Monday, January 30, 2012

Action Kivu's Visit to Congo: Ernata's Story

Just pretend that we’re not here, said the two American Muzungus (white people).  As the women of the Mumosho Sewing Workshop huddled around the two instructors, we hovered over them with cameras, trying to find the right light in the small, dark room, lit only by two windows. The workshop was at capacity with peddle-powered Singer sewing machines, tables for ironing with a heavy iron filled with hot coals, and over 25 women, a couple who carry quiet, wide-eyed babies.

One woman, Ernata, had a hard time looking away from the camera, her smile wide and friendly and frequent.  A bright red-orange scarf added color to her simple white tee-shirt, and like every other woman in the workshop, a measuring tape hung from her neck.  Amani, who started this sewing program in his home village of Mumosho in 2009, explained the importance of the women sharing their stories with us, so that people in the U.S. and around the world could connect to them, individually, and feel a sense of sharing life and building this community through their support of the sewing workshop.

Ernata volunteered to be the first to talk with us, meeting us behind the building where ABFEK rents the room for the center.  Sitting on a simple wooden stool, ignoring the crows of a rooster and the questioning looks and giggles of a few neighborhood kids, she eyed the camera with confidence, and looked directly at us as she answered the questions Amani translated for her. 

Read Ernata's story at Action Kivu.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy 2012: A Bus Ride from Hell

They say 2012 will be the end of the world, as we know it.  I’ve been hopeful it means a change of consciousness, a shift in awareness that we’re all connected on this planet, so we’ll start to act in accordance.  The first day of 2012 was a Sunday, and it felt like it might be the end of my world.  Period. 

Our second day in Bukavu, Congo, our Saturday trip to the village of Mumosho, a mere 25 kilometers away, had been canceled after a rainy night had wreaked havoc on the dirt roads.  Sunday morning, Cate and I woke early to the sound of rain, and wondered if Amani’s plans to celebrate the new year with the kids of Mumosho would be foiled by weather once more. 

Amani met us outside the gate of the Swedish Mission compound, standing next to a compact, four-door taxi that, under the caked-on mud and sprays of dust and grime, appeared to have once been white.  The rain had stopped, but Amani informed us the roads were a mess, and since this car could not make the hilly drive to Mumosho, we would travel to meet another driver on the other side of one of the connecting roads. 

We slowly bumped, skidded and slid our way through the city streets of Bukavu, Amani joking that we could fish in the lake-sized puddles that were the color of Willy Wonka’s river of chocolate.  The ruts in the road are made worse each rainy day as heavy truck, bus and car wheels dig deeper in them.  We watched locals on foot carefully stepping their way through the deep mud, mothers and older siblings holding small children by their arms to keep them upright.  We drove by, spraying mud and puddle juice on them all. One kid caught sight of our white (“muzungu”) faces in the back of the cab, and shocked, cried out “Muzungus in a dirty car!” which is now our Congolese theme song, sung to tune of “Fat guy in a little coat.” 

Shortly after we stopped, our cab unable to drive any further, we saw the station wagon hired to drive us to Mumosho equally mired in the mud.  Amani told us we’d have to walk the length of this road that now looked like a swamp, to find another ride.  He looked at me and asked if I’d be okay, what with my balance issues.  Holding onto our backpacks as a few people were begging for money, we started walking, setting one foot carefully in the sludge before raising the other.  Pausing too long, the mud suctioned your shoe, throwing you off balance.  We crossed what could loosely be defined as a bridge, a few boards built over a deep ravine, slippery and crowded with people.  On the other side, our ride was waiting.  A local bus, these vans cram nearly 20 people into the narrow seats, the leg-room calculated for Congo, where, at just 5 feet tall, Amani is not considered short. 

Putting her bulky camera bag on her lap, Cate scooted close to the window, and I angled my back toward the door, wedging my knees toward Cate.  Soon, the bus filled with passengers, who did not care about my comfort, forcing me to sit straight ahead, my knees jammed in the metal seat in front of me. 

To describe the entire 2 hour trip would be as painful to read as it was to endure.  On a good, dry day, in a rented car of 4x4, the rutted road to Mumosho has been called a “Congo massage.”  After two nights of steady rain, it was an amusement park ride from hell.  We ascended the hilly, narrow road, the driver veering to each side to avoid the largest holes.  Each time the tires lost traction, I gripped Cate’s arm.  To one side of our van was a deep ditch, to the other, a cliff. 

