Thursday, November 12, 2009


Where is God in the Congo?

Sixty-seven men women and children murdered by Congolese soldiers as they stood in line to be vaccinated against measles.

Where is God in the Congo?

Seventy to 100 women raped each day in northeast Congo by soldiers, rebels, and civilians.

Where is God in the Congo?

Even when hostilities between rebels and soldiers are at a lull, the raping persists, now by civilians encouraged by the atmosphere of impunity that has spread across the provinces of Maniema, North Kivu, South Kivu, Equateur and Ituri Territory.

Where is God in the Congo?

The prison authorities release four rapists who have served only a few months of their prison terms of six or more years.

Where is God in the Congo?

A child at Heal Africa hospital is recovering from his injuries, but he is in danger of starving to death because the Hospital is unable to provide food and he has no relatives to bring food to him.

Where is God in the Congo?

A young man with a huge baseball sized abscess on his leg screams in pain as the doctor lances it without anesthetic because a layer of bureaucracy and inefficiency bars access to the store of drugs locked away in a cabinet.

Where is God in the Congo?

The micro-finance bakery at Grounds of Hope, a home for women with traumatic fistulae that could not be repaired, fails because the men and women of the surrounding village will not buy bread baked by “unclean women.” The women will starve without donations of food from various organizations.

Where is God in the Congo?

A husband is shamed when his wife is raped. He throws her out of the family home; the community rejects her as well. She is blamed and punished for the rape, doubly victimized, yet she is absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Where is God in the Congo?

Corruption abounds at all levels—from elected officials down the ranks to the judges, police, soldiers, customs officials and wherever someone with authority can withhold his needed services until the “honorarium” is paid. Pay is so low and so sporadic that such practices are necessary if one is to eat, to provide for his family.

Where is God in the Congo?

It can be tempting to write off the Congo as a hopeless and Godless place.

Yet consider:

A group of volunteers, women from a Church in California, wash the feet and give pedicures to women prisoners who were raped when men prisoners in the same prison broke into their quarters and assaulted them viciously. Yet another group of women from Australia washed the feet and painted the nails of women at a home for widows. The joy, delight and giggles of these Congolese women upon receiving these simple gestures of love and caring were uplifting and heartwarming.

Volunteer nurses reach into their own pocketbooks to buy food from the little boy who has no relatives to bring him food at the hospital, which can heal but not feed him.

Doctor Chris, a pediatrician, quits his job and travels to Goma to care for children and babies at Heal Africa. His pay is the joy of saving young lives. His burden is breaking the news to a mother whose baby could not be saved and taking her into his arms to comfort her.

Think about the tireless efforts of Joe and Lyn Lusi, who created Heal Africa and for decades have struggled against innumerable obstacles and frustrations in order to bring medical services, education, opportunity and hope to thousands of men, women and children.

Over the years there have been hundreds and hundreds of volunteers of nearly all professions and trades who have donated their services to help the people of the Congo--doctors, nurses, physical therapists, IT technicians, nutritionists, educators, civil engineers to name just a few.

Pascal and Christine take homeless children off the street, feed them a hearty meal each day, and teach them sewing, carpentry, and auto mechanics so that they can live by means other than stealing, begging and scavenging. (See blog of Camme)

Maurice in Bukavu is the executive director of Heirs of Justice, a program offering legal services and education to the people of South Kivu. His newsletter challenges the corruption, crimes and inefficiency of government officials. His predecessor was assassinated, yet Maurice labors courageously on.

Richard travels on a moto hundreds of kilometers through muddy jungle roads and trails in order to share the legal and practical reasons for according equality and opportunity to women. His wife, left at home with two small children for weeks at a time, bravely encourages him, yet she fears for his safety and prays for his safe return.

Dozens of women who have received one, two, three or more fistula repair operations pack the chapel at Heal Africa each Sunday and joyfully praise God. Churches throughout the Congo resound with song, praise and thanks for what they have, little as it is.

