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Monday, January 30, 2012

#4 - Graduation Day at the City of Joy

Today is Sunday morning and I have risen early to write about yesterday, Saturday.  The day of graduation at the City of Joy.  The day we are to visit Panzi hospital.  The day I will see Desange, a  seventeen year old beautiful girl I met a year ago living at a rape and counseling center outside of Goma in a village named Minova. 

We are up and out of the Orchid before 9am in our tiny convoy bouncing down Essence Road.  This will be our third day to visit the City and our last day in Bukavu, and we find ourselves reshuffling in the vehicles, taking the seat on the side we haven't sat in or in the front seat if we have yet to ride there.  We are full of anticipation of what we will see and hear today at the graduation, but we don't want to miss a moment of the life happening along the route.

One thing I have neglected to share is how the activities change on Essence Road depending on the time of day.  In the morning, everyone seems to be headed to work or school or who knows where, but each walking with purpose and a destination.  Later in the morning when we head out, the road isn't as crowded.  You see the markets setting up.  Cloths being spread on the ground, mostly occupied by women who will lay out what they have to offer-- dried fish, potatoes, old stuffed animals, shoes, plastic water bottles full of oil, anything and everything.  The gas stations consist of a table selling gasoline, again in a plastic water bottle, the small ones that we once took to the gym.  Here they are used over and over.  At the end of the day, usually around 5 or 6pm we head home.  The crowd is always thick.  Our drive takes longer.  We are frequently stopped for various periods of time until someone in the crowd stops what they are doing to direct traffic – sending one car a little to the right and one to the left and motorbikes always trying to squeeze through the middle.  Usually it's a matter of a car or truck broken down.  When that happens, all traffic stops, because if one direction can't move, neither can the other as the two lanes of traffic are intertwined.  I love the evening drives because you see so much more that is new.  Cloths spread out on the ground laden with freshly butchered meat, dark red cuts that we are accustomed to seeing under a glass counter or tightly wrapped in cellophane.  It is so strange to see them displayed this way.  With power going off frequently and so few having access, this is how meat is bought and sold.

We arrive at the City of Joy around 10am and the place is abuzz.  Bagpipes can be heard playing.  It's the Pakistani UN mission rehearsing.  V-Day has done a wonderful job of getting to know their neighbors.  Security comes from being surrounded by people that feel connected to you in a positive way.  (The City of Joy is also surrounded by tall thick brick and concrete walls that are topped off with barbed wire donated by the UN.)  The Pakistani UN mission is housed right next door to the City of Joy, and they have clearly become quite fond of the mission the City serves and the women that live there.  We were told by Christine that the Pakistanis asked to be a part of the graduation ceremony and offered to have their bagpipe band play.  Think about that one – Pakistani UN soldiers that are deeply supportive and feel so connected to the healing and transformation process for the women at the City of Joy.  There is so much good when the world comes together.

Eve takes us on a tour of the houses where the women sleep, ten per house.  I can't get over how the tiny blades of grass that were planted by hand last year are now a lush green lawn surrounding everything.   The women have planted roses and lantana, and soon the buildings will be covered in climbing bougainvillea.  It feels like home.  Clotheslines are strung across from house to house.  Eve says they will come down soon and then thinks for a moment and follows up with "Actually, I hope they leave them.  I like it."  I like it too.  One of the little joys of life to have your clothes dry outside from the sun.  And who doesn't like to see these beautiful fabrics of the Congo blowing in the wind?

A huge tent is set up in the middle of the City.  The tent, another donation from the UN.  Sure it looks secure and pretty for the festivities but I can't forget that scaffolding from last year's opening ceremony:  tree branches of all sizes, tied together with pieces of twine of all sizes, holding up plastic sheets of all sizes, and alas we remained dry from the rain.  This year we won't need protection from the rain, even though it is the rainy season, but we will need cover from the hot sun.  Rows of folding chairs are set out, and already many family members have arrived and taken seats.  As always happens in the Congo, everything runs a little late. Today we will wait for the Governor of South Kivu; he will arrive when he arrives.  Until then a V-Day V-Men Congolese band will entertain the crowd with their local pop music. 

As guests we are honored with front row seating, right in front of the gigantic speakers.  I have to laugh about the music because it is wonderful, and oh how the girls and women of the City ENJOY it as does everyone within a 1 km range.  It's being amplified from speakers that are basically constructed from left over motor parts, spare car parts, anything.  The higher the volume, the more distortion.  But no one seems to mind.  The music we will enjoy most is when the cohort of January 2012 takes to the stage and sings like their lives depend on it. 

