A January 2008 IRC survey found that 5,400,000 people have died from war-related causes in Congo since 1998 – the world’s deadliest documented conflict since WW II. The vast majority died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition—easily preventable and treatable conditions when people have access to health care and nutritious food.
That's 5.4 million. People. Not people dying from the violence of war--although the violence of war in the DRC is bad enough--that's the majority of people dying from a lack of mosquito nets, simple antibiotics, anti-diarrheals, and hunger. That's a rate 57 X normal for sub-Saharan Africa. How does this happen when the fighting between rival ethnic groups stopped in earnest in 2002? It happens because the infrastructure responsible for moving food, medicines, and goods around the country has been disrupted. Health care is virtually non-existant in the Congo. The government is either facilitating the disruption or incapable of overcoming it. Aid workers are not safe in country. The Congolese, less so. The fact that this continues, that each month another 45,000 people suffer a similar fate, is is a blight on our human existence.
In the Congo, death is the norm and it is everywhere.
There is a vastly interesting and devastatingly pitiful report, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: An Ongoing Crisis.
I was introduced to the Democratic Republic of Congo through Brookfield Zoo, which highlights some of the endemic wildlife of DR Congo in its collection. My introduction to the people and culture of the Congo was first through public presentations at the zoo. Dance troupes, music, you know, the same cultural exposure that constitutes the totality of contact that most Americans will ever get with actual Africans. And the misfortune of such presentations is that most people walk away never having met or spoken with the performers and think that this is how everyone dresses and every night is a tribal dance around a camp fire as natives lift their ignorant voices skyward in deference to a pagan god before they retire to their mud and straw huts.
Wacongo Dance Company
I saw something else. Ok, I should explain that I'm not a dancer. I don't particularly like dance. I don't get dance. Dancing is something you do on a date because you have to. I find no personal joy in moving to music and looking silly. And trust me, I do look silly. I have no rhythm. I have no sense of my body. I am a white girl. An American. A southerner. The trifecta of bad dance moves. Second to last on the list, slightly better than white and British. Of course, that may have something to do with the stick they insert up their collective posteriors, but I digress. But watching Congolese dancers, I saw what people say they enjoy about dancing. I saw the most remarkable fluidity of human movement and it captivated me. It is happy. It is right. It makes me smile.
A group of Congolese wildlife officials, something akin to our national park workers, came to advise the zoo on the design of the exhibit and its signage. They were two men in their mid-30s. They were charged by whatever central government still remained with protecting the DRC's wildlife. It was in the middle of the civil war and they spoke of how rebel forces would drop soldiers into the rainforest with no supplies. Only guns and ammunition. They were expected to clothe and feed themselves. These officers spoke of how they literally stood between the barrel of a gun and the wildlife...between a soldier and a meal.
I thought to myself of the remarkableness of this. Would I have the bravery to stare down the barrel of a gun over my job? Would I have the diplomacy necessary to dissuade a hungry soldier from filling his empty belly? Would I be willing to put my life in danger every single day in the worst of conditions? Would I do all this knowing that there was no paycheck coming from a government about to fall? Would I do what these men were doing? And at the end of the day, would I be able to smile and laugh and dance?
Because dance they did. That afternoon, a Congolese dance troupe performed on the main plaza at the zoo--part of the pre-opening advertising for the new exhibit. Lest any of us doubted the authenticity of their performance, those gentlemen who had told me their incredible story joined those dancers in the middle of their performance. They moved in sync with the dancers. They transformed from biologist to what....honestly, I just don't understand why I don't have this ability. To move. To express myself physically. I realized that day that not only was I white, American, and southern, but that my ancestors had lost something precious. They had lost the ability to express themselves with their bodies. There is nothing that I envy more than the ability to do this.
Is it possible to fall in love with a place you've never been and it's people that you have never met?To celebrate a culture and a nation, no matter its politics and no matter its difficulties? I admire a country that produces men who will stand up to guns to save animals and a people that dance when death settles in for the long haul. To say the least, the DRC is on my life list. And that is why a little part of my cries for the horror that these children suffer. I don't know what to do to help the DRC. I don't know what to do to solve their incredible problems.
But I refuse to ignore that there is a form of genocide underway there. And that is better than nothing, isn't it?