Friday May 31: The resilient heart of the Congo, pumping for change through journalism
An interview with Helene for her weekly broadcast on women's issues in Goma. Fifi does the camera work in this lava-encrusted lane, doubling as a studio.
As I pack for tomorrow's departure from this hostile corner of central Africa, I realize I am taking home so much more than I came with.
Not just the trinkets I (gently) haggled for at the street market, my carry-on contains something far more meaningful than the clever small replicas of the wooden bicycles you see everywhere in Goma.
I leave with some wisdom passed on from the journalists I've worked with this week, from the brave young Congolese reporters who are under a daily threat of violence, who don't miss a day of work even though their pay sometimes doesn't come for months.
Their motivation is pure - they want to be the voice of the weak. They say it and they do it.
Helene hosts a 30 minute show on a Goma TV station. She asked to interview me. We sat on two plastic chairs in a dusty lane walled with lava rocks while Fifi, her colleague, took out her small worn video camera.
These women are warriors.
There was no easing into this interview. Right out, Helene asked for my message to the rape victims who would be watching.
It is common here that after women are raped, they are ostracized by husbands, parents, brothers, sisters and even friends.
Even in Canada, it's difficult for a woman to find the courage to come forward after being raped, but our legal system, in principle, is in place to investigate and penalize rapists. Here, no man seems to get punished. The road to justice is narrow and twisted, particularly, as is so often the case, when the rapists are part of those who are supposed to protect - the police, military, and politicians.
I was told that if a woman's husband upsets the government SHE will be raped as punishment for being the wife. Or, if her husband works for the government and the rebels arrive, SHE will be raped as punishment, again for being the wife.
The woman is then a humiliation to her husband and put to the curb.
There are so many raped women here that fall into this category it has almost become normal. They are a community within themselves, but have no collective voice.
Helene and the rest of the female press corps are determined to change that. It's why they often work for no pay, it's why they risk their lives to break the silence.
The interview continued:
How can women here get out of the prison of religious and tribal traditions they're trapped in? Despite some legal rights such as owning property, gender-equality seems like lip service. The deep roots of this culture still dictate and limit opportunities for women.
Helene's interview covered the topic of children born of rape, who are then abandoned. It's beyond tragic.
We also compared the status of women in Canada to women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I could see Fifi's eyebrows arching behind her video camera as I recounted the rights we take for granted in Canada - the fact that I was trained to respectfully question everything I am told by authorities.
Even the fact that I drive a car was a curiosity -- in all the thousands of cars, buses and trucks I saw here in Goma and in Kinshasa, I never saw a woman behind the wheel.
We did find common ground in the careers we have chosen. To report the news and try to find the truth - although the consequences can be so drastically different for the reporter.
Fifty years of post-colonialism hasn't been long enough to force real change for women. However, as I've said through this blog all week, signs of progress are emerging mostly because of organizations such as Journalists for Human Rights, that tries to train, empower and mobilize reporters.
JHR's work here rests on a fragile base.
The small team with such a big assignment is subject to grants and donations, and according to Freddy Mata, JHR's Country Director, the money runs out in seven months.
In fact, now back in Kinshasa, he's packing up the tiny office here on Avenue de la Democratie because they can't afford the rent. The team will work out of Freddy's small house. He lives in a pot-holed street you could not let even your old Toyota near ... and his wall is topped with coiled razor wire. The most common 6 a.m. street sight is neighbourhood children carrying yellow cans of water from the central tap to their homes.
That's grassroots journalism in the heart of one of the world's longest and deadliest conflicts. By some estimates, as many as five million people have been killed here since 1996.
For a visitor, like me, who has parachuted in to a place where violence, corruption and rape are rampant, it's actually hard to leave because, despite all the darkness, there is so much light to be found here in the people I've come to know.
They want and are working for a better future.
I will come home to the abuse of taxpayer's money in the Canadian Senate and the chaos at Toronto City Hall and be grateful that journalists in our country have the right to expose scandal and get to the truth without risking their lives.
My thanks to Freddy, Papy, Naregh and Rachel at JHR, the CTV News web team (Maurice Cacho who has been my digital saviour) and particularly, to everyone who has followed this journey. I appreciate all of your insightful comments.