It started when I watched a TV new segment, an Anderson Cooper piece examining the War on Women. It was a searing exploration of how rape is used in the Congo as a weapon of terror. The report touched me deeply, flooding me with anger and tears — and a resolve to do something.
The very night, I started my research. In the days ahead, I reached out to experts, like Dr. Julia VanRooyen, a Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and her husband Michael, who does a great deal of work at the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congo.
I also connected with Kaleba Kasongo, a Congolese woman who, in turn, referred me to Dr. Sylvia Gleason. Originally from Ohio, “Dr. Sylvia,” introduced me to four Congolese doctors doing humanitarian work in their own country.
I began sending money to those on the ground who are laboring in the violence-ravaged country of 71 million.. But I wanted to do more. And that’s how I found myself boarding a 23-hour flight to Africa. My traveling companion was my friend Marcia Narine. We were joined a day or so later by Kasongo, who would be our organizer and translator.
As we prepared to land at Kigali airport in the neighboring country of Rwanda, I became anxious and excited. This was a language and culture I knew nothing about.
After a quick check through customs we found Father Pascal, our host for the night. Then, a lovely supper of goat before retiring to my room and resting up for the trip into the Congo.
The border of the eastern Congo is sheer chaos. People beg for money; they offer to carry your bags for a fee. Bike taxis jostle for passengers. There are soldiers with guns everywhere. The magnitude of what I had gotten myself into was beginning to settle in.
Our driver, Virginia, whisked us away through the chaos along dusty, bumpy streets covered with lava and gray ash, remnants of the Nyiragongo volcano that devastated the area in 2002.
Finally, we arrived at Maji Matulivu, a beautiful, heavily guarded guest house.
The next day, Dr Joseph Muyuma and Dr Alfred Mwenebatenda of Project Congo Alliance took us to see a little house they had converted into a hospital. Doctors there make less than $500 per month and often go without a salary.
And we got to meet Philomene. One of the joys of visiting the Congo was actually getting to meet the people we were trying to help. Philomene is a young girl who was gang-raped when she was 15 years old. She has a little daughter as a result of the rape. This is where our dollars had been going — $28 per month for their care. As we pulled up outside of her home, the whole village seem to descend upon us. Philomene ran and hugged me.
“Mama Lorna!” she called out. We hugged and cried.
We also we met with some traditional midwives; many are both untrained and illiterate.
They are afraid they might contract AIDS so they ask if we can provide them with gloves so they do not have to do deliveries with bare hands.
One woman told her story of being raped. All I could do was listen. I just could not find the words to tell her I was sorry. We learned women are gang-raped in their homes, or when they leave to collect firewood or fetch water. They are raped in public; they are raped in front of their families. The fact that they might be pregnant doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. The youngest victim was a 3-year-old toddler; the oldest was a 90-year-old grandmother.