The Panzi Hospital guest house in Bukavu has become the hangout every night for new and old friends. We may not have running water but we have plenty of beans and rice to share and a large family room for those of us living here (Scott, Catherine, my 17-year-old daughter Arianna, Raphael, and myself) and the five or more young men and occasional women who visit. Over bottled water and packages of cookies, this group of 16 to 24 year-olds talks politics (“Will Kabila be re-elected?”), economics (“What is the U.S. housing crisis?”), education (“What does it cost to go to college in the U.S.?”), sports (“Are there girls soccer teams in the Congo?”), families (Why do families in the U.S. only have one or two children?”), relationships (“What are the top four qualities you look for in a girl/boyfriend?”), and pop culture (“What is the restaurant Hooter’s?”). This last question led to a lot of laughs. When it came to women, there was clearly no cultural divide for the men in the room!
We tease each other, try to improve our Swahili, French, and English, make friendship bracelets, help Ari and Emmanuel make flashcards for their class, listen to music on Scott’s computer, dance, draw pictures, and talk about the future of Congo. I tell them, “The future of Congo is sitting in this living room.”
Too often the Democratic Republic of Congo is portrayed negatively. In particular, the men are maligned as corrupt, misogynist, and violent. I’d like to offer an alternative view by introducing you to some of our friends. (These young men gave me permission to use this information. However, I’ve used pseudonyms here, chosen by them, to protect their identities.)
Meet Kongo. He is 19 years-old and in his first year at the University of Bukavu, studying international relations. He’d like to work in the embassy one day with the goal of making his country a better place. Kongo speaks many languages including English, Italian, and Spanish. He is fluent in all three and learned the latter two strictly from books. As my daughter Ari is also fluent, the two carry on conversations – a bizarre marvel in our Congolese living room. I actually met Kongo last year. He is still just as sweet and shy now as he was then – only much taller! Some days he would go with me to visit the women at the hospital, translating their Swahili and my English. He never asked me for a thing although I knew his family was poor. Kongo was and is so thin. He has no cell phone, no internet access, and can’t afford the $1 for an hour of internet at a café. He and his five siblings are raised by his mother alone, who is putting everyone through school on her salary as a tailor. Before I left last year, I asked Kongo what I might give him as a gift of thanks for all his help. He said what he wanted most was a French/English dictionary. He has invited me to meet his mother tomorrow. I am excited to visit his home! Kongo would like to write a book. When I asked him about what, he said it would be about how Congolese men need to respect Congolese women. As I write this, Kongo and two other young men are cooking the beans for tonight’s dinner! They were convinced we didn’t know what we were doing (they’re right). This is the next generation.
Meet Mutula. He is 15 years-old. He is the youngest of the crew who visits the guest house. He is charming, wise beyond his years, and mischievous, with a brilliant smile and perhaps has a photographic memory. He is in the equivalent of ninth grade, and dreams of going to high school and college in the United States. If you ask Mutula what he wants to do with his life, he will tell you emphatically “be a human rights attorney or politician in Congo!” If you ask why, he’ll tell you, “Because I want to end corruption!” He and Ari have become close friends and she thinks of him like a little brother. Today she visited his home and met his family. This kid is going places!
Meet Ako. He is 26 years-old and leaving for medical school in South Africa next week. He and Scott are close friends and have known each other for four years. He has stayed most nights with us at the guest house, going virtually everywhere with us during the day, assisting with translations and arrangements. Ako is one of six kids and his father is a local pastor who could never afford medical school for his son. He is an exceptionally generous, compassionate, disciplined, respectful young man and a devout Christian. We’ve had many a philosophical conversation about Congo and life in general. He looks forward to the day he can return to Congo as a physician and work in pediatrics, hopefully at Panzi. He is a special part of our guest-house family and we will feel his absence terribly when he leaves next week.
These three remarkable young men represent so many of the youth we have met here – men and women. They care deeply about the current state of their country and they are passionate about working for change. This is the good news from Congo.
Lee Ann De Reus is an associate professor of Human Development & Family Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn State Altoona and was a 2009 recipient of the Carl Wilkens Fellowship, given by Genocide Intervention Network. She is currently in Bukavu, South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she previously conducted research. On this trip, she is following up with the women she interviewed, working on a book with Dr. Dennis Mukwege, and assisting the Panzi Foundation. This is the second in a series of posts. (The first is here.)