Turning Pain to Power: The City of Joy
March 31, 2016

BUKAVU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO— Over five million people have died in the conflict here, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and violated, where we were invaded by almost all the surrounding countries, who steal our natural resources. Our country is scarred by a brutal history of colonialism, our land and our resources repeatedly pillaged, from rubber to minerals, extracted by foreigners in the name of a colonial crown and flag, or more recently a corporate logo, all culminating in a decades-long war that has been suffered by the Congolese people, most brutally by her women. Since 1996, sexual and gender violence in the Eastern DRC has been used to torture and humiliate women and girls and destroy families. Advocates on the ground estimate that over half a million women and girls have been raped since the conflict began. In addition to the severe psychological impact, sexual and gender violence leaves many survivors with genital lesions, traumatic fistulae, severed and broken limbs, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

What the human brain can understand is stories. I am thrilled that Eve Ensler’s In The Body of The World is coming to A.R.T., as the stories of women in the Congo play a key role within her memoir. And Eve has played a key role in our work in Congo.

I live and work in Bukavu, the epicenter of some of the worst sexual violence in the world. In 2005, a woman patient was brought to us who seemed like many women we see: she had been brought to the edge of physical destruction by multiple extremely violent rapes by militiamen. Her name, Jane Mukuninwa. To give her even a chance at survival, she needed nine separate surgeries and will probably need more.

The women who were operated on, if they survived, would face enormous barriers to justice, and often there was nowhere for them to go. Survivors usually suffer in silence, fearing stigma, rejection, and ostracism if their ordeal is made public and are often thrown out or shunned by their communities, their families. Jane lived. But it was not much of a life.

Then, in 2007, Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu who has been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, met Eve in New York and invited her to come to Congo, so that she could see what women were experiencing here, and what he was facing as a doctor, in his daily strife to repair and heal them after the brutal rapes that were taking place. He wanted her to help us take our stories and plight to the world, so that people could understand what Congolese women were undergoing, in the hope to join efforts to stop the violence. He introduced Eve to me, and we spent weeks on her first visit talking to women, listening to their stories and bonding with each other. To be candid, we get a lot of foreign visitors, who come to have their picture taken and to shed some tears, and then leave. So I didn’t expect much. But Eve did something nobody had done before. She asked Jane, and the other women, what help do you need?

The women explained that they would like to build a safe space for the women who have had everything taken from them to rebuild their confidence, their sense of self, and their sense of joy—and for those women, once they had recovered, to go back to their communities, and to lead them.

The women whispered dreams like this. Their bodies were leaking from the rapes; they would apologize with shame.

Many people would have laughed at this very idea that these women could ever speak to their families again, never mind become leaders. Eve did not. She told them that she would return, with financial support so the women themselves could build City of Joy, a place where they could turn pain to power. By 2011, it was built in full. Jane was part of the first class there and has since become one of its leaders. There, the women begin to choose their own path in life—to explore their feelings and fears and dreams. At Panzi Hospital, Dr. Mukwege and his team can reconstruct them physically; but in City of Joy, they reconstruct themselves emotionally and become political agents of their own lives.

It welcomes, twice a year, 90 survivors of gender violence. They stay for six months, over which they undergo intense therapies, holistic recovery and healing. They are taught about leadership, their rights, and other empowerment programs.

I have watched as women who were as broken as a human being can be—emotionally and physically disemboweled—learn to live and love again. I have watched women I did not think could bear to take another breath dance again. And—even more incredibly—I have seen that Jane’s seemingly impossible ambition has come to pass: women are now returning to their communities as leaders. They have become the strongest points of their community, spreading the City of Joy revolution across the whole of eastern Congo.

In her memoir, In The Body of The World, Eve tells the story of how she has been tutored, inspired, and changed by the women we know so well. It is not the story of a rape. It is the story of a rising—of women who, in the most horrific of circumstances, are achieving the most incredible things. And Eve tells of how, when she then faced a life-threatening crisis of her own, it was the strength of the women of the Congo, and what they taught her, that helped her to survive.

At City of Joy, we have developed a unique strength. We believe it is a strength that has something to teach all human beings—about how to live, and love, and dream. In The Body of The World carries that spirit across the ocean to A.R.T.

I invite you to learn more about the rising revolution that is taking place at City of Joy. Visit drc.vday.org

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.

Also in this Guide about In the Body of the World:

Author:
Christine Schuler Deschryver
Publication date:
March 31, 2016
Events:

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