Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tune into 60 Minutes Tonight

 "Tomorrow is a New Day" - Billboard at entrance to Panzi Hospital 

Tonight 60 Minutes will show an expose on what is driving the war in Congo: Not tribal conflict, as you might imagine, but control and exploitation of Congo's vast mineral wealth. Coltan, gold, copper, cobalt and tin are what many are now calling "conflict minerals," -- contraband minerals that are smuggled out of the country through Rwanda and Uganda and continue to finance a war that causes the deaths of 47.000 people, mostly innocent women and children, each month! and makes Congo the most dangerous place in the world to be woman.

Don't miss it! The International Rescue Committee will take you into North Kivu Province where much of the fighting and many of the mines are located. This should be a fascinating program!

With love and gratitude,

Elisabeth's Story

Elisabeth is a tall, statuesque woman in her mid-forties, and like many Congolese women her age, is a grandmother. She is also a widow who still has three school-aged children to care for, so she does laundry for wealthy people in Bukavu to support the family.

For some years now, Elisabeth has had stomach problems but not enough money to get medical treatment. She has lived with the pain, hoping it would go away, until recently when both she and her friends thought she might be dying, so sick had she become.

Ushindi Center contributes to a fund at Ciriri Hospital, which allows its women members to get medical treatment without having to pay out of their meager resources. A small hospital located in the hills above Bukavu where many women members live, it is run by a Belgian doctor, Dr. Mary Jo, who specializes in women's health. When Elisabeth decided to get treatment, she went there for help.

Dr. Mary Jo and I standing in front of Ciriri Hospital.

Last month, Elisabeth was hospitalized and had surgery, for what I don't know. What I do know is that the surgery was such a success that she recovered completely, regaining not only her will to live but her energy and high spirits.  So healthy did she become that jealous neighbors guessed that she had had surgery, which in Congo means you are wealthy, broke into her house one day looking for money, and stole everything she had.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the next night three armed soldiers banged down her door and demanded  she give them everything she had. The children managed to escape, and when the soldiers saw that she had nothing to give, one ordered her to take off her clothes so he could rape her; otherwise, he would kill her.

Ellisabeth stood up to her full height, looked him in the eye, and said, "You can kill me right now, because I am not going to take off my clothes and let you rape me again! I would rather die here than be raped by you!"

The soldier hesitated and looked to his superior for direction. The superior shrugged his shoulders and said, "Let's go", and they left.

When Elisabeth told me this story, she was elated, bouncing with energy, smiling and laughing. She had stood up to a rapist, to soldiers with guns who could easily have killed her, and she had prevailed! Her bravery is a huge personal achievement, signifying that she is a victor now, no longer a victim. 

Equally important, her bravery indicates that a shift in consciousness in happening with Congolese women. Because rape is epidemic in DRC, Congolese women almost expect it to happen to them; they believe that rape is just what happens to black women and don't fight back. Training programs like Ushindi Center empower  Congolese women by teaching them their rights, giving them microloans to start small businessses, and providing a safe, supportive environment where they can heal and rebuild their lives.

If you would like to be part of this powerful, life-changing process, please DONATE NOW at

Support the good work at Ushindi Center by contributing to the medical fund,  school fund, and/or general operating costs. Help these courageous women get back on their feet!

(for security reasons, Elisabeth's photograph is not included with her story)

With love and gratitude,

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Energy Therapy in DRC

My friend Gunilla Hamne is a Swedish trauma therapist who has worked with genocide victims in Rwanda and Uganda for several years. She has perfected the use of energy therapy to treat trauma in war suvivors. When we met last March in Bukavu, I asked if she would work with the women at Ushindi Center, who continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms years after the traumatic events occurred.

 Gunilla treating woman at Ushindi Center with Roger translating, March 2009.

I was trained in energy psychology before my first trip to Africa, but I didn’t take it seriously: I didn’t believe a process so simple could have much effect on profound trauma.  How could I ask women who’ve been raped, tortured and abandoned to believe that tapping their faces would make all that horror somehow disappear?

And yet it does. A month after treating several women at Ushindi Center last year, Gunilla did a follow-up visit and found that two women who had had insomnia for 4-5 years after being raped had been sleeping regularly since the treatment. And now they are happy to tell you they’re still sleeping well after nine months!
Women learn energy therapy in Sud Kivu Province, DRC.

Since then, other women have reported that 1) headache pain feeling like an arrow shot in the head disappeared, 2) overwhelming worries dissipated and floated away, to stay gone, 3)mistrust of others has been replaced with a feeling of belonging to the group, 4) distorted vision is gone, and 5) love instead of irritation guides them in caring for their children. The most often cited improvement is return of normal sleep patterns, but for the therapist, the most obvious change is a lightness of being that shines through in their brilliant smiles.

How can this be? We don’t really know. Gunilla believes that tapping acupressure points allows blocked traumatic ideas and emotions to loosen and move out of the body. It does seem as if something has been dislodged and released.

Gunilla and I teaching energy therapy to psychosocial caregivers in Goma, DRC.

In the meantime, I have dropped my skepticism and now practice energy therapy whenever I can here in Congo. We have begun administering pre- and post-tests to measure behavioral change, and we have videotaped a few of our therapy sessions. Look for us at the next Energy Therapy Conference!

