A Botanist's Story

4 Jul

Botanist Corneille Ewango describes how he grew into his profession, how he continued his work in the face of war, and how he risked everything to get news about rebel activities to the outside world.  This was recorded in 2007 and posted on TED in 2008.  His analysis of the situation holds true today.  Listen to what he says at the end when people ask, "how can I help?"

This underscores what I have said many times: that the greatest resource in the Congo is its people.  It's because of people like Corneille that we are so invested in increasing institutional capacities in Congo and want to give our service in higher learning.   May he live long to inspire others, and may there be many more like him.

Crisis in the Congo Film

6 Jul

On June 30th, DR Congo's 51st anniversary of independence, we screened a 26-minute version of the upcoming feature film "Crisis in the Congo" at the Paramount Film Exchange in Pittsburgh.  Friends of the Congo produced the film to help educate people about the ongoing crisis in Congo and build a global community of folks invested in peace and social justice for the Congolese.  If you missed our screening, please visit the Youtube link below.  It will help you understand the reason that Jeff and I have gotten involved in advocacy for Congo.  It will powerfully convey how we are already connected to what's happening there, and why we ought to be paying close attention to US foreign policy.  Maurice from Friends of the Congo explains in the film that what's happening now is a 125 year long problem, with roots in colonialism and in the world powers' desire to control resources in the Congo--this has perpetuated practices benefiting only those who exploit the country's resources and its people while disempowering those who would invest in democracy and care for its people.


After our screening, the audience seemed a bit shellshocked, and it's no wonder.  Many had never heard about the humanitarian crisis in the the Congo or Americas' connections to it.  When mainstream media covers the violence there, it often makes what's happening in that area look like an impossibly old and deeply-rooted problem (ie. tribal)--one that is not only difficult to understand for the average viewer, but has nothing to do with either the West or the twenty-first century.  This film completely devastates those assumptions and puts it in political and economical context.  As it points out, and as we have explained on this site before, a big part of the reason so many have died in Congo has to do with powerful people's desire to capitalize on the world powers' distinctively modern demand for coltan, a mineral fundamental to our electronics industry.  Violence is rampant because the stakes are so high in this resource war and because there is a climate of impunity that "opens the door" for more atrocities, as Anneke Van Woudenberg, Sr. Researcher of Human Rights Watch explained in her film interview.

To put the Congo's situation in historical perspective, I showed the audience my derriere.  That happens to be the only part of my skirt that clearly shows "50 ans" (50 years, in French) of the specially printed independence anniversary cloth that Bizi had tailor made into an outfit for me last year.  I explained: "I want you all to remember that it's only been 51 years since Congo's independence.  If you think about what was happening here in the US fifty years after independence, you know that we hadn't even had our civil war yet.  Minorities couldn't vote.  On the books, Congo is actually doing better than we were during the same time period in terms of rights and laws.  Women can vote, for instance; there are a lot of things in place to make it a functional democracy if only peace were the norm and the institutions could be allowed to thrive."  This is a hope we share with Friends of the Congo: that strong institutions, not strong men, would hold the power to organize the country. 

"Crisis in the Congo" does an extraordinary thing: it makes the roots of the issues in Congo relatable and discussable.  It is both critical and hopeful.  While there is much left to debate, such as the number of verified casualties and whether or not some regional conflicts can be technically categorized as genocide, this film is fundamentally eye-opening and empowering to its viewers.  It motivates response and makes the conflict in Congo something an American audience unfamiliar with the subject can begin to talk about in clear terms.  I can say from our screening that the film moved the audience in attendedance.  It caused them to ask good questions, to look for ways to learn more,   and discussion continued long after the film ended; these are signs of its effectiveness.  Friends of the Congo understands that none of the atrocities would be possible without the weakness and/or complicity of local and international governments, proving that the problem is essentially political and calls for political action.  It is the responsibility of people in participatory democracies to hold their governments accountable as respresentatives of the people's will.  There's plenty of work to do and Friends of Congo's Take Action page helps give good hints for ways to get involved.  I look forward to the full version of "Crisis in the Congo" and more conversation.  Until then, I encourage all of you to watch the short version of the film, share it, and spread its information as far as your networks will reach.  Click http://congojustice.org/ to visit the website, which has more information that you can refer to and share.

