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Saturday, February 4, 2012

#7 - Masika and her center in the village of Minova

Monday morning and our day begins with a one hour visit to the local office of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Institute (ABA ROLI), located a mere three minute drive from our hotel.  ABA ROLI is an organization we learned about through Gina Maya, as her brother Michael is the director of the Africa division.  Their headquarters is in Washington, D.C.  ABA ROLI works within the existing justice system in country (no matter how weak) to build the human infrastructure and talent: lawyers who will try cases; counselors who work with victims to persuade them to come forward; counselors working with victims to explain Congo’s very progressive laws against rape and torture and the government’s obligation to investigate these crimes; and mobile courts that take justice out into the rural areas where people can see justice – which is SUPER important here.  They even have a program to manage scholarships for Congolese students who show a desire and aptitude to study law.  Their staff in the DRC totals 130, of which 46 are lawyers operating out of 22 offices.  This morning they host us in a large upstairs conference room, and I would guess that of the more than 20 staff who attended, at least half were female, including three women lawyers.  There are too few women in this country in college, let alone getting law degrees.  So three female lawyers here this morning is fantastic.

Charles Guy Makongo (who goes by “Guy,” which is pronounced the French way, like “ghee”) is the director of the DRC office and is utterly impressive.  He gave us a thorough and concise overview of their mission here in the Congo, including some recent successes on rape prosecutions of high-ranking military officials.   We had a good Q & A and then our hour was up.  I can’t do this meeting justice, as I was without my note pad and was taken aback in the early part of the meeting when Guy introduced two law students, both women and in their fifth year, who are in school thanks to scholarships.  I can't tell you how far the dollar goes in this country.  Law school here is only one year.  That year, all in, costs about $2,000 per student.  I love to see the advancement by women in a society where they live under unspeakable repression.

Guy was fantastic, as was the entire staff, and we ended the visit with a photograph of all of us together out front taken by one of our drivers.  A souvenir for Gina's brother.

We head directly back to the hotel, where we board a boat for Minova, a town about an hour and a half from Goma driving on very rugged roads.  Last year we drove; this year, with so many of us here, it proves much easier to go by boat, although we miss a lot of slow sightseeing.  We dock ten minutes from Masika's center.  Our vehicles are waiting for us.

I sent a video around to some of you that was made by a British filmmaker, Fiona Lloyd-Davies, who profiled Masika’s center:  On the same site is a profile of Desange, with her story:

Masika doesn't get a lot of visitors, but she is an incredible find in the world of gifts to humanity, and HRW tries to take the few people that come to the DRC (Fiona, Adam Hochschild, Mindy and the eight women traveling with me this year) to visit her.  She runs a “listening center,” where victims of rape and torture who are from her part of the Congo (people come from quite far away as there really aren't any centers like this) come for help.  HRW has been coming here for the past several years.  I believe Ida discovered her center through word of mouth; when she was working on the issue of mass rape in the eastern Congo, she found that Masika's center was a key spot for interviewing victims.

When I visited last year, approximately 40 people were living at the center – 18 adults and maybe 22 children.  Fast forward to February 2012 – there are nearly 160 people living here.  I estimate about 60 women and nearly 100 children.  All, all the children are the product of rape.  All the women, survivors.  When we arrive at 11:00am, there is a celebration in our honor.  Our three vehicles pull off the side of the road, rocking back and forth as we come to a stop, and park on the shoulder.  We climb out of the cars and walk up to the center, where drums are heard and voices are singing.   A group of perhaps six children are beating drums made of all sorts of things.  The rhythm is infectious, the energy astounding.  The drummers are surrounded by dozens of children who are dancing by moving their shoulders up and down quickly and moving forward in all directions with their feet.  Even the toddlers.  The women are making that beautiful trilling sound they do with their tongues. Our group, as if on cue, jumps right in to the middle, Frannie and Emily leading the way, dancing wildly. We spend about ten minutes dancing and celebrating and hugging, and then it's time to get to work.

