A peace agreement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), negotiated by the Catholic Church in 2016, is on the brink of total collapse. In this Central African country, “the worst place to be a woman” according to the U.N., Neema Namadamu never questioned her faith, and became a source of inspiration. This is her story.*
PUBLISHED ONSep 2017
I was born in a very remote mountainous area of eastern Congo, in the village of Marunde, in South Kivu province. We lived in mud huts with grass roofs and dirt floors. At the age of two, I contracted polio.
It was a very trying time for my mother. She traveled by foot, with me on her back, for many, many miles, for months, to hospitals in search of a solution. In the highly religious culture of our society, having a child that has some deformity is considered a curse from God. But I know that those notions never found a place in my mom’s heart or mind, even though my father married a second wife to give him healthy children.
When I grew up, begging to go to school like other children, I was allowed, even though I could easily overhear conversations, as though I didn’t really exist, that my parents shouldn’t waste school fees on me. It was considered shameful that on a rainy day, the stick I used to pole-vault myself along the muddy trail couldn’t keep me upright. My mom would meet me on the way to carry her handicapped child on her back the rest of the way home.
On the long walks home from school, riding on her back, I would tell my mom about my day, maybe about some problems I had. She would tell me that God had a special plan for my life. My mom was illiterate but she was my life-professor. She taught me about love, sacrifice, and faith. Really, she was God’s instrument to form me with a Christ-like consciousness of love for all, of purpose for all, and destiny for all.
Disability, but not disabled
Yes, I have a disability but I am not disabled. I can’t even consider letting my disability disable me. Maybe I struggle more to get around and do things than people without a physical disability but no one is without a struggle of some sort. Besides that, my disability makes me unforgettable. People remember me because I am different. I could say to someone who feels sorry for me, “what makes you think I am in a bad situation?" Let me tell you the other side to my disability.
In the area where I was born, girls are married at the age of 14 and 15 years, sometimes as second wives to very old men who are widowers. They are slaves for the rest of their lives to that oppressive culture. As a handicapped girl, no one ever even considered marrying me. I escaped that cycle of life for girls in Marunde because I had a disability. Cursed, you say? Blessed, I say!
After the Rwandan genocide (April-July 1994), the genocidals, allowed to take refuge in Congo, began killing the Congolese Tutsi (or Banymulenge) as well. I had recently graduated high school when the U.N. created a program for eligible Banymulenge to escape the threat to their lives by going to Rwanda’s national university. I went there (and became the first girl of my tribe to be awarded an academic degree).
In the university, I fell in love with someone but complications arose after he asked me to marry him. Both of our families didn’t want him to marry a woman with disability. We stayed together but when our daughter, Rachel, was nine months old, he died of cancer at a hospital in Uganda. Shortly after that, I adopted Letithia, a girl whose parents were killed in the Rwandan genocide. She was maybe only 14 at the time.
In 2008, I met a man from the U.S. at a conference in the very remote area where I was born. We married in 2012. A loving and supportive husband, he adopted Rachel in 2014.
In 2011, Letithia was indiscriminately beaten by soldiers, just a block away from the house we were renting. When I received the call from my daughter, I was so shocked. As a woman of some standing, it was well within my power to make some noise, call the commander and exact my revenge on him and his young soldiers. But as I was sitting there with my daughter when she got home, looking for words to console her, I thought about what I want for her. Not in that instant, but in life.
A few days later, I walked on my crutches down the dirt road to the soldiers camp and immediately asked for the boys. The commander came out, and all those around me heard me address the boys like a mother. A mom who treated them well despite their bad actions, a mom who expected them to be better for their future, who would care for them and keep them in my heart. As I was leaving, they begged me to come back soon. They had experienced love, and love healed everything.
One day, I stumbled onto World Pulse, an online forum for women around the world to converge in solidarity and support of one another’s agenda. As I began blogging from this “worst place in the world to be a woman,” (Congo had just been characterized as such by the U.N.), I began to develop a following.
I was given around $4,000 for a six-month pilot program, and in July of 2012, rented a space in a local cyber café for three hours each evening, inviting other grassroots women leaders to come and learn the computer. I helped them all get email addresses and taught them how to write a compelling story. Within a few months, hundreds of stories had been blogged to World Pulse forum.
In November 2012, Rwandan-backed M23 (a group of Tutsi rebels) took control of Goma, the capital city of the province of North Kivu, and threatened to march through Bukavu (where I lived) all the way to Kinshasa to overthrow the government. I discussed the situation with my Congolese sisters and decided to file a petition for (former U.S.) President Barack Obama to appoint a Special Peace Envoy to DRC. The purpose was to create a lasting peace solution for Congo – one that ensures women would be at the table negotiating our future. Within a couple of weeks, the petition had gathered over 100,000 signatures from around the world.
On January 20, 2013, I received a phone call that I had been invited to the White House to meet President Obama’s National Security Council to present our petition. Then on June 19, Russ Feingold was appointed as U.S. Special Envoy to DRC and the Great Lakes Region.
A movement had begun. The once voiceless women of Congo had gone online and gotten the attention of the world. I asked my sisters what they wanted to call themselves at one of the evening sessions in the cyber café, and seemingly with one voice, Maman Shujaa (Hero Women) rang out.
New opportunities began to emerge, beginning with the Girl Ambassadors for Peace Program, a mentoring project to inform the next generation of Maman Shujaa about U.N. Security Council Resolutions concerning women, and women’s rights as mandated by the Congolese Constitution and Family Code.
Then came along the conservation program, as SAFECO (Synergy of Congolese Women’s Associations) went into visiting indigenous people living in and around the forest, petitioning for support in preserving their natural habitat against the constant threat of mining companies coming and destroying their environment. Congo is the richest nation in the world when it comes to natural resources (gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, uranium, coltan and oil) but, as a people, we are among the poorest, per capita, and are at the bottom of every human development index.
Instrument of god
We receive around $30,000 per year in individual donations, mostly online from the U.S. on our website at www.HeroWomenRising.org. We are working hard to do what we are able to do. But this is just the beginning of our history. Most of what the Maman Shujaa will accomplish and the impact they will have is yet to unfold. Women must be sitting at negotiation tables in equal representation. For when peace is the goal and peace is present, negotiations simply become an agreement.
I have no ambition outside of what God is doing in me and through me. When we come together to do the things we’ve been given to do, God is in our midst doing the real work. I don’t think there could be a better way to work on earth. I have never considered giving up. It’s not my program. I’m just happy to be an instrument of God’s purpose.
* Based on an email interview to World Mission