Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Awkward! Rebuttal to Critique of Kristof

In the interest of sparking class discussion on the interplay between narrative and human rights, my Professor posted a piece that decries Nicholas Kristof’s coverage of human rights atrocities as an “anti-political” “spectacle of violence,” failing to lead readers to address the roots of the violence.

As a primary mechanism of breaking down Kristof’s formula, Prass-Freeman examines one piece in particular. Much to my surprise (and later that of my professor), the Kristof piece he chose is about me. Awkward.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/04/opinion/04kristof.html?_r=0

I wrote this response at the invitation of my professor, for class discussion.

Full disclosure: Nicholas Kristof has written a couple of pieces about me, I have published several pieces on his On the Ground blog, and we appeared on Oprah together in a show focused on his book Half the Sky.

Despite my blatant bias, I feel the need to respond to this piece because I was present for the interviews the author critiques, Generose a dear friend, and I have put quite a bit of thought into telling stories like hers. Especially hers.

Generose was one of the first women sponsored through the project I founded, Run for Congo Women. I met her in 2007, on my first trip to Congo. She missed our scheduled meeting because she was in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening infection in her leg, around the amputation. I paid for the surgery, we built her a house, played with her kids, visited often.

But I did not know what to do with her horrific story. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but in quick summary, in an attack, the FDLR killed her husband, cut off her leg, and commanded her children eat their mother’s leg. Her son refused, so he was killed.

It’s a story about forced cannibalism. How do you tell it in a way that doesn’t reinforce old world stereotypes about Africa? When we talk about Congo, it’s a constant battle between taste and truth, steering away from framing it as savage or tribal,  which often allows people to flip off their empathy switch.

And yet, hers is not close to the only story like it I have heard in Congo. She tells it openly and willingly.  And it’s the truth.

When I returned to the US, I told her story twice in public. When a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum staff covered his ears, I thought: too much.  I didn’t tell the story again for a year and a half. It bothered me intensely that we had discussed little about her past life or the people she lost. When I returned in 2008, I asked her different questions, like what she missed most about her husband. She responded, “When my belly was really heavy with a baby, he would wash my body. It was very intimate.”

Prass-Freeman takes exception to graphic depiction of what he terms “terrible things,” instead of his favored approach of  “glossing these details.” To him, in Generose’s story “the horror is too great to be responded to politically; politics is callous, insensitive, inadequate, somehow just not enough against this evil.”

Except it’s not. Behavioral studies have repeatedly shown nothing is more powerful in moving people to action than one identifiable victim’s story. In Generose’s case, the “vividness effect” also applies, meaning people think of something as a bigger issue the more vivid the story. That’s not theory, it’s science. Love it or hate it, it is how we are wired.

My thinking about her story has changed radically since that first visit. Today, I tell her story, in all its graphic detail, as often as I can. Why? Because people don’t forget that story. I have met countless women who couldn’t get Generose’s story out of their minds…so they decided to act. Fundraise, lobby, protest. Her story had been one of the foundations of the Congo movement.

A quote from Philip Goreovitch’s, author of the Rwandan genocide classic We Wish to Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, has informed my thinking on generalities as our culture’s cop-out of choice:

“There are three words that most motivate the political reporting I’ve done in the aftermath of violence: they are unthinkable, unimaginable, unspeakable. Those things are almost invariably described in order to give voice to their magnitude, without actually addressing it. They are the words by which the press gives you permission to forget about and ignore things. They are the words by which we let ourselves off the hook. They are supposed to be grand. If I say in a deep ponderous voice ‘unspeakable’, you all shutter, and we feel that we’ve had a shared experience of confronting something, when in fact all we’ve really done is shrugged it off together. What are writers here to do except to imagine, think, and speak?”

The thesis of Prass-Freeman’s piece is that Kristof’s coverage of human rights abuses moves people away from action, while allowing people like me to serve as a surrogate. Prass-Freeman asks “But what is to be done with this knowledge? What kind of awareness has he really raised?”

Great question.

Prass-Freeman acknowledges Kristof’s pivotal role in catalyzing the Darfur movement. Kristof’s book Half the Sky serves as a go-to guide for those jumping into the international women’s movement. Additionally, I can offer a few first-hand examples of Kristof’s impact on Congo. Our joint appearance on Oprah raised six million dollars in a week. Those are rolling donations that are now approximately 15 million, translating to about 90,000 Congolese women and kids directly aided. But the new sponsors also exchange letters with victims, cementing a personal relationship that often drives further action. They feel they have a friend living through the conflict, so they are more apt to get involved in systemic change.

