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A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

4.0 19
by Lisa J Shannon, Zainab Salbi

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Lisa J. Shannon had a good life—a successful business, a fiancé, a home, and security. Then, one day in 2005, an episode of Oprah changed all that. The show focused on women in Congo, the worst place on earth to be a woman. She was awakened to the atrocities there—millions dead, women raped and tortured daily, and children dying in shocking


Lisa J. Shannon had a good life—a successful business, a fiancé, a home, and security. Then, one day in 2005, an episode of Oprah changed all that. The show focused on women in Congo, the worst place on earth to be a woman. She was awakened to the atrocities there—millions dead, women raped and tortured daily, and children dying in shocking numbers. Shannon felt called to do something. And she did. A Thousand Sisters is her inspiring memoir. She raised money to sponsor Congolese women, beginning with one solo 30-mile run, and then founded a national organization, Run for Congo Women. The book chronicles her journey to the Congo to meet the women her run sponsored, and shares their incredible stories. What begins as grassroots activism forces Shannon to confront herself and her life, and learn lessons of survival, fear, gratitude, and immense love from the women of Africa.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Unable to grieve the death of her father but unwilling to admit depression, photographer Shannon spent her time numbly watching television. Then an episode of Oprah changed her life. A report on "the worst place on Earth to be a woman"—the Congo—awakened her from emotional sleep. She writes here of taking action, forming the Run for Congo Women foundation, which began as a one-woman effort yet eventually grew into a national organization, with races taking place across the United States. Shannon left behind her comfortable life in Portland, OR, to visit the Congo and the sponsored women whom she calls her "sisters." She is admirably honest about her travels there, a place consumed by instability and violence, with an overwhelming need for assistance. The sponsored women all ask for more money, the children are often jaded after hearing so many promises of help from outsiders, and the personal testimonies of violence are so abundant that they seem to run together. Yet Shannon is able to see the good that has been done by Run for Congo Women and encourages others to support their own Congolese "sisters." VERDICT A worthwhile read for those with a nagging feeling that there is something more that they can do for those in need.—Veronica Arellano, Lexington Park, MD
Kirkus Reviews
The story of one woman's call to ease the atrocious human suffering in the Congo. Settling in Portland, Ore., in her late 20s, photographer Shannon thought her life was in place. Everything shifted, however, when she learned of the war and unthinkable tragedies taking place in the Congo, a conflict borne out of the Rwandan genocide that had become muted in the international community. Already running from her father's death, she decided to run 30 miles and raise 30 sponsorships for Congolese women through Women for Women, an international NGO for female survivors of war. Hoping to spark a movement, she created a foundation called Run for Congo Women and traveled through the country to meet the women she helped sponsor. Shannon presents images of the uncensored horror stories that, to many Congolese, have become regrettably routine: Congo's vile colonial history and the Rwandan genocide spillover that has caused the murders of more than five million Congolese people; children forced to kill and rape in their own communities; daily child deaths from easily curable illnesses; grisly murders of men and children in front of their wives and mothers; families burned alive inside their homes; women who must choose between rape and watching their children starve. The author writes from a place of determination and clarity, despair and breakdown, overwhelming love and hope. Juxtaposing brutality with beauty, Shannon's direct prose is a stirring reminder that these horrors are real and ongoing. An alarming and inspiring message that will hopefully spur much-needed action. Agent: Jill Marsal/Marsal Lyon Literary Agency
Publishers Weekly
The subject of a recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, Shannon details how she left her comfortable life in Portland, Ore., to aid women in the Democratic Republic of Congo suffering abuse and death in what has been termed “Africa's First World War.” Running a successful business with her fiancée (who would leave her), Shannon is still “hungry for something all [her] own” and after seeing a show on Oprah about Congolese women, she establishes the Run for Congo Women to raise money to help those suffering. From meeting Congolese women she's sponsored to learning that 90% of the women in one village have been raped, Shannon is exposed to a world remote from her own affluent life. Her painful firsthand accounts of the violence inflicted upon Congolese women by Hutu militants will most interest readers, but the book lacks a detailed overview of the political circumstances surrounding this long war. Shannon provides a much-needed view of how one inspired American can act with hope, drive, and courage to aid women in a part of the world too often overlooked. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“I can't imagine a more perfect book for arousing the power of American women (or women and men everywhere) to rush to the defense of our Congolese sisters. Lisa Shannon, runner extraordinaire, has with this forthright and readable book, crossed the finish line into the way of life the remainder of our time on this planet demands: she has entered the land of courage, compassion, and a fierce determination to stand by those who need us, where everyone understands they must be—our lives depend on it—a citizen of the world.
—Alice Walker

“While reporting for the Oprah Show , I called the Democratic Republic of the Congo the ‘worst place on earth.’ When Lisa Shannon saw my report, rather than turn her back, she took it on. Her commitment to the victims of one of the world's greatest tragedies exemplifies the best in humanity. Her powerful story is an inspiration to all of those who think their voice is too small to change lives.”
—Lisa Ling, journalist

