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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

2013 #10 - Mitochondrial Eve

Mitochondria is an endosymbiont organelle within the cell and is passed down via the female genetic code.  Almost all people on Earth, except for the "bushman," can be linked back to one original woman from eastern Africa, and she has been dubbed "Mitochondrial Eve."  (I did not go to Wikipedia; I'm traveling with people so much smarter than me.  Thank you Brock for this one!)
It is my next-to-last day in the Congo.  It's the 13th of February, and we will soon load back into our cars and head to dinner with the Governor of South Kivu tonight at his home.  Somewhat akin to dining with the Governor of California, I suppose.
I could not tell you at this point what day has been the best, because as we drove back this afternoon from a visit at Panzi Hospital and an unforgettable meeting with Dr. Mukwege, my dear friend Wendy said what she has said every day in the car on the way back to the Orchid: "What a day!"  Today I just laughed and said, "You say that everyday."  But today was full of those moments no one in the room will ever forget....  But first things first.
Today will be a quick stop to buy Congolese fabrics (I’m coming back with plenty; it was the first real shopping moment of this trip, and I can say this whole group can power through a market in 15 minutes and walk out with arms full.)  Next stop is City of Joy.  As soon as we arrived I went to the nurses’ office and the door was locked.  Luckily, I know which home is Georgette's, and I found her soon upon arrival.  She is feeling better and indeed on the mend.  Her suffering headache was gone and she barely felt warm.  She is still very tired but sat up in her bed.  We were so happy to see each other.  I was joined by a group of the women traveling with me, and we had a delightful visit with her.  The collective relief we all felt to see her better.  I handed her a big bag of Malarone, so she will have it when she needs more; she'll have to take it for at least ten more days.  My heart is light.
We are briefly at City of Joy, as Dr. Mukwege has asked to see us at 1pm.  It was a long drive again today to City of Joy due to roadwork in preparation for One Billion Rising tomorrow.  You wouldn't believe the roads we have been on in place of Essence Road.  I think I said yesterday that the roads are like a professional mountain bike course.  Wrong.  No one in their right mind would try a bike on these roads.  It's truly funny.  You literally have to lean from one side to the other while holding on to stay up right.  I don't know if it is the world erupting, here and now, or what, but I long for the better-graded dirt of Essence.
We arrive at Panzi and all our cars pass through the tall gates.  Once out of the cars, we follow Eve and Christine and immediately are greeted by Dr. Mukwege.  We have brought about 4,000 lbs. of medical supplies that came from a combination of donors:  Americares, the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser, UCSF, and MedShare.  I have never seen an institution so grateful.  We are ushered to a modest meeting room, concrete floors and windows on one side.  It is lined with folding chairs, and about 28 of us file in and take a seat.  At the front of the room is a table with three chairs, and Christine, Eve and Dr. Mukwege speak with us once assembled.
Eve opens by telling the story of how she came to the Congo.  It was back in 2007, when Dr. Mukwege was addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, and Eve was asked to interview him.  His story is SO amazing that she was instantly taken.  Or as she tells it, she had spoiled on men until she met Dr. Mukwege and he completely changed her view.  Here was a man whose entire life has been dedicated to saving the lives of women in one of the worst places in the world for women.  After the New York interview, he invited her to come to Panzi Hospital, a hospital he founded in his hometown of Bukavu, DRC.  So she came.  And here she met Christine, and when she went to Panzi, Dr. Mukwege tells us that she would hug women who had fistula and she would sit with them in the hospital room and listen to their stories and not leave until they had finished.  She would hold them close, and those who couldn't walk she would put on her lap.  He was so worried that she would contract something from the conditions, and she just didn't care.  He thought she was crazy.  And if she is, so are the rest of us.  But he couldn't believe how Eve would sit through every woman's story and the love she held for each one.
As she tells it, that trip broke her.  It cracked her into pieces.  She knew she would never be the same.  She would have to do something and that something turned into the City of Joy.
Dr. Mukwege tells of how he became a doctor here to help women give birth.  That is what he thought his life would be.  But in 1998 a woman came from 300 km away, and she was ripped apart through her midsection, her vagina torn.  Bullets had been discharged in her.  It was a horror he thought he would never see....  And then he began to see it over and over and the cases got worse and worse.  It was beyond anyone's comprehension.  And this was the beginnings of Panzi Hospital, a hospital treating some of the worst violence in the world on a horrific scale in a war-torn country with complex problems.  Panzi, like the City of Joy, rises out of the mud, not a five-minute drive from one another.
When Eve finished, she credited Dr. Mukwege for being the person that has made all we have seen at City of Joy possible.  If it weren't for that interview and how extraordinary a human being he is....  He was standing next to her as she was saying all this, and then his head fell forward and the tears began.  He is the humblest of men, and a hero, like Eve and Christine, who has made an enormous difference here for thousands.  I can't even remember the number of women they have treated since 1998, but it is in the tens of thousands.  He then spoke and turned to Christine, whose leadership at City of Joy and the tireless woman she is has made the City of Joy successful.  She received a standing ovation from the room.  She really is the mother of this movement here.  And Eve thanked both Christine and Dr. Mukwege for living here, for staying here - Dr. Mukwege returning after an assassination attempt on his life only a couple of months ago.  They exist to make the world better.  I don't think our group has ever shed so many tears.  Moving.  Powerful.  Positive.  This small group of people that think they can change the world.  Indeed, that is the only way it has ever happened, said Margaret Mead.
Eve then shared with us some huge news today.  The Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, sent out the most powerful statement he has made in his tenure as head of the UN.  He called for all UN staff in every country around the world to join for the first time a civil protest to act to end violence against women and to all walk out of their offices at 12:30 pm on February 14th as part of One Billion Rising.  It is an unprecedented act by the UN and a tremendous endorsement of the dire need to end the greatest problem facing the planet.  We are all speechless.  It takes our breath away.
I have much more to write about Panzi, but I want to get this out to you today with one last story.  After we filed into our cars and started our slow bumpy ride back to the Orchid, we passed through the heart of Bukavu, a city of a million people, and I swear they are all out on the streets....  All of a sudden, we hear a lot of honking, and as we look out at the road a caravan of hundreds of motorbikes (popular transit here) are passing us, all being driven by men wearing V-Day OBR tee shirts in bright yellow and fuchsia.  They are all holding up their index finger to the sky in honor of the women and One Billion Rising.  It's a sight.  It takes them several minutes to pass our cars, heading in the opposite direction.  Speechless.  Chills.  We have our windows down and it's a sea of people and everyone has either the two-finger V for V-Day or their index finger pointing to the sky.  We can hear OBR news blaring on speakers.  Wendy is in the car with Frannie and me and says, “I have never been part of a political movement, but I am now! “
The world is Rising from Mitochondrial Eve.

