Sunday, December 16, 2012

Too close to home

The town in Connecticut where I grew up, and where my parents still live, is about 20 minutes from Newtown.

The city in Congo where I lived for 3 years, and where the SHONA ladies still live, is Goma.

Yesterday I was listening to a BBC world briefing, and I heard a broadcast  about the tragedy in Newtown, Ct.  Followed by a broadcast about the ongoing tragedy  in Goma, Congo.

Suffice it to say, there is something peculiarly horrifying to hear on the radio, 2 places that are close to my heart and yet truly worlds apart.  And now suddenly, here they are, one after the other, in almost the same horrifying breath.  Tragedy upon tragedy.
Newtown is a beautiful town.  A few months ago SHONA had a booth at a craft fair there.  It was an outside fall festival, and the weather was beautiful, but what struck me most that day was the way SHONA was truly welcomed in Newtown.  I met many wonderful customers there, who cared so much about the women of Congo, about what was happening so far away.

But now tragedy is all too near to that community.  And I, like everyone else, am at a loss for words.

I think of those words so often repeated "this is too close to home".   I hear them from friends I have in Connecticut, those who live in the area, those who know people directly affected.

And yet I somehow feel them too.  Newtown is too close to home.  Goma is also too close to home.

And to be honest, I think everyone is saying this about Newtown right now.  For all of us, this...this...inexplicable horror is far too close to home.  No matter where we live.

Then I think about the ongoing war in Eastern Congo, and all those who have died and those who have been forced out of their homes and who live in fear.  But I am also reminded of the countless people who I don't know, and who the SHONA ladies do not know, but who are following closely each step those women make, and praying for them daily, for peace in a city torn by war.  I have received emails from people saying how they wake each night, in the middle of the night, praying for the women.  I have received fevered phone calls from SHONA customers asking what they can do to help.

I think again of those words... "this is too close to home".

Sometimes these words are forced upon us, by physical proximity.  And sometimes they rise unbidden to our lips, no matter where the tragedy occurred. 

They are painful words, the words we utter when we let ourselves begin to feel at least for a moment the terrible violence that plagues our world.  We let ourselves be touched by tragedy, wherever it is found.

But they are also some of the best words,  the bravest words we could utter.  Because what is the other choice?  To turn around and look away, and hope we can keep our distance?  No, these words are a cry to action, a refusal to continue to accept the violence which plagues our world.

"Too close to home..."
With these words we claim this world as our home.  And those who suffer in it, are our family. 

These tragedies, are all far too close to home.  It is up to us to grab each others' hands, and go out into this world, determined to make it better.   


Friday, December 7, 2012

To Stay or To Go

To stay or to go?

This is a conversation that the SHONA ladies have been having since the rebels seized Goma a few weeks ago.  After all, what do you do, when fighting arrives at your doorstep?  Do you hunker down, or do you try to get out?  And if you leave, where do you go?  How do you get there (especially if you are disabled) and what do you do with all the relatives and children who have sought shelter in your home, because they've already had to flee their own homes?

I remember being told about the volcanic eruption in Goma in 2002.  The nearby volcano erupted and spewed lava onto a huge portion of the town.

  Even then, there were people who  didn't leave.  Afraid that they would lose everything they owned, or perhaps too sick to run.  Or maybe with too many children to carry.  There were a lot of people who barely fled in time.  And by the same token, the population flocked back to Goma, long before the experts declared it safe.  People headed back to Goma while the lava was still hot on the ground.  Or so I've been told.  That image has always stuck in my head, of rushing back into the inferno.

Because it is home.
Because if you don't someone will probably loot your home of all that you have.
Because to be a refugee is to suffer.  And to be a refugee in a place where you are not welcomed, is to suffer even more.

When the rebels attacked Goma, the ladies stayed for a night and listened to the explosions overhead.  The next day, they decided to leave but had to split up because there was no other way to get out.  One of the unspoken tragedies of war is the way it separate loved ones.

For the ladies, they were fortunate to reunite along the way.  And they were fortunate to have the resources from their work with SHONA, to pay for truck rides and motorcycle taxis and any other way they could find to flee. Otherwise, with their disabilities, it would have been impossible.

And eventually, miraculously, they made it to Bukavu.  That is roughly 130 miles, on roads that would not qualify even as dirt roads in this part of the world.  Along the way strangers welcomed them into their homes.

In Bukavu, the hotels were expensive, and the city on a hill during rainy season, was virtually impossible for them to navigate.  Seeking safer ground, they tried to cross the border into the neighboring country, but with 5 disabled people, 3 babies, 5 children, and 2 teenagers they were turned away.  We looked too much like refugees, they said.

So they fled, back to their homes in Goma.  If we are going to suffer, we might as well suffer at home, they said. 

Again, miraculously, they made it safely through an overnight bus ride through an incredibly volatile area.

And they returned to Goma, to find all the food and water in their homes gone, the markets closed and the nights filled with shooting.  The rebels had pulled out of Goma by this point, but the shooting had not stopped.  And it still hasn't.

The shooting is not war...exactly.  It is another of those unspoken tragedies of war.  Goma always has a bit of a "wild west" feel, especially on the edge of town where the ladies live, and where refugee camps are located.  But the seizure of Goma, and the following withdrawal, has left the town spinning out of control.  The night is full of shooting because bandits are arriving at people's homes.  Shooting their way into these tiny wooden homes, with nothing but a small lock on the door, to demand whatever they can.  Who are these bandits?  That is precisely the problem.  Who knows?  Perhaps they are connected to the war, or perhaps they are the young men who live down the street.  As long as there is confusion, there is impunity. 

So the people of Goma take justice into their own hands.  Yesterday when I talked to one of the ladies, she reported that her neighborhood had risen up against a group of thieves.  They caught one of the thieves, threw rocks, beat and killed him.

So do you stay or do you go?  The ladies have tried both at this point, and I can't say that either one has worked out very well.  For now they are back in Goma, but with this question constantly replaying in their minds.  At least when the volcano erupted, it was easy to tell when the lava was cool and firm.  But as for peace in Goma, nothing is ever really cool or firm.

In this holiday season, I can't help but be especially struck by the Christmas story.   I am especially struck because I learned just the other day that Argentine is pregnant.  With her tiny body, and a little one growing inside, I really cannot imagine how she made that trip to Bukavu and back.  But she did.  And there were strangers who welcomed her, and pushed her "wheelchair bicycle" and helped her along the way.  And so have all of you, through your thoughts and prayers, and through your support of SHONA.

This year, in the midst of all the twinkling lights, cheery songs, and colorful packages, my eye keeps seeking out that manger scene.  There is something truthful in it. It is more sobering for sure, but also somehow more miraculous.  And that gives me hope.

Please keep the people of Eastern Congo in your prayers this holiday season.

Argentine, Mapendo, Solange and Riziki, never cease to remind that beauty and hope shine most brightly in the most difficult of places.  I got a new shipment of their stock last week and I was floored by the beauty.  You can find their handcrafted work at