Portland's Lisa Shannon, author of “A Thousand Sisters” and founder of the “Run for Congo Women,” will be the keynote speaker for the sixth annual Peace Fair & Walk scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. Her topic will be “War: The Forgotten Women of the Congo.”
Shannon's book describes her journey into the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, which she described as “the worst place on earth to be a woman.” Millions of women have been killed in the fighting and women continue to be raped and tortured every day.
In an interview, Shannon described her experiences and the reactions she's received as “pretty much a wild ride.”
Her journey began when she was watching an episode of the Oprah show that focused on women in the Congo. It compelled her to say goodbye to her home, business and fiancé and take action.
Two years and one day later, Shannon took her initial trip to the Congo. By then, she had become involved in the Women for Women International program and started “Run for Congo Women,” which stages events designed to raise awareness and money.
Shannon entered the Congo through the Rwandan border at Bukava.
“The minute you cross, you know you're in a conflict,” she said. But distinguishing what did and didn't pose a security threat was virtually impossible.
She remembered fumbling for her keys at a hotel as a man passed by carrying a four-foot ax. Was he friend or foe?
“I certainly had some scary moments,” she said.
She said Rwanda is clean and beautiful with good roads, but the road system in the Congo has been destroyed. She said women are bearing the brunt of the transportation need by carrying large, heavy loads on their backs.
Despite the atrocities occurring in their country, Shannon said, women there exuded joy as they sang and danced. They taught her her first native word — “suvaha,” which means joy.
“It left me with a lot of questions on how we define happiness here,” she said.
While still managing to have happy times, what Shannon describes as her Congolese sisters had many horror stories to tell in private. She discovered they had all suffered violent home invasions.
“They begged for us to do more to end the violence,” she said, noting that 50 to 90 percent had been raped, many had lost a child and all had lost at least one immediate family member.” But she said, “They had a capacity of joy and resilience that was great,” nonetheless.
Shannon's book chronicles her experience, and the response had been overwhelming. It has won a gold award from the Independent Publishers Association in the foreign affairs category.
Responses to her book includes a quote from author Alice Walker, featured on the front jacket, “I can't imagine a more perfect book for arousing the power of American women (or women or men everywhere) to rush to the defense of our Congolese sisters.” It also encompasses a column earlier this year by Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who grew up on a farm north of Yamhill.
In her travels around the country, Shannon said, she has met women who share the passion and have become involved.
She hopes her book will encourage them to realize “we all have incredible power we don't know we have.” She said, “There will be tangible results, but intangible results will be even bigger.”
In the spring, Shannon and about 80 of her “sisters” participated in the first Run for Congo Women held in the Congo. “It was the best day of my life,” Shannon said.
“These are women who have lived through torture that is designed to ruin and destroy their spirits. The women's bodies have become the battlefield.”
But through the run, in which the participants celebrated and sang, they were taking their territory back. “I felt like the militia can't win,” Shannon said.