The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country I've wanted to know for a very long time. It was Congo, a country the size of Western Europe lying right in the heart of the African continent, that drew me to Africa almost 10 years ago was a naive high school student. At the time, I wanted to learn everything I could about Congo and I find that I still have the thirst to understand Congo - that very complex, huge, and fascinating country. Congo is a place that still thrills me to think of it; it's a place with so much to discover, to learn about, to explore.
And so we went...
Eric and I arrived in Eastern Congo last week, to Goma, a city that, like the rest of the country, has been defined by its tragedies, brutal history, and eruptions. When you read about Goma in the news, it's likely you'll read about the rebel groups, the active volcano that threatens surrounding residents, or a possible deadly methane eruption Lake Kivu. These dramatic elements have unfortunately come to define this place, but this bustling city of 1 million let us peek beneath its surface and we were privileged to see so much more.
We arrived in Goma with 100 young people, mostly from Eastern Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, all attending a conference put on by our program for university student leaders - Africa Youth Leadership Forum. For three days, we listened to inspiring leaders from the region and we discussed topics relevant to becoming better leaders for our communities and nations.
In Africa, university leaders are quite often the next business and political leaders of their nations and we have found that in East Africa, especially in DR Congo, these young people are thirsting for better role models to follow and better ideas to espouse.
"There's a belief in Congo, that if you are a leader, you must be a dictator," said one bright young lady in our small group, the student president at a university in Goma. She shared with us freely about her own challenges as a leader, a vision-bearer, and a female trying to lead her college. She was one of many young women in attendance, making up 40% of participants - an accomplishment not to be overlooked in a region dominated by men and in a country that has been dubbed the worst place in the world to be a woman.
The topic of gender is a sensitive one in the region, but particularly in Eastern Congo, where the women have faced an unprecedented amount of sexual violence and the men have been swept up in violent conflict. It was this very area of concern that drew me to Congo in the first place, as that young high school girl. Ever since, I've tried to learn all I can about the the region's dynamics, particularly its conflicts and how relations between the genders interact with violence and can play a part in maintaining peace.
So it was truly a dream opportunity to be asked to speak, in partnership with Eric, on the topic of "Building Peaceful Communities by Empowering Men AND Women." Although I felt quite inadequate to the task, the opportunity to bring so many of my interests together - Congo, peace, youth, gender relations, and leadership - with my husband, was flattering!
It felt strange for me, a white, American woman, to be speaking to these African youth who have experienced the repercussions of these topics first-hand, and I think I learned even more than I tried to teach. Our talk was in the middle of an entire day of speeches and discussions on gender and leadership, and I retired to my room that night with my heart and my head full of thoughts, inspiration, and empathy for these young people trying to navigate so many new ideas.
The students heard from many other inspiring speakers, including the former Vice President of Congo, Azarius Ruberwa, an incredible man who has set such a positive example for true leadership in his country. We learned from all who spoke, as well as each other during our small group sessions.
One Rwandan student in our group, alluding to the strained relationship between Rwanda and Congo, said, "I was scared to come to Congo, but now I see a bright future with no walls, no fighting. Just friendships."
This was the spirit of the conference and this is what we had come to do - to tear down the walls that divide us, the walls of gender, religion, nationality, and ethnicity, and replace those walls with friendships.
Building Peace magazine, March 2014: Men, Women, and Peace - Women, Men, and Peace explores questions of gender and peace through the first-hand realities of women and men peacebuilders across the world.
The United States Institute of Peace, Special Report: The Other Side of Gender, Men as Critical Agents of Change