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.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Adventure: Part 2

We've arrived safe and sound in Goma for part 2 of our visit. We spent last night having dinner and saying goodbye to many new friends. While Bukavu captured our hearts we're excited to see how the journey unfolds from here. Before we share about our day we just wanted to pause and thank our dear friend Janny for being an amazing host, a brilliant colleague, and a wonderful friend.

The day started at 5:45am when we woke up early to head out and catch our ferry. It was not as chaotic as we had thought it would be and the $25 first class tickets were WELL worth it. It was a very nice seating area and the free breakfast didn't hurt either! The ride was about 6 hours long and the views as we sailed by were extraordinary. We've said it many times before but we just can't say enough about the beauty of this country.

Unfortunately, the water was choppy near the end of our trip and as Liz was sick at the back of the boat I was chatting with a young man named Janvier (January in French, which is when he was born). He shared with me about how horrible the security situation is now in the Congo. I told him a little about our mission and that is when he opened up to me. He shared that he had been on the run from the military for months now. They were trying to bribe him and he refused to pay. As a result they harass and stalk him and his family wherever he goes. He is never safe and is hoping to get to Kinshasa where their hold is minimal. But he has three children who were not even able to finish their schooling this year because of their erratic movements. His story is not uncommon and he is just one of hundreds of thousands that are living in fear on a daily basis. He told me that he was sharing his story so that I would share it with you. Janvier said that America is the leader and whatever America decides to do the rest of the world will follow suit. I hope we will hear his words and take them to heart.

We've settled in at Esther and Camille's. We can already tell that they are so wise and they are doing such great work. They've got a packed week planned for us, with back to back meetings. We are excited to see how the week unfolds as we know we are going to learn a lot. Hope is alive here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Unique Perspectives

We've become friends with a group of South African pilots who fly for the UN. We've spent the past week chatting informally with them about their experiences flying in Sudan, Angola, Chad, Afghanistan, DRC. They agreed to be a part of our documentary, so last night we interviewed them after dinner. They had a unique perspective as Africans who have worked with the UN in so many conflict zones. They were candid, honest, and provided one heck of a controversial interview. We appreciate their honesty because we know that their views are shared by many others, including most ordinary Americans. As Jesse said when the night was over, "we just shot the beginning of our documentary!"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Our DRC Portraits...

The Untold Stories

So sorry we haven't been able to keep up posting like we had hoped! The internet has been down again and we have been extremely busy. We wanted to share what we experienced yesterday and are so glad that the internet has been more cooperative today.

Yesterday was a tough day. It started with Jesse not feeling well from the night before, and Mara was up early throwing up in the bathroom. Despite their nausea they were bound and determined to go with Liz and Janny to the parish in a small village about an hour from Bukavu. That village has been one of the hardest hit, both in terms of the recent conflict dating back to 1996, and also in terms of sexual violence. This is because it is close to the forest where the armed rebel groups hide, as well as the border with Rwanda. The contrast between the incredibly beautiful drive up and the violent realities the village has known is stark. 

When we arrived we were guests of the catholic priest of the parish. Although the parish normally turned away any interviews and filming,  he was very supportive of the work we've been doing. He said that he wanted us to see firsthand so the truth could be told. The parish provides a safe haven for women and men who have been sexually assaulted, as well as those who have witnessed it and other violence. They showed us the books with the handwritten names of hundreds of women who have come to them for help. The number from this tiny village in just one year was already at 656. In fact we were told by Michele a visiting Journalism professor from Italy over lunch, that it was becoming more and more difficult to find women that hadn't experienced some form of violence. In the afternoon a military officer we had spoken to shared a story we had already heard about the Interahamwe. They wrote a village and in their letter they demanded $1000.00 as well as seven virgins, or they would attack. This was even announced on the radio and became public knowledge. The international presence here on the ground did nothing. The population lives in constant fear and as was stated, "where are they going to even find virgins who had not been raped." Unfortunately these kinds of stories are all too common. 

The lunch was one of the most unexpectedly insightful hours that we've spent here. The table consisted of Michele, the army officer, and several local priests who had been here throughout the war. They talked to us about some controversial dynamics: we covered ethnic and historical tensions, tensions between Rwanda and the Congo, mining interests, and the motivations of regional and international actors. They raised some significant questions and provided significant answers from their point of view. We intend to take what they discussed and continue to unearth more details. As we looked back over our notes and video footage, we started to see just how big the things they said potentially are. It's information we take seriously and plan to share more when we get home and can process the whole picture. As we left the lunch the parish priest said to us "You have the truth use it, don't let it go to waste like so many have before you."

