Ed. Note: Last Friday night at the Nelson Mandela Memorial event at the Lowell Community Charter Public School, Fru Nkimbeng eloquently reminded everyone that Africa is a complex continent made up of many unique countries and cultures. Too often we here in America who do not have direct ties to that continent forget that fact. One of our neighbors, Teo Pique, spent six months in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year. In sharing the following account of her experience there, Teo gives us all a vivid glimpse of one country in Africa and the experience of the people living there. This story is longer than a typical blog post, but I urge everyone to read it through to the end.
“Hope and Resilience in the Midst of War”
By Teo Piqué, Lowellian, Human Being – 15 Dec 2013
On March 18th, 2013 I left my home, friends and family for a six-month deployment with an independent international non-governmental organization (INGO) to the war torn African country of the Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC).
With all the personal stories of the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, it reminded me of my experience in 1998 when I went to South Africa to work with clinicians helping civilians deal with a post-apartheid reality. It was a long road of hope for South Africans. I’d like readers to think about another country in Africa, DRC, that needs hope, right now, to begin the long road that South Africans traveled many years ago, albeit a different kind of war, it is bloody, devastating and kills innocent civilians all the same.
My post was in the village of Pinga which is in a remote part of North Kivu Province in Eastern DRC. Reaching Pinga requires a flight to Kigali, Rwanda, a four hour car ride to the Rwanda-DRC border a walk across the border to Goma, DRC and ends with a flight on a one-engine Cessna that lands in a very short grass air strip. From the air, the mountains covered in light and dark greens hide the atrocities of decades of conflict with a sinuous river that seemed to carry secrets of its past and perhaps its future through its rushing waters. Pinga is located in North Kivu Province, Eastern DRC and is made up of three small villages Nkassa, Katanga and Bushimo. This is primarily an agrarian patriarchal society where all the women and children are responsible for working the fields, fetching water and collecting wood or coal for the daily cooking fires. From the Cessna I saw thousands of cooking fires that I fantasized were SOS messages. At the base, a team of National Staff welcomed me with singing, dancing and their clanging of pots and pans. They seemed to be singing a song of hope that perhaps, I, a very small clinical psychologist, may help them with the atrocities they lived with every day. In the end they are the ones who inspired me with their resilience and hope.
The country is in the midst of a decades old conflict with over 52 militia groups fighting in a constant unpredictable chaos. The groups often morph and join forces for the temporary benefit of fighting against a mutual enemy and then disband again to fight against each other. Fighting is primarily over natural resources. Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in natural resources such as gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin used in a variety of electronics including cell phones. “Informal” mining is rampant, which also means the same of child labor. The United Nations estimates more than 2.6 million Congolese have been internally displaced due to this on-going armed conflict. Civilians are often stuck in the crossfire and suffer some of the worst human rights atrocities imaginable as a result of the war. The UN calls DRC the “Rape Capital of the World” and estimates there are “tens of thousands” of survivors of Sexual Violence in a population of approximately 70 million people where in the last two decades of conflict militia groups have used brutal Sexual Violence (SV) as systematic weapon of war aimed at destabilizing populations and destroying the social fabric of community and family bonds. Being a Trauma and Crisis Response Specialist who also treats Sexual Violence survivors the Congo was a good fit. In a culture where the SV survivor is blamed, many SV survivors never come forward for fear of reprisal, stigma or rejection by their husbands, family, the community or even worse, death. This culture of “suffer in silence” is a means of survival. In our clinic, we had to hide one rape survivor for 8 hours while a soldier posted himself with arms, outside. We were lucky he didn’t storm the clinic looking for her. The national Staff had put their own lives at risk by hiding this woman. If their deed had become known they would have been killed. They were scared, but they did what they felt they needed to do as clinicians, as human beings.
Pinga was under the rule of one man who is currently wanted for humanitarian and human rights violations including mass rapes, mutilation and desecration of the dead. At times he would lop off the heads of the dead to put them on sticks and parade them through the villages to instill fear and intimidate anyone who questioned his authority. It felt to me, that historical Belgian colonialism lived on in the DRC of today. His lead men would return from villages and boast of their exploits and how they slayed innocent women, men, children, elderly, whole families. It didn’t matter that there were enemies to fight, if the enemy was housed in a certain village, the people of that village had to suffer. Whenever he saw me, one of number one’s lead men, who was always drunk, would want to talk with me and tell me of his exploits. Even though I was to remain neutral due to my agency’s policy, I would always walk briskly and try to avoid him so I wouldn’t have to listen to how many children and innocent people he had just killed. One day I had to tap into my own resiliency and strength and I imagined what a desperate life he must lead with no options for any other kind of work or life other than the military life of killing innocent people. No wonder he was drunk every day.
