It is 10 p.m. in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, and I am tucked safely under my mosquito net next to my sleeping 17-year-old daughter, Arianna. We have been in the Congo for six days now.
We entered the country in the north (after a stunning five-hour drive through northern Rwanda) via the border city of Goma, where we met up with our friends Scott Blanding (a documentary film maker from Virginia and founder of Women in War Zones), Catherine Howell (a graduate student in Genocide Studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey), and Scott’s friend Raphael Mukanya from Bukavu. We will all be working together these next two weeks and living under the same roof at the Panzi Hospital guest house. It was great to see them and re-connect. Panzi Foundation USA and Women in War Zones is working with Panzi Foundation DRC to develop and implement programs at the hospital for survivors of sexual violence and their children. We have much to accomplish in these next two weeks and beyond.
After a weekend in Goma (which included a visit to Heal Africa Hospital) and an initially unnerving “fast boat” ride across Lake Kivu (small boat for 20 people that road low in the water and at high speed over choppy water – but that served Fanta and cheese sandwiches – big bonus! – and provided life vests at every seat, which I studied carefully), we finally arrived at Panzi Hospital. I am thrilled to be back!
I am especially excited to introduce Arianna (and readers of this blog) to this place, the people, and the culture so she can know a Congo beyond the limited description of “rape capital of the world.” I want her to understand how it is that tens of thousands of women and girls have suffered sexual violence – and that not all Congolese men are rapists; that these women are survivors, not victims; that men and boys are raped too. I want her to understand that causes of the violence are complex, including the fact that the Congo is a failed state and unable to protect its citizens, and that there is a rich history and culture here with amazing people to know and work with. We both have a lot to learn.
Lee Ann De Reus is an associate professor of Human Development & Family Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn State Altoona and was a 2009 recipient of the Carl Wilkens Fellowship, given by Genocide Intervention Network. She is currently in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she previously conducted research. On this trip, she is following up with the women she interviewed, working on a book with Dr. Dennis Mukwege, and assisting the Panzi Foundation. This is the first in a series of posts.