Category Archives: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Women for Women Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Ashley LeBlanc: Bukavu, DRC September 5, 2010

I arrived at the national headquarters on a typical Monday morning; as I jumped out, the SUV stays running and various trainers and administrators pile in to be transported to and from our many program sites. The office is a hub of activity and I instantly get lost in the maze. I am greeted by all I encounter with gracious smiles and kisses. Welcome. Bienvenue. Karibu.

I have arrived in Bukavu to facilitate three staff M&E trainings – one at the main office and one at each of the two sub-offices Uvira in South Kivu and Goma in North Kivu. Today we begin with the largest group: 30 men and women who work in community outreach, enrollment, data collection, translation and skills training. Together we discuss the implementation of current data collection tools; methods to improve their effectiveness in the field and mutually problem solve ongoing issues.

Tailoring instructor in Bukavu, DRC.

The perspective of our staff is enlightening and extremely valuable. It is often easy given language and distance for disconnects to arise, my goal is to address as many of these as possible before returning to DC. I am given the opportunity to speak too many of our staff one on one and learn about their lives, their families and their work. Through these exchanges I am reminded of the dedication and capacity of those who work day in and day out in this challenging environment.

The final day in Bukavu consists of a visit to Panzi training center where we collect evaluation information from participants who are graduating from the program. At the training center women are taking classes on tile making, business skills, tailoring and culinary arts.

Data Collection at Panzi Training Center in Bukavu, DRC.

We meet Jeannette Sifa who entered the WfWI training in 2004, she proudly carries her original participant ID card in her purse. Jeannette is now a trainer in tailoring, where participants learn to make measurements and assemble small paper bags. The final products will be marketed to local grocery stores to use in place of plastic.

The training center is completely serene and in stark contrast to the crowded and chaotic streets outside. It is truly a safe and calm space for women to be together and learn. After many days of traveling, working and absorbing the scenes around me – I sit on a bench and peacefully watch a women working in the demonstration garden, who wouldn’t want to spend their day here?

Training group in Bukavu, DRC

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Change and Hope: WFWI Chief Information Officer Nicole Weaver’s Trip to the DR Congo and Rwanda

Nicole Weaver is the Chief Information Officer at WFWI in Washington, D.C. She visited Rwanda and the DR Congo this February with several other D.C. program directors.

Program participants show off their tie-dye at the Women for Women International training center in Bakuva, Democratic Republic of Congo.

I was nervous crossing the border from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I know many of my colleagues at Women for Women International travel there, but I’ve heard reports of sporadic and random violence in the DRC. As our 4×4 wound its way through the mountainous border region with its tea plantations and volcanoes, I felt a sense of foreboding. 

The border itself is a scruffy-looking parking lot with a few immigration buildings and a lot of people standing around waiting to be processed. There are two gates—the first lets you out of Rwanda and the second lets you into the DRC. The site is a no man’s land, and you could wait 30 seconds or 30 minutes to get through. 

I climbed down from the first car in a torrential downpour and completed departure formalities and walked to DRC immigration, where I was examined, stamped and waved through. Today was a 20-minute day. 

Our destination, Goma, is a town close to the border and one of four sites operated by Women for Women in the DRC. Within a few minutes I was in town, bouncing along a poorly paved road in a traffic pattern that seemed to have few rules except “every man for himself.” The contrast with Rwanda is marked: Where Rwanda is clean and organized, Congo is chaotic and dirty. Compared to the last few miles of sparsely populated rural countryside in Rwanda, Goma struck me as noisy, crowded and stressed. Roads in Rwanda had occasional potholes; roads in Goma are mostly potholes punctuated by a few stretches where the pavement has not yet given up. 

Congo DRC Roads Women for Women International

The roads in the DRC are full of potholes, uneven and often difficult to pass.

My hotel was on the shores of the serene Lake Kivu. Grace Fisiy, our agribusiness specialist, and I decided to take a walk—I still had my lingering concern about security, but Grace assured me it was safe (she is from Cameroon and has traveled all over Africa, so I trust her instinct). 

