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Editor’s Note: Actor Ben Affleck describes his Enough Moment and how his Congo activism has made him think differently about aid.
If I can lay claim to an Enough Moment, it would be in the course of reading a book about Sudan. I had been asked to participate in activism on Darfur, and, insecure about being a dilettante, I hastily began researching the issue. While ticking off the grim statistics concerning western Sudan, the book made brief, parenthetical mention that the number of deaths paled in comparison to the 5 million Congolese who had died since 1998 in eastern Congo. The conflict in Congo, sparked in part by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, has become a maze of militias, regional influences, and mining interests that have continued to catch the people of eastern Congo in their crossfire.
I was shocked by the magnitude of the tragedy and ashamed that I’d never even heard of it (not to mention that at that time I had difficulty locating the Democratic Republic of Congo on a map).
I decided to commit myself to do what I could to raise the visibility of the people and issues of Congo— where the paucity of news coverage, international attention, and general awareness was surely contributing in some measure to the crisis.
I became acutely aware of the complexity of the situation in Congo—and even more so of how poorly I understood it. If the goal was to raise awareness, the danger was in raising the wrong kind, spreading misinformation or—at worst—fostering a cultural arrogance that has often characterized Western relations with Africa.
So I set out first to learn. One of the advantages of celebrity is access, and I used it to meet or speak with every Congolese, Rwandese, Burundian, northern Ugandan, and southern Sudanese expert that I could find in an effort to understand the ‘conflict matrix’ in the region—the way the nations’ histories are interwoven and continue to affect one another.
Then I traveled—four times over a year and a half—to north and south Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, northern and western Uganda, and Congo.
On the ground I spoke with hundreds of people—refugees, the internally displaced, doctors, genocide survivors, child soldiers, rape survivors, artisanal miners, aid workers, politicians, genocidaires, Mayi Mayi militia, warlords, U.N. soldiers, Congolese and Rwandese army spokesmen, presidents, dissidents, rebel leaders, think tank analysts, participants in genocide trials, mediators from the Goma and Juba peace talks, and countless others.
What struck me most powerfully from this collection of experiences—though it ranged from the good and the great to the notorious—were the everyday people. The people I met who had taken it upon themselves to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors. I suppose when I started traveling to Africa, I carried with me the subconscious image of people lying on their back, flies in their eyes, bodies like sticks tied together with wire, and hands raised waiting for rescue. Nothing could be further from the experiences I have had across the continent.
Even during the worst of the fighting in eastern Congo, the regional capital city, Goma, was alive with people going about their lives, selling goods, and doing what they had to do to care for their families, make money, and make do. I often had cause to reflect on how in the United States, it is common to hear uproarious, riotous complaining at the airport from people whose flights have been delayed or canceled, and yet in Goma there would be a family of five on a motorbike, carrying rocks to build a house with a war going on—and more often than not with a measure of serenity and grace, often even with a smile.
However, more important than the spirit with which people dealt with their own adversity was how much they confounded the other aspect of the stereotype: no one I saw in eastern Congo was waiting for a handout. And the most effective help wasn’t coming from the West. It was coming from their own communities.
There are amazing community-based organizations in eastern Congo, funded and run by the Congolese people themselves. Whether it’s running hospitals or clinics, counseling rape survivors, or negotiating the release of child soldiers and placing them in communities who will care for them, these people are spectacular. You can read more of their remarkable stories by visiting our Eastern Congo Initiative website at www.easterncongo.org.
The dynamic nature of the way the Congolese are solving their own problems inspired me and changed the context through which I view aid. Western NGOs and governments can do great things, but I believe we would do well to support many of the existing community- based organizations already doing excellent work solving African problems with African solutions. If they can function with virtually no money, imagine what they could do with our support.
So often the person has been considered wise who, when speaking about aid in Africa, has said, ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.’ I found, speaking humbly from my own experience, that this aphorism doesn’t apply to what I have seen in eastern Congo. I never met an African who couldn’t fish already. They just don’t have any fish to catch. The people of eastern Congo (and in many countries across Africa) need a stocked pond—basic infrastructure to support small and regional business, stable microfinance and community banking, basic health care for families, and the ability for women and children to live without the constant fear of violence. The people of eastern Congo are no less determined or talented or hopeful than you or I. With fish in the water, the people of eastern Congo will have the resources to provide for themselves so that they can focus on peace and stability, growth and prosperity. This means investing in their vision, their solutions, and in their security.
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens – known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad – who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.
Photo: Ben Affleck (Enough / Erik Kabik)