Monday, July 27, 2009

The prison in Goma

Recently the New York Times featured an article with the headline "Congo prison called worst in Africa".

And with that, Goma is famous once again. If not for war and erupting volcanoes, why not terribly bad prisons?

The article is about the local Goma prison, and was probably sparked by the most recent incident at the prison. Last month a group of male prisoners got their hands on grenades (don't ask me how) and started throwing grenades in the middle of the night as part of an escape attempt. Soldiers surrounded the prison and began shooting back. The escape attempt was foiled, and in chaos and frustration, the prisoners turned on their fellow inmates, raping at least 8 of the females in the prison.

I don't know whether the Goma prison is really the worst in Africa, that seems like quite a distinction. But the prison certainly is an example of the larger problems in Eastern Congo. It is commonly said that rape has become a weapon of war here in Eastern Congo. But that seems to imply that the rape is a calculated strategy, aimed at achieving some end. And that it is somehow limited to places where actual fighting is going on. I would argue that it is perhaps the opposite. Perhaps war and chaos have become merely tools themselves, in service of something even uglier...self-gratification. Is there rape because there is fighting? Or is there fighting so that people can rape and pillage? All you need is the excuse of chaos, in the form of battle or a prison riot, to help yourself to whatever you want. And this, to me, is deeply frightening. Because when too many young men have developed a taste for the spoils of war, what motivation will they ever have to stop?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Leaving Goma

My husband and I love this region of the world, and have enjoyed being here for the past three years. Don't get me wrong, Goma has driven us crazy on a regular basis, but none the less, this place somehow fits us. And, perhaps against all odds, we love it.

But when we came here, we planned to stay for three years. And our three years is almost up. You see, I am an only child, and my parents live in the US, which in case you haven't a very long way away. In fact my husband's parents and siblings are also in the US. And we miss living in the same country as our families.

But my husband was born in this region of the world and grew up here, in many ways Africa is home to him. So while we have never had much of a master plan for our lives, we have always assumed our lives would somehow be spread between here and there, and the people we love in both places.

Which seems to have left us living life in three year stints.

So this three year stint will end next month. We aren't really sure what is next, as I mentioned we aren't so good with master plans. But we are looking forward to seeing family and friends, and probably returning to New york City. At least for a while.

As for SHONA, don't panic. This is not the end of SHONA, but rather the beginning. I have spent two years pouring my heart and soul into a few women. The point wasn't to build a nice craft shop, or a fancy new website. And the point wasn't for me to stay here forever. The point was to empower those women, and they in turn would empower others.

The craftspeople are ready. They already sew completely independently of me. They have learned to buy their own materials, and even to ship their own products. And now they are training our new interns. The focus of SHONA has always been to empower these young women toward independence, and I see no better test of our success than for me to be a bit further away.

But in all reality, I will not be that far away. I will continue to do all of the online work for SHONA in the US and to work closely with the craftspeople by phone, and by visits.

In fact, SHONA is bursting at the seams. What I started as a little trial project, has turned into a true business. And I need to be in the US in order to work on establishing SHONA as a non-profit organization, expanding our stock and shipping capacity, improving our product photos and online store, and the list could go on forever...

So I will have my hands full. And the craftspeople here will have their hands full.

Make no mistake about it. We are attempting something quite remarkable. I am leaving the craftspeople on their own. They will have no manager and no middle man. These young, uneducated women are going to do it themselves. So stay tuned. It is bound to be a fascinating journey, and we are just about to take the first step.

Friday, July 17, 2009

In search of a Sugar Daddy...

Do you have a "Sugar Daddy"?
Or maybe you are a Sugar Mommy?

What? You laugh?

Maybe you haven't read the signs.

And by that I mean these signs...

They read:
"I don't sell myself"
"Accepting gifts does not mean you've accepted sexual relations...refuse the SHUGA DADI.
(or SHUGA MAMI as the case may be)

They are part of a recent campaign in Rwanda to cut down on "inter-generational sex"

The term is very amusing to me, as are the signs.

