The road from the Rwanda-Congo border to Bukavu—a war-torn city on the southeastern edge of Lake Kivu—was almost impassable. Intermittent, torrential rain showers turned the rutted, cratered road into a bog of red mud. On the shoulders, an endless procession of Congolese men and women carried babies slung to their backs and loads of vegetables, eggs, and bananas on their heads.
They moved steadily, their feet caked red. There were no donkeys, no horses; the people, especially the women, were the beasts of burden. They seemed numb to the rain and the mud.
I was traveling to Bukavu as part of a weeklong mission called Voices of Peace, an attempt to invigorate Congo’s nascent women’s movement to fight an epidemic of mass rape, poverty, and public corruption. The centerpiece of our group was Leymah Gbowee, a passionate, charismatic Liberian activist who in 2003 helped galvanize thousands of women in Liberia to force a peace there after 14 years of civil war. Her story was featured in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. (Gbowee has also written for The Daily Beast.)
“Find the mothers,” Leymah Gbowee told the Congolese activists. “Don’t fight them, but tell them what their sons are doing to your daughters.”
Bukavu was a fitting place to begin our trip. The city has seen the worst of Congo’s decade-and-a-half of bloody conflict, until recently rimmed by refugee camps for the hundreds of thousands of Hutus who fled Rwanda’s ethnic cleansing in 1994. In 2004, while United Nations troops stood by and did nothing, Laurent Nkumba, the Rwandan general chasing down Hutu fugitives, fought his way into Bukavu and seized the city. He congratulated his troops by declaring “This city is yours for three days,” resulting in the rapes of some 16,000 women in one weekend. The number of rapes has diminished since, but the violence continues, with very few perpetrators held responsible.
In a series of regional workshops and screenings of the film, Gbowee brought her message of forceful, nonviolent protest to the women of Congo, who have survived horrific brutality. In Bukavu, we met Chouchou Namegabe, a 32-year-old Congolese radio journalist who records the audio testimonies of rape survivors and airs them, in order to raise public awareness and shame indifferent legislators.
“I talked to a 6-year-old girl who was raped and then had branches and thorns thrust into her vagina,” Namegabe said, her eyes filling with tears. “Why? Why?”
At Leymah’s workshop in a local hotel, a cross-section of women sat around a table—members of the police and army, representatives of women's organizations, a pastor, students, and even the city’s female mayor, Zita Kavungirwa. Mathilde Muhindo is president of the Women’s Caucus for Peace; Odette Wimba is a medical worker who takes care of children born from rape.
The women knew they had to overcome their differences if they were to accomplish anything. “We cannot fight the devil if we’re alone,” said Kinja Mwendanga, a provincial deputy. “It is the same as fighting a lion. If you’re not united, the lion will come and eat you.”
But no one knows whether Gbowee’s efforts to unite and activate these women were a success. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said later. “Women in post-conflict situations are suspicious of everyone, including each other. They have to learn to trust each other and to put aside all their baggage and their differences to work together for a common cause.”
It is easier said than done. During the workshop, Leymah divided the group in two to identify the issues facing women in Bukavu, then into four groups to work on short-term strategies to solve them. In between, she orchestrated what she calls a “catwalk” to break the ice and release tension.
“Tell us what you like about yourself and what you don’t like,” she instructed the women, then illustrated the exercise. “I like my hair. I like my hands. I like my breasts,” she said, strutting up and down the interior of the horseshoe-shaped table. “What I don’t like is my big butt,” giving herself a whack on the bottom. The women howled with laughter and applauded.
The catwalk began. Like Leymah, many liked their hands, they liked the color of their skin, they liked to dress in African clothes, they liked being beautiful. Some didn’t like their feet—“I can’t find shoes”—others didn’t like bleaching skin lotions. It was a brilliant exercise and re-charged the room with laughter and energy.
The workshop moved on to more serious matters, with the women eventually deciding to focus their activism on two issues: First, security and sexual violence, and second, good governance and women’s participation and leadership. But a crisis soon emerged. The women could not decide among themselves what group would represent the coalition. “Is there one organization all of you can trust?” Leymah asked. “Not one in the room? Nothing?” Silence. “We’ll step outside for 20 minutes,” she continued, referring to herself and we three white women who accompanied her. “Only you can decide what you want to do.”
Leymah was not surprised at the stalemate. The same thing had happened after a workshop she gave in Sierra Leone, she said, another conflict zone suffering from trust issues. Back in the room, Leymah expertly defused the tension. “Hope is not lost,” she said. “Sometimes the process takes longer than a day, so don’t be discouraged. If you’re really committed to a coalition, call for a followup meeting after we’re gone. Until we learn to trust and appreciate ourselves and each other, we cannot force anything. Everyone has to say yes, yes, yes. So can we stand now and close this wonderful workshop?”
