"It's very easy to understand the story of rape. It is very different to live it in your body." This from one of the seven victims that addressed the crowd today. "All I want is for you to help me build a dwelling to be safe and where I can learn to become a leader, so that I might be able to go back to my village. We will want justice and we will fight for that. If this war was in your country, it would have ended. You never would have tolerated such violence against women."
Today is the big day. We will get our first glimpse of The City of Joy (CoJ).
Breakfast at the Orchid. Passion fruits, tea and toast. We have a 10 am departure and all are dressed in the best we can pull from our bags. Today is the festivity that so many of us have travelled so far to bear witness and have worked so hard to play a small part in its creation.
Well worth the journey.
Our caravan begins and it's not so much a far drive as a long, slow one. Our hotel is in the more affluent part of town, although still quite poor. The ride will take us to City of Joy near the Panzi Hospital (http://www.panzihospitalbukavu.org/). In Dr. Mukwege style (keeping company with Paul Farmer), we are headed to the poorest neighborhood of this sprawling city of a million built for a population of 50,000. Less populated streets, all dirt, give way to more populated until you are driving through a mass of humanity. Babies too many to count. Brick structures give way to wood then corrugated tin then finally tents. 30 people per tent. To paraphrase Warren Buffet, you look out the window and you know you won the lottery in the womb. It is poverty on a level unfamiliar.
We park and file out one by one to the sturdy gates of CoJ. Standing there to greet us are Eve, looking like a vision in red (and always black), Dr. Mukwege, who was the genesis behind this endeavor and is ripe for the Nobel Peace prize, and Christine Schuler-Deschryver, the Executive Director of City of Joy. We make our way through their open arms and walk down a long covered walkway (much like a school) to round the corner to a sight I don't think I will ever forget.
The City of Joy is a community of brick buildings – a vision in red. Ten houses that sleep 10 each; a huge kitchen to feed a crowd, dining hall, computer center compliments of Google, a classroom, a recreation room for therapy, yoga, meditation, healing and more brick buildings--too many to remember or to count. The CoJ is surrounded by a protective brick wall, tall and comforting. All of this built by Congolese women. In the center of these brick structures is a big yard, much like the playground at my kids’ elementary school but without the play structures. The women have constructed a big tent with only a cover and open on all sides. Maybe 100 yards square in the middle of this grass field to play host to this unbelievable occasion. Dozens of small plastic tarps were carefully tied together to protect us from the rain which always comes. What I found amazing was what was holding up the “tent.” Thin rough logs maybe 20 feet high and crudely cut boards and sticks, large sticks all just tied together. No wire, no nails, no scaffolding or concrete bases. Just raw wood dragged in from the hillside and hundreds of pieces of plastic sheeting all tied together and tied down with heavy string. As I sit here and type I can't get it out of my mind. Ingenuity. Make it work. Mission accomplished, as the ceremony, which went for maybe 6 hours, saw rain both light and heavy and we all remained mostly dry.
Under that great tent and surrounding it are hundreds and hundreds of women and girls and children. All of those women and most of the children, as young as 2, are victims of rape. The drums beat African music that makes your whole body move, and we all begin dancing, falling in with the Congolese women. Touching and holding and hugging and speaking with our eyes, hands to each others’ hearts, our hands on their swollen bellies, holding beautiful babies in our arms, one after the other they smile and love to be held close. We use our broken French, whatever means we have to communicate our love for them. Our sisters. You are no longer invisible. You are no longer invisible.
We even formed the longest “conga line” I have ever seen. (The conga in fact originated in Cuba as a religious dance by slaves taken from the Congo.) For nearly two hours we danced and danced. We passed water bottles among us to keep our energy flowing. Spirits so strong. They are so grateful for the safe house, the shelter. We are so grateful to be able to share it with them on a day that has never seen so much hope. I don't know if I'll ever know that emotion again.
The formal part of the day begins, oh maybe two hours behind "schedule," because the music just did not lend itself to taking your seats. Journalists from the around the world have come to cover the official opening, including the New York Times who have also sent their finest photographer. Here’s a link to a wonderful piece by the NYT’s Jeffrey Gettleman that really captures the event – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/world/africa/07congo.html. The U.S. State Department has sent Ambassador Melanne Verveer. Of course, the Governor of South Kivu, along with ambassadors from France, Norway and more I can't remember. Many take to the podium and make commitments we hope they will keep.
The highlights of the day are seven Congolese women, all victims of gender violence who have been treated at Panzi Hospital and have come to tell us what they want. They want a shelter, a roof. They don’t ask for money. They just need a moment to be safe enough for long enough to plant a seed to start growing roots to be on firm ground, protected long enough to find their voice to master the art of telling their story. They have stories you can't imagine. But from that pain arises power. Power to lead. They are confident. They are direct. They are composed and so full of strength that you never want them to stop. They are part of the key to a better future for the DRC. These are the first sprouts of CoJ. You can picture a community, a region, a state, a country all sprinkled with these activist women who have found their voice. They are part of a class, a cohort, that will attend CoJ together, learn together, share their stories and gain strength from one another. They will come with their children and all will be put in CoJ school. So much will be learned. Businesses will be spawned. The ideas are endless and the community holds so much promise. It's exhilarating and I'm bursting with ideas of businesses these women can start. It all starts here at the City of Joy. An endless rich resource of women who want to work. We will spawn women cooperatives like the Green Mamas just in the outskirts of Bukavu. The time has come to stop raping our greatest resource.
Eve of course brings the house down. Selfless generosity and activism like no other. Stephen Lewis also takes us to another place. "Four years ago something happened in Bukavu. Women who had been raped came together with an idea. To build a community, a shelter, a safe place for them to come together to take back their lives. Now we have not just a glimmer of hope but a ray of hope, and if this ray can spread through the Congo it will change the fabric of society in this country. This is a historical moment when you see the tide turn. The tide is turning."
It's getting late and I must get some sleep. Suffice it to say we ate a great meal together. We hugged and kissed these beautiful women good night. We were then fed and bedtime was well past midnight. The days are so long and they fly by with joyous energy.
Tomorrow we visit Panzi hospital and Dr. Mukwege. Google him. We then head to the country where the villages coat the hills and valleys. We will meet with the Green Mamas, a women’s cooperative of 1800 women, young and old, all victims of violent rape. They have purchased two acres of land and they farm it together and leave together, protecting one another, praying for peace.
This day we were all emotional creatures. And there were many V-men there with us. As we drive home, the sky is pink. Eve told me once, after flying home from a brutal stay in Kosovo interviewing so many young girls that had been violently raped – she had gone to open a shelter and was inspired to write "Necessary Targets" – that when she boarded the plane and as it took off she looked out the window. The sky was pink. And pink is the color of healing when you look at your wound. She knew it would begin to get better. And so it goes in the Congo tonight.
Here's a link to some photos from the City of Joy – https://picasaweb.google.com/114698214394634690008/AmySCongoTrip2011?authkey=Gv1sRgCPmrtefcg-zxVQ#.