Monthly Archives: May 2009

May 18, 2009: Baghdad – By Zainab Salbi

I lay down at the end of my first day in Baghdad in the deep darkness of a night with a beautiful summer breeze, the sound of crickets, and the smell of the Tigers River.  There is no electricity in the house, though everyone is happy with the improvements in the number of hours they are getting electricity which amounts to about 12 hours a day, give or take one or two hours, depending on the neighborhood.  Much has changed since I was last here in February of 2008.  The airport looks more organized, the staff are polite, doctors check passengers for any fever, something that looked more silly than cool, but it was still a change to a more professional airport, and nice, uniformed taxis are waiting at the airport door.  The streets are pale and dusty but there is something about the sand of the desert contrasted with the green of the palm trees that brings a soft breeze to the heart…a combination of sadness, nostalgia, and hope for the future.

Life seems to have relaxed a bit in Baghdad.  As I pass by the University of Baghdad, its doors are full of students, women and men, chatting, mingling, and flirting with each other; women drive in their cars, walk without a headscarf in the streets; scenes that were common throughout my life in Iraq but have become rare in the last few years before the security situation deteriorated in Baghdad. But that calmness is not without the presence of military, with the tanks driving through the city, men at the top with a machine gun that rotate as the soldier check out the streets.  Check points are still all over but with soldiers who are getting more of the people’s respect than ever in the last few years.  People are more willing to visit different neighborhoods where they were not willing to take such risk the year before, though the question of who controls that neighborhood is still asked.

On the way from the airport, I ask my colleague Ali to stop at a local bakery so I can get Samoon, a kind of bread that is a specialty in Iraq and many other parts of the world that was once controlled by the Ottomon empire.  I find the taste of home in it and it brings back my childhood memories.  More than that, there is a an Iraqi saying that when two people share a piece of bread together they are to be friends forever. I no longer know how much is left of such a concept of generosity and kindness in the country.  People here have gone through more 30 years of wars and some have not seen life other than in a war zone.  How much the people have changed, I no longer know.

By the time I finish eating my piece of bread, I enter our office.  Three security guards who staff our office, along with every house and office in the city, open the door for us.  That’s when I meet my colleagues who have been working with Women for Women International since 2003.  They have endured so much danger and insecurity.  They have seen bombs and explosions and continued to do work despite all odds in a country that that has terrorized half of its population.  Despite this, they have persevered, serving a total of 3,274 women since Women for Women International started its work in Iraq. We all get emotional, crying and embracing when we see each other. They, like all Iraqis who have stayed in the country, need a witness to their pain and to their work and determination and I am the only witness who can come and see that first hand from the HQ office as it is dangerous for others to visit.

I go around, hug and talk with all of our staff, and see the reports of our expansions in Baghdad and our work with socially excluded women here.  I am told of a woman who lives in a small room under the stairs of a building with her four daughters and how she is petrified by anybody around her.  As a single mother with four single teenage daughters, they are all vulnerable to various kinds of abuse.  So she hides in her hole, cleans some houses for money, and is too afraid to even join an organization that is trying to give her assistance.  The staff have been visiting her for weeks until she can trust them and join the group.  In a country where there have been so many killings, so many kidnappings, so many bombings and suicide bombings, and so much corruption, it is not easy to get the trust of anybody and it takes quite a lot of work just to convince vulnerable women to trust that there is someone out there who indeed wants to help and not hurt them.

I finally head to my family’s home, a ride that ends up being about two hours, as opposed to no more than twenty minutes six years ago. When I arrive there, I feel I am in a safe haven.  There is the Tigers, with fisherman calmly hoping to catch some fish to feed their family and maybe sell, there is the beautiful garden with flowers, and, yes, there is even a pool.  I sit with my family by the river, smoking Sheesha with fruit flavored tobacco, my uncle drinks his whiskey, a friend of the family sits with her headscarf and black robe as she mourns her deceased husband, and my cousins and their wives.  Just a small family and friends gathering in a summer evening in Baghdad includes Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, and not one of us talked about this issue that seems to consume more attention from the outside world than in our own internal world.  The debate was anywhere from Bush’s policy towards Iraq and how some liked it and some didn’t, to how much Iraqis love President Obama, to Malaki and how Sunnis and Shia’as alike are starting to be comfortable with his policies, regardless of his own personal sect.