But the issue they are trying to get at is an important one.

Still, I have a question. Who is a Sugar Daddy?

In this case one assumes that we are talking about an older man "buying" a younger woman often with gifts or other financial incentives. I am assuming that they are suggesting that this Sugar Daddy is not an actual husband. If you marry her, perhaps you cease to be a "Sugar Daddy" and become a proper husband?

The problem is that marriage, like "Sugar Daddy"hood, is often a financial transaction here. It is not exclusively a financial transaction, but that is certainly part of it. Men pay a very real bride price to a woman's family. The process of gifts and payments is extremely long and drawn out, and is certainly seen as essential. While some men are too poor to make these payments, and so begin living with a woman without paying for her, they are usually deeply ashamed of this and it causes a rift in the family, only to be bridged by a belated payment. A young man I know recently made the mistake of sleeping with his neighbor, a young woman of about the same age as himself. They are both around 18 years old and the girl did not get pregnant. None the less, her family was outraged. They had the young man picked up by police and brought him to court. They may have been upset about several issues but the critical one was not that they was too young or irresponsible but rather that he had not paid for her. A goat and two cases of beer were demanded to settle the debt.

So the slogan of "I don't sell myself" seems like an interesting one. A prospective groom is expected to act as a suger daddy to his would-be bride's family. Here in Congo, in addition to the normal payments of goats and cows, a groom must give his mother in law other gifts such as expensive African cloth for her to wear.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the system. It is nice to see such a strong tradition remaining in a culture that often seems to be falling apart (I'm speaking of Congo not Rwanda). The elaborate process is also a way of protecting women from rash decisions and inappropriate behavior. It is a way of honoring family, and forces a man to prove his financial stability before embarking on the very expensive process of raising a family.

Of course it also has negative sides, but that is not my point.

It is just interesting to see Rwanda embarking on a campaign to discourage people from seeing male/female relationships as finacial transactions.

Because the reality is that nearly all relationships here have a financial aspect, in a way that makes me, as an American, a bit uncomfortable. I was raised to believe that "you can't buy your friends" and "the best way to lose is a friend is to lend him money". Relationships, whether friend or family or romantic, are supposed to be about love, and if money enters into that, it taints it. I am from the land of hollywood romance. Althugh I have no doubt that finances often figure into marital decisions, we all are supposed to pretend that they do not.

In Africa, the lines are not so clearly drawn. People seem to think "what is a friend, if I can't ask him for money" , and even more so for family members. Money seems to be a well-recognized part of relationships. Friends and family are expected to ask for money at any time, and they are expected to give it.

Sometimes this makes me nervous. I am prone to feel that no relationship is real if money is involved. I like the slogan "I am not for sale" and often find myself wondering if everything here is for sale.

But I must catch myself. I may be from the land of the hollywood romance, but I am also from a land where the size of the diamond in your ring still matters to a lot of people. It is a land where divorce battles are common,and the injured party is compensated with money. And it is a land where families often tear eachother apart over the money in their inheritance.

The reality, as Madonna once sang it, is that "we live in a material world". Both here and in America, money does enter into relationships, the question is simply how we deal with it.

Which perhaps is why the Rwandan sign does not suggest refusing the gift, which would have been the logical advice from my point of view. They simply argue that the gift doesn't obligate you. An interesting, and true, point.

And now that I have done all this thinking,
I gotta tell you...

my husband has been paying my bills for the past three years,
and he did give me some pretty nice gifts before we got married,
And he is older than me, if only by six months...

So maybe I've got my very own SHUGA DADI?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Handicapped sports

I must confess that one of the most discouraging things to me about life here in Goma are the beggars. I just find it such a hopeless state of affairs. Sometimes I think of Mother Teresa, whose life and work I deeply admire, and I remind myself that she herself begged in the streets. So perhaps I am a bit too quick to judge.

