A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Ahadi Quilt Part One Officially Put to Rest

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted October 27th, 2010 | Uncategorized

Yesterday, I sent approximately 100 Ahadi tiles to quilters in Washington, D.C. and Lansing, Michigan. So it goes that the first part of our project is complete.

I am immensely grateful to my colleagues at SOS FED, Marceline and Amisi; to the Capitol City Quilt Guild; to Rosamond Meerdink, who volunteered to coordinate quilting in Lansing; to the Faithful Circle Quilting Guild; and to AP staff. My gratitude goes especially to the project participants– women whose courage is unequaled and whose hard work on the Ahadi quilt will create a lasting legacy.

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Wrapping up the Project in Kikonde: A Bittersweet Event

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted October 11th, 2010 | Uncategorized

Two weeks after my last trip to South Kivu, I needed to check in at the centers to ensure that the project remained on track. Despite my best intentions, PAFE, Burundi’s immigration office stood in my way. I waited for a week while PAFE processed my visa renewal, and I waited another five days before they rejected my application outright. Burundian officials were suspicious of my “activities” and gave me ten days to leave the country. I was relieved, however, that I was still able to go to Congo to complete the project.

After losing three weeks waiting for PAFE to process my application, I needed to fit two trips—one to Kazimia and one to Kikonde—into one, to Kikonde. Instead of me taking the long and treacherous trip from Bujumbura to Kazimia, Ahadi participants, who could, walked the 30 KM from Kazimia to Kikonde to meet me in order to participate in profile interviews.

After a warm welcome to the village, I went to the center to see the completed tiles. I was, to put it lightly, extremely pleased with the results. Ahadi participants understood the concept perfectly and they came up with beautiful, powerful, and moving tiles. I was mostly impressed by the tiles produced by the women from Kazimia— of the three centers, Kazimia has the most experience with embroidery programs.

Despite the project setback a few weeks back, I left Kikonde overjoyed. Most of all, I left feeling humbled—humbled to be in the presence of a group of amazing women whose life struggles are unimaginable to me and who have the grace and tenacity to share their stories with the world.

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Quilting in Congo: the good, the good, and the Wrinkled

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted September 19th, 2010 | Uncategorized

The immobilizing fear I used to feel while traveling in the eastern DRC has subsided. While the situation in some parts of the country is still not secure 100 percent of the time, I know that the incongruent image I had of this place because of news articles too often focusing on the negative was wrong. As I take my third trip to Mboko village to check on the progress of the Ahadi quilt project, my heart pounds for an entirely different reason.

This is the trip in which I will see the fruits of our labor. All the weeks of planning, all those meetings, and all that brainstorming—what have they produced?

I arrive at SOS FED’s offices in Mboko and I am happy to find many women working on their tiles. The women seem to be enjoying spending time together, chatting with one another, and helping each other take care of their children. Perhaps they exchange stories about the images they depicted on their panels, gaining strength from their experiences.

I take a seat and I begin interviewing women about their submissions. Many of the images are shocking, depicting horrors that are all too common here. One woman tells me that she chose to embroider a woman fetching water at a well and soldier sneaking up behind her to rape her because this happened to her. Another woman tells me that the image of a woman crying out is a depiction of suffering, the suffering she felt after her rape and the subsequent abuse she received from the other women in her village.

I am mostly impressed by the images and the subject matter women chose to convey. Amisi told the women to choose “images that speak,” and I think that the women did just that.

There is one setback, however. Participants were asked to use an embroidery frame so as to avoid wrinkled tiles. Many women decided to neglect that request in an effort to work faster. Nearly all the tiles came back with wrinkles, some more than others, setting the project back at least two weeks.

Nevertheless, the project continues, despite being a little bit delayed. Overall, though, the results are impressive and the participants should be commended for achieving such great results.

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Giving away the tiles—Ahadi Begins

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted September 12th, 2010 | Uncategorized

There is no mistaking the massacre memorials found on the sides of roads in almost every village in eastern DRC. These memorials serve as a reminder of the horrors that have taken place in this country. There is something missing, however. These sites often neglect to mention the war waged on women’s bodies.

