The people here are not just reserved in a cultural way, they are cautious in the way of the stunned, of those who have lived with trauma, brutality, and suffering. Of the hundred or so people I visited today, a few became soft and warm after a greeting, but most could merely give me superficial smiles that said, “Oh, hi, yeah, okay. Whatever, hi, bye.” The rest of their countenance and demeanor was occupied with living horror. They wanted to be nice and friendly – what they offered was all they had to give, and it wasn’t much.
Everywhere the car lurched, children with stunted growth stared. Once eye contact was made and a wave offered, their faces would joyously erupt into smiles. They wore tattered western clothes. I saw one little girl in a shaggy tutu. The sight of her haunts me, the distorted Goma version of the precious little American girl who discovers ballet and won’t take her tutu off for weeks at a time.
A balanced approach to provide complete solutions for poor people:
While PSI is working with its partners (USAID, UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, the CDC, WHO, Gobal Fund, UN, etc.) to protect and empower poor people’s health through medical services, education, and products, Women for Women International provides literacy, hygiene, nutritional, educational, access to capital, and job skills. An NGO [non-government organization] with programs in 8 war torn countries, they pair, for $324 a year, a woman who can afford it with a woman who cannot. It sounds like a lot of money for a sponsorship, but my oh my, 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 furniture. I always wonder how these weird pieces of furniture of indeterminate style end up in place like this.
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 the way of their culture. After some time discovering each other in this way, I was introduced as someone who sponsors in W4W and who was there to hear their stories and to take those stories them to America. (In fact, Women for Women’s biannual report, Critical Half, is about the transformative power of compassionate listening, and is the most inspiring, precise account of why I listen, why I write these diaries, why I reach out to others.)
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 Woman for Women 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 me 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 asses 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 W4W 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 round table dialogue to complement W4W’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 b.c. during the “dangerous” times….we talked about injectable bc 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 W4W. 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 W4W 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 W4W’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 NGO’s 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 d***good at it. W4W 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, undulated, clapped, bumped, hugged, and smiled. At the very end, I lead a passionate salute to Zainib Salbi, founder of W4W: 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 W4W works, and to become a sponsor, see womenforwomen.org.
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