Monday, April 21, 2008

The Grand Opening

The Bukavu Women’s Trauma Healing and Care Center is officially open at its new site. It is located on the main street on the way to Panzi Hospital. This is a popular part of town with lots of foot traffic, so the Center is now visible to all.

Driving in rain with almost zero visibility: Priceless!
The day started out sunny, then turned dark and stormy as we set out for the Center. The sky opened and it poured, everything quickly turning to mud. Gratefully, Dr. Florimond had lent me his car with a driver, so when it started to rain we were protected.

Our first stop was to pick up Yves, his wife Cristall, their 2-year old daughter Pepe, and his sister Irene. They brought buttered rolls and warm peanuts for a snack. Then we picked up Morag Hill, my Canadian friend, who wanted to see the place and meet the women. The ride there was slow and wet. The van was splattered with mud up to the windows when we got out.

Cristall holding Pepe.

Flory Zozo was still recovering from malaria, so he and Amina stayed in Bujumbura. They plan to come up in July when the women graduate. We will have another ceremony then to celebrate the first group of sisters.

Yves in front of women lined up along the wall with their machines.

Yves worked the night before painting the walls. Then he and Wilo lined up the sewing machines end to end on a long table along one wall. When we arrived, each woman was sitting in front of a machine, most of them sewing. We were greeted by the Swahili women’s yodel, which I’m sure you have all heard at some time. It was very cool.

I made a speech, and then one of the older women stood and thanked me for giving them something they could really use to improve their lives. I don’t understand Swahili, but I understood every word she said. I was really touched and still am. . . writing this, I well up with tears remembering her eyes.
Woman in red shirt made the speech.
We passed out butter rolls and warm peanuts, then washed them down with Fanta and Coca Cola, the national drinks of Africa.

Pepe still isn't too sure about me.

Natalie was there crocheting doilies, and she gave me the scrubber mitts I had ordered. Kishi came, too, and was smiling as usual.
Natalie crochets while other women sew.

Then the Committee gave me a beautiful libaya as a thank-you gift, along with matching blue necklace, earrings, and bracelet. The one they gave me has a wrap-around skirt with a ruffle running along the edge, and a full blouse. It is so comfortable I wore it on the van ride back to Bujumbura.

Thank you, Committee for my beautiful libaya!
I was wearing a tighter fitting libaya that Yves had gifted me several days earlier, so I put the new one over it . . . I was layered in libaya.

Morag and I both wearing libayas. This one was my thank -you gift from Yves.

Then I tried to name the machines for their donors. I got a positive response naming the Mercedes "Jill". Everyone liked that. She got the honor, because she made the most number of attempts sending the donation (seven at least, what a trooper!).

Wilo with "Jill", the Mercedes of all the machines.
We named the seam-edger "Lisa", after my cousin whose idea it was to name the machines in the first place. For that reason, I thought it only fitting there be one with her name.

Wilo with "Lisa", the electric edger for making men's shirts.

But when we got to the black treadles, the women said they were all already named and would not change their mind. They would not even consider naming them "Cara" and "Carol".
They just sat and grinned at me.

After some prompting and more grinning, they told me: The treadle machines are all named Victor. Yves has always called me Victor, which is the French version of Victoria, and I never corrected him because I like the name. So they named all the treadles Victor after what he calls me, and it is not even my name. I love it-- where else in the world can you find eleven treadle machines named "Victor"?

Sorry Carol and Cara, I lost control. But rest assured that here in the heart of darkness there are a number of black iron sewing machines, all with lovely gold decals from great-grandma's era, carrying your generous spirits, bringing twenty women and their children the promise of a new life.

Wilo standing in front of the new Women's Center on a sunnier day.
Notice treadle heads lying in sun after being oiled.

With love and gratitude,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Buying Sewing Machines

Yves watches as salesman oils machine.

OK, so I'm still thinking like an American who happens to be in Bukavu. I assumed we would just go to the store and buy six sewing machines . . . in and out, done in a day, efficient. I forgot this is Africa. Three days, five stores, and a day of walking later, we were done. And I am delighted to report the mission was a success!

