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.