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The Amazon… she is an immense, lush, sultry, sweaty, dangerous rainforest, and a powerful, vast, convoluted river which both gives and takes of life. Her forests cover over 1.6 million square miles and span the borders of eight South American countries. Her over 40,000 species of plants and trees produce more than 20% of the world’s oxygen and rivers carry more than one-fifth the fresh water in the world.
The Amazon is also home to over 300 species of mammals, 1,500 species of birds and 300 species of reptiles, with an average of 120 new species discovered each year. She is as impressive as inhospitable, and we humans cling to her shores in stilt villages to protect again the floods. Each year, when the rains come, her waters rise and fall with the rains, up to 30 feet, inundating thousands of square miles.
Right now is the time of flooding in the Amazon Basin, and last week I made my first visit to photograph and write a travel story for Traveler Overseas Magazine.
Shortly after graduating from UCLA, I moved to Senegal, West Africa, to spend 27 months serving in the country as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was my first time in Africa and in a Muslim country, and at first, I was terrified. Our group of 68 volunteers became a community, in that bygone era of no cell phones, internet and email, and Senegal became our home. We assimilated quickly into the local culture, living with Senegalese families, eating local food, traveling on public transportation and speaking the local languages. We learned the joys of Africa – the music, dance, laughter and community – and the hardships as well – poverty, infant and maternal mortality, devastation by curable illnesses, and even our own vulnerability in a world with no harsh climate and no infrastructure.
I returned to the US a different person, older, much wiser, more confident and with a part of me now tied to a distant village in Africa, a way of life and a family who had taken me in as their own and loved me. I finally returned to Senegal last month after 12 years to visit my family and was welcomed with open arms. They had moved to a larger town, my brothers and sisters had grown up and had families of their own, and though the time had passed, I felt like I had never left. Here are some scenes of my latest trip.
Congolese women marching in the rain on International Women’s Day. Goma, DRC. March 8, 2010.
Congolese women marching in with anti-sexual violence signs on International Women’s Day. Goma, DRC. March 8, 2010
Congolese women marching on International Women’s Day. Goma, DRC. March 8, 2010
International Women’s Day in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a big deal. The eastern part of the country virtually shuts down, NGOs prepare, and Congolese women mobilize to celebrate their official day. Huge parades are planned and women from all around descend on the town.
In Goma, the main roads were blocked off by 7:30am, yellow-bibbed traffic police whistling and giving directions, women in their brand new Congolese panges made their way to meeting points for the march. The women identify themselves in groups, workplaces, associations, political parties, etc. and each group purchases matching fabric so that their members can have a tailor make a unique, but matching African outfit.
I arrived just a day prior to the event and was invited to march with HEAL Africa. One of the mamas handed me a weighty stack of bright yellow, orange and gold fabric and pointed me the direction of Healing Arts, HEAL Africa’s sewing project for women at the hospital for treatment, to have my outfit made. The head seamstress, Anne Marie, smiled as she took my measurements and promised she would have an outfit for me by the morning…
And in the morning, there it was, a tailor made top which fit perfectly and a large piece of cloth to wrap into a skirt locals call a pagne. African clothes are beautiful and regal with bright joyous colors and swaths of fabric. Stunning on dark African skin (for who haven’t tried them), they are mediocre at best on us pale white Westerners. This year’s vibrant yellow, orange and gold left me looking a bit jaundice, but the women loved it, so off I went and joined the parade.
A thundering crack shakes me out of my bed. The black sky flashes with light, a rumble and another crack, so loud, my heart races. A cool breeze rushes in, the metal door frames and single paned glass designed for hotter climes. I curl up in my mosquito net, under my single blanket wishing for warmer clothes listening to the rain pounding down and waves splash on the shores of Lake Kivu.
I’m trying to sleep, but jet lag has the best of me and I watch the storm through the night.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and I am invited to march with the women of HEAL Africa. After will be my first screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell to the female HEAL staff. I’m honored and inspired to be showing it on their day of celebration.
2pm on a Saturday afternoon in Goma. Sitting at the Hotel Nyira with one of the city’s most reliable internet connection and a decent cappuccino listening to Barbara Streisand. The rain and the generator simultaneously begin. Rain drops pelting on the leaves of my luscious surroundings, a low hum of a motor, a lone chirping bird and occasional roar of a UN plane flying overhead.
I’m on a short break between meetings. The days are busy, hardly a spare moment to breathe, let alone write. Phone calls, meetings, women leaders, international NGOs, journalists, activists, MONUC (the highly debated UN peacekeeping force in Eastern Congo), the momentum grows.
On the surface, screening a film in Eastern DRC is logistically challenging, but relatively straightforward and innocent. This film, however, is the uplifting and inspirational story of a broad-based civil movement. If it has the impact I think it might, it could provide the catalyst for one here.
The timing is good. Women in the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic are tired. After 15 years of civil war, over 6 million dead and hundreds of thousands of women raped. They are tired. Tired of the rape, abuse, torture, murder. Tired of being unable to provide food for their children. Tired of the violence. Tired of the war. And ready for change.
The border crossing is easier this time. The bureaucrat behind the wooden desk smiling and friendly as he examines my papers – last time he almost sent me back to Rwanda. The sun shines good luck on me, 8 days visa for only $35. This too changes with our bureaucrat’s mood.
And I cross. Congo beams as strongly as the African sun: a guard with dapper, checkered loafers, women in bright colors, exuberant “bonjour and jambos,” potholed roads, thick with volcanic rock, motos honking, white LandRovers in traffic, dust, chaos, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country is not polished, it is not controlled, it is lawless in many senses, rife with heinous criminal acts and civil war; yet the Congo is alive. It is a living, breathing being that refuses to submit, refuses to be destroyed and is determined to survive. And for this I have returned to the Congo.
I have returned to bring a film. Abby Disney’s brilliant film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the Liberian civil war. In 112 minutes, she tells of unknown heros. Of common women who are fed up with a civil war, with the rape, the murder, and the chaos. Fed up enough to act. They demonstrate. For four years, they demonstrate, growing in size, power and influence, they demand audience with warlords and with the former president himself and demand peace talks which lead to democratically held elections and the first female president in Africa.
The story inspired me, it created possibility. And I knew it would create possibility in the women of the Congo as well.