A Discussion with Lyn Lusi, HEAL Africa

With: Lyn Lusi Berkley Center Profile

November 2, 2011

Background: Lyn Lusi and Katherine Marshall spoke in Los Angeles as Lyn was honored with the Opus Prize, on November 2, 2011. The prize, one of the world’s largest humanitarian awards ($1 million), honors extraordinary social entrepreneurs who are inspired by their faith. This interview reflects conversations in Los Angeles, amplified by email exchanges, and includes some gems from her acceptance speech at Loyola Marymount University. Lyn focuses on her challenge to the churches to change the unequal gender roles that are still a reality in much of the world, and a call to young people to service, following their hearts and passions. Heal Africa began as a health clinic but is now am ambitious community development program that works closely with Nehemiah committees in churches. Better treatment of women (whose treatment is brutal and cruel in that conflict ridden region) and for true and equal partnerships is Lyn's priority goal, and her challenge especially to the church leaders.

What first took you to the Congo?

It was all unplanned and even at times against my own will! I had heard a missionary speak about the Congo in my church, when I was very young, but that was far in the back of my mind when I agreed to go, in 1971, to what was then the Congo. I went as a teacher, with the Baptist Missionary Society, because they were seeking teachers, and to the Congo because that is where they worked. After my teaching stint there, I had little expectation that I would ever return. But not long afterwards, in 1974, I was studying in Switzerland and happened to renew a friendship with someone I had met briefly while I was in the Congo, Kasereka (Jo) Lusi. He was studying medicine at the time, also in Switzerland. We fell in love and I came back to the Congo (or Zaire, as it was at that time) with him. And I have lived in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ever since.

What were the major steps along the way that led to the creation of HEAL Africa?

HEAL Africa was born of the devastating conflict that has been shattering DRC for 19 years , and that still makes the Goma area are an epicenter in Africa of violence and conflict. My husband was a doctor, and at first we were really just patching up people whose bodies and souls were damaged and devastated. Gradually we were able to expand our scope and our facilities, so that the hospital grew and we also began to work in the surrounding community, largely through churches.

Nothing has been easy. Apart from violence all around us, our hospital was engulfed by lava when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted in 2002. But we also find hope in the remarkable resilience of communities and especially the women.

The work of HEAL Africa is well described on your website, especially the hospital which is in many senses the hub of the organization. Can you give some highlights of your work?

HEAL stands for health, education, action, and leadership! Our multidisciplinary approach gives us much greater scope than more sector specific programs have to address the community-wide health, social, and economic issues that are the product of both the ongoing conflict and extreme poverty. HEAL Africa has a Congolese staff of 28 doctors, 54 nurses, 340-plus community development advocates and educators, a small administrative team, and hundreds of Congolese volunteers. I work from behind—it is this wonderful Congolese staff that does the real work.

The hospital is a 155-bed tertiary referral hospital, one of only three referral hospitals in the DR Congo. It provides general surgery, orthopedics, obstetrics, and gynecology (including fistula repair), pediatrics, and internal medicine. It is also a research and training center. The hospital represents about 20 percent of our work.

The other 80 percent of our work is focused on community development efforts. HEAL Africa has 31 safe houses throughout North Kivu and the Maniema provinces, and works in partnership with over 90 remote clinics and hospitals. We have specific programs that address gender-based violence, public health and health education, law and justice training, community development and rebuilding, spiritual development, and personal finance, through micro-loans.

Do you find that you work more in the cities or in rural areas? Goma is your base, is it not?

You would not recognize the Goma that you visited in the 1980s. Goma’s population is now about 700,000, though the Kivu region generally is still very rural, probably around 80 percent of the population of Congo live in rural areas. There are new buildings everywhere, especially since the 2002 volcano eruption. There is, of course, abject poverty, but there is also money circulating, lots of it. The money comes from minerals but also from military officers and traders in minerals. These officers are building hotels and fancy houses across north and south Kivu. However, the money that comes to the military from the capital does not reach even the soldiers, even at the middle levels, and certainly not the communities or the churches. The vast inequalities are something that is never far away.

You emphasize the roles of churches. What is the religious picture in Eastern DRC today?

There are so many churches in the area; no one knows how many. The Catholics represent about 30 percent of the population, for all DRC and also for this region. The revival churches, and they come in many shapes and forms (Eglises de Réveil), are 35 percent, and Muslims about 5 to 6 percent. The traditional Protestants (Anglican, Baptists, etc) represent the remainder.

Mobutu did leave one positive legacy to his country. He forced the churches to work together. Only three kinds of Christianity were allowed: Catholic, Protestant, and Kibanguist and so structures to carry their voice and coordinate their very considerable work came into being. This structure has remained more or less intact, and still influences healthcare, education, and other services that the churches provide, to this day.

