Inspiration

Half the World, the Whole of Democratic Republic of the Congo

Dawn breaks and sunrays scatter like crystals over the sapphire waters of Lake Tanganyika.  There she is, a mama, carrying an up-cycled yellow bucket. First, she fills it with water for drinking, cooking and cleaning, then she collects some slippery rocks and silt from the lake. She takes some and leaves the rest. Finally, she carries the pail with grace, which could have easily rivaled the strength of Atlas except she is real and Atlas only a myth. As she leaves, I am reminded of a quote by Chairman Mao Zedong: “Women hold up half the sky.” But, as I write this, I wonder maybe women hold up the whole of DRC. 
As a Medical Officer and a member of the first Pakistani Female Engagement Team (FET) in MONUSCO, my mandate focuses on enhancing the peacekeeping efforts of my Battalion by reaching out to the most vulnerable, most neglected and sadly the most frequent survivors of the horrors of war — women and children. My interactions with them have been just as warm as I expected. Being a woman has its fair share of advantages and being considered non-threatening is one of them. To them I was not a scary soldier, I was a Pakistani woman in uniform. As a mother of a nine-year-old boy, I see a lot of myself and my son in those who I seek to help. Aren’t we all, in fact, the same: working hard for our families, juggling life and work and facing a new challenge each day. If we look closely, we are more alike than different, just divided by geography. 
Leaving my only child behind and serving in an entirely different continent was a jarring thought. Nothing in the world can prepare you for this but we were all somewhat ready to embrace the pain, which comes with separation, and face the challenges that come with overseas deployment. When I say, ‘we’ I mean me and my ‘band of sisters’, which includes my real sisters, my mother, the staff and teachers at my son’s school and the female doctor who will examine him if he ever gets sick. 
I still remember the stiff January morning when I dropped my son at school and watched him go to his classroom, his schoolteachers herding unruly kids into the class, I whispered a hope into the universe: “My band of sisters, I pray that you take good care of my son, as you care for your own.” And as all things metaphysical, that whispered hope took form of a flutter of a butterfly’s wing and landed on my shoulder in DRC and so after an intense session of brainstorming, we formulated a teacher-training program, of which I’m proud. My team members taught a group of teachers how to be better at their noble profession. It is a sincere effort, which will bear dividends. 



Leaving my only child behind and serving in an entirely different continent was a jarring thought. Nothing in the world can prepare you for this but we were all somewhat ready to embrace the pain, which comes with separation, and face the challenges that come with overseas deployment. When I say, ‘we’ I mean me and my ‘band of sisters’, which includes my real sisters, my mother, the staff and teachers at my son’s school and the female doctor who will examine him if he ever gets sick. 


Time in DRC is divided between work and rest. The nonstop work of being a medical administrator at a large hospital is left behind at the airport. But there are some days when I felt as if time is dilating and I miss spending time with my family. Some days when the going got tough, I reaffirmed to myself, “For Damir’s MIT dreams. Stay strong for him.” Isn’t that what we all want? A good education and marketable skills in an ever-changing world not just for ourselves but more importantly for our children. And this made  me think that all children, not just mine, should have opportunities if humanity is to progress and so our mandate took us to another endeavor of computer training program and plumbing course for the youth of the area, a humble but a definite beginning of something promising. 
“How are you finding your Chinese language class?” I asked my less-than-thrilled son over one of our numerous video calls. “It is difficult you know, maybe one of the most difficult languages to learn,” he told me matter-of-factly. I patiently explained to him the strength of being a polyglot, how learning many languages opens countless doors of opportunities. I told him that he will be able to conduct business in practically any part of the world if he knew the appropriate language. It goes without saying that like any other tangible skill, languages shine on a resume and add a degree of finesse to personality and with that in our minds, we ran a cadre for English language for the youth of the town in our Battalion. 
The night is starry and days long in DRC but our eyes opened to the Tanganyika every morning. Lake Tanganyika is the world's second largest fresh water lake but the water is not potable. The local population is forced to drink this water making them prone to many diseases. So, the young nursing officers of my team came up with the idea of a filtration system, which was sustainable and needed little resources. We took it everywhere we could, needless to say everyone loved the concept. 
The deployment of our Battalion exposed us to the harsh reality of this country — the women and children of war. Some writers may sanitize the grotesque nature of the crimes a human being can inflict on another as ‘collateral damage’ but we saw in the high plateau how women and children suffer when infighting ensues because of seemingly deep conflicts. Mikenge is a place, which stays with you long after the helicopter whisks you away from it. We witnessed the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis in Mikenge. We stood true to our mandate: Protection of civilians. I watched silently as we faced bureaucratic hurdles when we decided to extend our help in medical capacity. There was little we could do publicly but we contributed as much we could do privately. 


The Congolese women never ceased to amaze me. I carried on the proud tradition of serving our great nation but perhaps even I cannot claim to be as hard working as Congolese women. Be it moms who run the house or a roadside business or the lady carpenter who put up the plywood sheet in my room, they are doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, office workers, farmers, teachers, students and the list goes on; there is practically nothing Congolese women cannot do. They are beautiful, curious, resourceful and intelligent. 


As I write this, Mikenge IDP camp is somewhat livable. UNHCR provided the tents and NGOs provide medical help. Our battalion protected the civilians and their cattle. The punishing rainy season is over and there is respite in the form of sunshine and clear skies. But there are days when my heart is heavy thinking about the newborns who were birthed in a drain and all the other women and children who live there suffering from the maladies, which effect those who are forced to huddle together in less than hygienic conditions. 
When I landed in DRC in May 2019, the world was gripped by the fear of a potential global outbreak of Ebola. But once I happened to interact with the Congolese, I realized that my native neighbors not only suffered slightly less from novel illnesses but die more of some preventable diseases — cholera and other water-borne diseases, malaria, measles, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and so on. Adhering to my mandate, I frequently went solo to impart knowledge about prevention. My awareness campaigns knew no bounds. Health for all is something, which I believe in passionately. I went out into their communities and invited them into our Battalion; men, women, children, old and young, everyone was my target population. 
The best part of my interactions were the question/answer sessions. Native Congolese, young and old both were very inquisitive. The kids especially are very bright, like diamonds in the rough. In the right circumstance, this part of the world can give us not only the next Nelson Mandela but also the next Elon Musk. 
In addition to the band of sisters I left back home, I found some there. In Popoli Fratelli, where we often went for following up on our vocational training program, I found many with whom I could share my love of dressing up. There is not a woman in the world who doesn’t want to look nice. Popoli Fratelli is where we knew we would find women who inspired us — survivors of brutal rapes, conflict-related violence and gender-based violence. But they are fighters, they live every day to the fullest, never held back by their past. They are not victims they are thriving survivors. They fuelled my hopes and dreams anytime I felt I was running low on motivation. 
The Congolese women never ceased to amaze me. I carried on the proud tradition of serving our great nation but perhaps even I cannot claim to be as hard working as Congolese women. Be it moms who run the house or a roadside business or the lady carpenter who put up the plywood sheet in my room, they are doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, office workers, farmers, teachers, students and the list goes on; there is practically nothing Congolese women cannot do. They are beautiful, curious, resourceful and intelligent. 
Ours is a maiden effort, a drop in the ocean, but I am proud to say that the difference we aspired to bring has already begun. It might be a small step but I believe that for some it may be a leap, which they needed to transform their lives, their hopes, how they see the world and how the world sees them. HH


 

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