The Power of Sisterhood: Women elevating women in DRC
Venture into the forgotten corners of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Irene Nyambura, a female leader who is working to elevate the role of women in a historically patriarchal society.
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Some call the Democratic Republic of Congo a forgotten crisis. Conflict has held this lush, beautiful, mysterious land captive for decades. Most who live here have never known peace—especially women. From within the walls of their own homes to the hills surrounding them, women face constant challenges here. Venture into the remote corners of DRC with Irene Nyambura, who dedicates her life to elevating the role of women in a historically patriarchal culture.
The Power of Sisterhood: Women elevating women in DRC
Cathy: Welcome to the End of the Road podcast. My name is Cathy and I'm your host and tour guide as we journey together to some of the most remote, challenging places on the planet. I'm so excited to have you along for the ride, so buckle up. We're going to the end of the road. I'm joined today by my friend and colleague, Irene Nyambura. Irene serves with World Concern in DRC, that stands for the Democratic Republic of Congo. And she has agreed to join us today. Share a little bit about her life, and about what life is like in DRC. So Irene, thank you so much for joining us today.
Irene: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to do this interview.
Cathy: So Irene, tell us a little bit about yourself, about your family, where you're from, where you grew up.
Irene: I grew up in Kenya. I'm a mother of two very beautiful girls, aged 27 and 23, so I'm happy to serve away from them because they're adults. They don't need me so much.
Cathy: I'm sure they are beautiful just like you. They're about the same age as my girls, a little bit younger than my girls. I have two daughters as well, so we can relate on that. So Kenya is home to you, but you work in DRC, and so you travel back and forth every few months to go to work from home, and then you stay for several months in the area where you're working. So describe for us, how far away is that? How long would it take when you leave from your home in Kenya to go out to the area where you're working? What's that journey like? How long does it take?
Irene: The capital city of DRC is Kinshasa, and I am actually based in Aru, northeast corner of DRC where we have South Sudan and Uganda borders. If you are as someone from Aru and you need to travel to Kinshasa, it'll take you many weeks, so I avoid that by passing through Uganda. From Kenya, I pass through Uganda and then across the border which I find easier, but then for most Congolese who are living in Aru, that is very expensive, and well, one needs visas to cross these countries.
Cathy: Then how long from the time you cross into the border and you go to the capital city of DRC, then how far is it from there out to Aru?
Irene: When I'm home and having to go to Aru, I would need to pass through Uganda. I can fly or move by a bus, and from Entebbe to the border again, between Uganda and DRC, it takes about nine to 10 hours by road or a flight trip of almost two hours. And then I cross over the border and then move by road. It's not far, as I said, Aru is a border town. It doesn't take me long, but the road is not tar marked, it's all poor road.
Cathy: Okay. So it's like dirt roads, rough roads to get out there. So DRC is a hard place to be for a lot of reasons, and I know when you're working there, you are far away from your family for long periods of time. You work for several months, and then you take an R & R. In fact, you actually got stuck there during the pandemic, didn't you? You were just about due to go on R & R, so you'd been working for maybe three or four months.
And then the pandemic hit, and travel was suspended and you got stuck there for another six or seven months. So about 10 months you were actually away from home, did not see your family, and you couldn't get home. So how do you cope with being far away from home, far away from your family? I know you mentioned your girls are grown, so they don't need you anymore, but it's still hard to be away from familiar places and people that you know and love. So how do you cope being both away from home and being in a place that is a challenging, difficult place to be?
Irene: I recall that during this time I was worried. I was worried because we were going through the pandemic in a remote area of Congo, and while still it's an area affected by conflicts. For those who may not be aware, Eastern DRC is infiltrated by pockets of armed groupings who resist the government. I asked myself questions like, "What if I got COVID, what would happen to me?" I think I would just die because even the hospitals are not equipped. The borders are closed, supplies are not coming in, Movement is restricted. In August, the borders were opened. I kept praying, keeping in touch with my family. I really got some time to read the Bible and pray until the hard period elapsed.
