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.

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:


News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


Congolese Suffer Atrocities at IDP Camp
February 7, 2012 VOICE OF AMERICA, Kim Lewis
Armed rebels have staged attacks in refugee camps in North Kivu. Full Story Here…

Can We End Rape as a Weapon of War
February 8, 2012 CNN, Gloria Steinen and Lauren Wolfe
The veteran women’s advocate weigh in on efforts to end sexual violence in war. Full Story Here…

Pragmatism Trumps Democracy in Congo
February 5, 2012 ASSOCIATED PRESS, Michelle Faul
Foreign governments that hoped the elections would signal a new era of democracy now seem content to return to business as usual. Full Story Here…


Somalia Under Threat of Another Famine
February 10, 2012 TIME, Kristen Palitza and Gaet Teidouma
Reports of a failed harvest in a major area may return Somalia to the brink. Full Story Here…

News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


President’s Party Loses Seats in Parliament
February 2, 2012 ASSOCIATED PRESS, Saleh Mwanamilongo
Even with a loss of 45 percent, Kabila’s coalition will remain in power. Full Story Here…

Congolese Women Graduate from First Class at City of Hope
January 29, 2012 CNN.COM, Faith Karimi
The program for survivors of gender violence provides women with six months of leadership skills training and self-defense classes and drama and art classes. Full Story Here…

Elections Highlight Uncertainties Within Congolese Armed Forces
January 29, 2012 EURASIA REVIEW, Melanie Gouby
The ongoing difficulties of integrating former militia members into the national army have been heightened in the wake of national elections. Full Story Here…


UN Declares End to Somali Famine
February 3, 2012 WASHINGTON POST, Sudarsan Raghvan
Although technically over, the UN says more than 2 million people are still in need of dire support. Full Story Here…

News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


Kabila’s Party Takes Majority in Parliament
January 27, 2012 ASSOCIATED PRESS, Saleh Mwanamilongo
The long anticipated results indicate supporters of President Joseph Kabila won two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. Full Story Here…

Opposition Leader Calls for Strike in Response to Results
January 27, 2012 BBC NEWS
Saying the parliamentary results were “rigged”, Etienne Tshisekdi calls on opposition members to boycott the new government. Full Story Here…

After the Election: Now What for Congo?
January 25, 2012 CONGO SIASA, Jason Stearns
The elections were a disaster. Opposition parties remaining divided. Donor nations reactions reach across the spectrum: Where do we go from here? Full Story Here…


Hostages Freed in Somalia
January 25, 2012 ASSOCIATED PRESS
Two humanitarian aid workers kidnapped in December were freed by U.S. military personel. Full Story Here…


News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


New Rounds of Violence Put 100,000 on the Run
January 20, 2012 AFP
UN officials believe the violence began with Congo’s flawed elections in November. Full Story Here…

Rwanda Arrests Four Military Leaders for Congo Smuggling
January 19, 2012 REUTERS, Graham Holliday
The three Rwanda generals and one colonel were responsible for enforcing anti-smuggling efforts. Full Story Here…

Fears of Military Schism Grows in Congo
January 17, 2012 CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, Fidel Bafilemba
Rival groups within the military, with ties to opposition political groups, are increasingly making leaders in Kinshasa nervous. Full Story Here…


Pro-Government Forces Launch New Attack on Militants
January 20, 2012 BBC NEWS
Mobilizing from Mogadishu, the combined AMISOM forces intend to continue seizing territory from Al Shabab. Full Story Here…

News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


DR Congo Legislative Poll Results Delayed
January 13, 2012 AFP
The delay comes while foreign observers continue to aid in the vote tallying effort. Full Story Here…

Clashes After a Troubled Presidential Election Could Re-ignite Civil War
Januray 10, 2012 THE ATLANTIC, John Campbell
The combination of president Joseph Kabila’s skillful use of repression and a population too poor to be concerned with flawed political processes have, thus far, kept large-scale violence at bay. But for how long? Full Story Here…

Fresh Attacks in Eastern Congo Highlights Difficulty of Protecting Civilians
January 10,ENOUGH PROJECT, Annette LaRocco
The recent attacks in eastern Congo show how in the absence of military or police protection, civilians in remote areas often must align themselves with militias, making them vulnerable to attack from rival armed groups. Full Story Here…