2013 #9 - Photos from City of Joy

Two photos of Georgette, and Amy's friend Mary Ruth w/ Cynthia

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2013 #8 - Amy's Valentine Post


This is my valentine to every man I know.  You are many as there is such an abundance of truly great men in this world, most in fact.  But we have to do more, and we have to make sure that every woman and everyone is treated with dignity, respect and love.  I hope you will watch my valentine, only two minutes.  Even more so I hope you will spread it out so it moves like a tsunami on Valentine's Day.

This is my valentine to every woman in my life, because you deserve to never have to fear violence and abuse.  I hope you will join with me in standing for those who are suffering and RISE with all those you love.


....May the resonance of that love translate into loving women and all living things....

Amy

2013 #7 - Emails to Eve

Eve and I spent a few minutes today at her office at the City of Joy.  She was trying to read me the emails that are flooding her inbox.  She was crying so hard she couldn't read them out loud, so we put the screen between us and both read.  Not only could we not read them out loud because we were crying so hard, we could hardly read at all BECAUSE we were crying so hard.  So I started clicking “forward” to me, so that I might share a few.  She has thousands upon thousands....  The rising means something different to each of us, and it is vitally important to us all.  But what matters most is that we stand up to stop the violence, and we take this very simple action and rise in solidarity with women and girls all over the world.

One Billion Rising

Enjoy with my love--

Amy

A photo coming from women of all ages Rising in the Andes
















From: Shirley Owen <dsowen2@bigpond.com>
Reply-To: Shirley Owen <dsowen2@bigpond.com>
Date: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 11:54 PM
Subject: congratulations

Dear Eve, I applaud what you are doing to bring about the abolition of Violence against women and I will be dancing (albeit on my own unfortunately, being 83 yrs young, looking after my husband who has regrettably AD, but was the ideal soulmate throughout our59 years of marriage) on Feb. 14th. I pray that this earth shattering event will hopefully reflect the spirit of defiance and survival that was so uplifting and energising to watch on the video, and bring a change in attitude to violence against women globally. You truly are a woman of great courage and a prophet of our time. Sincerely Shirley Owen, Australia.


And from Celeste in Fummerton, British Colombia, Canada

First Name: Celeste
Last Name: Fummerton
Country: Canada

Dear Eve,
    I live in Kamloops BC, Canada, and we are planning to dance in the parking lot of the little mall where I work.  At first it was just going to be me and a few co-workers dancing out there, but now it seems that there may well be up to 200 women turning out!  I would just like a chance to get a message of thanks to Tena Clark and all involved in writng and producing such a powerful, awe-inspring song for this wonderful event.  I've listened to it many time,
learning the dance steps, and every time I get a shiver.  So thank you to all invovled for this fantastic, empowering song, that we will joyously be dancing to on Valentine's day.

Sincerely,
Celeste Fummerton

2013 #6 - Georgette


Tuesday morning started with an extra long drive to the City of Joy.  It took me about 20 minutes to realize that we were going a different route, and unfortunately had no one to inquire the reason.  Our drivers speak Swahili and, if we are lucky, French.  We always change up whom we ride with, as it's a great mix of people.  Sometimes we are without any French-speaking passengers.  I keep telling myself I should learn French, but my hearing is so bad I would be a disgrace to the beautiful language it is.  So we sat back and took in the new scenery.

It was particularly bumpy and slow, like what I would imagine a competitive mountain bike course would be.  Except we have no helmets in the car.  So again you sort of hang your arms from the handles above and beside the windows and don’t take your gaze off the life along the road.  We saw a funeral procession today as we drove the new route.  It must be how most people in the world are laid to rest.  It was a simple wooden stretcher with a thin worn sheet covering.  You could make out that it was an adult of little weight.  Four men carried the stretcher with ease, and three people walked in front, one carrying a modest but beautiful handful of wildflowers in white and pale yellow.  No line or mourners behind, just the seven I could count.

After about an hour and a half we finally pulled into the City of Joy.  Today wasn't the usual greeting, as all 90 students are back in classrooms and we are here to observe.  I haven't ever been to City of Joy when classes were in session, so this was a wonderful time.  Christine divided us into three groups.  One went to watch beading class, which takes place outside in the sun, much easier to thread those very tiny beads.  I observed a math class in one room and a justice class being taught in another.  I think City of Joy is a class of girls all of whom want to sit in the front row.  We rotated through each.  The girls were proud to show us how much they have learned, and my they have great penmanship - must be because they don't grow up typing.

Yesterday, when I was at the farm I found my friend from the lunch on Saturday.  Her real name is Georgette.  The 30-year-old girl that I gave the name “Muree.”  I decided it was okay to use her real name, and somehow it doesn't feel right to use anything else.  On the farm after the hike I went looking for Georgette, as I had not seen her before the hike.  I finally spotted her sitting on the ground with her head lowered.  She had a couple of staff sitting near her and several of the girls.  I got down on the ground and looked at her face and asked her if she was ok?  She said, "I am suffering."  And she took her two hands and put them on her forehead.  So I went to my bag and came back with a big bottle of Advil (a travel must).  I asked if she wanted two and she said yes.  I then offered her a third (I am always over-medicating) and she shook her head and said "no, two is good."  I then handed the bottle to the staff who were with her.  They thanked me and then gave the bottle to Georgette to put in her pocket.  I knew she could have it, but wasn't sure if I should be handing out bottles of medicine.

Today when we arrive at the City of Joy I look for Georgette in every room.  I don't see her.  So I ask a group of about 15 girls beading if they know "where is Georgette?"  And almost in unison they reply, "Georgette is suffering."  So I walk towards the nine houses where the girls all live, ten to a house, and I see a student coming toward me.  I ask her, "Georgette?"  And she takes me to her house and we tap on the door and go in, but the beds are empty.  We go back out and a staff member who knows I am trying to find Georgette comes for me.  She tells me Georgette is in with the nurse and to come with her.