Once the Governor arrives everything gets moving.  Mamma Baccu welcomes us all.  She is a traditionally built woman from Bukavu, always sporting the most beautiful Congolese outfits of long straight skirts and a long kurta over the top, adorned and embroidered heavily, and donning a matching wrap of fabric twirled and tied on her head covering everything but her face.  Today she is in pale pink eyelet, covered with a flower print and lots of silver embroidery.  On her head a mass of satin pink cloth tied with a perfect knot in the back.  She has been so much of the glue that has kept these girls going.  She will serve as master of ceremonies.  She will keep charge throughout, no matter what is happening at the podium.  Even when she invited the Governor up to speak, she continues walking around on the stage, at times dropping to her knees to shake out and straighten a piece of red carpet that has become wrinkled.  There she is adjusting the strips of red carpet on the floor behind him and beside him while he is addressing the graduates, noting to the crowd that he has listened to ALL of their speeches and he is clearly taken by what he has seen and heard.  In the middle of this very proud, very moving, truly unforgettable moment for everyone in the room, Mama Baccu serves up that little moment of humor you sometimes need.  You never need wonder who is in charge. 

Mamma Baccu is followed by Christine Schuler Deschryver.  Christine is the ED of the City of Joy, and at six feet tall in bare feet, and she is never without her heels, you can hardly take your eyes off of her.  She has a Congolese mother and a Belgian father and is the most beautiful mixture-- the world coming together.  Today she dons a long halter dress with a bold print in deep orange, mustard yellow and cream set on a chocolate brown background.  Her headdress of matching fabric is tied in a band around her forehead and going up over the top of her head, with a large knot in the back.  An African queen.  Today she tells the girls how much she loves them.  How proud.  How much they have given her.  Tears are never held back.  We are so SO fortunate to have her running City of Joy.  Indeed this year, The Guardian in the UK named her one of the ten most important women changing the world.  A huge and well deserved acknowledgment of the gift she is to humanity.  It is probably enough that she makes the drive to City of Joy seven days a week.  That road.  Those potholes.  The traffic jams.  I don't think she even notices.  She has City of Joy running at a hum.  The love it takes to run a center where nearly 100 people live well with no running water;  the spirit it takes to transform these women that have been to hell, have been in hell, to do what they are about to do.

Now it is time for us to hear from some of this year's class.  Mama Baccu calls the first girl to the podium, and I only wish at this moment that I could remember all of the girls’ names.  The first girl got up and told us about the ten tenets that they learn and live by at the City of Joy to transform their pain to power.  By the way, she will get up and speak with no notes, no prompter.

She takes to the stage, tells us her story of how she got here and the tenets she now lives by.  This is the core of V-Day's work here:   "The first tenet, the first is to speak the truth.  The second is to stop waiting to be rescued.  Take initiative and help yourself.  The third, know your rights.  The fourth, raise your voice!  The fifth, share what you have learned.  The sixth, give what you want the most.  The seventh, feel and tell the truth about what you have been through, tell your story.  The eighth, use it to fuel a revolution. The ninth, practice kindness.  And the tenth, the tenth is to treat the life of your sister as if it were your own.”  The justice I am simply unable to do in this account is to adequately describe how this girl, this young woman, took to the stage in front of a crowd of dignitaries, parliamentarians, countless NGO representatives, family members, friends, staff, her cohort and V-Day supporters, literally a sea of hundreds of people, and there she stood, articulate, projecting, gesturing with each tenet to punch the message home.  So brave.  All without a stitch of notes.  Just off the cuff, from the heart, head in the game, loving herself and what she had become.  This brilliant, clear public speaker with such a powerful message.

She was followed by another girl and then others.  Each as she took to the stage would introduce herself and say where she was from.  If she had children, she would tell how many, how old.   One girl had three children and told of having been taken, like many of the others, with a story of rape and torture.  She stood up, so brave and proud, sharing with all of us the transformation she had made, the unhappiness and misery she had lived and what she had accomplished through therapy and classes at the City of Joy.  She had turned the page on her life and would no longer live in the past.  She deserved better.  She then introduced her husband, who had been sitting in the crowd, and invited him to join her on the stage.  A huge moment.  This is a country where so often, once the woman has been raped, the husband or the family won't accept her or ever take her back.   As crazy as that sounds, it is so often the reality.  Her husband stood there beside her, beaming with pride because his wife through her six months at the City of Joy had recovered her heart and head and could once again feel love and be loved and give love.  Transformed.  The family transformed.

We heard from another girl who told us more about the daily programming that the cohort shared.  It is customized for what each girl needs.  Those fluent in Swahili only, they learn French.  Those fluent in French, they learn English.  Actually, they all take English and you wouldn't believe how well they speak it after six months.  Those that have never learned to read and write, or do basic math, take classes every day.  They learn to read, to write, to add, divide and subtract.  Therapy?  Lots.  They spoke of one treatment they call "TTT" that was developed by a Swedish therapist and taught here to all the girls.  I think “TTT” stands for trauma tapping therapy.  The technique helps them work through their traumas by lightly tapping on their face with their fingertips.  Most of these women say that when they come to City of Joy they haven't been able to sleep in years.  Most fear being alone, darkness, sounds, seeing men, so many things. They live in fear. They have all been to hell.  When they arrive, most can't sleep.  Through TTT everyone, absolutely everyone, is able to sleep. 