Insurgents Continue to Block Delivery of Food Aid in Somalia
January 12, 2012 REUTERS, Stephanie Nebahey
The International Red Cross, one fo the last aid organizations still working in rebel held areas of Somalia, was forced to suspend food delivery for over one million people. Full Story Here…

News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


Rwandan FLDR Rebels Kill 26 in Eastern Congo
January 4, 2012 BBC NEWS
Early investigations determined the villagers in a remote section of South Kivu were attacked for supporting a rival militia. Full Story Here…

Electoral Experts Arrive in Congo to Study Poll Results
January 5, 2012 VOICE OF AMERICA
The American-based observers are focused on the vote counting process, which has been described as “chaotic.” Full Story Here…

Ex-Rebels Given Perks for Supporting President Kabila
December 30, 2011 REUTERS, Jonny Hogg
The benefits, including promotions for rebel leaders within the national army, are widening divides within the military and have cast further doubts on the November 28 election results. Full Story Here…


Somalia’s Al Shabab Rebels are on the Run
January 5, 2012 CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, Scott Baldauf
The increased African Union troop levels seem to be pushing the rebels to the brink, bringing a new level of cautious optimism. Full Story Here…


Coffee For Congo

Connect with Congo-concerned people in your community this year by organizing a monthly Coffee for Congo! Easy, cheap, quick.

1. Pick a local coffee shop, date and time. Email us the info, we will post it under events here. Post it on the A Thousand Sisters Facebook page, too, to find others in your area.

2. Invite your friends, and ask them to bring a pretty card.

3. Bring pens, extra cards, and copies of the letter sent to Secretary Clinton outlining our core policy demands (

4. Write welcome cards to US Special Rep. Walkley! Let him know we fought hard to bring him on board. We look forward to seeing him execute powerful change for Congo. Be sure to reference the policy changes we need to see, as outlined in the our letter to Secretary Clinton. Make sure ever card includes a copy of that Clinton letter, outlining policy we want enacted under Rep. Walkley.

5. Bundle and mail your letters to: A Thousand Sisters, P.O. Box 28427, Portland, OR 97228

Yes, it’s that simple and fun to change the world!

News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


Alarming Rise of Rape In Somalia
December 27, 2011 NEW YORK TIMES, Jeffrey Gettleman
Women and girls displaced by war and famine are being raped at an escalating pace. The veteran Times reporter highlights Sister Somalia as one of few efforts to aid the women. Full Story Here…


Conflict Mineral Laws Have Increased Smuggling
December 30, 2011 REUTERS, Jonny Hogg and Graham Holliday
While the final S.E.C. rules for conflict mineral legislation stall, smugglers and armed groups have taken control of the mineral trade. Full Story Here…

Congo’s Ruling Party Running Neck and Neck with Opposition
December 29, 2011 ASSOCIATED PRESS
Potential gains by the opposition in legislative elections could change the political landscape. Full Story Here…

U.S. Vote Experts Due to Visit Congo
December 28, 2011 SAPA
The panel of experts are expected to advise Congo’s election commission on the vote count for November’s parliamentary elections. Full Story Here…

News to Know

This week’s must-read news stories


Kabila Vows to Rebuild Congo in New Term
December 20, 2011 REUTERS, Jonny Hogg
During his inaugural address, Kabila promised to improve the climate for business and rebuild infrastructure damaged from years of conflict. Full Story Here…

Counting Halted in Parliamentary Vote
December 22, 2011 BBC NEWS
Saying it needed international support to complete the vote in the midst of allegation of voter fraud and election tampering. Full Story Here…

Congo Opposition Leader Takes ‘Presidential Oath’
December 23, 2011 AFP, Habibou Hangre
In a move some predict will destabilize the region, Etienne Tshisekedi ignored a police ban and held his own inauguration. Full Story Here…


U.S Considers Shutting Down Somali Militants Twitter Account
December 19, 2011 NEW YORK TIMES, Jeffrey Gettleman
The discussion of whether or not to shut down Shebab’s Twitter account has generated a debate about support for terrorism and free speech. Full Story Here…

Your power. Your action. Your voice. You can change the world. JOIN US!

We are a diverse,
dedicated group. MEET us!

The Great War
of Africa. LEARN more

Be a lifeline to
rape survivors now. take ACTION

Watch the Video