The dirt in this area is black. Mt. Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, destroying 15% of the buildings and leaving 120,000 people homeless. It also left behind black fertile soil and dust everywhere. The volcanic rock is so plentiful, it is a favored building material, meaning the buildings are also black. As we walked, chatting about Cameroon and family, I gradually realized I had completely relaxed. I did learn a new word on that walk—mzungu, Swahili for white man, which was muttered occasionally as we passed groups of bored security guards! 

The next day, Women for Women’s driver arrived and took us to the office. After some meetings at the office we headed to the vocational skills center, where participants learn soap-making, knitting, cookery and bread-making. There were no classes that day, but about 150 newly enrolled women listened to an orientation, learning what to expect from the program and what Women for Women expects from them. As I stood in the doorway, listening and snapping a couple of pictures, the trainer asked the women if they had any questions. One woman at the far side of the room stood and said, “We want to know who the visitor is,” looking at me. I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting from headquarters and that my job was to find them sponsors (applause) and make sure their letters get to their sponsors (cheers). They said they wished God would take care of me for many years. 

Women for Women DRC Congo Class

Class is in session at Women for Women International in the DRC.

Judith’s Story
Next, we went to the last remaining internally displaced person camp in the Goma area at Mugungu to meet an amazing woman named Judith.   

The camp was established to provide the most basic needs of shelter, water and safety for people fleeing violence within their country, and it is certainly basic. Several hundred huts made from wooden frames covered with tarps littered the rocky field. Children, some naked, played in black puddles of water next to the central water faucets. Other tarp-covered shacks contained pit latrines or housed administrative functions. The camp had an air of suspended despair, as if everyone in it were waiting for the nightmare to end and for a better life to begin. 

Children Goma Refugee Camp DRC

Children play at the Goma refugee camp in the DRC.

I asked how long people usually stay in these camps and the answer was depressing: “A long time; maybe years.” 

We reached Judith’s hut and ducked inside the door flap. She began to tell us her story. 

Judithe DRC Congo Women for Women International

Judith inside her home in the Goma refugee camp.

Judith was just 14 when she lost her parents. She married and had three children but at age 24, war broke out in her home of Masisi and violence hit Judith’s family. “They took us all to the bush and killed my husband,” she said. “I managed to escape and reached Mugungu camp.” Judith then told us how difficult life in the camp had been, how there was little economic support and how, one day, while she was collecting firewood in the bush in order to cook for her children, she was raped and became pregnant. As she spoke, the sorrow and shame clouded her face and she avoided my eyes, head hanging low, voice soft and tremulous. Meanwhile, the beautiful little girl in her arms, the product of that terrible act, slept peacefully. 

Judith was taken care of by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) during her pregnancy and then heard about Women for Women. “I heard there was a group of women that defended the rights of other women,” she recounts. “When I first went to the class I felt I was not like other women, first I am an orphan, then a widow, then a rape victim. I was so depressed I could not speak. Women for Women taught me how to manage the stress in my life and taught me bread-making. Now I am in a cooperative with 20 women and I am the vice president. We make bread and sell it for profit. Women for Women provided me with the training and the tools to earn money so I can survive. The group helped me to understand I am a woman just like other women.” 

Leaving the hut after hearing Judith’s story, I was once again amazed and inspired by the courage of the women we are privileged to serve. Rape is a shameful act wherever it occurs. Sadly, in the DRC that shame is conferred upon the blameless woman, who is shunned by her husband, family and society. To speak publicly of such a terrible trauma is hard enough in the U.S.—to do so in Congo, you are likely to be judged and rejected. 

Valentine’s Story
Our next stop was visiting Valentine. Her circumstances are similar to Judithe’s in many respects. She was brutally raped in her own home while nine months pregnant. Valentine was in so much pain she passed out and has no recollection of how many times she was raped. Her husband started abusing her, accusing her of enjoying it, and eventually left her with four children and no resources.

