Incongruous is just one word that comes to mind when attempting to describe eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The breathtaking beauty of sparkling Lake Kivu and the lush, green mountains and fertile red earth where virtually everything grows belie the unspeakable horrors of gang rape, torture and massacre that take place daily in this very same setting.
Staring at a panoramic view comparable to Italy's Lago di Como, one is immediately tempted to break out a camera to memorialize the stunning scenery. Red blood and bitter tears that stain the land never show in photographs.
Congo, a country so rich in resources -- blessed with precious gold, diamonds, coltan, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, tungsten -- is so painfully poor that "food today means none tomorrow" for many. It is a travesty of global proportions that corporations and their business-as-usual ways continue to amass contaminated and immorally acquired profit. The electronically-equipped population, myself included, benefits from conflict minerals of the DRC and gets away with it without so much as a portion of the misery that the locals endure.
Preservation of the indigenous culture through rhythm, dance, song and art is a testament to the resilience of the Congolese people whose land has been pillaged by greedy colonialism and its appalling legacy.
First Visit to City of Joy
All of the above is apparent on my day of arrival in Bukavu to V-Day's City of Joy, a very special place, a miracle-maker of a place, that may very well be the birthplace of a peaceful revolution within the DRC. It is a walled-in haven of educational training and political activism for female survivors of gender violence who qualify for the rigorous six month-long program. Here, women are housed to go through extensive literacy and communications courses as well as civics and politics training that teach them about human rights and women's rights and psychotherapy to help them recover from their trauma. They also go through self-defense courses, comprehensive sexuality education, massage lessons as therapeutic process, physical education, horticulture and green programming, culinary arts, sewing and data processing. These courses are designed by the Congolese and the program is run by the Congolese. They know best what they need and how to make it all work.
Building City of Joy is in and of itself a major accomplishment. The drive getting there on Essence Road is one for the books. The contrast between Orchid Hotel where I stayed, and Essence Road is jarring. The well-maintained grounds of Orchid Hotel on Lake Kivu are strewn with flowers of every blooming color; picking flowers along a few meters walk would result in the most beautiful bouquet. Within seconds of leaving the premises, thousands of locals walk up and down narrow, unpaved streets, some of whom are carrying babies on their backs or huge bins of manioc on their heads. Armed U.N. soldiers crammed in flatbed trucks are a common sight, as are vehicles of various NGOs and motorcycles driven by locals weaving in and out of unregulated traffic. Foot traffic is so dense that every few minutes, my heart would stop for fear that our vehicle would press against mangled bodies in our path. Transporting building materials and equipment is a huge challenge. City of Joy staff can attest to the painful commute hours during the rainy season when the roads turn into inches-deep sludge. On Essence Road, false veneers of good-doing and inflated promises stop dead in their muddy tracks.
My first visit to City of Joy was nothing short of memorable. Bruised upon arrival, my urge to commiserate with fellow travelers about the harrowing drive quickly dissipated as soon as I saw the women of City of Joy. They were singing songs in French and Swahili, dancing and clapping in graceful rhythm. They smiled as though they've never known the nightmare of rape, torture and murder that has plagued their people for over 10 years. My American friends and I joined their welcoming circle. Hugs and kisses bridged all gaps and, though we spoke different languages, the bond of sisterhood enveloped us with genuine warmth. In those moments, indigenous, foreign, colonial and stranger did not exist. We stood together side by side -- celebrating -- one with joy. We all felt protected, accepted, loved.
We convened under a huge tent to share a meal. The women of City of Joy presented a feast made from manioc root and leaves, prepared in various ways. Though it was not our usual fare, my American friends and I agreed that local Congolese food is delicious.
Then came the hard part. A few of the women got up before us to tell us their stories. What we heard were accounts containing gruesome details. Some details were very difficult to listen to, some seemed surreal and fiction-like. We left with our hearts shattered and internal wounds raw; wondering how anyone could be subjected to such acts. The only way any of us slept that night was through sheer exhaustion.
City of Joy Graduation
Graduation day was a momentous occasion filled with music, metaphor and magical moments. The tent was packed with over 300 guests: NGO representatives, dignitaries, families and friends of the graduates. The governor of the state came to bear witness to the miracles performed that day. In its pilot year, 41 barely alive women were transformed into vibrant, soulful beings and budding political leaders.
Many of these graduates arrived at City of Joy depressed and suicidal, knowing nothing of their inner strength or potential to become leaders, educators and stewards of transformation. It was magical to watch these women take to the stage, deliver rousing speeches, perform poetry they have written in English, demonstrate self-defense moves and celebrate with unmistakable joy. Now, all of them leave with newfound confidence, knowledge of their rights and the law, and the will to help others.
As I watched these women, the words victim and survivor did not dare come to mind. Their spirits are strong, even otherworldly, as they spoke of their love for their country and their sisters and their hope for the DRC's future. Their strength awed me and my fellow travelers. They could have easily given up in defeat. They could have stayed in the jungles as sex slaves to these militia men, having nothing to live for after their fathers, husbands, uncles and friends have been massacred. Not a chance. These evil, heartless acts could not extinguish their light.
City of Joy's model and leadership program are filled with realistic hope to heal the Congo. It is a phenomenally important step toward a peaceful revolution that proves it is possible to cultivate leadership among those who once thought their voices were worthless. So many other well-meaning, would-be saviors have visited the Congo making promises they could not keep. None of them ever built anything like City of Joy. City of Joy went from dream to reality with the help of three visionary leaders: the Tony award-winning playwright, performer, activist and V-Day founder Eve Ensler; the incomparable and saint-like gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder of the legendary Panzi Hospital which was named one of the top 100 best NGOs in the world by the Global Journal and the Congolese-Belgian human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver, winner of the Guardian's Women of the Year award in 2011. Without their vision, passion, dedication, commitment and love, hope for a new Congo would not exist as it does now.
City of Joy Tenets to Transform Pain to Power
The first graduating class of City of Joy created a list of 10 tenets that guide their life within and outside of City of Joy. These tenets are prominently written on the walls. The women turned these tenets into a joyful song in Swahili whose emboldening message transcends oceans, continents and cultures:
1. Tell the truth.
2. Stop waiting to be rescued. Take initiative.
3. Know your rights.
4. Raise your voice.
5. Share what you have learned.
6. Give what you want the most.
7. Feel and tell the truth about what you've been through.
8. Use it to fuel a revolution.
9. Practice kindness.
10. Treat the life of your sister as though it were your own.
The Graduates of City of Joy and Their Future
My fellow travelers and I were filled with joy and hope on graduation day. These women have created some of the strongest imaginable bonds humanly possible. Some of them will be staying in towns near and far with their friends and City of Joy sisters. Others, those who have not been rejected by their families for bringing perceived shame upon them, will go back to their village to start over and help others like them heal.
Yet we remain concerned for their future, acknowledging the likelihood of future attacks. With only 45 of them re-entering the real world outside the walls of City of Joy, there are no guarantees that their network and support of each other will withstand their upcoming challenges.
But then I remember that these women know the real world all too well. They have lived through today with a shattered, not sheltered past. They know a life plagued with the cruelest acts. They are possibly the strongest people anyone could have the privilege of knowing.
If anyone can survive the roughest conditions of existence, I have no doubt that these women can.
As for City of Joy as an engine of transformation, Eve and Christine are in the process of purchasing 350 acres of beautiful, promise-filled, lush, fertile farmland. This will be used by the graduates as well as the neighboring villagers to grow crops, tilapia and other sources of livelihood. The land will eventually belong entirely to these women as a cooperative, strengthening their power and sustainability.
Come February 14, Valentine's Day and also V-Day when thousands of anti-violence activists worldwide stage V-Day benefits, a new group of women, 90 of them, will enter its doors and the program will be in session once again. The symbolism of this date takes us back to the root of why City of Joy and Eve, Christine and Dr. Mukwege's vision will succeed: LOVE. Love is the only thing that can power a peaceful revolution. Love is the only thing that gives anyone meaning to go on living. Love is the only thing that can eradicate evil, bitterness and revenge. Love is the only thing that can free the good that lives in all of us.
Images courtesy of Emily Scott Pottruck