With love and gratitude,

Child Prostitutes (Part II)

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The girls had been arrested on a Saturday night. By the time I returned to the transit house the following Friday afternoon, four of the five had been returned to their families; of those four, three had already run away and were back living on the streets.

I was prepared to enroll the girls in school and then job training at Ushindi Center where the women members want to mentor young girls and help them rejoin society. However, in a country where few social programs (including NGOs) have funds to house these girls, the rationale is to return them to their families as quickly as possible, regardless that their families do not want them or are too poor to feed them. In this case, a long shot is better than no shot at all!

Bahati, the fifth girl who remained at the transit house, says she is 18 but is probably around 14 or 15.  She is obviously pregnant, most likely in her third trimester.  She says her parents live in Goma, and the agency is trying to “reinsert” her before the baby comes. She is willing to return home, but worries because she has no money for baby clothes, which places an additional burden on the family, now with two more mouths to feed instead of one.

My interpreter, Hortense, a very wise Congolese woman, says in addition to baby clothes, she will need some little money for the delivery, and a monthly stipend of $20 so she can do small business selling food, clothes, etc.  Bahati says she can easily make a living selling bananas on the street; she just needs start-up money to fund the new business; like all these children, she is penniless and has no way of getting financed.

Another girl living in the transit house asked to speak with us:  Adolphine, who has had much tragedy in her short life. Eighteen years old now, she has a 14-month old daughter named Ingrid, a child born of rape.  Originally from Kinshasa, Adolphine came to Kanola 2 years ago to help an older sister and her husband, who had just had their first child, a baby boy.  They lived together for several months until one night when five Interahamwe broke into their house demanding $350.  The husband had only $50 to give them, so they beat him and raped her sister. He still had only $50 to give them, so they took the baby from Adolphine’s arms and tied her to a tree; then they locked the sister, her brother-in-law, and the baby in the house and set fire to it, burning them alive, forcing her to listen to their screams. She was gang raped later that night and taken into the bush, where she lived as a sex slave for eight months.

Adolphine escaped by threatening a guard with his knife; then she and two other girls walked for a week to Kabare where they found safety. She was admitted to Panzi Hospital and stayed many months after giving birth, because she was suicidal. She has lived at the transit house for seven months and is no longer severely depressed, although she does suffer from traumatic stress syndrome. She wants to go home to her parents in Kinshasa, but because airfare costs about $500 for her and the baby, she still lives in Bukavu.

These are the stories you hear told by women and girl survivors of sexual violence. Those of us fortunate enough to live in relative safety all our lives have difficulty grasping the desperation and despair this kind of trauma causes. When I listen to these women’s stories, I am deeply touched and want to help each one: return home, get medical help, send their children to school, fund a small business, provide trauma healing to ease the pain.

But of course, I cannot help each one. If any of you reading this blog feels moved to help Adolphine return home where she will have family love and support and begin healing, please email me and we can begin the process of getting her papers ready and buying the ticket home.  We can’t help all the suffering people in the world, but in this case we can help one very deserving young woman rebuild her life, perhaps even find joy in living again.
P.S. I cannot post these girls' photos online for security reasons.

With love and gratitude,

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Child Prostitutes

Last Saturday night, Danielle and I went with Major Honorine and her Bukavu city police officers to apprehend a group of teen-age prostitutes.

Major Honorine is charged with protecting les femmes de Bukavu from violence, abuse and exploitation —a big job. Earlier in the day when Danielle interviewed the Major, she explained how young girls abandoned by their families quickly become prostitutes in order to survive on the streets. Being fascinated, we asked if we could come along on a stake-out they planned that night.

This group of teens solicits Tanzanian truck drivers who park their big-rigs, stuffed with Chinese goods arriving from Mobassa, near the Post Office in a deserted part of town.

We could hear the girls singing to announce their arrival. Listening to their sweet voices, I thought they were a choir until Roger, our interpreter, started laughing and translated for us: “I love you, you love me. Let’s make love together.”

There were over 12 girls in this group. The police managed to snag five of them; the others being forewarned had jumped onto moto taxis and disappeared into the night. The girls were taken to Federation de Solidaritie des Hommes (FSH), a transit and treatment house for the many unwanted children living on the streets of Bukavu.

                                                  Roger and Danielle prepare to interview girls.
On Monday, Danielle, Roger and I went back to interview the girls, accompanied Fernando, the agency director. He explained that the girls’ placement is temporarily; their faces were not to be photographed as they are minors.


The girls ranged in age from 15 to 18 years. All lived on the street, three of them for over one year. Besides the Tanzanian truck drivers, they find business in small pubs. All said they were beaten and often left unpaid. All said they wanted a chance for a better life, off the streets. Two are pregnant.

One girl was thrown out of house with other siblings when her mother remarried; another had been brought into the business by her older sister when she was only ten years old, the family so poor the children were starving. One had lived at Ek’Abana until she was 15, then turned to prostitution when she had nowhere to go. The 16-year old had married young, had two children, and then been banished by her husband who wanted to take another wife. . . all tragic stories told matter-of-factly.