I concur that coverage of the roots of these problems is essential. But then, Kristof has published lots pieces that do just that. One piece outlined basic policy measures that most in the movement agree are the keys to stabilizing the country. He wrote another full piece on conflict minerals, Death by Gadget, at precisely the moment tech companies were trying to gut conflict minerals legislation. It proved a tipping point. The same day, in reaction to the piece, Steve Jobs publicly acknowledged Apple’s problem with conflict minerals, and within a few weeks committed Apple to work on it. The legislation passed.

Another piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, DIY Foreign Aid, covered my move from strictly fundraising to taking on systemic drivers of the conflict, with a focus on my grassroots protests and involvement in passage of conflict minerals legislation.

Actor Ben Affleck is obsessed with Nicholas Kristof. That’s how he learned about Congo. Typically, I am not a huge fan of mega-movie stars photo-ops to advance a movement. But Affleck forwent this approach, founding a well respected Congo policy think-tank called Eastern Congo Initiative. They work on nothing but supporting local Congolese leaders while driving US policy toward long term, systemic change.

Prass-Freeman and I obviously have different approaches and play different roles in human rights. But something does haunt me about his essay. His superimposed moral and academic lens quickly loses track of his target. His criticism Kristof’s writing slips into abstract commentary on the facts of Generose’s life, as though speaking them is in and of itself an offense.

Prass-Freeman disowns his own projections by couching them as his imagined Kristof followers’ “Orientalist, classist, and racist fantasies.” This, he apparently feels, gives him license to spiral into an astounding web of his own baseless projections onto real life facts.

Militiamen carried out her attack. To say so, makes them “bestial others.

Generose lost her leg. To say so, Prass-Freeman argues, is to make her “less than her body.”

Generose’s quote makes her appear an unsophisticated “savage who cannot understand the way one should communicate.”

Generose’s planned to run next to me, “hobbling on one leg.”  Saying so makes her an animal.

In so doing, Prass-Freeman frames Generose in a manner I have never heard from any other present day scholar, activist, Congolese person, or writer. They cut her leg off. Her son was murdered for refusing to eat her leg. These are the facts of her experience. Yet, the author drones on as though she and her child were characters in 18th century literature:

“The body creates more symbolic capital by virtue of becoming less than itself. Because somehow this is not enough, the young boy stands up in the face of evil to be shot down, made the sacrificial lamb who will need to be resurrected and redeemed.”

It is Pass-Freeman who relates to Generose as an object, her life theorized into oblivion.

Prass-Freeman’s solution? To not speak.  He concludes by holding Occupy Wallstreet up as a new ideal. “Occupy Wall Street may (perhaps inadvertently) provide us with a particularly sophisticated example of how to ‘speak’ the open secret: By not speaking—by resisting attempts that would coerce it into making legible claims—OWS performs demands on others to think and act politically.”

Not speaking. Not making legible claims- how did that go? The fate of Occupy Wallstreet is not one I would wish on any human rights campaign.

These are extremely important questions all human rights activist should grapple with. What motivates people? What makes them shut down? How do you share the truth while maintiaing the dignity of the subject. I have gotten that so, so wrong many times. But if you are in the fire, you learn, stumble, grow, and mature.

Does awareness lead to action? For most people, no. But then nothing can or would lead most people to action. The real question is does it stir some people, enough people, to step up, and can those people form a movement that addresses the roots of these horrors. But if we actually care about other people living through atrocities, then what must matter most is their security and well-being. What approach achieves maximum impact?

The proof is in the results.

As for Generose, I’m not at all comfortable with anyone presuming to know better than her what she should or should not say in public. My rule these days is simple: Her life, her story, her terms.

The day of our run in Congo, Generose showed up in a red suit and pink pearls. She gave a speech in front of the mayor and members of parliament. Did she hobble? Well, her crutches were mismatched. Her shoe was slippery, so we ran barefoot together. But that didn’t make her “like an animal.” Not how she sees it. I asked why she would do the run, and she said, “Because if I can run on only one leg, everyone will know they can do something to help.”

 

A few links:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/opinion/27kristof.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/04/opinion/04kristof.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/magazine/24volunteerism-t.html?pagewanted=all

 

1502, Rape Profits & You

Dear {As-of-Now Nameless CEO},

We are contacting you as a community of American women and men — moms, dads, grandmas, small business owners — who played a vital role in the passage of conflict minerals legislation last year. Please see the attached press clippings on our actions supporting passage of the conflict mineral legislation: National Public Radio’s Morning Edition; The New York Times; and The New York Times Magazine. Please note, our protests from last year are featured in an upcoming documentary. The filmmaker’s previous feature length film secured distribution in more than 120 cities.