Valentine Congo DRC Women for Women International

Valentine outside her home in the Goma refugee camp.

Valentine joined Women for Women and learned business skills she applied to her previous business: trading cement and hardware. She invested her sponsorship funds and built up her business until she was able to buy a small shop and a house. Now she puts all her spare money into her business and shows a fierce determination to building her assets. When I asked her what she would say to her sponsor she said, “I would thank her so much, and I would be proud to show her how I am going up.” Valentine’s spirit and strength shine her story. 

Visiting Women for Women in Bakuva
The next morning, I made my way down to the harbor to get the boat to South Kivu province, where our main country office is located in the town of Bukavu. 

On arrival in Bukavu, I cleared immigration and was collected by the Women for Women driver. We bounced up a steep and muddy road to reach the main road and in a few minutes reached the main Women for Women offices. As in Goma, the office is behind an eight-foot-tall wall topped with nasty-looking razor wire. The outside of this wall, however, is decorated with tiles hand-made by some of or women at the ceramic studio in Panzi, an attractive showcase for their capabilities. 

Women for Women International Bakuva Training Center Tiles

Tiles created by women in the Women for Women International ceramics program in the DRC adorn the wall surrounding the vocational center.

The next day (after an interesting start—the bathroom had no water) was filled with site visits, starting with the vocational training center at Panzi. Although this is just a few miles from Bukavu, the journey takes almost an hour due to the appalling state of the roads. When we reached the center, it was a hive of activity—there were two training sessions in progress, teaching the importance of groups (you must support each other; two people are stronger than one). In addition, the sponsorship team was busy enrolling women while nearly 150 women attended an agricultural vocational training orientation. 

Behind this bustling open-air area we spied a large building housing the ceramic studio. By contrast, the air inside the studio was calm and peaceful, with a few women diligently working the dark gray clay to form vases, cooking braziers or flower pots. The women are taught the basic design of a cooking brazier, but we saw several examples of new designs students come up with on their own—once their creativity is unlocked, there are many good ideas.

Ceramics Women for Women International DRC Congo

Women at the ceramics studio make beautiful products and add their own touches to their pieces.

Another very successful product is the clay tiles I had earlier seen adorning the wall surrounding the main office. The trainer explained that demand for these tiles outstripped their ability to make them, and that he was looking into ways that the production could be increased. 

Panzi Hospital
As we strolled back through the compound, I was asked me if I would like to see the famous Panzi Hospital, and institution that has helped rape victims for years. 

I said I would love to, and a short drive later we arrived at the gates. As soon as we entered the hospital grounds, the tranquility was overwhelming. Gardens overflowing with flowers were surrounded by low buildings and a cool, shaded walkway. Patients waited to be seen, and white-coated staff members busied themselves with the care of their charges. 

We were fortunate that Wednesday is when Dr. Denis Mukwege does not see patients, but receives visitors. After waiting a short time I had the opportunity to greet Dr. Mukwege and shake his hand—a great honor for me!

The last stop of the day was the vocational training center at Bukavu, where we were able to see women in the process of making the bright tie-dye fabrics I had seen brought back to the states by my colleagues, and all kinds of soap for both bathing and washing clothes. Julienne, a former participant and now a trainer, walked me through the fascinating process of the soap-making and proudly displayed the finished product. Of course I had to buy some.

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WfW DRC – Training of Trainers (Cont.)

This afternoon, the trainers (or formatrice, in the local French) discuss their favorite sessions and least favorite sessions to deliver. We know the sessions that the participants tend to enjoy most from their evaluation forms (women in the economy is the overwhelming favorite), so it is interesting to hear what the trainers have to say.

Most trainers enjoy delivering the health and wellness sessions. It can be amazing how little the women we serve know about their bodies and basic things like basic hygiene and nutrition. Their poverty makes it difficult to effectively manage their health. When you live in a mud hut with a thatched roof, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity, how healthy can we reasonably expect our program participants to be? It isn’t surprising that the trainers enjoy delivering this module. Its impact is immediate and visible, and makes the trainers feel good about their jobs.

