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.