It is Saturday morning in Bukavu, and the caravan departs at 8:30 a.m. Our first stop will be the Panzi Hospital, just a stone’s throw from City of Joy. The same slow procession moves from our hotel through the streets of Bukavu. The narrow roads are teeming with life, no different from the previous days. Saturday gives no reason for rest, especially in a population that is searching for the dollar a day to survive. Our vehicles weave and bounce to avoid the foot traffic, bicycles, motor bikes, and over-crowded vans that remind me of the jalopies in Costa Rica. (How many people will a Congolese mini-bus hold? Answer: 1 more.) So crowded. You just hope with each swerve and landing that we haven't hit anyone. You can't take your eyes off the faces.
We arrive at Panzi, a place I have seen only on “60 Minutes.” We are greeted once again by Dr. Mukwege, the founder of the hospital and, recently, the Panzi Foundation. He will give us a tour of the hospital and the surrounding grounds. Out of respect we will not be going inside, so as not to disturb patients being treated. Panzi isn't a zoo, it is a hospital for the most sexually violated women and men, and victims of torture. The occupants of Panzi have a lot of healing on their plate if they are to survive.
The hospital has just added its second surgery room. There is a pharmacy, psychological counseling center, physical therapy, recovery rooms, nearly everything you would find in an American hospital, but go back 50-60 years. There is nothing opulent about this place but everything secure, warm, comforting, an oasis of tender hope. A set of single-story brick structures that meander again, like an elementary school. Our tour doesn't take long. The hospital holds about 300 at any given time. There are no single, double, or triple rooms. Most patients share a large room with dozens of simple beds. They are getting some of the finest care on the African continent. Even the great hospital, Heal Africa, located a 4 hour speedboat ride away, has to send the men who have been brutally raped and tortured to Panzi. Panzi specializes in miracles.
We head to the open grassy area to the left of the hospital, where once again hundreds of women, young girls, and a lot of beautiful babies, all wrapped in vividly colored fabrics, have gathered to celebrate two of our party: Stephen Lewis, the grandfather of the global effort to combat the AIDS epidemic, and Eve Ensler, the extraordinary woman who has made it her life's work to stop the violence against women and girls. The crowd is bursting with joy once again and the drums beat and the dancing continues. Today Panzi is filled with celebration -- what a moment this is for Dr. Mukwege. I can't help but think that we are giving him the best medicine he could hope for -- a down payment on the commitments those of us with some means can deliver. Stephen Lewis and Ambassador Verveer agree to lobby hard for the anti-retroviral drugs needed so desperately in the DRC. It is a tragedy to know that none has been coming in. That will change. It must.
Next stop is the City of Joy, where yesterday we only celebrated in the center garden and today we will tour the buildings. It is only a moment in the cars as the two are so conveniently close. Our tour starts with a welcome from the marvelous woman who will oversee the day-to-day of CoJ, Mama Baccue. She reminds me of the main character in The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency novels. She is traditionally built, takes full command of her audience, and with the aid of a white board lays out the goals and the business plan for CoJ in one succinct lecture. You know that Christine and Eve knew what they had when they found her. She has the warmth of a best friend and the competence of an experienced surgeon, and she is all about prioritizing the tasks at hand and checking them off completed. The women that come to CoJ will be in very capable hands.
We are suddenly surprised by the beautiful sound of voices singing. It is the women who built this city, brick by brick. This was the first ever construction project in all of Eastern Congo undertaken by a female construction crew. Eve had insisted. Men were brought in to teach the women, V-men. The crew of women number 80-100. All survivors, young and old. After finishing this truly monumental project -- in my head I am counting 13-14 brick buildings with blue corrugated metal roofs, secured windows and spacious rooms -- these women have formed their own building company. They lay brick, paint inside and out, install ceilings and lay tile for floor. They are also responsible for planting the grounds. A close look shows perfect rows of grass, planted a single seedling at a time, producing 2 single blades. I sort of can't get my mind over it. Can you imagine the patience and how precious each seed? V-Day has just agreed to fund them with a $20k grant to seed their new endeavor. The DRC requires a lot of construction, as so much is in utter decay. These women will prove a great investment.
We finish our tour in the big dining hall, where we take in a generous lunch buffet of chicken kabobs, fried fish, goat, beans, avocado, cassava leaves (very similar to a stewed spinach), corn meal balls, rice, plantains, and pommes frites. We all sit together, chairs in big circles. Rosario and I eat with a group of young girls, all clearly middle teens. Their plates are mounded with food, and I mean mounded, mostly meat. We wonder how on earth they are going to eat it all. There are no napkins, and the skewer from your chicken doubles as your fork. The girls begin to take meat from their plates and wrap it in their shirts. We both dig into our bags, searching for anything we can find to wrap food. Plastic bags holding everything from the purse size packets of Kleenex to small zip-locks holding teabags. We scour the room and our group produces as many creative containers as our backpacks, purses and bags can muster. God, I never in my life wished I had a case of zip-locks as I did at that moment. These women are all small. Some eat only a banana every third day. They are filling their tummies, but even more, they are packing all they can to carry home to their families. Once again, they sing.
The City of Joy is a very special place. Eve encourages us all to come back on "sabbatical.” Everyone can teach something.
We load up again and the caravan departs for a visit to a women's cooperative, known as the Green Mamas. It will be about a 45-minute drive out of the city and into the hills. Or so we think. After about 30 minutes, we find ourselves at the Coco Lodge. Susan is in our front seat and sends a text to Eve. "Why are we stopping at Coco?" Eve replies with, "We are not, we are almost to the Green Mamas." With that Susan jumps out of our vehicle only to discover we are missing half our caravan. The lead driver has lost us! Our drivers are all from Rwanda, and the ONLY person who knows where we are going is the lead driver. With no GPS or map to lead us, we make our way by text sent from lead car. Although we arrive nearly an hour later, we have made it!
The drive out was lush with scenery and twice as long from the necessary serpentining. We climb out and hike up a hill where this wonderful group of women has formed a semi-circle around hundreds of neat little mounds of cassava and yams. Produce! And so much of it. This is some of the richest soil I have ever seen. Everything grows here.
We are told by Eve that she met these women about a year ago on a trip to the DRC. It started as a handful of women, all of whom had been violently raped and rejected by their families. They came together living in one small shelter and forming their own close knit family. They began to plant on a small plot of land and sold their produce at market. They saved their money and bought the land. Then more women came. They grew more food to feed themselves and extra to sell at market. We learn tonight that they have two acres they plant among 1,800 women in the cooperative. We ask what they want, and they tell us more land so they can increase their production. We come together around Eve, and together we agree to buy them a farm in Africa -- eight more acres. V-Day will handle the transaction. You should have seen the life in their eyes.
On our drive back, all vehicles stay close. It is dark. The traffic has let up, but the potholes are harder to avoid. We drive into Bukavu and gather for a final night group dinner at the Orchid. Our meals are light on food and filling on conversation. Tomorrow, we all depart in the morning. Mindy and I will take a boat to Goma. The rest of our crew will retrace the drive back to Bujumbura and catch flights home. Safe journey for all.
And so Part 1 of my trip comes to an end. Tomorrow begins four days with Human Rights Watch. The trip is about to get a lot heavier. But we are stronger now than when we first arrived.