I'll leave you with a small vignette from independence days as food for thought.  In the spring of 1960, an American correspondent in Congo, D'Lynn Waldron, reported that Congolese vendors were selling little matchboxes advertized to hold freedom.  She describes a man who was wearing one: "He had a new little box on a string around his neck. He told me that a man from the city had sold it to him for 50 francs and that it contained his ‘Uhuru’ (Freedom), which he could take out of the box on the 30th of June."  Whether it was naivety, the heady spirit of hopefulness in those times, or the feeling that freedom was purchasable--people bought these little boxes, believing that opening them on independence day would help them experience something essentially different from the oppression that had characterized their country's history since 1885, and that there would be a clean break between colonialism and the bright future.  Maybe it did help many feel something new in the air for a time.  It's beautiful and troubling to imagine so many people opening their freedom boxes on independence day.  If it had turned out like they hoped, it could have been the beginning of a lovely national tradition or style--commemorating a moment of release from oppression.  Yet, looking back, the symbolism is double-faced.  It's hard not to notice, in retrospect, that even the Congolese people's hopes for independence had been exploited, and that little tangible freedoms came from their hope.  The combined symbolism is powerful.

May what happened symbolically in the opening of those freedom boxes happen in reality for Congo.  May Congolese freedom cease to be sold by opportunists exploiting the people's hope and desire for peace.  May the Congolese people cease to pay for what ought to be theirs by right.

July: Congo's Women

8 Jul

This month our film series, "The Reel Congo" will feature stories about women affected by the war and instability in Congo.  We will examine the ways that different filmmakers address a similar subject and ask: what are they trying to convey about the nature of the conflict in DR Congo, in general, and its impact on women specifically?  After the film, we will provide information to help you put these films into context and hear what experts and people with experience on the ground have to say about these stories and others like them.  We are intimately invested in providing good services to women in Congo and seeing their rights protected and can share some stories of our own on the ground.  Both Jeff and I volunteered for two months in 2009 at HEAL Africa, a facility that provides services to women who have been victims of sexual violence and require medical attention from that trauma.  Our nonprofit, the CAMP Fund,  supports HEAL Africa, and you can learn more about why we appreciate their work by watching  Lumo,  the first film in our series, which takes place in their medical facility.

To get a good sense of this month's screening, click on the film titles below and browse the synopses, trailers, and reviews. 

I can't emphasize enough how excited we are to host this community theater event.  The forum is excellent for conversing with folks who are curious to learn about Congo in a supportive environment.  I have been reaching out to the African and especially the Congolese communities to extend invitations to our series.   We believe that they are a rich local resource for perspectives and experience and we want them to be included in these conversations about the state of affairs of their country and continent.  Every time I sit down and have a conversation with a Congolese about his or her experience,  at the end I stand up enriched and given good food for thought.   I'd like for Pittsburghers to benefit from the wealth of knowledge right here in our midst.  Please join us and bring friends!


All showings will take place on Sundays at the Paramount Film Exchange Building   in Uptown where Blvd of the Allies and Miltenberger meet (1727 Blvd of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15219).  Doors will open at 6 PM and films will begin at 6:30 P.M.  Suggested donation for admission is $5.  Refreshments will be available for purchase, including concession candy, freshly-popped popcorn, wine, beer, water, and soda.  All proceeds benefit the Congolese Advocacy Memorial Project.


Photographs above by Finbarr O'Reilly.  See more of his work by clicking on his name or by visiting part of his collection here: Portraits from the Congo


Thanks to Rick Shweikert and PFEX for lending us this beautiful space for community theater.

Thanks to Pittsburgh Human Rights Network for partnering with us and helping to bring human rights challenges in Congo to the public's attention.

Summer Reading

27 Jul

Every year, libraries around the country hold summer reading programs designed to spark kids' imaginations and encourage them to read.  As you can see from the image on the left, this year's poster depicts the summer reading series as a colorful adventure--a journey  full of chances to get plumb wide-eyed as you chase down the horizon.  The stage for this path to discovery is grand: stories can come from all over the world, and libraries often reach out to speakers who can bring personal experience and encourage something hands-on for the kids to do, so that they learn a little about the life and culture of a place and its people in the process of getting a bit of entertainment and occupation on a summer's day.

