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Restoring the shattered women of Congo

Modestine Etoy and mother

By Evelyn Iritani, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and senior editor at the radio production house Bending Borders. Iritani recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo to report on an initiative, partly supported by Seattle organizations and humanitarians, that empowers those most disproportionately and unfairly afflicted by the cycle of violence – women.

Women are especially at risk in the violence and instability that frequently erupts in DR Congo.
Women are especially at risk in the violence and instability that frequently erupts in DR Congo.

Goma, DR Congo – The first thing Modestine Etoy does when the young mothers arrive at her door is listen.

It may take hours, or even days, before they are comfortable enough to share their secrets.  But eventually they spill out.

The women tell stories of rape, incest or some other horrible abuse, often committed by people they trusted, such as teachers or relatives. They talk of being chased from their homes and raped by men with AK-47s, who left them for dead before moving on to claim a new woman or piece of territory in the civil war that has long decimated the eastern regions of this impoverished Central African country.

Almost always, they end with some version of “Fini mama” – Mother, my life is over.

But Etoy knows otherwise.

Modestine Etoy
Modestine Etoy

The 31-year-old Congolese native is the program manager at the Humanitarian Organization for Lasting Development or HOLD, a non-profit organization in Goma that helps teenage mothers rebuild lives shattered by violence, an unwanted pregnancy or sometimes both, sadly intertwined.

Etoy starts by trying to convince their families, or the families of the fathers of their children, to accept the young women back into their homes.

This isn’t easy in the Congo, where illegitimacy is shameful and pregnant teenagers are often rejected by their families or sent away to have their babies in secret.

Once she has found the young women a place to stay, she arms them with the knowledge they need to avoid ending up as prostitutes or beggars, the all too common ending for unwed teenagers.  That includes teaching them about family planning and sexually transmitted diseases and enrolling them in a six-month training program to learn a marketable skill, such as cooking, tailoring or working in a beauty salon.

“Slowly, we show them that what they wanted to become is again possible,” explains Etoy. “Then, over a period of time, we help them feel that they can build their own future.”

During a recent visit to HOLD’s offices in Goma, the central hub of the conflict-ridden eastern Congo, the sounds of crying babies and giggling children mix with the sizzle of frying food and machinery. In one corner of the main room, a dozen women are learning to sew shirts. They guide their needles across the colorful print fabric while their feet pump the pedals that power their aging Singer machines. Electricity is in short supply in Goma. So is clean water and paved roads…the list goes on and on.

Women learn sewing skills at the HOLD offices in Goma, DR Congo
Women learn sewing skills at the HOLD offices in Goma, DR Congo
Evelyn Iritani

Nearby, other women sit in a circle around a small charcoal grill while their teacher explains how to season and assemble the meat and vegetable skewers that are popular street food. Several women hold sleeping babies while their older children play at their feet, perhaps hoping that a piece of meat or vegetable will fall their way.

It is hard to hear the teacher’s voice above the clatter, but Etoy knows the young mothers have no other place to take their children.  Often, both the mother and her children arrive at HOLD’s offices hungry, having had nothing to eat since the day before.  It is not uncommon for them to walk for as much as two hours just to get to their classes.

Congo HOLD class
Evelyn Iritani

Women in the Congo are still, by law and custom, treated as second-class citizens.  Married women must get their husband’s permission for many things, including using contraception, opening a bank account and starting a business.

Few women hold prominent positions in politics or business, though the 2005 constitution includes a commitment to increasing female representation in government.   And human rights groups estimate more than half a million women have been raped or sexually brutalized in the bitter conflict that has claimed 5 million lives since 1996.

Etoy started her career at HEAL Africa, a leading provider of maternal and child health care services to rural communities across the Congo.  Two years ago, she and some of her colleagues established HOLD. Its major backer is Act for Congo, a Seattle-based organization whose mission is strengthening leadership capabilities among young Congolese, particularly women.

Judy Anderson and Congolese health activist Mama Muliri talk at Anderson's home in Monroe.
Judy Anderson and Congolese health activist Mama Muliri talk at Anderson’s home in Monroe.
Tom Paulson

“There is an expression in Lingala, “Mama ayei, njala esili, “Mama’s here, hunger is finished,” explains Judy Anderson, the executive director of Act for Congo.  “That is the old dependency model and some people want to keep that going. I’d say my philosophy is catch and release. You catch them, you empower them and you release them.”

Anderson, who’s been a critical supporter of both HOLD and HEAL Africa, has worked on women’s issues in DR Congo for decades. Here’s a pre-Humanosphere story about Anderson’s own Congo story and her earlier work.