We are deeply disturbed that {YOUR MULTI BILLION DOLLAR CORPORATION} may be supporting NAM and the US Chamber of Commerce in threatening a lawsuit against the SEC to challenge its rules and regulations enforcing the legislation.

Let us be clear how the US grassroots movement for Congo views the threatened lawsuit: Despite unanimous, bi-partisan support for the legislation, all companies backing the NAM and Chamber will be suing the US government for the right to rape profiteer. All credible estimates indicate the regulations will require extremely modest investment on the part of industry. By claiming these regulations are too “burdensome” or “expensive”, your company effectively declares your profits, business model, and brand are predicated on the mass rape of women and children in the Congo. US consumers will not tolerate “X Co: One Stop Rape Shop”.

We understand NAM and The US Chamber of Commerce are known to misrepresent the position of their members. We are approaching you to enlist your public statement against this remarkably risky move on the part of NAM and the US Chamber of Commerce. We urge you to issue a public letter asking NAM and The US Chamber of Commerce cease and desist, as attached here. Modifications will need to be reviewed by our attorneys. In so doing, you will clearly establish your brand as a compassionate, progressive industry leader we will celebrate.

Women’s security is not an optional extra in your business model. We urge your immediate, bold leadership in saying no to rape-based business by issuing this letter, by close of business Thursday Oct. 6. Otherwise, we look forward to continuing the dialogue in a public forum.

Sincerely,

Lisa Shannon

Founder & CEO, A Thousand Sisters

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/opinion/27kristof.html

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/magazine/24volunteerism-t.html?pagewanted=all

 

http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/scrubbing-our-cell-phones-of-conflict-minerals/

 

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127740457

 

[ATTACHED LETTER TO BE RELEASED THURS EVENING]

 

My 5am Power Meeting with Sarah Palin- at Baggage Claim

Flight back from Anchorage, 2A- Me 2B- Sarah Palin. She read Runner’s World. We slept. Got off plane. I was not going to do this. But I posted a status update on Facebook, and the fam insisted it was a moment not to be missed. At baggage claim, I approached her….

I said we had lots in common. We’ve both been on Oprah. Both written books. Both speak. What about? She wanted to know. Congo. Gave her the rundown- the war, women, bi-partisan nature of the issue here. Republican leadership like Sam Brownback, the 40+ co-sponsors in the House, and 20+ sponsors in the Senate for recent Congo legislation. But mostly what an important issue this is to American women on both sides of the aisle. I cited my MANY Republican supporters, and how moved they would be to hear from her on this issue. How invested Americans are. She asked the name of my book twice, said she would google me, asked I feel it’s getting better…so I said sexual violence is worse, but at least people aren’t massacred by the 500’s or 700’s any more. Elections coming this summer. The US has major role to play- 2 billion in aid between 2007-2010, and that we must ask more of Congolese govt- mostly that their soldiers don’t attack. No justice system. Impunity. She was not familiar with the issue, but seemed very interested, asked more q’s. I repeatedly mentioned Oprah’s support, ABC World News, and how Oprah viewers know and care. Also mentioned run in Congo, as covered in Runner’s World, which she apparently reads. Congolese women running to raise money for each other. And of course, the 7 mil fundraising totals (politicians always seem impressed with that figure.) Chit chat. Kodiak, Alaska are amazing. My visit to the university, she’s heading to visit her daughter after speaking engagement. How she keeps her makeup looking that good after a night flight is beyond me.

Okay. Must get some sleep!

On Criticism: Notes from a chat with O Magazine Power Listers

At the O Magazine Power List shoot, my favorite moment was when Sergeant Teresa King- the US Army’s first woman drill sergeant trainer of drill sergeants- asked a small group of us, “How do you all deal with criticism?” In private conversation, many activists have asked me the same question.  In NY, this group of “Power Women” talked about it. Boy, did I get over my “they’ve blogged and commented against me” pain. Fast. These women have lived through multi-million dollar smear campaigns, dead animals left on their front porch, and bullets through her grandchild’s bedroom window.

But the themes were universal. Some highlights.

Any time you step out, you put yourself in the line of fire. We may play it tough, but it can be painful. Sometimes it gets to you. As one power lister pointed out, telling yourself to just “get over it” often isn’t enough. What can we do in those moments?

Retreat to your dead-clear, deepest sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Cling to it.

