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Saturday, March 7, 2009

V-Day Views from The Carter Center

President Joseph Kabila and wife

Children of gang-raped survivors and a tiny rape victim

I attended Eve Ensler's V-Day "Turning Pain to Power" program at The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, on Monday, February 23, 2009, at 8 PM. It was a must-attend, historic event for me, as I greatly admired Eve's play, The Vagina Monologues, and I yearned to know more about my African sisters. As I write this blog entry, I am gazing at the pink and white VDAY: A Global Movement To End Violence Against Women And Girls brochure from the program. From it, I learn that the V in V-Day represents Victory, Valentine, and Vagina.

The purport of Eve Ensler's five-city speaking tour was to expose the violence against women and girls in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). The tour featured Eve and her quietly eloquent, French-speaking guest speaker, Dr. Denis Mukwege, winner of the 2008 UN Human Rights Prize and Founder of the PANZI Hospital in Bukavu. In the above photo taken by Paula Allen, the photographer on Eve's November and July 2007 trips to the Congo, award-winning playwright Eve Ensler and Dr. Mukwege bask in the glory of the City of Joy celebrations. The result of the combined efforts of V-Day and UNICEF, the City of Joy is a much-needed refuge for Congolese women who survive torture and rape. The project will offer women education and income-generating opportunities, as well as training in activism and leadership.
Dr. Mukwege was an engaging speaker.
His subdued, unassuming demeanor cloaked the spirit of a lion. He spoke from a center seat on the stage, between his African interpreter and Eve Ensler, who directed select questions to him regarding the horrendous web of violence consuming the lives of girls and women in the Congo today. These women and girls have endured the atrocities of gang rape and torture for years now, in the face of the world's back, with the UN, seemingly, the only organization with these violated, black African women on its agenda.

In beautifully modulated French, Dr. Mukwege spoke of his first staff of hospital workers, whom soldiers executed before his eyes. The intent was to terrify him and send the message that what he was doing to physically repair wounded women was unappreciated. But the lion continued to roar. He went on to become the director and founder of another facility, the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. There, he heals the broken bodies of girls and women torn apart by gang rapes. He does what he can to help them reestablish themselves in income-generating opportunities. I loved the story he told of a Congolese woman who had departed the hospital with $20 and resurfaced again, much later, a woman on the cusp of building a new home with funds from her new income-generating enterprise.

I admired Dr. Mukwege for not allowing the powers-that-be to post a military presence at the hospital, so that the already traumatized women and girls wouldn't be further terrorized by the armed men when they showed up at the hospital seeking surgery and healing. He expressed a tender concern for the women, who had to return to their villages, stigmatized, after having been gang raped publicly. I listened to him, wondering how these women were going to reenter their villages with the taint of rape? These were usually circumcised women, stitched and acquainted with pain from the celebrated butchery of the removal of their clitoris and labia major and minor; women who were less than third-class citizens in a male-dominated society that valued their brutalized virginity. How were they to stand up again as respected wives and mothers and daughters?
The City of Joy and Panzi will need to offer not only income-generating opportunities, but also psychological support for raped women and girls to heal. The photo of the little girl with her back facing Paula Allen's camera was a victim of gang rape. What sort of assistance must she require to stand as a peer to the little boys standing around her? What sort of help would they need to accept her?

The tour was designed to expose the violence in the Congo. It did that successfully, down to informing the audience, who must have gasped collectively, when the doctor alluded to women being shot in the vagina. The image that the words conjured was devastating. How could one human being do that to another human being? Didn't the perpetrators have mothers, grandmothers, possibly sisters, daughters, nieces and perhaps grandchildren? It was unfathomable. And when the audience got the opportunity to question Dr. Mukwege in a brief question-and-answer segment, a Congolese doctor wanted to know how such brutality could go on for years. The audience hushed. Batted its lashes, awaiting a reply. Eve spoke up, to great applause. Because the women and girls are black, she said, and no where could this go on for so long, if that fact were not so. She mentioned public, gang rapes in Bosnia and how fast it took such abuse to stop, when the world caught wind of it. Yet black African women and girls were bearing up under gang rape as though it were a common occurrence because they were dark natives of a dark continent, and who cared?