We wander quietly through the reception of the nurses’ office and then tap on the interior door.  A voice responds and inside we go.  Inside is a nurse sitting at a desk and a single bed against the wall.  Lying on the bed, suffering, is Georgette.  She has an IV in her arm, and when I sit down next to her and put my hand on her head it is so hot.  I take her hand with the IV and just gently slide my hand underneath it, and with my other hand I stroke her head.  I ask her how she feels.  She just shakes her head.  I don't know when I started to cry, but I did and couldn't hold back my emotions.  I only wanted to give her comfort, and hopefully it gave her a laugh that I had to pull my tee shirt up to my face to soak the tears.  You will never find a tissue here unless you have it in your purse.  And she speaks in her beautifully newly-learned English, "Don't cry.  I am not dead yet.  I am here.  Don't cry."  And she is right.  And I try very hard to stop the tears.

My friend Marsha came in and saw what was happening and went out to the cars and brought in her iPod and Jawbone and put us in a place of beautiful music.  (We all want Marsha's playlist - it somehow always plays the right music for the moment.)  I had pulled out my iPhone to show Georgette photos of my children.  I first showed her some pretty pictures of flowers floating in a bowl of water and some photos of fruits from my garden.  She smiled.  She has the most beautiful smile, elegant and perfect and it lightens the room.  I then found a picture of me with Ahna and said this is my daughter.  Before I could stroke my finger to the next photo I asked her if she had any children, any babies?  She held up three fingers.  I asked her how many years old?  She said, "all dead."  I put my phone down and we listened to music.  And my tears began to come and so did Georgette's.

Christine came in shortly thereafter and spoke to the nurse.  The test for malaria had been administered and come back positive as I was sitting with her.  I asked if they had any Malarone and Christine said no.  I went out and found our group knowing someone had their Malarone on them.  Thank you Belinda for your ten pills.  One was given to Georgette immediately and she will soon feel better, although with her HIV it is always serious when she is sick.  I stayed with Georgette until we had to leave.  We will collect all the spare Malarone from our group and take it with us tomorrow.  I offered Belinda to give her ten from mine back at the hotel, as I don't usually take it and bring it only to leave behind with everything else.  Belinda is selfless to the core and simply replied, "I don't need if it will save someone's life."

There is so much good in the people of the DRC.  That is the reason we come.  We come and we learn about what is important in life.  How important it is to take care of another and the answers to the most serious problems can be solved through dialogue and love.

Tuesday is not over.   We had an incredibly rich afternoon and I will let you know now that I spent many tears through the afternoon, but that story must come tomorrow as it is midnight here.  I just felt I needed to share Georgette with you.  Her story of her life in another post.  I hope you will think of her and hold her in your thoughts so she might feel much better soon.  I will also try to post a beautiful photo of her tomorrow.

Lastly, I am getting so many lovely notes from so many people, and it just gives me energy and more to give when I’m here.  Thank you for that.  I'm not ignoring anyone in not replying; I'm just saving my keyboard time to try to share with you these stories.

The RISING is getting closer, and I hope that you will all find it in your hearts to RISE on the 14th.  I think a man joining in a Rising means so much more than a dozen roses.  They are happening everywhere.  Please go to the Vday.org website and click on One Billion Rising.  You need only enter your zip code to find your options.  There is no doubt that what is about to happen on the 14th is unprecedented and will be the most attended global event of all time.  For the women and girls of the Congo, please RISE with me.  And for my dear Georgette, who exudes such dignity, I will RISE.

2013 #5 – City of Joy’s Farm; Meeting with Jason Stearns


We spent the day at the farm.  

Last year when we visited the City of Joy, Eve and Christine took us to see a farm about 30 minutes by car from Bukavu.  The hope was that the farm, which is just a tad larger than Central Park, could by purchased as a gift to City of Joy and then provide the land to grow enough food to sustain not only roughly 3,000 women on the farm, but also feed City of Joy and still produce enough food to sell and cover all of City of Joy's operating costs.  It is the secret to make City of Joy a self-sustaining model.  It will take time, but it will get there.  We bought the farm.

Today we visited the farm.  Our caravan started out at 10am.  Although that sounds late, I can assure you that most of us are in the lobby/restaurant area by about 7am.  That’s where the internet works best, and I think we all wake up here craving hot coffee and tea.  The rooms are best described as just the essentials.  So no room service, no refrigerator, the bar of soap provided is almost as thin as a playing card.  I did try to bring extra of everything, anticipating that folks might think their rooms would be outfitted like a basic Motel 6.  Yes, I even brought an extra hair dryer.  I’m happy to report that it is in full use in another room, and I’m sharing the one I have left with my friend Emily next door.  So if you want anything, you best head up to the lobby, and most do, early.  The walk up the path in the early morning light is my favorite of the day.

To get to the farm we drive through the city on Essence Road.  Once we reach the City of Joy, there is a fork in the road, and this time we go to the right and start a slow bumpy climb.  Essence Road was alive and buzzing this morning.  It never ceases to amaze me - women with loads and loads on their backs.  I swear they carry everything that gets moved in this country.

It took about an hour from our hotel, and as we reach the final stretch of the drive, the surroundings are lush green jungle.  It is a place where we can take photos, so everyone has their windows down and it's a sea of cameras clicking.  Fields of banana trees so tall that I have no idea how they harvest.  Lush green jungle.  As our car climbs around the side of the mountain, there they are - women walking along the roadside with 100 lb. bags of onions, potatoes, soybeans (still in the pods and on the stems) and everything else that can feed a family.  As we approach the farm we begin to hear singing.  Christine has brought all 90 of the City of Joy students up to the farm to be with us for the day.  One never tires of joyful voices serenading you for a warm welcome.  Oh their singing is incredible.  You can't wait to jump out of the car and join them.  We have now come to the point that as soon as we are together, we mimic their dances in large circles, in conga lines, any way we can fit in and join.  We sing along with them, just mimicking their sounds, as the songs are in Swahili or French.  But still we sing.  I don't know who is having a better time.

