Cleophace Mukeba sat in a boat crowded with over 100 people, a third colossal wave of the night headed in their direction. Some passengers screamed, some prayed and some sang. They were fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then named the Republic of Zaire. In the midst of the chaos, Mukeba recalled, he simply sat and accepted his fate, whatever it might be.
Unbeknownst to him, it was the start of an over decade-long journey that would take Mukeba to Vermont, gain him a political science degree at St. Michael’s College and inspire him to start a nonprofit organization, the Vermont Ibutwa initiative, for victims of sexual violence in the DRC.
“Ibutwa” means renaissance in Lega, a dialect spoken in the Congo, Mukeba said. It suggests rebirth for the Congolese women and children his nonprofit helps with medical coverage, education fees and sustainable livelihoods.
By May 2011, nearly 2 million women were raped in the DRC, victimized at a rate of nearly one per minute, The New York Times reported. Many were mutilated, leaving them unable to have children or control their bladders.
The conflict started, in part, over precious minerals in the country. Deposits of tin, tungsten, gold, tantalum and coltan—all used to manufacture electronic devices—caused militia groups to exploit the region and engage in a bloody war.
“The consequences of exploiting that mineral was the raping of women,” Mukeba said. “And young kids.”
Mukeba fled the country unaware of the mineral conflict, and he returned in 2012 to find out how best to aid women from his homeland.
“I asked the question ‘What can I help you [with]?’” he said. “[But] you can’t ask someone who is suffering, ‘How can I help?’ The answer is: ‘Everything.’”
Ibutwa began raising funds for women’s medical bills, covering surgery to repair fistulas and other needs, Mukeba said. The group then helped send children to school, educating them and sheltering them from their unstable environs, Mukeba said.
Families “believed that … the teacher is a protection,” he said.
Today, Ibutwa helps women build sustainable livelihoods by teaching a micro-business model that has spawned a few successful ventures like a bakery. And Ibutwa has leased land for a community garden where Congolese women can grow and sell crops and livestock, said Patricia Siplon, Ibutwa’s program management committee chairwoman and a St. Michael’s College professor.
The women’s smiling faces tell a story of improvement in the villages of Uvira and Kamanyola, where the nonprofit has focused its efforts.
“When I met them in 2012 it was really bad,” Mukeba said. “Now when I see their pictures I can see their smile.”
Over Ibutwa’s nearly seven years, Mukeba and his crew have helped 30 women with medical bills and 70 children attend school, seven of whom have graduated.
To continue its efforts, Ibutwa needs more resources, like translators for French and Swahili, committee members, bloggers and monetary donations. The organization spends $600 monthly for its six staff members and on transportation; the remaining donations directly support Congolese women and children, Mukeba said. Contributions of any amount make a big difference in the Congo, he added.
Siplon said it’s difficult knowing Congolese women are suffering, but she’s fortunate to work with Ibutwa and help ease their plight.
“The world is so indifferent,” she said. “It feels really important for them to know that they are not forgotten … it’s not enough help, but [it’s] some.”
Learn more about Ibutwa at www.ibutwa.org