Cathy: Yeah, so it sounds like there were definitely times that you were nervous or worried about what's happening. This was a new virus. At the time we weren't really sure what was going to happen and you weren't near a hospital, there weren't lots of supplies coming in, so that must have been a really scary time.
Irene: Yes, it was scary. But I'm actually happy when I think of, World Concern did not forget me. We had prayer meetings, we met online, and it was good. Not only just for me, even for the staff that we were serving with and even the communities. We were happy that we were fellowshipping with other staff remotely.
Cathy: That's wonderful. So like much of the world, you learned how to connect with other people online, and that became your way of staying in touch and your way of, like you said, fellowshipping with other people, having to do that online remotely. I think that the pandemic showed a lot of us that we had to get creative about how we take care of ourselves and how we connect with other people, so it sounds like you were able to do that and that's great. I remember that time, and I remember us here at headquarters thinking, "Poor Irene. She's stuck out in DRC, and she can't get home and it's a pandemic." And so we prayed for you a lot too, and so we know that God was watching over you and taking care of you, but I'm glad that you made it through that time.
Irene: And here I am, and I'm a witness.
Cathy: Yes, I love that. Absolutely, a witness to God's goodness and faithfulness. So let's get back to DRC as a place. Many people don't know much about DRC, they don't know much about what life is like there. I think people associate it with a difficult place, a place where there might be a lot of conflict as you said, even outbreaks of violence or fighting or things like that. So tell us a little bit about what life is like in DRC for the people who live there, for the people who work there. Give us a description of what makes it a challenging, difficult place?
Irene: As I mentioned, where I am is actually many days away from the country headquarters, Kinshasa. So the people there feel a bit neglected, isolated from the rest of the country. To get there, one has to navigate through very rough terrain, and to some extent use boats to get into the interior of Congo. Of course, the conflicts, there are conflicts caused by militia, there are tribal conflict, and they have also clan conflicts. DRC population is huge, and amongst the members of the population are the women and children who are very much marginalized. And it is worse in the eastern part because the women and the children cannot run as fast as the men, so they are affected. The women have to carry their children and their belongings as they run away from their conflicts. It's a patriarchal society, so I have an example of someone I work very closely with.
She's a lady, and God has remembered her and given her responsibility of leading other women. These are the people we are serving in the marginalized communities, many of them are women. But working in Congo is considered to be a man's job to work because there's competition for resources, so there is this woman who has been given a responsibility to work for other women, and other men don't have any jobs. So we can imagine that there are some people are not happy to see a woman working and a man should be in her place. When it comes to the family, when she goes home, she meets a hostile spouse who believes that a woman's place is in the kitchen. At times, this particular woman comes to me and tells me that, "My husband was not happy that this is happening, and I was even beaten up," and she would show me the scars of the fights. But then through prayer and encouragement, she's able to navigate this challenge.
Cathy: Wow, that's just heartbreaking. So it sounds like life in DRC is not just challenging, but it's especially challenging if you're a woman, so the women and the children are the ones that, like you said, are most marginalized. They have the greatest struggles. We want to thank our listeners for joining us at the End of the Road, and we hope you're enjoying hearing the incredible stories of what God is doing in the world's most remote, challenging places. We also want to invite you to prayerfully consider taking the next step and getting involved. You can support the life changing work of World Concern and help reach more people with God's love, and meet critical needs by making a donation at www.worldconcern.org/road. That's www.worldconcern.org/road. Your support is critical to the keeping this ministry going and growing, so thank you. And now, let's get back to our conversation. Is there hope? I mean, what do you see as a solution to these kinds of problems, and are you seeing changes happen for women there?
Irene: Yes, there are changes happening because currently the programs that we're involved with seek to empower the woman. They're given a chance to go through Adult Literacy classes, they're encouraged to take their girl children to school, and we hope that slowly by slowly this problem will come down.
Cathy: You were also involved in helping raise awareness in the community, and train people on the harm in treating others this way, particularly women, and elevating the role of women a little bit in the community, so that's got to be exciting and rewarding to be a part of that.
Irene: Yes. And the beauty of it is that we are working with leaders in order to challenge this practice. We have leaders who have been empowered with leadership skills, and they are starting to include women in their forums and discuss together how they can make their communities a better place for everyone including children and women and the men too.
