Posts Tagged ‘women’

And so?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

What now? I leave Congo this time frankly depressed.

In my three weeks there I certainly had some “up” moments — good interviews, jolly gorillas, lovely scenery along Lake Kivu with a temperate breeze going through my hair. It was great to work with Roger again. I enjoyed seeing Goma. And there were moments when I met women who were finding their way again, finding some satisfaction in life and pride in their children. They were becoming healing and that was uplifting for sure.

But there was also what sometimes felt like a barrage of bad. So many stories of rape and murder and loss; inescapable poverty, hopelessness; people barefoot on mud-choked roads, children in tatters playing with objects tossed to the ground, the boy on Idjwi so painfully hungry. It just got to me this time. Perhaps this is getting to know the place better and being able to see more.

It doesn’t stop me from wanting to return for more reporting. There is much to write about here and I intend to be back in a few months. I think the only way for me to resolve my own feelings of despair and fatigue is to go back and put down on paper what I see and how I feel; to use my words as my tool. Nevertheless, as I sit in Kigali having a slow day of reading, a bit of walking and not much else, I’m acutely aware of how tired and drained of reserves I am. My patience is frayed. I need to turn my brain off. I am sad. Congo is sad.

The sun sets magically over Lake Kivu and Goma

The sun sets magically over Lake Kivu and Goma

The more I learn…

Friday, March 12th, 2010

So I had a really lovely evening last night. Roger, my translator, Dobs, our driver, and I went out to dinner in Goma. I’ve blanked on the name of the restaurant, but it was a nice place with outdoor and indoor seating, a thatched-roof bar and pretty good food.

A view of Goma from a rooftop restaurant

A view of Goma from a rooftop restaurant

But the two things that I liked most was the diversity among customers there and the conversation with Roger and Dobs.

Roger mentioned it first, saying that the restaurant looked like “South Africa” because of the co-mingling among foreigners and Congolese. And it’s true that the customers were a more mixed group than I normally see in Bukavu. Roger thought it might be because there are more foreign aid organizations in Goma and thus more of their staff. So the city inevitably sees more mixing. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome change. It is one of the things I don’t like about traveling sometimes, is how conspicuously separated foreigners can be from the local populations.

Also fascinating was the conversation. Nearly every time I ask Roger a question I learn something from him. The same held true last night. But with the addition of Dobs my head was swimming as I try to learn more about the conflict here and why it is so deeply entrenched and complicated. It’s taken mental acrobatics for me to keep straight the different allegiances of all the armed groups. Add to that now my growing understanding of how ethnicities impact those allegiances and how different that can be from North to South Kivu — only separated by a lake, but often the experience of war is so dramatically opposed.

For example, we had an engaging debate about whether the war has affected North or South Kivu more — somewhat macabre, I know, but interesting. Roger says the south because it is such a small province and thus the proportion of victims is far greater. Dobs felt it was the north because of its close ties to Rwanda (geographic and ethnic) and the ongoing instability in so much of its rural areas.

Further, it seems that the victimization of women, in particular, takes on significantly different face depending on where they live and who attacks them. When the attacker shares fewer ethnic ties to the victim, the stigma for the woman, and her child if she becomes pregnant as a result, is that much greater. When the perpetrator is a civilian, the community response is quite different, and it seems the need for secrecy is greater. Sometimes, an aid worker told me, in the case of civilian rape, families will still try for their own mediation — a marriage between the perpetrator and victim or paid reparations to the victim. This is, however, illegal in Congo.

I’m digesting all of this and trying to understand it in context, knowing all the while that there are millions of layers still to unravel…

And, by the way, this is all simplified way way down from the depths of knowledge Roger and Dobs have about all of these issues. So don’t quote me, I’m still learning!

International Women’s Day

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

So I’ve not been a very good blogger of late… apologies for not recording these events sooner.

Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. Though it is celebrated around the world, I’ve never participated in or even been aware of any special events in the U.S. I know they exist, but they’re not well publicized or attended it seems. In Congo, it’s quite a different story.

I was in Bukavu on Monday, out early, to cover the annual parade that marks International Women’s Day here. I knew it was going to be a scene, but this was spectacular. There were thousands of women — I don’t know how many and I couldn’t get an official estimate, but by my own guess I’d have to say around 5,000 women at least. And they were dressed to the nines! Each group that marches — local NGOs and women’s associations, UN divisions, international NGOs, etc — dresses in matching clothes. Thus under a bright, hot sun (my shoulders are only now starting not to ache from my neon sun burn), one of Bukavu’s main avenues transformed from an often muddy, jaggedly pot-holed roller-coaster, into a rainbow of the city’s women.

