A Season In The Congo

March 30, 2009


New York’s Castillo Theatre presented an inspiring production of Aime Cesaire’s A Season In The Congo Sunday, followed by a panel discussion of current issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo that perfectly complimented the many issues raised by the play, which centers on the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba.

Cesaire, one of the greatest French language poets of the 20th century, wrote the play in 1966, just five short years after Lumumba was assassinated. The struggle for control of the Congo’s wealth which caused Lumumba’s murder continues today, as several members of the panel pointed out.

The production itself was spirited and intense, with a cast of over twenty actors drawn from the youth programs of the All Stars Project and the adult volunteers of the theater. A groups of dancers from Brownsville, Brooklyn, also took part and dozens of volunteers of all ages made up the production team. The play was directed by Brian Mullin.

Four separate actors took on the lead role of Patrice Lumumba, a directorial decision that added much nuance and depth to the character. The martyred leader was portrayed by Jube Charles, Christlabelsay Elian, Diana Lumaque, and Shaakirah Medford.

The panel discussion was moderated by Carolyn Kresky, a three-time Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist and a founder of the Castillo Theatre. She asked the participants to draw on their own experiences with the Congo of today to the events depicted by the play. There were many connections.

Maurice Carney, Executive Director of Friends of the Congo, pointed out that America has been involved in the Congo since 1885, when it was the first nation to officially bless King Leopold’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. He also explained that control of the Congo’s wealth is a world issue, with implications for not just the DRC but the continent of Africa as well. He quoted Lumumba in the last letter he wrote to his wife just before his death:

“We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese.”

Lisa Jackson, whose film “The Greatest Silence: Rape In The Congo” has truly opened the world’s eyes to the epidemic of terror rape in the war zones of the eastern provinces, spoke about the passivity of the United Nations in today’s Congo and how it has not changed in the last fifty years.

Noella Coursaris Musunka said that her recent experiences in the Congo convinced her that the country needs a new Lumumba. The internationally acclaimed model is the founder of the Georges Malaika Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities for young girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Panelist Deborah Green was the Political Director of the Rainbow Lobby, an independent people‚Äôs lobby that aided the democracy movement in the Congo from 1986 to 1992. She drew a direct connection between the use of inter-tribal strife featured in the play and the similar strategies used by today’s warlords and behind-the-scenes operators in the DRC.

Joseph T. Mbangu is a Congolese attorney and an activist based in New York City. He was studying law on the border of Rwanda when the genocide began. He fled the area, completed his law degree and immigrated to the US in 1999. He believes the play was very timely given the nascent movement among the Congolese Diaspora and others to bring the nation into its rightful place in the sun. He, too, quoted Lumumba, citing words he spoke during his inauguration:

“The Congo has been proclaimed a Republic and our beloved country is now in the hands of its own children.”

From the applause that greeted that line, I believe the audience fully agreed.

My thanks to Misengabo Esperance Kapuadi for her gracious permission to use her photographs of the event.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


Chicago Reader Comments On Congo Aid

March 26, 2009

The most recent question from my Chicago reader is more of a thought-provoking observation:

“I think you are right on the mark about the distinction between investment and aid. It is important for the development of the DRC to benefit other countries because it will improve the quantity and the quality of the assistance provided. Sadly, I suspect those in power who resist foreign investment simply lack the education necessary to understand complex economic principles. I am only speculating on this point, however. What do you think?”

I think you may have carried your speculation a bit too far in the wrong direction. The DRC has many very well educated leaders in government and otherwise. This may be a benighted country, but that doesn’t mean its citizens are backward or unsophisticated.

Those who resist foreign investment are simply expressing opinions based on short-term thinking similar to the insistence by the US Congress that only American steel should be used in infrastructure projects financed with stimulus funds. Or the US limits on foreign ownership in industries like shipping, aviation, and broadcasting. Or building a wall across the Mexican border. There are plenty of “educated” people all over the place who take extremely simplistic approaches to complex issues.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


New Congo Accords

March 25, 2009

A milestone on the road to peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been reached with the signing of an agreement this week beween the Congolese government and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). Signatories to the agreement also included other armed groups in North and South Kivu.