As stated in a previous blog posting, the wars that have ravaged Eastern DRC have killed approximately 6.9 million people. While the number of sexual violence cases is undoubtedly underreported due to the stigma that faces sexual assault victims, the UN Population Fund estimates that the number of sexual assault cases in Eastern DRC exceeded 15,275 in 2009 alone. Despite the seemingly ubiquitous presence of sexual violence in eastern DRC since the wars began, women’s stories are seldom heard, and their plight is seldom recognized. Instead of taking a stand and declaring that women share a common experience, women here are forced to keep their experiences with rape to themselves. Survivors of sexual violence cannot seek comfort from each other and often receive the punishing treatment of societal marginalization.

Relief can be found in Fizi territory for a lucky few. SOS FED beneficiaries have received counseling, therapy, and the much-needed community many lost thanks to the center. Women know that they are in a safe space and can share their experiences with one another. They also know that acknowledging their sexual assault is a step in the healing process.

The Ahadi quilt aims to provide survivors of sexual violence a forum with which to acknowledge their attacks, denounce their attackers and obtain a manner of therapy. With an embroidered image on a tile, Ahadi participants will educate, advocate, and empower themselves and other women with stories similar to their own. Many participants plan to use their tile space to tell the world, in their own words, their stories of rape survival and the continuing challenges facing survivors of sexual violence in eastern DRC. SOS FED beneficiaries in particular, and Congolese sexual violence survivors in general, will finally have a memorial of their own.

Last week, after many weeks of planning, SOS FED Staff, Ned, and I held the final meeting before the tiles were given to beneficiaries. Ahadi has begun. I anxiously await the results knowing that SOS FED beneficiaries have a way to advocate for themselves, not just in South Kivu, but throughout the world.

One Response to “Giving away the tiles—Ahadi Begins”

  1. Jim says:

    this is so wonderful! My heart goes out to you and all your artists!

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Planning a Story Quilt: The Beginning Stages of the Ahadi Project

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted September 7th, 2010 | Uncategorized

The complexity of the SOS FED quilt project required extensive planning taking place over several weeks. After determining that approximately 100 women wanted to take part in this innovative therapeutic program, SOS FED staff and I quickly realized that we would be faced with the challenges of producing a quilt of quite an impressive size (approximately 9 feet x 7 feet). Many logistical matters were put in place for the project to run smoothly.

Naming the project was first on the agenda. While the quilt will ideally convey the plight faced by women in the Eastern Congo in regards to rampant sexual violence, we do not want to dwell on the difficulties posed by these circumstances. True, the situation for these women has been bleak, but they are optimistic and we wanted this project to reflect their optimism in the face of a daunting situation. The project is to be named Ahadi, Swahili for “promise.” The name refers to the promise of continuous support to struggling survivors by SOS FED as well as the promise that better days are ahead when women work together.

As mentioned in a previous post, Ahadi will take the form of a narrative quilt. SOS FED and AP workers chose eight themes to tell the beneficiaries’ stories, each theme representing moments in the lives of rural Congolese women. The themes are: (1) War, (2) Sexual violence, (3) The position of women in Congolese society, (4) Services given by SOS FED, (5) The importance of education and psychological therapy, (6) Financial independence, (7) Denunciation of sexual violence, and (8) Recovery and the continued difficulties faced by survivors of sexual violence.  Each participant will produce an image conforming to a theme of their choosing. Given the size of the project, we thought it best to provide thematic guidelines both to achieve a cohesive result and to encourage a discussion about what it really means to be a survivor of rape in the Congo.

Ahadi, the final product, should be a moving piece of art that also acts as an effective advocacy tool—who better to narrate the experiences of Congolese women than the women themselves?

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SOS FED Bridges Education Gap for Young Beneficiary

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted September 3rd, 2010 | Uncategorized

While conducting interviews with nearly 60 SOS FED beneficiaries in Mboko recently, they frequently pointed to illiteracy and a lack of education as continuing concerns. Twenty-year-old Nyota Assumani was one of these women. Illiterate and having only completed a second grade education, Assumani sought SOS FED’s services, she says, “…because women in my village are often left behind due to a lack of education.”

The Congolese education system is in a dire state. The wars prevented an entire generation of children from attending school, and although free primary education is guaranteed for all Congolese under the 2006 constitution, the government spends only eight percent of its budget on education. Consequently, families are left to pay for the majority of educational costs on their own– making education unaffordable for many people, especially those living in rural zones. World Bank figures show that only 29 percent of students complete their first six years of schooling, with a much lower percentage finishing secondary school. Consequences of this educational deficiency range from continued economic difficulty to the luring of women to what some say is an easy way for those with very few marketable skills to earn a living: prostitution.

