Labor of love

The Vermont Ibutwa Initiative helps women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo build a new life after trauma

By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

PASCASIE & ChBy supporting communities half a world away, Vermonters are building a strong global future. The Vermont Ibutwa Initiative (VIBI) provides medical treatment and sustainable livelihood help for victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, along with educational funding for the victims’ children.

Founded in 2011 as an innovative collaboration between Vermonters and Congolese women in need, VIBI addresses the dire needs of an area of the world that feels the brunt of globalization and industry. The civil wars in the Congo between 1996 and 2003 were, in large part, a result of conflict arising from competition for the region’s wealth of natural resources—gold, diamonds, tungsten, tin, and tantalum—many used in manufacturing electronics.  When minerals are gathered in high-risk areas, such as the South Kivu region where VIBI is at work, a dangerous situation grips entire communities and leads to increasing destabilization. VIBI seeks to heal the region’s most vulnerable inhabitants and rebuild infrastructure in the wake of the devastating loss of millions of lives and in the face of the traumatic imprint left on those who have survived.

Birth of a mission

“When you strengthen and support women, you begin to heal the world,” says VIBI’s Executive Director, Kyendamina Cleophace Mukeba. Mukeba, born in southeast Congo, moved to the U.S. in 2005, after his mother was killed and he fled the war torn country and lived as a refugee for almost nine years.

Returning to his homeland in 2012, he met with women in two villages to develop a vision Photo Kam Kit Sco 4 DSCF2345 copyfor VIBI that is driven by their needs and ensures their direct involvement. The women expressed their top priorities—access to medical care so they can heal from physical trauma and health problems; the opportunity for their children to go to school; and assistance and support in finding a way to make a living—and VIBI’s mission was born.

VIBI’s board and staff, comprised of several faculty from St. Michael’s College, the Director of Outreach Ministries from the First Congregational Church UCC of Burlington, and other community leaders, is committed to growing a program that empowers participants with skills and resources. Supporters and donors of the program, including Charlotter Lynn Alpeter, believe strongly in VIBI’s positive impact. “This organization empowers women in need to take control of their lives and build back strength after they’ve been through trauma,” she says. “Rather than just feeling hopeless and guilty, I wanted to take action to support VIBI’s work with a celebration of hope.”

Alpeter is hosting a “Dance For Resilience” at the Old Lantern Inn in Charlotte, May 15 from 3 to 5 p.m. This free event, held to increase awareness for VIBI, will blend Congolese music and dance with Nia dance (a combination of dance arts, healing arts and martial arts) from Western culture, bringing people together to celebrate the resilience of the women and children of the DR Congo. Charlotter and designer Susan Vigsnes and the Old Lantern are pitching in to help create a unique event. It is for all ages and will focus on the joyful expression that the face of advocacy can take.

Rebirth of a region

Ibutwa means “renaissance” in Lega, the language of the Lega tribe of the Mwenga District, South Kivu. VIBI, in its work contributing to the rebirth of the people of the eastern DRC, has already made a profound impact. Thus far, the initiative has supported 33 women in starting sustainable-livelihood, micro-business projects, purchased land for them to farm in a new collaborative, provided access to needed medical treatment, and helped fund their children’s schooling. Ongoing financial management training enables the women to take up the work of their new lives as they get on their feet. Ibutwa practices an inclusive and holistic approach to care in addressing participants’ physical, psychological, social and economic needs. “‘How can I help you?’ is the wrong question,” says Mukeba. “It is too big. To advocate, first you must listen. And then you act. The program has to come from the women and be for the women, so they can be strengthened to carry out the work of their lives.”

Ibutwa provides the funding for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to receive proper medical care for medical conditions relating to the use rape incident. Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are sometimes also treated. Psychosocial support, programs that alleviate suffering and promote emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual well-being, are funded, facilitated, and organized by Ibutwa but are developed through participants’ active input. Using a culturally grounded approach, building on local resources and drawing on local meanings and phenomenology, the organization enables the community to take ownership so the program is indigenous, and thus, sustainable.

A global village

Ibutwa’s awareness-raising efforts are rooted in the fundamental belief that informed people have the responsibility to educate those in the United States about the negative impact of war and social disorder on the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These efforts have largely taken form in presentations given at places of worship and communal gatherings, as well as on college and university campuses. The goal of these efforts is to ignite a will for committed action and advocacy. Alpeter says, “We can make a huge difference in the world and get creative with our work as supporters.”

The initiative’s future plans include the development of a women’s community center that will offer programs for women to gather, participate in counseling and other supportive and educational programs, such as training in micro-business to empower them toward self-sufficiency. The awareness-raising efforts such as the Dance for Resilience are helping VIBI unite two parts of the world in support of women and children and, by extension, the future.

To learn more about VIBI, visit or contact Kyendamina Cléophace Mukeba, Executive Director of Vermont Ibutwa Initiative, at or Lynn Alpeter, host of Dance for Resilience and supporter of Vermont Ibutwa Initiative, at, 399-4956.