Rain poured from the heavens, drenching the red dirt road. The tires of the 20-year-old Land Rover were barely turning as they trudged through the soggy streets. I sat squished between two middle-aged Congolese men as we tried to beat morning rush-hour traffic in Bukavu, Eastern Congo. A line of vehicles twisted for kilometres up the hill in front of us. Cars were stuck; others were broken down. The truck in front of us tipped as it lost balance in the mud. “This is going to take forever,” I thought to myself. We were beginning a 50-kilometre journey into the land made infamous by warlords. I’m heading into what Joseph Conrad. called the Heart of Darkness.
Ernestine sat quietly in the front seat. Her eyes drooped with fatigue as we bounced through crowded streets. She raised her hand to wave as pedestrians recognized her. She was still a mystery to me, but one I wanted to solve.
The 72-year-old former nun became the director of a local non-governmental organization shortly after leaving the church 10 years ago and has become a powerhouse of change in South Kivu, the province where she lives.
“Look over there,” Ernestine said in Swahili pointing to a field close to the road. “Those are some of the families in our program. They are doing really well, and their husbands are working with them. There has been a lot of change, but the work is not done yet.”
Ernestine fell asleep. As she dozed, truck loads of military personnel and what I assumed to be rebel groups sped past us, each man gripping a machine gun or a rocket launcher. Chills travelled through my body.
Before falling asleep, Ernestine had a word of explanation for province we were now in:
“Here in South Kivu, the life expectancy of men and women is 24 hours. When you go to bed, there is a chance you will never wake up again because of all the murder that goes on here. If you do wake up, you have another 24 hours to live. You are lucky.”
Decades of unrest conflict have brutalized the Congo. Corruption rules, and instability guarantees tension. Millions of Congolese have been murdered by rebel forces. Tens of thousands of women, children and men have been sexually violated, mainly by soldiers.
Villages are pillaged and burned to the ground by warlords. Millions are displaced and seek refuge in temporary camps. Death has become an everyday reality. Despite the darkness, people like Ernestine pursue a peaceful tomorrow.
Rwanda, the Congo’s neighbor, is an example of what reconciliation looks like. Maybe redemption has stories to tell. Maybe the Congo will lose the “heart of darkness” label it’s been given Maybe the hope Ernestine passionately carries in her heart will spread like fire through more Congolese hearts.
The Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world. Diamonds, gold, oil and Colton are just a few of the “jewels” in no short supply. For more than a century, outsiders have exploited them. Under King Leopold II of Belgium, it was a personal plantation, a near slave state, where an estimated 10 million people were killed before he was forced to relinquish control in 1908.
Leopold’s troops recruited locals, and if they did not conscript willingly, he kidnapped them. His unpaid workers harvested mostly rubber, gold and diamonds. Many women were used as sex slaves and cooks for Belgian troops. Congolese who did not willingly enlist, especially children, had their hands chopped off.
Leopold never set foot in the Congo.
“Belgium’s legacy is still very present,” Guslain Bayengo, the former mayor of Beni, a city in northeastern Congo, told me. “Even the local people are willing to get to the power, and if they cannot go through the legal and democratic systems that are in place, they join the superpowers and begin exploiting their own country to gain power.”
In 1960, the Congo became an independent country and gave birth to a slew of power-hungry dictators. The only thing sustainable has been instability.
In 2009, it was estimated that 45,000 civilians die from the conflict each month. Government, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, remains fragile and rebel forces and warlords, like Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, continue to thrive in South Kivu. Women are especially vulnerable to rape and murder.
“There are 90 women here and they all want to talk to you,” Ernestine said as she looked at me.
After a five-hour journey through the swelling mountains in South Kivu, we arrived in Kaminyola, a farming village that borders Rwanda. Ernestine and her staff started an agriculture project in the village; it works to bring husbands and wives together to end domestic violence.
“Kara,” said Ernestine “Did you hear me? There are women here and they want to talk to you.”
Camera and tripod in tow, I stepped inside the gutted brick house. There they were, 90 women in the most colourful dresses, sitting and waiting to share their stories.
“I think if there are four who want to talk to me, that would be a good start,” I whispered to the translator.
Four women sat in a row waiting to be interviewed, shadows from their dark pasts weighed on my shoulders.
“I have been a victim of violence in the village. Not that I’ve been sexually abused but I’ve been victim of the other types of violence that the community experiences, mainly working hard in the farm, but my husband takes and misuses the money I make from the farm and this is one of the main forms of violence I experience,” said Amina Charlotte, a farmer in Kaminyola.
The remainder of the women sat in silence as they listened to their sister, their neighbor and their friend. Children sat on the dusty floor. They seemed to understand all too well what was being said. Soon, men gathered outside, peering into the open windows.
“Can you ask her if she has experienced other forms of violence from rebel groups or within her home?” I asked the translator.
Her eyes were glued to the floor as the question was repeated in Swahili. She looked up, catching the gaze of one man who stood with his hands gripping the barred window. She shook her head, “No, I haven’t,” she muttered.
