Namegabe shares dark tales from the Congo
Editor's note: the following contains information that may be disturbing to some readers.
The Westport Arts Center (WAC) was packed Tuesday night with area patrons coming out to see Congolese Journalist Chouchou Namegabe and hear her story of war and rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The event was sponsored by the Connecticut Council of Vital Voices Global Partnership, "the preeminent non-governmental organization that identifies, trains and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe, enabling them to create a better world for us all."
Thirty-one-year-old Namegabe hails from the South Kivu province of the DRC, where she has personally witnessed the systematic rape and violence against her Congolese sisters as an instrument of war. Instead of merely massacring villages, droves of AIDS-infected soldiers have been sent into communities to systematically rape all of the women within.
Namegabe became interested in radio and journalism as a result of these atrocities occurring all around her. According to a press release on this week's event, "She saw radio as the means through which to reach the largely illiterate masses in the Congo, the only medium of communication accessible to nearly everyone everywhere."
By the late 1990s, Eastern Congo had succumbed to violence, causing Namegabe to use her voice to come up against the aforementioned human rights violations. Through self-teaching, she used the radio as a soapbox on which to "shield all the vulnerable as she spoke on their behalf in condemnation of pervasive, devastating and unimaginable sexual violence."
Namegabe explained on Tuesday, "I started in 1997 working in a radio station. The DRC's first war broke out in 1996, the second in 1998, the third in 2004 and it continues today." When reports of sexual violence started coming in, Namegabe felt, "as a journalist, I couldn't stay without doing anything."
Due to the taboo that sex and sexual activities have in Africa, Namegabe was unsure how to go about discussing the rapes in the DRC, especially on the air. When she began broadcasting the first testimonies of rape victims, reactions were strong.
"It was a shock to the community," she said. "We needed to desensitize the community, we had to prepare them. Quoting testimonies was the only way to denounce this crime on women."
Namegabe went on to explain that the rapes in the DRC have nothing to do with sexual needs, which is what she and many others thought at first. "It's a tactic to destroy communities," she said. "Women are being raped in front of their families, in front of their children, in public, in front of their communities."
The crimes go even further, which Namegabe bravely related, including the burning of women's genitals and the killing of a woman's children in front of her, after raping her before them for days.
"I don't know what would be the future of Congolese women," she continued. "The future of children who've seen their mothers killed, or the children born of rape. Our duty is to use a microphone to denounce it."
And that is just what this one activist has done, raising awareness of DRC atrocities internationally, from The Hague to the United States and beyond. In 2003, she founded the South Kivu Association des Femmes des Medias (South Kivu Women's Media Association, or AFEM-SK) as a response to the tragic realities in war-torn DRC. On top of the five million deaths in Eastern Congo, more than 1 million rapes have been reported since 1998, 2,000 in South Kivu alone.
According to its Web site, afemsk.blogspot.com, AFEM-SK "specializes in the production of rural as well as urban radio shows with a major focus on women either from radio clubs or in the position of local social activist. This group also produces news reports from the field and sends news back to local radio stations."
To date, Namegabe has enabled more than 400 rape victim testimonies to be recorded and broadcast over the airwaves of 10 DRC radio stations with which she has partnered.
It has been anything but easy, she noted. "Freedom of press is not respected. Journalists have been killed."
AFEM-SK also lacks the proper supplies to train more journalists, including books, computers, transportation and other reporting equipment. There are hopes that, in the near future, the association will be able to create a "press house" for training purposes, as well as a library.
Regardless of not having the amenities of professional journalism schools, Namegabe's quest continues. "We want rape to end, to stop," she said. "We're not looking for a miraculous solution, just the political will to end it."
Just this past May, Namegabe testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on behalf of the women of the DRC, saying, "The women ask why? Why such atrocities? Why do they fight their war on women's bodies? ... It is because there is a plan to put fear into the community through the woman, because she is the heart of the community. When she is pushed down, the whole community follows."
She hopes that countries like the United States will "pressure their neighbor countries to start a dialogue," she revealed. "It's a good way to end the problem peacefully."
When questioned about who is benefiting from Namegabe's efforts, she responded, "To break the silence helps first the victims; it's the first step to heal their internal wounds. ... It helps those still hiding. They come to us, thinking that they were the only ones. ... It helps the community. We touch everybody."
In March 2009, Namegabe received the Vital Voices Global Partnership Fern Holland award. According to vitalvoices.org, such awards "honor courageous women leaders who have overcome poverty, human trafficking, violence against women and other forms of discrimination to promote positive change in their communities."
In her acceptance speech, Namegabe said, "Breaking the silence is just the beginning. ... We need to teach women to stand up and use their voice."
Those interested in donating to AFEM-SK or learning more about Chouchou Namegabe's association can visit afemsk.blogspot.com or vitalvoices.org; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.