But still I find it hard to stomach the begging, partly because it is so widespread. But more-so because it seems like such a denial of possibility. Often the people begging in the streets are handicapped people, offering their disability on display as a demand for compensation from people passing by. Often it is not their fault, this is the life they have been taught to live, and this is all they have been taught to expect.

But so much is possible.

The handicapped people I know are some of the strongest, most innovative people in the world.

Here is an example of exactly what is possible.

This is "Sitball", a version of handicapped volleyball. The rules are similar to volley ball, except of course that you can't stand.

The team here is composed of young men from Rwanda and Congo who have lost the use of one or both of their legs. They, with determination and humility, are changing the culture for handicapped people here. Mapendo, one of the SHONA women, is the only woman on the team. She is number 11.

So check out these young people, playing with all the determination in the world despite their handicaps, or perhaps because of them. It is not an easy game, and I am quite sure that every one of them would beat me if I were to have the courage to leave the sidelines.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New SHONA interns

We have just begun to train our two new interns, Riziki and Solange (pictured above). They are incredible young women, both handicapped from polio, who truly deserve the chance to become independent craftswomen. For this month it will cost us $100 to train each intern and provide for her living expenses. Would you like to sponsor one of these women? We are accepting donations for any amount that you would like to contribute, and will provide you with specific information about how your contribution is being used. Follow this link...

Can you imagine growing up in a war-zone, as a young handicapped girl, barely able to walk? What you must realize is that the war in Congo is not a war fought with battle lines and tanks, a war in which there are clear lines between civilians and soldiers. The war in Congo is ugly, in every sense of the word. It has seeped into the daily fabric of life, destroying every place of refuge. What war means to the people of Eastern Congo is that soldiers (from any number of waring groups) may appear in their village and in their homes at any time. And too often those soldiers will steal their crops, burn their home, and rape the women and girls.

And so people run. But how do you run if you are handicapped?

Argentine, one of the SHONA women, tells incredible stories of her mother. As a child, Argentine was completely unable to use her legs at all. She grew up in Masisi, a beautiful area of Congo which has been the ravaged by war for years. As the war grew worse and neighbors and family members fled, Argentine's mother faced perhaps the most difficult question a mother could face. How could she protect her oldest daughter and her younger children with no money and no means of transportation?

She went to the forest and looked for a quiet place. She dug a ditch and surrounded it by branches. Then she carried Argenine on her back and placed her in the ditch. She told her, I have to leave to look for food, but I will return every two days. Stay here and stay quiet. No one will see you. If i don't return after two days, go and look for help. God will protect you. But Argentine's mother always returned. Argentine stayed in that ditch for months at a time, and today she credits her mother for saving her life during that time. What a terrible story of war, but a beautiful story of a mother's love.

But what happens when you have no mother to carry for you?

Solange, our new intern, has this story. She grew up in the same war-torn area as Argentine, and with the same inability to walk. But her parents died when she was a child. Her grandmother and aunt cared for her when they could, but there came a time when everyone had to run. And she was left behind. Her relatives told her to stay in the house and she would be fine. And so she stayed all alone in the house as the world ran away. Soldiers eventually arrived. Miraculously they didn't touch her. They stole some things and then asked her why she was still in the house. They told her that she had to leave, because others would arrive and they wouldn't be so kind. So she made her own way to a small forest near her house. And hid there.

Eventually Solange made it to Goma and was treated at the Handicapped Center. She has just completed four years there, during which she underwent an operation to straighten her legs, learned to stand again, learned to read and write, and sew. Last week, she graduated from the Handicapped Center, and was required to move out. And yet again, she was faced with the question of where to go. She has no home to go back to. It has been destroyed by the war. Her two siblings live in a refugee camp, along with her aunt. And yet she has learned a skill, and she is ready to begin a life on her own.