They take communication classes.  They learn to tell their stories.  Through telling their stories they pass them through.  They get loads of training in public speaking and boy does it show.  They learn to use their voice as a tool for change, to be strong and speak up in the face of injustice, for themselves and others.

They get learn about their rights.  They take a constitution class and learn how the laws are made in the Congo, how their government is elected, and they learn to support the candidate that is aligned with their values.  In the recent election in November, all of the girls were given five days off to travel home and vote.  All voted.  Most for the first time.  They all were able to assist and educate family and friends on the process.  One even shared that she was turned away and told she couldn't vote in the voting station where she was registered. She stayed and fought and voted!  I can only imagine the poll workers’ shock.

Some learn how to sew.  Some to knit.  All, all learn how to farm.  They take animal husbandry classes at City of Joy.  They are taught extensively about the composting process; they compost everything at City of Joy and make rich compost that they use in their planting.  They learn about conservation and stewardship.  Several shared that they will go back to their villages and teach composting, and teach people why it matters not to litter or destroy nature.  They also learn about how important trees are and to protect them because they give so much.  One girl told us she only thought trees existed to be cut down to build things.  When she came to City of Joy and saw trees, she actually wondered why they weren't cutting them down for buildings or a cooking fire.  Now she understands they need to be protected.

They do exercise classes, learn about healthy food choices, and they have sexual education.  They learn about their bodies and family planning.  Dr. Mukwege teaches this.  They all leave City of Joy with birth control patches.  They take self-defense classes; during the ceremony they demonstrated their techniques to get away and harm their attacker.  I know I'm forgetting some classes, but suffice it to say it's a full curriculum and with the most wonderful, loving instructors.  There are high expectations for these women, and they have ALL excelled above what anyone could have thought possible.

Next we hear from a young girl.  Maybe she is 17.  She had hated her life and her family, refused to go to school, didn't feel worthy enough to leave her home after she had been raped.  She knew nothing but misery and despair.  And then she told how the ten tenets had changed her, the classes, the therapy, the instruction.  Being here for six months, she has a new-found respect for herself and for others.  She has been learning French and English and taking classes and she wants to continue her school.  She has turned the page on her life.  She then surprised us by calling her father to the stage.  He joined her and went behind the podium.  He pulled a paper from his pocket and slowly began to read.  This was the first time he had traveled to Bukavu.  He looked to be quite old by Congolese standards, maybe late 50's.  He talked about how his daughter had been in the past.  She had refused to go back to school.  Refused to help on the family farm.  Refused to do anything but hide in the house.  She was very depressed and very angry.  But since coming to City of Joy everything had changed.  She had come home to vote in late November, and she had sat down with him and talked about how she wanted to move forward in life.  She had been taking classes at City of Joy and wanted very much to go back to school and be a great student.  She knew so much about the laws and her rights.  She was happy.  She was strong.  Her voice was that of a leader.  He was incredibly choked up during his speech, struggling to get out the story he had written.  She had come back a changed girl.  She was ready to change the world.  It was a miracle and he had witnessed it.  For all of us to see this father's reaction – a moment we will never forget.

A beautiful woman comes up on the stage.  Her hair is cropped at shoulder length and done in orange beads like Bo Derek.  We were graced to hear from her yesterday and so today in front of everyone she shares the story that we had taken in the day before.  She has two children, both the products of rapes.  Her son is twelve and her daughter eight.  She had never loved them and could hardly stand the sight of them.  Every time she would look at them, she would think of what had happened to her, and they served as a constant reminder of her hell.  Through her counseling and training at the City she had learned that it wasn't their fault; they had nothing to do with it.  They were her children.  They needed her and they were deserving of her love.   And through her time here she had turned the page of her life and learned to love them, very much.  Her daughter, Gloria was there celebrating with her mother. 

Next, a brilliant young woman who needed no amplification.  She spoke only of the rights of women in the Congo.  What she had learned.  What she would do with it.  She has aspirations.  And she looked at the Governor of South Kivu sitting front and center in row 1 and told him she doesn't want his job, yet, but intends to run for parliament.  She took a fist to the air and spoke boldly about all the corruption in government and how ashamed every elected official should be.  And that the Congo will never move forward and see meaningful progress until those elected, and rightfully elected, stop taking bribes and stop their corrupt ways.  What a stump speech.  She brought Eve to her feet.  It was something to behold. 

One of the best stories of the day was a young woman who herself was born of rape, to a mother that was never fortunate enough to have an education.  So this young woman had been brought up working in the fields with an illiterate mother who knew nothing more.  She could list the countless reasons she hated herself and hated her life; she had been raped (interesting statistic about rape in the Congo: the average rape that a Congolese woman experiences is being raped by 4 men; gang rape is the average here); she couldn't read or write; she had never learned even basic math, and if you asked her to take $1 and divide it in half, she had no understanding that it could be done; she didn't speak French and always felt second class around anyone because she knew she couldn't read or add or divide or understand any language besides her native Swahili.  She tells us all this in her powerful and moving voice, and then she tells us that in the past six months she has learned to read and to write and she can count to 100 and even much higher and she can do basic math and she has learned so much French and English and now she will be starting a business and she knows no one will be able to swindle her because she knows so much now.  She is going to continue her studies while she starts her own small business.  My god she was amazing.  Her smile so full of joy.  A miracle.

