Congo's Anti-Rape Crusader
New U.N. estimates show that rape in Congo remains a brutal threat—the region's top envoy says that over 15,000 sexual attacks have occurred in 2010 alone.
In a society that doesn't even have a word for “rape,” Chouchou Namegabe did the unthinkable—she aired graphic testimonies of rape survivors on the radio. Delphine Minoui profiles one of the world’s bravest journalists.
When Chouchou Namegabe launched a radio talk show to air the testimonies of rape survivors, she knew it would provoke outrage across Congo. And sure enough, as soon as the first interview aired, she was overwhelmed by criticism. People would yell at her on the street: “How dare you talk about sex on the airwaves?”
After all, this was a culture that didn’t even have a word for rape and had to borrow one— ubakaji—from neighboring Tanzania.
Gallery: Congo's Resilient Rape Survivors
But what Namegabe didn’t anticipate was the huge outpouring of support from women who had been sexually brutalized. The day after her first show aired in 2001, three women knocked on the door of Maendeleo, the only radio station in Congo brave enough to broadcast Namegabe’s interviews with rape victims. The women were limping from pain, their eyes full of fear and tears.
Gang-raped by militia men who had killed their husbands in front of them, their vaginas had been horrifically damaged. They were so scared, they refused to give their names, or the name of their village.
“Still, they were desperate to share their secrets and suffering,” Namegabe recently recalled in a phone interview with The Daily Beast.
Day after day, new visitors showed up at the station. They were mothers, sisters, neighbors—companions in despair, all driven by the same pain and anger. Most of them whispered their stories because they were too ashamed to speak out loud. And amid unimaginable emotional and physical pain, many were also distressed about having contracted sexually transmitted diseases.
A week after the first broadcast, a widow in her thirties came to the station with her 12-year-old daughter. They had walked for two days to reach Bukavu, the capital of Congo’s South Kivu province, where Namegabe is based. This young girl agreed to give her name, Nzigire.
In her arms, she was carrying Ansima—the infant she had conceived with her rapist.
She told Namegabe that after being kidnapped, she, her mother, and other victims were marched to a forest. On the road, several women were killed, and the others were forced to eat the dead women’s flesh. One night, after being abused several times, the mother and daughter managed to escape in the dark, and took refuge in a local hospital.
“It was the first time she was telling her story,” Namegabe says. “It was like a burden she was getting rid of. To her, talking was like therapy.”
• To support Chouchou Namegabe’s non-profit, the South Kivu Women’s Media Association, order the group’s tee-shirt for $40. Contact Chrisse Lam at Create for a Cause to place an order.That day, Namegabe realized the true power of radio: In a society where silence was considered the proper response to rape, oral testimonies could help thousands of female victims heal their wounds, bringing hidden crimes to light and holding perpetrators of terror accountable—all while concealing survivors’ identities.
The eldest of a poor family of 10 children, Chouchou Namegabe grew up in the shadow of her unemployed father and five brothers. “In my country, men always have the last word,” she says.
Congo is plagued by illiteracy and lack of electricity, so radio is a major source of information. But women are often kept away from this domain. At the Namegabe home, the transistor radio, charged with batteries, was the property of the men. “I spent all my youth watching it from a distance,” remembers Namegabe, now 30.
So when she entered the studio of Radio Maendeleo for the fist time in her life, in 1997 at age 17, she had no idea that it would become the home of a historic fight for Congolese women’s rights.
She was there because Clotilde Aziza Bangwene, one of the station’s producers and a neighbor of the Namegabe family, was looking for someone to play the role of “Fulushi,”a little boy who had been abandoned by his parents, in an educational broadcast.
“Chouchou was afraid and timid,” remembers Bangwene, now a program coordinator for the Paris Panos Institute, an NGO supporting media pluralism. “But as soon as she started speaking in the microphone, she gained a lot of self-confidence,”
Namegabe soon became a weekly contributor to the station. For a year she participated in the production of children’s’ programs and cooking shows, eventually becoming one of eight full-time journalists employed by Maendeleo. But in 1999, as the Second Congo War erupted, rebels shut down the station.
“Radio Mandeleo was an outspoken and critical station, and they did not like it,” Namegabe remembers.
By the time the station reopened in 2001, Namegabe had become outraged at the state of her nation. Sporadic violence exploded on street corners. Homes were burned and possessions pillaged. Boys were abducted to serve as soldiers. Bloody corpses festered in the streets.
Worst of all, women’s bodies had become a battle ground. The various armed groups fighting for control of Congo’s valuable mining deposits were raping their enemies’ mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters.
The motive behind the sexual violence? “The woman is the pillar of the community,” Namegabe explains. “If you harm the women, you harm the entire community.”
That’s when Namegabe began recording women’s testimonies from across Congo, breaking a terrible taboo. The first survivor she met, at Panzi hospital in Bukavu, became the first rape interview she broadcast over the airwaves.
“The victim was lying down on a bed of blood. She had been raped by 7 different men in the village of Mwenga, who had eventually shot a gun into her vagina. She was half conscious,” Namegabe remembers.
But gathering accounts was not enough. “We had to make sure our message was reaching the entire society,” Namegabe says.
That’s how she and her colleagues came up with the idea of launching radio listening clubs for women, modeled after the traditional radio-listening gatherings among men, like those her father used to attend. Hundreds of women now participate.
In 2003, Namegabe began splitting her time between the radio station and the non-profit South Kivu Women’s Media Association, an organization she co-founded to fund her activism and train other female reporters.
“Chouchou has become a fearless voice for the voiceless. Women are very proud of what she has accomplished,” says Bangwene, whom Chouchou calls “Mummy.”
Determined to raise international awareness of Congo’s rape crisis, Chouchou has become an outspoken activist abroad, in part through her relationship with the American non-profit Vital Voices. In recent years, she was invited to both the U.S. Senate and the International Court of Justice to testify about her countrywomen’s agony.
In Washington, D.C., she gave the Senate detailed examples of Congolese rape. “I told the story of a woman from Kaniola who I met at Panzi hospital—a case I will never forget. She was 40. Her husband had been killed. Then they brought her to the forest and raped her in front of her five children’s eyes. Day after day, they killed all of them and forced her to eat their flesh.” Namegabe’s voice trembles.
Emboldened by her illustrious audience, in front of the Senate she denounced the legal impunity that allows some major rebel leaders to thrive and flourish, despite their crimes against humanity.
Namegabe interviewed one woman who was raped in front of her five children. Rebels then killed the children and forced the mother to eat their flesh.
Of course, Namegabe knows that by being so outspoken, she is risking her own safety—maybe even her life. Threats are part of her daily routine. “Three [Congolese] journalists were recently found dead because they touched topics that were considered sensitive,” she says.
Despite the increasing pressure, she continues to divide her time between activist work and caring for her two children—one only five months old. Her husband, Jean François Dubuisson, a Belgium humanitarian worker with the United Nations Development Program, supports her cause, but lives in another city.
“Sometimes, I am afraid,” she admits. “But I refuse to give up. My only protection is to come back home before it gets dark, and to pray to be alive the next day.”
Take Action: To support Chouchou Namegabe’s non-profit, the South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM-SK), order the group’s tee-shirt for $40. One-hundred percent of proceeds benefit AFEM-SK. Contact Chrisse Lam at Create for a Cause to order shirts and learn more.
Delphine Minoui is a Middle East correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro. A recipient of the Albert Londres Prize for her reporting in Iran and Iraq, she is also the co-author of I am Nujood, Age 10 and divorced (Three rivers press, 2010).