Once the music stopped, we were off for a hike on the farm, starting at the main house then down a long, windy, and very slippery, muddy road to the tilapia ponds.   The farm, although still in a rough plan, is bountiful with produce.  Two tons of beans were harvested last week.  Buckets of carrots and onions.  A huge field of corn to our left.  Nothing but possibility and promise in every direction as far as the eye can see.  We spent about three hours walking the farm.  It was quite a challenge at times due to the recent rains, and it wasn't hard to notice the difference in dexterity of the students compared to our "used to walking on graded dirt paths."  The girls passed us in no time and waited for us at the tilapia farms, greeting us again with song.  There is so much water on this farm, with a river running through it and fish ponds surrounded by rice paddies - so lots of places to put your foot down and have your entire shoe disappear in the soft mud.  Thank goodness those girls keep reaching out to hold our arms or take our hands.  Sisters looking out for sisters and making darn sure none of us slip into the ditch.

The whole farm experience was just over the top.  Once we reached the tilapia farms, the sky opened up and down came the rains.  We had just reached the ponds, and fortunately there were two open structures with corrugated aluminum roofs that we could stand under.  The perfect shelter.  Just the essentials.  I think we spent a good hour singing and dancing under the structures, open on all sides and seeing a sea of lush green in all directions, while the rain poured down like a good strong shower.

Once the rain stopped, we did our same hike in return back to the farmhouse.  Awaiting us was a picnic lunch of bread, cheese and roasted peanuts and a dessert of bananas and avocados.  Sweet sugar desserts are pretty much unheard of here - a cookie would make one curious.  The farmhouse is a big square one-story white stucco home that looks like it belongs on an African plantation.  Fitting.  It has a broad porch on the front and a huge yard of mowed green grass out front about the size of a riding ring.  We enjoy our lunch here.  All the furniture - sofas, chairs, you name it - have been moved out into the yard so we can sit on the ground or rest our backs on cushions to rest and eat.  We have barely finished eating and in the direction of Bukavu the sky begins to darken.  It takes a little time to get all of us in the vehicles, and as the last few of us load huge drops begin to fall.  The drive back is VERY slow, with water gushing down the sides of the road (which is nothing more than red soil).  The potholes fill with water and we slip and slide, all of us holding on inside the Land Cruisers.

The ride home took about 90 minutes, and the life going on was particularly moving.  In those heavy rains the women are still carrying the huge loads on their backs, barefoot, probably with miles to go.  You want to stop and pick them all up, but it isn't possible.  Once back on Essence Road the water is gushing, but life goes on even busier than usual.  Everything is still for sale, freshly butchered bloody meats on the ground on plastic sheets, piles of tomatoes, dried fish (not so dry anymore), and everything necessary for the evening meal - usually the ONLY meal as Congolese generally eat only once a day or once every other day.  The women are still wrapped in bright Congolese fabric sarongs, only now they are heavy from the rains.  This is the least of their struggles.

We arrive at the Orchid at 5:30, and Jason Stearns, our guest for dinner, is waiting for us in the hotel bar.  We race off for quick showers, as our feet and legs are caked with mud from the farm, and a hot shower, although brief, is good medicine.  We are all tired but there isn't a point where you would choose rest over the programming.  And Jason Stearns is no guest to miss.

I first learned about Jason a couple of years ago, while flipping through the NYT book review and seeing that Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, the definitive book on the history of the DRC, had reviewed a new book on the Congo.  The book, Dancing in The Glory Of Monsters, is by an author unknown to me, Jason Stearns.  Adam gives the book a rave review and calls it the definitive book on the DRC from 1960 to current day, with particular emphasis on the war and the past 15 years.  I read the book.  I gave the book to everyone I know who cares about the DRC.

Jason delivered a home run at dinner.  I can't honestly tell you what day is better than the other.  Each day is so intellectually stimulating, and I wish I were recording every conversation.

Jason starts by asking us to look at the DRC’s problems with the DRC on three different levels:  Internationally, Nationally, and Locally.  Internationally, you have a huge mineral trade and you have all the surrounding countries wanting to come in and pillage as much as possible, which has led to years of countless militias from so many African countries wreaking so much havoc here.  Nationally, you have a government that is so weak, demonstrated through the institutional rot that permits corruption and lack of order and regulation.  Locally, you have over 450 ethnic groups that inhabit the DRC.  All want to have power, and power is gained through the endless bribes and favors that feed corruption at the lowest levels of society.  There are honest people here, lots of them.  But to be popular, to get elected to lead you must be liked by many, and often that comes at the cost of favors and bribes.  Corruption seeps in.

What we learn from Jason is that you need grass roots and grass tops.  You need people working at the highest levels, as HRW does - and Jason stops to comment that he holds HRW and the researchers in the highest regard for their commitment to exposing the truth and putting that evidence in front of those in the highest halls of power and pulling on the levers to make this country better.  And he adds that you also need folks working at the grass roots.  In his young life (I think he is about 33), he has spent years working at the grass roots level in the DRC.

He tells a story of when he was working with the UN here in the DRC a few years ago.  He learned of a rape of a girl in a village that the UN was protecting.  The perpetrator was a member of a militia group.  He went to the leader of the militia and said he wanted something done.  The general told him, "I agree with you Jason.  You can decide what’s to be done.  I can kill him.  I am happy to shoot him right now.  I can arrest him and put him in jail but I can tell you he will be out in a couple months because our prison system isn't effective.  I can ask him to pay a dowry because the girl is now worthless to her family as no one wants to marry a girl that has been raped.  So he can pay with a goat and some money."  Unknown to Jason, the father of the girl is standing there and the girl who was raped is the seven-year-old who is sitting off to the side with a couple of soldiers.  The father chimes in immediately and says, "Give me the goat."   I don't think this story will ever leave Jason, nor will it leave the rest of us.  These are the atrocities we need to stop.