SOS FED aims to bridge the education gap in South Kivu by offering basic skills in a classroom setting. Classes are held three times per month and cover reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. Women are also taught about their legal rights and their options for recourse against abusers.

Back to Assumani: She tells me that she feels empowered by gaining an education, albeit belated. She is happy, she says, to have made this positive change in her life. She goes on to say that she envisions a world in which women can be elected president, become judges, or have other positions of power if they are provided with adequate education.

SOS FED classes are a small step, but they offer women better economic prospects, decrease impunity, and most importantly empower women to make positive changes in their lives. With lasting peace, Assumani’s vision will undoubtedly come to pass, but until then, NGOs like SOS FED have to fill in gaps to the best of their ability.

Nyota Assumani, twenty-year-old SOS FED beneficiary

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Horrors in Walikale: Another Example of the use of Rape as a Weapon of War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted August 29th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Between July 30th and August 2nd, rebels consisting of members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Mai-Mai gang-raped 179 people in villages surrounding the mining town of Walikale, located in Congo’s North Kivu province. Upon arrival, rebels assured the villagers of their safety, saying that they just wanted rest and much-needed food, but when the rebels finally went back into the jungle, they had managed to terrorize an entire community by brutalizing men, women, and children.

This event is the perfect example of the practice of armed groups using rape as a weapon of war. According to reports, most women were raped by between two and six men, and many were raped in front of their husbands and children. The use of rape as a weapon of war is often strategic and systematic. Rape continues to terrorize people long after the initial crime, causing what some survivors call “a slow death.” Armed groups use rape as a tool to humiliate, dominate, instill fear, and forcibly disperse populations; rape destroys entire communities because women are considered the backbone of the community. Men often refuse to stay with women that have been raped, and the children survivors of sexual violence are left to raise alone suffer from a compromised well-being because of their mothers’ diminished societal status.

Since beginning work with SOS Femmes en Danger, I have been privileged to meet many of their beneficiaries, women who have survived what Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton called “evil at its basest form.” While speaking with SOS FED beneficiaries, I learned of horrific stories I had only previously read in newspapers and blogs similar to this one. In nearly all the interviews I conducted, beneficiaries told me that they appreciated the community they found at SOS FED more than anything. Such statements reminded me of the gravity of the work Marceline and Amisi do here, especially in light of another horrific news story about rape in the DRC.

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Good News for Congo in the Financial Reform Bill

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted August 21st, 2010 | Uncategorized

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I would be remiss in failing to mention the new legislation that has an impact on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am referring to the conflicts minerals rider on the financial reform bill, more precisely, “Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act: Conflict Minerals.”

The aim of this legislation is to compel companies trading in minerals to perform due diligence on supply chains, thereby stemming the financial support of armed groups in the DRC– the same armed groups that are responsible for rampant human rights abuses–by what have become known as “conflict minerals.”

Companies are required to report annually to the Securities and Exchange Commission whether they use minerals (cassiterite (tin ore), gold, coltan, and wolframite), specifically sourced from the DRC or neighboring countries. In the case that they do, they must identify the mine of origin. The bill also calls for increased efforts to improve conditions for communities dependent on mining. After two years, congress is to assess the effectiveness of said Act.

The act also puts the onus on local actors, requiring the Congolese government and those of neighboring countries to improve economic and political institutions to ameliorate cross-border transparency and decrease the exploitation of the mineral trade by armed groups.

While this act addresses only one of the many issues fueling violence in the eastern DRC, it is a welcome development on the road to peace in Congo.

One Response to “Good News for Congo in the Financial Reform Bill”

  1. [...] it is regularly exploited by the most unsavory of armed groups. AP Fellow Sylvie Bisangwa recently blogged about the Financial Reform Bill and a rider attached concerning controlling the minerals com…, which will hopefully make it more difficult (eventually) for armed groups to profit from Congo’s [...]

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Boys Yelling “Bomb” in a Crowded Market and Other Ways Al-Shabab’s Influence is Felt in Bujumbura

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted July 24th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Every time I make a trip to Bujumbura’s market, I go into sensory overload. The colors, sounds, smells, and heat are almost too much to take. Stalls are in such close proximity that approaching one onion vendor means telling five others that you are not interested in their product. A cacophonous chorus of sounds engulfs the large covered market– from vendors yelling, “buy from me, buy from me,” to the blaring music for dancing street performers, and to the excited greetings of friends coincidentally meeting while buying bananas. Customers and vendors brush up against you at every turn, and groups of boys selling plastic bags tap you on the shoulder every few meters to inquire if you need a convenient plastic device to carry your purchases. Moving from one vendor to another poses the acrobatic challenges of attempting to find an empty inch of space to squeeze into while dodging men carrying large loads on their shoulders and yelling the equivalent to “Outta my way!” Meanwhile, I hear a distinct “squishing” sound every few steps as my shoe’s sole forms to the discarded fruit and vegetables on the market floor.

