After the genocide memorials, lunch on a patio set in a tropical garden (I kept dropping out of conversations to use my field glasses to watch birds), the full immersion into PSI Rwanda, and the church visit, I crawled into bed. I have an event tonight, the United Nations Development Programme Gender Equality Conference dinner, and I wasn’t going to make it without some quiet time. I knew I didn’t have time to cry, to begin to process all I had seen; I didn’t have time to make a few reach out phone calls or to get started writing, so simply took a shower and lied down. And frankly, I don’t know if I had energy for those things.
I slept with my pretty new sapphire earrings still in my ears, head perfectly straight on the pillow, ankles crossed. I did not flinch, apparently.
I roused about 7:15, after Staci was scheduled to arrive for my briefing. I boiled the kettle and made some green tea and she arrived just in time for me to serve us both some. Soon after, the great Zainib Salvi arrived, resplendent with her chic cropped hair, black silk shirt waist dress and fabulous beaded necklace. Man, Mr Armani would love her! Some women do so much with so little!
Zainib sat next to Staci and I quietly snuggled into the sofa. I was feeling very vulnerable after my sleep, undefended and wide open. I enjoyed my delicate state as these two remarkable women put on an unselfconscious show of empowerment, talking with intimate knowledge of global poverty and armed conflict, how girls and women and the environment are the wreckage, and the simple grassroots solutions that are the way out. Dang, I thought, you women are fine, and I want to be you when I grow up!
Zainib does use the word “fascinating” a lot, but always accurately. She will punctuate the beginning of yet another story with the point of a finger, leaning forward, her voice taking on even more enthralling energy, and the next thing I know, I have been schooled, for example, in the border conflict between Rwanda and the DRC, exactly who the militias are, or some such other elusive subject.
When Kagame offered in 1996 to help a hapless rebel named Kabili “go to Kinshasa,” to oust Mobutu the Mad, the trade off was the Kibali would send the Interahamwme, the Hutu youth genocidaire who fled to the DRC when the genocide was ending, back home. He did not, and they are still there (they are by and large the rapists terrorizing the DRC, and this behavior has had a “contagion” effect and now rape is daily life) and they still long to fulfill their genocidic ideology. Plus, there are the Tutsi who fled the genocide as refugees who are still in the DRC, plus Congolese rebel who are simply doing what rebels do, raising hell and disrupting everything. All are armed, and Zainib explained that as wars always do, it has become about the economy and land and exploiting natural resources. Or, as Dario puts it, they start fighting over the color of p***.
This background was important for me as someone doing public heath and human rights in Rwanda, and because however repugnant, I long to learn more about gender based violence in the DRC. To that end, I am planning a day trip to Goma, just across the border from where I will be later in the week. The area in between Kinshasa and Goma is still very unstable and often dangerous, so I can’t get there from Kinshasa (and who wants thousands of kilometers of unpaved roads, anyhow), so I am going to slip in from the Rwandan side.
I do not mean for the synopsis above to be thorough and inclusive of all sides of the story, but rather to demonstrate the dazzling commitment and depth of knowledge these women have. I am in awe that this is their lives 24/7/365 and the world is a better place because they are in it.
Having finished her book in Brussels, I asked Zainib about her brothers. One is safe in Chicago, but the one in Jordan and must renew his visa yearly. She is sure he’ll be assassinated if he ever has to go back to Iraq; about 20 of her friends, educated, empowered women, have disappeared. They are doing the Pol Pot thing, wiping out the educated classes; Zainib’s family home has recently been taken over by a militia and her neighbors are sad to report that her brother’s and her basketball court has become a gallows. The number 20 came up again: number of assassinations daily.
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 Zainib’s program, founded in Serbia’s rape camps during the war in Bosnia, and based on her own experiences growing up under a dictator (Saddam Hussien). Since then, I have given sponsorships to other special women in my life. 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 Zainib and plan my visit to Goma to see a program there, were gender based violence is a daily occurrence.
Letters from my different sisters are always a delight, and I appreciate how W4W includes a snap shot. Mary Ogeke in Nigeria, gathering kindling for boiling water is my favorite. Expression-wise, my sister who recently asked me which I preferred, “the rainy or the dry season,” (ah, we see the world as we are), and wished me “more grease for your elbow,” is my favorite. See, what separates us? Nothing really, only our misperceptions.