I don't think I mentioned earlier but I traveled to the DRC this time around via Istanbul, Turkey.  I had spent five days there at a Human Rights Watch board meeting.  Unbeknownst to me, Turkey is a very repressive country - more journalists are currently in jail in Turkey than in any other country in the world; there is NO free press.  Two of the most repressed groups are women and the LGBT community.  In Turkey, progress for women is defined as a husband killing his wife because he doesn't like something she does - as simple as how she dresses - and now it might merit a brief note in the paper. That is progress for women.  It was shocking to me.  Women face great abuse in Turkey.  Murder, disappearances, and torture are especially rampant within the Kurdish community, which is one-third of Turkey’s population (25 million of the 75 million living there).  The Turks would love nothing more than to wipe out the entire community of Kurdish people.  Human Rights Watch has documented thousands of murders and disappearances there, and mothers are still holding the photographs of their children and family members every day, wondering if justice will ever come.  Will anyone ever be held to account?  Will there ever be an acknowledgment that the disappearance and murder of the child was wrong?  It is heartbreaking.  Women's rights groups face huge obstacles.

When I board the plane to meet the rest of my group in London, my head and heart were full of everything I had learned in those few full days and everything I had felt.  Mostly, how incredibly lucky I was to be born in a country where women have come so far.  But we have to care about our sisters everywhere - in Turkey, in the DRC, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in the Philippines....  Everywhere - there is room in our hearts for all of them.  I understand more with every day why Eve pushed for One Billion Rising.  The violence against women and girls has to stop.  It will take a global awakening and an evolution of how the entire world values women to change the trajectory.  If we are to have hope for humanity, we have to honor the women, and we have to take all the men out with us when we RISE.

Livestream of One Billion Rising (OBR) - Feb. 14, 2013

email from Amy's friend Pat Mitchell:

Eve and I just got this preview of how OBR will be experienced online. Live RISINGS from more than 200! countries and yes, one billion (maybe more) people dancing can be seen on OBR web site (link below) throughout the 24 hours, starting with the first on 14th.  Phenomenal global movement that we are so fortunate to support!!

http://onebillionrising.org/livestream

Wherever you RISE and DANCE,  we are joined by VDAY's commitment to end violence and love.

Pat

Monday, February 11, 2013

2013 #4 – Visiting with Human Rights Watch Researchers and Other Friends


It is now Monday morning in Bukavu.  The lake is still and spotted with two-man fishing boats out fishing to earn a day’s wage.   The birds - this is a bird watcher’s paradise - are busy singing, and one would think this is the most serene of holiday destinations.  Every time I walk out of my room I have to stop along the path, pull out my camera, and take photographs.  It is as if every day the color changes, and although I'm sure I have now taken dozens of photos of the lake and the hills that encircle it, it just takes my breath away and I pull out the camera once again to make this image permanent.

Another remarkable day.  I know I still owe some stories from dinner with Emmanuel, and I promise I will not forget, but what is freshest in my mind was the intellectually full day we spent yesterday with Human Rights Watch.

Ida Sawyer, Lane Hartill, Sebastian, Kaim Kapalata, and Bingi all traveled by car from Goma to Bukavu to host us.  The main office for HRW is in Goma, with Ida based out of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.  But the M23 rebel fighters took over Goma in December.  They retreated - a whopping five kilometers outside of Goma - after President Obama made a phone call to Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame.  (The rebels are funded by Rwanda.)  The trip to Goma that I have easily made the past two years could not happen this year due to security issues.  Alas, our Goma friends travel to us.

We started the morning very early, with an hour briefing on the DRC provided in great detail by Ida.  Ida is a senior researcher who has been living and working here in the DRC for more than five years.  She gave us a thorough explanation of the violence here and the many players, each with their own forgettable acronym.  To net it out, the DRC is one-third the size of the US.  It is incredibly mineral-rich, blessed with one of the greatest concentrations of natural resources in any single country and certainly the most on the continent.  You name the mineral - gold, copper, coltan, uranium - it is all here and in great quantity.  The Congo River, which runs through the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, is second only to the Amazon in water volume and could offer up enough hydropower, if developed, to power most of central Africa.  Everything in Congo is on a grand scale.

Now for the problem: look at its neighbor.  Rwanda is one of the smallest countries on the continent, with the densest population of all the African countries and no natural resources to speak of.  The country is called the land of 1,000 mountains.  Enough said.  Every square foot that can be farmed is.  Over half of their gross revenue comes from foreign aid, provided largely by the US and the UK.  Guilt money from the genocide 20 years ago.  There is nothing Paul Kagame would like more than to grow his tiny country, and the easiest and best option would be to take territory that is now the Eastern Congo – and in the meantime, take as much of the resources as his militias can steal.  It is well documented that since 1996 Paul Kagame has been the puppeteer wreaking havoc in Eastern Congo.  So Ida laid out the different military leaders and described in great detail the violence committed by their troops.  It can be horrifying to hear, but at least we are listening to it second hand.  Suffice it to say that Ida did a tremendous job of laying out the causes for the violence, the players, and the different paths being taken to end it.  It's a long road.  HRW has been covering the DRC for more than 13 years.  They know it's a slow process, but it will only move forward with efforts like theirs that investigate the atrocities, expose those injustices, shine a light on the perpetrators, and work to get the stories on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world and told within the highest halls of power.  Name and shame.  Advocate for change.  Pursue justice.

We moved from our morning briefing with Ida across town to Centre Olame, which sits high upon a hill in Bukavu overlooking most of the city and that stunningly beautiful lake.  Centre Olame (http://www.olame.org) is a 54-year-old institution dedicated to empowering women and families.  They offer programs predominantly for women that provide training in leadership, community engagement, general education, advocacy, and communications, among other programs, with a goal that the combination of training programs will empower more women and lead to a more peaceful and productive society.  The center is run by a brilliant woman, Mathilde.  She was a former member of Parliament and in 2002 was honored by HRW as a defender.  She is, like Christine at City of Joy, one of the many Congolese heroes.

We spent the day at Centre Olame divided into three groups of eight and rotated through different speakers who had been pulled together by HRW.  Masika traveled to Bukavu with the HRW folks from Goma and was able to share her heart-wrenching story with the group.  Masika might have more trauma in her body than anyone I have met.  The very good news is that both Masika and Dessange (now a sophomore in college) are going to be in the next City of Joy class, which will start on the first of June.  I'm so tempted to come back for that graduation, because I can only imagine the transformation - I've seen what is possible.  Masika and Dessange, although years past their personal trauma, still struggle with eye contact.

