Creating heaven ‘in a place called hell’: DRC activist responds to US tabloid

By — July 25, 2013

Sometimes I read something that makes the movement of the world, the very air in the room, freeze to a stop. That’s what happened recently when I read a letter written by an activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo named Neema Namadamu. I read it once, then I read it again. Instead of describing why it had such a profound effect on me, I’m pasting it in full below.

But first, here’s why she wrote it.

A reporter for a major U.S. celebrity tabloid contacted Namadamu about a petition the activist was running on behalf of Maman Shujaa, or “Hero Women,” a women’s association she founded that advocates for the rights for women, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and communities. (As she put it, “for right-mindedness, period.”) The reporter wanted to ask a question before she would consider writing about the effort behind the petition, Namadamu said. The reporter wanted to know if Namadamu was a survivor of rape.

“I have to admit, that qualifier stung me,” Namadamu said.

In a country that has become media-defined by sexualized violence, a country internationally viewed as a disaster zone without other very real, non-rape related problems for women, Namadamu had a few things to say in response.

So she replied to the reporter with this:

In Congo, we don’t use the word “rape”; we call it “violence.” For as women, we are raped a hundred ways every day; our dignity stripped, our value tarnished, our very personhood denied from the earliest age so that we can be violenced throughout our lives without there being any consequence. Surely, this reporter understands that the greatest defilement of one’s person is not what is done to the body. It’s not the physical damage generally speaking that takes your life. It’s that you are eaten alive as if you are a thoughtless being, and left to decompose in those life-stealing memories.

That is the daily grind of most who are born a girl in Congo. Every day it is emphasized that they are only a girl and, as such, must serve every male’s whim. You can’t sit where they are gathered. You can’t speak when they are talking and if you are violated by one of them, they will handle the matter amongst themselves—a gift for your father and the debt is cleared.

She’s married off at 14 or 15 in trade for two cows, then raped every day until she’s borne many sons. If she only bears daughters, he’ll take another wife to show the first how despicable and unserviceable she is. If she dies, no problem; for two more cows, another “wife” can be bought. If the husband dies or is killed in the war, then prepare to be violenced by every visiting brother-in-law, uncle, and pastor.

Have I ever been violenced? I didn't grow up in New York City, USA. I grew up in a remote area of eastern Congo dubbed by the UN as the worst place in the world to be a woman or girl. And my work isn’t interviewing celebrities for a magazine. My work is to create heaven for my daughter in a place called hell.

Truthfully yours, 

Neema