I cannot tell you at this moment how much we cried.  But remembering, for some of us that had been here a year ago and had seen so many of these women and to see them now.  The lotus blooms from the mud. 

We are next treated to a fun surprise, a fashion show.  Ten of the girls come out, one after the other on cue in stunning dresses created by a local designer who is a friend of Christine.  Wow.  Wow.  Wow.  (I did buy one to bring home, as did Emily and Gina.)  They strut and turn and serpentine in front of us and onto the stage.  Each looking like a top model.  Realizing that these girls can celebrate their beauty, their bodies and with an expression that says, "I know I look great, but guess what?  You can't touch me!"  I believe this is the moment when it really hits all of us how far these women have come.  From the depths of depression where they hated everything about themselves, and here they are literally strutting their stuff and looking at you straight on.  Just Wow.

The final speeches will be from Eve, Dr. Mukwege and the Governor of South Kivu, a self-identified V-Man. 

Eve:  She stands before us in a sheer black dress pulled over a black slip all dripping with African beads in red, yellow, orange and light blue.  A round-beaded African choker to match at her neck.    She is beaming. 

She tells us that the City of Joy began in a friendship.  A friendship between Eve and Dr. Mukwege and Christine…  the bush was thick and the marsh was heavy, but you didn't fear the bush or the water…  we were witnessing a world that was indifferent to violence against the women of the DRC…  we knew if we built the City of Joy that out of this mud would come the lotus…  and in all of these girls today we see much more than flowers…  they are power flowers.

They will start the revolution in this country to take this country back for the women, for the better, for justice, for peace, and for the good development that must happen here.  If we keep repeating and replicating the miracle of the City of Joy, we will forever change this country for the better and if we can do it here, in the heart of South Kivu in the heart of the Congo in the heart of Africa in the heart of the world, we can do it everywhere.  She tells them that they are the center of her heart, her daughters, all of them, and she carries them with her always.  She ends her speech with a cheer for the girls – an African scream that brings them to their feet with their hands in the air, jumping for joy and cheering her back in French.  They say "if you love Mama Eve say Amen.  Amen!" And they cheer her with that magnificent sound they do with their tongue and the roof of their mouth.  It's like a deep rich trill.  Love.

Dr. Mukwege comes to the stage.  I don't know if anyone is feeling more pride and more gratitude.  He is the doctor that has treated so many of these girls.  It seems like every story we heard would be sprinkled with seven operations or nine operations, or some other unreal number.  All performed by this saint.  He is very emotional in his remarks to the girls.  He knows them so well and this center has been his dream and their transformation his wildest dream.  He is such a special man.  He has given his entire life to the women of this region.  I can't possibly do him justice.  I await the day that he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The Governor is the final speech, and even though he sat in the front row with his phone connected to his ear via a cord through the whole service, he has clearly listened to every speech, every girl.  He calls them out one by one.  He recounts their stories, the girl who said she wanted to run for office to the young woman that has learned to read and write and will start a business.  He is clearly astounded by what he has witnessed.  Eve asks him to commit from the stage to pave Essence Road, to widen it and make it right.  She calls out to him twice until he answers, "Oui." 

We are now nearly five hours into the program, and it is time to call the girls to the stage one by one to receive their certificates of graduation.  The families and friends in the audience and the girls themselves cheer wildly for one another.  Drums and music and dancing all happening.  Life at the end of Essence Road.

They close the ceremony singing a song about how they were each a young swallow with only one wing and they could hear their mothers telling them to jump, to leave the nest, to believe in themselves because they could fly.  So with great faith in themselves and what would be possible they jumped from the nest and pushed themselves and from their effort another wing opened up and suddenly they realized they could soar.

The City of Joy.  A wildly magnificent success.

Graduation ends with neighbors and family and friends all here to celebrate.  Cloths are tossed on the ground outside all over the grass, and a mass picnic of cheese sandwiches and sodas is served.

I will dart off from here after hugging every graduate and I will ride with Thomas and Bingie (of Human Rights Watch) to go see Desange. 

The day gets even better.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

#3 - The Orchid Hotel, the New Farm, and Preparing for Graduation

It is Friday morning at the Orchid Hotel*, and one of my traveling partners asked that I share a little detail about the Orchid.  If anything, to present the juxtaposition. 

