Don’t walk between the bark and the tree.
“We help the helpless to be able to manage on their own.”
Who: LAV (Laissez l’ Afrique Vivre)
What: Offers support and vocational training to young people - rape victims, child soldiers and street children.
Eight young women sit bent over their treadle sewing machines. They have learned how to thread the machine and pump the treadle at the right speed to sew evenly and safely. Their first task is to sew a straight seam on a piece of paper.
“These pupils arrived the other day,” says sewing teacher Safi Bisimwa. “We are expecting another group shortly, of girls who come from villages a long way away and who will have their infant children with them. They will live here with us.
Many of the infants are the result of rape. Their mothers have been kidnapped and raped and those who manage to get back to their villages are not always made welcome. They have borne the “snake’s” child, babies who are themselves considered to be “snakes”. But if the mothers can return to the village with a skill, and a sewing machine, things might be easier. They will have become a resource. The goal of the six-month long education is that they will all be able to support themselves.”
The goal of the six-month long education is that they will all be able to support themselves.
Munguiko is 18 years old and has never been to school. Since her father died – he was bewitched and his stomach swelled up, she says – and her mother went mad, she has had to support herself as a travelling agricultural worker. The sewing course is her first real opportunity. It is important to learn to read, write and count. If you are going to work as a seamstress you have to understand figures, calculate measurements and prices and write the customer’s name on the order form.
Outside, a group of young men and women are waiting to be interviewed by LAV’s psychologist. 60 per cent of the students are former child soldiers or girls who have been the victims of violence, others are ‘just’ orphans or street children. LAV mixes the groups to prevent stigmatisation. Many carry terrible stories which they do not tell unless they have to. At least, not to start with.
Bashushanya is 25 years old and hopes to train as a car mechanic.
“I had to leave school in the ninth grade and since then I’ve just been drifting.”
Many carry terrible stories which they do not tell unless they have to. At least, not to start with.
If he does, 22-year-old Love will be one of his teachers. She joined the Mai Mai guerilla as a volunteer when she was ten years old, to avenge her father’s death. After her education at LAV, and a few years working in various garages in the city, she is back working as a mechanic and a teacher.
The hotel course places higher demands on its students. Wearing white aprons and small pleated caps, a group of young men and women are being taught how to receive guests, decorate, serve, make beds, cook, wash up – everything that might be needed at a small hotel. To be accepted onto the course the youngsters must be able to read and write, and preferably speak a little French, in addition to Swahili. Chantal Nshombo is the teacher:
“All the girls on the course have children,” she says. “They are aged between 17 and 22.”
Chantal has been teaching restaurant skills for a long time, and even though these students have a lower level of basic education than those she taught at the universities in Goma and Kinshasa, she thinks she has a fantastic job:
“We help the helpless to be able to manage on their own.”
But of course the memories and the grief can sometimes become overwhelming.
“Then I send the student to the psychologist,” says the hotel teacher.
Laba was 13 when she was kidnapped. For 2½ years she was a sex slave for six men in a military camp. When she managed to escape, she ended up living on the street in Goma and working as a washerwoman. By pure chance she happened to deliver washing to her older sister’s home. Her family had given up hoping that she had survived. Some months after she had been reunited with her family she gave birth to her daughter, the child of her rape.
She is 24 years old and will soon have a law degree.
After the basic course at LAV, Laba has studied further and become an important role model. Now she is 24 years old and will soon have a law degree. She is writing her final dissertation which is about how society should take care of children who have been born as a result of rape. Her ambition is to start a support organisation for these children. Laba’s own daughter is almost seven.
“Sometimes she asks me who her father is. I’ve decided to tell her the truth when she is ten. I think she’ll be able to handle it then.”
Kusiba Muzenende is the secretary general at LAV. Yes, things are better now, he says.
“When it was at its worst there were 19 armed groups in South Kivu. But there are still five left, terrorising the civilian population. Officially, the national Congolese army no longer kidnaps people, but what exactly is the national army? A mixture of honest soldiers and ex-rapists and murderers. And they’re all very badly paid.
And then we have all these children born after rapes. Sooner or later they’ll start asking questions about their background. If we don’t support their mothers so that they can give their children a good upbringing then we are paving the way for more violence; indeed, in all probablity for a new war.”
Maternal deaths: Just over 900 deaths per l00,000 births ****
Number of children/woman: 5.2 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Abortion is forbidden, even when the mother’s life is at risk.
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: 1.8 million women will be raped during their lifetime. Congo is the second most dangerous country in the world for a woman to live in.