Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Small Stone In My Hand

It’s a crazy week for me. I turned 35 on Tuesday, got a big zit on Wednesday, and am leaving for a 6-week journey through Africa tomorrow! Two years ago this month I saw an Oprah episode that changed my life. I know, corny, but true. It was a Lisa Ling report on the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was shocked. I had never heard anything about the 8-year war that had ravaged the country, leaving over 4 million dead in it’s wake (the highest death toll due to war on the planet since WWII). The level of sexual violence against women was unimaginable to me…their stories haunted me. I stayed up nights researching the situation online and journaling and weeping…over 1,000 continue to die every day as a result of the war…displacement, starvation, disease. Half of these are children under the age of five. But no one is talking about it

After growing up hearing stories about the Holocaust and wondering what I would have done if I had been on the planet during that time…Then being confronted with the massacre in Rwanda and wondering how I would explain my ignorance and inaction to my children someday…I had no choice but to speak out and speak up for these people whose voices seemed to be ignored by most of the planet.

I contacted Lisa Shannon in Portland who founded “Run For Congo Women” to raise sponsorships for Congolese women after she had seen the same Oprah episode. In September of 2006 I hosted a Hike for Congo Women in Seattle with 10 other friends. We raised $10,000 to sponsor women in the Congo through Women for Women International. Lisa and I also began working on a strategy to advocate on a wider grassroots level for the DRC. We soon discovered another group of representatives from several aid and advocacy organizations that were feeling compelled to develop a coalition focused on the DRC. We were invited to join the steering committee and have been working on a worldwide movement for the DRC ever since. Soon you will be able to visit the website for Global Congo Action which will offer many opportunities to get involved.

The Congo has a long history of exploitation and abuse. Rich with natural resources that have not benefited it’s own people for well over a century (in fact you probably own a small piece of the Congo…coltan is a mineral extracted from the DRC used in the production of cell phones), it’s potential to be a self-sustained and prosperous country is huge. Peace in the DRC with it’s enormous geographic expanse bordering nine other African countries would have a stabilizing influence on the whole continent. As Human Rights Watch put it, "If you want peace in Africa, then you have to deal with the biggest country right at its heart." Congo is no longer the ‘heart of darkness’ as some have referred to it, but instead as Time Magazine wrote in June 2006, “Congo represents the hope of Africa.” Yet, as author Adam Hochschild notes in “King Leopold’s Ghost”, the idea of the Congo thriving with full human rights and political, social, and economic independence is a “profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth.”

There are giants to be challenged, and I am just one of many young Davids with a small stone in my hand.

But why waste all that time and money on a trip when I could just send the money as aid to the Congo?

A Congolese friend of mine explained to me that westerners always want to “help” by either sending money, or going to “do a project”. But if you had a friend who had lost a loved one, you wouldn’t necessarily send them money or “do” something for them…you would just go and be with them, grieve with them. He said the Congolese need people who are willing to come without an agenda and just be with them. They are in mourning. It has not been lost on them that most of the planet knows nothing about their crisis. They need their stories to be heard. The following quote from an IRC report always pierces me:

"I am convinced now…that the lives of Congolese people no longer mean anything to anybody. Not to those who kill us like flies, our brothers who help kill us or those you call the international community…Even God does not listen to our prayers any more and abandons us." -Salvatore Bulamuzi, a member of the Lendu community whose entire family was killed in attacks on the town of Bunia, north-eastern DRC.

And so I go…not with any lofty agenda or glamorous project to do. I go to deliver the message that Congolese lives do matter. I go to learn. Yes, I will visit some projects and hospitals and churches, and maybe I will have opportunities to get involved in small ways…but mostly I will just listen. And I will be changed.

I hope that I will be a healing vessel to those I meet. I hope that my experiences there will help me mobilize more ‘young Davids with small stones in their hands’ in my community. I hope to become a mom sometime after this trip…and my deepest prayer is that this experience will help me pass on to my children a sense of connectedness with our human family, that they may be a healing force in our world because they understand this:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

May this trip help me learn how to wear this garment of destiny with dignity and love, and how to throw small stones with courage and accuracy.

Stay tuned for reports during my travels as I have access to the internet.


Blogger Kristin said...

This is so powerfully and beautifully written, Tonya. My father- and brother-in-law are in the DRC right now with Pakisa...any chance you will be joining their group? I look so forward to hearing your reports, and theirs. Safe and rich (in the deepest sense of the word) travels to you. A delight to see this essay pop up in my bloglines.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous susan said...

This blog came up in my google news and I'm so glad it found me. I too, am a member of this Congo coalition, but am ashamed to admit, I've not been able to join in on any calls or activities. I very respect what you are doing and your method -- a lack of a firm agenda. your open heart and kindness will affect the people in more ways than you can imagine. I would suspect that this journeys will change you far more than you realize. I look forward to following your journey.

5:43 PM  
Blogger tonya said...

kristin- yes, indeed, i am meeting up with pakisa! it was you who first connected us. what a strange and wonderful world the blogosphere is! i hope to meet you someday, but it sounds like i might meet some of your family first!

susan- thanks for your message. i hope i will connect with you via Global Congo Action someday!

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When do you depart and how long will you be in DRC? Traveling to other parts of Africa?

6:30 PM  
Anonymous idelette said...

Hi Tonya

Have a wonderful trip ... I love your story. Thank you for writing it!!!

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tonya, Thank you for sharing. It is with a similar heart and mind that 10 of us are going to DRC early in February to learn from, listen to, and love the lost and down trodden of the Congo. Let us stay in touch.-- Wes

6:15 AM  

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