Sunday, May 27, 2012


Women of Ushindi Center!

Jambo! Habari ya leo? For anyone who knows me well, slowing down and relaxing is not in my nature. Since I arrived in the Congo two and a half weeks ago, I have been working long hours at Ushinidi Center followed by Swahili classes at night. Needless to say, I am exhausted but energized by the women’s spirit and resilience. 

Last weekend I traveled to Rwanda for a day to meet with the staff members who run a trauma-healing center. Since then I have been meeting with various colleagues to start a conversation addressing the extreme need for a healing center in Bukavu. It has come to knowledge that such a center does not currently exist in Bukavu, a city which is flooded with internally displaced refugees from the villages in Congo. These women were forced to flee their villages due to war and violence in Congo. Many of these women were raped, while their children were forced to watch, they lost their husbands to the war or were abandoned, and their children often succumbed to various illnesses and malnutrition along the journey. These women that I am working with are survivors in every sense of the word.

This week started off on Monday with a new group of 20 participants.  The first day is always the toughest because I am using screening tools to request information on the women’s stories and symptoms to determine a baseline score before the groups begin. Because of confidentiality I am not allowed to tell their stories, but I can say that the things I hear are far removed from our reality living in the United States. I came home on Monday just as I did when I ran screening assessments on the last group, emotionally exhausted yet inspired and motivated to provide these women with the tools to heal. Contrary to my former beliefs, the women find telling their story and opening up about their past to be therapeutic. I have the feeling that these women have never been in a space to openly discuss what happened to them without social repercussions and embarrassment.

On Tuesday I was able to continue working with a different group of women at the center who are learning to sew for a vocational training program. I have been asked to partner with Victoria to start a sewing collective for women living in the poorest area in Bukavu known as Asants. We have been working hard to develop a product line and figure out all the intricacies of running a co-op sewing collective here in Congo. We have decided to call it MamAfrica and these women will be directly paid for their work. 

MamAfrica is a woman’s cooperative made up of 3 sewing collectives: Centre Ushindi, ABFEK and Action Kivu. The majority of women working at MamAfrica come from rural easterm Congo, where violence and terrorism have forced them to flee their homes.

In addition to vocational training, women at MamAfrica receive classes in financial management, holistic healing, literacy, and maternal/child health. Through the creative art of sewing, MamAfrica provides a safe haven where women come together to collaborate in creating their new community. Each MamAfrica purchase goes directly to the women who made the item.

Buying their product not only helps the Mamas but it supports the next generation of leaders in DRC. In Swahili, the name Mama is the respectful word used to address a Mother. MamaAfrica symbolizes all the Mamas coming together to create unity and self-empowerment through the arts in DRC.

Today was quiet special and I will not soon forget the impact that the women had on me. We started off the day running the groups and in morning and finished with a group exercise known as “step into the circle”. I explained to the women, through my lovely interpreter who has been with me from the beginning, that I was going to make statements such as, “If you are a women, step into the circle”. I first made some statements to show the women that even though we are all different we have many things that bring us together. I asked the women to come up with some phrases for the exercise. It is hard to convey the energy that was present in the room, but these beautiful women who I met 2 weeks ago who barley spoke, were full of courage and compassion for one another. One woman started off by saying, “If you are a strong powerful women, step into the circle”. Every single one of them stepped into the circle and starting cheering and greeting one another. Seeing this transformation in these women was incredible. We continued this exercise for 15 minutes and it truly was astonishing how the women came out of their shells and worked together.

I am proud of all the women I have been blessed to work with. They honestly have touched my heart. I am grateful everyday for this experience and I thankful that these women have chosen to take the difficult steps to move closer to healing.

Much love and gratitude!

Written by Ashley Nemiro 

MamAfria 13" computer case

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back in Bukavu again . . .

Congolese woman looks to the future

Dear Friends of Empower Congo Women!

I have returned to Congo after nine months and have many good things to report! Although you may have read of rebel outbreaks to the north and south, Bukavu remains secure and our projects are going well.

Research. This year I am accompanied by Ashley Nemiro, a doctoral candidate in psychology from North Carolina State University.  Together we're studying the positive effects of trauma therapy on women war survivors in eastern Congo.  We began our research last week by enlisting and interviewing 24 women; all have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and all are eager to learn how to manage them.

We will be comparing the effectiveness of EFT (energy psychology) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) in reducing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms; additionally, all the women will receive group therapy. We are training four Congolese caregivers, as well, who will continue the work after we leave.  Our research is being financed by ACEP, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology.

Ushindi Center. Our women's center is going strong, gearing up to send new products to the USA. After graduating 30 women last July and encouraging self reliance by gifting each with a sewing machine and fabric, the center has embarked on a program of self-reliance.  Ushindi’s staff, headed by Administrator Chantal Kikuni, retained 10 graduates and has recruited 10 new young women to help them build the business of selling hand sewn items abroad.  
Ushindi Center staff (L to R) Verdiane, Denyse, Chantal

Since September, the women at Ushindi Center have sewn 150 aprons and sent them to the USA for sale. We are delighted to report that all are sold and that Ushindi aprons are spread across the US! Many thanks for supporting our efforts!

Right now, we are busy designing items for our new line.  By partnering with two other women’s sewing collectives, we will be able to produce a large number of high quality items. Stay tuned to upcoming blogs to check out our gorgeous tablecloths, napkins, purses, and headbands, all made by Congolese women with colorful African fabric!
Young woman sewing a purse from Ushindi's new line

Mumosho. As many of you know, Rotary International is the source of an upcoming grant to furnish a large vocational school in Mumosho, a war-torn area one hour south of Bukavu. Over the last six months, a number of wonderful women friends contributed their time and fund raising efforts to provide a building to house this project. I cannot thank you all enough for your support!

I am happy to tell you that I visited Mumosho on Saturday, where we looked at available buildings to house the vocational center. Nothing to report yet, but the Rotary Club of Bukavu is on board, ready to finance the project, so the vocational school is fast on its way to becoming reality!

The vocational school is part of a larger project, the Mumosho Peace School, which will house primary and secondary schools, a safe house for young women, and workshop space for community education classes, such as conservation, sanitation  and peaceful negotiation.  Empower Congo Women is working on this project in conjunction with ABFEK, a local charity run by Amani Matabaro, and Action Kivu, a grassroots non-profit based in Los Angeles.
Amani in front of the market we built last summer - 2011

We also visited the Mumosho Peace Market that Amani and Empower Congo Women built last year with the help of several international Rotary clubs. It was early when we arrived, so the vendors were just setting up, but we had the good fortune to meet one of the women farmers who was trained at the Demonstration Farm established by Amani and financed by Rotary Club of Montecito. Look at the pride as she holds up the biggest cabbage I've ever seen!

With love and appreciation,

Mama Vicki