I don’t know if prayers change physical events already set in motion, but staring at a cliff inches away, my panicked mind hoped they did.  I considered saying a Hail Mary, but I’m so WASPy, all I could remember was the Whoopi Goldberg song from “Sister Act.” “Hail Mary.” “Hail sisters, what’s up?”

Still bumping over, in and out of deep holes, the skidding and sliding became the constant, which was great, as it gave me time to consider death.  And the likely lack of control over my death, or this van, for that matter.  My attempts to embrace and accept what I couldn’t control were interrupted by my seatmate, the Grim Reaper’s PR guy, who kept jostling my arm to point out only those sick or dead, being transported by hand-held cots down the wet road to the hospital, or the grave.

My mantra was that the driver didn’t want to die either, right?  At that moment, he turned a bend and spun a full 90 degrees, the van nose at the edge of the cliff.  While I stopped breathing, about five kids with shovels full of dry-ish dirt from the hillside appeared, slip-sliding toward us to dump the red earth under our wheels, giving us the traction to right the van.  As it slowly turned road-wise again and the back wheels spun, threatening another cliff-view, the men in the van cheered “Congo! Congo!” and Cate joined them with a raised fist, the hand I wasn’t gripping. 

That bend being the worst of the ride, we simply spun around and got stuck in a village, men pushing on all sides so we wouldn’t plow into the roadside shops or that old man walking with his cane. 

We arrived in Mumosho, unable to feel our feet or hands, numb from the long ride and a claw-like grip on the seat ahead of us.  The rest of our time, we shelled out the money for a 4x4 and driver, vowing never to do that again, and not to tell our worried mothers until safely on paved ground.  

Happy 2012 to Congo. May your year be filled with hope, change, and asphalt.  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Que sera, sera? What Will These Kids Be?

Monday, Cate, Amani, Gunilla, Willy and I once again traveled the rutted road to Mumosho.  After days without rain, the dust from passing trucks blew in our windows.  Dust in the teeth beats slick, mud-washed roads any day.

We drove to Orebu Elementary, where, through your support of Action Kivu, Amani's local non-profit ABFEK sponsors 23 students who could otherwise not afford to pay the $4/month for school fees.  As we walked into the principal's office, the sound of sing-song repetition of French and Swahili lessons emerged from each window, a single rectangular hole in the mud brick wall per classroom, providing a bit of light.

The kids sit shoulder-to-shoulder on rows of short wooden benches, their knees for desks, a simple blackboard the only teaching tool. The school uniform is a bright, cobalt blue skirt for the girls and shorts for the boys, their white shirts ranging from button downs to tee-shirts, all yellowed with age and dirt, frayed and torn. Almost every child sports a pair of rubbery plastic sandals in a variety of neon colors that are dulled by dust.

In the fourth grade class, we were introduced to Shukura, a 10-year-old girl sponsored by ABFEK / Action Kivu, who is at the top of her class. In fact, all girls had taken the top three spots of the fourth grade.  Sponsoring kids, especially  girls, whose families cannot afford the monthly school fees, makes a marked difference in a community where poor families often choose to educate sons over daughters.

Shukura tells us shyly that she wants to be a teacher when she graduates.  Most of the children in the schools we visited plan to be doctors or teachers, two of the only professions they see in their villages.  Zawadi, however, whose name means "gift," wants to be an agronomist.  The land here is wildly rich, but despite the beans, bananas, corn and cassava growing like weeds, many of the children are malnourished.  Zawadi is in the second grade at APSED, a sort of charter school formed by neighborhood parents who wanted to ensure war orphans and poverty stricken kids receive an education.  ABFEK / Action Kivu sponsors 19 kids there.  With so many children at the school, and only three small, dirt-floored classrooms, the kids only go a half day, so the other classes can meet the second half.

We waited to meet 11 of the sponsored kids in the principal's office, a few chairs and two desks filling the room, posters of basic anatomy and a hand-printed list of the school's objectives decorated the mud-brown walls.  The first girl, around eight years old, walked in and confidently shook our hands with a clear "Bonjour!  ça va?"  An extremely serious boy wearing a torn shirt with a brick red collar somberly shook hands with both Cate and me, then solemnly gave Amani a fist-bump.

