The following is an interview I had with Kate Avino, CEO of HER CULTURE Magazine, posted April 10, 2014.
HC: What is your culture/heritage?
I am what are called BanyaMulenge (children of Mulenge), which are classified as Tutsi from the area of Mulenge in the High Plains of Itombwe in Mwenga Territory of South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo.
HC: How does your culture shape you as a person?
My identity is important to me. It is my ground. But quite often, aspects of the culture of my people will be found on the wrong side of my perspective. My culture is highly, oppressively patriarchal. And since my mission is to build up the devastated women in Eastern Congo, the culture, the mind of my people often finds itself on the beating end of my stick. I’m sure my culture has had a tremendous affect on who I am and what I’m about. I think most people in service are serving not only out of the strength of having overcome tremendous adversity, but often serving in the very domain of that adversity; to rescue others from its deathly grip. Really I’m for right-mindedness. I fight for women because men have done women so very wrong in my culture and my country, to the devastation of my people and country. I’m for my people and my country, therefore I’m for women, because all that’s been repressed in women is the missing ingredient for the recipe of my people’s and my country’s greatness.
HC: How does coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo shape your view on the world? That is, do your experiences, memories, and culture of the Congo affect the way you look at other countries?
I love my country with an intense, passionate love. When I am fighting for Congolese women, I am fighting for Congo. I believe that in order for Congo to get right, things will have to be made right for its women because in its women is everything that Congo’s missing in its off-kilter orbit. Congo is in the basement of every development index on the planet, yet I believe that putting things right here will create a model for getting it right around the world. The reason the Maman Shujaa have gotten some international recognition is because our message is universal. We see ourselves as part of a global sisterhood; part of a whole; and integral part of a whole. That is a mind that is catching because it is right; it is true. We draw on the love, strength, resolve, and universal expectation of our sisters around the world, and they draw the same from us.
HC: We're inspired by your advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. How has your disability affected your life? Your culture?
I have often wondered why I was one who got a disability. It is the cause of a daily physical struggle to do “normal” things. And yet, it hasn’t disabled me. I may be labeled, but on the other hand, I’m unforgettable. My disability distinguishes me, sets me apart. Thanks to my mom, I never thought of myself as less or useless. I’ve always felt Purpose at work in me, guiding me. And yet purpose has both an envisioned end in mind, and a specific path one must follow to reach that end. And that path is full of challenges. At the Women in the World Summit last night I was asked by NBC’s Alex Witt: “What has made you strong?” My answer was “Many challenges.” We all have our challenges. I don’t say mine are more or less than anyone else’s. What I know is that all of us who are driven by purpose face the greatest challenges. Why? Because we’re going somewhere, somewhere special, somewhere enviable. And I believe that anyone going anywhere enviable has in mind that they are beating a path for others, and can’t be satisfied by just arriving, but will only be satisfied when everyone else who wants to come through is through as well.
HC: Why do you believe it is essential for women from the Congo and other areas of the world to work online? What is the most beneficial online platform to do so?
The reach. You are able to travel the world and sit in the living room of women all over the globe, without a passport or visa. We share our ideas and our hearts and we get responses from places we’ve never even heard of; from sisters who are going through or have gone through the same things, or from sisters who are inspired and so are encouraging you to continue; telling you you are making a difference, at least in them. As well, you can get a huge following of support; international support. Your voice is amplified online such that hundreds, thousands, or even millions are able to hear you, and join themselves to stand with you. We submitted a petition online for a U.S. Special Peace Envoy to Congo that got 109,000 signatures, which got us an appointment with President Obama’s National Security Council, which eventuated in the appointment of Russ Feingold as Special Envoy to Congo.
The best online platform is whatever platform will reach the greatest numbers of the audience you want to reach. World Pulse has been a tremendous launching pad for us because of their reach; their reach has become our reach and their audience is the audience we want to reach; our global sisterhood.
HC: What is your definition of "Cultural Awareness" and how can women relate to that?
