Independent Appeal: Congolese women who have suffered so much reap the rewards of conservation

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Anyone who has seen African women working in the countryside knows they will sing at the drop of a hat, on any subject that seems appropriate, and this group hoeing a field in the Democratic Republic of Congo are singing like champions, even if they've chosen a theme not often found in the British music charts: agricultural development.

Development, in the local language, Mashi, is amajambr, and the 20 or so women are chanting the word, laughing as they do it, to an insistent tune that remains in your head for hours. They all look the picture of cheerfulness.

So how do you reconcile that with the stories they sombrely tell half an hour later, sitting in a hut with the rain drumming on the roof, stories of horror from barely a week previously?

"They came in the night," says Makulata Nyakamama. "We were asleep in the house when they arrived. We heard knocking at the door, and we fled. But my son didn't have time to get away, and when they came into the house they took him and they just shot him. He was 36 and he had three children. They didn't even ask about what they could pillage. They just shot him."

"They" are the Interahamwe, groups of fanatical Hutu killers involved the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in 1994, who fled, fearing vengeance, across the border into the DRC. Now they are living the life of brigands in the Congolese forests, and groups of them are in the Kahuzi-Biega national park, barely five miles from where the women are talking, and occasionally emerge to raid local villages with grim results.

Josiane Maheshe was a victim of the same village raid as Ms Nyakamama, and suffered similarly. Her son was 26. "They killed him with a knife," she said. "They stabbed him from here" (she puts her hand on her neck) "to here" (putting her hand on her lower back.) "They took all our goats. Then they destroyed the house."

Germaine Buhendwa shakes her head sadly, but says to me: "This is little."

"What do you mean?"

"If I brought you the women who have been raped, you would weep."

I knew that the village had suffered in a major way when another scourge of the people of the DRC, the rebel general Laurent Nkunda, had passed through with his army. "How many women here were raped?" I ask.

"All of them."

"All of them?"

"All of them."

Ms Buhendwa explains how the event is terrible, but the aftermath is peculiarly painful too. "The women who have been raped are sometimes chased out of their houses. One man we know was chased out of his house because he agreed to help his wife recover. The family chased them both out." She shakes her head again. "The women really suffer."

You have to say that's true, in the DRC: the position of women is unfortunate, to say the least. It's not just institutionalised inferiority Congolese women are not allowed to own property, for example but the attitude of men sometimes seems to be that women are essentially beasts of burden.

You can't miss it. Women line the roads leading to the nearest big city, Bukavu, taking enormous loads to market, on their backs. These loads, of wood, vegetables, textiles, you name it, are so big you can hardly believe your eyes: some are the same size as the women carrying them, or even bigger, and the women, some of them old, are bent double under the weight. Besides shoulder straps they all have a strap that goes around their foreheads to enable them to walk with the weight on their backs without stumbling. And then the men come past, on lorries, 10, 20 at a time, laughing and singing. No one offers the women a lift.

Ms Buhendwa, a former employee of the Congolese Wildlife Authority in the Kauzi-Biega park, decided to do something for the women in her area when most of the men moved away to be miners, in a "gold rush" for a new mineral, coltan, which is used in mobile phone technology.

She set up Afecod, the women's association for conservation and sustainable development. Ms Buhendwa saw it as having a double purpose: to help the women's livelihoods, diet and health, and at the same time relieve the pressure on the national park for natural resources from the villages surrounding it. For several years now she has been supported by the Gorilla Organization, one of the three charities featuring in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

GO sees her linkage of conservation with community work as the way forward in looking after wildlife (the national park has a celebrated but threatened population of eastern lowland gorillas). It has introduced the women of Afecod to sustainable farming techniques, which have greatly improved their yields of vegetables and lessened the risk of disease.

But Congo being Congo, Afecod and Ms Buhendwa have been involved in relieving suffering almost as much as improving agriculture. It is involved in trauma counselling with many of the women who were violated and with others who have lost close relatives.

How can they sing, in the fields, you wonder, after what they have been through? Perhaps it's the sense of togetherness, the sharing of psychological burdens which Afecod has made possible.