We also heard from Father Abbe Benoit Kinalegu, who runs an amazing center to help repair the broken souls of child soldiers.  On my visit last year, I went to a center that does this work and spent a couple of hours across the table from three former child soldiers.  It was the darkest moment of my journey.  I don't think there is anything worse than stealing the soul of a child.  The atrocities that these children are forced to endure I cannot bear to repeat.  Abbe Benoit's center is hours from where we are, located in the northeast corner of the DRC.  Most of the children that make it to his center have escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.  (Think KONY 2012 video - it was all true, and the LRA are alive and well in the northern part of the DRC, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.)  Father Benoit met HRW in 2007 when an entire village near his parish was slaughtered on Christmas Day.  There was only one survivor, and he managed to get to Father Abbe Benoit, who immediately called HRW.  As he tells it, both Ida and Anneke from HRW got on a plane immediately (a four-seater), flew to the region, and then traveled with Abbe Benoit by motorbike.  Together, they counted the bodies and documented each one with the help of the lone elder that had survived (because he had been napping a short distance away).  HRW released a full report on the massacres, naming the perpetrators and identifying every victim.  It will be used at the ICC when Joseph Kony is finally caught and turned over to the court.  

HRW opened and closed our day and it was rich.  We all came back in our caravan to dinner at the Orchid and took over 4 large round tables with our guests from HRW, Masika, Mathilde, and Father Abbe Benoit.  We enjoyed a long dinner of more intimate conversations, while outside the skies opened up and announced yet again that is the rainy season in Eastern Congo.

Jesse Cool's Blog Post -- Bravery

































Jesse with Abbe Benoit Kinalegu of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission



This is a re-post of Jesse Cool's blog entry from the Congo




Bravery

February 11, 2013

In the midst of the deepest despair is the purest love and hopefulness.

We never know when we might be in a place where our own barriers go down and our heart is deeply touched.  This is where attachment melds with humanness and innate goodness has no limit. I think this what happens when I am here in East Africa.

Before leaving on this trip, I was told by Amy that I would cry a lot. I don’t cry easily. (unless I have a few too many martinis which is why I stop at one!) I thought because of the journey last year to Rwanda with Women for Women I would be ready for similar stories and situations here in DR Congo. That I was seasoned, tougher skinned…

I was wrong. I have cried, had my heart broken and sobbed barely able to speak during these past few days. We are sitting witness to stories that go deeper here, into unfathomably impossible human disgracefulness, especially towards women, girls and young boys.

We spent yesterday in discussions and break outs with Human Rights Watch. They are a trusted investigative organization that goes to the front line, into the core of the most dangerous and complex places of abuse and then regardless of the risk and they write about it. Unlike war journalists or photographers, they are not looking for a situation to get the best or most sensational story or picture. They are getting as close as they can to the truth of injustice and their writers send a message to the world in hopes that we will listen and action will be taken by individuals and governments to stop the abuse. I encourage everyone to go to their website, sign on and follow their news…. not just about Congo but places , even in the USA where people need help desperately.  Through being aware…taking action, in our own community or elsewhere in the world, one person at time, we can make a difference.

Human Rights Watch Website:  http://www.hrw.org/home

As much as I want to share those transformation moments…the parts of this journey that are uplifting through cooking and farming, I would not be genuine if I did not write about what is utterly awful and a mess and most importantly of the brave people who are trying to change things here in this beautiful place of Congo. It is in the midst of the human wastefulness and violence that we find heroes who are building places of refuge, hospitals, harboring the abused. They are also the ones trying to get the word out to us to help those in need.

They get involved, do not shy away from the danger, and do it now and take action…is this not unconditional generosity and love.

I am meeting the bravest people ever. Yesterday, I was totally smitten with one of the those action heroes, Abbe Benoit Kinalegu of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu where he spearheads The Lost Children Foundation.

http://blog.invisiblechildren.com/2012/09/10/abbe-benoit-celebrated-for-human-rights-award/

TODAY:

We start to help with the rebuilding.  We are going to the  V-World Farm. Even the farmers from Occidental Arts And Ecology Center have not been there yet!

TOMORROW:  We get to unpack the supplies we brought for the kitchen at City of Joy. Along with so much more that 11th Hour Foundation is doing here, including medical supplies for Panzi Hospital…we are part of the big the plan of forward and why we are here!

More soon… Sending love and care

Sunday, February 10, 2013

2013 #3 – Muree, Valentine, and Cynthia

Reflections from yesterday.

Last night, when one of my friends was headed to bed, she stopped and said, "I want you to know this is the fourth best day of my life - the other three being when my children were born and I married my husband.  But after those three, this is the best."

Yesterday we had an incredible day at City of Joy, and it was very different from previous visits.  Don't get me wrong, all the days at City of Joy seem to imprint themselves in your mind forever, but yesterday I felt a genuine happiness like I haven't felt before.  These 90 women, all of whom have been at the City for five months now, seem to be the happiest, most joyful and oozing gratitude that infuses us all.  The journey they have had is remarkable, especially when you consider their all-too-young age.  I think most of those girls yesterday must have been 13-15 years old.  They are a tiny bunch; I can look many in the eye with bare feet and most I feel as if I tower over.  One can make the assumption that most of the girls spent years malnourished in the bush.

When we sat for the feast yesterday at tables in the "rec-room/dining room," I had a beautiful girl to my left.  She looked older than most of the girls, and I would have guessed that we were the same age.  She had a beautiful face, and a serious gaze - as if she were trying to believe that this plane full of women had come and they wanted to dance and hug and wrap their arms around one another and love unconditionally. Christine sat down next to me and introduced me.  Muree is the oldest woman at City of Joy in this class, and truth be told we now only take women between 13 and 24.  Muree was 30.  She came from a village far away, where she operated a simple counseling shelter working to rescue girls who had been violently raped and tortured.  She had sent two girls from her center to the two previous classes at City of Joy.  When they returned they had transformed so much into leaders that she felt she must turn her center over to them and could she please come to the City of Joy?  Christine had made the exception and you could see such gratitude in Muree's eyes, which clearly have endured so much pain.  When all the girls got up to dance, Muree remained sitting like an elder.  Christine shared with me that Muree was very sick with HIV.  Because I speak no French and Muree no English, we communicated through touch and expressions and hand gestures.  I just wanted to wrap my arms around Muree and kiss her head.  Such a beautiful woman.  Such an old soul.  After a while I gestured to her, “Shall we get up and dance?”  All the girls were on the stage at the head of the room, and Muree and I stood up and remained there, next to our table, letting the music fill us, rocking back and forth.  Every once and a while, she would look up and smile.  We will be back three more times this week, and I cannot wait to find my new friend.

