A dear friend of mine is currently teaching in the Congo and her most recent update has left me in shock. I share it to provide the rawness of life there.
For a while, I’ve been meaning to sit down and write an email about the women I work with here during the afternoons. And then one of my students died today. She had just arrived last week, sent down from one of the villages because she had been so severely raped that she needed surgery. She was so slight and frail, obviously HIV positive. She had walked to the hospital in the evening, just as lyn and I were leaving, and we gave her a blanket and a luna bar to last until morning. In class she was very bright, wrote well, but so quiet and hung out in bed the rest of the day. She hadn’t been able to sit in class the last few days and, when I came to say hi today, I found out that she died last night. Its left me shaky and sad but also looking, with new eyes, at the other women and what this little-hospital-that-could is doing for them.
But to back up (skip this little history digression if you want). There has been a civil war in N. Eastern Congo since 1998, that has engaged 7 countries and killed 5 million people. The militias, by this point, are almost indistinguishable, except for the interhamwe (a hutu militia that did much of the killing in Rwanda in 1994), who the UN is now trying to round up and send back across the border. (We see the envoys go by every week.) This is part of a peace agreement imposed by the UN last year. It has been effective in returning this province (RCD-Goma) to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) but has been less successful in bringing peace to the villages, where the small militias (basically just bandits) have no real political aims that can be bargained with and no real incentive to surrender their weapons, as they survive by pillaging the villages and smuggling goods across the borders.
Women have born the brunt of this conflict. The militias abduct the women as a way to assert their control over the civilian population. They then rape them from anywhere from a few days to a year, )(when they are kept as army ‘wives.’) The stories these women are mind-blowing. About being raped eight times a night every night, tortured, watching your family killed in front of you?K and these are women of all ages, from 8 years to the very old. When they are finally released or escape, they have nothing and are often rejected by their remaining family, because of the stigma of being raped or the physical condition they are in.
The village clinics send the worst of these cases down to DOCS. Over 2000 women have already been identified who need vaginal reconstructive surgery. This repairs the walls between the vagina, urethra and anus so that the women can control their bodily functions. They come in smelling terrible, severely traumatized, often infected with STDs/HIV, sometimes pregnant. DOCS is only one of two hospitals in the whole province that can perform these surgeries and tents for these women are quickly taking over the little compound.
This has put a huge strain on DOCS resources, as all of these surgeries are paid for by donations and they have not even been able to raise the money to rebuild the operating rooms and wards since the volcano erupted in 2002. Fortunately, the situation has also caught the international eye and visitors have been pouring in. Jessica Lange visited DOCS the week before I got here and last week the BBC came to make a 4.5 minute spot (they videotaped me teaching my Swahili literacy class but I didn’t make the cut). Next week it’s a reporter from Sweden. And DOCS is getting written up the Feb. edition of Elle (why not?). So far none of this piecemeal publicity has manifested itself in any donations, except on the part of UNICEF who built two wards for the women recovering from their operations. But we are hoping and, with the unbelievable help of one Mr. Megcaz, DOCS now has a website: www.docsafrica.org, if you want to check it out.
So, back to me. These women are at DOCS for up to nine months, as many require 2-3 surgeries, with 3 months post-operative care between each, to fully recover physically. Lyn is also trying to meet some of their other psychological and economical needs by hiring a few counselors and a woman who does basic livelihood training (basket making, crocheting, sewing). And I’ve now started an education program for them and their children and am teaching them Swahili Literacy and basic health. After a few weeks, I feel like I am finding a good balance of teaching and more organizational/management work on the program development side (which seems to move in spurts); though it has also raised one of the questions I always struggle with: of whether I want tp do the hands-on, person-to-person work myself or work on a larger scale, with wider systems that effect more people, but from further away.
But the more immediate challenge is that I don’t really speak Swahili. (And only 1 in the 50 here have been to primary school long enough to speak french). So far, I’ve been able to study enough each night to teach them to read/write new words the next day, though they are so eager I’m getting worried; today I had to forcibly leave after a three hour class! The language barrier makes it a big game, with me acting everything out, drawing comical pictures, and bringing in all sorts of props from home. It’s a great class to have at the end of my day and I am definitely looking for other teachers, who can help out (we have two classes, six days a week, and there is another group outside of the hospital that I would like to extend the program too) and continue the program when I leave.
Looking around at these women this evening though, I felt a little intimidated. I’ve heard bits and pieces of their stories and played with their new babies, but I can’t understand anything about their lives or what they’ve been through. But I do get to watch their transformation from when they come in with broken bodies and haunted spirits to when they leave, so much stronger and ready for what comes next. I can feel that they are healing, even though I can’t imagine all the ways in which they were hurt.
Hmm?K that was the first time I’ve smiled since I started writing this email. When I began, I just felt numb. I don’t come very close to death at home and here, while it is always lurking under the surface, somehow it still doesn’t often hit me in the face. I hope this email isn’t too lifeless. But it does feel better to have written it out.