The red dust swallows everything, coats the roofs and goats and faces of dazed children who lean out on Essence Road. The dust which begs for water where there is no water, for shelter where there are no windows or doors. The dust that is spread in wild disregard as fancy UN jeeps overtake broken cars leaving bent women balancing backbreaking sacks choking in their wake.
The dust that erases and the dust that turns Bukavu into some post-apocalyptic dream that only rain or peace or care will wake. Mama C says she prefers the mud. Mud she says is fresh, alive, wet and everything is green then.
I arrive at City of Joy and the children greet me outside the gates. They are decked in pink crown hats made of cardboard and staples. They are wearing matching blue and pink pagnes with swirly designs and they are jumping and hugging and spinning. The carnival begins, this medicinal festival of healing and care that is the City of Joy.
This place where trauma is so thick and widespread it is a kind of contagion. This place where love is so available and electric, it is an ample cure. Here our rising girls, 89 of them dance and sing, their faces marked with scars and sorrow and anger and joy and newly donated makeup. 89 girls from all over the Congo chosen because of their past and pain, chosen for their hunger for a future, not just for themselves, but the others. City of Joy, where despite the dry season the pink roses are 5 feet tall and the bougainvillea is now thick over the archways.
City of Joy where bunnies can’t stop making bunnies and cats have moved in to keep out the mice, where the storage room is full of sneakers and medicine and crayons and flashlights and towels. City of Joy, where 89 girls arrive – some explosive, some mute, some unable to lift their heads, some ready to die. And in just 3 months, they dance with a thunderous joy, defying everything that has been done to them and everything they have been made to believe they are.
City of Joy, where our Cherie Mamas (social workers) know every name, every story, every illness and every dream. Where Mama Bachu builds their political vision and knowledge of their rights and resistance and our new nurse, Marcelline, rocks some to sleep.
City of Joy, where Prince teaches them how to how to find the world on the internet and Dr. Mukwege teaches them to find their vaginas and love them and demand respect. City of Joy, where in any given day one woman finally tells her story and is freed and another decides she is beautiful. City of Joy, where Mama C builds her professional brigade, day by day, lesson by lesson. Where she is loved and respected because she has allowed and invited and insisted that everyone rise to their best and now they are respected everywhere.
Every single child of every person who works at the City of Joy succeeded in school this year. Each day there is transformation and each day the trauma releases and rises like smoke through a chimney of hearts.
City of Joy, where a visiting graduate Claudine tells me her life has changed. “I can’t even compare myself to who I was when I came to City of Joy. I was not really a human being. I was totally traumatized. I acted like a fool. Since I left I rejoined my community. There is joy. I laugh. I cry. I am happy. If people talk ill of me I don’t make it a problem. I love my children now. Before I looked like an old woman. Now I have physically changed thanks to what I’ve learned. From the money I got at City of Joy I run a small business. I bought 2 goats and put money into the cooperative of women. Before City of Joy my husband took all my children. Now I know my rights. Now I am getting my children back. Before I did not know that violence existed. Now I know what it is and I can help women with their rights. When I see a woman hurting herself or neglecting her body, I push her not to stay there. I tell women to be united.”
Mama C is fierce and strict, fighting for the staff and the children and residents to eat well, dress well, treat the earth well and to live like their lives mattered.
City of Joy has adopted 7 children who are now nurtured and cared for by former graduates Eugenia and Jane. They live together in a house walking distance to City of Joy. Some of the children are products of rape, some were raped, some are HIV positive, some come from highly insecure zones. They move in a noisy, happy pack. They have gone from frightened, rejected, mute children forced to flee villages and live off vines and dirt – witnesses to atrocities – to healthy, laughing children learning to write and do math and draw. They are loved by everyone and it is so clear how deeply children benefit from being raised in an intentional community of love.
