Women of the Lomami Join our Teams

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 and Clarisse
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

“We are like the bonobo,” Mama Nyota, one of our woman recruits told me, “we sleep in a new place every night”.
nyota on the Ruiki
Nyota in the dugout on the Ruiki River with the helmsman guiding the boat from the back

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.

Two profiles:

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.
only clarice went to school
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
Kisangani fishbuyers_Clarice bike
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.
students by school building
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.
in front of Kahigwe's house_1975
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.


  1. Posted 2008-01-22 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Wow, these women are truly inspiring. I’m thrilled to hear that more women are interested in joining the conservation team. There is one woman training to be an ICCN park ranger up in the Ishango area, too. Her name is Rebecca.

    Y’all probably didn’t get a chance to see Anderson Cooper’s report on “Congo’s culture of rape” for “60 Minutes,” so here’s a link to the video and the transcript of the report: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/01/11/60minutes/main3701249.shtml Judging from the comments on the “60 Minutes” and CNN Web sites, this report garnered a lot of attention for Congo’s women.

    Thanks for this post.


  2. Pam/Shell Beach, CA
    Posted 2008-01-22 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Terese for this wonderful post. What brave women! Hope the strength of Clarisse and Nyota will be an inspiration to others.

    Posted 2008-01-24 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Terese, my worst night at work would seem like a walk in the park for these strong, dignified women. We have so much we take for granted. And then there are the Aids orphans who care for their younger siblings, can you imagine a child of 9 or 10, having to be a surrogate parent!

  4. Terese Hart
    Posted 2008-01-25 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Theresa, Pam, Sheryl,
    It seems that somehow as the world becomes smaller and as we learn quickly of events and are able to get many different views on a single crisis, it seems that somehow we should be finding new tools to right ancient wrongs.
    Sometimes it seems though in the slow progress we make on the ground(bonobo in bushmeat trade, or denigration of women, or ethnic war…)that the space between knowledge and action is too great. But we ARE making that smaller too. And it is the same tools that have always ultimately worked : information in the right places, lobbying at all levels. But now there can be many more hands on the tools and a louder voice of persistence.

    Posted 2008-01-26 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Yes Terese, you are so right, to be a voice for those who have none. I have been following the work of IRC and Uganda Resolve, both work to improve the lives of African women and work towards political stability. I have signed their petitions to the US congress for more aid to Africa. Not to change this important subject, but I just finished reading about Jo Thompson’s work with Bonobos, wow!

  6. Terese Hart
    Posted 2008-01-26 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Theresa, We are actually a project within the Lukuru foundation– so within the same NGO as Jo. Did you mean the recent write up in National Geographic Explorer?

  7. colleen
    Posted 2008-01-27 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    After watching Anderson Cooper’s report and checking out the other links (thanks for the info)
    and then reading the above comments -researching ‘anti-rape corsets’ from the 1998 riots in Indonesia
    and comparing this all with other times/places, it occurred to me – the answer to the ‘how to stop violence towards women’ might just be the bonobo. Women alliances. Ironically, when i then looked up a word for one of the rapists – “interahamwe” it means: those who stand together. Hmmm. But I am sure given the chance to organize, all over -a huge difference could be made and the link you shared – Women for women /org seems like a very worthy cause – Thanks again for posting this blog….

  8. Terese Hart
    Posted 2008-01-28 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU, Michael
    THANK YOU, Donald
    We very much appreciate your donations and a great time for a boost as we are gathering for training and to start inventories out of OBENGE.
    And THANK YOU, Colleen. We are using your great design to have business cards made now !

    Posted 2008-01-28 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Terese, The Nat Geo article, awesome! Jo reminds me of Dr Jane (Goodall). Why is it that many of the great ape specialists are women? Even with the orangs.

  10. Jo Thompson
    Posted 2008-01-29 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sheryl, Elie, Pam, Theresa, and Colleen!
    The women of the Congo are an inspiration and encouragement to women everywhere.
    Terese, John, Ashley, and the teams working on the ground in the Lomami landscape are fabulous!! It is my absolute privilege to be associated with them.

    Clarisse was recruited and Nyota volunteered. They are the future forward. It is true that these women are the fabric of society and once physically and/or psychologically torn the society begins to unravel. They are used as weapons of war to destabilize the population.

    Through the years, in the Lukuru Project area we have always included women in our expedition’s crews traveling for days, weeks, or months. Being a woman myself, it never occurred to me otherwise. They have always been volunteers. Interestingly, the women typically seem to handle the heaviest loads and take much fewer breaks. Once we reach our days end destination, it has always been my policy that these women who have portered gear and supplies do not have to participate in meal preparation … although they will always eat separately from the men.
    Early on the men would argue about pay levels … wanting to pay the women lower amounts even though they are sometimes wives of crew members. But, we pay porters based on a sliding scale for weight of bundle and distance traveled per day … regardless of gender. In recent years, that has become less of an issue and I do see that we are making progress little by little. It took years before the men were relatively comfortable with me eating in their group.

    The women add such an unexpected dimension to the whole experience and they seem to enjoy parts of it as well … laughing with everyone about different things as we chat along the way or around the fire. On occasion we share stories of our families “back home.” And they can begin to see me as a woman, too.

    Certainly, the examples set by John and Ashley as men leading expeditions can go a long, long way towards making inroads into women’s contributions being recognized with real value. So, WELL DONE to the Lomami teams at all levels!!! You are doing incredible work in more ways than we will ever define. Keep it up!!!

    Posted 2008-01-29 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Jo, my mother used to have a saying, “a woman’s work is never done”! Women are born nuturers, probably why nature chose their gender to be mothers.

  12. Jaispepeden
    Posted 2008-05-06 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Who goeth a-borrowing goeth a-sorrowing.
    — Thomas Tusser


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