Today I go back to the half-way house with Fernando to talk to the girls again, this time about their future. FSH first choice is to return them to their original homes, although this seems improbable to me since the families were too poor to support them in the past.

The girls have also run wild for some time now and are unaccustomed to living by the rules of others. How sincere they are about changing their lifestyle we shall find out later today. I will keep you posted.

With love and gratitude,

Friday, October 30, 2009

Ek'Abana - Saving the Children

Ek’Abana means “save haven for children” in Mashi, the language spoken by most country people in this area of Congo. Since 2002, Sister Natalina of the Catholic Archdiocese in Bukavu has been creating just that for girls accused of witchcraft and abandoned by their families.
Last Friday, I visited Ek’Abana with Danielle Shapiro, a free-lance journalist from NYC, who is writing about the lives of women and girls in Congo.

Spotlessly clean, radiating peace and orderliness, Ek’Abana is nestled in the hills overlooking Lake Kivu. The facility houses over 30 girls ranging in age from 6 to 14; each has her own bunk bed and a cubby with neatly folded clean clothes. For girls who come from stark poverty, where a family of 10 can live in a one room mud hut and  go several days without food, this must seem like paradise.
Yet the girls yearn to go home, to be “reinserted”, which means to be reunited with their family.  Sister Natalina and her staff devote much of their time to teaching parents that children are not sorcerers who bring misfortune to the family; it is not their daughter who is responsible for a new wife’s barrenness, the early death of a loved one, or financial ruin.

A 10-year old girl was abandoned by her family because her crippled leg  did not heal after surgery. Facing hospital costs she could not afford, the mother blamed the child for her handicap and banished her. Despite this cruelty, the daughter cries when speaking about her mother and wants to go home.  Sometimes it takes years to reconcile a child with her family.
Sister Natalina is doing a wonderful job caring for girls who would otherwise be homeless.

With love and gratitude,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Child Socerers

I've been learning how girls become street children and prostitutes in Bukavu. As with everything else here in Congo, the most oft cited reason is poverty. But there is a cultural wrinkle you might find interesting.
When something inexplicable and bad happens in poor families, which constitute most of Congo, a child can become the scapegoat and take the blame for the problem. The child is called a sorcerer by a family member or neighbors and driven from the home to forestall more bad luck striking the family.

This can happen when a parent dies, or when several family deaths occur simultaneously, or when a family falls on hard times and is ashamed of their poverty.

And these child "socerers" are most always girls. This is so, it is explained, because boys tend to wander while girls stay at home and are not valued as highly as boys . . . so if one less child seems the answer to family problems, it will be the girl who is sent out to roam the streets.

This can also happen when a parent remarries and the new step parent is jealous of the child, or if a child is ill and needs expensive medical help the family cannot afford.

In these cases, an itinerant pastor is brought in to collaborate witchcraft, always for a fee. These fees keep nefarious pastors in business, and it is a thriving business. Some girls are sentenced to life on the streets for as little as a cell phone.

Girls as young as 8 years are banished from their homes, turning to begging first, then to prostitution as a way to survive.

Look to my next blog to learn what is being done to help these girls.

With love and gratitude,

New Friends

             (l. to r.) Greg, me, Danielle, Roger, and Scott at Swedish Mission

I always stay at the Swedish Mission when I'm in Bukavu because it has a peaceful spirit and beautiful garden, and I always meet interesting people there.

This past week brought Danielle Shapiro, a free lance journalist from New York City, and two urology surgeons, Greg and Scott, from University of Chicago Medical School.  The surgeons came to share their surgical expertise and, in turn, gain more experience treating fistulas from Dr. Mukwege at Panzi Hospital.

Danielle came to document their journey and ended up with 4 or 5 more stories as she learned about life in Congo. To my good fortune, I was able to accompany her on several interviews. Roger, probably the best interpreter in Congo in my humble opinion, came along to translate.

We visited the construction site of City of Joy, V-Day Foundation's project to house and train 100 women survivors of sexual violence. Construction began mid-September and is scheduled for completion mid-March, weather permitting.

Danielle spoke with Christine Deshryver, the project manager, while I took photographs. First of all, the site is huge. Bricks, sand and rock are piled high, waiting to metamophose into buildings. At least half of the 10 buildings to house the women have walls up; elsewhere foundations have been laid for offices, guest suites, and classrooms. There will be a large garden area with trees and flowers planted throughout the complex. It's a  massive undertaking, and it seems to be progressing well . . . I was impressed.


Men and women construction workers at City of Joy building site.

With love and gratitude,

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ushindi Center School Fund

Ushindi Center now has a School Fund for the 68 children of women survivors of sexual violence who are members there.

On my return, the women made clear how important it is for their children to be in school; some can pay school fees for half their children, but none can pay fees for all their children. The children left behind are usually girls, who are expected to do chores at home while their mothers work.  Sending boys to school first, then the girls if there is enough money, is the cultural norm here. And as many of you know, educating girls correlates highly with stable economies and reduced conflict.

The School Fund was founded by a generous grant from Charlie Dawson, Empower Congo Women Board Member, who asked that his contribution go towards starting a fund to send these children to school. Having young kids of his own, he realizes how important education is for children.

