Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The tin shacks of GOma

This is Roy's house. As you can see it is literally surrounded by lava rock. The outside walls are made of old tin sheeting, and the inside walls are made of plastic sheeting in most places, and ripped up cardboard boxes in some places.

The lava rock has been more or less cleared from inside the house, leaving a dirt floor, with occassional rocks jutting out. There is no electricity and no water. The "jerry can" containers in the forground of this picture are used for carrying water to the house, a job done mostly by the girls in the family.

The house is divided into two rooms. The "living room" is shown in the picture above. The second room is a bedroom, the same size as the living room, where Roy and his wife sleep with eight children. They own one single mattress.

I show you these pictures not to make you feel bad for Roy. Everything is about context. Roy's family recently moved into this house. For them, it is a step in the right direction. Their last house didn't have enough tin to cover the walls or the roof, and it was in a worse location.

I show you these pictures to give you an idea of what life looks like in Goma. The average person in Goma lives in conditions similar to Roy's.

And yet there are whole neighborhoods that look like this. There are places where the skyline is full of the sloping roofs of these "McMansions".

If something burns me out in Goma, it will probably be this. It is this daily encounter with human nature. The ability of man to build a mansion next to a shack. Morever the ability of man to surround his mansion with a wall, buy a large water tank and hefty generator, and never have to deal with the reality that there are no public services in Goma.

Where does the idea of public services come from? The idea that there are some roles that government should fill, and some needs that are so basic, they must be addressed. In the US we are often afraid of "Big Government". I know that these days people are thinking heavily about Obama's big spending, and about the level of debt we will incur. And we should think carefully about such issues. I also know that the proposal to spend billions of dollars is motivated by a concern for the economy rather than a concern for public services. But everytime I hear about that money I can't help dreaming about all the railroads that could be built, bridges that could be repaired, libraries that could be stocked, parks that could be maintained and the like.

I can tell you that there is not a single park in Goma. Nor a single waste removal company, nor a single sidewalk. I would like to believe that it is in human nature to come together and try and make the place we live better, even if there is no government to do it. I would like to believe in a commitment to the public good. But I can tell you, that it is much easier to build a wall and fix up your own compound. And, when left to our own devices, I'm afraid that is what we tend to do. There are an awful lot of walls in Goma. In fact if you look carefully at that picture of the McMansions you will see the very same lava rock that covered the land outside of Roy's house. In this case, someone has taken the time to pick up all those lava rocks. They are using them to build row after row of walls.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

French Class

Je suis en retard.
That pretty much sums up my experience of learning French here.
(I am late...or perhaps more applicably...I am behind)

I worked on learning Swahili first. For which I am forever grateful. Swahili wasn't too hard, especially the version of it that is spoken in Goma, in which many conjugation rules are simply ignored. Of course, I am far from perfect in the language. But it is what I use to communicate with almost everyone, almost every day. People here are generally thrilled to see a mzungu who is trying to learn Swahili and it is undoubtably helped me form relationships with people here.

None the less, I should really know French by now. But French has a million rules. And no one is thrilled when you try to speak it. They just wonder what kind of mzungu speaks French so badly.

So I know how the SHONA women feel. They also have not learned French. Argentine didn't attend school at all as a child, and the others attended only briefly. It is a hard language to learn. And it is frustrating to start from square one trying to learn a language that you wish you had learned a long time ago.

But languages are keys to so much in this world. Argentine and Mapendo traveled to Rwanda to play in a handicapped sports competition last year. They returned demanding to learn French and English immediately. They had meet all these wonderful, lovely people from Europe who gave them gifts, and wanted to speak to them, but they had no common language. Argentine and Mapendo said it is the worst feeling in the world to want to thank someone and to be unable to. They wanted to thank these generous people for their gifts of crutches and backpacks, but literally did not have the words to do so. Somehow I suspect their smiles translate into all languages.

But you can see them here, half a year later, dutifully struggling to learn this difficult language, determined to build that bridge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

To you this looks like a man sewing...

To me this looks like hope.

If only you knew that this man owns his own sewing machine for the first time in his life. And that he has been given the money to rent a small workspace, and table and chair to go with it. If only you knew how many children this man has, the struggles they have been through, and the conditions they live in.

If only you knew how very good at sewing he is, and how much he can do with this small machine.

I recently added a donations page to our website. I posted it with some serious misgivings. SHONA is about what we can accomplish through the work of our own hands, not about asking for donations. But I had received several requests from generous souls who wanted to know how they could give to us, and I realized that we cannot do it all ourselves.

That is a hard realization for me. I am an only child, a bit hard-headed and accustomed to thinking that I could rule the world on my own. I will do something and fail fifty times before I will ask for help. I'm sure my husband will be happy to confirm that for you! I think he considers one of the most telling examples of my personality to be the way I played a video game with him when we were in college. It was a video game that I knew nothing about, not being a video-game fan myself and I can no longer even remember the name of it. But somehow he talked me into playing it. (Obviously this must have been before we were married!) The first step seemed to involve running and leaping at just the right time to avoid being run over by a boulder that is coming right toward you.
I made a sprint for it and got run over,
tried again, got run over,
tried again, got run over...
I think after about the fiftieth time of watching me run head-long into the boulder without once requesting any advice on how to get around it, my future husband concluded that I might be a difficult woman. Fortunately he married me anyway!

