We were in Masisi, a small town in the endless rolling green mountains of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was only two months into what would be two years living in the Congo working for HEAL Africa, a Congolese hospital and organization dedicated to health care, education, and micro-finance initiatives. My Swahili and French were very rough at that point, and I was traveling with five of my co-workers, only one of whom spoke English. Naturally I accidentally said things of absolute hilarity and nonsense on that trip to Masisi. We were sitting outside at night waiting for dinner at a small wooden-built structure called a hotel. Someone asked me if I understood something. When trying to say that I did, I answered, "Ninalewa," or in other words, "I am drunk."
Needless to say I have yet to live that comment down and am still reminded of it until this day. One of my co-workers there was a woman named Noella who I would soon consider to be my mother in the Congo. After dinner we danced to the infamous Congolese rumba rhythm in her room and collapsed on the floor in laughter when our other colleague knocked on the door to find out what all the commotion was about. That night before I went to sleep, I was a little apprehensive as fighting between warring factions in the area had happened not long ago. I sat beside Mama Noella on her bed and she put her arm around me and sang hymns in Swahili until my eyes were heavy. I felt like I was six years old being rocked to sleep.
Mama Noella naturally exudes an air of youthfulness and wisdom. I feel at peace every time I speak with her, yet ironically she has every reason in the world to not emanate this comfort. Her husband was murdered six years ago when she was giving birth to her fifth child in the hospital. He had been constructing a new ward at the HEAL Africa hospital and was killed in their house by bandits who assumed he had a large stash of cash to buy building supplies. She was left alone to care for her five children, her mother, and several cousins. One year later, her whole house burned completely down to the ground.
She told me this story for the first time when we were sitting on a lawn overlooking the sprawling Lake Kivu and the mountains in Goma, the town I lived in where the beauty is equally as breathtaking as the depravity and war. After the murder of her husband she slid into a deep depression, losing weight, and not knowing how she could continue to live while her husband's family did not help her or the children. Mama Virginie, the HEAL Africa hospital administrator where Mama Noella gave birth, was herself a widow and was also taking care of all her children alone. She began to meet with Mama Noella every week to support and encourage her. Out of this time they spent together, they realized that there were an incredible amount of women who were in the same position and that solidarity amongst widows could not only be an emotional support, but could also serve as a huge catalyst for change in the community.
With the help of HEAL Africa, they started an organization called AMAVESA, which stands for the Association of Widows of Zarephath. They drew their inspiration from the story in the book of 1 Kings where a widow in the town of Zarephath is preparing what she believes to be the last meal for she and her son during a time of drought and famine. She ran into the prophet Elijah who was traveling and had no money or food. Elijah asked the widow if she could bring him some bread. She responded that she was surely preparing her last meal before her death, as she had nothing. Elijah told her to not be afraid, to bring him a piece of bread from what she would prepare first, and then trust that God would provide. The widow did as Elijah said and her act of faith created a miracle where the jar of flour and cup of oil never emptied.
In a region where war has claimed the lives of 6 million people since 1996, Mama Noella and Mama Virginie created a miracle despite everything around them pointing to desperation. Today AMAVESA has more than 1,000 members, and they have literacy classes, sewing businesses, agricultural collectives, and group savings accounts for school fees. They even mobilized women to vote during the first elections held since 1960 in 2006. These two women transformed their pain into a blessing for innumerable women and children.
Mama Noella called me last week when I was in Seattle at a friend's birthday dinner. "Mwanangu!" she said, "My child!" She had just finished a trip for HEAL Africa where she took two plane rides and a 16-hour canoe trip to reach several villages in order to teach different widows organizations about micro-finance, literacy curriculum, and how to structure an organization so that these women could create what she has done in Goma. I went back to the dinner table teary-eyed because of the latent beauty that Mama Noella brought out of a situation where most people would crumble.
In the mainstream media, the Democratic Republic of Congo is portrayed as a hopeless country where women are raped and where refugee camps and suffering are ubiquitous. But, I see a Congo that is filled with women like Mama Noella and Mama Virginie who embody the hope and untapped potential that exists. Just as the women in Liberia were able to transform their country by electing the first female African head of state in 2005, I believe that Congolese who are mobilized by people like Mama Noella can claim a new vision for their country both now and in the 2011 elections. Their voices are speaking, but we need to raise their volume.
Harper McConnell is the U.S. Director of Development for HEAL Africa, a Congolese-founded humanitarian organization dedicated to developing the capacity of health care professionals and social activists while providing care for the most vulnerable populations. Harper lived in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, from 2006-2008 working with HEAL Africa and is currently based in Seattle. She is profiled in Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof's new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. To read more about the situation in Congo, see these past articles in Sojourners magazine.