Five African women cram in the back of our land cruiser. They begin to sing; such a haunting tune embellished by trills and ululations:
Waliyo pewa neema
The refrain translates as:
You who have received grace
have neglected grace.
When my friend and interpreter Mama Virginie from the Congolese NGO Heal Africa interprets it I can only marvel at its paradoxical meaning! It is not so much a statement of fact as it is an admonition! For any of us who have received grace have we ignored it? Have we dismissed it?
Neema – grace. The grace I felt in February 2012 when I visited Grounds for Hope – a Heal Africa project just outside Goma, DR Congo originally designed to house women with unhealed fistulas. A predecessor organization to HealCanada funded this project for $150,000 in 2007. ) HealCanada is a registered Canadian
charity supporting projects for women and children in the great lakes region of
A fistula is a tear in the vaginal wall from violent rape or difficult childbirth
which causes fecal and or urinary incontinence. Women with fistulas are usually
abandoned by their husbands and not welcomed back in their villages so the
grounds of the Heal Africa hospital were crowded with women with nowhere else to go when their surgeries failed.
What a change! Six years ago there was nothing but a field here surrounded by trees in the small village of Bohimba. Now this compound of two blocks of twelve attached three room units is living up to its name. It’s flourishing. Not only is it home to women with unhealed fistulas but it is now a bustling community centre and home base for a new program called Wamama Simameni or Women Stand Together.
These groups teach women their legal rights, provide counseling for victims of sexual violence, supply revolving micro-credit and also teach skills in sewing, basket making, animal husbandry and agricultural practices.
More than 360 women now meet here regularly. When we arrived the place was a riot of colour and activities as women in their trademark multi-coloured dresses filled the commons between the wooden housing blocks. And children gathered and played and gawked at the visitors! Then we were introduced to women who shared how their lives had changed for the better.
After the testimonials were finished I noticed an animated young woman in a bright red cap and T-Shirt. I asked who she was. She was Dusange Bitayin, one of the first women to settle here in 2007 with an unhealed fistula.
Without the graphic details here is Dusenge’s story. She lived about 3 hours north of Goma in Masisi Kinigi which was particularly hard hit during the height of the Congolese wars that started in 1996. At age 15 in 1999 she was
abducted by one of many groups of enemy soldiers in the region and taken back into the bush where she was repeatedly raped. She became pregnant but subsequent rapes destroyed her baby in the womb and she incurred a severe fistula.
Dusenge escaped the soldiers in 2001 and returned to her village where she met some Heal Africa Community counselors in 2003 who encouraged her to go to Goma for reparative surgery. After five unsuccessful surgeries (not uncommon) she moved to Grounds for Hope. And in 2008 her fistula was repaired. “By the grace of God Heal Africa didn’t forsake me,” she says.
And in yet another example, so prevalent here, of paying it forward Dusenge joined a Heal Africa training program for gender and justice and rape counseling last year. There she learned to help others as she says, ” change pain in the
heart to joy.”
As I left Grounds for Hope Dusenge was crowded by women listening to her talk to them with such animation – this 27 year old extraordinarily ordinary ongolese
woman of slight build and such large grace!
Dusenge is such a great example of the two-legged hope that is growing out of Congo’s unbelievable desolations. She and the countless other women I have met here in Congo are the consolations of this place, its much needed grace.
Waliyo pewa neema
You who received grace
Have neglected grace
As, even now, I hear the echoes of this refrain I think of all that I saw at Grounds for Hope that disproves the literal meaning of this song. Again and again I have seen men and women here in DR Congo who have suffered beyond imagining, who have received grace of healing and who play it forward again and again. Like Dusenge. Neema. Neema.