How strange to be out of Congo. As Isaiah, our incredible translator, and I walked across the border he showed me the river that marks the boundary between the two countries here: on one side, chaos – a young man shaking down every old lady carrying insanely heavy loads up the mountain side, everyone crowding the immigration window at once – on the other, relative order, neatly organized single-file lines, gas stations, power lines. How strange to be on that other side again.
Rwanda certainly isn’t LA, but it definitely isn’t Congo either. And though I spent the first few days of our trip wallowing (I think understandably) in despair, overwhelmed by the pain that I saw everywhere, I must admit that in the end it is hard to leave. Congo is a remarkable place, and working with its incredible people I know that the Jewish World Watch community will be able to make a profound impact.
1. That “mama” is the term of respect for women and that “papa” is the term of respect for men. To me this means that family is the center of society here, that a woman’s capacity to build life and create a home is recognized and honored.
2. The unbelievable and arresting beauty of Congo’s landscape. I don’t think any of our pictures (even though Mike has an incredible eye) can do it justice. Between the vast blue of Lake Kivu, the towering volcanoes, the rich, fertile soil and the mountainsides patchworked with gorgeous pastureland and criss-crossed farms, this is absolutely the most beautiful country I have ever seen, ever. Sorry Turkey, Brazil and Ireland – you have been bumped.
3. The very real and very profound capacity of the Congolese people to take charge of their own communities. We have had three incredibly uplifting days in a row, visiting community-based projects that show how the Congolese, despite obstacles thrown up in every direction, step up for themselves – building their communities with no help, or hand out, from their government. Incredible and beautiful women in sewing collectives, widows and single mothers receiving microloans and running small businesses, a community that has built itself three schools – parents chipping in whatever they could, even just a little bit of wood, to keep programs running. These people are amazing.
4. Congolese faith. It will never cease to amaze me that the men, women and children of Congo can undergo such horrors and virtual abandonment – and often outright betrayal – by the government that should be protecting them, but still raise their arms to God and praise. Our experience at the Heal Africa chapel last Sunday was incredible, six separate choirs raising their voices in blessing and healing in the midst of such unbelievable pain. Not one word begging God for relief – just praise and acceptance that they must work and carry on to see God’s blessings. I don’t think I could do that.
On our last car ride in Goma, careening down to the port to catch the boat to Bukavu on Goma’s treacherously potholed and lava-covered roads, I asked our friend Ziko if the Congolese made their tires out of some special indestructible material. When he said no, they were just regular tires, I was shocked. After five full days of driving down these churned-up streets we should have blown our tires at least twice a day, every day. Ziko told me “You know, we are all children of God, under His grace.” I told him that possibly God should be focusing on higher priority issues than Congolese tires (like perhaps the roads? Or the nonexistent government infrastructure that can’t get them fixed?), but I see his point.
5. Dr. Mukwege and Panzi hospital – perhaps the most well-known center taking in survivors of sexual violence (an average of 10 rape survivors every day) in Congo. Dr. Mukwege is a pioneer of fistula repair surgery, a dedicated force working to, quite literally, put the women of Congo back together again. I expected Panzi to be a place of sadness, the women there having experienced atrocities that I don’t ever want to think about, let alone suffer. Instead, Panzi is a place of healing, a place where dignity is restored and women are made whole – it is astounding.
6. Our translator, Isaiah. Though he lives in Rwanda, he is originally Congolese and has been with us from the second we landed in Kigali, so I’m claiming him for Congo. He is amazing, a truly incredible thinker and a profoundly sensitive soul. Plus, he has six kids of his own, has taken in eight others and his wife still seems to love him, so that should tell you something.
7. Activists: Congolese, European, American, you name them – there is a community of strong, committed people dedicated to ending the atrocities in Congo and leading the way towards recovery. They try to absorb the pain of everyone they see around them while staying strong enough to get to work. Those that live in Congo struggle day in and day out to make a small difference in the lives of those around them and struggle even harder to reach even further. If you are reading this, you are part of this community – expect a call from Jewish World Watch very soon.
8. This is not so much about Congo itself, but about our trip: I have loved, and will truly miss, traveling with everyone on our team. We have come together as a group supporting each other when it was hard, shrugging our shoulders together when it was ridiculous, and bursting into laughter together when there was just nothing else to say or do. With Janice, John, Diana and Mike on Congo’s side, honestly, I think we’re incredibly strong.
9. Also not about Congo specifically, but still: I love my job. I don’t know how else to say it – I love my job. I work in a place that supports everyone, not just me and the rest of our amazing staff, but the entire community to work towards a better and more peaceful world. How many people can say that? Thank you Rabbi Schulweis and Janice for building an amazing organization, and Tzivia for giving me the opportunity to do this work. I am aware of how lucky I am.
10. Last, but definitely not least: Goats. They’re everywhere – tied up in fields, grazing on the mountainside and, best of all, being led down the road by a rope like little dogs. If my wonderful husband lets me, and doesn’t think our dogs would be terrorized, I think we should get one.
All of this is to say that Congo is a beautiful, curious, fascinating place. The Congolese people are strong and do not deserve (as if anyone would) to be preyed upon – and certainly not in the brutal and intensely destructive way that this conflict has progressed in the last twelve years. With the right mobilization and enough noise, we have every opportunity to help Congo and the Congolese move towards a more just, free and peaceful society that can begin the important work of recovery.