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.
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.