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Amani Matabaro sits surrounded by 16 women from Mumosho, the village in eastern Congo where he was born and raised. He translates from Mashi and Swahili into English, so the women can share their lives, their experiences of trauma, and their hopes with us. As volunteers who run Action Kivu in support of Amani’s Congolese non-profit, Actions for the Welfare of Women and Children in Kivu, or ABFEK, Cate Haight and I traveled to Congo in late December to January, ringing in 2012 in Bukavu and Mumosho, surrounded by the women and children whom Amani serves through education assistance, sewing workshops, micro-finance loans, and much more.
In Mumosho on one sunny and surprisingly dry day in the rainy season, Amani laughs at times as he translates the stories women tell about life in eastern Congo. He especially enjoys the anecdotes of one woman, who salts her stories with sarcastic humor. Soon, however, the women begin talking at once, each voice growing more strident than the other, and Amani’s smile fades. Off his grim look, we ask what the women are saying.
“I am upset,” Amani tells us, shaking his head. “They are talking about the bad things about men.” The women described the common problem of domestic violence, telling us that approximately 80 percent of marriages in their village are plagued by abuse. Women here have few rights, and often, if they do not produce a male heir for the family, are unceremoniously divorced, kicked out of the house, with no money or land rights.
Amani grew up in this world. He shows us his home in Mumosho, two simple and worn mud-brown buildings, where he was born and raised—where his father, a pastor, died in the conflict, and his mother, who taught her four sons that everyone is equal, was killed and buried. Amani met and married his high school sweetheart, Amini, and started a family with her. Amani’s eldest brother paid for him to continue his education through college, and in turn, Amani sends vulnerable and orphaned children to school via his education assistance program. Because his wife Amini is a talented seamstress, together they started sewing workshops for women who are victims of sexual violence and the ongoing conflict to learn a trade to support their families.
It’s impressive, Amani tells us, that the women today are speaking so openly about these problems. They recognize that domestic violence is not right, and their frank speech is a marked change in the last five years—especially in front of a man, which illustrates how much they trust Amani, whose name translates to “peace” in Swahili. Even as the women continue to voice their pain and anger, Amani is devising a way to raise awareness about women’s rights. He sees the need for women to have a safe place to gather, to share their stories and their strength. Amani immediately begins brainstorming sessions to teach women their rights, separate sessions to teach men about the rights of women and children, and then events to bring them together, along with community leaders, to start conversations about how this can change in their lives today.
A man of action, Amani is a leader in the community and a natural at what some people spend years and thousands of dollars studying in graduate programs. Rather than implementing his own vision upon the community, he does his research among the people, talking to them, taking surveys, learning about what the majority want. Most recently, the answer was a market in Mumosho, a place to sell their wares and goods, dried fish, fruit, and vegetables, under a roof that would shade them from the sun and keep them dry during the long rainy season. Thus, with hard work, a gift of land from the local king, the support of Rotary clubs from the U.S. and Bukavu, and other international non-profits, the Peace Market was built. When the funds ran out before a latrine could be built, the Enough Project contacted one of its supporters, actress and activist Robin Wright. Mama Robin, as Amani affectionately calls Wright, had met Amani on her journey to Congo and generously donated the funds necessary for a new latrine to be built.
Amani took us to meet the goats at the husbandry project, which he hopes to expand to include cows, which will provide milk and much needed nutrition for the children. The animals will also produce manure to transform into bio-fuel for community cooking, as well as fertilize the shared farm where women of Mumosho harvest crops of eggplant, peppers, carrots, and more to sell at the market.
His dream for 2012 is to start construction on a Peace School, where the children he now sends to various mud-room schools that are poorly lit by a hole in the wall, will attend classes, receive health care, and study not only the Congolese curriculum, but also non-violent communication, human rights, and peace training. He longs for his kids—his six children and the 115 he sends to school who call him Papa Amani—to be the leaders of a peaceful Congo.
On our first visit to Mumosho, Cate, Amani, and I visit the mayor, who greeted us warmly, recording our visit with a ballpoint pen and careful cursive on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. He recounted all that Amani has done for Mumosho, how the people respect him and look to his leadership. “When I look at Amani,” he told us, “I see a mirror reflecting the future of Congo.”
Rebecca Snavely is a former Web producer and staff writer for the L.A. Times entertainment site. She volunteers her time as secretary and writer for Action Kivu. Currently living without a car in Los Angeles, the city that never walks, she writes about community, travel, and the colorful characters of L.A. on her blog The Butterfly Effect.
Amani Matabaro is the founder of Actions for the Welfare of Women and Children in Kivu and also works as a researcher for the Enough Project in Bukavu, South Kivu.
To partner with Amani and directly affect the lives of the women and children in eastern Congo, please visit Action Kivu. Staffed by volunteers, nearly 100 percent of donations go directly to Amani’s work (minus nominal banking fees).