If there is one thing any country should avoid hosting, it’s a world war. Dubbed “Africa’s World War,” the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the center of the most devastating conflicts since World War II.
A tragic history of conflict; beginning with Belgian colonialism under the direction of King Leopold II, the local population was brutalized, having limbs routinely cut off to ensure rubber quotas were met. During his rule it’s estimated that the native population was reduced by half. Congo’s independence gave way to fickle stability with Joseph Mobutu seizing power in 1965, and changing its name to Zaire. His efforts to settle internal rebellions and bandage the nation’s colonial scars were derailed when Mobutu began to plunder his own people and the country’s riches.
In 1994, genocide broke out in neighboring Rwanda. During a 100-day period, up to one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu ethnics were killed by members of the Hutu-led government. A mass exodus of Rwandan Hutu fled into Zaire setting up refugee camps. Hutu militia then allied with Zairian armed forces against Congolese Tutsis. The battles coalesced into the First Congo War and the Mobutu government was overpowered.
In 1997, Mobutu fled and opposition leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila named himself president. His position was short-lived with Rwandan and Ugandan forces battling for control, and drawing in Angolan, Zimbabwean, and Namibian militaries, sparking the Second Congo War. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. With the assistance of U.N. peacekeepers, almost all foreign armies pulled out by June 2003. The nation’s first multi-party elections on 30 July 2006 were marred with street riots and battles between oppositional supporters. Eventually after another election, Kabila was sworn in as President in December 2006.
Stability and peace however, was still illusory. Warlord uprisings and ethnic militia conflicts have continued to cripple the nation, leaving a trail of widespread sexual violence and mass rapes. With estimates of up to 48 women raped every hour, the U.N. has labeled the Democratic Republic of Congo, the “rape capital of the world”
It’s a country of tragic contrast—boasting up to $24 trillion in mineral resources, yet ranked on bottom of the Human Development Index—186 out of 187 countries. Filled with perhaps the most fertile soil on earth, and yet certainly the most blood soaked soil—up to six million killed since 1994. The DRC is teeming with supplies of coltan, which is used in mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, and cassiterite, used in food packaging; yet many areas lack any form of electricity, communication technology, and food.
As public awareness still lies dormant of the atrocities in the DRC, Medard Mulangala, leader of the parliamentary opposition in the Democratic Republic of Congo pens a moving piece to the international community in The Guardian titled: “The DRC’s future is in your hands.”
And he means it literally, pointing out: “95% of mobile phones contain metals mined in my country by international extractive companies”
Unfortunately, some international involvement has gone from supportive to sinister. Canadian based Anvil Mining Corporation operating in the DRC was accused of providing logistical support in a 2004 military raid, enabling rapes and murders in order to protect its mining investment. UN peacekeepers have been embroiled in the very sexual exploitation they were to stand against.
As Mulangala calls for international intervention, Katie Hile, founder of Totonga Bomoi, a Denver-based social enterprise in the DRC believes that significant and sustainable change will come from within. During Hile’s year as a volunteer in the DRC, she was struck with deep sorrow witnessing the willingness of locals to build a better future, but their drive paralyzed with inability and inaction from the government.
Her cooperative program began with one seamstress in 2011 and has enabled local women to generate income for themselves and improve educational and health standards for the wider community. Using locally sourced fabrics, the grassroots approach has allowed for an independence and self-sustenance—breaking free from a traditional reliance and attachment to foreign aid. The bottom-up approach, an effective alternative to the top-down corruption that sees none of the mineral wealth assisting it’s own people.
Hile isn’t alone in her philosophy, after receiving his education in America, Joss Llunga Dijimba returned to Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC to start a manufacturing company; “When I came back, people thought I was crazy. They’d ask, ‘why would you go into a country where there is war? Where nothing is working? Why not stay in the States and make your life?’”
Dijimba is one of many diasporatic Congolese returning home to make a difference. In another poignant but hopeful contrast, the capital plays host to both conflict and construction; floating river trash is being parted by the construction of a floating river city (La Cite du Fleuve). Native returnees are injecting life into the lifeless economy, Kinshasa is experiencing a construction boom at a ferocious rate.
Foreign aid will continue to be requested; the sexual violence needs international intervention. But as the word surmountable can be drawn from insurmountable, and possible from impossible, hope is being brought out of hopelessness by it’s own people.
Didier M’Pambia is another catalyst for hope and change returning to his homeland. The founder of Optimum, one of the biggest PR firms in the capital makes an encouraging appeal, “As Congolese, we have to be the first people involved in our development.”