Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Congo in The Holiday Season

It feels a world away.

I am 38 weeks pregnant, in a nice cozy apartment with family and friends who drop by for a visit.

And all week I've been calling Congo, only to listen to empty phone lines and French recordings declaring that the party I am trying to reach is not available.

Phone connections are always unreliable in Congo. But it makes me nervous because the viability of cell phones in Congo seems also to reflect the general viability of life there. When things are calm, and life is somewhat stable, cell phones seem to work. When everything is falling apart, good luck getting a hold of anyone.

And things have been tense in Congo these past weeks. Presidential elections are coming up on Monday. These are only the second presidential elections that have been held in Congo in about 40 years. A lot of violence has already been surrounding the lead-up to the elections, and no one knows what will happen when the elections take place.

Finally, I did reach the SHONA women. They are doing fine, but report that things are not good in Goma. Everyone is tense. Last week Goma nearly disintegrated into rioting and looting when a popular singer was kidnapped in town and held for days. The event had political overtones as he had produced campaign songs for some of the opposition candidates. Eventually he was released and the tensions calmed a bit but still there is a lot of random shooting and violence and everyone is more or less holding their breath to see what will happen next.

And sometimes it feels a little surreal. Because I remember what that feels like in Goma, and yet I am here. And in these past few months I have been doing a lot of talking about the SHONA women. I've been trying to hit as many holiday fairs as I could before the baby arrives (she's due in about 2 weeks now!). So it seems almost every weekend I go to a nice little church and set up a table with SHONA goods. We did a good job at stocking up and preparing for the holiday this year and we have a great collection of brilliant colors. So I'm proud of what I put on that table, and of who made each item.

But sometimes it is hard to connect these brilliant bags and the smiling photos of the SHONA women, with the tension they live in the midst of. It is hard to imagine that they sew these items in a workshop without electricity, surrounded by the rubble of lava and poverty. And sometimes as people pour over the beauty of the bags, I struggle to find the words to communicate the world from which these bags come. A world which might go upside down at any moment.

And yet, I know I can't isolate the beauty of these bags, from the realities on the ground in Congo. To tell the story of these amazingly inspiring women, and the beauty they create, I have to tell the story of Congo, and all the struggles it entails.

Sometimes, I worry that story doesn't jive with the blaring holiday music and the spirit of "relentless cheer" that sometimes invades our holidays.

But isn't that dissonance what this season is really all about? Yes, it is a season of hope and joy. But set in a manger, in poverty and homelessness. And it is by embracing both sides of that coin that we see most clearly the beauty of that hope.

So please do read up on what is happening right now in Congo. I know it doesn't seem like good holiday reading, but when we have a whole country holding its breath, we should pay attention. And then go check out the brilliant colors and handcrafted work that continues to come out of this country. Check out the stories of the SHONA women and what they choose to do with the money they earn from your purchases. I guarantee that their work will shine brighter than anything you can find in a department store, coated with glitter and holiday lights. Because to see the true beauty of this season, we can't close our eyes to the fact that this world is in the midst of incredible turmoil, and people, the world over, are suffering. It is when we find ourselves in the midst of this reality, that we see most clearly the hope that rises above it.

So today, even as I nestle into my comfy apartment and drink a glass of eggnog, surrounded by an incredible life, I will make that phone call back to Congo. And listen to the stories of a world that sometimes seems a million miles away. And then I will turn to the SHONA stock and count tote bags, label purses and calculate exactly how much money I can send back to Congo this month.

And in the midst of all of that, a brilliant color on one of those bags will catch my eye, and for a second I will marvel how that color has traveled so far, and still shines so brightly.

And I will remember that this is what real hope looks like.

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