The speaking tour proposed to explore the causes of the brutality, which I don't think it did. Economic reasons, the doctor noted, although he didn't delve into details. One had the impression he was yet reeling under the causes of the turmoil himself. I can say here, though, Eve shed light on an element, the name of which I don't remember, found in mines, that the world uses in cell phones and video games, is found in mines near areas where women and girls are abused the most. And, finally, the tour was to share the stories of the Congo's growing movement of women leaders. Eve indicated that these women didn't need her to come to the Congo and tell them how to liberate themselves. They needed resources and funds and facilities, and they, fierce, lioness-hearted souls, could light their own paths.
Now, this, I gathered firsthand, was more than likely gospel, if the three bodacious African sisters who brushed me away from Dr. Mukwege to snatch him backward so they could take a snapshot with him was any indication of their temperaments. A vast improvement to the "Turning Pain to Power" speaking tour would have been a woman leader, who rendered a personalized account of their healing work in the DRC.
If you should want to learn more about V-Day and its efforts around the world, visit the official website. There you can add your voice to the "V-Wall For Congo" and sign up to host a Congo Teach-In as well as donate and educate yourself.
Surfing the site, I learned how Eve Ensler exposed the flight of Congolese women and girls in an article for Glamour magazine. I read accounts of how Eve's work was impacting people across the globe. I admired evidence of Eve's victory, valentine and vagina power for women in New Orleans, the Middle East, South Dakota, Haiti, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan. From the brochure I mentioned earlier in this article, I learned of the V-Day victories since 1996, nationally and internationally, and I was astounded. Eve has truly been busy, making it happen in honor of aiding oppressed, victimized women and girls regardless of race, creed, color, or religion.
Then I had the inclination to see the leader of the DRC, President Joseph Kabila Kabange. That is how I can across the Internet photo of Kabila and his wife pictured above. I read articles of what the 30-something leader is doing to work with neighboring leaders to end the abuse on his country's women and children, including child soldiers and gang-raped girls. Consequently, I even discovered Kabila's e-mail,
Peace, healing, love, and blessings to wounded women and children everywhere,

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Yes, we can! And until then...I'll keep the faith.

