Sunday, August 2, 2009

What can I do about Congo?

People hear about Congo and they want to do something.

There are several major media campaigns that seek to answer this question.

Kind of.

Perhaps the most widely known campaign is the Enough Project, which urges the public to "come clean for Congo". What does that actually mean? It is a campaign focused on the connection between mining for minerals in Congo and the war (a connection that does exist but is not nearly as clear cut as they would like you to believe). But in the end what is this campaign? It is largely a video contest aimed at raising awareness for Congo. The public is invited to make videos with the theme "come clean for Congo" and the winner will be flown to the LA screening (from within the US of course).

The blog wronging rights has also just drawn attention to another media is called "one million bones". Yes, that is right, ladies and gentleman. These folks aren't just soliciting videos they are soliciting bones. Home-made ones of course. Artists and activists are invited to make a bone and submit it for display on The Mall in Washington. A collection of 1 million of these home-made bones will be displayed together to draw attention to the victims of genocide throughout the world, and particularly in Congo.

Now this is not just an awareness campaign but also a fundraising campaign. These bones come with a subscription fee, $5 per bone, thus the project is hoping to raise 5 million dollars, which will be donated to 3 organizations.

But I just can't get over the bone imagery. On the website, visitors are cheerfully invited to "have a bone making party". Is this really what we want to be making?

Now, I get it, the question of "what can I do?" is a hard one to answer. I recognize that these organizations are trying to come up with something that people in the US and Europe can actually do. And it is not easy. Congo is very far away and the problems are very complex. It is hard to figure out how people can "get involved". And public awareness and lobbying is one answer.

But there are other options.

SHONA is a small group of Congolese women. They are surely some of the most vulnerable women in the world. They are young and handicapped and refugees from the current fighting.

AND YET they can do something themselves. They are doing something. Instead of making bones, they make beautiful handmade bags, placemats and clothing. And with the proceeds from their sales they are feeding and educating themselves and their siblings, rebuilding their family homes and truly creating a better world.

So you can make a video, which will be watched in LA. Or you can make a bone that will be displayed in DC. Or you can buy a t-shirt from an organization whose slogan is "activism you can wear" and who promise that "a portion of the proceeds" support programs in Congo.

Or you can buy a beautiful shirt that was actually crafted in Congo and where 100% of the profit is returned to the Congolese craftspeople themselves. You can host a SHONA party instead of a bone making one. And ultimately you can celebrate the power of the women in Congo to create their own solutions.

Because, yes, we can become activists.

But so can they.

Speaking out on behalf of the people of Congo is one thing we can do, and should do.

But empowering them to speak for themselves is another.

Come visit SHONA


kristine said...

a bone making party? how disturbing.

very well written - i so agree.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dawn. You did a good job putting it all in perspective.

Shona said...

Thanks Kristine and Mama Rena.
I wasn't sure if the post would seem too cynical, so i am that you guys appreciated it.

ColoredOpinions said...

I can feel the same uneasiness with the oversimplifications of some of the traditional campaings. But internet is changing that, while it's becoming a new public sphere. Digital activism is taking over everywhere, not only in Iran.

Shona said...

Yes, interesting point about digital activism. The internet certainly gives a voice and an audience to people that might not have one otherwise (like myself). I find technologies that are accessable by cell phones particularly interesting, as many people here in Congo have phones, but are a long way from using a computer. It seems like cell phones have the real potential to get news from truly grassroots people here, so I've been following developments like . THey rolled out a version for Congo when the war was heating up in the October of last year, and although it was new and still being developed, you could see the potential.

Certainly the internet is becoming a huge part of the public sphere, and it is quite interesting to watch.