The first day Yves and I planned to go shopping, it rained so hard that the main street in front of my hotel turned into a storm-swollen torrent that rumbled down toward the lake, washing away everything in its path. Litter control. Needless to say, there was not a car or person on the road for several hours. But now I know why the streets in Bukavu are so terrible: a combination of bad weather and neglect will do it every time.

On the morning of the second day, a large demonstration blocked main street and turned the city into a massive traffic jam. Primary and highschool teachers who had not been paid in 6 months were protesting by stopping traffic. There were threats of tear gas, so I went to Dr. Florimond's office on the other side of town to wait it out.

Then the cell phone network went down. By the time Yves and I were able to connect, the sewing machine store had closed.

Teachers strike for back wages by blocking major intersections.

I had money problems of my own. Two donations were sent by mistake to Brazzelville (the other Congo) and had to be rerouted. And the name of the third donor (my cousin!) did not match the name of the sender (if she's not Lisa, who is she?). All that had to be remedied, so back I went to the computer for hours, while Google struggled along in Africa like the rest of us.

Things came together the third day, but not quickly. Once inside the sewing machine store (which is a general appliance store that blares Bruce Lee movies in English), Yves and I realized that we needed Wilonja, the sewing teacher, as neither of us knows anything about sewing machines, and there are no product guarantees here.

Wilo inspects the Butterfly.

Luckily the cell phones worked that day, and he came right over. Wilonja knows everything about sewing machines, and with supreme confidence he checked each one meticulously. After final inspection, we decided to buy one Juki, one Singer, and one Butterfly, all foot-pedal treadle machines made in China. They are very pretty, black iron machines with elaborate gold decals, old-fashioned looking like something great-grandma would have ordered from the Sears catalog.

At this same store we discovered the Mercedes, an electric machine which is truly top of the line. Wilo could barely contain his excitement as he experimented with several of the 48 different stitches. Talk about a fine machine . . . it will take the Center to another level, plus it sews really fast and it's white!

Wilo tries out different stitches on the Mercedes.

Because the Mercedes was so expensive, we decided to buy it rather than two treadles. The goal now being five machines instead of six, we had only one more machine to buy.

We had purchased every acceptable sewing machine the store had in stock. Apparently, there is a sewing machine shortage in Bukavu (why does that not surprise me?), which meant we walked around town trying to locate the remaining machine. There are no yellow pages, and Bukavu is a big city.

Wilo wanted a seam edging machine, because zig-zagged outside seams are popular with men here. We finally found two of them in another appliance store. Wilo and Yves had to choose between an Aksa and a Denson seam edger.

Wilo and Yves inspecting the seam-edger machines.

I have to add that I finally reached fashion relevance in Bukavu. The woman in this photo loved my matching lion print blouse and purse. She wanted me to give her the blouse. Then after she saw this picture, she wanted my camera. Ultimately, she was content when we bought the Denson seam-edger, as it was her store and the sewing machine was a substantial purchase.

Check out the artificial flowers in this very festive store.

You can imagine that I was both relieved and delighted when the sewing machine mission was over. Actually buying those five machines in one day, and getting what we wanted to boot, was a real coup in Bukavu. My Congolese friends are impressed by my American efficiency! Ha Ha . . . the guys knew what they were doing and took care of business. After all, we had to have all the machines for the grand opening of the center the next day. . . there was no way it wouldn't get done.

Sewing machines are loaded into a taxi for the ride back to the Center.

We weren't able to get the treadle tables with the foot pedals that day as they are not kept in stock and had to be ordered. On Monday Yves will return to the first store and pick them up, put them in another taxi, and transport them back to the Center. But Yves had a cutting table made that will hold the machines so they can be displayed for photos at tomorrow's party. No problem.

With love and gratitude,

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Hospital at Nyangezi

Dr. Florimond Kabanda discusses construction of his hospital with the building contractor.

On Sunday a group of us drove out to Nyangezi to view construction of Dr. Florimond’s hospital.