I have a Buddhist trick- praise and blame come in equal force in life. Expect it. Don’t invest in either.

Never, ever read anonymous commentary on the internet. Too easy for people to be mean. No name, no credibility. Just don’t read that stuff. Don’t.

Sometimes you just need to go to that “Fuck You Mother Fuckers” place inside. That’s okay.

Sometimes you just have to lose it. Not in public, of course. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with a proper freak-out in the privacy of your own home.

You need a “safe group”. Three or four friends you can call at midnight, vent, cry, whatever. People you trust completely, who offer honest feedback. (This cannot be your mother- you will spend more time talking her down from her upset on your behalf.)

With Congo, I try to remember it’s painful to hear about what’s happening in Congo, so sometimes people lash out at the messenger because they want the awful feelings and stories and reality to just go away.

Remember, it’s easy to be snarky and jab. Never let them paralyze you.

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt,  “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Dear Secretary Clinton: A Call to Action

We’ve done it! Due to your overwhelming support of our letter to Secretary Clinton, Rep. David Wu (Oregon) has authored a “Dear Colleague” letter, calling on his fellow House Members to join him in calling on Secretary Clinton to form a comprehensive plan to end the violence in Congo.  The letter is thorough, based on diplomatic solutions, and has been vetted by many policy experts.  See text below. It is posted on a House of Representatives Dear Colleague online service for your Rep’s easy access.

This is OUR moment. Own it. YOU made this happen. This is the moment to let our government know we are serious about solutions for Congo.  Please join me in contacting your representative and urge them to sign onto Rep. Wu’s letter.

Some ideas:

1. Call the office and ask who the staff is that deals with Congo/ Africa. (Upper left hand corner- http://www.house.gov/)

2. Ask to talk with them. Let them know about the letter.

3. Print out the 700+ messages posted below here, write a cover letter, and hand deliver (or mail) it to your representative’s office. Up the ante by getting your friends to sign your cover letter, too!

Goal: Rep. David Wu has authored Dear Colleague letter, inviting member of Congress to sign on to his letter to Secretary Clinton proposing long term solutions for Congo. Urge them to sign onto the letter. They can find it on the “e-Dear Colleague” web service. But offer to send it to them via email if that is easiest.

Talking points:

1. There is a robust movement for Congo, and you are a part of it. List all the things you have done for Congo (sponsor, run, pray with your community, organize on campus).

2.List which groups you belong to (church, student groups, moms, groups).

3. Speak from your heart.

4. This is mainstream, “bread and butter” policy for Congo. Policy experts widely agree the letter covers the 3 key levers for ending the conflict. This letter covers critical, solid, non-partisan, diplomatic policy.

5. The recent arrest of FDLR Executive Secretary in France is a strong message these actions are doable.

6. Republicans and Democrats alike have signed this letter. Compassion for Congo has always been a bi-partisan effort.

7. They’re too busy? Remind them the stakes could not be higher, and the letter deserves their House Member’s time. Women in Congo can’t wait.

8. Remember you are developing a positive, ongoing relationship with this person. Thank them!

If you can’t get through, or don’t hear back, CALL AGAIN to check in.

Look at you change the world, sister!

Lisa

Dear Colleague,

Please join me in sending the following letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging renewed action to end violence against women and children and resolve the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo.

Last month, the United Nations reported on the systematic rape of over 500 women by armed combatants in eastern Congo during the month of August. The report further details how the U.N. Mission in Congo learned of attacks around the village of Luvungi days after they took place and were unable to provide protection to the civilians in the region. These horrific acts must not be tolerated.

The nature of the increasing violence in Congo, in particular violence against women and children, demands a renewed response from the United States and the international community. While the United States continues to provide humanitarian and other assistance to support the country’s transition to democracy and its healthcare and education infrastructure, there is more we can do to help stop the violence in eastern Congo.

I hope you will join me in asking Secretary Clinton’s assistance in implementing this set of measures to protect civilians, disarm and reintegrate militias, stop the flow of conflict minerals and bring an end to the conflict in eastern Congo.

To sign on to the letter, or if you any questions or concerns, please contact Steve Marx in Congressman Wu’s office at 503-326-2901 or via email at email hidden; JavaScript is required. Thank you very much for your consideration.

October XX, 2010

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton

Department of State

2201 C Street NW

Washington, DC  20520

Dear Secretary Clinton,

We write to you to express our concerns over the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to request renewed action from the State Department to prevent further violence against women and children.