We stay at the Orchid because there are not a lot of hotels here, as one can guess, and the only other place to stay is the CoCo Lodge, which has eight lovely rooms and is full of V-Day staff and a film crew.  The Orchid has 22 rooms and is perched on the stunningly beautiful, and very still in the early morning, Lake Kivu.  The hotel is a collection of sprawling cream colored and brick buildings with tiled roofs. All the buildings are tucked into the side of the hill climbing out of the lake.  Everything is wrapped in purple bougainvillea, the biggest and tallest bougainvillea any of us have ever seen.  There are trees of all kinds and colorful lantana bushes, again bigger than any I have ever seen.  The Congo.  Everything, absolutely everything, grows here.  Clearly if this land were left to itself for a year, it would be taken over and go back to jungle.  The crickets and insects sing at night so loudly you can only defer to them.  In the morning we all wake to crowing roosters in surround sound.  Africa.  Andrea says this hotel makes her feel like she is in Italy on Lake Como.  Then we get in our jeeps and drive past the gate and are instantly dropping in and out of potholes, and the scene we can't peel our eyes from begins again.  I think it crosses everyone's mind, ever so often, just how lucky and privileged we all are.  Winning the lottery in the womb to be born where we were born.

Today we are off to see a farm.  The farm is about an hour plus drive from the Orchid, and maybe 30 minutes from the City of Joy.  We head out on our drive and take in all the life of Essence Road on the way out.  Everything that matters is reached via Essence Road.   Once out of Bukavu, we travel the hillsides back and forth and amazingly, the roads get a little better.  They are wider and the foot traffic diminishes.  But we climb hills and descend hills and we are all struck by the kids hauling water and loads of charcoal, sugar cane, corn, and bowls and baskets and bundles on their heads or backs.  Some of those hills are such a climb.  I wish we could pull over and load everyone in our vehicles with their burdens.  We want to take photos.  Everyone is thinking the same thing.  How do I share this?

After our winding drive we arrive.  It is 380 hectares [Ed.: nearly 1,000 acres, 1-1/2 square miles] of rich soil with a river running through it.  There are rice fields, tilapia ponds, pigs, bees, chickens, fruit trees, and trees with bark containing quinine.  The farm is for sale and V-Day is purchasing it to create a sanctuary, a sustainable farm, a retreat where women from the City of Joy, women from the surrounding villages, women from all around can come and live and farm and grow a business that will not only feed the City of Joy, but feed up to 3,000 people from the farm with plenty more produce to sell at market.  It is an amazing piece of land that has been farmed for years by a Belgian family who now want to sell it.  When we ask Derrick, the owner of the farm, is it all so perfect?  What is wrong with this farm?  Why do you want to sell it?  He gives only one answer:  it's in the Congo.  Nothing is easy here.  It all needs to be farmed by hand and hoe, machete to cut weeds.  Getting big farm equipment there would never happen.  But what it is is the way things used to be, the way they should be.  Permaculture.  All organic.  They have never used any pesticides or needed fertilizers outside of the compost that is made on the farm.  Eve and Belinda say it reminds them of Bolinas.  It is green and rich and sprawling.  The smell is so sweet and fresh.  You just want to breathe it all in.  Eve shares her vision of what the farm will become – it is Eden.  It will be spotted with small simple homes of wood.  Women making everything.  Building the houses.  Cleaning out and restocking the tilapia ponds.  Composting.  Planting.  Creating.  Cooking.  Farming.  Living.  They will create a living, a sustainable way of life.  When we all wonder about security, we understand that with the farm’s income they could hire a handful of security people to live on the property.  All it takes is a couple of folks and the women can be protected.  It will be theirs.  It is the natural destination from the City of Joy for those women that can't go back to their communities; it is the place where many can go that want a place to call home and want to stay together.  The possibilities are endless.  And because we have seen the women at the City of Joy and the transformation they have made, we know what is possible.  Anything. 

We load back into the jeeps for the short trek back to the City, where we will enjoy lunch, watch the women demonstrate the self-defense they have learned, see their composting, and tour more of the grounds, and we will try to not be in the way as they prepare for their graduation day tomorrow. 

The best part of the afternoon for me, and maybe the best part of the trip so far, is standing off near the goat huts located in the middle of the field inside the City of Joy and watching the girls from afar.  I had been making my way over to the composting when I turned to see them demonstrating their self-defense skills.  It reminded me of the class that my daughter Ahna took before she went to college.  A two-day self-defense training in Palo Alto.  I remember watching Ahna and her friends the next afternoon demonstrate against an instructor that was covered in heavy pads as she kicked, pushed and twisted her way out of holds.  I remember watching this outside on mats and being so glad I was wearing sunglasses as tears were streaming down my face.  I felt this sense of relief that if anyone ever tried to attack Ahna, she would know what to do to free herself, to hurt the perpetrator, to get away.  I looked at these girls, doing the same maneuvers and had this same, same sense of relief.  I stood there watching from the distance, again grateful for my glasses, tears streaming down my cheeks.  What more can we want than our children to be safe.

After they finished their demonstration, I watched as they stood and moved around each other, wrapping arms around each other’s waist; leaning on one another; no one alone; everyone with a pal; everyone with a sister.  I realized as they graduate that they all have found a meaningful sense of themselves; being loved and accepted; being together; a sisterhood and a bond that is stronger than anything they ever had before.  That was my greatest moment.  That has been the height of the trip so far.  They feel love.  They feel loved.  They can once again give love and receive it.  These are women who only six months ago had spent so much of the recent past shunned, rejected, suffering from fistula, left alone to die, raped, tortured, and not wanting to live.  What Eve and Christine and Mama Baccu have done.  Miracles.  Pain turned to power.  The pages of their lives turn.

