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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

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.

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