From July 12—August 2, 2004, Sr. Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
The genocide that devastated Central Africa apparently ended 10 years ago but for the people living in these countries, the events of the past still linger to this day. Rebel activity continues on a smaller scale, yet it is enough to prevent people from returning to their homes—as a result cities have become overpopulated, and unfortunately, there is a severe lack of infrastructure to cope with the increase. It is difficult for people to think about the future and how to maintain a "normal" way of life when they must struggle for their daily survival. Every sector of the population was affected by the violence associated with the genocide, even the women religious. All are still trying to cope with their physical and psychological scars.
Sisters throughout the region maintain that the best way they can help to rebuild their communities is by promoting education—especially among women and girls who are responsible for supporting their families. The sisters want women to acquire academic and practical skills, but there are many challenges to overcome as their countries enter the Millennium. Running water and electricity is still considered a luxury, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is growing, the physical environment is quickly deteriorating in certain areas and governments have not adapted themselves quickly enough to cope with all of these growing problems. By increasing awareness and knowledge about how to combat these issues, the women of Central Africa will, hopefully, be able to have something to pass onto their children.
The first part of Sr. Joyce’s trip started in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kinshasa is in the southwest of DRC. On July 15th, she was able to visit two schools. The first school was a tailoring-vocational school that once belonged to a group of sisters—it is now nationalized, owned and operated by the government. When the sisters were in charge of the school, it was vandalized and pillaged during the civil war in 1991. Since then, it has been restored with the help of private donations and is considered to be one of the best centers for tailoring instruction in Kinshasa (capital of DRC). The next school Sr. Joyce visited had a model nutrition-education program. Malnutrition is a serious problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Food is scarce and people survive by eating cassava and manioc roots, which are high in starch and low in protein. Due to the constant war and unrest, people are unable to plant and grow the foods they need. In addition, rebel soldiers patrol waterways and confiscate food from merchants; there are also few passable roads to allow for trade and commerce.
Sr. Joyce learned that the plight of teachers is a serious problem because it affects the success of a school and its students. Teachers are supposed to be paid $2--$5/month by the government, depending upon their qualifications. Parents are required to pay the balance, which would bring their wages to $10--$12/month. Oftentimes, the government does not pay teachers and parents do not have enough income to contribute to teachers’ salaries. As a result, teachers volunteer their services and cannot afford to teach full-time. They work half-days in the school to seek other employment to earn extra incomes to support their own families.
The next day, July 16th, Sr. Joyce visited a school that had received a grant from the Fund for Sisters. The school is located in an extremely run-down area of Kinshasa—the streets are filthy and the homes were constructed of cardboard, metal scraps or cement blocks. When the Congo River floods each year, families are forced to move. Even though they are living in slum-like conditions in these shacks, they are forced to pay high rent. In the midst of all this squalor, the sisters keep a very well maintained school. The campus only has four classrooms but the school is able to enroll 400 students in two, daily sessions. The teachers are only high school graduates but Sr. Joyce noticed that they have an amazing gift for engaging their students. Without the school, the students would have no hope of receiving an education. In order to help students earn money for their school fees, the sisters bought a garden where the students plant produce to sell.
On July 17th, Sr. Joyce traveled to the Republic of Congo by crossing the Congo River between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Brazzaville is located in the southeast of Congo. Like Kinshasa, Brazzaville was also affected by all of the constant fighting but it did not seem as desolate. Many families live in bombed-out buildings or in squatting communities along the riverbanks.
Once Sr. Joyce was settled in, she met with a group of sisters in the Brazzaville diocese. As in the DRC, the sisters in Congo expressed that one of their main concerns was the lack of salaries for teachers. Their other major dilemma was how they were going to meet the needs of the city’s children. There is a growing orphan population due to the wars and HIV/AIDS. The children also suffer from malnutrition and easily contract infections, malaria and HIV/AIDS. There is rarely enough medicine available to meet the different needs.
Later that day, Sr. Joyce met with a group of sisters that operated a small rehabilitation center for stroke patients. There is a great need for physical therapy programs in Kinshasa because many people are dealing with the after affects of the war. In the future, the sisters are hoping to undertake an agricultural program, a secondary school and a sewing project for young women.