The principal explained that the kids at APSED school come from particularly bad situations, and that it is his job to encourage them.  Many live with extended family or host families, having lost parents in the conflict.  He singled out one little girl, showing how her right ankle and leg curved unnaturally out, making it difficult for her to walk and play.  She was scared speechless by the cameras and the muzungus (white people), her lips moving, but making no sound.  The serious boy, Bisimwa, volunteered to take her place, putting her out of her misery.  Without cracking even the smallest smile, he told us how he likes science and nature, and plans to be a teacher.  He lives with his dad, after his mother died.

Ashuza stepped into frame, wearing an over-sized tee-shirt that nearly covered his blue shorts.  He balanced easily on his right foot, his left foot twisted inward at a right angle.  The principal explained that he was born with the defect, another reminder how few medical treatments are available or affordable here.  Ashuza loves to read, and wants to be a doctor.  They took the gifts of crayons and candy (snack-sized snickers, m&ms and twix) with a whispered "merci," and carefully put the chocolate in their pockets, to savor later. 

The song "Que Sera, Sera" kept playing in my head.  "When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, what will I be?"  Is it really whatever will be, will be?  I went through so many answers to the question of what I wanted to do, usually based on whatever book I was reading at the time.  A ballerina!  A lawyer!  An archeologist!

These children in eastern Congo have experienced only uncertainty, and seem to have a hard time envisioning a bright future.  In response to Amani's question, "What is wrong with Congo," the kids at Burembo Elementary answered:
  • Hunger
  • Killings
  • People robbed going to and from mining areas
  • Rape against women should stop
  • Theft
  • Teachers should be paid
When you were 6 or 10 or 12, did you even think about what was wrong in  your country?  How would you have answered the question?  How can we create change so the next generation of Congolese kids answers differently?

 Practicing reading and speaking French.

To help, visit

Muzungus with Money, The Orchid Hotel and Dancing with City of Joy

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 continued our day of relaxation at the Orchid Hotel, where the muzungus with money stay in Bukavu.  The shoreline of the lake is dotted with Mediterranean style homes climbing the hillside, a slightly rundown remnant from colonial times.  While Gunilla took a swim in the lake, we watched the fisherman row out a second time, and this time we could hear their song highlighted with long, slow whistles.  Amani told us they sing many different songs for luck fishing, calling the fish into the nets.  Gunilla watches this from her backyard, and says it’s especially beautiful at night, lit by lanterns on the boats.  It was gorgeous, the singing, the lapping of lake waves, the tropical flowers.  The peace was almost ridiculous in its juxtaposition to the chaos of honking horns, ruined roads, and poverty-stricken people just a few minute’s walk away.  But it was also a reminder, away from the dust and dirt and overcrowded road lined with shanties, that beauty of all kinds exists in eastern Congo.

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.

Cate & Rebecca in Congo: Cat Fight, More from Mumosho, Women Bearing the Burden, and the Healing Touch

Wednesday, January 4th — We woke to sunshine two days in a row, further drying out the roads and apparently fixing our wifi woes - though we're in an internet cafe now to have the best service.  Amani is on his way to Kigali for his visa interview with the U.S. Embassy.  We're planning on his visit to the U.S. in late February, so he might act as a representative of Congo for two days of advocacy in D.C. with Jewish World Watch, and we can introduce him to everyone at a fundraiser in March. 

We're not on our own, though, as we've become fast friends with Gunilla, the Swedish woman working here and in Rwanda, teaching techniques for trauma healing.  We'll be visiting with her, and perhaps going to an organization that houses and rehabilitates former child soldiers.  We're also hoping she invites us to her house, as she has a fabulous view of Lake Kivu.  It's good to have a couple of days to relax a bit and let the body, mind and soul process all we've seen and heard already.

Yesterday morning, Cate and I untangled ourselves from our respective mosquito nets after a restless night listening to what we could only identify as a cat vs. .... wildebeest? fight (we were too freaked out by whatever it was that sounded BIG to check), just outside our window.  A little sleepy, we're always grateful for the woman who cooks our breakfast at the Swedish Mission, downed some egg whites and mango, and headed out jump in the truck with our team, Amani, his ABFEK assistant Willy, and Gunilla.  Tuesday looked to be laundry day; as we drove the mountain road, clothing and fabrics laid out to dry on both hillsides of the valley that divides Congo and Rwanda created a patchwork of bright color against the green vegetation.

