What’s Up WID: Disabled Women’s Rights in the Congo Transcripts

Neema Namadamu, a Black woman wearing a beige patterned traditional Congolese headwrap and dress

Ashley Inkumsah:

What’s Up WID premiered a special edition episode of our podcast available exclusively on our YouTube channel, where Deaf students from Gallaudet University discuss their experiences with disasters in their home countries of Japan and Nigeria. Check out the episode today by visiting youtube.com/wid_org.

Ashley Inkumsah :

The following episode of What’s Up WID contains references to sexual abuse.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Hello, everyone, and welcome or welcome back to What’s Up WID, the World Institute on Disability podcast, where we discuss what’s up in the disability community across the globe. If you’re new here, I’m your host, Ashley Inkumsah. And on today’s episode, I’m sharing my conversation with Neema Namadamu, a disability rights activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose work focuses on securing rights and resources for Congolese women with disabilities.

Ashley Inkumsah:

She’s the founder and executive director of Hero Women Rising, an organization that advocates for women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Neema and I discuss her life as a woman living with polio in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and her advocacy work for disabled women’s rights.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Thank you so much, Neema, for joining me for today’s episode of our podcast to discuss advocating for disabled women’s rights. So can you please share with our audience a little bit more about your life growing up in the Eastern Congo and how being diagnosed with polio when you were, I believe two years old, how did that affect your life? And how did that put you on the trajectory to advocate for women with disabilities?

Neema Namadamu:

Okay. Well, you’re asking me the good question, how I continue, how I become advocacy for women with a disability? First of all, I born as other kids, normal kids. I born in South Kivu province, in Mwenga territory, in Itombwe sector, is there I born. Why Itombwe? Itombwe is natural forest for now, yes.

Neema Namadamu:

I born as other kids and I grown up. When I was two years old, I got polio. And to get polio in the village when I grown up was really very beautiful. We have this forest. But where I lives was no toilet, no road. I didn’t have crutches. I didn’t have a wheelchair. That is how I born and I grown up. In boarding school I was only children or student with disability. And it was a big school, prestigious school, really. And it was many stairs, many. I study one level. I sleep to another level. I go to eat, another level. I go to play to another level. Was big school. Was left by colonizer, Belgium. Was for girls only. And I stayed there for six years. I get my diploma.

Neema Namadamu:

When I was still on four, one guy who was blind man, he was talking on radio. And when he was going to Kinshasa, my capital country, and they come to my school because I was remarkable. I was only one girl with a disability, whole school. A thousand girl kids.

Neema Namadamu:

And that time, and he came to ask my headmaster, say, Neema, she can come and to go to national radio to do talking about people with a disability and all kind of disability. And how to cross the road, for example, blind. How to help with them. Because a kid with a disability is a shame for family. Is really shame.

Neema Namadamu:

Because I grown up, when I born, with full love of my mother, I didn’t know is discrimination outside in world for people with a disability. Because there was no access, no one who ask access, no one, but also I was there.

Neema Namadamu:

And then now I beginning to go to national radio, RTNC, in South Kivu province, Bukavu. When I begin, was in ’90s, and I begin there, walking, talking, and to see many kid with a disability who went in home. They hiding them. When visitor come, say, oh, go in the room. They close you there. You can’t talk with other people.

Neema Namadamu:

And there I finish university. When I finish university, I begin working, but no one who can give me really good job. And during that time I have one friend who was from my village, who become really big authority in South Kivu province. But he couldn’t gives me a job. And I say, what is wrong? Why is this?

Neema Namadamu:

And now we have a woman who was in Kinshasa. He met me some kind. He came to my school when I was at university doing conference. And she saw me and now she ask that guy who was in capital now, say, you have someone in your tribe who have education, who can really work with me. And the guy say, yes, we have Neema. And say, oh, okay.

Neema Namadamu:

And they send me ticket, invitation. I didn’t write to look for job because no one, if they saw me physically, they can’t give me job. I went there and I begin working with her. And I begin as social advice. And the social advisor, really, I navigate the disability. I see women with disability. Don’t to have a house. They lives on the street. They lives like miserable.

Ashley Inkumsah: Yes, absolutely, I’m sure for these women living at the intersection of both misogyny and ableism only further marginalized them. I’d love to hear more about your observations and experiences as a woman with a disability while you were living in Kinshasa.

Neema Namadamu:

When I finish job I do around because I was social advisor to my minister. And now when I visit my friends, women with a disability and people with a disability, second day they come all to my office. But security cannot let them come to visit me. They stop them. They say, oh, they are stink. They are no clean. They can’t go meet the big woman.

Neema Namadamu:

Like me, the people, it was a shock how… It was like, minister, I didn’t resolve. My job is like they gives me gifts. It’s like I was not doing anything, was like by compassion. Compassion, she gives me the job. But I prove world I’m able, and people with a disability, they are able.

Neema Namadamu:

And meantime when I was working in the government, I work in the government. I was a national advisor for five, seven years, maybe. I was working in Kinshasa. Now, when minister say, I was every day meetings with people with disability. And when I get my salary, I pay almost all my salary for transport, for my relative, my friend with a disability.