We were shocked and dismayed to learn of the mass rapes and violence that took place in eastern Congo and in particular around the village of Luvungi during August 2010. Furthermore, we are disappointed by the recent report from the United Nations on September 9, 2010, that details how the U.N. mission in Congo learned of the attack on Luvungi days after it took place and was unable to provide protection for the civilians in the region.

We appreciate the work you have done to support the country’s transition to democracy and to strengthen its healthcare and education systems. In addition to the humanitarian assistance that the United States currently provides, we support the Fiscal Year 2011 Economic Support Funds to support the government of Congo’s stabilization and recovery program, as well as the International Military Education and Training program to train Congolese officers. However, the nature of the increasing violence in Congo, and in particular the violence against women and children, demands a renewed response from the United States and the international community. Toward this end, we respectfully request action on the following items.

First, the U.S. should coordinate with donor governments and the Congolese government to spearhead a comprehensive security sector reform (SSR) plan for the Congolese army, as part of a package to include training of multiple battalions; payment reform; barracks construction; and streamlining of large, unwieldy battalions. The time is ripe for such reform due to donors’ improved SSR coordination mechanism and the Congolese government’s welcoming of an increased U.S. role in SSR.

Second, the U.S. should help devise a targeted strategy to disarm the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLDR). The FDLR is responsible for much of the most horrific violence in Congo, while providing an excuse for the existence and criminal behavior for nearly every other armed group in Eastern Congo. A focused effort is needed to target senior FDLR leadership, reintegrate mid-level FDLR officers, and arrest and sanction FDLR leaders and funding sources abroad.

Third, the U.S. should help create a multi-stakeholder certification process for conflict minerals, in partnership with the governments of Congo and Rwanda. Following the passage of legislation on conflict minerals as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill, a certification process with independent monitoring is the necessary next step to stop the flow of conflict minerals that continue to provide funds to the FDLR and other militias.

Last, we believe that the administration should appoint a Special Envoy to the Great Lakes to work directly with heads of state in the region on a regular basis to address the key security issues of the region.

We understand that it will take a sustained effort from the international community on multiple fronts to resolve this conflict and are committed to ensuring that the United States lives up to its role as the world’s leader on human rights. As members of Congress, we look forward to working with you to implement these measures and bring hope to the innocent women and children of eastern Congo.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. We look forward to your response and renewed focus on this issue.

Can I take him for a little while? Lost Dungu blog.

Because some have interpreted my previous blog entry as critical of tea and motherhood, I would like to clarify: I am in awe of mothers. And I love tea. The serving of tea was a metaphor, as in no I won’t give up my life work to serve someone else’s tea or vision.

But as long as we are on the subject of the shamelessly personal, I will share this blog from Dungu, which I deemed too personal to post at the time. All raw material that’s going into the next book. We all face hard, real life decisions about work and family life. No easy answers.

Some may recall Herite, who was found after LRA Attack wrapped in his dead mother’s arms, still nursing.

Can I take him for a little while?

Fending off her family’s inquiries into my family and marital status, Koko has taken to telling everyone my story as framed by Nick Kristof: My fiancé signaled I had to choose between him and Congo, and I chose Congo.  One of her male cousins announced, much to everyone’s delight, “It’s like that you are a Congolese woman!”

The whole family went to the Bamokandi mission today to collect “Non-food Items” being handed out by Caritas, prepared to wait all day for soap, blankets, cloth, rice seeds, a t-shirt and a few dishes.  Koko and I pulled babysitting and cooking duty. I went to see Aunt Harriet.  As I ducked into their open-air hut. Antoinette’s baby boy, now returned home from the hospital, sat inside next to his now very ill younger Aunt. His older two siblings would be coming later today to resettle with their extended family. Dad will not be taking them on.

I picked him up, held him on my lap.  He smiled!  Practically a revolution since the last time we visited.  I gave him stickers again, tickled him, touched his hair, but mostly he wanted to play with my hands, pushing them away, pulling them back, smiling, gasping every time a giant UN truck drove by.

Aunt Harriett was tickled, “Take him and me with you when you go!”

It was time to go, so I set him down next to his young Aunt. He burst into tears.  I picked him up again, he quieted right down and rested his head on my shoulder. As he calmed down, Aunt Harriet reached out to take him, and he let out a squeal and cry- not the fussy protest of any baby, but a trauma-infused, desperate squeak, like please don’t take her from me. He grasped my arm and buried his little head in my neck, crying.

I’m so sunk.

“He’s wasting your time.” The young aunt said, but he just lost his mom, and the way he lost her….  Still, we had to go.  After many tries to soothe him, we had to just set him down and walk away down the street to his sobbing behind us.

