The Eastern Congo is a place of jaw-dropping beauty and unspeakable horror. Grab a map and you’ll see the Congo smack dab in the heart of Africa. It’s the second largest country in Africa; bigger than the whole of Western Europe. A massive land filled with vast jungles, crocodile-infested rivers and savannah as far as the eye can see, Joseph Conrad chronicled his real life adventures about it in his bestselling novel Heart of Darkness.
The truth of the Congo, then and now, is no fictional tale. Read on…
The modern world is familiar with the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Congo’s tiny next-door neighbor, when the Hutu tribe slaughtered almost a million Tutsis in three months. Fearing reprisals, a million Hutus fled Rwanda into Eastern Congo, many of them genocidaires responsible for the atrocities. In the ensuing years, the genocide didn’t stop as a hybrid civil war broke out in the Congo, what became known as the Great African War.
The First and Second Congo Wars involved a mix of Congolese government forces, over twenty opposition rebel groups, and the armies of nine bordering countries like Uganda, Angola, and Rwanda fighting for power and control of the Congo and its vast mineral resources. In the past twenty years, six million people have died in the Eastern Congo, the majority innocent victims of disease and starvation. The tragic result is that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has become the most overlooked humanitarian crisis since World War II.
The U.S. State Department doesn’t recommend a visit.
On the State Department website, the travel advisory warns that the Congo is filled with “official and unofficial roadblocks, where travelers are frequently detained and questioned by poorly trained and undisciplined security troops.”
In preparing for my film trip to Eastern Congo this past summer, I was grateful for this additional tidbit of State Department helpful travel advisory advice: If stopped at a roadblock, open the driver’s side window slightly in order to communicate.
As in, “Sir, can you slightly move your AK-47 away from my face.”
Though the media has completely overlooked the Congo, there are many amazing, wonderful stories coming out of the Eastern Congo, which is why I went to visit good friends who live in the city of Goma, right on the border of Rwanda. Camille and Esther Ntoto, both Congolese nationals, are doing incredible work through their organization, Africa New Day, to develop young leaders with incredible dreams to create the Congo into a peaceful, thriving nation.
I was there to film interviews with Camille’s team and meet other humanitarian groups for a non-profit I lead called the Congo Reform Association. The C.R.A. uses story, film and social media to tell the good, beautiful and transformative stories in the Eastern Congo. Our goal is to shine a media spotlight on the Congo by helping to write a new narrative for positive change.
Our team to the Congo was small. Chris was our trip leader. A tall healthcare CEO who doubled as my bodyguard. Elise, a professional counselor trained in art therapy, who couldn’t speak a lick of French, but who was so impressed when I asked for butter on our first morning at breakfast. Le beurre si’l vous plait.
A little knowledge is dangerous.
Last, but certainly not least because every trip involving international law needs a good lawyer, was Elise’s art therapy partner, twenty-six year old Rachel. When I first met Rachel, I thought she was a high school student. Turns out, she’s a family law attorney who appears to still be in high school. (She’ll thank me in her forties for that.) But I’m not one to argue with a lawyer. I figured Rachel could come in mighty handy if we hit one of those border stops, faking international law and all. I was sent as the team filmmaker, writer and storyteller.
For three days, Elise, Rachel and Chris led forty-three of Camille’s leaders and students through an arts therapy training program designed to heal brain trauma. Many of the participants, especially the women, had been victims of sexual violence, as well as having had friends, family members and local villagers slaughtered in the Eastern Congo atrocities.
Using drawing, dancing, acting, drumming, breathing exercises, small group discussion, and a host of other fun activities, the leaders learned the benefits of these activities to take back to their homes and communities.
As I filmed and captured the art activities, what was most remarkable about the whole experience was the energy, laughter and smiles on people’s faces. Growing up in a war-torn country, these people simply don’t play. So, to be given permission to relax, reflect, sing, dance, draw and talk about how trauma stunts our mental, emotional and spiritual growth…well, the stories were simply amazing.
At the end of the three days, we held a simple graduation ceremony on a small stage inside a tent. As the participant’s names were called, each person walked up onto the stage, where they were greeted by Elise ready to hand them their graduation certificate. But before they received the certificate, Elise looked each person directly in the eye and said their name.
“Patricia, you make the world more beautiful.”
Before Patricia could receive her certificate, she had to repeat Elise’s words.
I am Patricia and I make the world more beautiful!
As I filmed and watched the forty-three leaders walk across the stage, some with big smiles and others a bit shy—almost a bit embarrassed by what they knew was coming next—I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, this is amazing. How many people will say their name out loud and declare in public, ‘I make the world more beautiful!’”
How many people will say their name out loud and declare in public: I make the world more beautiful! Joey O'ConnorTweet Quote
Seems a bit presumptive, doesn’t it?
But step back a bit. Remember Captain Poison, the child-soldiering, diamond-seeking warlord in Blood Diamond? Well, he and thousands of others like him in the Congo and Central African countries are bent on greed, rape, profiteering and violence. They are truly the Grim Reapers of our time, bringing death, destruction, fear and terror to local villages. Not to mention more than a few multi-national companies from the United States, UK, Israel, China—a long list of companies and countries—who use rebel groups to exploit the Congo’s vast mineral resources.
Couldn’t we use a few more courageous people to stand up and say, “I make the world more beautiful!”
Do you have enough moxie and derring-do to declare the same for yourself and the world around you?
Beauty is the narrow road and few are they who travel it.
Creating beauty in this world requires intentionality, purpose and an awakened heart that refuses to numb itself in the wide valleys of complacency.
Creating beauty in this world requires intentionality, purpose and an awakened heart that refuses to numb itself in the wide valleys of complacency. Joey O'ConnorTweet Quote
So try it.
Stand in front of a mirror and say, “I am ______ and I make the world more beautiful.”
True beauty flows from the inside out. We make the world more beautiful when we first embrace our true, God-given inner beauty in our hearts and minds. Then, as we cultivate the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness and all the good things of life, from that deep inner well will flow beauty into the lives and world around us.
The world needs your beauty today.
Be courageous. You’re beautiful.
There’s a lot of ugly out there and it’s time for beauty to take a stand.
I dare you.
You’ve just read, You Make the World More Beautiful.
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Question: How can you make the world more beautiful today?
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