Driving to the City of Joy -- located in Bukavu in the conflict-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo -- is intense.
Dusty dirt roads, throngs of people, motorcycles buzzing about, and utterly unpredictable traffic.
The route to the City of Joy is called Essence Road. Eve Ensler, whose V-Day organization spearheaded and created City of Joy, said she's never experienced anything like Essence Road. She's found no street more intense in her many travels, including to India and Pakistan.
The journey to -- and from -- the City of Joy is long, and complicated. Multiple flights to get to Burundi or Rwanda, taking two to three days with flying and driving to get to Bukavu. Sometimes crossing borders four times on the drive -- exit Burundi, enter and exit Rwanda, and enter the DRC -- to this remote yet teeming place.
Yes, this journey is like a pilgrimage. Because at the end of the dusty road amidst poverty and stark humanity, you see hope at the end. The City of Joy.
Built for women and girls who are the victims of the rape and other atrocities inflicted at the hands of armed militias in the region (you can read my earlier piece here about conflict minerals and the violence in the region), you immediately feel the energy, the pulsation of love and healing when you enter. Run by Christine Schuler-Deschryver with her local staff, the City of Joy is creating a revolution, and turning pain into power.
My first visit to the City of Joy was for the opening celebration in February 2011, where each of us attending brought gifts and support to this important project. However, in the end, the gifts delivered were to each of us that had traveled far and wide: the pure joy, the singing and dancing that embraced us all and whisked us up.
Women dancing and singing for hours, despite having been raped -- many multiple times -- and their lives and bodies torn away from them.
Last week, I returned from the City of Joy. This time I delivered a gift I had long promised since my first visit: A solar system to provide reliable, clean electricity to the women of the City of Joy.
Just like traveling to a remote place like Bukvavu, getting solar panels, inverters, and batteries not only donated but then delivered, was no small task. But we did it.
Ten days ago, solar PV panels donated by SunPower, back-up batteries donated by Trojan, and solar inverters donated by Solartechnik Stiens in Germany all arrived (thanks as well to grants from the 11th Hour Project and COINS Foundation). All intact.
Fortunately, also arriving with me in Bukavu were three amazing volunteers: Chadi Depelchin, Michael Stangl and Heiko Steiber.
Despite lost luggage that included needed parts and tools, our team finished the solar installation last Friday.
Just in time for the second graduation of City of Joy students, which included 90 women whom, according to Eve, had showed up six months earlier barely able to function from what had been done to their bodies and lives. All of whom went dancing out of the City of Joy six months later.
The electricity from the grid in Bukavu went down during the graduation ceremony, but thanks to the solar panels no one noticed. The grid in Bukavu is often unreliable, yet the sun will now provide the light and power needed to help the women of the City of Joy.
We also delivered solar LED lights, which will replace dangerous, dirty and expensive kerosene lamps that the women staying at the City of Joy use at night to study, and prepare for the next day.
Thanks to our volunteers and donors, Global Green is helping the City of Joy turn pain into power -- and solar power -- to take back their bodies and their lives.
Still, like we experienced on the first visit, the gifts delivered were from the women of the City of Joy to us, not the other way around.
I was fortunate to be able to sit in on the beginning of a class Eve taught one day. She took them through movements and exercises, including breathing. One woman was having a tough time breathing deep. Eve brought her -- let's call her Franny, as we can't divulge their true identities -- up front.
Franny stood near me as she, perhaps for the first time in a long time, took a truly deep breath. And the smile broadened on her face as she connected to her breath with Eve's guidance. The look in her eyes was magical. Transformative.
I then got the privilege to share with the class a passage given to me to read at a wedding I had just attended, a betrothal of two amazing women. The piece I read at the nuptials was adapted from an unknown source, and I took a bit more license that morning for the women of the City of Joy.
The opening and closing lines I chose from the piece: If you want to change the world, love a woman. Really love her.
Love in the sense of celebrate. Honor. Respect. And Empower.
There's a passage -- "plant trees with her, and watch them grow together" -- that to me is an antidote to reverse our society's false notion of dominion over the Earth and women. The Congo is the epicenter of these two issues coming together. We can no longer plunder either to get what we want; rather we must care for the Earth and empower women to ensure future generations can enjoy the beauty of nature we do -- and have clean water and air, along with a stable climate. I explore more of this in my TEDxWomen talk.
When I finished, Franny and I caught each other's glances. And the look of joy and pride in her eyes was a gift I will never forget.
Back in California at the very moment we were beginning to install the solar system at City of Joy, a bill Global Green had sponsored in the legislature was killed by the electronics industry. The bill was one small but important step to reducing conflict minerals, which armed factions profit from -- it is these forces who rape and terrorize to control the minerals. The bill would have the State of California buy refurbished electronics.
Refurbished electronics include the newest models in factory condition, and are cheaper than new products. The bill, authored by Senator Kevin De Leon, would have also increased demand for recent electronics being sold to places like eBay's Instant Sale or EcoATM, putting money back into the pockets of hard-working Californians and keeping electronic waste out of the landfills.
Next year, Global Green will re-introduce the legislation, and I will make the pilgrimage once again down the dirt road -- the next visit likely to be muddier than muddy rather than dusty, thanks to the rainy season -- to the City of Joy.
With me will be more solar LED lights, and a solar-powered water pumping and filtration system to provide drinking water for the City of Joy.
Powered not just by the sun. But also by the look in Franny's eyes.