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Congo's Hero Women: Creating a Different Future

Neema and Hero Mom

posted: April 18, 2014, 6:00 am in the Huffington Post

I was born in a very remote area in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) called the High Plains of Itombwe in South Kivu Province. I was actually the fourth child born to my parents, but the first one who lived. At the age of two, I contracted polio. As my mom had not been successful in delivering a male child, or even healthy children for my dad, he was culturally free to take another wife. In our culture, a wife is not fully considered a wife until she delivers a son. The birth of a son brings gifts of cows and other things in celebration, but the birth of a girl comes without any fanfare. So now, after more than six years of marriage, and my dad’s only child a polio stricken girl, he decided to to marry again.

In my community, when a husband takes a second wife, both wives bear a heavy stigma. The first wife feels the heart wrenching pain of rejection and humiliation. The second wife, usually in an arrangement occurring without her consent, is cast as the “second” and therefore illegitimate wife of her husband. Even though our culture allows the second marriage, religiously she is regarded as a mistress or even a prostitute.

My mother however, refused to take on this shame the culture required her to bear. She was able to somehow walk above all that. Children with disabilities are often regarded as a curse from God in the DRC — on the child for sure, but on the family as well. But my mom loved me with all her heart. Our extended family and community would continually challenge her investment in me, but my mother brazenly, if not defiantly, went to great lengths to support me and protect my opportunity for a different future to the one they all expected.

Her care for me enlisted my young brothers, cousins and other relatives as well. For example at bath time, they had to fetch water that my mom heated for me to wash in the house, while they had to go back to the cold river to wash. I didn’t have any crutches back then so if it was raining and the trails were muddy, my mom would carry me on her back to and from school, while the other children had to make their own way. The love and respect my mom had for me nurtured a strength and confidence within me. Her love, her sacrifice, her wisdom, and her resolve lifted me. My mother’s vision for me, led me into that better future she had in mind.

She always said, “Catch every blessing God gives you; don’t miss even one.” I took her counsel to heart. When I was in the third grade my mom arranged for me to live with her brother and his family away from the village environment, in a small city. She always made sure my dad sent school fees to my uncle for me. When it was time to enroll in the seventh grade, my uncle was away, taking his sons to a boarding school in another province. So I grabbed my stick and vaulted myself to the Secondary school and enrolled myself. I went on to become the first girl with a disability from my tribe, to graduate from university. I was privileged to serve our nation’s minister of gender and family as technical adviser for persons with disabilities, and was able to put my three younger brothers through school.

In the last couple of years, with the help of World Pulse, I opened a center in a rented room of a Cyber Café where women could come and get connected online and tell their stories. According to the UN, the DRC is considered the worst place in the world to be a woman. Through our work, these women found their voice and began calling for peace, for dignity, for sanity in Eastern Congo. They named themselves the Maman Shujaa, which means Hero Women in Swahili, and the world logged in to hear these resilient, strong solution providers, trumpet their universal song of peace, hope, and a future for Congo.

I am known as the founder of the Hero Women of Congo, but there is a woman who founded me – a simple woman from a very remote village in Congo. She was an illiterate professor of life who birthed an infectious hope and expectation of a different future in her daughter – Polline Nyirambarato – the exemplary Hero Woman of Hero Women; my Mom.
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You share, they give: Each time you ‘like’ or share this post via the social media icons or comment on the article at the Huffington Post link at the top of this post, Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 (per action) up to $250,000, to improve the health and wellbeing of moms and kids worldwide through MAMA, Shot@Life, and Girl Up. Every 20 seconds a child dies from a vaccine preventable disease. $1 provides a measles or polio vaccine for a child through Shot@Life — a campaign to raise awareness, advocacy and funds to get vaccines to the children who need them most. You can also use the Donate A Photo* app and Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 when you upload a photo for Girl Up or Shot@Life, up to $100,000. You can help make a difference in seconds with the click of your mouse or snap of your smart phone. Share this post with the hashtag #GlobalMoms, and visit GlobalMomsRelay.org to learn more.

The United Nations Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, BabyCenter and The Huffington Post created the Global Moms Relay with a goal of improving the lives of women and children around the globe.

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Comments

Jennifer Faith's picture

I have goosebumps

Dear Neema,

One of my gifts is being in touch with things of the Spirit and I often get goosebumps when I discern things that are very spiritually significant. I get "bad" or "foreboding" goosebumps when I sense the presence of darkness and then I get what I call "Holy Spirit" goosebumps when I sense the presence of something very holy and very anointed. My entire body is covered with "Holy Spirit" goosebumps from reading your post. What a testament to the power of love and I am so overwhelmed by your mom! In the face of cultural and religious bias she was able to discern the truth and pass this truth on to you. Not just with words - but with actions. I love it that she had the males running to fetch you water for your bath and that she carried you on her back. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story of triumph. You can bet I will be clicking "like" and "share" at the Huffington post and I will be covering you in prayer as well. God bless you, the Maman Shujaa and your mom.
All the best,
Jennifer

www.jenniferfaith.org

Neema's picture

I have goosebumps

Dear Jennifer, my mother was indeed a woman of faith and inspired a sense of purpose in me that has held me through life's many times and illusions to the contrary. Things are still unfolding and we will see what God has in Mind for His instrument. Isn't it wonderful to know that each of us are amazingly and miraculously made and masterfully included in the design and destiny of all things?!

'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.' (Jeremiah 29:11).

Dear Neema,

Thank you for sharing the story of your amazingly strong mother and hero! The strength of her spirit flows through your story and in you as well. It is inspiring to hear all the difficulties you have overcome with her help and through your determination and strength.

And thank you for sharing your determination and strength with the women of your country and the women of the world!

In hope and peace,
Ann Fishburn

Neema's picture

Beautiful and Brave Hero-Mother

It is my great privilege Ann, to share with you as you are sharing with me. And a great privilege to share about my Mom. How wonderful that we are connected and encouraging one another in the journey!

Best to you my sister,

Neema

Sahro's picture

RESPECT TO Hero Women of Congo!

Thank you for sharing your story with us. It touched me so much.
You are a brave woman. Thank you for speaking up!
And by all means keep speaking up!

I would like to know more about the Hero Women of Congo.
Do you have a website?
God bless you.

Your sister, Sahro

Founder of the We Are The Generation Of Possibilities Movement #WeAreTheGenerationOfPossibilities #Somalia
Twitter: https://twitter.com/sahro
WorldPulse Community Advisory Board Member
Goodwill Ambassador Globcal at: https://www.facebook.com/301986015

Neema's picture

RESPECT TO Hero Women of Congo

Dear Sahro, I'm so sorry for being late to respond. I do have a website and would love for you to visit: www.namadamu.com.

I appreciate your article on disabilities. You are right about the increased statistics in conflict zones. The percentages here in Congo are much greater than the global estimated average because of 20 years of conflicts and its effects.

Thanks for reaching out sister. Let's be in touch,

Neema

Carolyn Seaman's picture

Shout Out to a SuperMom!

Fantastic story of inspiration Neema!

Your Mom sounds like a SuperMom to a typical African girl or woman. And Africa needs such inspiring women to improve the efforts towards girls' education and women's empowerment in Africa. I commend your great works! You are both Hero Women of Hero Women Indeed!

Carolyn Seaman
Girls Voices https://www.facebook.com/girlsvoices?ref=hl; https://www.twitter.com/girlsvoices1
Abuja-Nigeria

Carolyn Seaman
Girls Voices
Abuja-Nigeria
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/girlsvoices
Twitter: https://twitter.com/girlsvoices1

Neema's picture

Shout out to SuperMom!

Yes, my Mom was SuperMom to me. I miss her so much. Her inspiration continues to influence the future for girls and their mom's here in Congo. Thank you for your encouragement my sister. With regard,

Neema

very touching piece.i wish that your mother would be alive to see what you become.HERO WOMAN

Mayele , Maman shujaa and World Pulse volunteer

Neema's picture

I can't prevent the tears

Thank you Mayele. I wish she were still her too. Many times I would love to visit with her and draw from her wisdom and strength. Thank you for such kind words.

In Love,

Neema

mayele's picture

You are welcome dear sister

Keep on inspiring many girls of our community.
Warmly

Mayele , Maman shujaa and World Pulse volunteer

Mary S's picture

Hi Neema Thank you for

Hi Neema

Thank you for telling us about your mother. You are both amazing women!

Mary

Neema's picture

Hi Neema

Thank you Mary for taking the time to celebrate my mother with me and encourage me as well.

Best to you,

Neema

Dear Neema, I love reading your articles they are very inspirational to many woman and girls around the world. Your mom is a real hero, to stand above the culture and ensure that you are given the same opportunity despite what the community thought or believed. She is a true hero and we are so forever grateful to her for supporting her lovely daughter who is on a journey to change the world. Stay blessed my dear sister and continue with the good work that you are doing.

Mrs. Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Head of Legal and Advocacy
Centre for Batwa Minorities
a.kiddu@gmail.com
cfmlegal@gmail.com
Skype: mrs_muhanguzi

Neema's picture

Thank you

Thank you for the kind words dear Anita. As you are aware, it is a very big thing for someone in Africa to stand against their culture. It takes a lot of courage and stamina - really, inner strength and resolve to be and shine a light of truth. By the time of my Mom's death 3 years ago, she was a highly revered woman in the remote area where she lived. Her great love, wisdom, and strength of character were esteemed.

Thank you for taking the time to respond and encourage me as well. I see that we both work to support the indigenous people. Wonderful!

Best to you my sister,

Neema

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