Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega

Women stand beside the well that has no water.
Pygmies are thought to be the first and oldest inhabitants of Congo. Before waves of Bantu migrations from western Africa began displacing them 4000 years ago, these small forest people lived in villages throughout equatorial Congo.

Pygmy children don't see many white folks . . . and they lack medical care.

The Batwa pygmies are indigenous to northeastern Congo. Before outsiders came, they had developed a culture uniquely their own with systems of managing forests and wildlife, some subsistence farming, and trade with neighboring tribes.

They lived in the rainforest surrounding Mt. Kahuzi and Mt. Biega until 1975, when the government of then Zaire created the National Park system. Then they and other indigenous people were evicted and relocated outside the parks, settled without reparation on borrowed land with no means of support. Only the Bambuti of Ituri were allowed to continue living inside the park, where they remain today. http://www.tribaltrust.org/

Pygmy village

I visited a Batwa village outside the Kahuzi-Biega National Park with Dominique Bikada, a local guy who grew up playing with pygmy children in the jungle before it became a park. He now runs PolePole, a community-based NGO dedicated to conserving park habitat and animals-- and to helping its indigenous people. popofdrc@yahoo.fr

Dominique in the meeting hall with pygmy women.
The Batwa are very poor, because they own nothing-- 35 years after being evicted from their forest home, they live like lepers, segregated from society and discriminated against by just about everyone. The Congolese government ignores them.

And although it was members of this tribe who first "sensitized" the gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega Park to accept humans in the 1970s, and some of their men are guards in the park today, they continue have no say in park matters.

The pygmy gentleman who desensitized the first gorillas 30 years ago.

My first glimpse of the Batwa was the smiling faces of their beautiful children as they ran up paths amid tea plants to greet the car. Everywhere I went I was surrounded by children of all ages-- I felt like the Pied Piper!

The children were not in school, because Rwandan soldiers had recently trashed their schoolrooms.

School principal stands in classroom where soldiers burned desks and chairs.

The pygmies remind me of gypsies, as both are tribal people who live outside society with their own culture and values, and prefer it that way. It's too bad they don't have their own land where they can live in peace!

With love and gratitude,

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Family Planning

It is difficult for Congolese women to imagine themselves without a man in their lives; culturally, a woman has little value if she is unmarried or barren. Regardless of what tragedy has befallen her, a sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) survivor continues to want a husband and be to respectable.

Unfortunately, men take advantage of these vulnerable women, promising to marry them, then disappearing when the woman gets pregnant. We had four new babies this year at Ushindi Center under just such circumstances—Moses, Vicky, Wema and Victoria—so I thought I’d better do something quickly before a whole soccer team named after me came into being!

Families in Congo tend to be large—8 to 10 children are normal, especially in rural areas where villagers are subsistence farmers and more children mean more hands to get chores done. The irony is that women survivors who were doing the culturally correct thing by having many children now find themselves living in the city where more children means high school fees each month, which they unfortunately cannot afford. So their children run the streets, the girls getting pregnant at young ages without the parental or community control of a small village.

So it is that Ushindi Center finds itself needing birth control for both its women members and their daughters. Several of the young girls have already had children, and they are now enrolled in our Girls with Babies group for teen-aged girls.

We called on the Association de Sante Familiale to put on a Family Planning Workshop, one part of their Projet de Planification Familiale, which supplies contraceptives through Confiance. www.afdevinfo.com/htmlreports/org/org_57281.html This international NGO has a local office that has been presenting birth control information in workshop format for almost 10 years. They used humor, skits and education to explain why having many children handicaps everyone involved, especially the mother who is at risk of having a fistula or dying after the sixth child.

Julie, the leader, described in detail the variety of birth control methods available to both young and older women. She took time to explain how to use “pearls” with the rhythm method.
She did a wonderful job describing the consequences of many children-- on the mother, other children, and the family unit. A skit with two men posing as a rural couple spoke to the cultural norms that discourage birth control and encourage stair-step children.

The following day I happily wrote 10 prescriptions for Ushindi Center girls to local hospitals which provide free health examinations and minimally expensive birth control pills and devices.  The soccer team will have to wait . . . 

With love and gratitude,

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The thing about bedbugs . . .

The thing about bedbugs is that once you’ve started scratching and woken yourself up, there’s no getting back to sleep.

No matter how far you distance yourself from the offending bed, you know they’re still on you . . even though you can’t see them, you can feel them crawling . . . in your hair, on your ankle, in your ear– there’s no end to it!


With love and gratitude,

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mumosho Part II

I arrived in Bukavu with enough cash from Wakefield RI and Santa Maria CA Rotary Clubs to reroof the Burhembo primary school, buy a few extra things for the kids, and jump start the goat breeding program at the Agriculture Station.

Amani Matabaro, my contact in Mumosho, made most of the purchases in Bukavu, which included 150 tin sheets, nails, hammers, school books, chalk, and medicine for the school infirmary. We rented a truck and delivered the tin sheets to Burhembo school in mid-March. After Easter, we were told the new roof was finished, so we drove south on Tuesday to check out the progress.

