Monday, February 6, 2012

New Beginnings...

We're excited to announce that what started as two graduate students on a mission to uncover the truth about the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo and find hope amidst the horror, has evolved into something much bigger than we could have ever imagined.  We're thrilled to announce the launch of two new websites,  

We’re leaving our little blog behind for now, but we want to thank each of you for taking this journey with us.  You were there when it all began and we hope you’ll visit our new sites to see how you can support our new projects!

Again thank you, thank you, thank you!

~Liz and Mara 

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Congo Spot 01

Over the past couple of weeks, Liz and I had been invited to present our experiences and findings to several NYU boards. We asked Jesse to put together a quick teaser video, that would give the boards an increased appreciation of the Congo's amazing people. We will periodically be uploading more teasers and perhaps longer ones as the project continues to develop. More importantly, we are working hard to secure funding not only for the completion of the film, but also for our essential return to the Congo and more research in January. Thoughts and comments are always appreciated, and we hope to bring you more news soon!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


We know there are some thoughts we mentioned briefly throughout our time on the ground in the Congo - on regional actors, peacekeeping, Rwanda, etc. We promised you more detailed posts on these subjects and now that we’re back with more time on our hands, we’re excited to start posting more in depth pieces for you. Keep checking back!

We are in Kentucky beginning to process our notes...We just posted some pictures and wanted to start by giving you our overall thoughts and impressions on what impacted us most.

The women of Congo are made of steel.
As the days and weeks progressed we met woman after woman after woman who had been raped, humiliated, rejected, and shunned yet somehow would wake up every morning and take care of their families, homes, and communities.  We met women who have been threatened, imprisoned, and intimidated yet continue to speak out and stand up for what they believe in. They are the every day heroines and the voices for the voiceless. The eastern regions of the Congo have endured war, natural disasters, epidemics, and unimaginable atrocities. But the spirit and resiliency of the Congolese women remains a force that keeps the country alive.

The level of inadequacy in the actions taken by the international community.
Although there are programs in place and funds are still pouring into the region, they seem to have little impact on the situation as a whole. Some of this is of course due to the root causes of the conflict that have yet to be addressed, (resources, impunity etc) but part of it is also that the international community seems to be doing more harm than good. NGOs have created an artificial economy where prices of hotels ($150 per night) and food ($15 for a medium sized pizza) at the “best” restaurants are the same as in New York City. Keep in mind that this is in a country where the income average is $120 per year. Western companies (this includes NGOs) continue to profit from the chaos in the Kivus. There is also a complete unwillingness by the international community (including the UN) to take military action against the rebels. In fact, UN peacekeepers will issue warnings and stop cars that are en route to areas because of rebel activity, yet do nothing to stop the violence that they’re engaged in. While issuing warnings does save lives taking action against them could and would save so many more.  We don’t mean to imply that there is no role for NGOs and the international community; we actually believe the international community has a strong role to play. It just became clear to us on the ground that much of what is being done is misguided and inadequate. It’s like putting a band-aid on a gaping bullet wound. We also don’t mean to take a realist stance by calling for true military intervention; we see it as simply being realistic. We have to eliminate the rebel problem and ameliorate the security situation before we can see real progress.

Experiencing firsthand how the lack of infrastructure continues to perpetuate both the negative security situation and the cycle of poverty.
The lack of adequate and in most cases basic infrastructure has crippled any attempts at development, peace, and security in the DRC.  It didn’t take long to realize the positive impact that improving infrastructure would have on the situation. As we traveled the “poor” roads (if you could even call them roads) we commented more than once that if somebody wanted to do one thing to make a difference, it would be to build roads.  There are no working roads that connect the major cities of the Congo (Bukavu, Goma, Kisangani, Kinshasa etc.). Because of this, commerce, information, policing, and many other positive necessities are impossible to navigate. Improving roads alone would link villages, connect people, and help control resource monopolies. Rebels continue to control most mines located in isolated areas accessible only by small planes. Roads are only part of the infrastructure problem. Reliable electricity grids and clean water sources would achieve similar positive impacts. Living in a country where potholes are the biggest problem, the DRC made us realize the significant role that infrastructure plays in allowing us to maximize everything our country has to offer. The DRC is just as vast and naturally rich as the country we live in, but without adequate infrastructure and investment it will never reach its full potential.

