Friday, September 24, 2010

A Place to Call Home

Pygmy women gather around the well.

Pygmies are the indigenous people of Africa. For millennium they lived in the jungles of Congo where they maintained their unique relationship with nature.  In the mid-1970s, the government under Mobutu decreed that many of the lush Congolese forests were National Parks, and the pygmy were evicted.

Kahuzi Biega National Park (KBNP) in eastern Congo is famous for its lowland gorillas, some of whom can be seen by visitors.

It was the pygmy of Kahuzi Biega who habituated the first gorilla family in 1972; they followed the troop for 3 years until the male Silverback accepted humans into their midst. Now although the pygmy made gorillas accessible to tourists, they are not included in management decisions affecting the park.
 One of the pygmy gentlemen who first habituated gorillas to humans.

Today the pygmy of Kahuzi Biega live on borrowed land and are treated like lepers—cast out, violated, hunted for sport. They live outside the magnificent park that was once their home on land too small to feed their tribe, with the threat of eviction hanging over them like the sword of Damocles.  
Pygmy women with their children.

Last April, I took my friends Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner of Wakefield, RI to visit the gorillas and pygmy of KBNP. Our guide was Dominique Bikaba, a local man who grew up with the pygmy and is now a conservationist working to preserve the KB environment and its inhabitants.

My friends were profoundly touched by the pygmy people they met-- the beautiful children, the extreme poverty in which they live, and the despair that haunts displaced people with no home of their own.

So Margaret and Betty decided to do something to improve their lives: they decided to purchase land the pygmy can call their own, land that will support the tribe through farming and that can never be taken away from them!

The Pygmy Land Project

This project intends to purchase a permanent piece of land for the pygmy of Kahuzi Biega in eastern DRC. The fund raising goal is $50,000, which will buy about 25 acres. Funds will be channeled through Empower Congo Women. Donations to this project can be made through paypal on the Empower Congo Women website:

Or donations can be mailed directly to Margaret Johnson, 1036 South Road, Wakefield, RI 02689. Please make checks out to "Empower Congo Women - Pygmy Land Project" to guarantee that your donation goes to this project.

Dominique Bikaba, a Congolese citizen and Director of the Strong Roots, an organization based in the Kahuzi Biega area, is the DRC contact for this project. Margaret and Betty are the big hearted sponsors from the US.

Empower Congo Women is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. All donations made through ECW are fully tax-deductible.

The kids race Betty to the car.

With love and gratitude,


Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Amazing Waldorf Doll Project

Flash back to April 2010. . . Margaret Johnson and Betty Merner, friends from Rhode Island and Rotary wives, arrived in Bukavu with four huge suitcases crammed with fabric, thread, patterns and stuffing so the Ushindi women could make 100 Waldorf Dolls to sell in the US.

FYI, Waldorf Doll is a form of doll used in Waldorf Schools, which are intentionally made simple to allow playing children to develop their imagination and creativity. Traditionally made of natural fibers, they are often without facial expressions so the child is free to create their own story.

On the first day after greetings were exchanged amongst the all the women, Margaret and Betty got to work organizing the women into five groups. Each group would be responsible for making 20 dolls: cutting the 6 pieces for each doll, sewing it together, stuffing the head and body, and stitching the bonnet onto the face.

Since Betty and Margaret are both teachers, it was easy for them to demonstrate what needed to be done and organize the center into a working assembly line.

Doll bodies were stacked, filler material was everywhere; while some women sewed, others stuffed the heads and arms. The women thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Eventually, the dolls began to take shape. With one day left to go, only 36 dolls were completed. Betty wondered if they would get all 100 dolls done by the time we left to go home.

And they did . . . The women came through, all 100 dolls were finished, beautifully made, with perfect stitching around the face. Betty reports that over 80 dolls have been sold, and the women are ready to make more.

With love and gratitude,