Observed and being observed in the Congo

The Fuller Center for Housing has no creeds.  We are not a political organization.  We are not “left” nor “right” as the terms are used in our media.  We build houses and in doing so nurture the development of healthier communities.  So it is with some trepidation that I share some experiences in the Congo with social commentary.  A one-week visit in another country in no way makes the traveler an expert on that society.  But I type on because I believe I experienced some glimpses of truth about this marvelous and suffering African nation.

The stories of the wars in Congo are horrific.  An estimated 5 to 6 million people have been killed since 1997 when a rebellion toppled the Mobutu regime.  According to the literature from our hosts in The Disciples of Christ Global Ministries office, the current war is not an ethnic war, but one being waged for access to precious rare-earth minerals found in the Congo.  The story of one particular mineral – coltan –  is illustrative of the source of resource-based aggressions against the Congolese.  This tragedy has created more deaths than any other conflict since World War II, but it doesn’t get the attention in the media as, for example, the Middle East conflicts.

Columbite-tantalite (Coltan) is a black tar like mineral found in the Congo.  An estimated 64-80% of the world’s coltan is in the Congo.  When refined it becomes a heat resistant powder that holds a high electric charge.  Coltran is mined illegally and the revenues from smuggling fund the military occupation of the Congo, thereby prolonging the conflict. Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are among the leading exporters of coltan to the Chinese electronic industry.  Almost no coltan is found in Rwanda and Burundi.  This simple observation helps explain some of the current violence in the Congo.  

If you are reading this blog you are most likely using a machine that was produced with coltan.  I’m blogging on a computer produced through exploitation. I also love my new camera that took the pictures of the Congo that you see on our website. It’s this appetite for laptop computers, cellular phones, ink jet printers, hearing aids, video games and cameras and a host of other things that make life better probably suppresses our interest in how they are made and who makes them. We can be assured that if King Leopold were still in power, his repressive focus would not be rubber but on coltan.  If advances in science find a replacement for coltan, as they have with invention of synthetic rubber, there are plenty of other rare-earth minerals in the Congo that would likely continue the mistreatment of the Congolese. 

War is horrific enough, but the preferred choice of combat and terrorism against Congolese women is unimaginable.  A recent May 2011 study in the New York Times reported that one woman is raped every minute in the Congo.  Accurate statistics are hard to gather in the jungle villages and the attacks are underreported because of the stigma attached to rape victims.  Survivors who return to their families are often rejected as damaged property.   An estimated 1.8 million Congolese women have been raped making it one of the worst crimes against humanity on the planet.

Much of the terrorism and fighting has been occurring in the Eastern portions of the country.  We stayed and work in the Western region near the Congo River, so our program activity has been able to go on without threat.  There continues to be fear, however, that minerals have been discovered in and around Bolomba, so the relative peace may not be long lasting.  

In Mbandaka, we stayed two houses up the river from the house that Millard and Linda Fuller lived in.  It is no longer owned by the church – Instead, It is now the property of a minerals research company and is covered with barbed wire and protected by armed guards, perhaps an ominous symbol for the future of the region.

This backdrop of information is an introduction to a story that I want to share about our arrival in Bolomba.  We expected to take a 6-hour boat ride to the project.  But the local team couldn’t secure a boat for us and we instead traveled for 12 hours on a very bumpy road through the jungle.  We could see that the road had at one point been well maintained by the Belgians, but since their hurried exit from the Congo in 1960, the road had fell into disrepair.  Nature tends to return to its original state, and the jungle closed in on the road, turning it into a mere bicycle path for much of the journey.  Bridges were out and there were times when people who helped us cross the streams felt we didn’t thank them financially enough and they turned angry.  Congolese wear their emotions on their surface.  Happiness is shown without reservation, but so is anger, as we learned.

To make matters worse, due to transportation problems, two members of our party got separated from us and we were unsure of their safety.  We were anxious about reconnecting with them when we arrived in Bolomba.  We were hoping that they made it to our destination ahead of us, but our hearts sunk when we discovered they had not made it there.  

We were greeted in Bolomba with a huge, spectacular parade.  Hundreds of people showed up and sang songs and chanted celebrating our arrival but we were still worried about our missing members.  It was bizarre to experience such jubilation and despair at the same moment.  We asked the Bolomba Fuller Center leadership team to postpone further ceremonies that evening so we could talk about finding our missing team members.  They agreed and sent the crowd away.  By this time it was well after 6 p.m., which is sunset on the equator.   We set out to walk nearly a mile in the dark down to the Catholic Church compound.

The crowd walked with us.  Several boys surrounded our party to keep the crowd from pushing in on us.  As they would push people away, I could see them getting angry.  My anxiety increased.  Leslie O’Tool from Church of the Savior in Knoxville was walking beside me to my left.  To her left, was Craig Martindale from Koinonia. Craig put his hand on the small of Leslie’s back and started to think through what would happen if the crowd closed in on us.  Behind her was her friend Kevin Collins, also from Church of the Savior, who stayed between Leslie and the young men holding hands trying to protect us.

I reached down and grabbed hold of Leslie’s hand. We walked the entire length holding hands and upon our arrival at the house I felt the need to apologize because my hand was so sweaty from nervousness.

We arrived safely at the compound and by morning our missing team members were back with us safe and sound.

But something interesting happened – Leslie was approached by a woman who commented on us holding hands.  She communicated that they need more examples of that in the Congo.  Men and women do not show public affection and protectiveness of each other.

I was so worried during that walk that I didn’t even think about being observed, much less the fact that a man holding hands with a woman would break a cultural and social norm.

Leslie is a Yoga instructor and a fantastic poet. She wrote about the experience using metaphors for God’s presence with humans using the term Lover and the Beloved experiencing union.  While many Christians may be unfamiliar with the language, I think it represents one of Clarence Jordan’s favorite Christian words – “incarnation,” or God among us and in us.

It appears the act of men and women holding hands is revolutionary in the Congo.  This is hard to imagine in our Western culture.  But think about how revolutionary the Koinonia Farm experiment was when the simple act of whites and African Americans sharing a meal together was taboo in the 1950s.  The visceral reaction by the people who observed this practice lead to boycotts, bombings and other acts of terrorism.  

People of different races sharing meals together is a simple act, one that’s symbolic of the Kingdom of God.  But it’s hardly what one would describe as a militant solution to social problems.  It was a vision Martin Luther King, Jr.  shared in his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C.  when he said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  Today we would add “sisterhood.”   

Enjoy Leslie’s beautiful poem and say a prayer for the Congolese people, especially the women.

Unsure of everything,

of everyone, of the night,

and what it will bring.

A journey into the heart

of the wilderness,

where all that came before

exists no more.

Complete in my surrender

to the Divine,

led by the heart,

it is your hand I find.

And you become my world

into which I pour love,

as light pours into the dark.

All become a witness

to the sacred union

of Lover and Beloved

again as One.

We become the Living Flame,

the Revelation, of that

which is eternal-


Democratic Republic of the Congo

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