Among the major provisions of the pact is one that compels the CNDP to become a political party in the DRC and give up use of its armed force as a policy tool. It had been previously announced that CNDP fighters were to be integrated into the Congolese army, the FARDC. Both these solutions have been used previously by Kabila’s government with other armed groups, particularly during the election of 2006. The result was a coalition government and an army noted for its lack of direction and discipline. Still, hope springs eternal.

The agreement also calls for the DRC government to grant amnesty to former rebel fighters who joined the CNDP after 2003. Hundreds of CNDP soliders who have been captured are to be released.

Fighting last fall between the government and the rebels, then led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda, displaced hundreds of thousands in the eastern DRC. Nkunda was arrested in Rwanda earlier this year and the CNDP came under new military leadership. Nkunda is currently under house arrest in Rwanda but no announcement has been made about his possible extraditiion to Congo, which has charged him with war crimes.

International and regional cooperation minister Raymond Tshibanda signed the agreement for the Congolese government, while new CNDP chief Desire Kamanzi signed for the rebels, at a ceremony in the city of Goma. Goma was nearly captured by the CNDP during last fall’s campaign. Also present were Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who in recent months acted as a mediator between the two sides, and Alan Doss, head of the UN mission to the DRC.

While the peace agreement was being signed, fighting continues in the Kivus between the FARDC and the FDLR, the Hutu group that was the supposed object of CNDP operations. Since the Rwandan army withdrew from the DRC, FDLR units have returned to areas they previously controlled in an effort to win them back with the same tactics of terror rape, pillage, and murder of civilians they’ve used for years.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


Chicago Reader Calls For Self-Defense

March 25, 2009

My reader in Chicago raises a question I hear frequently when speaking to various groups about attacks on non-combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s one that’s often posed whenever civlians are preyed upon by thugs:

I can’t understand why the people of the DRC don’t fight back. Sure, the soldiers are well-armed, but from what I’ve read, the “militias” are untrained or minimally trained, very small, maybe 1,000 strong, and travel in “battallions” of 10-20 men, making them significantly outnumbered by their victims. I have a hard time believing that an entire refugee camp couldn’t make homemade weapons, such as spears, to at least deter attacks. Soldiers might have second thoughts about raiding a village if they knew they would be resisted by a large number of angry people. My understanding is that flight and evasion are the only methods of self-defense employed by the people. I heard on NPR that the DRC may be the only place in the world where more fighting would actually be an improvement.

Here is my response:

You may have seen this story by now, but there was recently a report from Bangadi, a village where raiders from the Lords Resistance Army was chased away by citizen action much like you describe.

The tale is both encouraging and frightening. On the one hand, of course, we cheer on the underdogs who rose up to protect themselves against some truly vicious criminals, taking the law into their own hands in a part of the world where protection by the lawful authorities is non-existent. The flip side is that self-protection often leads to vigilantism or worse. Many of the “Mai-Mai” militias that are often identified as rebels actually began as self-protection forces but eventually morphed into criminal gangs. When there is no rule of law, violence often begets violence and nobody wins.

The Congolese army (FARDC) hasn’t been an effective peace keeping force, which is the main reason 17,000 UN troops are in the country. But one of the great mysteries of the current situation in the eastern provinces is why UN forces often seem so reluctant (or unable) to intervene when civilians are threatened by armed groups. There have been numerous reported instances when civilian massacres occurred practically within sight of UN encampments but the blue helmets failed to act. There is no question that they are stretched thin, operating in difficult terrain, etc., but their performance record is dismal nonetheless.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


Congolese Journalist Speaks About Rape And The Media

March 24, 2009

Chou Chou NamegabeChouchou Namegabe overcomes obstacles many journalists hope they never have to face. She’s a radio reporter using her medium to bring perpetrators of terror rape to justice in South Kivu while she helps educate her community by presenting the stories of victims of the epidemic that is destroying the fabric of Congolese society. When I heard her speak last night at a panel in the offices of Women’s eNews, I was greatly impressed by her ability to overcome her natural shyness to talk about such a distressing topic.

The subject before the panel was media coverage of violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a founder of the South Kivu Women’s Media Association (AFEM), Namegabe is well-qualified to talk about the difficulties she and her colleagues face.