Knowing about our Congo work and love of stories, the Fulton County librarian, Linda, invited us as speakers for the series, so my mom  (Judy) and I trotted off to the library to whip up enthusiasm for Congo and for books in about 120 children with an age range of infant to 14.  As Mary shows here, holding the Congo flag, one is never too young to give up a big grin for the DRC and I couldn't have asked for a better model to set the mood.  Our presentation was about intrigue and good humor and maybe even a little mischief, all of which come across well in her expression.  With an age range so broad, keeping them all on the same page had its technical challenges.  So, we started simply, using the idea Linda innovated when she gave them all summer passports to fill with records of their virtual visits.   You might say that we granted those in attendance a visa to the kid-friendly parts of Congo for an afternoon; in a benevolent mood or maybe because they were so well-connected, we didn't even hassle them at the border.

To visit a place you have to first know where on earth it is.  Though my mom is vaguely pointing at the whole continent here, you can see a red string on a pin stuck into the heart of DRC, and we made sure they could see where it was and had one of them volunteer to poke at it in front of the crowd.  In retrospect, maybe I should have also reminded the kids of where America was, too, since one of the boys bragged to me before the presentation that he'd traveled to several other countries, including the exotic territories of Maryland and Virginia.  It's exciting to see children building awareness about geography, and we did our part to give a sense of how far away and how big the DRC is, and how we'd lived there happily once upon a time, when I was their age.  We passed around a few artifacts of our life there to give them something to handle, particularly the VW bug, a car hand-made from wire with some clever engineering to make its hood and trunk fully workable.  I used the opportunity of reflecting on material goods to remind the kids that having a library is a great privilege; to contrast, I explained that few Congolese children in the area I grew up had the chance to dive into a book whenever they like because of so few libraries and so much work to be done.  "But they don't miss out on stories altogether.  Many children hear oral stories instead of reading them, which is a very old way of passing them down through generations."  To have them relate, I explained that this is a style of storytelling often done around campfires.  Ah!  Many noises of recognition rose in the sea of fidgeting.  Then I said: "This story--the one I'm bringing you--you won't find in books.  It's a story that's mostly spoken," but I promised them a few pictures to go along with it.  I pointed to a couple of posters on an easel with their backs facing forward.  I was going for a little suspense.

Instead of flipping them right away, I started by describing the scene and the main character of the story, Bwana Shida (Mr. Troubles).  "So, Bwana Shida was going out to chop wood one day for a fire.  Anybody do that in your family?"  Again, lots of recognition from these rural PA kids.  "My dad does that!!" one boy yelled, unable to control the strength of his identification, if the volume of his voice was a reliable indication.  Then I described Bwana Shida's toil at the tree, working to fell it on a hot day and how he was almost finished when...  "Suddenly he heard a roar behind him and scrambled up the tree lickety-split."  I asked them: "What animals in Africa might roar?"  There were a lot of guesses, many of them rightfully in the big cat category, and one hit bingo: lion.  "Yes!  He looked down and saw a lion... but just as he thought he had gotten to safety high up in the tree branches, he turned and saw a.... what dangerous animal do you think might be in the tree?"  Again, somebody guessed it.  "Yes, a poisonous snake!  He thought to himself "I'll just jump in the river where the snake and lion won't follow me, but when he looked down, he saw another sharp row of teeth waiting for him.  What do you think was down there in the water?"  Crocodile!  

At this point I revealed the image of Bwana Shida dangling in the breeze, threatened every which way by aggressive dangers.  I asked the children to guess what would come next.  A dissonant chorus arose of "he'll get away!" and "he'll die!"  I asked them to raise their hands to indicate which fate they believed awaited him.  The vote was a nearly 50/50 split with one kid hedging his bets by voting enthusiastically that the character would both die and escape.  The youthful pessimists must have been glad, because I explained next that things only got worse for Bwana Shida as the wind began to pick up and make it difficult for him to keep his grip after he was already tired from working.  Nonetheless, Bwana Shida said to himself, "I'm just going to hold on as long as I can and wait to see what happens."

