|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