When you read about Congo, you hear about war, you hear about conflict minerals, you hear about rebel armies, you hear about rape and violence. All of those things are important to know – no doubt – and before crossing the border from Rwanda to DRC those were really the only images that I had in my head of the country.
The things you rarely hear about are the beautiful mountains and water, the music, the dance, the style, the fashion, the clubs and the party.
The country is a war-torn land that has gone through (and is continuing to go through) an unimaginable struggle.. but these people are not victims, they are survivors and they are strong and they are inspiring. I’ve never seen more beautiful jewelry, dresses and well fitting suits. The music has style and the people love to dance. The clubs go all night long, (whiskey and red bull is the secret that I would come to learn about very quickly) and the music never stops.
The first part of our trip was to Goma, in North Kivu – which is a province in Eastern Congo, right on the border of Rwanda. The city’s relation to Rwanda is largely why it has been so vulnerable to rebel army control and attacks since the ’94 Genocide. For this reason there are barbed-wire gates in front of every house or building and a very large, almost eerie UN presence everywhere you turn.
Despite the barbed wire, DRC is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to. I wish I could accurately describe or show the feeling I got when I arrived and saw the mountains backing the lake and the miles of greenery, crops and flowers everywhere.
Seeing Lake Kivu out of context – you would think you were in Lake Como in Italy. However this lake has a much different past than Lake Como. The lake divides Congo and Rwanda. Looking over the water to Rwanda, a friend told me that he remembered the time when all he saw were dead bodies floating in the lake. During the Rwandan Genocide, thousands of people came rushing over the DRC border to escape, throwing themselves into the water to get to the other side while hundreds of thousands of others were losing their lives.
During my stay in Congo, I was accompanied by one of my best friends Melinda and a translator – Amani, because Congolese either speak French or Swahili and I unfortunately don’t speak either (yet – working on it). Amani was our translator for the trip but a new friend for life.
He took us all around the cities of Goma, Bukavu and Mumosho and introduced us to so many different organizations that are working hard to better the community and keep the peace. We met with NGO leaders, coffee farmers, ex-combatants, women & children, choir groups and families. We visited a peace exchange market, a primary school, a reinsertion center for ex-child soldiers, a women’s center for victims of violence and even a radio station called Mutaani FM.
Some things to prepare yourself for if you’re gonna be in Congo.. Black outs every day. And not the fun drunk kind. The power can be out for days, or just a few minutes, but like 20 times a day..and it happens so frequently that no one flinches. It’s inspired me to start writing a short story called Dinner in the Dark. The other thing to note are the roads, or lack there of, I should say. They aren’t so much roads as they are very small Grand Canyons in between the buildings. Amani calls the roads “The Congolese Massage” – Even if you are riding in a 4×4 the rockiness is so aggressive your head almost hits the ceiling every other second. I don’t get carsick and even I was struggling. When we touched back over to Rwanda and drove on a paved road I felt like I was being taken for a ride on Aladdin’s magic carpet. However that feeling ended very soon after because we were winding through the mountains for 6 hours straight.
After Goma we took a boat to Bukavu, in South Kivu.
Bukavu is a much older city and it’s charm hits you as soon as you reach the dock.
Amani took us to a Primary School in Mumosho, just south of Bukavu. It was probably my favorite day of the trip. I’m only 25.. I’m not looking to be a mom, I don’t have those motherly instincts and to be honest, I don’t really know how to act around children. However these kids were awesome. They were funny and active and smart and eager to learn. I looked at one of the kid’s notebooks.. his handwriting was perfect and he had taken what looked like extremely detailed notes.
We didn’t speak the same language (they speak Swahili) so Amani had to translate everything when we visited the different classrooms and talked with them. We found out what they were learning and what they wanted to do when they grew up. One boy said he wanted to be President. Dream big and work hard. Why not? I immediately went over to him and said “Mr. President!” and shook his hand.
To be able to graduate from Primary School to Secondary School they must take a test that costs $5. So far 18 out of the 47 eligible kids had been able to pay half of the $5. The test was in a few weeks. If they could not afford to pay for the test they would have to retake that year of school. When we left the class we decided of course we would pay for these kids to take the test. How could I deny the future President of DRC the right to graduate? For 47 kids, that’s $235 total. I spent more than that yesterday getting a new iPhone because my camera stopped working. (I don’t really like to put things like this in perspective because it depresses me, but it’s the truth.) When Amani went in to tell the class, he told us that the principal and the teacher started dancing and the kids started cheering. Can you imagine being a kid and getting overjoyed by the thought of being able to take a test? Though the reality is that if they can’t afford a $5 test now, the chances of them being able to afford a $26 test in 6 years in order to graduate from Secondary School is unlikely. The other reality is that we’re just talking about 47 kids out of 500 in just that school in just that one village of Mumosho. I’ll be keeping in touch with those kids though and tracking where they end up in 6 years. When it comes time for them to take the Secondary School Graduate test, I hope I can help them then too.
The next and last day of our trip was probably the heaviest. We visited a center for reinsertion/rehabilitating child soldiers called Prev. We spoke to a former child soldier who was now a 23-year-old man. He had suffered through two different armed groups during his teen years and managed to escape and find Prev through a church. (A lot of child soldiers run to churches when they escape from armed groups.) Now he is a successful taxi driver and shoemaker thanks to Prev. He had a great presence and confidence while we were talking and even though he is out of the program, he had chosen to come back and teach his shoemaking skills to the others.
We also met with two females. Both were taken by armed groups when they were in their early teens and beaten and raped constantly. Almost every girl at the center had a baby with her. If they didn’t have one, they had two. Both girls we met with told me they had no hope for tomorrow. It was one of the most heartbreaking things to hear and I felt helpless. It was hard to find the words to respond, because even after hearing their stories first hand, I will never truly understand. Both of the girls we talked with were still fresh in the program though and hopefully in time, with help, they will be able to heal and find hope.
I wanted to go to Congo to see first hand what this place was about and what projects on the ground I connected with. I’m so happy I did. If you want to contribute to a really great cause and help out kids like this, consider Action Kivu.
Thanks to Osprey Packs for the support – this bag has been through a lot and it’s still going strong!