"Congo is usually portrayed as hopeless and its women as victims. Lisa Shannon shines a spotlight on the hope that emanates so stubbornly from this complex country, primarily through her loving portrayal of her Congolese sisters. Instead of victims, these women are determined survivors, three-dimensional human beings who deserve our respect and solidarity."
—John Prendergast, co-founder of The Enough Project, and co-author of Not On Our Watch with Don Cheadle

“As global consumers we all share some responsibility for the tragedy in the Congo. Lisa Shannon's riveting, personal narrative lays bare the human cost of that relationship, through a personal journey like no other into the heart of the Congo.”
—Robin Wright, actress and activist

“I wish that every woman and man in America were as stirred to outrage and action as Lisa Shannon by what is happening in today’s Congo. In her heartfelt and very personal way, she shines some light on a place of great suffering that the world has too long ignored.”
—Adam Hochschild, author, iKing Leopold’s Ghost and iBury the Chains

Product Details

Da Capo Books
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Hachette Digital, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Foreword to A Thousand Sisters
By Zainab Salbi

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken more lives than any other war since World War II, resulting in the death of more than 5.4 million people and ongoing rapes of hundreds of thousands of women. Despite these gruesome statistics, the conflict rages on amidst muted international response and blanket impunity for rape and war crimes in which all sides are implicated. It has been more than 10 years now and still innocent Congolese people are every day falling victim by the scores to some of the worst acts of violence known in humanity (if you can believe there can be worst act of violence)—from the killing to mutilation, to the raping of women, men and children; this continues to happen and the numbers of victims continue to add up. Except for few, the world is yet to rise up with the political will to stop this war and these atrocities committed against not only the Congolese but all of humanity as well.

It is hard not to be angry when you have witnessed the rape of your mother in front of your eyes, the killing of your child, the burning of your home, or the pillaging of all that you have worked so hard to build. The question for survivors is never their anger at injustice but rather how to express that anger in a healthy way that can lead to building rather than destruction, to reconciliation rather than hate, to profound perspective that marries both the beauty and the ugliness of life. Survivors’ action is understood and in many ways expected, even though at times that action can be destructive both for the self and the other.

That’s the predicament of the survivor. Then there is the question with which the rest of the world must wrestle: what if one has the privilege of not directly experiencing or even witnessing first hand injustice in front of one’s eyes? What if one never knows what it feels like to be lynched, whipped, raped, chained, mutilated, enslaved, or the pain of witnessing the killing of a loved one in front of you without being able to do anything about it? What if one doesn’t know what it feels like to lose a home because a bomb fell on it, or because it was invaded by soldiers or rebels in the middle of the night while you were sleeping in your own bed, or forced to walk days and weeks in the middle of the forest without any food just to save your life and that of your loved one? What then? Is that carte blanche an excuse to ignore, to pretend, to do nothing?

For much of the world it is. Much of the world is content to stand by and do nothing while the war rages on in Congo, while people die by the millions and women are raped by the hundreds of thousands. But, thankfully, it is not so for everyone. There are activists worldwide who do what they can on behalf of others who are oppressed, though they may not share that plight.

These are the people who realize their own privilege, the privilege of not witnessing atrocities, the privilege of being able to be heard, or having the resources to survive is a responsibility towards humanity… a responsibility to be shared with others, and a responsibility to this world. That story, the story of few individuals acting upon injustice even though they have not witnessed first hand has always existed and that is the story that adds to the hope survivors share when they triumph over the evil they have witnessed.

With every story of injustice, there were always those who refused to stand silent, who made a conscious choice to act, regardless of the consequences, the price, and the impact on one’s life. It was a few individuals who had never been part of the slave trade who decided to act in the late 18th Century in London, England, leading eventually to the global abolitionist movement. It was three white civil rights workers who were slain making a stand for equality in Mississippi in 1964, like the abolitionists before them making a political statement to their own community that slavery and segregation were not “black problems” but everyone’s problem and responsibility to solve. Similarly, individual, activist white South Africans made the point that apartheid was a moral responsibility for all to end.

We see that in every story of injustice there is a movement for the good, in which there are always the survivors who decided to dedicate their lives to end it as well as those who have not been the victims but know of their moral responsibility to stand up and fight. Lisa Shannon is one of those individuals who has decided to take a stand against an evil that does not oppress her directly but offends her in its very existence. She runs for Congo women.

Lisa Shannon is a woman, no different than those who have stood up against slavery and apartheid before her, who decided to act, watch, hear and even go herself into the heart of horrors and witness the atrocities herself, listening to those who have seen evil. For survivors, their perseverance is a triumph over evil, the sheer force of will to survive and to stand tall. For Lisa, hers is a heroine’s journey of a woman who did not shy away from the horrors ongoing in the world. She is a woman who did not fear that it may be too overwhelming to confront conflict in the Congo, who did not think about how much it would cost her personally to engage. Hers is a story of compassion, clarity, determination, strength, creativity, and love. It is a story about the power of belief in the possibility of making a difference, in the possibility of good to triumph over evil, and in the power of love to triumph over hate.