In the midst of our political discussion, there was a sound of a huge explosion.  There was a silence for only less than a second. We wondered where this bomb could be coming from and we resumed the conversation as of nothing happened.  My mother’s friend picked up her cell, called her family to check if they are alright and continued to join us in the conversation.  “We are used to that,” she said.  “We rarely stop life because of a bomb. Often activities resume, windows are replaced and the stores are reopened within no more than 20 minutes from any bomb [going off]”, she continued.  “The only exception”, she explained, “is when my brother saw dead bodies in the last bombing in Al Kademmya where 60 people were killed.  He saw many parts of people’s bodies and he was really affected and couldn’t eat anything for two days”.

It is amazing how life resumes back so fast, I comment.  My cousin, who never left the country, looks at me and says, “It never stopped Zainab throughout all these years”. In all of the discussions of the Iraq war, we have mainly discussed things from a front line perspective. I wish more efforts were taken to understand the back line discussion of what war is and what peace means for Iraqis.  Perhaps things would not be as destroyed as they are today.  I go to bed knowing there is hope in people’s hearts and I pray that we don’t lose one more opportunity of transferring hope to tangible improvements in people’s lives.

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Sister to Sister in Rwanda – by Linda Bauer

Sister to Sister in Rwanda

April, 2009

The trip from Kigali to Rwamagana is a little more than an hour’s drive along a surprisingly well‑paved two-lane highway.  From my open window in the van I see lush green rolling hills and red earth, small mounds of farmland, banana trees, and wetlands filled with stalks of sugar cane and squat tea trees rushing by me.  Along the sides of the road many people are walking, all of them balancing something on their heads – baskets of deep red tomatoes or dusty brown sweet potatoes, plastic jerry cans filled with water, long thin branches of firewood, bundles of thick sugar cane or dark green cassava leaves – and everywhere the smoky scent of cooking fires permeates the air.  The beauty of Rwanda mystifies me.

At a crossroad in Rwamagana we leave the paved highway and drive several miles on a rutted, kidney-jarring, dirt road; ten of us bouncing along in the Women for Women (WFW) International van, the local children running alongside waving at us, the women hoeing their small plots of land gaping at us as we drive by, wondering who we are and where we are going.  I am traveling with the trainers from the Kigali office to enroll women from this rural area into the program – and to meet the woman I sponsor.  She has no idea I am coming.

A gathering of African women

More than one hundred women wearing long dresses and headscarves in brilliant African prints and infants tucked in their laps or swaddled on their backs are waiting patiently for us on the grass under the shadows of shade trees and brightly-colored rain umbrellas.  They study us curiously, especially me, the only white woman in the group.  Later I would learn they had many questions about me, wanting to know if I am “a woman or a girl;” meaning, if I am married or single, among many other things.

I sit on a wooden bench next to the WFW staff in the warm April African sun as one of the trainers translates Kinyarwanda into English for me.  The trainers finish telling the women about the program and then direct them into smaller groups.  My sister, Marie Odette, is called out of her group to meet me.  My first memory of Marie is of a young woman in a long brown print dress carrying a wooden bench for us to sit on and placing it under a shade tree.  We hug each other as though we are old friends who have reunited after a very long time apart.  Marie is a pretty, shy woman with a quiet demeanor, but she carries the look of sadness in her dark eyes.  Through my interpreter I learn that she and one brother are the sole survivors of a family of thirteen; she lost the others to the 1994 genocide.  She points to a small cemetery on the side of a hill where they are buried.  She tells me she had once planned to enter the convent to become a Catholic nun, but after her family was killed she lost faith and grew frightened of living alone and wary of the soldiers who drank heavily and congregated in her village; so she took a young man as a husband for protection.  She says he is a good man and tells me they make and sell banana beer to earn a living.  Then she smiles and tells me proudly that she has started her own business making donuts.  I ask her if her donuts are good.  Her smile turns into a wide grin and she says, “Yes, they are very good.”

Linda and her sister, Marie

Linda and her sister, Marie

Marie Odette, my sister in Rwanda

Marie Odette, my sister in Rwanda

We pass the afternoon asking many questions about each other; Marie wanting to know where I live and what I do for my work, and if I have children.  She tells me she keeps losing babies and that it makes her the subject of gossip among the other women who seem to have little problem bearing many children.  We encourage her to go to the medical clinic for an examination instead of continuing to seek the advice of the traditional healer in her village; before we leave she promises she will go to the clinic and get the needed treatment.