On July 19th, Sr. Joyce traveled back to the DRC and arrived in Kikwit. Kikwit is east of Kinshasa and is a rural, desert-like city with a population of one million. Many people had to resettle in Kikwit after the wars. The city was unable to handle the large growth in population—so there remains only one paved road, no electricity and an unreliable water supply. To make matters worse, the supply of food that reaches the city is limited because the land is sandy—making it hard for transportation and trade. It is also difficult to grow food in the area because there is no water for irrigation.
The next day, Sr. Joyce visited two schools for children with disabilities. At both schools, the children came to the sisters because their families abandoned them. In many third world countries, children with disabilities are feared because they are different. The first school enrolled 45 blind students who live in foster homes near the school. The foster parents are motivated to host the students because they receive a stipend. The second school enrolled 50 deaf students. Each classroom only has 8-10 students so that each child can receive individual attention. The sisters try to educate parents about their child’s learning disabilities but it is difficult because there are many stigmas that need to be overcome. Once families see that their children can still learn skills, their appreciation for their children grows.
On July 23rd, Sr. Joyce journeyed to Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Goma is situated on North Lake Kivu. In 2002, a volcano destroyed many areas of Goma—leaving much of the city covered in lava. Throughout Goma, there is only electricity for brief periods in the morning and never at night. Most families must walk to Lake Kivu in order to fetch their water. Once families have filled their water containers, they carry the water home on their backs with a strap fastened to their foreheads. Unfortunately, Lake Kivu, the city’s primary water source, is contaminated from volcanic gases. There are hardly any sources of safe water in Goma, so cholera is prevalent.
Many people migrated to Goma because of all the political unrest that occurred in their outlying villages. These people have remained in the city because they fear on-going rebel activity. Soldiers are continuing to burn and pillage villages and fields, beat and torture men and rape women and children. Since fields are destroyed, people have nothing to harvest so starvation is increasing. To make matters worse, urban areas like Goma have little access to food. Some displaced farmers have been able to earn extra money by selling the bricks they find buried in the lava.
Families have become permanently displaced in recent years. They cannot return to their farms, yet they remain homeless when they stay in the cities. When families moved to the cities, many of them became squatters on private property. After the volcano erupted, it was not uncommon for owners of schools, churches and private homes to lose their damaged property to squatters if a walled fence did not protect their land. Squatters would hastily build shacks and erect walls made from lava rock around the confiscated properties and claim them as their own. The property owners have no government agency to appeal to about what is happening.
Erosion is another problem that has increased due to the growing population. When many families resettled in Goma, they used the trees and bushes that covered the hills and mountains as a source of fuel for cooking and heating. Now, the hills and mountains are bare and there is nothing to keep the topsoil in place—allowing for erosion and mudslides during rainstorms. As a result, many buildings and homes have either been destroyed or made unstable.
On July 24th, Sr. Joyce went to visit the SOFAC, Micro-Credit Program. The program was initiated to help people obtain healthcare. Participating families pay a small membership and monthly fee to SOFAC that in turn, allows them to access the collected funds to pay for medicine or doctors visits. Soon after the program began, the sisters discovered that the villagers could not afford to pay the monthly fee, even though it was less than $.01/month. The sisters decided to initiate a micro-credit program to help families generate income to pay for medical fees and provide food for themselves. The Sisters’ Fund provided a grant to help SOFAC initiate the micro-credit program. In the future, the sisters hope to include an education program to teach HIV/AIDS prevention and health care education.
The next day, July 25th, Sr. Joyce traveled by boat to Bukavu—a town at the southern tip of Lake Kivu in DRC. When she was there, she had the opportunity to meet the Archbishop of the Bukavu diocese who informed her that there is a great need for sisters’ education, but a lack of diocesan funds to help the sisters. Another Bishop Sr. Joyce met in Goma also expressed these concerns. Many sisters do not have a professional education—they have only a primary or secondary education. Their congregations do not have funds to help members continue their studies. Unfortunately, there is also a great need for on-going formation in the region. Sr. Joyce learned that many sisters are suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of their experiences of rape, torture and displacement. Many sisters and laity need professional therapy and counseling to deal with these experiences but such services are hard to find.
After Sr. Joyce’s meeting, she visited a center that cares for women and children who were raped and plundered by rebel soldiers. That same day, 14 women and six babies came seeking help. The women had been hiding in the forest after being raped in front of their husbands, who were beaten and then killed. The soldiers took everything from the women, including their clothing. A local woman found the group and walked with them for two days to the center. The sisters can only receive about 10 women each day, even though many more need help.
