A letter from Christi Boyd, serving in Central Africa, based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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You are invited to your own 10-day pilgrimage of prayerful reflection and action by reliving the experiences shared in the daily blog entries that are embedded in this letter.
A Pilgrimage for Peace
Having signed up for less than a comfortable ride, my travel companions proved even more resilient than I could have prayed for. Six Presbyterian congregants from five presbyteries in four states went on a ten-day pilgrimage that would expose them to the harsh realities in the beautiful but volatile region of East Congo. The inevitable emotional drain from being engulfed by a myriad of personal stories from survivors of sexual violence became compounded by the bodily strain of driving on rocky lava-layered roads.
“The program consisted of two weeks’ worth of activities compressed into an unforgiving schedule that sometimes included brutal rides to and from the sites we visited…. The TV [reality] show “Survivor” seemed like a lark compared to this.”—Bill Moore, telecommunications administrator, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, Del.
While this particular journey may have been an epic undertaking by the participants—their commitment, determination and stamina for the sake of learning were unquestionably exemplary—the true survivors in their chronicles are Congolese children, women, and also men who endured brutal rape, whose heroes are women leaders of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) in East Congo. Through life-giving ministries, these women seek to restore the survivors’ wholeness and address causes and consequences of the ongoing violence.
“We had the opportunity to speak with some of the survivors and to hear their stories of being subjected to unspeakable violence—often more than once. The stories are heartbreaking, but the strength of the survivors is truly inspiring.”—Anne Crane, secondary school teacher, Church of the Covenant, Boston, Mass.
We spent the first couple of days in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, and concentrated on the medical care of survivors and the various individual, community-based, congregational, denominational and ecumenical initiatives by ECC women that respond to their socio-economic and psychological needs. These include but are not limited to shelter, counseling, skill-building for income generation, and savings and loans programs, but also educational opportunities for war orphans, children born of rape and illiterate adult survivors of sexual violence.
For the following three-day weekend I had made arrangements for the delegation members to dispatch in small groups to travel by air, road and water to other towns in three different provinces. This would give them more diverse and intimate opportunities to learn about church-based ministries in response to sexual violence encountered in the particular settings there. Some flew into Butembo and traveled on to Lubero and Beni in the Kivu’s far north. for example, and visited a mental care facility associated with the ECC, where survivors who have been psychologically affected by sexual and other forms of violence receive treatment. At a gathering of Protestant women they were introduced to four young child survivors of rape, one of them a 10-year-old boy. Sexual violence against males goes much underreported as the shame and fear for stigmatization keeps the issue an even greater taboo for them than for women.
“I hope to gain a clear understanding of how Eastern Congo’s minerals, military culture and gender attitudes all contribute to violence against women. Bill and I plan to share these learnings and pictures with our church congregation and other community groups to raise awareness.”—Jane Palmer, hospice nurse, Westminster PC, Wilmington, Del.
Others crossed Lake Kivu to travel down to Bukavu, in the South Kivu Province. They heard of the 15 Tamar Circles the ECC women helped established there to raise awareness about sexual violence, and learned about the women’s advocacy work as they organize to take to the streets to demonstrate and deliver protest messages to the authorities. This visit also included an interview at the ECC-affiliated Panzi Hospital with renowned gynecologist and women’s advocate Dr. Denis Mukwege, who spoke about the disturbing increase in numbers of infant rape and sexual assault of very young children and decried the impunity of perpetrators. Despite the observed shift from armed perpetrators of rape to civilians, Dr. Mukwege pointed to an ongoing underlying connection between East Congo’s mineral wealth, the presence of armed groups, and what he terms sexual terrorism, and he stressed the need to advocate for global mechanisms to eliminate the illegal exploitation and smuggling of Congo’s minerals that support armed groups. He urged us to raise the awareness within the ECC about the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations as a means for the Congolese Church to use its prophetic voice.
“When we met [at Panzi hospital] an 11-year-old girl, a survivor of sexual violence who had recently given birth, I found what will be the spark for me. She embodied the growing number of sexually violated children in East Congo in recent years, children whose voices are so often silenced. As followers of Jesus Christ we must find a way to halt these vicious crimes and amplify the voices of survivors.”—Cathy Coons, Salem Presbytery International Hunger Committee member, Starmount Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, N.C.
Those flying into Bunia, the capital city of Ituri Province, met with 30 of the 123 women and men who were trained by the ECC Women’s Federation in “Healing the Wounds of Trauma” and use their newly acquired skills to assist people living with trauma. The ECC women are involved in the political process by organizing public demonstrations demanding that the Congolese government address sexual violence and by providing training in voter education, encouraging women in the church to elect responsible leaders who will end ongoing armed conflict.
