In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Ann Jones spent several years as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan focusing on the lives of women and wrote a moving book, Kabul in Winter, about her experience. More recently, she took Tomdispatch readers to West Africa. There, she laid out the chilling nightmare of women’s lives in strife-torn lands in which the war against women doesn’t end just because grim wars between men finally do. Today’s dispatch from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a place where war between men of an especially brutal sort remains an ongoing reality, highlights quite a different aspect of women’s lives in West Africa — the way in which some women are moving from victims to actors in their own life dramas. This is the second in a series of reports Jones will be writing for this site in the coming months, as she works with refugees in Africa and elsewhere. To check out an accompanying Tomdispatch video (filmed by site videographer Brett Story) in which Ann Jones discusses the camera project that is the subject of this dispatch, click here. Tom
“Me, I’m a Camera”
African Women Making Change
By Ann JonesBukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo — The last time I was back in the U.S.A., everyone was talking about “change.” Change seemed to mean electing Barack Obama president and thereby bringing all Americans together in blissful agreement. But real change isn’t like that. Didn’t the guy who’s got the job now promise to be a “uniter”? Real change has content and direction. It’s driven by courageous people unafraid to speak up, even — or perhaps especially — when it’s risky.
Anyway, there are plenty of Americans I’ll never agree with, so I’m in self-imposed exile in Africa where I work with women who teach me a lot about real change and the risks involved in going for it. The women I work with live in the aftermath of civil wars — in the midst of a continuing war on women that’s acted out in widespread sexual exploitation, rape, and wife beating. They’ve had enough.
As a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), I go from country to country, running a simple little project dreamed up by the IRC’s Gender-Based Violence unit. (GBV is the gender-neutral term for what I still call VAW: Violence Against Women.) The project — dubbed A Global Crescendo: Women’s Voices from Conflict Zones — is meant to give women a chance to document their daily lives, their problems, their consolations and joys. It’s meant to give them time and space to talk together and come up with their own agenda for change.
Digital cameras are the tool. I arrive with them and lend them to women, most of whom have never seen a camera before. I teach them to point and shoot — only that — and then I turn them loose to snap what they will. I ask them to bring me some photos of their problems and their blessings. They work in teams, two or three women sharing a camera and very nervous at first. (Some women actually shake.) It takes the whole team to snap the first photos: one holds the camera, another points, another shoots. The teamwork they build is a step to solidarity.