WASHINGTON — As a child growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, my eight brothers and sisters and I were bullied heavily because of our Congolese ancestry. We were beaten up, had rocks thrown at us, and one of my brothers was even shot in the eye with a metal BB gun.
Probably worse than the physical torment we received were the verbal insults we endured daily such as being called “African bush-boogies,” “African booty scratchers,” “monkeys,” and more. We were attacked by everyone: strangers, so-called friends, and even some of our teachers.
Given that school was not always the safest environment for us and we had no interest in going to jail or dying in an act of physical retaliation, we all turned to the arts as our form of release.
My siblings and I jumped into anything that would provide an escape from our frustrations. Among the nine of us, there are dancers, martial artists, musicians, moviemakers, poets, rappers, actors, personal trainers, seamstresses, yoga practitioners, and choreographers. The arts were our escape: a way to turn our problems into possibilities; a way to turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones; and, most importantly, a way to take our mess and turn it into our message.
When I see the resiliency of the Congolese people, I can see where my family learned an ethic of never giving up and believing in a brighter day despite living in the darkest depths of despair.
That is a message brought home in the work of Petna Ndaliko, a Congolese activist who gives youth a voice through film and music programs.
For centuries, the Congo has been known for the more negative aspects of its history. Terms like “heart of darkness,” “red rubber,” “corruption,” “rape capital of the world,” and “conflict minerals” have come to define Congo all too well.
Oprah Winfrey once called Congo “the worse place to be a woman.” Since the mid-1990s, over 5 million people have been killed in Congo and over 2 million displaced. The wars in Congo’s recent history started as a spillover from the Rwandan genocide, when many of the génocidaires were chased out of Rwanda and into Congo. Then the governments of Rwanda and Uganda felt it necessary to invade eastern Congo in order to destroy any enemy factions, who could possibly re-enter their countries one day.
Under this pretext of “never again,” much of the world turned a blind to the atrocities that ensued in Congo and those nations who kept their other eye opened aided Rwanda and Ugandan forces during this time with development aid and even military training.
In a few short years, eastern Congo became home to over 20 rebel armies, many of them under the employ of Rwandan and Ugandan forces. The exploitation of Congo’s mineral wealth that operates our electronics products has led to the virtual enslavement of many in eastern Congo. Sexual violence continues on a to be inflicted on a daily basis on babies, senior citizens and everyone in between.
I spent a summer working with over 5,000 internally displaced persons and I will never forget the comment of one teenage girl: “Nous sommes condomnés àmort” (“We are condemned to death”).
Due to these atrocities, few have dared to cast a positive international light on the spirit of resilience, perseverance, and pride that has always existed in the Congolese people. Across the country, Congolese women and men have participated in demonstrations in protest of the rape and resource exploitation. Congolese students have set up networking centers to use technology to communicate their message between each other and with the outside world. Organizations such as Yolé!Africa have emerged to help Congolese youths to use the arts not only as a tool for expression, but also a tool for resistance.
But positive programs have been initiated and maintained by Congolese people. This is important to note because whenever there is a conflict in an African country, Africans are often looked at by the western media as begging for help.
Attorneys such as Denise Siwatula and activists such as Fidel Bafilemba have helped rape victims tell their story and bring a voice to the voiceless. Through efforts such as these, potential child soldiers have instead become soccer players. Some youths that may have used machetes to get their voices heard now use a microphone. Women who were sexually subdued into silence are now sharing their story. It is no secret that, across the globe, many of our youths get involved in criminal activity primarily because there are no real opportunities of employment or outlets to express their creativity. In an area that has been abandoned by much of the world, many of the Congolese people have had enough and more of us should join them in the movement.
Let us be very clear for a moment. Goma, in eastern Congo, has been central in the war and war-related atrocities that have engulfed the Congo since the mid 1990s. It has been described as the “capital city of militias” where, along with the rest of the country, millions of lives have been lost. Even local authorities have arrested youths simply for attempting to participate in Yolé!Africa arts programs, even though they could have chosen to be involved in rebel activity including killing.
While I felt growing up on a daily basis that I was risking humiliation just by getting out of bed, many youths in Goma are risking their lives when they get out of bed everyday, assuming that they have a bed to get out of.
These examples are proof positive that the arts and activism can provide true healing in any community, but especially in those communities affected by war. The work of Congolese civil society leaders highlighted by the stories of artist Petna Ndaliko, attorney Denise Siwatula, activist Amani Matabaro and others highlighted in the “I am Congo” video series must be shared for all who are looking for positive examples of the work toward social change being led by the Congolese. I do not know where my family would be were it not for the arts but I do know where my fellow Congolese brothers and sisters in Goma would be if they did not have an opportunity to express themselves.
We outside of Congo need to become more aware and supportive of organizations and individuals that are helping to build Congo and not destroy it. We know the story of Congolese victims all too well. It is high time that we celebrate the victors.
Omékongo Dibinga is Director of UPstander International.