So yesterday, I paid the school fees for 68 children for one month. Then we gathered for photos, and the children celebrated by gobbling heaping plates of rice and beans.

The children were very appreciative and several older ones stepped forward to give thank-you speeches, praising God first, then me and the donors. They said we are their first school sponsor, so this is a very worthwhile cause.

October is the beginning of the school year, so the children were able to enroll the first week of school. To be fair and make education available to all the children, the program will pay basic school fees for primary and secondary grades for the entire school year. We will take it one year at a time, with the intention of following these childen through Level 6!

Please make a contribution to help all these children attend school now and for years to come. We're off to a good start, but we need your continuing support to make a real difference in their lives!

To donate: 

With love and gratitude,

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Interahamwe attack school near Nyangezi

Weza University in Nyangezi, an hour's drive south of Bukavu, was attacked by Interahamwe soldiers last night.

A Catholic school staffed by Belgian priests, Weza has a long history of teaching excellence in the primary and secondary levels; students come from as far away as Kinshasa to attend. Additionally, a medical school was established there last year.

The rebels attacked around midnight and closed off the priest’s compound. The head priest, who arrived from Belgium only this year, was able to ferry a call for help to the Governor, who in turn called the Congolese National Army stationed in barracks above Nyangezi. The troops arrived quickly, and after some shooting the Interahamwe escaped back into the hills. No one was reported injured.

Pushed back into the mountains by the KIMIA II offensive and cut off from their regular supply routes, the Interahamwe are becoming increasingly desperate. Last week they kidnapped a priest in Walungu territory, demanding $5000 ransom for his return; he was released several days later unharmed.

This time the Interahamwe hit pay dirt. October being the beginning of school year in Congo, Weza University had just collected boarding fees from the students and received a sizable sum from the Congolese government, which subsidizes the school in part. The bandits stole 5 computers, cell phones, and upwards of $12,000, leaving the school without operating funds.

The teaching staff and 1300 students have relocated to the safety of Bukavu, where several army garrisons are located. The school is closed until further notice. The school had just reopened last year after having been shut down since 1999 when it was attacked by Interahamwe and the priests recalled to Belgium.

With love and gratitude,

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bukavu Rotary Club

Last Friday evening I met with members of the Bukavu Rotary Club to discuss a grant I recently wrote to expand services at Ushindi Center. As is often the case, my friend and Administrator at Ushindi Center, Hortense Barholere, accompanied me as translator.

I am a member of the International Committee of the Montecito Rotary Club, one of seven clubs in the Santa Barbara area. In that capacity, I applied for a grant to Rotary International this September, and we are awaiting news about funding.

The Rotary Club of Bukavu was formed in 1955, and although it is a small club with 22 members, it has a long history of service.

The President of Bukavu Rotary for year 2009-2010 is Sylvain Mapatano, a soft-spoken man with a strong presence who is both an agronomist and Insurance Broker. Speaking for all its members, he said his club is most happy to act as Host Partner for the grant: They sympathize with the plight of women in Congo and are willing to help improve the lives of women survivors of sexual violence. One of their current programs supports the education of girls and orphans.

After a year of successful operation, the Ushindi Center is ready to expand and help more women survivors heal and rebuild their lives. The grant we are co-sponsoring will enable the Center to increase capacity building by hiring more teachers and buying more sewing machines, fabric, supplies and furniture; a large copier and generator are also included in the grant, a purchase intended to generate income from students needing copies at a nearby university.

While I'm here in Congo arranging grant details with the Bukavu Club, my associate, Larry Thompson, Chair of the Montecito Rotary Club International Committee, is working hard to generate funds within our District, 5240.

We are looking for funding from other Rotary Clubs. If your Club is interested in contributing to this very worthwhile project, please contact Larry Thompson, Architect, at

With love and gratitude,

Updates on Ushindi Center

Since returning to Bukavu last week, I’ve met with the women survivors at Ushindi Center three times, and I am happy to report that they are well and thriving.

The women have set up a store where they sell children’s school uniforms, shoes, and plastic kitchenware to passersby. They are better-kept and more self-confident. I have been encouraging them to speak up about how they want to run the Center, and now they are!

As always when I return to Ushindi Center, there is much singing and dancing which I enjoy as much as the women. This time they presented me with a live chicken and ripe tomatoes, saying that although they have little to give, they want to thank all those who donate to the Center by giving me these small gifts.

I accepted their gratitude and tomatoes in proxy for all you generous donors. However, I declined the chicken as I have nowhere to keep her, and I did not want to eat her. I asked instead that they bring me local eggs with the bright orange yolks. The next day I was gifted 20 little eggs, which I have to say are very tasty!

Supported by two interpreters, Victor and Roger, I negotiated a one-year lease for the building that houses the Center. The new arrangement adds an upstairs apartment, consisting of a large salon, three smaller rooms, and a real bathroom (meaning it has a toilet!), to the already-existing two smaller rooms downstairs. This addition allows the Center to move its classes and sewing machines upstairs off the street, while the rooms downstairs can be converted into income-generating retail space.

Also important was the installation of The Rules and Regulations for Ushindi Center, which the Administrator and Governing Committee asked me to write. That done and duly read to the assembled group, they are now being translated into Swahili for future reference and operating instructions.