Yes, you can look and see nothing but evil and darkness in the Congo. But when you take a closer look, when you work and worship with Congolese men and women, when you join them for a meal, when you discuss with them their hopes and efforts to create a better Congo, you discover that God is at work in the heart of the Congo.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Rescuing Street Kids

There are an estimated several thousand homeless kids in Goma. Many are orphans who lost their parents during the conflict over the past few years. Others are HIV/AIDS orphans, and still others abandoned or exiled from home and community for some offense or accusation, such as being a witch or sorcerer.

Pascal and his niece and nephew, Christine and Stewart, operate an organization, CAMME (Centre de Papua en Faveur des Mineurs Mal Exploites, Center of Aid in Favor of Badly Exploited Minors) with a facility on the edge of Goma for these street kids. Christine serves as the executive director of Camme. With funds from supporters in California, they have rented a large two story house with space on the first floor for offices and class rooms, and on the as yet unfinished second floor, a dormitory where 50 kids could sleep. There is no money to finish the upstairs, nor funds for beds, mattresses and bedding. The rent is paid until April.

During the day the children can learn sewing, carpentry photography and mechanics. Right now mechanical instruction is theoretical, since there are no funds available to buy an engine that can be torn down and rebuilt.

The only furniture is a small wooden desk and two chairs in Christine’s office. The boys are building benches, but the materials are extremely expensive. An 1 ¾ inch plank eight feet long costs ten dollars, and the nails and wood for the legs and braces add another $8, bringing the cost per bench to $18. When you consider that a monthly wage here for unskilled labor may be $20 or $30, you can see just how precious these benches are. I counted three completed benches, and three under construction. Several boys were busy measuring and sawing the planks under the direction of a young man. There is no money for more materials.

There are eight sewing machines, all operated by hand of course. Eight sewing machines and over hundred girls who would like to learn to sew.

Camme serves nearly three hundred children, and is able to give them one meal a day. For some of them that is the only meal they may receive. The program gets the kids off the street and is an option other than living by theft, which was the only way to survive for some of these kids.

Camme is but one of numerous programs reaching out to kids in Goma. Unfortunately, there is little or no collaboration among NGO’s, FBO’s and CBO’s (Non Governmental Organizations, Faith Based Organizations and Community Based Organizations) with the same goals and target populations. Collaboration, it is feared, will lead to loss of control and perhaps jeopardize funding. So each goes its own way and people do benefit, but the inefficiency of it all is distressing. Yet they are at least partially filling the vacuum left by the utter absence of governmental services in this part of DRC.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Friendly People

Lubutu, DRC

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I spent nearly a week in Lubutu, Maniema Province, with Richard Malengule as he presented the Gender and Justice sensitization course. Assuming I can successfully incorporate some photographs, this blog will be a bit of a photo tour of activity along the road from Kisangani to Lubutu and of some of the village residents and activity. There are also some photos of women, victims of sexual violence, working at the Heal Africa Wamama Simameni, Swahili for Women Stand Up. These are strong words for women who have endured a lifetime of submissive servitude to men. To stand together in the face of tradition and customs to stare down disapproving spouses and village chiefs is a monumental move by women.

Photos from top to bottom: Village beside the road from Kisangani to Lubutu; Lubutu market; Crushing Manioc; Kitchen at the safe house; Woman and child at safe house

The Heal Africa house in Lubutu has four sleeping rooms surrounding a large central room where meals are taken, work is done, and documents and some food stored. There is a bathroom with two compartments, one with a toilet, flushed with a bucket of water, and the other with a recessed shower pan. Of course there was no running water, and my showers were with water from a barrel of river water and a shallow bowl which served for rinsing body and hair by pouring water over my head. The toilet seat was broken, and had been deposited in the toilet’s water tank along with trash and scraps of toilet paper. However, the paper toilet seat covers fully covered the rim of the toilet bowl.