What about traditional religion?

In the DRC, Christians have found a ways to combine their Christian beliefs and practices and their traditional beliefs. To take an example, if someone is ill, they will say that they were poisoned and they need an antidote that works well. That language allows them to blend tradition with science. If someone has HIV, they will also say that they are poisoned, and that also allows the church to accept them. So HIV is not an infection, it is not something one brings on oneself—otherwise the family would be unwilling to help. Thus they adopt a language that allows people to bridge two worlds.

And where do you see the strengths and weaknesses of the churches?

Churches play central, ever-present roles in communities in eastern DRC. This is true both for the basic structure of communities and for direct services, like health and education. Women's and youth groups, pastors, and the church communities themselves provide what amounts to the only services and social safety net available today. They can be the real glue of the society. Pastors can be inspiring voices for change, calling the political leaders to account.

As one example, we make grants to grandmothers who work with children with HIV/AIDS. The churches help us to identify these grannies.

But that is not the whole story. Churches were really not formed to manage large amounts of money and it would be unwise to expect them to manage sudden large sums of money. It is important that we build on what they do well and not, by overloading them, weaken them or distort them from their purpose. My own notional rule is that an organization, church or other, should not be offered or accept a grant larger than it is presently managing. It is possible then to grow from there.

Of course the goal of churches and people in churches is not to be wealthy. Church leaders have made that decision: that they will take a different path—that they will not go into business but instead go into the ministry. Many do not have any management skills. Their gift is in working with people. So there are mixed results in the programs that churches manage and not all are going well and honestly run.

But even more important is that the churches are not yet at the forefront of programs that are definitely in their mandate: conflict resolution and working for gender justice—and that means real equality, real partnership between women and men.

Let me give one example. After a promising workshop not long ago at a church where several congregations came together for discussion and training, I received a letter from the church leaders thanking HEAL Africa for our support and endorsing the workshop's conclusions.

But the church leaders in their letter set out one objection. They did not agree that women who were raped should NOT be excommunicated. Yes, that is what I mean: they thought the women should be excommunicated if they are raped. In short, the attitude that women invite, even deserve rape extends and permeates so deeply into the church communities and leadership that they could not even see their way to compassion and support. Where women should be able to find comfort, consolation, and support, instead they met rejection and blame.

The story points to the crying need for deep reflection and change within Christian communities. I am thrilled that the Opus prize resources will allow me to work for that goal.

What is your approach to healing both individuals and communities that have been so shattered by terrible violence in the region?

We began our work, beyond the hospital which treated the physical aftermath of violence, with work to help the displaced rural refugees who were trying to return home. We realized that we could not send patients who had recovered from their wounds back into unsafe situations. That was especially true for the many women who had suffered from sexual violence, but also people with serious disabilities, orphans, and widows. These people were especially vulnerable, but their vulnerability was far greater because the situation was still so insecure, physically and also economically.

The result was our Nehemiah Initiative. We began to work with community and religious leaders to create a support structure for the most vulnerable in their communities. We wanted to sensitize and mobilize community leaders to care for their vulnerable members by supporting foster family programs, making widows and victims of sexual violence renewed members of the community, and helping to stimulate economic recovery by supporting local agriculture and small animal husbandry.

So today these Nehemiah groups help the members of the community to resolve land and house ownership disputes, boundary disputes, conflicts between neighbors, and a host of other problems. Because they are members of the same community, Nehemiah workers have a great desire to see a lasting peace in the areas where they live, work and raise their children. Nehemiah committees are highly trusted because every tribe and religion is represented. Today, there are more than 140 such committees among the villages of rural Congo.

Why do you call them Nehemiah committees?

The book of Nehemiah in the Bible is a story of healing and purification and that is so badly needed in the Congo. And it is the churches who should be taking the lead. Nehemiah took measures to bring people back to the city and to purify the community. He ruled with justice and righteousness. Another part of the message we are giving here is that God keeps us to our agreements. And it is a book that both Christian and Muslim communities accept in their scriptures.

What is the specific nature of your conflict resolution work and what is your experience in focusing this through churches?

The churches have wonderful lay counselors who work on healing but this approach causes tensions with both the government and our funders, because they both believe counselors should have academic training if they are to provide any support. We need another way to look at the effectiveness of lay-counseling. The western norms are so individualistic.

Here today in Los Angeles, being around people, it is as if there is an membrane wall that separates people, that forces people to measure their distance from one another. In the Congo, it is the opposite. The only way that people have survived is that they are close to one another in their communities. People touch each other all the time and see themselves as part of the community.

When a woman is raped, if we cannot guarantee confidentiality, she risks losing her place in the community. And the challenge is to allow her to find it again. The idea of having a professional trauma healer with 15 hour-long sessions is rubbish. What she needs is a friend, someone how will listen, react and help her find her place in the society.