My long-term goal for Ushindi Center is that it becomes self-sufficient. My vision is for the women to run the training center and store as a collective, sharing work responsibilities and profits. As they become more independent, I will fade into an advisory position, ultimately turning Ushindi Center completely over to the collective to run.

With love and gratitude,

Back in Bukavu

I arrived in Bukavu on Monday, Sept 28th, but I haven't been able to post blogs because the settings for are all in Arabic!

Right now the power is on again, off again, and there is no water. . . ah, Bukavu, how I missed you!

Bukavu seems more prosperous than when I was last here six months ago— more traffic, more people on the roads, and more private cars than white SUVs (the standard charity vehicle), a sure sign of local prosperity. Construction on major buildings downtown has been completed, so the town has a tidier look. And I’ve noticed new stores all around town—internet cafes, grocery stores, guest houses, stereo stores blasting pop music, and two fancy new gas stations, built by Ugandan investors I am told.

Word is that security is good in Bukavu; people are out at night and cars fill the streets after dark. But reports from the countryside are another matter: Random attacks by Interahamwe are occurring in some mountain areas and on the roads from Nyangezi to Kamanyola and from Uvira to Ngomo. Walungu is a dangerous place these days; two priests were kidnapped there, their convent burned, last week. Everyone knows someone who has been stopped or shot at or raped south and east of Bukavu, so people are moving cautiously outside city limits.

This round of violence is attributed to KIMIA II, a joint offensive which began last January of the Rwandan Army, the Congolese National Army, and MONUQ, the United Nation troops in DRC. Their mission is to rid eastern Congo, once and for all, of Interahamwe, Hutu soldiers who were given asylum in Congo by then-President Mobutu after perpetrating genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Over 1 million Hutu soldiers and their families relocated to IDP (Internal Displaced Persons) camps in northeastern Congo, then disappeared into the vast mountain jungles and began a reign of terror that continues today: unspeakable atrocities against women and girls, AIDS, looting and burning of villages, and random murder of innocent people.

I recently met two American women who told me what it was like to live in Congo 20-30 years ago. Both were Peace Corps volunteers at the time, single young women who traveled wherever they wanted in Congo without fear. They explained that the family unit and community morality were intact then: There was no rape, no AIDS, no guns, no tortured women, or kids hopped up on drugs carrying AK47s. In short, Congo was a nice place to live, so much so that each woman opted to stay another year.

So is it possible that this latest military action will bring peace to Congo? Many are doubtful. The Congolese National Army is stationed in the hills above Nyangezi, and many other places, ostensibly to protect villages from the Interahamwe living nearby. But peace will depend on the troops being well-disciplined, and whether or not the Congolese government pays the soldiers' salaries. If discipline is lax and the pay not forthcoming, then the army will simply take the place of the Interahamwe, raping and looting without impunity, living as bandits off innocent villagers.

With love and gratitude,

Friday, September 18, 2009

Layover in Kenya

Right now I'm in Nairobi, a necessary layover when traveling to DR Congo due to flight availability. The weather is hot and dry; two years into a drought, Kenya is a dustbowl with everyone waiting, praying for the seasonal rains that should have begun in August.

Found a good internet café in one of the big shopping malls, the Village Market, where just about everything I need is available. Because it's Friday, there is also a Mini Maasai Market upstairs that I'll check out later.

I am fortunate to be able to stay with friends here, women I originally met on the internet who have become great friends. Both Johara Bellali and Sonia Nugent work for the UN, building capacity in countries threatened by the effects of global warming. Johara has been busy all week chairing a workshop she designed that takes a holistic approach to solving these problem, and which has been a great success. Go Johara!

More exciting news is that we are traveling to Lake Baringo tomorrow, a 5-hour drive to a peaceful lake where bird-watching is supposed to be fantastic. We'll be staying at a camp on an island in the middle of the lake! Can't wait to take a break for a couple of days!

With love and gratitude,

Monday, September 14, 2009

Back to Bukavu

Today I’m taking off for DR Congo, this time from Boston’s Logan Airport, after spending 10 days here on the east coast visiting friends and fund raising for Empower Congo Women.

Before beginning my African leg of the journey, I want to thank all the “large-hearted” people, to use President Obama’s term, who have contributed to my projects in Congo in the last 3 months:

First, I want to thank my Bay Area friends for their generosity: Bill and Gloria Symon, John and Judy Black, Robin Fine, Cara Brown, Karen Friedman, and Gena O’Neil. . . and Gary Paudler, who although not from northern CA has given generously to ECW.

My trip east has been both beneficial and lots of fun, full of new and old friends. Many thanks go to three special women who graciously hosted events to support Empower Congo Women: Ellen McCurley, from Newburyport MA, Executive Director of in Malawi; Margaret Johnson and her loyal group of friends in RI; and Pam Driscoll, of Concord MA, for the creation of her brilliant new non-profit, the Singing Bowl, which sponsored an event that paired me with Iyeoka , a beautiful woman of Nigerian descent with enormous talent as singer and poet, and a fellow sister activist.

Many thanks also go to the Dawson Clan: Charlie in Montclair NJ for his generous donation and loyalty to my cause, to his parents who opened their home to me and taught me how to celebrate Labor Day “Italian style”, and to his two lovely young daughters who are activists in the making!

Wonderful folks and new friends along the way include: Michele Bonner, who is helping import bags from Ushindi Center to Salem MA; Alice Locicero, an email acquaintance who turned into a good friend and talked me into getting a GPS with my rental car; Mark Johnson, husband of Margaret, for introducing me to the Wakefield Rotary and serving on their International Committee for me; Ashley Johnson for helping me bake 3 cakes for the event; and John Swallow, last but not least, the best friend/cousin a girl could ask for.

Thanks for Larry Thompson, of Montecito Rotary, who is now carrying the ECW torch for me to the District: Go Larry, and Good Luck! And to Carolyn and my awesome daughters, Kether and Sarah, for hanging in there with me, doing “just one more event” cheerfully! The last 3 months have been very busy while Empower Congo Women got non-profit status, a website, and an amazingly poignant DVD, directed and edited by Mark Manning.

I am learning there are many large-hearted folks out there, people who did not know me or anything about the women’s plight in DR Congo, but who support our cause nonetheless.

I am traveling to Bukavu again, this time to expand the Ushindi Center so that it can be both a training center and retail store. This will allow the women to become financially self-sufficient and the Center to become self-sustaining. I feel like this project has turned a corner, become more substantial with more potential to achieve its goals than ever before. So stay tuned to this blog—I am committed to bringing you all along with me on the journey, wherever it is headed.

With love and gratitude,

Friday, September 11, 2009

Become a Fan of Empower Congo Women!

Dear Friends,

If you have a Facebook account, you can become a fan of Empower Congo Women by putting our name in the Search box, and then clicking the Fan button on the left.

Or you can become a fan by clicking

I'd love to see you all become fans, which will help spread the word about the need for Peace in DRCongo.

Every little bit helps, and Congo needs your help more than ever now that the Congolese National Army has joined forces with the Rwandan Army in an attempt to rid the countryside of Hutu rebels, who settled in eastern Congo after committing the genocide in Rwanda 15 years ago. Although many rebels are said to have repatriated, civilians continue to suffer horrendously. Human Rights Watch estimates that 1.7 million Congolese have been displaced since January when the campaign began.  To read more, go to:
With love and gratitude,

Much progress and good news!

Hi Everyone,

So much has happened that I've neglected my blog and summer has flown by! I hope you all enjoyed the last couple of months-- juicy ripe tomatoes, time spent outdoors, trips out and about, and just plain ole down-time with friends and family. Santa Barbara was hot this summer, but the beach was great. No complaints on this end!

The Good News:

Earlier this year, I founded Empower Congo Women (ECW), a public charity dedicated to helping Congolese women heal, rebuild their lives, and prosper.  After a 6-month process and convincing Homeland Security I could be trusted, ECW achieved non-profit status on August 11, 2009. We are now a legal 501(c)3 charity, an incorporated not-for-profit business registered with State of CA and Internal Revenue Service.  This gives us credibility and allows your donations to be fully tax-deductible.

Another big step forward is the completion of the Empower Congo Women  website  Now you can get an overview of the projects we are doing in eastern Congo.You can also DONATE online through paypal . . . and you can still send a check to the address listed on the site.

The website was designed by Amber Wallace at Dowithcher Designs in Santa Barbara (a dowitcher is a sea bird-- not Amber's last name!) I think she did a great job! Take a look at the geometrical background design-- it is based on a pattern on a piece of Congolese fabric on display in the Metropliton Museum of Art in NYC. The fabric piece dates back to the mid-1800s.
Amber and Jill have also been helping me get my social media act together. I've been on Facebook for a while under Vicki Bentley. If you aren't already, make me a friend of yours today so we can stay in touch.

With love and gratitude,

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dreaming of Peace

I woke up this morning dreaming of Peace-- Peace for the world, especially Peace for the beleaguered people of Democratic Republic of Congo.

When will it end? Twelve years of brutal war fought ostensibly as a tribal war between Hutus and Tutsis, but in reality a bloodbath of innocent civilians perpetrated by diverse military groups, backed by larger interests, competing for Congo's enormous mineral wealth.

The Congolese people have a long, tragic history of being exploited by more "civilized" nations. For three centuries, Portuguese slave traders decimated tribes along the Congo River. Later King Leopold of the Belgiums (1885-1908) killed half the population of Congo, an estimated 10 million men, women and children, in greedy pursuit of ivory and rubber for his personal wealth.

Then there was Mobutu Sese Soko, the biggest thief in African history, installed in power by western countries during the Cold War, who stole over 5 billion and left the country bankrupt, the infrastructure built during Belgian rule in shambles from neglect.

Now, huge international mining companies and corporate giants of the electronics industry are reaping the benefits of Congo's wealth, and, once again, the Congolese people are paying the price -- almost 6 million dead at last count.

Equally horrifying is the rape epidemic that curses this country. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been viciously tortured and raped, their lives ruined -- and who comes forward to stop these atrocities?

Rape is the weapon of war used by these armed groups-- first they rape the women, then they move in and rape the earth. Rape is cheap, and a man with a gun can do anything.

