Tuesday, February 13, 2007

DRC Journal: Entry 4

Back in Kinshasa after some of the wildest adventures of my life…

Last week I headed to Baraka, an 8-hour drive into heavily war-affected areas south of Bukavu via Rwanda. Here I stayed at the UNHCR guest house with a wonderfully random collection of aid workers who had forged a unique family with one another in this remote and severe post-war environment where militias still roam and security is tenuous. From our base Lisa and I traveled with a staff member from Women for Women International over the roughest off-road terrain I’ve ever experienced to visit several small villages in the surrounding mountains where there were “sisters” we had sponsored through Run For Congo Women. Our reception was unbelievable, even in the midst of such poverty and suffering these women dressed in their finest fabrics and greeted us with flowers and singing. We spent hours listening to their stories and delivering greetings from our friends and family in America. Our main message to them was this: “We know about you, you matter to us, and we love you.”

The large majority of these women were recent returnees from refugee camps in neighboring Tanzania where some of them had spent up to 10 years after fleeing the conflict in Congo. 90% of them were rape victims, some of them numerous times. Most of them had lost children as a result of the war due to violence, malnutrition, and preventable disease. One woman I met had lost 10 children. It was too painful for her to even recall all of their names. The majority of these women had lost their husbands in the war or had been abandoned by them because of the rape and were left alone, struggling to provide for their children. The brutality they have seen and experienced is unimaginable…cruelty so dark I can’t even write about it here. I am trembling just thinking about it.

One of the very special opportunities I had was to distribute small hand-made glass hearts to these women as a token of hope and solidarity. The hearts were made by a friend of mine who is a rape survivor and asked me to pass them along with a message that even though we live far apart and have very different life experiences we can understand eachother’s pain and care for eachother as sisters. She asked me to tell them that everytime they hold the small heart in their hand they will remember that they are not forgotten and that beauty can come out of suffering. The women loved this small gift and begged us not to forget them. I never will.

Near the end of the week we took a small boat out to an island peninsula in Lake Tanganyika to visit one last village. It was clear these people rarely get visitors and our arrival was cause for a major celebration. From far away we could see tiny figures running down the side of the mountain and gathering at the beachfront. What followed is something I will never forget for as long as I live…

First the singing came to us on the wind and as we drew closer we could see the moving mass of brightly colored clothing, palm branches and flowers waving, and grass mats laid out for us to step onto as we disembarked. The entire village received us with laughter, embraces, and squeals of delight. We were immediately caught up in an impromptu parade, winding up the mountain through the village, carried by the jubilant singing, dancing, and drumming. It was breathtaking!

Next we were presented with a formal welcome address from village leaders along with gifts of chickens, goats, eggs, rice, wood carvings, and weavings. Just writing about it makes me want to weep, it was so beautiful and surreal. Hours passed visiting and dancing together before it was time for us to head back. Once again they accompanied us down the mountain to the beach and sang a farewell as we pulled away. Within minutes the sky darkened, a huge storm appeared on the horizon, and the wind ripped the canvas top off of the boat. We scrambled for our life jackets as the water grew rougher and the captain decided we had no choice but to turn back immediately.

We reached the shore just as the torrential rains came up on our backs. I heard women’s voices as strong hands emerged from the opaque night and led us quickly up into the village. I felt utterly powerless, completely at the mercy of our new friends’ kindness. We were huddled into a small house with nothing but an oil lamp and within minutes bed mats were fetched for us (I know some generous souls slept on the hard earth that night for our benefit). Two men volunteered to stand guard outside our door all night long to ensure our safety. Lying there on my back in disbelief of the turn of events, listening to the loud chirps of bats in the eaves, my fears diminished and a strange peace washed me to sleep. We headed back at early light feeling like our hearts had become a little more African after that magical night.

This was followed by two of the most stressful travel days I’ve ever experienced. Racing to get back through Rwanda before the border to Congo closed we ran into a huge backup on the road where a UN SUV was half sunk in a muddy hole. After helping extract the vehicle we made it literally in the last minute over the border. I’ve been learning that in Congolese speak “no problem” actually means “there could be a major problem here.” I’ve in turn been teaching my Congolese friends what “by the skin of your teeth” means.

