We got to know Dominique V-Plaza when we lived in DRC. She came to our Sunday church group and we always were challenged and encouraged by her stories of her work with women who had been raped and were at Panzi hospital or had been at the hospital for treatment. She is now back in the states and has since started a project to support women in Mwenga (eastern DRC). I'm very excited that she was willing to share her story with all of you today. I'm completely humbled by the work she is going to be doing and am specifically touched because some of the babies at the orphanage we support have come from the area she will be working in. And most of the babies that are at the orphanage are there because their mothers died in birth. I love that her work is going to be helping those mamas live by building a health center so they can access healthcare. As some of you may know by reading my blog, the mother of our twins died giving birth to them. She was in the a remote village setting and her family hiked her all through the night to try to get her to a hospital when it was clear she was dying because there was no healthcare where she lived. What Dominique is doing is critical to preventing children from losing their mothers and it also empowers and strengthens women in eastern DRC. Dominique needs to raise $5000 in one month before she heads back to DRC. If you are interested in supporting her work, go here. I know many of my readers are adoptive parents of little ones from Congo and (like me) often ask yourselves how you can help prevent children from losing their parents and how you can help keep families together. Here is a very important way. Let's help her raise the money she needs (please feel free to share this post)!
I remember that I dodged Bahati's first few requests for me to come with her to Mwenga. I was too busy, I had this event, I was traveling, I had to work that weekend, I didn't have the money, I was this, I was that.
Looking into Bahati's eyes almost every week, I had that sinking feeling that she would take me to a place that God wanted me to go to, and I just didn't know if I had the strength or the ability to respond to His inevitable call. I wanted to hide from God. I didn't want to hear Him, I had prayed for Him to burden me with the struggles of His people and I felt like He had given me too much! I was tired. So for weeks, I dodged her, I am ashamed to say that I flat-out made up excuses sometimes as to why I couldn't make it, some of them true, some of them not so true.
I had first traveled to Congo, bright eyed and bushy tailed, to start a program that would educate and rehabilitate rape survivors by teaching them life-skills to empower and hopefully employ them. Virtually the second I set foot across the border though, I was bombarded by the depth and complexity of the needs that exist in that country, and the overwhelming realization that rape, is just a piece of the tragic puzzle in Congo.
The women I worked with, came in to our Center everyday, with new and old issues. Countless times, I fought to help them receive health-care, I paid rents, my team and I chased after runaway girls,we advocated on behalf of children accused of witch-craft and I helped women find jobs. I visited women who had been abandoned by their husbands, I visited AIDS patients, I listened to tales of abuse that burned deep into my soul, I cried with rape-victims and orphans and I sang and danced with fistula and AIDS patients. I prayed with mamas far older than I was, and in true baptism by fire fashion, I began to see a little clearer, just how interconnected and deeply rooted the issues facing women and children in Congo were and just how late in the chain I was intervening.
Bahati, who was one of the amazing women in our program, planned on taking me into Mwenga to visit massacre sites and women's groups in that territory, but God used my time there to water the seed that He had already planted in my heart, that His people were suffering out in the villages, His women and children in particular and that His call to serve those in most need, was taking me deeper into Congo's hinterlands.
In Mwenga, and in many other rural territories of the DRC, women were not only the targets of rape and other forms of gender-based violence, I saw them getting treated like beasts of burden,working countless hours in the fields. Mwenga women had to birth their babies in unsafe, unclean settings, and if they survived that, they then had to raise their children with little to no resources, clean water or proper sanitation of any kind. Without a trained medical professional for miles and miles, it was no wonder that women in particular were are at constant risk of preventable disease and death.
It was clear during my time in the village, that without a primary health-care option for these communities, true peace would never be accomplished in Congo. Peace is rooted in placing value on human life and dignity, and there was none of that in Mwenga. When I asked the women what they were doing about one sick and dying child, they responded that there was nothing to do, the clinic was too far away and even if they could get to it, they could not afford the care, that she would need. Death was inevitable. Suddenly, the stories that I had read and heard of children dying in the arms of their helpless mothers, and women crawling hand and foot to seek out a health-care clinic after being raped, suffering from fistula or mid-labor, were brought to light, and given names and faces.
After leaving Mwenga, I immediately went to Dr. Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital, and my mentor while I worked in Congo, with reports of what I had witnessed in the villages there and the plight of the women and children I had met with. I had been broken by what I had seen, and was infuriated at the inherent injustice in the fact that in a community only a few hours away from an aid-hub, women and children were dying wantonly every day.
This is how the Build Hope project was born.
Build Hope is our initiative to improve access to primary health-care in the Mwenga territory, starting with making birth safer for mothers in the village of Kilungutwe, by training and resourcing midwives and empowering women.
We will be training and resourcing rural midwives on how to maintain a sterile birthing environment and how to recognize and immediately address certain complications during labor. We will also be resourcing mothers with items like sanitary pads and cycle beads, a safe, non-intrusive way for women to learn and understand their menstrual cycles and therefore, space their births.
Making birth safer may seem like just a small act but it is also a domino action that could potentially drastically reduce maternal mortality, neonatal mortality rates and orphan-hood in this community. Empowering women with education, jobs and the like, is incredibly important, but we need to start with making sure they survive first! When a woman survives the birth process, and is blessed with a healthy and happy child, we are well on the way toward a healthier and happier community. When I think of what this small step could mean for the people of Mwenga, I get really, uncontrollably excited. It excites me when I think of the women I met there, who wore their despair like clothing, finally being empowered with a chance at a healthy life, a chance to raise their children, to be strong, to lead their communities, and to influence their nation.