Voice from Congo: Amani Matabaro

Voice from Congo: Amani Matabaro

As millions look to KONY 2012 videos to tell us what's going on in Africa, we should instead listen to the voices of the continent's own heroes. Amani Matabaro is one of them

by Rebecca Carroll, April 4, 2012

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Voice from Congo: Amani Matabaro

The nonprofit organization Invisible Children is reportedly set to release a sequel to its “KONY 2012” video very soon. Last month, the controversial film about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony became the most viral video in history . With its success came a slew of backlash and criticism , which ultimately led to a very public meltdown by Invisible Children founder and film director Jason Russell. In anticipation of the sequel, many people will likely be more interested to see if Invisible Children can save face than actually understanding what is still and actually happening to Ugandan children at the hands of Kony.

That may sound cynical, but here in the United States, with our hands-across-America digital connectivity — our voices heard on a multitude of social media platforms — along with our love of reality TV and obsession with celebrity, it’s easy to lose sight of real voices from other parts of the world.

Amani Matabaro is the Founder and Executive Director of ABFEK (Actions pour le Bien être de la Femme et de l'Enfant au Kivu), the Congolese partner organization of Action Kivu  which provides victims of violence in the Democratic Republic with opportunities to rebuild their lives.

Here is his story.  

It’s very difficult to explain how human beings can cause the atrocities I’ve seen. It goes beyond my comprehension. Most of the atrocities are caused by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, who are connected with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I would say that most of them have really become like wild animals. They want to destroy the entire fabric of the Congolese society, and by destroying the women, the women being the center of the culture, the community — the women being everything — they succeed in doing that.

We have no guns to fight back, and guns are not the appropriate way to fight back. We fight these atrocities by raising awareness, by asking the involvement of local and regional policymakers to make sure they can help Congo to fix this, I don’t know, this virus, this epidemic, once and for all.

I grew up in a village called Mimosho in the Eastern Congo in Central Africa. I grew up in a family of four boys. I am the last (of) but one (of them). At the age of six, I went to primary school. I was very happy being in school. Unfortunately, during my secondary school, in 1996, I lost my dad in the conflict in the Eastern Congo. It was very difficult for me to keep on being in school. At that time in Congo, the education is not free. We had to pay about $6 monthly. My mom was forced into being a widow, and she was not working. Many women in rural areas in Congo do not have access to jobs. My dad was a pastor at a protestant church. But one of my family members sent me and two of my other brothers to school. The other brother, it was not easy for him, he gave up on school. And in 1998, unfortunately, our mom died as well.

After my graduation from school, I started talking with different journalists who are traveling in the region to report on what was happening in Congo, and began working as a translator and local fixer for many of them. Someone connected me with the IRC [International Rescue Committee], where I started teaching Swahili and French to the international staff. One day in 2005, I met one very kind journalist who was on assignment in Congo for Yahoo! News. He was traveling in many war zones, and he was coming to report on the use of rape as a weapon in the region. I was recommended to work for him as translator and fixer.

A fixer is a person who helps you when you are traveling in an area where you know nothing and know nobody — someone to work on your logistics, who can do reconnaissance travel to places before you go there, and connect you to the local culture. So we head to remote rural areas where the militia was causing lots of atrocities and we did the interviews with some of the women survivors of sexual abuse.

After working with this journalist and traveling a lot in the region, I found out that there were so many people affected by the conflict ongoing in Congo, especially women and children. So many women have been raped. Many people have been killed. Entire villages have been set on fire. I felt like something needed to be done. I was not in a position to do much, but I decided to create a local nonprofit called Action for the Welfare of Women and Children, and we work in partnership with Action Kivu. We started by sponsoring five children to go to elementary school, because I believe that education is the only way you can help people and help humanity.

Two of my cousins were victims of sexual abuse in Walungu, and they came to my house seeking refuge, shelter — in Congo, when a woman or girl is raped, she is shunned and rejected by the community. There was no reason to reject them or discriminate against them. So we started a sewing workshop program. We only had three sewing machines. My wife is a seamstress and we agreed on training them. And then the word was spreading, and other women were joining the program. Last year we were able to graduate 32 women from the sewing workshop program. My wife is still a trainer in the program — she is there every day, and she never gets paid.

This is another way to fight back — by continuing to empower women no matter what happened against them, to make them understand that it is not their fault what has happened to them, and give them hope by teaching them vocational skills and accepting them in the community.

I have four daughters and two sons — my oldest daughter is 15, my youngest son is six. When they were younger, it was difficult for them to understand that I had to use my little income to invest in helping people who really need it. But my children, especially my daughters, have now understood that it has to be done and that each and everyone must bring their contributions. Any time we have an event at Action for the Welfare of Women and Children, I invite my children so they can grow up with this commitment, this compassion, this idea of helping people who need to be helped.

Do I feel like my daughters are safe? It is difficult to say. We live in the city of Bukavu. It is a situation where anything happens any time, so we don’t say, “We are safe.”

 
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