What can you do to help?
Many of you have asked us what you can do to help. While we saw what was (in our opinion) some problems with what was happening on the ground, we also met countless people and organizations that are truly making a difference. Especially a few local initiatives that gave us tremendous hope for the country’s future. We will be following up in the next couple of weeks to give you specific ways you can assist their efforts. Stay tuned to hear about their powerful work.

Meet a Few of the People Who Made Our Trip Amazing...

With our South African UN pilots

With Sumaili, a former child soldier and one of the most courageous youth we've ever met

Filming a panel of Congo's future leaders

With Justine Masika of Synergy, an advocate for women and a true hero.

With Marco, the head of the Lebanese contingent who fed us and taught us that legitimate business exists and can thrive

With Raj, our driver (and good friend) in Goma

With Pascal, who took such good care of us while in Goma--setting up meetings, translating, keeping us out of trouble... he did it all. 

With the amazing young artists of Collywood, their vision is going to change their country.

With Esther and Camille, without them we would have been lost in Goma and Goma would be lost without them.

Mara and Dean Kayaking on Lake Kivu, a truly remarkable experience.

Oliver and Liz Kayaking on Lake Kivu

Our dock at the Orchid... a beautiful, peaceful spot to decompress after hard days. 

Mara and her cousin Mado

Jesse filming one of the leadership students... his words (which you will see and hear more of) are a powerful call to action. 

The choir of Generation Hope

Mara with Jesse, the most talented, compassionate and insightful filmmaker we could have asked for.  He's a friend and colleague for life.

With one of the Congo's women of steel. 
And Janny, without whom Bukavu would have been a total bust... she opened her home, her roll-a-dex and most importantly her heart to us. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Journey to the border...

Three weeks of trying to upload this with slow, spotty internet proved unsuccessful.  But now that we're back stateside here is the long overdue video of our drive through Rwanda to the border.  Jesse shot and edited this 30 second video and we think it's breathtaking.  (He didn't even use his professional camera, but instead shot this footage on a flip cam out of the car windows)!  Looking at it now brings back the flood of emotions we were feeling at the time.  The drive was a seven hour long trek through towns and villages, tea plantations and rain forest.  As we drove we were each our own combination of nervousness and excitement... soaking in the beauty of what was surrounding us, vacillating between moments of laughter and wonder or quietly praying to ourselves for what was to come.  We had no idea what crossing the border was going to be like or who we would meet on the other side or how the next few weeks of our lives would challenge us and change us.  We are thankful to have these images and we hope you enjoy them, too.  We also hope you can start to see how beautiful the Great Lakes Region (of Africa) really is.

We are taking this week to rest and spend time with our family and friends, but in the coming weeks we will begin the gargantuan task of sorting through our notes and footage, doing translation and putting together outlines and plans.  We will continue to share our thoughts and experiences and what we've learned and are still learning.  We'll also be organizing and uploading photos from our trip and will certainly share some here soon.  In the meantime, enjoy the short video.  Today is Mara's birthday so if you get a chance head over to Facebook and wish her a happy day!


Monday, July 18, 2011

We're Leaving Our Hearts in the Congo

It's our last night in Africa... We're in Kigali, Rwanda where it all began. There is so much to say, but as we keep saying so much we still need to process. We spent much of today touring the genocide memorial, mass graves and museum here in Kigali.  It was a heavy, heavy day, but an important way to end our journey... understanding where it all began for the Congo. The genocide here is the starting point for the conflict in the Kivus and an important piece to unraveling what's happening there now. It was unbelievable to read the stories and see the images we saw today. The mass grave at the museum site alone holds the remains of upwards of 250,000 men, women and children. We hope seeing it here where it happened means we won't be able to forget.  We also hope the world never forgets. But if history is any indication, it probably will.

