On March 2nd I walked into Woodland Hills Junior High, greeted by immediate pity. When I identified myself as a guest speaker for the seventh graders, the security guard sent me through the metal detector with a practiced hand and exaggerated sympathy. “The seventh graders!?” She made the sound of a punctured tire and shook her head. “Man do I feel sorry for you.” I smiled, unworried. I wasn’t there to drill dates into their heads for standardized testing or get them to do anything, for that matter, in an orderly fashion, so I was a leg up on every authority figure within a hundred yards. I was there to talk about lived experience, aided by pictures of my childhood in the highlands of Congo amidst extinct volcanoes, where I owned a pet monkey, ate locusts every November, and had to drive through a national park full of wild animals to get to the nearest city. I knew that the things I had to show them would naturally widen their eyes and that I could craft the things I had to tell them to widen their ears.
I’ve tested this material on middle school kids before. In 2006, the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh invited me to participate in their school outreach program, which had a special focus on the DR Congo at the time. They were looking for people to educate students in partner schools and invited me to participate. I leapt at the opportunity, giving presentations in three different Pittsburgh middle schools (Upper St. Clair, Fort Couch and Woodland Hills) to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. They were a fantastic, engaged audience. To my delight, one teacher surprised me afterward with a batch of thank you cards from a group of the eighth grade students in Fort Couch Middle School so that I could see, in their own words and drawings, what they thought of my presentation. I was deeply gratified to know that some of them had developed a genuine appreciation for the Congo as a result.
This time I was visiting Woodland Hills, not because of the World Affairs Council, but because we got an email with the subject line “Congolese student” a few weeks prior from an ESL teacher, Jessica Broski-Birch, asking us about opportunities to help her student get some cultural affirmation. She heard about our site and cultural/fundraiser event on WDUQ, and took note, looking for sources of support for Japhet; he’s now in his second year of life in the US, working to learn English, integrate into the American school system, and navigate the social rollercoaster of its early teen world. My family moved here permanently from DR Congo when I was in seventh grade, so my heart went out to him immediately. I remember what it was like; few at school understood my background. So, I responded to Jessica’s email by offering to do a presentation at her school, believing that encouraging his classmate’s appreciation for the DR Congo could make a positive impact in Japhet's social life there. She discussed the idea with the administration and the seventh grade social studies teachers, and, to all of their credit, everyone got on board to coordinate a visit that would help me reach not just his class of 20, but 120 students—nearly all of the seventh graders.
On that morning, freshly-pitied by the security guard, I was ready to give three presentations back-to-back, but first I met Jessica and Japhet in the ESL room to get acquainted with them. After a reserved beginning, Japhet began to ask me questions. What “ville” (French for town) was I from? It turned out that his grandma was born in Goma, the nearest city to where I lived as a kid. He asked what languages I spoke. While he is comfortable in French, Lingala and Tshiluba, I am fairly fluent in Kiswahili but only conversational in French, so we continued chatting in English. We looked at a small report posted on the wall that he had made about the Congo. He pointed to one of the magazine cut outs he’d pasted on one part and quizzed me: “do you know this animal?” “Okapi,” I answered. He leaned back in his chair and nodded. It seemed I was being tested for certain levels of authenticity. I may not have been earning an A, but it seemed I was earning at least a passing grade.
Then Jessica said “You know, as we were studying the Congo, Japhet asked me ‘why did the Belgians go to Congo in the first place? Can you help explain that?’” In the expectant silence that followed, I thought: How do you explain colonization to a child whose life has been marked so heavily by its colossal unfairness? He is living intimately with the colonial scars that mark DR Congo’s history. The answers to his question are not just historical but close to the bone. I was awed to be a first responder for Japhet’s developing questions. I tried to tell him a little history simply and understandably. I said that King Leopold was looking for power and thought the Congo was a good way to get it; he made an obscene amount of money because the manufacture of motorcars created a demand for rubber that grew naturally in Congo. I was careful to acknowledge that no one local—that is, no one native to the area—benefitted from King Leopold’s plan, but that he got very rich from this arrangement. Japhet responded: “like minerals now.” “Exactly,” I agreed, impressed that he understood the political dynamics of Congo's mineral trade. Japhet said that his dad is a business man in Kinshasa involved in diamond sales. “My dad says that only people outside of Congo want to buy these minerals. He says ‘Why does all Congo’s wealth leave the country?” I sighed. “I know—it’s been happening that way for a long time.” We ran out of time to talk much more about this, but as we walked to the classroom for presentations, I thought about how I could help the students make a connection to Japhet. I didn't want to make him self-conscious, but I did want the kids to make a connection between my experience and Japhet's.
