The Huffington Post: June 14, 2010
Some people may think that being diagnosed with uterine cancer, followed by an extensive surgery that led to a month of debilitating infections, rounded off by months of chemotherapy, might get a girl down. But, in truth, this has not been my poison. This has not been what pulses through me late at night and keeps me pacing and awake. This has not been what throws me into moments of unbearable darkness and depression.
Cancer is scary, of course, and painful. It tends to interrupt one’s entire life, throw everything into question and push one up against that ultimate dimension and possibility of dying. One can rail at the gods and goddesses: “Why? Why now? Why me?” But, in the end, we know those questions ring absurd and empty. Cancer is an epidemic. It has been here for ever. It isn’t personal. Its choice of the vulnerable host is often arbitrary. It’s life.
For months, doctors and nurses have cut me, stitched me, jabbed me, drained me, cat-scanned me, X-rayed me, IV-ed me, flushed me and hydrated me, trying to identify the source of my anxiety and alleviate my pain. While they have been able to remove the cancer from my body, treat an abscess here, a fever there, they have not been able to even come close to the core of my malady.
Three years ago, the Democratic Republic of Congo seized my being. V-Day, a movement to stop violence against women and girls, was invited to see firsthand the experience of women survivors of sexual violence there. After three weeks at Panzi hospital in Bukavu, where there were more than 200 women patients, many of whom shared their stories of being gang-raped and tortured with me, I was shattered. They told me about the resulting loss of their reproductive organs and the fistulae they got – the hole between their vagina and anus or vagina and bladder that no longer allowed them to hold their urine or faeces. I heard about nine-month-old babies, eight-year-old girls, 80-year-old women who had been humiliated and publicly raped.
In response, taking the lead from women on the ground, we created a massive campaign – Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource: Power to Women and Girls of DRC – which has broken taboos, organised speak-outs and marches, educated and trained activists and religious leaders, and spurred performances of The Vagina Monologues across the country, culminating this month with a performance in the Congolese parliament. V-Day activists have spread the campaign across the planet, raising money and consciousness. In several months, with the women of Congo, we will be opening the City of Joy, a community for survivors where women will be healed in order to turn their pain to power. We have also sat and pleaded our case at Downing Street, the White House, and the office of the UN secretary general. We have shouted (loudly) at the Canadian parliament, the US Senate, and the UN security council. Tears were shed; promises were made with great enthusiasm.
As I have lain in my hospital bed or attempted to rest at home over these months, it is the phone calls and the reports that come in daily from the DRC that make me ill. The stories of continued rapes, machete killings, grotesque mutilations, outright murdering of human rights activists – these images and events create nausea and weakness much worse than chemo or antibiotics or pain meds ever could. But even harder to deal with, in the weakened state that I have been in, is knowing that despite the ongoing horrific atrocities that have taken the lives of more than 6 million people and left more than 500,000 women and girls raped and tortured, the international power elite appear to be doing nothing. They have essentially written off the DRC and its people, even after continued visits and promises.
The day is late. It is almost 13 years into this war. The Obama administration, as in most situations these days, refuses to take a real stand. Several months ago I visited the White House to meet a high official to engage the first lady in our efforts to end sexual violence in Congo, believing that her solidarity would galvanise attention and action. I was told, essentially, that femicide was not her “brand”. Mrs Obama, I was told, was focusing on childhood obesity.
It surprised me that a woman with her capabilities lacked ambidextrous skills (or was it simply interest and will that was absent?). Then we have Secretary Clinton, who at least after much pressure visited the DRC almost a year ago, and made promises that actually meant a huge deal to the people. They were excited that the US government might finally prioritise building the political will in the Great Lakes region to end the war there. But, of course, they are still waiting. And then there is the UN. The anaemic and glacial pace and the death-like bureaucracy continue to allow and, in the case of Monuc and the security council, even help facilitate a deathly regional war.
Two weeks ago, in Kinshasa, one of Congo’s great human rights activists, Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, was brutally murdered. In the same week, at Panzi hospital the family of a staff member were executed. A 10-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl were gunned down in their car on their way home. Murdering and raping of the women in the villages continues. The war rages on. Who is demanding the protection of the people of Congo? Who is protecting the activists who are speaking truth to power? At a memorial service last week in Bukavu, a pastor cried out: “They are killing our mammas. Now they are killing our children. What have we done to deserve this? Where is the world?”
The atrocities committed against the people of Congo are not arbitrary, like my cancer. They are systematic, strategic and intentional. At the root is a madly greedy world economy, desperate for more minerals robbed from the indigenous Congolese. Sourcing this insatiable hunger are multinational corporations who benefit from these minerals and are willing to turn their backs on the players committing femicide and genocide, as long as their financial needs are met.
I am lucky. I have been blessed with a positive prognosis that has made me hyper-aware of what keeps a person alive. How does one survive cancer? Of course – good doctors, good insurance, good luck. But the real healing comes from not being forgotten. From attention, from care, from love, from being surrounded by a community of those who demand information on your behalf, who advocate and stand up for you when you are in a weakened state, who sleep by your side, who refuse to let you give up, who bring you meals, who see you not as a patient or victim but as a precious human being, who create metaphors where you can imagine your survival. This is my medicine, and nothing less will suffice for the people, for the women, for the children of Congo.