables, and other equipment to another site where the women and machines would be safe. The women were delighted to escape the sewing teacher, who refused to leave his business and sat glumly by as the sewing center was loaded onto the truck.
The former sewing teacher watches his business go out the door.
Friday, August 1, 2008
Dear Friends, Family and other Compassionate Souls,
Many of you have written asking how you can make a difference in these women's lives.
The first thing you can do is spread the word about bringing PEACE to DR Congo. The second best thing to do is to donate to grassroots organizations work in DRC. My organization, Empower Congo Women, is now a pubic charity dedicated to helping Congolese women survivors of sexual violence heal, rebuild their live, and prosper.
Please send your checks to:
Empower Congo Women
P.O. Box 60940
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
OR pay online through paypal at www.empowercongowomen.orgYour donations will be tax-exempt.
The women and I thank you for any contribution you make to help them.
You may rest assured that all monies donated to the women survivors and their families will go directly to support their training, counseling, food, school supplies, medical needs, and spiritual well-being.
With love and gratitude,
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Hortense, my translator, and I interviewed three more women survivors in late June. We met in Dr. Florimond's office on a Saturday afternoon and spent over an hour with each woman, witnessing their pain as they broke silence.
The interview: We first determined their age, marital status, children, and living situation. Then we encouraged them to describe "the event" as these atrocities are euphemistically called. This takes time, as what happened is so personally shameful that they don't want to utter it. Next we emphasized that they are strong survivors, and most important of all, that it is not their fault.
Lastly, we discuss what they can do right now to make their lives better. We identify their strengths, which are many. This is everyone's favorite part of the interview, and it's why you see them smiling, despite all that has happened.
I believe each of these women possesses individual talents and abilities, things she loved to do and was good at before the tradegy occurred, things she could do again given the chance-- and some financial aid.
Rosette is 33 years old and has seven children. Her youngest, GuyRoger, who is seated here with her, is 7 months old. She is from Walungu, a rich mining area a day's drive south of Bukavu. Rosette was a housewife, her husband a miner who made good wages and provided his family with their own home. Their older children attended school. Rosette was taken into the bush three times: the first time she escaped, the second time her husband was killed to avenge the escape of others.
The third time she spent 8 months as a sex slave to Hutu soldiers. The women were stripped naked and left without clothes, a humiliating experience for any woman. They were made to eat a spoonful of feces each day; if anyone resisted, she was beaten. Rosette still has problems swallowing today, almost two years after her release. The women were called by whistle and raped at least three times a day: morning, noon, and night, a ghoulish meal for the soldiers.
When Rosette returned to her village, her home had been burned and all her possessions stolen. She had nothing, and she was 2 months pregnant. Because having a Hutu child is considered a curse, she was unwelcome in her village. Her in-laws told her they would care for her other 6 children if she gave the baby away, but she could not do that. So she brought her children to Bukavu, where she struggles to support them all by selling bread. Sophie's choice.
The family sleeps wherever it can, the older children blaming the baby for their miserable circumstances. Because they resent the baby, Rosette always keeps him with her. When I asked why she doesn't send the other children to her in-laws where they won't grow up as street children, she answered that a woman's children are like the trunk of an elephant; she cannot be separated from them.
Nyassa is a name that means "mother of twins" in her language: she has three sets of twins and two other children, eight in all. Nyassa was also captured by Hutu soldiers and kept as a sex slave for 3 months. She said they were big men, "gangsters" who repeatedly raped the twenty women captured from her village. Her husband died trying to stop the soldiers from raping her; after he was killed, they still raped her and in front of her children, a memory that haunts her and makes her ashamed to look at her children.
She said the women were treated like animals, without pity. She said her suffering was so great that her skin turned black. She has had surgery for fistulas, but her womb continues to weep.
Nyassa escaped with all her children when she went to fetch water and a guard relaxed his vigilance. After that, they lived in the bush for several months eating wild food. They all got smallpox. Her youngest child, who was 3 years old, died from the hardship and had to be buried in a borrowed cloth they had so little. When she returned home, she found that no one was left in her village. Gold miners had taken over the homes, and everything of hers was gone.
Nyassa supports her family by carrying heavy loads, up to 50 kgs, of charcoal and rocks. Because she is able to do this, four of her children attend school, but her body is giving out.
Marcelline is 29 years old and has nine children. Her husband was a successful businessman who bought and sold tools to miners. When first asked, she said they were separated, but after some talking, we learned that he was murdered by Hutu soldiers, buried alive while she watched. She still sees his face, sweating, terrified, as they covered him with dirt.
In the Hutu camp, soldiers lined up to rape the women, morning, noon, and night. Each woman was put on a sheet, and water was thrown on her vagina after each man finished. They were given no food, only cornmeal mixed with the men's urine; if they did not eat it, they starved. The weak ones were sent to the creek to get water, in hopes they would die away from camp and not have to be buried.
Marcelline escaped when a soldier took pity and sent her to the creek, knowing she was strong enough to get away. She walked home and found her children safe with relatives; however, her in-laws rejected her because her husband was dead and she had been raped. At Panzi Hospital, her "heart broke" when she discovered she was pregnant. She begged them to abort her during vaginal surgery, but the doctor refused saying he was there to save lives, not take them. Her youngest daughter is 1 1/2 years old now.
Eventually, Marcelline was able to get all her children back. Her in-laws closed their houses to her and the Hutu child, but her children snuck out and fled with her. Sympathetic neighbors raised $10 so she could start a business, wherein she first bought fish and exchanged them for cassava, then walked 15 km to sell the cassava for a small profit.
So far she has been able to feed her children, but she in increasingly unable to walk long distances due to her prior injuries.
So why are these women smiling?
Rosette wants to be part of the governing committee made up of women survivors at BWC. She also plans to buy and sell food (beans) with her children helping her.
Nyassa loves to sew and has been making clothes for the sewing teacher at the Center. She wants to sew for outsiders who bring their own fabric, eventually getting her own stash of fabric to make clothes for profit.
Marcelline also loves to sew and goes everyday to the Center to practice. She wants to make children's clothes and sell them through the Center.
What I most love about these women is their lack of bitterness. Yes, they are very sad about their lost lives and lost love, but they are also able to look to the future with hope. They still love God. Their smiles are real and so beautiful. . . I am blessed to know them.
With love and gratitude,
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The UNICEF manager curtly told us those services were not needed in Nyangezi. She went on to say that people were healthier there than other areas of Congo, and that Dr. Florimond should have built his health facilities where they were really needed.
Apparently, she spoke without knowing much about the Nyangezi area.
There we met over 60 women survivors of sexual, gender-based violence (SGBV), who live in the area. They were brought to the meeting by Jon Pierre, a young Pastor who acts as their intermediary.
The women elected Jacqueline to speak for them. Also a SGBV survivor, she explained that these women are the sole support of their families, as they have been widowed or deserted by their husbands during the war. Due to injuries stemming from sexual violence, many are unable to do farm work or carry heavy loads, the only work available to country women such as these. What household belongings and animals they had were stolen by soldiers, so they are unable to pull themselves out of poverty.
Jacqueline emphasized their lack of medical care; some have not received treatment after being raped. Many are in pain and have difficulty walking. They are unable to take their children to the doctor when they are ill.
Thinking that Dr. Florimond is a medical doctor, the women hoped he would treat them today.
Dr. Florimond explains he is a psychologist and cannot treat them medically.
Deeply moved by their situation, we both said we would help. Dr. Florimond offered them access to medical services at Poll Health Center. I said I would find investors to make small loans so they could buy and sell food-- this is an excellent way for the women to make money, provided they have the initial investment to get started.
The women applaud their appreciation.
Taking advantage of the upbeat moment, I tried to show them how to use abdominal breathing to make their painful memories go away. Something must have gotten lost in translation, because the more I explained how the belly rises and falls with each breath, the more they laughed. In fact, everyone was laughing . . . it was a great moment of connection with these amazingly resilient women.
With love and gratitude,