Classes and therapy begin each day at 8 AM and go until 5 PM. Girls are healed, trained and fed. On top of the brilliant trauma therapy groups there are classes in literacy, English, computer training, sex education, beading, sewing, agriculture, human rights, civics, communication. This session there is a new theater class run by two brilliant local Congolese actors. They were doing scenes about HIV the day I watched. Theater as a tool for education and release. They are now in the process of beginning a City of Joy theater troop of girls that will travel to the villages and teach about violence and HIV transmission and sex, etc. I notice that City of Joy is so clean and well kept. On Friday I participate as the whole community cleans the place together and takes care of the grounds and rooms. It is actually a wonderful experience to be with the girls carrying buckets, sorting compost and making our world sparkle.
I give theater classes twice a week and feel so privileged to work with the girls. In one class we do an exercise called SHARED SECRETS. The girls break into groups and they each share a secret they have never shared before but want to be free of. Then each group chooses a secret of one of the girls to make into a scene to perform for the whole group. I am blown away by the honesty of the girls and the incredible stories they carry inside them. I see how many girls were street children starving in mud alleys, selling their bodies for one potato. How many girls were abused from poverty, from family violence, from teachers who promised good grades if they had sex, or pastors who promised heaven. How many girls have never had a sense of their value or known their rights or lived in their bodies or felt beautiful until they arrived here.
OUR FARM IS THRIVING. We have a new genius road designed by Carlos (Mama C’s husband) who is immensely helping and making so much happen. The road makes everything so much easier and provides direct access to the center of activity. Saving time and money. It will be completed in the coming weeks.
Everything is growing and alive. We are now supplying City of Joy with corn flour, tomatoes, beans, cabbage.
We have two City of Joy graduates working with the other farmers. We have 100 pigs. We started with 10 females and a male less than a year ago.
We will harvest 5 tons of rice in a few months. The Tilapia are growing full and large.
The girls from City of Joy will spend time on V-World to learn techniques of farming.
We are doing outreach to the surrounding community so that they are part of V-World and V-World is part of them. For so many women, V-World is our future. When you walk the land, stand in the green, burgeoning rice fields or stare out at the horizon, you can see and feel where we are going.
We are in the process of preparing a City of Joy website that should launch in the next month. I had the great experience of doing video interviews with many of our team. It was a profound experience to sit and listen to our staff talk about why they are at City of Joy, what they see it is doing for the girls and how it has changed their own lives. We are blessed to have such devoted, loving, talented people on our staff.
Mama Bachu, one of the great women leaders of Congo and our Program Manager, talked about being at City of Joy:
“Here I work and I have peace. Being involved in politics all my life I was committed to helping women to know their rights. I think Christine who knew my political ambitions was also disappointed I didn’t get where I wanted to go. I know what I’m doing here will have impact. The 222 women we have graduated are already changing things. They are young and ambitious and I know I am a model for future generations. I think revolution is possible here on the condition that the political, social involvement in DRC changes for the better. We are not allowed to enjoy what we have here. The insecurity makes that impossible. I receive dignity and respect at City of Joy.I sleep in peace. I dress as I want. I am satisfied that what I do now will pay me more.I am fully satisfied that I am sewing seeds for the future.”
She tells me, with great pride, about 3 stories of success:
Dusenge. A woman from Massis who went through atrocities. When she came she could not say one word about her story. If you heard it, she tells me, you would be traumatized just listening. She was a true leader. At one point during her stay here she said: “The fact that I didn’t die is because I have so many things to do here.”
She left City of Joy to be a leader in her community. She used her small kit to initiate self-help activities. She kept in total contact during the insecurities. She told us “Do not worry. I have overcome my own trauma.” She knows how to deal with insecurity. She now works in the group with the women who referred her.
Evelyne. A young woman from Sake. Her father, who had once rejected her, testified at our graduation about the change in her. Since she left City of Joy she refers other women. In Sake all women who are suffering come to her. Evelyne initiated a cooperative of goats. She bought 20 and there are 180 women in the cooperative. They now have 30 goats and they share each one that is born. There are women here in this session who she referred. She is now a leader in Sake.
