New Story Summit: Africa

Excerpt from Kosmos Interview with Neema Namadamu
The Kosmos team meets with Neema (center): left to right, Nancy Roof, Dot Maver, Rhonda Fabian, Cynthia Jurs (Kosmos author), Tara Stuart
The Kosmos team meets with Neema (center): left to right, Nancy Roof, Dot Maver, Rhonda Fabian, Cynthia Jurs (Kosmos author), Tara Stuart

Kosmos: You came a long way, Neema. Why did you come to the New Story Summit?

Neema Namadamu: I came because they tell me there is a summit about a new story and I’m proud to be part of this new story we are telling for change.

Kosmos: What is that story about?

NN: The story is about how we can move forward from old mind to a new story, to new mind, to new thinking, to new ways to do things to make things happen.

Kosmos: Do you see this happening?

NN: I’m always thinking of change when I see people fighting. There are challenges to be part of African women and a woman with a disability in Africa is not easy. People think we have no value so there is no respect. But when I see this new world, the new story gives me voice. And I have hope—because we have a voice and we use new technology—I’m hoping things can change.

Kosmos: How can this story include as many people as possible?

NN: With technology we include everyone. And my job is to empower women through technology. We are together in one movement. We are about paying, about visa, about ticket, about time. It’s movement together. And that is bringing new understanding, new mind. I believe in miracles. And this technology is the vehicle to bring people together to tell stories and change minds, to help people wherever they are.

Kosmos: What about community? What is it—is community a new part of the story or an old part?

NN: Community’s a new part because it’s different than government and the patriarchal system. Everyone has community. We’re one community. One global family. Community is a family. And it’s why we must build that community, that is for people, for human beings. And people can be proud about community where ever they are from. I’m proud to be a woman and I’m proud to be in my community, too. All Women Rising is an organization based in the Congo—with all the violence against women, rape or war, we are rising. And when we are rising we build a community. And with indigenous people, with all community around, we are trying to get that unity.

Kosmos: When you were a child, maybe a teenager, did you have an experience where you said, “There’s got to be something better than this. There’s got to be a new way.”
NN: I don’t know. I was born in a remote area where we don’t have cars or roads or hospital or electricity. And I grew up there. I had a good Mom. She cared about me. I had polio when I was two years old. She carried me on her own back to school for maybe three years. Three years after that I went to the city where I went to school. I finished my premier school, secondary school and I went to university. And when I would see things, how children with disabilities still today don’t have access to education, I say, okay, things must change. How can technology help? Children with disabilities can have access to education. I use technology to empower everyone because without technology I can’t move and still I’m writing and talking with you. It’s why I’m here today. You know? I flew from so far because I’m connected. I use this technology. I give the word and people help.

Kosmos: And so tell me about what you’re doing now, what needs you see and what you are responding to.

NN: The need— I see the need always. We can build the solution. And meeting this need is what I’m doing. I’m working in the Congo with a program I founded, a center for women, where we mainly tell and wrote our story. We tell about our experience being a woman. Everyone says that the Congo is a lost cause, is horrid, many die. But we walk in that system. People don’t have a way in their world to explain those things. It’s now a fight between female and male—gender violence. I see the need and I want to say “No, this is needed in the world. We want solutions.” And I want to help women to be part of the solution, not victims.

Kosmos: Do you get the chance to witness change or transformation in the women that you work with?

NN: Yes. I began to work with women with disabilities. They make hand bags. When I travel around the world I sell those bags. When I’m back home they’re so happy. They’re dancing and praying for me. And I say, “I will get all the things you need.” And I’m so happy when I’m back home. I see all those women in the camp welcoming me and I have money and what they need. When I go to international conferences, I get many sewing machines and I bring them to these women. We have 700 women members writing stories in Bukavu Center. We have a website. We work with a big organization called All the Posts. They are helping us translate the stories we write in to English. My country is French speaking.

And now around the world we found some friends who help us, who know how women work always with sacrifice and as volunteers. These friends say, “Oh Neema, what can we do for you?” I say, “We have big needs and it is just the beginning.” And now we have built a center for women called Center Innovation For Women. This year in August 2014 was our big opening—an amazing experience. The women talk on Skype. The women use computers. They contact their children and their grandchildren around the world. I can sleep well because my heart stays happy to see things happen like that. This is the work I’m doing every day.

Kosmos: Beautiful. Neema, say something about what’s happening in the forest in Itombwe. It’s relevant to what is happening at the Summit.

NN: The Congo has the second largest rainforest around the world after the Amazon. But people see the minerals only for building technology, making airplanes, computers, iPhone. They forget we are a world reserve. People need to have oxygen to breathe. When climate changes the system, you know, it can’t be rebuilt. When climate changes, the system changes also. Wherever you are in the world, you are affected. We want people in the new story to tell people how to use these minerals for all our benefit.

When I was a young little girl I would see children playing with small animals around my family house. But today when I’m back there after 20 years, oh it is horrible. The Itombwe forest in my village is the biggest in the Congo behind the national park. We are trying now to plant trees. The women cut trees to have wood to cook with because there is only one forest. Women are telling me, “Oh, you know, Neema, we have now to run so far to cut trees to have fire to cook.” And I tell them, “How can you do this, please?” And they say, “We don’t have a rainy season.” I work with Osprey Orielle Lake—she’s the international coordinator of WECAN organization. We are trying to work together to see if we can build a project planting trees. And to build the Itombwe forest back again. This is a big, big issue. And together maybe we can find a solution to re-build the community around the Itombwe forest. We need to have a solution globally because [deforestation] is a global issue. I think together we can have understanding. I think, I believe, we can do something.

Kosmos: Are men helping you?

NN: Yes. When I was doing the climate change project about the forest and trees, I worked hand-in-hand with the administrator for Mwenga Territories. They support us in Parliament. And I said, “Oh, I’m not crazy.” Sometimes I was asking myself, “Am I crazy.” And this one man, he said, “Neema, you don’t have money and you don’t have guns, how are you going to make things happen?” And I said, “I have a voice.”

We think about the old system. How can women around the world have big positions, but we in the Congo we are still fighting. We’re still not where we want to be, you know what I mean? We still can’t negotiate peace. I was invited to speak at the UN and at
the White House. I speak about opportunities for change because I use technology. There is a chance that the Congolese women will be hidden. They have no voice without technology. We can’t be suffering in our small worlds. We are closed. We are isolated. But with this technology we walk globally. Sometimes I think we have a global voice and with sisterhood, with all sisters, this is why things happen. Without them, I can’t do anything. Myself, my work is only to talk. But they provide everything. I can’t fly myself. I think this Foundation paid my ticket to come to the New Story Summit. Working together we are finding solutions.

When you work in isolation your voice gets muted. Many now say, “Oh we are supporting.” This is why we got a victory for our petition about peace. All our sisterhood around the world signed. Oh my God it’s thousands, hundreds, thousands, you can’t imagine. I was being invited by the White House. When I was in Addis Ababa, I have phone call, “Oh, the White House is calling you.” I can’t imagine how I, in my little village, have a phone call from the White House? That is a miracle. This is the power of technology for giving voice.

With sisterhood around the world we can work together and find solutions for peace. You know, women in my country they are so, so oppressed by gender violence, by no understanding, by not having access to education. You know? Ignorance is not good.

And we have a culture of punishing women. We are not free yet. But with magic, mind and thinking , we can be free. And I believe and I have hope we are going to see change soon. Thank you.

Neema Namadamu is the founder of Maman Shujaa, a powerful women-led initiative demanding peace in eastern Congo.