Their stories - Women from Rutshuru, Congo

One of our first stops in the Rutshuru territory was to the village of Kiwanji where we had an appointment with FEMISA. This is a local NGO that partners with the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Resolve Network works with local partners to tap into communities and be part of an existing circle of trust.

So much development is “development as usual” and this is a way for humanitarian aid workers to talk about other organizations about not trying to actively move the needle forward. It’s like saying “politics as usual” in the United States. Resolve is laser-focused on being the organization that follows through on their promises and delivers on the programs they have sold into the community. Part of this initial assessment trip to Rutshuru is due diligence on what partners Resolve wants to work with, how open the community is to new programs and what individuals Resolve might be able to tap for leadership positions within their programs.

At FEMISA, we were warmly greeted by the national staff, including my favorite staff member, a gregarious man named Jackson. We had first a private meeting with the Director and then were given a tour of their office. I had been talking to Vijaya on the ride from Goma a lot about Congo politics, the lay of the land, women’s rights, family planning, poverty alleviation and income generating activities - the usual flow of deeply thought provoking conversations we usually have! Vijaya had said that for most of her partners there was not a focus on family planning and so she and I were pleasantly surprised to find out at FEMISA that not only do they teach basic health education to women but that they also offer a variety of health services from HIV/AIDS testing to condom distribution to counseling support for women who are survivors of sexual violence.

The first steps of the assessments are focus groups. A group of women will be brought together by the potential partner organization and she’ll ask them a series of questions. There were about 12 women present, all of whom only spoke Swahili save one woman who spoke some French. As for me, I have French at a high school level equivalency so I understand much better than I can speak. I sat back and mostly listened and only occasionally asked for a clarification on a French translation. I felt pretty good about that after so many years of my French being dormant. I did keep thinking to myself that if I’m going to spend more time in the Congo I would have to take French lessons back home before I came back.

The questions Vijaya asked were basic overview questions. What did the women do for work, what are their challenges, if some of those challenges could be removed (like if they could receive a micro loan) what would they do with the money and with the initial profits what would they buy.

Of the women present, two were recently returned refugees from Uganda. They had fled during M23 and now that they had returned, Vijaya wanted to know if they faced discrimination or any additional hardships from the community. Often, she told me later, this can be a cause of local conflict, so it’s important to understand upfront what specific challenges the refugees faced.

For the women that stayed through the M23, their stories were harrowing about being shot at, their homes destroyed, being attacked, but for many of them leaving wasn’t a viable option so they stayed.

The women were all really enthusiastic about Resolve’s programs. It was amazing to me to see these initial interviews. When I was a Kiva Fellow in the Philippines, I was working in communities that had already received disbursements and had active programs in the area. I heard from local staff at the time that the change in the women was remarkable from before to after they received the loans. Before the loans the women were reserved, quiet and very guarded. The women I visited as part of my work, for the most part, were by then quite the opposite. They were boisterous amongst each other smiling and laughing and were very open and warm. Visiting these Congolese women, I got a sense of what those women from the Philippines must have been like before the loans. These women were still very kind and willing to share their stories but they also appeared to have the stress of the world on their shoulders and it showed in their every facial movement, every physical expression and in how they spoke.

Once the initial questions were over, we (Vijaya, Passy and I) asked Jackson if a few women could stay behind for additional questions. We chose 7 women based on their initial answers and what we perceived as both their willingness to be part of the program and be advocates.

For both the group interviews and subsequent one-on-ones, we asked before we started if we could take photos and if we could share their answers. 100% said yes. They said they wanted their stories told.

Later that night, when I was typing up notes and talking to Vijaya, I told her I was uncertain if we should share everything we heard. Some of it is deeply personal and while I do not have extensive training in sexual violence, I know from when I was in Haiti and visited a shelter for rape survivors that you can’t be too careful. So it was in that vein that I gently pushed back. I want to share what I heard because it was so powerful but I also want to respect these women. The questions we asked where about what the women did for work but many of the the women openly shared their story about rape, unprompted.

Read more in this recently published report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission on rape in the Congo

“They said yes when asked if we could share their stories, right?”

Vijaya asked me.

“Yes.” I answered.

Vijaya responded, “Then I think we owe them our respect to respect their wishes. It speaks volumes to you that you would even think twice, most people wouldn’t, and that is even more reason why they trusted us. Because we did take time to spend with them individually and we didn’t ask any specific questions about rape, they offered those stories. No one listens to the poorest of the poor. Most NGOs treat poverty from the macro level, people don’t come and ask to meet with these women and talk to them like they’re individual people. This is giving them a voice.”

We talked this through for a good while longer but ultimately I agreed. It’s not completely about the distribution, I know my blog isn’t The New York Times, but still the internet is the internet. I am going to respect their wishes and share what they told us, first names only.

