Sunday, July 20, 2008

A letter to the Democractic Republic of the Congo

Francine is 23 years old. She has only had a few years of schooling, cannot read or write more than her name, and lives in a hut without electricity or running water in a place she does not call home. Francine looks after two children, one of which is her own son, the other is her younger sister. She had another son but he is dead. We do not know why or how or how old he was at the time. She has no job because few are available and, even if there were opportunities for her, she lacks the skills or capital to take advantage of them.

Which is where a British girl in California - me - and an organization called Women for Women come in.

Meet my new 'sister', from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In one of life's lucky dips, Francine and I have been paired together by Women for Women, a non-religious organization that has empowered over 153,000 women survivors of war to move toward economic self-sufficiency with a year-long program of direct aid, rights education, job skills training and small business development. Women for Women has distributed $42 million in direct aid, microcredit loans, and other program services since it began in 1994 and has mobilized more than 125,000 women and men in 105 countries worldwide to reach out and support women survivors of war - one woman at a time.

For an initial set-up fee of $30 and a monthly commitment of $27, I will be helping Francine follow the path of those 153,000 women across the globe. In addition to the small donations I am providing (you cannot commit more - it's a set fee), I will be writing letters to Francine each month to share with her the details of my life, in the hopes that I can buoy her spirits and make her feel cared-for and supported as she attempts to strive for better things in her life. If I am lucky, Francine will be able to find someone to write a letter back to me on her behalf once in a while, and I will get to learn more about her and her life too. I so hope to hear from her, even though replying may be unimaginably difficult for someone without the skills to read or write. It would be wonderful to hear how my sponsorship and Women for Women is helping her.

I found out about Women for Women in Time Magazine, who did a profile on the organization's founder, Zainab Salbi, a few months ago. Zainab Salbi's was the privileged Iraqi daughter of Saddam Hussein's personal pilot. At 20 she entered into an arranged marriage with an Iraqi man living in the U.S., at the behest of her mother. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait just one month later, all communication with her family was severed and she was left with an abusive husband in a country she didn't know. In 1993, Salbi read about women in Bosnia's so-called rape camps and was appalled by the slow response of the international community. Impassioned by her own experiences in Iraq and as an abused wife, she raised funds through a church in the Washington area and founded Women for Women International later that year.

It was a timely article for me, since I had recently finished two books about the Lost Boys of Sudan - God Grew Tired of Us and A Long Way Gone - both of which detailed some of the horrors of the conflicts in Africa, and (separately) had been looking at perhaps going on a volunteer vacation in the next two years to an underprivileged country. Basically, I have been increasingly touched by hearing about the misfortune of those less fortunate than me and, feeling greatful for my own life, wanted to find a way to make a meaningful difference. Of course, I could have just given money to a charity (UNICEF has been my charity of choice) but I have always felt, just a little, that donating money to these kinds of organizations is like throwing your money in a fountain - someone's going to benefit from it at some point, but who knows who and when or why? So, Women for Women seemed perfect for me and, I hope, for my new sister Francine.

Accompanying the very basic question-and-answer information about Francine, was a four page fact-sheet on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). It's a page-turner, let me tell you. A different horror-story in every paragraph for a country slap-bang in the middle of African and it's many conflicts (it is bordered by 9 other countries, including Rwanda) and, like many of those other countries, has gone from Belgian colonial rule to a string of power-grabbing dictators. DNR had it's first democratic election in most of its citizen's memory in 2006 but still conflict between rival factions and tribes threatens to send the country back into turmoil, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are struggling to regain some sense of normalcy after the war. Like Francine, many Congolese are displaced, chased from their home by the conflicts, have lost family members to to the war, and are left with no education, no skills, no jobs, no services, no money, no home, and little hope.

It's a grim reality that I just can't even imagine. A small 1.5"x1" digital photo is stapled to the top right of Francine's fact sheet and I've spent a lot of time looking at it, trying to discern something deeper from the look in Francine's eyes, or the way she is dressed, or her expression. She is standing in front of what looks like a mud wall and she looks older than her 25 years, for sure. She appears slender, has short, afro hair, and is wearing a white shirt that looks like it is cut for a man. Her reluctance to break a smile seems to hint at, perhaps, a distrust of the camera, photographer, or perhaps the process she is entering herself into. In short, I can't determine anything from her photo other than a superficial likeness.

So, the only thing to do in my first letter to Francine today, was to talk about me. I tried, as much as possible, to be honest about who I am and how I live without sounding patronizing or without rubbing her nose in her own misfortune. The booklet from Women for Women said that many 'sisters' are excited to hear about the lives of their sponsors and are empowered by hearing about another woman living a better, freer life. I also let Francine know that I am an open person and encourage her questions about what I write, or my life in general. For instance, I shared with her that I am originally from England, am childless by choice at 33, consider my two dogs to be my 'children', and travel around the world for pleasure. (I wasn't quite this blunt but I'm sure you're seeing where I'm going with this.) This may be incredibly ignorant or patronizing of me, but I have to imagine that all of these details are about as alien to someone whose daily reality involves staying alive, as living without electricity and running water is to me.

So, my letter and some photos of me, Hubby and my ‘kids’, head off into cyberspace this afternoon. Hopefully I’ll get something back from Francine but, if not, I plan to write another letter next month anyway. After all, for once, this isn’t about me.

If you would like to learn more about Women for Women and sponsoring a women in an underprivileged country, you can visit their website at

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