Further discussion reveals that there is a split on the Stress, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and Stress Management session. Many trainers enjoy delivering this session because they know that their participants suffer from varying degrees of stress. All of our women face stress from being poverty-stricken in their daily lives. Then there is the stress that comes from difficult family situations; many of our participants suffer from domestic violence. Finally, there is the overwhelming stress that comes from the unstable security environment. Many participants are displaced, living in IDP camps, or are returnees who have to rebuild their lives from scratch. They have lost family in the conflict. Many have been raped or otherwise exploited as their communities have been destroyed. Several of our trainers, including the very vocal Mai (from Bukavu) and Josephine (from Goma), enjoy delivering the Stress and Stress Management session because they are well aware of how desperately their women are in need of relief.

Others disagree, and it is interesting that they dislike the Stress and Stress Management topics for the same reasons that their fellow trainers enjoy it. Denise, one of our Bukavu trainers, says that her participants are so traumatized by the conflict that they cannot handle this session. They start weeping in class, and Denise is often at a loss for how best to comfort them. Marie Claire, another Bukavu trainer, agrees. The unstable environment affects all the women, and there is unfortunately no end in sight.

Mai adds to the discussion. She enjoys delivering the stress session, but she dislikes the sessions on women and politics. She says that this is because she, as well as the women she trains, blame Congo’s local and national politicians for their poverty and suffering. She isn’t wrong. I’ve only been here a few days, but I can already see that there is little infrastructure and even fewer facilities.

Mai goes on to say that there is only one trained psychologist in the Bukavu area. How can one psychologist provide for thousands of women who are in such great need of counseling? She understands her colleague’s frustrations; there is only so much that our trainers can do for their women.

As it turns out, Mai was a trained HIV / AIDS counselor during her former career as a nurse. She suggests that the trainers with a background in health receive additional training in trauma counseling to help our own WfWI participants with their unique needs. Nina and I ask how many trainers think this would help their women in need, as well as help them deliver the stress sessions more effectively. All 37 trainers raise their hands. Mai and Josephine make it their personal mission to hammer this point home to Nina and I for the rest of the week. I understand, and hope that we can strengthen trainer capacity in this regard. No one can deny that they in DRC, trauma healing is vital to out success and to our women’s recovery from the conflict.

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WfW DRC – Training of Trainers

 

WfWI-DRC has the largest program in the Women for Women International network, serving over 7,000 women this year. Looking at a map of the country at large, the areas in which we work seem rather close in vicinity, especially relative to the size of the country (nearly the same landmass as Western Europe). However, looking at the prominently placed map of DRC in the Bukavu headquarters, it is clear that the communities WfWI-DRC serve are nowhere near each other; from North to South, Goma, Bukavu, Baraka, and Uvira are hours away from each other. It is a 13 hour drive, north to south. Unfortunately for me, it means that my time in the country will be primarily limited to Bukavu. Luckily for me, the training staff from all the sub-offices are here for the Training of Trainers (ToT).

The ToT’s purpose is to give an in-depth orientation to the newly deepened Women’s World Manual Curriculum, help the Renewing Women’s Life Skills trainers improve their facilitation skills, and most importantly help them solve problems so they can more effectively serve the women participants. I already knew that the DRC training crew have significant challenges, but I also know that they are uniquely placed to have a great impact on the women we serve. Having worked on the curriculum revision for two years as WfWI Program Coordinator in DC, I am very excited and happy to be here.

