Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

The above title is a recent book (Stearns, 2011) describing the Congo War which began in 1996.  Jason Stearns, the author, lived in Congo for ten years working with a humanitarian organization and with the United Nations, investigating crimes against humanity.  His book is thorough, thought-provoking, well researched, engaging, informative, shocking, sad, and a testimony to the resilience of the Congolese people.  The book adeptly divides the Congo War into three epochs:  the toppling of the Mobutu regime in May 1997, a second period of fighting between President Laurent Kabila with Rwanda and Uganda, and lastly the fighting which continues to this day in the eastern region of Kivu.

Stearns rightly portrays the Congo War as the result of a complex web of factors.  He begins by demonstrating how the “Hutu refugee problem” in Eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide led to the first invasion in 1996.  This invasion was led by the aging rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who was appointed and backed by both Rwanda and Uganda.  He conveys this conflict as a regional conflict in which a new generation of African leaders (e.g. Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni) sought not only to bring security along the Rwandan border, but also to topple the African dinosaur leader Mobutu Sese Seko.  Thus, the war that started in Zaire (Congo) in 1996 was not first and foremost a civil war - it was a regional conflict.  The corrosion or “dry rot” from within of the Mobutu regime, coupled with the advent of new regional power brokers, serve as distinctive factors of this first epoch.  The second epoch pitted the new President Laurent Kabila of Congo against Rwanda and Uganda, those who had placed him into power.  This epoch lasted from August 1998 until 2002, and involved nine African countries.  This middle epoch was marked by Kabila’s desperate efforts to stay in power coupled with the self-enrichment of countries fighting on the mineral-rich soils of Congo.  The last epoch is marked by the leadership of Joseph Kabila who was given power after his father Laurent was assassinated in January 2001.  Joseph, a surprisingly decisive leader,  brought an end to the fighting by calling for a peace accord in South Africa in 2002, whereby the country would be unified once again.  Sadly however, fighting continues to this day in the embattled eastern region of Congo.  Incredible loss of life marks all three epochs.  Some estimate that the Congo War has claimed more than five million lives, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped.  

Stearns encourages readers to seek to understand the political situation in Congo; he addresses some of the root causes of the lack of responsible politics.  Stearns writes, “The Congo has been the victim of four hundred years of political disintegration.”  He describes Congo formerly as a land of magnificent kingdoms including the Kongo kingdom, but then exploited for centuries by foreigners.  In relation to the colonial period, he deftly articulates how the Belgium administration was not accountable to the Congolese people, and thereby brutally suppressed any civil unions and political parties who could advocate on behalf of the people.  Stearns delineates a tragic legacy left by colonial rule and centuries of exploitation, whereby power in Congo is currently grabbed by the strong, and how a dearth of civic groups leaves the Congolese people feeling helpless and exploited by self-serving leaders who stuff their pockets with public funds.  He paints a picture of a country where anyone can be “bought for a price,” as he describes a centrifuge of Congolese politics laden with corruption and fraud.  He describes a President, Joseph Kabila, who probably couldn’t change the system if he tried, in that powerful mafia-type groups in the administration would unseat him for undermining their power base.  Thus, he characterizes Kabila as one who seeks to centralize his power and promote his own security and business networks, rather than promoting neutral and efficient state institutions and the rule of law.   The story of political power from Mobutu to Kabila has been one of staying in power versus creating a healthy, accountable state.  Congo’s political system rewards ruthless behavior and marginalizes honest leaders. It prioritizes loyalty over competence, power and wealth over character. The biggest fear of those in power is internal collapse and betrayal from within. 

Stearns touches on the issue of development and encourages a thoughtful response from his readers.  He contends that since the government is largely  “buoyed” by foreign support along with revenues from minerals and precious metals, the government doesn’t feel the need to promote development and serve its citizens.  He makes the head-scratching-comment that “all development is deeply political.”  What he means is that by financing most public services (schools, hospitals, etc.), donors take pressure off the Congolese government to help its own citizens by creating healthy institutions.  Hence he challenges donors to figure out how to responsibly insert themselves.

Stearns encourages his readers to find ways to help the people of Congo.  He calls such action “an act of joint humanity.”   Because of the centuries of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of rubber, copper, and diamonds, which benefited western companies and helped build Belgian cities, we owe it to the Congolese.  We should do what we can to help the Congolese benefit from their riches, and we should find ways to encourage more responsible and legitimate leaders to rise to the top.  He encourages the reader to understand Congo and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then help to provide an environment conducive to stability and development. 

