It is a profound tragedy that one of the most mineral rich areas of the world with the most fertile ground has been a killing field with roving bands of armed men and boys under the command of a variety of different warlords and clashing armies. Such is the recent history of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Composed of an area approximately the size of California, its provinces bordering Lake Kivu, the region has been plagued since the mid-1990s by violence, with exceptional violence against its women and girls caught in the crossfires of rival armed forces.
Despite its lack of accessibility, its mineral wealth essential for modern electronics provides the magnetism drawing the soldiers and mining companies for either food or natural resources.
In the midst of this luxuriant region where so much violence has taken place, Neema Namadamu was born in the remote area of Itombwe where she contracted polio at age 2. Today due to the care of her mother and a fierce determination to change the fate of women at home and abroad, she has become a public figure in a network around the world working to promote the honor and dignity of all human beings, especially women, and more especially indigenous women and women with disabilities.
Recently in Atlanta to speak at an International Women’s Day Summit, she emphasized how as a victim of polio, she was saved from an uneducated woman’s married life of child raising and obedience to men, to assume her current role as a community leader.
Her polio became an “opportunity” instead of a curse, she says, only because of the strength of character of her mother, whom she has honored as “an illiterate professor of life,” and whom she says “loved me with her whole heart.”
Her mother’s love was manifested in refusing to take on the shame that their culture expected for having such a stricken child and her force of will to support her daughter’s health and development.
Ms. Namadamu recalls her mother would carry her on her back to and from school on rainy days. Neema remained committed to continuing her education, enrolling herself in a boarding school in another area of the province, eventually becoming the first woman with a disability from her tribe to graduate from university in the DRC.
Even as a high school student she had recognized the importance of mass communications and became the host of a weekly program dedicated to sensitizing the public about life for persons with disabilities on the national radio station RTNC in Bukavu, the nearest major city to Itombwe in South Kivu province
Her strength of character and passionate treatment of her subject matter set her apart, eventually leading to her role as a technical adviser to the government’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Family.
Once the eastern region of the country fell even further into anarchy and her own daughter was brutalized by a renegade group of government soldiers, she redoubled her efforts on behalf of children with disabilities and young girls and women who had been violated.
Having felt that her work in government did not lead to significant improvement in the lives of Congolese people, Ms. Namadamu founded the Congolese Association for the Liberation and Development of the Disabled Woman, a non-profit that connects disabled Congolese seamstresses with international garment designers and distributors.
An early attempt in partnership with an Israeli company to create a nationwide telecommunications company in DRC didn’t succeed. But through a loose network of female activists she was cited as an on-the-ground source for World Pulse, a U.S.-based women’s empowerment network that connects women around the globe.
Her blogging and unique perspective on World Pulse provided her with a worldwide platform to express her hopes for rebuilding civil society at home. The extensive following she gained on the site, and her drive to create change, led to her being selected for the U.S. tour of “World Pulse live” in 2012.
Established as an international figure, Ms. Namadamu began visiting the U.S. at that time, including the city of Atlanta. She returned home with several dozen used computers and established the Maman Shujaa Media Center in Bukavu.
Realizing with the development of the media center that she had participated in a self-proclaimed “miracle,” the center broadened its activities by providing digital and internet literacy training for women living in the area.
She also initiated a petition on change.org addressed to women leaders in the White House to influence President Obama to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy to DRC, who would promote a peace process including women in the negotiations. The petition attracted more than 100,000 signatures and led within months to the U.S. secretary of state appointing a U.S. special envoy to the region.
As her reputation grew so did her contacts. In 2013, Ms. Namadamu was invited by Mary Robinson, the UN Special Representative to DRC and the Great Lakes Region to attend and speak at the Women, Peace, Security, and Development Conference in Bujumbura, Burundi. Ms. Robinson, the former president of Ireland, also served as the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1990-97.
In January of 2019 Google featured Ms. Namadamu and her organization, “Hero Women Rising”, in a photo-essay which provided the personal stories of a few of the 5,000 Congolese women who were self-educated at the Maman Shujaa Center to the extent that they were able to develop personal careers. These have included women who have developed various careers such as auto mechanics, IT professionals and even lawyers.
Even in view of these successes, she told Global Atlanta following the International Women’s Day Summit that her goal is not just to develop a class of female professionals. Rather her vision is to create a new concept of community radically different from the system imposed on women.
Instead of oppressing women, the community she wants is one that recognizes women’s gifts and the many fundamental roles they assume. “We are really mothers of this nation, of this planet,” she says.
As specific examples of the knowledge women have, she cited their commitment to advancing not only their personal wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of their families and larger communities. “We’re not fighting with men, our husbands, our sons,” she told Global Atlanta. “We are fighting a system. We are talking about our hope for the future.”
She also cited “Ubuntu,” the Bantu term often translated as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others.” The rights women enjoyed in some traditional cultures, for example those of the matriarchal BaKongo people, have been replaced, she said, by a system that has stripped them of their rights (without mentioning the untold numbers of rapes forced upon them.)
The Maman Shujaa (or Hero Women, in Swahili) movement has not only provided a platform for the women of eastern Congo to raise their voices, but also is focused on educating their children.
“Women must know the value that they have so they can be proud,” she said. “No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself. We grow up where women are not allowed to talk, to show the talent that they have.”
Her answer is being brought to the Itombwe rural area where she was born, and where she has built a primary school for both boys and girls who are to be educated together and learn to respect each other’s abilities.
She continues to visit Atlanta annually where she has participated in conferences at local universities and has been hosted by William De Baets, Belgium’s consul general.
Rebecca Roberts-Wolfe, director of operations, Hero Women Rising, assisted in the reporting and publication of this article. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org