As I sit here and write, I can think of so many good stories from yesterday that I wish this were being typed in real time.  Yesterday in the office, as we all sat around the big table, Christine said she had a surprise for me.  She left the room for a moment and came back with an adorable five year old.  It was Cynthia, the daughter of Valentine whom I had first met at Masika's center in Goma.  Two years ago, on my first trip to the DRC, I spent half my week with V-Day at the City of Joy opening and the second half of the week with Human Rights Watch in Goma.  On that trip to Goma, Ida Sawyer, a senior researcher based in Goma, took me out to a rape and counseling center about an hour drive out of town in the village of Minova.  A woman named Masika, herself a survivor of a very violent attack, had opened this center a few years after her trauma as a means to give her something to live for.  Her story is one of the worst I have ever taken in when listening to a victim give testimony.  Her home was attacked by militia, her husband was killed in front of her, violently, and as she was being gang-raped by the perpetrators her two girls in the next room were being raped.  She lost consciousness at some point and woke up six months later in the hospital HEAL Africa.  She had been found by Doctors without Borders; her two daughters were both six months pregnant.  She's a pretty extraordinary woman, and there is rarely any sign of joy about her.  We occasionally get a smile, as she is so happy that we keep coming back, but it never holds for more than a second or two.  

Cynthia's mother, Valentine, was a girl living at Masika's shelter in Minova.  There is nothing truly safe about that center.  The village of Minova seems always to find itself in the heart of the violence.  On my first trip I met many of the girls there, but Valentine stood out.  The sadness in her eyes was so evident; it was as if her soul had been stolen.  She sat on a stump on the ground, leaning up against the simple shack that was Masika's center.  I noticed that her left hand was missing.  Only a stump remained.  What I didn't know at the time is that one of the many children running around covered in the dry volcanic dust of the region was Valentine's daughter - a product of rape and a child that sickened Valentine even to see. When I went back to Goma last year for the second time, I had bags of gifts that I took for Masika and all the women and children at her center.  I remember thinking long and hard about what could I take for Valentine.  Her face, her deeply pained eyes, had never left my mind.  I had no idea what I could take for her.  A bag of clothes or a piece of jewelry just didn't seem fitting.  

Before I traveled to Goma last year, I spent three days at the City of Joy with Masika and Mama Baccu.  I had pulled Mama Baccu aside and asked her if I might ask a favor.  I knew there was a list of girls from Masika's center that were going to be accepted into the next City of Joy class, and I couldn't imagine anything better to give Valentine than a chance for her to be one of those lucky students.  Mamma Baccu finished my sentence and told me that Valentine would be coming and she had a daughter that she hated and that daughter would be coming with her.  I had no idea.  

We went to Masika's later that week and spent a day at her center.  When several of us saw Valentine, we now saw her daughter, too.  We would watch in horror as she pushed the daughter away and would beg us to take her.  She didn't want her.  She hated this child.  She wanted her to die.  I can't even find the words to describe the deep sadness.  What Valentine didn't know was that in one week she would be moving to Bukavu, to the City of Joy, and that she would be taking her daughter with her.  Christine and Mamma Baccu emphasize learning to love your child; learning that the innocent child has nothing to do with the violence; learning that to love your child is a critical part of your healing.  To turn the page on your life, you must take your child with you.

Well here was dear Cynthia, radiant, a bit shy with all the attention, a healthy happy five year old.  Christine told her story.  Christine was very worried that Valentine wouldn't remain in the program - she was so violent, so angry, so traumatized - it would take miracles.  But Valentine did graduate.  Those in the toughest struggles know the greatest strength.  Valentine graduated last September as a leader in the class.  Probably the greatest transformation.  She learned the trade of sewing and moved back to Goma, not going back to the dangers of Minova.  She got a small house and started a sewing business.  She trains other women, she sells her wares, and she is happy happy happy for the first time in years.  She and Christine agreed that Cynthia would stay here in Bukavu with Christine, where she goes to school.  Christine says Cynthia is the brightest in the class.  Valentine comes every month to visit and indeed loves her child so much, but also knows that Cynthia will be safer with Christine and with the potential to have a full, rich education and to go on to college.

Seeing Cynthia come in the office yesterday, her bright smile, dressed in bright African prints, was just too much to hold back tears for all of us.  Later in the afternoon when we all danced again outside on the big grassy field, Cynthia entertained us all with a dance from her native village.  She would shrug up her shoulders to the beats of the drums and do some fancy footwork.  It was incredible.  It was joy.

As if the day could get any better….  We then headed back to the Orchid for dinner.  Our dear friend, Emmanuel de Merode, the head of Virunga National Park, joined us and told his story and the story of the gorillas kept in his care.  I will write this story later, but it made for one of the best days of our collective lives.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

2013 #2 -- Returning to the Congo and City of Joy


Finally it comes.  I was walking down the dark path tonight to my room in the Orchids Hotel, perched on the shore of Lake Kivu, with my friend Joe, and I said, “Let me give you something.”  When we reached our quarters, four rooms next to each other, I stepped off the stone walkway and onto the grass and looked up in the sky.  There, straight above us bright as can be, was the Southern Cross.  One, two, three, four.  A gift.  

I arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi two days ago, flying through a thick layer of clouds and then on the ground just before the rains arrived.  It is nearly two years to the day from when I took the same route to come to the DRC for the first time.  This makes visit #3.  It is never easy getting here.  Flying into the DRC is almost impossible, and the only planes one would even feel safe enough to board would be UN planes.  So you go through either Burundi or Rwanda and then transit in by car (4-wheel drive SUV to be more specific).  The roads in Burundi were much better than I remembered from the last visit, and of course Rwanda, rich with foreign aid, has roads that are simply a thing of beauty in this part of the world.

