It started like any usual night. I was mindlessly watching TV when something stopped me dead in my tracks. Anderson Cooper was on CNN doing a piece called War on Women that described how, in the Congo, rape was being used as a weapon of war. I think of myself as educated and well-informed but I had never heard of the atrocities about which Cooper was speaking.
I was so confused that I did not even remember where the Congo was. I finally reconciled it in my mind with the former Zaire: the Rumble in the Jungle, the Ali-Foreman fight. Other than that, I knew nothing else. I did not understand why six million people were killed or who was raping the women, and why.
All I remember was sitting on my bed hugging myself, rocking and bawling. After the tears, I got angry. More than 800,000 people were slaughtered in the Rwanda genocide as the world stood by doing nothing. This could not be happening again.
As I calmed down, I realized that I could do something. That very night, I decided to do something. I Googled the Panzi Hospital, then called in an attempt to speak with Dr. Denis Mukwege, the doctor mentioned in the CNN story, but the phone just rang and rang. Truth is, I do not know why I called the Congo or what I was going to say. I just felt desperate to do something. I did not even realize that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is French-speaking; I do not speak French.
Fortunately, I discovered that Harvard University was doing work in the eastern Congo, the exact area I wanted to go to. I was able to speak to Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Panzi Project Director Julie VanRooyen, who took the time to explain what was going on and to inform me that I could go with them to the Congo.
VanRooyen told the Harvard Gazette that the project began in November 2006, after she met with Mukwege and heard about the work he does there.
“If you meet him and hear what he’s doing, you can’t go back to doing what you were before,” VanRooyen said. “Girls as young as 6; an 11-year-old repeatedly gang-raped for a period of months. It’s not just rape; it’s cassava roots, sticks, knives, guns. These women come in with shredded pelvises. …You see and hear the most awful things you can imagine. It’s really hard to get your head around them.”
VanRooyen’s words resonated with me deeply. Once I knew that I could go, I was eating and breathing Congo. My connection to the region began to take on a life of its own.
Soon, I received a call from Kaleba H. Ngoie-Kasongo, a woman from the Congo who founded Hear Congo, an organization dedicated to rebuilding the shattered lives of Congolese women and children. She told me that the Congo needed my help and she would do everything to help me get there.
She understood my desire to work with the Panzi Hospital but encouraged me to consider two small hospitals which could also use my help. During my visit, Ngoie-Kasongo would accompany me, serving as translator.
In preparation for going to the Congo, I founded a non-profit called Footprints Foundation. One of the people we have been able to help through Footprints is
a teenage rape survivor named Philomene, whose young daughter is a result of that brutal violation. Footprints provides Philomene with $28 each month to grow food for her family and to sell. We also got her a sewing machine which she uses for classes to learn a trade. Meeting Philomene was certainly a highlight of my visit.
As we pulled up, her whole village descended upon us. Philomene ran to me and hugged me with all her might. “Mama Lorna,” she said. We hugged and cried. That would be the first of the many tears we would shed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While there, we were able to visit Panzi Hospital. We also met Dr. Mukwege, the man in the CNN report whose riveting story about his people made me get on a plane to travel to another continent to help.
Inch by inch, we made our way up the mountains. As we turned the corner, we saw hundreds of women in beautiful African clothes and head wraps. When they saw us, they started singing and chanting. Love has no language, suffering has no language. I understood it all. The women hugged us as we approached. Surprisingly, they had also provided security guards for us.
With no warning, several United Nations trucks loaded with soldiers arrived. We were approached by an interpreter who informed us that the commander wanted to speak to us. We were marched up the hill to see the commander and our interrogation started. He wanted to know who we were, why we were there, what our plans were. He made it clear he did not want any trouble. We assured him that we were peaceful people. We were there to help the women of the Congo, we told him.
We then went downhill again to meet with the women who were patiently waiting for us. At that moment, we understood the magnitude of our visit. At the very spot where we stood, 13 people had been buried alive in 1998. The slaughtered were 12 women and one man; the man likely a casualty of war. More than a decade after that atrocity, the grief was still palpable.
Coupled with that grief was a very present horror. On the way down from the village, we encountered five dead bodies lying on the ground. They were the apparent victims of a massacre in the village the day before. There they were lying on the ground like road kill.
I wondered who they were. How long were they there? Would they have a decent burial? Those were questions for which I do not have an answer.
That day was a life-changer for me. It deepens my life’s work.
Jamaica-born Lorna Owens, a resident of Miami Beach, is a former nurse who graduated from the University of Florida School of Law in Gainesville and has been an attorney in private practice for more than 20 years.
She is also a motivational speaker and host of the And the Women Gather radio show. She may be reached at email@example.com or 305-573-8423
HOW TO HELP
Visit Footprints-Foundation.org to learn more about Lorna Owens’ work in the Congo and how you may help a rape survivor for only $28 per month. On March 17, Owens’ “And the Women Gather” literary jazz brunch will return, with proceeds going to support Footprints Foundation.
Photo: COURTESY OF LORNA OWENS
CARING FOR THE HELPLESS: The writer, Lorna Owens, holds a baby in her arms in the maternity ward at St. Vincent's hospital in the Congo where she spends time to aid women and girls who have been raped.