The colors were outstanding! And the patterns, all together like that, a vibrant swirl. The singing and dancing of the women along the route was uplifting and made one think that if all of these women could come together, in force, they could do anything. They could really change this war-torn place…

Even as dark clouds moved in, pushing the sunshine out, and an absolute downpour drenched us all, the women did not stop. Nor did they step out of beat to the music playing as they walked. Nor did their arm swinging fall out of pattern. And they were smiling — well, a lot of them were. I even saw one lady who seemed to have lost a sandal to the raging river the street had become keeping up with the others, utterly unfazed, and happy.

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC


The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

They kept this up for several hours more, though I bailed after about one hour or so in the rain. I was soaked and cold. I  had tried to take cover under a tarp hung over  a seating area, but I was on the edge. A fine spot while the rain fell straight. But when it started to come in sideways, it was all over. Roger, my ever-steadfast translator, was soaked too. And then Debi, our driver, found us! God knows how he maneuvered the car so close to where we were, but he save the day, whisking us back to dry clothes and warmer bones.

I did try to return to the parade to catch some speeches and see more action, but by then there was no way to get through the traffic back to where we’d been or anywhere near the route’s finish line. With two more interviews to go that afternoon we had to turn around.

The rain only let up late in the afternoon and most marchers had dispersed around the time we did, give or take an our or so. And yet, the day was certainly not a wash (sorry for the terrible pun…). It was wonderful to see so much spirit and enthusiasm among women here — so many of whom have suffered terribly as a result of the country’s ongoing and brutal conflict. It was inspiring to see little girls get into the mood and tell me that the day was their day to call on the government to support girls’ education, to ”say what we think” and to “be valued.”

Even as violence goes on and as women are so often it’s victims, this day displayed their remarkable resilience and courage. It reminded me, as so many things here do, of what I take for granted, of how lucky I am and how little I’ve really ever “endured.” I am grateful for the perspective.

sometimes it is tough here

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

This is from yesterday, March 5:

Congo is breaking my heart a little bit today. I think I’m extra tired – Roger and I were running around all day, being quite productive, but tiring ourselves all the same. And the interviews were not – as they never really are – on easy topics. But on this trip, I guess my stories are bringing me even closer to the suffering so many women and girls have endured here.

At this point, I’ve met all too many girls aged 14 or 16 or 18 who were kidnapped, raped, beaten savagely, used as slaves, and impregnated – many of them when they were only 12 or 13. They’ve seen their parents and siblings murdered and their homes burned, they’ve been rejected by remaining family members and tell me their dreams of finishing school, marrying, just living, have been shattered.  It’s devastating because there is nothing I can say to make any of it better. And while merely taking care of themselves can feel like an insurmountable challenge, they’ve got the added dimension of another life in their hands, their children.

Today we encountered in one of these young women the depths to which this society’s entrenched stigma is piled upon and internalized by rape survivors and their children. She had a story like so many others – abducted by the Interahamwe at age 14, raped repeatedly, beaten so terribly she is now handicapped and impregnated. But unlike so many other mothers we’ve met, she’s not been able to get past her trauma to love and accept her child, an adorable, dimpled 4-year-old who can’t contain her smiles. To hear her express such anger and disdain for the child made it by far among the most difficult interviews I’ve ever had. I empathize with every cell in my body for her suffering. But to know it will be passed on inevitably is incredibly painful.

Tomorrow I’ll be back on the activism story and will hopefully close the day with a more promising outlook…

all continues apace

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010
A view of Bukavu from the shores of Lake Kivu

A view of Bukavu from the shores of Lake Kivu

I am now entrenched in Bukavu having spent two days reporting and this third one writing, editing and soon (hopefully) filing a story. It’s been a good way to get started. The piece is about local women’s activism. Is there such a thing, you might ask? Well, despite the many reports we get about Congolese women existing primarily as examples of the horrors of rape, the woman’s movement here, especially in the Kivu’s, is quite vibrant. It should be out soon, so if you are so inclined you can have a read at www.womensenews.org.

I also just met Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women, a project of Women for Women International, which has gained a lot of media attention lately. Nick Kristof wrote about her in a recent column and Oprah has featured her work on her tv show. She’s a super interesting lady and I’m having dinner with her and another journalist writing about her tonight. There will be lots of brainstorming about writing and travel in Congo going on. Should be nice to have some dinner dates too — lately it’s only been my computer and me and looming deadlines!

Internet connection today has been the best yet and the persistent leak in my bathroom at the guesthouse seems to finally be stopped up. Things are looking good.