Next, Sr. Joyce stopped by a home that housed 50 street girls that were abandoned by their families and identified as "witches". The girls, ages 3-12 years old, also suffered from physical and sexual abuse. Labeling one’s own children, as "witches," is a growing phenomenon in Central Africa. When poor families are unable to care for their children, parents look for excuses to reject them. Parents will do this by projecting evil, supernatural powers onto them. The sisters try to rehabilitate the girls by providing tutoring so they can return to school. In addition, the sisters try to find the girls’ families so they can reconcile and reunite the girls with their parents.
On July 27th, Sr. Joyce traveled east of Lake Kivu to Kigali, Rwanda. When Sr. Joyce was traveling through Kigali, she noticed many home and business construction sites. Rwanda is receiving millions of dollars in aid for rebuilding efforts from the United States and Europe. After the war, the Rwandan government encouraged families to stay permanently in the areas where they resettled by building them simple homes. Unfortunately, farmers must now walk long distances to their fields and gardens. Although Kigali is slowly developing, it is still without electricity a majority of the time. While Sr. Joyce was staying with the sisters there, she had to use candles and lanterns for light and buckets for washing.
The next day, Sr. Joyce met with a sister that is HIV positive, having contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. The 89-year-old sister manages a project for the poor. She oversees a large garden and kitchen that grows and prepares food for poor patients at a nearby hospital.
On July 29th, Sr. Joyce was able to do follow-up visits on two projects that received funding from the Sisters’ Fund. The first project she visited was a kindergarten and primary school for 300 students. Since the school was built, parents have become extremely committed to their children’s education and recently made immense sacrifices to raise enough money to purchase land next to the school for expansion. The school’s success has also helped to motivate other parents to provide their children with an education.
Afterwards, Sr. Joyce visited a mobile library project. The sisters and teachers are very proud of the fact that their library is more popular than the school’s library because they carry more books and magazines in French and English. The library charges a fee to help cover operating expenses. The sisters hope to expand their circulation.
Sr. Joyce journeyed to Butare, Rwanda on July 30th. Along the way, she stopped by a home for 60 orphaned girls. The girls have been living there since their parents were killed in the war 10 years ago. They do not have any extended family members and must remain at the orphanage until they are adults. The are enrolled in local primary and secondary schools. Currently, there is no more room at the orphanage but as the older girls leave, the sisters would like to assist children whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS. Next door to the school, the sisters operate a dispensary/health center that takes in 400 patients monthly—but it only has 30 beds for inpatients. The sisters also have a nutrition center and they oversee the health of 1,000 people living in the area. The sisters are able to make all of their work possible through the cultivation of their gardens and farm animals. They sell milk, cheese and eggs for income.
In the next town, Ruyenzi, Sr. Joyce toured a primary and secondary school. The schools are in need of expansion to accommodate more students. The sisters have boarding rooms for 100 girls who must walk several miles to obtain drinking water and to wash their clothes and bedding. Sr. Joyce learned that many schools in the area are discontinuing their boarding facilities because water is scarce and food is too expensive.
When Sr. Joyce reached Butare, she attended a meeting at the Institute for Religious Sciences which is managed by Rwanda USUMA. The Institute is very important for the future of theological and pastoral education of the sisters. Since the war, Rwandan sisters can no longer attend the formation centers in Congo because of the continued unrest, so it is necessary for Rwanda USUMA to upgrade its own programs. Rwanda USUMA is hoping to expand the center to accommodate more students who are interested in taking courses; they are also looking for funds to cover their operating expenses and to secure an electricity source.
During Sr. Joyce’s visit to Kigali, she visited a memorial center that honored the victims of the Rwanda/Congo genocide. A portion of the memorial grounds is a large garden of mass graves. As bodies of victims are identified, their family members bring them to the memorial so they can receive a proper burial. Sr. Joyce found that the memorial center gave an excellent history of the conflicts between Rwanda and Congo. The display included pictures of the horrors of genocide, video interviews of family members and soldiers (who are now in prison) and of the victims clothing and bones. The memorial also honored genocide victims from different countries.
When Sr. Joyce left Central Africa, she was inspired by the relentless determination and energy the sisters had for their missionary work. Sr. Joyce asked sisters how they were able to continue in spite of the adversity they faced—they told her that prayer, community and knowing that others care about them and their situation gives them hope.