This is also a unique opportunity for the trainers; such great distances mean that they have little opportunity to interact, share experiences, and focus exclusively on their training techniques. They seem especially excited that Nina and I are here to focus on their important work. On the first day of training, it seems quite a lot like the first day of “school”; the ReneWLS trainers stick with the people they know. The Bukavu group sits together, the Goma group sits together, and the Baraka/Uvira group sit together. I know they are excited, but they also seem nervous. This is not surprising; having worked on the revised curriculum for a long time myself, I know that the new manual is more than double the size of the original, which makes it imposing before you even open the book. But, as lead training consultant Nina Nayar says as she introduces the curriculum, we have complete confidence in the training staff. We know they can master the new material. All that is really new is the methodology, and I am more than confident that the trainers can learn from each other and teach Nina and I things as well.

Nina introduces herself, and then gives me the floor. I tell the trainers about my work with WfWI, and I also tell them that I am a first generation American whose parents are from Nigeria and Ghana. This is my first trip to Africa since I was a child. This brings lots of smiles and applause to the room.

Then the 37 trainers, plus office and sub-office staff introduce themselves. The youngest trainer is 22 – the oldest trainers playfully decline to give their age. The trainers are young, mature, married, widowed, divorced, single, and have training in many different fields. There are trained teachers, nurses, lawyers, and agronomists in the training staff. Also present is Honorata, the prime example of WfWI successes, is present among the Baraka group of trainers. As we finish introducing ourselves and begin dividing up sessions and exercises to practice, I am certain that WfWI-DRC has the best trainers to be had in the country. I am excited to see what they make of the new material.

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My Journey Back to the DRC by Judithe Registre

It is strange being back in Eastern DRC. Indeed, it has been well over a year since I last visited our program sites in Bukavu and Goma. Being back feels strange—how little things have changed and yet how much things have changed. What is it that has changed and what has not? An element that has not changed appreciably is represented by the internally displaced camps located outside of Goma. The IDP and refugee camps are not easy places to visit. In fact, I am not feeling just one emotion; rather, I am twisted. I visited these IDP camps in 2007, which was the last time I was in Congo. As I see the people in the camps struggling to achieve the dignified life that these camps cannot provide, I am left with a bleeding heart. Why is it that we must have such state of pain and suffering, when it can be so easily prevented? It is hard for me to witness these conditions knowing that something can certainly be done—we live in a world that has the potential to end these types of injustice and atrocities.

IMG_4505

What has changed are some of the women I met the last time I was here. Many of them were new in the program. A few of these women have become trainers of other women in the program. Thus, here I am with women who are striving for change in order to improve the lives of their families and ensure the next generation of Congolese escapes the fate that is outlined by the unthinkable sociopolitical reality that has marked the underdevelopment of Congo from inception to date. I am completely amazed at the development that is taking place among the women we served; the changes, how they are making hope a tangible reality.

As I stand somewhere between optimism and despair, I am reminded constantly that I am the same as the women in the program; I am them, they are me. As I encounter their humanity, I see mine as well as the humanity that exists globally. My heart is strong—but not strong enough in the midst of such suffering. My heart bleeds and it cries as I hear the retelling of the story about a young woman who was raped by 17 men. The total destruction of her internal organs has rendered her genderless.

I am enraged by the lack of acknowledgement for the unnecessary suffering that fails to recognize the humanity in the face of this young woman as well as in the faces of the women I meet and see, or the elderly and the children I encounter in these camps. While my heart cries out as I experience the inhumane conditions with which these people are faced as they struggle to survive and live a rewarding life, my tears are wiped away by the hope I see in the faces of the women when they walk into the Women for Women training center. As well, my trust in humanity is renewed—as it has been countless times when I meet the women we served—seeing the confidence in their movements as they walk into the compound and watching how lively they become at the prospect of gaining skills and acquiring new knowledge. How engaging there are; how eager they are eager to share their stories with each other and to share their knowledge with others. They are eager to give advice to one another about the need to be strong and remain active in these trying times.