Even with the absence of a toilet seat, this toilet was far better than the squat toilet at the school where the seminar was held. It was in a little hut of woven sticks covered with a reddish clay, roofed with palm fronds. In the center of the hut there was a rectangular hole, about the size of a large brick. It was important to align one’s self carefully.

At the HA house, there was a large freezer, which did not freeze, but during the three or four hours that the portable generator ran, it kept things cool. Little plastic bags of water, holding perhaps the equivalent of a large glass-full, were kept there. In the morning they are taken to the gender and justice class for distribution with lunch during the noon break.

Just after the early light of dawn women and their children started arriving at the house. Some of them were part of the Wamama Simameni, some victims of rape and others who were associated with Heal Africa or the Wamama Simameni in some way. Usually three or four women went to the back yard, where a shed of woven sticks plastered with clay extended nearly the entire 40 feet width of the yard. Here two women crushed cassava in a wooden container as a goat grazed on grass and weeds at one end of the shed.

One of these women had a small baby who erupted in tears whenever I stepped into the back yard. He was not accustomed to a person with white skin and blue eyes. I never could make up to him, even after four days.

At the side of the house, near the front, was yet another little hut, the kitchen. Here a fire was kindled daily and food cooked or water boiled in large black pots. In front of the kitchen shed another stick and clay structure extended from the kitchen shed to the wall that separated the house house from the street. Here the women tended to their babies, retreated during the thunder and lightening storms, and some of them slept here at night.

These women had nothing really, except for a few items of clothing for themselves and their children. I did not have the opportunity to ask way they were there, but from conversations with Richard I learned that for one reason or another- perhaps rape and rejection by their “shamed” husband and community, or widowed during the conflicts and evicted from their property by their brother in law, according to customary law-- they had been turned out of their homes and sought refuge in the Wamama Simameni.

I saw or heard no evidence of self-pity. At times I heard joyful singing, and each morning I was greeted with a cheerful smile and a greeting. Juambo, Swahili for good morning.

When class ended Thursday, the usual afternoon thunder and lighting storm had not arrived, giving me an opportunity to talk a walk through the village. Villagers were everywhere, walking along both sides of the road, which was lined with little stands and shops.

While I received a few stares—Caucasians are rare in Lubutu—I received far more smiles and greetings of “Bonjour.” No one asked me for money, and when I wandered through the stalls in the market, if I stopped to examine some bright and oft-times wild fabric, the vendor attempted to persuade me to buy for “votre femme,” but the pressure was not high and the encounter always pleasant.

The people here are kind, gentle and cheerful. They lack leadership from the government, which provides no infrastructure, no presence here and no hope. But now, and for the foreseeable future, any change, any hope, and progress must come from villagers like those of Lubutu.

LOOK AT ME! I am still a man!

Attacking Ancient Customs

On the last day of the gender and justice seminar in Lubutu, I had the opportunity to speak to the men and women who had faithfully attended the class from the beginning. The prevailing theme of the entire seminar was that men and women must abandon the traditional and customary view of women as lesser beings and allow women to blossom into the full and equal participation in community and domestic life. Accordingly, I prepared a talk about how the Blacks of the U.S. had brought about change in the 60’s and thereafter, utilizing the law, demonstrations, sit-ins, education and above all, perseverance in the quest for equal opportunity and equal treatment.

I had written out my script in French before leaving for Lubutu, and Fabienne, the manager at Maji, had gone over it for me, correcting errors in grammar, syntax and vocabulary. The big day came. I had the same nervous anxiety gnawing at my stomach, but I was accustomed to that feeling from my experiences addressing judges and juries. I knew that as soon as I started, the rhythm would come and all would be well.

