The agonies of present-day Africa are deeply etched in the bodies of women. In eastern Congo on the Rwandan border, vying militias, armies and bandits use rape as a weapon of terror. Lumo Sinai was just over 20 when marauding soldiers attacked her. A fistula, a medical condition common among victims of violent rape, rendered Lumo incontinent and threatens her ability to bear children. Rejected by her fiancé and cast aside by her family, she awaits reconstructive surgery. “Lumo” is her story, tragic in its cruelties but also inspiring for the struggle she wages and the dignity she displays, with the help of an extraordinary African hospital, to overcome shame, fear and the affliction that robs her of a normal life.
Twenty-year-old Lumo Sinai was engaged to be married and going about her daily chores when she fell victim to an act of brutality of “Africa’s First World War” — rape as a tool of political terror. On the road to her village, Lumo and another woman were kidnapped and gang-raped by one of the groups of marauding soldiers vying for control of the eastern Congo in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Lumo suffered not only the trauma of rape, but was soon afflicted with a resulting fistula, a chronic condition that leaves women incontinent and typically unable to bear children. Her affliction led to rejection by her fiancé and most of her family and village. Violently robbed of her future, Lumo faced a future of shame, loneliness, ill health and poverty.
Lumo Sinai was just 20 years old when she became a victim of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Lumo is an intimate look into a woman’s tragedy and healing process, and, by extension, into the scourge of rape that marks the war-torn politics of central Africa. Lumo is also the story of a remarkable African hospital that works tirelessly to restore the physical and mental health of women suffering in an epidemic of fistula caused by rape. The hospital’s self-called “Mamas,” African women who work tirelessly as healers, even flout traditional prejudice and government policy by leading a march in defense of women’s human rights. But Lumo remains most of all Lumo Sinai’s story as she struggles through four failed surgeries and searches for strength to face the future — whatever the outcome of one more surgery by the hospital’s dedicated doctors.
The Second Congo War resulted in the death of nearly 4 million people.
Rich mineral deposits, competing tribal groups, a brutal colonial legacy and vast stretches of forest have always made the nation of the Congo ripe for foreign intervention and political chaos. Especially in the eastern Congo, where uncertain borders are remote from the capital of Kinshasa, the country has served as haven and battleground for Congolese insurgents and armed groups spilling over from wars in neighboring countries. The end of the Rwandan genocide sent thousands of Hutu militiamen, the Interhamwe — who were responsible for the mass murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus — fleeing to the Congolese forests, where they were pursued by the new Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army.
Their struggle became entangled with a long-running insurgency against the crumbling Mobutu regime and cross-border tensions with other nations, helping to fuel the First and Second Congo Wars. The latter, lasting from 1998 to 2003, involved nine African nations and some 20 armed groups and led to the death of nearly 4 million people, earning it the epithet of “Africa’s First World War.” As in some other African conflicts, child soldiers, drugs, superstition and a virulent terrorizing of women characterized the fighting.
Lumo Sinai was a victim of this war. About the rape, she puts it simply enough: “They destroyed us.” Forsaken by everyone except her mother, she finds that village healers can do little to relieve the symptoms of her fistula — especially the incontinence that so shames and marks her. But she does learn about “counselors searching for raped women.” They represent a hospital in Goma, supported by HEAL Africa, which offers nothing less than a miracle — reconstructive surgery that has a high success rate of reversing the effects of rape-induced fistula, even allowing women to give birth.
Mamas, including Mama Jeanne (above), work tirelessly to heal victims of the conflicts.
The journey to health for Lumo and other women is not easy. Even the road trip to Goma is troubled by breakdowns, illness and armed soldiers by the roadside. Once at Goma, however, Lumo and the others meet an indomitable force for good in the persons of Mama Jeanne, Mama Muliri, Mama Chakupewa, Mama Kahindo, Mama Sifa, Mama Sara and Mama Riziki. These buoyant, inspiring women are administrators, nurses, counselors, social workers and human-rights activists all at once. They provide the support structure that allows the doctors — and the women — to succeed.
With Lumo, the Goma staff wrestles with a particularly difficult case. After four failed surgeries, she is running out of chances to heal. Lumo’s mood is, by turns, hopeful and bitter, cooperative and contrary as she struggles with the enormity of what has happened to her. She seems suspended between adolescence and adulthood, one moment dreaming girlishly of marriage and babies and the next, acidly questioning the reality or goodness of a God who allows such atrocities to befall innocent people. Her disruptive behavior and impious remarks raise eyebrows among the patients and test the Mamas. Will Lumo fall into that minority of women who do not respond to the surgical treatment? And how does a traumatized and marginalized woman find the strength to resume life even if the surgery is successful?
For all the political complexities and violence of the Congo wars, their human cost is powerfully and awfully captured in Lumo — in the heartbreaking but also heartening battle for health and dignity waged by women who, along with their children, have suffered the worst atrocities and who face the most enduring social and psychological consequences of central Africa’s descent into chaos.
“Getting a grasp on the Congo — its wars, political machinations and bewildering ethnic rivalries — is difficult, perhaps contributing to the relative obscurity of the humanitarian disaster on the world stage,” say the directors. “We only began to understand it ourselves when we spent the fall of 2004 in the frontier town of Goma. We were volunteers making medical training videos for HEAL Africa Hospital, an NGO whose directors were our generous hosts.”
“The Congo’s wealth of beauty and its tragic history could occupy any filmmaker for a thousand years, but our story was the one that we were compelled to choose because of its searing immediacy,” they continue. “We returned in the fall of 2005 eager to put a human face on this situation. Lumo was at the center of a group of girls battling the tedium of waiting for treatment by playing jacks, catching grasshoppers and singing hymns. When we asked whether anyone would like to share their story with us, it was Lumo who was the first to step forward.”