While there is a tremendous amount of suffering and injustice occurring in this corner of the world, there is still astonishing hope to be found in Eastern Congo. This is not the kind of hope that lies dormant; rather, it is the type that is active. It is not the kind of hope that prompts people to ask for pity or charity; instead, it is the kind that prompts them to seek skills and training. Clearly, this is not the kind of hope that compels people to ask for handouts. Quite differently, it is the kind of hope that prompts them to ask—always courteously—for a hand up. What a delight it is to see this tangible hope in a place where few people can see the light.  Being in the Congo again has been deeply painful for me as my heart is too sensitive to bear witness to injustice of any kind. Still, my heart delights as I realize how we as an institution continue to make hope a reality for so many deserving people. This is the reality that I see, smell, touch, and feel. I can see it with each smile on the faces of women and children as they participate in our training.  Simply to be able to witness this expression is a reward in itself. It is indeed a privilege and a gift to see the lives that are being transformed.

I am reminded that there is always hope even in the midst of dire uncertainty, and the women with whom we work, in places like the DRC, have reminded me of this many times. With that reminder, I am once again moved by the way these women face the uncertain situation in their country. They face it with exhilarating clarity and the strong conviction that they can make a difference within their sphere of influence at the grassroots level—and they often do. They are successful in this because they believe they can indeed make a difference. Thankfully, we at Women for Women International help them achieve those beliefs and those outcomes.

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Women in Goma Program Return to Classes

January 22, 2009, Goma – In speaking with staff in our offices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this morning, we have learned that nearly all of the women in our program in Goma have been able to return to classes. While women are still concerned for their safety, the situation has improved at our location in Goma to an extent that women and their families are able to make the trip to class.

Sponsorship funds for these women are more important than ever as they struggle to provide for their families in what is still an unstable environment. The sponsors of women not yet able to return to the program will be contacted individually so that we may together determine how best to support the women at this time.

Our program offices in all of our other locations in the DRC where we serve the majority of women in our DR Congo program remain unaffected by the continued violence.

Thank you to our supporters for their heartfelt concern for the women and if you sponsor a woman in the DRC, please do take a moment to send her a letter letting her know you are glad she is safe, that you hope she is able to complete the program so she may sustain an income and affect change in her community and that there are men and women around the world concerned for her.

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Paralyzed by Fear – Women Hope for the Violence to End. News from Women In Goma, Congo.

November 19, 2008, Goma – “I am afraid of the fighting reaching my area. Like all women, I am afraid of being raped,” says Jeanette Yamwerenye, one of the women, who has made it to the Women for Women training in Goma on this November morning. At the age of 28 she has spent half her life surrounded by conflict, poverty, hunger, disease, and uncertainty. Twice Jeanette had to pack her few belongings and run from her home. The last time she was heavily pregnant and gave birth while fleeing the fighting.

 

Like all women in our program Jeanette is paralyzed with fear of violence and concern over displaced family members. “My parents in law are very old and we don’t know where they are.” From the people who have fled the area north of Goma, where violent clashes have displaced more than 250,000 people, she hears that women and children are being killed.

 

The women in the classroom are poor and afraid. They don’t want to lose the small gains they have made toward a stable life over the last year. Completing the Women for Women International program is a way to a self-sustaining life that might enable them to support their families with the skills they have learnt.

 

Marie Jeanne Kabuo is 25 and looks after three children. Last year she was abducted while working on her fields by armed men. They tried to rape her but she managed to escape. Jeanne came to Goma and joined the Women for Women program.

 

“If the fighting reaches us, people will get killed, women and girls will be raped,” she says. “I am praying because I know that there will be so many orphans, widows, and so many people, who had their property looted.”

 

Every woman in the room has a story of suffering, fear, and loss.  Antoinette Kabuo has seven children. When she fled her home three years ago she was beaten up, her husband was kidnapped, and her property stolen. Marie Jeanne Kavira saw her younger sister being raped in public, Tabu Tariane lost her uncle and cousin in the recent fighting, and Eizabeth Baseme lost a child because she could not find proper treatment.

 

They all want to finish their training with Women for Women and improve their lives and provide their children with a better future.

 

Elizabeth sums it up: “We are restless and afraid to become a displaced. We are always at risk of inhuman treatment.”

 

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