In the dusty, remote town of Dungu, in north eastern DR Congo, Sister Angelique Namaika works tirelessly to bring smiles to the faces of hundreds of previously abducted, raped and mutilated women from across the region.
Operating from the Centre for Reintegration and Development since 2003, the Roman Catholic nun has focused on rehabilitating women who have suffered horrific abuse at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been operating in the nearby forests for the past three decades. In the small centre, she focuses on education and empowerment.
Using the surrounding fields, Sister Angelique has sold produce to townsfolk to help finance her literacy, cooking and sewing lessons at the centre, in the hope of creating a generation of women able to move past the trauma of their experience at the hands of the LRA.
Around 2.5 million people have been displaced in the Central African Republic, Uganda, South Sudan and the DR Congo because of the relentless activities of the LRA.
In Dungu, 25,000 of the town’s 73,000 population have been displaced from nearby towns and villages.
In addition to running the centre, Sister Angelique takes
Though Sister Angelique works with a few hundred women each day, in one of the world’s most under-reported areas, her work has not gone unnoticed.
On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) awarded Sister Angelique with the prestigious Nansen award for contributing to the well-being of refugees and displaced persons.
“She [has] really showed courage, and has impacted positively on the lives of displaced persons,” Celine Schmitt, the UNHCR’s external relations officer, told Al Jazeera.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, went one step further and described Sister Angelique’s efforts to rehabilitate traumatised and injured women and children in the region as “tireless” and “remarkable”.
Sister Angelique will receive the $100,000 prize through the form of support for a project to expand her activities under the supervision of the UNHCR.
“We have identified building up a semi-industrial bakery, as this would help more women to get involved and the economic benefits would be wide,” said Schmitt.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa spoke with Sister Angelique about her work, and how this award was likely to bring more coverage and assistance to her activities in this remote part of the DRC.
Azad Essa: How will this award assist you?
Sister Angelique Namaika: “It will change a lot of things for me. Most of the time, I have had to do everything by myself.
“Luckily, now I might be able to get help with the little things.
“I can help the women here more. And I want to do more.
“For this reason, this prize will help us. At the moment, I am trying to focus on helping the women with baking. This small activity helps them get involved, helps me, and helps them earn a small income. But a bigger plan would be to buy a bigger field to cultivate more crops – so we can sell more. The money would allow these women to feed their children, pay for school fees, buy the right medicine.
“The work I have done over the past ten years only exists because of the women. I have this award only because of them and this award is for them as well.”
AE: How have you tried to help women and children deal with their traumatic experiences?
AN: “The main thing I do is to go to meet them in their houses, listen to their problems and their stories. I go see how they are living.
“Sometimes, they feel abandoned and lonely. And I find that when you spend time with them, they feel pleased, even happy. They are glad that someone is there to talk to them.
“So what I do is that I tell them about the Old Testament and the story of Job, to help them find some hope, and maintain faith in God so they have the belief that things can get better. I also find that the baking, the sewing – this is a way to overcome the trauma.
“People need company, support, not to feel abandoned. This is how you fight trauma.
“In fact, people at the centre say: ‘If we will not be together, our lives would be terrible.'”
AE: This conflict has been going for decades. How is the situation now, as compared to the past 10 years?
AN: “The situation now is different to before – when all we could hear was bullets around us – but the LRA is still active in the region [and] we hear stories of kidnapping from time to time.
“The children coming out of the bush [Editor’s note: returning to safety after being abducted by the LRA] are not as many as before.
“They still come though, but not as many as before.
|Sister Angelique has numerous challenges, but says
her faith remains strong [UNHCR]
“And the children who come out of the bush face many challenges: they want to study, but they don’t have the means, and often, many need emergency humanitarian assistance.
“The problem that people face here still is that we don’t know when peace will return, and people are forced to live in settlements. Because of this, they do not know when they will be able to return to their villages.
“I have seen a lot of changes, since I started in 2003.
“Between 2003 and 2008, more women have started coming to meetings and participating in our activities where my focus has been education.
“I feel women have the right to know a lot of things; until children grow up they are reared by their mothers and so it’s very important for them to be educated.
“The women here, I realise, do not have the chance to go to school, some do not have the means, some get married; that’s why I try to help the women to learn something – because it is important for a nation to have educated women.
“The idea to create a centre to help people did not happen yesterday. I have been helping vulnerable women since 2003, under the name ‘Mama Bongisa’ [‘mother will improve things’]. In the beginning, only women used to come. But since 2009, men have also come.
“I always made all the efforts to teach something. And that’s why I didn’t lose courage. And then in 2009, when more displaced women came, I continued the activities with them. And this made me very happy, to see displaced women coming and knocking on my door to come try get an education.”
AE: What type of challenges did you face when setting up this organisation?
AN: “In terms of people trying to stop me, yes, there have been obstacles, as I have heard from discouraging words. (But) If people know the importance of what they are doing, even if someone is saying something negative, it would not stop them from doing their work.
“It is not only me they will have to stop – I am driven by my faith.
“One major challenge I face is funding. We have a lot to do, I was scared that I would have to stop my activities, especially the training.
“Sometimes, we need to train a few hundred to even 1,000 women at a time, and this needs a lot of resources.
“Also, I have no staff to help. There are many displaced here, and people have to work in the fields to earn, and so it is difficult to find volunteers as well.
“For the orphans – I don’t have enough space to look after the orphans – there are already 14 in my house.”
AE: You are going to be meeting many leaders as a result of this award. What message will you be taking to them?
AN: “One thing I will say is that everyone must do what they have to do, to ensure that women do not experience such trauma. This is what I can say. This will be my message.”
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa