First let me begin with the deepest thank you to all of you who believed in City of Joy and have stood by us with your confidence and support. I have spent the month here and all I can say, is you would be proud. Let me start by describing the current state of Bukavu. It is nothing short of catastrophic. In one of the richest resourced countries in the world, the poverty is inconceivable. In a place where it rains almost every day, there is no water.
It is a country with the most fertile green fields, people are starving. There is no electricity. Most of the month the children have been sent home from school as the teachers are on strike. (they have not been paid). Even the policemen are begging for food. The road is better but most of the time we have not driven on it as there are so many reasons for detours. This is the environment our director Christine and her astounding staff face and transcend every day. Then of course there is the issue of security. The month I have been here there have been no incidents, but it feels arbitrary as there is no real political basis for security and one feels anything can happen at any time.
I will not even begin to tackle here the many proposals that seem to be circulating for peace in Congo. They either feel rhetorical or implausible. I think it is safe to say that if Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi were to get out of Congo, if there were real leadership and a functioning government in Kinshasa, there would be change. But that is not the nature of what I am writing about. We made a decision four years ago to put our energy into the grassroots women of Congo, to support their visions, their plans, their desires, their futures. To believe in their strength. To find the support for them to heal from gender violence of all forms, to be trained and educated in skills and their rights, to become leaders in their communities so that they could build a grassroots movement that eventually would be strong enough to transform this country and turn pain to power.
I am happy to say we are on our way. None of it would be possible without the brilliant leadership of Christine Schuler Deschryver and Dr. Denis Mukwege. Their devotion, tenacity, great humor and fierce love makes all transformation possible. I could not admire or love them more. Let me also reassure you that Dr. Mukwege, in spite of his new life (which due to high security measures has limited his freedom and autonomy), is doing extremely well. Operating, working non stop in every direction to support all he can. We are so thrilled he continues to teach sexual education at City of Joy and be our partner. So let me begin to give you a taste of what is happening here.
I arrived a week before Feb 14, One Billion Rising day and shortly after a group of 26 visitors arrived on a plane loaded to maximum capacity with 9000 pounds of donated goods and supplies for City of Joy and Panzi Hospital. The 26 wonderful women and men came with their huge hearts, traveling spirit and open pocketbooks to support our efforts. Among these supporters were three of our devoted board members, Pat Mitchell, Amy Rao, Emily Scott Pottruck, longtime supporter Susie Tompkins Buell and visionary and very generous Wendy Schmidt with her wonderful team, Lauren Davis, Thomas Gilchrist, Jeremy Pochman, Joe Sciortino, and Erin Strain from 11th Hour. There were some, Paula Allen, Barb Jones, Frannie Kieschnick, Gina Maya, Belinda Munoz, Deb Wetherby, Marsha Williams, who were back for their second and third time, and more still who we welcomed in the DRC for the first time, including Jesse Cool, Brock Dolman, Dawn Damas Harris, JoAnne Finkelstein, Dave Henson, Amanda Jones, Lisa Mekis, Julie Parish, and Mary Ruth Quinn. Our week together was rich and intense. We spent much time at City of Joy meeting with staff and the group was able to sit in on our classes, have meals with the girls, get to know them a bit and take tours of the compound. We also spent a day together walking the land of V-World and had a picnic and dance fest with the 90 girls currently enrolled in City of Joy. I am thrilled our guests were here to celebrate One Billion Rising with the ten thousand people who came to rise and dance.
One Billion Rising
As director of V-Day Congo, Christine and Program Manager Mama Bachu did an excellent job organizing and outreaching in the months before One Billion Rising.
There were meetings and debates with all sectors of society and it was clear from the massive turn out here and turn outs in Kinshasa, Goma, Lumbashi and other places the message and engagement was spread far, wide and deeply. At our event thousands attended dressed in a rainbow of OBR t-shirts. There were impassioned speeches by local activists, our V-Man representative, the Governor, the General of the South Kivu Police who presented a letter of engagement and commitment to end impunity of sexual violence, Dr. Mukwege, Christine and a knockout speech by Mama Baccu calling Bukavu to rise and respect women.
Then there were wonderful local actors who were very funny and rousing and after was simply the best dancing. A downpour came later in the day but until it literally washed out the sound system many continued on in the rain. We were able to live stream our event to the world because of a satellite that was built by Prince, a very devoted member of our team, who didn’t sleep for days getting it constructed. I was thrilled to Rise in Bukavu with my sisters and brothers here and beyond amazed to see the One Billion who rose around the world in 207 countries. The next Rising event here is March 8 when City of Joy will hold an educational event at City of Joy on the rights of women.
City of Joy
Inside our gates the air turns clear and calm. There is always singing or laughing or drumming in the distance, the sound of bleating goats and children screaming, playing.
Jane who was once Jean and broken is now round and stunning and full of a contagious wild joy. The bougainvillea is thick and climbs the pillars that support our city. The roses are taller than me. There are three cats now and bunnies and sheep and goats. There are at least 12 children here with the new class of women, along with a couple from the surrounding area that we have welcomed.
One of the great pleasures of the day is watching the hoard of children arrive at the end of the day at Christine’s office to receive their treats. There are several gardens and a compost providing both excellent soil and a great teaching in the agricultural classes. I have been able over these weeks to do quite a few classes with the girls, getting to be with all of them and getting to know some more deeply. Perhaps it is our new recruitment process, which was more in depth, (COJ counselors went to many of the villages and interviewed candidates weeks before they came) but this group of ninety is the strongest group we have had so far and their transformation in the 5 months they have been here is mind boggling.
I did several theater classes with each group of 30 and I was able to experience their new found abilities to play, imagine, plan, and help the others. Often people ask aren’t the women sad to leave City of Joy. I cannot tell you how often I hear women say that they cannot wait to go home and show their families and their villages who they have become.
They are excited to teach their communities the skills they have learned, how to fight for their rights, learn self-defense etc. The gratitude and lack of self-pity is staggering. I have listened over these weeks to the stories that have thrown so many of these girls into darkness-stories of a girl whose grandfather raped her and got her pregnant, stories of being exiled and expelled after rapes or even after having babies. Stories of being forced into prostitution and losing parents and living off the streets. Many of the girls are in their teens and early twenties.
I am stunned by how much they have learned here and the depth of the healing. I think our social worker team is excellent and devoted and we have benefited greatly from the trainings of Elayne Doughty and Linda Hartka-Weiss. I have witnessed so many moments of deep kindness and care from the staff, the women and the children. This is an extraordinary community.
In one of our exercises I asked the girls to give themselves a new name, a name that would describe and carry the meaning of who they have become here and then to write their new autobiography. Some of their new names:
Star, Light, Victory, Love, Sara (because she was beautiful and she worked), Queen.
There are real health issues here; aids, malaria, women arrive with all kinds of physical and mental problems and illnesses. Many have given up hope, have stopped taking care of themselves and are just waiting to die. Now they glow and shine with a transcendent beauty. Stars, Queens, Light. Their hunger to learn, to take in everything they are taught or given, their strength and their rising is breathtaking. I feel more inspired than ever to continue our work and to see how we can bring more and more girls into this process.
Possible new programs-developing protective sexual violence force trained by the police as a course at COJ and women will be given official certificates when they graduate to work with police and tribal leaders in their communities to protect women. New wool scarves made from new machine, more sophisticated beading. A possible football team.
As for the groups who have graduated, a network of COJ women has formed throughout Congo. We are hearing of our graduates in their villages making great strides, starting small businesses, farm cooperatives, taking care of orphans and the elderly, fighting for new laws, changing the culture of their families and communities, speaking out, teaching what they have learned.
We have been able to give 5 groups of former residents, who had formed collectives small start up grants to fuel their projects.
As most of you know last year through the generous support of 11th Hour Foundation we were able to purchase V-World Farm, 350 hectars of gorgeous fertile farmland, 40 minutes up the road from City of Joy. Carlos, Christine’s husband has been incredibly generous over these last months helping us set up the farm, working with Christine and the local Farm Manager, Gauthier to hire workers, buy pigs and fish and get the farm up and running.
The farm has already produced 2 tons of beans for City of Joy and is feeding our women. Yesterday I saw huge bins of the most amazing carrots arriving for dinner at City of Joy.
Through the support of 11th hour we were blessed to have Brock Dolman, David Henson and Lisa Mekis from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Northern California’s Sonoma County here on the farm. They are permaculture experts and were here to work with us in developing a plan and a vision for our land.
Brock, Dave and Lisa spent a week with us walking the land, envisioning a ten year plan for our farm cooperative that will be run and determined by the women of Congo. These plans were further developed by the input of our women and staff. They are only blueprints and will continue to be fleshed out as we evolve.
The basic concept of City of Joy and V-World Farm, an integrated vision and program is TURNING PAIN TO PLANTING AND POWER. How do we heal women’s bodies by healing the earth and heal the earth by healing women’s bodies. I am going to give some highlights of the plan here but soon there will be an in depth proposal to share with you.
V-World Farm is growing carrots, cassava, corn, tomatoes, soya, beans. The Talipa ponds are functioning and there are many pigs. There are women graduates working there now and people from the surrounding community. There is some development work needed on roads and forests planting and outreach to the community and purchasing a truck and necessary equipment.
The plan is over the next ten years to make a functioning and commercially successful farm, run by V-Day and the women, to build a place for 50 women who will be the main farming cooperative and eventual trainers, (all of them graduates of City of Joy), to build and open a school for 300 children from the surrounding villages, to open an agriculture school that will teach the newest and eco friendly permaculture methods to the people in the surrounding villages and to people all over Congo. We will have a meditation nature sanctuary and develop many small enterprises, medicinal herbs, honey, jams etc. We may also be able to reintroduce some endangered species like a particular kind of water antelope that used to be on the land.
V-World Farm will also function as a learning center for the women of City of Joy who are already studying agriculture.
I am thrilled to report that many of our generous individual donors and Dr. Rhodes with the Mayo Clinic sent huge amounts of crucial medical supplies to Panzi Hospital. The hospital is simply overwhelmed by patients in great need.
When our wonderful visitors met with Dr. Mukwege and his staff, he spoke so eloquently of all the hospital is facing in times of massacres and sustained poverty. Dr. Eleanor spoke more directly to us about the fact that many patients are dying because they have no money and cannot afford basic medications for diseases such as TB or malaria.
On the spot we were able to launch a new fund for Panzi the One Billion Rising fund and we raised half a million dollars from our extremely generous visitors. This fund will pay for patients to have free medications for various illnesses and will begin immediately.
V-Day Youth Campaign
The focus of the V-Day Campaign here this year has been in the colleges, helping students become educated about the issues of violence against women and activating them to make stands against violence. This campaign has been very successful and will continue on this coming year.
The V-Men campaign is slowly taking hold. At the One Billion Rising event there were several men who spoke and performed and were excellent. There are men joining from all sectors, doctors, teachers, policeman, the governor, and even men in the army. Just yesterday a soldier arrived who had asked for a meeting with Christine. He had seen her speak on TV and his life was changed. He said he wanted the world to know that all men in the army are not rapists and he wanted to organize a group of men in the army who could Rise for women. There is a meeting scheduled in the next weeks and I feel there will be real progress of V-Men organizing in the months ahead. Dr. Mukwege is the godfather of the V-Men’s movement. We had an excellent brainstorming today and many plans are in the works.
Please forgive the long update, but I feel as supporters you need to know the details and get a real picture of the work which is vast, vital and real. Today in the midst of a wild moment after the celebration of Dr. Mukwege’s birthday, 90 young women were literally dancing Christine, Dr. Mukwege and I down a path. I suddenly understood joy. It’s big, bigger than any one of us. It’s uncontrollable and it’s fierce. It’s more generous than anger and has the ability to make revolution because its tentacles and fire are infinite and it feels good.
I send my love and gratitude from that place which is the City of Joy,
If you are moved to help and I hope you are, here are two simply ways you can take action to assist the women and girls of the Congo:
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Special thank you to Paula Allen for the photographs featured here.