Neema Namadamu:

And the people asking me, why you are giving all your salary. You are not working for these people with a disability. No, please, ignore them. I say, I can’t ignore myself. This is me. I know how hard it is and Kinshasa transport is so hard. You fight to get transport in Kinshasa.

Neema Namadamu :

When, now, my minister saw that, they change me. I become technical advisor to minister. Now I begin going out only, doing partnership with other ministers, with countries, with other countries, relationship.

Reggie Johnson:

My name is Reggie Johnson, and I am the senior director and head of marketing for the World Institute on Disability, or WID. We are a very passionate, dedicated staff that advocates policies and develops programs and services that serve the needs of over one billion people with disabilities in the US and around the globe.

Reggie:
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, why should I give to WID? Well, I’d like to share with you three reasons why.

Reggie:

First, we help organizations achieve greater access and accessibility of their products and services for people with disabilities. Because we believe that greater access and accessibility benefits everyone. Second, we provide trainings, tools, resources, to help people with disabilities, and their loved ones, make the most informed decisions about their employment and long term housing goals. And third, it’s no longer, if a disaster happens, but when is the next natural disaster going to occur?

Reggie:

Whether it’s a flood, tornado, earthquake, wildfire, or ice storm, we provide disaster preparedness and resilience trainings and help accelerate assistance and resources to disability-led organizations in impacted areas, both during and after a disaster. Your financial support helps us continue to do this work. Please consider a financial contribution as your support would truly be appreciated.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Now I know around 2011 was when you began your work with World Pulse, which is an organization that globally advocates for women. Can you tell us about how you began working with them to advocate specifically for disabled women?

Neema Namadamu:

The World Pulse is an organization who amplify women voice. Is there I write five article. One was how people with a disability, they are missing in the world and especially in Congo. And when I write those article, in World, also, they choosing three women around the world. And they choose me from Africa, another woman from India, another one from Syria.

Neema Namadamu:

And then now we came here in America. When we came, we did America tour in 2012. After that, when women, I was on a meeting, different meeting with women and the women ask me, Neema, where is your vision? I say, I wanted to have our own center in Bukavu, because when I was there I was renting Sybil Cafe and I helped women to have email, Facebook account, tweet, Skype and everything on media center technology. And that was beginning of my job, is how I fund Maman Shujaa, Hero Women Rising.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I love that you able to help these women to establish a platform for them to share their stories on social media. In this current age of social media, disabled people have been able to build coalitions to mobilize for disability inclusion. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago on our podcast that disabled content creators are really reclaiming the narrative and telling their own stories so I want to commend you for giving them mediums to have their voices be heard. And I know that your organization also joined forces with the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network to address the pervasive problem of industrial deforestation and illegal logging in the Congo. Can you explain the interconnectedness between climate justice and disability justice? How are those two concepts connected?

Neema Namadamu:

Oh, my goodness. That is a very good equation. That’s concepted. They are very connected. For example, when you have a natural calamity, for example, when it’s a full ocean or other kind happening, people with disability in my country, they don’t have where to go. They can’t run away. For example, in the DRC, when we have war, other people run away, but women with a disability, they are rape double.

Neema Namadamu:

With people who was living with them, when there war, they run away. Other people, rebel, who come to take that place, they rape them again. And no one who can say that. And also about climate change. We are affected because we are on front line, is why I’m fighting with that. I’m one of the people in DRC, because I lives in the forest, and that when we lives in the forest, about climate change, we do what? Let me tell you.

Neema Namadamu:

When people goes to look wood for cooking, or charcoal, people with a disability, they can’t move it to go with all the stuff. And we don’t have electricity for cooking. We don’t have gas. We don’t have air condition. We are on the front line. Other people without disability suffering, but people with disability, they suffer double.

Neema Namadamu:

And is why we don’t have running water. And it’s people abusing our source, because we was building near our source the small house they can build for you. And now, who go to take and bring water for you? No one. But when we talk about these issues, no one who help us, because no one who knows. Whole world is missing that subject.

Neema Namadamu:

You can be here in America, people with a disability, if they don’t have access, you can’t have peace. But people here in America, is like heaven. You have elevator, you have access people in a bus, but in Africa is nowhere. Nothing. But this is really so far away to get these things, to get human being.

Neema Namadamu:

If they can get people with a disability have, for example, we have big alternatives to change this world. We have a solution. But people, I don’t know why they wanting to put only money on the bank, those paper. That they don’t have value as human being have value.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely, when these disasters and climate events occur, people with disabilities are far too often not accounted for before, during or after a disaster and ultimately end up losing their lives because of this. Last year we held a series of events with Gallaudet University where Deaf people in particular from across the globe shared how information about disasters is never communicated in sign language and just the overall neglect they experience. And why do you think that it’s so important that climate justice activists and disability justice activists across the globe have cross movement solidarity to mobilize together?

