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,