Namegabe demonstrated the professionalism that won her a 2009 Fern Holland Award from Vital Voices when she spoke about the difficulties of choosing the right words to describe rapes and other forms of violent assault on women in a society where the subject of sex itself is largely taboo.

She also pointed out, “When a gorilla is killed in the Virunga park, the media make a big noise,” while they all but ignore the story of crimes that have ruined the lives of thousands of women.

Operating in a climate of fear and violent retribution hasn’t kept Namegabe from telling the stories that need to be told. She’s been working in radio since 1997, interviewing rape victims and putting their words on the air with the most basic of broadcast gear. Even much of that was stolen recently when brigands broke into the tiny community station and took not only much of the equipment but the priceless archived recordings compiled over the years by Namegabe and her colleagues as well.

Still, she says, she will go on: “What gives me courage to continue my fight is the courage of those women.”

The South Kivu Women’s Media Association is a group of 42 women media professionals in Bukavu. The group leads radio listening groups in rural areas and airs educational programming to help de-stigmatize rape survivors.

Also on the panel were DRC Ambassador Faida Mitifu, Agnes M.F. Kamara-Umunna, a radio journalist from Liberia, and Mohamed Keita, Africa Researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. The discussion was moderated by Women’s eNews editor Dominique Soguel. I’ll be posting some of their comments soon.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


Chicago Reader Asks About Congo Rainforest

March 24, 2009

Recent correspondence with a reader in Chicago raises a delicate quandary:

“…from what I understand, the DRC has the most biodiverse ecosystem outside of the Amazon River Basin and if the DRC ever gets its act together and is able to extract and control those resources, that ecosystem would inevitably be threatened. Could it be that, environmentally, the DRC is better off now than it would be if the natural resources were exploited?”

Here was my response:

The DRC does indeed have the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world. It is a treasured resource for everyone on the planet. That doesn’t mean, however, than it cannot be of great economic benefit to the country. In fact, if the timber resources were properly managed, the ecosystem’s future could be enhanced.

I’ve written about this before in Congo Rainforest Irony, which talks about some of the pluses and minuses of timber development activities in the DRC. The full benefits of this renewable resource, though, won’t be realized until there is stronger oversight of contracts and monitoring of logging activities, both of which are expensive undertakings when so many other needs are crying to be met.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the


UN Takes New Stance in Congo

March 23, 2009

The United Nations seems to have made a substantial shift in operational goals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least according to recent announcements made by Alan Doss, Special Representative of the Secretary General to the DRC. While there has been no official change in MONUC’s mandate, the blue helmets have vowed to go beyond the protection of civilians and UN humanitarian operations and become more proactive in efforts to bring peace to the eastern provinces.

The biggest change is a pledge to support the FARDC, the Congolese army, in its drive to destroy the FDLR, the remnants of the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe who have terrorized the region for over ten years. Doss says the UN hopes to help the Congolese maintain the pressure on the FDLR recently applied by the joint Congolese-Rwandan military action. While Operation Umoja Wetu (Our Unity) was anything but a definitive victory, it did disrupt FDLR operations and led to the repatriation of significant numbers of Rwandans. Doss says MONUC will provide support to the FARDC as it extends the campaign into South Kivu.

MONUC also pledged to help the Congolese hold territory taken from the FDLR, but recent reports from North Kivu indicate these promises are easier made than kept as FDLR units have moved back into Lubero, Walikale and Masisi, in North Kivu, where they clashed with the FARDC, according to MONUC spokesman Lt. Col Jean-Paul Dietrich. The refugee population continues to swell as the FDLR strikes back following the departure of the Rwandan armed forces last month. At least 8,000 people have been displaced in Lubero, 14,000 west of Musienene, and 17,500 in Kirumba in North Kivu. The UN promise to strike back in support of the FARDC has yet to be fulfilled.

The change in UN attitude is significant because it seems to say that the international body has chosen sides in the eternal conflict. Until now, MONUC has supposedly confined itself to supporting UN humanitarian operations and protecting the civilian population from all belligerents, including the FARDC. By now openly supporting the FARDC, the UN has apparently decided that Joseph Kabila’s government–as flawed as it might be–is legitimate (and it is, having been elected in 2006). The UN stance says that the best way to end the strife is to help Kabila assert the DRC’s right to protect its territory.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the