All too soon the time passes, Marie thanks me for traveling such a long distance to meet her and is very grateful for the small gifts I have brought her; little practical things that are so commonplace to me are very special to her.  And she thanks me for supporting her so that she can complete the program and grow her little donut business and someday open a small shop.  And I feel it is the least I can do to help her accomplish that dream.

Women pause so that I can take images of them with their umbrellas. They remind me of African "Geishas"

Women pause so that I can take images of them with their umbrellas. They remind me of African "Geishas"

The groups begin to break up and the women start to leave to walk back down the dirt roads to their mud houses to resume their daily chores – planting fields and carrying water, cooking meals, washing clothing, and tending to small children.  But here in the late afternoon sunlight as they cross the threshold between the grass and the red earth they appear like African geishas twirling their open umbrellas, their babies tied on their backs with wide swaths of padded cloth.  They pause graciously so that I can take their photographs.  Then Marie stands hand-in-hand with of one her friends and more women come to join her.  As they stand arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand and smile at me with their beautiful wide-open grins and I smile back at them, at once I feel we are all connected.  That we are universal sisters with the same hopes and desires, loves, and dreams, and that day by day we are changing and enriching each others lives through this connection.

African Geisha

I would like to thank the staffs in both the Washington, DC and Kigali offices for making the arrangements for me to meet my sister, Marie Odette in Rwamagana, Rwanda.  It was truly an extraordinary experience that I never dreamed would have come true nearly two years before while I was still living in San Francisco and first started sponsoring a sister through WFW after learning about the organization by watching a 60 Minute segment by Anderson Cooper about the brutal rapes of women in the DRC.  Marie is the third woman I have sponsored.  Thank you to Priscilla and Sara in DC and to Peace and Berra and all the staff in the Kigali office who picked me up at my hotel, allowed me to hitch a ride to the rural villages and attend workshops at the Kigali office, and for enthusiastically translating for me.  They always made me feel welcome.  Thank you to my fellow Tuesday night volunteers in the DC office who enthusiastically supported my trip and wanted to hear all about it upon my return, and for their patience when I repeated the same stories to others over again.  And most importantly, thank you to Zainab, for her tireless effort in raising the consciousness of people all over the world to the plight of women in war-torn countries who still live under deplorable conditions and suffer unspeakable inhumanities and indignities that no woman should ever have to endure.  And to Women for Women International for improving the lives of thousands of women through their innovative sponsorship program.  For in the end I do believe that if we can improve the life of at least one other woman in this world then we have truly done something significant and good with our lives.

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Diary from Bosnia – By Brita Schmidt

Day 1 – 3 May 2009

I arrived this afternoon in Sarajevo to see – for the first time- the actual work of Women for Women International on the ground with my own eyes. On the way from the airport, we passed many buildings with numerous bullet holes large and small, an immediate and very visible legacy of a war that has been one of the worst in recent European history. Later walking through the old part of Sarajevo, I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to have lived through the years of war in Sarajevo (only 15 years ago) – caged in by beautiful mountains which meant you could not get out and I wondered what other legacy this terrible war has left.

In the evening we met a few of the Women for Women staff and Seida, the country director. All together we watched ‘Grbavica’ (Esma’s secret: Grbavica) (Grbavica is an area of Sarajevo where the initial war started and where everyone who was not Serb was killed or raped) and all together we cried. The film, produced in 2006 and winner of the Berlin International Film Festival gave me the answer to my question about the legacy of the Bosnian war. It is a story about a young girl who asks her mother who her father was, whilst initially pretending he was a war hero, at the end the mother tells her daughter that a soldier raped her. The pain and suffering of the mother, all the lost opportunities, the destruction, the denial and the impossibility of actually coming to terms with one of the worst war crimes – rape –  and its legacy is painfully depicted in this amazing film.

Later speaking to one of the staff, Razija, who has been with Women for Women since 1998, she said to me that even though she has seen the film many times, it continues to make her grief to think of all what women have had to go through. Her translator, Edina, a woman who also translates the letters that sponsors and sponsor sisters write to each other, was also visibly shaken by the film and together they told me about the women that Women for Women International works with and helps. One woman she told me about had lost her parents, husband and her two children in Srebrenica. After graduating from our programme she decided to go back to Srebrenica ‘to walk where her children’s feet touched the ground’.