Nyangezi is a peaceful country town, 1½ hour from Bukavu, on reasonable roads. The countryside is exquisite with rolling hills and valleys of tropical lush green growth. Flowering vines twine through the trees, and cultivated gardens of beans, corn, and banana seem to cover every square inch. It is difficult to understand how starvation could be rampant in such prosperity. I ask and am told it is because farmers who have been forced off their land by continuing warfare and fear of being attacked have no way to feed their families. Relief agencies do what they can, but they are unable to reach people in inaccessible areas, which constitute most of DR Congo. Nyangezi is quiet at the moment, so the people are able to farm.

Little girl on Nyangezi road.

Dr. Florimond has been drawn back to Congo to help his people. The more I get to know him, the more I realize he is a visionary. Well aware of what causes the staggering suffering in his country, he has big plans to remedy it. The Shiloh Center Hospital in Nyangezi is such an example. For one thing, it is huge. In the process of being constructed, it will hold over 200 patients when completed.

Hospital entrance is at center with two wings spreading out on both sides.
Notice bricks in front to left and beyond them the roof trusses.

The hospital sits on a gentle slope, surrounded by vegetable gardens and towering eucalyptus trees, located behind the already existing health center. Completed in October 2007, the health center, Poll Clinique, now covers medical needs of the local population as there are no other centers within 30 kilometers. The hospital expansion is scheduled for completion in July 2008.

Bella poses at entrance of Poll Clinique.

The health center is named Poll Clinique in honor of Kurt Poll, a private American donor whose contributions are making both the health center and hospital possible. (There is no government support to speak of here) An industrialist in Grand Rapids, MI, he and his wife are the best kind of Christians, having compassion for others and giving generously to help them.

The back of Poll Clinique seen from hospital site.

Poll Clinique is currently equipped to handle acute trauma of all kinds. The hospital addition will make extended care possible for women victims of sexual violence. In this way they can recuperate over a period of months instead of being released from hospital after one or two weeks as is currently the practice. And because it is a general hospital addressing multiple medical needs, not solely a hospital for gender-based violence, there will be less stigmatization as no one need know the women are there because they were raped.
The ward wing seen from behind looking toward the Poll Clinique.

There is less fighting now as this is a time of attempted peace in DR Congo. Thus, there are less victims of sexual violence seeking medical care, and with donations from abroad, there are better equipped hospitals to accommodate them now. However, UN reports estimate that for every victim that comes for treatment, thirty are left untreated—an appalling number. One wonders what happens to these women; surely, they and the children dependent on them contribute to the high mortality rate in DRC each month.

The pressing need now is for after-care centers to house the women while they recover physically and emotionally, and while they receive training to become self-sufficient. The Bukavu Trauma Healing and Care Center is an excellent model of how to provide training for displaced, destitute women, which is why I support it and encourage you to do so. Yet it cannot afford living facilities for the women, so most live in slums with mud floors, inadequate roofing, little money for food, and no one to watch their children during the day. Additionally, they are forced to do hard labor to support their families, which makes physical recovery difficult.

Private rooms will be located in left wing.

The Shiloh Center Hospital will answer these needs. The vision is that surrounded by beauty in a peaceful environment and given time to heal, the women have a greater chance for full recovery. Detraumatization therapy will be a standard part of the treatment, as will employment training and literacy classes, as most of these women are illiterate. Reconciliation with husbands and community will be part of the treatment approach, as the woman has the best chance of surviving when reunited with her family. Equally important will be the childcare facilities available for the children.

Health center goats greet visitors as we tour the ward wing.

The setting for the Poll Clinique and Shiloh Center Hospital is quite lovely. Our little party drove out in two cars: Dr. Florimond, his three sisters and one brother, me, the Senator, his wife, and some friends of theirs. We explored the construction, toured the grounds, and visited the health center. It was a beautiful day, and later we ate lunch prepared by the Senator’s wife and Dr. Florimond’s sister Florianne.

Florianne and Senator's wife Gemma stand beside tall amaranth plants.

Individual rooms will have private bath.