All was not well. After about 2 or 3 minutes, the men and women in the rear of the room became restless. It appeared that while those persons in my immediate surroundings could understand my French, but those in the rear of the room simply could not. My French, with a pronounced American accent, was to many of the people like a foreign language. French as spoken in remote Maniema Province has its own idiosyncrasies and pronunciation that would have driven my Parisian native professor of French a bit fou. Richard kindly suggested that I switch to English and he would translate. That was a very good idea. I started over and the talk proceeded smoothly and the audience appeared to be very attentive.

Always seeking a laugh, I deviated from my script and inserted a bit of my own domestic life into the talk.

“I have been in the Congo already four weeks on this trip and two weeks last year. Here in this room I see many strong and able bodied men. But men, do you know what? In the six weeks I have spent in the Congo, I have never, never seen a man walking along the road carrying firewood. Women and children, but never men. I have never seen men carrying those heavy yellow water cans. What do you have to fear?

“When I retired, my wife continued to work. She still works. So one day after I had spent the day golfing, or lying in the sun, or reading and loafing, she came home and said to me, ‘you know Kerry, now that you are not working perhaps you could fix dinner and do the laundry and other of the household chores.’ She was right. There was no reason I should not help out. It was only fair.

“So now I cook dinner three or four nights a week and I do the laundry, do the grocery shopping and other chores around the house. Look at me men, look at me. I am still a man! I do not wear dresses. I still wear pants! I am still a man.!”

Many of the women clapped and cheered. And many of the men had sheepish grins on their faces.

I ended my talk with a reference to Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can.” I said something to the effect of “I know you can change, that you can abandon old discriminatory ways. I am going to ask you if you can, and I want the people clear over in Punia to be able to hear you.”

“Pouvez-vous?” [Can you?] I yelled. In reply there was a resounding,

“Oui, nous pouvons!” [Yes, we can!]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Courageous Counselor

Richard Malengule, Congolese Attorney

The next time you complain about the hardships of your daily commute, take a moment to think about Richard Malengule’s commute to Punia from Lubutu in Maniema Province, DRC. A typical commute involves 150 to 200 kilometers miles on the back of a moto (a small motorcycle) on muddy trails, where often the water filled ruts swallow the wheels and mud flies up from spinning, slipping and sliding wheels, coating his knee high boots in which he has tucked his slacks.

There are no tolls at the bridges, because there are no bridges across the rivers. At the shore a boatman and his pirogue await to ferry him across a river half a kilometer or more wide. Pirogues can be as short as fifteen or twenty feet, and as long as forty feet or more. Richard’s crossings demand the largest of pirogues, in which the moto, Richard, the moto driver, luggage and the boatman are precariously balanced. Pirogues are simple craft, logs that have been hollowed out, shaped like giant canoes.

Yes, luggage is included in his commute, for this is not a daily but rather a weekly or biweekly routine. Richard frequently motos and pirogues to tiny remote villages, like Punia, isolated in the eastern side of Maniema, accessible in the rainy season only by moto, and in the dry season by four wheel drive vehicles. He may be in Punia for a week or more, working to overcome age old customs and practices that subjugate women and girls to intolerable injustices and hardships.

Not only does Richard bring a new understanding and appreciation for women to the people of these remote villages, he also brings criminals, usually sexual offenders, to justice. He described to me journeys with three on a moto, the driver, the offender, and him, driving through the forest on roads that are not much more than trails, crossing rivers in a pirogue, en route to one of the few courts in the province.

This is particularly dangerous work, for an offender who prefers drowning to prison can easily capsize the pirogue, dumping motos, luggage and people into the swift moving waters.

Richard is a young, dynamic and courageous Congolese attorney who is risking his life in his work to bring the rule of law to the remote province of Maniema, DRC. He works for a gender and justice program funded by the Dutch government and partnered by Heal Africa and the American Bar Association. The program is designed to educate and sensitize the people of Maniema province, a program which struggles to bring equality and respect to women, and to overcome customary law that deprives women not only of property, inheritance and education, but also of equality, dignity and opportunity.

