Sophie, Countess of Wessex Becomes First British Royal to Visit Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Countess of Wessex meets the Governor of South Kivu Theo Ngwabije, at the Governor’s Office in Bukavu in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Countess of Wessex meets the Governor of South Kivu Theo Ngwabije, at the Governor’s Office in Bukavu in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Jane Barlow/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

Sophie, Countess of Wessex is making a historic visit for a critical cause.

Queen Elizabeth's daughter-in-law, 57, stepped out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Monday, becoming the first member of the British royal family to ever visit the African country.

"Her Royal Highness' visit will focus on addressing the devastating impact of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, while supporting and empowering survivors and tackling the stigma they face," the palace said in a statement.

Sophie's trip has been planned for "many months" and comes ahead of the International Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Conference in London in November, which she'll also attend. Uniting foreign officials, international groups, faith communities and survivors of sexual violence, the meeting will aim to "step up global action on tackling conflict-related sexual violence," the palace said.

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The Countess of Wessex with Lord Ahmad (left) during a meeting in Bukavu, South Kivu Province, with representatives from TRIAL International; a non-governmental organization which is dedicated to fighting impunity for international crimes in conflict, as well as providing legal support to survivors of conflict related violence and human rights violations as they seek justice, as she visits the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Countess of Wessex with Lord Ahmad (left) during a meeting in Bukavu, South Kivu Province, with representatives from TRIAL International; a non-governmental organization which is dedicated to fighting impunity for international crimes in conflict, as well as providing legal support to survivors of conflict related violence and human rights violations as they seek justice, as she visits the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jane Barlow/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

In a 2020 report, Doctors Without Borders said it gave care to over 10,000 survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that year; 19% of the people were under age 18.

Accompanied by Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon to the Congo, the Prime Minister's Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, Sophie met with reps from TRIAL International, an NGO fighting impunity for international crimes and offering legal support to survivors of conflict-related violence. The Countess of Wessex also met Theo Ngwabije, Governor of South Kivu Province, at his office in Bukavu on Monday.

The Countess of Wessex meets with representatives from TRIAL International; a non-governmental organization which is dedicated to fighting impunity for international crimes in conflict, as well as providing legal support to survivors of conflict related violence and human rights violations as they seek justice, in Bukavu, South Kivu Province as she visits the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Countess of Wessex meets with representatives from TRIAL International; a non-governmental organization which is dedicated to fighting impunity for international crimes in conflict, as well as providing legal support to survivors of conflict related violence and human rights violations as they seek justice, in Bukavu, South Kivu Province as she visits the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jane Barlow/PA Wire via ZUMA

Sophie also spent time with representatives from the Pole Pole Foundation, an NGO dedicated to protecting the critically endangered Eastern Lowland Gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. There, Sophie spoke with Pole Pole founder John Kahekwa Munihuzi, accepted handmade gifts and even received a Congolese name, PA reported.

In national tradition, the royal was given the name "Umoja Mama Louise" — Umoja meaning "unity" in Swahili and "Mama" preceding the name of her eldest child, Louise. A mom of two, Sophie shares daughter Lady Louise Windsor, 18, and son James, Viscount Severn, 14, with her husband Prince Edward.

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The Countess of Wessex with Pole Pole Foundation founder, Mr John Kahekwa Munihuzi (Papa John) during a visit to Bukavu, South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Countess of Wessex with Pole Pole Foundation founder, Mr John Kahekwa Munihuzi (Papa John) during a visit to Bukavu, South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jane Barlow/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

Following the honor, the countess planted a tree seedling with a plaque bearing her Congolese name to mark the visit.

Sophie's visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is part of the wider return to royal duties following the funeral services of Queen Elizabeth on Sept. 19 and the following mourning period. A guest who attended the state funeral at Westminster Abbey told PEOPLE that Sophie had remarkable resolve at the service for her mother-in-law.

"The Countess of Wessex was incredible. I saw her putting her arm around three or four people," lawyer Pranav Bhanot said. "It felt like she was really the glue keeping everyone quite strong today."

The Countess of Wessex plants a tree alongside a plaque which features Her Royal Highness’ Congolese name, Umoja Mama Louise, given to her by representatives from the Pole Pole Foundation during a visit to Bukavu, South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Congolese tradition, people are called ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ followed by the name of their eldest child. Umoja means unity in Swahili.
The Countess of Wessex plants a tree alongside a plaque which features Her Royal Highness’ Congolese name, Umoja Mama Louise, given to her by representatives from the Pole Pole Foundation during a visit to Bukavu, South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Congolese tradition, people are called ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ followed by the name of their eldest child. Umoja means unity in Swahili.

Jane Barlow/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

Recalling that he saw Sophie comfort everyone from the presiding bishops to Kate Middleton, the guest said that the royal stayed strong for those around her.

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"From where I was I got the sense that... sometimes you have that one strong person in a family who's kind of keeping everyone together. To me, it seemed like Sophie was that person today," he added. "It was something that really stood out because it seemed that she really was very strong."