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I was born in a very remote area in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) called the High Plains of Itombwe in South Kivu Province. I was actually the fourth child born to my parents, but the first one who lived. At the age of two, I contracted polio. As my mom had not been successful in delivering a male child, or even healthy children for my dad, he was culturally free to take another wife. In our culture, a wife is not fully considered a wife until she delivers a son. The birth of a son brings gifts of cows and other things in celebration, but the birth of a girl comes without any fanfare. So now, after more than six years of marriage, and my dad's only child a polio stricken girl, he decided to to marry again.
In my community, when a husband takes a second wife, both wives bear a heavy stigma. The first wife feels the heart wrenching pain of rejection and humiliation. The second wife, usually in an arrangement occurring without her consent, is cast as the "second" and therefore illegitimate wife of her husband. Even though our culture allows the second marriage, religiously she is regarded as a mistress or even a prostitute.
My mother however, refused to take on this shame the culture required her to bear. She was able to somehow walk above all that. Children with disabilities are often regarded as a curse from God in the DRC -- on the child for sure, but on the family as well. But my mom loved me with all her heart. Our extended family and community would continually challenge her investment in me, my mother brazenly, if not defiantly, went to great lengths to support me and protect my opportunity for a different future to the one they all expected.
Her care for me enlisted my young brothers, cousins and other relatives as well. For example at bath time, they had to fetch water that my mom heated for me to wash in the house, while they had to go back to the cold river to wash. I didn't have any crutches back then so if it was raining and the trails were muddy, my mom would carry me on her back to and from school, while the other children had to make their own way. The love and respect my mom had for me nurtured a strength and confidence within me. Her love, her sacrifice, her wisdom and her resolve lifted me. My mother's vision for me, led me into that better future she had in mind.
She always said, "Catch every blessing God gives you; don't miss even one." I took her counsel to heart. When I was in the third grade my mom arranged for me to live with her brother and his family away from the village environment, in a small city. She always made sure my dad sent school fees to my uncle for me. When it was time to enroll in the seventh grade, my uncle was away, taking his sons to a boarding school in another province. So I grabbed my stick and vaulted myself to the secondary school and enrolled myself. I went on to become the first girl with a disability from my tribe, to graduate from university. I was privileged to serve our nation's minister of gender and family as technical advisor for persons with disabilities, and was able to put my three younger brothers through school.
In the last couple of years, with the help of World Pulse, I opened a center in a rented room of a Cyber Café where women could come and get connected online and tell their stories. According to the UN, the DRC is considered the worst place in the world to be a woman. Through our work, these women found their voice and began calling for peace, for dignity, for sanity in Eastern Congo. They named themselves the Maman Shujaa, which means Hero Women in Swahili, and the world logged in to hear these resilient, strong solution providers, trumpet their universal song of peace, hope and a future for Congo.
I am known as the founder of the Hero Women of Congo, but there is a woman who founded me -- a simple woman from a very remote village in Congo. She was an illiterate professor of life who birthed an infectious hope and expectation of a different future in her daughter. Polline Nyirambarato is my exemplary Hero Woman of all of Congo's Hero Women. She was, and always will be, my mother.
Neema and her mom, Polline
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