I spent Thursday, January 22, 2009, inside the impressive D.C. must-see,
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the week I attended the historic Barack Obama Inauguration. As with all museums in Washington, my entry was free. Si, totalmente libre! While my hostesses, Bren and Mike, worked, I bowed to a calling within to visit the memorial, a museum I'd visited ten years prior, when I last found myself in our capital city, visiting my beloved first couple, Bren and Mike.
From the museum's entrance, I latched onto a small group with a diminutive Jewish survivor, knowledgeable and warm, serving as a top-notch guide, who informed us of tidbits of information unnoted on the placards under Holocaust pictures of suffering and devastation and heroism. As he narrated the story of massive destruction, his eyes glazed over here and there in the telling, and he paused, a screen we couldn't see materializing just beyond our group, and his face clouded, tears misting his vision behind tiny, oval-shaped spectacles.
"I was twelve when my parents got me out of Germany," he confessed, in voce sotto. "I came here to the United States, to be with my oldest sister, who had come much earlier, with her new husband." He faced a large, glassed display of Hitler and grim-faced flanks of the Secret Police. "That was the last time I saw my parents, my family. No one survived. All of them. Gone. It was only me and my sister."
I stared at him, trying to imagine his pain, years old, albeit forever new.
"I am sorry." He made a decent show of brushing sorrow into his cheeks. "I cannot ever give this tour without feeling the horror, the pain, every time. Forgive me."
I said nothing. There was nothing to forgive. The others---two men, one Black, the other white, and two Black women---were silent, all on the same accord. We waited patiently as he calmed himself and returned to his role as our guide, walking and talking.
As far as I could tell, we were thoroughly engaged. He was a master guide.
He probed our knowledge of the period, asking pointed questions, responding encouragingly, espousing asides that widened our eyes and accepting our commentary and queries with genuine care and concern.
I attached myself to the foursome on the first floor, where we entered an elevator that seemed to wail with a heavy sadness as it carried us to the fourth floor, the top of the building's famous artifacts and exhibits. Thus, the flow of our tour took us downward, as though we were advancing down through Dante's seven circles of hell, filing past one horrific scene after another, pictures of shattered families and unforgettable heroes, Jewish and German, who fought back in the best way they could, one German woman consenting to be her employer's mistress just for him to "overlook" the knowledge that Jews were being hidden on his extensive property. We trailed our guide, eyes photographing the dank, wooden, uncomfortable-looking, bare bucks of the crude housing in the death camps, bringing to my mind what it must have been like in the death-stalked hulls of slave ships carrying my Black African ancestors to America's shores.
Our guide was of the same mind.
On several occasions, he paralleled the Holocaust to the atrocity of American slavery, and when he did, the sole white member of our group chafed visibly, angrily. But our guide made no indication that he noticed, yet each time this man rankled with an American slavery comparison, I studied him. He didn't seem to mind my observation, considering he hardened and squinted, flared and cringed, disconnecting paces away and moving back into the group when he'd shirked his perturbation.
On the second floor, I decided to go it alone, not wanting to worry Bren, who was expecting my call towards four o'clock, the hour she'd be leaving the office. Noting the time on my cell's face, I determined to accelerate my tour, so, before long, I eased away from the group.
The listening booths claimed my attention. The actual voices of Holocaust survivors whispered, transporting me back through time, and via their vivid, piercing memories, I joined an enclosure of others, who, listening, vicariously faced tremendous cold, meager food, harsh cruelty and insurmountable demonstrations of love in the midst of devastation.
From there, I eventually found myself sitting on the top tier of a moderate-sized amphitheatre, where museum guests sat and watched a film of Holocaust survivors recap their mesmerizing, blessed, hair-raising escape from Nazi tyranny. I sat straight-backed, soaking in the triumphant testimonies. One woman stared out at the audience she could not see and advised us to "never give up," no matter where we found ourselves in life.
Swept up on a tide of sorrow and joy, outrageous and victorious, I couldn't help gazing around me, to catalog the reactions of fellow visitors. That was difficult to surmise. They were bunched together on lower tiers, crammed tight, almost huddled, same as they were down the bench from me, so far down the bench it was difficult to ignore.
It was as if I'd suddenly become Pepe La Pew, trailing a plume of stink. As if I were an outed Jewish woman and they German countrymen, waiting for the heart-stopping siren of the SS men to swallow me in a whirl of red. As if we were in the Old South and I were a field hand or house servant awaiting my ten minutes of fame on the auction block. As if a true African-American, Barack Obama, hadn't been elected to serve as the country's 44th president.
Yet even as I observed the white voluntary segregation and felt its presence throughout the museum, I felt myself grow taller. More compassionate. Extremely attentive to the testimonials. And I smiled and shifted my legs, making room for a smiling woman who inquired if she might sit beside me. She took in my red skull cap, smiled wider. "You make it to the Inauguration?"
There is always a ray of hope in the darkest night. "In living color, all day, in twig-cracking cold!" I chimed softly.
Blue eyes shimmered. "Me, too!"
We exchanged a few more words and then focused our attention on the film.
"Yes, we can!" I reminded myself, borrowing Barack's campaign clarion call. And until then, I, like so many others, will keep the faith, believing we, as a people in this country and around the globe, can and will rise to the mountaintop, where hatred and separatism in thought and deed will never again lead to systematic persecution and annihilation of one group by another, even though it was happening across Africa and other places as I sat in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, grateful for my trip, my beloved family and friends, the day, my experience, the woman beside me, and the open heart behind my ribs.
Yes, we will, one day...

The Golden Goddess soars.