A late note: Tonight I spoke with Dr. Florimond, who just learned from patient statistics gathered at Poll Clinique since October 2007 that an astounding 45% of their women patients are HIV positive! This is compared to 2-3% of patients here in Bukavu and elsewhere. I don't think anyone suspected this as Nyangezi has been without conflict for some time.

However, after the Interahamwe commited genocide in Rwanda, they fled to northeast DR Congo where they created havoc between 1998 and 2003, and still do in isolated areas. The brutality and sexual violence against women began with their presence as such cruelty had not existed previously in Congo. Also there were two large displacement centers near Nyangezi around 2003, and single women are especially vulnerable in those camps. Both these factors probably explain how AIDS came to Nyangezi.

Apparently no relief agency has checked the medical status of this community. The clinic has rechecked the statistics and is in the process of ordering medication, as percentages this high indicate an epidemic. Fortunately the children do not seem to be affected to the same degree.

Children of Nyangezi. . .

. . . line up to watch the white lady take pictures.

With love and gratitude,

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU!!!!

African fabric in one of the huge warehouses in Bukavu.

We did it! The Bukavu Women’s Trauma Healing and Care Center will have a total of 10 new treadle sewing machines, AND the second, more spacious room. Thank you!

This means so much. Not only will there be enough machines to teach sewing, but the more advanced seamstresses now have the opportunity to sew for income and slowly begin to support themselves.

The smaller space can be used as a store where the crocheted items, soap, and libayas are displayed for sale. It can also be used as a fitting room and counseling office/computer room (they multi-space in Congo, maybe all Africa). Then part of the profits can go toward covering the Center’s ongoing outlay, such as administrative costs, paying the sewing teacher and counselor, and the electricity.

I’ll be returning in July to see how things are working out. Then after seven months we will know how successful this plan is, what works and what improvements can be made. Hopefully the Center will be reaching self-sufficiency by then, which is their long-term goal and seems possible, given their good track record and a little help from their friends.

I want to thank the donors who have given of themselves to make this dream happen for the women. It is an answer to their prayers, literally. I plan to name each machine for its donor, so we will have two Jills, a Lisa, two Caras, and a Carol. I love it! I love you guys for supporting them through me. Helping people is so much fun!

Our 3-day UNICEF workshop in Goma* was postponed until later, so I will be able to meet with the women before the grand opening and graduation ceremony on April 19th. We have not yet named the larger space, but at our meeting tomorrow, I plan to ask the women what they want to call it: the “Salon de ________” or something else entirely. Naming the machines and rental space may sound silly, but the women are uplifted by the fact that people on the other side of the world want to help them. Healing is furthered by knowing that someone has compassion for your suffering.

I’m wondering if the donors would like to send me individual pictures to show the women, so they will know you are real people, just like them only a different color and a long way away.

Oh, my cousin wrote and asked about having a garment made from African fabric and sent back to the US. I had considered this possibility, so I am having a libaya made for myself to see if this is feasible regarding quality. Let me know if you are interested in having something made; I could bring items back in a second suitcase this August.

More fabric . . . notice the coordinating prints.

I want you to see the African dress models I found on a chart at the sewing center. Pretty wild. I chose the one on bottom row, fourth from the left, that has a collar around the neck and open back. Am also wondering if the teacher couldn’t use simple western designs with African fabic, or just make mumus. . . and men’s shirts, too. I know Ambassador Dennis in Australia has ordered several for himself.

If you wanted to donate a sewing machine, you can still contribute to the Center itself. Since it is not yet self-sufficient and has no source of income other than individual donations, there are still monthly costs to cover; taking that pressure off would allow them to focus on training the women and developing the store. They would love small monthly pledges, if you wanted to give that way. Thanks again all you big-hearted people.

*Note: For those of you following the news, in DR Congo, we did not go to Goma as planned and thus missed the airplane crash. Not to worry, I am safe. Would have taken the boat anyway.

With love and much gratitude,

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Training Caregivers in Bukavu DR Congo

Graduates of our first training with their certificates!

