“And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?”
– Micah 6:8
In the Great Lakes region, there’s an epidemic we don’t hear much about. Women and girls are suffering rape in great numbers, sometimes at the hands of gangs, and these women and girls then suffer the subsequent shaming that comes with rape. Many end up shut out of their families, giving birth to unwanted children, and mothers and children alike are ending up on the streets.
Haven’t heard about this in the news? Oh, perhaps you thought I meant the Great Lakes region in the United States? If that were the case, we North Americans would likely hear more about it. But this Great Lakes region is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Now before you decide to stop reading because you’re weary of atrocities in other countries far away from your own world of problems, I beg you to read this story and search your heart to see how God may be calling you to help.
The prevalence of rape in the DRC
The DRC is about a fourth of the size of the United States, and its vast wealth of minerals and other resources help explain the wars that ravage the country. Especially in the eastern part of DRC, the Great Lakes region I mentioned, rebel fighting continues with threats from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda never far enough away. Just this past Sunday and Monday, the city of Goma on the eastern edge of DRC was shelled in fighting that involved UN troops and rebels.
Yesterday, I met Maguy Makusudi, who is spending her vacation here in the United States raising awareness about her organization HOPE (Humanitarian Organization for People Empowerment).
She lives in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, where she has lived since fleeing her home region of Kivu in eastern DRC in 1996 to escape war there. She still has family, including two sisters, who live in the eastern DRC and remain under threat of violence. Because of the prohibitive cost and difficulty of traveling from Kinshasa to her home region, Makusudi is rarely able to make the trip.
Makusudi traveled to my part of the United States thanks to a college friend of hers, who happens to be a member of my church (and who teasingly calls me one of his American nieces). Together, they are telling her story to all who will listen. It’s not an easy story. But I know that he is not only my African uncle but also my brother in Christ, and she is my sister in Christ, and as God’s family, we are called to share each others’ burdens.
The birth of HOPE
When Makusudi first arrived in Kinshasa, she saw the effects of war in the number of displaced children living on the streets: from abandoned children to child soldiers discharged from the army. She helped form HOPE in 2002 to aid these displaced children in retracing their families and negotiating with the families to reunite with these children.
It is better for the children to be reunited with their families, but this, she explains, is not always easy. Children born of rape are unwanted, and often the women themselves are cast out by their families instead of receiving comfort and care from them. Another mouth to feed is a burden many families are simply unwilling to accept. Makusudi also points out that many of these children are orphans, and it is the aunts or uncles who have no place for them and no willingness to take responsibility for their survival.
Accusing unwanted children of being witches is a common way of getting rid of them. Families take these children to local “churches,” where they are beaten or exorcised and then abandoned. Can you imagine this level of evil and negligence toward vulnerable children? Makusudi assures me it is the reality in the Congo.
A 2006 UNICEF census identified 20,000 children under the age of 18 living on the streets of Kinshasa alone. Makusudi says the problem has only grown worse as the cycle continues for girls growing up on the streets, being raped, or entering into prostitution to feed themselves and then also their children born into this horrific situation.
Where reunification is not possible, Makusudi works to place children in foster homes, a rare possibility in Kinshasa. For the others, HOPE’s center houses the children and provides schooling, healthcare and psychological counseling for them. HOPE partners with another organization to provide vocational training such as sewing or hairdressing classes so that the girls can gain skills that will give them a way out of life on the streets.
Even in the desert, a rose can bloom
Through the years, HOPE has seen its share of accolades and visits from prominent dignitaries. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the center in 2006, and Unicef Italy recognized the center with a prize in 2002. Makusudi spoke of the award, a piece of sculpture depicting a desert rose. She explains, “Because even in the desert, a rose can bloom. Even in very hard situations, you can have a smile. You can have hope.”
HOPE is bringing smiles and hope to as many girls in Kinshasa as possible, currently housing girls from ages two through 18, with younger boys sometimes accompanying older sisters or mothers. The priority for acceptance at the center is given to very young girls and older girls who have babies, but for those who don’t get to come to the center, HOPE’s healthcare workers go out to the streets to treat women and their children when possible.
In addition to schooling and shelter, there are also games and team sports at the center, an attempt to give these children elements of a normal childhood. A pastor visits some Sundays, and when the center can find a van to rent, the girls will attend church two to three kilometers away, an outing they look forward to.
HOPE for the future
Makusudi has many hopes for her organization’s future growth. She’d love to expand services to the eastern part of the country, where she sees great need among the women ostracized from their communities and left vulnerable because they can no longer work in farming that leaves them open to more attacks. Micro-loans, healthcare and therapy, vocational training and a safe community for these girls and women can help them improve their lives.
HOPE is currently housed in buildings owned by another organization, and though HOPE owns land, there aren’t funds enough to begin building yet. Eventually, HOPE plans to build shelter, a healthcare center and a school for the girls they help.
Among these plans for HOPE’s future, you can see Makusudi dreaming of a better, safer Congo. She tells me that these are the ways you and I can help:
- First and foremost, pray for the Congo in general and for peace in particular there. With peace would come renewed safety and opportunity for work, as well as a chance for families to rebuild.
- Pray for the gang-raped women and girls.
- Support HOPE with your gifts and service.
- Visit Kinshasa to see how HOPE is at work saving the lives of these girls, giving them hope and helping them transform their lives.
We sat in a coffee shop bustling with people as Makusudi told me her story and her hopes for the organization. I thought how incongruous her visit here must seem compared to the daily heartbreak she witnesses in Kinshasa. She came here, though, because aren’t we all connected and called to kindness and justice and care for those who are more vulnerable than we are? Aren’t we all called to offer one another hope?
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her to tell me what is most beautiful about the area of the Congo where she grew up, and she smiled large as she told me of the beautiful lakes and volcanoes (a few still active) and the beauty of the land that wows even European travelers. And I thought, this love of place connects us, too, this love of the beautiful world we call home. A place we should all work a little harder to make safer for our children.
I share her story with you because God charges us to act with mercy and love and “to do justice” (Micah 6:8). Will you help in Makasudi’s fight for justice for the children of DRC?
Want to learn more?
- Check out this 2010 PBS segment discussing the prevalence of rape in DRC. Late in the video, you’ll hear practical ways Americans can help.
- Read this 2004 New York Times article about the DRC, including a description of Makusudi’s efforts to help the girls and women affected by rape there.
- A French-language article with photos of HOPE’s center and some of the children HOPE is helping.
- Read the CIA’s World Factbook on DRC.
Makusudi is currently working with friends here in the United States to create an English-language website for HOPE, and I’ll share that link here as soon as the site is up and running.
In the meantime, here’s the contact information for the organization:
39, Bld Lumumba, Q/Immo-Congo
Commune de Kalama/Kinshasa. Congo DRC
Tel: +243 818110833; +243 815258301