The story of Women in the Lomami and all of DR Congo is incredibly sad and incredibly inspiring. Even in the best of environments, they are set up to be victims, BUT, out of their stories, that often send shivers through the soul, comes a faith in the future of the Lomami, and — I believe it — in all of our futures.
Nyota (on the left) and Clarisse, women team members in the Lengola forest
Here are the stories of two Lomami-women that joined John’s teams on the trek through the Lengola Forest. This is as John explained it :
During these last circuits we had our first women join the team. This was a break from tradition because these marches are considered men’s work.
True, it is not a job for just any woman (or man): Tracking, portering and, after a long day, camp chores.
Lunch break and John passing around the peanuts Clarisse roasted the night before
Women have to brave breaking from a cultural mold to come on our teams. They are with men all day every day, men who are neither spouse nor family; they are alone, away from their village.
A woman makes soap from palm oil and lye in a Lengola village. Life is not easy but it is familiar.
Clarisse, was recruited in Kisangani, a high school graduate, who did not go on to study further following the death of her father, a traditional chief with multiple wives. Without his personal intervention, the meager family resources destined for her education came to an end. She is unmarried and 29 years old, but because she is so tiny looks younger.
Clarisse with some girlfriends. Of her friends, only she went to secondary school.
She has no children, and was never married, unusual for her age. Eventually she told us of what she considers her great shame, an ectopic pregnancy, out of wedlock some years ago. She now lives with her older brother. She came on as team cook, but was fascinated by the forest work and was soon contributing observations. It surprised me to find out how much she knew of the forest. She will use her salary to establish herself independently. Her hope, expressed shyly, is to become a long term team member
Clarisse, on bike, talking with fish-buyers on their way into the Lengola villages.
Nyota, lives in the Lengola village of Batiobeka. She volunteered to join the team during the two days we camped in her village. She came on to assist Clarisse with cooking. About 40 years old, she too is unmarried having left an abusive husband. Mother of three daughters, all grown and gone, she now lives with her mother and an elderly aunt. When she left us at Ubundu,after two weeks of work, to return to her village she carried 8 bricks on her head for her mom’s hearth (there are no stones, only sand-substrate in the Lengola forest). On her back she carried machetes and axes to give to her brothers and uncles in exchange for cutting her garden, traditional men’s work usually undertaken by a husband. She, too, wants to stay with the teams and is willing to travel many days on foot to Obenge to join the next forest trips.
Nyota with her brothers and nephews in Batiobeka
Both Clarisse and Nyota were hard working and respected by all the men on the team. Both spoke matter of factly about hardships common to Congolese women including poor health care and high risk gynecological interventions. Nyota described in graphic detail climbing on to an operating table to have ovarian cysts removed. It was still bloody from the woman before her in an operating theater lit by kerosene lamp.
A woman carrying Manioc tubers from her garden in the Lengola forest
John’s description above brought back memories of the 1970s when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern DR Congo and disturbed by how few girls were among my students in a secondary school. The classrooms were overflowing, but nearly all boys.
School boys in and around the school house where I taught in the mid-70s
I eventually started a little after school gathering just for my women students, and that is where I found out that of the six girls, one was in school because she had a child out of wedlock and was no longer considered marriageable, and three others were having sexual relations with my male teacher colleagues. I felt in over my head immediately.
During my Peace Corps days, John came out of the forest where he was living among the Pygmies to visit me in Nyankunde
I hope we can share more stories from women who join our teams, but this first post would not be complete without reference to the situation of women in much of eastern D.R. Congo. Climb out of the Lomami and the Lualaba river basins, going east and you will be in the lands torn apart by conflict. The women here, as in the Lomami and most of DR Congo, are second class citizens. Add that to a slow, ugly ethnic war and the women become targets. I say no more, but here are some websites.
I hope you, like I, find a faith in many of these stories, a faith that there is a vital, life-giving determination in these Congolese women that can and will survive. If hope is born out of hardship, surely this is a cauldron of hope.
Delighted to see women on the exploration team, village women from the village of Batiamoniga accompanied us through their village and part way down the path carrying Clarisse’s and Nyota’s packs.