International Women’s Day is a special day for me because it is a moment for me to remember, to be aware that I have rights as a woman and my rights must be respected. I am aware I can stand up and speak in front of others, men included. This year we are standing up to tell the world we are equal and we should be looked at equally. Young girls must be given the chance to go to school, my parents never gave me the chance to get an education but the programs here at Action Kivu opened my eyes. We are fighting to have equal access to job opportunities. We are working to change our society.
Being at Action Kivu makes me aware that what men do, women can also do. Gender equity must be respected in job opportunities and we must reach the goal to help fight extreme poverty in the country. Why are so many of the children who do not have the chance to get an education girls? It has to end. My life has changed since I joined the programs at Action Kivu. I am now working to feed my child and myself. Being part of Action Kivu helped me change how I look at my daughter, I understand she is equal to boys and I will work hard to send her to school. I am able to pay for medical care for my daughter since I do not know her father. These programs made me feel proud of myself, I am looked at differently. I feel strong and thank everyone for supporting Action Kivu.
Action Kivu’s Executive Director Rebecca Snavely recently returned home from visiting Congo and all the programs our partners support. She writes here about the change she witnessed from her first visit five years before.
The culture shock of returning to L.A. from Mumosho, DRC is always jarring. A mere 36 hour flight, and one is back in the comfort of home, of fully stocked grocery aisles, consistent power, and paved roads. I was riding down one of the latter this past weekend, when a conversation about television sparked a deeper discussion about community.
“I am just one small person,” my Los Angeles Lyft driver said. “What can I really do?” We’d been talking about the CNN special about the humanitarian crisis and famine in Somalia that had broken his heart, and his desire to help poverty-stricken areas in his home country of Mexico.
Immediately I thought of Amani Matabaro, our founding director in Congo, and his mantra: alone we can do nothing, but together we can leave a legacy of a better world for everyone. This is the model we want to replicate, that we’ve seen work in Mumosho, Amani’s home community.
When Action Kivu co-founder Cate Haight and I first visited Mumosho in January of 2012, the women being trained in the Sewing Workshop worked in a small dark shack, one window and the door allowing for daylight to guide the seamstresses’ scissors. We asked what they planned to do with their new skills and the sewing machine that is part of their graduation kit that Action Kivu supplies. We asked what they hoped for, and we were met with blank stares. Amani paused in his translation, and enlightened us about the reality of those living in extreme poverty. They do not understand the concept of hope for tomorrow, he explained. They are struggling to find food for their family today.
Five years later, the response of the current students is startlingly different. I sat with several of them in the front room of the Mumosho Community Center, a beautiful place of peace, protected by a gate and guards, and the neighbors who have formed a sort of community watch group, ensuring the safety of the women, girls and kids who gather daily at the Center. It is here that Action Kivu now houses all its programs, from the Sewing Workshop and basket weaving training to the Baking Program with the electric mixer and wood-fired oven that is housed along the edge of the Demonstration Farm, next to the Literacy Program in the back building which also serves as a space for community meetings, health and HIV/AIDS education, and other training programs.
Girls who had learned about the Sewing Workshop from the previous graduates were confident about their future. “I plan to start a co-op with two of my friends,” one said. “I want to teach others to sew, and start my own workshop and business in a busier town,” stated another. They didn’t hesitate in their hope, having seen the success of previous graduates, girls and women now providing for their families, sending their kids to school, paying the medical costs for their babies.
Your investment in Congo is making real change, and creating a legacy of integrity.
The model reflects Action Kivu’s ethos: that the community knows best what it needs, and we are there to help wrangle resources and raise awareness. I shared the idea with my Lyft driver: When you go to the village or town or neighborhood, get to know the people there. Ask them who is the person in their community that they trust, with their money, with their ideas, with their problems? Who is honest? Who is the person that always invites people in for a meal when they need one, or when no one else volunteers, opens their home for a meeting?
Once you’ve identified the community organizer (whether they’re aware of their role or not), speak with them about the needs of the community, identify the top three, and take a survey of all ages to find out what they identify as the number one need. From there, talk to the leader about the resources within the community, and what they are lacking to meet that need, and that is where you can provide assistance.
The leadership must come from within the community for sustainable change, and to get to the root of the issues. As an outsider, you provide the only things they may not have, access to resources, whether that is physical – a truck, food, money – or the human resource of finding others with money to invest.
In Congo, Amani was presented with the direct need: two of his cousins, survivors of sexual violence, needed to earn income to stay alive, to feed and clothe themselves. Amani and his wife Amini had the tools to teach them to sew, and the resources to get them sewing machines to start their own small businesses. As that expanded into a workshop for many other women in need of a source of income and a trade, and a community house was built to provide a place for the courses as well a home for teen mothers and their babies, Amani and his growing circle of community builders added additional training courses, basket making, bread baking, organic farming, and three levels of literacy classes to provide the basis for the new entrepreneurs to step into the society of the educated, a right they were denied because of their gender and poverty.
