Education has provided the foundation for Neema Namadamu’s career as a global activist. Even as a child living in a small, remote village in the violence prone Democratic Republic of Congo, she was determined to walk to school with an improvised cane despite having been partially crippled by polio.
It’s not really surprising that once she became prominent by establishing a center for Congolese women where they could express themselves on the internet that she would want to bulld a primary school in the village of Marunde where she grew up.
“All of us — my colleagues, the parents, our supporters — want nothing more than to see the children in school,” she told Global Atlanta from Albuquerque, N.M., where she is currently staying until she can return home.
“These kids are from all tribes,” she added. “What has more power to build peace in our region than the children of all tribes, studying together? This conflict did not begin today and it won’t end tomorrow. But we must continue to do our part to bring peace to our home. I believe in education. The war continues because of ignorance, so education is the only path to true peace.”
At the heart of Ms. Namadamu’s influence is the Maman Shujaa — Hero Women (in Swahili) — Center in Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu Province. No one could have predicted that a polio-stricken woman in “the rape capital of the world” would be able to establish a media center that would capture the attention of a global women’s movement, demanding a reordering of society based on women’s rights and a desire to promote peace.
Her international prominence has resulted in several visits in recent years to the U.S. where she has participated in events including the “21 Days of Peace” conference held at Emory University in 2018.
Most recently, she spoke in Atlanta on a panel at the International Women’s Day Summit sponsored by the Atlanta Women’s Chamber of Commerce, after which she was to fly home to Bukavu. Instead, she has been grounded due to the cancellation of all the flights that could get her there, caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
While in the U.S. she has remained in frequent communication with her center in Bukavu. Unfortunately, much of the news this year has been alarming and in keeping with the chaos often experienced in the area, including an attack on the primary school she has been developing and the vandalization of the school’s buildings and theft of its equipment.
Her commitment to the primary school, which brings boys and girls together, stems from the pursuit of her own education and efforts to develop a voice on behalf of oppressed women in the DRC and around the world.
Putting aside her radio show as a high school student, she cites the origin of her community activism to 2007 through the founding of an organization to support women with disabilities.
It had been obvious to her that because of her infirmity she would never be coerced to live a married life, nullifying educational opportunities — a life limited to child rearing and the harsh tasks of keeping a family alive in an environment plagued by constant warfare with an absence of social services and a dearth of water or public utilities.
In fact, Ms. Namadamu says “polio saved me,” recognizing that her personal experience enabled her to earn an education, which she calls, “the greatest opportunity of all.”
Recognizing that access to computers and the internet was the most efficient path to education for women with few options for formal schooling, she endeavored to create an environment for women that welcomed women from all walks of life.
In 2012, she rented a space in Bukavu and established the Maman Shujaa Center to provide that safe space for women to experience digital literacy training and to share their experiences and ideas with the world.
There is perhaps no greater historical irony than that the electronics equipment, which enables these women to tell their stories and engage with the world, contains the rare minerals mined from the eastern Congo. These very minerals continue to fuel the decades-long conflict, which fills their lives with violence and oppression.
In addition to a safe space and digital literacy training, the Bukavu center provides opportunities for women to connect with and support one another, enriching their lives in sometimes unexpected ways. The women end up teaching, coaching and encouraging each other, achieving more together than they might on their own.
The involvement of a French class at the exclusive Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Penn., revealed the global reach of the initiative.
Agnes Peysson-Zeiss, a professor in the French and Francophone Studies Department, told Global Atlanta that some of her students participated in a voluntary translation workshop where they received posts from women at the Maman Shujaa Center, which they then translated into English for publication on World Pulse, a U.S.-based non-profit on-line media outlet addressing global issues through the perspective of women.
The reputation of the Maman Shujaa Center also came to the attention of the Enough Project, a Washington-based non-profit aimed at ending genocide. Of course, the eastern Congo was in its sights as were the “conflict minerals’ extracted from its mines and sold globally.
Through its lobbying and publicity work, the Enough Project has focused on the intractable violence faced by many in Central Africa. Ms. Namadamu’s work is featured in Paul Freedman’s documentary film “Merci Congo,” which dramatically depicts the suffering of thousands of women from the actions of armed militias and government troops.
The exploitation by mining companies of Congolese workers prompted Intel Corp. to enforce supply-chain accountability for its “conflict-free minerals” campaign to halt the financing of human rights abuses, a process also documented in the film.
As Ms. Namadamu’s global reputation grew for providing a voice and new opportunities for Congolese women, her organization’s work expanded. Among other projects, she started seeding opportunities for Congolese children by providing them with quality primary education and eventually founded the second Maman Shujaa Center and primary school in the village of Marunde, her childhood home located a challenging two-day drive from Bukavu in the Itombwe Plateau.
Her efforts prompted Mr. Freedman, to visit the new school late last summer, shooting videos to reflect the reach of the center’s programs including the provision of girls with sanitary pads so that they wouldn’t have to interrupt their school attendance, a community clean-water system planned to reach surrounding villages, the school and local health clinic, and a reforestration initiative to help preserve a local part of Africa’s largest rainforest.
To participate in another trip to the U.S. where speaking engagements and fund-raising events were scheduled, Ms. Namadamu and her team, including Mr. Freedman, packed up the Toyota Land Cruise to return to Bukavu and the U.S. with the video footage.
After their departure the notorious, roving Mai Mai militia bands that had been in the area conducting raids, stealing livestock and burning villages in their wake, attacked Marunde and the surrounding villages.
Even though Ms. Namadamu had allowed government troops to use the center as a base and as a means of keeping the Mai Mai at bay, these efforts did little to curb the wave of violence and chaos that has continued for months.
The Mai Mai eventually attacked the school buildings, stripping them of their tin roofs and taking all of their equipment.
While disheartening, these developments haven’t quelled Ms. Namadamu’s desire to continue with the work at the school. Although still in the U.S. due to the coronavirus’ limitations on travel, she plans to return to Marunde and launch the school once again.
“There are still people living there,” she said. “It is love that motivated us to build this school in the first place. Now love is saying to us, how can we let these people be forgotten? All of us — my colleagues, the parents, our supporters — want nothing more than to see the children in school.”
Rebecca Roberts-Wolfe, director of operations, Hero Women Rising, assisted in the reporting and publication of this article as well as an earlier article appearing in Global Atlanta. To see the first article, click here.