SAVED! Benine Mudymba Creates a Safe Space for Young Congolese Women

Benine Mudymba was barely a year old when she arrived in the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although she has no memory of life in Africa, her parents spoke French in the house, and she grew up eating Congolese food and hearing Congolese music.

Mudymba has watched her mother, Francine, become a leader in the Congolese community north of Boston. Francine’s beauty supply store in Malden serves as an informal gathering point for women, and she spends much of her time driving new immigrants and refugees to doctors appointments and lawyers’ offices as part of her work for the Congolese Women Association of New England (CWANE).

But last year, 21-year-old Mudymba struck out on her own. Mudymba had begun to notice that women her own age were not attending the Congolese women’s association meetings and activities. “The women between the ages of 18 and 28 feel like they’re too young to be going to these meetings — they’re for the older moms,” says Mudymba.

In March of 2013, Mudymba established her own chapter of CWANE, which she named SAVED. SAVED, or Sisters After Virtue, Edification and Diligence, was created for young women to meet and discuss issues that were important to them. “I knew that I wanted to do something for women,” says Mudymba. “I wanted to do something on my own.”

Mudymba knew a lot of the daughters of CWANE members through her mother and from her volunteer work. The first SAVED meeting in March, held in a second floor employee conference room of the Stop and Shop in Lynn, attracted a dozen girls. Mudymba had attendees jot down topics they wanted to learn more about, and has based the first six meetings on that list. In May, the topic was women’s health; in June, it was being content in the different seasons. In July, it was peer pressure, and in August it was boundaries.

November’s meeting will be about finances and budgeting. Mudymba researches and prepares handouts for each meeting, and begins each gathering with a focus activity to get the girls to relax.

Mudymba keeps a meticulous blog for the group, complete with a schedule of upcoming meetings, notes and takeaways from previous meetings, and additional resources. The SAVED Facebook page is filled with encouraging updates and inspirational quotes.

Like her mother, Mudymba has become a mainstay in her community. She emphasizes the role of SAVED as a support group, but also points out that she is available for support and guidance individually. “They can come to me personally, and say ‘I have this issue.’”

In fact, Mudymba hopes to counsel women as a career. In May, she will graduate from Salem State University with a degree in sociology, and wants to work with juvenile delinquents and abused women. Although she knows that SAVED won’t be her first priority out of school, she wants to continue with the new organization. “I do want it to be bigger, I want to devote more time,” she says.

Benine Mudymba (front left) at a recent SAVED meeting.

Benine Mudymba (front left) at a recent SAVED meeting.

When asked where she sees SAVED in three years, Mudymba replies without hesitating.. “I would like to have a SAVED group in every state,” she says. Mudymba wants SAVED to be a support system for all young women, not just women in the Congolese community. But for now, she is just hoping for an office. “If I were to have an office, girls would feel comfortable doing one-on-one consultations,” Mudymba says.

Above all, Mudymba wants SAVED to provide a place where any young woman can go and safely share her problems, questions, and fears. She cites the importance of her older sister helping her out as a teenager, and hopes that SAVED can provide that big-sister guidance for younger women. “It’s amazing to see some of the questions they ask, because they value the other girls opinions,” Mudymba says. Already, she sees the effect that the meetings have had on the group. “It has become a sisterhood.”

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Capitaine Kabongo: New Leadership for the Congolese Community in New Hampshire

MANCHESTER, N.H. – More than 175 Congolese immigrants and refugees packed function room on Maple Street on January 27 to vote for the next president of the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.

The turnout was larger than expected, a promising sign for the election organizers and president elect, Capitaine Kabongo. Kabongo beat his fellow candidate, Stany Nepa, 55 votes to 22.

Over 100 members of the Congolese community in New Hampshire gathered for the vote.

Over 100 members of the Congolese community in New Hampshire gathered for the vote.

