In 2005, the International Rescue Committee called Congo the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Since 1997, an average of 1200 Congolese were dying every day from war and its fallout — disease and malnutrition — nearly half a million a year.
Most of the clashes centered in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, where rebel militia and neighboring intruders from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, vying for a piece of Congo’s riches, terrorized, abused and murdered innocent civilians.
Men in Congo raped with impunity. In Goma, there had been only one successful prosecution of rape. Where was justice? Where was the government prosecutorial process? There was none. The Congolese government was a shell and impotent. The Congo Army paid soldiers $14.00 a month, when it could. Soldiers, armed militia and neighboring raiders committed most of the rapes. Rebels and foreign raiders lived off the land, commonly abducting girls and recruiting boys as young as eight.
I traveled to Goma in 2006 to listen and learn. HEAL Africa invited me into their regular workday activities. While there, Rhoi, originally from Tanzania, joined me. She was in Goma at the behest of UNICEF to research early childhood development in the area, or lack of it. Rhoi spoke English, French and Swahili.
Rhoi and I joined HEAL Africa’s Dr. Eulalie Vindu on a community visit as part of the their palliative care program for terminally ill HIV women. One at a time, the families trudged into our small meeting room. For two hours I looked into tired, sad, blank and hopeless faces. For some, the advancing disease scarred their bodies. The children fidgeted. Who was this white person? Many had not eaten that day. Why were they not in school? One mother, when challenged by Rhoi said, “How can you expect me to pay for school when I can’t afford food?” School in the Congo cost $2.00 to $3.00 a month — affordable, until one considers that at the time, 300 million Sub-Saharan Africans lived on $1.00 a day, or less.
One of the “mothers” was a 12-year old boy caring for his HIV-infected younger brother; the mother had died. Their father, infected, left to find food and never returned.
Rhoi brought packages of cookies for the families. She handed me two to open. Struggling with the wrapper, I clumsily crumbled two cookies. Too embarrassed to hand out crumbled cookies I considered eating them. Rhoi stopped me. “What are you doing? They will eat the crumbs.”
As of 2006, one estimate had 6,600 Sub-Saharan Africans dying of HIV/AIDs daily, 3.8 million annually. Africa, then home to 10% of earth’s population, claimed two-thirds of the world’s reported HIV/AIDS cases. Men predominantly passed it on through heterosexual contact. Women passed it on during child birth or breastfeeding.
HEAL Africa ran or partnered with several other outreach programs, in addition to running the best hospital in Goma. I labeled these “Initiatives of the Heart,” including Community Education, Choisir la Vie (Choose Life), Prevention-of-Mother-to-Child-Transmission and Antiretroviral Therapy. Dozens of UN and other NGOs operated out of Goma.
On a visit to an orphanage in Sake, 25 miles south of Goma, a distraught mother pleaded with us to help her 13-year-old daughter. A soldier had raped her the previous day. Our group piled back into our SUV and sped back to Goma. The frightened girl cowered on the rear barren floor, folded into a near fetal state. She would be tested and injected with Neviropene. If administered within 72 hours of rape, Neviropene dramatically reduces the risk of HIV transmission.
In another meeting with pregnant women at a Catholic facility, Rhoi asked a woman, “Mama, why do you keep having so many children?” She replied, “It is God’s will.” In the Goma area there was a direct correlation between education and the number of children — the more education, the fewer children.
In developing countries, 100,000 cases of fistula were at that time reported each year. During childbirth, when a uterus or recto tract ruptures, a fistula may form through which urine and/or feces pass uncontrollably. Fistula had been eradicated in western cultures by the late 19thCentury.
In the Congo, fistula cases were an epidemic, usually caused by brutal rape, sometimes with foreign objects, like a rifle or a stick. Bringing further humiliation, raped, incontinent victims were scorned by their villages, and if married, often scorned by their husbands.
HEAL Africa developed an expertise in the repair of fistula, the program headed by Dr. Jacques Kalume. The surgery was part of a program they called “Gueris Mon Peuple” (Heal My People). After launching the program, Dr Kalume repaired over 750 fistulas in three years. Their reputation spread. One tough woman walked 400 miles to Goma after an attacker raped her and fractured her arm.
The repaired ladies, alone and abandoned, desired returning to and re-engaging with their community or a new one. The HEAL program did not end with surgery and treatment. Partnering with villages and town leaders, the women were granted small parcels of land to farm and make a new beginning. HEAL gifted them a goat, a hoe and some seeds and sent them on their way.
Not all fistulas could be repaired, even after multiple surgeries. These victims were the true outcasts. Forming their own sorority of sorts, HEAL secured permanent housing for them — think collective enterprise. They crafted products for sale in the local marketplace and eventually paid their own way.
I saw a lot of human darkness while in Goma. But I also saw many heroes like Dr. Kalume and Dr. Vindu, her five-foot stature belying her status. Dr. Flory Cirmwami Matabaro, a second year resident at the HEAL hospital, spoke six languages. While coming of age he saw “much suffering” and vowed to become a doctor. Dr. Flory could have earned a lot more money in a western country, but he vowed to remain in the Congo to help “people I see suffering here.” Mama Jeanne Banyere and her husband, Prosper Mulengetsi, ran an orphanage in Goma where to date they had successfully placed 70 orphans with foster families. Father Marino, an Italian, migrated to eastern Congo in 1975. Affiliated with the largest orphanage in Goma, Don Bosco, Father Marino had become a stabilizing influence in countless lives. The Don Bosco Orphanage housed 600 orphans but swelled to a daytime population of 1400.
Finally, I bow down humbly to my friends Judy and Dick Anderson, who today are no longer associated with HEAL Africa, now completely independent of even outside consultants. But, the Andersons launched another initiative of the heart, Act for Congo. Like I said, I bow down.
I left a piece of my heart in the heart of darkness.
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