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.