Now things are heating up again in eastern DRC, and peace seems even further away. UN forces and the Congolese National Army are initiating a joint offensive named KIMIA II to rid the eastern provinces of the FDRL. Perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, the FDRL have lived in the mountains of North and South Kivu, pillaging, burning villages, raping women, and killing innocent people since they were given asylum by Mobuto in the mid-1990s.

All involved agree the FDRL should be rooted out and their reign of terror stopped. However, 68 relief agencies have voiced grave concern that this military operation "will lead to more atrocities against Congolese civilians". Since the beginning of 2009, over 800,000 Congolese have been displaced through war. Already overwhelmed, relief agencies managing IDP camps are bracing for the next influx.

For more information on KIMIA II and other solutions:


And so I pray for the Congolese men, women and children who will be displaced once again, destitute because their homes have been burned, everything they own stolen, hiding in the bush without food or shelter. I pray for their safe journey and their survival.

When I ask Congolese women survivors of sexual violence (SGBV) what they want, invariably they say Peace. They don't want charity; they just want to go home, back to the village where they grew up and their children played, back to the fields and the life they knew before the war began.

The challenges these women face are enormous, their losses so great by any standard, it amazes me that they continue to function at all. Some don't and choose suicide, and others are profoundly depressed. But the majority of raped, displaced women struggle on, each day finding a way to feed their children, or not . . .

And so I dream of Peace and pray for the Congolese people. They could use your prayers, too.

With love and gratitude,

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eve Ensler on Women in Congo

Eve Ensler is a gifted writer, known to most people as author of the Vagina Monologues. She is also an activist dedicated to stopping violence against women worldwide. Her foundation, V-Day, began to focus its efforts on DR Congo several years ago and, through her efforts, has raised awareness about the desperate plight of women there.

This is her most inspired, poignant article yet.

If you do nothing else today, or this week, please read her article. Hopefully, it will change your life and move you to action, as her writings and the women of Congo have changed mine.

Pygmy women in Kamanyola, DRC

With love and gratitude,

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA)

Little girl stands with friends in Nyangezi, DRC

OK, this is the big enchilada-- an initiative set before the US Senate to take a stand to protect women worldwide against violence.

To quote

Imagine a world without violence against women.
Finally, after decades of silence and inaction, there is one bill that will bolster US efforts to end violence against women across the globe:
The International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA)

Violence against women is a major cause of poverty and a huge barrier to economic opportunity. In addition to being an extreme human rights violation, it keeps women from getting an education, working, and earning the income they need to lift their families out of poverty.

To support this bill, go to the link below. It's an easy 1 minute sign-up, but registering against violence is a HUGE step toward respect for women and world peace.

This is the opening, the opportunity, we've been waiting for to make violence against women a crime! Hopefully, when the USA takes a stand, the world will follow. Let's all add our voices in support of this bill!

With love and gratitude,

Monday, May 11, 2009

Getting the Goats (3)

At Nyangezi market, many goats were for sale, but none were quite right.

But I still wanted to get pictures of the goats being bought and loved by their new owners, so you could see where your donations go. . . and again, things don't always turn out as planned in Congo.

The idea was to go to Nyangezi on market day, buy the goats, and bring them back to the compound where I would photograph them with the midwives. First problem was that majority of midwives live 1-4 days walk away from Nyangezi; it seemed excessive to ask them to walk all that way for photos.

The main problem was that the goats offered at market were not of good quality.

The Nyangezi market is very busy, sellers and buyers walking for hours to get there. Many booths were selling clothes, much like flea markets in the US.

In the food areas, women merchants sold corn and cassava flour.

Small beans that look like lentils were selling well, and . . .

there were bignets, my favorite, which are cooked right there and still warm when you eat them.

And although many goats were for sale, we could not find what we wanted. We searched for sweet young female goats that would bear kids, give milk, and increase the herd, but most were too old,

(see the horns)

or they were male.

(you get the idea)

Finally, we decided it would be best to buy the goats from neighbors, since their quality would be assured, and if any got sick, there was reciprocity. This is one of the cute, young goats we finally bought, tethered in the grass near the compound. I have been told the calf is on its way.

I am always reminded to stay with the process here, hold tight onto the goal, and don't quit until you get what you want . . .it's just that process takes a long time and lots of effort here in DRC !

With love and gratitude,

Friday, May 8, 2009

Getting the Goats (2)

Midwives stand in front of soon-to-be finished goat shed. Georgette is far right.

In the meantime, I had become better acquainted with a group of 21 women who call themselves, Midwives of Congo. I first met them last August in Nyangezi where they were being trained by American midwives, Jennifer Vanderlaan and Tammy. Their training lasted 10 days and covered all areas of pregnancy, delivery and infant care.

Midwives are a brillant solution to lack of medical care in the rural areas of Congo. Women can be 2 days to a week's walk away from medical help, which is a major cause of infant death and obstetric fistulas, which cripple women for life.

Her T-shirt says: Life Chain, Saving Moms and Unborn Babies

The Midwives of Congo are scattered throughout Walungu Territory, where they educate pregnant women and make their expertise available in isolated areas. Their goals are: 1) to promote birth ontrol as well as healthy pregnancies, 2) insure safe delivery of babies, and 3) advance the health of both mother and child through education.

