Thursday, October 10, 2013

The cost of speaking out against injustice (reflections on one Nobel Peace prize nominee-Dr. Mukwege)

I wrote this post almost exactly one year ago.  I'm writing this on the eve of Nobel Peace prize announcement.  In my mind and heart, it is already his.  Here is a recent article talking about who he is and his work.  The article ends by saying, "Dr. Mukwege is a hero among heroes, as evidenced by other nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. The story of 16 year old Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken advocate for education who survived assassination by members of the Taliban inspires. Malala reminds us heroes come in many - often unexpected - packages.  Alfred Nobel's will instructed the prizes be awarded to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind." Unlike the years when winners, even nominees, were controversial, it seems 2013 is a return to that spirit. Dr. Denis Mukwege is a noble man forging a path towards peace in Congo. If the fates see fit, he may also be a Nobel man."   Below is my post from one year ago.  



I recently had a conversation with friends about if we would speak up for something you believe in, especially injustice, if it could bring harm to yourself or your family.  We debated why someone would put their lives in harms way for a belief or cause and whether or not it was something we would ever do ourselves.  Being the ever idealist, I said I would.  I said I would stand up for by beliefs, even if it meant harm coming my way.  It was harder for me to say I would stand up for them if my children were in harms way.

In the end I think I am a lot of talk.  I've never had to take a stand for anything that put myself at risk of being harmed.  I think the riskiest stance I've taken lately is talking about unethical adoption in DRC.  The worst that happens because of that is nasty comments on my blog and I'm not included in most adoption circles.  That's nothing really.   And seems a bit lame on the scale of standing up for a belief in the midst of danger.

When I was in my 20s, I dated a guy who asked me if I had ever been arrested (on our first date).  I was shocked and said, "no way, of course not!".  I was sort of full of myself at the time.  He said he had and he didn't regret it.  He had participated in civil disobedience when he was protesting something (I can't remember what it was anymore) and had been arrested and released the same day.  He asked if I would ever do that.  I said, "uh, no way".

When I moved to eastern DRC I was a naive, scared, and totally out of my comfort zone.  I mean, I read the news, I knew that eastern DRC wasn't a place most Americans moved to if they had a family.  I had never lived overseas.  I was moving with my 8 week old little girl.  Somehow I managed to cross that border and we ended up living there for 4 1/2 years.  And my life was actually really safe (considering where we lived) and quiet.  While I lived there, I never took a stand for anything that put me in danger and I never publicly spoke out against the injustice I saw while living there (and there was plenty).  I stayed safe.

When I was pregnant with my second little girl I was still in DRC.  One day, when I was about 20 something weeks along I got really sick with some kind of GI bug.  At the time, I thought maybe I was in preterm labor.  I knew I at least needed IV fluids.  My OB worked at Panzi hospital about a 30 minute drive through town.  On the worst road you can imagine through the most congested and poor area of town.  Driving to the hospital on that road would put a woman in labor if she wasn't already in labor!

When I got there, I had to take a number to wait in line.  I got the last number.  I think it was number 40 or something.  Then I had to sit outside with all the other women waiting in line.   There wasn't any triage.  You waited with everyone else.   For hours.

I have to back up a minute and say that if you are a mzungu (white person) or a rich person of any skin color in this area of the world most of the time you didn't wait in lines.  You were treated differently, like you were a celebrity.  I never got used to that part of living there.   That day I was the only white woman sitting in that line waiting to be seen.  I was the last one in the line.  Most places in town I would have been somehow moved to the front, or I would have been shown a different place to wait that would have expedited my visit, a sort of VIP room.  And it would have happened whether I asked for that treatment or not, and I would have probably not been aware of it, if it did happen.

But not that day, and not with my doctor.  At one point he came out and saw the long line of women.  He looked exhausted and overwhelmed.  But he had a kind smile for us all.  He saw me (I stood out).  He came over.  He said, "I can't see you before these women, you will have to wait".  I think I might of audibly sighed in relief, as I said, "of course not".  It was one of the rare times in DRC where I was treated like an equal.  I was just like every other woman waiting in line, I wasn't special because of my skin color, and I didn't deserve different treatment because of my skin color. (Of course, it was embarrassing that he even felt like he had to come over and tell me).   I was simply a woman, waiting to see a doctor.  And this doctor saw all the women in line as equally important and valuable.  None was more special than the next.  They all were worth his time.  And my illness and pregnancy problems were not more critical than the woman in front of me with similar problems who had brown skin and lived in destitute poverty.

That doctor was Dr. Mukwege.  Please take a moment and read the link.

He is an incredible man, who not only treats women with respect, dignity, and equality, he fights against the injustice done to them in eastern DRC and calls for peace.  He is one of my heroes.

He recently came under attack, and one of the men who protects his home was killed.  It is unknown if it was because of his work and advocacy.  It is unknown if it was an assassination attempt.  But it is likely.  He takes a strong stance against injustice and names those who are the perpetrators (even when it is his own country and countrymen).  He stands up for the wrongs done to women, for the raping and damage done to women in eastern DRC.  He not only uses his voice to demand that world act against these atrocities done to women and to their communities, but he also uses his hands to repair their bodies after they have been violently raped.

He lives in the neighborhood next to where I lived in eastern DRC.   I think of my life there.  My quiet, safe life.  I think of his life, how it is the exact opposite.  And I wonder, if given the chance, would I do the same?  Would I risk my life for another?  Would I speak out and stand against injustice and for the truth?  Would I demand action at all cost to myself?  Would I rage against the atrocities done to women, to our sisters, on the other side of the world?

I am thankful beyond words for men and women around the world who do so.  Like Dr. Mukwege.  I can hope and pray that his courage and bravery will inspire others to fight against injustice and work for peace as it has for me.   And I do hope, that if I am ever called on to stand up even in the midst of danger, I will remember   and take that stand.

And perhaps, when I reflect on my brief interactions with him during my time in eastern DRC, I most remember the humility with which he carried himself and the quiet dignity, respect, and compassion he showed all women, regardless of race, wealth, or nationality.  It's a good place from which to start.


Dr. Mukwege wrote about the attack on his life here.   "The dedicated and courageous staff who work at Panzi Hospital are scared, and my thoughts are with them. I want them to respond to this hatred with love because I think that it is the only way we can make a difference. If they continue to do what they do with love and care I have to believe that peace and justice will prevail. Violence can only create violence."  Dr. Mukwege 

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