JWW in Congo: Women of Valor

by John Fishel

I have been thinking during the last four days about the definition of a woman of valor, something we talk about in our Jewish tradition. Our time in the Congo has demonstrated to me, once again, the anomalies of life on the African continent. This is my sixth visit to Africa but only my first to the Congo. The experience has, as previously reflected, demonstrated the heights to which a visit to Africa can take a casual visitor – the extraordinary scenery and indomitable spirit of the people; but also demonstrates the depths of despair which a visit to Africa can occasion.

This afternoon following a short visit to a camp for Congolese displaced by the war, I watched the emotional impact on my three companions on this extraordinary visit. They were overcome by the sense of hopelessness and despair faced by over 3000 people living in squalor and disease. Together we have gone from the heights to the depths that are Africa.

On Friday Janice had lit the Shabbas candles and said the prayer in the presence of our Christian hosts and their friends. Most had spent years in the Congo as doctors or nurses or other critical professions in a nation lacking the basic expertise among their own nationals. What makes a women spend twenty years creating a school of nursing in the

Congo? Why would another from Great Britain create with her Congolese husband a hospital and service center for patients often at risk of death from normally benign diseases ? These are just two of the women of valor that we have been privileged to meet.

Of course, most of the women of valor are themselves Congolese born. Their commitment to their nation and the welfare of its people are reflected each day. The young physician who is responsible for treating patients with the HIV virus, many with full blown AIDS, often due to sexual violence, was a no nonsense example of the strength of women here.

Listening to two women, the victims of horrible atrocities, tell their tragic stories of abuse has been shared by my fellow travelers in their blog. But I watched the counselor, who provides psycho social support to a woman beaten, raped, horribly scarred by a conscious effort to burn her alive, and left for dead, quietly sit and hold the hand of her young “client”.  This too is a woman of valor who daily is a human life support to those who have suffered beyond anything experienced by any of us.

And there is the director of operations at one of the human service agencies providing a range of care for men, women and children who would never survive the cruelties of this place without that lifeline. This morning she sat in front of me in a church service we were invited to attend. It was a joyous morning where our Jewish delegation was welcomed and the congregation expressed their thanks in song and dance for the small things which most of us take for granted. I watched her smile broadly at the rows of young children sharing plastic chairs as their mothers celebrated life. These children of serious ill and abused mothers in her charge are a symbol of her daily work.

Among others in attendance was her colleague who took us out to a village twenty miles outside of the city in which we are staying. This woman of valor introduced us to women in a safe house, who through her efforts have been removed from abusive environments. Additionally she introduced us to midwives, who in a creative project have started an agricultural collective for expectant mothers so they could receive proper medical care and a degree of independence in a society in which women are often objects for abuse. Watching her and the women she has mobilized it is hard not to be moved by these women of valor.

Finally as we spent another exhausting day traveling to distant places on non-existent roads in often dangerous areas due to the constant state of war, I could not help but be moved by the women from Jewish World Watch who are leading this extraordinary journey: Janice, Naama and Diana. Our community is blessed to have women of valor, who are prepared to take the time to come to this faraway and sad land to learn and to meet their Congolese counterparts and who are determined to return to Los Angles to mobilize our community to action on behalf of the women of the Congo.