I spent five days with Richard in Lubutu observing him present the Gender and Justice teaching. His days started soon after dawn. Breakfast was a hot cup of Nido, a Nestle fortified powdered milk, and a bun of white bread quite similar to a hot dog bun. The Gender and Justice class started at 8 a.m., in a large classroom at the nearby Catholic school. The young men who assisted in the logistics of the program had already taken the generator to the school, placed it 50 yards from the classroom so its noise would not be heard in the classroom. Electricity made a power point presentation possible.

When we arrived, the men and women, about 100 of them, were already seated and ready for the day’s session to begin. Most were residents of Lubutu and some came from other nearby villages. One of the pastors who was assisting was from Punia, several hours away. He had arrived via moto,legs spattered with mud, after having navigated a half day through the forest on the rain saturated trail. He stayed in the Heal Africa house during the week of classes. After he,or one of the local pastors launched the day’s session with prayer, Richard began his presentation. He lectured for a while,and then presented questions for consideration by the men and women, who were divided into groups to discuss the issues and summarize their discussion and conclusions by writing on large pieces of butcher paper. The paper was taped to the wall, and then one of the group members presented the group's opinions. One topic, for example, asked what contributed to the unequal status accorded to women, or the deprivation of education to girls. Discussions were lively and long, often with some of the more conservative folk, especially one of the pastors who attended, citing Bible verses in support of their belief in the secondary, inferior status of women.

After a lunch of white rice, shredded cassava leaves (similar to spinach in appearance, less so in taste) and a piece of meat, the class continued until 4:30 p.m. Each person received a huge helping of rice, the plates heaped high with rice, a ladle of casava next to it, a piece of meat on top, and the whole works topped with a gravy from the pot of meat.

The sessions ended at 4:30. Upon return to the Heal Africa house, Richard worked until 9 or 10 each night preparing for the next day. Dinner, like breakfast, was Nido and bread.

Richard has a wife and two small children in Goma. He is away from them weeks at a time. His wife is supportive, but she worries about and misses him. Richard is dedicated to his work, a work of risk and sacrifice, but also of rewards: he is helping to change the Congo, to bring women into their rightful place and to end the sex discrimination, sexual violence and subjugation of women.

In short, he is working to stop the wasting of the Congo’s most precious resource, its women.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Travel within the Congo

A Paper Trail

One of my secondary goals for my trip to Congo was to see more of the country than just Goma. That opportunity arose when I was strongly advised to visit Heritiers de la Justice (Heirs of Justice) in Bukavu, the capital of the province of Kivu Sud. Bukavu is located about 75 miles south of Goma on the opposite end of Lake Kivu. Heritiers operates some legal clinics similar to those we are attempting to establish at the safe houses for rape victims. Maurice Namwira graciously invited me to come to Bukavu to spend a day with him, so I could seek his advice and opinions and learn Heritiers’ programs. Heritiers mission is to end the epidemic of sexual violence in Sud Kivu by sensitizing men and women as to gender justice issues, seek equality of treatment for women, and assist in bringing rapist and other violent offenders to justice.

The road from Goma to Bukavu is not well maintained, and to drive there would take about a week of swerving, braking and bumping about in an effort to avoid tire breaking pot holes. It is much more desirable and quicker to go by boat. The best choice, according to Harper McConnell, one of the women featured in Half the Sky by Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, who was advising me on the alternatives, is the 3 hour boat, which provides comfortable seating and James Bond movies, and a bathroom. I thought I was booking the three hour boat, and looked forward to the opportunity to take photos from the deck, watch an old Bond movie, and drink as much coffee as I wanted without fear of becoming desperately in need of a non-existent bathroom. Heal Africa has a logistics department which makes all travel arrangements for people connected with the hospital. On its bulletin board were posted the schedules for the various companies running trips to Bukavu, and I saw one offered by Marinette Lines which fit my schedule and was a two hour trip. I guess I just assumed that boat was the one Harper had mentioned, with nice seats, movies and a snack.

