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.