This last week, I have been in Fizi Territory, which is the province directly south of Uvira, where I am now living. Although Fizi is really only about 200km (about 125 miles) from Uvira, Congo never fails to turn what should be a relatively simple trip into something altogether different. Our original plan was to get to Fizi 10 or 11 hours after leaving from Uvira.
The lack of roads between Uvira and Fizi was not surprising, but what was unexpected was the week of rain that preceded the trip south, turning the dirt tracks to deep mud. After going only about 50km toward Fizi in a UN Land Rover, we were pretty much swallowed into a big hole, with mud up to the car doors. After a couple hours spent trying to get the car moving again, we realized that this was futile, as the tracks only got worse after Mianda (the closest village to where the Land Rover was stopped). So, we abandoned the Land Rover with the driver, hoping that another NGO would come along to help tow him out of the hole. The 4 of us left on foot bringing along 60 liters of gas and the video equipment, which we were using to document the programs of SOS Femmes en Dangers in Fizi for a short film to be shown at this year’s Vital Voices GLA Awards (see blog posting below concerning the work of Marceline and SOS Femmes en Dangers). We were lucky enough to find an NGO motorcycle along the route, who offered to move us 1-by-1 towards our final destination in Kazimia. Thus, 10 hours as predicted quickly became 30, not including the night we passed in a village in between the abandoned car and Kazimia. The people in the village (called Kikonde) where we stayed that night were surprised to see 4 unknown mud covered people coming into their village, but they were more they were really generous, and found us some food (smoked fish and fou-fou) and a place to sleep.
Finally arriving in Kazimia about a day late, I started making rounds right away to let all the necessary people know I was in the village and that I would be taking video. When arriving in Congolese villages not accustomed to having foreigners walking around, the first thing you always have to do is meet with the representatives from the militias, local administrators, intelligence officers, etc. so that they can help you stay safe (by letting you know if there is any fighting in the area and where not to go) and also so that they are completely aware that you are authorized to be working in the area, thus making it harder for them to harass you, put you in prison, order you out of the village, etc. It might seem strange to let shady types know where you are and what you are doing, but my experience tells me that if I am upfront and make sure each potential problem group knows I am there, things go a lot better. Taking video in Congo is always a sensitive subject, especially when filming something shameful to the Congolese government like their inability to protect their women from rape and other violence, which was the nature of the video we shot. Thus, a little “grease” money is always in order, and 3,000 Congolese francs (about $4) usually does the trick to get you full access and a signed letter from each local official and militia leader more or less authorizing you to be filming. It’s a shame that this is the case, but it is what it is and anyone working in Congo knows that all efforts to resist the occasional bribe to get things moving will eventually be trumped by reality and the fact that most officials and soldiers here are unpaid, and used to extracting their salary wherever possible. They are definitely okay with making your life difficult and your work impossible without a small payout.
That accomplished, we were finally able to start filming, albeit about 1 day and a half behind schedule.
The projects SOS Femmes en Dangers we were to film were located in Kazimia, Mboko, and Makobolo, and all were really impressive but difficult to stomach at the same time. In Mboko, we visited and interviewed some of the 125 women spending the day at Marceline’s reception center for recently raped women. The women were encouraged to see that even a small amount of international attention was being focused on the struggle of Congolese women to recover from often brutal rapes, but were realistic in asserting that despite their denunciations of rape by militias, government soldiers, and civilians, the government is largely incapable of protecting them. The sheer number of women at the reception center was a testament to their solidarity and will to defend themselves, but also to the fact that the presence of sexual violence in Congo is continuing without signs of slowing down. At the reception center, one of Marceline’s co-workers who manages the center (we profiled and interviewed her as well) told us that besides the rampant raping of women, Congolese society views women as having “…11 arms. Enough to do all of the work at the house, cultivate the fields, and raise the children while the many men pass their time doing nothing.” She added that constant denunciation of the poor treatment of Congolese women could eventually have a positive result in improving their situation, but that this was impossible without addressing the fact that often raped women are left by their husbands and thus live without support. One woman we interviewed spoke on similar lines, telling us that she was recently raped by four FDD soldiers (Burundian rebels) and that after her husband heard of the rape, he threw her out of the house.
SOS Femmes en Dangers responds to the need for income generation among women abandoned by their families by offering centers like the one we visited in Kazimia, where a sewing workshop and communal field has been established. Through these two operations, women are given options and small amounts of income (they sell the clothes they make and the food they harvest) with which they can continue to live and support their children. The women interviewed at the sewing workshop commented that the work was going well and that they felt increasingly empowered to have a form of income, but concluded that the lack of enough machines and fabric was really holding the center back from helping the huge numbers of raped and abandoned women trying to work at the workshop. Marceline’s field worker told us that while over 300 have arrived to try to get into the program, only about 50 or 60 at a time can do so due to the space and material limitations. The market is there, but the input (capital) is lacking.
One of the stories of recently raped women we heard repeated over and over was that they are most vulnerable when they are tending their fields. Because of the long work day, they will often leave their houses at 4 am, a time when those traveling the road are still vulnerable to militias/rebels/robbers who are generally more active between the hours of 11 pm and 6 am in the rural parts of Congo. Arriving at the fields to endless work, women often are forced to pass the night in their fields, where they build temporary shelters to avoid the long walk home late at night and to make it easier to begin work early the next day. Te respond to this, SOS Femmes en Dangers has purchased community fields, not far from the main track through Kazimia and Mboko, where women are safer to cultivate and encouraged to do so in large groups, as they are less vulnerable in larger numbers. This year’s mavuno (harvest) of corn, manioc (used to make fou-fou), and ground nuts is predicted to be a good one, and will allow the women cultivating the communal fields to generate income in a safer atmosphere than their previous fields located in isolated regions far from the center of the village.
So, it is obvious that the problems for Congolese women are nowhere near their end, but if any positive can be drawn from my short time in Fizi this last trip it is that the women here refuse to submit silently to their abuse. An attitude of “silent shame” is being replaced by a more proactive one, and that process is definitely expedited by the work women like the those we met in Fizi are fearlessly undertaking. If you could see the region, you’d realize that there is no protection for women besides their solidarity. “Remote” does not begin to describe it. As Marceline discusses regularly with women concerning how to decrease their vulnerability, walking to the fields together is a start, supporting those who are raped without prejudice helps, and rallying together against those abusers of human rights will go a long way in time.
There were lots of other visits worth noting, but I’ll just say quickly that we saw great things being done in the most difficult of situations in Fizi. The women we spoke to were empowered, organized, and fighting for increased independence and increased recognition of their human rights, which are regularly violated in what has traditionally been a lawless place. I had gotten some emails asking for more information on SOS Femmes en Dangers and Marceline, so hopefully this blog has responded to those. I should be in FIzi again with Marceline and her co-workers towards the 8th of March, where we are making one final field visit before her trip to Washington D.C. to be present at the Vital Voices Awards. You can see her profile here on the vital Voices website if you need more information, and thanks for reading the blog. I’m hoping to turn some of the interviews taken in Fizi into profiles to be used for an upcoming SOS Femmes en Dangers advocacy campaign which we are trying to organize or April. If you’d be interested in receiving the profiles or campaign information sometime in April, please feel free to comment on the blog and I’ll get back to you.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Mar 2nd, 2009