The UNICEF sponsored training in Bukavu went very well. Dr. Florimond's materials are excellent, and we were able to speak to the needs of the caregivers present. We were able to communicate our psychological experience so they could apply it to their work.

Dr. Florimond and his brother Pepa set up the overhead projector.

The workshop participants came from two NGOs funded by UNICEF: Panzi Hospital and FSH, a French agency with mostly Congolese workers. (Panzi Hospital is in Bukavu, which is stable right now, while FSH services Minova in northern DRC where random violence and sexual atrocities are ongoing) Our attendees are the people on the ground, the front line who sees the women when they first arrive to seek help.

Education about AIDS/HIV is has permeated the rural areas, so rape victims (men, as well as women and children) know they must receive medical attention within 72 hours. Many walk two days to get help. The ones who cannot walk are carried on stretchers over impassible roads; some die on the way.

What you need to understand about the victims is that before all this happened to them, they were relatively happy people, leading normal lives in their country village. They were married, had children, and lived their lives in the village where they were born. Some had businesses and their children attended school. Many were young girls just beginning life; some were engaged, some too young to be wooed.

The rapes are carried out systematically with the intention of humiliating the woman: gang rape in front of her husband and children, and the other villagers. Sometimes she is maimed by machete, or shot with a pistol in the vagina. Young boys are forced to have sex with their mother or sister, or be killed. Babies are slaughtered in front of their parents; husbands are murdered, and whatever possessions the family has are confiscated.

The women are made to carry the stolen goods on their backs into the bush, where the men keep them as sex slaves until they are able to escape; or until they are so physically damaged the men don’t want them anymore. Some are trafficked for money, as was one girl who was sold to a chief who wanted a pretty young wife. Others have been captured and taken into the bush 2 and 3 times while trying to return to return to their village.

For reasons beyond western comprehension, the victim is blamed for the dishonor and more often than not, rejected by her husband and the entire community. She is driven from the village in shame with her children, who are now also dishonored. Her husband takes another wife. All her possessions are taken from her; she is penniless without means of support. The secondary trauma of rejection by her husband and village can be as painful and more difficult to resolve than the sexual violation. And a woman without a husband in Congo has no status; it is unthinkable to be unmarried.

I know this is tough stuff for westerners to swallow, and I congratulate you if you’re still reading. What happens here in Congo is so distressing we don’t want to hear about it. We don’t want to know these things happen in our world, so it is easier to turn a deaf ear, switch on the TV, and forget about it. After all, they are just natives in Africa and that’s what they do there, so let them solve their own problems.

A psychologist at Panzi Hospital, the woman on far left is an excellent clinician.

But our attendees --nurses, psychologists, and social workers-- have chosen to help these people, and they listen to their stories every day. They do the best they can. One psychologist took an 11-year old girl home and raised her. A social worker offered a bereft man a sheep and a goat. Another admitted they told the women that what had happened to them wasn’t that bad; there are worse things. Like what I wonder?

In reality, these are the worst trauma cases in the world today. In typical Congolese fashion, these caregivers minimize the women’s suffering and the difficulty of their own job. They want to “fix” things for the victims, but they cannot. It is painful for them to hear the women’s anger, the unjustness of it all, and not be able to make life easier for them. They have a tough job. As requested, we spent the last day of the workshop on burn-out.

There are also cultural norms which complicate and contribute to this humanitarian disaster. Bottom line, women have no rights and cannot inherit in Congo, even though they do most of the work. Women do everything in the rural areas; they cook, clean, care for the children, earn the money, and carry heavy loads, while the men sleep late, eat and dress, then go drink beer with the other men all day. I am not exaggerating; everyone agrees this is the case. Things are better in the cities, where women can now eat chicken without offending anyone, but many provincial beliefs and witchcraft still predominate in the country.

Women carrying heavy sacks of charcoal walk 20 miles for a day's wages . . .

. . . while their husbands follow leisurely behind.