But the point is, I like to do it myself. Even if it means getting run over in the process.

Perhaps it is an American thing. I am all about the work of our own hands. Especially in a culture like Congo that has become heavily dependent on foreign aid, I feel it is important to "empower" people to create their own miracles. You know "teach them to fish".

But I have been thinking a lot lately about how nothing we do ever is truly the work of our own hands. It is the work of a thousand hands that have helped us on our way and shaped us into who we are.

Certainly that is true for myself. Sometimes people ask how I can do "this". I am not like my husband, who grew up out here. He is used to moving around and being a stranger in a foreign land. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, in one house, and in one school. But it is precisely because my family is so rooted that I feel able to be here. It is because they are at home, that I can be away. Home is still there waiting for me, strengthening me. Without their hands, I couldn't do it.

So I posted the donations page, in recognition that we can't do it by ourselves. The Craftspeople of SHONA have done an incredible amount through their own hands, but they have also received your help, in a thousand ways. As soon as I put up our donations page, I was honored and humbled by a donor who gave Roy a sewing machine, a table, chair and workspace. But she didn't want me to tell Roy anything about her, only that this was a gift from God, not from herself or her family.

And so perhaps nothing is truly our own. Not the work we do, nor the gifts that we give. The clothing that Roy is sewing will bear labels with his name as the craftsperson. But if we were to be truthful, the label would need to be much larger, to carry the names of all those who have brought us this far.

Stay tuned for an update to our website soon with pictures of Roy and his family, and the story of their lives. Perhaps you read my earlier posts about Roy's little girl being molested.

At the time I recall being disgusted at what one person can do TO another.

Today I am amazed at what one person can do FOR another.

Perhaps in the end, this is why God chooses to work through human hands. It is a way of redeeming our hands. In a world where we are too often forced to confront the suffering that is caused by human hands, it is a way of reminding us of the good that is possible.

Thank you to all our loyal friends and customers who continue to inspire us.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Coming to Town

The streets are empty. The shops are shut. The power has been ON for 2 days straight.

What on earth could be going on in Goma?

The President is coming to visit. He is rumored to be driving in on the road from Butembo. The road that the CNDP took control of in October. The road that since it reopened has been the scene of robberies and killing. He is apparently on a driving tour, reclaiming the East with his own vehicle.

To what do we owe this honor? Perhaps women's Day? That was Sunday. No, today has been declared a National Holiday for an entirely different reason. The Congo football (soccer) team won the African Nations Championship last night.

My husband and I didn't watch the game, but we marked it's progress quite effectively. We live in a noisy part of town, next to bars and nightclubs. But this noise was unmistakable. The sudden roar of cheering that swells up in the night air, and dies down just as quickly, is the tell-tale sign that Congo has scored a goal. After the game our neighborhood quickly began to sound like one large bar room, mixed with a circus. There were motorcycles celebrating with their horns, street kids celebrating by getting wildly drunk, and the whole world out in the streets celebrating in any way they could. We were sure that gunfire and looting would break out at any second, but it didn't.

So today there is no work. Shops and offices are required to shut. The streets are strangely quiet. Except in front of our apartment where they are lining up cars with flags to welcome the president. And I have the best electricity that I have had in three years.

Kabila is coming to town.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Women's Day March in Congo

As promised, I did not march this year. However the march goes right by our apartment, so I got to watch the whole thing. I must say it seemed much more organized than last year, but perhaps that is just the view from the sidelines.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the event consists of women parading around town. The line stretched for miles. Each group of women buys matching outfits, carries a banner and often carries something to signify their group. For example, the group of women who sell shoes, were carrying shoes on their head...

Here is a taste of the event...

The old women march, without matching uniforms, but with perhaps the most striking effect.

Eliza, one of the SHONA women, "marching" with an association for handicapped sports

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Islands of achievement

Last week was not good.

Nothing was working. Well, except the SHONA craftspeople, they were working fine.

But that is only half the battle. The other half requires selling what they have made.

We recently opened our own online store, which was exciting, and ever since then I have been wading through information trying to figure out how to attract traffic to our website and to our store. This seems to involve completing a million tasks which may or may not ever bear fruit. I spent days registering with search engines, writing metatags, joining forums, and trying to figure out how to get people to link to our website. And I may never know if it made any difference. You just have to throw it out there and hope for the best.

Meanwhile, the electricity kept disappearing. And when the electricity was on, my internet connection kept disappearing. And I kept asking myself who in their right mind tries to run an online business in a place with unreliable electricity and internet speeds that the US hasn't seen for at least ten years.

So I felt a bit isolated.

But today I received an email from a woman who wrote to inform me of her research on "islands of achievement"...and that phrase really resonated with me. Perhaps not the achievement part, but the island part. While working on her Master's Degree, she researched “islands of achievement within failed or fragile states” and she realized that there were a lot of local people around the world rebuilding their lives and their communities in the midst of larger chaos and conflict. After she finished her masters degree she was struck by the fact that many people haven't had the chance to hear these stories, and she started a website to bring people together and tell these stories. She was writing me to inform me that she had just written an article about the SHONA women and it is posted on their website, along with over 400 other stories.

We are an island of achievement! Visit her website, not because we are there (although that is good also) but because it is a fascinating place to see what regular people are doing throughout the world.

Their article on SHONA

The main page of the website:

And then she informed me that she had compiled her article from an article about us on
ITnews We are on the front page of their website right now!. And we didn’t even know it! I guess something I did last week worked after all. Check it out!

I deeply appreciate the willingness of both these website to seek us out and share our story. I appreciate the chance for SHONA to be “seen” by others. I would like to believe that I am humble, but I have to admit that it is really hard to work on something day after day and feel invisible. And I do start to feel like an island.

But what I found most inspiring was the opportunity to visit the beautiful "hopebuilding" website and read the stories of so many others. Because if we are all doing it, then we aren’t really isolated after all. And that is the gift of this website…check it out!

The strength of women: handicapped sports

This weekend two of the SHONA women are at a handicapped sports competition in Rwanda. In honor of the strength of women on "International Women's Day" I thought I'd share some pictures of them from the last competition they attended.

The game of "sitball" is played like volleyball, except "sitting down". Except that sitting down implies a lack of motion. In fact the players move quickly along the ground, without standing up, by pulling their bodies with their hands. Since the players are handicapped and are generally unable to stand anyway, they are quite adept at moving quickly along the ground using their arms. They also have extremely strong arms, from years of carrying the weight of their body in their arms.

Above, Argentine, one of our craftswomen, is getting ready to serve the ball. Because of the Polio she suffered from as a child Argentine's legs never developed. She is unable to use her legs at all without wearing heavy metal leg braces. For the game, she has taken off the leg braces.

To the left is Mapendo, another craftswoman. She is 19 years oldand the star of the women's team. They position her next to the net, and she spikes the ball down on the other team almost every time. Mapendo has the use of one of her legs. And some extemely strong arms!

Cheering from the sides.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What is International Women's Day?

March 8th is International Women's Day. Have you heard of it?

Somehow I had never noticed Women's Day until I came to live in Africa. I'm not sure if we celebrate it in the US and I just wasn't paying attention or what.

But here it is a big deal. Prices for cloth skyrocket this month, just as flowers probably cost more around Valentine's day in the US. Every group of women that could possibly exist in Goma, comes into existence for Women's Day. They might be a church group, an association of some kind, a neighborhood group...the possibilities are endless. They might not meet again for another year. But in the weeks preceding Women's Day, all the stops will be pulled out. They will meet, contribute to a group fund, and buy matching cloth for every woman in the group.

Then on Women's Day, they will parade around town. Literally. Groups of women in matching outfits, carrying a banner to declare themselves start lining up at dawn to get the best place in line. Personally I wouldn't be surprised if the ones in front slept there all night just to get that position.

By the time my group got there last year the line already stretched for many blocks. And then around 10 the parade begins. Don't get me wrong, this is not a parade with floats and marching bands and antique fire engines. This is a parade of women. In matching outfits. And that is about it.

I hated Women's Day last year. And I vowed never to participate in the parade again. My group of handicapped women, wanted to participate last year, so we went. And we were cut in front of, pushed out of the way, and practically run over as other groups tried to get closer to the front of the parade. I'm not sure where they were rushing to. But they never got there. Eventually it started pouring rain and the parade disintigrated into a display of women pushing eachother to get under the nearest overhang, already crowded with people. You see, it would be a disaster to get all the beautiful new matching outfits rained on.

I found it heartbreaking. This is Congo, and this is the day for women to show their unity. And it has devolved into a runway to model your new clothing, with each group trying to outdo the others.

If there is anywhere in the world, where women deserately need to stand together and show their strength it is here in Congo. The incidence of rape in Eastern Congo is the highest in the world right now. And if there is anywhere that they could speak out, it is here in Congo. Congolese women are strong; they are not timid. Certainly they were not timid as they jostled for the best place in line. I understand that there are some places in the world where women are simply unable to stand together and make a statement. They are too afraid to raise their voices. But this is not that place.

And so I found it heartbreaking when I began to calculate the amount of money women spend to buy cloth for this one day. And I considered the power that a group of women this large could have, if they decided to tackle an issue that women here struggle with. So much could be done on this day.

I suppose it is not unlike our many holidays in the US which have lost much of their meaning and their power.

But I invite you all to consider making International Women's Day meaningful in Congo this year. Staying in the Congolese tradition of buying something beautiful for this holiday, why not buy something from us? A purchase from SHONA celebrates the real strength and power of women in Congo. And it would make a real difference to us. We won't be out there parading this year. Two of our women will be playing "sitball" at a handicapped sports event. The other two will be sewing. The women have been working hard lately; trying to expand our inventory, studying 3 courses (Math, French, and "Faith and Action"), and supporting their families. Somehow parading around in the latest fashion doesn't seem particularly appealing to them. But they would be thrilled if you would wear something in their honor.