A note on their stories. When they talk about work I found out afterwards that work is seen as something that brings in income, not the everyday cost to live and survive. So when they say they don’t work, they don’t mean they sit around all day. Quite the contrary! They might be farming or looking for food in fields to feed their children. They will certainly be going to the nearest water source for water, and they will be cooking and cleaning. Realistically speaking, each of these tasks takes a lot longer because of course they don’t have electricity or running water, they don’t have any means of transportation, they are hungry because they don’t really have money for food and often they have an illness or lingering something that is slowing them down.

They don’t go to one place and earn money - like a market. When prompted, most of the women wanted to have a business selling palm oil. This is all they see around them and so while we might think, “why would you want to sell something everyone else sells? who would buy it?” the women don’t really think that way…yet. Most of the women from the focus group are incredibly savvy but either illiterate or semi-illiterate and lacked the critical thinking skills that are taught as part of basic education.

The Resolve Approach includes training classes prior to launching a micro-credit program and this implementing phase would help the women work out a business plan, learn basic financial literacy (for example moving away from counting on their fingers and keeping a ledger) and a basic understanding of how to run a business. All of the women talked about money - how it’s hard to make money, there isn’t a lot of money, they try to make money in the market with what is left over from the field but that it’s very difficult.

Not something they talked about but another observation I had is that since the roads are so bad, going to work in a neighboring village each day isn’t an option. It’s also not like the neighboring villages are doing any better. The lack of jobs also means a lack of any disposable income to buy anything. It is the cycle of poverty that is incredibly hard to break. Another reason why an NGO like Resolve Network could make a real difference in this community.

Also while they all said how old they were and how old their children were, I found out later that many times this is a guess because they don’t have birth records for their children. I also found out that most children don’t know when their birthday is, I know that’s not a huge thing in the greater scope of the poverty and amongst everything else but that small thing made me really sad because I think all children deserve a special day.

Below are excerpts from 7 interviews with the women of FEMISA.

Lucia is 50 years old and has 7 kids ranging from 5-18. She is a widow, as many many of the women are. Her house was destroyed by the M23 so she currently lives with her neighbors. The M23 destroyed many homes in her village so there are 4 families living together now in one small hut. Of those additional families, they have 2, 3 and 6 kids apiece. That is 18 kids in one house, not counting the parents!

First thing she does in the morning and go to the farm to look for something to feed her kids. Sometimes she finds something and sometimes she doesn’t. She doesn’t have money for food so if she finds something, she feeds her children first and herself second. That means that many days she does not eat barely anything at all. She tries to farm and pays $30/month for 50meters by 50meters. This seemed about the going rate for acreage with the other women we talked to as well.

The issue is that Lucia doesn’t have money to buy inventory to plant so there isn’t a fresh crop that comes up. She has to try to coax something out of the earth which is very difficult for her.

If she had the opportunity to grow her business, she would buy seeds to plant and then sell what she grew in the market and also be able to feed her family better. She would also put money towards repairing her house and towards putting her children back in school.

Marie Chantal is 58 and a widow with 8 kids ranging from 19-36. She lives in an abandoned destroyed house with all of her children and their families. None of her kids currently work consistently. She farms and if there is extra food she tries to sell it in the market. Most times she has nothing to eat all day.

First things she does every morning is pray because she said, “You always have to thank the boss.” On days when she does have food to feed her family, she returns from the fields and lights a fire. She likes lighting the fire and cooking food because she likes knowing she is about to do something good for her family.

If she had a loan she would like to do “petit commerce” - start a small business and sell both cassava flour and palm oil. This would also be a way to involve her family so her kids could also work with her or help in the fields while she handles this business.

Antoinette is 48 and has 6 kids. She thinks they are between 5-15 but she’s not sure because she’s not good at remembering dates and because she doesn’t have any records for her kids.

She said that she lived with her husband but that it was like living alone. She talked about how he’s not present and is completely silent, and that he doesn’t do anything to contribute to the household or to raising the children. She didn’t start using the word “crazy” but she did say it later. It definitely felt like there was a mental illness there, but there certainly isn’t mental illness services and this was just a really tough situation to hear about.

We thought maybe the trauma of war caused this but she told us that her husband was like this before M23. She is one of the recently returned refugees from Uganda but what was really interesting is that she actually didn’t leave because of the rebels but because of her husband. She took advantage of being to go to Uganda to escape him.

However, after 18 months she came back for two reasons. First because she left one child behind (she didn’t say which one but we thought it was an older one who could fend for themselves) and also because she didn’t want her children to grow up in a strange country, She wanted them to grow up in the Congo. Border crossing as a refugee is really frightening. When she came back to the border from Uganda, the M23 was there and they took all of her money and all of her clothes except what she was wearing.

Now she thinks it was easier to live in the camps than here because at least in the camps, her kids were receiving a free education. All she wants is to find a way to raise her children, send them to school and give them better opportunities that what she had.

Shikuru Neema is 14 years old. She lives only with her mother. She has an older brother who is in the army but she doesn’t know if he is alive or dead. Her mother was attacked during the war (most likely raped) and both of her knee were broken. Because of that injury, she is now handicapped and can’t really earn money. Shikuru didn’t mention this, but being handicapped is very hard here because there are no services for the physically handicapped, no sidewalks, no paved roads, no wheelchairs.