Which in practical terms means that if you get angry at your husband and try to make him work or even take out the garbage, he will either beat you or get another woman (usually the latter). So the women stay emotionally and financially dependent on their lazy, spoiled husbands, and even take the blame for being raped. Teaching assertiveness is tricky here, to say the least, and the victims need to be convinced that their misfortune is not their fault. You could say we are starting at ground zero.

Without Dr. Florimond’s understanding of Congolese culture, this workshop would not have gone well. Trying to impart western psychology to these caregivers without understanding their culture would have been like putting a top hat on a penguin—a quaint idea but totally inappropriate. But being both Congolese and American, Dr. Florimond can step forward and point out what cultural beliefs need changing. An advocate of women’s rights and emotional expression, he had the male caregivers, and even some of the women, shaking their heads. In Congolese teaching style, he tells them in no uncertain terms what they are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead. . . and it works.

My contribution is to structure and debrief the role plays and to introduce and supervise the clinical interventions. Dr. Florimond translates my psychological knowledge into concepts the Congolese can use with the women. Luckily, there was a Canadian woman in the workshop who speaks French fluently and translated for me. This gave Dr. Florimond a break, except when he spoke Swahili to make a point and neither of us understood a word. Morag is from Vancouver Island, works for FSH, and loves being on the front lines in Minova. She is passionate about protecting women from abuse having worked many years in rape clinics back home. She is supervising social workers for FSH and wants to give training workshops in the future. We both want to learn Swahili.

Morag Hill, me, and Dr. Florimond happy after the success of our second day.

The situation in Congo takes time to digest and is best taken in small doses. What surprises me most about this country is the people: they are the friendliest, warmest people I have ever met. They smile and shake your hand on the street, just to say hello. The Congolese laugh and joke all the time; they have fun with each other. And their music sets the standard for all Africa: the Congolese rumba (souskous) may be the best dance music in the world. Yet, unspeakable crimes against women occur every day, and an estimated 38,000 people, mostly women and children, continue to die every month from starvation, disease, and neglect.

Truly, Congo is a land of contrast and contradiction: a country of enormous wealth with no roads, starvation in the midst of bounty, appalling cruelty combined with genuine warmth, as enigmatic today as it was when Stanley sought the source of the Nile.

Main street in Bukavu

With love and gratitude,

Friday, April 11, 2008

Good Things Happen

Bukavu central market

Two wonderful things have happened recently that I want to share with you.

In the first case, Dr. Florimond and I have been asked by UNICEF to put on two, 3-day workshops for therapists, one here in Bukavu and the other up north in Goma. To prepare, we met with a psychologist who treats victims of sexual violence and a counselor who works with street children, both in Bukavu. I was fascinated as they explained in detail the therapy approaches they use. Both are extremely competent therapists doing a great job under difficult circumstances. I was impressed by their work, especially since they do therapy the “old fashioned way”, meaning without using psychotropic medication for the most part.

Dr. Florimond and I combined our training materials and are almost ready for the workshop tomorrow. I say ‘almost’ because the power has been out since early this morning (not unusual), and the booklets have yet to be copied and collated. But it will get done, and I’ll let you know how the training goes. (It will be in French, and everything I say has to be translated by Dr. Florimond, which is an exhausting process. Hopefully, there will be someone in the audience who speaks English well enough to help him out)

A fashion aside about DR Congo. I basically brought safari wear. You know, those ugly insect repellent clothes, safari vests, and floppy hats that the travel catalogs advertise. Wrong. I knew I was in trouble on the plane from Nairobi to Bujumbura when I noticed that the only people wearing safari clothes were Caucasian men over 50. The Africa men, by contrast, were wearing crisp Oxford shirts, pressed slacks, and a sweater or sport jacket. Worse yet, the Congolese are well-dressed and glamorous. The women take time and pride in their appearance, and they know how to accessorize—lots of gold jewelry; purses, shoes, and shawls match their native libayas; their hair is elaborately braided or straightened, and they wear perfume. I’m told you
can spot Americans by their casual dress; it's a joke around here.
My new fashion adviser

So here I am wanting to be taken seriously as a workshop leader, and I’m a fashion disaster. We decide that Karen, Dr. Florimond’s secretary, should take me shopping in Bukavu. Karen is just out of college and looks like a Parisian model; she is my new fashion advisor. No matter that she speaks little English—clothes shopping is a universal gene in all women. After trying on clothes at three stores, I now own 2 new blouses, a purple skirt, brown slacks, black heels, and a snazzy new purse. I no longer schlep around looking like a displaced botanist: I’m looking more Congolese by the minute. I've come up in the world.

Cristal, Pepa, and Ives in their home in Bukavu.

The other exciting news is that the Bukavu Women’s Trauma Healing and Care Center has rented a new space. I went to check it out yesterday with Yves, the women’s counselor with a huge heart, who has been coordinating things in Bukavu. (Flory recently had a bout of malaria and Amina stayed in Bujumbura to take care of him.)

The space is small by American standards, but Yves says the sewing teacher believes they can fit 20 sewing machines inside, and that the women are very happy about it. The room has a cement floor, water-tight roof, window, and a door that locks. It also has electricity, so the women can work at night. Best of all, it is on the main street where there is good foot traffic. Now the training center can also be a store where the women sell their work.

Dennis Argall and I pooled our resources and rented the space for seven months (standard lease agreement here). We had two rusted machines repaired and bought four new treadle machines, making a total of eight sewing machines for twenty women. We have purchased enough fabric to last several months, as well as supplied new chairs for the machines and benches for seating along the walls. African fabric used to make libayas

OK, here is the pitch for financial help. The women say they need a total of ten new machines, so they can sew every day instead of waiting days for their turn. As we just bought four new machines, they need six more for things to run smoothly. Each machine costs $150, not much by our standards, but huge by theirs. Sewing gives them a future. Without being able to make a living from sewing, crocheting, and selling soap, they have no way to feed themselves and their children. Without the Center, they have no hope of surviving.

We only need six machines. I can personally guarantee that your money will buy a sewing machine. In fact, we’re going to have a grand opening of the new space and a graduation ceremony for the first group of “sisters” on April 19th. At that time, I can take a picture of the sewing machine you bought with a smiling thank you from the women clustered around it. We might even hold up a Thank You So-and-So sign.

Flory Zozo has a charitable foundation, CHIREZ, but it doesn’t have non-profit status in the US yet, so your donations are not tax deductible . . . maybe in heaven but not with the IRS. Money needs to be sent to me via Western Union in Bukavu. Email me at for more information, and I will explain the process.

There is one more thing. The women have not asked for this, but there is another space next door that could be used in addition to the small space we rented. It is my hope to use that space for training and production , and then use the smaller space for the store and fitting room. I believe the two rooms together would make it possible for the Center to thrive. This second room rents for $90 per month; a seven month lease will cost $630. So I am looking for a generous donor to make this happen. Please consider helping a worthy cause. It’s the best money I’ve ever spent.

With love and gratitude,

Monday, April 7, 2008

Dr. Florimond Kabanda

Dr. Florimond Kabanda and Honorable David Mubalama, Senator of South Kivu.

Dr. Florimond Kabanda is a man of two worlds. Born and raised here in Bukavu, he was relocated to the USA in mid-1990’s when his life was threatened for being a human rights activist. Why they chose to send a Congolese family to Grand Rapids, MI, I can only imagine, but he has thrived there since with his wife and six children. Since coming to the US, Dr. Florimond has earned Masters and Doctorate degrees in Psychology.

Smart, charismatic, and a man of deep faith, Dr. Florimond is connected with World Mission in the US and is the President of Congolese International Ministry (CIM), an NGO here in Bukavu.

His sister Bella lives in Bukavu and is National Coordinator of CIM, as well as the accountant for Poll Clinique in Nyangezi. She works in the office with Karen, Dr. Florimond's secretary and receptionist. Both women are studying English and will be fluent soon. (As an aside, Bella has an MBA and is currently working toward another Master's degree in Public Relations. Very smart and lots of fun, she is married to an attorney who litigates for women's rights and who happily paid her bride price of five cows. They have two young children.)

