Charity of the Month | Action Kivu
by Sica Schmitz | Posted on October 01 2017
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been called the "rape capital of the world," but it doesn't have to remain that way. This month's Charity of the Month enables direct human-to-human assistance to those suffering from unspeakable violence, giving them the tools to be agents of peace and change.
All month we are giving back a portion of each sale to Action Kivu, an inspiring non-profit which invests in the women, children and communities of Congo through vocational training and education, creating paths toward peace and prosperity.
I spoke with Rebecca Snavey, the co-founder of Action Kivu, about the incredible projects and people that are working to bring peace, healing, and educational and vocational opportunities to the victims of the ongoing conflict. In a time of so much hardship, I hope her stories will inspire you to take action, even in the most daunting of circumstances.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What led you to start Action Kivu?
Cate Haight and I were both reading the book Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. We’d meet for coffee or wine, and couldn’t stop talking about the stories they shared in the book about women in Congo (DRC).
As we continued to talk about how to respond to what was moving us to action, we realized we were discussing doing something long-lasting, something deeper than a one-time donation. We wanted to invest in a local Congolese organization. Cate knew Kevin Sites, who had been in eastern Congo in 2005 reporting on the conflict there for Yahoo’s In the Hot Zone. Kevin introduced us to Amani Matabaro, a man who had been his fixer and translator, and whom Kevin had trusted with his life. Amani and his wife, who was a seamstress, had created a program to teach sewing to women who were survivors of the ongoing violence and to buy them machines to start their new life with the income from their small business. Amani was also sending several kids to school, paying the school fees and the Sewing Workshop costs out of his own pocket from his work as a translator.
Cate and I met Amani online, and shortly after in person in Baltimore, where he was taking a course in health and community responses in emergency situations. We founded Action Kivu as a 501c3 in the U.S. to raise awareness and funds for Amani’s work in Congo, and traveled to eastern Congo in 2011/12 to see the programs in person. I returned this past February, five years after our first visit, and was amazed by the changes in the community that have resulted from our growing impact there.
What's your favorite thing about Congo?
How do I choose? Eastern Congo is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in the world, from the lush forests and mountains that are the home to gorillas you cannot find anywhere else on this earth, to the smiles of the children and the warm embrace of the women we work alongside. I think my favorite thing is the spirit of the people of Congo, especially the women, who have endured so much poverty and oppression, and find hope in community and embrace the unknown as they learn new skills and pursue their vision for a brighter future for their kids through education and equality.
You have so many fantastic programs from sewing workshops, literacy programs, and education for children - how many people are part of your programs per month?
There are over 400 women and kids currently participating in one or more of the programs each month, not counting the number of people whose lives are directly affected with our animal husbandry program, which has grown to serve almost 600 people.
What is the easiest way for someone to help those in need in Congo regardless of location or income?
Amplify the voices of the kids and women in Congo! Regardless of where you live, you can connect to the people of Congo through the stories we share on our blog, on Facebook, and Instagram. When you feel a connection or are inspired by a story, please share it with others, noting what moved you about the person and the place. Sharing these stories with others is a megaphone for the people of Congo, and raises awareness about our connection to them. Beyond the human connection that binds us all together around the globe, there’s a direct connection to the people of Congo: via the phone or iPad or laptop you may be reading this on. More than half of the minerals necessary to make these electronics are mined in Congo. And many of those mines are helping to fund the ongoing conflict. We are all deeply connected to Congo on a daily basis, and we can use these electronic tools to cry out for justice and equality by sharing the stories of its people.
No matter where you are financially, when you feel moved to invest in the education, job training, and community health projects of Action Kivu, you change the lives of the kids, women, and communities we work with in Congo. Every dollar truly makes a difference, so setting up even a $10 / monthly donation enables us to plan ahead for projects that impact the lives of women and kids on a daily basis.
Violence against women is a huge issue in Congo but also globally. How can we support men in being part of the solution?
This is a great question. Beyond rape being used as a weapon of war, domestic violence is too often a part of marriage and family life in Congo, and the U.S. Cate and I were witness to the trust women have in our partner Amani, when, during a trauma therapy training in Mumosho back in 2012, they began sharing stories of domestic violence in their lives. Amani was horrified, he had not been aware of the extensive commonality of this kind of abuse (75% of the women in the room were experiencing some form of domestic violence). He listened without judgment, and then took immediate action to convene community-wide education forums around the rights of women and girls. It’s a complex issue embedded in culture and lack of education, and we have seen men change their views on women as they learn about equality, and as the women begin to earn income and create their own economic sustainability.
My response to the question how to support men to be a part of the solution is to teach men the skills to be allies with women: to listen without judgment, and to take action, to ask women how they can help. Does a woman need to be taken to a safe house to get her, and potentially her children, out of a dangerous, violent situation? And to take action in the public arena: men can amplify the voices of women and survivors. Repeat and amplify their truth. Change the conversation to address misogyny, especially when in a group of men. Pay attention, listen, ask questions, and change the script of what it means to be masculine.