Friday, January 27, 2012

#2 - Bukavu and the City of Joy

It is Thursday morning and we have arrived at Kigali airport for our 55 minute flight to Kamembe, which will leave us with just a short drive to Bukavu.  Our prop plane wasn't so small, holding maybe 36 passengers.  We had a smooth ride and a bumpy landing.  Dirt runways.

V-Day sent three land cruisers for us, and no sooner had we landed then we were headed for the border.  We crossed at the same point as last year.  The crossing was so easy it felt a bit like returning to visit an old friend.  Everything was familiar.  Boys walking on both sides of the dirt roads with full egg crates stacked upon their heads.  Women with jugs of water strapped to them by wrapping cloth around their foreheads, around their backs, and under the jerry cans.  Children of all sizes, all with loads, all over the place.  The big difference from last year, and evident from the moment we landed, was the lack of rain.  The red dust is thick and on everything.  You can't lower the windows while the car is moving, because the dust being kicked up is so heavy.  Climate change.  The hills on either side of us roll into mountains, all lush green.  The contrast between the red dirt and the green vegetation makes it easy to see the terraced farming that climbs the hills.

In Rwanda, construction of roads is always underway.  Workers are either widening the roads or constructing retaining walls to protect them.

Passport control is negotiated much more quickly this year with a smaller crowd and of course the help of our fixer.  Stamped out of Rwanda, we cross the rickety single lane wooden bridge that isn't more than 75 yards long and we arrive in the DRC.  Out of the vehicles again to have our visas checked and passports stamped, and now we begin bouncing madly – from the potholes, which have indeed become deeper and more prevalent – on our way to the Orchid Hotel. 

We are greeted by Eve at the Orchid.  A better welcome anywhere would be hard to find.  We will dump our bags and head to the destination that has ultimately brought us all to the Congo: the City of Joy.

We have come to celebrate the first graduation, which will take place on Saturday.  The City of Joy is like a small college.  An idea that came from the women recovering at the Panzi Hospital after being treated by the incredible Dr. Mukwege.  They wanted a place to go once their bodies had mended from surgery (or in most cases, surgeries).  A place where they might be able to begin to get their lives back.  A place where they might find a reason to live.  A reason to be a survivor.  Most of these women, like so many women in the Congo, are not just suffering from rape, but suffering from gang rape and torture.  Brutalities that you need only hear once and they will never leave your mind.  But what these women needed was a place to heal their heads.  A place to find hope.  A reason to live.  Just maybe, if they had counseling, if they could get their stories out of their bodies, out of their minds, put them out for others to share their burdens, if they could learn to tell the truth of what had happened to them, maybe, just maybe, they might be able to turn the page on their past and start from a new place.   A new beginning.  It would be a miracle.  It would take a miracle. 

We begin our drive to the City from our hotel.  It can't be more than 4 miles, but the drive on a good day, in great conditions, would take 45 minutes.  As crazy as it sounds, this is a drive you want to take slowly.  For one, the road condition is something no person should ever expect in a city.  We see many more potholes this year.  Last year, the potholes were full of water, and you had no idea how deep they were.  This year, we all hold on to any handle or seat in front of us, anything to brace ourselves from being tossed around the car.  It's not bad.  It's just an adventure.  The sense that is most heightened is your sight, because you are seeing humanity in a way that is so unfamiliar.  What strikes me?  The crowd of people of all sizes.  But how rare it is to see anyone that would be considered a senior citizen.  Small children, too young to be unaccompanied, walking hand in hand headed who knows where.  Women with baskets on their heads, babies on their backs.  Crumbling wooden shacks, each of which you know someone calls home, lining the roads.  One of my fellow travelers, new to the Congo, looks at me and says there really aren't locks on the doors and where do you think they go to the bathroom?  I know by tomorrow she will realize there is barely any plumbing in this city.  You see hundreds of people sitting on the ground, a cloth spread out in front of them, selling dirt-covered potatoes or corn that has been roasted on an open fire, or piles of dried tilapia or other fish I don’t know the name of, or tomatoes or bunches of garlic.  Anything and everything.  The one rule of the Congo that I always want to break is the No Photos rule.  In the Congo, people believe that if you take their photo you are taking their souls.  It is forbidden to take photos (unless you have permission from the subject), so taking photos from the car is difficult and dangerous.  But the sights you take in as the car crawls down the bustle of Essence Road are something to be captured – even if only in the mind.

Although it seems much dustier than last year, the women are still wrapped in bright fabrics.  The children are all beautiful.  The purpose everyone has is evident as each person moves steadily along a crowded, treacherous path.  I would hardly call Essence Road a two lane road, but there it is, accommodating traffic in two directions.  So often when we pass a car you can't help but hold your breath.  And so often, far too often, you let out a gasp as you think we are going to hit someone or run over a child.  It's crazy but it's beautiful in some very unexpected way.

