Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pure Goodness in the Congo

One of the earliest commitments we made on our itinerary was the Panzy Hospital of Bokavu, in DR Congo.  This is a highly specialized hospital that treats the many women in the Congo who are victims of horrific sexual violence.  The hospital caters to the very specific surgery, emotional and psychological therapies necessary to address the intense trauma these women are experiencing.  So, you may be wondering about the title of this blog...that's coming.

The Congolese border is about a 6 hour drive from Kigali, and like all of our journeys within the journey, there are plenty of things to do on the way.  Before we left, Carl was asked to speak to a group from Global Youth Connect, an organization which brings American students to Rwanda to work together to create and discover tools for world peace and humanitarian action.  The focus for this group was to learn about the Rwanda Genocide through guest speakers, workshops and trips inside Rwanda.  The students come from all over the US and Canada--they seemed to have created multiple bonds with their new Rwandan friends and were VERY interested in engaging in discussion on diverse issues--smart group.  They responded in strong ways to Carl--they even allowed me to speak about The Anne Frank Project for a few minutes.  After several mini one-one discussions with students, we hit the road for Bokavu.

Our plan was to stop in Butare on the way to meet a theater director, Kiki--Butare is the second largest city in Rwanda and home to the National University of Rwanda.  The drive to Butare was filled with spectacular landscapes and a never ending flow of people from the multiple villages we passed through.  These are busy communities filling the roadside with their amazing bundles of produce, chickens, materials and water to and from the market.  Two things are clear:  this is a hard life and their open hearts are always present.  No Rwandan is ever too busy to make eye contact, smile and wave (with 2 open hands in Rwanda).  Butare was about a 2 hour drive and we met Kiki at a nice outdoor cafe.  Kiki spoke to us about theater in Rwanda, her students, the university's "outlook" towards theater and the National Performing Arts Festival she creates every year--the only one of its kind in the country.  She has the same joys and frustrations of any theater artist I have ever known.  It is comforting to realize that theater people are theater people, no matter where you are.  Carl probably thought we were speaking another language at times (not the last time that would happen n our trip), but Kiki and I connected immediately and without any need to warm into the conversation--we were speaking the universal language of Theater.  Kiki's English is great and she was very connected to The Anne Frank Project and Buffalo State Theater--our work is right up her alley as she is committed to creating theater and dance to engage social issues.  She is a proud, stubborn, disciplined, gifted artist with much to share--I feel confident our dialogue towards collaborations will continue.
Tea Fields

Children stop for a picture on their way to school

Kiki, my new theater friend

As we made our way to Bukavu the terrain changed--we climbed to a much higher altitude and made our way through the Nyungwe National Forrest, home to multiple primates and other animals, especially the Colobus monkey--what a face.  We stopped a couple times to watch these serious dudes eat and take care of their families, then continued through the lush, movie like forrest--truly awesome.  After several hours of driving on roads in need of some care (for anyone who has made this drive, you know this is a slight understatement--ouch!) we made it to Cyungugu, the last city in Rwanda before you enter the Congo.  The guest house we stayed in that night, The Peace Guest house (appropriate, right?), sits directly on the beautiful Lake Kivu.  This is a huge lake that has played a significant role in Rwanda's history--during the genocide, it was the backdrop for multiple refugee and escape stories.
Lush forrest and mountains

Mr. Colobus

Now the Congo adventure...there are many reports that the Congo is dangerous, terrible, violent, etc.  While there is indeed intense political and social unrest, we were assured by many local experts that it would be safe for us to travel near the border (which Bokavu is) and during the day (which we did).  This is not to say our day in the Congo was without...interest.  Many people told us that getting through the border was difficult, expensive and sometimes impossible.  This is not the organized border you may be visualizing...think Deadwood in Africa--LOTS of people trying to get into one place with LOOSE rules, regulations and procedures.  After several tense minutes in the director's office, strong performances by Carl and I, and lots of pens, cards, books, bracelets...and cash, we were freed to pass through to the Congo, each with a large suitcase in tow filled with children's books, art supplies and shirts for the children of the abused mothers at Panzy.  We took a taxi through the highly charged streets of Bokavu--it truly felt like a movie set:  people EVERYWERE, muddy, filthy streets, extreme poverty and NO sense of exactly where we were...Carl kept a clear dialogue going with our driver and continued to pull wonderful little tricks out of his magic hat...between his Oscar winning performance at the border and his in country strategies, when we arrived at the gates of the hospital, I officially gave Carl his new name:  Indiana Wilkens.

The border bridge to the Congo

Inside the gates of Panzy was a complete change from the Congo movie we just left--spotlessly clean, beautiful gardens, doctors in white coats assisting patients....a place of healing.  This is one of those places in the world where true Goodness prevails in the midst of the most awful darkness.  I could go on and on about the MAGIC work the surgeons and staff are doing there, but it would be best to learn in their own words:

Dr, Mukwege (the Director and chief surgeon--a REAL hero) was kind enough to take a break from his busy day and meet with us for 10 minutes.  He is a remarkable man.  He took us to the school where the children and teachers were waiting for us....we were welcomed with songs, smiles and lots of hand holding.  We danced, sang, played futbol and gave them the gifts we had brought in our suitcases.  Their choruses of "Mer-ceeeeee!" were a testament of how important this visit was--these weren't just crayons, shirts and books--they were proof to them that they are loved.  After they taught me their banana song/dance, I taught them the Hokey-Pokey and cleared up some questions they had about the ABC song...all is well now.  They have so little...their mommies are so badly injured and traumatized...their world's have been turned upside down...but they can only blow kisses, give smiles and hugs...and they thought we brought them presents....

We were then taken to one of the women's homes where about 25 women were recovering with their children.  We were greeted with a 30 minute traditional African song and dance that thanked us for coming.  It was so rewarding to see these women happily dancing as WOMEN, celebrating being WOMEN...this hospital is a special, special place.  Carl and I were brought to tears immediately--an indescribably soaring moment I will never forget--Instant Perspective.  We gave them gifts and I was honored to "teach" them The Foot Book by Dr. Suess.  I'm not sure they understood one word of the book, but they repeated each word I said with such joy...such pure joy.  We visited more, laughed alot, bought every basket they made and said our goodbyes.  Pure Goodness in the Congo.

*Due to hospital regulations, I am not allowed to post pictures of the women we met at Panzy*

The GREAT Dr, Mukwege

The Hokie-Pokie

The newest members of the AFP family.


  1. I always look forward to sharing your blogs on my Facebook page and our World Outside My Shoes page on Facebook. Several of our friends are following and appreciating each blog! Thanks for another great blog!

  2. Drew, your accounts continue to leave me nearly speechless. Thank you so much for the beautifully descriptive, constantly touching and delightfully humorous stories and pictures. Thank you for sharing The AFP with the world. I absolutely adore the children in the organe AFP shirt! Amazing! Beautiful! Thank you!