I’m really not sure. Perhaps because of the oppressive, patriarchal cultures that rule in Congo I’m not a big fan of “culture”. I don’t know of a culture in the world today that is ideal. My intention is, with my likeminded sisterhood, to create that ideal culture; a culture where passion for life, love for community, and embrace of future will have permeated the very fabric of humanity; where peace will be the state of being that governs self; where Love is the license for every word and action; where the world has become one colossal whole with every citizen respected and taking responsibility for their part; where every citizen has taken their eyes off “me”, to see us all as vital members of one another, together stewarding “now” for the sake of our future. That’s the culture I have in Mind.
HC: If you could give a woman one piece of advice, what would it be? Why?
Lead. Women are born leaders. We impart to the world the greatest of all values, and typically not through words, but actions. We lead out of our hearts. We are listeners, and therefore lead out of inspiration, with compassion. We are for others more than for ourselves. We lead in selflessness. We are for our families, our communities, our people, our nation. We are Solutionists. I’m not saying that we are trying to gain followers; our leading is a revealing. We are revealing a path, a way; we are giving direction. For our goal is that everyone would be living in the good of all that is intended. We want everyone to be living out of a right mind, a loving and compassionate heart, a knowing of their “fit”, their purpose, their contribution. We only want to give our breast when they are infants; we want each one then to find the way; to know how to find the path. Know that you are leaders and then lead my sisters, with all that is within you. Don’t look to see if anyone is following. That is not your concern. Just lead; that is your part. Your impact is not measured by whether or not you are amassing followers, but whether or not you are inspiring leaders/leadership. We don’t want a world of leaders and followers, but leaders only – all of us together leading this world into the good of all that’s possible. So Lead.
HC: How has your culture restricted (or freed) you to do what you want to do?
I guess as stated somewhat before, my culture was something I had to overcome. The culture of my people says that women are slaves, and handicapped women are only a leech on a family and its community. Women are for sex and to serve the male population. Sisters serve brothers. And handicapped women are there for the abusing because they have nothing else to contribute. My mom would not allow me to be subjected to the life our culture would have demanded, so when I was in the third grade, she had me move in with my uncle’s family in a city. There, I made my own way. My mom made sure my dad sent money for school fees and I enrolled myself in school. I stayed determined, believing, and through a myriad of challenges, have found myself here so far. But I am not resting. Here is not where I want to stay. I am heading “there”, and leaving none behind.
HC: What is your favorite part of your job/charity work/experiences that you have today? That is, do you prefer writing, being interviewed, addressing mass audiences, or something else?
I like “doing”. I like being home and going into the Center each day and sharing with the other women leaders who are coming in. It is thrilling to me to see how the women who have been with us have matured over the last one and a half years, and also to see how the new ones getting it are getting into it.
As you might expect, things are evolving a bit. Besides advocating for a change of paradigm in Congo, they have begun to want to know how to leverage the online connection to impact their personal situations. That’s where the World Pulse forum really began to have some significance for individual women and where the light really began to switch on for many. The women began to dig in to the World Pulse Resource Exchange. It was tough getting some traction since everything posted was in English and we are French speaking. But using the Translation tool that World Pulse provides, the women began checking out all the opportunities. In the Opportunities section of the Resource Exchange we were finding trainings, project funding opportunities, and other compelling prospects being posted. Several of the women got selected for trainings and conferences, several got sponsors for projects, and a number of our young women and men are in the selection process for the United States Young African Leaders Initiative. Those things have kindled a fire.
As women of a nation that sits in the basement of the world’s human development index, we need some resources, we need some funding for our projects, and we need some personal development. These women are change-makers. They are online advocates, yes, but like me, their real desire is to be creating the change they’ve been advocating for. Sure, these are small steps we’re talking about. But who doesn’t start with small steps? Just stepping is big to us!
HC: Where does a "Culture Revolution" start, and how can you and World Pulse contribute to that?
A Culture Revolution starts from within. I see it every day. It only takes a tiny spark to kindle the flame of unique and incredible life in each woman. Maybe I have given oxygen for their voice, and World Pulse has provided the microphone and interactive audience. The rest is what comes forth from every woman. And it is always new, exciting, interesting, refreshing, endearing, inspiring and enlivening. Our culture is changing, as each one grabs the mic and releases what’s within. Congo’s culture is changing, one woman at a time.