FEBRUARY 14, 2013
I left My Heart in Bukavu. I scrawled these very words in perma-ink on a citrus-colored wall at City of Joy on Valentine’s Day. That day, history was made when One Billion Rising took place. It was a day of defiant dance engaging 200+ countries, all demanding to put an end to violence against women and girls. I had the privilege of participating in this once in a lifetime experience in Bukavu, DRC with some wonderful people from San Francisco and New York, my Congolese sisters and brothers, as well as One Billion Rising founder, Tony award-winning playwright, visionary feminist, and all-around love activist Eve Ensler.
To a first time visitor, Bukavu is not a place met with indifference, ambivalence or acceptance. Its streets are chaotic, hectic and metaphoric, even if only viewed through the tinted windows of a rented SUV. Body, mind and heart are rattled on Essence Road. Evidence of extraordinary conditions in which the locals live are on vivid display eliciting endless questions, a blur of guesses and few answers. This constant assault to a logical mind is interrupted by breathtaking views of lush hills, red earth and vast lake demanding to be noticed in the background. In the foreground, lean-to structures, seemingly propped up with little consideration to structural integrity, couldn’t possibly be permanent dwellings at first glance, and yet they are. Women, men, children and goats come pouring in and out of doors with ease and a sense of territory. Armed with remedial knowledge of the French language, one discovers signs for beauty salons, restaurants and bars written on storefronts. Many of the locals smile and wave as they see our fleet of cars, eager for some semblance of cross-cultural connection. Bukavu is at once a challenge and a mystery but there is also an air of vitality signifying that, amidst all the struggle, life persists.
I returned to Bukavu this year, a little less shocked, yet just as engaged by the intense display of life. Seeing familiar landmarks comforted me. I noticed longer stretches of paved path on Essence Road. The lanes, if they can be called that as vehicles weave every which way, are not as overcrowded with pedestrians as I remember. The sight of unrefrigerated meat sitting on slabs of wood, ubiquitous in my visit last year, was not so common this time. Certain questions reoccured in my mind: How do they get anything done? How far do they have to travel for drinking water? If I had to live amongst them for one day, how would I do? In these conditions, the walls and floors and promise of City of Joy were built.
CITY OF JOY
We arrived at City of Joy to jubilant singing and dancing. Tiny children, clothed in colorful Congolese fabrics, greeted us at the gate as they mouthed the lyrics and swayed to the rhythm of the music. Many if not all of them are children born from rape. Each of them, perfectly beautiful and full of charm, wants only to be loved and cared for like any other child. Their fathers’ whereabouts are most likely unknown, if alive. Their young mothers, while having already lived difficult lives, are temporarily residing at City of Joy, transforming themselves from victims to empowered leaders.
Visiting the women of City of Joy is like being transported to a place of sisterhood of the highest order. Love and trust and bonding come easily in their company. Their hugs are tight, heartfelt and real, and they impart a deep, unspoken gratitude to each of us for showing up. Dancing and singing punctuate the days of healing and learning, and pain is purged and spun into power once they leave the grounds to resume life in the real world.
The women who join the 6-month long program at City of Joy have at least two extraordinary things in common: 1) they know only too well from firsthand experience how ugly and merciless humanity can be as they have all been victims of brutal violence and 2) they have shown tremendous potential to make a difference as leaders. Once they are selected, they undergo extensive psychotherapy, learn self-defense, human rights, civics and acquire various skills that will help them to not only rebuild their lives but to also empower others in their communities. We learned that some of the women we met who went through the program last year have moved on to start entrepreneurial ventures and human rights endeavors. One woman formerly named Jeanne who was a sex slave tied to a tree for many weeks, is now on staff at City of Joy and a women’s rights activist who has since changed her name to Jane to signify her transformation. It’s hard to imagine that these women, now thriving and doing good things in Congo, are the same women whose bodies have been desecrated, minds tortured and spirits left to die, before City of Joy. Their brand of resilience is awe-inspiring and watching them dance and laugh and smile is truly a joyful experience. The incredible Christine Schuler Deschryver runs the program and the wise Mama Bacchu shares her life’s knowledge as their teacher. They are setting the stage for a peaceful revolution by incubating a stream of leaders who will slowly turn the tide in Congo.