We have been asked by men in Congo why we focus on women and kids, when men also need jobs and support. The answer is complex, but at its root, it is that women and girls have been systemically oppressed, and research shows that when you invest in women and girls’ education and equality, the whole of the community benefits. In our community building forums, we include men in conversations and education around equality and that domestic violence, family planning, and health, and we are encouraged by the men who are on our staff working diligently for equality, peace, and education for all.
Do you have a favorite uplifting story that you can share about something special that has happened because of your efforts in Congo?
It was Action Kivu's first trip to Congo, in January 2012, and the people of Congo had just held a presidential election that many observers contested as fraudulent, after decades of fighting and two consecutive wars had decimated the country. By this time the estimates are that over 6 million Congolese have lost their lives due to the ongoing violence.
Traveling to a region highlighted in the news for violence, my Action Kivu co-founder Cate and I trusted our partner Amani Matabaro implicitly, both with the funds we were sending from Action Kivu donors as well as with our safety as we traveled to his home village of Mumosho, to see those funds being translated into job-training courses and literacy classes that were changing the lives of the women and girls in eastern Congo, offering hope and the first glimpses of a different future.
Ernata volunteered to be the first to talk with us, meeting us behind the building where Amani’s non-profit rents the room for the center. Sitting on a simple wooden stool, ignoring the crows of a rooster and the questioning looks and giggles of a few neighborhood kids, she eyed [our] camera with confidence, and looked directly at us as she answered the questions Amani translated for her.
Born into a society where women have very little rights or value and can be divorced without recourse for not bearing a male heir, Ernata’s own story was filled with pain.
“My first marriage, I spent two years in my household,” she told us. “I didn’t have any children, and I suffered a lot from my husband. He kicked me out because I didn’t have any children. After being kicked out by my first husband, I returned home, and spent six months at home. Another man married me. After about 6 to 7 months with my second husband, I could not conceive. He also kicked me out, divorced me.”
Then came another man, from a different village, whose wife had died and left him with seven kids. Ernata married for the third time, and after only three months, she conceived. “I was blessed to have one child, a boy, but it was after surgery (a cesarean delivery). After two years and three months, my only child died. I was there, living with my husband, but I was afraid, six months had passed after my child died, and I hadn’t conceived again. I was afraid, and things had changed again, become negative, with my husband.”
Though he already had seven children, he wanted another from Ernata. “And me, too,” she said. “Because if I have a child, I’m stable there.”
“I have a big wound inside my heart,” Ernata told us. “If I don’t have children with my husband, he will kick my out. I’m noticing some changes, bad behavior, from his family members, who might urge him to chase me (from the home).”
When asked what the village needs, to grow as a community, to provide better for its people, Ernata responded, “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I’m going to talk about the needs of women in this community. The women need to learn more professional skills, to make sure they can take care of themselves.”
Since graduating the Sewing Workshop with our sewing kit: a Singer sewing machine, an iron, fabric, and all the tools needed to start her business, Ernata launched her new life. “I have seen and heard many things and many people in my life but only two of these have made me feel the pride of being a human being,” Ernata says. “These two things are finally being a mother after I had waited so long, and also being a seamstress. I am the mother of three kids in addition to the seven children my husband got from his first wife who passed away.” Though her first-born died when he was just a toddler, she counts him amongst her 10 children. And shortly after losing him, Ernata became pregnant and gave birth to a second baby boy, who is now one year and seven months old. And soon after, she gave birth to another baby, named Ampire, which means ‘God has gifted me.’” Ernata was able to pay for her own cesarean sections and maternity fees for both new babies because of her work as a seamstress.
(On average, when not recovering from surgery and caring for a newborn, Ernata has been able to earn between $100 and $120 per month, whereas many unskilled women work for 1 dollar a day on other’s farms.)
“The one year training I went through is rewarding, and means I can pay food for my family, not only clothes for my children but also to repair their clothes whenever needed, it makes me able to pay the maternity costs unlike many other women who give birth and can’t go back home with their babies until someone pays for them. I also pay school fees for my husband’s children.”
Five years later, thanks in part to Action Kivu's investment in her training and the community, Ernata is a vital part of her answer to that question, as she mentors others and steps into the unknown, taking risks, living out loud, and paving the way for equality.
I returned to Congo for my second trip in five years this past February, and Amani once again took me to see Ernata. Today, you’ll most likely find her at her sewing workshop, a small wood-beam-walled room draped in bright African wax fabrics, cluttered with sewing machines and the tools of the trade, scissors, measuring tape. This is where she works, mentoring young seamstresses who sew alongside her. Here Ernata takes measurements from clients, creates garments, manages her time and finances in a happy, busy balance with caring for her nine children and husband.
So much had changed in five years, I said. Ernata nods. “I’ve been feeling that I am a strong woman, which I didn’t know before.”
Being an activist is hard work - what quote or song keeps you going?
As a writer and an activist, two Mary Oliver quotes are my touchstones:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world
- from When Death Comes, by Mary Oliver (I recommend the entire poem)
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