We have come to Masika's to do several things: we will hear testimony from women living in the center; we will hear Masika tell her story; we will wander across the road and see the farm that has been added since my visit a year ago; and we will hear what plans Masika has for the coming months and year and how things have been going.

We leave while the dancing and music are still going on and head to a small mud and stick building, new since my visit a year ago.  Inside are wooden benches, and we all crowd in and take a seat – our group of nine and the HRW staff.  Masika greets all of us and gives us an overview of the center and the changes from March 2011.  She expresses her gratitude that we have come and she introduces us to her secretary (a man), whom she was able to hire last year.  He helps her keep everything in order, to the extent that is possible.  We spend about ten minutes and then divide in to three groups of three, again.

Our groups will do the following rotation:  Anneke will hear testimony from girls and women in the center; Ida will stay with Masika in her original listening room and Masika will tell her story; and Claire will take the groups across the road to see the farm and learn about what the women are growing.

Anneke takes Bingi to translate Swahili and goes to a small round structure.  It’s in the shape of a yurt, but the mud walls only go up about three feet and the thatched roof is supported higher over head by taller wooden posts that line the round wall.  You can stand up inside easily.  There are five white plastic chairs where Anneke, Bingi and the three visitors sit, and a small wooden bench, maybe four feet long, where three girls at a time from the center, varying in age, come in and all sit down together.  Anneke has come to hear testimony; we sit in and bear witness.  This is all we can do, but it matters very much to those telling their story.  This stop will prove the most difficult of the day.  Each girl only tells her story once; nine girls will give testimony.  Anneke will document.  We are all welcome to ask questions if we can manage to talk.

Marsha, Frannie, and Lauren start at Anneke's station, and when I see them after an hour, when our groups rotate, they are all in a state.  One of the three girls they heard from, Siuzike, a 19 year old, has been begging them to please take her daughter, Cynthia, who is in the room trying to hold on to her mother but is being pushed away.  Siuzike keeps repeating in Swahili that she wants them to take her daughter.  She doesn't love her or want her.  I didn't get a brief on the other two girls from that session, but when Frannie described Siuzike to me, I understood immediately.  I met Siuzike last year.  Her left hand is missing, only a stump at the wrist.  She had been captured and held for six months months in the jungle with militia raping her.  She tried to escape but was caught, and they burned off her left hand.  She has never left my mind.  In fact, before leaving for this trip I had been racking my brain for weeks, what could I bring for Siuzike? What do you bring from far away that says you have never for a day left my mind?  Desange in college was so easy, but Siuzike, so deeply in pain.  I could think of nothing to comfort her besides taking her left arm and holding it in mine.

Well here is the news I was able to share with Frannie and Marsha and Lauren: HRW folks were present for graduation day at City of Joy.  Both Thomas and Bingi had come.  Thomas told me that Masika had nominated 10 or 15 girls for the February 14th cohort.  Siuzike was on the list.  When I saw Mama Baccu on the last night over dinner at CoCo Lodge, I asked her how the selection process would take place, and we talked about Masika's list.  I told her about Siuzike, and she knew more about her than I did.  She knew about her daughter Cynthia, she knew about her left hand.  She knew that Siuzike just wanted to die and that Cynthia had suffered from all sorts of health issues, including malnutrition and psychological issues.  She told me that Siuzike would be admitted to the February 14th cohort, and she would bring Cynthia.  City of Joy is not yet equipped at all for children, but the plan is to have Cynthia go every day to Panzi Hospital, right next door, and attend its pre-school program (she is 4).  In the evenings she will come to City of Joy to sleep with her mother, which will also be a first for City of Joy.  Mama Baccu told me the most important thing will be to help Suizike love her daughter, and if City of Joy can succeed (and we know it can happen), Suizike will reclaim her ability to love and be loved, and can turn the page on her life.  As soon as Frannie described Suizike, I told her what I knew and no one else did; Suizike herself won't hear until next week.  A miracle in the making.

Ida and Jean Baptiste accompanied Masika to her “listening area.”  It is a space located in the front room of Masika's modest one-story house.  Erin, Belinda and Emily sit and hear Masika tell her story.  I didn't describe her story last year in my blog because it is too difficult, but if you watch the short film on her you will learn some of it.  Here is a brief profile:

Andrea, Gina and I follow Claire and the secretary from Masika's center across the road to see the farm.  The farm is covered with neat flourishing rows of cassava.  We can hardly believe that these plants have only been in the ground four months; already they are well above my head and loaded with branches bursting with leaves.  The farm is located on the side of a steep hill – I would estimate a 10-15% grade.  It’s a climb.  We decide to walk the plot but get halfway up, are completely out of breath, look down and see how far we are above the road, and make the decision to hike back down.  The soil under our feet is soft and loose, like walking in rich compost.  What is sort of hard to comprehend is how much work it is to farm and plant and harvest on such a steep hillside.  But this land was for sale and close to the center, and there is no doubt in any of our minds that this plot is the epitome of fertile ground.  While we wander the field, women from Masika's center come over and harvest leaves from the plants.  Some will be sold at market, and the women will give two big bundles of leaves to our drivers to take home.  I'll post photos when I come home.  There are so many unforgettable moments on this trip.  The woman harvesting the leaves, Congolese fabric wrapped around her body, and a perfectly tied head scarf wrapping her crown. Yes, the fabric a bit worn and the colors not as bright as they once were, but stunning against the green field nonetheless.  She had such a beautiful face.  When we asked if we could take her picture (you must ask), she smiled and obliged.  When we told her how beautiful she looked, you knew from her expression this wasn't the first time she had been told.

Almost every day on this trip I have eaten cassava in one form or another.  My favorite is when they chop the leaves and sauté them, like one would sauté spinach.  A dish called saka-saka.  They also pull up the roots (not all of the roots of the plant, but some) and harvest them like potatoes.  Then they stick the plant back in the ground and it grows new roots.  The roots are white tubers and can be dried and then crushed into a powder that is mixed with water and steamed for a long time (necessary for detoxification) to make very dense dumplings.  The dumplings are eaten with fingers and used to scoop up other things if present on the plate.  It's a filling starch with not much flavor.  They also dry the tubers and grind them very finely to make cassava flour.  Nearly every ounce of this plant is edible.  Masika now has a huge plot of neat rows of cassava plants.  An orchard really.

After visiting the farm, it was my turn to hear from Masika.  She looked completely different from an hour ago when we had pulled off the road in front of her center to great excitement.  Her energy low, she looked worn out, worn down.  She had a crying baby in her arms.  I could tell instantly that telling her story to the previous group had just drained all the joy of an hour ago.   Ida asked if it would be okay, since I knew Masika's story and could share it later with Andrea and Gina, if we could just talk about the center.  I was relieved.  In one moment Masika was passing the baby from her arms to another woman, and then in came Baby Esther.  When I saw Baby Esther last year, she was barely alive, after surviving on her own for an estimated four to seven days without food or water.  She was maybe six months old, her parents had been killed, and she had been found on the ground in the bush by Masika.  I was THRILLED to see her alive and well and crying for Masika.  Once she was in Masika's arms she was content.  Within ten minutes Masika stood up, bent forward at the waist, slid Esther onto her back, and quickly tied a cloth around, securing her to her back.  I never tire of seeing this maneuver.  Esther went right to sleep.

Masika spoke about the dormitory she wants to build, as there are so many women and girls now living at the center and no one has a place to sleep.   The dormitory will hold 200 women – but not by 100 bunk beds.  The girls are all accustomed to sleeping next to each other, and anywhere from two to four girls would sleep together in a twin bed and be very comfortable.  She spoke about the sewing room to be built for all the sewing machines that have arrived and an instructor being hired to teach the trade.  There are so many older women living here that would love to sew to make clothes for the center and create a small business.  They are also learning to weave baskets.  We talked about hiring a teacher for the dozens of pre-school age children at the center.  Children in the DRC do not start school until the age of seven.  Any younger is felt too young to walk the distance.  There is a mud structure in the back complete with long benches that could be used as a pre-school.  I pulled out my camera and showed her photos of Desange taken on Saturday at the university in Bukavu.  She was so proud.  We talked about Gaylor, Desange's son now living at the center under the careful eye of Masika.  We talked about Masika’s grandson Stevie, now 10 and a good student going to college one day.  She beamed.  We spent our hour talking about the good things that are happening and those to happen.  And all too soon our time was up.  Masika would be telling her story again to the final group, and I hoped that we had given her a little rest from her daily burden.

