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Fighting for change

journalist tells of her desire to help women and youth of democratic republic of congo

by Latoya Burnham

“Sometimes I think that it’s not enough to be a simple journalist. Maybe I have to do more, to be more to help everybody — women and youth.”

This statement from 26-year-old Pascaline Zamuda is one that touches me deeply.

This is a story that took me almost two years to tell — one, because Pascaline moves around so much and our time zones are always so different it is hard to link up, and two, because there are some I fear who will ask, but what does the Democratic Republic of Congo have to do with Barbados?

The answer is, nothing; yet everything, in this globalised environment in which we now live.

At 26 years the average Bajan girl is probably caught up with work, dating, liming, partying on the weekends, if not raising young children. For Pascaline, every day is a challenge — sometimes just a challenge to stay alive and foremost for her, to help those trying to survive in an often embattled country.

I met Pascaline for the first time online while preparing for a near two-month journalism fellowship at the United Nations. We met face to face in September 2011 when we were both a part of the programme and then we spent a short time as roommates in Washington during that same fellowship.

Pascaline is a radio producer/journalist/activist with the South Kivu Women Medias Association. Her native tongue is Swahili and she calls me “dada” or “sister”. She is more fluent in French than English. I speak English, no Swahili and my French is hardly passable, yet we were able to chat well into the nights in the US and I got to like this quiet, somewhat shy African — even more when she tackled some UN officials with the hard questions about what was happening in her country and what this key international organisation would do about it.

Born on October 26, 1987, Pascaline became a reporter at 15.

“It’s was in 2003, I was 15 years old. The country came from two big armed conflicts — the first one in 1996 and the second 1998. My region, the eastern part of the country was strongly and more affected by those conflicts and rebellion, cause it’s like a gate where solders from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and others which are included and provocated those wars.”

When these soldiers, politicians and international agencies find common negotiating ground, she said then there is “relative calm”, but it is still a region considered for humanitarian and other assistance by the international community.

An NGO called Search for Common Ground started a programme called Giving Voice to Congolese Children, in an attempt to denounce the human rights violations of children during conflict. They used the media to get children to open up about what was happening, and Pascaline was recruited through her school and trained as a reporter. She was also further educated about human rights and children’s rights.

“I began going up country; far from the city, in others provinces where children [were] enrolled in armed groups, raped, ill-treated and those whose parents were killed in the wars; others who are abandoned, ect. I made a lot of reports. I become as a ambassador of children rights.”

Today she considers herself more of an activist than a journalist, with the media being her tool to sensitise her population about human rights, especially women and children.

“I know that being a journalist requires principles and I do my best to respect and observe them at all times, but one difference is that I have a position [on the issues, and] a choice when I select my topics.

“In my opinion, most journalists and media in my country should take conscience with the human right context when they make their reports, because after experiences, I believe their role is to bring change.”

To understand why she feels as passionate as she does and why she reports heavily on human rights, women’s and children’s issues is to delve a little bit deeper in her background.

When she was 10, she lost a year of formal education, a fact that was made all the more acute since she was one of those children who had to walk about 600km each day to get to school. As the area became more turbulent, her father lost his job and her mother the store where she sold merchandise and the family, including eight children, was forced to seek shelter elsewhere.

When they returned to Kivu in 1998, it was to find another war and a country divided into east and west.

“Our life changed negatively. My parents couldn’t find means to pay scholar fees for us. We are eight kids. I was the one who studied quietly because Search for Common Ground paid for me and after I paid for myself at the university.” Despite her education, there was still hardship and danger for the Pascaline and her family in this new Kivu.

“I am a witness of worse [attacks] on people. Apart from bombings, I saw people killed, women and young girls raped, even men raped, the displacement of entire populations. I saw all kind of consequences of war and conflict on a people.”

It made her even more determined to help young people with their problems. The youth are seen as dangerous to society, she said, but one of the main issues is the impact of the conflict on them and the fact that they cannot rebuild their lives, because “we are still living in a situation of neither war nor peace”.

Bringing the stories of the people across to her audiences is how she believes she can help, but she is tortured herself with the fact that she does not know if she is doing enough to help her people. She has trained others to be journalists and activist but still she feels there is more to do.

“Being a journalist/activist [is to be] at the middle two things which are sometimes in contradiction… [They are] specific and in some ways different from journalism, but it’s [combining the two] a good strategy to be using in our context.”

She acknowledges that journalists are objective, impartial in reporting facts and event, while being an activist requires one to take a position on the issue, to choose a side.

“Journalists/activists [have] the same risks as journalists in our country. because they work in a context of insecurity but journalists/activists are more frightening. They take courage to denounce things that other journalists, especially those who are working for the political media, do not have.”

Life in Kivu as a young woman is not easy she says but every day requires determination, courage and sacrifice.

She has even had the experience of a drunk soldier entering her room at a hostel where she was at the time staying about 100km from her hometown of Bakavu, with the intention of beating her up.

“I was saved from the danger by another soldier. Another day … in Uvira, around 200km from Bukavu, I was just at the beginning of training, when a group of young soldiers attempted to sequester us in a container. There are [lots of] bad situations but we think positively. [As journalists/activists] we consider that these are the risks we cross in our profession.”

Regardless of the images of violence strife and war seen through the international media, Pascaline maintains that her country is very beautiful and she believes change can be brought about.

“I feel bad,” she says about the international perception of DRC. “It’s sad to speak bad about this country, for me especially, because I am proud of my country. I am ready to do my best to save my country. In spite of those situations I don’t want to despair.

“My country is very rich in potential and resources but we are still missing, internally, good, honest and patriotic leaders ready to rebuild the country. Externally we don’t have ready partners to help us to re-launch things. The important preoccupations of the populations aren’t taken in consideration.”

It’s one of the reasons she works as hard as she does to make women and children understand their potential — especially the latter as the future of the country.

“I grew up near children, young people and women since 2003. It’s transforming my life somewhat. Now, all my fight is to see the situation of those groups improved. I want to see women change from victims into actors or activists of change. I believe that the change of this country depends on the active participation of those groups of the population who were abandoned.

“I want to turn the most of my efforts to support young people. I have created a centre to support dynamic, courageous and intellectual youth who are manifesting a need to contribute to the re-construction of our nation. On other side I want to help vulnerable young girls who get pregnant early and are abandoned by their families because of the cultural discrimination, and the vulnerable young boys who didn’t have the chance to go to school or to finish their studies.

“I want by different strategies and actions to stimulate their real participation in the building of a strong nation. I want them to be able to resolve their problems, to be protected against political manipulation, and to be really that everybody says ‘the hope of the future’.”

To me she is also sister. Our experiences may be different, but we share universal things in common that make her story every bit as relevant as any here — a desire to see the best for the nation in which we live and for young people to live up to their potential.

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