I arrived in Bukavu late afternoon on Friday, still under cloudy skies.  We were checked into our rooms with impeccable efficiency (room keys on the counter at reception with your name attached in big black Sharpie letters).  Grab your key and go.  The Orchids Hotel is a jewel.  The magenta bougainvillea has grown massively; it must climb almost 100 feet into the sky, attached to a tree that is difficult to identify as it is nearly completely coated in purple petals.  I have had the pleasure of staying here on each visit to Bukavu, and it reminds me of how incredibly privileged I am.  

I wasn't in my room ten minutes when I heard the crash of raindrops coming down, as if the sky had a full belly of water and just burst.  It was the heaviest rain I have ever witnessed in all my years.  It lasted about a half an hour, and I was in awe of the power of it.  I stood outside with several other fellow travelers, under the porch of our rooms, looking out watching it pound on the lake in front of our eyes.  You could hardly see anything clearly; the rain was so heavy it seemed to change the appearance of everything.  Welcome back to the Congo.  It's always one experience after the other for the first time.  Always surprised and so hard to look away.  

What a treat it was tonight at the end of an incredibly rich day to realize suddenly the night sky was clear as a bell.  And the Southern Cross was bigger and brighter than I ever remembered.

I started my day early, as the time change never seems to matter.  You want to rise with the sun here.  There is too much to see and to learn and to share not to try to give yourself every waking minute you can manage.  So I was up early this morning with the sun and a breakfast of passion fruits and toast and tea with powdered milk.  I was put in charge last night by Eve, who is staying with Christine and Pat and Paula at the Co-Co Lodge, of only one thing: I was to get all 24 of us in the cars (we are traveling in a caravan of nine Toyota Land Cruisers) and on the road for a 10 am pickup at Co-Co.  Well, fire me now - I left one of my fellow travelers behind this morning.  Thank goodness Co-Co is only ten minutes away, as the moment we arrived we had to turn a car back to go pick up the missing person.  Passenger collected and now the trip begins.

Our day was spent at the City of Joy in Bukavu.  But first we must absorb all the life and the happenings and the faces and the sites on Essence Road.   The City of Joy sits at the end of Essence Road, and as we make our way, bumpity bump, and stare out the windows, we have little conversation in the vehicles.  The scenes of life happening around us take all one's attention.  As we get closer to the City of Joy, the foot traffic becomes heavier, the poverty level becomes more obvious, the road narrows.  The final leg of the drive to the City is a tent camp, which must resemble an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp left to survive with no more aid.  Our windows are up on the vehicles, but now we have left much of the crowd behind us and we begin to hear singing.  Loud, joyful singing.

I knew what to expect because I have done this before, but what a moment to share and one for which I am endlessly grateful.  The 90 women at the City of Joy are singing and dancing and welcoming us all in through the gates with mad joy.  We file out of our cars and stream in slowly, as each one of us is first greeted by one of the ADORABLE 21 toddlers living there at the moment, each dressed in bright Congolese dress - fuchsia, yellow, and deep blue.  15 little girls and six little boys.  What a sweet sight!  The women are lined up behind all the babies in two lines, so that each of us one by one can dance our way through them out to the big center field of grass.  The singing is so loud and SO beautiful, and a trio of men is beating away on drums.  Has anyone ever been so happy to see us?  

I can't remember at this point how long the music lasted or how long we danced, but it was more joyful than I can ever remember.  

We finally made our way into the office at City of Joy and crowded around a big table.  We are a big group.  Christine, the leader extraordinaire who runs this center of transformation, gave an overview of how she runs the "ship."  I won't go into this, as I know I have written about it in the past, but let's just leave it that no pencil goes unaccounted for.  I don't know of anyone who can stretch a household dollar like Christine.   Mama Baccu, who makes me think of something sweet as she is traditionally built and always wearing some beautiful African print with a big dollop of matching fabric spun on her head like icing from a pastry bag, goes over all of the programs being taught at the City – trauma-tapping therapy to animal husbandry, French and English, computers, public speaking, human rights, sewing, and the list goes on.  Each visit the programming has become broader, the teachers better, the results more impressive.

As we sit in the office, the windows open with a light warm breeze coming through, you can hear the girls singing and drums beating, and the energy just flows and flows.  As Eve points out, one of the secrets to City of Joy is to keep the energy moving, unabated, no place for the energy to jam up.  All the classes and all the staff are focused on helping each one of these girls turn the page on their life.  Everyday, as Mama Baccu says, they must turn the page again.  I have come to realize now after three visits that this is the real miracle of City of Joy.  You see, if you are here, if you are a girl in this program, you have a story.  You have a horrible story.  I have heard the stories.  I can't seem to write one tonight.  It will come.  But you have to keep the energy of life flowing.

We had a feast with all the women - cassava greens cooked up like sauteed spinach, and amaranth greens, long and stringy, cooked with onions, fish and chicken charcoaled crisp, cassava starch and maybe the sweetest sweet potato I have ever had.  Peli peli that set my mouth on fire.  And fresh pineapple that we bought from a beautiful fruit stand just before leaving Burundi - run by women of course!

One of the best moments at lunch was taking my friend Jesse Cool, a fabulous chef, in to see the kitchen.  Or out actually, as it is an outdoor kitchen.  She met all the cooks, one by one, three kisses to the cheeks, kiss cheek, turn again repeat, turn again repeat.  This is how the Congolese greet one another; it's always three.  The women had just finished cooking enough food to feed about 140 of us – WOW, that's a lot.  They made so many dishes, and I promise I will get a full list.  Jesse praised the women for how neatly organized and how clean their kitchen was, and they smiled with these proud grins.  She will be cooking with them later this week.  I think that 500 of our 9,500 pounds of cargo were Jesse's pots, pans and cooking tongs.  What a site their cooking together will be to watch.

After the feast we started dancing again.  We have all learned the One Billion Rising song, Break the Chain! (http://onebillionrising.org/blog/entry/we-have-an-anthem).  What an experience to do a flash mob with these women.  I will be sharing the photos.  But what was the most unexpected moment of the day?  The tune that followed Break the Chain! was Gangnam Style, and boy did they rock the house on that one!  Here we are in the true heart of Africa, the heart of darkness, the heart of the world, and that YouTube sensation is here too. How could we not have predicted this!

I have much more to tell about today, but it's quite late so I'll try to write the next post in the morning.