Cathy: It sounds like God is really at work in and through you and your team, and what an important role you have, especially as a woman working in a patriarchal society to be an example to them that you are empowered and confident in who God has made you to be, and you're able to be that example to the other women around you, so that's really wonderful. So DRC is a place that some are referring to as a neglected crisis, a place that maybe the world has forgotten about or doesn't pay enough attention to right now. What would you say about that, and what would you say are some of the most important things that you would want people to know and to remember about DRC as a place and the people there?
Irene: What I can say is that despite being very far from the headquarters of the government, people are trying to get themselves out of the desperate situation that they are living in. People are using their own resources, they're coming together, they're seeking government support, they're proactive in requesting their government to support them. And even when this does not come, they're building their own schools. They are seeking for ways to enhance access to clean drinking water themselves, and they're forming groups, they're coming together, they're uniting, mobilizing their resources in order to support themselves at home, and even start income generating activities and group projects. This is happening. It is not lost even though the crisis has continued to persist in the Eastern Congo for a very long time, the people are trying to get themselves out of it one day at a time.
Cathy: I can hear the enthusiasm in your voice when you start to talk about that, and that tells me that there is hope and that you have hope, therefore we can have hope as well. So it's a good point that you made that the crisis has gone on in Eastern DRC for a long time, but there are other crises around the world that have gone on for a long time too, and what we know is that God doesn't forget. He sees those people and sees what their struggles are, and so we also need to remember them. And so as the listeners to this are considering that, and we always ask our listeners to pray for the people in these places, what would you encourage people to be praying for? What do you pray for when you pray for the people that you're serving, and what would you ask others to pray for the people in DRC?
Irene: First and foremost, I would be very happy if we all joined together and pray for the country leadership so that the people are remembered and are allocated with some resources from the central government. The other point is for God to touch the hearts of the leaders of these militia groups who are destroying lives and properties in Eastern Congo. And the other prayer point is for God to protect these communities that we serve from diseases and from poverty related problems, and the other bit is to pray for a better Congo, Eastern Congo and the entire region as well.
Cathy: Amen. And for the women, the woman that you shared about earlier that is in an abusive situation, for the women that are neglected and treated poorly, what do you pray for them?
Irene: What I can say is that, I have seen other women improve living conditions in their families. They are leading in their homes which was not the case before, and I know that this too can happen in my friend's home, that one day the violence shall stop and that her spouse will see the value that she's adding onto the family, and that the children and all that she does that God will bless all her efforts.
Cathy: I love that. I think about that with people in my life too and just other women around the world. I've seen so many instances where women are loved and they know that they're loved, and they learn that God loves them and that they're valuable just because they exist. That changes everything and it changes the way that other people see them as they build that confidence in themselves, and so it sounds like a lot of the work that you're doing, and a lot of what you see is that empowerment really changing women, and therefore helping them to lift themselves out of some of these situations.
But prayer really in such difficult, challenging situations where you've got, like you said, armed conflict and domestic violence and all these kinds of things going on, prayer really is what's needed most. So Irene, I want to say thank you for joining us today. Thank you for opening up the DRC to those of us that have never been there and might never be able to go there, to give us a glimpse into what life is like there in a part of the world that has been neglected, but deserves our attention and deserves our prayers. And so I really appreciate you for sharing with us today and for joining us.
Irene: Thank you very much. And the people of Congo have embraced me, they have embraced a World Concern, and therefore they want change in their community.
Cathy: I want to thank our listeners for joining us today. I hope your mind has been expanded and your heart has been touched by what God is doing around the world. If you like what you're hearing on the End of the Road, please give us a five star rating and review us on Apple Podcasts or hit the bell symbol on Spotify to be notified when there's a new episode released. Stay in the know and never miss an episode by texting the word podcast to 34444. I want to thank CRISTA Ministries, World Concern's parent organization for making this podcast possible. And I also want to thank Casey Helmick and the whole team at Terra Firma for their production and editing and consulting expertise for helping us bring these stories to life and bring them to you. Thanks again for joining us today. We look forward to more stories at the End of the Road next time.