Then I revealed what my nerdy literary books call the "deus ex machina"--the surprise ending that fixes everything in one miraculous go just when fortune seems most impossible to turn for the better: the wind makes the tree fall, which pins the lion and snake, and the sound of the mighty tree cracking sends the crocodile into a watery skedaddle that takes him out of predatory reach.  To his astonishment, Bwana Shida walks away unharmed.   An uproar of "I told you so!"s and "He got away"s and "look at that!"s ricocheted around the room.  Then I told them what Bwana Shida learned: that when things are tough you have to hold on, and that when things are tougher you have to hold on tighter, because you never know what the wind may blow your way.  The parents who had been holding their breath ever since I took my casual poll about whether or not the man would die a terrible death seemed visibly relieved and also very pleased with a moral encouraging basic stick-to-it-iveness.  Perseverence is hardly a contraversial topic, and the resolution was happy.  In the end, I got to convey a little Congolese ingenuity and cleverness and good sense through this story that I like so much, and to a group that would never otherwise hear it.  It's worth noting that, while I took poster print outs for this event, Jeff and I had the paintings above commissioned so we can use them for educational purposes like this, and the original canvases are currently sailing over the seas to meet us (paintings are copyright: Mkumba Steven www.tingatinga.org).  You will see these images again on this site, I assure you.  There's a little something for everyone in this story.  When asked what he liked most, one boy told me "I liked when the tree squished the snake," which his mother interpreted as a matter of strong personal taste.  "He really hates snakes," she told me.  Whether you are a person who likes perseverence or a slither-o-phobe, the story has its various charms.


After the reading and the recommendation of a few books about Swahili in the library, we began with the "hands on" portion of our visit.  I explained to the audience that children often have serious work to do in the family, including carrying water and caring for younger siblings.  So, those were our activities--work recast as fun; because it takes some skill, the children were up for challenging themselves.  Boys and girls lined up by the dozens to balance a bucket full of tiny wiffle balls from one end of the room to the other, cheering each other on, admiring loudly, and roaring with glee when the whole thing slipped to the ground in an instant, sending the balls bouncing in all directions.  Though we also had a coloring activity for the kids, nearly all of them who could walk wanted to see if they were up for the task of being a Congolese country kid for a time.  If it weren't a dry run, I assure you 80% of them would have been soaked straight through by the end of it.  With a little practice, though, some of them were getting quite good!  Next on the agenda was caring for siblings, and I explained the special way that babies are strapped onto the caretaker's back.  Mom handed me a Congolese doll we had brought along and we pointed to the model.  You can see me below with Jimmy on my back, and this is standard issue for carrying children small enough.  It surprised me a little when I asked for volunteers and adults eagerly asked to have their little ones strapped on their backs.  The kiddos seemed pretty contented, too, to serve as guinea pigs.

After the adults, the kids came up to have me strap on a baby doll, as you can see.  One boy said it was his favorite part of the whole presentation to learn about how mothers carry their children on their backs.  It's hard to see the extent of his expression at this size, but the boy with the Steelers' jersey looks mighty pleased with himself, and should.  He's a bonafide African big brother, in this imaginative exercise.

As I explained a little about what their life might look like as a child in Congo, I stressed the responsibility of older sibings, and mentioned that many children just 6 years of age may carry infants and toddlers, sparking a new trend in experimentation at the behest of parents.  Here we see my flag model, Mary, on the back of her brother, who is doing his best to keep her balanced by a combination of sheer will, face-making, and bending over to distribute the weight.  Not surprising, as he's really not that much older or bigger than she is.

He brought his turn and our visit to finish with this flourish: "My pants and underwear are starting to come down."  That, folks, might be the universal sign to bring things to a dignified finish while it's still possible.  So it was that we all finished up our chatting and experimenting and imagining ourselves in Congo and came back, without a hitch or delay, to the good old USA.  

Bless children and their verve, curiosity, and candor.  I couldn't have asked for better traveling companions, even the ones that announced immanent depantsing.  It still makes me grin to think of the one kid who stopped me mid-introduction to say "Wait.  Isn't a story a lie?"  And when I tried to explain fiction to him he gave a knowing smirk and said to his buddy next to him "I told you so."  I fear to know exactly what I confirmed for him, but I know that, if rumors about fiction are alive and worthy of buzz in the existence of modern eight-year-olds, I have hope for the future of books.  A girl of 13 signed up after our visit for her first library card, which tells me something good, too.  Travel, away, love.  Travel far.  Maybe you will meet me in the Congo one day, face to face.  I promise I'll try to get you over the border smoothly that time, too, but one knows that Congo is full of Bwana Shida adventures.  Still, you never know what the wind may blow your way.


A big thanks to Linda and the Fulton County Library for inviting us.

For more photos of our visit, click here.