You Go Global, Girl! Travels in Rwanda and Eastern Congo
By Ashley Judd
Years ago there was an Oprah magazine in a seat back pocket on a flight and I flipped through it. Or maybe I bought it, the issue with Bono on the cover. Anyhow, there was a tear out card describing Women for Women International. I was so intrigued and I challenged my Feathered Piper yoga sisters each to sponsor a woman in a war torn country. This is Zainab Salbi’s program, founded in reaction to the rape camps during the war in Bosnia, and based on her own experiences growing up under a dictator (Saddam Hussein). Since then, I have given sponsorships to other special women in my life. Letters from my different sisters are always a delight, and I appreciate how Women for Women International includes a snapshot. Mary Ogeke in Nigeria, gathering kindling for boiling water, is my favorite. She wrote me a delightful twist an old favorite expression – she wished me “more grease for your elbow.” My husband and I are so charmed by her he often encourages me to tell our friends about Mary and I now whisper in his ear before the green flag of his races, “I wish you more grease for your elbow!!”
Quite wonderfully, a group of my sisters were graduating from a Rwanda program during my stay! I missed meeting them due to my canceled flight, but it was fantastic to meet Zainab in Rwanda and plan my visit to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to see her program there, where gender based violence is a daily occurrence.
I am traveling to the DRC to visit the PSI and Women for Women International. These PSI clinics specialize in family planning, maternal and child health, and the treatment and prevention of malaria. (We also do safe water and HIV prevention in this area of the DRC). I also hope to visit with women who are rape victims and have graduated from Women for Women International’s program. Rape is an epidemic here. It is an emergency. It is everywhere, on a massive scale. It is not altogether unreported in the western media, but it is grossly underreported. An ancient and common tool of warfare, this area’s female population has been hostage to gender based violence for decades.
What a shocking difference a few feet makes. On the Rwandan side of the crossing, the roads are tidy, neat, maintained. The earth is red and the wind blowing through the trees, the lapping of the shores of Lake Kivu, is serene. There is a sense of orderliness and even within the clear, abject poverty; I feel the purposeful attempt at self improvement, through agriculture and the tiny, colorful flower gardens.
Passing into the DRC...Oh my God.
After passing a few ramshackle villas at the border, Goma opens up as a relentless, vast dusty slum. There is rubble, garbage, filth, people covered in muck and grime, buildings that are nothing more than lean-to shanties. The earth is grey, drab, choking with dust, visibility limited by dust – the result of lava flow from a nearby volcano.
After spending a heartbreaking and inspiring day with the staff of PSI, I traveled to visit the Women for Women International office.
Women for Women International provides literacy, hygiene, nutritional, educational, and job skills. An NGO with programs in 8 conflict and post conflict countries, they pair, for $324 a year, a woman who can afford it with a woman who cannot. Less than a dollar a day and the money does so much!
In the midst of this ragged and doomed place is a walled courtyard filled with grass that is actually green, a garden that is actually tended, a building that is clean and proud. There were enough chairs for 20 (!) people to sit, and some tidy (if out of place looking, I always chuckle, wondering where the stuff come from) furniture.
I was greeted with joyous clapping, singing, and ululating, the great African vocalization. I ran to the throng and threw myself at them, dancing and exclaiming my hello in their native style. After some time discovering each other in this way, I was introduced as someone who sponsors in Women for Women International and who was there to hear their stories and to take their stories to America.
We sat for hours, each woman taking her turn to stand before her sisters and me, sharing her life story. They were each so incredibly beautiful! The eyes, the cheekbones, the lips! They wore traditional, colorful dress and I so want to learn to wrap a turban like that! They were all reached by a Women for Women International recruiter about the same time and have been in the program one year.