We had a great day hiking the V-World farm with the women of City of Joy. This huge plot of fertile land, about the size of Central Park, is a major component of the overall vision of empowerment and sustainability for the women, their families and the locals living in the area. V-Day acquired the farm just last year and it has already yielded crops that feed the women. We saw corn, carrots and cassava growing along our hike. We got caught in a tropical downpour and the women waited it out with us in a small shelter while they sang and danced. Huge bins of tilapia were carried into the shelter, freshly caught from a pond, and the women reviewed a lesson about tilapia and fishing until the rain stopped.
When I attempt to talk about City of Joy, I’m never quite sure I’m doing it justice. To me, it is humanity at its finest. It is more than empathy for the downtrodden. It is more than financial generosity for the poor. It is more than karmic goodwill if there is such a thing. It is more than being successful and yielding positive results on a new venture. In Congo, the combination of rich earth with precious minerals, political unrest, abject poverty, barbaric weapons of war, do-it-yourself governance, colonialism, exploitation, poor leadership and all the things that bring out the worst in human beings — these are the things that also bring out the best in them. In us. There is something desperate and disastrous that happens when these elements collide, yet born from it all is City of Joy, this beautiful bright light that is more than I can put into words. It is a place powered by love. It is a place where those who have been made to feel worthless learn to value themselves again. It is a place where those who have never known their voice find that they have so much to say and much would go unsaid if they never speak. It is a place where those who have never known to count themselves learn that not only do they count but that they can also lead and be counted on. It is a place where humanity is its own saving grace.
LIVING IN THE IN-BETWEEN WORLD
Eve Ensler, the woman who has made it her mission to support Congolese women and by extension the City of Joy which was envisioned and created by Congolese women survivors, lets love be the driving force in her life’s work and is a tremendous source of inspiration and hope. She said it best when describing the process of synthesizing the Congo experience and life back home: living in the in-between world.
“…it is where we are meant to live until all the people in the world are fed and healed and safe and free. It is where those who have must live if we are to mend and share and support those who do not have. The in between world is where life is and not death, is where dancing is, where struggle is born and compassion reigns and love is the only outcome.”
This in-between world is an unsettling place. It is a place where all the stuff there is to buy loses its value when our eyes open to its real cost to humanity. It is where we’re confronted with life’s conundrum that neither science nor logic can solve; where we’re pummeled with hard questions that only yield tenuous stabs at guesses. It is a place where the extremes collide and we struggle to make sense of it all. It’s where I take a deep breath as I find myself back in the world that I know — immersed in debate about CEOs deciding to end work-from-home policies, chatter about books written by successful women with power and prestige and the impossibility of a progressive woman pope. It’s where I attempt to reconcile the life that I know with the knowledge that Congolese women, men and children are struggling on a daily basis to stay alive and keep out of harm’s way. The muddy streets of Bukavu, now far away, aren’t exactly comfortable terrain on my feet, in a car or in my mind, but being back amidst venti lattes and organic produce and rights and privileges taken for granted is no less a source of discomfort knowing there is only one world in which these extremes exist.
I suspect that it is in the uncomfortable nature of the in-between world where all the great joys of life are experienced. It is the space in which the struggle for basic human rights and equality and dignity and opportunity for all gives life the meaning that we seek. It is a place where hearts break at the injustice we see, but it is also a place where hearts heal and expand big enough to hold all the baffling mysteries, all the singular moments of crystalline truths revealed and all the joy of knowing that, as fragile as it seems, life the way it’s meant to be lived cannot be suppressed, if guided by love. Love, perhaps, is life distilled.