Lack of resources due to the war, doesn’t allow for what Americans would consider the basics in life. In terms of our hospital and clinic, the structures have dirt floors, with waiting rooms exposed to the elements such as lizards, bats and other wildlife crawling or flying around. There is no running water, electricity or phone service in Pinga. Medical clinicians treated communicable diseases with the most basic resources and whatever our agency could offer. Many villagers simply die, especially infants and elders, due to lack of resources to treat a disease or sickness that is treatable in the United States. After battles the small hospital would be filled with innocent civilians who were survivors of gunshot wounds including babies. After one battle, as a mother ran with her baby on her back, the baby was shot and killed. The medical team wrapped up the baby’s little parts as neatly as possible so the mother could have some time with her baby to mourn her loss with some semblance of dignity. Another moment where the staff demonstrated resiliency was the day the clinic was in between another gunfight and one of the staff ran through the gunshots to grab a birthing kit and subsequently delivered a healthy baby in a tiny room packed with about 37 people hiding out. Another instance of resilience and hope was during a gunfight where villagers had fled to the bush and one of our National Staff trained to use a birthing-kit in the bush (we called them bush-kits) was able to grab one before fleeing and deliver a healthy baby in the bush.
On our base a generator and batteries provided the luxury of internet service, radio and an emergency phone through a satellite internet connection. The villagers had none of these luxuries so I never complained about having to get my hot water on the open fire pit for my morning bucket showers. One of the luxuries we had on the base was a “safe room.” Whenever we were stuck inside for hours, I would laugh at the name of the room because if any of the large missiles hit our room, we’d be toast, however compared to what the National Staff and hospital staff had, we were extremely lucky. Out National Staff, like the villagers, are scared for their lives every time they must flee a gunfight into the bush, but they come back to work, either the same day or the next laughing and joking and life goes on. They are some of the most resilient people I have ever met.
My work in the Congo included supervising the National Staff mental health counselors who had received the INGO’s trainings, but no formal education in the field of clinical psychology. This was challenging at times in regards to their theoretical understanding of mental health processes and phenomenon, but exciting as well, because they were so intelligent, eager to learn and hungry for knowledge. My counselors possessed deep compassion and heart in helping their fellow villagers. I learned a tremendous amount from them about the human spirit and resiliency in the context of providing clinical services to a population that was repeatedly and highly traumatized. Often before a battle many farmers, young and old, were abducted from the fields and inducted into the local military to boost numbers. Many of these unwilling soldiers would arrive at the clinic or hospital for medical treatment after training due to injuries from misfired arms with a desperate look of help me in their eyes. Helping people with psychological wounds was my specialty, but it was a challenge instilling hope in children and adults who were shaking with fear and worried about their families who did not know if they were alive or dead. We would do what we could in terms of offering hope in their desperate situations and the National Staff counselors were amazingly calm and composed while knowing we were dealing with the unknown.
The spirit of the Congolese people was amazing. I have so many personal endearing stories of Congolese National Staff and villagers, both children and adults, who have educated me in so many ways. The one main thing I learned was the true meaning of resilience. Many stories of love and hope amongst such devastation kept me going. The people in Pinga are survivors. The villagers and National Staff kept humor and good spirits in the face of devastation and dehumanization. They would look forward to staff celebrations as a reprieve and loved to dance and listen to Congolese music. They kept hope and found a reason to go on every day. I laugh when I think about the excitement that a morsel of chocolate or cheese brought to the staff when an expatriate would return from vacation and offer these small gifts. I found inspiration in their hope and strength and I enjoyed every day I worked there.
One villager, an older gentleman touched my heart forever. I would pass his house daily on my hike up and back down the hill to and from the clinic, I would take the opportunity to pick the pods of the Coix Lacryma-Jobi grass, known as Job’s Tears, that grew near his house. I used them to make jewelry for the National Staff. We always said hello even though I did not speak Kiswahili or the other local tribal languages that he spoke. One day this gentleman jumped up and ran into his house as my colleagues and I passed his yard. He came out with two handfuls of Coix Lacryma-Jobi pods that he had picked for me. I was so overjoyed and I did my best, in my limited Swahili, to thank him for his thoughtfulness. There was another battle and I never saw him again, but I will never forget his generosity. Here we were in the midst of a terrible war, yet he took the time to connect with a stranger and perhaps found hope in something amidst the war.
What I will miss most is my daily dose of village children on my walks to and from the clinic. They knew me as the “bubble lady” because I blew bubbles every day for any child I passed. For those experiencing bubbles for the first time a fright would overcome them and some actually cried. As they got used to the benign spheres, the scared ones joined in the shouting for me to blow bubbles on my way through the village. Babies who had never seen a “mazungu” would cry when they saw me until they got to know me and got used to my strange olive skin and the bubbles that surrounded my head.
