In the primitive age, when computers had two-tone screens and all the functionality of a non-portable calculator, we enjoyed something called posters. If this 80's "hang in there kitty" icon has never crossed your path with its awwwww-inspiring image of imperiled kittenhood, that’s because, in the age of lolcats, it’s a dinosaur.
For the average American internetter nowadays, 8-year-old girl or otherwise, this piece of popular art falls flat. Compared YouTube’s stream of baby animal bumblings, this appears archaic, and it's not just the cuteness index, but the message that's extinct. The slogan strikes those of us with the last twenty years of history under our belts as naive. Sure, stubbornness is powerful. But is it effective?
Can sheer determination bend the laws of physics?
Can hope keep disaster at bay?
No such luck: whatever your attitude, gravity works the same way every time. This modern, tongue-in-cheek remake of the vintage poster illustrates that point. It suggests that sometimes giving up is not only a viable but a smarter alternative to “hanging in there”, and it’s easy to see why this message would appeal to an audience familiar with reality tv and its hoard of aspiring glitterati. There is no shortage of people determined to catapult to stardom on shows like America’s Got Talent who, coincidentally, can’t carry a simple tune in a giant sack. Convinced they musn’t under any circumstances accept the consistent feedback of millions of viewers, such people have introduced us to a brand of stick-to-it-iveness that's completely indistinguishable from delusion. And so, when a toneless wonder publically gives up on the idea of getting paid to sing, it elicits a collective sigh of relief: we have confirmation that one more person has gained a toehold on reality. Yes, American audiences are well-exposed to the dramatic difference between "I'll give it my absolute best" and "Nothing, not even the laws of science, can tell me the natural limits what I can and can't do!" We know that one attitude makes you look like a person with courage and that the other makes you look downright buffoonish.
The fact is this: the modern poster contains some sound advice— that our choices must be at least as smart as our grip is tight; but, it also presumes that we have a lot of choices. The fact that "Give up, already!" speaks to us so loudly says more about middle-class American culture than it does about the general soundness of the "Hang in there!" philosophy. It says: we are privileged. The option to give up comes with having a series of safety nets and an abundance of alternatives. But what if the consequences of letting go promised more than a dent in the derriere or a character-building reality check? What if the stakes were as high as they get for an individual?
Consider this Congolese version of “hang in there,” also iconic in the 80s, but with a few important differences. Unlike the kitten's scenario, this man has something worse than a goose down pillow, a ladder full of firemen, or a swollen buttock in his future. The scenario frankly admits that there’s little possibility for a good outcome. Instead of a coy and cheerful "uh-oh," this image says "Hey, look at it this way: you’re not dead… yet," which is a pretty modest form of encouragement, if you ask me. These both have the same basic message: "don't give up!", but the differences are more telling than the similarities. Perhaps the most important one is that the Congolese painting is part of a story, with a main character, a conflict, and a resolution, as you'll see.
When I asked our Congolese friend, Bizi, to describe this story to me, he wrote me the following:
"The story is about the man who was cutting the tree. To his surprise the lion came, so he decided to climb the tree. Getting on top, he saw a snake. Then the snake was coming toward him, so he thought of jumping in the lake, but the crocodile was there waiting for him, so he stayed in difficulties…”
In fact, research reveals that the painting is called “the difficulties of life” in the art world, and it’s a nationwide Congolese staple. You can see this scene painted in a lot of different styles, but always with these same elements and characters—always telling the same, recognizable tale. It’s been done by very famous Congolese artists from the Western region, like Ndabagera, whose copy I have playfully defaced with commentary above, or by less-well-known artists, like Materesi, the local artist in the rural area of Eastern Congo where I grew up, pictured working here in the late 80s.
It’s no wonder to me that this story resonates with the Congolese. It paints a good summary of how ordinary folk in Congo have been experiencing its turbulent history over the last hundred years or so:
Things are everyday. You have chores to do, and you need to provide for your family in a place where routine needs like energy for cooking are not convenient. You're eking out a living through hard work when, suddenly, just as you're making progress, things go from routine to emergency. Despite your best efforts to cope, you’re rendered helpless as things go from bad to worse...
Here is a glimpse into everyday life in Congo in 1989, with the “difficulties” painting hanging in the background. My dad (behind the camera) is sharing a meal with friends at a time of peace and relative security, and, like many gatherings of this kind all over the world, close friends are eating, drinking sodas, and generally enjoying each other’s company. Shortly after this photo was taken, in 1989, the political climate worsened. By 1990 my family was one of two white families left in the whole region, both from generations of living in the Congo familiar with such political trouble. My father was the second generation raised in Congo, and the third to work there as an adult; he was evacuated 16 times as a child during independence in 1960 and was, as a result of long experience, almost unflappable; after a year of working to see if things would get better, however, the situation reached a crisis, we were personally threatened, and our family relocated to the US.
Why didn’t we just “hang in there” and hope things would get better? Because we had the luxury of a guaranteed safety net: America. We could afford to let go. Privilege allowed us the choice and the means to return to a place of peace and prosperity when we had fair warning that things would turn dangerous—an option our Congolese friends did not have. Over those next years, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide spilled over into the Congo and repeatedly put our friends at personal risk; most of our friends survived, but we know others who died. From a safe distance, we sent support and shared in their hope as they faced the trouble. It was humbling to see the gritty patience and humor of friends who were vulnerable at that time.
Sometimes fighting the inevitable is like staggering around in a minefield with fifty pound boots. As the cynical and practical lolcats suggest, sometimes it’s wise to accept your limits, cut and run. But, especially in times of crisis, when your options are limited, fighting big odds means strategically using tenacity and pure “hanging in there” to come out on top, in the style of Muhammed Ali in his famous 1974 boxing tournament in Congo, Rumble in the Jungle. Knowing he was outmatched in raw power, he was close to losing for a majority of the fight His strategy was to remain tenacious and spring-loaded for an opportunity as soon as it appeared; ultimately, as we know, using this "rope-a-dope" technique, Ali emerged victorious. The Congolese know all too well that sometimes “hanging in there” is not idle hopemongering, but hope-a-dope—doing your best because with everything you have available to you, and waiting to see if things will get better--because the stakes of giving up are too high to do otherwise.
This photo, taken in 2009, shows a gathering with the same friends pictured above in 1989; here Lawi’s daughter entertains us by giving a traditional dance in front of the very same paintings as those shown in the previous photo, only a bit shabbier with age, having made it through nearly twenty years and several wars. Instead of the peak of crisis, we see the second painting in the series, the resolution, described here in Bizi’s words:
“…By God's grace the wind came and as the tree fell down the crocodile ran back to the water and the tree fell on the lion which died and the snake died, too, from falling, but the man was rescued. So that was God's intervention. In difficult moments where there is no hope God comes; the thing is to trust in him."
Many Congolese, like Bizi, understand this as a religious metaphor for faith, but the story has a very powerful application to the Congolese’s everyday reality, any way you look at it. Sometimes you must believe that, against all odds, things do get better: do your best, and wait and see. Things have gotten better in Congo; there are many promising developments and there's more normalcy, but, especially in the East, it's far from peaceful. For instance, in 2010, Lawis family was faced with tragedy when, at the height of their older daughter’s happiness in recent marriage, her husband was murdered by the side of the road by bandits who wanted his motorcycle. With the continued instability in Eastern Congo, people with guns and malintent are still relatively free to prey on ordinary folk, and take away any progress, advantage, or means they've earned. Many advocates or protectors of the people aren't strong enough to prevent these crimes, and legal institutions aren't strong enough to bring criminals to justice. Yet--and this is the startling thing--most of my Congolese friends continue to "hang in there," hoping, and doing everything in their power to see things improve. They are loving their families and friends, working hard, and living with tenacious expectation for something better. That deserves not only respect and admiration, but reinforcement and encouragement.
The Congolese need a chorus of "Hang in theres" from us. And, if millions can spend a dollar to send a text and vote for favorite singers in a reality tv trial, I hope we can also find even small means to invest in good and talented people outside of entertainment, where the stakes are higher, the challenges are tough, and where our encouragement is needed in very tangible ways. Please consider giving to the Congolese as an act of "voting" for those who continue doggedly and against all feedback saying they can't to "follow their dreams" of peace. I am asking you to do the opposite of celebrating a reality-check. It's not the Congolese's attitudes that need to change to correspond to reality--it's reality that needs to change. When you give to our cause, you support people committed to strengthening community and working to make peace and justice in DRC the norm. Institutions like our affiliates Heal Africa and UCBC are poised to help change perilous forms of "hanging in there" into good, everyday resolutions and outcomes.
All donations on the Congostory website go directly to the 5013c nonprofit CAMP Fund. This fund not only helps support the ranks of care-givers and problem-solvers in DRC, but it helps us continue to bring you good information and good stories. We exist not just because we have something to give Congo, and not just because the Congolese need our support, but because they deserve peace, and they have lots to teach us about how we can help if we listen carefully and ask good questions.