This is what those 4 ½ hours sounded like to me:
I am an orphan My husband was killed My 3 sons were killed I could not read I could not write I could not count I lived like an animal I have 13 children I have 10 children I am a widow I am a refugee I am an internally displaced person I fled with nothing, not even a cup I did not know how to feed myself I was half mad I was crazy I was a cadaver I was a corpse People in the street were afraid of me I begged I scavenged in the dump I treated my children like animals My husband went to other women My husband’s people pushed my from our home when he died I was run off the land I was cheated because I did not know how to sign my name My children died I have taken in orphans I knew nothing I was filthy I smelled bad I came to this area to escape violence I carried loads with my body to earn money for food I walked everywhere with my hoe to see if people needed my services if they did not I starved I had no where to go I was dead I had no idea how not to have more children I was in a constant panic I lived in terror I could not cope with stress I abused everyone around I was in a rage The psychological trauma was so great I was abandoned I neglected myself
And then, the transfiguration:
I am the happiest woman in the world - I am so blessed - I know my rights - Women have rights - I learned to read - I learned to write - I can assess the value of my small goods to ask a fair price for them - I received a small loan to buy fabric - I sew now to earn a decent living - I can calculate my profit so I can manage my finances - I save a bit and I use my capital to expand my business - I learned about nutrition - I know how to eat -Vegetables are important - I know where to get them - Look at me I am clean! - I use soap - I use lotion - My children eat 3 meals a day - My husband and I are partners now I have rights in the household – I have a voice - I keep my pamphlet which describes my rights in my pocket, it is with me at all times - I was able to save enough to buy a small plot of land – I have my own home – I built my home - I am saving for my home – I was able to get back two plots of my dead husband’s land and I sold them for a profit - My soul opened up - A new woman was born inside of me - I use the money Women for Women International gave me to pay the fees for my daughter to go to school - In my culture no girl ever went to school but mine do now - The woman who recruited me would not recognize me today – I thank God - I space my births by at least 3 years – I am at peace – I am empowered – I live a respectable life – I have dignity – I have worth – I harassed all the governors so much, they were sick of seeing me, they would not give me back my land, but eventually they did – I joined another women’s rights group and they elected me their leader
Their stories are unbelievable, each woman a Congolese Lazarus, nothing short of an absolute and total miracle. As we listened, the group made clucking and groaning noises of recognition, and would burst into applause at a particularly heightened expression of empowerment. When the entire group finished, we talked in more detail about sexual exploitation, rape, HIV, malaria, and unsafe water. Each woman had personally had malaria, yet strangely, not a single one slept under a net last night. Half had babies die from it. Most “knew” (perhaps they spoke of themselves) someone who had been raped. A few knew her HIV status, and again, strangely, only one was using modern birth control.
I was able during this dialogue to complement Women for Women International’s extraordinary work by giving a reproductive health, safe water, and malaria lessons. For example, I explained that one can become pregnant 31 days of the month! Most said the only used birth control during the “dangerous” times….we talked about injectable birth control as long lasting and safe, but how they needed to use a condom each time to protect from HIV (all did have good perception of their HIV risk). We discussed the female condom as discreet option, though most said they could negotiate a condom with their husbands, as fine a tribute as possible to Women for Women International. I told them about my recovery buddy, and asked if they would be willing to make a commitment with a friend to buy long lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets; they gave their word to one another and committed to following up….today!!!!! All raised their hands and said she would begin sleeping under a net immediately. “Imagine how you would feel,” I said, “If you had to write your sponsor that you had missed your Women for Women International graduation with a case of malaria! You came here to learn how never to neglect yourself….so step up and protect yourself from malaria! (Congo’s children account for 1 in 20 malaria deaths world wide; these great women lose their productivity if they are sick with preventable diseases….)
That last paragraph is not meant in any way to suggest that Women for Women International’s work is partial or incomplete. In fact, their work is extraordinary in the maximum. I was visiting with only 20 out of thousands of Congolese women they have reached, and this group is not finished yet with their “topics.” It just means that it takes all of us non-profit organizations working in partnership to provide a complete solution to an exceedingly complex and varied series of life challenging problems that confront the poor. We specialize in health: prevention, creating recognition of problems and treatment seeking behaviors, treatment, products, and services, and we’re damn good at it. Women for Women International teaches traumatized, victimized, poor women to bathe, to learn to feed themselves, to read, count, write, parenting skills, social skills, money skills, a trade. Together we empower and protect the whole woman.
Back on that lush, soft grass, we danced, caroused, ululated, clapped, bumped, hugged, and smiled. At the very end, I lead a passionate salute to Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women international: her name rang through the air in a series of joyful waves, sung by beautiful, clean, fresh smelling, literate, skilled, empowered standing tall Congolese women!!
And at PSI we’re already brainstorming about how to cooperate more, to hire their graduates as Peer Educators, to present reproductive health activities as new women come in, etc.
For more on how Women for Women International works, and to become a sponsor, see www.womenforwomen.org
Women for Women International is an international non-profit organization dedicating to providing women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies. To learn more about the organization and how to sponsor a woman in a war torn country visit: www.womenforwomen.org