Monday, November 20, 2006

DR Congo

Lake Kivu
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I arrived in Goma, DR Congo late Saturday night. Goma definately had a very different energy than any other place I had visited. Indeed, many of the travel advisories I had read described Goma and surrounding areas as having a "tense calm." An oxymoron if ever there was one.

In the mountains behind me in the photograph I have enclosed in this entry, there is an ongoing proxy way being fought by tribal gangs but financed and instigated by land owners and other concerns over commercial land interests.

Goma itself was devastated by a volcano eruption 4 years ago that covered a large part of the town in Lava.

I was in Goma to visit a group called HEAL Africa, run by Joe and Lynne Luci. Being picked up at the border crossing by Joe, it was clear that he is a very respected member of the community in Goma.

We stayed at the Luci's house which is situated right on Lake Kivu. While I was thankful to be in such a beautiful home, It was incredibly uncomfortable for me to be there having visited the Genocide Memorial earlier that day. In fact, I was in a foul mood for the entire night, not in any sure what do with how I felt about what I saw at the Genocide Memorial.

Sunday morning, after breakfast, we visited HEAL Africa's hospital. It has been supported by very generous donations from many Canadians and the results are everywhere. The hospital is an incredibly impressive facility and charges nothing to the poor rural residents but charges user fees to people who "can afford to pay." While this isn't precise, I recognize that they know their community better than a means test can reveal.

The hospital is entirely an impressive operation and it receives not a penny from the government. This is in fact a conscious choice of the HEAL Africa people as they do not want to have to follow the government dictum. Fair enough, I reason. Some might even say admirable. But next is where the controversy likely arises:

Joe is an evangelist in the truest sense of the word. He is practicing missionary work in his own community, preaching the word of god to the people who receive care at HEAL Africa. Though he belongs to no denomination, HEAL Africa is an entirely faith-based organization.
He comically describes the confusion of government officials who can't understand how Joe can list god himself as the overall operations director of the hospital.

Joe is an outspoken believer in his approach and some of the way he describes his beliefs are simply offensive to me (for example, saying that "any development project that isn't faith based is terrorism." My friend Rory explains that this is purely a language issue. I'm not so sure). BUT, the evidence of his work is undeniable.

I walked into a ward full of women from rural communities, all of whom had been raped, many of whom had been gang-raped. The woman whose bed I stood in front of was emaciated from AIDS (infected by one of the men who had raped her) and was in a state of utter despair. Each of the women in this room had been so badly physically torn from their rapes that they were all needing fistula repair.

A minute later, I was standing in a room full of women who were recovering from fistula repair surgery. The contrast was vivid and unforgettable. Here was a room full of women who had experienced the same violence as the women I had just visited and yet these women were full of joy, love and pride.

Obviously, this massive change is due in large part to having had successful surgery but I can't help but think that it was also because of these women finding the love inherent in Joe's care which includes his preaching of god's love and care for these women.

As difficult as it is for me to let go of my beliefs that medical care and religious outreach should be separate, it is impossible to deny the value in what I saw. The difference in these women was remarkable and due entirely to the way that HEAL Africa runs.

I would of course prefer it if there was a hospital facility as well-run and well equipped as HEAL Africa that wasn't tied to evangelism but the people of Goma don't have the luxury of choice. To be clear, my preference for an institution that does not evangelize is only because of my belief (perhaps idealistic and unattainable) that critical medical care in Africa should be devoid of ANY requirement on the patient.

I am leaving Africa with an overwhelming realization that Women's rights are one of the most important issues that we in West should be loudly and unrelentingly advocating for.

Those who know me best know how much I respect and admire the strength of the two most important Women in my life: My mother and my wife. Without wanting to undermine the strength they exhibit on a daily basis, I must write about how I am returning to Canada totally in awe of the strength and power of the Women I have met and observed all throughout my travels here.

Women's rights continue to lag and Women's security is still one of the most under-addressed issues on the continent.

I am a firm believer that if Women were given the empowerment and security they deserve, that Africa's progress would be enhanced by leaps and bounds.

Though it is now a capital crime (thanks in part to Joe's advocating to the government ) in DR Congo to rape a woman , the majority of rapes go unreported.

The women's movement in Africa needs a lot of support and we should be applying pressure on our own governments to make Women's security and rights top of the issues for all African countries.

My flight is now leaving for Nairobi. I must go. Home tomorrow night (Tuesday) in Vancouver!

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