Walter James

Walter James (SOS Femme en Danger – SOSFED): Walter graduated in 2006 from the University of Minnesota. Following college, he worked on international development in Haiti and Senegal, and studied human rights and international development in Senegal, Costa Rica, and Morocco. Walter first visited Eastern Congo as a 2009 Peace Fellow for The Advocacy Project, where he documented the work of civil society organizations such as SOS Femmes en Danger, Arche d’Alliance, and Tunza Mazingira. The following year, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy with a Master’s degree in Public Policy.

Leya: The Ballad of a Village Maiden

15 Jun
Leya and her brothers

Leya and her brothers

Meet Leya.  Leya is sixteen years old.  Leya is one of 8 children.  Her father was killed by bandits in his own home; Leya, her mother, and her siblings barely escaped with their lives.  Leya’s mother has remarried, since life for a single woman with children is extremely difficult.  Leya works all day in her stepfather’s rice paddy, then comes home and prepares food for the family.  Leya’s stepfather sends her out to the rice paddy by herself, which means that she is more likely to be kidnapped and raped by rebels or soldiers.  She is three years behind in school.

Recently, a man has noticed Leya in town, and he wants her.  He has entered into negotiations with Leya’s stepfather to marry Leya.  The stepfather wants to marry Leya off because the suitor will have to pay him for Leya’s hand.  In any case, soon the rice harvest will be over, and the stepfather will have little use for Leya.

I first met Leya when I visited her family’s home, set on a wind-swept hillside overlooking the tiny village of Kiliba.  I had come for a weekend visit with her older brother Isidord, who lives in Uvira.  When we arrived, Leya’s suitor was sitting and talking with the stepfather.  The suitor appeared to be in his late twenties.  Isidord was furious when he found out that his stepfather was trying to marry Leya off.  In Congolese culture, responsibility for accepting marriage proposals passes to the oldest male sibling in the event the father has died, not the stepfather.  There was one complicating factor: Leya indicated that she would prefer to marry this complete stranger than to continue the miserable work in her stepfather’s rice paddy.

Isidord explained to his family that Leya was only sixteen, hardly a good age to get married to a much-older man. In any case, Isidord said, what kind of grown man is interested in a sixteen-year-old girl?  This suitor cannot be up to much good.  Leya’s suitor also claimed he was a successful businessman.  Isidord pointed out that “businessmen” in this area live a very “fast” life, often having a different woman in every town.  It is also not uncommon for Congolese men to abandon a woman once she becomes pregnant.  If Leya married this man, it would be almost guaranteed that she would become pregnant within a month.  Leya’s older sister Bintu had been abandoned by her “fiancé” once she had become pregnant.  Now Bintu is shamed before the entire village, and she will soon deliver a child the family can barely afford.  Isidord asked Leya if she wanted to end up like her older sister.  Even worse was if Leya left Kiliba to live in another town, became pregnant, and was abandoned by her “husband”; then everyone would think she was a prostitute.  Indeed, many single mothers in the DRC are forced to resort to prostitution, since they are already stigmatized and lack a means of support.

Isidord wanted Leya to return to school and only start thinking about marriage when she reached the proper age.  He explained to Leya that marriage wasn’t the only way out of her current situation, and enduring a few more years in the rice paddy was better than a lifetime of suffering in a marriage to a stranger.  If Leya focused on getting her education, she might be able to make decisions for herself and be able to choose a better husband once she was of age.

Isidord told the suitor that he wanted him to wait for two years until Leya was 18; if he was truly interested, then he would be willing to wait for two years.  Both the stepfather and the suitor protested, saying that Leya was physically already a woman, and it was about time she got married.  However, Isidord stood firm in his decision.  The suitor left.  Isidord told his sister to resist the advances of men and wait until he got enough money to move her to Uvira so she could start school again.

Back in Uvira, Isidord was still worried.  He told me that his stepfather would be leaving Kiliba for an entire year to sell his rice in another town.  This would leave little support or protection for his mother and siblings.  He also said that the suitor might nevertheless try to get Leya pregnant, by seduction or by force.  Isidord is hoping to save enough money to move his entire family to Uvira once his stepfather leaves.

Leya’s situation is not uncommon in the DRC.  Women have little protection from violence and poverty in the DRC, and thus marriage seems to be a good option that may provide some sort of support and shelter.  However, society is very permissive for men, but restrictive for women.  Thus women often come out on the bottom, abandoned and vulnerable in a dangerous environment.  On the other hand, there are people like Isidord who want to bring equality for women in their society and culture.  In the midst of constant war and upheaval, this is a difficult task.  One hopes that Leya will find a future that is better than the one preordained for her and so many other Congolese girls.

Posted By Walter James

Posted Jun 15th, 2009


  • isha

    June 16, 2009


    great job walter! such a moving story…

  • skfly

    June 16, 2009


    The EU wants to know what her bride price is and/or if she can be adopted.

    • Walter James

      June 24, 2009


      I asked Isidord, and he said the price for a girl like Leya would be around 2 cows. Of course, Leya’s stepfather would be unethically profiting from the transaction, since he is NOT Leya’s real father.

      I will be posting an update on Leya’s situation soon.

  • Beth Gasser

    June 17, 2009


    Hi Walter!I am so drawn to your blog. I love your stories and wish you well there. I blogged about you myself and have been spreading your story on Twitter. Granted mostly to housewives across the US, but hey, we’re people too. Be safe. Keep writing when you get a chance. Keep your toothbrush away from rats. Are there rats there too? Just wondering.

    • Walter James

      June 24, 2009


      Thanks for reading, Beth! We killed a rat the size of a Buick the other day in our house. Fortunately, it had not reached my toothbrush yet.

  • Eileen Hunter

    July 14, 2009



    I cannot thank you enough for what you are doing right now. I have such a blessed life here as a woman, able to do and say I as I please. I know that my sisters suffer in a lot of African countries in particular. I know a lot of good, educated African men who just can’t comprehend that their women are not being treated as they should. Today was the first day that I heard an African man believe that anything should change and it gives hope.

    Love you to the moon and back.

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