I started by explaining that I grew up in the Congo and came here to the US in seventh grade--their age. "Does anyone know where the Congo is?” Many said "no" but one or two in each group said "Africa." Then I showed a photo of displaced persons moving along a roadside. I explained that, if they saw things on the news or heard about what was happening in the Congo, they would probably see something like this, because there was trouble in the country that caused ordinary people, like all of us sitting in the room, to leave home in search of somewhere safer. I didn’t know it at the time but this is a big part how Japhet ended up in Pittsburgh, because his mother, Adele, fled DR Congo twelve years ago because of the violence; after seven months in a refugee camp in Benin, Adele landed in Pittsburgh and worked for nine years to bring Japhet here through the immigration process. I said to the students, “The news reports are important to know because they show us something serious that's happening now in Congo, but I’m here today to give you things you'll never see on t.v. I want to talk with you about my own experience living there as a child in times of peace. " I encouraged the students to think about the fact that each person in the classroom could tell their own stories differently about living in Pittsburgh. “So, my story will not look exactly like every one else’s. Remember, what I'm showing you is just a small window into a big place with a long history.”
As I showed the students photos I also gave anecdotes to make the experience more vivid and memorable for them. When I explained that we lived in a volcanic range I showed a photo of Nyiragongo's eruption and said a pilot friend of ours took the doors off his helicopter and flew us over the mountain in zig zags, tilting so we could look directly down at the lava flow.
When I explained the ways we traveled, I told them about the time I almost fell completely off the back of the truck at high speed and was hanging off the side upside down by one leg. When I was talking about local wildlife, and showed them a picture of my dad with a black mamba, I told them about the time I was getting ready for bed and found a viper in the toothpaste drawer. When I showed them pictures of wildlife in the park, and a couple close-ups of lions, a student asked me “Do they bite?” I responded, “They might. The trick is not to get out of the car. I don’t know anyone who did and I wouldn’t advise it.” I then said how much more dangerous hippos are than lions because they share water sources with people. Once, my dad treated a man in the hospital who’d had his leg bitten off by a hippo, and I told them this, too.
One girl reacted like I'd given her an electric shock. “Hold up! Hold up a minute! Off!? Do you mean it bit his leg or it bit his leg off?”
“Off.” I severed my own leg in a gesture.
“I didn’t even know hippos could walk!” she responded.
“Well, that’s part of the problem. They look slow and they don’t move quickly most of the time. But when they do, they can really hurt people very quickly who have come down to gather water.”
The student’s reactions were vocal and candid. When I showed them pictures of us catching, preparing, and eating locusts, one girl yelled "That's naaaasty!" amidst a sea of groans.
"Well... a lot of the things you eat wouldn't seem normal to people in other cultures. This was normal for us."
"But it's a bug!"
We had a playful argument over how essentially edible the shrimp looks, as a point of comparison.
"But shrimp don’t have legs,” she countered.
"Oh, sweetheart, yes they do. Go take a look at a shrimp as a live animal and imagine explaining to someone who’s never seen one before that you eat that thing. Shrimp not only look like bugs, but like big scary bugs.” When I said that the locusts taste like bacon, some of the children got on board, but others remained unconvinced. My hope was that Japhet would see students responding strongly to this information and note my response. When they cringed I laughed. In the end, I shrugged: "Well, I guess you'll just have to trust me." He chimed in audibly saying that he had eaten them a certain way--with fufu. According to what I could tell, it was approximately two against 120 on this subject, but that's the beauty of cultural relativity; you can disagree on what's edible.
To my delight, Japhet engaged personally with my presentation. His teacher told me that he talked to her throughout, giving her experiential detail at a rate she'd never heard him offer before. When he saw children without shoes and people piling into a truck, for travel he said "I didn't do that" but when he saw common games like the one you see pictured here, he identified strongly with them, explaining variations he'd fashioned for himself. After we saw how comfortable he was sharing information, the teachers and I drew the kids attention to the fact that Japhet was from the Congo. On the map I pointed to Kinshasa, where he'd lived, and Goma, where I came from, noting that Japhet was a city kid whereas I was a country kid. We even had a short conversation in French at the request of the students. They were openly impressed by Japhet's worldliness and knowledge (listen to our podcast about this visit to hear a clip).
I didn't go deeply into the social and political problems in DR Congo, of course. I wanted to introduce these kids to this place as though it were a friend of mine, highlighting all the reasons I valued my relationship to it. However, I did have an opportunity to offer them a few things to think about beyond my personal experience that touched on serious subjects; I tried to let these come up naturally rather than hammer particular messages into them. One girl commented critically on how dirty one child's feet were; "Her toes look like stink bugs!" Another openly expressed concern when I said the girl in another photo was probably poor because of the way she was dressed. I said "Some people have more and some have less, just like here in the USA." I explained that some children spend a lot of time working for the family to meet their needs, which often means getting dirty; for instance, gathering water for everything that has to be washed and cooked in a day is usually the children's responsibility, which can take an hour or two, depending on where you live.