We identify our counselors through the Nehemiah committees. It requires a change in the attitudes of the leaders. When a woman is raped, the view is that it is the woman’s fault. There is denial that it can happen: “not in our community,” they argue. But it does happen with terrifying frequency. At long last we are seeing some openings to support, notably through Tearfund and USAID with IMA World Health.

How do you see the effects of violence on different communities?

There has been some recent research on how communities respond to the kind of violence, erratic and virulent, that we find in the region. There seems to be a threshold in the capacity to cope, which was highlighted by our base line study for a new project. In communities where there are under say 20 attacks a month, the coping mechanisms can respond. But at higher levels those mechanisms shut down. There is a view that it is not our responsibility to care, a shift in the psychology of the community when violence reaches those levels. Constant attacks make people think just of survival. They lose their sympathy, compassion, and capacity to care. So in those circumstances we need different approaches, different methods, and a great deal of love.

You are laying down a real gauntlet to churches to take on the cause of gender justice in ways that few do today. What would you like to see?

To change gender relations, no one approach or single idea can bring about gender justice. That is why we have so many approaches: microfinance, working with the churches, health education. But the basic question is to highlight and make real our common responsibility to care and our true commitment to equality.

Since 2006, we have a law on sexual violence, but it has no meaning. Girls are married at 12 without their consent. No one raises a question mark. It is the churches that need to know how to guide the communities. It is they who need to argue that girls must stay in school and take their position in society.

The tradition of male dominance came from an era when muscles were important. Men held their positions because of their physical strength. That strength, that difference now has little value. What is important now is the intellectual gift and ability to manage. That determines what someone earns.

We had one counselor who had a very sad story. She was earning a small salary, but she had to give the money to her husband. With it he bought another wife. She got a bicycle for her work with HEAL Africa, but the husband took it and sold it, giving the money to pay the dowry of the son of another wife. Our counselor finally left him. We were drawn into an effort to mediate. In talking to him, we found that he was completely bemused—he was behaving like a normal, traditional man and could see nothing wrong with what he did. He said he wanted his wife back, that he loved her. He wanted to sue Heal Africa for destroying his marriage. Our mediation finally avoided a law suit, and brought the couple back together with a better relationship.

We need to work with the churches to try to help them to appreciate and understand that a new kind of partnership between men and women is best for all. The issues are not just about violence. It is to talk about models. We want to show model couples who show what advantages real partnership can offer, for example two doctors living and working together as equal partners as a new kind of ideal, a modern version of justice.

So what are the modern challenges for churches?

Churches today are sometimes, but by no means always, the leaders in society's efforts to bring social justice.

Two centuries ago William Wilberforce, a lifelong social activist, goaded churches in England to rethink the ancient assumptions that allowed people who saw themselves as virtuous and religious to accept slavery as "normal." The churches did not respond immediately; some did but the ideas about slavery were deeply ingrained. But over time, norms and teachings changed. Supporting slavery today in a church setting would be unthinkable.

But there are serious gaps in the way that churches are approaching what is today's central challenge for justice: that is, equality between women and men. Churches today must look inside their communities at what they teach and preach, so that they can lead, with a new understanding of what justice and equality mean. That will mean changing ancient norms that have allowed women to be treated as somehow inferior to men. It is a generational change, one that will not come overnight. But it must come. And churches must be at the forefront. What we and they need is a true passion for justice.

What were your first thoughts as you heard that you had won a prize that you did not even know you were competing for?

The day I heard is something of a blur, of excitement and confusion and hope.

But it also brought back a special memory. This is just the second time in my life that I have received a prize. The first time was when I was seven years old and there was a contest in my village for the prettiest dog and owner. Scamp, my beautiful dog, and I won second place. And now this wonderful prize gives us the chance to do much more to help those who are working at the front lines, trying to bring change in the communities.

As you accept a very special award, what do you see as the message you want to convey to the students at Loyola Marymount and to other young people around the world?

For all of us, we need to ask, where does God want you to be? How can we contribute and serve? And in reflecting about that, I remember a lovely story.

A sculptor brought into his workshop a huge block of marble. And he began chipping away at this marble, chipping, polishing, chipping. His son came in to watch him and soon got bored, and went away. His son came back a few days later and saw this magnificent white lion. And he turned to his father and said, “Daddy, how did you know there was a lion in that block of stone?”

And when God looks at you and looks at your life, you may see a block of stone, but God sees inside that block of stone the lion that he wants to set free to serve him.

Set the lion free to follow the high calling that God has on your life.

What do you hope to do with new resources that the million dollar Opus prize offers?

I want to work with the churches to heal the communities. And I want to work with the Nehemiah Committees and especially women’s development networks to heal both the churches and the communities. To bring our passion to this modern challenge of partnership and healing.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.