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.
*Editor’s Note: http://orchids-hotel.com/home.html