Editor’s Note: This op-ed, authored by Congolese advocate and artist Omékongo Dibinga, originally appeared in GlobalPost.
As a child growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, my eight brothers and sisters and I were bullied heavily because of our Congolese ancestry. We were beaten up, had rocks thrown at us, and one of my brothers was even shot in the eye with a metal BB gun.
Probably worse than the physical torment we received were the verbal insults we endured daily such as being called “African bush-boogies,” “African booty scratchers,” “monkeys,” and more. We were attacked by everyone: strangers, so-called friends, and even some of our teachers.
Given that school was not always the safest environment for us and we had no interest in going to jail or dying in an act of physical retaliation, we all turned to the arts as our form of release.
My siblings and I jumped into anything that would provide an escape from our frustrations. Among the nine of us, there are dancers, martial artists, musicians, moviemakers, poets, rappers, actors, personal trainers, seamstresses, yoga practitioners, and choreographers. The arts were our escape: a way to turn our problems into possibilities; a way to turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones; and, most importantly, a way to take our mess and turn it into our message.
When I see the resiliency of the Congolese people, I can see where my family learned an ethic of never giving up and believing in a brighter day despite living in the darkest depths of despair.
That is a message brought home in the work of Petna Ndaliko, a Congolese activist who gives youth a voice through film and music programs.
For centuries, the Congo has been known for the more negative aspects of its history. Terms like “heart of darkness,” “red rubber,” “corruption,” “rape capital of the world,” and “conflict minerals” have come to define Congo all too well.
Oprah Winfrey once called Congo “the worse place to be a woman.” Since the mid-1990s, over 5 million people have been killed in Congo and over 2 million displaced. The wars in Congo’s recent history started as a spillover from the Rwandan genocide, when many of the génocidaires were chased out of Rwanda and into Congo. Then the governments of Rwanda and Uganda felt it necessary to invade eastern Congo in order to destroy any enemy factions, who could possibly re-enter their countries one day.
Under this pretext of “never again,” much of the world turned a blind to the atrocities that ensued in Congo and those nations who kept their other eye opened aided Rwanda and Ugandan forces during this time with development aid and even military training.
In a few short years, eastern Congo became home to over 20 rebel armies, many of them under the employ of Rwandan and Ugandan forces. The exploitation of Congo’s mineral wealth that operates our electronics products has led to the virtual enslavement of many in eastern Congo. Sexual violence continues to be inflicted on a daily basis on babies, senior citizens and everyone in between.
I spent a summer working with over 5,000 internally displaced persons and I will never forget the comment of one teenage girl: “Nous sommes condomnés àmort” (“We are condemned to death”).
Due to these atrocities, few have dared to cast a positive international light on the spirit of resilience, perseverance, and pride that has always existed in the Congolese people. Across the country, Congolese women and men have participated in demonstrations in protest of the rape and resource exploitation. Congolese students have set up networking centers to use technology to communicate their message between each other and with the outside world. Organizations such as Yolé!Africa have emerged to help Congolese youths to use the arts not only as a tool for expression, but also a tool for resistance.
Omékongo Dibinga is director of UPstander International.