Lastly we wanted to share with you Francine's story. Francine is a beautiful 18 year old Congolese woman pregnant with her first child. Unfortunately this child was not Francine's choice but is a child conceived by rape. Before we sat with Francine we thought we would meet a woman with a broken spirit. Instead we we were introduced to a young woman who was the embodiment of courage. As Janny put it, "The women of the Congo are resilient, they are made of steel". She shared that although she still does not feel safe, she was also confident that things would change. When we asked what gave her hope she said prayer, and that "yes I believe it will get better. It has to." Though the man who invaded her home tried to break her spirit she told us she has hope for the future, both hers and that of her unborn child. This is the reason we are here, to be the voice for the hundreds and thousands of Francine's whose stories are never told and suffer in silence, and for the countless others who voice their suffering and are ignored.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Adventure Continues...

So sorry we've been off the grid! The electricity has been out and basically put the internet on the fritz. Right now we are at a restaurant that has free wi-fi so that we could make sure to share with you all! It's been a really productive weekend.  We have moved from our hotel to Janny's apartment overlooking Lake Kivu.  We feel so blessed to have met her... she has introduced us to many stakeholders and has now opened up  her home to us, as well.  It's going to be an intense work week of interviews and filming.  We will be meeting with activists, survivors of sexual violence, military representatives and a couple of other key players (more details to come).  We ask for your continued prayers and/or positive thoughts as the days to come will be extraordinarily emotional and difficult.  

Before we begin what is sure to be an intense week-- we have shared so many moments of laughter here as a team and we wanted to share a few with you.  

There are young men who carry around huge yellow jugs and when Jesse asked what they were, Philippe (Mara's cousin) explained they were selling petrol (gas).  They buy the gas and then sell it at a higher price when the gas stations are closed... They call them Gaddafis.  

We came back to Janny's before heading to meet with some female Congolese activists and journalists to do some work.  We entered the kitchen to find a live chicken sitting on the floor next to the world's  smallest bananas (still on the branch).  As we sat in the living room typing away there was a raucous coming from the kitchen and then, as Poe would say, "the raven cried no more."  I guess we're having chicken for dinner?

Jesse went for a walk and met Bruno the mask seller. He keeps his masks displayed in a tree but his shop is down the road in a sewer. He wanted to show Jesse his wares but a UN truck was parked over the "entrance"  (a.k.a. manhole) to his shop. Now who says the Congolese aren't entrepreneurial and resourceful people?!

The electricity and internet have been a bit spotty, but we will try to keep you as up to date as possible as the week progresses.  As promised, we want to provide you with a few options to find more information on the DRC, its history and what fuels the current conflict.

Check out these websites:
or search the New York times website and Jeffrey Gettleman for recent news.  

For those of you who are looking for good summer reads and are interested in more detailed information, the following books are great.
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hothschild
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns 
or for a less "intellectual" read Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Poisonwood Bible.  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bukavu - who knew?

Last night, Janny was kind enough to invite us to join her and some NGO and businessman friends for a night out in Bukavu. It was the last thing we expected when we began our Congo adventure.  The night started out at a local bar with Janny, her friend Vera and Vera's local IRC team. There was an incredible Congolese band, playing the music I grew up with! It was such a special moment to realize that I was in the DRC listening to live Congolese music, almost a homecoming of sorts and truly a "getting back in touch with your roots" moment. 

We then headed back to our hotel (because it's one of the best restaurants in town) for dinner. After our meal (where we met the head of the IRC GBV division, a safari and tour director, as well as a German man who's doing mining certification-- great connections that we intend to use) we headed to the home of Janny's friends who were Lebanese businessmen. The view from their incredible home by the lake was spectacular and I was able to take some amazing pictures of the city lights reflecting on the lake. We had a great time with them and later we were invited to join all the expats at a bar/club called Chez Victoria. We danced until the wee hours of the morning and were dropped off at home by a UN driver. 

All in all we were amazed at what we saw at every turn. This is NOT the Bukavu the media and our research had told us about. The people here go out at night because they have the freedom here to enjoy life, and music, and dancing. And we're not talking about just the expat community.  The city was alive with people crowding markets and homes.  Bukavu is a thriving city with plenty of room for investment and for the savvy, business here is booming. Not just the bad kind.  Yes, there is A LOT of darkness and exploitation and coltan  smuggling and corruption. The violence concentrated in villages is a seemingly inhuman brutality.  We don't seek to minimize it with this post.  Our days to come will certainly be filled with things that are hard to see and hard to  speak about.  But, one of the goals of our project is and always has been to show that there is also LIFE here.  There is a country that is ready for growth and peace and ripe for legitimate investment.  