I have been a witness to the joy Lisa created in the hearts of women who have survived the horror of the war in Congo. I have seen their embrace, heard their laughter and shared their joy when they learned that this one woman cares so much. Lisa loved them so much that she traveled halfway around the world to come talk with them directly, touch them, assure them that there is still hope in this world, that it is still possible for life to go back to normal again. And, by organizing the Run for Congo events, she showed them that women all over the world care enough to run, run and run in order to draw attention to their suffering and create change.

Through the most honest and sincere portrayal of emotions balanced with an astute understanding of the politics associated with the conflict, A Thousand Sisters gives a human face to war by showing that the beauty and resilience of Congolese women shines through even the darkest times of war. Sometimes through their sheer determination to stay alive, or to love the child they bore out of mass rape, to process the pain they went through and the horrors they survived, to laugh despite all odds, to dance despite all pain, to believe in humanity despite all of the inhumanity they have witnessed, and to keep life going in the midst of death. That is what women always do in war, and they do that in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lisa has borne witness to that; she has captured their strength expertly in this book.

A Thousand Sisters shows the power of communication, of reaching out, of building bridges of hope. It is the story of individual women from around the world who decided to take full ownership of their voice and their resources and become one thousand philanthropists, one thousand advocates on behalf of one thousand women whose resources have been stolen and voices ignored. The horror in Congo has been going on for so long, it feels as if the world has put the sounds of the women and their cries of injustice on mute. Lisa and a few American women have decided to turn up the volume, to shine the spotlight: they have listened and acted.

Public diplomacy, friendship, and peace come in many different forms, and Lisa’s journey of sponsoring Congolese women proves that it also comes from individuals who have made the conscious decision to act, to represent the beauty of who they are as individuals. Her story shows the power of connecting through our humanity, connecting through our common love for simple things—our trees and gardens, the sound of running water, and all that we all have in common regardless of where we are and where we come from.

I would like to offer a special thanks to Oprah Winfrey, whose vision and passion led her to cover the story of the women in Congo before anybody else brought awareness to the issue. If Oprah had not given me the opportunity to share the story of Congolese women, I would not have the privilege of meeting Lisa and the thousands of other women who decided to act.

I will close with this final thought: a Bosnian journalist once told me that war shows you the worst side of humanity and in that same moment it shows the most beautiful side of humanity. Lisa’s story is a testament to the beauty of humanity that exists in the darkest and most depraved times of war. It is a beauty that has sparked the united action of women who gather in support of their Congolese sisters across the globe, gather to speak out, gather to cause change.

Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet wrote
Out beyond the world of right doing and wrong doing
There is a field
I will meet you there.
When the soul meets in that grass
The world is too full to talk about
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other no longer makes any sense.

I hope Rumi forgives me if I suggest that in between the worlds of war and peace, there is a field, and women are meeting in that field. Lisa is there; Honarata is there; Fatima is there; Violette is there; Barbara is there; so many other sisters are there. If you are not there already, come join us for the “world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other no longer makes any sense”—we are just sisters gathering in a field, and we shall run, run, and dance, dance until the end.


Meet the Author

Lisa J. Shannon is founder of Run for Congo Women, which began with her lone thirty-mile trail run and quickly blossomed into a global, volunteer-driven grassroots effort to raise funds and awareness for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She previously owned a photography production company, where she served as art director and producer. Shannon lives in Portland, Oregon. For more about Lisa J. Shannon and A Thousand Sisters, visit www.athousandsisters.com.

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A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic book and one every American should read. We need more people like Lisa Shannon to educate us as to what women are enduring in other parts of the world. Then it is up to the rest of us to do whatever we can to help.
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Read-by-Glowlight More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most shocking books I've ever read. What the Congolese women have lived through is beyond stunning, horrifying, and heart-breaking. Lisa Shannon, after hearing reporter Lisa Ling on Oprah say that the Congo is the worst place on earth for women, decides to do something to help. She starts a movement called Run For Congo in order to create a support system for these dear women, our sisters of humanity. This includes a training program to enable them to support themselves. Then courageously, Lisa travels into this most dangerous part of the world. She finds herself in life-threatening situations. Scene after scene kept me riveted. Also, what happened with her boyfriend through this time was another layer of shock. I dislike reviews that spoil the reading surprises, so I won't be specific. This memoir is a page-turner! I was glad to have it on my Nook Glowlight so I could continue reading in the dark. I just couldn't put it down or get it out of my head. This is one story I will never, ever forget. For anyone who thinks they have a tough life here in America, this book will turn your attitude upside down. The poorest person in the U.S. has it better than these Congolese women, and that is no exaggeration. For everyone, Lisa's story will educate you about what is really going on in this part of Africa. Thank you, Lisa, for your personal sacrifice. God bless you.
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Susan Rowell More than 1 year ago
This is a must read! Its amazing what 1 person can do! I donate to this awesome charity, Women For Women International. I also did the Run For The Congo 5k here in Tempe,Az.
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I highly recommend this book. Besides being inspirational and eye-openning, it's a good read. I couldn't put it down.