The strong interest in the election meant an investment in the future of the organization to its leadership. “It’s gotten bigger. There are more and more people showing interest,” says Victor Mbuyi, the organization’s Secretary.

The Congolese Community of New Hampshire, now in its third year, offers services, educational opportunities, and support for immigrants from the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo after government-funded services lapse (refugees get six months of government hand-holding, immigrants get nothing).

President-elect Capitaine Kabongo addresses the community.

President-elect Capitaine Kabongo addresses the community.

One of the biggest challenges to the Congolese immigrant community in New Hampshire, according to the organization’s leadership, is the lack of knowledge of local laws and customs. “They don’t integrate into society,” says Mbuyi. “You live in America, but you don’t know the laws. You don’t know how to move ahead in your life.”

Congolese immigrants “live in the American culture but they behave according to the African culture,” says Leonard Lekin, one of three board members on the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.

Because of this, education for community members is the number one priority for the organization and for the new president-elect Kabongo.

CCNH board members discuss how the vote will proceed.

CCNH board members discuss how the vote will proceed.

Kabongo, who came to the United States from the Congo in 2001, worked four jobs in New York before moving to New Hampshire in 2005. He has been involved with the Congolese Community of New Hampshire since its inception in 2009, a fact that won him many votes, according to Mbuyi.

One way Kabongo hopes to educate the community is through educational seminars, and he has already identified his first topic: life insurance. “We want all our people to have life insurance,” says Kabongo. He hopes to partner with a bank or insurance company to bring them to a meeting to teach the advantages of and options for choosing a policy. “It’s my responsibility to tell people from my community that life insurance is important,” he says.

More opportunities for educating the community come from within the group’s leadership. Mbuyi, who commutes to Boston every day to work as a fund manager at State Street, hopes to give a presentation soon about 401(k)s, and wants to work with people individually to go through their finances.

In the past, the organization has had increased success in getting outside speakers to come talk to the group. In 2012, a representative from the office of New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen came to explain to the community what they could expect from the Senator’s office.

Despite these speakers and educational opportunities, a lot of Congolese are “missing a lot of information” says Kabongo. “We are together, but sometimes we are not all on the same page.”

To combat this, Kabongo is renewing focus on social meetings. He hopes to organize parties, during which he will share a certain message to the attendees – whether it is about life insurance, taxes, trash pickup days, or something else entirely.

CCNH Secretary Victor Mbuyi registers members to vote.

CCNH Secretary Victor Mbuyi registers members to vote.

Kabongo wants work with and take advantage of the American holiday calendar. For example, for Fathers Day he plans to organize a soccer game where parents play against the community’s youth. This will give parents who work all the time the chance to enjoy themselves, Kabongo explains.

These social and educational opportunities are all to help the immigrant community better understand the American way of life. Kabongo feels that the biggest challenge is pushing his constituents to explore on their own. He feels that if you put the Congolese community into society, the gap in understanding that exists currently will disappear.

Kabongo’s goal for the Congolese to integrate themselves more in American society faces its biggest challenge when it comes to language. Little effort had been made thus far to encourage English use; all three hours of the election proceedings occurred in French, the official language of the Congo.

Kabongo, who speaks, English, French, German, Hebrew, as well as the four indigenous languages of the DRC: Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba, hopes to use his language skills to be as clear as possible with all members of the New Hampshire Congolese community and to encourage them all to increase their English language skills.

The names of CCNH members are called upon one at a time to vote.

The names of CCNH members are called upon one at a time to vote.

Kabongo, who works full time at Easter Sales in Manchester, will manage his two-year term with the help of a dedicated core board of advisors like Victor Mbuyi. With 10- to 12-hour workdays and two to three hours of commuting each day, Mbuyi has only weekends to focus on his work with the organization. He plans to call every person who registered during the elections – over 150 names – to come into the office and talk.

Kabongo displays a similar doggedness when it comes to his work with the organization. “I can preach… tell them how we can advance in this country,” he says. “Together, we can do something really incredible.”