Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Change of Plans

Moving the women and machines.

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 was selling parts of the machines to supplement his income (the first teacher, his brother, had disappeared after stealing one machine). The women demanded a new teacher, this time a woman, and refused to return to work until the old teacher left. The Center shut down for 2 weeks while everyone waited for the directors to come to Bukavu and resolve the situation.

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.

The situation was worse than I had imagined. Both sewing teachers, brothers, were pastors of a church that was closely affiliated with the Director's church, and which excluded the women while it exploited them. The sewing teachers/pastors had been running a lucrative dressmaking business using the donated machines and women for labor. Profits from this business were being split with the directors, nothing going to the women who desperately needed it and did most of the work.

The moving truck needs a little help to get started.
The women had been threatened with explusion from the center if they told the truth about this arrangement to the donors.
We took everything but three machines, two of which had been stripped of parts by the sewing teacher. Nothing was taken that was not paid for by donations I generated. Luckily, the more expensive Mercedes and Edger machines were still there, but unfortunately not intact.

The OCET building is located south of Bukavu near Panzi Hospital.
Everything was moved to OCET, a well-established NGO that provides education and training for girls who have been raped and impregnated, legal advocacy to prosecute their rapists, and training in women's rights, social action, and environmentalism.
OCET was founded and is run by my friend Bellah and her husband, Sylvester, an attorney who advocates for women victims of SGBV in the Congo. Bellah is a smart woman with an MBA; she is accountant and grant writer for OCET, as well as accountant for the Shilo Hospital in Nyangezi. I love working with Bellah, because she feels deeply about these women and gets as upset as I do when funds intended for the disadvantaged go the greedy instead of the needy.

Girl students in a literacy class at OCET.

Hortense, my translator, was a great help with the move and later getting the women organized. She has worked for Women for Women for some years now as an administrator, trainer, and conflict negotiator. She knows this population well, having heard their stories for over four years. Recently, she translated for the Holocaust Museum when they were in Bukavu collecting stories of rape and torture from the women.
Below Hortense everyone's name, address, age, and the number and ages of their children.

Hortense at work.

Now the women and machines were safe in their new home at OCET. But I acted precipitously, initiating change in a vacuum, before things got any worse. So now that the deed was done, Is this what the women really want? Stay tuned as the plot thickens. . .

With love and gratitude,

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