Each community has a local leader, someone who is trusted, who opens their home to those in need, who listens deeply. In Mumosho, Amani Matabaro is that person, and he has since surrounded himself with other community leaders: teachers who take pride in the girls and women they have graduated from each level of the literacy program, from learning the numbers on the tape measure to counting money and the basics of reading and writing Swahili, to speaking, reading, and writing French. The baker who shows how to shape the dough just so and when to remove it from the wood-burning oven, the basket maker whose hands slow down to teach others the rhythm of weaving, sewing trainers whose first step is to guide girls’ feet to a pedal to learn how to power the Singer machine, feet that previously have only been used to walk under heavy loads of bricks or branches, earning one dollar a day for hard labor on someone else’s land.
Trainers, teachers, leaders – they welcome girls and women, most who have been neglected or shunned, survivors of violence, showing them that they are inherently worthy of community, of family, and of love. Women who have been denied land have their own plot to grow food, girls who were told they weren’t worthy of an education feel safe and comfortable learning a new skill, their hands offering fresh baked bread at the market, selling beautifully woven brightly colored baskets, graduating from that first step in coordinating their feet to power the pedal Singer machine to measuring, cutting, and creating a beautiful dress for a client, their specific skills sought after by their community, their time spent with their fellow sewing sisters, creating co-ops, working in rhythm, stitching their way to a brighter future for Congo.
Together we can rebuild a better world. If you’re not already part of this movement, partner with Action Kivu at www.actionkivu.org.
Cito sits on the edge of the couch, balancing her baby girl on her lap, taking a break from her day at the Sewing Workshop upstairs. The sound of feet operating the pedal-powered machines hums from above.
“I didn’t know anyone my first day here,” says Cito. “I came with my baby, who was six months old. It wasn’t easy, but I remember meeting a woman named Francine. I had to learn how to pedal the machine, to practice sewing on paper. My life was very bad.” She waves one hand before her, her wrist twisting her palm up and down in the mas-o-menos gesture of Spanish speakers, which in Congo means “very bad.”
One arm wrapped around her daughter Iragi, Cito explains that before she got pregnant and had to quit secondary school, she had plans to become a nurse. She never talks to her baby’s father, who fled when he learned she was pregnant, leaving her to find ways to feed herself and her newborn.
“I was a different person before I came here, I was vulnerable. If I ever get married – I have no way to describe the power I feel now. If I get married, the man I marry will respect me. I will not jeopardize my life by making a bad choice.
Iragi is almost two years old now, and oddly serene for a toddler. Cito bounces her on one knee. “Iragi means ‘luck,’ she explains, “and I am praying for my daughter to have good luck. The sewing program has changed my life. I’m already earning money, bringing work from my village to class to work on it here. I am so proud, I can already pay for medicine when my daughter is sick. I plan to graduate, and with the sewing kit and machine, start my own co-op, and teach others how to sew. I plan to pay for Iragi to get an education, so she can get a good job, and have a good life.”
On her way in to to the afternoon literacy class at the Mumosho Community Center, Mapendo stops to talk about why she works so hard to learn to read and write. In Swahili, Mapendo means love, she says. Love and luck go hand-in-hand. Before I came to the Literacy Program and Sewing Workshop, I felt I was nothing. Now I am somebody.
After learning the basics of counting, reading, and some writing in Literacy Class Level 1, Mapendo was able to attend the Sewing Workshop, graduating with a machine and starting a co-op with three other alumni. Determined to be able to communicate around the world, she worked her way through Literacy Level 2, where she focused on reading and writing skills, and began to learn some French. Mapendo is now in Level 3, where students focus on French language skills.
Before, to be able to buy just a bar of soap, I had to go work on someone’s farm, hard labor for less than one dollar a day. These programs have taken me from a deep hole, Mapendo says, allowing me to live with others.
Consider a monthly donation to Action Kivu to invest in these life-transforming programs, and partner with women like Mapendo today!
Meet Beatrice Ntankwinja – mother of five, grandmother of one, proud farmer feeding her family. Beatrice is one of the 83 women who now farm their own plot of land at the Action Kivu shared farm, learning sustainable, organic farming from our agronomist, Mukengere. Each woman tends her own organic compost for fertilizer, and is learning how to use a mix of grasses to combat pests and insects.
Thank you to our partners whose generosity is making a lasting impact in Congo! To invest in the future of food security and combat severe malnutrition in this corner of Congo, partner with Action Kivu today.