We ended our night sitting on a dock on Lake Kivu with a few South African pilots talking about the beauty that is the continent of Africa and the travesty that is its image throughout the world.  People stay away from Africa because it's seen as this scary place filled with only violence and poverty.  But, if you could step one foot on this magnificent continent and see it for what it is, just as it is... its raw beauty, its vibrant culture-- you could see beyond the corruption and the conflicts and the swollen bellies to see the real Africa.  A place that even in the midst of hardship continues to breath life into this world.  Millions of people call Africa home, call Bukavu home.  This is the real Bukavu: laughter, love, friends, family, fun, LIFE... Who knew?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 3: Bukavu

It's day three and only our first full day in Bukavu but we are already so amazed by how things have progressed. Two chance meetings have already begun to help our project take shape.  

Last night we met Christine, the hotel manager's wife (we should pause here to say that we're staying at a Gorilla Safari camp that in the absence of tourists is now filled with humanitarian aid workers and mining industry folk). She also happens to be the President of Eve Ensler's City of Joy outside of Bukavu. We've been trying to connect with this organization since April and last night she came over to our table to say hello. Welcome to Congo! 

We also spent this morning and part of the afternoon chatting with Janny (a mental health advisor working with John's Hopkins in conjunction with the IRC - International Rescue Committee). We need to pause here, yet again, to note that we've been trying to contact the IRC for months. We were literally picked up this morning and told that there was a woman who was willing to chat with us about her work here. The meeting could not have been more successful in helping us achieve our goals. 

As we sat in Janny's apartment overlooking beautiful Lake Kivu (which is strangely reminiscent of Lake Cuomo in Italy!) we talked for hours about the realities of the conflict, the violence, the stakeholders, the failures of intervention and possible ways forward. Janny spoke honestly and openly speaking outside of her official capacity as a representative of the IRC with us, pushing the conversation far beyond the official rhetoric. It turned into a real dialogue about her observations of the sexual violence and its effect on cultural and state structures. 

We plunged into the depths of the violence and the the broader conflict fueling it. We also began to dissect the failure of both the UN missions and massive NGO presence to bring an end to the violence (we'll follow up with a longer post giving our thoughts on the peacekeeping mission etc. and also try to convince Janny herself to write a guest post). While Janny said many things we had not heard or thought of before, her one word response reenforced our own thoughts on what continues to fuel the violence,  "greed". She told us to "look around, the opulence is everywhere". And she's right there are multimillion dollar homes intermixed with hovels at every corner. 

When we came back to the hotel to debrief and film, we sat down with a sheet of paper and started to map out the complex web that is the conflict in the DRC. We came in thinking we were armed with all of this knowledge and had all this research under our belts. But now we feel like investigative journalists in search of the truth, the full story. Because of the nature of our project we have a freedom not enjoyed by many people working in the NGO/UN community. The freedom to peel away and uncover the real forces at work here.

As the day winds down we wanted to share a final thought sent to us today by a dear friend. He said, "You are on a great journey of not only adventure, but of the heart and human spirit." We couldn't have said it better ourselves!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Scarred but Surviving

Today has been an adventure I'm sure we will never forget. Our original plan was to travel across Rwanda to the border of the DRC in  a bus, but due to scheduling issues and an excellent price, we took a private car instead. We were able to cross the border into the DRC and it was surprisingly uneventful. We'd heard such crazy stories and yet here were are, safe and sound in Bukavu writing our loved ones and telling you our story. I'm telling you, you have not LIVED until you've driven across Africa on some of the bumpiest roads with the craziest drivers in the world, listening to a mix of traditional African music, soul, and boy a Toyota that was NOT a typo our car was indeed a Toyota...Corona!! 

I wrote some thoughts down as we drove and thought I would share some insights.
Rwanda is an INCREDIBLY beautiful country. There are green rolling hills, majestic mountains, and tea and rice fields as far as the eye can see. We have passed mud homes, huts with tile and tin roofs, countless churches, and town after town filled with bustling people and colorful markets. There are so many children playing by the road, waving and smiling at the cars, while we saw others playing soccer in the mud (when in rains in Africa it POURS). 

Sitting here as we watch this breathtaking country fly by it's hard to come to grips with the fact that less than 20 years ago, Rwanda was a country whose horrific violence against hundreds of thousands had shocked the world. It's a scar that although it has now become a healed wound, is nonetheless still a difficult reminder. These are the crippled we see along the road, men and women missing limbs that are a stark reminder of Rwanda's dark history. Yes these people are permanently scarred but some carry bundles, others hobble on. They are survivors and are pushing toward a better future. This is Rwanda...scarred but surviving. I can't help but think that this could be the DRC too. There are so many seemingly insurmountable problems but to the naysayers I would point to Rwanda and say "it CAN be done"! Maybe one day the children in the DRC will feel safe enough to stand along the side of working roads to smile and wave at the passing cars. This is my hope for my father's country!


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Evil, Indifference and Fear

So, we're all safely in Rwanda now. You'll hear more about that and our anticipated border crossing tomorrow, but I wanted to quickly share a blog I wrote earlier today from the Dubai airport. My computer died before the post was finished, but enjoy it now instead! (My apologies in advance for the run-on sentences and chaotic thoughts. The time-changes have not been kind).