Dr. Florimond, Bella, and Karen out for lunch. We ate inside the palapa.

Dr. Florimond knows everyone in Bukavu. He carries 2 cell phones that ring constantly and is always on the move. Earlier this week, he opened psychotherapy offices in Bukavu where he will treat women victims of sexual violence. He also plans to use the office to train local caregivers and NGOs how to treat people traumatized by war as there is no organized training program in Bukavu at this time.

Dr. Florimond standing in front of Poll Clinique, the health center in Nyangezi.

Dr. Florimond is in Congo for two months to oversee the expansion of his health center in Nyangezi, which was completed in October 2007. Nyangezi is a small country town 30 kilometers (1 ½ hour drive) from Bukavu. Upon completion in July, the hospital will have over 200 beds suitable for healing women victims of gender-based violence. There are already 3 doctors and 5 nurses on staff who meet the medical needs of the local population, many of whom walk 30 kilometers to Nyangezi for health care. In July a team of 12 medical doctors is coming from Grand Rapids, MI to help further train the doctors and provide volunteer medical care.

(l. to r., Dr. Florimond, Amina Gisele, Flory Zozo, and Honorable David Mubalama)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Panzi Hospital

This morning I visited Panzi Hospital, a general hospital on the outskirts of Bukavu that treats women victims of sexual violence and was recently featured on 60 Minutes for that reason. I was accompanied by Dr. Bora, a lovely young woman who is the medical doctor in charge of Dr.Florimond Kabanda’s clinics. We were driven by another Flory, his brother who speaks excellent English.

Panzi Hospital is big and sprawling, with at least 12 single-story wings branching out from the main walkways. Flower gardens of roses, hibiscus, geraniums, and impatients surround plots of grass that separate the wings, so it is a very pleasant place. Because we visited on Sunday, everyone was lounging outside, taking it easy.

Dr. Justin, a general practitioner and gynecology surgeon, took us on a tour of the grounds and explained the treatment process for incoming women patients. First they are admitted and given a card, then sent directly to a counselor who determines their trauma level—low, medium, or high. After that they receive a physical exam with blood tests, etc. Because the doctors here have found that patients recover more quickly after counseling, they postpone surgery, unless a matter of life and death, until the women stabilize emotionally.

When the women victims first started coming in, they were put in wards with other patients who had not suffered war-related atrocities. This did not work well, as there is considerable shame attached to being raped in Congo and other parts of Africa. In addition to being brutally violated, the victim is often treated as if she perpetrated the crime and is driven from her home in disgrace.

Counseling is usually done one-on-one, although they do group counseling to ameliorate the shame. When the women realize there are many others like themselves, they feel less dishonor and are able to heal more quickly.

The doctors do not use psychotropic medication to treat trauma and its related emotional problems. For example, if a woman is severely depressed, she will be given more time with the counselor, not more drugs.

Panzi Hospital has just completed a new building devoted to treating women victims of sexual violence. There are two wards, one for patients recovering from surgery, the other for those awaiting surgery. Each ward has 60 beds. The rooms are spacious with windows running down two sides, so there is plenty of light. Additionally, the building houses offices and two large surgical rooms designed to repair fistulas, which are unfortunately a common result of gang rape.

The women congregate outside in the sun or under a large porch with picnic tables. The shaded area is used for meals, literacy training, and teaching crafts, such as crocheting, basket making, and knitting. Women who are unable to return to their village, either from shame or threat of violence, will have to learn how to make a living as most were farmers before the war.

What happens to these women after they leave the hospital is a matter of grave concern.

The ones able to return home are fortunate, but those whose husbands are dead or have rejected them, are left to survive without skills on their own. Many haul rocks and sand to feed their families, literally backbreaking work as loads can weigh as much as 100 lbs. After gynecological surgery, this heavy work destroys their bodies permanently. Older children are left to care for younger children, and school is out of the question for people at this poverty level. And we’re not talking about a few hundred women; there are literally thousands of women in this situation in Congo right now.
I chose not to take pictures of the women to repect their privacy.