Neema Namadamu:

They are supposed to come together because amplify the voice. When person talking in one corner, and another one another corner, that is no one who can hear us. But if we put together, if we talk together, we amplify voice. We’ll be, somebody will listen. That is where we can get solution.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yup, there’s definitely strength in our solidarity and much too often, we see our social justice movements are separate, but if we dive deeper we realize that there is so much overlap and intersectionality in climate justice, racial justice, gender equity and so on and so forth and when we mobilize together that is how we create change and create an impact and…I came across a really profound quote from you where you said that you don’t believe that making an impact is measured solely by amassing followers, but whether or not you are an inspiring leader. How can people with disabilities, especially those who are multiply marginalized, how can they lead the way in social justice? How do you think they can do that?

Neema Namadamu:

That is very good question. Through education. You can’t tell someone who doesn’t know, speaking different language, who doesn’t have education to control his own body. He will do running for office. No, through education. And don’t feel shame, those kid with a disability. Close in rooms, not go out. No, let them go to school. That is my job every day, fighting for, let kid with a disability go to school, get education.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely, education is important, which is why I believe the access barriers that you experienced in school and so many other people with disabilities continue to experience needs to be eliminated. I think not only are there physical access barriers once you are in a school environment, but also there are wealth disparities that don’t even allow people with disabilities to have the opportunity to receive a formal education so there’s a lot of work to be done to level the playing field and allow people with disabilities to have equal access to education, especially those who are multiply marginalized.  How do you think that women and girls with disabilities can achieve liberation from gender-based violence and ableism and discrimination? How can they fight against the discrimination that they experience as women and girls?

Neema Namadamu:

If they have some people working with them, giving them opportunity to have access, to give the voice. If you couldn’t invite me to speak with you,x you couldn’t hear my voice.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Why is access so important? Why is accessibility something that African governments, and really globally, why is that something that needs to be prioritized, do you think, by the governments accross Africa and all across the globe? Why is accessibility something that we need to prioritize?

Neema Namadamu:

That is really where I can say is, no access, no peace, and no justice. How you can do that? If you don’t have access, is no justice and no peace. We need that things to go together.

Ashley Inkumsah:

And when you make things accessible, everybody else benefits. You mentioned earlier, elevators. That’s a perfect example of something we have here in the United States. And not only people with disabilities take elevators, people who are not disabled benefit as well. So accessibility is everything. It really means everything. So, like you said, no access, no peace. I love that. That is very good.

Neema Namadamu:

No access and no peace. No access, no justice. Yes. Be our ambassador. Be our voice, because we are voiceless.

Ashley Inkumsah:

What projects and initiatives is your organization, Hero Women Rising, what are you currently working on that people can find out about and check out?

Neema Namadamu:

Oh, I’m working with girls, especially. I make pads. Because girls in the village, they lives without. When I back there for after 25 years, I back on Itombwe forest, I see no change. I see really no change for girls. They still sexual abusing harassment, all those kind. And that I say, why no change? And women told me, Neema, because we don’t, when the girls kids begin school, primary school, they begin all 50, 50% together. But when they finish primary school to go to secondary school, when they get period, they begin every month, seven days absent at school because they don’t have pad.

Neema Namadamu:

Is not because they are poor. But no, because we don’t have a road, no,   that pad you use only one day, you put way. So, no at all. That girls now, they can’t do like grandmother was doing. That was a big deal for me. And I was shocked. And they say, this is problem? I say, yes.

Neema Namadamu:

Because I work with technology, I take advantage of that technology. I went there. I find one organization call, Days for Girls. And that we send girls at studying that in Uganda. And then they back, we already distribute 11,000, and something more to grow different schools. To women, when they go to maternity, have their babies, they don’t have an alternative.

Neema Namadamu:

The second project, we are planting trees, because we see, yes, women with a disability and other people with a disability, they can’t go so far, travel so far, looking wood for cooking. Looking for charcoal, for example. But we are planting trees. Everyone can have maybe 100 trees around his village or in his house. And he can get easily. Because you can’t cook. The light is the light you have, the fire night. That is how we are doing that project. Planting trees.

Neema Namadamu:

And the third one, we are doing education. We already build the school. After building school we have the girls. And now, because we keep that program, with making kit, we call, Keep Girls on School. There’s for girls project. In our program we call, Keep Girls on School. That is where we are doing. And that is really making me busy, making my colleague busy, every day busy, is that we are doing, my dear.

Ashley Inkumsah:

That is important work. That is great work. And I’m so glad that you’re working on those three things. From making sure women and girls have access to pads to helping them to be stewards of the environment and of course providing them access to education, you are doing so much important, much-needed work in the Congo. You are amazing and you’re just doing so much great work for the disability community. Thank you once again. This was a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate it to be able to think with you and learn from you and this was amazing. So, thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

Neema Namadamu:

Thank you so much.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Thank you again to Neema for chatting with me about the discrimination that disabled women and girls in the Congo face, as well as her experiences and how we can all collectively work to eradicate ableism. You can find transcripts and American sign language interpretations of this episode, as well as all of our past episodes at www.wid.org/whats-up-wid.

Ashley Inkumsah:

If you enjoyed today’s episode and would like to help us to create even more great content, you can send us a donation over at wid.org/donate. Thank you again for tuning in and I will chat with you all next time.

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