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Maman Marie Nzoli, A Congolese Unsung Hero

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By Amy Ernst, Contributing Writer and Photographer/Congo

Amy’s Blog

I arrived in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo in April, 2010 from Chicago. I was introduced to Maman Marie Nzoli through a local Catholic priest who knew of my desire to help survivors of sexual violence. I work alongside COPERMA, the NGO that Maman founded in 1983, raising funds, doing identification of new survivors of rape, and helping arrange medical and psychosocial support for all victims of the war.

“I want so badly for the violence against women to stop.” Maman Marie

The work I do is miniscule compared to that of Maman Marie and the loyal COPERMA team. She has established 12 centers that have assisted thousands of men, women, and children over the years around Butembo.

Maman handing out food

Maman handing out food

Even though they often aren’t paid, Maman Marie and her team work tirelessly, never turning down anyone with need nor hesitating to go into a dangerous situation. They’ve subsisted mostly on selling potatoes cultivated by beneficiaries of COPERMA.

She’s an unsung hero and an endless inspiration to me. Here is what she told me recently in her small concrete office in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo…

EYE: Maman, what was your childhood like here in Congo?

Maman with elected village COPERMA president

Maman with elected COPERMA president

MAMAN: When I was a kid, I was the 4th child of my family. I wasn’t a child who was given the privilege of a good life. My parents were teachers, but I lived in the rural environment.

In our family, we couldn’t eat without working. I started to wash my clothes by hand when I was seven-years-old.

EYE: How did you make money as a child?

MAMAN: In secondary school, I started making beignets—fried dough balls—to make a living. I also prepared peanuts to bring to the school and sell to the other kids. For the rest of the school fees, I collected coffee beans during vacations to buy the notebooks and materials.

That’s how I finished secondary school. In order to get a better education, I went to live in Musienene—a small village in Eastern Congo just outside the city of Butembo—with another family, where there was much famine. Life there was very difficult.

“There were still a lot of young girls who became pregnant too young.”

EYE: Was there peace when you were growing up?

MAMAN: When I was a child, there wasn’t complete peace. There was robbing when the military found you on the road. They would take your money if you had any. If you had anything in your hands, they would take it.

But there wasn’t the sexual violence like now; that was rare, and there wasn’t a lot of killing. There were still a lot of young girls who became pregnant too young.

EYE: How did you avoid that happening to you?

MAMAN: I avoided it because I had a lot of fiancés. I told myself if I sleep with them, the fiancés won’t respect me anymore. There were so many men who asked me to marry them. But I chose one person.

Congo Map

EYE: When did you get married?

MAMAN: It was because of the influence of others that I married at the age of 20. It was in style. I married the first man to actually present the dowry. I went to Bukavu–capital city of South Kivo–for higher studies.

We had three children. My husband was a soldier in the FARDC, the governmental army. He went to Kinshasa, the capital, and I didn’t hear from him again.

EYE: Why did you decide to found COPERMA and work to help others?

MAMAN: When I came back from Bukavu after my studies, I went to Masareka. We were living with country women. We reflected on the problems and organized a group of 18 women.

With those 18 women, we decided to make an NGO (non-governmental organization) because we couldn’t find fields to cultivate, and without that we couldn’t make a living. We saw that we all had the same problem and that we should work together to figure out how to increase and facilitate production.

When the war began in 1997, the problems increased. It wasn’t just making a living anymore but remaining safe. Women and girls were being raped and boys were being taken into armed groups. So COPERMA began working with those urgent problems while still trying to help with cultivation and living.

“There are little girls who are only 15 and 16 years old, and they are pregnant.

EYE: Do you think the needs are growing or diminishing in North Kivu?

MAMAN: The need is growing because the number of problems is growing as well as the gravity of each one. There are little girls who are only 15 and 16 years old, and they are pregnant.

With famine, even though this country is very fertile for cultivation, many people are still starving. Young girls with children and no husbands will struggle greatly to feed themselves and their children.

Girls at COPERMA center

Girls at COPERMA center

EYE: What about the problem of sexual violence?

MAMAN: It is increasing. Now it’s not only the rebels but also governmental soldiers and many times civilians who rape. It is becoming a part of the culture that it is okay.

If a rapist is caught, he can be freed immediately by paying the police or the jail. Recently there was a girl of seven who was raped by a man in a prominent family. He was arrested and a member of that family paid some money, and now he is free. The girl’s family is devastated and angry but what can they do?

There’s also the problem of having to hide what you’ve been through so you won’t be ostracized, which prevents men, women, and girls from getting help for medical problems.

“…we do follow-up in the centers to help them emotionally overcome the trauma…”

EYE: How do you help the rape victims, especially the young ones?

MAMAN: We help them first by bringing them to a center that can provide them with free medical treatment and some basic psychosocial treatment. We must bring them somewhere that can provide the PEP Kits.

After that, we do follow-up in the centers to help them emotionally overcome the trauma so they can live their lives without being terrified all the time. We help also with the primary and secondary schooling since most of these girls won’t have access to education and can’t pay the school fees.

COPERMA sewing

COPERMA sewing class

To help them develop economically, we have programs in the centers that teach sewing, bread-making, and soap-making. We try to help them with physical health, emotional health (psychosocial), and vocational training.

The help we give to adult women versus children only changes in terms of how urgent the cases are. If a girl is twelve years old and she is raped, we try to give her more assistance and make her a priority because she is much more vulnerable than a woman who is grown.