Right now I cannot believe the pain and suffering that this nation has gone through, it seeps through everything, and yet there is the amazing strength of women who survive and become active citizens, speaking out about the most horrendous atrocities of this war to make sure that it will never happen again. More than ever before am I convinced that one of the most important things we can all do is say no to war and violence.

Day 2 – 4 May 2009

This morning we left early and drove through Sarajevo to get to the other side, to visit Women for Women’s offices. On our way there, I saw the Memorial for the dead children of Sarajevo in the centre of Sarajevo. Our driver told us it was to commemorate the huge number of children who died in Sarajevo during the war. At the offices we learned a little bit more about Bosnia’s recent history. 200,000 people were killed in the war. It is estimated that 20,000 women were raped during the war (1992-1995) but only very recently has the government actually began to allow rape to be a criteria for war compensation. But actually the process for qualifying for such compensation is such that it re-victimises the woman all over again. Therefore, unsurprisingly not many women will go and register and give testimony as it involves speaking out in front of 3 male commissioners….. In fact so far there are ‘only’ 3,000 women officially registered.  The shame associated with rape is huge when the men in the family and community elders don’t accept the women back. Seida told us about one woman who was raped and told her husband. He wanted her to put the hand on the Koran and swear it had not happened, she was not able to do this and he left her.

The Dayton agreement ended the war but it also has reinforced the divide between the Federation and the Republica Serbska. Some people who lived in the territory of what is now the Republica Serbska, who are not Serb, have decided to sell their property and not go back. I can see now that the divisions which gave rise to the war and were intensified by it are still there and not enough is being done to address them. I could sense real fear that history could repeat itself.

In addition to the political situation, I also heard that at the moment official figures state a 45.6% unemployment rate. 35,000 people alone lost their job at the beginning of 2009 due to the economic recession.

I am beginning to really see why Bosnia was the country where Zainab started the organisation in 1994. Zainab could not believe that women were being mass raped, everyone knew about it and yet no one was doing anything. So she first went to Croatia in 1993, because at the time it was very difficult to get into Sarajevo. In 1994 she managed to get into Sarajevo, by travelling as a journalist which meant she could get on a UN flight – the only way to get into Sarajevo at the time. She met there with Farida, who I am going to meet tomorrow, and started the sponsorship programme where women and men sponsored a woman in Bosnia every month and wrote letters of support, which at the time had to be smuggled through a tunnel to reach besieged Sarajevo. When the Dayton Agreement was signed Women for Women International had 600 women sponsored. In 1997 the organisation started to make microcredit loans available to women to help them stand on their own feet and in 1998 Women for Women started our core programme in Bosnia, which consists of rights awareness, leadership education and vocational and technical skills training. At the moment there are 3,400 women in our core programme in Bosnia. Women also get job skills and if they are interested they receive comprehensive business services designed to help them start and manage their own microenterprises. The microcredit programme then gives women access to capital. I was so interested to learn that the microcredit programme is based on the solidarity model of the Grameen Bank, which incidentally was the first donor for this programme.

The way this model works is that solidarity groups provide a guarantee for each other, they live in the same neighbourhood etc. WfWI provides them with training and assists them to fill in the application form, we then do regular field visits house to house, to accompany the women.  So once the women in a group have gone through a few cycles, and an individual woman does well, then she can also ask for an individual loan, which we also provide.

Seida said that the micro credit is worrying her right now, with the global financial crisis. In Bosnia WfWI micro credit institution is small in comparison to others in Bosnia and for the first time we are seeing that women are not repaying their loans – only 10% at the moment, which is still very low, but it is a completely new phenomenon. For me it is a clear sign of how the global financial crisis is affecting women in the countries where we work.

Having heard so much about the work, we spend the afternoon visiting a few of the women who have been able to set up their small businesses with the help of the microcredit loans. One woman was proudly standing behind her beautiful counter selling eggs. Her business employs her and her husband.

britas image

We also saw a few women who are part of the same solidarity group and have managed to all have their stands together in a small market. They have ensured that each one covers a different market need to make sure that they are not competing with each other.

Brita 2

This woman sells children’s clothes.

The day ends with attending a graduation ceremony of 70 women who have completed the year long course. We hear from one woman who specialised in herbs. When she started the programme she was unemployed. During the programme she became interested in collecting herbs for medical use. So she collected herbs, dried them and started to use them. She now has a successful small business that employs her and her husband. It was so moving to hear her speak and see her husband standing amongst the hundreds of people who had come from the neighbouring villages to support and celebrate the success of the women graduates. I could see the pride with which he was looking at his wife. Later on, after we had tasted the wonderful food that everyone had brought for the celebration and I had danced with the women a traditional Bosnian dance, I visited the small bazaar that the women had put up exhibiting their products and I tried some of her different teas. The energy in the room was so positive and encouraging, everyone had a smile on their lips. When a journalist from one of the national newspapers and radio channels, who wanted to cover the event, asked me whether I thought that there was hope for the women of Bosnia and whether I really thought that programmes such as these make a difference, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. For me there is no doubt that the situation in Bosnia is enormously challenging, because of the legacy of the war and because of the economic situation. But it is clear to me, having seen our women today, that they have hope and skills and the will to make their lives and as a consequence the lives of their families and their community better, for the sake of their children and in hope for a better future. Our work in Bosnia is changing women’s lives, one woman at a time and I feel so privileged to witness this myself.

Day 3 – 5 May 2009

We left very early this morning because today we are going to Srebrenica, which is only about 160km from Sarajevo, but because of the roads, it takes about 3 hours. I was in the car with Farida, the first Women for Women director in Bosnia, who helped Zainab to set everything up. She told us a lot about what it was like to live in Sarajevo during the years of the siege. Whilst I listen to her I look out of the window and admire the beauty of this country. Everything is green. We drive for what seems forever up and down mountains, there are large stretches with no houses at all. Then suddenly we pull in and I see a huge abandoned factory building, the windows are partly shattered, it looks completely deserted and I wonder what we are doing here. Then I realise this is Potocari, the old battery factory where the Dutch peace keeping force was stationed and where the genocide of July 1995 began to unfold, which has now been turned into a museum. I simply cannot describe the atmosphere of that place. You can feel the desolation, the death and despair. For the next few hours a young woman working at the museum told us exactly what happened in Srebrenica. I had no idea that of the ca 8,000 people who were killed here in the space of five days only about 2,000 have so far been buried. The museum guide herself shared her story with us, her brother and father and grandfather were killed. For years they did not find the remains of any of them until a year ago she got a call to inform her that they had now been able to literally ‘piece’ her father together (from three different sites) and that they were 95% confident it was her father. She said that that day she felt not ready and for a moment I didn’t know what she was saying but then I realised that it was only at the point of actually having a body and knowing for sure that it was him and that he had died and knowing how he had died because of the marks on the skull etc that it became real and she could start the proper grieving process. Later when we walked together to look at the war memorial, I talked to the guide about how important it is to have this memorial. She told me about how dedicated and committed she is to the museum and speaking out about the atrocities that happened here. But she also talked about her young baby and how she does not want her to grow up in Srebrenica, surrounded by this grief and this horrible past. For me that was echoing a question I was carrying around with me, which is how can we start to recover if the legacy of mass rape and the fact that entire families have not been able to bury their dead is staring us in the face every day no matter that the war ended 15 years ago. Here in Srebrenica it feels raw and present.

And then in the afternoon we visited some of the women who have been through our programme in Srebrenica and have also received microcredit loans. And that was when I met Safia and actually realised that she was the woman that Razija had told me about on the first evening after watching the film, the woman who decided to go back to her house to ‘walk where her sons had walked’. And she showed me the tree in her front yard where she had seen her two sons, then 16 and 22, for the last time before they ran off with their father into the woods to escape from the Serb soldiers.  She also has not yet been able to bury her sons. She told me her whole story and I began to wonder how she was able to survive with what she had been through. But then she told me about the Women for Women programme and what it had meant to her. She told me that receiving letters was an incredible feeling, to know that there is someone who cares and is interested. She also told me about the skills she learned. She was trained in chicken rearing and received help to build a proper enclosure for them. With the micro credit loan she was able to rebuild her house. But most importantly perhaps, she met three other women through the programme who she still stays in touch with. In fact they were there when we visited. They all said that thanks to Women for Women they have been able to speak about all the horrible things that have happened to them and they take comfort in the knowledge that they understand each other. I think to myself that this must be the most important thing anyone can ever do – to provide a lifeline, something that will help women to live through the worst atrocities and move from victim to survivor to active citizen.

When I started my journey all I thought was that Bosnia was probably relatively advanced in how it has come to terms with the war in comparison to the other countries where Women for Women works, but actually, I am leaving absolutely determined to raise awareness of the horrendous and terrible legacy of this brutal war and to do my bit to ensure that women in Bosnia get the help and support they so desperately need. And in Safia’s words: I hope this will never happen again to anyone…

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Rwanda/DRC Trip – by Sara Sykes

In the Women for Women International headquarters office in Washington DC, I sit in a small office everyday.

I type on my computer.

I answer the phone.

I rush down the hall, eager to finish a task, brief someone, put out a fire. Sometimes, I go outside, walk to Starbucks, stretch my legs.

I discuss our programs. I talk about the women we help. I say things like, “By the end of our program, our women can bring their vocation to market” or “During our program, our women meet in small groups and learn about human rights.”

I talk about our sponsorship program. I say, “For just $27 a month, you can help improve the life of a woman survivor of war” or “For just $27 a month, you can have a sister across the world.”

I say these things, I believe in what we do.

Then, I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda and DRC with our founder and CEO, Zainab Salbi.

I am not just a believer anymore. I am so much more than that. Being able to witness, firsthand, the impact of our programs on women, their families, and their communities amounts to more than I can ever sum up into a catchphrase, a passing conversation, a blog on a website. Maybe Chris, a South African who traveled with us to both Rwanda and DRC, had something when he said, “I have traveled with many journalists, and they are always looking for the worst. Women for Women showed me the best.”

It is so easy to find the worst around us. Don’t our friends and loved ones say that it’s easier to harp on the bad things, more difficult to pick out the good things? It is so easy to go to a place like Rwanda, find a genocide victim, despairing over her slain children, her murdered husband, the machete marks on her back. It is so easy to go to DRC, find women used as weapons of war, living in IDP camps, seven starving children spilling out of a tattered tent no bigger than a small car, their starving bellies swelling out of their ripped clothes.

But when you look, when you really look, you will find the best.

You will find our women.

When you really look, you will see our women in Rwanda. Genocide survivors working on a pineapple cooperative with their sisters, singing as they harvest their crops. Smiling at each other, sharing and learning from one another, the babies on their backs dreaming what babies dream. You will see a woman using her sponsorship funds to send her children to school, buy a cow, equip her home with electricity. You will see our CIFI graduates building a kitchen garden together. You will hear a woman say how Women for Women helped her to “not despise herself.”

When you really look, you will see our women in Congo. Pens pressed to crisp new blue notebooks. The letter a repeated across the page, a look of determination, white chalk on a blackboard. You will see women sharing their stories. Allowing their voices to be heard above the violence that’s been committed against them, an outlet of healing. You will see women who are no longer isolated victims on their own islands of despair, but banned together, rising above the rubble and rampage. You will see women cherishing their sponsorship letters, keeping them under their heads at night, bragging about the photo they received from their sister. You will see heart, and soul, and hope. You will hear a woman say, “My dream is my children going to school.”

Returning to my small office in D.C., I go back to my computer, the phone, rushing down the hall, the occasional trip outside.

But everything has changed.

The world looks brighter, throbbing with a new heartbeat around my own. Now I can say it all the best way I know how. I can reach in, see our women dancing, singing, gathering, sharing, learning, healing and hoping. I can pull it right out and share it with you, the only way I know how–the best.

I learned it from our women.

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Rwanda – GAKO Farm – by Sara Sykes

April 3, 2009

GAKO Farm

I have never before felt such a strong connection to the Earth as I did visiting our CIFI program at GAKO farm in Kabunga, about a 30 minute drive from Kigali. Everything about GAKO vibrates—the clean air, green, fresh and alive with the hum and churn of organic processes and people. Our women learn so many amazing skills, from sack and kitchen gardens to animal husbandry and crop management. Mr. Richard, our technical partner and the founder/managing director of GAKO, his wife, Francine, a trained agriculturalist, and their lovely children were our gracious tour guides, showing us the incredible capabilities, power, and true worth of sustainable, organic farming.

A kitchen garden our women made 7Since land in Rwanda is so scarce (.6 HA for each family), skills such as sack and kitchen gardens are vital for our women to learn.