Lately the unpleasant chore of shopping in Bujumbura’s central market has been made absolutely unbearable. Mischievous children have taken to a new form of entertainment: yelling “bomb” in a crowded market. The last trip to the market lasted only thirty minutes, and I heard “bomb” yelled on two occasions. Controlled chaos became absolute insanity as vendors, customers, and bag boys moved all at once, as if in a wave, from one side of the market to the other. Soldiers followed to look for the bomb, but after realizing that it was another false alarm they began to look for the boys crying wolf.

Since the July 11th attacks in Kampala, Uganda, and the subsequent announcement by an Al-Shabab spokesperson that “Burundi will face similar attacks soon,” officials in Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura have taken notice and strengthened security measures. At the central market, a likely target according to many, the number of soldiers on patrol increased significantly. Fruit vendors, previously stationed on the periphery of the market, have been told to move for the sake of security, as have the many bus and taxi services.

Despite the new security measures, I can’t help but feel that they won’t do much. I wonder how effective the security changes can be in thwarting an attack and whether the changes I witnessed exist only to assuage the fears of Burundians.

3 Responses to “Boys Yelling “Bomb” in a Crowded Market and Other Ways Al-Shabab’s Influence is Felt in Bujumbura”

  1. Jamie says:


    Sounds like you are doing well over there. Keep up the good work!


  2. Sylvie Bisangwa says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jim. I also hope that this practice is a passing trend that gets old quickly. There are other alternatives to shopping in the market– these include shopping in European grocery stores or the kiosks at every corner in most neighborhoods. Thankfully going to the market isn’t an absolute necessity and rest assured that we avoid crowds as much possible and that our eyes are peeled.

  3. Jim says:

    I hope the story of the boy crying wolf does not come to pass. I can’t imagine becoming comfortable with someone shouting “bomb”. I would try to stay away from the crowds or shop when the market is not so busy. Be safe.

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The Art of Quilting Comes to South Kivu

Sylvie Bisangwa | Posted July 12th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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To be honest, I knew little to nothing about quilts three months ago. Nevertheless, I learned as much as I could in the last few months to bring the ambitious “SOS FED Quilt Project” to fruition. I learned that a quilt does not just serve the utilitarian purpose of keeping one warm, but can also be an artistic means of storytelling. I learned about the rich cultural history quilts have left behind and the manner in which quilters use their craft to escape isolation, express themselves, and bridge cultural, racial, and geographic gaps. The more I learn about quilting, the more I am convinced that this is the perfect medium for the women of SOS FED to share their stories with the world.

I had no idea the amount of planning that goes into making a story quilt. First, the quilter must choose a central idea or theme. Second, the quilter chooses the shapes, fabrics, colors, and technique they will use to achieve their vision. Third, the quilter decides the layout of the quilt—how the tiles will be placed in order to most effectively tell their story. Fourth, the quilter considers tile coordination and collection. After many hours meeting with Marceline Kongolo-Bice and Amisi Mas, SOS FED’s founders, we polished each of these four crucial elements of story quilt planning. I will share only a few of the SOS FED quilt elements here. The purpose, or theme, of the SOS FED quilt is to share with the world the lives of about 100 women in South Kivu. Sub themes, such as war, sexual violence, women’s role in society, SOS FED services, recovery, and continued hardship, will provide the quilt’s narrative. We will rely on pagné, traditional African fabric, for the quilt’s aesthetic.

The level of enthusiasm I have seen for this project is great. The women at all three of SOS FED’s centers are eager to get started on this project, and I think that given their sewing abilities, the quality of this quilt will be high.

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Fellow: Sylvie Bisangwa

SOS Femmes en Dangers in the DRC


accountability art bomb bomb threat Bujumbura Burundi CNDP coltan conflict minerals congo craft DRC eastern congo financialreform bill FRDC legislation Mai-Mai mine minerals mineral supply chain mines MONUC MONUSCO North Kivu quilt quilting Rape rape as a weapon of war rider sexual violence Shabab SOS FED terrorism Threat Walikale women




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