Back together in Goma, I had the focus of the travel seminar shift from the Church’s survivor support services in local communities and training activities at (inter)denominational levels to its advocacy activities for peace and security through broader civil platforms and the international community. The Presbyterian travelers sat down with the elected leader for all of North Kivu’s civil society organizations, in which the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim communities are also officially represented. He referred to anthropological studies to explain that traditionally the local culture in East Congo did not tolerate sexual violence. The shame and punishment for sexual misconduct would fall on the perpetrator’s entire family, a measure by which rape was customarily kept out of Congolese society. Rather than cultural attitudes and practices, a recent history of cross-border migrations that continues to stir questions of national identity and ethnic strife for access to land, mineral wealth and political power would have been the precursor to the violent conflicts that ensued from the 1994 influx of Rwandan genocide perpetrators in which rape became systematically used as a weapon of war by warring factions to subdue local communities. Following two subsequent Congo Wars and a rebellion, sexual violence has continued in more localized armed conflicts and proliferated into society. According to our interlocutor, a long-term solution needs to be sought in the political realm through good governance and sound electoral processes.
“I have an interest in the cultural issues in the male attitude toward rape and violence against women. I’ve made a commitment to the issues of Rights of Women and Girls and believe that this [Travel] Seminar will make me better able to tell that story.”—Dave Eaton, university professor of sociology, First Presbyterian Church, Normal, Ill.
At the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) the Women’s Protection Advisor for North Kivu spoke with us about the UN’s mandate in the region, its commitment to preventing conflict-related sexual violence, and efforts to engage various government bodies and population groups in dialogue with one another. She too emphasized the unique role of the Church in advocating for peace, security and democratic processes. Last but not least, at the World March of Women, where Protestant women meet up with their Catholic and Muslim counterparts, it was shared how women are spared the repression men usually undergo when holding demonstrations. The women receive broad support from the public when they organize sit-ins, with men joining in and motor taxi men carrying their messages across town.
“My hope and expectation is to encourage Presbyterian World Mission and [the Presbyterian Mission] Agency and the Congolese and African diasporas to come together for the promotion and protection of human rights, to denounce violence and corruption, to sensitize the worldwide community, the United States Congress and the United Nations and others with power to help work toward democracy and the return of peace in Eastern Congo. Speaking for physicians, we cannot continue to address only the consequences of violence without providing leadership to prevent it.”—Amani Musafiri, former physician at Panzi Hospital, First Presbyterian Church, Champaign, Ill.
To offer my companions the opportunity to enjoy some scenery while staying within the theme, I had arranged an excursion to a 7,000-member strong coffee farmers’ cooperative in Minova called Farmers Solidarity for the Promotion of Coffee and Integral Development (SOPACDI). SOPACDI produces the Congo Coffee that is processed and sold in the U.S. by the Fair Trade organization Equal Exchange in support of rape survivors. On the way the ECC Church Ministry for Refugees and Emergencies showed us the Mubimbi Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) that it had established in collaboration with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The camp shelters predominantly women and children who have fled violence and cannot yet return home. Upon our arrival in Minova the travelers enjoyed a 45-minute ride in a wooden outboard motorboat to visit the coffee plantations and processing plant in Tsheya, where women farmers have organized their own co-op as part of the larger structure. It was shocking to learn that about 600 of the 2,070 members of this women’s co-op had themselves been raped. As proud coffee producers the women urged the PC(USA) delegation to find more consumers for their product!
The last full day of the Travel Seminar was led by staff from the GATT-RN Network, a Support Group for the Traceability and Transparency in the Management of Natural Resources in North Kivu that also provides consultancy services for the U.S.-based advocacy organization Enough Project. The day would help give participants a glimpse of efforts to break the linkage between mineral wealth, recurrent conflict and sexual violence through a mechanism that would allow manufacturers to trace the origin of the minerals they use in their products, in particular tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold, which are also called conflict-minerals. The planned visit to a certified conflict-free quarry in Rubaya fell through as the mine owner refused to acknowledge the plethora of signatures from authorities and other stakeholders authorizing our outing. It serves as a reminder that despite increased scrutiny, mining operations remain shrouded due to other human rights questions. The group nevertheless set out across the alpine landscape to the bustling mining town to hear about the tagging system that would certify that the minerals were exploited or traded without the presence of or interference by armed men and women, including government agents. Hence the conflict-free label of these minerals.
Throughout the 10-day event the need for training and advocacy was a recurrent theme for future collaboration to address sexual violence in East Congo and its root causes. At the Travel Seminar’s wrap-up session the ECC women narrowed down six ministry
areas they had identified for collaboration and agreed on, training for trauma healing in children and civic and voter education for effective democratic participation being their two priority initiatives for Presbyterians in the U.S. to focus efforts for sustainable peace. We celebrated our communion in the Body of Christ by breaking bread and drinking matunda damu (blood fruit) juice during a time of fellowship.
Much of Congo’s political stability pivots around peace and security in the conflict-prone East Congo area, and the ecumenical work for reconciliation, restoration and peace are vital for the sake of all of Congo. It has been a privilege for me to have been entrusted by Presbyterian World Mission with the responsibility of organizing the 2016 Travel Seminar to East Congo under the auspices of the Africa Office, and it was a joy to accompany my fellow Presbyterian travelers in this immersion learning experience. I am grateful for the careful preparatory work by the ECC women leaders from the national level to the provincial and local levels, and I thank God for the protection, safety and health all participants have enjoyed. God opened wide windows of opportunities when original travel schemes and backup plans fell through.
Thank you for your continued prayers for the children, women and men in this troubled part of the world, and for allowing me with your support for my ministry to serve them on your behalf through our Church. Please join in our collective efforts to address sexual violence in East Congo.
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