Small groups of our women train intensely at GAKO for six days at a time, living in dormitories and applying what they learn in the classroom to the demonstration gardens and fields that are GAKO. The result is stunningly beautiful—women, working as a unit, reusing and recycling all materials produced on the farm to feed themselves, the workers, and sell at market. The effect is so true and resonates so loudly, one realizes that the very worth of an education and training in organic farming and agriculture is infinite. These women are learning the very art of survival—food production and management—and, in turn, bringing those skills back to support their families and communities.

One women in our program explained that after returning to her home with her newly acquired skills, her neighbor said, “I want to know how to do that! Can you teach me?”

After showing us one demonstration farm on .6 HA, Mr. Richard explained that the particular family living on that farm brings in $400 a month. The goal of the Rwandan government is for every family to be making $900 a year. For a moment we were all shocked into silence.

Our concept of circles at Women for Women is truly circuitous onto itself. The circle of women gathering, learning, and then sharing creates better communities, families and nations, circles forever linked. Our CIFI program deeply epitomizes this and looking out amongst the thousand hills, the women and men working side by side, the bean, carrot, cassava, and chard growing neatly, yet inhabiting a wild quality all the same, allowed me to feel a true connection, depth, and spiritual meaning to the work we do.

Perhaps this is my circle, or, just the beginning, in Rwanda.

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Congo – Day 4 – By Sara Sykes

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phils of odors…A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

–James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

If Rwanda is small warm flame burning through my heart, Congo is a burst of mad fire, bathing everything in a bright light, faces agape, eyes bright with shock and wonderment, nothing left to hide in the shadows, all exposed.  The night before we entered Congo, I put my toes in Lake Kivu and turned twenty-nine. To my right was Goma, the bright boasting lights of the wealthy on the shore. To my left, sparse pinpricks of the lights of Gyseni, Rwanda. And, in front of me, in the middle of the lake, the methane processing plant, working to provide power for my surroundings, a looming reminder of all the wealth and power that lies in the soil here.

Crossing from Rwanda into Congo is more than a physical act of the body. It is the shifting of energy inside your heart, your gut, your very base. The Congolese have eyes filled with hunger, sharp pains that start at the ground under their feet, spilling out of their thirsty, beautiful faces. There is a chaos, a lack of logic, a rampage, an indescribable need for survival that flattens itself against your chest and pulsates until the second you cross back. You are moved along and jolted with the ebb and flow of it, the stop and go go go of it, the rock and roll of it, the contradiction and madness of it. Everything  an irony, a hypocrisy, a metaphor, a lament, a tiny joy, an absence of air, a fight, a small victory, an aching want. Never have I had more of an inner struggle with my own thoughts and feelings before. Never have I felt the need to take a whole country in to my arms and weep for it. Never have I felt so spoiled, so privileged, so unworthy. Never have I felt such hope and pain, spiraling around each other, a twisting double helix, churning against the walls of my heart.

How can I describe the act of driving to see the IDP women at our training center in Goma? The act itself exhausting, the road potholed, dangling on a precipice, a cracked film of suffering, hurrying, surviving, sharp black-gray spectrum of volcanic rocks, black dust, selling and hustling, all piled on top of each other. Motorbike taxis crammed three deep across behind and in front of us, a hand reaching in the back window to snatch Zainab’s video camera, a vacant look. Looming volcanoes, smoking and threatening. Military and police with AK-47’s on every corner. My body feeling thoroughly shaken and disjointed, my head, numbed, floating above my shoulders.

There are five IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in Goma alone. Women for Women International supports 1,000 of these women from one of the camps. These women have just started our program, they are so new, so green, so despairing, that I am at a loss to anticipate what we will find at the training center, about a 15 minute drive from our Chapter Office. Just as in Rwanda, the training center is surrounded by high walls with a locked gate and security guards (40% of our DRC staff are security alone). As has been the theme of my experience here, we approach the gates, they start to open, Zainab turns and says, “Brace yourself” and I’m overtaken with a surge of joy and heat and energy. The women are crowded at the entrance, hundreds of them, a sea of colors and singing hearts. They are dancing, clapping, rejoicing at our arrival. Some are trying to touch the car before we can even get out, some are crying with happiness. The manual trainers are trying to hold them back as they themselves try and snap pictures of us at the same time. Tears fill my eyes now, as they did then, writing this two days later on the plane, and I can hear the cries and voices loud and piercing, their notes have a different feel and soul to them, their singing like all the violence and destruction and rocks and dust, once crammed in their throats, is now escaping, breaking the silence, pulsating out and over this place.

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Congo – IDP Camps – by Sara Sykes

IDP Camp

After experiencing the Women’s Rights Training and listening to their stories and shared learning, our DRC Country Director, Christine Karumba, took us to the one of the five IDP camps where these women are all living, some for three years now. Trying to wrap my head around these women’s reality—being forced from your own home, displaced in your own country, with no way of knowing when and if you can return—made my eyes tear in angry confusion. I feel as if I experienced the camp in short films across my eyes, each one it’s own, yet connected to the others. For this reason, I cannot write a narrative, only the short reels that could not and will not ever do these women justice. My only hope is to share this horrific yet beautiful moment in my life that forever will be burned into the flesh of my heart.

A four year old girl carrying a stack of wood, three times as long and heavy as she, on her head. She has on a faded Big Bird shirt on.

The ground is a chaotic wreck of jagged volcanic rocks piled at unstable angles and we must go slowly, carefully, and anxiously across the camp. More than once I stumble, scrape my foot or lose my balance.

Children with clothes so dirty you cannot tell what their original colors or designs were, some with their clothes hanging off them by a thread, naked underneath to expose their swollen bellies. They are curious and follow us through camp, we gather more as we moved along, giggling and smiling.

A young boy about 2 years old with a ball made of rags. I kick it to him.

Rows of shelters, tightly packed, harsh rocks piled around their perimeters to keep them in place, tattered plastic sheets cover their frames, some have wooden panels, tin, cardboard; rags hang in the entrances, a makeshift door. They no more than 8-10 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide. I cannot stand up in them.

We are greeted by the camp manager. He explains there are 7,000 women in this camp, 5,000 children, and 2,000 men. I wilt to think about the other 6,000 women.

A market has materialized in the center of the camp. Potatoes are stacked high on concrete platform where a woman gets ready to wash them. Other women sit in small groups, selling grilled cord, reused pain cans full of orange cooking oil; a smoking fire, a boy with no pants. The smell of smoke, something rotting, human waste, fills my nose. I think about vomiting.

The sounds are deafening: babies are screaming, wailing and crying; people are talking hurriedly; women wash dishes and clothes at a wash states; little boys drink out of water spickets; mud sticks to the bottom of my shoes. A young girl, face down on a bed of jagged rocks, wails, her arms limp at her sides; no energy to move. I give her a banana. She immediately stops. She is starving.

I notice no men, just young boys and toddlers.

Long lines at the humanitarian aid tent. Christine explains that goal is to provide a Women for Women International tent inside the camp, as soon as possible.

I see our women, gathering with their notebooks clutched to their chests from the Literacy Training class. They have made the long walk and want us to see their homes. I watch how they never release their notebooks, even when they are talking to each other. They bow their heads with a shy grin when I smile at them and say, “Jambo” (Good morning).

A woman’s home, her tent, her seven children spilling out, their bodies entangled. Her t-shirt reads in French, “I want kisses.” The irony is crushing.

We are all in a small alley, about 5 feet across, separating one row of tents from another. There is hardly any space between them. A young boy across the alley washes a bowl in soapy water, staring at us, two babies peak out of the tent he’s in front of. I feel squeezed in. Our women surround us, excited and so happy we have come. Children are under our feet, their hungry eyes breaking my heart into a million pieces. I wish I had more bananas. I think of Judithe’s home in Rwanda.

A stunning young girl is in front of me. Her t-shirt is powdered blue. It reads, “Girls Rule With Love.”

One of our women explains she doesn’t know when she can go back to her home. Her dreams are to build a house, but she is scared for her life. She has been at this camp for three years, but she has hope.

Christine translates a large sign for us, posted near the center of camp. It has pictures of men with guns, in military uniforms, arresting other men with no shirts on. There are women in the background raising their arms and yelling. It says that rape against women will not be tolerated in the camp and will be punished. I think about this sign anywhere else.

I think of the other 6,000 women in this camp, their 5,000 children.

I think of the four other IDP camps in Goma.

I think how, in the women’s rights training class, the women said they keep their letters under their heads at night.

I think how our women learned A, I, and O. I think how they will clutch their notebooks.

I think I am hollow.

This is the kind of home that women, children and their famillies live in in the IDP Camps

This is the kind of home that women, children and their famillies live in in the IDP Camps

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