Essence Road.  The life on Essence Road captures your attention, and I notice now when looking back how little we all talk in the cars.  We are all just captivated by the life happening outside the windows.  Sometimes I roll my window down, and I like that better because you see more of everything.  But then after a minute someone is right there at your window, and I get a sudden fear, just as I would in Palo Alto or San Francisco if someone were right at my car window.  It's natural.  And with that I roll the window back up and start over again.

As you pull up to the City of Joy, you drive through the poorest part of Bukavu, a field of tents.  The tents are in really bad shape this year.  Another year of hot sun.  How long has it been this way?  Where to start?  We drive a short block further.

Then we arrive.  First you hear singing.  We rolled our windows down and the singing got louder.  The 14 foot tall iron gate was opened by a security guard, and the singing got louder.  I think I jumped out of the car before it even came to a stop.  There were the women, soon to be graduates, singing and making the most alive, amazing sounds with their tongues.  Africa. 

We all tumbled out of our cars and stepped through the gates, and the women were lined up on either side, their hands full of rose petals, singing to us and throwing petals on us.  We hugged.  We danced.  We cried.  We couldn't stop crying.  I knew instantly why I was back in the Congo.  I had to see their faces.  I had seen them a year ago, and I wanted to see did the promise of this City, did the hopes of these women, did their plan work? 

After a great parade, all of us, visitors, Eve, the staff, and the first cohort of City of Joy, made our way into a tent.  The women continued singing to us for nearly an hour.  The music they had written, the lyrics all theirs, too.  Joy.

Why did we go into a tent in the middle of this new college full of red brick buildings with blue metal roofs?  Because UNICEF neglected to put in drainage and plumbing when they finished the construction last year, and for the past twelve months V-Day has had to oversee all new construction.  The class went on this year, despite no plumbing and no running water.  UNICEF forgot to put in pipes.  Crazy.  Surrender.  It's the Congo, and quite honestly, the City of Joy is a beautiful, safe, very safe place for these women to heal.  On one level, it really doesn't matter that the women couldn't flush toilets, or had to go a distance to fetch water, because it’s safe.  Eve had us all go into the tent because she wanted us to experience, at some small level, what these women have gone through to turn their pages.  I have to say, it gets pretty hot in the tent.  Several of us later confessed we thought we were going to faint.  I think it was a mix of jet lag, the heat of course, and very much the emotion we were experiencing.  I wouldn't have traded it. 

Inside the tent we first took in a big buffet lunch.  We did this last year, and I'll never forget how struck I was by the piles of food the girls put on their plates, like each was going to feed ten people from her plate.  And last year, that is probably what they had in mind as I watched them all pack food into anything they could find to take with them.  This year, so different.  They took what they could eat and then were satisfied.  They live at the City and enjoy three meals per day.  They don't think constantly of when or where they will eat next.  In my family, we think about what we are hungry for and then we make it or go get it.  It's very different in so much of the world. 

After we shared a filling lunch of cassava and yams, potatoes and rice, fish, mango, bananas, and pineapple, we settled into our seats to hear from three of the girls.  Their stories I don't think I can share.  I don't know if I would want my children to read them.  I don't know if I can even find the words to type.  I don't know how I would live had I lived through what they did.  I don't know how I would have survived.  They have been to hell, and some were there for years.  They have somehow survived and today, in front of everyone, they tell their stories. They share their truths, what they lived through, in detail.  They do this because, as they will tell us over and over, they live now with ten principles, and the first is to speak the truth of what happened to them.  When they speak that truth, they pass that hell out of their bodies and they hand it to us to help process it, and each time they do it, their burden becomes lighter.  As each finishes her story, you hear her confidence and strength and power.  They have turned the page on their past and they now look forward to tomorrow and the life they can have.  My description doesn’t come close to doing justice to the scene I have witnessed.  Only the girls can tell their stories.  I witnessed a miracle.

It's late and tomorrow starts early.  I'm still a day behind but hope to catch up tomorrow.

#1 - Returning to Africa - January '12

Five days into our journey and here it is already, Friday morning in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  We are a much smaller group this year, reminding us all that it is a long way to travel when you decide to come to the City of Joy.  I am traveling with eight others from the Bay Area, three of us returning almost to the day a year ago when we traveled to be here for the opening of the City of Joy.  We crossed the border traveling from Kigali, Rwanda this time, but still traversing the same short rickety single lane bridge at the border.  You wait your turn as vehicles from Congo make their way into Rwanda, and then we crossing into the Congo in our land cruiser.  Holding our breath that the bridge will hold and being swept away as there is nothing like the natural beauty of the Congo.  You see it and somehow everything feels different.

Where to begin?  We flew out of San Francisco on Sunday late afternoon through Brussels, where we had a restful overnight in the old center of the city.  All in our group have read King Leopold's Ghost, and we couldn't help but see the sights through a more informed lens.  If you haven't read it, I can't recommend it highly enough to help you understand the roots of slavery, the brutal rape and colonization of central Africa, and the cruel reign of this king.