Their leader, Georgette, is in the process of developing a farm, where pregnant women can grow nutritious food for themselves and their children, as well as make money to support the midwives' work in Walungu Territory.
So far, they have built a compound where rabbits, ducks and guinea pigs are raised for protein. It made sense to pass our largesse on to this project, so I donated 6 goats, 10 chickens, some chicken food, and a cow. Due to inflation, we could afford only one young cow, but its manure will fertilize the garden while the animal grows into a calf-producing, milk-giving adult.

Empty shed waiting for calf.

I think this is a great group, one worth supporting as they grow. These women are dedicated, educated and willing to work hard to achieve their goals.

So how did we get the goats, finally? Tune in for the next installment!

With love and gratitude,

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Getting the Goats (1)

              Walungu Territory is about the size of Belgium.

OK, remember I told you that I’d have photos of the goats that I bought with your donations . . .  Well, things don’t always work out in Congo as planned.  

First off, I had planned to give the goats to widows in Mususu, Walungu Territory, which is a 2-3 hour drive away depending on weather and road conditions.  What I did not realize (had not asked nor even imagined!) was that we had to buy the goats in Bukavu, then transport them ourselves to Mususu by pick-up truck.  Apparently, there are few goats in and around Mususu, which is why we had to buy them in town, then transport them to the country.

Our guard, Edou, and the Chief of Bozonga.

Now picture 18 goats in the back of a pick-up truck, with two of us sitting in back holding onto their leads so they don't jump out, bumping along on roads with potholes the size of craters.  Pretty wild, eh? That’s what I thought, but I continued to consider the idea until fighting broke out in Ulvira, which is in the vicinity of Mususu, and it became clear that giving goats to widows in Walungu Territory was NOT happening. 

Country kids bringing home firewood.

Traveling around Walungu without a guard with a truck-load of goats would not have been a smart thing to do. Not only would the goats probably not get there,  but we might have been confiscated as well!

Driving in Walungu on a good day.

So I decided that giving microloans to the widows next trip would be with wisest thing to do.

What happened to the donations meant for goats? 

Well, check in tomorrow and you'll find out . . . .

With love and gratitude,

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mothers at Panzi Hospital

When I reviewed the photographs from my last trip to DRC, I realized I had some wonderful portraits of mothers with their babies at Panzi Hospital. I'd like to share them with you.

Most if not all of these children were born of rape. There are few babies at Panzi Hospital who are not the result of violence. Women who come to Panzi for treatment of obstetric fistulas lose the child over 90% of the time, mainly because they have walked too far and waited too long to get medical treatment.Thus, because these babies are alive, they are most likely the result of rape.

The women do not want a child born of rape. They beg the doctors to abort them, but the doctors say, We are here to save lives, not to take them away.

Often the mother, the newborn, and her other children are sent away by the husband, because she has become the rapist's "wife". Her shame is so great that she dishonors both her husband and the community, so they are cast out.

Yet, I've heard that children to a Congolese mother are as the trunk is to an elephant. People say that a child in Congo is a king or queen in his mother's eyes. So the women are torn between hating how the child was conceived and loving the child because it is hers.

This little guy has AIDS, as do many children at Panzi. The happiest child I have ever seen, he runs through the hospital corridors, bursting with energy, greeting everyone with a huge smile.

Let us cast our lot on the side of Love! Let us all be so happy!

With love and gratitude,

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mushenyi Schoolhouse Gets a Roof

A school gives these boys hope for a better future.

From previous blogs, you may remember Mushenyi, the remote mountain village that needed help to finish its schoolhouse.

My heart went out to this village, because there are only elders and children left here. Over the years, maurading armies have stolen everything of value, including the young men and women.

Now the elders, who are mostly women, worry they will lose the remaining children. Without an education, the only future for boys is to become bandits and rebels. The girls will be dragged into the bush, victims of sexual, gender based violence (SGBV).

A school can change all this!

Senator Mubalama and I made two trips to the village in April. Thanks to generous donations from people like yourself, I was able to contribute enough to finish this project.

Preparations for construction had already begun when we arrived. Long eucalyptus poles had been collected for the roof transits and stacked near the schoolhouse shell.

When we returned 10 days later, the roof was almost finished. What a beautiful sight it was, glimmering in the sunlight!

The builders, architect (r.) and small friend.

The builders wanted to finish the roof before our return, but the rain prevented that. They assured us there was enough money to buy the sheet metal needed to complete the roof.

Gunilla, a therapist from Sweden, shows off the building from the inside.

Woman to my right is the school teacher; the Chief stands next to her, the is Senator to my left.

We admired the building, then stood happily for photographs in front of the schoolhouse.

This may seem like a small accomplishment in a country, on a continent, with so many problems. Yet I believe that change begins with small steps, one at a time, grassroots to grassroots. Both Senator Mubalama and Dr. Roy, an internist from Nyangezi, grew up in this remote area before the war. Who knows what will be nurtured in this small schoolhouse, given peace and some time, on a mountainside in the jungles of Congo. . . .

With love and gratitude,