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At the moment she was elected Chief of her village, Dzve Tsolosi could look into the distance and see the bushes where she had once hidden in fear of her life.
She had been forced from her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), left with nothing and had lost six children to the conflict that raged all around her, but Dzve had rebuilt her life to the point where she was now the leader of the village she had once fled from.
It is a remarkable transformation led by a remarkable woman.
Dzve fled her home at a time when armed groups terrorised the country, moving from village to village killing and attacking innocent people.
When armed groups attacked, Dzve would gather her children and hide in the bushlands. On one occasion, however, she did not have time to gather all her children, three of whom were left behind. She later learned that they had been murdered.
“I learnt from others that they had been killed by machete,” she says. “I never saw their bodies.”
Over five million people were killed during the war that engulfed DRC between 1998 and 2003.
Dzve and her children spent three years in hiding. As conflict raged all around them, they faced hunger and disease on a daily basis.
Three of her children did not survive – “I could not feed them or care for them properly,” she says.
When the fighting in her area eased, Dzve moved back to her village only to find it had been completely destroyed.
“We had no belongings anymore,” she says. “I worked on the fields of those who had returned to the village before me. I struggled to feed myself. I had no cooking utensils.”
What changed Dzve’s life was a literacy project in her village funded by Trócaire and the European Union. Levels of illiteracy in the area are extremely high. Dzve saw other women in her village attending the literacy classes and decided that she also wanted to learn how to read and write.
“I saw the others learning to write their names and the advantage it gave them,” she says. “On top of learning how to read and write, they learned about their rights and how to vote.
I learnt to analyse and discuss problems of my area. Before, women would not participate. It is thanks to the training that they started to give their opinion. We learnt that women can lead.”
Not only has this training given Dzve and the other women in the village vital literacy skills, it has completely transformed how they participate in village life. They have found their voices.
“One day the Centre Chief said our village needed to have a proper Chief, so he put down two chairs,” says Dzve. “People suggested that my son-in-law become chief so he sat down on one of the chairs. Because I had learned at the literacy centre that women can lead, I sat down on the other chair. They threw flowers at me and since then I am the village Chief.”
Just a few years after having to flee in fear of her life, Dzve is now the elected leader of her village.
Although the country is formally at peace, many armed gangs still operate throughout the eastern part of the country. Projects such as this bring communities together, strengthen women’s rights and give power back to people who for so long had none. This is some of the most meaningful impact you can have in a community rebuilding after the horrors of war.
Other women in Dzve’s area are now benefiting from the same project with the support of the European Union. However, more is needed for women in neighbouring areas to learn how to read and write and rebuild their communities.
For Dzve, the future is now one full of opportunity. She has ambitious plans for her village.
“I know now the importance of school,” she says. “The closest school is seven kilometres away. Parents are afraid to send their children. I want to have a school in the village. There is also no health centre. We need one because people have to go too far for their children’s medical care and to give birth.”
By providing the opportunity to learn literacy skills, we have helped to give Dzve and the women of her village an entirely new outlook on life.
They are no longer scared. Instead, they are leading efforts to rebuild their village, invest in the children and ensure the next generation do not have to experience the pain and suffering that tore this area apart for so long.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the second poorest country on Earth. Find out more about Trócaire’s work in DRC.