But she is not alone. Argentine and Mapendo are here to help her on her way. Solange and Riziki have moved in with Argentine and Mapendo, and are working side by side with them, to train them. They are teaching them classes, monitoring their progress and guiding them each step of the way. We hope that at the end of the internship, the women will be able to join SHONA as full-time craftswomen.

But this part, the internship, is what it is all about. I have spent a year and a half working with Argentine and Mapendo so that one day that would be able to teach others.

We could have grown a lot faster. We could have added interns sooner and brought in "experts" to teach them. But I wanted the SHONA women to become the teachers. That takes time, and it takes a lot of training.

But I truly believe that this is the way forward. These women will make the best teachers because they have been there themselves.

After all, they are the ones who hid in the forest. They deserve to be the ones to lead the way out.

Argentine is teaching Riziki and Solange. You can't imagine how long it took her to prepare that poster, but she did it herself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New website and new shipment

I can scarcely believe it myself!

We have a new website, a new logo, and and a brand new shipment!

Come and check out the awesome work that NT Global did on our website. Some of you may remember that a while ago I wrote a despairing entry about technology. In a nutshell I said "ahhhhh...I am never going to be able to do all of this!"

To which I promptly received a number of offers of help. Imagine that!

NT Global does business and technology solutions. Just what we needed. They have donated their services to redesign our website, and they have done a marvelous job. So check us out and check them out.

On our website you will see our new logo. That was designed by another company that has donated its services. Rena at Ali Pro Services has designed our logo, as well as designing all new brochures and labels for us. She has an amazing eye for design, and is fabulous to work with. So check her out as well.

And of course come and see what our craftspeople have been working on. Our new stock is in, but it is going quickly!

And I almost forgot to mention our new blog. Don't worry, I will still keep writing this blog as my personal blog, but our website now has an official SHONA blog. I wrote an inaugural entry there, and am not sure if anyone is going to find it, so please do stop by and leave a comment.

Many thanks to NT Global, Ali Pro Services, and all of you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Indepdence Day in Goma: Part II

Argentine and Mapendo (two of the SHONA women) spent last night trying to decide where to hide. They heard shooting and assumed the town was being attacked. After all, Eastern Congo is still a war-zone. When the sound of explosions eventually quieted, they tried to go to sleep, assuring themselves that it had just been a random gun-battle.

This morning they arrived at class and I asked them what they thought of last nights events. They said, "Yes that was a lot of shooting. We thought the war was starting again."

In fact it was fireworks. Yesterday was Independence Day in Congo and a fireworks display ran for at least half an hour last night. I couldn't see the fireworks from my house, and apparently Argentine and Mapendo couldn't see them from their hiding spots. But we could all hear the explosions, and I have to say that it was as long and impressive sounding a display as I have ever heard.

I, for one, am not suprised the a fireworks display in a region which is still a war-zone, would scare the living daylights out of people. They announced it on the radio beforehand but many people, like Argentine and Mapendo, didn't hear the warnings and were left to assume the worst.

Here is the incident as reported by Reuters...

GOMA, Congo, June 30 (Reuters) -
"Independence day fireworks sent terrified Congolese sprinting for cover on Tuesday in fear that war had broken out again in their eastern city.

Officials had organised the display in Goma to highlight efforts to end more than a decade of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to show a sign of normal life returning to the region, where a peace deal took hold in January.

But residents feared it was a raging gun battle."

Especially in many rural areas, Eastern Congo is still a war zone, with or without a fireworks display. In too many places villagers still sleep in the forests for fear of being attacked in their homes.

And even in Goma, security is a distant dream. Look at Mapendo's comment...

"Yes that was a lot of shooting".

Mapendo said this today, in a casual sort of way, well-after she had time to decide that the "war" had not actually started again. Still, it seemed entirely probable to her, that with or without a war, a raging gun battle could be conducted nearby. What kind of peace is this that the average citizen does not even need a war to explain over thirty minutes of intense explosions and shooting?