Chantal. A woman from Nyangezi. She was in session 2. Now she specializes in natural medicine. She got in contact with a Kenyan friar who uses plants to treat people. He trained her. Now she’s treating people in her community. She practices Homeopathy. Many come to her to be healed. Before she was broken and isolated.
Mama Bachu tells me, “These women are my legacy.”
There are many victories reported by our graduates. One, Mireille, has gone from arriving suicidal at City of Joy to being hired in a top hotel/restaurant in Bukavu. She said when interviewed, “I have power. I feel free and I am economically independent. I can talk to guests in English and French and I can make friends. I live on my monthly salary and I rent a house where I live with my child. I have stopped being rescued*.” (*One of the tenets of City of Joy)
The women in Kamanyola created a network in their community for women to raise their voices and see there is hope after shame. They have a farm that they share. They run projects together.
Women in other communities have begun small businesses, gone back to school, learned how to love their children from rape, begun cooperatives and changed traditions and practices in their villages and families.
In five years we will have a network of a thousand empowered, healed women leaders and then we will escalate to the next level.
One note: we are in the process of hiring at Outreach Worker who will travel to various communities to work with and support the graduates in fulfilling their dreams and building their networks.
So all this success and joy and possibility is somehow thriving in the middle of madness. The state of Eastern Congo has actually gotten worse. The war for minerals continues unabated. The militias are still rife and transmuting into new militia cells by the day, moving into the next village as they are pushed out of others. The climate of rape in Congo, the consistent and complete impunity has allowed an escalation of rape and abuse everywhere. As Mama Bachu says, “It’s on the streets, in the bush, in homes, in schools, in churches, in hospitals.”
Upon seeing me, Dr. Mukwege took me into his office and showed me horrific pictures of the vaginas of 1, 3 and 5-year-old girls, all raped, two of them raped to death. He needed a witness as it was clear holding these images was unbearable.
In North Kivu the UN was stoned last week by the population for not fulfilling promises to protect. MONUSCO has formed what is essentially a peace line around Goma, protecting mainly those inside the city(the more wealthy and the internationals) while outside this line the poor people in the villages, Rutshuru, Kiwanja, Kinandoni, Ngwenda, and Mabungu are abandoned and left to M23 and other marauding groups. Last week they were sending texts to Dr.Mukwege asking him for help. But as he said, “What can I do? I am a doctor.”
One of our graduates, M from Rutshuru, was a casualty of the recent fighting. She was caught by soldiers and taken off a bus, dragged into the bush and gang raped.
Patrick, assistant to the Program Manager at City of Joy, went to retrieve M after the rape in Goma. He tells me:
“I was shocked to hear M’s story. I was revolted. Enough is enough. To see M undergo this huge transformation at City of Joy and then after 3 or 4 months be raped again is devastating. When people saw her after City of Joy she was a role model. She made a business. She was beginning to thrive.”
M left City of Joy almost 4 months ago, healed, happy ready for her new life. She returned to her village a new woman, set out upon a business. She was advancing, on her way to Goma to expand her business when her bus was attacked. As soon as she was conscious after the attack she called Mama Bachu and texted Christine and they moved into action. They sent Patrick to get her and bring her to Panzi Hospital where she is now receiving medical and psychological care. Social workers visit her regularly. I sat with her for a few hours and interviewed her.
M tells me: “The training I got at City of Joy helped me survive what I went through as I now know what just happened was a act of violence and not because of me. Before City of Joy I thought I was the bad person. It’s almost two weeks since it happened. I am getting better. After being destroyed a second time I was weeping and weeping. Now I have received help. People are caring about me. This is why I will recover. I was so happy Patrick came to help me. He is like my father. Without him, without City of Joy, I would die.
