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.