Tag Archives: Goma

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.

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nicole's Trip to the DRC

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Democratic Republic of the Congo

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.”

 

2 Comments

Filed under Democratic Republic of the Congo

Fear of Rape and Violence Rising – Women for Women Reaches Out To Vulnerable Women in Congo

Washington, DC, November 12, 2008 – Amidst widespread violence and massive human suffering Women for Women International is preparing to respond to the needs of thousands of women who are threatened by the fighting and are in urgent need of assistance.

“We will reach out to more women including those who now live in displacement camps in and around Goma and hope to offer sponsorships to the most vulnerable among them,” says Karen Sherman, Executive Director of Global Programs with Women for Women International. “Since most women are not able to come to us, we will go to them and offer assistance through financial aid and on-site training.”

Christine Karumba, the DR Congo Country Director

Christine Karumba, the DR Congo Country Director


The direct assistance will help them to pay for food, medicine, and other lifesaving needs. Since the latest outbreak of violence more than 250,000 people have been forced to leave their homes over the last few weeks alone, bringing the total number of displaced to more than 1.2 million.


The worst fighting is occurring close to the provincial capital city of Goma, where Women for Women is training and assisting almost 1,000 women. The UN is reporting that retreating fighters have gone on a rape and looting rampage just 60 miles north of Goma. In another incident on Tuesday night 75,000 people fled their homes following a gun battle in Kibati, just six miles from the city.


“More than half of our women are missing classes in our training program in Goma,” says Christine Karumba via phone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Due to the volatile situation they are unable to reach our training facilities.”


“We worry that many of our women have been displaced and lost all their belongings – or, even worse, have once again become victims of violence. We will find them as soon as the situation allows us to go to their homes and help them to reintegrate into the program.” says Karumba.


Over the past decade, a brutal conflict has devastated much of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), leaving the country without a functioning infrastructure and most families in a state of crisis. More than five million people have died as a result of the violent conflict, most through disease and malnutrition and. Women are often directly targeted by combatants using rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war.


 

Women for Women International in DR Congo is currently assisting almost 7,000 women through financial support and a one year program that includes rights awareness, health education, and skills training. The organization works with communities in Bukavu, Goma, Fizi and Baraka in the heavily affected South and North Kivu provinces in Eastern Congo.

16 Comments

Filed under Democratic Republic of the Congo