By Kristin Davis for UNHCR
We are driving through green, thick canopies of forest and alongside powerful, rushing rivers. The climate is tropical and the scenery is beautiful here in the Haut-Uele District of the Democratic Republic of Congo, far up north on the border with South Sudan. But as we barrel down the pot-holed roads towards the town of Dungu I know that this splendid landscape belies the thousands upon thousands of terrible stories of savage brutality and darkness that have scarred the people of this remote region.
Only a few years ago the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) occupied this whole area, spreading fear, committing gross acts of violence, killing indiscriminately, forcibly recruiting children to fight, kidnapping and raping women. Some women would be taken deep into the heart of the forest for many years, sometimes escaping, often with babies conceived by their abusers.
I am here with UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, to meet one of the many women forced to flee her home when conflict engulfed her district. She, like so many, is a survivor, she also happens to be a business woman, a community leader, a carer, a baker, a seamstress, she runs a school, a clinic, a farm and an orphanage, and she is a nun. Oh, and did I mention in 2013 she was celebrated as an international humanitarian when she was presented with the Nansen Refugee Award by UNHCR in recognition of her extraordinary work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.
Her name is Sister Angelique Namaika. Or “Mother” as she is known by many people in the area.
As we pull up to the Centre for Reintegration in Dungu, established by Sister Angelique, joyous music rises up around us. Dancing, ululating, singing. It is glorious. Today is the official opening of the bakery that Sister Angelique has built on the compound with the funds gifted to her as a Nansen Laureate, and it seems that people have come from far and wide to help celebrate.
The bakery will employ some of the many women that Sister Angelique is helping through the Centre; women who tell us about being kidnapped by the LRA, being horrifically and repeatedly violated, somehow finding their way home to their villages, but being rejected by their families and neighbours for bearing the children of their aggressors. These women tell us of their despair and their trauma, and they tell us that the only person who took them in and supported them without judgment was Sister Angelique.
Having been displaced herself, Sister Angelique has a particular insight into the lives of the women she has committed her life to serve and she works on a very personal level. She listens to the story of each woman who comes to the Centre, she provides comfort and counsel, and she works together with each woman to help them rebuild their life. She sends them to school, gives them vocational training (often in sewing and tailoring), employs them on her farm (and now in her bakery!), enrolls their children in the small school she has set up, and in many cases gives a home to abandoned or at risk children in the orphanage she has established.
Sister Angelique does all of this with the smallest amount of funding. She mainly relies on her own hard work, perseverance and faith. It is a testament to the transformational power of one determined person. Sister Angelique has now helped over 2,000 women rebuild their lives after experiencing the unimaginable brutality.
I step out of the car and I am greeted by a wave of women all wearing identical dresses made by the seamstresses trained in the Sister’s program. I am whisked away and quickly redressed in a stunning traditional outfit of boldly printed local fabric. When I emerge Sister Angelique welcomes me with a kind, twinkling smile and I learn that when Sister Angelique smiles, everyone smiles with her. She shows me the bakery where perfect croissants (inspired by her visit to Geneva where she accepted the Nansen Refugee Award) are lined up infusing the room with heavenly smells.
Outside, children dressed in immaculate school uniforms (more evidence of the skills of the seamstresses in the livelihoods program) walk with us as we pass the small school the Sister has started, and then past the clinic she has built. On our drive here I had been acutely aware of the seeming total lack of infrastructure in the area so I am amazed by the services Sister Angelique has built in this complex.
As we continue our walk a number of small children come toddling out of a little hut and wrap their arms around Sister Angelique’s legs, each wanting a hug. These children are being cared for in the orphanage — many have been abandoned at the local hospital as they were the children of rape and mothers’ who did not want to be ostracized by their communities by keeping them. A little girl named Abigail holds her hand out to mine. I reach down and take it and say “Bonjour”. She says nothing. She simply stares at me with large gorgeous eyes. Sister Angelique’s arms are already child heavy so I pick up Abigail and in minutes she is asleep, her sweet head resting on my chest. I hold her like this for the rest of the afternoon.
We enter the hut and it is filled with tiny sleeping babies and toddlers playing on the floor.Two women are attending to the children, one still wearing her baker’s hat after coming straight from her shift at the bakery. Sister Angelique is in the process of constructing a new house for the 30 orphans she currently cares for and for more to come, and I wonder to myself — if Sister Angelique was not here, what would happen to these children?
Time has outrun us and we are at risk of missing our ride back. It’s time to bid adieu to Sister Angelique. The singing continues. It seems as though it will never end. We drive back along the same roads as before; through thick forests and alongside rivers. Sister Angelique’s words are with me as I look out of the window: “I will never stop doing all I can to give these women hope, and a chance to live again”. The darkness that earlier seemed to threaten the very essence of this place seems to have loosened its stranglehold a little, and it is because now I can see the love and the passion of Sister Angelique’s work in the landscape, and I can hear the stories of survival carried on the wind. The women of Dungu are slowly recovering and rebuilding. They are growing in strength and skills and voice. And I for one want to support their revival. I hope you’ll join me too.