As all the women stood, looking miserable, one participant began to deliver a tongue-lashing in such rapid fire French that the interpreter couldn’t keep up. But it worked. Smiles replaced frowns at the conclusion of her outburst and an organization was finally chosen to represent the group. “Is everyone ready to sign on?” Leymah asked. There was a chorus of “oui!” and the women broke into song. Leymah congratulated the “strong women of Congo” who were thinking about “the women and children who need your leadership, and not yourselves.”
The next stop on our tour was Goma, a dilapidated city covered with gray dust and lava rocks from the last major eruption of its resident volcano, Nyiragongo, in 2002, which destroyed 40 percent of the city’s buildings. Goma’s misery has been longstanding, besieged by a decade of fighting between various ethnic rebel groups and the Congolese army. The leader of the Tutsi militia, Laurent Nkumba, was arrested in Rwanda in January 2009, so Goma was peaceful while we were there. Yet women living in villages just outside the city continue to suffer.
Leymah’s workshop took place in a conference room at Heal Africa, a Congolese nonprofit hospital where violently raped women come for treatment of traumatic fistula, torn membranes in their vaginal canals that leave them incontinent. Eight thousand women had sought treatment at the hospital between 2003 and 2009, 15 a day, Mama Virginie Mumbere, the hospital’s spokesperson, told me. (“Mama” is a title of respect in Africa.) All had been raped at least once and most gang raped, then brutalized further by having sticks or guns jammed up their vaginas.
The numbers were fewer now, but the wards were still busy. I talked to a 50-year-old widow, Mawazo Karubandika, who was recovering from surgery to repair the leg she’d shattered in her farm field while trying to run from four Hutu rebels. She failed. “They four raped me,” she says, her eyes downcast. The villagers found her, unconscious, and took her to her home, where she developed an infection. “I had a very bad odor,” she says. “I was smelling very bad.”
Mawazo eventually ended up at Heal Africa, where the infection was treated and her leg put back together with surgical screws. “I can’t go to the fields anymore in my village,” she says, “but they taught me here how to make doughnuts I can sell.” When I left, Mawazo was about to be tested for AIDS.
Despite their unimaginable challenges, the Congolese activists were resolutely cheerful. Every morning of the Goma workshop began with a chorus of “bonjours!” and three air kisses—left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. Also unlike American women, who tend to be highly self-critical, the Congolese genuinely seemed to like themselves. It came out time and again in the “catwalks,” as did their humor. “I am a divorced woman,” one said as she sashayed up and down the room in Goma. “Many men are after me, but they’re too old. Sisters, send me your sons!”
Their issues went far beyond rape, just as Leymah had suspected. The women named illiteracy, lack of access to health care, tribal customs, and discrimination as major problems. Though sexual violence was always on their lists, especially now that rape has moved into the civilian sector—(“uncles, cousins, schoolteachers, police, medical staff, anybody,” Mama Virginie told me)—the two issues the Goma women chose to work on immediately were lack of representation in government and poverty. And these women had no problem forming a coalition out of their separate NGOs.
The tour’s last stop was Congo’s teeming capital city, Kinshasa, home to about 10 million people, many of them migrants fleeing instability in rural Congo. At a workshop there, Leymah suggested a number of strategies to help the women activists win campaigns on their issues. Where there is conflict, she said, “Find the mothers. Don’t fight them, but tell them what their sons are doing to your daughters. As mothers, until we start talking about some of these things, nothing will be accomplished.”
Persistence was another tip. “When you start a movement, people will think, ‘One week and they will go.’ But if you stay one month, six months, one year while the community is watching, they will say “those are people we can trust to give power.”
The women in Kinshasa seemed newly energized by Leymah, the film, and the workshop. “I’m convinced more than ever that one person can change the vision of the world—Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King,” one woman said. “We need one person who decides to do something whether in Congo or anywhere else.”
Leymah seemed satisfied at the week’s outcome as well as exhausted. She missed her six children back home in Ghana, with whom she had stayed in regular contact via cellphone and email.
“When we ended our campaign in Liberia, I told myself I wanted to share what little experience I have with my sisters in other parts of Africa,” she told me. “For me, this trip through Congo has been more of a learning experience. The Congolese women I’ve met are strong women, whose issues are not only sexual violence.”
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Linda Bird Francke, a former editor at Newsweek, is an award-winning journalist and author. She has also collaborated with many prominent women on their best-selling memoirs.