Friday, August 30, 2013

Life on the edge

This is the story of Neema and Ziada, Mapendo's nieces.  They are currently missing.  

This video shows Mapendo making a purse. The girl with the gorgeous smile in the background is Ziada. 

Here is how the girls got lost. It is kind of a long story, but gives a clear picture not only of this individual catastrophe, but also of what it means to live on the edge.

Last week Mapendo returned to Congo in order to visit her mother who was very sick in the hospital.  Unfortunately last week, the fighting also escalated in Congo again.  Mortars and rockets hit the city of Goma and also the bordering town in Rwanda, leaving at least 13 dead and many more wounded.  Mapendo was in the center of town with her 2 nieces, Neema and Ziada, when fighting seemed to escalate, the population fled to their homes and the road back to the girls home on the outskirts of town was unsafe.  

Mapendo decided to board a boat right away from the center of town and leave with both girls.  In fact both girls had been begging her to take them with her, but she had previously been unable to take the older niece because she didn't have the correct paperwork for crossing the border.  But then bombs hit, people were scared, and Mapendo decided that the best thing to do was to get out of town with the girls.

They crossed the lake in a boat, and arrived at the town of Bukavu.  But then Mapendo found herself in an impossible position.  Her son, 16 months old, became quite sick.  She wanted to get him back to Burundi as quickly as possible.  But her young nieces didn't have the correct paperwork to travel with her on the most direct bus route (through a neighboring country).  She knew they needed to go the long way around in to avoid problems at the border crossing.  So she decided to send the 2 girls on the longer bus route while she and her son took the shorter bus.  Meeting at the other end.  The girls are 9 and 14.  They never made it to the other end. 

Mapendo returned to where the bus had left from, and it turns out that the bus never left, because it didn't have enough passengers.  The company decided to cancel the trip.  They said they had returned the ticket money to the girls and told them to come back the next day.  That was Monday, and Mapendo has now been searching for them for 4 days.

Perhaps in the US, this wouldn't have happened.  Children of this age would be able to call home.  But in Congo, where there is no home phone and cell phone connections come and go, it is not clear whether they would have known a number to call, or whether it would have gone through.  The girls are in a different city, and telling someone their home address isn't so easy.  Houses on streets aren't numbered, and in poor areas streets don't even have names.  Announcements have been made on the radio, Mapendo's husband left Burundi and traveled back to Congo to help Mapendo with the search, and they have used every ounce of their resources, and borrowed what they didn't have, to try and find the girls.

These are Mapendo's nieces, both of whom have lived with Mapendo on and off for the past few years.  Their father died a few years ago and since then Mapendo has taken them under her wing and they have been helping with her son.

When we, as Westerners, hear about people living in poverty and war, it is sometimes hard to imagine what that looks like.  The first thing that pops into my head is often those infomercials that show starving children with bloated bellies and flies swarming.  But, even though that does exist, that has never quite matched up the worlds I saw.  I have always been struck by the vibrancy in the midst of poverty and war, people somehow go on living.

The thing is, they go on living, but they live on the edge.  They live without back-up systems.   They live without a thousand little protections, all those small resources, that help us recover from disaster here.   For Neema and Ziada there is no investigation and there is no amber alert.

But what the people of Congo have, is what we all have.  Faith and love.   For Mapendo and her family they are praying for the kindness of strangers to bring those girls home.  The kindness of others. And to tell the truth, sometimes that is all any of us has.  Thank you to all our friends for keeping these young girls in your thoughts and prayers. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Orphans in Congo

Can we talk about orphans without talking about international adoption?  Bear with me here, I'm going to try.
Because "orphan" can mean a lot of things.  There has been massive confusion about the term in the last few years.  Many people have cited the statistic that there are 163 million orphans in the world.  And so we picture 163 million children languishing alone in orphanages.

But of course, that is not the case.  The statistics from UNICEF and other global organizations refer to children who have lost at least 1 parent.  Only about 18 million of those orphans are double orphans, meaning they have lost both parents.

And of those 18 million children, many, if not most, have extended families that could potentially care for them. 

 In Congo, and in many other places, there is in fact a strong culture of extended family care. Solange, one of the SHONA Congo women, lost both her parents when she was a child.  Despite extreme poverty and living in the midst of a war-zone, Solange's uncle still took Solange in.  I doubt it occurred to him to do anything else.  In the face of extremely difficult situations, Congolese families regularly take in relatives, even distant relatives.  They take in children who have been orphaned, or whose parents just can't care for them right now.

But wait.  That doesn't mean the rest of us are off the hook.

Because what they are attempting is a Herculean task.  The loss of a parent is crushing, and even with the best of intentions, a remaining parent or an extended family often struggles to care for children in this type of loss.

Here is the reality.  Orphaned children often have some form of family that is able to take them in.  But what they and their families often don't have is support, emotional or financial. 

 And that can make all the difference in the world in whether that child will eventually end up on the street.

Consider this...One of the first things that often happens to children after they lose a parent is they are pulled out of school.  The family just can't continue to pay.  But imagine how that feels to the child.  They lose their world, twice-over. How likely is it, that even with family around, they will feel isolated, stigmatized and lost?

And how can they find words to express the loss, in a world where so much energy is expended just on keeping food on the table?  Suddenly the extended family finds one more mouth at the table, and it is all they can do just to make sure there is enough food.

But we all need more than food on the table.  Consider how much access we, in the Western world, have to grief counseling, to therapy, to support.   In Congo, there are precious few programs offering any type of therapy to grieving children and almost no one offering support and education to their caregivers.

 That is why the New Hope Center  matters.  It is a small program in Goma, which serves this population.  They work with children who have lost loved ones, keeping them in their homes, helping them find a safe place for their grief, paying their school fees and supporting and educating their families, so that together they can find a way forward.   It isn't easy, but it is possible.  And isn't that our first responsibility?  To support what is possible, locally?

 In the 6 years I have worked with the SHONA ladies, one of the most humbling things to me  has been watching how they accept responsibility for their extended families.

Argentine and her mother, with a orphaned baby (the mother, a relative, died shortly after the birth).  Argentine pays for food and medicine for the baby.  Argentine's mother has taken in the baby despite extremely difficult circumstances and very limited resources.  You can support Argentine and her mother in their generosity by buying the work of Argentine's hands.

  They regularly take in nieces and cousins and all kinds of relatives, even when they have so little themselves.  I can't count how many school fees they pay, and medicines they buy for what to me seems like an unending crush of family members.  I have often been tempted to say "Come on!  You don't have have to do that!".  But I finally realized that what to me what seems an unreasonable request, to them is an honor, a privilege.  Even when they are pressed to the edge, they desperately want to throw open their doors, and care for others.   

But the SHONA ladies aren't unique.  Daily, Congolese families are doing just that.  They are throwing open their doors and taking in children who have been orphaned.  Let's make sure they have the resources they deserve.

Check out the New Hope Center, and please buy the necklaces and bracelets that these children make.  As part of the programs at the New Hope Center, the children draw pictures of their experiences and turn them into these amazing paper-beads.  The money from these sales goes to keep the children in school, and that can make all the difference in the world to them.  So let's do it.