Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.
I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.
Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.
As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”
So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.
That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.
Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.
That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.
But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.
One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.
“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.
Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”
It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.
So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.
She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.
“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”
Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.
On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at www.runforCongowomen.org. And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.
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