The resilience of the Congolese people inspires Jason Stearns.  He contends that ultimately the fate of Congo rests in the hands of the people.  For anyone interested in learning about Congo and about modern Africa, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is must reading.  There are other significant elements which I have not mentioned, most notably the “disappearance” of tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees in Congo.  Stearns brings to light what most of the world chooses to forget…  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dreaming of Congo…

We leave next week to return to Congo, and we are getting excited to be home in Kananga! We sat down recently to name some of the things that we are looking forward to about being in Congo again, and here is our list (not necessarily in priority order):

1. Being back in a “connected” culture where you greet everyone on the street (e.g. a warm culture as opposed to a “cool” culture)

2. Energetic joyful extended worship in church

3. Reconnecting with friends and colleagues in Kananga

4. Going to our Wednesday cell group meeting

5. Shopping in Kananga (a very interactive and active outing)

6. Seeing our neighbors, Mama Mirielle and her family, and having a new neighbor, Ruth

7. Weekend visits to Tshikaji

8. Seeing the carefree children playing home-made games

9. Being home in our apartment in Kananga – unpacking at last!

10. Listening to Jackoo chatter on the balcony

11. Visiting families in Kananga

12. Being in a place where everyone walks

13. Hearing our daily 6pm sunset accapella rendition of the Halleluja chorus as a nearby choir warms up

14. Feeling part of the church and life in Congo

15. Re-engaging with work, and various projects that had been put on hold when we left

16. Tshiluba lessons with Elder Muamba

17. Fresh tropical fruit

18. Mamu Annie’s restaurant

19. Quiet evenings at home for reading

20. Starting a garden in our yard

21. Big fresh avocados

22. The adventure of travel in Kasai

23. Trying out our new kerosene stove

24. Gravitating back to our “Congo weight”

25. Reconnecting with our young salesman friend, Bobby

26. And eating bidia, the quintessential Kasaian food

As Bob has shared in the previous post, there are certainly time where life feels challenging in Kananga. But there are also plenty of things we appreciate about life there, and we look forward to being back!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Believing Prayer

Kristi and I have been back in the States for five months.  As you may know, we returned in August due to medical reasons.  Feeling healthy and ready to go back to Congo, we leave on the 17th of January.  Praise God for His healing power at work in our lives these last few months!  Praise God for the support of family and friends!  Praise God for His goodness and mercy to His children!     

Yet, Congo remains Congo.  Despite some positive developments and good experiences in Congo this last year, many times Kristi and I felt like we were “just treading water.”  We often felt like we were just barely surviving, living in a culture so different from our own.  Surrounded by poverty, feeling hopeless, feeling tired and worn-out, coming down with different sicknesses, always being asked for help, not having many safe places of “escape,” struggling with a foreign tongue, standing out due to our skin, our spirits and bodies would slowly ebb into a state of frustration, disappointment and even despair.  Congo often feels like an impossible, hopeless case.  How can we possibly survive, and even thrive, in such a place?

In the book of Acts chapter twelve, King Herod has imprisoned the Apostle Peter.  Herod has just put Peter’s friend, the Apostle James, to death by sword.  Peter’s fate does not look too great.  Yet, the church gathered in one place, interceding on behalf of their brother Peter.  Praying for Peter’s release was praying that the impossible would become possible.  As you may remember, during the night an angel of the Lord woke Peter and led him past two guards to a large iron gate opening to the city.  Oddly, miraculously, supernaturally, the large iron gate opened by itself (12: 6 – 10).  Peter was free!  He thought he was dreaming, and marveled at his miraculous deliverance.

L.B. Cowman, writing about this passage in her classic devotional Streams in the Desert, asks if there is an ‘iron gate’ in our lives, blocking our way.  She wonders if we feel like a caged bird, beating against the bars helplessly as our situation deteriorates, leaving us more exhausted and tired, feeling more heartache.  For Kristi and I, our ‘iron gate’ is our struggle to find a way to survive and thrive in Congo.  Too often, living and serving in Congo feels like an impossible task.  Our situation feels hopeless.  Congo, too often, feels hopeless!! 

Yet, Cowman says to us that there is a secret to be learned.  The secret is “believing prayer.”  As members of God’s chosen household, we can believe for the impossible.  The church that gathered and prayed, as recorded in Acts, believed that Peter’s fate wasn’t sealed.  They believed that God could intervene.  They believed that the seemingly impossible could be made possible.  To their great joy and surprise, their prayers were answered.  The large iron gate opened by itself.  Peter was set free. 

For 2012, we believe that living and serving in Congo can be joyful.  We believe that our situation can improve.  We believe that we can be people of hope, and that Congo can feel like a place of hope.  We believe that God can change any situation for good.  We believe that God can protect us from sickness.  We believe that God can give us ears to hear, and mouths to speak a new language.  We believe that God can give us the physical energy and the emotional strength we need to live and serve in a place that too often feels oppressive.  We believe that God has an ultimate plan of good for His children.  We believe.

In this new year, what do you need to “believe” God for?  What ‘iron gate’ do you face?  Let us believe together that God can do all things unto those who believe and trust in Him.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul gives a doxology of praise as he prays for the believers in that city -

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Ephesians 3: 20 – 21).       

The Psalmist writes - 

Why are you so downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (Psalm 42: 11). 


Let us put our hope in God, and believe for good things this new year…