Friday, October 23, 2009

Why do I write about happy stuff?

I got an email today from a high school teacher who is teaching a class on Africa and the Middle East. She said this...

"We have spent the last few days talking about Congo and my students have voiced over and over again how they can't believe this is the first they have heard of it, especially considering the magnitude of the situation."

The class has been reading my blog and has posted questions for me on
their blog .
Check out their very interesting questions, as well as their other entries on the blog, and it will make you happy for the state of education in the US. (At least in this classroom!) I am afraid I won't be able to answer all their questions, but I am picking a few of them to answer here in the next couple days. Please feel free to add a comment and join in the discussion, whether you are a student or not. I think you will find it interesting. Here is the first one...


"You talk about the hardest thing about living in the Congo is being white, and you also talk about how they like Americans and are friendly to you, so I'm wondering why you think that's the hardest thing? "

What I meant was that the hardest part of my experience in Congo was being white. There are certainly many, many things more difficult than my own experience there. In fact, let me start out by stating that I love Congo and have deeply enjoyed living there.

But on to the question at hand. The hardest part (or at least one of the hardest parts) of my experience in Congo was being white. And yet, as I said, people were extremely welcoming and friendly toward me. Yet still, I was always a "white person" and a foreigner, and would be greeted with those names every time I walked out the door. And of course every time we label someone, there are stereotypes that go with those labels. In this case, a white person is often assumed to be rich and willing to give out money. Are these the worst stereotypes to have? Perhaps not, but any label can begin to weigh very heavily. Many of the white people who are in Goma are often working with non-profit organizations that are there to give out aid to refugees, and so you can see how the assumption would begin that white people are rich and are there to give out stuff. But when you are living there for years and you don't have a supply of anything to give out, it gets a little frustrating to wear that label every time you walk down the street. Sometimes you just want people to see you and not your skin, and that is not always easy when you are in the minority.

The second thing that makes being a "white person" or really an American of any color, difficult is that we are rich. No matter how humbly I live, or how poor I am in America, the truth is that I still have many more resources than most Congolese people. So what do I do with that? I found it difficult to be white in Congo because of the way that I was perceived by others, but also because of the way it forced me to perceive myself as part of a larger world, which in all reality is incredibly unjust.

"and also you talked about a lot of the good things going on in the Congo and in your life, and all I have seen and heard is the bad stuff about the Congo and I'm wondering do you see it and just not want to write about it or what?"

Hmm...Do I see the bad stuff and just not write about it? Why do I write so much happy stuff? Interesting question. Once I had the reverse comment. A young Congolese man pointed out that all people ever hear about Congo is negative stuff, and that I should depict Congo in a more positive light. So I guess I try to communicate some of both. It is a rough place with many difficult issues going on. But the people really are incredible on many levels, and the amazing thing about Congo is the way that life always goes on. I remember having visitors come to Congo shortly after the war started escalating last November and they were amazed to find that there were vendors in the streets, dance music blaring from the music shops and children playing soccer. Those images don't often make it in the coverage of "war-zones", but the fact is that the people of Congo have long ago learned to continue their lives in the midst of disaster. This doesn't mean that the disaster doesn't exist, or that it isn't is. But it does mean that what you picture when you read the news articles about "the crisis" isn't the whole picture. I have spent the last three years just living life in Congo and working with some amazing people, and I guess that is what comes out in my blog.

But the war is very real. The refugees are very real. The epidemic of rape is very real. The disorder and insecurity are very real. If you dig around my blog a bit, I think you will find some of those entries as well.

All of that said...yes, there are things I don't (and can't) write about. I am just a regular person, I am not a war correspondent or a historian. I try to write about regular life and regular people, because that is what I know, but also because I think it is an important side to the story. We need war correspondents and advocacy groups to document the scale of the crisis, but we also need to be reminded that it is real people who live in the midst of it.


Miss Footloose said...

What a great post! I just stumbled onto your blog and I can identify with your feelings about writing about the "good things" in the Congo.

Having spent a total of 9 years in Africa (Kenya and Ghana) I am often frustrated by Westerners who think that there is nothing but genocide, starvation, AIDS and poverty in Africa. And who think of Africa as a country rather than a continent with 50 plus separate countries.

One of my goals in writing my expat stories is to show there is another side to the images we get fed by the media. I want to show the fun side and entertain people rather than horrify them with disaster stories.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog!

Miss Footloose

shona congo said...

Thanks for stumbling upon me. I've enjoyed checking out your blog as well. The rat story rang amazingly familiar.

I do think it is important to sometimes show the bright side,as you said. Because there are bright sides. And I do think that by casting an entire continent into the category of disaster, as we sometimes do with Africa, we help make it possible for the many abuses that exist, to continue on.

Sabchi Kelmik said...

Thank you so much for responding to my question! Your blog is great, and really makes one understand the good things and the hard stuff you have overcome in the Congo.