My final session was with Anneke.  Three girls, the first only 13.  She had never told her story and had just arrived at the center a week before.  The next girl was maybe 16 and with a baby.  She had been taken by soldiers while she was walking home from school one day with several other girls and two boys from her class.  The soldiers killed both the boys shortly after taking them.  They had attacked one girl so badly she couldn't move and was left to die on the forest floor.  This particular girl had managed to escape with a few others after a couple weeks in the soldiers’ control.  She had heard about a woman named Masika that would help her.  Once there, Masika took her to the hospital for treatment with the other girls who had escaped, and this girl was pregnant.  The only one.  The baby, Elizabeth, nursed on her while she spoke and then fell asleep without being burped.  The third girl had survived an attack on her village, only she and her mother escaping, the rest of the family killed.  She and her mother had fled in different directions, and both been raped.  They had both found Masika's, having no idea that the other was alive.  A small miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.   After the three girls finished and we hugged and held them, Anneke brought in one more girl who wanted to tell her story.  Passing it through, hopefully in some way lightening the burden.

In what felt like a blink our visit at the center came to an end.  The drums were beating again and the children dancing.  I took dozens of photos during the afternoon (at Masika's request) of all the women and children eating.  Every day there is a big bowl of rice and beans served midday.  I have no idea if they eat two meals a day.  I wonder.  I know it isn't three.  Which reminds me: there was an error in my post about City of Joy a couple days back.  Two meals a day are served, not three.

We made our way up to a parish on the hill above Masika's center.  There we presented Masika and many of the women in her center with the 13+ large duffel bags we had brought with us for those living at the center.  It will help.  The goods will be kept there in a locked room, and the women will come up every so often and take what they need.  It is for security reasons.  To all of you reading that sent goods our way, they ALL made the flight.  Even the one bag that was lost made its way to Kigali via British Airways a full nine days later, and is being delivered tomorrow to Masika.  Thank you isn't quite enough, but it will have to do.

We leave Masika with hopeful hearts.  I cannot begin to capture the despair these women and girls feel.  They all said that everyone who lives in the town of Minova knows that those who live at Masika's have all been raped.  When they walk to school people point at them and make fun.  When they leave to carry loads on the road, the same.  My friend Emily had the most wonderful thought, which she had Bingi translate to several of them.  "Every time someone points at you, know that the truth is they are pointing at a woman who is both strong and beautiful.  So when they point at you, realize that they are saying you are strong and beautiful and just smile back at them."  I hope that message circulates over and over.

The day has again been a day of extremes.  Marsha reminds us all of why we should be hopeful: many of these girls will be going to City of Joy soon, and we have seen what results from six months at City of Joy.  Just think – if even one of the graduates we saw in Bukavu comes back to this center.  Now think about five or ten of those graduates.  Every six months.  Later this year, Masika's will be bursting with women who have reclaimed their lives.  Women and girls that have turned the page and no longer live in despair.  This is the broader vision for City of Joy, to spread the love and strength and power village by village, house by house.  These girls coming back and making a smaller City of Joy at Masika's.

I will go back again next year to see Masika and those living at her center.  My spirit never leaves.  The transformation from last year to now was amazing.  I look forward to seeing another transformation because of the miracles of City of Joy.

Last Saturday at the graduation ceremony at City of Joy, Eve spoke to the girls, and it is the sentiment that I wish for these women and girls at Masika’s: "My dear daughters, you are rising miracles.  You triumph over evil and harm.  You are proof that transformation is possible when you give what you want the most.  You are the reminder that what you have suffered is not acceptable.  You have taken back your minds, your hearts, your vaginas, your bodies and your future.  You are from the garden of joy.  Rising.  Spreading.  You are the lotus in the center of my heart."

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