EYE: How do you maintain your strength after the traumatic experience in 2005 when 18 children in the COPERMA center were killed while hiding?

MAMAN: We guard strength because those things are the affairs of war. After instances like that, I often stayed in bed for many days. When the children were killed in the center during a confrontation in Luotu, those who survived were hidden and closed in the center for three days with the children who were killed. Many of them became sick, and the shooting was very serious.

I couldn’t find my strength after those 18 children were killed. I was so angry. I was hoping the government would help the children after that but they didn’t do anything. We have no government in Congo. I knew if I didn’t find the strength nobody would help the children.

“I didn’t feel good and I couldn’t understand why this was always happening to us.”

EYE: And another terrifying event when you were rescuing girls who had been raped on the road by rebels?

MAMAN: When we went to Luotu in 2006, there was sexual violence in the road in front of us. They were raping the girls amidst the shooting in the road. It was the different groups of Mai-Mai rebels and governmental forces, and they were all mixed and all of them were starting to rape the girls.

We ran into the car because of the violence. When the shooting and raping stopped, we ran out of the car to help some of the girls. We brought some back to the car and took them to the hospital.

The women were all bleeding from their wounds, and they were crying. They were so upset. When it happened, I thought about it a lot. After that incident I was also traumatized. I didn’t feel good, and I couldn’t understand why is this always happening to us.

“When you experience incidents like these, you mustn’t stay alone…”

EYE: What helps you overcome those frightening and seemingly hopeless thoughts?

MAMAN: When I find myself with others in the psychosocial training sessions, for example, I find strength. When you experience incidents like these, you mustn’t stay alone or you won’t be able to continue working. The thoughts of what you’ve seen will play too many times in your mind. You will become hopeless.

You would want to just stay in bed always. We’re trying to explain to others that all of the problems can pass. We listen to music or we recount what happened so we can feel normal about it.

Maman speaking in Isale

Maman speaking in Isale

EYE: Do you experience fear?

MAMAN: I often am afraid, but I say to myself that if I stay in that fear, I can become sick. Fear is a sickness, and it can bring on physical sickness so one must try to face all of the fear that’s there.

I’m afraid when I’m around guns which are everywhere here. The military causes fear in my heart always because of one day when the military made us take off our clothes on the road to Goma. Everyone in the bus was made to strip and they stole our clothes. We drove off with everyone in the bus naked.

When we arrived, I had hidden some small money and I bought clothes for everyone to cover themselves. But truly I was afraid. I am always afraid of the military.

They’re animals; they forget the characteristics of men and take on the characteristics of animals. Even on the side of the road they rape. They are not men.

“We can help victims morally and encourage them, but we don’t have the means to help everyone.”

EYE: What’s your biggest wish for COPERMA?

MAMAN: Ah! I would like it if COPERMA could succeed at helping the girl-mothers and the victims of sexual violence and also to help them psychologically. Someone who is traumatized can’t work; they have trouble continuing to breathe and live.

I want to effectively help the rural populations because they’re often forgotten. Where are the structures that can help to give the people in the villages the hope to live?

We can identify the cases of each person. We can help victims morally and encourage them, but we don’t have the means to help everyone.

Maman Marie

EYE: Is there hope that this violence will stop? The American Journal of Public Health reported in May, 2011, that 48 women in Congo are raped every hour, 1,100 each day, and 400,000 per year.

MAMAN: Yes, I hope it’s going to stop because we’re working against it. We want so badly for the violence against women to stop. We have to hope otherwise there is no point in continuing to help. But the Congo is not healthy right now.

EYE: Do you think it’s possible?

MAMAN: I truly don’t have a response to that. It could be possible if the government of Congo takes responsibility for the atrocities and the impunity and all of the citizens of the state. I doubt that it will end without extreme changes in the government and the corruption.

There is no system of control or justice in Congo even for police officers and military. If they don’t follow the rules of humanity, why will regular citizens? We need a government that will create a system of justice that works. People need to be held accountable for what they do to each other. Right now there is nothing, and thus there is chaos.

“Many international countries benefit greatly from Congo riches while the people of Congo remain poor.”

EYE: How can outsiders help end this senseless violence and shine the light on what’s going on in Congo?

MAMAN: Helping is something that is very difficult for outsiders and internationals. People can send materials necessary for sexual violence prevention. For example, educational materials, even preservatives (condoms), would be beneficial so that women can diminish the number of pregnancies which create more poverty.

It’s necessary for outsiders to know about the minerals here and how they affect the war. Governments are not being held accountable for exploiting the Congo. Many international countries benefit greatly from Congo riches while the people of Congo remain poor.

People can look for ways to hold organizations and governments accountable for this exploitation. We must raise awareness about the problems here and the minerals.

EYE: When was the happiest time of your life?

MAMAN: In my life I was happiest when I was with my grandmother. I was so happy because she was so old, and I saw her and asked myself, can I too live that long?

EYE: Thanks, Maman. Your strength and courage to continue working to help others even during the most horrific times is an inspiration. We thank you for your heart, your compassion, and your will to keep fighting.


Amy Ernst was profiled last year on The Women’s Eye. She has been working in the Congo for a year and a half now and is currently working on a project to educate and sensitize rebel soldiers in the bush and civilians who are typically unreachable. The aim is to decrease the sexual violence perpetrated by rebels and civilians in the regions where SV is highest. You can follow her writing and photography on her blog, The King Effect.

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