In 2012, Anderson nominated Etoy to participate in a fellowship program run by iLEAP, another Seattle non-profit that provides promising social entrepreneurs from around the world with a different kind of leadership training.

ILEAP’s  focus is helping these bright, idealistic young people figure out what they need to keep their energy and creative juices flowing when the going gets really, really tough, explains Britt Yamamoto, the founder of the five-year-old Seattle  based non-profit.

Britt Yamamoto
Britt Yamamoto

“This is not just burning out because you are working long hours at Microsoft, this is burning out because you are watching people get raped or die or horrible stuff like that,” Yamamoto explains. “The seriousness is at a much different level.  If the people leading these initiatives can’t continue, I don’t care how much resources you throw at them. If you don’t have leaders to motivate and inspire and move people forward, you can’t do anything.”

Since English is a second language for most iLEAP fellows, they are encouraged to find creative ways to express themselves.  One of Etoy’s drawings is hanging on the wall of her office, a reminder of the most important lessons she learned during her three months in Seattle.  It is the story of her life, which she describes in the following way.

Etoy, who had 9 sisters and two brothers, grew up in a home where women were loved but not valued. That young girl vowed that she would someday help Congolese women earn the respect they deserved. But along the way, she got lost in her work, coming home too exhausted to think of anything but other people’s problems.  Six years into her marriage, she still had no children. By the time she arrived in Seattle, she was on the verge of burning out.

At ILEAP, Etoy was taught that she could not help others until she first helped herself.  “I learned to say no,” she says with a laugh. That also meant eating better, getting more sleep and spending time with her family, which now includes her husband, John, their adopted son, Lionel, who is 8, and a four-month old daughter, Maria.

“I learned that to serve well, you have to take care of yourself,” she says through a translator.

Until she owned her story, Etoy couldn’t figure out how to rewrite the ending. Now she is working to pass that lesson onto others.

Modestine Etoy and mother
Modestine Etoy and mother
Evelyn Iritani

“At the very beginning, I couldn’t imagine I had a story to tell,” Modestine says, thinking back to her early days at iLEAP.  “When I discovered that I did have a story, it changed everything.”

When Berthe Ehadi Yangala came to HOLD’s door last year, she was selling toy puppets to support her family.  Pregnant at age 15, Yangala was kicked out of her family’s home.  She dropped out of school and moved in with the father of her child, who was one of her classmates. Shortly after the fifth child was born, her husband disappeared.

After hearing her story, Etoy agreed to let Yangala sign up for HOLD’s culinary program.  When she graduated, the 28-year-old mother took a copy of her diploma and scoured the city in search of kitchen jobs.  The owner of the newly-opened VIP nightclub was impressed by her pluck and her training.  He hired her as a hostess but soon promoted her to bartender, where she earns about $40 a month working six nights a week.

That isn’t enough to cover the rent on her small two-room house and the school fees for her five children, whose ages range from 13 to 4. But Yangala finds other ways to save a franc here and there. She cooks samosas to sell to shops around her neighborhood.  When friendly customers buy her a drink, she skips the alcohol and pockets the money.

“The most important thing I can offer my children is to make them study,” she says.

Berthe Yangala and her 8-year-old daughter Denise
Berthe Yangala and her 8-year-old daughter Denise
Evelyn Iritani

It is 6 p.m. and the VIP is deserted, far too early for whiskey and rumba.  Yangala is taking advantage of the quiet time to inventory the bar.  Across the courtyard, workers are finishing construction on a restaurant.  When that opens, Yangala hopes to put her cooking skills to use, so she can increase her salary and start saving some money.

Yangala doesn’t believe she will ever find a Congolese man willing to open up his heart and his home to a woman with five children.

That’s why she wants to have her own restaurant, which will be called “My Dream” and will serve her favorite Congolese foods, including rice and cassava leaves and kwanga, a fermented bread.  In January, she joined a newly-created microcredit program started by HOLD to help graduates who want to start their own businesses.

“When I got pregnant, my dreams stopped,” Yangala says. “But fortunately for me, when I got to HOLD, when I heard that they wanted to help women like me, it was as if my dream was restored.”

Evelyn Iritani
Evelyn Iritani

Evelyn Iritani is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and senior editor at Bending Borders, a radio production house, and is currently writing a book on WWII. Iritani visited the DRC in January on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the International Women’s Media Foundation. (Editor’s note from Tom Paulson: Evelyn is also a former colleague at the Seattle Post Intelligencer and a wonderful, inspiring friend.)


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