As we waited at a roadblock on the road to Mumosho for Amani to pay our $5 toll, supposedly collected to fix this horrible road, despite the lack of evidence of any work crews, Gunilla pointed out the inequality of men and women here, seen in a couple walking past our truck.  The man strolled with ease, his empty arms swinging by his side, his head bare to the sun, while the woman bore the burden of a heavy bag of goods hanging from her forehead.  Thought we do see young men and boys struggling to push heavy-laden carts of wood up the rutted road, or a man balancing over 30 loaves of bread on a board atop his head, the majority of people we see are women, hunched under back-breaking loads of branches, bags, and jerrycans of water.

At the entrance to Mumosho, we dropped off Willy at the Peace Market with blue paint, paintbrushes and a slip of paper spelling out the words for the sign to thank and honor Robin Wright for her donation to build the latrines that make using the market possible.  Amani, Gunilla, Cate and I continued on to the church and school, to meet the women for the second day of trauma tapping therapy.

All 16 participants from the day before had returned, and were waiting for us, even though we were an hour late.  Once again, African time proving the value of patience. Once we'd settled in the small room, Gunilla thanked them for returning and opened the day asking if anyone had tried the tapping therapy the night before.  A third of the class raised their hands, surprising Gunilla, who said it usually takes longer for people to soak it in and feel comfortable offering the therapy to others.

A woman named Mapenda volunteered to share her experience.  She visited her neighbor, and told her about the training she had leared.  "I told her about trauma, and how I'd felt very well in my mind when we were practicing the therapy," Mapenda explained, "and my neighbor said she has several problems, and was interested in the treatment."   At the beginning, she said, the woman and her husband were laughing, thinking the tapping was a game, but after the first time, the woman asked Mapenda to repeat the treatment.  When she was finished, her neighbor asked if she, too, could join the training sessions, but Mapenda explained that when they had completed the training, they would share it with everyone.

As the other women shared their stories from the night before, a common theme arose.  Almost each person treated asked to join the training, and stressed the importance of sharing it with others, from a young miner who had been abducted by the FDLR soldiers, and escaped from them with nothing, and since had not been sleeping at night, to a poor widow who couldn't sleep from stress and worry after her only crops had been ruined by erosion.

The women in the training were engaged and eager to share their stories, asking practical questions that showed they were already envisioning how to use the training, anticipating problems or questions that might arise from their neighbors. Once again, they separated into pairs, to practice the tapping therapy on each other, and it was lovely to see women caring for each other, carefully touching their fingers to a forehead, holding hands and breathing together.

Gunilla told Amani that it is obvious the women are trusted in their community, and they know the suffering that is there.  It is also clear, she told him, that they trust you.  There's something about this community and the work you've been doing here.  You have been constant, and they know the work will continue."

The day ended with an exercise, the woman standing in a circle, following Gunilla through a series of stretches, self-massage and relaxation techniques. As Gunilla bent into a half-squat, her knees and feet close together as she swayed in a circle, the women joined her with a song, this move was part of a dance they know well.

Before heading to the Peace Market, we stopped by the Mumosho sewing center to meet the women, and so Amani could introduce us and the importance of the women and girls sharing their lives through photos, video and story, to continue to raise awareness for their needs and to find support for the program.  Amani explained that there are 26 students this year, though there are many more women who want to join.  They sorted through the applicants, choosing the most vulnerable women, women left alone and with nothing after their husbands divorced them (women have no rights to income or land here), or young single mothers, who were nursing their babies while the others worked on the pedal-powered machines in the dark room, the only light coming in from a window.

Promising to return next week, we continued on to the Peace Market, where Willy was supervising the creation of the latrine sign.  When I'd seen the blue paint, I'd assumed it would be a hand-painted sign on wood, and was surprised to see two craftsmen, chiseling the words in perfect Helvetica font into a sign of concrete.  We left before the letters were finished, and will see the completed project next week, when Amani symbolically hands over the keys to the latrine to the Market Management Team, giving them full ownership of the Peace Market.

Sending love and thanks from the people of Bukavu and Mumosho - their gratitude is overwhelming - thank you all for your support of the people here!  Learn more at