Wednesday and Thursday were quiet days for Cate and I, a sort of weekend, as Amani was en route to and from Kigali, Rwanda, for his U.S. Visa interview with the embassy there. He passed the “why wouldn’t you just stay in the U.S. question with flying colors, and after hearing about his work and his reasons to return to the Congo, the woman told him “You deserve a visa.” (Save the date! We’ll be co-hosting a benefit / art-opening the evening of Saturday, March 10, in Los Angeles.)
Thursday, Gunilla suggested we visit the house where she’s staying with other Swedes, who work at Panzi hospital (a now world-renowned hospital started by Dr. Denis Mukwege, where they treat women who have suffered sexual violence, and fix fistulas caused by rape and obstructed pregnancies). Gunilla’s house, in a heavily NGO and muzungu populated area, overlooks Lake Kivu. On another warm, muggy day, a light breeze was blowing off the water, a small canoe was being rowed out by two fisherman, and there was a hammock, surrounded by banana trees.
We ate a very late lunch / early dinner at Coco Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant owned and operated by Christine, the woman who is the director of Eve Ensler’s City of Joy here in Bukavu. The sign outside the restaurant noted it was a part of the Slow Food movement, which I’d only started paying attention to a few years ago after learning about it from the book In Praise of Slow. Sure enough, the menu highlighted items that were locally sourced and cooked according to the slow food guidelines. Though when we met Christine the next day at City of Joy, she admitted that everything in Congo is locally sourced.
City of Joy is a part of Eve Ensler’s V-Day, and opened last year to begin its first 6 month program, housing and rehabilitating women and girls who are victims of sexual violence. Many of the participants are from the nearby Panzi hospital, but Christine explained that they serve women from all over eastern Congo, and that Heal Africa hospital has done very well selecting women who fit a leadership profile. After being healed of the physical trauma resulting from rape, the women move into City of Joy’s housing, to form community and learn skills, from English and computers to agriculture and women’s rights. They are encouraged to take back the power of their story by telling it and opening up to others.
Gunilla had visited once before to train a group of women in Trauma Tapping Therapy, and we joined her for a follow-up visit Friday morning. As is usual, a mid-morning departure became an early afternoon arrival with the rains from the previous night ruining the roads, and a stuck truck just outside the area stopping us for almost half an hour. We pulled off the road at the city’s dirt-brown soccer field, and bumped along a make-shift dirt road between a shanty-town of brown tents pitched in the mud, laundry lines strung between them, kids playing and waving as we passed.
Since Unicef is still working on their part, the physical construction of the campus, we met the women for the tapping training (TTT) in a large canvas Unicef tent. As we entered, 30 women started singing and dancing to the beat of a drum one was playing, their bare feet pounding and slapping the tent floor. We joined in the dance, and one leader danced up to each of us, correcting our rhythm by example, her smile filling most of her face. Joy indeed.
After sitting down in a circle of chairs, Gunilla asked the women about their experience with TTT since she’d first taught them. A woman named Jane took center stage, young and exuding energy, everyone laughed just to be in her presence and cheered her on. Despite her great smile, she described her trouble sleeping, that she has nightmares that the man who raped her is trying to rape her again. I woke up afraid, then realized I was at City of Joy and alone, she said. She was worried and sad, but then remembered the TTT training, and thought she’d try. Standing in the middle of the circle, Jane demonstrated through elaborate charades how she tapped each energy point and, dramatically, how she fell asleep. She explained that she woke up feeling peaceful, and would like to learn more.
To honor each woman who spoke, everyone did a group clap. Together, 3 staccato claps, followed by everyone throwing out their arms, palms out, towards the speaker, sending them blessings. The person receiving joins in the clapping, but accepts the group blessing by crossing her arms over her chest. Then, another three claps in unison, and the group all accept the woman’s blessing with arms hugging their chests, as she throws her arms out, palms toward the group.
After a few more people sharing about how the TTT is helping them heal, one of City of Joy’s leaders started another song, and then we wrapped up with more body exercises and a massage train lesson. Christine had explained earlier that one of the trainings there is massage, to heal through positive, healthy touching. She told us how one woman didn’t feel she could be touched by a muzungu (Christine is half Belgian and half Congolese) because she didn’t feel worthy of being touched. Another woman shared her original skepticism about the TTT technique, but allowed her friend to practice it on her, as she had almost constant insomnia. She told the group how, if you sat next to her, she appears normal. But she keeps everything inside. After her friend did the therapy, she felt like everything *whoosh* went out of her, demonstrating with a flowing hand motion.
After a late lunch of banana, papaya, pineapple, hard-boiled eggs and white bread rolls “for the muzungus,” Cate, Gunilla and I returned to the tent for a dance lesson. The first graduation ceremony will be held on January 28th, with Ensler and many others in attendance, and a group of the graduates are going to perform a West African dance. Linda, one of the interns working at City of Joy and studying social work in Kigali, was our dance instructor, while her friend and fellow intern was the DJ, playing the song over and over again as we stumbled through the moves. If you buy us a glass of wine or invite us to your wedding, Cate and I will find the song and perform it for you.
Next, Linda started demonstrating the electric slide, and I was all – I’ve GOT this one DOWN. Which meant I had to join her in the demonstration, fulfilling one dream of being a dance instructor. A few of the girls recognized the moves as being similar to their local dance, so they took over the lesson, and we followed in some groove and some jump kicks that evolved into a train, which led to a dance circle.
Sweaty, laughing, we left the tent and cross the grass back to the main building. It felt like summer camp, leading me to ask Christine about the post-graduation step, the women returning to the villages. Villages where the sexual attacks had occurred. Are they prepared for the stigma, that horrifyingly follows the victim, not the perpetrator, of sexual violence? Are they worried about another attack?
Christine said those are issues they’re addressing, in the courses and through individual social workers, and a healthy budget allotted to follow-up and instigating income-generating jobs for the women. She pointed to one woman who had lost all her family, and literally only has the clothes on her back. It’s the first group to graduate, so there are a lot of questions to be answered. Nothing about the Congo is black & white.