The following morning I caught an early boat for the four hour ride from Bukavu to Goma on Lake Kivu. Shortly after arrival in Goma I was supposed to catch a plane to Kinshasa. Due to some miscommunication my ticket had an old date on it and was not accepted. With the help of a local translating for me they finally let me go to the plane at which point I was told the plane was full and they were not accepting any of the 15 or so passengers still waiting with me to get on. I think the flight attendants saw the look of horror on my face as I realized I was completely alone in a small town in Congo with only a few dollars left, no where to stay, and no other flights to Kinshasa for several days. I was the only woman in the crowd and the only “muzungu” (light skinned person). It was no longer an adventure…it had become a nightmare. But just as they were closing the doors to the plane I heard my name called. The flight attendants called me up and quickly ushered me to the last seat on the plane, amidst yells of frustration from those left on the tarmac. I’ll never know exactly why I got to get on but I didn’t dare ask questions at that point, I just sunk into my seat with a profound sense of relief and gratitude.

Now safe and sound here in Kinshasa I’ve met up with my friend Pakisa Tshimika, director of Mama Makeka House of Hope, who arranged much of this trip for me and with whom I will be partnering with on a community development project here. I have spent the past two days processing and recovering from all I’ve seen and experienced. Finally being able to rest an extreme exhaustion has overtaken me and I could barely function for a whole day. I feel emotionally raw as I am just beginning to come to terms with the suffering I’ve encountered. I am glad to have a few days here to gather myself, do laundry, re-pack and get ready to reunite with Pat in South Africa next week for a much anticipated holiday together.

I am full of ideas about my continued involvement here in Congo and am working on developing a plan which I look forward to sharing with you soon. I will try to post again later this week. Til then, peace to you all.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your stories move me to tears, and I can feel your presence there in the Congo. I am so glad to hear this experience has challenged and lifted you, all at the same time. It sounds like you have had an amazing impact on the women there -- and I know the feeling is mutual. I cannot wait to hear more adventures when you return. Take care of yourself and have a great time in South Africa...

Love,
Selena

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey T,
So incredibly moved, amazed and thankful for what you are doing. I am at a loss to even describe what I feel as I read your words. Sometimes I have to stop to catch my breath, as I weep so deeply I'm not able to read for a moment. All that goes through my mind is "They WILL NOT remain forgotten". You are having a profound impact on lives on both sides of the world. Thank you for effecting us all!
You and you're new "sisters, and brothers" are in my heart and prayers.
Safety, joy, laughter and kinship to you all.

Love,
Matt

P.S. I hope to see you and Pat soon...as I'll be closer shortly!

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tonya,

My entire body is covered in goosebumps as I read your stories and imagine my Congo sisters' faces in the crowds of people that greet you. Thank you for being there and for sharing with the rest of us. I can't wait to hear what ideas you have for helping in the future and seeing how I can be a part of that.

A hug for being you,
A hug for being brave,
and a hug to pass on to my Congolese sisters and families.

Jamara

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you got back safely. Looking forward to hearing more. And really, there WAS "no problem", right?

Roger

6:05 PM  
Blogger bobbie said...

sister, you are no longer just a gypsy girl, but a superhero, able to leap small buildings in a single bound. i am so honored to be a fly on the wall of your travels. thank you, thank you, thank you. for bearing witness to these women's stories, for braving places angels fear to tread, for the exhaustion, the overwhelming emotions and the passion that just won't die. thank you. i want to be you when i grow up.

7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My heart is full as I read your story. I am confident you brought hope and healing to many as well as inspiring us here at home. I am so proud of you and am waiting to hear your story when you return. You are loved. mom

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Dawn Penner said...

I knew I had to comment when I read Pakisa's name. I met Pakisa in Winnipeg, Canada at a Caring for Congo round table Sept 2006. It was a group of people/organizations with a passion for Congo. I was in Congo (Beni, North Kivu) last November bringing a Train the Trainer Seminar to area denominational leaders, pastors, NGO's, community leaders on the topic of Hope and Healing for the War Traumatized. In particular our focus was on recovery after rape. We had hoped to meet up with Pakisa and another Peace and Reconciliation leader Pascal in Bukavu but the unrest prevented us from coordinating our trips. I too fell in love with the women and men of Eastern Congo and am currently writing a workbook to follow up the seminar. I hope to return in February 2008 to do more training seminars and help them set up counselling offices. Blessings in your work - I suspect our paths will cross in the future. Dawn

4:49 PM  

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