She was working in the field to support her and her mother but one day two men came (police? rebels? civilians?) and the other people in the field saw them and fled but her and another girl could not get away in time and the two men attacked and raped them. They shoved their clothing in their mouths so they couldn’t scream or make noise. Afterwards, when she went home she was very shaken. Someone in the community was able to take her to FEMISA. Through FEMISA they were able to take her to the hospital so she would not have any sustaining injuries and provide services after.

Shikuru is now very afraid and you could tell this from her demeanor. She was so quiet in the way that she spoke. She said that she is too scared to go back to the fields so it’s very hard to make money. To earn money now, the mother can sometimes weave baskets and then Shikuru makes Congolese donuts and sells both around her village but this doesn’t make very much money.

She doesn’t really want to talk to anyone around her and doesn’t really have any friends and doesn’t want to talk to men at all. We told her we were her friends and she was not alone. She told us that she is afraid of the discrimination and stigma she would potentially receive from people in the village from having been a survivor of sexual violence. Even though there are a lot of women who have been raped, that there is still discrimination and since she has to make money for her and her mom to survive she was scared to tell other people about her story.

She had gone to school before but had to drop out after her mom got attacked. If she could, she would like to find a way to go back to school. She said her dream was to become a doctor or a teacher that way she would be able to help her mom and other people like her mom. That is what she wants most in the world.

We asked if she had a message to share with the world and this is what she said. “Now that things are calm, we have to keep it that way. We can’t let the M23 or other harmful groups win back what we have gained.

When asked in the focus group what she would do if she were in charge of the village she said that she would listen to people. If they were nice and kind and really wanted to help others, she would help them but if they were aggressive or rude she would not help them.

Meki Rabuza is 35 and married with 7 children ranging from 5-18. Her husband doesn’t work because he can’t find any work around them. During the occupation, she was displaced and left her husband and took her kids to Uganda. In the camps, the kids all got free education and they also got a pencil and a notebook. This was really important to her.

Now that she has returned, she has no money and it’s hard to find work. Every morning when she wakes up and sees the sunlight, she thanks god and is grateful that she is alive and that there is still a chance for a better life and to do better today.

She works on a field that she pays for at $20/month. She tries to make sure that the kids eat at least once a day but that’s not always possible. She herself often doesn’t eat so that the kids can eat.

If she had the opportunity to have a micro-loan, she wants to do animal husbandry and raise animals like goats. Also she would like to sell some palm oil on the side.

Her message to the world is, “Since the fall of the M23 there have been many improvements, thanks to the world and to god but now it is up to us keep it growing.

Tawiha Marceline is 45 and a widow. Her husband died of AIDS and she is HIV+. She has 5 children ranging from 11-21. She comes from the Walikale region. She was displaced in 1993 due to internal conflict. She got displaced to Masisi first and then found her way to Rutshuru. When M23 came to Rutshuru, she refused to leave. She said she had already been displaced before and wasn’t going to flee. Her house was destroyed but she still lives in what is left of it with her children. She said there are bullet holes in the walls but that she is always trying to make repairs and make it better for her children.

For her the priority are school fees. All of her kids are currently in school. Not only are they in school but she has found a way to send them to a Catholic school nearby, but not the public school up the hill from her house. She said the school near her house is on the top of a hill and that it’s too out in the open and without a guard wall or protection making it an easy target for rebels to come and steal children. So they travel farther to another school that she hopes is safer.

Her current business is tailoring and she works out of her house. The problem is that she only gets clients around the holidays - Christmas, Easter and special events - and what she wants is a year-round business. When she came here she started renting a machine and now she owns one. Someday, she would like to build a room on her house just for her workshop.

She said, “People really need to heal here and they need counseling but they also need work and they need to solve the problems of their community.”

She said she was hungry and that hunger is something she thinks about all day. Her dream is to grow her business and keep her kids in school. She had a big personality and a strong resolve. She is someone we knew we wanted to spend more time with to learn more about the community and continue to build a relationship with.

She talked about how she was raped by the Banyamulenge (this is a rebel [linguistic] group). She suffered internal injuries from the attack and that continues to make her life difficult. She takes medication three times a day for her HIV and has been hospitalized twice for TB.

Her message is this, “I demands hope from the world. We can not abandon hope, we all must work on peace. That is all.”

With that, I’ll close. I sincerely hope these stories create something for the reader - perspective, a desire to give back, to give thanks. As emotionally draining as it was to take in these women’s stories and spend the day with them, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to be here and know that I can never even imagine what they’ve gone through. I hope that by treating them as equals for the day that they felt their spirits lifted. We still have a lot of legwork and fundraising to do to be able to provide services in this region which is really difficult to accept but it’s the reality of the Congo and humanitarian aid work.

Please see my disclosure for all Congo-related posts.

Read more ...

Kiss and Make Up
Women's Philanthropy Institute's Newest Council Member!
My Women’s Equality Party Vote Is Dedicated To…
Road To 50
You're Invited! ASPCA Young Friends Benefit
... and more posts from the archives