Rebecca: When you were growing up in the DRCongo, what made you decide that you wanted to work with girls and women?
Aline: When I was little, my mother was always feeling depressed because she had 9 girls and no boys. This was the way it was in the Congo. Fathers wanted sons and they blamed their wives if they had girls. I told her, "I can do anything a boy can do. Send me to school. I will show you. Don't be sad. Education will give me capabilities. I will get married and if he's a good man, then he will be your son."
Second, my father was a government official in Bukavu [a city in eastern DRCongo on the Rwandan border]. He wasn't a high official, but we were able to get by. My parents had grown up in a village two hours away from Bukavu and we often went there, going back and forth getting food, farming, and visiting grandparents and extended family. And I saw many things in the village. I saw that girls and women were treated differently than the boys and I wanted to do something about it.
Bukavu in eastern DRCongo, on the shores of Lake Kivu, where Aline was born
Rebecca: How were girls and women treated differently?
Aline: Girls didn't get to go to school. Or they dropped out early and no one cared. And girls without an education didn't have a chance at a good life. They would get married at 15 and have ten children, one every year. They didn't know about contraception, or else they wouldn't use it because they believed the rumor that it would make them sterile. They would work on their farms and take care of children and at 40 they were already old. And the government supported this. But I knew that if girls could go to school, they would not have any boundaries. I saw this in the village and decided I would not be like them. I would be educated. And I told my mother and father and they said yes.
My father was proud because he sent me to school and helped me with a scholarship. And they sent me to a mixed school with boys and girls. That strengthened me. It helped me to get to know boys. I studied math, french, geography just like them, and learned that I'm as good as a boy. And as I grew older, I saw even more how women and girls in society were put down, even in the cities. I saw all these lawyers, politicians, medical providers - everybody was men. Men everywhere! Pastors, priests, teachers, all men! I started to see that this was a bigger problem than I thought. I knew it was going to be a big fight.
Rebecca: What did you study in college?
Aline: I studied rural development. It's hard for women everywhere in the Congo, both in cities like Bukavu and in the villages. But I knew that girls and women living in the villages were the most vulnerable and I wanted to learn techniques to help them especially.
The village of Mwenga, within driving distance of Bukavu, DRCongo
Rebecca: What kinds of techniques did you learn? What did you do?
Aline: In college, I joined a group of ten friends because you need a team. We signed a contract with Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic relief organization, and they gave us a big truck, big as this house, filled with food - beans, rice, sugar, oil, everything. Wow! And even though we didn't have any legal papers, we started going into the villages, from family to family, and giving away food. We didn't have any storage, just the truck. But we traveled around and gave food to the women and it changed their lives. Because in our culture, women always have to ask their husbands for food because everything belongs to the man. And the husbands often insulted their wives when they asked for food. A woman would go to her husband and say, "We're out of food. We need beans, we need soap." And he would say, "Why do you come to me? You're useless." But when a woman had food, whew! She could breathe. She didn't have to work so hard that month. And her husband would not insult her because she had her own food under her name. It was so positive.
Rebecca: It sounds like the experience working for Caritas was life-changing for you.
Aline: Yes. A lot of the job was really social work and I liked it. Then I met Clement in college and we started dating. But we didn't get married until after I graduated and figured out what I wanted to do. I explained to him my life's mission and he understood it. He said, "This is great. We can do it together. I am here." I was happy because in our society, if a man stands beside you in a mission, you will have a voice. I asked him to quit his job to be more available and he did.
Rebecca: What did the two of you do then?
Aline: We started an NGO (non-governmental organization) to work with girls and women in the villages. But we knew we had to get the government and the chiefs and the important men behind us. If not, the people wouldn't listen to us. So we drew up papers that said that we wanted to work with both girls and boys. We targeted the girls but we had to include the boys. Because if we said just girls, we knew the authorities would fight us. Why? Because these officials have plenty of money. They are married and many times they have two wives. And when a woman understands her role in the society, she won't want to be a second wife anymore.
Rebecca: So you had to have a strategy to get the officials on board?
Aline: Yes. We had a strategy. We started by getting our legal papers. Then we presented ourselves to the central authorities. This took a lot of time and work. We would ask for an appointment, starting with the governor. And we would go to his mansion and say, "Your honor, this and that. Here are my papers. This is what I want to do. Please support me." We went all over visiting with different officials. It was a long process, a lot of work.
