Every step saves a life

| Scene Online Editor
Run For Congo Women is a group devoted to supporting health care and education. A local charity run will be held this Saturday. (Courtesy of Women For Women International)

Run For Congo Women is a group devoted to supporting health care and education. A local charity run will be held this Saturday. (Courtesy of Women For Women International)

Supporters of Women for Women Internatinoal perform a cultural dance in a park. (Courtesy of Women For Women International)

Supporters of Women for Women Internatinoal perform a cultural dance in a park. (Courtesy of Women For Women International)

It was night, and Lucienne M’Maroyi was home alone with her two children when a group of armed men carrying flashlights suddenly burst into her house and dragged M’Maroyi violently away. The men forced her to walk with a group of other women and her brother until they reached a forest, where she was then raped while her brother was killed for refusing to hold the men’s flashlights. Her captors kept M’Maroyi as a sex slave for three and a half months until finally she escaped, pregnant with a child; upon her daughter’s delivery, M’Maroyi named the baby Luck because she felt lucky to be alive when so many others who were with her did not survive.

Stories like this one about the hardships facing women living in Congo are what motivated Lynda Hermsmeyer, a massage therapist from Chesterfield, Mo., to take action. Hermsmeyer’s initial interest in the cause developed when, by chance, she read an article featured in Oprah’s magazine about five women from Congo who had all been greatly affected by the conflict.

“What I read was just unimaginable to me. Even in the farthest reaches of my mind, I could not imagine what the living hell these women had experienced,” Hermsmeyer said.

The conflict that led to these conditions in Congo was sparked when extremists responsible for the infamous Rwandan genocide crossed the border into Congo and started terrorizing the local civilians. Militia groups were then brought in to contain the rebels, but the situation worsened as a full-scale war erupted.

“[Congo] is probably the richest country in the world, with things anywhere from diamonds to the metal we all have in our computers. And all these armed groups…their motive is to continue to create chaos so people can continue to steal these resources,” Hermsmeyer said. “And one of the methods that they are using to create chaos is rape.”

This crisis in Congo has amounted to what is currently the highest civilian death toll since World War II, half of which is made up of children under the age of five. However, there are things being done to stop the violence. One group that is participating in the movement forward is Women for Women International, which assists women in war-ravished countries, helping them move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.

This group was mentioned in the Oprah article that Hermsmeyer read, along with another event that brought the possibility of making a difference closer to home: The Run for Congo, started by Lisa Shannon of Oregon. The Run for Congo Women is a race that is held in support of the Congolese women to raise money so that they can receive health care and education. Participants can run a timed 4.5 mile or do a one mile walk with family.

“I immediately e-mailed [Lisa] and asked, ‘Has anyone done [the race] in St. Louis?’ She said no, so the next thing I knew, I had volunteered to become the run in St. Louis organizer,” Hermsmeyer said, “Now, I’ve never even been to a run, and I certainly had no idea how to organize one. But I was just so inspired to do something.”

Since then, Hermsmeyer has successfully been heading the race in St. Louis for three years, along with her co-organizer Mary Jo Burkhart. And, just this past summer, Hermsmeyer was able to see part of what her efforts are going toward when she went to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on a mission trip. It was on this mission trip that Hermsmeyer met another friend who was willing to help her in her endeavor: Perpetue Djona, a refugee from Congo.

“I want to help women in developing countries, especially in my home town—my home country. This is something that is very deep in my heart…This is a way to show that even though people are living very far [away], they can care about other people, especially the less privileged,” Djona said.

Indeed, sponsoring a woman in the Congo for just $27 brings much-needed assistance to her and her children. A big factor within this support project is education, in which the sponsored woman is taught job skills such as tie-dying or ceramics in addition to reading and writing. She is then given seed money to start her own business with her learned skills.

“In my country, there is a saying that when you are bringing education to a woman, this is bringing development for the future generation because the woman is the one who is caring about the kids and their education,” Djona said.

A big motivator for both of these women is that they are bringing hope to the women of Congo, showing that someone cares for them and is trying to help them in every way possible. Unfortunately, travel to the eastern part of Congo is forbidden due to the violence, but both Djona and Hermsmeyer share the dream to go there one day and directly interact with the refugees.

“It would be great to see those people, laugh with them, share your dreams and expectations with them. It’s different than just doing the same thing far away. They will see your face knowing that yes, someone came and helped them,” Djona said.

The Run for Congo Women will take place in Queeny Park in Ballwin on Saturday, Oct. 17. Those interested can sign up on the Web site http://www.runforcongowomen.org/index.html or show up before 9 a.m. at the park to register on the spot. Registration is $25 for the timed race and $20 for the one-mile walk.

If you would like to register or find out more about Run for Congo Women, please visit their site.