Maternal instincts on fire, Koko and I went to the market and gathered supplies for a much-requested encore with the noodles and peanut sauce.  On the drive, we talked over the heartbreaking scene.  Koko simply said, “Children sense who loves them.”

We came back to the compound, and while chopping onions, stirring the bubbling peanut sauce over the brick and charcoal “burner”, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Every adopt-an-orphan-from-Africa thought I’ve ever had was in full bloom- I imagined trick-or-treating, school pageants, mapped out a daily schedule that would still allow time for me to be a writer/ activist. How could I make it work? I thought of all the Congolese women who do it, no questions asked, even with nothing, even when they can’t feed their own kids.  They just take it on and make it work….

As soon as the cooking was finished, I took noodles and peanut sauce back over. (Koko wrote down the Lingala words for “I made it.”) Young Auntie had been to the doctor and I gave her $30 to cover it (his dad never shared the $20 I gave him for the little guy’s care.).  I fed my peanut noodles to him. He loved it.  This time I got out the door and to the street before he started to cry.

Back at the compound, I still felt restless, facing the immoveable fact: I do not want to be a mother. I never have. Since I was like, 10, if you asked me I would have told you I don’t want kids. And anyway, bad idea. His mother was murdered a few weeks ago, his dad pushed his little brother towards the LRA, got on a bike, and rode off to safety. He also kept the $20 I gave him and did not spend it on Herite’s care- even when he was limp and wasting in the hospital. Hardly a fit alternative.  But the family wants him, and after 5 years of my very real life choices (read: no pay and soon to be homeless!) I’m in no position. Impossible is impossible.

Still, I had Koko write out how to ask if he could come to her place for a visit.  She wrote out Lingala words for “Can I take him for a little while? I’ll bring him back.”

Young Auntie agreed, washed him up, dressed, him and sent us on our way.  We had a grand time. Watched home videos on my blackberry of my cats and birds in the snow, postcards of Mt. Hood, stickers, more noodles and peanut sauce. More smiles.

I’ve had fun bonding with Koko’s little nieces and nephews, like little Narcisis (I know, don’t ask…) who was so terrified of me and my whiteness, she would scream and cry and run away at the very sight of me our first week here. We’ve since become the best of friends with gifts of stickers and many rounds of a campfire song about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I am in awe of mothers.   I’m close to several families with little ones, and immerse myself whenever I can.  Last summer I stayed with my cousins Tammy & Amit on Vashon Island while completing my book.  For a month and half I watched Tammy’s immeasurable patience with her three young daughters, the sacrifice of sleep and food and even five spare minutes for herself. The payoff was so clear in her little girls’ self esteem, sweet dispositions, sense of security.  I’m sure I don’t have that in me.

It’s not that in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have children.  If I could have it all, I surely would. But life doesn’t operate that way. It’s full of hard choices with very real price tags, ones that are easy to lie to yourself about. A child must be the most important thing in a parent’s life.  And a child will never be more important to me than my work.

I asked Koko what she thought. “Look around. Children love you. You already have children everywhere.”

I’ve spent years toying with the idea of adopting someday.  Today I knew – if I can come to Congo, and hold a beautiful little boy in my arms, one whose mother was murdered holding him, he can bond with me that fast, I can feel his little hands grasping my neck as I put him down, tightening up, and weep when I finally say goodbye for the day. I want to take him home…and still don’t want to be a mother. It makes me wonder about myself. My capacity to love and give to the general public (at least the Congolese general public), but my personal failures to love anyone in particular all that well.

So I guess it’s like that I am not, and will never be, a Congolese woman.

Epilogue to blog: It got worse. I fell hard into star-crossed mother love with Herite. And I don’t mean as an activist and baby with horrific war story.  Can’t explain it any more than people can explain love at first sight. What’s a connection about when you can’t even exchange 2 words? No explanation. Then I met his brothers, and fell in triple star-crossed mother love. Still I “took him for a little while” often, even as it was clear it was not appropriate or possible to ever consider adopting him and his brothers. As a plan B, Francisca and I toyed with becoming “lesbian God parents” (haha), but both Herite and I turned out to be disqualified since I’m not Catholic, and he is the third child of unwed parents. The only role left for me to play is to send money. Not exactly soul food. Didn’t stop us from sharing a lot of great afternoons together, including one, when much to my horror, Francisca’s cousin asked Herite if I was his new Mommy and he answered “yes”.