Assertive and physically active, one child, Louisa was a firecracker. She lived at the Pinga hospital like many displaced children and would accost any expatriate staff she hadn’t met before to ask them why she hadn’t seen them yet or met them before and would demand to know their name and what they did. All in Swahili, of course and the laughter would come after the translation. She would provide a good laugh to everyone and to me as I walked back from work and would hear my name being yell from on high in the trees. It would be Louisa and her posse of friends picking guava and making her presence known to me as I passed by.
Another memorable child was Georgina. Every day, she would be so excited to see me pass through the hospital. When she saw me coming, she would gather and prepare the younger children to join in on singing songs with me. We sang songs in Swahili, French and English. They often loved when I would teach them songs in English because it was a novelty. It didn’t matter that they didn’t understand the words, it was all in fun, especially the Peanut Butter song. This was one of their favorites and after I had it translated, the children laughed at the idea of mashed up nuts being stuck to the roof of your mouth and not being able to sing because of it. In one of the last gunfights before I left, Georgina, flew out of her flip-flops while fleeing from gunfire. She made it safely to shelter, but sadly without her only pair of shoes. She never asked me about a new pair of shoes since she knew this was not something our agency had, but before I left, I gave her my oversized hiking sandals. I never saw her beaming face when she received them, but I could only imagine her happiness. My only hope was that she would grow into them one day as well as grow into a human being who will maintain hope for herself, her people, her country…some way, some how
We had an emergency evacuation out of Pinga, but I would return in a heartbeat. Even though I was only one humanitarian worker on the ground, I hope that I touched the hearts of some children and villagers in the small work I did in the small amount of time I was there. Although you are unlikely to have been to the Democratic Republic of The Congo, you most likely have a connection to the country every day of your life. Below is a link to a video that explains the concept of Conflict Minerals and each step in the process of how certain natural resources come from the Democratic Republic of The Congo through illicit means which support arms that kill innocent civilians and how they can end up in our every day electronic devices. Yes, devices like your cell phone. There is hope for innocent children and villagers to stay alive in this war and you, as an individual, can make a world of a difference, by asking retailers and manufacturers for Conflict-free Devices. Before your next purchase, you can simply ask “was this device made with conflict-free minerals?” The more people ask, the more this creates a demand for conflict-free devices.
This is just a small bit of my reality for 5 months in 2013 and the reality of a lifetime for the people of DRC. I am wishing my brief article has demonstrated the goodness and hope of a people amidst a terrible war and has inspired you to help in the process of hope by decreasing arms that kill innocent people this war-torn country. You don’t have to be a Madiba to offer hope, just the special individual that you are who can offer hope by one simple question.
I’ve included a video called Waka Waka (below). It was a video made at the Pinga base right at the beginning of 2013 after recovery from a bad attack. It was a few months before I arrived, but it demonstrates the resiliency of the staff when they were feeling demoralized and hopeless.
Thank you for Reading and Happy Holidays – Teo.
Additional Resources and Readings:
2013, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Democratic Republic of Congo.
2012 Autesserre, Séverine. “Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences”. African Affairs (Oxford University Press) 111 (443): 202–222.
2011, Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo Amber Peterman, PhD, Tia Palermo, PhD, and Caryn Bredenkamp, PhD, American Journal of Public Health | June 2011, Vol 101, No. 6, Research and Practice | Peer Reviewed | Peterman et al.pgs 10-1067,
2011 Oct-Dec;27(4):227-46; Sexual and gender based violence against men in the Democratic Republic of Congo: effects on survivors, their families and the community. Christian M, Safari O, Ramazani P, Burnham G, Glass N. Source: Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, Baltimore, MD, USA. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22416570
2011 Jan; Transcript: Research Study on Sex and Gender Based Violence; U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs; Stuttgart, Germany, Jan 21, 2011 — Women are not the only victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a ground-breaking research study which was presented to U.S. Africa Command staff, January 21, 2011. Summarizing their findings on sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC were Dr. Lynn Lawry, International Health Division, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense – Health Affairs, and Dr. Michele Wagner, U.S. AFRICOM’s Social Science and Research Center. For more information, view the following article: Men and Women Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC http://www.africom.mil/NEWSROOM/Article/7956/men-and-women-victims-of-sexual-violence-in-the-dr
2009, Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone:Sexual Violence and Military Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.
2008, Hanlon H. Implications for health care practice and improved policies for victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. J Int Womens Stud.;10(2):64—72.
2007, Bastick M, Grimm K, Kunz R. Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Global Overview and Implications for the Security Sector. Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
2007, Bosmans M. Challenges in aid to rape victims: the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Essex Hum Rights Rev.;4(1):1—12.
2002, The War Within the War: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Eastern Congo. New York, NY:Human Rights Watch;.
1998, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.
1899, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad