Lisa Shannon, a Thousand Sisters

One woman’s journey to the Congo, “the worst place on earth to be a woman.”

Lisa Shannon Congo
Lisa Shannon with her “sisters” in the Congo.

Five years ago, Lisa J. Shannon was living a comfortable life in the Pacific Northwest, with a home, a fiancé, and a successful photography production company. Then one fateful day in January 2005, she watched a segment on Oprah about the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which opened her eyes to the ongoing atrocities in that war-torn central African nation. Feeling called to help, she started by organizing a 30-mile trail run, which raised enough money ($28,000) to sponsor 80 Congolese women through Women for Women International. Emboldened by her success, she went on to found a national organization called Run for Congo Women, and began visiting the women her run sponsored.

In her new memoir “A Thousand Sisters” (Seal Press), Shannon shares the remarkable stories of her “sisters” in the Congo, as well as the trials and tribulations of working as a grassroots activist for and within the borders of a failed state—a country wracked by extreme violence, sexual abuse, torture and murder. Just back from her third trip to the Congo—a two-month foray into the far northeast of the country, an area heavily impacted by Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army—Shannon was kind enough to speak with Failure about the book, the Congolese women she has met, and possible diplomatic solutions to a conflict that has raged since the mid-1990s.

Take me back to January 24, 2005. When you watched Oprah’s segment on the women of the Congo, what was your immediate reaction?

First, I was shocked that I was learning about the deadliest war since World War II, and had never even heard of it. On a personal level, hearing the stories and listening to the women talk, I felt really moved. I always thought of myself as the kind of person who, if I had been alive during the Holocaust or had known about the genocide in Rwanda [1994], would have done something.

Oprah magazine also ran an article in conjunction with the TV piece. One woman in particular talked about being dragged into the forest and begging for her life. The militia said that even if they killed her it wouldn’t matter. They saw her more like an animal than a human being, and told her that if they killed her she wouldn’t be missed. I needed to find a way to send the opposite message, and that’s when I came up with the idea for the run.

A lot of people who watched Oprah that day no doubt had the inclination to “do something.” But you followed through.

I don’t even know I was confident that I would follow through. I decided I was going to do a 30-mile run. I picked that distance because I wanted people to know how seriously I took the situation. I was not a strong runner at the time, so I trained for four months without telling anyone. Of course, I had doubts, which I tried to convey in the book. I think one of the reasons people don’t get involved in situations like Congo isn’t because they are afraid they can’t make a difference, but because they are afraid of screwing up in public. I figured if I was open about my mistakes, other people would feel it’s a little more approachable.

What surprised you most when you went to the Congo for the first time?

First, it is incredibly beautiful. And because the road system has been destroyed it’s incredibly clean, so when you go to villages, it’s perfectly preserved African countryside.

But I had been told before I went that the look in people’s eyes there is different—that you can see the impact of the war. That was true, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the unbelievable capacity for joy that people have there. Whenever I visited a women’s group, there would be a huge celebration with singing and dancing. I would smile so much I would get terrible headaches during the celebrations.

Another surprise was that the personal connection [initially established through letters] meant more to the women than I expected. I always thought that the important part was the money. I didn’t think there was anything I [or anyone else] could say in a letter that would mean that much to someone. But women carried around the letters they received from their sponsors. It was that personal connection and knowing that they mattered to someone. In every group I heard: “I feel like a human being again.”

What mistakes did you make the first time you visited?

[Laughs]. What mistakes didn’t I make? I had never been to Africa before so there were little cultural snafus like saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment. At the other extreme, I sometimes put myself—as well as my translator and driver—in really dangerous situations. I didn’t understand [the Congo] and how to manage risk the way you need to.

In terms of big mistakes, in the opening chapter of the book I talk about having been to Kaniola. I remember standing by the huts of the women I was visiting and looking out at the forest [militia territory], and wondering if anyone was watching. If you visit a women’s compound, it can be a safety issue because they assume you are leaving money. I realized if I was seen it could provoke an attack.

Several months later I got news that there was a massacre there. I had to live for a very long time wondering whether or not my going provoked an attack that led to people being killed.

What makes the Congo “the worst place in the world to be a woman”?

People are referring to the sexual violence. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese women have been raped, but rape—as horrible as it is—is almost a soft word for the kind of torture that occurs. Gang rape is standard. Women are taken to the forest and held as sex slaves for months and years at a time and raped every single day. Doctors from hospitals that treat sexual violence-related injuries say they can often tell which militia attacked a woman because they are systematic in their attempt to destroy the ability to reproduce. I visited one village where 90 percent of the women had been raped.

The other thing is that it’s not just militias that are raping. At this point, the Congolese Army—the force that is supposed to be doing the protecting—is responsible for most of the rapes. And because there is no punishment there is increased incidence of civilians raping.

Among the women you’ve met in the Congo, is there anyone with whom you’ve gotten particularly close?

Generose is the sister I’ve grown closest to. She was at home one day when the Interahamwe [Hutu militia] came to her house demanding money. She and her husband turned over everything they had, which was about 130 dollars. He was a school principal and she was a nurse so they thought they should have more, so they started beating her husband. She cried out, mostly to warn neighbors. It’s understood in eastern Congo that if the FDLR [Interahamwe] shows up at your door that no one is going to help you. But there’s a code where you yell out so your neighbors have a chance to escape. Generose screamed and as punishment they shot her husband and then cut off one of her legs. They took the leg and cut it into six pieces. Then they commanded the six children present to eat her leg. Her nine-year-old son refused so he was killed. The FDLR likely raped her after they cut off her leg because she has internal injuries that indicated it happened, though she doesn’t remember because she passed out. Then they set the hut on fire with the intention of burning everyone alive but her children saved her.

When we met, Generose had an infection in the bone where her leg had been cut off so I paid for the surgery she needed. She is the kind of person that when you meet her she glows, and you wonder how someone could live through what she lived through and still have that. So for me she’s an inspiration, not just because she survived but because she survived with grace and compassion and dignity. She’s my personal hero in that way.

Based on your experience, what is the solution to the ongoing conflict?

I think there are three key levers for solving the problem. First, the Congo is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet in terms of resources, and the conflict has been driven by illegal extraction of minerals. The United Nations has accused everyone of using it [the war] as a cover for looting. So we have to change it so that the only way to make money off of Congo’s minerals is legally and in a way that benefits the Congolese people. 

The second issue concerns the Congolese Army. The men are integrated from militias, given guns and promised a salary of about $40 a month. But they are very rarely paid, so it is expected that they will use their guns to get what they want from the local population. So while they steal, they rape, and as I understand it, they are now killing for money. The international community needs to put pressure on the Congolese government to end that corruption so soldiers are actually paid. Then they have something to lose for bad behavior. 

The third issue is the FDLR. They currently have between six and eight thousand members, but many are not Hutu. Many are Congolese who were abducted and forced to fight. More than 80 percent of the men would go home if given the opportunity but they would be killed if they defect. So I think we should go after the FDLR leadership. That would go a long way.

Readers who want to help, what do you suggest they do?

Sponsor an individual woman. Develop a personal relationship. And join the Raise Hope for Congo campaign, which does policy advocacy work to end the violence. I work with them very closely and I’m a big supporter of their conflict minerals work, and now we are talking more about what we can do about the FDLR. There are a lot of places for people to plug in to help stop the violence.

Women for Women International
Raise Hope for Congo