We left Brussels on Tuesday morning on an eight hour flight to Kigali, Rwanda.  I won't get too deep into the luggage story, but suffice it to say our group of five women left SFO traveling with our carry-on bags, which we will live from for 12 days, and checking 26 very large duffel bags stuffed with goods to take to the City of Joy and our dear friend, Masika, whose center I visited last year outside of Goma.  Those bags weighed in at roughly 65 pounds each.  (We didn't manage to meet the 50 pound weight limit and the simple extra bag charge.  Instead, we opted for the not-to-exceed 70 pound weight limit with extra fees.)  Thanks to the generosity of so, so, so many of you, we departed with nearly a ton of very-much-needed goods. 

We arrived in Kigali at 8pm on Tuesday night, met by Human Rights Watch staff who were kind enough to play host to us for our two nights and one day in Kigali.  As is typical in central Africa, you step off the plane, walking down a flight of steps that have been rolled to the plane, and you are struck by the smell of wood burning, cooking fires, and a big dark night sky coated in stars. 

It took us a while to get all the bags (we did lose one along the way, but alas, the bulk arrived) and load them tightly into a van.  We squeezed into a couple of cars and made the short drive to the Serena Hotel in the center of Kigali.  Kigali is a very safe place.  Extremely low crime rates.  A benevolent dictator.  But I am no fan of the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame.  He has ruled since shortly after the genocide of 1994.  I think at one time he started with good intention, to somehow build a more stable peace between the ethnic "tribes" of Rwanda, but power can also corrupt.  I will say Rwanda is a safe place to bet your philanthropic dollar.  The rate of development here is astounding, and bribes are mostly non-existent.  But at the same time there is no free press, no space for dissent or opposition to Kagame and his party.  The "peace" and security come at a high price. 

HRW has operated in Rwanda for nearly 20 years, but our senior researcher is often followed, as he was (and we were) on Wednesday morning when we left the hotel.  This is not a country that wants the truth to be told or its human rights standards monitored.  The Gacaca courts that ran in every community around Rwanda affected by the genocide (it is estimated that 10% of the population lost their lives in the 100 days it took to start and end the terror in 1994) have just ended after running weekly for over 10 years.  The Gacaca justice system was developed here to try to address, in some way, the reconciliation so that the country might be able to move past and go on.  I don't think any of the victims that survived can ever forgive, but it is very important to find a path just to be able to move forward, so that the generations to follow might not have to re-live history.  If you want to read a brilliant account of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, read Romeo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil.  He was the head of the UN mission sent to Rwanda to manage the tension shortly before the genocide began.  His account is clear and moving and really helps you understand the many mistakes made by the international community and missed opportunities to prevent the massacre.  When the UN packed up and left at the start of the genocide, Dallaire refused to leave. 

We spent Wednesday morning at the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum.  It is very well done.  The tour ends with two rooms that are unforgettable.  One takes you through the past 100 years and the genocides that have happened, from Armenia to Bosnia, Cambodia to the Holocaust, and Rwanda.  One is just shocked at how this practice is allowed to continue and left to wonder when or whether civilization will learn.  It isn't one person killing a few people; it is thousands of people killing hundreds of thousands of other people.  Each story, each time is horrific.  The second room is dedicated to the children.  It is filled with photographs of children who were killed in 1994 in the Rwandan genocide.   It tells the child’s age, favorite hobby, favorite food, favorite belonging, and then it tells how he or she was killed.  I think this is the most difficult part of the memorial.  Why does "never again" still look like "again and again?"

We moved on after that museum for a long lunch with Louis, the senior researcher for HRW in Rwanda.  Louis briefed us on the work he is doing in the country currently.  HRW's purpose in Rwanda is to make sure that when basic human rights are violated, the violations are investigated, documented, and published, and then those responsible are held accountable.  HRW does everything from briefing the US Ambassador to Rwanda on policies that they want the US State Department to push for, to lobbying the Rwandan government to allow a space where dissent can be expressed, where people have a right to free speech and protest.  The US is second only to the UK in aid to Rwanda.  Hundreds of millions of dollars come to Rwanda every year from the US.  We cannot in good conscious not hold President Kagame accountable to respect human rights.  If there isn't a space created for free press and for dissent to be heard and surface, then you create an environment that simmers and will at some point boil.  Again.  History.

Our full day was capped off by a dinner at Heaven Restaurant*.  This restaurant was started by a Bay Area couple that wanted to help create jobs in Rwanda and promote local, sustainable, organic food production and service.  We had a lovely dinner by candlelight.  Even Rwanda does not escape the power outages so prevalent in this part of Africa.

Tomorrow morning we will wake very early to meet in the lobby at 5am for a 7am flight to Kamembe, Rwanda. From there, it will be a short 20 minute drive to the Congo border.

*Editor’s Note:  Believe it or not, http://www.heavenrwanda.com/