The distinguished First Lady of the DRC has accepted to welcome M&B at Villa 14 of the OAU city, which serves as her official office, to take stock of this year 1 and discuss her projects. The interior design is elegant, the welcome warm. Humble, sometimes hesitant, always smiling, but resolutely holding on to her position as a committed and radical woman, the “first”, as she is sometimes called, has answered our questions openly. Interview.
Hello, Mrs. Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi, and thank you for giving this great interview to Mining & Business.
You’re very welcome...
We’ll start, if you don’t mind, with a brief review of your background...
I am married, I have five children, I completed my primary and secondary education and then my nursing studies in Kinshasa. I then moved to Brussels where I worked as a nurse’s assistant in various nursing homes and hospitals.
A year ago, you became First Lady of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and your destiny changed…
Yes, my destiny did change! And a new experience has begun... It was a period of intense discovery, including my new responsibilities as the wife of the President of the Republic, and a period of major changes for our family .
Before we go on, a word on your children, whom you have chosen not to expose in the media...
That’s right, I wanted them to continue to have a simple life in spite of everything.
Are they okay?
Yes, thank you, they’re fine, even if this radical change in our family life has been difficult at times. We talk a lot, every day, on the phone, we are there to support them, to accompany them…
And, you, how did you find Year 1?
Many changes, as I just told you, lots of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant, and above all lots of discoveries…
What do you mean?
We have a big, beautiful country, I knew it... But I really discovered during this year the countless valuable men and women who live in it. It made me realize how many extraordinary things could be done with all these people... And the incredible challenge that this entails.
If there is one thing to remember about 2019, what is it?
The year 2019 was all about discovery. I know the public has been expecting a lot of things... and not just from the presidency. But it was a year in which we had to lay the foundations of our project in order to begin a first year of intensive action.
Very quickly, the committed citizen, particularly noticed by the public during the election campaign, created the Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi Foundation, which helps Congolese women in particular. Can you tell us about it?
Before going into the details of my Foundation’s work, I would like to tell you about my vision. A vision that I have called: “Stronger”.
Please go on…
I think it is essential for women to get together to value themselves. They must work together to find ways to be more autonomous and involved in different areas of our nation’s life, be they scientific, social or economic. So I created the Foundation to turn this vision into reality…
In practical terms, how do we give this impetus to Congolese women? And what do you think should they be given first?
First of all, we have to give them self-confidence, to open them up to certain things and make them aware…
What do you mean?
We must give them the right to speak, open them up to opportunities. We have to demonstrate their value and make them aware that they have rights, and that what allows them to gain autonomy is within reach.
There is a real gap in the DRC between a certain category of women, who are very emancipated, often urban, and another category, who have had little access to education. How do we talk to these two categories at the same time? And is that your objective?
This is a crucial point in view of the size of our country and certain difficulties in accessing certain so called remote areas. This awareness raising work is obviously a long term undertaking which starts with education. We are therefore coordinating our work with the programme of the President of the Republic, which, with free education in particular, will ultimately promote the empowerment of women. But to answer your question precisely, I think and I hope that these two categories of women will manage to meet …
And how do we communicate today with these women, isolated in the most remote parts of the country?
Local and community radio stations are an essential tool for getting our message to the most isolated parts of the country, and we are currently designing projects in this direction.
Which project are you most proud of to date?
Once again, 2019 was a year of discovery and diagnosis for me. It was also a year of looking for partnerships, and I will only be proud of my work when the objectives we have set ourselves are achieved!
In March 2020, we are all thinking of the tragedies women have experienced in the east of the country. What support do you give them in particular?
Unfortunately, women have not only suffered tragedies in the east of this country. And I want to stress that we are there for all Congolese women who may be victims of abuse, rape or violence, regardless of where they live. But while I am aware of the dramas experienced here and there, I also want to focus on progress in the fight against gender-based violence in the DRC. Progress that is the fruit of the struggles of the worthy daughters and sons of this country and that carry all our hopes.
And at your level?
A few months ago, I accepted the role of world champion for the prevention of sexual violence in conflict zones on behalf of the UN. This role allows me to be a spokesperson for all these women and to make their suffering known to the whole world…
Ah, very good, congratulations!
March will also be a festive month and I imagine you have a very busy schedule. Can you tell us a few words about it?