... It's a little past 11:00a.m. and I find myself sitting in the Dubai airport- showered, refreshed and anxiously awaiting the next leg of my journey to the Congo. This leg will take me to Doha, Qatar, then to Nairobi, Kenya, and ultimately to Kigali, Rwanda where if all goes as planned Mara and Jesse (our filmmaker) will be there to greet me. As I write I am contemplating some questions that often weigh heavily on my mind--today their burden is particularly strong.

In one of our very first IR theory classes Professor Klarevas engaged us in the great Machiavellian debate by asking us these questions: Is man inherently evil? And is the nature of our humanity to tend to our own individual look out for our own interests above everything else? Our class was divided, but I seem to remember myself (the eternal optimist) saying something along the lines of "well, an evil-natured humanity is just not a world I want to believe in" (Lou and Scott insert eye roll here). But, in all seriousness, what of this question? It's easy to be an idealist when you're debating grand theories in the safety (and often naivety) of the classroom. But what does idealism look like when it's put to the test in the real world? After all, am I not venturing to one of the world's great killing fields as we speak? Isn't this a place where evil has been the dominant player?

The truth is that there is a lot of evil in the world... a lot of hurt, a lot of suffering. But there is also a lot of good in the world. Already on this journey I have been reminded of how much good there is. so many have offered to point me in the right direction, help me find a phone, kept me from getting in the wrong line or on the wrong shuttle bus. One woman in Richmond, VA offered to give me her seat on the plane when it looked like I wasn't going to make my connection. I am certain there are more people who are good than people who are evil. So then, there must be a whole lot of something else in the world, as well. That something is indifference. I'm reminded of a quote I heard once that said, "The only thing worse than evil men is the indifference of good men." So many tragedies and injustices are allowed to happen because the majority of us pretend it's not happening. Or we hear a story that makes us feel for those it's happening to, but then we simply switch off the news and continue on with our daily routines. I'm not trying to say that everyone has to travel personally to war zones or be labeled indifferent, but I am sending out a challenge to you to fight for something you believe in... and fight against the things you don't. That's the way you make a difference; that's the way the world is changed: ordinary, good people refusing the path of indifference and instead choosing to speak up.

Maybe I'm right and the classical realists were wrong... maybe humanity is inherently good, but evil often speaks with a louder voice and we need to fight harder to silence it. I hope that as Mara, Jesse and I continue on our journey to into the DRC, we will be able to bring you stories, not just of the brutality there, but also of all of the good happening there-- the countless men and women who are fighting for what they believe is good and true and right. We hope to bring you stories of hope along with the sobering realities of conflict.

Lastly, I am thinking honestly about another question as I'm getting ready to board the plane. It's probably the question I've been asked more than any other surrounding this trip: "Aren't you afraid?" I guess the only way to answer it is with a yes and a no. Nelson Mandela once said that "true courage is not the absence of fear, but inspiring others to move beyond it." Like indifference, fear creates an environment that allows for the evil of men to take space. Often, politicians and leaders fail to do the right thing because they are afraid of losing their power, nations fail to intervene where they can because they're afraid of public opinion, people fail to see beyond stereotypes because they are afraid of people and places and things that look different than themselves. People fail to take risks because they are afraid of the unknown. I can't say that I'm not afraid, but it's more like I have a peace about where the journey will lead... to a greater understanding, to a great adventure and to a life-changing moment that will unfold somewhere along the way. In moving beyond and through my own fear, I hope you will be inspired to step outside of your comfort zone-- because that's where life's most remarkable moments are found.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Adventure Begins

We're Mara and Liz, two graduate students at NYU's Center for Global Affairs. We met on the first day of our very first class, and quickly realized we shared a heart for Africa and a passion for transforming lives. Our work surrounding development, human security, peace-building, and international relations sparked our discovery of the world's deadliest conflict since WWII. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been deemed one of the "world's worst places to be a woman or a child" ( The most commonly cited figures put the death toll between 5 to 8 million Congolese over the past 13 years. The conflict has been characterized by disease, malnutrition, and systemic sexual violence against the people of the Congo. The violence is fueled by complex motives and funded by an enigmatic web of national armies, rebel groups, and regional alliances - all possessing an insatiable thirst for Congo's vast and valuable natural resources. As we began to focus our own individual research, (Liz in Development and Humanitarian Assistance and Mara in Transnational Security) we made the decision to coalesce our work into a single capstone project. The goal of our blog is to take you all on an adventure with us. To give you insight into our thoughts and fears, and along the way, introduce you to the story of the Congo and the Congolese people. We hope this blog becomes a place where you can not only experience our adventures with us, but also a place where you can come to get information and an understanding of the conflict and what you can do to help. 

This is our journey.....