But you don’t just buy a ticket and climb aboard for travel from one province to another in DRC. You see, even for travel between provinces of DRC, one must have paperwork signed off by a recognized NGO, FBO, etc. documenting and authorizing the travel. A passport is required as well. For my trip to Bukavu I had to obtain a Heal Africa form that set forth my name and the reason for my trip, dates of travel, and signed and sealed by the Heal Africa program manager. Heal Africa’s document is called an “Order of Mission.” It stated that my mission was to “exchange experiences” and it solicited the civilian and military authorities to “facilitate the execution of this mission.”

Mind you, this trip is analogous to traveling from California to Nevada.

For a 7:30 a.m. departure, I was required to be at the port by 6:30, with travel papers and passport in hand. Arriving at the port, the Heal Africa driver escorted me to a small one room structure furnished with two desks, behind which sat women of authority. The woman to whom I was directed examined my travel papers and passport, and then with painstaking care copied the data into a large ledger in which are recorded, for posterity I assume, the names, nationality, dates and reasons for travel of every one making the Goma-Bukavu trip. For foreigners such as me, a passport is required, and the number, date and place of issue are recorded in a large hard bound ledger book, reminiscent of an old-fashioned book-keeper’s ledger of accounts. She located a rubber stamp among the clutter on her desk and stamped and dated the rear of the Mission Order indicating the date of my “sortie” or departure from North Kivu Province.

That was not the end of the paperwork. I was then escorted across the path which led down a slight hillside to another, similar structure, where yet another official examined my paperwork entered data in a ledger and then stamped my travel documents.

Finally I was approved for the trip, after having gone through more bureaucratic business and paperwork than for a trip from San Francisco to Paris. Mind you, I was not put through this painstakingly slow process because I was a foreigner. The Congolese were put through the same process, the only exception being that they did not appear to have to show a passport although some type of photo i.d. was required of them.

I asked where the boat was. A la. Over there. The only vessel at the dock just below the huts of officialdom was a craft about thirty feet long, shaped much like a speedboat, but with an enclosed cabin area. This certainly was not a vessel with comfortable seats, movies, snacks and a toilet aboard. Apparently the difference between the 3 hour boat described by Harper and the two hour boat I had erroneously booked was about 150 feet in length and creature comforts, such as movies, snacks, roomy seats, and a bathroom.

They packed us in like sardines in a can. Seating was two abreast, on a seat that would have barely been adequate for one person my size. There was a narrow aisle up the center, so narrow that when the second in command went to the rear of the boat to get us a snack (water or a soda and a sandwich on a hot dog bun sized roll with one thin slice of bologna) everyone in an aisle seat had to lean away from the aisle into his or her seat passenger. Once the chap in his bright white neatly pressed uniform had passed, the aisle passengers could sit up straight again, their shoulders nearly meeting across the aisle. Fortunately, I had a window seat.

I had similar, indeed worse, experiences on my recent trip from Goma to Kisangani in Equiteur Province and Lubutu in Maniema Province. Painstaking processing of paperwork. But on the Kisangani and Lubutu trip, I faced yet another paperwork demand before the rubber stamp of approval would be placed upon my documents. More paper. Paper money.

The time lost by what appears to me to be an obsessive – compulsive need to painstakingly fill page after page of large books with such data must mount to millions of dollars every month. It does create jobs, but at what cost? The explanation I received for this burdensome and oppressive bureaucratic bottleneck of paperwork required to travel from one “state” within the country to another was based upon the need for security: that due to the past 15 years of war, it is necessary to keep track of who is traveling where.

Hmm. I boarded the airplane without anyone checking my large carryon backpack.

And the demand for money, that at least is self-explanatory. Pay is miniscule and sporadic. One must supplement his or her income.