"But how do they go to school, if they have to work like that?" one child worried.
"Some fit it into their day before and after school. But, you know what? There are some kids who don't go to school because they have to work or because they can't afford to pay school fees." I invited kids to imagine carrying water for two hours in their daily schedule. There was a mass furrowing of brows. I said, "our family had running water, so we were privileged. Not everyone has that."
I acknowledged that life was hard work and for many of the Congolese I knew. When I was telling them about local occupations, I showed them a picture of the artist Materesi painting the "difficulties of life" scene and, then, I gave them the painting in close-up.
One kid called out "He's about to die three ways!"
I agreed. "He's definitely in a jam." Then I told them the tale of how he got trapped (for a fuller description of this painting's history and meaning, see another of our entries Hang in There, Congo) and I asked the students: "Think he's going to make it?"
Their predictions were grim.
"Ah, but that's the tricky part. In the second painting the tree falls, kills the lion and snake, and scares off the alligator. The man walks away unhurt." The children laughed. "You see, this is a popular painting in Congo in my area, I think, because life there can sometimes be very hard, and this reminds people to hang in there, even when you can't see a way out of your mess. It suggests that, no matter how bad it looks, things can get better. This attitude can help you get through a lot of tough times, not just for the Congolese, but for anybody."
"In the capital city--in Kinshasa," I went on, "many use clothes as art. They express themselves by wearing very fancy suits and competing to look the best. They believe that this is not just entertainment but a lifestyle and an act of peace, saying 'let us stop this war; instead, let us work, and dress elegantly' so they are taking an attitude that pushes against the violence that they see around them and they are encouraging people to find peaceful ways of competing with one another through fashion and performance."
"Would you like to learn a slang world in Swahili?" They did, of course. "Say Poa!"
"That means cool, the same way it does here in English, so you can use it the same way."
I saw two girls immediately slap each other's hands in the back and say "Poa!" to one another, trying it on for size.
I ended the presentation with a photo of us eating a meal here with the Wacongo Dance Co. at our house, showing that there's a local community of people who've come from the DR Congo, just like Japhet. It was my hope they'd understand that this country isn't just a faraway place, but that some of its culture and people are a little part of Pittsburgh.
I had given them everything I thought they needed for a good start: images of Congo's flora, fauna, and peoples, a taste of different ways of life, a frame of comparison for all the familar things that loom large in their own lives like going to school, eating, traveling, and playing games. I also offered them a little of the culture, and the art that teaches a productive attitudes, prizing tenacity, innovation, good humor, elegance and vibrant color. It is my hope that seeing these things might encourage some students to explore possibilities for cultural and creative expressions of their own.
At the very end of the final presentation, a teacher asked "This might be a hard question to answer, but what does the average person in the Congo think of Americans?" I paused, trying to think of a simple way to respond. "I want to say something," Japhet offered, and I invited him to share:
"When you're living in Congo you think people in America get everything they want. Anything they want. But when you get here, you see it's not like that." I felt a pang at this; it's the way so many immigrant stories begin, with the pressing reality that sometimes life in America is even harder at first, working without a familiar social network and extended family to help make burdens lighter. Japhet is young; his story is just beginning in lots of ways. I was encouraged to see him walk taller that day, to see him speak up and share, but I also know he has a lot of work ahead of him. I hope he will find ways to take one day and one success at a time, celebrating each. I'll keep checking in to cheer him on.
Quite a few people helped make this presentation possible:
WDUQ consistently makes quality information available to the public that betters the community and helps us find and connect to one another. Without their reportage, Japhet's teacher would perhaps never have heard about us.
Jessica Broski-Birch has done her student a tremendous service by reaching out to get Japhet extra support. I admire her energy, committment, and compassion.
The Woodland Hills Middle School administration and social studies teachers deserve credit for making the most of this learning opportunity for their students.
Japhet is an intelligent and brave soul weathering a difficult transition into life here in the US. I greatly appreciate what he shared with me and his classmates during the presentation.
A big thanks to all of you!
Jeff and I will continue working to empower and advocate for Congolese wherever and whenever we can, giving them resources and support according to our ability, even if that means doing things that fall on our lap like visiting this school and writing letters of encouragement to a thirteen-year-old Congolese kid to help him through a tough transition. It is our vision that Congo become a peaceful and supportive environment so that people like Japhet's mother, who was forced to leave because of political unrest, can thrive in their country instead of escaping in fear and becoming separated from home and family. As always, if you donate on this site, the money goes directly into the nonprofit CAMP Fund, you increase our capacity to do good for the Congolese, and you encourage us to do more. Thanks for reading and please share this with others!