We start 2 days of travel in the morning before making it back home to our respective destinations.  The trip was more amazing than we could have hoped. We met so many courageous, wonderful people who shared their thoughts with us, welcomed us into their homes and offices and hearts...allowed us to film them and in the end changed our lives forever. Our moments ranged from holding the hands of survivors of acts more brutal than is even comprehensible- to facilitating a panel discussion with brilliant young leaders who have visions of a Congo transformed from humanitarian graveyard into an oasis of peace and tourism- to diving into beautiful lake Kivu at sunset- to sharing laughs with new friends over wine and Primus (a Congolese beer). It was the journey of a lifetime and we can't wait to see where the next phase of the journey will lead. Jesse shot the most spectacular moments... Moments of powerful human emotion, controversial debates and moments of sheer natural beauty. We know the film is going to be amazing. We'll return in January to continue research and filming for the documentary.  For us, January can't come soon enough... We left our hearts in Bukavu and Goma.

As we soak in our final moments here we want to leave you with a little excerpt from a reflection we wrote (but, couldn't upload) after two emotional days in Goma.  We will have much more to add to this blog as the weeks and months progress, but for now we (sparing you intense details) leave you with these words because we feel the stories are important to tell... And important to hear...

We spent the first half of one day talking to a former child soldier
and hearing the his horrific stories. He has horrible nightmares after every time that he shares his story. After spending an afternoon with him as he talked about his childhood, we completely understand why. But, he is an extraordinary kid with a powerful message.
Later that same day we visited a hospital that works with women who have been raped. We met five women and some them shared their stories. Three of the women had adorable babies born of rape and one cried as she told us what happened to her. It was all very overwhelming... then we met a little 5 year old girl. She had the saddest little eyes you have ever seen and as the head nurse shared her story with us we were devastated.  It's not fair and it broke our hearts. Unfortunately, stories like these are more common than they should be. The statistic that a woman is raped in the Congo every minute is not an exaggeration. It's a gruesome reality of the state of this country.

The next day, however, was a much better day. The first day was
depressing because there was such an air of sadness with most of the
women we spent time with. They said they were hopeful about the future,
but they had nowhere to go after their stay in the hospital. The second day
was filled with more joy. We met with two women, a 16 year old
and a 50 year old. The 50 year old had been so brutally attacked that
her hip had been broken. Although she would be on crutches for
life (she spent over year in agony before she went to get help after
she escaped her tormentors) she was all smiles. The young 16 year old
was also full of hope. She told us how she wants to be a minister
(politician not religious) when she is older so she can help other
women who have gone through what she has experienced. She was shy and
spoke very quietly, but she too shared laughter with us and smiled.
They truly made us proud to be women!

The power of laughter truly hit us as we were sitting there with these
women, who by the worlds standards had nothing to smile and laugh
about. Janny was NOT kidding when she said the women of the Congo are made of steel. What a difference a day makes. There was such a
stark contrast between the meeting with the women on the first day and
the meeting with the women the next day. There are only two
differences between the organizations: funding and
spiritual healing. The first hospital (although they are doing great
work) does not get even close to the same amount of funding as the
second. You could see how funding can affect an organization in
the differences between the two facilities. The women we met at first
were physically and mentally healthy but their spirits were still
broken. The other two women were 'whole';they were excited about
their future because they knew they would be provided for.

When we came back from those interviews our former child soldier
friend greeted us at the front door. He was all smiles as we chatted
with him about how his day had gone. As he laughed and smiled we were
in awe. The Congolese are amazingly resilient people. They not only
survive, no matter what has happened to them, but they truly know how
to pick up the pieces and continue to enjoy life again! That is what
we came here to find: life, wholeness, and above all hope.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Difficult Days

The internet, per usual, has been on the fritz again! And the past two days have also been incredibly busy.  They have not only been physically exhausting, but emotionally exhausting as well. We will definitely share more in the coming days, but we need to process what we've heard and seen. But we will say this: now, more than ever, there is a great need to protect this country's greatest resource, the Congolese women. We have met women, men, and children that have been through more than any human being should ever have to endure. Simply put, the suffering here is unnecessary and preventable and it's time to talk about real solutions and take real action.