Dear Madam Secretary Clinton

Dear Madam Secretary Clinton,

We applaud your visit to Congo last year. As American women, business owners, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, runners, and others deeply concerned with Congo, we are proud of your interest and commitment to Eastern Congo.

However, if the IRC mortality study statistics have held, more than 500,000 Congolese people have died since your visit. Tens of thousands of women, children, and even infants have been raped, including the recent incident of close to 200 women and infants, within 10 miles of a UN compound. This is our shame.

The USA has taken precious little action. That needs to change today. You are the leader to make it happen.

  1. You promised Congo 17 million dollars. Why is it still sitting in a US Government account, buried in red tape? Unacceptable. Please do what you must to get this critically needed aid to Congolese women today.
  2. The culture of impunity in Congo must end. Congo needs a justice system. The Congolese army must be professionalized, so soldiers “protect and serve” rather than “steal and rape”.   We urge you to coordinate with donor governments and the Congolese government to spearhead a comprehensive national security sector reform plan for Congo.

Congolese women and children need your immediate action. We look forward to celebrating your bold, immediate leadership on this critical issue.

Sincerely,

A Thousand Sisters

{Please add YOUR name and personal note to Secretary Clinton here. I’ll pass it on!}

Lisa Shannon, Founder, Run for Congo Women, Author A Thousand Sisters, Sister to Generose & Thousands of other Congolese women.

Following Generose

When we hear about the horror in a place like Congo, its easy to get overwhelmed. I always think of Generose. We had known each other for years, but when she showed up for the run in Congo, I felt I learned one of the greatest lessons ever- from her. Many of you know her story- her home was attacked, her husband, leg cut off and force-fed to her children. When her 9 year old son refused, he was shot and killed. How do you live through that?

But on the morning of the Run for Congo Women in Congo, she showed up in a red suit and pink pearls. Although she was on old crutches, on one leg, she ran.  It was painful for her, and after about a third of a mile, she had to stop.  Some might say she didn’t finish the one mile course.

But you know what? She showed up.

She showed up and took it as far as she could.

And when I asked her why, she said, “If I can run on only one leg, everyone will know they can do something to help.”

Today, that humble war victim and her act of running made the national news in the USA. She became a voice for her nation.

Follow that woman.

All we need to do is follow Generose’s lead, and show up. Imperfectly, without always knowing the right thing to say or do, but show up for Congo. The reverberations will be far greater thatn anything you can imagine.

Here are some simple ways to get involved. Or join our group A Thousand Sisters on facebook.

http://athousandsisters.com/act

Boycott Conflict Minerals: I hereby take full responsibility for my own supply chain.

I’ve spent months asking tech companies to take full responsibility for their supply chains and stop funding the humanitarian crisis in Congo. We agree conflict minerals from Congo- like tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold- are in all of our consumer electronics products and other goods.  We agree they are funding millions of deaths at a rate of 45,000 per month.  We agree its unacceptable, and most tech companies agree it needs to change.

We asked for one thing: Guarantee Conflict Free.

I’ve brought them love offerings of pennies. I’ve logged countless hours on facebook. I’ve walked, run, driven and flown thousands of miles trying to visit companies like Intel, HP, and Apple, urging them to emerge industry leaders. I’ve sat down with corporate representatives in behind closed doors. I’ve sweated out the DC heat while hand delivering books and notes to urge the US Congress to vote for the strongest possible conflict minerals language. I’ve written to Steve Jobs multiple times. I’ve begged, yelled, argued, flattered. I’ve even used the word “rape” in front of tech guys, despite protests it made them “uncomfortable”.

But I have failed to do one thing: Take full responsibility for my own supply chain.

Based on the leadership and vision of my sisters Monica, Richa, Pamela, and Mom (aka Mrs. Claws), I see what I considered impossible is possible.

Pamela: I don’t really see adults getting the latest and greatest tech device as essential.

Richa: My kids enjoy swimming , bicycling , running around, singing and dancing . I don’t care for Nintendo products but just want them to stand up and be on our side of humanity .That’s all I care about .

Mrs. Claws: Boycott not feasible? I say it is imminently feasible and practical to make US buyers think twice and to hold back from the EASE with which they purchase upgrades to their sexy new tech products. And that will hurt the giants big time…if we institute a don’t buy unless you absolutely have to … and then, buy used on EBAY.

Thanks, sisters. I have made a decision. If tech co’s are too shy to go first, I will.

I hearby pledge I will not purchase another new tech product, piece of jewelry, or any item that may contain conflict minerals until the provider offers a guarantee it is conflict free. Until such products are available, if I need such a product, I will only buy second hand. From this moment on, I guarantee myself conflict free.