After that, because we were planning on working in the villages, we had to go to the villages and do the same thing at the local level. We would bring the papers from the governor and visit with the chiefs. I always went with a team, well dressed, very smart, in a nice car. A white car with an emblem on the side was the best. People would stare because they had never seen a woman at the head of a delegation. My husband would sit behind me and sometimes I would not say that he was my husband because people might get upset to see a husband sitting behind a wife.
After we were known in the village, the chief would send us to the outlying settlements and we would meet with the chiefs over there. We would meet him, his family and his wives. They would all be waiting for us. We would bring food and gifts and I would explain what we wanted to do and the women would be clapping. They were so surprised and happy to see a woman at the head and they would say, "Wow! This is amazing." This was our strategy. And it worked out.
Rebecca: And the men didn't see you as a threat?
Aline: No. They didn't fight me because they saw me with a team of men. And they saw it as something new for the population. Because we didn't say it was just about women. We would eat, we would drink. And then I would take out my notebook and ask the women to outline the bigger problems while the men listened. And the women would say, "Oh, our husbands are drinking a lot. We don't have land. We have land but we don't have seeds. Our girls don't have an education. We don't have water in this area. We don't have enough animals. We don't have charcoal because the chief doesn't allow us to cut wood." And I wrote down everything they said and told them we would come back in three months. And then we would go and talk to the church and other community leaders and ask them to connect us with foundations and people who could give us money.
We worked very hard, and the strategy worked. I gave the women the opportunity to speak. And after that, I had a list of problems and could go back to my office and start thinking and looking for people who could give us money for different projects, especially those that helped women and girls. And for the first time, the women had a voice.
Rebecca: What are some of the projects you started in the villages?
Aline: We paid for girls to go to school because it costs money. We had volunteers bring them to school and check on them every week to see how they were doing. And the volunteers talked to the girls. They told them, "Don't go with men. Don't exchange sex for food. If he loves you, he has to wait for you."
Happy school girls pose for the camera in South-Kivu Province where Aline worked
Rebecca: What else did you do?
Aline: We got a donation of 100 cows from a foundation in Holland and we gave the cows to the women. The cows were in their names, which was important because animals are considered wealth in our society, like money. When a girl gets married, she is expected to bring a cow as a dowry to her husband. A cow is worth about $300, which is a lot of money in the DRCongo and if you have a cow, people will respect you. The women were raising and selling animals. And then the cow would have a calf and the economy would grow.
We also helped women get cell phones. This is a problem for women because many husbands don't want their wives to have a phone. They say, "What will you do with a phone? You will just talk to your friends all day long. Or talk to a man." They want the women to obey them. This is a problem here in the US too. Even here, the men in our community don't want their wives to have cell phones.
We did so much! We got money to help women who had been raped by the military. These women are marginalized. Often their husbands will divorce them. Their families will abandon them. And sometimes the woman will get pregnant and have a child she doesn't like. We took care of these children. We found foster families for them through the missionaries. We sent them to school, gave them food. People have wounds. We hugged them. We felt their tears.
Rebecca: How long did you do this work?
Aline: We worked for ten years. But then the chiefs stopped supporting us. They realized we were changing things they didn't want to change. And the war made things worse. I tried to stand up to them. We were writing letters. We were going on the radio. I thought, "They won't kill me because I'm a woman." But during a war, people want to keep doing bad things and it's hard to survive. So we had to leave.
Rebecca: And now you're here in the US doing the same thing.
Aline: Yes. It's a miracle! It's a miracle to be able to do it here. It is hard sometimes. I get tired speaking English. And in a foreign country it's hard because you don't know whether people really care about you. You don't know because there's so much you don't understand, and it makes you afraid to open up. It is so hard to get established here. I struggled so much when I first came, and I see other refugees struggling too. It breaks my heart. I am motivated by the misery of my people to work harder.
Rebecca: What gives you strength?
Aline: I have met many good people. I can look in people's eyes and see. Your attitude will show me if I can trust you. When we were just starting out, good people gave us donations and helped us begin Women's Refugee Care. Before that, I was buying food for other people with my own money and it was really hard. I am grateful and that gives me strength. And God gives me strength too. I pray all the time for my life, my work and my family. I know it's only God who can help the people I work with. Many are stuck and I cry for them sometimes. But God gives me strength to keep going.