Congo advocacy groups must put their egos aside

As I have said time and again, fighting for change in the Congo has become my family business. I am part of a continuing struggle that has been deep in my blood for centuries. As I’ve also been known to say, the U.S. media can only handle one African conflict per decade: Ethiopia in the 80s, Rwanda in the 90s, and Sudan from 2000-2010. From the latest trends I am seeing, it seems as though 2010 may be the start of Congo’s US media decade, for better or for worse. As the spotlight continues to grow on Congo, it is high time that Congolese advocacy organizations put their egos aside and stay focused on the task at hand, which should be to assist in creating a conflict-mineral free Congo where good governance reigns and innocent women, children, and men (yes, men are suffering too) can live as free as we do in America.

Over the past 2 years, I have been fortunate enough to work with most major organizations in the U.S. that work on or for the Congo. These include Women for Women International, the Enough! Project, TransAfrica, Africa Action, STAND Now, The Holocaust Museum, and Friends of the Congo. While I have had a great experience with all of these organizations, I have also seen a fair share of dissension between the groups that could ultimately lead to us doing more harm than good for the Congo. The main problem is that there is too much time spent criticizing the approach of the differing groups. What we fail to realize is that each second we spend arguing amongst ourselves is another second a 3-year old is raped. It’s another second where a man watches his family be slaughtered while he sits helpless. It’s another second where women like Honorata are called “food” by their rebel captors.

Much of the debate between the groups focuses on the true value of what has been deemed the “conflict mineral approach” as well as the desire of some groups to only focus on women’s issues in the Congo at the expense of Congolese men and boys who may be suffering. Lastly, there is debate about who is responsible for communicating the crisis in the Congo to the American people. Quite honestly, even though I am a proponent of the conflict mineral approach, I never considered it to be the only problem facing the Congo. Furthermore, I have yet to work with an organization that believes the war in Congo is only fueled by our desire for electronics’ products. However, this approach has the best chance of reaching the average American who could care less about the Congo, but does feel that people shouldn’t die in Congo so we in America can have a cell phone.

As it relates to those organizations that focus primarily on women’s issues, I understand the idea. The problem however is that when we become more engaged in the Congo, we tend to see the conflict through a Western women’s rights mindset that will ultimately aid in the deterioration of Congolese traditional values. This approach ironically becomes quite paternalistic in the end. As the aboriginal quote states: “If you are coming to help me, stay home. But if you are coming because you believe you freedom as a human being is inextricably linked to my freedom, then let’s work together.” Ashley Judd spoke to this sentiment after her recent trip to Congo. At the same time however, there are women and girls who are in need of services and they cannot be ignored either.

The last major issue I see is that many Congolese advocates in America are frustrated that there are no Congolese on mainstream television who are asked to share their work on Congo. For the most part, it is either white Americans like Lisa Shannon and John Prendergast or some other celebrity, such as the aforementioned Ashley Judd or Don Cheadle who are interviewed by mainstream media while we only see Congolese victims of violence on the television. As a Congolese-American advocate for the Congo, I fully understand this point because to the mainstream media, it makes it look like Congolese are just asking for help and not being proactive in ending these conflicts. This makes it hard for anyone to want to get involved because one could easily think “If they’re not involved in stopping their own plight, why should I be?”

At the end of the day though, what I have to say to all of this is…so what? We are dealing with a crisis in the Congo. I’d love to share my work about the Congo on Oprah or AC360 but If Lisa Shannon and Prendergast can speak to a group of people that aren’t going to listen to me and raise more awareness about the Congo, I’m for it. It was never about me in the first place and others must realize it was never about them. If Ben Affleck and Don Cheadle are going to influence their Hollywood buddies to get involved, I’m for it. If Friends of the Congo is going to focus its energies on making sure that everyone also understands how U.S. foreign policy affects what’s happening in the Congo instead of (or in addition to) the conflict minerals approach, I’m for it. If Women for Women wants to focus primarily on making sure the needs of women and girls are met, I’m for it as well!

What I’ve just said about each organization or individual is obviously a gross generalization about what they all do, but the point I am trying to make is that they are all doing something! We need all hands on deck for the Congo right now while we have the world’s attention. Rather than fighting each other on this approach or that, we need to work with one another on how we can enhance each other’s efforts. Just like 1950s & 1960s movements for Congolese independence, we find factions supposedly wanting the same thing for Congo but some of us get caught up in believing we are the only individual or organization that can bring change to the Congo. We don’t need martyrs now. We need messengers to the masses. This misguided approach is going to lead to a new group of Americans becoming aware of the atrocities in the Congo but feeling confused about how they can actually help our cause and ultimately becoming disengaged. For the sake of the Congo, we must put our egos aside and keep our eyes on the prize.

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