I encourage other to join me in this pledge. BOYCOTT CONFLICT MINERALS.

PS- And Steve Jobs, please fix this fast! I really want a new iPhone! XO- Lisa

What draws us to the Congos of the world?

The other day, I sat down to begin work on my second book. I’ve known for ages I want to include a couple of conversations I had with a guy I met on the terrace at the Orchid Safari Club on my most recent trip. (No, this is not a love story, so let’s get that out of the way up front).

A few basics: A 40- something guy who has worked in development and African war zones (Somalia, Darfur, Congo, etc) for more than 20 years, we started talking about rice cakes and almost instantly found ourselves in a raging debate about writing on Congo, development, neo-colonialism, and listening to Congolese people. Then he mentioned he almost drowned in Lake Kivu the day before.  He moved back to the US 2 years ago to try to create a life, though he “has no friends” in his new town.

Yes, he’s a difficult man, but I liked him nonetheless, and through the lens of the upcoming book, shamelessly found him fascinating.  We got together after one of my readings on my book tour and talked more.

I finally wrote him to fess up that I want to include him in my book. The following is our exchange:

Hey there. Happy 4th!

Sat down to start work on my second book this morning. Would you mind if I include a couple of our conversations? I always ask.

Was serious when I said some of our conversations stayed on my mind.

Lisa

***

Hi. Glad to hear you are busy again. Can I ask which conversations you’re referring to? Thanks

***

Hmmm. I could say orchid and after the reading….but I’m not sure that’s adequate.

Tricky to explain in lightweight terms. Most of the story will be focused on the LRA, my friend francisca and her family. But my narrative arc will deal with the opposite arc of the first book- stripping back the “one person makes a difference” story. Questions like-  what drives people to places like Congo? To help others or help ourselves? Running towards something or running away? Is “amazing” work a cover for personal failures? Does spending time in places like Congo make you more alienated, or does that sense draw you there in the first place? And ultimately- like every story in this genre- can one rejoin the living? How do you carve out a life, especially when everything feels so painfully low stakes when you return?  All issues I’ll address throughout the book. We touched on them briefly, in a way I found unintentionally poetic, the first time we talked at orchid- your near drowning, your return to the US after 20 yrs, since becoming a permanent ex pat is “its own kind of graveyard”. And the conversation after my reading.

***

Thanks. I would only add that I believe in a cosmic principle acc to which however much  you lose or become unmoored from your original community, you gain one some where else. So if I said those things about expat life I didn’t mean to diminish all that my time in congo, and congolese, have contributed to the quality of my existence on this earth.

Anyway it’s an ongoing discussion as these issues have no pat answers and are deeply personal, often to the point of useless western navelgazing. I’m sure you’ll steer clear of that.

I just edited a friend’s book with a similar theme.  Do we need another story of a lost westerner ‘finding themselves’ in the suffering of the less fortunate? It happens, sure, but the optics of such tales are very suspect, and support the notion held by many that we are only interested in the congoes of the world for selfish reasons. 

I’ll be in kinshasa from X to X if you’re through there.

Take care

***

Ah! No secret- pretty much from the moment we met- that your world view is inherently skeptical of my work, the way I would tell my story, and the methods I use. I still find you fantastic.

Was your 20 years in the Congoes of the world driven by selfish reasons? Is that inherently flawed, or is all human action driven in some way by selfish reason- the way every protagonist- and even antagonists- push towards something they believe to be positive? I wonder if we care, try to connect and do something good, but it is also selfish- that all of it is true. Does it diminish the act of showing up?  Maybe. But if we spend all of our energy trying to get to a perfect soul place about it, does it lead to paralysis and prevent people from engaging with and for other human beings? Which is the lesser of the evils?

In the end, real art explores the complexity of an issue without providing answers. But every story is about people learning about themselves- for better or worse- against any backdrop.

Some theorize we are either critics or creators- hard to be both. And in the end, my best guess is that its easier- or at least safer- to be a critic.  The creative process isn’t driven by left brain, pc questions about what stories the world needs, but rather a raw, honest exploration of human experience.  I don’t find that useless. Especially if one is painfully aware of one’s own bullshit in the process. I’m not sure how it all pans out in the big picture, but I know I’m happier when I’m less skeptical and emotionally paralyzed- even if it does come at the price of being flawed or exposed.

For sure it is deeply personal.

No plans for Kinshasa, but hope you have a wonderful time!

Lisa

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