When I first arrived at City of Joy, Mama Bachu was waiting for us. She looked like my mother. I had no dress or shoes. I looked at this compound. I had never lived in a place like this, in such a room. It was such a comfort. They gave us soap and oil. We told our stories. They were loving us. It was like we had a mother and a father. Mama Christine said not to worry – we will take care of everything you need. It was a safe place. After two weeks I got used to life. I entered therapy. I couldn’t tell my story but little by little I began talk with the help of the social workers. I learned computers and beading and self defense. After 6 months I had a certificate. I had the power to communicate effectively. When I went home they said ‘You are beautiful. You have changed completely’. I was in a good place. Some villagers said they wished they could go to City of Joy. I feared people before City of Joy. I released everything there. I had a phone to be in contact and 100 dollars. With the money I started a small business. I was selling beer and palm oil. Almost everyone loved me. I made 250 dollars. When I lay in bed and counted it I thought this is benediction. City of Joy gave me another vision of my life. I planned to invest in my studies. Then they stormed my house and took my money. I still had 100 dollars at a friends house. I told myself I will not close my arms because I was looted. I won’t go backwards.
A businessman gave me 50 dollars. He said he would help me open a business in Goma. We went to Goma on July 28, 2013. It was Sunday. They stopped us on the way. I was in a bus. The driver was shot. I was in the front and unable to run away. They said they were taking me to the forest. I offered my money. They dragged me and the one raped me. I fainted after that. I think there were others. I was bleeding. A motorcyclist came and had mercy on me. He took me even though I was bleeding all over. In the hospital I went to the operating room. I spent two days unconscious. They believed I was dead. Everything was destroyed inside me. Many kind people helped me. I called Mama Bachu. I said I was in the hospital. I couldn’t walk. I asked her for help. They transferred me to a hospital in Goma. Patrick came to get me. He brought me to Panzi on the boat. They took me to the doctor. I received good help here from Mama Esther. When I was with her and the other social workers form City of JoyI stopped weeping. I felt love. Now I have some energy. My legs and arms hurt now, but I am better. Thank you all, I have a community of mamas and care. I know I would have died without your love.”
(Yesterday M arrived at City of Joy from the hospital. She is better and will stay here until she is well. Then we will help her relocate to a secure zone with support in every respect.)
It is so evident that our women are thriving, growing as fast the roses and hibiscus. Imagine if they were not facing the threat of constant violence, rape or murder. Imagine if they could prosper freely and walk the roads, sleep safely in their beds at night, be as beautiful and powerful and successful as they are without being harmed or attacked. Study without being raped. It is not a lack of will or energy or desire or commitment on the part of women. It is the insane and daunting obstacle of violence. This is a creation of the international community, governments, corporations who value minerals and money over human life. It is sadly the dominant theme throughout the world. But here in Bukavu where I see the souls and energy and spirits of young women hungry for a life, hungry to change, hungry to overcome trauma and lift others and build community and dance life back into their bodies. Here in Bukavu where I see the Congolese staff and residents and men and women creating a vision of a possible world, I find the indifference of the world, which benefits from the resources that destroys their dreams, intolerable. How loud can the people wail? How many women must be raped and raped again before the powers that be stop using and exploiting the Congolese in their economic greed and games?
As Mama C said just yesterday, “It is terrible that one our girls was re-raped. Terrible. We will take care of her and get her back on her feet. We have 222 other graduates and they are thriving. Nothing is going to stop us. Nothing. The women will rise.”
Mama C, her miraculous team, all of us at V-Day can only do what we can do, which is a lot. We can help women who have been violated go from being victims who are blind to survivors able to see and care for themselves, to leaders who have a vision and heart for the others.
We can feed the women and nurture them and give them therapy and teach them their rights and skills and build community and help them lift their fellow sisters and brothers. If the world community and the leaders of Congo and Rwanda and Uganda and Burundi and the U.S and Britain and France and Belgium made a decision to end this war, they could end this war tomorrow.
It’s up to us to be outraged and bold and insistent enough to make them do that.
Here is a photo of this class at City of Joy. They are holding letters written to them by friends of my wondrous granddaughter Colette McDermott. Coco created a group called Girl4Girl which has raised substantial funds for City of Joy’s educational fund for graduating girls. Each of the 89 girls received a letter of love from a girl in L.A. There was much happiness and graduates have already written back.