all roads lead to congo

Several years ago, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Of all of her books, this is my favorite and was my latest foray into reading about women in Africa, whether biographical or fictional. I was taken with the power in which she portrayed these missionaries and the people of the Congo. From that moment on, I had a strange affinity for anything that was written or portrayed about women in the Congo, specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Flash forward to November 2008. I am on a mailing list for PhD students in my program. Our director of graduate studies, Bernadette Longo, sent out an email about a class, WRIT 5112, she will be teaching in the spring. She wrote,

This course focuses on the theory and practice of information design. For the first half of the class, we will read about information design, information architecture, and related issues pertaining to this course topic. In the second half of the class, we will work with First Step Initiative, a non-profit microfinance organization working with women entrepreneurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (www.firststepinitiative.org). We will work with FSI and its founder, Chingwell Mutombu, to design cell phone based social networking tools to connect people in the US (and at the U) with people in Congo, as well as connect FSI entrepreneurs and staff with each other in Congo.

After reading her synopsis, I wrote to her immediately. While I don’t need an information design course, I was interested in the subject matter. It has been my lifelong dream (since I was in high school, at least) to work in an environment or on a project that will make women’s lives better. I gushed. I was very enthusiastic and nearly insinuated myself on her to be a TA in her course. I wanted to be a part of this. In fact, I was worried that I had gone overboard, but Bernadette, being the fabulous person she is, recognized my enthusiasm for real desire to be a part of something wonderful and said she’d she what she could do to help me be a part of the project (I can’t actually take the class because I am already registered for the classes I need).

Since then, Bernadette and I have spoken a bit more in depth about this course. Ms. Mutumbu sounds like an amazing person and I was finally able to have my first glimpse of her in a video produced for this course.

While all of this was going on, I was looking at some websites of activist photographers (one is in Chile, another in Afghanistan) who show atrocities going on in different parts of the world. That’s when I stumbled on Condition Critical, a site that discusses the realities of war in the eastern part of Congo (DRC).

I had been aware of the issues that affected women in the Kivu provinces of  DRC. As Wikipedia states (my emphases)

The war situation has made the life of women more precarious. Violence against women seems to be perceived by large sectors of society to be normal. In July 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross expressed concern about the situation in eastern DRC.  A phenomenon of ‘pendulum displacement’ has developed, where people hasten at night to safety. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence, Yakin Ertürk, who toured eastern Congo in July 2007, violence against women in North and South Kivu included “unimaginable brutality”. “Armed groups attack local communities, loot, rape, kidnap women and children and make them work as sexual slaves,” Ertürk said.

While this violence is mostly restricted to the east, all Congolese women struggle for a sense of place, ownership, and safety. Ms. Mutombu is making a difference in the lives of women, one at a time. I would be honored to be a part of this.


  1. Chignwell Mutombu

    Dawn, thank you very much for your post! I am touched and thrilled that you are part of this journey. Every day, I am humbly reminded that First Step Initiative would not be where it is today without the support of many people like yourself. Thank you for your inspiring words and I look forward to the opportunity to meet you in person.

    Best regards,

    Chingwell Mutombu

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