Stuck in Congo

Volcano in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

In Congo you get stuck, sooner or later.

Stuck at the border trying to get in. Stuck on the side of a dusty, jagged road with a flat tire. Stuck surrounded by three middle-aged men in soccer jerseys boasting angrily that they are secret police and demanding your paperwork, whatever that is.

Stuck in your tracks when a friend calls to tell you that his village was just attacked by a rebel army. That a Catholic priest is stuck in rebel hands until a ransom is paid. That women he knows were stuck under the repulsive weight of rapist soldiers. That these women are now stuck with the consequences of a sin that wasn’t theirs.

When they first drew the lines and called it Congo, people born here got stuck in the sights of King Leopold’s militarized greed. And Joseph Conrad got stuck in Kurtz’s darkness. And Mark Twain got stuck here, too, even though he never set foot in Africa.

If you are born in Congo today you are probably born stuck – in poverty, without education, without even roads to get your tomatoes to a market. Stuck poor and hungry atop some of the richest earth this planet has assembled, marbled with rare minerals, buried in fertile soil, watered generously by clouds and rivers, but nonetheless stuck hanging off the bottom of the world’s rankings of opportunity.

Stuck ducking the sticky hand of a government that is repeating a century of mistakes. Stuck in the swirling, sucking whitewater of the wars and conflicts and proxy conflicts that roil recklessly around you.

If you are born in Congo, you are stuck with one of history’s most debilitating inheritances.

It feels like a glimpse of the miraculous, then, when you meet someone who has broken loose. And more dazzling yet when that person runs not away to freedom, but back to his people to help them get unstuck as well.

Amani limits his lucrative work with international organizations because after clocking out his real work begins: he engages and guides his community in identifying and solving their toughest problems – ethnic tensions, sexual violence, pervasive poverty.

When no one else would speak up, Justine‘s voice brought the world’s attention to the tragedy of sexual violence in eastern Congo, and her organizational platform empowers her fellow citizens to combat injustice and support its victims.

Dr. Jo turned an energetic 67 this week, and we surprised him with a birthday cake during one of his 12-hour days of surgery in a bush hospital. His and his wife’s medical organization, HEAL Africa, is a beacon of optimism.

These stories and many more are why hearts and minds get stuck in Congo. Gibran says that joy can only fill us as deeply as sorrow cuts. These Congolese visionaries instruct us similarly, that inspiration is only as grand as its chosen challenge. And here in the Democratic Republic of Congo, inspiration is grand indeed.

[I recently travelled to DRC for three weeks as an advisor with Falling Whistles. For more on their Congolese partners, several of whom I mention above, see here.]