Eventually the phone rang and Zainib’s colleague said the First Lady was waiting for us (oops)! I threw my dress on and downstairs we went. I was disappointed to see a big room with dining tables and place cards, drats, I wanted to pop in and out and get back in that magical bed! But, it turned out to be a very healing night. The great Aloysie Inyumba, currently a senator and formerly the Minister of Reconciliation and Healing, hugged me so warmly. Growing up, she was a refuge in Uganda, and said her mother, although uneducated, was bright, and made sure her 3 daughters made it all the way to university. She received her degree in Social Work and I forget what else. When she came back to Rwanda at the president’s quest, she made minister and she got to work, fast. In 2002 there were 120,000 genocidaires still hunkered down in a fragile prison system awaiting trail, and the then-Minister brought back the Gacacas, meaning “patch of grass,” courts. 250,000 people were elected within their communities. They received brief training in law, judicial ethics, and conflict resolution. 11,000 grass courts were established, each with a panel of 15 judges and requiring 100 villagers be present to make the trial valid.
This is just one of her many, many accomplishments….She is a special lady.
She took me over to the First Lady at the right moment. Madame Kagame is a physically imposing presence, and somewhat stoic, perhaps even dour. But I couldn’t really process all that because I was having an attack of static cling, and my dress was all up in my *****. I know this because the First Lady’s aide de camp was on her knees behind me, pulling my dress off my backside. Hmmm. Was it to protect my modesty, or the decorum of the entire event? I was, after all, smack dab at the front of the room, back turned to the crowd, a movie star chatting with the First Lady. What a lousy time to get a bad case of hungry bum!
Better events followed. The most extraordinary drumming and dancing began, and I could feel the pain of earlier in the day be vibrated out of my chest. I was absolutely in awe. This is the Africa I believe in, its traditional culture and arts in tact and shining amidst educated, empowered people talking smart about gender equality and development with an eye on 7 generations ahead. Even though we were in a hotel’s spiffy ballroom, when I closed my eyes I was in the bush, around a fire, the sounds of the wild engulfing me. It was fabulous beyond description. The senator narrated each dance for me: Ah, this is the dance about millet, teaching and celebrating agricultural practices, valuing production to keep everyone fed. Ah, this is the dance for the herd, the grass at the end of their sticks is to clean the herd, ahhhh, this is the dance of women, celebrating their beautiful bodies! My gosh, I live for this stuff! It’s what I dreamt of in college!
Zainib was equally moved, and I noticed we each kept placing our hands on core parts of our body. We all had tears coming, too. Zainib and I had already leaned into one another, speaking confidentially about the intense personal work it takes to stay in this game, human rights, social justice, poverty reduction. We traded notes about our core pain, why we were drawn to such problems in the first place, and how we have found our own personal solutions along the way. I used to live with nothing but problems, I could tell you everything about them in exacting detail. I am grateful today that I have solutions, a way of life which I know works on any problem I may have. I take certain steps, and the result in a psychic change and spiritual awakening. That I am here in this room right now is proof. How did I get here? By the grace of loving Higher Power that does for me what I cannot do for myself.
Although I was very caught up in the moment, a tiny thought crept into my head: How do I get more of this?? Then, an idea was born, bring them to the U.S.! I excitedly began to ask the Senator if they were a formal dance troupe (yes), and didn’t she think it would be extraordinary for them to perform in the U.S., to help rehabilitate Rwanda’s image abroad, to raise awareness about yes, the need for development funding, but also, the many, many good things that are happening here? Oh my gosh, we were beside ourselves, and came up with so many ideas. She and the First Lady will come, I can book them at TPAC in Nasvhille and well, shouldn’t I really involve a professional promoter? In fact, as many people as possible should see them – New York! D.C., an event with PSI that I could host with special donors! And the best idea yet, I am friends with a band, a really special band, and they are touring college campuses in the fall, and haven’t I just found the perfect opening act for them!!!!!!!!!! We were elated!
On this wonderful optimistic note, after splashing handfuls of water on my silk dress in a futile attempt to arrest static cling, the Senator held my hand and walked me to the lift. It was time for bed, and I valued her hugs and gentleness as a child does a bedtime story. Rwandans are kind, but there are not very touchy feely, except her, lucky me! Only one table leaned toward me as I passed and in a desperate stage whisper said, “Your dress is hiked up all the way and you underpants are showing.” I was unperturbed, knowing it was no big deal, really, for after I all I actually had some on for once in my life.
I closed my eyes, and when the skulls came I let the drums beat them out of my head. I slept pretty well, and woke up curious about another day in this lush land.
Day one — arrival
Day two — genocide memorial
Day three — the countryside
Day three — the PSI.org offices
Day three — malaria nets
Day four — you go, global girl
Day four — water purification
Day five — world malaria day
Day six — Women for Women International
Day six — Democratic Republic of Congo
Day six — heal Africa
Day seven — Sonrise
Day seven — Dushishoze
Day seven — reflections