Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Visit To Congo

This account of a recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo caught my eye in Malu Kayi, the newsletter of Leja Bulela, an organization supporting Kasai Province, where many scenes in Heart of Diamonds took place. The author is Ilunga Kalala, a member of Leja Bulela Youth.

When I returned to the United States from the Congo, I had a difficult time finding the words to describe my experience to friends. The sentiment the journey left me with was, in many ways, lost in translation. There exists in the language of our people, however, a proverb that epitomizes my trip better than any description I can conjure up in the English language. It is Kwenda kumona malu.

I heard this expression on one of my first days in Lubumbashi. Kwenda kumona malu was the vocal refrain of a traditional Luba song I heard playing on the radio. The buzzing resonator drum, the thumb pianos, and the xylophone reminded me of the music my father once played with regularity. Recognizing my affinity for the song, my uncle took me a level deeper by describing the meaning of the refrain. Loosely translated, it means, "When you travel you see things."

I spent almost two months in the Congo and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and experienced. A typical day was as follows: Daybreak brought an otherwise quiet neighborhood to life. The faint alarm of a distant factory announcing the start of the workday was followed by the quiet shuffling of feet towards Avenue
Mobutu. Power outages were the norm, particularly at the most inopportune times of day. Most mornings, my aunt would boil water and prepare breakfast over the same outdoor charcoal grill. A half-bucket of warm water was sufficient for me to bathe and by 8:45am I had eaten a small breakfast and was ready to begin the workday.

On our way into the city center, we would traverse man-made bridges and deteriorated roads in an imported sedan that drove like a 4x4. My work at Action Contre l’Impunit√© pour les Droits Humains (ACIDH), the human rights NGO where I interned, began at 9am. Like Leja Bulela, ACIDH came into existence after the forced exodus of Kasains from the Katanga province inspired several individuals to take action. The human rights violations and impunity ACIDH took on meant the work was precarious. The office was a sanctuary of optimism in spite of this and I felt at ease conducting my research on the street children phenomenon.

I cherished the time just before dinner for this was when I gained the most insight on various aspects of our culture. It was when, in the company of family, everything from genealogy to the custom of dowry was described to me in detail. The conversation would carry on to the dinner table where I ate the best nchima I have ever had in my life. After dinner, we would relax for an hour or so and by 10pm I was ready for bed.

My trip to the Congo was no romantic journey. In fact, many of my experiences were emotionally taxing and difficult; but for every downside there was an upside. My only regret was that I was not able to make it to Kasai.

That trip is one I look forward to making with the Leja Bulela youth. When that time comes, I am certain that the maxim kwenda kumona malu will take on new meaning for us as we chart our course and carry on the torch by beginning charity at home.
Many thanks to Tania Kasongo for permission to cite this piece.

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

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