Festive! I don’t think so! The challenges are so enormous that your heart is not in the right place to celebrate - knowing moreover that our country, in spite of all the efforts made, is still the scene of rape and unheard-of violence against women! This year, I am going to start an exchange programme with women in the different provinces to raise awareness of their rights in society.
And this will be done, I imagine, through a series of meetings...
Yes, I’m going to travel to the provinces.
This subject of women’s empowerment is particularly close to your heart. What is your definition of an empowered woman, and how do you go about achieving this goal?
A woman is autonomous from the moment when she can provide for her household, take care of it, but also from the moment when she actively participates in the development of the country through her work, which allows her to be recognized for her true worth .
This base is universal. We know what women bring to society. And like everywhere else, Congolese women must be fully recognised for this and, above all, feel free to do so without outside pressure, because this empowerment is of course professional and financial, but it is perhaps above all psychological.
Are we not going against certain ongoing traditions in the Congo when we say this?
Everyone knows all over the country that a woman who goes to the fields, for example, takes care of her home, sends her children to school, and that is no problem. So we can go further by showing these women that they can have access to other professions, open businesses, get involved in the life of the community... And I don’t think that goes against our traditions.
Do we need to convince some people about this? Tribal chiefs, pastors, or other guarantors of tradition?
Perhaps, and here again, I will insist on the need to raise awareness, that’s to say, to act gently so that certain mentalities change and on the fundamental role education plays for our young people and our girls in particular.
On the other hand, there is a class of emancipated businesswomen who are taking on an increasingly important role in Congolese society. What sort of relationship do you have with these women?
A few months ago, I participated in an exchange lunch with these women as part of the Makutano network and everywhere I go, in the provinces, I ask to meet these women entrepreneurs, but... there is a “but” as they say!
What’s the “but”?
I think that this emerging class of businesswomen must open up to more women for whom I have a deep admiration and who don’t have the opportunity to be associated with these groups.
Who exactly do you have in mind?
I’m thinking in particular of women market gardeners and women active in small business…
So be it! But how do we associate them concretely with these businesswomen, bankers, successful entrepreneurs?
We have to open the door for them to attend economic forums and show them that they have their rightful place there.
Do you think they could feel at ease there?
But it’s our duty to make them feel comfortable so that they gain confidence in themselves and their potential! I have made that plea to Nicole Sulu of Makutano.
As far as your public image is concerned, we feel that after a few hesitations, you quickly got into the “spirit” and that you embody something important for the population, what do you think about that?
I’m not sure it’s up to me to judge!
Yes, it is!
I think in all modesty that I am indeed starting to find my feet... I feel more comfortable, I know where I’m going, what I have to do…
You accompany the President of the Republic just about everywhere. How’s that going? Have you made friends with any other first ladies?
Yes, that’s right, I have often accompanied the President and have especially forged ties with my African counterparts within the framework of the Organisation of African First Ladies for Development. We write to each other, we phone each other regularly... we exchange a lot, we advise each other…
I thought this association was an empty shell, but you seem to be saying the opposite!
Yes! This group is very active and has been running for over twenty years. It allows us to share our experiences at the level of our respective Foundations for example. It is very useful and the network is very active!
And who could be the first lady of reference for you, whether she is still in office or not?
Please allow me to rephrase the question and tell you which woman inspires me?
Be our guest / of course…
I have boundless admiration for the market gardener woman. She’s the one who inspires me. Her strength, courage, perseverance and determination are a daily example for me…
A accepted question, if I may: Do you have the President’s ear, and do you influence him?
The President of the Republic has based his vision of governance on the Human being, he is very sensitive to the issue of gender parity, particularly with regard to the representation of women in the country’s institutions. With 17% of women, and moreover in important positions, this government is already a “first” in the DRC on this point. If I am telling you this, it is because I know that the President is listening to the Congolese people and that what he is currently putting in place is linked to how he listens sincerely to the population.
And is he listening to you?
Yes! As he listens to the Congolese...
And you influence him?
Maybe... But it’s his decision!
Distinguished first lady, in conclusion, tell me, where do you find the energy to handle all these challenges at once?
I find the energy because I don’t force anything. I’m learning, I’m slowly moving forward, I work incredibly hard every day, and I’m feeling more and more confident... I’m not saying that I’ll be able to carry out all my projects, but, in any case, I’m working on them with all my soul.
We’ll make an appointment in a year’s time to take stock of year 2?
Propos recueillis par Fabrice Lehoux