The roof looked great: the new tin sheets clean and securely bolted down, but best of all was knowing that the children would stay dry and could focus on their studies now.

The parents had done all the work, and a small contingent was waiting to thank us when we arrived. I explained that I represented two groups of people in the USA, who also are parents, and so they they understand how important it is for children to get an education. 

The doctor was very grateful for the medicine that he had ordered and we had purchased from the big central pharmacy in Bukavu: anti-malarial quinine tablets, paracetanol, amoxycylin, penicelyn, phancidar, chlorapherain, benzathine, asprin, and elastic bandages.
And, of course, we visited the goats. Pacifique, director of the ag center, was able to buy 13 goats in Rwanda with the Rotary donations.
Seven were tethered near the Burhembo school where parents and their children are participating in an educational program about goat care initiated by Amani and Pacifique. Each goat is tended by three families, who take turns feeding it bundles of special grass each day.

The goat pen that was under construction in November has been completed, and it is quite impressive. With stalls on each side, it is able to house 20 goats. The goats were being fed when we got there, and they looked healthy and happy, especially the one billie goat amongst all the nannies. . . and they have a special handler who takes them out every afternoon to exercise!


So, Thank You! Wakefield and Santa Maria Rotary Clubs! You have made a lot of people very happy, not to mention the goats . . .

With love and gratitude,

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter in Bukavu

DR Congo is primarily a Catholic country, and the Archdiocese of Bukavu is a strong presence with Evecile Cathedral sitting atop a hill where it's visible from all over town.

The Catholic church does many good deeds here; it is responsible for running five hospitals in Bukavu, including Sosame, the psychiatric hospital, which is overseen by Brothers of Charity. The church also cares for street children, and one group of Nuns provides excellent vocational training, such as tailoring, for handicapped and disadvantaged people.

As everywhere, Easter is a joyous holiday, a time of resurrection and rebirth, certainly a time to celebrate, maybe even to buy a rosary to commenorate the event. 

I attended mass in the cathedral,

and then had Easter dinner with Roger, my interpreter, his wife Chantal, and their family.

Like many responsible families in Congo, Roger and Chantal are raising other children in addition to their own. Besides their young son and daughter, they care for six children who are vaguely related, making a total of eight children in their small bungalow. No one minds the crowding, and everyone seems to get along.

Grandmother, who is 78, lives nearby and dotes on her grandchildren. After dinner, we listened to ABBA, which was lots of fun, because the children danced while I translated the lyrics into an English they could understand. They are a warm, happy family that welcomed me into their home and made my Easter delightful. Thanks Roger and Chantal!

With love and gratitude,

Friday, April 2, 2010

Girls with Babies

During my trip to Bukavu last fall, I learned that in extremely poor families, young girls are sometimes accused of witchcraft and banished from their homes, scapegoats to mitigate family misfortune. Unfortunately, in order to survive these girls often become prostitutes, get pregnant, and end up living on the streets with babies.

My heart went out to these desperate young mothers and their children. Hortense, my friend and Administrator, has talked about helping these girls for some time, so we organized a vocational training class at Ushindi Center which she calls, Girls with Babies.

We had no trouble finding girls to fill the group. The first Saturday 30 girls showed up, some over 20 years and too old for the group. The following Monday, 35 more girls were sitting outside our door when Ushindi Center opened. The youngest girl to join is 15 years old with a two months old baby.

Some of these girls have tragic stories. One was kidnapped by the Interahamwe while going to visit her grandmother. She was taken into the bush where she experienced unbearable atrocities: gang raped repeatedly every day by 9 men, treated as a slave doing hard labor, and forced to cook and eat human flesh. She escaped with 2 other girls, only later to discover that she was pregnant. She is 16 years old now and due to deliver any day. A cute girl, she continues to look startled, her eyes never blinking.

Most have had little schooling, so the group began with literacy training and a good deal of tough love and values clarification by the sewing teacher, Verdiane. In addition to sewing, the training plans to educate girls about child care, domestic violence, their reproductive systems, family planning, and good nutrition.

By educating girls and teaching them how to make a living, we are working toward women’s emancipation, autonomy and empowerment in Congo, changing the mentality and practices in local communities at the grassroots level.
This program needs additional funding. Ushindi Center would be grateful for any contribution you can make at this time. Please make out checks to Empower Congo Women and send to Dr. Victoria Bentley, PO Box 60940, Santa Barbara, CA 93160, or you can contribute online through paypal on ECW website: http://www.empowercongowomen.org/ All donations are fully tax-exempt.

With love and gratitude,

Life in Bukavu

Not everything in Bukavu is dire circumstances. In fact, the Congolese people tend to be good-natured amidst all the chaos, and they are willing to give a hand when an immediate problem presents itself, like pushing a truck uphill . . .

Or getting a hog on the back of a mototaxi.

This was no easy task because the hog was good-sized, weighing over 200lbs (I raised hogs one summer). But passerbys quickly assembled to help, and together they were able to hoist the unwilling animal onto the bike behind the driver.

While the others held the pig in place, the owner quickly jumped on and they were off-- wherever they went, probably not in the hog’s best interests!

With love and gratitude,