After three hours, the church service ended.
“Come sit in my office. I want to talk to you,” Bishop Mmbala said to us. We met the bishop during the first week of our three-week visit.
We followed, unsure of what he wanted to say. We sat in the oversized chairs and a breeze swept through the window. After the long service, I was relieved to feel fresh air.
The bishop lifted his index finger on his right hand.
“Sometimes I still feel the pain,” he said. “In 2008, a group of rebels entered my home. They had machetes and wanted my family killed. They killed my wife; I managed to escape with some of our children. My finger was cut off at some point.”
Shortly after his wife was murdered, the bishop remarried and decided to focus his ministry on reconciliation and helping people forgive those who caused them hurt.
“The healing of this country starts with me. If I can’t forgive the men who killed my wife, we will never move forward from our past.”
In 2010, another group of rebels entered the bishop’s home, this time to kill him. His second wife began screaming in an attempt to save his life. The rebels told her if she made another noise they would kill her. She ignored their warning.
“They killed her. They killed her because she was trying to save me. I managed to escape, but the pain never leaves. My finger reminds me of the loss I have experienced. And although, I have a lot of emotional pain, I have chosen to forgive the men who have done me so much wrong.”
We left the brick building and I walked in stride with Leonard, the translator, as we followed the women to their farms.
“I wish I could have heard more of the realities of what they have lived through.”
“Yes, they held a lot back, but it was not a private enough setting for them to be totally honest.”
Just as he spoke those words, one woman stopped Leonard and me.
“Kaminyola has experienced more violence than those women would tell you,” said Faida Balibuny, a middle-aged mother and farmer.
“I want to tell you more. Can you interview me in here in the field?”
With Rwandan mountains sprawled in the background, she began:
“We have undergone violence from when armed groups violated the area. Quite often what happens is you don’t actually know who is an official or a rebel, but when they come into the homes and they abuse you and then they run away and we don’t know where they go. We don’t have a system in place to follow up such cases. When we find out it was soldiers who committed the crimes, they are simply taken out of the village and placed in a new one. So, we don’t know who to trust. There is no justice.”
Members of Faida’s family were murdered during the night, but she wasn’t sure who killed them and, even if she knew, it wouldn’t be worth it to try to have them arrested.
A chairperson of one of the women’s groups in Kaminyola, Jeane Mwavita, approached us as Faida shared her story. She whispered, “Can I talk to you again? I have another story that I didn’t want to share in the room, but I will tell you now.”
Jeane’s neighbor, who had nine children, travelled to Rwanda to sell her produce and buy petroleum. On her way home, soldiers stopped her and stole the goods she bought. Less than a week later, she was dead.
“What happened is a group of soldiers entered her house and violated her. Although she said, ‘I am so sorry I beg you please, I’ll give you money,’ they said, ‘no we don’t even need your money, we need your life,’ and they killed her right away.”
They killed her because she was a threat. They stole from her and she reported them to the local authorities.
Still, there have been positive changes among the men in Kaminyola with the help of Ernestine and her staff.
“There is transformation within men in our community due to the training that we’ve been receiving,” said Charlotte Gubonake, president of one of the women’s groups. “However, I may say that it’s a process. We are still hoping for better transformation to come.”
Several men have started working with Ernestine. They strive to be examples to the male population.
“We are seeing small changes, but it all adds up,” said Ernestine. “Men are treating their wives with more respect and women are not being sexually violated by their own husbands as much.”
It was 1974. Ernestine boarded an Italy bound plane. She was asked to spend time observing in a convent. She says it was her time as a nun, especially her time in Italy, which taught her the importance of obedience, honesty and perseverance through struggle. After some years in Italy, she returned to South Kivu where she continued serving in the church.
“I knew the struggles women were facing. I knew of the injustice they suffered and I wanted to help empower women and make their lives better.”
She left the church and was appointed the director of Nous Pouvons, the NGO she currently runs.
She sits in her office, her motorcycle leaning against the wall behind her. She points to a photograph of a young man on the wall behind her.
“That’s my brother,” she says as sorrow spreads across her face. “There were people who thought I was using the organization’s money for myself and so they entered my home with guns to intimidate me. And they killed him. They killed my brother and left him bleeding on the floor.”
Nous Pouvons provides training and support to more than 2,000 women in Eastern Congo, and Ernestine’s organization is one of the few here that give almost 100 per cent of financial support to its projects.
“I live by faith. My staff and I accept very little pay. The money is not for us, it’s for the women and their families to become sustainable.”
We left Kaminyola after only seven hours; I was terrified as we drove. The Land Rover raced along the one-lane dirt road through the mountains. We were 1,500 feet high, and the separation between life and death seemed to decrease with every turn. I closed my eyes tight in an attempt to forget where I was and how scared I was.
I thought of Ernestine and the women. The sun was setting behind a thousand hills, and the words of Guslain, the former mayor of Beni, rang in my ears.
“We need to love the country, we need to love our people . . . we have to love them all equally no matter where they come from and if we do so, we are going to do things that will bring peace to the country.”
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