Saturday, February 20, 2016

Amani (Peace) Festival

Ahhh… peace!

What a great goal to work for together. The Amani (Peace) Festival this past weekend was so much fun. So many different tribes, cultures, and organizations came together to promote peace. We are all doing different things to make a difference, but we are all working together towards the same goal. Peace. Peace for whatever interest group we devote our efforts. Some for rape victims, some for kids, some for men, some for the environment, some for animals… But to see change in Congo and the surrounding countries.

Un Jour Nouveau (Africa New Day) had a tent set up to 1. Sell products made by our daughters of Congo (Virtuous women) program ladies. 2. To spread the word about the Sons of Congo program. 4. To advertise for the Leadership Academy and Congo Unites programs and finally to maintain a presence in a community where we are already committed to building up and changing for good.

Chad and Happy selling and bringing in people. 
Me, Maman Annette and Maman Kumeza... they make a lot of 
the things for sale. Annette also makes 
my clothes here. They are amazing. 

Our resident celebrity, Black Man, is a local rapper known all over Eastern Congo. He’s quite a stellar guy. He has some pretty profound lyrics, none of which degrade women or use perverse language. He sings for peace, change, and freedom of his fellow countrymen. Probably my favorite song here, he and another UJN guy sing (well, one sings, one raps) about the change that will come for the better of the people… The name of the song is Ce fera mal (It’s gonna hurt)… meaning, change will come and “it’s gonna hurt” the people who have lived for the oppression of Congo; for the separation of people based on tribe… for the separation of people based on faith. It’s a pretty moving song. It’s in the process of being produced so I can’t share the song, but I LOVE it. Soon.
Us with Black Man... Maman Wivine put up her fist a 
second too late for the picture.

Here is Black Man doing part of his performance. Thousands of people came in the rain to hear him perform. In the afternoon he performed again with even more people. His rapping sounds so harsh, but in reality, he may be the most soft spoken and thoughtful person I’ve met here. His testimony is mind-blowing. The life he’s lived and where God has brought him… he had a choice. Be angry about life circumstances and use that for hate or choose life and use his past to help others through what he overcame. So many young boys and men here come from this circumstance and choose the former. He is an example of perseverance, power, love and a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7).

Black Man killin' it!He sounds rough, but 
it's about change for the country in a positive way. 

Yes, our t-shirts are promoting Black Man for the festival. We also had another UJN girl sing in the festival. I keep calling her Joy and her name is Patricia. I know her name is Patricia… but I just can’t help but call her Joy. She radiates with it. Her voice is very unique and she is very much in demand here for performances. Her father was Camille and Esther’s personal driver. He was murdered a few years back by a home invasion. It’s still a mystery as to what happened and why and no justice has come for the family from the murder. She also has chosen life…. chosen Joy.

This is Happy. Sometimes I look at her and I think I’m watching myself. She’s a little crazy in all the best ways ;) She and I have a special bond that includes a lot of inside jokes, facial expressions and hand motions. We share an affinity for Justin Bieber’s song “baby, baby” and we also seem to do the same dance moves at the same time when ever music starts. She is feisty and I love her so much.
Happy and me... it was raining but we didn't care.

The team had a great time watching the performances together, hanging out, making jokes, EATING everything, and even setting up. By the time we all got home, our abs all hurt from laughing.
We should learn to have fun. 

Me and Vicky with the local Comedian... looks aren't everything. 

A random girl who wanted her picture with me. I made Vicky join, 
but she thought it was weird and was laughing to hard to look at the camera.

Such a great group of people, all passionate about and committed the vision of Un Jour Nouveau.

Wedding bells!

no... not mine, sorry dad ;)

Anyifa and Tati got married last Saturday. It was a great experience to see some of the same traditions I know for weddings but mostly a lot of new ones. One of which is AWESOME! the gifts are presented to the bride and groom at the bridal party the night before the wedding (co-ed, at the church at the end of the ceremony and again at the reception. But this is the best part. The guests must DANCE the gifts up to the couple to some hip moving music. THE BEST! If I ever decide to get married. I'm doing this... get ready to shake it Grandma. But some of you... and you know who you are. I'm gonna need you to keep it to just a simple 1,2 step and snap ;) haha..
yes... you know who you are.

We all had matching (fabric) clothes made. Since we get to pick what we want made, the sky is the limit for creativity. I have seen some really cool dresses and even mens shirts (and pants!). These women here can sew anything. ANYTHING! They are so talented. Mama Annette made my dress after we designed it together. I wanted a simple african style. She may be the most beautiful woman I've ever met. Her heart makes her even more beautiful in person. Again... her story blows my mind. She is a champion. 

Chad is from Boston. Chad is a crazy handful. 

Camille looks like the luckiest man alive ;) 

After the church wedding, we all go change into our dresses that make it easier to dance... cause an African wedding does not exist without some serious dance moves. It was a dance party like you would not believe. So naturally, I loved it! 
Me, Vicky and Chad enjoying the wedding party

Waiting for the party to start. Chad taking a picture 
of me taking a picture.

A view of the bridal table (Camille and Esther are sitting there) and their 
bridal party sitting behind them with no table... 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

hey baby gorilla... get on my back!

Hey baby gorilla... get on my back.

I announced a few weeks ago that I was gifted a trip to hike Mount Nyiragongo,  the active volcano here in Virunga park. After consideration of the weather (lack of visibility=no view of the surrounding land) and my lack of proper gear… I decided to go see the mountain gorillas in the wild instead. Here are a few things I learned, and I think are important for anyone wanting to come visit. (I made a quick video of the trek... the link is below).

So I asked to take a picture of his patch... 
Baraka, my driver thought this was funny. 
The park ranger was intrigued by my polaroid cube. 
Other wise, he was very friendly, even though he doesn't look it. 

  • First things first, the cost of going to see the gorilla only includes the permit for the park. YOU must coordinate your transportation out there and back. They will provide this for you at a ridiculous about of money PER person. I recommend Baraka (means "blessing" in Swahili). He has his own safari Land Rover that can maneuver intense terrain. He is MUCH cheaper and he only charges for the car, not per person. It seats up to 8 passengers.
  • DO NOT FORGET YOUR PERMIT. I say this from experience. I forgot mine. We left the house at 5:55am to get on the road before all the traffic and people. At 6:30, after we’d made considerable time and passed the Goma check point, Baraka asked me if I remembered my permit. Ooops. Another reason I recommend him. He handled my oversight really well and was not rude. He graciously turned around and drove back through the growing traffic. (we still managed to get to the starting point early due to his mad driving skills!)
  • Word to the wise for fellow mouth breathers… don’t!!! Keep your mouth shut. Breath through your nose, but if you’re stuffed up and absolutely must breath through your mouth… cover your mouth! I swallowed two flying bugs of some sort. I was breathing hard from the hike. It’s not a simple hike, which leads me to my next point.  
  • They are called MOUNTAIN gorillas for a reason. Don’t go into this thinking it will be a simple walk on flat ground or even slightly inclined terrain. At one point I thought I needed to be on belay! The hike was that vertical at times.(you are also climbing over vines, squatting and walking under thick canopy's of bush. For obvious reasons, I did not film these parts. I was focused on not falling down the mountain)
  • Plus, once you start to get close to the gorillas (we track them from their last known spot), you are maneuvering through their beds the night before. So you are trying to avoid falling down the mountain… into their poop, which again leads me to my next bullet.
  • Gorillas poop A LOT! And not only that, they eat their hard poop to get all the nutrients that are still in the first round. Ewww. I was trying to take pictures of the baby and it started to eat… I decided that would not make the best shot and I also said a prayer that he would not throw it at me. Now, refer back to point #3… keep your mouth shut! So many doodoo flies. Everywhere.
  • When they say don’t look the silver back in the eyes, they mean it. Don’t do it. He doesn’t mess around and he is HUGE. He didn't like me. I'm sure he sensed I was a strong, independent woman!;)  

above: zoom in and see how he's glaring at me!

below: notice the baby next to him, imitating him?! So CUTE!!

  • You are required to wear masks when around the gorillas. They are very sensitive to human bacteria/viruses, and don't have the antibodies to fight it. A simple cold can easily kill a gorilla. Respect this and keep your mask on! 
It's cool to wear surgical masks in the bush!

So with all that said… the trip was amazing! It was about a 2 hour drive out there. The view along the way is spectacular. At one point I just stopped trying to capture the beauty. It just isn’t possible for my iphone or my polaroid cube. Some pictures just need to remain in my mind. Seriously, the sunrise over the mountains; Mount Karisimbi (an inactive volcanoe) is simply gorgeous. GORGEOUS!

There is a large military presence all along the road once we pass the Goma check point or toll road, however you want to look at it. The fresh smell of mountain, rich (super rich) soil, and just the clean air outside of the city (not that Goma smells bad, it doesn’t usually). When the children along the road saw Randy (aka. Hollywood) and me coming in the car, they would extend their hands and yell “BonBon!” Apparently a lot of visitors bring candy to hand out along the way...Note to self. There were also a large amount of kids that just yelled “Morning” or “Good Afternoon” in English. A lot of 'thumbs up' from the little kids here. 

Our group had 3 tourists and 3 guards/Park Rangers (2 with machetes and Jeremy with an AK-47). The gun is for poachers and protection of the gorillas. I’d like to think that it also served as protection for me… so I made sure to stay with Jeremy through out the hike. So before getting started, Randy (the documentary director from LA), Christian (my new friend, a reptologist from Trier, Germany) and I found a Jacksons Chameleon… very endangered species of Chameleon (according to Christian). So naturally I got to hold it!

Randy (Hollywood), Me and Christian starting the trek

never far from my strong ranger

At one point, Christian moved in on my strategic placement. I quickly took back my place in the hiking line, next to the guy with the gun. Ironically enough, Jeremy did not speak English. Christian speaks about as much French as I do… so I ended up translating for everyone. It was very entertaining. The two guards with the machetes only spoke Swahili… so my conversations with them were even more comical. I love it here.

Mama Gorilla in a tree

Needless to say, being with the gorillas was surreal! The babies… THE BABIES! Oh my gosh. I just cant deal with the cuteness! There were two and I am in love. They are so little and fuzzy and curious and adorable. One of them came right up to me. I had to move back so he wouldn’t touch me. However, I was secretly wishing he would jump on my back and I would have a baby gorilla to take home. 

Here is a short clip of the adventure I put together for your viewing pleasure. It was too big of a file for the blog :( so make sure to click the link to watch. Enjoy... with the baby... wait for it. wait for it... (so cute, I just can't handle the cuteness!)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Laid to rest

For obvious reasons, in a small village without refrigeration, we buried Mama Masika at 12:30pm on February 3rd, less than 24 hours after her death. It was a hard funeral to attend. Our Un Jour Nouveau ("A New Day"... in the USA we are "Africa New Day") staff jumped to action early that morning to get everything ready and prepared for the service. Our staff caravan consisted of 2 mini buses and 3 SUV's packed with people, flowers, the coffin and food for the kids and young women left behind in Mama's center.  Pastor Camille performed the ceremony and not only stressed the importance the work Masika pioneered, but the continuation of her legacy. The continuation of defending the rights of the poor, the orphaned, the abused...Working together to see real change for the lives of victims of sexual violence.

This is Michélene. I met her my first trip out there. She and I bonded very quickly by laughing at my French and then her being impressed with what little Swahili I have. She is tiny girl with a bold spirit just like Masika. Her story is incredibly sad and incredibly triumphant at the same time. That is all I will say about it protect her privacy, but you can only imagine. She is 18. She will graduate high school this May and come to Goma for University. She was with Mama when she died. 

Pastor Camille, UJN security, our staff counselor- Dieudonne 
and our director Marie in the head scarf.

There were over 1000 people at the funeral. The entire village came and many from much farther away made the long trip as well. 

Esther with both of Masikas daughters. Sumali, our security, never far away from Esther.

After the service and burial, the children and young women were hysterical. Rightly so. We brought everyone into the house, gave out cokes and calmed them. Camille and Esther reassured them that UJN will not leave them. Our presence in Minova to continue Masikas work will continue. 

Michélene with a 3 day old baby. The mother was a rape victim brought to the center during her labor. She unfortunately did not survive and leaves behind this beautiful baby, Rebecca, named after Masika. 

Remember I told you about the two babies brought to the center after they were found with their mothers bodies (after two weeks). This is the little boy. Please pray for him. He is still emotionless. He does not cry. They do not have diapers, so they use cloth and stuff it into the pants. With the passing of Masika, there were no clean clothes. His pants were wet with pee. He also smelled very much like it had been that way for a while. He did not cry, he just held onto my back and stared off into the distance. This is me with Marie-Desange.

Thank you all for your e-mails and encouragement. I probably will not have time or wifi to reply to them all, but I see them and I am so thankful for you all. 

We will host a memorial service for Mama Masika this Friday, at the UJN chapel here in Goma. 

much love from Eastern Congo...

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The joy of the Lord is my strength

Finding a balance of spreading awareness and also avoiding exploitation of a person’s pain is a fine line. I have spent the past week processing a trip I took into the bush.  I knew this woman's story before going to meet her, but meeting her in person, hearing it from her, seeing all that she has accomplished despite the violence she has suffered… seeing the joy and passion she has for helping others was the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced. 

We left Goma with an SUV packed full of sugar, cornmeal and medicine (antibiotics, worm pills, basic pain relievers). Although we are in the same country, there are multiple checkpoints along the road. As we drove into Virunga park, we have to go through a military check point. It is sad to know that the entire park was once teaming with animals. As refugees fled Rwanda in 1994, camps were set up in the park. Eventually all the animals either left or were eaten. Now, although beautiful, it has no animals to go and watch.
we're off! Vicky, me, Dieudonne, & Michael

people living on the side of the road in Virunga

We passed a lake, called “green lake” the water is a funny green color (creative name, huh?). It’s obvious that this lake is the crater of an old volcano. There are a lot of these in this area.

the green lake

Now, keep in mind that here in Congo, there are no paved roads to get from one city to the next. The paved road (which is new) ends halfway through Goma. Most roads in Goma neighborhoods are not paved. The first check point asked who we were. We replied “Un Jour Nouveau” and we were waved right through; no problems. We were stopped outside of Masisi and Raj’s (our logistics coordinator) license and the car paperwork was scrutinized for at least 5 minutes looking for something expired or not correct so we could incur a fine. We didn’t. The 3rd check point… after at least 15 minutes, they tried to say that my visa is a “tourist” visa and I need to pay $100 cash to the ministry of tourism to come “tour” the countryside. This was fixed with another 10 minutes of discussion between Raj, Esther and the official. In Congo, to go into another province, you have to submit identification and state your business. It felt like going to another country. The official actually got in the car and rode with us to Minova so make sure we were going where we said. 

a displacement camp. We passed a few along the way

The check points were certainly a learning experience. But enough about that! We were met at Mama Masika’s with drumming, excited, curious children and singing. The kids that are part of the orphanage put on a show for us. They formed a cultural performing group. Now… for the part I’ve been processing. The reason we went out there was so Micheal, a pastor from Orange Co, Ca could bring gifts from his church. Masika is a rape survivor. Multiple rape survivor.  Rather than committing suicide, she chose life. Life for her, life for her and her daughters (impregnated by their rapists). She chose to be a light in such darkness for others that didn’t find the strength she did.

the beginning of the performance. 
Eventually I was dragged out to dance with them! 

There is life. There is hope. There is joy. There is love. There is Jesus.

selfies with the kids is always popular

The details of her story are very graphic and I will refrain from sharing everything. Mama and her husband were attacked in their home. Rebels tried to force him to rape her. He refused. The rebels began to cut up her husband. They forced her to chew and swallow his genitals. Her husband was alive to see this. They eventually made her gather up his pieces and raped her on top of them. The rape was so violent she fell unconscious. When she finally came out of her coma, her daughters were both pregnant. They were 9 and 13. They were also violently raped by her husbands killers. Her in-laws blamed her and disowned her. She was stuck, homeless, hopeless and penniless. Rather than give up, she decided that she had to help others. Since this first incident, she has been raped 3 more times. The last time, she was dragged into the street, publicly raped by militia men. She was very badly beaten. She did not give. Many times she wanted to give up. Many days she says she wanted to end her life. But pressed on to help others. She came to Esther (Un Jour Nouveau) and said she couldn’t do it anymore. Her story was being exploited and she wasn’t receiving the funding promised from her story. She was tired. She just couldn’t do it. That is when rather than just being friends, Esther and Mama partnered together to continue her work, and Masika became part of Un Jour Nouveau.

The day we went, there were two new additions to the family. We are not sure how old they are. Their villages was raided by rebels. Their mothers were raped and murdered and the children were found clinging to their moms… two weeks after the attack. TWO WEEKS!! The children were in the hospital for a week before being brought mama. They do not smile, they are physically present, but right now they are still so traumatized, there seems to be no spirit behind their eyes. It is heart wrenching.

mama with the two babies. 

She has shown me the meaning of “the joy of the Lord is my strength”…

more of the kids in the center

Last Thursday Mama came to the center. It was a surprise. I was so excited when she walked in that I literally jumped out of my chair to run over and give her a big hug. Mind you, She’s barely 5’ and I was in heels. She laughed at how excited I was and she also lite up at her welcome, even though I’m the newbie. It’s so strange how someone I’ve spent only a few hours with can have such an impact on my thinking and my heart. Later, I was able to talk to her alone. I gave her my “hope” bracelet. A bracelet I got in Israel from two very special women, when my life didn’t seem to make sense. The bracelet has been a reminder the past 2 years. There have been times that I felt hopeless. Very hopeless. I know the work Mama does is not easy and she struggles with maintaining the hope and joy that I saw in her. Who wouldn’t? She teared up and hugged me again. This will be the last time I will see her on this earth.

I started to write this after processing the life of a woman and how much Jesus has given her the strength to get through TRAUMA on a level that I still can’t even imagine…. Now, it has become a tribute to her life. Mama died yesterday afternoon in a hospital in South Kivu. We are all in such shock, and heartbroken. I only knew her for 2 weeks, and I only spent a few hours with her, but my life and perspective will never be the same. My understanding of Gods goodness even surrounded by such evil has been forever changed.

She is an inspiration to me.

Jesus said to his disciples before he was arrested and later crucified,  

“In this world you will have trouble. BUT TAKE HEART!! I have overcome the world” (NIV, emphasis mine)

I think Mama Masika took considerable heart in the midst of trouble. 

Rest in peace bold Masika.